In response to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before a joint session of Congress, Democratic and Republican legislators leapt to their feet in applause so often they risked incurring repetitive stress injury. But as Akiva Eldar, one of Israel’s shrewdest political commentators, observed in Haaretz, “the strength of the applause bears no relation to the genuine interests of the State of Israel.” And those interests—as well as the fundamental human and national rights of Palestinians living under occupation—are dangerously threatened by Netanyahu’s extremist policies.
As Henry Siegman demonstrates in this issue, the Netanyahu government, like too many Israeli governments before it, is adamantly opposed to a two-state solution to the conflict. The prime minister’s insistence in his speech on abandoning the 1967 lines as the basis for negotiations, on retaining sovereignty over all of Jerusalem, on long-term Israeli military control over the Jordan Valley—to cite just a few problems—is a blueprint for eternal occupation and conflict.
It is precisely that rejectionist posture that has led the most conciliatory leader in Palestinian history, Mahmoud Abbas, to abandon the tattered “peace process” and seek reconciliation with Hamas as well as a UN General Assembly resolution in September recognizing a Palestinian state in accordance with countless previous resolutions and long-established international law. As President Obama noted in his speech before the AIPAC lobby on May 22, there is growing impatience with the moribund negotiations not just in the Arab world but in Latin America, Europe and Asia, which is reflected in the increasing momentum behind the Palestinian push for a UN resolution.
Netanyahu may be following an extremist path, but he has keen political instincts, and his address to Congress is part of a broad Israeli offensive to kill the UN démarche and forestall even the tentative steps Obama has taken to reset American Mideast policy along more realistic lines. But as Obama made clear in his May 19 speech on the revolutions roiling the Arab world, which are inspiring fresh activism among Palestinians, time is running out on America’s ability to protect Israel from its own policies. The choice, now more starkly posed than ever, is between a new peace initiative that offers a realistic chance of success, and further isolation from the world community, and with it greater insecurity for all.
Congress may be craven in its submission to lobby pressures, but even Congress will not be able to stop growing world condemnation of an Israeli occupation that is an intolerable affront to basic human dignity. And the Arab revolts have demonstrated that America and Israel will no longer be able to rely on the collusion of corrupt Arab despots to further that occupation. If the uprisings continue and bring about a full democratic flowering, the Arab people will exert increasing pressure on their governments to stand with the Palestinians in their struggle for justice and self-determination.
In much of his May 19 speech, Obama was eloquent in affirming American support for “all who embrace genuine and inclusive democracy,” and opposition to “an attempt by any group to restrict the rights of others, and to hold power through coercion and not consent.” For these words to have meaning, he must apply them as consistently to Israel and Palestine as to Egypt and Tunisia, Bahrain and Syria. He went part of the way; in his insistence on a peace “based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps,” he was—contrary to the howls of outrage from Netanyahu and his right-wing echo chamber here—restating longstanding US positions on a just solution to the conflict. But in failing to take a stand on the fate of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees, and in his rejection of what he peevishly called “symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations,” Obama signaled continued willingness to follow the Israeli government line even when it is not in America’s—or Israel’s—interests to do so.
Obama is at a crossroads: will he have the courage to withstand domestic political pressures and shortsighted Israeli policies? If he does, he will have the support not only of a growing domestic lobby for peace with justice—including an American Jewish public that is far more progressive than the hidebound AIPAC—but also that of the Arab world, as expressed through the nearly ten-year-old Arab Peace Initiative, in which all twenty-two nations of the Arab League offered full recognition of and peace with Israel if it would agree to a fair two-state solution. If he doesn’t, the consequences will be disastrous for Israel and Palestine and deeply damaging to America. Siegman makes a powerful case for Obama to enlist the support of former Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush in such an effort. Whether he does or doesn’t, it’s up to Americans who seek real security and a durable peace to counter the lobby and move Obama’s administration, as well as Congress, in the right direction.