Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Why Would Obama Say Such a Thing?

Incredibly, I heard on the radio this morning an interview, conducted by a seemingly intelligent reporter for National Public Radio, of a seemingly intelligent political analyst, concerning the recent events to do with the Middle East. Under discussion was the visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Washington, where he met with President Obama (before the latter's departure for a visit to his ancestral home in Moneygall, Ireland; yes, we forget that his heritage is as much European as it is African), addressed a pro-Israel lobbying group, and spoke to a joint session of congress. The dust-up of particular interest to the radio pundits was because President Obama, speaking last week in anticipation of Netanyahu's visit, and with an eye toward the current climate of rebellion and reform in many parts of North Africa and the Middle East, said, near the end of his speech:

For over two years, my administration has worked with the parties and the international community to end this conflict, building on decades of work by previous administrations. Yet expectations have gone unmet. Israeli settlement activity continues. Palestinians have walked away from talks. The world looks at a conflict that has grinded on and on and on, and sees nothing but stalemate. Indeed, there are those who argue that with all the change and uncertainty in the region, it is simply not possible to move forward now. 
White House photo
by Lawrence Jackson
I disagree. At a time when the people of the Middle East and North Africa are casting off the burdens of the past, the drive for a lasting peace that ends the conflict and resolves all claims is more urgent than ever. That's certainly true for the two parties involved. 
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.
As for Israel, our friendship is rooted deeply in a shared history and shared values. Our commitment to Israel's security is unshakeable. And we will stand against attempts to single it out for criticism in international forums. But precisely because of our friendship, it's important that we tell the truth: The status quo is unsustainable, and Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace. 
The fact is, a growing number of Palestinians live west of the Jordan River. Technology will make it harder for Israel to defend itself. A region undergoing profound change will lead to populism in which millions of people -– not just one or two leaders -- must believe peace is possible. The international community is tired of an endless process that never produces an outcome. The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation. 
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. But endless delay won't make the problem go away. What America and the international community can do is to state frankly what everyone knows -- 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. 
So while the core issues of the conflict must be negotiated, the basis of those negotiations is clear: a viable Palestine, a secure Israel. The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. 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. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their full potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.
Israeli Prime Minister
Benyamin Netanyahu
(State Department photo)
The reference to the 1967 borders as a starting point for negotiation lit up Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has decided to start referring to them as The Indefensible 1967 Borders, a tactic that panders to unthinking people everywhere.

The question the reporter asked, for which the political analyst had no ready answer was, Given the political situation in this country, why would President Obama make a controversial reference to the 1967 borders as a basis for an agreed peace between Israel and its Palestinian neighbours? He gets nothing out of it. They seemed unable to fathom any reason for this statement.

I think I know the answer, and I think it was a wise and judicious thing for Obama to do. (I often think I'm alone among Republicans in thinking Obama wise and judicious, especially in comparison to the reactionary-pandering, fatuous, simpering, spineless, gutless wonders my own party keeps vomiting up for the entertainment of Fox "News" interviewers.) 

Israel has, rightly, long enjoyed great and essentially unwavering support from the United States. We have been that nation's champion since its founding in 1948; we have backed it, even when its positions have been questionable, in every one of its conflicts with its neighbours. Each presidential administration since Truman's has understood that Israel, unlike its neighbours, is under existential threat: intractable elements throughout the region, from Islamabad to Fez, from Damascus to Sa'na, want the State of Israel wiped off the face of the earth. With that kind of threat facing it, Israel is entitled to greater deference in our dealings with it and its neighbours. 

But Israel, in the last decade or so, has begun to lose the moral high ground it held in American thought since 1948. Ultra-conservative forces within Israel have begun to assert themselves with greater success, forcing what they call a "Greater Israel" on the world. The ongoing Jewish settlement of lands in the West Bank, outside the 1967 borders, is a part of that push for an enlarged Jewish state. But each new settlement, each additional hectare of land taken from the Palestinians by Israeli settlers, is a new affront to the prospect for eventual peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Israel knows this, but its weak governments have been unable to find the backbone needed to prevent further encroachments on the West Bank. American governments have repeatedly warned Israel that this nation will not support this eating away of the land that will, in some fashion, someday be an Arab state of Palestine; the Israelis, though, apologise, maybe pause, and continue to build. 

Obama's statement that the 1967 border is a starting point for negotiations has long been acknowledged by all responsible parties. For my own part, I agree with that, and I would go further and say that wars have consequences, and the Palestinians much accept that the wars fought and lost in 1948 and 1956 and 1967 and 1973 mean that Israel's annexation of Jerusalem must be accepted as fact. They won it, and it is theirs. 

Palestinians must accept, too, that they were offered their own state at the same time the Israelis were, in 1948, but they chose to make war instead. They lost, and they must accept the consequences of their decision, or their fathers' decision. The refugees who fled the nascent State of Israel in 1948, and their children born in refugee camps throughout the region, and in neighbouring states, many of whom have never set foot in Israel, must accept that they have no right to return to ancestral homes in Israel. Whether they have any right to return at all must depend upon their willingness to accept the status within the Israeli political structure that is offered to them — a status that, because they are not Jews and Israel is by definition a Jewish state, is likely to be what we would consider second-class citizenship for some time into the future. (Westerners who find that likelihood opprobrious should look to the status of non-believers in Islamic nations throughout Africa and Asia, or to the status of Catholics in the British colonies that became the United States, and accept that our notions of inclusive democracy are not universally shared. We may well be morally superior, but we are not the ones who make the decisions or live with the results.)

By reminding the Israelis that the 1967 borders are the starting point, and that their continuing incursions into the West Bank have never had our support, Obama is, wisely and judiciously, warning the Israelis that American backing has its limits, and that they have continually tested those limits for decades. Incursions, like wars, have consequences.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Your comments are welcome, even the mean ones.