Obama Put the Ball in Israel’s Court

by Abdeen Jabara, 25 March 2013 – Mondoweiss


We have to make sense and progress out of what we have before us; and overall, Obama’s trip was positive. I’ll tell you why.

As far as the recognition of the Zionist attachment to the land, and the history of Zionists in Israel, a lot of that was boilerplate. And actually he’s not saying anything that has not been accepted by most of the Arab countries, if not all of them, in their Arab Peace Initiative, where they said that they would recognize Israel if it returned to the 1949 armistice lines and shared Jerusalem with the Palestinians and had some kind of fair resolution of the refugee problem. The Arab League is not calling for Israel not to be a Zionist state. They’re not saying that they wouldn’t welcome it if it were not Zionist, but they’re not making that a demand. And there is absolutely no publicity in this country about that Peace Initiative, taken by the Arab League and reaffirmed time and again.

The larger strategic issue here is that Obama had two major tasks before him when he was elected in 2008. Those were, one, the economy tanking, and two, the security situation in this country. He picked up from the wars that Bush had been waging all over the Muslim world; and so the situation between the Muslims and the U.S. was getting worse not better. Obama understood that this war against what Bush liked to call radical Islam– I don’t use that word, but that’s the word they use, though Obama doesn’t say that, he talks about extremists – he had to pick up from this, and he knows that 99 percent of this so-called war has to be a political one. He knows that Muslims are angry with the United States, and one of the great sources of that anger is the United States’ support for the oppression of the Palestinians, so one of the first things he did when he was elected, he went to Cairo. The person who wrote that speech for Obama is still in place, and is still advising him on Israel and still writing [Ben Rhodes]. So they know that they have got a real problem with Muslims around the world.

I dug something up that gives you the Israeli context. That was an interview with Shimon Peres back in January in the New York Times [by Ronen Bergman]. It’s absolutely kind of astounding when you look at it in terms of this trip and in terms of Obama’s attitude. He talks about the breakdown between Netanyahu and Obama in the first term. Peres says,

“[Netanyahu] may do nothing, but that doesn’t mean that things won’t be done. This idea, that history is a horse that can be held by the tail, is a foolish idea. After all, the fire can be lit in an instant: another word, another shot, and in the end everyone will lose control. If there is no diplomatic decision, the Palestinians will go back to terror. Knives, mines, suicide attacks. The silence that Israel has been enjoying over the last few years will not continue, because even if the local inhabitants do not want to resume the violence, they will be under the pressure of the Arab world. Money will be transferred to them, and weapons will be smuggled to them, and there will be no one who will stop this flow. Most of the world will support the Palestinians, justify their actions, level the sharpest criticism at us… .”

This language is the background for what Obama said. He said there’s no wall that you can build that’s high enough and no Iron Dome that’s going to be effective enough to make your fortress impenetrable. He could have been saying that about the United States. He could have been saying there’s no homeland security and no army and no FBI roundup of suspects and no Guantanamo that’s going to make us secure enough unless there’s political movement. Though he can’t come out and say, I think this Israeli Palestinian peace is a matter of American national security. He cannot say that politically. What that would be saying was, Osama bin Laden succeeded. But that is really the understanding that he’s proceeding upon.

Listen to what Peres says later on:

“President Obama thinks that peace should be made with the Muslim world. We, the State of Israel, do not appear to be thinking along those lines. We must not lose the support of the United States.”

Why does he think that? We have to ask ourselves. He knows what’s driving Obama, and he also knows what’s driving Netanyahu. Peres again:

“The problem is that Obama would like to reach peace in the Middle East and has to be convinced that Israel agrees with this.”

So Obama could have proceeded on this whole issue in two different ways. He could have engaged with more tough love with Israel, because that would satisfy people like us. But there is no question that Israel has bipartisan support in the United States, and there’s a lot of reasons for that, and as Obama said, he has to deal with that fact. Support for Israel is part of the political culture of this country now. You don’t have an Eisenhower in office. Although there’s been a lot of attempts to make some analogy between Eisenhower and Obama, when Israel invaded the Sinai in ‘56, Eisenhower said, I don’t care what power Israel has, they have to withdraw, and I will cut off the tax exempt status of Israeli fundraising in the United States. Well Obama doesn’t think he has that kind of political space. He has some, but he doesn’t have that kind of political space. Still, he has lots of political tools that he is using. Money from USAID went into making 5 Broken Cameras. Did you know that? That’s remarkable. There is an effort underway, an official effort to demonstrate the difficulty of the life that Palestinians have under occupation.

This Nabi Saleh piece in the NYT magazine section [by Ben Ehrenreich], the fact that it appeared when it did, was not happenstance. I mean by that—there are people here in the New York Times, in the government, and outside of the government, who know that in order to resolve this problem, the Palestinian side has to get some airtime. This is particularly true since polls in this country show that the P.A. is the third most hated government in the world. And they have to change that. Because in all the rest of the word, Israel is one of the most hated governments.

When Obama said to the Israeli young people, who were vetted before they got in there, Do you want to continue to be isolated as a country, he’s also talking about the United States, because the tarbaby relationship that the United States has with Israel has isolated this country and ties its hands enormously, even with its western partners. There are countries in western Europe that want to take the initiative for boycott. And so Obama is a juggler. “I’m a politician.” He said it. “I’ll do what I can do, given the constraints that I have, because this is the subtext of everything I’ve done, my first duty is to protect the national security of the United States.” The other subtext of that, is however much we are aligned and entwined and we recognize that we both came out of colonial settlement efforts, because that’s what the United States and Israel are—what he didn’t say is that America’s interests and Israel’s interests are one and the same. He did not say that. And that’s an important thing. He did say that for all intents and purposes, that Israel’s security is tied to America’s security, but those are two different things.

A lot of what he said has to be read in light of America’s post-9/11 history. You have to look at the wars that Bush started, the quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, what’s happening now in the Middle East with the Arab spring– all of this is weighted down on the Arab Israeli conflict as well.

All Zionists are not the same. People are not prepared to differentiate between them, but there are uber Zionists and lesser Zionists. They all want a Jewish state, a Jewish majority state. But some of them are Jabotinskyites who believe that Israel should have a permanent Iron Wall against the Arab world, while some of them believe that they have to define their borders and become a normal state. And that latter portion knows they can’t do that with an unresolved Palestinian problem.

And the Palestinians have an ace card. They’re not as weak as you think they are. Because their mere existence and perseverance have given them enormous strength, by placing these two different camps in the Zionist movement in contention about where Zionism’s going. I have a lot of problems with liberal Zionists. But I don’t care if they’re motivated by wanting to maintain a Jewish state. What I care about is whether they will oppose the occupation and support Palestinian rights. Then we get into what are Palestinian rights–all those things that are subject to negotiation.

But there’s no military solution to this problem. I can’t repeat that enough. There’s no military solution to this problem. And as bleak as things look, Obama thinks there’s a peaceful resolution. You have to ask yourself: Was Obama lying when he went to the Israeli public and said what he said, that there has to be a viable Palestinian state with contiguous borders? Was he lying, was he insincere, was he just doing this for public consumption without any real genuine belief? I think the answer to that question was no, he was not lying. He has said the same thing consistently, from Cairo to Jerusalem.

He knows the ground must be prepared for this. There is a problem when according to polls two-thirds of the Israelis accept a Palestinian state, but they don’t trust the Palestinians. Obama said to them, You can trust Abbas. You have to have some trust in Abbas. So he went there and he said some hard truths. And the question is, will it have an impact on the Israeli body politic. Obama understands a body politic, because he has to deal with it here in this country. Did you read Thomas Friedman today? Even he is worried that the Israelis “don’t get it.”

And this is probably the essence of Obama trip: him trying to get them to get what he gets; and he has a strategy. Everyone thinks he has some kind of magic wand. But he can’t wave a wand and say, Let there be a Palestinian state, let there be peace. He’s not a magician. But one of his first duties as president, is to advance the security of this country. And he’s not going to do it if this situation is not resolved.

Jordan is teetering. Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic has an interview with King Abdullah, and all of these countries are teetering because of the frustration of young people. Young people are driving this whole Arab spring. And they’re frustrated because their countries have not delivered and Arabs and Muslims are not getting any respect. If you read Raphael Patai’s book about the Arab mind— which was used to teach American soldiers going to Iraq how to do torture, using sex and nudity and dogs—something that’s essential to Arab culture is dignity and respect. And when it comes to dignity and respect, at the very heart of this turmoil and all this angst and enormous change that’s happening in the Arab world is the Palestine problem. And it has spread out beyond that to the whole of the Muslim world. I’ll never forget, seeing television and some Taliban up in the mountains in Afghanistan, talking about Palestine. They weren’t talking about Karzai.

People follow this, and people are intensely political, throughout the Muslim world. My father’s village in Lebanon is incredibly poor, but every home had a shortwave radio in it. They weren’t getting the New York Times, but they sit there and they listen to this stuff that’s going on, and they try and think, how does this relate to us? And they say, Our countries were divided; the western countries came in and divided us up, and they continue to divide us up. And this Palestine issue has amazing resonance.

I went with another attorney over to Lebanon after the Qana massacre [of 1996] to take affidavits from survivors, about ten years after the event, so as to bring a lawsuit. And I went to my mother’s village to pay a visit. One of my relatives who has a little store in the village said to me, if we fight the Israelis with tanks, and by that he also meant the US– 100 percent we’re going to lose. And if we fight them with airplanes, the same. But now we have people who are willing to put suicide vests on! And he was just citing a truism. The truism is that asymmetrical warfare is the last effort by this aroused Muslim polity to assert itself against the west. And you can call it terrorism, you can call it whatever you want, and it doesn’t change the fact that the situation exists, and you’re not going to change it by getting biometric samples of everyone’s eyes coming into the country.

When I speak of Obama’s strategy—he’s getting more American Jews on board this peace train. This idea of getting the people involved and pushing peace, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. If you listen to what he said, he didn’t dis the BDS movement. He didn’t dis nonviolent resistance. He praised it. That’s important. So we’ve got to look at this thing in a very, very careful and holistic fashion. Otherwise if you just take this trip and all you hear are his panegyrics about Zionism and the Jewish struggle, then you’re missing a great deal.

I’ll tell you what I think is going to flow from it. I think the U.S. has the map of what they think should be the contours of a settlement, and while Obama says this has to be negotiated between the parties, and no one can go over the head of the other party, I think Obama has pretty much placed the ball in Israel’s court. That’s an enormous achievement. He’s said that the Israelis have to make the move. They’re the stronger party, because of American support. You’ve got to do something. You cannot allow this stasis. So the Israelis I think are going to come up with something. It probably won’t be something that Abbas can accept, but it’s going to be an enormous advance to what we have now and it will give Americans space to get involved. Remember what Obama said. We don’t need any more incrementalism. That’s incredible. All these other people have all put emphasis on the process. Obama is saying this is the end game. This is beyond the times of releasing a few prisoners, or giving back a few dunams to the P.A. This for Obama is the end game.

Obama is not going to fall on his sword and have America fall on its sword for Israel. I don’t care what lobby exists in this country. Does that make him an Eisenhower? Not really. Because he doesn’t have the political space to be an Eisenhower. He can only do what he has political space to do.

Whether he’s changed the politics of Israel, it’s too early to say. But if this government doesn’t last, and there’s another big shakeup, this Yair Lapid fellow is much more amenable to working out something with the Palestinians.

You have to be an optimist. You can’t proceed unless you’re an optimist and think that things can be better. That’s one of the messages that Obama tried to convey when he gave his talk. He told the Israelis, No longer can you sit on the sidelines and hope this thing goes away. It’s not going to go away. And he said, this is needed for Israeli security, and it’s also just; you don’t want to be oppressing these Palestinians. That’s strong language. We haven’t heard anyone do that before: Put yourself in their shoes. Israelis have never done that, put themselves in Palestinian shows. And of course he’s also talking to American Jews when he says that.

Have you read The Pessoptimist? It was written by Emile Habiby, who’s an iconic figure in the Palestinian struggle, because he was a writer, and it was the Israeli Communist party after the Nakba that sustained and allowed the Palestinians in Israel to really maintain any kind of cohesion and hope. Now this Communist Party also supported the partition resolution in 1948, in keeping with the Communists generally, because Russia supported it as well. But in retrospect Palestinians would say that it would have been great if Partition had been effected in the manner it was proposed. Of course you can’t put Humpty Dumpty back on the wall, but I’m a pessoptimist.

There’s no absolute justice. There’s not going to be for anyone. Anyone seeking absolute justice should not be involved in this issue, because it’s just not going to happen.

This piece is a transcript of Jabara’s statements during a phone conversation with an editor at [Mondoweiss].

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