Democracy may be good for Egyptians, but not for Palestinians

The State Department’s official comment when the uprisings in Arab countries took the Obama administration by surprise was, "The United States supports the fundamental right of expression and assembly for all people." It is a policy that clearly does not apply to the Palestinians. As crowds throughout the Middle East began protesting against their oppressive rulers, demonstrations of support in the occupied West Bank were suppressed by President Mahmoud Abbas’ U.S.-trained security forces. They allowed only one demonstration to take place–”against Al Jazeera, and in support of Abbas.

Nevertheless, the popular uprisings elsewhere convinced Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, to form a new cabinet and schedule long delayed elections for local councils in July and for president in September. The voters’ choice will be somewhat limited, however, as long as some potential candidates with broad popular appeal, such as Marwan Barghouti and Abdullah Abu Rahma, are languishing in Israeli prisons.

Prime Minister Fayyad hopes to establish the institutions necessary to statehood by September, and meanwhile the Palestinian Authority will seek international support for a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. The Obama administration strongly opposes such a move, even though it was a U.N. resolution that established Israel in 1947.

With Middle East dictators friendly to Israel toppling one by one, peace advocates in Israel maintain that this is the time to seek reconciliation with the Palestinians. They warn that Israel, with fewer allies, otherwise will become even more isolated. Netanyahu disagreed, and insisted that the basis for stability and peace "lies in bolstering the might of Israel."

Releases from Al Jazeera in late January revealed that Abbas and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had been in the midst of secret peace negotiations in 2008 before Olmert was indicted for fraud and forced to resign. The release was deeply embarrassing to Abbas because it revealed he had agreed to hand over to Israel all Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem except Har Homa, and allow Israel to annex a portion of the West Bank in exchange for land in Israel. Only a symbolic number of Palestinian refugees would be allowed to return.

Despite Abbas’ concessions, when Netanyahu replaced Olmert he rejected the tentative agreement as too generous to the Palestinians and insisted that negotiations begin again from scratch. He continued to maintain that Israel had "no partner for peace " while approving the construction of thousands of new houses on the West Bank, the eradication of Bedouin villages in the Jordan Valley and the Negev, and the systematic destruction of Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.

As Palestinian homes are demolished day in and day out, on the excuse that they "lack a permit " or pose a "security risk," families are being forced either to live in the resulting rubble or leave the area entirely. This process of gradual expulsion has become routine in an Israel where, in the words of David Shulman, "malignant forms of racism and protofascist nationalism are becoming more evident and more powerful."

Shulman, a professor of humanistic studies at Hebrew University, writes in the Feb. 24 issue of the New York Review of Books that a growing population of ultra-Orthodox, fiercely nationalist settlers has increased the danger to Palestinians and their children from vandalism, assault, and even murder. Settlers commit such crimes with impunity, according to Haaretz columnist Zvi Bar’el, who wrote on Jan. 8, "Settlers no longer look to Israel or its laws." Thanks to Israel’s settlement policy, "there are norms taking root that render Israeli courts impotent…Judea and Samaria is here."

On Jan. 18, Lebanon, Brazil and South Africa formally submitted a resolution to the U.N. Security Council condemning Israel’s illegal construction of settlements, and 120 countries have endorsed it. The U.S. is the only member of the 14-member Security Council to oppose the resolution, and has pressed Abbas to accept a compromise resolution condemning settlements but calling on both sides to resume negotiations. "New York is not the place to resolve the longstanding conflict and outstanding issues," said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She did not say what the right place would be.

Israeli settlements have long been considered a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention forbidding settlements on captured territory. But President Barack Obama’s timidity is at least understandable. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said even a condemnation of the settlements would be "a major concession to enemies of the Jewish state and other free democracies," and on Feb. 18, U.N. Ambassador to the U.N.Security Council Susan Rice, voted to veto the resolution. Israel has learned once again that it is free to defy the U.S. at no cost.

Many moderate Israelis are convinced that no peace agreement is possible under the present Israeli government. As a Jan. 18 Haaretz editorial put it, "Israel is ruled today by an extremist rightist government that objects to any compromise"–”a fact the Obama administration is unwilling to admit. Nor has it chastised Israel, which receives more U.S. aid than any other country, for its unrelentingly harsh treatment of the Palestinians.

While the rest of the world was focusing on the protests in Egypt against police brutality, Israeli soldiers and police were responding to nonviolent Palestinian demonstrators with clubs, tear gas and live bullets. Every week scores of demonstrators are hospitalized with serious injuries. Many others, including children, are thrown into prison, where they remain for long periods without trial.

B’Tselem reported that the Israelis killed some 10 Palestinians a week in January, more than the average of one such killing a day in the previous three years. The Gaza border has become a target range for Israeli snipers. Shaban Karmout, a 65-year-old Gaza farmer, was shot by border guards in January while he was tying up his donkey. His crime was "trespassing" on land he had owned for 40 years but which Israel has declared off-limits because it is within several meters of the border. Many more Gazans are shot in the leg and crippled for months when they are spotted gathering rubble too near the border.

Netanyahu and Tony Blair, the Middle East representative of the Quartet that includes the U.N., Russia, the European Union and the U.S., have declared their intention of improving the West Bank economy, but they have yet to explain how an economy can thrive while Palestinian communities are becoming increasingly hemmed in by barriers and encroaching settlements, and denied access to their own water sources.

When Defense Minister Ehud Barak announced in early January that he and eight other Labor party members were leaving Labor to form a new party, Israeli liberals saw it as an opportunity for the opposition to regroup. A recent editorial in Haaretz called Barak a "collaborator with Netanyahu," whose policies are indistinguishable from the prime minister’s. Therefore his departure from Labor means that a bloc can now form around the principles of social justice, advancing peace, and saving Israel’s democracy.

Such a bloc, the Haaretz editorial says, "will provide an alternative to the ideology of hatred." It might also have considerable popular support. On Jan. 15, 20,000 Israelis demonstrated in Tel Aviv against the witch hunt authorized by the Knesset when it voted to investigate the funding sources of humanitarian and human rights organizations. But if the new alignment hopes to limit the abuses of the Netanyahu government it will have to enlist the Obama administration in doing so.

Obama so far has shown nothing but timidity in the face of pressure from the Israeli right-wing and its U.S. supporters. If he continues to use Washington’s U.N. veto to defend Israel, and backs off from every demand on its government, he will expose once again the disconnect between his promises and his words. As hundreds of thousands of men and women throughout the Middle East demand justice, democracy and dignity, Obama can no longer remain deaf to the demands of the Palestinian people for the justice they have been denied for too long.