False Symmetry

One of the most frustrating things about the American policy towards the Middle East is how Israel seems to always be able to get away with it or at least treated symmetrically with the Palestinians, whether there is cause for such symmetry or not.

This false symmetry was crystal clear last week when US President Barack Obama unjustly chided Israeli and Palestinian leaders equally. The US, who along with the EU, Russia and the UN make up the Quartet, is entrusted to evaluate the performance of the two parties committed to the " roadmap to a permanent two-state solution to the Palestinian Israeli conflict".

Phase I of this "roadmap", which was adopted as UN Security Council Resolution 4862 in May 2003, calls on the Palestinians to ensure a cessation of violence, while Israel is expected to withdraw from all areas it occupied in October 2000, to dismantle outposts and freeze all settlement activities, including those allowed for natural growth.

In his public statement in front of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu, Obama praised the Palestinians for their progress in the field of security and thanked the Israelis for easing movement for the Palestinians. He then chided Israel for having "discussed important steps to restrain settlement activity, but they need to translate these discussions into reality on this and other issues".

The Palestinians were criticised for "not moving forward on negotiations" and for not doing "enough to stop incitement".

By trying to show symmetry, Obama erred; his words encouraged the violator and did not publicly reward the complier.

There is no doubt that Palestinians have greatly improved on the security front. Senior Israeli army officials have declared so publicly. It is also a fact that Israel has not withdrawn to the October 2000 lines, have failed to dismantled outposts, and instead of freezing settlement activities, they have in fact approved hundreds of new settlement buildings in addition to continuing thousands of housing units already started by the previous government, in addition to continued provocative housing practices against Palestinians in East Jerusalem.

It is ironic that Palestinians are criticised for not moving forward on negotiations when the roadmap (the only game in town according to Western powers) relegates negotiations until phase I is implemented. In fact, upon taking power, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton repeatedly stated that Israel should immediately freeze all settlement activities as a prelude to permanent status negotiations. Not only has the Obama administration caved in to the Israelis, but Obama chided the Palestinians for adhering to the spirit and letter of the roadmap, which the Quartet is supposed to monitor, to see all parties’ compliance.

But perhaps the worst case of false symmetry was Obama’s six words about Palestinian incitement. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Palestinian education institutes, as well as television stations, have been remarkably clean on this accusation. Upon taking power as president, Mahmoud Abbas ordered a major shift in Palestine TV. During the month of Ramadan, Palestinians enjoyed political satire on Palestine TV, which made fun of the president, the prime minister, Hamas and Fateh.

USAID, as well as senior US officials, have been so pleased with the performance of the Palestinian ministry of education that they are demanding all their grantees, using taxpayer money, to work closely with it.

Abbas is known to publicly admonish the "militarisation of the Intifada" and has repeatedly, sharply, criticised the Hamas rocket attacks as "acts of foolishness". At the recent Fateh congress, Abbas publicly declared to his own hardline base his rejection of violent resistance, saying he has chosen diplomacy over the armed struggle.

The Palestinian president and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad are regularly attacked by Hamas and other radical Palestinians for this position and for their close cooperation with the American and Israeli security.

Not even the Israeli government has raised the issue of incitement in recent years, and neither the Olmert government nor the Netanyahu administration have made any public statement or presented any research detailing any Palestinian incitement to violence. A quick search on Israeli government websites, as well as the site of the right-wing foreign ministry, provided no evidence of any such Israeli accusation against Palestinian institutions.

US Ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer and Scott Lasensky produced a handbook with 10 lessons on how the US should deal with the Middle East. Lesson five in their book, "Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace: American Leadership in the Middle East", states the following: "The United States must ensure compliance through monitoring, setting standards of accountability, reporting violations fairly to the parties, and exacting consequences when commitments are broken or agreements not implemented."

Obama was right in speaking out against the delay in movement in the peace process. Instead of this false symmetry in which charges are fabricated to appear balanced, the US president should simply lay out who was responsible for the delay. Only by chiding the right party can there be hope of real progress in this decades-old conflict.