Netanyahu Speaks; The Israel-Palestine Ball Remains in Obama's Court

The Israeli prime minister's speech responding to U.S. wishes for the region amounted to little more than rhetorical change.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu threw a rhetorical bone to President Obama in his much anticipated
speech on June 14, when he used the term "Palestinian state."
But he conceded nothing of substance, reiterating Israel's continuing
rejection of real Palestinian statehood, independence, sovereignty,
and self-determination. He demanded that the Palestinians recognize
and accept Israel as the "national homeland of the Jewish People,"
not a state of all its citizens, thus requiring Palestinians to accept
the legitimacy of Israel's discriminatory practices. And his speech
continued Israel's escalation of threats against Iran.

Now the Israeli-Palestinian ball remains squarely in President Obama's
court -- and the results will be determined largely by his administration's
decision on whether or not to use real (i.e., financial or diplomatic)
pressure, rather than relying solely on public or private urging, for
Israel to comply with U.S. wishes. Without concrete consequences for
Tel Aviv's noncompliance --such as withholding all or part of the $3
billion annual U.S. military aid to Israel, or withdrawing the U.S.
diplomatic protection that keeps Israel from being held accountable
in the UN Security Council -- Obama's demands for a settlement freeze
or anything else will have little impact.

"Palestinian State"

It was no surprise that Netanyahu acceded to Obama's demand that he
utter the words "Palestinian state." Despite outrage among
his far-right backers, words are relatively cheap: he never even said
the word "Palestine," nor did he refer to a "two-state
solution" or two states in any form. Instead, Netanyahu described
"two free peoples," each with a flag and an anthem. What's
missing is anything remotely resembling equality or justice.

Netanyahu described "a demilitarized Palestinian state side-by-side
with the Jewish state." He described a non-sovereign, non-independent,
non-contiguous "Palestinian state" that would be forcibly
demilitarized by international guarantee rather than any internal choice;
a "Palestinian state" with no control of its own airspace;
a "Palestinian state" with no control of its own borders;
a "Palestinian state" with no right to sign treaties; and
a "Palestinian state" without Jerusalem. His putative "Palestinian
state" has no known borders, since territory would be determined
only in later negotiations. Israeli settlements, as well as the Apartheid
Wall, the closed military zones, the checkpoints, the settlers-only
roads, bridges, tunnels built on stolen Palestinian land, and continue
to divide the West Bank into tiny non-contiguous cantons or Bantustans,
all remain in place.


Netanyahu completely rejected Obama's call for a settlement freeze.
"We have no intention to build new settlements or set aside land
for new settlements," Netanyahu said. So all expansion of existing
settlements -- not only for the so-called "natural growth"
which Netanyahu and President Obama openly tussled over -- will continue.
Palestinian land, therefore, will continue to be "set aside"
-- a polite euphemism for "stolen" -- to expand any or all
of the existing Jewish settlements as far as any nationalist or religious
extremists (or, for that matter, any of the yuppie settlers who make
up the majority of the settler population) may wish to build them.

The fundamental problem of the settlements, of course, is not just the
creeping expansion -- it's their very existence. All Israeli settlements
in the West Bank or Arab East Jerusalem -- not only the tiny propaganda-driven
"outposts" but the huge city settlements like Ariel or Ma'ale
Adumim or the oldest settlements long described as "neighborhoods"
of Jerusalem -- are illegal. The 4th Geneva Convention Article 49(6)
prohibits the occupying power from transferring any of its own population
into the occupied territory -- settlers don't become legal just because
they live in giant cities of 35,000 or 40,000 people or because they
stay for more than 40 years. The existence of the settlements represents
a continuing violation -- and even if Obama managed to impose a full
freeze on all settlement activity, there is no indication yet of what
(if anything) he intends to do about the 480,000 illegal Israeli settlers
continuing to occupy those (however frozen) Jews-only settlements across
the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Israel as the "State of the Jewish people"

This formulation, a version of which Obama used in his Cairo speech,
is very dangerous. Netanyahu demanded that the Palestinians not only
recognize Israel (a diplomatic action Palestinians have long expressed
willingness to do in return for Israeli recognition of an independent
sovereign Palestinian state), but that they recognize Israel as a Jewish
state. That means recognizing as legitimate Israel's official discrimination
against its non-Jewish citizens. Such recognition would also accept
Israel's violation of the international laws guaranteeing Palestinian
refugees the right to return to their homes on the grounds that a large
number of returning refugees would change the demographic balance. It
might indeed end Israel's permanent Jewish majority, but no government
has a "right" to ensure a preferred racial or religious or
ethnic majority by expelling, transferring, denying rights, or discriminating
against those outside the chosen parameters.

Netanyahu actually admitted he does not believe Israel is bound by international
law or treaties. Israel, he said, needs only to "take into account"
international considerations. "We have to recognize international
agreements," he said, but pay equal attention to "principles
important to the State of Israel." Under that theory, agreements
Israel had already accepted, such as the 2003 "road map" which
required Israel to freeze all settlements including "natural growth,"
or UN Resolution 273 of 1949 which welcomed Israel into the United Nations
on condition that it accept the Palestinians' right of return, are irrelevant
and can be violated with impunity if they don't match "principles
important to the State of Israel."

Israel, the Arab world and Iran

Netanyahu echoed Obama's call for normalization of relations between
Israel and the Arab states. Netanyahu's vision of that "reconciliation"
is clearly tied to his effort to establish, with U.S. backing, an Israeli-Arab
alliance against Iran, describing his effort "to forge an international
alliance to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons." The recent
Iranian elections certainly helped Netanyahu. He will use a confirmed
victory for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the disputed elections,
or even continued uncertainty, protests, and instability in Iran, as
evidence for his claim that Iran remains a direct and immediate threat
to Israel. Netanyahu described the Iranian election itself as demonstrating
that threat and said the "greatest danger confronting Israel, the
Middle East, the entire world, and human race, is the nexus between
radical Islam and nuclear weapons." His audience at that moment
was not only hard-line voters at home, but Israel's supporters in Congress
and elsewhere in the United States, using the "Iranian threat"
to counter any U.S. unease regarding his rejection of Palestinian self-determination.

It remains uncertain how far Obama is prepared to go in building such
a regional anti-Iran alliance. In his speech in Cairo two weeks ago,
Obama urged Arab governments to implement only those parts of the 2002
Arab peace initiative calling for normalization with Israel, while ignoring
the critical Israeli actions the plan recognizes are needed before such
normalization could take place. The Arab plan, endorsed by the 22 nations
of the Arab League, did offer normalization with Israel, but only in
exchange for complete Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders, sharing
of Jerusalem, a just solution to the Palestinian refugee crisis based
on international law, and more. Netanyahu followed Obama's lead in ignoring
the Israeli obligations, and in demanding that Arab governments immediately
establish peace treaties, full diplomatic relations, trade, tourism
-- in essence, full normal relations -- with Israel, getting nothing
in return.

The danger is that such state-to-state normalization between Israel
and any or all Arab governments, if carried out with Israel's occupation
and apartheid policies intact, undermines Palestinian claims, weakens
the Palestinian position in the region and internationally, and legitimizes
Israeli violations of international law. The call for such one-sided
normalization may also be linked to an effort by the Obama administration
to push Israel towards new negotiations with Syria -- separating that
process from the Palestinian track. Such negotiations could lead to
some important movement towards ending the Israeli occupation of the
Syrian Golan Heights. But such a move could simultaneously endanger
the central component of Israel's occupation of Palestine. Israel would
try to convince the Obama administration and the U.S. Congress that
any withdrawal from the Golan would be so traumatic for Israel that
the United States cannot press for any motion on ending occupation in
the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, let alone for ending Israel's
lethal siege of Gaza. Just such an impact occurred after Israel withdrew
from the Egyptian Sinai in the context of the 1979 Camp David Accord.
Israel won support for its position that the return of the sparsely
populated Sinai peninsula to Egypt was sufficient to fulfill any requirement
in UN Resolution 242 (or anywhere else) that Israel withdraw from the
territories it had occupied in the 1967 war.

The outcome of the disputed Iranian elections remains uncertain. Civil
engagement, protest, and mobilization is occurring at a level not seen
at least since the student uprisings of 1999; some observers say not
since the Islamic revolution of 1979. But the results remain unclear.
It's important that Obama has remained careful and respectful in his
response, raising concerns about government suppression and the street
violence but making clear that "it is up to Iranians to make decisions
about who Iran's leaders will be, that we respect Iranian sovereignty."
Crucially, he said the United States "will continue to pursue a
tough, direct dialogue between our two countries." Public pressure
must be maintained to insure that Israeli threats of military force
against Iran are not backed up by the United States.

Now, in Obama's court...

Questions remain.

  • Will Obama accept
    Netanyahu's rhetorical use of the words "Palestinian state"
    as a major concession, sufficient to demand new concessions from the
  • If Netanyahu moves
    one step further and calls for some kind of settlement freeze (whether
    or not it is actually imposed on the ground), will that be greeted as
    an important new concession with no response to the continuing illegality
    of the existing settlements?
  • Will the Obama
    administration's regional strategy focus on building an Israeli-Arab
    alliance against Iran despite Obama's stated commitment to new negotiations
    with Iran "without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect"?
  • How will Obama
    respond if there are a few more rhetorical concessions from Netanyahu,
    even if there is no actual motion on the ground on Palestinian rights?

Or, looking forward...

  • Will Obama send
    his envoy, former Senator George Mitchell, to inform the Israeli government
    that Washington's next step will be the withholding of this year's $3
    billion in U.S. military aid to Israel until there is evidence on the
    ground, not only in words, of a complete halt in building, selling,
    recruiting residents, or any other activity in any of the settlements?
  • Will Obama announce
    that continuing to sponsor bilateral Palestinian-Israeli talks is futile
    when the disparity of power remains so profound, and that instead the
    new U.S. policy will be to support regional negotiations based solely
    on international law and all relevant UN resolutions as the basis for
    ending occupation and establishing a just and comprehensive peace in
    the region?

Okay. Maybe that last one is
still a ways down the line. But stay tuned.

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