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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Obama & Palestine

Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon looks through a pair of binoculars which still have the lens caps on during a visit to Adam military camp near Tel Aviv.—Reuters

The peace process in Palestine is a total wreck. Every proposal has been torn to shreds by Israel by simply continuing to build new settlements on lands that would belong to a sovereign Palestine in any two-state solution.

President Barack Obama would do well to realise that, in consequence, his credibility is also undermined gravely and not in that region alone, either.

In his much-acclaimed speech at Cairo on June 4, 2009 the president declared: ‘The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace,’ adding peremptorily, ‘it is time for these settlements to stop’.

They did not. As The Economist noted on Nov 28, Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, ‘defied him and still, staggeringly, won praise from Hillary Clinton’, the secretary of state, known for strong pro-Israeli sympathies., During a visit to Israel she praised Netanyahu’s commitment to peace.

In a speech on June 14 Netanyahu offered to acknowledge the hypothetical existence of an eventual Palestinian state on the explicit understanding that it exercised no control over its airspace and had no means of defending itself against aggression; in short, a Bantustan.

On settlements he resorted to a dishonest quibble. ‘Illegal’ ones would not be built but the ‘legal’ ones would continue to expand according to their national rates of growth.

There are about 120 official Israeli settlements in the occupied territories of the West Bank besides ‘unofficial’ ones estimated from 80 to 100. In international law both are illegal and are in breach of Article 47 of the Fourth Geneva Convention as well as the UN’s charter.

The settlers number more than half a million. The US is privy to this breach as Tony Judt of New York University points out: ‘Were Israel not the leading beneficiary of American foreign aid — averaging $2.8bn a year from 2003 to 2007, and scheduled to reach $3.1bn by 2013 — houses in West Bank settlements would not be so cheap: often less than half the price of equivalent homes in Israel proper.

‘Many of the people who move to these houses don’t even think of themselves as settlers. Newly arrived from Russia and elsewhere, they simply take up the offer of subsidised accommodation, move into the occupied areas and become the grateful clients of their political patrons.’

Netanyahu offered a deceptive compromise — a mere 10-month freeze that, however, exempts Jerusalem, schools and synagogues and allows Israel to complete as many as 3,000 housing units already under construction.

Even some Israelis are astonished at Obama’s supineness in the face of Israel’s continued defiance. The noted Israeli columnist, Gideon Levy, wrote recently: ‘Before no other country in the planet does the United States kneel and plead like this. In other trouble spots, America takes a different tone. It bombs Afghanistan, invades Iraq and threatens sanctions against Iran and North Korea. Did anyone in Washington consider begging Saddam Hussein to withdraw from occupied territory in Kuwait?’

President Obama is surrounded by Israel’s supporters, most notably Dennis Ross, who was Clinton’s peace envoy. As Obama was speaking at Cairo, ‘senior Israeli officials’ in Jerusalem leaked to The New York Times a secret understanding with his predecessor, George W. Bush, giving ‘unambiguous permission’ to build within the boundaries of certain settlement blocks so long as no new land was expropriated.

It was on the basis of this understanding that Israel accepted the ‘road map’ for a two-state solution and withdrew from Gaza in 2005. In his infamous letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon dated April 14, 2004 Bush wrote: ‘In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centres, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion. It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.’

Palestinians were expected to submit to a fait accompli. Rather belatedly, on Nov 5, 2009 Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), admitted the collapse of the peace process and announced his resolve to step down as the PLO’s leader and not to seek a second term as the PA’s head. He has allowed himself to be used to crush Hamas in Gaza.

Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza was not designed to accelerate the peace process but to extinguish it. His friend and confidant Dov Weisglass revealed in the Israeli daily Haaretz on Oct 8, 2004 that Sharon and he had persuaded Bush to accept a plan which spelt the complete cantonisation of the West Bank under Israel’s control.

To remove all doubt, he explained that the Gaza withdrawal ‘is actually formaldehyde’, the liquid in which dead bodies are preserved. ‘Effectively, this whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda.’

Prime ministers will come and go in Tel Aviv and presidents will change guard in the US. This plan will be pursued by Israel and condoned by the US, under cover of rhetoric varying from the florid to the soaring.

Meanwhile, the situation within Israel continues to change. Arabs now make up around 22 per cent of the population of Israel. The total number of Palestinians living in Israel and in the occupied lands is larger than the Jewish population. They are unlikely to acquiesce in their fate for long.


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