Flotilla 3.0: Redeeming Obama's Palestine Speech with Gaza's Ark

There's a half-empty way and a half-full way of looking at President Obama's Jerusalem speech about the creation of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.

The half-empty way of looking at it is: this was Obama's white flag of surrender. To everyone around the world who for decades has been assuming that at the end of the day, the President of the United States would lead the way to resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict, Obama was saying: don't look at me. Just because the United States is the principal military, diplomatic, and economic protector of the Israeli government, doesn't mean that I, as the President of the United States, will do anything about the military occupation of millions of Palestinian human beings. Bibi doesn't want an independent Palestinian state, Bibi's government doesn't want an independent Palestinian state, AIPAC doesn't want an independent Palestinian state, and Congress - which defers to AIPAC - doesn't want an independent Palestinian state. Of course, many of them mouth the words - not Bibi's government, they don't even do that - but those who mouth the words oppose any practical measure that would help bring an independent Palestinian state into existence. They're "two state fakers." Settlement freeze? Impossible. UN membership for Palestine? Can't be done. No, according to the two state fakers, the only option on the menu in the restaurant for the Palestinians is to return to negotiations without a settlement freeze, negotiations that for twenty years have brought more land confiscation, more settlements, more restrictions on Palestinian movement and commerce, more oppression. And so, Obama was saying, my hands are tied. Don't look at me.

The half-full way of looking at it is this: it was a great speech. If you "price in," as the markets say, acceptance that the U.S. government isn't going to lead on this, it was a great motivational speech. President Obama made a very compelling case that someone else should do something.

The interesting thing is that whether you see it as a great motivational speech or a white flag of surrender, the practical consequences for the public are largely the same: the initiative for justice is going to have to come from somewhere else. The best that we can probably expect from Obama is that if the initiative for justice comes from somewhere else, he won't get in the way, or won't get in the way very much. While that is much less than we are entitled to expect, it is much more than the Netanyahu government and its supporters want. They demand that President Obama do everything he can to get in the way of justice. So, if he doesn't get in the way of justice, or only does so halfheartedly, he'll be helping us more than they want.

Some people look to Europe. If Europe got serious about curtailing imports from Israel if the occupation doesn't end, that's something the Israeli business elite would take seriously, and they would put pressure on the Israeli government to compromise, rather than lose their export income. It's striking to contrast how Europe is treating its trade with Israel to how it is treating its trade with Iran. In the case of Israel, Europe is toying with the idea of seriously curtailing imports from illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. In the case of Iran, Europe has shut down virtually all trade, including trade in lifesaving medicines, in violation of international humanitarian law. Giving Israel a little more of the Iran treatment could go a long way. In addition, Europe could support membership for Palestine at the International Criminal Court, and then could support legal action against the settlements and land confiscation at the ICC. So, Europe certainly has a lot of room to get serious about ending the occupation.

Some people look to the Arab Spring. Since 1979, the Camp David Treaty as implemented has been a pillar of the occupation. As many Egyptians see it, it wasn't supposed to be like that. Under the treaty, the Israeli military was supposed to withdraw from the West Bank. But of course, that never happened. What happened instead is that for thirty years the Mubarak regime traded compliance with Israeli policy towards the Palestinians for U.S. agreement to look the other way while the Egyptian government beat the Egyptian people. Now Egypt has a democratically-elected government. What if that government made ending the occupation a political and diplomatic priority?

But regardless of what path one thinks these developments are on, the question remains: what are people in the United States going to do?

We can try to lobby Washington, and as long as anyone is trying to do that, they should be supported, with all the strength we can muster.

But it would not be prudent to put all our eggs in that basket, to say the least. If you're watching how liberal Democrats in Congress are dancing to AIPAC's tune on Iran, you can't be sanguine that Congress is going to break free of AIPAC on Israel-Palestine in any future that we can see.

That leaves civil society initiatives. The problem with civil society initiatives, from the point of view of most people, is that they "take too many evenings," as Oscar Wilde put it.

So, to be a little crude, the question boils down to this: can we engage the multitude in civil society initiatives to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine without taking away their evenings?

A compelling effort to do this is a project called Gaza's Ark. Gaza's Ark is a logical next step to follow the Gaza freedom flotillas, and some of the folks who helped organize previous flotillas are helping to put it in place. Unlike the flotillas, Gaza's Ark isn't going to sail in to Gaza. It's going to sail out from Gaza, carrying Palestinian exports.

Gaza's Ark is a logical next step from the flotillas because a key thing that the flotillas were never able to do is put the issue of how the occupation is strangling Gaza's exports on center stage.

This was brought home to me when I was a passenger on one of the flotillas. I was on the media committee, so I was tracking the press coverage closely. Imagine my shock when I saw that Gisha, an Israeli human rights organization which campaigns against the restrictions on travel and commerce of the blockade, had criticized flotilla organizers for not focusing on the issue of exports:

While flotilla activists hope to highlight what they say is a humanitarian crisis in the Strip, Gisha argued that the problem for Gaza in 2011 was the Israeli ban on exports, not restrictions on imports.

"The focus on humanitarian aid by both flotilla organizers and the Israeli government is infuriating and misleading," Gisha said in a statement.

The issue, according to Gisha, is that 83 percent of Gaza factories are closed or working at a capacity of 50% or less. It based its information on data from the Palestinian Federation of Industries.

Since May 12, Gisha said, "not a single truck has been allowed to leave Gaza."

My first thought when I saw this was: what are they talking about? We're always talking about exports. But then I realized: "the medium is the message." The symbolism of the boats coming in was much louder than our efforts to talk about exports. Gisha is right: we need to sail the other way. We need to sail out from Gaza with Palestinian goods, not sail in to Gaza.

And that's what Gaza's Ark seeks to do: break the blockade from the other side, carrying Palestinian goods.

But there's more to it than that. Gaza's Ark is starting a campaign to support Gaza's economy by encouraging people to buy Gaza's exports: "trade not aid," as they say. It's a "procott." Don't support the blockade? Put your money where your mouth is. Buy Palestinian goods from Gaza. If the Israeli government tries to stop you, then they're interfering with your commerce.

I claim that by supporting Gaza's Ark, you can support a civil society initiative to oppose the occupation without giving up any evenings. You can sign up here.

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