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US Words Thwart Middle East Peace

Two loud wake-up calls came in from the Middle East over the weekend. The next voice you hear will be from the U.S. House of Representatives, which will vote this week (perhaps as soon as Tuesday) on H.R. 867, an AIPAC-sponsored resolution denouncing the Goldstone Report. That's the UN fact-finding mission accusing Israel as well as Hamas of war crimes in Israel's attack on Gaza last December.

The House just might be ready to back away, at least an inch or two, from its usual knee-jerk support for whatever the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee tells it to do. The 148 members of Congress who joined the Host Committee for the recent J Street Conference were yet another sign that change is possible. But real change will come only if our representatives get a lot of very loud calls from a lot of constituents.

Before you go to the phone, you can read the resolution along with a long retort by the report's author, the eminent international law expert Richard Goldstone, showing the resolution's many inaccuracies. In a good overview, Ron Kampeas, a Jewish journalist sympathetic to Israel, concludes that Goldstone wins the debate.

To understand why the House vote matters so much, it's important to hear the two calls that just came from the Middle East. One of them was widely heard in the U.S. mass media. The other was ignored.

The widely heard call was summed up in a headline this way:  "Clinton hails Israeli 'concessions': Secretary of state praises Netanyahu's offer on settlements, but Palestinians remain unmoved."  Oh, those Palestinians. Still the obstacle to peace, the WaPo might have us believe.

But consider how things sound in the office of Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas. Last spring he was perhaps startled to hear Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tell the Israelis, in public, that the United States insisted that all settlement expansion cease immediately. Now, after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rebuffed Clinton's demand, she's back in Israel talking about him as if he's her hero.

"What the prime minister has offered in specifics of a restraint on the policy of settlements ... - no new starts, for example - is unprecedented," Clinton crowed. Anyway, the U.S. demand has "never been a precondition" for entering negotiations. So it's time for the Palestinians to start talking, even though settlement building goes one and (Clinton added ominously) "there are always demands made in any negotiation that are not going to be fully realized."   

As the New York Times noted, Clinton also "conspicuously avoided criticizing the demolition of Palestinians' houses in East Jerusalem," although in March she "strongly condemned the demolitions." And Netanyahu's "unprecedented" offer specifically permits indefinite settlement building in East Jerusalem, the hottest spot in the whole conflict.  

Abbas predictably rebuffed the new U.S. plan to negotiate while settlement expansion goes on. Why should any Palestinians trust a leader who would sacrifice their vital interests, not to mention the obvious demand of international law that the settlements cease?  Abbas is certainly not going to walk over the political brink.

He is already under political fire for his initial stand on the Goldstone Report.  When the Obama administration criticized the report and tried to block UN action on it, Abbas at first complied. That made him look like a puppet of Washington. He recouped his standing somewhat by reversing his stand and pushed for UN action on Goldstone. But Palestinians learned that they have to keep a close eye on the relations between their leaders and the Obama administration.

So Palestinians will be watching, more closely than most Americans, the House vote on H.R. 867, condemning the Goldstone Report. If it passes, that will be one more signal to the Palestinians that the fine words they've heard coming from the White House may have no substance behind them. The distance between the White House and the House of Representatives, which may seem very large to us, dwindles when you're 10,000 miles away.    


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The administration is certainly far along the path of losing all trust among Palestinians. House passage of Resolution 867, condemning Goldstone's report, could kill whatever shred of trust might remain. It will make the U.S. seem even more under the sway of Israeli power and more intent on pressuring the Palestinians to cave in to that power.  Abbas will have to keep on resisting.

What if he doesn't? "Palestinians warn that popular frustration with the failure to produce a statehood deal could spill over into an upsurge in violence, even if few have appetite for a broad new uprising," a Reuters report warns.

How many have that appetite? Listen to the other wake-up call from the Middle East, the one so widely ignored here: "Tens of thousands of Islamic Jihad loyalists held a rally in Gaza on Friday," the Jerusalem Post reported. "An Islamic Jihad leader, Nafez Azzam, called on the crowd to reject negotiations with Israel and support violent resistance." This just two days after the same newspaper claimed  that "Palestinian Islamic Jihad ... is generally regarded as starved of cash and close to being defunct." The real threat, according to that article, comes from a mélange of "Salafist" Islamist groups that may be even more militant than Islamic Jihad.

Hamas at least talks with the hardly-defunct Islamic Jihad. The two parties sent out a joint rejection of any unilateral steps taken by Palestinian leaders outside a framework of national reconciliation. In other words, they won't accept Abbas' call for new elections in January. Perhaps Hamas leaders know they have to respect a party that can bring tens of thousands out into the streets in the Gaza strip, which is like bringing tens of millions into the streets of the U.S.

With Islamic Jihad so big in Gaza, and so many smaller Islamist groups pushing harder for armed resistance, Hamas looks like -- and probably, by any measure, is -- the moderate force in Palestinian politics. Abbas is already seen as among the most conservative of top Palestinian leaders, and in many quarters the weakest. If he gives in on the settlements issue he would even more surely seal his political fate.

That would plunge Palestinian politics deeper into chaos and give the Israelis a chance to dust off their over-used "no partner for peace" slogan again. (Israeli journalist Zvi Bar'el recently turned a tragicomic phrase to sum up the Israeli approach to peace:  "Israel enjoys the search itself - the journey, not the outcome - as if it has adopted Taoism.")

Having stirred up Palestinian hopes so high, and now dashing ever further them, the Obama administration is dooming any chance the president might have to use the Middle East to prove that he deserves his Nobel Prize. Indeed he might well be on the way to winning (along with Netanyahu) whatever prize gets handed out for heating up conflicts beyond the boiling point. 

Israeli columnist Gideon Levy recently wrote:  "Israel of 2009 is a spoiled country, arrogant and condescending, convinced that it deserves everything and that it has the power to make a fool of America and the world. The United States has engendered this situation, which endangers the entire Mideast and Israel itself. ... Washington needs to finally say no to Israel and the occupation. An unambiguous, presidential no."

But Washington won't say no until we, the people, say no.

Friends don't let friends, drunk on political anxiety, drive a peace process over a cliff. Those of us who want to see the Obama administration return to its positions of last spring and summer, apparently steering the Israelis toward the concessions they need to make for peace, have to do what citizens in a democracy are supposed to do: take the wheel. The most direct way to do that today is to steer Congress away from the H.R. 867, with all its potentially disastrous consequences. 

Ira Chernus

Ira Chernus

Ira Chernus is Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of"American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea."

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