From Osama to Obama
By Patrick Seale
29 January 2010
In an audiotape broadcast on Al-Jazeera television on 24 January, Al-Qaeda’s leader Osama bin Laden warned the United States that ‘our attacks against you will continue so long as you maintain your support for Israel.’ ‘It is not fair,’ he said, ‘that you enjoy a good life while our brothers in Gaza suffer the worst conditions.’
American officials were quick to dismiss Osama bin Laden’s threat as a publicity-seeking stunt. Some denied that he was still in charge of Al-Qaeda. Others, including President Barack Obama’s political adviser, David Axelrod, vowed to spare no effort to kill or capture him.
As always, there was great reluctance in Washington to admit that America’s decades-long tolerance of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories had served to fuel terrorism.
Obama, however, was an exception from the start. When first coming to office a year ago, he made clear that he fully understood that the unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict was a major source of Arab and Muslim hostility to the United States. A comprehensive settlement of the conflict was in America’s urgent national interest, he declared.
In speeches in Turkey and Egypt, he reached out in friendship to the Arab and Muslim world. He pledged to bring about a settlement of the conflict on the basis of a Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel in peace and security. This remains his official position.
But Obama’s efforts have so far proved vain. In an interview with Time Magazine published on 21 January, he himself admitted that the conflict was ‘as intractable’ an issue as he had ever encountered. Israelis and Palestinians found it very hard, he said, to engage in meaningful dialogue. In a telling phrase he declared: ‘I think we overestimated our ability to persuade them to do so when their politics ran contrary to that.’
With these words, Obama seemed to be throwing in the towel. The peace process which he re-launched with great fanfare a year ago seems about to be proclaimed dead.
George Mitchell, the President’s special envoy, has just returned from another fruitless visit to the region. The rumour in Israel is that this might be his last visit. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu appears to be pressing for his replacement by someone more sympathetic to the Israeli cause.
At this particularly dangerous moment of American failure, Washington might be well-advised to take Osama bin Laden’s message seriously. If there is not to be an American-imposed peace – and it looks very much as if Obama has been defeated -- then the alternative is a collapse of hope and acute frustration among the Palestinians, more tension in the territories, terrorism and counter-terrorism, and possibly even a full-scale war.
Hawks in Israel talk openly of the need for ‘another round’ against Hizballah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Israel might well decide to strike again at these resistance movements, if they provide it with a pretext to do so.
For the moment, the stalemate in Israel-Palestinian relations seems total. Mahmud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, cannot contemplate resuming negotiations -- as the U.S. and Israel are urging him to do – unless Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu freezes settlement activity in the territories.
But Netanyahu will have none of it. His partial 10-month freeze allows for the completion of 2,500 housing units in West Bank settlements, as well as for work to proceed on public buildings such as synagogues, schools and clinics. It is as if there were no freeze at all. Meanwhile, Israel is pressing ahead in consolidating its hold over East Jerusalem and its surrounding Arab villages, from which Palestinians are being regularly expelled. Washington has expressed ‘dismay’ at the demolition of Palestinian houses but has done nothing about it.
Politically weakened in his own camp by his dithering over the Goldstone report on Israel’s Gaza campaign -- and giving every appearance of being physically exhausted -- Abbas obviously feels that he cannot afford to embark on negotiations with Netanyahu without acceptable terms of reference and guarantees from the United States. These have not been forthcoming.
Abbas cannot ignore the background. He negotiated at length with Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, and managed to win nothing for the Palestinians. All the while, as the talks proceeded, Palestinian territory was being lost to land-grabbing settlers and ultra-Orthodox fanatics. Abbas cannot afford to make the same mistake again.
Meanwhile, the deal Egypt had been negotiating to free Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured by Hamas, in exchange for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, seems to be dead. Egypt’s influence has slumped. It is reviled across the Arab world for the metal barrier it is sinking deep in the ground on its side of the border with Gaza, which threatens to close the tunnels on which the besieged Strip depends for its survival.
In any deal for Shalit, Israel has refused to release Marwan Barghouti, no doubt fearing that this charismatic Palestinian could unite Fatah and Hamas, and then negotiate with Israel from a position of strength rather than of abject defeat. Israel might even dread that Barghouti could trigger a third intifada, if he did not get his way.
Is all hope then lost? It seems that there can be no progress towards peace with Netanyahu’s current coalition. Some optimists think he might reshuffle the government, dropping the racist Avigdor Lieberman’s hard-line Israel Beitunu party, and bringing in the somewhat more moderate Tzipi Livni of Kadima. This, it is hoped, might open the way for a compromise. Polls continue to show that over 60 per cent of Israelis would be ready to return some, if not all, of the occupied Palestinian territory in exchange for peace.
If the U.S. were to give up its peace efforts, might the European Union, with support from Russia, China and the UN, take up the baton? Some observers believe that if the Europeans were to take the lead in seeking a binding Security Council resolution in favour of a two-state solution, the United States would not be able to oppose it.
Of all the potential actors in mediating a settlement, Turkey might turn out to be the most effective. Israel has no liking for the ties Turkey has forged with Syria, Iraq, Iran, the Gulf and Pakistan, as well as its peace efforts in Afghanistan. But Israel cannot afford a total breach with Turkey. Making space for it to attempt to mediate an Arab-Israeli settlement may be Israel’s best way to win back this uniquely valuable regional ally.