If the Oval Office guest list is an indicator, President Obama is making good on his commitment to try to revive the long-dead Arab-Israeli peace process. On May 18 President Obama received Israel’s new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu; today he met with Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.
As this process gets under way, the United States–Israel’s main arms supplier, financier and international apologist–faces huge hurdles. It is deeply mistrusted by Palestinians and Arabs generally, and the new administration has not done much to rebuild trust. Obama has, like President Bush, expressed support for Palestinian statehood, but he has made no criticisms of Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip–which killed more than 1,400 people last winter, mostly civilians–despite evidence from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and UN investigators of egregious Israeli war crimes. Nor has he pressured Israel to lift the blockade of Gaza, where 1.5 million Palestinians, the vast majority of whom are refugees, are effectively imprisoned and deprived of basic necessities.
Obama has told Netanyahu firmly that Israel must stop building settlements on expropriated Palestinian land in the West Bank, but such words have been uttered by the president’s predecessors. Unless these statements are followed by decisive action–perhaps to limit American subsidies to Israel–there’s no reason to believe the lip service that failed in the past will suddenly be more effective.
On the Palestinian side, Obama is talking to the wrong man: more than half of residents in the occupied territories do not consider Abbas the “legitimate” president of the Palestinians, according to a March survey by Fafo, a Norwegian research organization. Eighty-seven percent want the Fatah faction, which Abbas heads, to have new leaders.
Hamas, by contrast, emerged from Israel’s attack on Gaza with enhanced legitimacy and popularity. That attack was only the latest of numerous efforts to topple the movement following its decisive victory in the 2006 legislative elections. In addition to the Israeli siege, these efforts have included a failed insurgency by Contra-style anti-Hamas militias nominally loyal to Abbas and funded and trained by the United States under the supervision of Lieut. Gen. Keith Dayton. If Obama were serious about making real progress, one of the first things he would do is ditch the Bush-era policy of backing Palestinian puppets and lift the American veto on reconciliation efforts aimed at creating a unified, representative and credible Palestinian leadership.
None of these problems is entirely new, though the challenges, having festered for years, may be tougher to deal with now. Netanyahu did add one obstacle, however, when he came to Washington. In accord with his anticipated strategy of delay, he insisted that Palestinians recognize Israel’s right to exist as a “Jewish state” as a condition of any peace agreement. Obama seemingly endorsed this demand when he said, “It is in US national security interests to assure that Israel’s security as an independent Jewish state is maintained.”