The Palestinians and Obama
Two recent policy speeches prove that Obama is not on the side of the Palestinians, writes Saleh Al-Naami
In the afternoon of 19 May, Khalil Kweik, 54, was downcast and upset. His family was about to lose the last plot of land they own in the northeast tip of Bethlehem. On that day, the government of Israel approved the expansion of a settlement district in Jabal Abu Ghoneim, which is built on annexed Palestinian land. It includes tens of dunams belonging to the Kweik family.
Despite the despair within, Kweik believed that either he, his children or his grandchildren would one day take back this land that is part of the Palestinian territories that were occupied in 1967. But it became apparent to Kweik, and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, that if it were up to US President Barack Obama they would never recover their usurped land. In a speech Sunday to AIPAC (American Israel Political Affairs Committee), Barack stated that any settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict must take into consideration the demographic changes that have occurred since the 1967 war.
These demographic changes are primarily Israel building hundreds of settlements in the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Golan that now house hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers. In his second address at the AIPAC Policy Conference, Obama shattered the single positive point he made during his first speech on 19 May addressing Arabs and Muslims. He had talked about the right of the Palestinians to a state within the 1967 borders, but it seems that in his second speech Obama revived the content of the letter of guarantee that his predecessor Bush sent to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in April 2004. This essentially backed Israel's claim to hold on to settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem.
Obama told AIPAC that the borders of the promised Palestinian state do not necessarily mean the 1967 borders. "The parties themselves will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on 4 June 1967," he said. "It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last 44 years." He went further by adopting the Israeli view on inter-Palestinian reconciliation by putting a veto on the deal. Obama described it as a "huge obstacle" to reaching a political settlement for the conflict.
In his first speech, he indirectly threatened the Palestinian leadership and warned them against going to the UN to seek the General Assembly's recognition of a Palestinian state. Palestinian leaders believe that Barack Obama will go down in history as the most supportive US president of Zionist goals, noting that it doesn't take much to realise how far Obama has come in agreeing with Netanyahu's position on the Palestinian cause.
Wassel Abu Youssef, member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation's (PLO) Executive Committee, asserted that Obama's speech would not affect the plans of Palestinian leaders to go to the UN in search of international recognition for Palestinian statehood. Neither does Abu Youssef believe that Obama's address will influence the implementation of the national reconciliation deal that was recently signed in Cairo. "The indirect threats against the Palestinian leadership in Obama's speech regarding going to the UN for world recognition of a Palestinian state are pointless," he added, since the Palestinian leaderships are moving full steam ahead in preparation for recognition.
Abu Youssef revealed to Al-Ahram Weekly that the Palestinians decided to go down that path only after the Israel government rejected all means of reaching a just political settlement for the conflict. He rejected Obama's description of the issues of Jerusalem and refugees as "emotional", saying: "Resolving these two issues is a cornerstone of any just political settlement. It is impossible for a Palestinian state to be created without Jerusalem as its capital. It is also impossible that the Palestinians will agree to a settlement that does not resolve the issue of the refugees by implementing UN General Assembly Resolution 194."
Abu Youssef noted that Obama's attempt to legitimise Israel's appropriation of Jewish settlements in the West Bank as part of any settlement "will make such a resolution unacceptable to the Palestinian people". He added that Obama's discussion of Palestinian statehood ignored two important elements that would have added value to his speech, namely a deadline for the creation of a Palestinian state (which is a regression from his previous positions), and a willingness to put pressure on Netanyahu. Obama said that the US would not impose a solution on either party, "which is a clear invitation to Netanyahu to continue his hardline policies."
The PLO official said that the Palestinian Authority (PA) would forge ahead with its approach to the world community to oblige it shoulder its historic responsibility and take action, since Netanyahu has blocked all political options to resolve the conflict. Abu Youssef rejected Obama's position regarding national Palestinian reconciliation, stating that this is a domestic Palestinian issue. "Obama's speech will have no effect on the formation of the interim government, especially on who the next prime minister will be," he asserted.
Palestinians agree that Obama shamelessly adopted the right-wing Israeli position in the conflict by asking the Palestinians to recognise Israel as a Jewish state, which is the same demand that Netanyahu and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman have made. Such recognition would not only mean that the Palestinians are abandoning the right of return since it would jeopardise the demographic of Jews in Palestine, but more prominently would legitimise any steps that Israel takes to maintain the Jewish character of the state. This could include racist laws, oppressive measures against 1948 Palestinians and those in Jerusalem to force them off their land.
Obama talked about land swaps between Israel and the expected Palestinian state, but deliberately did not mention the area or location of land to be exchanged. Here, Israel could propose a previous plan by Lieberman and the leaders of the extremist right-wing in Israel to swap Jewish settlements in the West Bank in exchange for the triangle which is home to the majority of 1948 Palestinians. Such a move would guarantee two strategic goals for Israel; it would ensure the appropriation of settlements by Israel while at the same time getting rid of the demographic burden of 1948 Palestinians.
It is noticeable that Obama's speech contained many incentives for Netanyahu to continue his policies and procrastination. In this way, Israel could continue settlement building, Judaisation, and imposing realities on the ground until there is no more substance to discuss regarding a Palestinian state, all without fear of US reaction. The Obama administration had in fact surrendered when it informed the PA that it was unable to convince Netanyahu to freeze settlements.
As evidence that Netanyahu is dealing with Obama on this basis, hours before Obama gave his first speech, Netanyahu agreed to let his Ministry of Interior open up tenders for the construction of hundreds of residential units around occupied Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Obama declared his intention to continue military and economic aid to Israel and maintaining its strategic advantage over the rest of the countries in the region.
In the wake of Obama's two speeches, the Palestinians are facing a difficult test while the threatening tone is clear. Obama not only wants to remove all the important issues that the Palestinians could use to confront Israel; he also wants to crush the Palestinian dream of ending internal divisions. He is putting pressure on the PA leadership to return to farcical negotiations with Israel, in all likelihood to nix inter-Palestinian reconciliation.
Obama, who will soon launch his election campaign for a second term, is interested in the Jewish vote, and one way of securing that is agreeing to Israel's demands and adopting its agenda. In response, the PA must insist on national unity and going to the UN without hesitation in coordination with the Arab and Islamic world, as well as countries that do not adopt the US position.