By Shiko Behar
A reminder, comrades: Barack Hussein Obama is president of the United States of America. Since his Cairo address this simple fact seems to have been overlooked by some commentators who make their living off the Palestine/Israel matrix. Step back for a moment from his Cairo address to remember that despite his name, his parentage and his half-white color – by virtue of being the US president, all of Obama’s words and actions will by definition always be quintessentially “mainstream.”
When Obama’s Cairo address is read from this vantage-point – the only realistic vantage-point that currently exists (irrespective of whether one loves or hates this) – his address is a tour de force of words – and at the moment nothing more than words. Granted, Obama’s 6000 word text on numerous international issues contained many weaknesses, omissions, distortions, shortcomings, simplifications, dishonesties and asymmetries; yet can anyone retrieve a 6000-word text that addresses as many global themes and that is free of such weaknesses? It is more productive politically to test Obama’s text against the prevailing sociopolitical reality – rather than against a sociopolitical fantasy (as seems to have been done by some critical commentators).
Obama’s address neither focused, nor should have focused, on the Palestine/Israel question alone; this is notwithstanding the undeniable global importance of this particular question for ongoing and future relationship between Euro-America, on the one hand, and majority-Muslim states and societies, on the other. For lack of both space and time, the remainder below centers solely on the Palestine/Israel section of Obama’s speech, and is a stream of unpolished reflections in the context of the upcoming Sunday – the day when, in response to Obama’s Cairo address, Benjamin Netanyahu – an intellectual dwarf compared to Obama – will voice his political vision at Bar Ilan University (curiously the university where the law student who assassinated Yitzhak Rabin was educated, socialized and politicized).
In my understanding, the single most relevant and critical paragraph in the Palestine/Israel section of Obama’s Cairo speech is this:
“The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.” (Emphasis added)
These all-too-cautiously-crafted 31 words are intriguing for one reason: every minimally intelligent person knows that peace in Israel/Palestine cannot begin to unfold in the foreseeable future in the non-fantasized earth without dismantling Israel’s illegal settlement apparatus in the occupied Palestinian West Bank. If that is so – then how and why is it that Obama consciously chose to call only for a freeze on further settlement construction – while remaining silent on the illegal monstrosity of Israel’s existing settlements?
This question becomes more puzzling given that Obama’s team is surely aware of the fact that the entire international community deems all of Israel’s post-1967 settlements to be illegal (such pro-Israel states as the US, Britain and Canada included). Furthermore, as African-American lawyers, Barack and Michelle may be aware of the 2004 advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice in the Hague concerning the LEGAL CONSEQUENCES OF THE CONSTRUCTION OF A WALL IN THE OCCUPIED PALESTINIAN TERRITORY.
This lengthy ICJ advisory opinion quoted the UN Security Council itself as describing Israel’s four decades old policy of establishing settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories as a “flagrant violation” of the Fourth Geneva Convention. For this reason, among others, the ICJ – incidentally the world’s highest legal body – held (like countless bodies before it) that all Israeli settlements have been established in breach of international law (including in occupied East Jerusalem which Israel annexed unilaterally – and unlawfully – in 1980).
Thus the Cairo speech’s silence on virtually all issues pertaining to Israel’s factually-existing-and-already-constructed illegal settlements certainly amounts to a grave missed opportunity – particularly given the historical momentum that Obama’s speech has amassed. Kindly tolerate a repetition: not a shred of peace is possible without settlement dismantling. Rightly or wrongly, I think that it is this particular silence by Obama that represents the single gravest shortcoming of his Cairo address. This unhelpful silence might run the risk of becoming the newest non-starter (among countless previous others) for anything new and positive to develop vis-à-vis the Israel/Palestine question. Lastly, however unfortunately Obama’s silence about existing settlements might unleash negative repercussions to his efforts pertaining to the greater Middle East (and possibly for those aimed at the world at large).
Always bear in mind: Obama’s 31 words on the Israeli settlements did not represent any change whatsoever in existing US policy. His words did nothing but recycle the official declarative position held by each and every US administration since 1967 whether Democrat or Republican. In this context, it is worth reviewing in some detail/depth this document that surveys verbatim the historical positions of US administrations vis-à-vis the settlements.
The only possible exception to this otherwise traditional/standard American position vis-à-vis Israel’s settlements is the position briefly propagated by George W. Bush’s second administration. This historically odd position was formulated by pro-occupation American neo-conservatives and first verbalized during the immediate days following the 2004 decision by the Israeli government of Ariel Sharon to dismantle Israeli settlements in the Gaza strip (yet without really “disengaging” from Gaza since to this day Israel remains Gaza’s occupying power).
In his joint press conference with Prime Minster Sharon on April 14, 2004 president Bush said the following words (words that are likely to be echoed in the coming days by the host of formidable pro-occupation forces inside and outside of Israel, be they Jewish, Christian, Republican, Democratic or otherwise):
“In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion.”
That is the position that the Netanyahu government has been trying to promote since their election although – unlike Bush – the phrase “two states” was thus far never voiced by Netanyahu. Until Netanyahu’s upcoming speech on Sunday, these words by Bush are likely to be brought to the fore by his Kahanist coalition. It therefore becomes necessary to clarify in some detail and depth the overall position held by the previous Bush administration. To this end, it is best to recall the Israeli attorney Dov Weissglas who was senior advisor of both Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon (2001-05) and Ehud Olmert (2005-09) – mind you, the two governments that were opposed from Israel’s (further) Right by Netanyahu and his present government members.
As aptly coined by Weissglas, Bush’s above-cited words represent what has become to be known as the West Bank’s “Formaldehyde Formula”. In a lengthy interview conducted by Israel’s leading daily Haaretz on October 8, 2004 Weissglas was asked: “what was the major importance of the [Gaza] disengagement plan” (from the perspective of Ariel Sharon’s diplomatic team)?
Weissglas replied (in eloquent Hebrew): “The disengagement plan is the preservative of the sequence principle. It is the bottle of formaldehyde within which you place president Bush’s formula so that it will be preserved for a very lengthy period. The [Gaza] disengagement [both as plan and praxis] is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that's necessary so that there will not be a political process with the Palestinians.”
Haaretz further asked Weissglas: “Is what you are saying, then, is that you exchanged the strategy of a long-term interim agreement for a strategy of long-term interim situation?”
Weissglas replied candidly: “The American term is to park conveniently. The [Gaza] disengagement plan makes it possible for Israel to park conveniently in an interim situation that distances us as far as possible from [international] political pressure. It legitimizes our contention that there is no negotiating with the Palestinians. There is a decision here to do the minimum possible in order to maintain our political situation.
The decision is proving itself. It is making it possible for the Americans to go to the seething and simmering international community and say to them `What do you want' [from Israel]. It also transfers the initiative to our hands. It compels the world to deal with our idea, with the scenario we wrote. It places the Palestinians under tremendous pressure. […] There are no more Israeli soldiers spoiling their day [in Gaza…]. And for the first time they have a slice of land with total continuity on which they can race from one end to the other in their Ferrari. And the whole world is watching them – them, not us.”
Haaretz asked: “So you have carried out the maneuver of the century? And all of it with authority and permission?”
Weissglas: “I found a device, in cooperation with the management of the world [George W. Bush], to ensure that there […] will be no timetable to implement the settlers' nightmare [i.e. a dismantling of West Bank settlements]. I have postponed that nightmare indefinitely. Because what I effectively agreed to with the Americans was that part of the settlements would not be dealt with at all, and the rest will not be dealt with until the Palestinians turn into Finns. That is the significance of what we did. The significance is the freezing of the political process. And when you freeze that process you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state and you prevent a discussion about the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem. Effectively, this whole package that is called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed from our agenda indefinitely. And all this with (American) authority and permission. All with a presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of Congress.”
Haaretz then asked: “In return for ceding Gaza, you obtained status quo in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank]?”
Weissglas clarified: “You keep insisting on the wrong definition. The right definition is that we created a status quo vis-à-vis the Palestinians. There was a very difficult package of commitments that Israel was expected to accept. That package is called a political process. It included elements we will never agree to accept and elements we cannot accept at this time. But we succeeded in taking that package and sending it beyond the hills of time. With the proper management we succeeded in removing the issue of the political process from the agenda. And we educated the world to understand that there is no one [Palestinian] to talk to [hence Israel’s unilateral disengagement]. And we received a “no-one-to-talk-to” certificate. That certificate says: (1) There is no one to talk to. (2) As long as there is no one to talk to, the geographic status quo [in the West Bank] remains intact. (3) The certificate will be revoked only when this-and-this happens – when Palestine becomes Finland. (4) See you then, and shalom” (source: http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/pages/ShArt.jhtml?itemNo=485929 )
As Israel’s patriotic left has argued for many years, the Palestinians did not really have a partner for peace. Also bear in mind that in this interview the Sharon diplomatic team was trying convince its opposing forces (including Netanyahu and the settlers) that they should support the Gaza disengagement that they so vehemently opposed. Why? Because this is supposed to serve the settlers’ own long-term interest in the West Bank.
Now, it is predictably convenient and preferable for the many pro-occupation forces inside and outside of Israel to portray the second Bush administration along the racist and colonial lines that Dov Weissglas arrogantly propagated. But doing so remains a simplification aiming to obliterate from the global collective memory the overall position of the Bush administration. Even a small sample of statements made by Bush himself, former US secretary of State Ms. Condoleezza (and many others in his administration) after Bush’s above-cited 2004 words should suffice to make one point crystal-clear: the difference between the standard positions held by post-1967 US administrations vis-à-vis the settlements, on the one hand, and the position held by the Bush administration, on the other hand, is not at all as significant as the pro-occupation forces would like the world to believe.
In an interview with the LA Times on March 24, 2005, then US secretary of State Ms. Condoleezza Rice explained:
“Our position on settlement activity has not changed. We have said to the Israelis that they have obligations under the roadmap, they have obligations not to increase settlement activity. We expect, in particular, that they are going to be careful about anything – route of the fence, settlement activity, laws – that would appear to prejudge a final status agreement, and it's concerning that this is where it is and around Jerusalem. But we've noted our concern to the Israelis […]. We will continue to note that this is at odds with American policy. […] I think anything that raises the prospect that you're going to have an expansion of settlements, particularly in a sensitive area, is not really a satisfactory response. But we're going to continue to talk to the Israelis about it and we've got some time before any of this would actually take place.”
Speaking with Mahmoud Abbas, former president Bush stated on May 26, 2005:
“Israel should not undertake any activity that contravenes road map obligations or prejudice final status negotiations with regard to Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem. Therefore, Israel must remove unauthorized outposts and stop settlement expansion.”
As reported in the Israeli daily Maariv on June 26, 2005, Ms. Rice explained the following in her conversation with Israel’s then Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom:
“I traveled to Ramallah and I saw your [settlement] construction with my own eyes. It is not possible to operate in the territories in a manner that will change the situation before discussions on final status. True, the president promised the prime minister to consider the realities on the ground and concentrations of population – this is very important and the United States stands behind this commitment. But the president added that it is clear to all sides that the final borders will be determined only through negotiation.
We cannot sanction creating a new reality on the ground by actions that continue today. I mean by this those activities in Jerusalem and its environs meant to change the reality on the ground. I saw these things with my own eyes and I am very concerned. We want very much to support Israel in this critical period, and we recognize the sensitivity of the situation, but it is impossible to sanction the continuation of construction and its influence on the final border. This is very important to us.”
And on September 20, 2005 Rice stated further:
“As to Israeli activities that might try and prejudge a final status, we've been very clear. President Bush has been very clear that we do not expect Israel to engage in activities that will prejudge a final status because questions about the final border are indeed final status issues. We've been clear that activity in the settlements, for instance at E-1 (proposed settlement area in the West Bank, east of Jerusalem) or with the separation barrier that have an effect on Palestinian livelihood, that the international community expects Israel to live up to its roadmap obligations […] not to engage in that activity.”
Let me sum up what is suggested here thus far: (I) Like it or hate it – absolutely nothing fresh or new was included in the words Obama chose to verbalize in Cairo about Israel’s settlement construction. (II) Contrary to what the Netanyahu coalition has been propagating and would like world opinion to believe – this mundane, uneventful position of Obama not only mirrors those of post-1967 US administrations: it also largely mirrors the position of Obama’s neo-conservative predecessor (and this is even if some of Obama’s voters may be frustrated by this). (III) Israel lacks any basis whatsoever to engage in further construction of illegal settlements. (IV) Precisely like his neo-conservative predecessor – Obama did not mention in Cairo anything about existing Israeli settlements, let alone the possibility of their dismantling (not even some of them). Lastly (V) The one and only difference that exists at the present time between the neo-conservative Bush and the neo-liberal-Democrat Obama remains nothing but on paper alone: Obama is supposed to be more vigilant and forceful in his demand to stop settlement construction.
The billion-dollar-question is simple: will Obama be able to succeed where all his nine preceding Democrat and Republican administrations since 1967 failed (irrespective of whether willingly or unwillingly), i.e. halt Israel’s ever continuing settlement expansion? To consider this question, it is best to recall the thoughtful, authoritative words of Geoffrey Aronson:
“Israel's expansion of settlements can be halted, but to do so will require a degree of commitment that neither Israel nor the international community has been prepared to muster. In order to comply with the requirements of an effective freeze, Israel will have to undo a system four decades in the making by which settlers, the legislative and executive arm of the state, public-private and super-national communal organizations collaborate in the encouragement and expansion of settlements. Laws empowering public and private bodies to increase settlement will need to be changed. Many existing military orders will have to be rescinded and new ones issued. Major elements of national legislation and administrative practice which have devolved planning and budgetary power to settlements will have to be undone. Powers of taxation, planning, courts and construction will need to be radically revised in order to reflect the requirements of a freeze. All this will require a radical transformation of Israeli policy and bureaucratic organization.”
Some advocates of the “One State Solution” partially rest their case on the “irreversibility thesis”, i.e., the contention that it is impossible to reverse what Israel has done in the West Bank over the last 40 years. Yet given that the Ottoman Empire and the USSR (for example) were reversible – it is unclear how solid this contention is. Either way, if we are to believe the recent words of US Secretary of State Ms. Hillary Clinton – then the Obama administration is more serious than preceding US administrations about settlement freezing. Clinton stated that there must be no exceptions to Obama's demand in his recent DC meeting with Netanyahu that Israel stop its settlement activity:
“Not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions. We think it is in the best interest of the effort that we are engaged in that settlement expansion cease” (do view her 33 seconds clip http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/8071234.stm )
My exhaustive words thus far have principally revolved around the issue of a (possible) freeze of settlement construction. But as mentioned, peace in Israel/Palestine cannot begin to unfold without dismantling Israel’s illegal apparatus in the West Bank. Sao we can now ask again: how to explain Obama’s utter silence in Cairo on this issue?
One possibility is this: the Obama team presently wishes to present the single easiest and most minimalist demand to Netanyahu’s Kahanist government. It aims to publically test Netanyahu (and his many American supporters) on the single easiest of tasks that since 1967 is virtually supported by the entire world (as well as by about half of Israeli citizens). Obama perhaps aims to test Netanyahu’s ability to deliver something as minimal as a settlement freeze – an issue that obviously never appeared in the Likkud election platform that Netanyahu just presented in the Israeli public in the elections that took place 20 minutes ago or so).
If Netanyahu does deliver a historically-unprecedented freeze, then the Obama team will face – for the very first time – a task that one can generously describe as “challenging” (provided that Obama’s team does truly wishes to continue to be considered minimally serious about the Israel/Palestine question): this task would be a settlement dismantling, at the very least partial.
Since it is highly unlikely that Israel will agree voluntarily to engage in such dismantling (I suspect that this Sunday Netanyahu will openly resist a settlement “natural growth” freeze) – the question will then be whether or not Obama possesses any non-symbolic sticks vis-à-vis Israel. It seems worth bearing in mind in this context that – after African-Americans – American Jews were the second most supportive ethnic group of Obama in the recent US elections – with 78% of them supporting him.
Astute commentator Richard Silverstein prefaced one of his latest posts as follows:
“I'm being swallowed by a boa constrictor
And I don't like it very much”
(Bibi Netanyahu and children’s song).
Is Silverstein’s optimism justified? Does it rest on any solid foundation? The post-1967 empirical record does not support such optimism. Put differently, it doesn’t seem likely that the Obama administration will manage to bring the Israeli government to a settlement dismantling that would be able to meet the minimal one needed, required and demanded by even the most “moderate” Palestinian leadership. My subjective belief, then, is that Obama will fail (even if I hope to be proven wrong).
That said, forget altogether now about any settlement dismantling: it remains to be seen whether the charismatic Obama can even deliver a settlement freeze alone. Best of luck to you, president Obama: rest assured that you’ll need all of it.
Shiko Behar is a long-time Israeli friend of 3QD.