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 WashingtonPost.com
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.

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 melange 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.