SHAIK: “US loses its mojo as broker to Mid-east” December 14, 2009

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by Michael Shaik  -  The Australian -  16 December 2009

ANY way you look at it, President Barack Obama’s campaign to rehabilitate US standing in the Middle East by bringing a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict is in tatters.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who was elected five years ago on a platform of ending the intifada in favour of a negotiated end to the occupation that would bring the Palestinians their own state, is refusing to take part in negotiations until Israel ceases settlement construction.

Israel is making a mockery of the US’s refusal to recognise Hamas by negotiating with it over the release of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the captive soldier Gilad Shalit.

Meanwhile, in the West Bank, it is presenting a boom in settlement construction as a “painful concession for peace”. The concession involves “restraining” construction to (only) 3000 houses throughout the West Bank.

The flashpoint city of Jerusalem, where most of the construction is taking place, is excluded from any restraint.

As Israel’s settlers make a show of protesting such “concessions”, its leaders are busily drowning out the last murmurings of America’s calls for a settlement freeze by heralding the blossoming of an “economic peace” of booming stockmarkets and new businesses that are opening throughout the West Bank as a result of Israel’s easing of movement restrictions.

Rather than continuing with unrealistic calls for a settlement freeze, Obama would do better to pressure Abbas to resume negotiations towards a two-state solution.

Offstage, however, the prospects for such a solution are being quietly extinguished.

While the settlements themselves cover 2 per cent of the West Bank, their “municipal boundaries” encompass vast swaths of Palestinian land, in many cases extending to the edge of Palestinian villages.

According to a recent report by the World Bank, “restricted movement remains the norm for the vast majority of Palestinians”, for whom almost 60 per cent of the West Bank remains “inaccessible for economic purposes”. Still more ominously, Israel has recently moved to sever trade with East Jerusalem, “the heart of the West Bank economy”, by banning West Bank traders from the city.

This month, after witnessing Palestinians being evicted from their homes in East Jerusalem to make room for Jewish settlers, veteran peace activist Rabbi Arik Ascherman described the city as a “volcano about to blow” and warned that “the Obama administration remains a laughing stock at best, and in many quarters the US is again the subject of scorn and derision”.

Obama has few options in salvaging the situation. If he pressures Abbas to resume negotiations, he risks embroiling both himself and Abbas in another “peace process” of empty gestures, as the territorial basis of a two-state solution continues to diminish. If he follows the example of George H.W. Bush and threatens to cut aid to Israel unless it freezes settlement expansion, he will certainly provoke a formidable Israel lobby at home and a congressional revolt.

If he reverts to his predecessor’s original “hands off” policy, he will be ceding “the field to America’s enemies who are counting on the Arab-Israeli dispute as the gift that keeps on giving.”

Under such circumstances, his best option is probably to avoid a direct confrontation with Israel over American aid, while maintaining his opposition to Israel’s settlements and publicly supporting the work of people such as Rabbi Ascherman and his Palestinian partners in non-violently resisting the colonisation of Palestinian land.

Such a course would limit the damage US support for Israel does to its international standing, while providing the Palestinians with a non-violent alternative to the armed struggle. Its disadvantage is that it would mark the end of American efforts to bring about a two-state solution. Yet realism is directing one’s policies towards achievable objectives.

In the early 1990s, a two-state solution based on Israel’s withdrawal from the Occupied Territories seemed realistic. Today, with a burgeoning population of half a million settlers dominating fully 40 per cent of the West Bank, the most ardent proponents of a two-state solution are those who insist upon Israel’s right to unrestricted settlement expansion.

Far from being a solution, “two states” has become a euphemism for a one-state reality in which two populations living in the same country are governed under different laws and have differing access to roads, water, housing and other resources.

While such a shift in policy would not bring peace to the country overnight, it would, at least, align the US with a more productive dynamic.

If Obama is to justify his Nobel Peace Prize and restore the US’s reputation as a force for peace and the protection of human rights, he should at least avoid becoming entangled in yet another “peace process” that normalises the violent displacement of the West Bank’s defenceless indigenous population.

Michael Shaik is the public advocate for Australians for Palestine

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