ISRAEL POLICY FORUM
The Chicago Tribune reported this week that President-elect Barack Obama intends to visit the Middle East very early in his term, perhaps within his first month as President. He will visit an Arab capital and deliver an address to the Arab world stating his determination to fight global terrorism and establish Middle East peace. In general, I like the idea although—given the security situation in the region— I'd rather have our President stay out of the Middle East and deliver the address from the Oval Office.
During his campaign, Obama repeatedly said that he would work on a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in his first year in office. It now appears that he may move even faster than that.
It makes sense.
Obama clearly does not buy into the conventional wisdom (propagated by the neocons), which deems it unnecessary to address the Arab-Israeli conflict immediately. Yes, the neocons say, it's a tinderbox—but there are others that are more dangerous, like the conflict over Kashmir and Pakistan's inability to control its home based terrorists.
Obama seems to understand that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at the heart of virtually all of America's problems in the Middle East. Paradoxically it is the Middle East problem most amenable to resolution by way of American leadership. Indians and Pakistanis care what the United States thinks, but neither depends on us the way Israelis and Palestinians do. Israelis and Palestinians need us, both for our aid and for political and moral support. Neither side can say "no" to an American President with impunity—especially when all he is demanding is that each live up to commitments they have already made.
Of course, issuing demands to the Palestinians is nothing new. We have been doing that for 20 years. Our first demand was that the PLO recognize Israel's right to exist and renounce terrorism. It did that first with a unilateral statement in 1988 and then, again, in 1993 with the Oslo Declaration. Today the Palestinian Authority works with Israel to combat terrorism, is fully committed to the two-state solution, and is engaged in negotiations with Israel on a final status agreement. The Palestinians have also acceded to our demands that the PLO amend its charter to remove references to the destruction of Israel and eliminate anti-Semitic references in Palestinian textbooks.
The most significant Palestinian concession was to give up the claim to all of historic Palestine. For the first 30 years of its existence, the PLO (and Palestinians in general) rejected Israel's right to any part of Palestine. Today they concede 78% of the land to Israel—i.e. the land encompassed by the '67 borders—while insisting on establishing a state in the 22% that is the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.
Israel's most significant concession was recognizing the Palestinian right to statehood. It took five decades but today the government of Israel accepts the Palestinian claim to that 22% figure, although it wants some flexibility in determining what lands will constitute it. (For instance, it would swap some land in Israel proper in exchange for West Bank territory adjacent to Israel).
Essentially, the two sides are already in agreement about what an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty will look like.
The main obstacle to achieving it remains the occupation. Ironically, the number of Israeli settlements, and settlers, has increased dramatically since Israel committed itself to ending it. There is no need to spell out the details here. Everyone knows about the checkpoints, the wall, the roads reserved for settlers only, the systematic destruction of the Palestinian economy, the incessant harassment by settlers.
Worst of all, the occupation keeps getting more violent. There are settler pogroms against Palestinians in Hebron. Settlers are grabbing Silwan, the very heart of Arab Jerusalem, which was long considered immune to settler squatting because it is 100% Arab. Settlers are fighting the Israeli army to preserve their right to expropriate Palestinian land and destroy Palestinian livelihood. In their minds, Biblical promises infinitely trump the rights of people who have been living continuously on the land for millennia. And they have no respect for the government of Israel or its laws; their Zionism is more about Hebron than Tel Aviv (they despise Israel's largest city for being secular, tolerant, and, by their lights, godless). They get away with murder and have for forty years.
The United States barely protests. How many times have Israeli prime ministers pledged to stop the expansion of settlements, pledged to take down the illegal outposts, pledged to remove the checkpoints that serve no purpose but harassment?
But none of the pledges have been implemented. The very land being negotiated over is being taken, acre by acre. Continuation of the settlement enterprise contradicts the entire premise of the peace process: land for peace. Pretty soon the land will all be gone, grabbed up by settlers while the Israeli government alternatively encouraged them or turned a blind eye. And the United States, terrified to be seen as "pressuring Israel," has issued only the mildest of criticisms along with some winks and nods. Issue demands? Heaven forfend.
President Bill Clinton alluded to this phenomenon when he told Prime Minister Ehud Barak that he was tired of the President of the United States being treated as if its sole role was to do precisely what Barak wanted—no more, no less.
"I'm tired of being a wooden Indian . . . doing your bidding," Clinton said.
The next President should not be in that position and, hopefully, the Israelis will not expect him to be.
The good news is that the Israeli government may actually be waking up. Understanding at last that the settler movement is as much a threat to the State of Israel as to the Palestinians, the Olmert government has acted.
Last week, the Israel Defense Forces stormed the house in Hebron that settlers grabbed, and which they had pledged to fight to the death to hold. They didn't. Sure, they cursed and spat at Israeli soldiers but they were quickly overwhelmed by IDF force. The settlers had wanted to send a message to the people of Israel that West Bank settlers could not be removed as their Gaza brethren were. Instead, with their quickly collapsed resistance, they sent the opposite message. When the Israeli government wants them out, they will leave. Like the white supremacists of Mississippi and Alabama in the 1960's, they can't fight the army.
The settler surrender in Hebron empowers the United States too. No more does an American President have to "understand" that the settlers are too powerful to confront. No, the 44th President can, and should, tell the Israeli prime minister that settlement growth must be permanently frozen, illegal outposts must be taken down, and plans for the removal of the vast majority of settlements must be put in place now.
The Israelis themselves have taken an important step by evacuating the Hebron house. It's only a start, but it shows the way. President Obama, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, can help Olmert, and his successor, by making clear that they expect promises to be fulfilled, pledges to be lived up to. They can, and must, tell Israel's next prime minister that America stands behind Israel's security as it always has—but not behind the occupation that is destroying it.
Friends don't let friends drive drunk.
It's that simple.