Did Obama’s big speech offer any hope for Palestine?
The New York Times was quick to spin Obama’s speech in ‘historic’ terms
“Obama Endorses 1967 Borders for Israel” as part of a “Broad Speech Rejecting Status Quo in the Middle East” – that was the instant spin on the front of The New York Times website within minutes of the president speaking.
But while President Barack Obama laid out in a little bit more detail a US “vision” of what “peace” would look like in his much anticipated speech on US policy in the Middle East and North Africa, there was precious little new.
Moreover, the speech affirmed that the United States will not take any effective action to advance its vision of a two-state solution.
The president covered broadly the uprisings in the Arab world and the American response to them, but I will look at the sections on Palestine – not necessarily in the order of delivery, but by theme.
The 1967 lines
What the president actually said was:
We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.
There is a world of difference between “the 1967 lines” and “based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.” It is sort of like the difference between “a true story” and a Hollywood movie “based on a true story.”
As the Palestine Papers showed, US-brokered negotiations for years were predicated on trying to reach such a result, and despite unprecedented Palestinian concessions agreeing to allow Israel to annex most of its settlements, no agreement could be reached.
Although it is true that the Obama administration previously adamantly refused to mention the term “1967 lines,” its doing so now is couched in such a vague formula that it does not contradict President George W. Bush’s April 2004 pledge on behalf of the United States to support Israel’s annexation of its West Bank settlements.
Moreover, as Palestinian Authority (PA) “chief negotiator” Saeb Erekat recently told The Electronic Intifada, PA leader Mahmoud Abbas remains fully committed to “land swaps” to allow Israel to keep its settlements even if the UN recognizes a Palestinian state “on the 1967 line.”
Shortly after Obama’s speech, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a grand-standing statement rejecting the 1967 borders as “indefensible.” He needn’t worry. There were enough loopholes in Obama’s speech to drive several large settlement blocs and perhaps even the entire Jordan Valley through.
Israel as a “Jewish state”
Obama has done it before, but once again he explicitly endorsed Israel’s demand to be recognized as a “Jewish state”:
a lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people, each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace.
It is shocking that a president who constantly boasts that he is only in the White House because of the victories of the US Civil Rights movement against vile Jim Crow racism would endorse Israel’s demand to be allowed to discriminate against Palestinians. I explained in detail why Israel’s demand to be recognized as a “Jewish state” is totally incompatible with democratic principles and human rights in a 2009 article in The Nation:
If Israel has a “right to exist as a Jewish state,” then what can it legitimately do if Palestinians living under its control “violate” this right by having “too many” non-Jewish babies? Can Israel expel non-Jews, fine them, strip them of citizenship or limit the number of children they can have? It is impossible to think of a “remedy” that does not do outrageous violence to universal human rights principles.
And indeed, recognizing Israel’s “right” consigns not only Palestinian refugees to the trash heap, but Israel’s own 1.4 million Palestinian citizens whom leading Israeli politicians like Kadima party leader Tzipi Livni and foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman view as a fifth column and hope to expel or denationalize.
Obama made a nod to this kind of racism when he warned that “The fact is, a growing number of Palestinians live west of the Jordan River.” This was a coded reference to what Israelis openly term the “demographic threat” to a Jewish majority posed by the reality that Palestinians are once again becoming the majority population throughout historic Palestine. This is due to natural growth of Palestinians, a lower Israeli Jewish birthrate and the dearth of Jews around the world who wish to settle in historic Palestine.
In my 2009 article, I explained in American terms why this is unacceptable and racist:
What if we apply Israel’s claim to the United States? Because of the rapid growth of the Latino population in the past decade, Texas and California no longer have white majorities. Could either state declare that it has “a right to exist as a white-majority state” and take steps to limit the rights of non-whites? Could the United States declare itself officially a Christian nation and force Jews, Muslims or Hindus to pledge allegiance to a flag that bears a cross? While such measures may appeal to a tiny number of extremists, they would be unthinkable to anyone upholding twenty-first-century constitutional principles.
Yet this is precisely the nightmare vision Obama is endorsing for Israel which has become increasingly bold in its passage of new laws discriminating against non-Jews, and is in the grip of state-funded rabbis calling for Jews to shun and boycott non-Jews and refuse to rent or sell homes to them.
The president said:
the recent announcement of an agreement between Fatah and Hamas raises profound and legitimate questions for Israel: How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist? And in the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer to that question. Meanwhile, the United States, our Quartet partners, and the Arab states will need to continue every effort to get beyond the current impasse.
On its face this might appear to be a softening of Obama’s long-standing rejectionism of any dealings with Hamas in that he’s not calling for an immediate aid cut-off to the Palestinian Authority. He appears to be giving the Palestinians time. But it still looks certain that the ultimate US response will depend on whether Hamas submits – as Fatah has done – to Quartet conditions.
Always more sensitive to Israelis
If this was a speech intended to woo an Arab audience, then it is notable that Obama displayed the typical bias characteristic of American officials. He was very graphic and vivid about Israeli suffering and victimhood, while vague and evasive about the vastly greater terror Palestinians have experienced under Israeli rule. Reflecting on decades of conflict, Obama said:
For Israelis, it has meant living with the fear that their children could be blown up on a bus or by rockets fired at their homes, as well as the pain of knowing that other children in the region are taught to hate them.
Aside from its visceral language, this formulation feeds the myth that hostility to Israel is primarily a result of Arabs being “taught to hate,” when in fact if Arabs do hate Israel it is a result of Israeli actions. Israel teaches Arabs to hate Israel. Contrast the president’s words on the other side:
For Palestinians, it has meant suffering the humiliation of occupation, and never living in a nation of their own.
That’s it? Toward the end of the speech, the president did mention “the Israeli father whose son was killed by Hamas” and “a Palestinian who lost three daughters to Israeli shells in Gaza” – but this was only to offer an example of a Palestinian who decided to let bygones be bygones despite Israel’s ongoing actions.
The president would never dream of actually supporting efforts to hold Israel accountable. Indeed, he vowed:
Our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable. And we will stand against attempts to single it out for criticism in international forums.
Clearly the president cannot risk offering sympathy to Palestinians proportionate to their actual suffering. As he has learned before, this would risk offending the Israel lobby which demands that American politicians always portray Israel as the principal victim. Recall that during the 2008 campaign Obama once accidentally let slip that “Nobody is suffering more than Palestinians” but later “clarified” that he meant they were suffering at the hands of their own leaders, not Israel.
Obama vows to continue its inaction and condemns Palestinians taking action
Putting the merits of Obama’s “vision” aside, what will the president actually do to advance it? Before he laid out the details, Obama said:
Now, ultimately, it is up to the Israelis and Palestinians to take action. No peace can be imposed upon them – not by the United States; not by anybody else.
What this means in translation is that the United States will not put any pressure on Israel to change its behavior – such as forcing it to stop building settlements. But Obama will continue to support lop-sided “negotiations” between local superpower Israel and a Palestinian Authority that is actually dependent on Israel for its mere survival (as Israel’s recent withholding of PA tax funds shows). No peace, let along a just one, can emerge from such “negotiations.”
Palestinians must sit on their hands
During his speech, the president also warned:
For the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure. Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state. Palestinian leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection. And Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist.
The reference to “delegitimization” appears to be a coded condemnation of the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, a growing nonviolent campaign to pressure Israel to respect Palestinian human rights. That’s out.
The bid to get Palestine recognized as a state is a desperate effort by the PA to seek international support in the face of intransigent US bias toward Israel. That’s out too.
Next the president tells Palestinians to reject “terror.” Ok, fair enough. And indeed elsewhere in his speech Obama was fulsome in his praise for “nonviolence.”
But what happened when tens of thousands of Palestinians peacefully marched for their human rights, including their right to return to Palestine even if they are not Jewish, last Sunday on Nakba Day? Israel gunned down more than a dozen people and the White House endorsed its actions.
So as far as Obama is concerned Palestinians have no options but to turn to negotiations that have proven utterly fruitless as even he acknowledged.
Soon after Obama was elected in 2008, I predicted that his tenure – despite high expectations everywhere else – would not produce any progress toward the mythical “two-state solution.” I see no reason to change that assessment.
But I concluded then, as I do now, that “This does not however mean that the situation will remain static or that those pursuing a just peace have no recourse for action.”
Indeed as recent months have shown throughout the region, the fates of nations are in the hands of their own citizens, not those of the American president.