Are the prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian peace any more immanent after President Obama’s recent speech? Does it break any new ground?
The short answer would have to be no. Not because American imperial interests would not be better served by a two state solution. Brokering such a deal would enormously enhance America’s prestige and credibility with an awakening Arab street, a public justifiably suspicious of Western intentions given imperialism’s history of sustaining their oppressors.
The world of imperial puppetry, where elite interests are manipulated through authoritarian surrogacies - the house of Saud, the Mubaraks and Ben Alis - is drawing to a close. This is no mystery to Obama. The real problem is that despite the two state solution being the overwhelming consensus both among US policy makers and its citizenry, there is no energized constituency for this within American electorate. Rarely do Americans concern themselves with foreign policy issues, and even less do they take to the streets, unless these issues entail questions of large scale and prolonged commitment of American ground forces.
And to the extent that there is a vocal element willing to raise campaign money and weigh in on this conflict, these voices belong to the Christian right, and to those activist sections of the Jewish community who are either conservative themselves or who are progressive in all matters save Israel. In other words, America is hostile territory for any American politician willing to stake ground anywhere on the Israel-Palestinian conflict to the left of Likud or for any left-wing Israeli politician looking to these shores for encouragement.
American initiatives with the Netanyahu government have predictably proved to be both nonstarters and sources of domestic humiliation and loss of credibility for Obama. Every time Israel has been asked to make a show of good faith by returning to the negotiating table, the Israelis have coupled their begrudging return with enhanced settlement activity. Even the US’s special envoy, George Mitchell---a veteran negotiator in the Northern Ireland conflict, resigned in frustration with the lack of seriousness on the part of Israel to move beyond its imperious comfort zone, a status quo where they have the upper hand, and seek a permanent solution that also accommodates legitimate Palestinian aspirations. Netanyahu’s immediate rebuff of Obama’s initiative was entirely predictable.
But the Palestinians forced Obama’s hand, first by Hamas reconciling with the Palestininan Authority and then by their threat to seek international recognition by bringing the issue of self-determination to a UN vote this fall. And Obama outmaneuvered himself by playing into the right’s game foolishly describing the Palestinian strategy as an attempt to “delegitimate” Israel. Sitting this out and letting Netanyahu squirm as September approached would have been a fitting answer to Israeli obstructionism. Without any overt threats at loss of military or financial assistance, a simple failure to exercise a UN veto would have sent an electrifying message to the Israeli establishment that they can no longer expect carte blanche American support. But letting Israel pickle in its own isolation would also have opened the administration up to the charge of dithering if not outright betrayal by Likud’s echo chamber on the American right. Obama simply lacks, as do most American politicians, the political chops to resist these charges.
Obama’s speech reflects all these frailties. He outlined a peace based on the 1967 borders with mutually agreed land swaps. The Oslo accords only provided for Palestinian self-government, which Israel can arguably insist they already enjoy. Obama’s call for Palestinian self-determination within a contiguous state is certainly a step beyond these accords. But otherwise his proposals are a restatement of the official position of the United States for the past two decades, including the exclusion of any commitment on the future of Jerusalem as a shared capital. They present no new recipes, timetables or concrete procedures for resolving the conflict. Moreover, Obama’s characterization of Israel not as a Jewish homeland, but as a Jewish state is detrimental to the interests of 1.2 million Christian and Muslim Israelis, who are shamelessly relegated to second class citizenship by that understanding. This anti-democratic formulation thoughtlessly discards the potential role that these communities, if fully integrated, could otherwise play as a bridge to reconciliation between Israel and the wider Arab world.
These objections aside, a serious peace offensive on Obama’s part would necessitate confronting Israeli and Palestinian leaders with a detailed vision of a just and lasting peace - guaranteeing both parties security and dignity. This is not a matter of imposing a peace, but of igniting the democratic yearnings and imaginations that both peoples share for a normalized future free of war and the threat of war. It would require Obama to address his appeal over the heads of the entrenched and intransigent leaders of Israel (and their American patrons) and sell this vision directly to people of Israel and Palestine. This is the only way he could have dispelled Netanyahu’s claim that giving up the West Bank settlements will endanger Israeli security, while deflating Palestinian irredentism, which feeds on continued Israeli oppression without realistic prospect for relief and redress.
Most decisively, this would also entail standing up to homegrown reaction, the last thing one can expect from this confrontationally adverse administration, whose progressive bark is invariably belied by its toothless bite.