Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa, North America | Analysis

MIDEAST: Hard Choices Coming up Fast

Analysis by Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

JERUSALEM, Apr 24 2009 (IPS) - The parties to the Middle East conflict are coming to understand the U.S. President means business – that, unlike his predecessor in the White House, Barack Obama means to tackle the world’s most intractable problem head on. And, soon.

Over coming weeks, he will host Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Speaking this week after his first Middle East meeting, with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, the U.S. President conceded “profound cynicism” surrounding the peace process and cast doubt on “the possibility of any progress being made whatsoever.”

“What we want to do,” Obama stressed, “is to step back from the abyss, to say, as hard as it is, as difficult as it may be, the prospect of peace still exists, but it’s going to require some hard choices.”

Hard choices all round – for Israel, the Palestinians and, perhaps, for Obama himself.

The U.S. makes no bones about the thrust of its policy-in-the-making: “The two-state solution is the only solution,” insisted special U.S. presidential envoy George Mitchell, adding, “Comprehensive peace in the region is in the national interest of the United States.”

That puts the onus primarily on Israel, as the occupying power, being ready to relinquish its hold on Palestinian lands and so enable the creation of a Palestinian state. U.S. pressure seems in the offing, especially as Netanyahu steadfastly refuses to commit openly to the two-state solution.

Ending the occupation has long been Israel’s hard choice. When he was first in power a decade ago, Netanyahu made it his policy to “rectify” what he argued were the “wrongs” of the peace process as it had evolved at Oslo in mutual recognition between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. In 1998, Netanyahu managed to induce former U.S. president Bill Clinton to pressure Yasser Arafat into abrogating those clauses in the Palestinian Charter which denied Israel’s right to exist.

Today in his second tenure, Netanyahu is bent on following a similar deconstructionist path: that, if the Palestinians refuse to recognise Israel as the state of the Jewish People, Israel sees no obligation to recognise the Palestinians’ right to self-determination in their own state. That is how peace should be pursued, he will tell President Obama when his chance comes at the White House, officials close to Netanyahu say.

Critics of the Israeli leader contend that Netanyahu’s focus on the “Jewish state” is merely an attempt to parry Obama’s determination to work speedily for a genuine settlement of the conflict. Whether or not he is engaging in more than delaying tactics is not yet clear.

In this argument, Netanyahu certainly has a great majority of the Israeli people on his side. Reflecting this mindset, columnist Ari Shavit argues Israelis haven’t accepted the Palestinians right to self-determination because the Palestinians have yet to fully accept Israel.

He writes in Haaretz: “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not about the occupation. If it were about the occupation, it would have erupted in 1967 (the start of the occupation). If it were about the occupation, it would be easy to terminate it through full Israeli withdrawal and full Palestinian recognition of Israel after the withdrawal. However, the conflict is not about the occupation. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is three-tiered – a conflict about 1967, about 1947 (the UN Partition Plan of Palestine into two states, one Arab and one Jewish) and about 1917 (Britain’s Balfour Declaration recognising the right to a Jewish “national home” in Palestine).”

In arguing that the “Jewish state” issue is at the core of the conflict, Netanyahu is confident, says one his aides, that he “can find a way to Obama’s heart.” He was impressed, adds the aide, by how Obama won the presidency – not because of words or deeds, but because of his vision built on historical processes at the heart of the American ethos.

Netanyahu is banking on Obama being ready to make a hard choice of his own, being sensitive to what Netanyahu says are Israel’s historical elementals, and recognise that the possibility of a durable peace rests on more than the “land-for-peace” formula and its implementation (Israel’s withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders).

If the U.S. President accepts the Netanyahu two-nation-states concept as the basis of the U.S. peace-making endeavour, that would require a hard choice not just from the Palestinians, but from Israelis as well.

For Palestinians, accepting Israel as a Jewish state would effectively mean they relinquish the right of return of the Palestinian refugees from the war of 1948 when Israel was created.

At the same time, the logical conclusion of this Israeli demand that peace be rooted in an elemental two-nation-state solution would mean that Israel needs to accept the existence of two states alongside one another – not only the one that reflects the Jewish identity of the State of Israel, but the other that expresses Palestinian identity through the creation of the State of Palestine.

It will be a hard-sell for President Obama to induce Palestinians to accept that their right of self-determination goes through recognising Israel’s identity and at the cost of giving up the right of return – a central ethos of their national identity, the central core issue for settling the conflict.

On the other hand, Netanyahu’s return to elemental questions would give Obama an easier sell on Israel’s hard choice – the need to end the occupation. The President could say: If I am to convince the Palestinians they must accept this principle which you say is existential to your people whereas the right of return is not an existential issue for them, then you must accept that for Israel to retain the occupied Palestinian territories is not an existential issue. Therefore, Israel will still have to end the occupation – if peace is to be secured.

Beyond the “profound cynicism” bemoaned by the President, there are glimmers of hope. A majority of Israelis are much more ready to resist any assault on their national identity than want to prolong their hold on the West Bank, while among Palestinians there is a gradual coming to terms with the need to give up the right of return as an absolute.

“The options that we have are clear and specific,” writes former Palestinian cabinet Minister Ziad AbuZayyad in the latest edition of the Palestine-Israel Journal. “We either seek a political solution through which we will be compelled to waive the right of return – except perhaps with partial symbolic solutions – or we admit that the political solution does not enable us to exercise this right and, because we insist on it, we’d have to scrap from our vocabulary the phrase ‘political solution to the conflict’.

“We’d then mobilise all our energies towards a protracted struggle over a long period against an Israeli apartheid regime in the occupied territories, leading to the relinquishing by Israel of its Jewish identity and to the creation of a bi-national state.”

The land-for-peace formula has proven singularly ineffective in ending the conflict. On the face of it, were the U.S. to accept Israel’s newly raised preoccupation with issues of national identity, a new peace drive would be mission impossible.

But in his first months in office, Barack Obama has demonstrated a rare ability to translate vision into policy. A concerted U.S. peace effort that seeks to wrap into a single package both cardinal issues – the end to the occupation and the right to existence of two nation-states alongside one another – is not beyond the realm of the possible.

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