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Saturday, November 14, 2009

Barack Obama and the Failure of the Peace Process

Dissident Voice: a radical newsletter in the struggle for peace and social justice

Barack Obama and the Failure of the Peace Process

Among the most prominent of President Obama’s hope-based initiatives was his promise to re-frame America’s approach to the conflict in Palestine, epitomized in his June 2007 speech in Cairo, where Obama called for a “new beginning between the United States and Muslims”, a new dawn based on equality and mutual respect rather than the vestiges of a “colonialism that denied rights and opportunities” to Muslim majorities held prisoner to proxy regimes without regard to the legitimate aspirations of their people. The speech was welcomed by tens of millions of people all over the world willing to believe, despite mountains of historical evidence to the contrary, that America had finally resolved to remake itself as a facilitator rather than an obstacle to justice for the occupied and abused people of Palestine, and by implication, for the poor and dispossessed throughout the Muslim world.

As with much of Obama’s rhetoric, it is difficult to discern whether the President’s Cairo speech was sincere or a cynical maneuver intended to provide cover under which the status quo would be maintained. In any case, expectations were raised even higher when Obama followed up the Cairo speech by appointing the venerable George Mitchell as his chief negotiator and demanding that Israel immediately freeze all settlement building as a condition precedent to a resurrected “peace process” leading to the creation of a contiguous and viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

As remarkable as Obama’s Cairo speech was, no less remarkable was the speed of Obama’s retreat from its lofty rhetoric when confronted with political realities.

Under the leadership of newly re-cycled right wing hardliner Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, Israel predictably responded to Obama’s demand by raising its middle finger to Israel’s only remaining benefactor, by authorizing the construction of 455 new Jewish-only housing units in and around Jerusalem and announcing that some 3000 units under construction would be completed regardless of any hypothetical moratorium.

Even the cynical Netanyahu must have been amazed at the ease with which the Obama government backed down from his settlement freeze demand in a series of remarkable genuflections notable mostly for the unctuousness with which they were delivered. To gain a full picture of the scope of Obama’s capitulation to the Israel Lobby, we must consider the timeliness of Judge Richard Goldstone’s report on war crimes committed during Israel’s most recent massacre in Gaza, during Operation Lead Cast in January 2009.

Goldstone’s 575-page report meticulously documenting Israel’s various crimes was released on September 15, 2009, just as the Netanyahu government was concocting new ways to placate its settler-based constituency by expressing its contempt for Obama’s peace initiative. Thus, by virtue of its timing, the public release of the Goldstone report provided a perfect opportunity for Obama to play hardball with Bibi.

Obama could have threatened to simply allow (or even support) Judge Goldstone’s recommendation – that the report be referred to the United Nations Security Council and possibly to the International Criminal Court should Israel refuse to undertake a genuine investigation of its findings – to be implemented unless Israel agreed to a freeze of all settlement activity, including Jerusalem. Given the importance to Israel of preserving its reputation as a civilized member of the “international community” (meaning, the West), such a strategy might well have succeeded, and would have allowed the Obama administration to avoid the more serious political implications of resorting to the most obvious exercise of America’s leverage – cutting off loan guarantees that are used to subsidize Israel’s illegal settlement building, a threat that would surely provoke a full-blown rebellion from AIPAC-infested U.S. Congress.

Instead, Obama immediately dispatched UN Ambassador Susan Rice to vacuously express Obama’s “serious concerns” over the “unbalanced, one-sided and basically unacceptable” work of the Goldstone commission, without of course identifying any specific flaws in the report’s findings, logic or conclusions. Worse yet, by means of some behind-the-scenes arm-twisting, Obama forced the hapless Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, to in effect adopt the Likud-endorsed, grotesquely Orwellian formulation that to hold Israel accountable for its war crimes would deal a “fatal blow” to the peace process.

“Israel will not be able to take further steps and take risks for peace if it is denied the right of self-defense”, said Netanyahu on October 1, affirming that the right to commit crimes against humanity with absolute impunity is an essential weapon in Israel’s peace arsenal. Threatened by the Netanyahu-Obama axis with who-knows-what dire consequences if he failed to fall into line, Abbas was forced to agree, and withdrew the Palestinian Authority’s demand that the Goldstone report be sent to the UN General Assembly for possible action.

This was the first of the self-inflicted wounds visited upon Obama’s feckless peace initiative, which, like its equally feckless predecessors, depends on identifying and propping up a Palestinian “partner for peace” to participate in chimerical negotiations: On the day following Abbas’ announcement, the “Arab street” erupted in protests, marches and statements of condemnation, not only from his Hamas rivals, but from human rights groups, intellectuals and media pundits all over the world (except of course the United States). Abbas quickly reversed course and re-affirmed the PA’s commitment to having the Goldstone report referred to the UN Security Council. It was too little, too late, to salvage Abbas’ credibility.

The second and fatal blow – to Abbas’ viability with his own people and thus to Obama’s Cairo agenda – was landed when in late October, Obama’s loathsome Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, told reporters that Netanyahu’s patently meaningless offer to “restrain some” (as opposed to “freeze all”) settlement activities in the West Bank amounted to an “unprecedented restriction” on Israel’s colonization project. (Clinton’s assertion was true in the trivial sense that notwithstanding numerous commitments to freeze settlement activities, most recently at George W. Bush’s 2007 Annapolis conference and before that in the 2003 Road Map agreement, in practice Israel has never significantly “restrained” its settlement activities at any time; however, insofar as it in effect congratulated Netanyahu for Israel’s bad faith in rejecting the most basic request issued by her own boss, Clinton’s statement was thoroughly false in a deeper sense.)

The Clinton episode was the last straw for Mr. Abbas, who promptly announced that he would withdraw his candidacy for the coming presidential election in the Palestinian Authority. It is not readily apparent who will replace Abbas, assuming he is serious about his decision to cede the leadership role to someone more willing to play the patsy role in the absurd charade known as the American-sponsored “peace process.” What is clear, however, is that Obama’s inability to back up his Cairo rhetoric with even the semblance of spine in dealing with Israel’s intransigent leadership has consigned the latest Middle East peace initiative to failure, exactly like the similar initiatives of every American President since Jimmy Carter.

Obama’s gamesmanship vis-à-vis Mahmoud Abbas nicely illustrates the paradox of Israel’s relationship to Palestinian leadership generally:

Israel complains (in the words of Ehud Barak) that it cannot negotiate because it has no Palestinian “partner for peace.” But to the extent that any hand-picked Palestinian leader is acceptable as a “partner” – to that extent the Palestinian leader invariably lacks credibility with his own people, and for that reason cannot legitimately represent the popular Palestinian position in any negotiation. Thus, the hand-picked Palestinian leader cannot negotiate because he has no real power, and Israel is once again able to complain about having no partner for peace.

This cycle suits Israel fine, because postponement of the “peace process” means preservation of the status quo, and preserving the status quo serves (apparent) Israeli interests for one reason: the status quo allows, or more accurately consists in, the constant, never-ending, incremental construction of yet more Jewish-only settlements on stolen land, and the consequent incremental dispossession of Palestinian populations and their increasing isolation in ever-shrinking disconnected ghettos.

(Just as the space of the occupation is less a container within which events unfold than the medium for the events themselves (see Eyal Weizman, The Hollow Land), so the temporality of the occupation should be understood as part of its implementation: The occupation’s end (via agreement on final status) is constantly, interminably, forever deferred, and in the meantime, everything that occurs (the building of settlements and “outposts”, military “incursions” and “operations”, agreements, understandings, cease fires, checkpoints, barriers, suspensions of law and rights in the name of security, etc.) is characterized as temporary, conditional, of “interim status”, allowing the nearly imperceptible creation of “facts on the ground” that incrementally but permanently alter reality, rendering any possible agreement or negotiated solution moot.)

Martin Indyk of the Brookings Institute, an advisor to George Mitchell, recently remarked that with Abbas exiting the scene, “we are entering a new era.” In this new era, the challenge for the next Palestinian leader will be to resist the “peace process” altogether, based on a clear understanding that the United States cannot, now or ever, play a constructive role in bringing about a just outcome to the conflict.

As Sara Roy has demonstrated, the function of the “peace process” is to permanently remove the conflict from the framework of international law, as expressed in the well-established international consensus regarding its resolution based on UN Resolution 242, a consensus consistently blocked over the past 30 years by Israel and the United States. This removal is accomplished by creating and sustaining the illusion of a genuine “negotiation” of land for peace, but the concept of negotiation assumes the existence of two more or less equal parties, each of whom runs the risk of palpable loss should negotiations fail.

This assumption does not apply in this case, because all the power is on one side, and the relationship between the parties is that of domination: The Palestinians have nothing to give that Israel can’t take by force, and Israel has nothing to lose should negotiations fail. The only real restraint on Israel’s actions in the occupied territories is its public image in the United States Congress, which provides the money, the weapons and the legal cover for Israel’s ongoing colonization project. There are limits to gullibility, even inside the Beltway, and the day when Israel is no longer able to portray itself as the victim rather than the aggressor will be the day Israel will agree to negotiate in good faith. That is why the Goldstone report is so very dangerous from the Israeli government’s perspective.

At this point, the only possible outcome of the peace process – certain to be resurrected in some form by the Obama administration – is to force the Palestinian leadership accept national existence within a network of isolated, walled-in enclaves and call it a “state”, while lacking that most basic characteristic of any genuine state, namely, sovereignty (over borders, defense, airspace, resources, etc.). The longer the Palestinians resist that outcome, the greater the pressure on Israel to conform to its public image in the United States as a liberal democracy – by offering equal political rights, including the right to vote, to the 4 million Arabs under its rule.

As the sun sets on the two-state solution, that pressure is already well on its way to becoming intolerable – in Israel, with the growing domination of the political scene by extreme right-wing ethnic nationalists like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, in the United States with the rise of AIPAC alternatives such as the J-Street organization, and in the rest of the world with the inability of functionaries like Barack Obama to bury the Goldstone report and with it, the truth.

Stella Dallas can be contacted at lout1956@gmail.com. Read other articles by Stella.

This article was posted on Saturday, November 14th, 2009 at 9:02am and is filed under Colonialism, Israel/Palestine, Obama, The Lobby, War Crimes, Zionism

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