Wednesday, May 06, 2009
A moment of reckoning in the Mideast
By Rami G. Khouri
Daily Star staff
The US-Israeli relationship today is like a bunch of oranges, apples and bananas thrown into a blender to make a fruit smoothie. Action is the name of the game, but outcomes are not clear.
The relationship between the United States and Israel is one of the strongest and most stable bilateral links in the history of modern statehood. The US will long remain Israel's strongest and most important supporter - as reflected in the legal American policy commitments to ensuring that Israel always remains militarily stronger than the combined Arab countries around it. Yet the advent of the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government clarifies that Washington's commitment to Israel's existence, security and strength does not automatically mean unquestioning support for Israeli policies of the day.
This relationship may soon reach an important milestone as the US administration emphasizes its determination to push for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while the Israeli government makes clear that its first and only concern now is Iran - and the Arabs can wait. Assorted Israeli officials in the past month have offered slightly contradictory views about their priority being two-state talks with the Palestinians, discussions leading only to a Palestinian quasi-state, a focus on Syria, unilateral moves in Lebanon, deterrence or attack on the Iranian front, or some combination of these.
Every single policy aspect of this matter remains shrouded in uncertainty. This is partly due to normal diplomatic tactics of not revealing your hand too early, and partly to the reality that the Obama administration probably has not yet decided if it is willing to expend the necessary political capital - and take the consequent risks - that come with confronting pro-Israel forces in the US. Arab silence and ambiguity are also problems that enhance the current uncertainty.
We can be fairly sure that if the US puts its full weight behind a policy option that appeals to the majorities of Arabs and Israelis, and is anchored in American self-interest, its chances of being implemented are high. We do not know, however, what the US plans beyond active diplomatic re-engagement via George Mitchell's office. Reliable Israeli reports speak of the White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, telling the leading pro-Israel supporters and funders of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) that President Barack Obama plans to act "firmly and decisively" to reach durable peace, moving on the Iran and Israel-Palestine fronts simultaneously.
Emanuel mentioned key issues on the Israeli side - such as the settlements - without saying what the US wanted Israel to do about them, while also mentioning the need to move on the Arab side. He called this the "moment of truth" for Israelis and Palestinians, which is correct. But it is also the moment of truth for the United States and the rest of the Arab world, the two other key players in this process.
The point of convergence that seems too obvious to miss is the policy of Israeli settlements and colonies - the last active settler enterprise that links our era to the ugly world of 19th-century European colonialism. The settlement-colonies issue is where the US and the Arabs can work with the rest of the world to pressure Israel to focus more seriously on negotiating peace. Obama can stare down the pro-Israel lobby by appealing to American national self-interest, and the basic commitment to justice that still defines most Americans.
A new poll just released by WorldPublicOpinion.org shows that 75 percent of Americans feel that Israel should not build settlements - compared to just 53 percent in 2002 - with majorities of Democrats (83 percent), Republicans (65), and Independents (74) holding this view. Also, 51 percent of Americans sympathize equally with both sides. This is not new. Americans as a people have always been even-handed, but pro-Israel political blackmail by Washington-based lobbies, media and think tanks has always generated a wild divergence between the even-handedness of Americans and the frenzied pro-Israeli policies of their government.
Arabs and Americans pressing hard to freeze Israeli settlements would generate the popular support for diplomacy among Palestinians that would in turn prod their leaders to form a national-unity government required for serious negotiations. Peace-making anchored in equitable legal and moral foundations for justice - such as prohibiting Israeli settlements, reducing the use of military violence by all, and seeking two sovereign states as the outcome of negotiations - offers hope for progress.
Bizarre as it may seem, it remains unclear if this is what the US, the Arabs and the Israelis seek. A good place to start reversing this is to say that we would all like to end the colonial era once and for all; and pressuring Israel to freeze its settler-colonies is a good starting point that would resonate strongly across the world, and offer Israelis and Palestinians an opportunity to imagine living a normal life once again.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice-weekly by THE DAILY STAR.