The devil in the details
While Obama's Cairo speech may not have satisfied Arab hardliners, a change in prevailing winds, putting Israel on the defensive, has occurred, writes Ayman El-Amir*
US President Barack Obama did not wait long after his finely tuned speech from Cairo to the world's Muslims to follow up on the thorniest problem of the Middle East region -- the settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He sent his Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, back to discuss with select capitals in the region practical steps to revive the deadlocked peace process. Mitchell realises from his previous visit, back in January-February, what a daunting task he faces. He now needs to restructure the peace process to achieve the "genuine progress, not just a photo op" task that President Obama assigned him in the first week of his presidency. Mitchell's first testing of the waters exercise back then impressed upon him the complexity of the task.
Reactions to President Obama's speech are still reverberating in the Middle East. As expected, he did not break any new ground or win new Arab converts, but did ruffle the feathers of quite a few Israeli allies. He dared to state his administration's guiding principles in approaching the Israeli-Palestinian predicament. His statement on the need to stop Israeli settlement activities, the intolerable situation for the Palestinians and the principle of a two-state solution riled up the Israeli government which, under Binyamin Netanyahu, remorselessly continued the Bush-Sharon policy of killing the Palestinians and stealing their land as a solution to the conflict. Netanyahu's ultra-nationalist loyalists and religious maniacs-cum- allies were unleashed upon Obama's speech, particularly his audacious reference to the illegitimacy of the Israeli settlement of Palestinian land. To Middle East Muslims in general, the speech was conciliatory and promising. To hardliners, it offered nothing new.
Arab hardliners were disappointed that Obama did not set forth a peace plan while, on the Israeli side, his speech marked "the end of the strategic alliance between America and Israel," as one Israeli commentator put it. To others, Obama was almost blasphemous, as he did not acknowledge the "God gave us this land" line, as one Israeli blogger put it. As usual, Israelis are clever at manipulating emotions to interpret history, which deliberately makes any possible solution of the conflict intractable. For decades, the Palestinian Arabs have been held hostage to two contentions: the Holocaust and the Promised Land.
Mitchell's first task will be to separate the wheat from the chaff and reconstruct the peace process. Although this had been done before, during the 1978 Camp David Accords and the 1979 Egyptian- Israeli Peace Treaty, the real issues have been clouded again. With a little help from the Bush administration, Arab territories occupied by Israel in 1967 are now called "disputed" territories. The "biblical land of Israel" rhetoric is increasingly replacing the hard facts of war, occupied territories, the systematic decimation of the Palestinians and the settlement of their land -- a situation President Obama called "unacceptable". Claims that the Palestinians' right of return is the end of the state of Israel and that East Jerusalem is part of its eternal capital, not a territory conquered and annexed by war, are part of the fallacies that Israeli governments sought to turn into facts by time and procrastination. Palestinian armed resistance is terrorism, the cantonisation of the West Bank by 612 roadblocks and the building of the annexation wall are Israeli security measures, the same label used for the confiscation of Palestinian land and the separation of Palestinian farmers from their families and fields. According to a recent survey published by Haaretz, 53 per cent of Israelis consider the West Bank as "liberated territory". It is the culture of settler-colonialism promoted by successive Israeli governments.
Mitchell, who arrived in the region this week, needs to take the peace process back to its accepted United Nations frame of reference before being disrupted by the Oslo Accords. It has been universally acknowledged that UN resolutions and international law constitute the only basis for a just and lasting peace in the Middle East. Since the occupation of Arab territories in the 1967 war, successive Israeli governments went about violating each provision of every international resolution without censure, thanks to the unconditional support of US administrations. For 33 years the UN Security Council castigated Israeli settlement activities as "illegal and an obstacle to peace". The US consistently went along with such resolutions to the extent that they did not provide for punitive measures that could pressure its ally. So settlement activities continued as a clear but tolerated violation of international law and the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949.
In his speech at Cairo University, President Obama outlined three fundamental issues: Israeli security, the illegitimacy of the settlement of Palestinian territories, and the two-state solution. Israel, which is armed to the teeth, considers that the establishment of a Palestinian state is mutually exclusive with its continued existence. Obama does not think so. The Israeli government tried to outmanoeuvre him on the question of settlements, suggesting that it would remove unlicensed "outposts" but would continue "the natural growth" of 160 settlements populated by 400,000 Israelis in the West Bank. Obama reaffirmed his position while in France for the 65th anniversary of the Allied landings at Normandy. He brought along another supportive ally, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denied there was any secret understanding between former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon and former president George W Bush that allows Israel to continue the expansion of existing settlements.
Israel is playing for time because it will not accept the fundamentals of a Middle East settlement that precludes the acquisition of conquered territory or significant parts of it. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu was scheduled to make what was described as a major speech next week in which he would outline his perspective on the principles of security and peace security for Israel -- a response to President Obama's blueprint. It would be an attempt to reconcile US demands for the end of settlement activities and acceptance of the two-state solution with the myopic ideology of his ultra-religious coalition partners. Netanyahu may try to offer proposals that would seem as concessions in return for substantial US privileges and commitments that would carry Israel over until 2013 when Obama's first term in office comes to an end.
It is now will-testing time and Israel does not seem to accept the wind of change blowing over its relations with Washington. Israel has not been used to a US president saying that US-Israeli relations "have always been close but not frank". Neither President Obama nor the Israeli government would like to see confrontation -- there are too many mutual interests at stake and many tools of pressure and counter-pressure that could poison the relationship. However, President Obama seems to be willing to embrace the long- abandoned US policy of even-handedness as the only way to broker a Middle East peace. The stubborn Israeli attitude of Israel uber alle does not seem to work; it only gave rise to fierce and costly Palestinian resistance and a radicalised Middle East. At long last, there comes a shrewd US president who believes that vital US interests in this region cannot be secured by the garrison state of Israel.
For any initiative to move forwards, the Palestinians will have to play their part. Present Palestinian infighting and Arab squabbles are a non-starter. The need for a Palestinian government of national unity is more urgent than ever. The Hamas-controlled government in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas have long been on a collision course, as evidenced most recently by the clashes in Qalqilya. Israeli leaders, by way of putting down the Palestinians, sometimes quote the proverbial statement of their former foreign minister Abba Eban that "Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity". The Palestinians cannot afford that anymore.
* The writer is former Al-Ahram correspondent in Washington, DC. He also served as director of United Nations Radio and Television in New York.