On Nov. 13, 1974, Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, spoke before the U.N. General Assembly and described his dream of a "Palestine of tomorrow," a democratic state in which Jews, Christians, and Muslims would live together in peace. He invited Israelis to share his dream, and declared, "I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand." The Israeli ambassador refused to attend, calling the PLO a band of "murderers and cutthroats," and accusing the international community of "degradation and disgrace" for allowing Arafat a platform.
On Sept. 23, 2011, another Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, appeared before the General Assembly, this time to appeal for U.N. recognition of an independent Palestinian state to exist side by side with Israel. Long before Arafat’s death the Palestinians had agreed to relinquish 78 percent of original Palestine in return for an independent state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Abbas asked for international endorsement of such a state.
Unlike Arafat, Abbas did not wear a keffiyeh and holster (Arafat’s was empty), but a conservative business suit. The bespectacled 69-year-old repeatedly stressed the Palestinians’ commitment to peace, and received a standing ovation as he declared, "The time is now for the Palestinian spring, the spring of a peaceful struggle that will reach its goal." The request was more than symbolic. Recognition by the U.N. would allow the Palestinians to bring action against Israel at the International Criminal Court for its illegal occupation of a sovereign state, as well as its other violations of international law.
A favorable vote at the U.N. would also put the weight of the world community behind the Palestinians as they deal with its far more powerful occupier. The asymmetry between the two sides was illustrated in October by the exchange of a young Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. Shalit, who was captured by Hamas in 2006, was the only prisoner held by Palestinians. Thousands of Palestinians remain in Israeli prisons, and their numbers are being constantly added to.
Israel’s agreement with Hamas, which left Abbas out of the loop, undoubtedly was aimed at undercutting the Palestinian president’s standing at home and abroad and weakening his ability to gain Security Council support for Palestinian statehood. Israel has long done its best to silence or discredit Palestinian moderates and potential leaders. During the early 1980s, it deported Mubarak Awad, the founder of the Palestinian Center for the Study of Nonviolence who was known as the "Palestinian Gandhi." Israel also imprisoned the distinguished elder Faisal Husseini for advocating a two-state solution at a Peace Now rally in Jerusalem.
It was not surprising, therefore, that Israeli negotiators of the recent prisoner exchange agreed to release a number of convicted murderers but adamantly refused to include the widely respected Marwan Barghouti, an early advocate of a two-state solution who for years was considered the most promising leader of a future Palestinian state.
Reference to the Palestinians’ willingness to accept peaceful coexistence was entirely missing from President Barack Obama’s Sept. 21 speech to the U.N. He praised the liberation movements in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Libya, but insisted that the Palestinians make peace with Israel before seeking statehood. He portrayed Israel as a victim of repeated wars of aggression, and under constant threat from those who would "wipe it off the map." But he made no mention of Israel’s repeated refusal of Arab peace offers, of its blockade of Gaza, or of the hundreds of West Bank checkpoints and Jewish-only roads that for West Bank Palestinians can turn 10-minute trips into 3-hour ordeals. As Hanan Ashrawi observed, "Listening to Obama you would think it was the Palestinians who occupy Israel."
Given its omissions and distortions Obama’s speech might have been churned out by an Israeli propaganda mill. Israel’s racist Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said he would sign it "with both hands," and Obama’s popularity in Israel rose by nearly 50 points.But those who believed Obama in 2010, when he spoke of "an independent sovereign state of Palestine" within a year, were brought back to earth. Daniel Levy of the New America Foundation called the speech "farcical," saying that Obama’s position was that "Palestinian freedoms, rights, and self-determination are somehow supposed to be attained without recourse to leverage, international law, or meaningful international support."
Obama’s naked appeal to Israel’s supporters had one virtue, however. It ended the pretense that Washington was committed to achieving justice for the Palestinians. Successive administrations since 1991 have sent billions of dollars in aid to Israel every year, and vetoed every U.N. Security Council resolution calling on Israel to abide by international law, while at the same time claiming to be an even-handed peacemaker. That masquerade ended with Obama’s speech to the General Assembly.
In saying "there are no short cuts to peace," Obama was ignoring 20 years of fruitless negotiations. The most cringe-inducing moment came with his call for Palestinians and Israelis "to sit down, to listen to each other, and to understand each other’s hopes and fears," as if group therapy was a way to end 44 years of Israeli occupation. Obama’s real message was that Palestinians could expect no help from an America whose elected officials take their marching orders from Israel.
Congress reinforced that message when it blocked nearly $200 million in U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority despite a warning by Brig. Gen. Nitzan Alon, commander of Israel’s occupation forces, that stability in the region required that the Authority be able to pay its salaries. The legislators eliminated aid that was earmarked for nutrition programs, health care and other humanitarian services, but made sure that Israeli settlers will be protected. Funding will continue for the Palestinian security forces that work with the Israeli army in keeping order in the West Bank.
In fact, of course, it is the Palestinians who are in desperate need of protection. A surge of settler violence has for months been spreading terror in the West Bank and Arab areas of Israel as armed vigilantes attack Palestinian farmers, uproot trees and set fires. Nearly a thousand olive trees were destroyed in September and early October, and at least eight mosques were damaged, including a large mosque in the village of Tuba-Zangariya in the Galilee. Two suspected attackers were arrested but quickly released.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights warned Israel that it had "a legal obligation" to help curb the attacks, but Abdul Hakim Ahmed, a teacher whose village is attacked by settlers several times a week, said complaining to the army does no good. "They come, they take notes, they leave," he said.
The Obama administration is asking the Palestinians to endure such crimes indefinitely while the two sides talk on and Israeli settlements proliferate. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu says he will not budge from his demands that Palestinians recognize Israel as a "Jewish state," and that Jerusalem remain the undivided capital of Israel. He ‘claims that a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders would endanger Israel’s security, but is presumably willing to risk the lives of 600,000 Israelis in illegal colonies located far inside the West Bank.
Obama’s opposition to Palestinian membership in the U.N. can only be explained by an election-year need to improve his standing with pro-Israel voters. Recognition by the U.N. would in no way interfere with the resumption of peace negotiations. It would, however, enhance the Palestinians’ status in those negotiations, and this is what Israel is determined to prevent. A similar concern undoubtedly prompted the U.S. to vote against Palestinian membership in the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on Oct. 5. Only Germany, Latvia and Romania joined with the U.S. in the 40-4 vote.
Once again, administration spokesmen were forced to defend the indefensible by resorting to inanities. "We do not believe the objective we all have–”two states, Palestine and Israel–”can be achieved through a culture and science organization in Paris," a U.S. official said. But nobody claimed it would. But what it would do is allow the Palestinians to seek international protection of their historic sites in East Jerusalem, for centuries the center of Arab and Muslim culture. Israeli bulldozers are now busy obliterating signs of that culture, along with the homes of thousands of Arabs.
Soon the issue of Palestinian membership will go to UNESCO’s 193-member General Conference for approval. If the Palestinians are granted membership, existing legislation and bills pending before Congress will oblige the U.S. to cut off all contributions to the U.N. and its agencies. Israel meanwhile is punishing the Palestinians by lengthening waits at checkpoints and refusing to turn over the millions of dollars in tax revenues it collects for the Palestinian Authority.
On Sept. 27, less than a week after the Palestinians applied for U.N. membership, Israel announced it would build 1,100 new housing units in an area south of Jerusalem that the government illegally annexed in 1967. According to Khalil Toufakji, a Palestinian housing expert who follows Israeli settlement policy, Israel also has plans to house thousands of additional settlers on land northwest of Bethlehem.
The timing of Israel’s announcement made a mockery of the statement issued a week earlier by the Quartet–”the U.S., European Union, Russia and the U.N.–”urging the two sides to "refrain from provocative actions" and return to the negotiating table "without preconditions." State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland was forced to say for the umpteenth time, "We are deeply disappointed."
In early October the Palestinian petition for U.N. membership was sent to a Security Council committee, where representatives of the 15 member nations are studying it. If nine of the members approve it, the measure will go to the full Security Council, where it faces a certain U.S. veto. Washington’s veto would come at some cost, however. In a Sept. 12 New York Times op-ed, former Saudi ambassador to the U.S. Turki al-Faisal said it would cause "an uproar among Muslims worldwide" and warned of "profound negative consequences" to U.S.-Saudi relations.
Al-Faisal urged the U.S. to heed "the vast majority of Arabs and Muslims who demand justice for the Palestinian people" and not stand in the way of their long overdue recognition. Obama, however reluctantly, is certain to reject such advice. Like his predecessors, he is locked in a damaging alliance with Israel that too often forces the U.S. to act contrary to its own interests and increases the likelihood of terrorist attacks.
The pitfalls of the alliance were again made evident when it was revealed that since 2009 the Obama administration has been sending 5,000-pound "bunker buster" bombs to Israel. Since the bombs were designed to penetrate Iran’s underground nuclear facilities, the Bush administration had refrained from sending them for fear the U.S. would be seen as endorsing an Israeli attack. A Pentagon spokesman refused to comment on that possibility but said, "Make no mistake about it; the United States is committed to the security of Israel and Israel’s ability to maintain its qualitative edge." The problem is that reinforcing that "edge" with 5,000-pound bombs could tempt Israel into launching yet another war.
Such dangers are inherent in the U.S.-Israel alliance, but thanks to a powerful lobby composed of the major Jewish organizations, an arms industry that profits handsomely from U.S. military aid to Israel, and members of the Christian far right, it is an alliance that no one who aspires to public office dares challenge. Republican candidates for president outdo one another in declaring their support for Israel.
Mitt Romney refers to Obama’s "repeated efforts to throw Israel under a bus." Herman Cain claims God gave the land of Israel to the Jews and accuses Obama of "stabbing Israel in the back." Texas Gov. Rick Perry urges the Israelis to retain control of all of Jerusalem and build more settlements. At a press conference in late September, he declared,"Tell the people of Israel: help is on the way."
There is no question that the people of Israel and Palestine are in urgent need of help, but supporting Israel as an apartheid state is the last kind they need. The people of the Middle East will not tolerate indefinitely a colonial regime in their midst that oppresses its Arab population and commits blatant violations of international law. Israel faces what may be a greater danger from within, in the rise of powerful settler groups that insist all of Palestine belongs to the Jews, and the increasing number of those willing to attack anyone who disagrees.
One such incident took place on Sept. 30, when a group of Israelis and Palestinians were holding a peaceful demonstration outside the settlement of Anatot to protest the settlers’ seizure of land belonging to a nearby Palestinian village. Hundreds of men came running from Anatot and, according to one of the Israeli peace activists, charged the demonstrators with "their fists, their teeth, stones, pipes, and knives." The attackers pursued the fleeing protesters and left many of them battered and bleeding. "And all of this," according to the Israeli participant, "was taking place before the eyes of the police, who didn’t do a thing…Many of the attackers were policemen themselves."
By ignoring such incidents and providing Israel’s uncompromising leadership with a steady flow of dollars and unwavering diplomatic support, the U.S. is not helping the Israeli people but delaying the achievement of a just peace. Meanwhile, the ultranationalist zealots who commit violence in the name of God are endangering the fabric that holds Israeli society together. People on both sides desperately need an agreement that allows them to live together as equals, either in one state or two. Judging by Obama’s words at the U.N., they can expect no help from the White House.