The past week in Washington was an extraordinary one. It witnessed an American president give two speeches in which he offered further concessions to Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of a country that is a client of the United States. Netanyahu challenged the President from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, effectively seeking and receiving Congress`s stamp of approval on his strikingly extreme positions. This end-run around the US Executive Branch followed an invitation from the head of the Republican congressional opposition to speak to a joint session of Congress. This invitation itself was in defiance of American constitutional principles and the hallowed convention that politics stops at the water`s edge. The world looked on as this foreign leader got at least twenty-six standing ovations during a hard-line speech that ruled out either the prospect of a serious negotiation, or of anything approaching a sovereign Palestinian state. Given the trend of Arab and Palestinian politics lately, negotiations on American-Israeli terms were in any case unlikely.
After the first of the President’s speeches, Netanyahu insulted him before he even got to Washington, telling reporters on his plane that Obama did not understand the Middle East. He then disagreed publicly with his host during their joint remarks after their meeting – looking at the President rather than at the press much of the time as he hectored the leader of the most powerful country on earth. Finally, in his speech to Congress, the Israeli leader hit every moss-covered Zionist propaganda point since the 1897 Basel Congress, and laid out positions on all the key issues so uncompromising as to make negotiations pointless.
What had Barack Obama done to deserve this treatment? He had already capitulated to Netanyahu’s refusal to stop building settlements in the occupied territories after two years when this was a central element, if not the lynchpin, of his Middle East policy. The word “settlement” did not pass the President’s lips during this entire embarrassing week. Moreover, in his State Department speech before Netanyahu’s arrival, Obama accepted a whole slew of Israeli positions. These included the usual outrageous and elastic Israeli demands in the name of security; the need for Palestinian acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state; rejection of the recent inter-Palestinian reconciliation; and deferral of negotiations over refugees and Jerusalem – the two issues of paramount importance to the Palestinians – into the indefinite future (after twenty years of deferral since Madrid).
Beyond this, the President reiterated his objection to the “de-legitimization” of Israel. This lexical turn signifies the Obama administration’s adoption of the term, coined by the Israeli far right and their neo-conservative American lawyer friends. This “de-legitimization” would take place via the Palestinians bringing the issue of Palestinian statehood before the UN in September. In his second speech, before the 10,000 people AIPAC had brought to Washington to hear Netanyahu, the President insisted that a Palestinian state must come into being as a result of negotiations, not a UN resolution. The President’s speech-writers and advisors apparently failed to recall, or conveniently forgot, that the state of Israel came into being not as a result of negotiations with the Palestinians, but as a consequence of a 1947 General Assembly resolution, 181.
However, in the State Department speech, in an attempt to anticipate Netanyahu’s attack on his policies on his own turf, the President had the temerity to repeat a position taken by every one of his predecessors since Lyndon Johnson. This was that the United States considers the 1967 lines (with “land swaps”) the basis for a settlement, as per Security Council resolution 242 of November 1967. In Israel and on Capitol Hill this was considered an occasion for ritual outrage because Obama failed to mention explicitly George W. Bush’s crucial concession to Israel’s ceaseless building of illegal settlements in the occupied territories. This came in a letter to Ariel Sharon in 2004 in which Bush wrote: “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.”
After he had aroused Netanyahu’s fury in his State Department speech, speaking to AIPAC the President’s reprised Bush’s crucial capitulation to the Israeli position, albeit in a slightly less fulsome form, referring simply to “new demographic realities on the ground.” Having already accepted that the Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state in the first speech (a demand that originated with Netanyahu, and had never before been made by Israeli negotiators), in the second Obama implicitly accepted another new Israeli demand, made explicit in Netanyahu’s own speech, for a permanent Israeli military presence along the Jordan River Valley.
The first is the demand not for Palestinian recognition of Israel, which has already taken place, but of Israel as a Jewish state, rather than as the state of all its citizens. This means that the 1.4 million Palestinians living inside Israel must remain second-class citizens and that Palestinians must renounce their conviction that all of Palestine is their homeland. Netanyahu’s demand for control of the Jordan River valley “and other places of critical strategic and national importance” in the West Bank means in effect that a Palestinian state will be no more sovereign and no more of a “state” than a Bantustan, with Israel controlling its key border and dominating it exactly as it does the occupied territories today.
There was much else in Netanyahu’s speech: all of Eretz Israel is “the Jewish homeland,” including “Judea and Samaria [where] the Jewish people are not foreign occupiers.” However, the truncated statelet that Israel may eventually deign to grant the Palestinians in perhaps a fifth of the country is all the Palestinians get as a “homeland.” There is to be no return of refugees to Israel. Jerusalem will never be divided and will remain the united capital of Israel. It was the speech of a man who has no intention of negotiating anything with the Palestinians, and seeks to guarantee that he will not have to, by setting out a position that would keep even a Palestinian Quisling away from the negotiating table.
While this was not a good week for Barack Obama, and was a very good one for Binyamin Netanyahu, it also can be a salutary occasion for Palestinians and Arabs. It should finally cure those still infected with the diseased notion that they have anything to gain by bending to the importuning of American diplomacy. It should alleviate any doubt that there is any reason to avoid seeking entirely new means to achieve Palestinian national aims. Justice and liberation for the Palestinians, and peace for the entire region, will not come from following the course of the last two decades: exclusive reliance on the United States. If this week in Washington did not make that crystal clear to even the most deluded Palestinian, presumably nothing will.
So there is no point, if ever there was, in waiting for Godot to appear in DC. What is to be done is another, harder question. An optimist would say that the organized, shrewd, massive non-violent methods that have played a central role in the Arab revolutionary upsurge of the past six months have provided an object lesson for Palestinians. Hopefully, this will be a lesson especially to those who have relied on futile, self-defeating and indiscriminate violence largely directed against civilians. However, a pessimist would say that the desperate struggle that Arab revolutionaries are waging in the face of armed reaction in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria have dimmed that lesson.
The fact that Israel’s leaders have been carefully watching events unfold in its neighborhood, and specifically these new methods of mass mobilization, is evident in their vicious reaction to the Nakba Day marches on May 15. The targeting of unarmed demonstrators with sniper fire may have been meant to teach a lesson to anyone who would try to march peacefully on Israel’s borders in the future. And that lesson was intentionally painful. Over fifteen unarmed protestors were murdered and scores wounded. In addition, what were most likely rounds intended to fragment upon impact were fired from a couple of dozen meters away (at which distance no trained soldier could possibly miss) at the backs of several fleeing protestors near Maroun al-Ras in Lebanon, intentionally causing horrific injuries.
Of course, this may just have been standard IDF operating procedure. A few days after these reactions to unarmed peaceful protest, the US Congress offered twenty-six standing ovations to a ringing speech asserting Israel’s absolute right to “self-defense.” It is little wonder that Israel’s leaders long ago rightly concluded that with this kind of endorsement, they can get away with anything, even the intentional killing of unarmed young people, as they have been doing for so long. Some authoritarian Arab leaders who order their security forces to shoot unarmed protestors get similar indulgence from Washington, while others get sanctions or bombs.
Other means than mass protest, including diplomatic, popular, informational and other initiatives are possibilities for the Palestinians in this new Arab era. But a precondition for success in any strategy is that the Palestinian people take the lead away from the sclerotic, bankrupt and self-interested leaderships that have stifled them for so long on both sides of the Fateh-Hamas divide. The thus-far successful popular demand for the end to petty, self-destructive, partisan inter-Palestinian divisions, together with the May 15 popular marches, may be long-awaited indications that Palestinians have in fact started in this direction.