If the Oval Office guest list is an indicator, President Obama is making good on his commitment to try to revive the long-dead Arab-Israeli peace process. On May 18 President Obama received Israel's new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu; today he met with Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.
As this process gets under way, the United States--Israel's main arms supplier, financier and international apologist--faces huge hurdles. It is deeply mistrusted by Palestinians and Arabs generally, and the new administration has not done much to rebuild trust. Obama has, like President Bush, expressed support for Palestinian statehood, but he has made no criticisms of Israel's bombardment of the Gaza Strip--which killed more than 1,400 people last winter, mostly civilians--despite evidence from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and UN investigators of egregious Israeli war crimes. Nor has he pressured Israel to lift the blockade of Gaza, where 1.5 million Palestinians, the vast majority of whom are refugees, are effectively imprisoned and deprived of basic necessities.
Obama has told Netanyahu firmly that Israel must stop building settlements on expropriated Palestinian land in the West Bank, but such words have been uttered by the president's predecessors. Unless these statements are followed by decisive action--perhaps to limit American subsidies to Israel--there's no reason to believe the lip service that failed in the past will suddenly be more effective.
On the Palestinian side, Obama is talking to the wrong man: more than half of residents in the occupied territories do not consider Abbas the "legitimate" president of the Palestinians, according to a March survey by Fafo, a Norwegian research organization. Eighty-seven percent want the Fatah faction, which Abbas heads, to have new leaders.
Hamas, by contrast, emerged from Israel's attack on Gaza with enhanced legitimacy and popularity. That attack was only the latest of numerous efforts to topple the movement following its decisive victory in the 2006 legislative elections. In addition to the Israeli siege, these efforts have included a failed insurgency by Contra-style anti-Hamas militias nominally loyal to Abbas and funded and trained by the United States under the supervision of Lieut. Gen. Keith Dayton. If Obama were serious about making real progress, one of the first things he would do is ditch the Bush-era policy of backing Palestinian puppets and lift the American veto on reconciliation efforts aimed at creating a unified, representative and credible Palestinian leadership.
None of these problems is entirely new, though the challenges, having festered for years, may be tougher to deal with now. Netanyahu did add one obstacle, however, when he came to Washington. In accord with his anticipated strategy of delay, he insisted that Palestinians recognize Israel's right to exist as a "Jewish state" as a condition of any peace agreement. Obama seemingly endorsed this demand when he said, "It is in US national security interests to assure that Israel's security as an independent Jewish state is maintained."
Israel has pressed this demand with increasing fervor because Palestinians are on the verge of becoming the majority population in the territory it controls. Israel wants to ensure that any two-state solution--something that looks increasingly doubtful even to proponents--retains a Jewish majority. This explains the state's longstanding opposition, in defiance of international humanitarian law, to the return of Palestinian refugees who were expelled or fled from homes in what is now Israel.
But can Israel's demand be justified? A useful lens to examine its claim is the fundamental legal principle that there is no right without a remedy. If Israel has a "right to exist as a Jewish state," then what can it legitimately do if Palestinians living under its control "violate" this right by having "too many" non-Jewish babies? Can Israel expel non-Jews, fine them, strip them of citizenship or limit the number of children they can have? It is impossible to think of a "remedy" that does not do outrageous violence to universal human rights principles.
What if we apply Israel's claim to the United States? Because of the rapid growth of the Latino population in the past decade, Texas and California no longer have white majorities. Could either state declare that it has "a right to exist as a white-majority state" and take steps to limit the rights of non-whites? Could the United States declare itself officially a Christian nation and force Jews, Muslims or Hindus to pledge allegiance to a flag that bears a cross? While such measures may appeal to a tiny number of extremists, they would be unthinkable to anyone upholding twenty-first-century constitutional principles.
But Israeli leaders propose precisely such odious measures.
Already, Israel bans its citizens who marry non-citizen Palestinians from living in the country--a measure human rights activists have compared with the anti-miscegenation laws that once existed in Virginia and other states. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has long advocated that the nearly 1.5 million Palestinians who are citizens of Israel be "transferred" from the country in order to maintain its Jewish majority.
Recently, Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu party has sponsored or supported several bills aimed at further curtailing the rights of non-Jews. One requires all citizens, including Palestinian Muslims and Christians, to swear allegiance to Israel as a Jewish state. Another proposes to punish anyone who commemorates the Nakba (the name Palestinians give to their forced dispossession in the months before and after the state of Israel was established) with up to three years in prison. Ironically, Lieberman is an immigrant who moved to Israel from Moldova three decades ago, while the people he seeks to expel and silence have lived on the land since long before May 1948.
And as Obama continues to remind us of America's "shared values" with Israel, another proposed bill passed its first reading in the Knesset this week. According to the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot, the law would prescribe "one year in prison for anyone speaking against Israel's right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state"--making it a thought crime to advocate that Israel should be a democratic, nonracial state of all its citizens.
It would be sad indeed if the first African-American president of the United States were to defend in Israel exactly the kind of institutionalized bigotry the civil rights movement defeated in this country, a victory that made his election possible.