A time for sticks
Many critics are perfectly content to be proven right when their critique of current affairs meets their low expectations. For such critics, being right demonstrates that their criticism and knowledge of political events are sound and well placed. But, for Palestinian critics, there is little joy in being proven right because it means that the political situation is just as grim as predicted.
Such is the case with the much-hyped “row” between Israel and the United States back in March following the announcement of 1,600 new housing units in the Israeli colony of Ramat Shlomo. While much was made of US President Barack Obama’s subsequent shunning of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the White House during their last meeting–including the unspeakable decision not to hold a joint press conference or even allow photographers to capture the meeting–critics properly noted that there was much ado about nothing. Alas, the critics were correct.
The latest, cordial, meeting between Netanyahu and Obama comes as little surprise. Palestinians have grown accustomed to seeing Israeli leaders warmly received in the White House, irrespective of the crimes perpetrated by Israel against Palestinians. Broad smiles have always greeted Israeli officials, even when Israel’s insatiable appetite for Palestinian land flies in the face of international demands for a freeze on settlement activity. Indeed, the White House always reminds us of the “unshakeable bond” between Israel and the United States even as Palestinian homes continue to be demolished.
But what many had not expected was the over-the-top nature of the reception Obama afforded Netanyahu in the face of Israel’s actions toward US citizens. Perhaps Obama forgot that just a month earlier, Israel carried out a brutal raid on a Gaza-bound humanitarian aid flotilla attempting to break the illegal Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. Perhaps he forgot that a young American citizen was killed, execution-style, on board the lead ship, with one bullet to the chest and four, at close range, to the head. Perhaps he missed that the next day another young American, Emily Henochowicz, had her eye shot out by an Israeli-fired tear gas canister as she peacefully protested the flotilla raid. Perhaps he also forgot that, days later, a Palestinian man married to an American woman was executed after what appears to have been a traffic accident at an Israeli checkpoint.
Obama did not demand accountability for these acts of violence. Instead, he greeted Netanyahu with the usual broad smile, strong handshake and warm words that every US president has offered every Israeli leader, irrespective of Israel’s actions. The message: Israel will never be held accountable for its actions, whether toward Palestinians or toward any individual trying to protect Palestinians.
Some pundits may pontificate that this is merely a change in tactics on the part of Obama, that he is moving from the “stick” to the “carrot” in the hope that Israel will see the error of its ways, change course and become a law-abiding actor. But on this, the pundits and Obama should take some lessons from the Palestinian Authority, which has spent the last 17 years offering carrots to successive Israeli administrations (from changing the discourse to focus on Israeli security rather than Palestinian freedom to actually serving as Israel’s security subcontractor) in the mistaken belief that somehow if we Palestinians offer enough carrots to Israel, its appetite for Palestinian land will be sated. For all these carrots, Palestinians have achieved nothing and instead a fatter, more emboldened “rabbit” has emerged demanding even more concessions from the Palestinian people.
The pundits will argue that the carrots are working and will point to Netanyahu’s recent statements in which he indicated that he is willing to take “bold steps” for an undefined, conditional “peace” and even pressed for direct rather than indirect talks with the PLO. But the pundits will ignore reality: the peace process has only ever served to provide Israel with legitimacy while masking its ongoing violations of human rights. From 1993 to 2000, for example, as the world greeted the peace process with great fanfare and 34 countries established diplomatic ties with Israel, it carried out the largest expansion of the settlement enterprise in its history, including a doubling of its settler population as well as one of the largest revocations of residency rights of Palestinian Jerusalemites. In short, while the world focused on handshakes, Israel continued to carry out its policies of replacing one people with another. And on this path, Israel will continue.
Indeed, for all of his talk of “peace”, Netanyahu has also indicated that he will not halt settlement activity and home demolitions will continue as planned. The blockade will continue and Palestinians will continue to be imprisoned in large Bantustans. In short, Israel continues to act as it always has, unless it sees a stick. And the time for sticks is now.
But the US is too afraid to use its annual three-billion-dollars-US-assistance-to-Israel stick. Instead, it will continue to turn a blind eye to Israel’s colonization, while promising an increasingly compliant and complacent Palestinian leadership that, for domestic reasons, the Palestinians will have to wait until mid-term elections, or maybe second-term elections before the stick will be used against Israel.
All the while, Palestinian critics will continue to watch the handshakes and smiles, with that sickening feeling that we know we are right but wish we were wrong.
Diana Buttu is a human rights lawyer and a former legal advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team.