Quick Reactions on Obama and the Peace Process

By Stephen Maher

I woke up this morning, got into my office, and was confronted by an email from Haaretz (the Israeli news daily) urging me to "stand with President Obama" after his "historic address" where he "made clear" that he is committed to a "leadership" role in reaching a two-state solution. While the "usual suspects" will likely rush to characterize the President's bold "insistence" that Israel meet its international obligations as the latest example of his unjust criticism of Israel, the email warns, Obama's "vigorous efforts," bravely and heroically forcing Israel to comply with its responsibilities, is actually "the single most pro-Israel thing an American President can do." Given that this characterization of the debate, based entirely on faulty assumptions about both Obama's and Bush's actions, has been echoed by a large portion of the world's major media outlets, I feel it is important to comment.

The important thing is the issues that are at stake here, and Obama's positions on them, not rhetoric and public relations bluster. We must remember that all that Obama has asked for is a settlement freeze. Right now, the dispute between Obama and Netanyahu is essentially over whether Israel has a right to build within the existing settlement blocks - Netanyahu has already put a freeze in place on building outside the blocks, much to the dismay of the Shas party.

Importantly, Obama says nothing about the settlements that already exist, and has thus implicitly recognized the legitimacy of the existence of blocks in the first place in accordance with US policy. As opposed to viewing the settlements as individual entities, each to be linked individually to Israel if they are to remain Israeli under a final settlement, they are combined into impermeable "blocks," or strips of land which are de facto annexed to Israel. These settlement blocks, including the dense network of bypass roads and system of electric fence, ALREADY divide the Palestinian West Bank into four totally isolated and non-contiguous cantons. Thus, simply freezing building within the blocks that are already acknowleged to exist will do little, if anything, to help the chances of a Palestinian state being created, or of Palestinian rights being recognized and respected.

Building outside the blocks was once an idea harbored and espoused only by the hard Israeli right, with the Labor Party's Allon Plan (formulated after the 1967 war and occupation of Palestinian territory) essentially resembling the current "settlement block" approach, carving the West Bank into isolated cantons; all that Netanyahu has frozen are settlements being constructed within these Palestinian cantons. These "non-block" settlements further divide the four large West Bank cantons into 23 separated islands of Palestinian territory, each fully controlled from the outside by Israel. Obama has not said a word about uprooting any portion of this infrastructure.

It's wonderful that Obama supports the two-state solution, but given the above it should be no surprise that he has declined to say where, when, or how. On what part of the West Bank and Gaza will this state be proclaimed? This question is especially pressing given that during the campaign Obama expressed his support for an "undivided" and Israeli-annexed Jerusalem, despite the fact that the World Court has ruled that Israel does not have one inch of sovereignty in Jerusalem (July 2004 ruling). This, of course, leaving aside the fact that the Israeli occupation has not relented in even the slightest way, with arrests and detentions as well as Israeli incursions and violence in Palestinian villages spiking in the West Bank and the usual routine of checkpoints and roadblocks continuing to make daily life unbearable for the 5 million people imprisoned in the West Bank and Gaza. This also without mentioning the increasingly-violent attacks by Israel's "subcontractor"(former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami, Scars of War, Wounds of Peace), the Palestinian Authority (lead by the US stooge Mahmoud Abbas) against elected representatives, spiritual leaders, and any other Palestinians who might dare to resist the occupation, or speak too loudly about the daily outrages against human dignity committed by the Israelis in the occupied territories.

To top it all off, even on this minor little point (freezing settlements), the tiniest and most insignificant of changes, Obama has refused to exert US pressure on Israel to comply. It's important to compare Obama to his predecessor here. While the George W. Bush administration went a bit beyond words in objecting to illegal Israeli settlement projects, namely, by withholding U.S. economic support for them, Obama administration officials have stated that such measures are "not under discussion," and that any pressures on Israel will be "largely symbolic," the New York Times reported (Helene Cooper, June 1). In fact, on each major element of policy towards Israel, from Hamas' inclusion in a democratically-representative unity government to the settlements, Obama has reiterated the Bush positionessentially verbatim (see here if you don't believe me). The only detectable "change" is one of tone and rhetoric - in other words, marketing. Obama is indeed proving to be a better spokesman for the Bush policies than his predecessor.

In short, those of us who want peace had better stop passively and mindlessly "standing with Obama" as the euphoric, almost hysterical liberal American and Israeli press have and demand that the longstanding international consensus - endorsed by the entire world, including the UN General Assembly, the Arab League, the World Court, the Palestinian leadership (both Hamas and Fatah), but rejected unilaterally by the US and Israel.

I found this map (.pdf), from the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which reveals plainly how the West Bank is divided in isolated cantons, separated from one another by the settlements, roadblocks, checkpoints, electric fences, the wall, the Jewish-only bypass roads, and Israeli "security zones." This is probably the best map out there of the circumstances on the ground today, as it reveals the cumulative effects of Israeli policy on the West Bank, including the impact of the "non-block" settlements and the so-called "illegal outposts," essentially settlements built without the official approval of the Israeli government (but which are mostly protected by the Israeli Army, and often if not usually given approval to become official settlements eventually). Definitely worth a look - I'll try to figure out how to make it into an image which I can post here.

Also worth looking at, below, is an approximation of what the Israelis were offering for a Palestinian "state" at Camp David in 2000. As you can plainly see, the lands on which this "state" would exist (the pink areas) are separated from one another by the large settlement blocks, which, like Obama, Clinton and Barak did not propose removing, but rather sought a Palestinian signature to legitimize their permanent annexation to Israel. As I mentioned, accepting the idea of settlement blocs means the complete dismemberment of the Palestinian West Bank, with or without Obama's "courageous" freeze on further building within the blocks. Believe it or not, this map actually paints an excessively rosy picture, since the outlying settlements (outside the blocs) and the roads which join them are depicted as being in Palestinian-controlled territory; today (as the above UN map shows) these areas are under full Israeli control, and subdivide the four main cantons (the four large pink areas) into much smaller fragments (click to enlarge).