President Obama's chief of staff Denis McDonough on Monday made a striking announcement on behalf of the administration by telling a crowd of Jewish-American political activists that Israel's military "occupation" of the West Bank must end as he pushed back against comments made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu both before and after his recent reelection victory.
"An occupation that has lasted for almost 50 years must end," said McDonough at the annual J Street conference in Washington, DC. "Israel cannot maintain military control of another people indefinitely."
J Street is billed as the more liberal, pro-Israel lobby group which in recent years has tried to offset the more hawkish American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, known as AIPAC.
Though Israel's domination of the West Bank and its continued building of settlements on captured Palestinian lands has long been considered a violation of international law and is the basis for some much of the ongoing conflict, the U.S. government—including the Obama administration—has widely supported Israel's activities, defended it from international sanctions at the United Nations, provided the Israeli military with a constant flow of aid, and rarely, if ever, employed the term "occupation" despite its commonplace use elsewhere in the world when describing the situation.
McDonough's stronger use of language was widely seen as a public declaration of continued frustration by the administration regarding statements made by Netanyahu ahead of Israel elections that took place last week. Not only did the Prime Minister foreswear publicly his support for the two-state solution—a commitment to the so-called "peace process" that has been the basis for international efforts to end the conflict—but he also employed racially-charged language against Israeli-Arabs during the elections as he used fear-mongering to warn Jewish voters in Israel that their Arab neighbors were "voting in droves" to destroy Israel. Though Netanyahu has made efforts to walk back both comments, McDonough expressed the White House's reluctance to accept these new assurances.
"We cannot simply pretend that those comments were never made, or that they don’t raise questions about the prime minister’s commitment to achieving peace through direct negotiations," McDonough told the crowd.
Reasserting the White House commitment to the two-state solution, he added, "Palestinian children deserve the same right to be free in their own land as Israeli children in their land. A two-state solution will finally bring Israelis the security and normalcy to which they are entitled, and Palestinians the sovereignty and dignity they deserve."
In response, speaking with the Palestinian News Network, PLO central committee member, Wassel Abu Yousef, indicated McDonough's statements may be an improvement in rhetoric but said they were "late" in terms of serving the right of the Palestinian people. According to Yousef, words from the Obama administration "should be joint to actions to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, in order to give the Palestinian people their right to self-determination."
Ali Abunimah, author and Palestinian rights activist, was even more dismissive of McDonough's comments, declaring on Twitter: "Don't be impressed by Obama chief of staff's empty words on Israeli 'occupation,'"adding that it is an "Occupation paid for by U.S.."
As Jessica Schulberg at the Huffington Post noted:
Despite his harsher-than-usual words for the Israeli leadership, McDonough stressed that the U.S. will continue to ensure that Israel has a stronger military than any of its neighbors. He reminded his audience that the U.S. delivered immediate emergency funding of $225 million for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system during last summer’s Gaza War, in addition to nearly $1 billion in funding already in place for the system.
Next year, McDonough added, Israel will receive F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets, making it the only country in the Middle East that will be armed with the highly advanced aircraft.