Obama and Netanyahu offer Palestinians more of the same

By Kim Bullimore

The much anticipated speeches on the Middle East “peace process” by US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month have been touted by the international corporate media as significant steps toward resolving conflict in the region. However, neither speech was a step forward. They simply regurgitated the long-held positions of both Washington and Tel Aviv, which have sought to ensure the ongoing subjugation and colonial oppression of the Palestinian people.

In his June 14 speech at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu repeated the Zionist position that “no preconditions” can be imposed on Israel in relation to negotiations. He then went on to demand that a raft of preconditions be met by the Palestinian Authority before Israel would consider recognising a Palestinian state. Veteran Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar noted in Haaretz the day after the speech : “Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a patriarchal, colonialist address in the best neoconservative tradition: The Arabs are the bad guys, or at best ungrateful terrorists; the Jews, of course, are the good guys, rational people who need to raise and care for their children,” Eldar observed that the purpose of the speech had nothing to do with the Palestinians or peace; instead it was to “appease Tzipi Hotovely, the settler Likud lawmaker, and make it possible to live peaceably with the settler foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman”.

New Israeli preconditions

According to Netanyahu, “a fundamental prerequisite for ending the conflict is a public, binding and unequivocal Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people”. Netanyahu’s second precondition for a Palestinian state was that it must be “demilitarised”. Throughout, Netanyahu also made it clear that Israel had no intention of dismantling its illegal settlements, that Palestinian refugees forcibly exiled by Zionist terrorists in 1948 would have no right of return, that Israel wouldn’t define its borders until the “final peace agreement” and that Jerusalem would be the “united” capital of Israel and therefore not the capital of any future Palestinian state.

Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians recognise Israel as “a Jewish state” is relatively new, having first been formally advocated by then prime minister Ehud Olmert at Annapolis in 2007. Prior to 2007, the key demand was the acknowledgement that Israel had the “right to exist in peace and security”. This demand, for example, was stated in a 1967 speech by Abba Eban, Israel’s then foreign minister, to the United Nations in the wake of the Six Day War, in which Israel captured and occupied the Golan Heights, the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Eban said repeatedly that the key to the conflict was the failure of the Arab states and peoples to accept Israel’s “right to exist” (not as a “Jewish state”) and that this right meant accepting “Israel’s rights to peace, security, sovereignty, economic development and maritime freedom”. From 1967 until 2007, this remained the key Israeli demand in relation to the Arab world.

The right of Israel to “live in peace and security” was recognised by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 1988 in a political statement accompanying the PLO Declaration of Independence. The statement recognised UN Security Council Resolution 242, which stated in part that there should be “respect for and acknowledgement of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognised boundaries free from acts of force”. Yasser Arafat further confirmed the PLO’s position in a September 1993 letter to Israel’s then prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, stating that he recognised “the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security”. The letter also stated that “the PLO renounces the use of terrorism and other acts of violence”.

However, Israel offered no commitment to end its violence and state terrorism against the Palestinian people or to recognise the right of the Palestinians to a state or their right to live in peace and security. Instead, it only “recognise[d] the PLO as the representatives of the Palestinian people” and agreed to begin negotiations. The demand that the Palestinians now recognise Israel as a “Jewish state” is the latest ploy to ensure that a Palestinian state doesn’t come into existence in the near future, so that Israel can continue to expand its illegal settlements and create “facts on the ground”.

Demilitarisation

Netanyahu’s demand that any Palestinian state be completely demilitarised and under Israeli military sovereignty also runs counter to previous negotiations. Resolution 242 called for the establishment of “demilitarised zones” between Israel and an independent Palestine state, not the latter’s demilitarisation. While the issue of possible “demilitarisation” was raised as part of a speech given by then US president Bill Clinton in 2000, it was in a vastly different context. In his December 2000 speech, Clinton noted that while Israel wanted a future Palestinian state to be defined as “demilitarised”, the Palestinians had proposed “a state with limited arms”. As a compromise, Clinton suggested that a Palestinian state would be “non-militarised” but would have “a strong Palestinian security force”, “an international force for border security and deterrence purposes” and “sovereignty over its airspace”

This is vastly different from what Netanyahu demanded in his Bar-Ilan speech. According to Netanyahu, any “territory controlled by the Palestinians will be demilitarised — namely, without an army, without control of its airspace, and with effective security measures to prevent weapons smuggling into the territory; real monitoring, and not what occurs in Gaza today. And obviously, the Palestinians will not be able to forge military pacts.”

Clinton had also called for the evacuation of 80% of settlers from the West Bank and Gaza, for joint control of Jerusalem’s holy places and the “acknowledg[ment of] the moral and material suffering caused to the Palestinian people as a result of the 1948 war”. Clinton called for any agreement on refugees not to “negate the aspiration of the Palestinian people to return to the area”. Netanyahu rejected all of this in his speech. As Eldar noted in his Haaretz article, “The difference between these documents and the Bar-Ilan address is not only that the former recognise the Palestinians’ full rights to the West Bank and East Jerusalem”; “the real difference lies in the tone — in the degrading and disrespectful nature of Netanyahu’s remarks”. This is “not how one brings down a wall of enmity between two nations, that’s not how trust is built”.

Obama’s advice

Netanyahu’s speech was hailed by Obama and the international corporate media as a “step in the right direction”. This is unsurprising given the tone and nature of Obama’s Cairo speech 10 days earlier. Obama’s June 4 speech revealed that Washington also has no real interest in advancing the “peace process”. Stripped of its flowery prose and flourishing references to the Koran, Obama’s speech revealed that Washington’s current Middle East policy is little different from that of his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Rather than advocating a real change in policy, Obama reconfirmed the “unbreakable” bonds between Israel and the United States, while demanding that the “Palestinians must abandon violence”. He made no demand that Israel put an end to its state violence, which has resulted in four times more Palestinian civilians killed than Israeli civilians killed by Palestinian resistance fighters. Obama, like Bush, continued to perpetrate the myth that “Palestinian violence” exists in a vacuum, separate from the greater violence of Israel’s brutal occupation.

Obama also failed to mention, even once, the word “occupation” and failed to call for the dismantling of Israel’s illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, instead calling, as Bush did, simply for an end to settlement expansion. Obama also made it clear that he had no intention of cutting military or economic aid to Israel if Netanyahu failed to stop the expansions.

Instead, as respected commentator Jennifer Loewenstein noted in a June 5 Counterpunch article, Obama “sent Benjamin Netanyahu the message he most seeks, whether Netanyahu recognizes it or not: continue your colonial-settler project as you have been doing; just change the vocabulary you use to describe it. Then nobody will get upset or notice that the status quo … persists”. Netanyahu’s speech two weeks later revealed that he had heard Obama’s message loud and clear.