Among the worst things that happened to Barack Obama in this annus horribilis in the Middle East was that Secretary of State John Kerry’s attempt to kickstart peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine crashed and burned, ending in severe West Bank and Jerusalem tensions and a massive bombardment of the tiny Gaza Strip.
It was unwise for Obama to authorize the Kerry Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in the first place, given that the Likud-led government of Benjamin Netanyahu is deeply committed to continued annexation of Palestinian territory in the West Bank and deeply opposed (whatever it may say publicly) to the emergence of a Palestinian state. Netanyahu’s government seemed almost gleeful as it kept announcing new housing settlements on confiscated Palestinian land, even as the talks were proceeding, and on several occasions humiliated Secretary Kerry. The negotiations raised Palestinian hopes, and when those were dashed, it was foreseeable that severe tensions would break out in that tinderbox. The Israelis dismissed Kerry’s peacemaking as narcissistic and “messianic,” which is utterly unfair. But it is true that he seems not to have realized that it is the sort of enterprise where failure comes with a cost.
The entire fiasco was based on a set of false premises about the nature of the contemporary conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. It is driven at the end of the day by Palestinian statelessness. As Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote, probably under the influence of Hannah Arendt, “Citizenship is man’s basic right for it is nothing less than the right to have rights. Remove this priceless possession and there remains a stateless person, disgraced and degraded in the eyes of his countrymen.”
Palestinians, as stateless, not only lack most basic human rights, they do not even have a right to have such rights. Their property is unstable—they never know what they actually own, and whatever they think they own can be usurped at will. Their farms are encroached on; their olive orchards sabotaged; their wells go dry because Israeli squatters dig deeper ones and extract the water for agriculture on Palestinian land. Sometimes they are murdered with impunity by militant, armed squatters, while they are kept unarmed and vulnerable by the occupation military.
An epochal evil was done the Jewish people by European fascists, who murdered 6 millon of them in death camps in the 1940s. But a great wrong was also done to the Palestinian people in 1947-48, when the British Mandate of Palestine was partitioned into Israel and Palestinian territories that came to be held in trusteeship by Egypt and Jordan. In the course of the war, involving some 500,000 Jewish settlers and various ragtag Arab armies (with a similar number of troops), about 720,000 Palestinian noncombatants, out of 1.2 million, were chased from their homes without compensation.