Hear those sounds? They are probably the echoes of Israel’s fervent supporters in the US erupting in hosannas as the White House confirmed that US President Barack Obama was due to visit Israel in March 2013. On the same safari, he will stop over in Jordan and in the Palestinian territories.
The visits are of regional and international significance because they raise the possibility that Obama intends to be directly engaged in the Middle East peace process and that this time around he will be more focussed, and supported by more decisive aides, than he was during his administration’s previous attempt to support effective peace negotiations. That effort now lies as inert as road-kill on a highway.
Obama’s visit to Israel will also deprive his domestic critics of a favourite rallying cry, one that the Romney campaign touted during last year’s presidential election campaign in the United States: that Obama has not visited friend and ally Israel as president but has visited several Muslim nations. Actually, this talking point is both frivolous and meaningless, and it had no electoral impact.
Obama visited Israel as a presidential candidate in 2008. Moreover, only four of the last 11 US presidents visited Israel while in office: Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Presidents Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush did not.
Despite the wisdom of US founding father George Washington, who said that “a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils”, Israel remains a dominant motif in domestic American politics. During a senate hearing on the nomination of Senator Chuck Hagel to hold the position of defence secretary, for instance, there were no less than 166 references to Israel, but there was not a single on the US use of unmanned drones as death-dealing instruments of national security.
Announcing Obama’s travel plans, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said that “the start of the president’s second term and the formation of a new Israeli government offer the opportunity to reaffirm the deep and enduring bonds between the United States and Israel and to discuss the way forward on a broad range of issues of mutual concern, including Iran and Syria.”
Lest the Arab world consider this a purely “homage to Israel” visit, White House media spokesman Jay Carney added that Obama would work closely with Palestinian Authority and Jordanian officials on regional issues. Will his visit to Israel be simply a kiss-and-make-up event with a proliferation of photo-ops? Or can it produce a semblance of progress on the path to peace and prosperity for both Israelis and Palestinians?
The frosty relationship between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is too well known to need description or analysis. They were not cast in the same mould, and are they unlikely to be “best friends forever”. They can, however, define and pursue policies that benefit both countries and be germane to peace and security in the region.
Obama has faithfully followed the example of his predecessors in supporting Israel with the range of resources it needs to ensure its security. Even the Iron Dome system that provides Israel with high-technology defence against rockets launched from Gaza is the product of American know-how and largesse. The US has also been Israel’s persistent bodyguard in international forums even when the client state did not deserve protection. This became very clear on the many occasions when the US either alone or in the company of minuscule micro-countries stood up for Israel — against reason and the rest of the world.
These shows of solidarity no doubt gave both the Israeli people and their governments great solace. But has it brought them the peace and security they crave? Several Israeli leaders have settled for military superiority over their neighbours, combined with the most effective dirty tricks that the intelligence services can provide, as a guarantee of security. Is that enough?
In the documentary film Gatekeepers, past heads of Israel’s domestic intelligence service (Shin Bet) explore the premise that Israel has tactical strength but lacks strategic wisdom. A spokesman for the film said on American television that while Israeli military and intelligence services can do “almost anything” tactically, the country’s leaders do not appear to have decided on where the country should be heading.
No doubt Israeli leaders will argue that their ultimate goal is to live in peace, security, and cooperation with their neighbours, particularly the Palestinians. However, reaching this goal requires a reversion from arrogance, a willingness to negotiate in good faith, respect for international law, a sense of compassion in dealing with political and economic issues, and a true and total commitment to creating a situation in which both polities can live in peace and security based on mutual respect.
All this cannot be achieved in a single Obama-Netanyahu meeting. If, however, Obama can persuade Netanyahu to move towards such a productive approach, that would be a substantive re-set of their personal relationship, and of bilateral relations, with important implications for the stalled — more accurately, failed — peace process.
Obama is committed to a two-state solution — Israelis and Palestinians co-existing side-by-side. He made the point without ambiguity in his major speech of June 2009 delivered in Cairo and directed to the world’s Muslim community. He said then that “the Palestinian people — Muslims and Christians — have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than 60 years they’ve endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighbouring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead.
“They endure the daily humiliations — large and small — that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.”
Netanyahu responded in a policy statement that included his definition of a Palestinian state: totally disarmed; located next to a militarily-oriented Israel; air space under Israeli control; no reference to ending illegal settlement building by Israelis.
The new Palestinian state would also have to recognise Israel as a Jewish state, although the religious preference of any sovereign state is surely a matter of domestic choice not of neighbourhood approval.
Netanyahu’s fake commitment to a castrated Palestinian state is no basis for negotiation. It has to be banished from discussion, and Netanyahu should be willing to commit himself to a true Palestinian state — especially now that Palestinian statehood has been recognised by the UN. Without such a genuine commitment, peace talks will be a sham, destined to end in failure.
There are, meanwhile, other “confidence-building” measures that both sides must be willing to undertake before peace talks commence and while they continue. On the Palestinian side, these would involve primarily a suspension of the rocket attacks on Israel from Hamas-controlled Gaza.
Lakhdar Brahimi, the Middle East’s best-known diplomatic trouble-shooter, said in an interview with the US Nation magazine that when Hamas was installed in office in Gaza a great opportunity to engage with it was lost. Instead of influencing the movement to moderate its views and actions, the George W. Bush administration not only boycotted it but persuaded other countries in the region to do so as well.
The possibility of incorporating Hamas in the peace process was thus lost — through abject stupidity. For the US to bring the group into the process now will be extremely difficult, if not impossible. However, several high-level delegations with an interest in Middle East peace visited Gaza following the Arab Spring, and it is possible that one or more of the countries involved could play the role of intermediary.
On the Israeli side, numerous analyses have been undertaken on how the brutalisation of the Palestinians prevents a change in Hamas-Israeli bitterness. The most recent of these is a report from an independent group commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to review the impact of Israeli settlements on Palestinians.
The International Fact-Finding Mission on Israeli Settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories found that “a multitude of the human rights of the Palestinians are violated in various forms and ways due to the existence of the settlements.”
“These violations are all interrelated, forming part of an overall pattern of breaches that are characterised principally by the denial of the right to self-determination and systemic discrimination against the Palestinian people which occur on a daily basis,” says a press release on the report that will be presented to the council in March.
“The magnitude of violations relating to Israel’s policies of dispossessions, evictions, demolitions and displacements from land shows the widespread nature of these breaches of human rights. The motivation behind violence and intimidation against the Palestinians and their properties is to drive the local populations away from their lands, allowing the settlements to expand,” said a member of the mission, Unity Dow.
The settlements themselves have repeatedly been condemned by numerous bodies as illegal under international law.
In the early days of his second term, Obama has emphasised a number of issues, including gun violence and immigration, on which he could leave his own impression during his current term. He has pursued these issues so vigorously, even taking his viewpoint to the people in campaign-like public rallies, that the congressional leader of the Republicans has said that his goal is to destroy the Republican Party. Others — those in the “Obama can do nothing right” category — have called him a socialist, a tyrant, and a fascist. In their lexicon these are synonyms.
If Obama can push through effective policies on some of the major issues that currently engage him, they will form part of his domestic legacy. The Middle East peace process is a good starting point from which to work on his global legacy. It is, however, fraught with even more uncertainties than the domestic issues he is trying to resolve.
The writer has served as Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Canada, Cuba, Mexico and the USA.