There are political circles and commentators who live from minute to minute. For them, every squeak from a world leader is a virtual earthquake, a real revolution. This is especially true now that we are dealing with a US president, who is handsome, articulate, and even eloquent. The present level of manipulated excitement stems from the non-revelation that Barak Obama is against settlements and for the two state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He also sees importance in improving the tainted image of the United States in the Arab and Moslem worlds. Now who can ask for anything more?
It is not that I disregard the significance of declarations but these must be carefully sifted so as to distinguish changes in the usual discourse. Repetition of old and pious wishes means little, while the appearance or disappearance of different formulations and elements is worth attention. But even before seeing how Obama is stacking up to his recent declarations, seen in Israel as criticism of Israeli policy, there is one new Obama element which demands urgent analysis.
The Normalization Gambit
Obama has added a new, problematic, and dangerous dimension to the formula for the solution of the conflict. He has called on both the Palestinians and the Arab countries to take immediate steps, before the conclusion of peace with Israel, so as to normalize their relations with Israel. Now this demand is quite embarrassing for the so-called moderate pro-USA, Arab countries which already maintain a high level of geo-political coordination with Israel despite the occupation. Moreover, Obama’s demand that an occupied people, the Palestinians, who are denied the most basic of rights to their very existence, should take steps normalizing their relations with the occupying power as a condition for reaching a peace agreement is ludicrous, to say the least. This idea, coming from Obama, may indicate a certain lack of understanding of the conflict. Any expression of moderation by the Palestinians has always been interpreted by Israel and its allies as a sign of weakness, and full-scale normalization in the region before peace will become the ultimate proof for the Israeli argument that the occupation is no barrier to peace.
This scandalous demand for pre-peace normalization is cause for concern that regional normalization meets, first and foremost, the requirements of US policy, and if normalization before peace and as a condition for peace is inimical to the interests of Israeli-Palestinian peace, then the Palestinians will just have to wait. . . . The Israeli right has already drawn up a long list of confidence measures that it will demand immediately from the Arab world and from the Palestinians. These will be preconditions for moving forward and Obama will be called on to pay the bill. Is this accidental, or just another escape route from peace that must be available in case of need?
The Outposts Farce — Who Is Mocking Whom?
Obama, just like Bush, is against settlements since they are quickly destroying the dwindling territorial base for the establishment of a Palestinian entity. The area under discussion is a mere 22% of Palestine and choking it with literally hundreds of towns and villages is designed to wipe out a country and a people, literally to wipe it off the map. The Netanyahu government, like the Olmert government, is a coalition of enthusiastic annexationists, who exploit every opportunity to grab land and drive out the local population. The recent US protests against the settlements should be seen as a request that Israel stop embarrassing Obama on a daily basis, especially when he is busy trying to improve the US image in the Muslim world.
The latest phase of the settlement drive, which resulted in the establishment of a spate of tens of illegal outposts, is spearheaded by groups of crazed, young religious fanatics, known in Israel as "the hilltop youth." They carry IDF-issued weapons and recognize no secular authority as they pursue their goal and simply rebuild any of the shanty sites torn down by the IDF. They are enthusiastically backed by the rabbis in the West Bank, who happen to be government employees, and they are the darlings of the right-wing politicians. The IDF acts under the assumption that sheet metal and lumber are the guilty party. The army bulldozes the shanties, declares victory, and goes home. The "hilltop youth" rebuild the shanties and are practically immune from prosecution as long as they stick to shanty building (on Arab land) and serial pogroms against the Palestinian farmers in the area.
A few weeks ago, peace activists from the New Profile underwent a degrading police investigation on suspicion that they were encouraging youngsters to question their conscription to an army of occupation and national oppression. The settler rabbis inspire lawlessness and violence against the state, and the settler provocations go on without arrests.
Asides from statements, there is no sign that Obama intends any action against Israeli responsibility for the outposts and the "natural growth" of the established settlements.
At this point, we have to go back to square one. In its essence, the occupation is not a purely Israeli affair, but a joint US-Israeli project. Indeed, the management is local, but ownership belongs to the US as the financial backer and the provider of the political and military cover for the operation. The United States owns this occupation and is morally and politically responsible for the continued violent repression of the most basic Palestinian rights.
At this point, Netanyahu still fears the settlers more than he fears Obama, unless Obama gets serious. He may move against the outposts only to demonstrate that this is a tremendously difficult and politically costly action. He has reasonable hopes of modifying Obama’s ban on natural growth, as long as Obama is not clear that the settlements themselves must be dismantled and not "regulated." The very existence of any settlement over the 1967 border is illegal and should be summarily dismantled. This would solve the natural growth dilemma.
So far, Netanyahu is a bit worried, along with Barak. His plan is to drag out the whole matter until the US loses interest or prefers to avoid any confrontation with Israel. This tactic, it must be noted, has succeeded in the past.
Obama in Cairo
It is to be feared that Obama’s "dramatic" speech to the Islamic and Arab worlds has more to do with cosmetics than with politics. Obama is certainly right about the need to improve the image of the United States but, alas, this is not a matter of rhetoric.
The Washington DC, Riyad, Cairo triangle is one of those decaying power alliances that hold the fort for the United States. Obama’s Middle East partners are not squeamish about torture and jail for their opponents who dare to act up. Mubarak and the Saudi king, Abdullah, are the heads of reactionary, brutal regimes. Of course, they are bastards but they are Obama’s bastards — so what else is new? Even speechwise, there was very little of new substance in the Cairo spiel. Especially, if you were at Annapolis.
Once again, we are struck with the gap between words and action. Obama’s propaganda team is working overtime to present the current problems in a limited and almost meaningless framework. So let’s get it clear for the n’th time. The twenty-two outposts are not the problem, nor is the need to restrict the "natural growth" in the more established settlements. The problem is not the lack of an indeterminate, endless peace process. The problem is not even the need that Netanyahu adopt the Olmert-Bush two-state formula. Are we to become excited at the prospect that Obama might nudge Netanyahu back to the negotiating table? Aw, come on!
Even in his strongest suit, rhetoric, Obama is way off base. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a conflict between two overzealous national formations that must learn manners and civility from the international community and its leader. Israel, based on the unique advantages of the military, political, and economic support of the United States, has been skimming off Palestinian rights and land for more than forty years as commission for its pro-US services. Obama is not an honest broker, he is not even a biased broker. He is a side to the conflict and he will be one until he, openly and clearly, makes a commitment to cut off the funds and guns which implement policies that he opposes — ostensibly.
Reuven Kaminer blogs at <http://www.reuvenkaminer.blogspot.com/> .