May 29, 2009
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
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
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.
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
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.
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