Obama’s patience with Israel finally cracks

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Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, stated the Zionist dream in 1937 when he said, “The boundaries of Zionist aspirations are the concern of the Jewish people, and no external factor will be able to limit them.” Ben-Gurion told the Zionist Executive Committee that “After the formation of a large army…we will abolish partition and expand to the whole of Palestine.”

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is moving steadily to fulfill that dream. Unlike some of his predecessors, he has made no pretense of seeking a peace that would satisfy the Palestinians. He has obstructed Washington’s attempts to bring the two sides together, and tightened Israel’s hold on all the territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.

When Palestinians refused to take part any longer in talks that went nowhere, President Barack Obama came up with yet another plan to lure them back. This time the process is called “proximity talks,” during which the two sides will remain apart while special Middle East envoy George J. Mitchell shuttles between them. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reluctantly agreed to take part.

The Israelis lost no time booby-trapping the proposal. As Vice President Joseph Biden arrived in Jerusalem on March 9, Israel announced plans to build 1,600 new homes in Arab East Jerusalem and 112 in the illegal West Bank settlement of Beitar Illit. Biden, who was blindsided by the news, condemned “the substance and timing of the announcement,” and Israeli officials hurriedly expressed regret–”but only for the poor timing. A government spokesman made it clear that Israel would never relinquish its claim to all of Jerusalem.

But to Biden, Israel can do no wrong. Ignoring the slap delivered by the Israelis, the next day he asserted in a speech at Tel Aviv University America’s “absolute, total, unvarnished commitment to Israel’s security.” When Netanyahu assured him that construction of the new units might not take place for a year, the vice president hailed the statement, saying it would give peace negotiators more time to work out an agreement. The Palestinians were not as forgiving. The day after Biden left, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said that Abbas would take no part in peace talks until Israel abandoned its plan to build the 1,600 new homes.

Unlike his vice president, Obama refused to turn the other cheek. Shortly after Biden returned to Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Netanyahu and told him he had harmed “the bilateral relationship.” David Axelrod, Obama’s closest adviser, called Israel’s announcement “destructive” and an “affront.” Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Michael B. Oren, was summoned to the State Department, where he undoubtedly heard even tougher language.

The old relationship had definitely chilled. Obama demanded in blunt terms that Israel cancel the building project, and grant major concessions to the Palestinians, such as releasing prisoners and returning more West Bank land. Instead of complying, Netanyahu insisted the construction of new Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem was not a matter for negotiation and “would not hurt the Palestinians.” In fact, of course, such construction takes land from a future Palestinian state, cuts off East Jerusalem from the West Bank, and prevents Arab neighborhoods from expanding.

Meanwhile Israel quietly took action against peaceful protestors by closing off the village of Bil’in to Israeli and international peace activists on Fridays. The order will prevent outsiders from taking part in the weekly protests at the wall that splits the West Bank village in two, in effect allowing Israeli police to fire at will at nonviolent Palestinians, away from the eyes of foreigners.

And chances are they will. Four Palestinian teenagers were killed by Israeli fire within 24 hours on March 21, two of them cousins who witnesses said were working on their family’s land near Nablus when they were shot by settlers. President Abbas quickly condemned what he called “The Israeli escalation and the killing of Palestinians on a daily basis,” saying it was “the response of the Israeli government to the Palestinians, the Arabs, and the Americans.” Nevertheless, U.S. envoy Mitchell was in Jerusalem the same day assuring the Israelis that “our commitment to Israel is unshakable and enduring.”

The Israelis may be reluctant to offend an American president, but they know that any threat to punish Israel is certain to raise a storm of protest in the U.S. At least two dozen members of Congress objected to Obama’s scolding of Israel, and Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League claimed to be “shocked and stunned.” According to pro-Israel zealots, when Israel thumbs its nose at the president while pocketing billions of dollars a year in U.S. aid, it is the president who is at fault.

Israel also has miffed the Europeans. The murder of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a senior Hamas official, was intended to be a routine operation by Mossad, which since the early 1970s has gotten away with at least 40 assassinations in Athens, Beirut, Rome, and several other cities. The latest action revealed Mossad agents to be bunglers as well as murderers.

The scenario that played out in a Dubai hotel room this past January could have come from a paperback thriller. The agents entered Mabhouh’s bedroom, injected him with a paralyzing drug, suffocated him with a pillow, smoothed away any signs of struggle, and even relatched the door when they left. But the fabled Mossad was no match for the Dubai police, which produced a 27-minute video showing the faces of 26 of the conspirators, many of them wearing obviously fake beards and wigs.

Because the suspects carried false British, French, Irish, German and Australian passports using the names of Israelis with dual citizenship in those countries, they had engaged in identity theft, a crime that goes to the heart of any security system. The British regarded it as so serious an offense that they expelled an Israeli diplomat and warned British travelers to Israel that their identity details might be at risk. Washington made no comment on either the killing or Israel’s use of fraudulent passports.

In fact, the degree of America’s involvement is one of the major mysteries of the affair. Two of the suspects were admitted to the U.S. shortly after the killing, and 14 of them carried credit cards issued by U.S.-based banks, MetaBank in Storm Lake, Iowa, and Payoneer in New York (see story p. 18). The State Department, which frequently denies visas to Palestinian peace activists, unaccountably failed to question Israelis traveling on false passports.

Netanyahu again showed his disregard for world opinion when in late February he announced a $100 million plan to rehabilitate 150 “Zionist heritage sites,” at least two of them in occupied Palestine. Since the list includes Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem and the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, where Abraham and Sara are buried, he in effect asserted Israel’s sole sovereignty over places sacred to Muslims and Christians, as well as Jews. “People must be familiar with their homeland,” Netanyahu said. “This is what we will instill in this and coming generations, to the glory of the Jewish people.” To those with long memories, the statement was chillingly similar to the Nazis’ association of “land” with “blood.”

Netanyahu’s claim that the tombs of Abraham, Rachel and other biblical figures were the sole legacy of the Jews also seemed designed to infuriate Palestinians, since it came on the 16th anniversary of the massacre by a Jewish settler from Brooklyn, Baruch Goldstein, of 29 Muslim worshippers as they prayed at the Ibrahimi Mosque. Israeli peace activist Uri Avneri called it “nothing but an expropriation and a blatant provocation.”

Given Israel’s history of obstruction, Palestinians have every reason to believe that the proximity talks will do no more than take up time while the Israelis continue to build settlements. This time, however, Obama is insisting that the talks deal with substantive issues rather than procedures. He must now define the goal: either an independent Palestinian state in all of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, or a single state in which Israelis and Palestinians live as equal ctizens.

It is even more important that Obama face up to Congress and the Israel lobby and announce what he will do to assure Israel’s acceptance of such an agenda and its ultimate outcome. On the line is his credibility in the Arab world, as well as what may be the last chance for peace. Meanwhile, the specter hanging over the proceedings will be the thousands of young Palestinians growing up with no hope of a future, and the pro-Israel extremists who prefer continued bloodshed to a just peace. It is a volatile mix that inflames anger in the region and increases the danger of terrorist attacks in the U.S.

Afghanistan has its own interests

Since the U.S. is pushing for harsher sanctions against Iran, and the Israelis claim Iran poses an existential threat to Israel, both Israel and the U.S. must have found disquieting a front-page photo in the March 11 New York Times showing America’s close ally, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, warmly embracing Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The photo indicated that in a region regarded as being of strategic importance to the U.S., our local allies don’t necessarily share the same concerns. As the war in Afghanistan goes into its ninth year, the differences become more and more evident.

Karzai ran into a storm of complaints when he visited Marjah shortly after Marines captured the town from the Taliban. Instead of cheering, residents complained of the corruption and cruelty of government officials that had made the Taliban a welcome alternative. A leading elder said, “The warlords who ruled us for the past eight years, those people whose hands are red with the people’s blood, those people who killed hundreds, they are still ruling over this nation.”

Others shouted examples of abuses committed by the U.S.-backed warlords who took power after the invasion, such as the rape and imprisonment of an 8-year-old boy. The elders also complained that the American troops fighting in Marjah had arrested innocent farmers, destroyed irrigation canals, and taken over schools and homes. “How can we educate our children,” they demanded, “when their schools are turned into military bases?”

The Afghan soldiers and police who are intended to replace the Americans are even less welcome. Immediately after Marines cleared a neighborhood in Marjah, Afghan soldiers looted its bazaar, requiring a Marine captain to pay hundreds of dollars to the outraged shopkeepers. The Afghan police who will be in charge of local security are notorious for bribery, drug trafficking and extortion, and are hated by the Afghan people. The U.S. and NATO plan to send thousands of Afghan police recruits to Jordan and Turkey for training, but meanwhile the Taliban forces are reportedly infiltrating back into Marjah and warning residents against cooperating with the allied troops and police.

The conquest of Marjah cost the lives of 15 allied soldiers and 35 civilians, including an elderly man who was shot by American troops in front of his home. The slain man’s grandson said, “For us the Taliban and the Marines are the same. They are fighting and killing us.” In the nearby town of Lashkar Gah, where many residents of Marja had fled to escape the fighting, a man whose brother was killed said, “This is a hell for us. Every day our people are burning, sometimes killed by IEDs and sometimes by foreign troops and sometimes by the Taliban.”

Then he asked a question many Americans have asked: “Why are they fighting? With whom are they fighting?” The question became even more poignant when the Pakistanis, with U.S. assistance, captured Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a top Taliban leader who was engaged in secret talks with the Afghan government when he was arrested. Baradar’s capture highlighted the rifts among the U.S. and its allies. British, Afghan and U.N. officials favor immediate peace talks, while the Americans want to move more slowly, undoubtedly playing for time until the Taliban are weakened and Afghan security forces are able to take over from U.S. troops.

Kabul officials who had been trying to arrange broader negotiations with the Taliban charged Pakistan with trying to sabotage the peace talks and said Baradar’s arrest could destroy all chances of reconciliation, especially if he is abused by U.S. and Pakistani interrogators. Other analysts believe Pakistan is holding Baradar in order to be assured of playing an influential role in those talks. (See “Jailed Taliban Leader Still a Pakistani Asset” by Gareth Porter, April 2010 Washington Report, p. 25.)

The Taliban have long been open to negotiations, on condition that foreign soldiers leave Afghanistan. In the Feb. 25 issue of the New York Review of Books, Pakistani analyst Ahmed Rashid cited a statement issued by Mullah Omar in November 2009 pledging that a future Taliban regime would bring peace and noninterference from outside forces–”a clear implication that al-Qaeda would not be returning to Afghanistan under the Taliban. In a later speech that Rashid cites, Omar said the Taliban were fighting only for Afghanistan’s independence, and were ready “to take constructive measures together with all countries for mutual cooperation, economic development, and a good future…”

Kai Eide, former head of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, warned in early March that a military victory was not possible. “A political process is indispensable for finding a solution to this conflict,” he said. “I believe the focus is too much on the military side.” Yet as he left the country in early March, U.S. forces were preparing for another major offensive, this time in Kandahar province, a stronghold of the Taliban. The Taliban responded to news of the operation by setting off a series of bombs in Kandahar that killed 35 people, And so the slaughter continues, even as Afghans wonder why.

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