OLSEN: Changing Tides — Overview of 2009 in Palestine January 12, 2010


by Pamela J Olsen  -  Fast Times in Palestine -  9 January 2010

People are always asking me, “How are things in Palestine? How have things changed since you were there last?” These are difficult questions to answer, in part because it’s difficult to explain how things came to this pass without writing a book.

The short answer is, violence is down in the West Bank, and a few major checkpoints have been opened for longer periods than usual. Buildings are going up in Ramallah at an astonishing rate, and Arab Israelis are allowed to visit Nablus on Saturdays to shop. Nablus has had a building boom of its own, and the Huwara checkpoint being open most of the time has given that besieged city a breathing space it hasn’t enjoyed in years. It even has a mall and a cinema now.

Yet Palestinians are more depressed and downhearted than ever. Why?

Two words: Gaza and Obama.

Everything that could possibly go wrong in Gaza has gone wrong. After Hamas won democratic Parliamentary elections in 2006, Israel and the world slapped sanctions and blockades on the Palestinian territories to let them know they had made the ‘wrong’ democratic choice.

Then in the summer of 2007, according to journalist David Rose of Vanity Fair, “President Bush, Condoleezza Rice, and Deputy National-Security Adviser Elliott Abrams backed an armed force under Fatah strongman Muhammad Dahlan, touching off a bloody civil war in Gaza and leaving Hamas stronger than ever.” This is usually cited in the press as Hamas seizing control of the Strip in a bloody coup. There’s rarely any mention of who started it.

Since then, the blockade against the Gaza Strip has worsened into a humanitarian crisis, and the Palestinian territories have been split between the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and the Fatah-controlled West Bank. It’s had a profoundly depressing effect on the Palestinian people, producing many sad and pointless rifts and retaliations.

To top it all off, Israel has a hard-line right-wing government led by Benjamin Netanyahu whose positions are laughably far from the general international consensus based on international law. But this isn’t what depresses the Palestinians, because they know where power ultimately resides: Washington, DC. And the US has a new President: Barack Hussein Obama.

In June 2009, Obama gave a stirring speech in Cairo that showed unprecedented respect and understanding of the Middle East and its context. More importantly, Obama put his prestige and the good will of the entire Arab world on the line by saying publicly that Israel would have to stop settlement expansion in order for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority to resume.

Hope was kindled in many hearts that things might really be different this time. The days of Israel violating international law with impunity might finally be over. The Palestinian Authority felt emboldened to take a similarly strong stance against settlements. They said to their people, “See what our non-violent call for negotiations has achieved? Hamas may have taken credit for driving the Israelis out of Gaza, but we’ll be the ones to deliver the West Bank!”

To no one’s surprise, Netanyahu merely chuckled, approved a few hundred more settlement housing units, and went back to his morning coffee, confident he could expand whatever he wanted and Obama wouldn’t do a damn thing.

Apparently he was right. The Obama administration did a little hemming and hawing, and for appearance’s sake, Netanyahu said, “Fine, I’ll freeze settlement expansion. Right after I finish the 3,000 settlement housing units already under construction and approve a few hundred more. I’ll call it ‘natural growth’ to make it sound kosher. And of course I’ll keep building security infrastructure and schools and synagogues in the West Bank, cuz normal life has to go on for Jews, you know? And forget about ‘East’ Jerusalem. We’ll build whatever we want in it and keep kicking Palestinians out of their homes and replacing them with Jews. After ten months, I’ll have to resume construction everywhere, otherwise my right-wing coalition will get antsy. Take it or leave it.”

The Palestinian Authority could never accept such a farce. They hoped the US would finally have their back on this one.

Nope. Hillary Clinton hailed Netanyahu’s ‘concessions’ as “unprecedented.” Then she started mumbling about how negotiations should go forward without preconditions, as if it were the Palestinians who were blocking the path to peace—as if Obama never made a crystal-clear call for freezing settlement expansion as a precondition for talks himself. The Palestinian Authority was left with their asses hanging in the wind, as usual.

As one commenter put it: “This is similar to Bill Clinton’s inviting Arafat to Camp David II despite the bad timing and lack of preparation. Clinton said, ‘Hey, come on, if the talks fail, we won’t blame you.’ But the talks failed, and Arafat was blamed. Here we have it again. It’s like Lucy, Charlie Brown, and the football.”

I understand that Israel/Palestine might not be Obama’s number one priority given that he’s fighting two losing wars and financial and health care crises. But the least he could have done was not make things worse. More and more Palestinians are asking: If a black President with a Muslim father can’t deliver change, who on earth can?


It only gets worse. On September 15, 2009, the Goldstone Report was released by the UN Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict led by Judge Richard Goldstone. It detailed a seemingly endless series of alleged Israeli war crimes against Gaza’s civilians during Operation Cast Lead in early 2009.

Judge Goldstone is a highly-respected South African Jewish judge who served as the chief prosecutor of the UN Criminal Tribunals against the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. He took on the Gaza assignment with a heavy heart because he had a great deal of respect and affection for Israel. But in the best Jewish tradition, he knew justice must be blind, and he took on the nightmarish task.

To his shock, Israel refused to cooperate with the investigation at all. He had to enter the Gaza Strip through Egypt, and what he saw there, he said, would give him nightmares for the rest of his life. When the report came out, instead of addressing the substance of the report, the Israel lobby and its backers slandered the venerable judge, calling him biased and saying his report encouraged terrorism, made it harder for democracies to defend themselves, and damaged the peace process.

First of all, what peace process? Second, any ‘peace process’ that might be harmed by investigations into credibly alleged war crimes sounds like a pretty rotten peace process to me.

Nonetheless, when the Goldstone Report went before the UN Human Rights Council, the US government pressured Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to withdraw his support for it. Abbas acquiesced. Goldstone was shocked again. If the Palestinians didn’t endorse the report, it wouldn’t go anywhere. People who’d been working for justice for Palestinians for decades felt betrayed. The Palestinians themselves were simply dumbfounded.

As I wrote in an earlier post, there was an outcry among the Palestinian public so intense, Abbas was forced to reverse his decision. The Goldstone Report then passed easily the UN General Assembly with 114 in favor, 18 against, and 44 abstentions.

But the damage had been done to Abbas. The Palestinian public, many of whom already thought of him as a tool of Israel and America, began to despise him.

Abbas Gets Fed Up

In general, Palestinians are getting fed up with the formula, “Suppress dissent among your own people and wait for the Americans to pressure the Israelis to agree to a fair two-state solution based on international law.” Even Abbas—architect of the Oslo Accords, head of a corrupt and nepotistic ‘Authority,’ reliable puppet of so many years—is getting fed up.

In early November, Abbas held a press conference and announced that he wasn’t going to run for president in the upcoming elections. It sparked a firestorm of debate about what it all meant. Some believe he is genuinely fed up and just wants to take his money and run. The US has backed him into a corner where if he makes one more idiotic move, he’s likely to be ousted by his own people anyway.

“This is an obvious sign of frustration,” said Nabil Shaath, a member of the central committee of Fatah. Abbas is “absolutely frustrated that the Palestinians have fulfilled every ounce of the American requirements in the roadmap and got nothing in return.”

Salah Bardawil, a Hamas leader, said Abbas had been mistaken to place his trust in the US: “We warned from the start these negotiations wouldn’t bring anything to the Palestinians. He didn’t listen to us and now he suffers.”

Others think it’s a way to pressure the Americans and Israelis. They’ve created an atmosphere so toxic that if Abbas does quit, he’ll likely be replaced by far more uncompromising leadership. (This was what happened in 2005-2006. In 2005, the Israelis and Americans humiliated and marginalized Abbas. In 2006, Hamas won the Parliamentary elections.) New presidential elections are scheduled for early 2010, and if the US State Department wants their man Abbas to succeed, they’d better make some serious changes.

Then again, it looks like the 2010 elections probably won’t happen anyway. The West Bank and Gaza are still split, and Hamas says they won’t let Gazans vote in elections unless there’s a reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah and a unity government formed—a prospect that seems to recede further and further as time goes on.

Everything’s backed into a corner with no apparent means of escape. The deadlock is palpable. It feels like the moment before an earthquake, when the earth has been strained past the point where incremental steps to ease the tension might work. A rupture seems imminent.

Declaration of Independence?

Palestinians don’t have much stomach for continued violence, but they are starting to look for radical solutions. One option is for the PA to declare its mission to negotiate a fair two-state solution a failure and dissolve itself. It’s the equivalent of going limp when someone is trying to arrest you. I’ve heard Palestinians say they’d rather go back to direct occupation by Israel so that at least the situation is clear, and Israel will once again be obligated to ensure the well-being of the civilians under occupation—a job it now pawns off on European donors to the PA—which Israel frankly can’t afford.

But this would mean hundreds of Palestinian Authority bigwigs giving up their salaries and privileges, which would violate the Iron Law of Institutions (the tendency of people to care more about their power within an organization than the success of that institution).

Another option is to declare an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza and seek international backing for it. In August, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad released a detailed plan for building up PA institutions over the next two years. The Israeli government approved of it until they found out there was a political angle: The plan also contained a classified portion calling for a unilateral declaration of independence. At the end of two years, the PA, in conjunction with the Arab League, would file a ‘claim of sovereignty’ to the UN Security Council on the 1967 borders.

The Palestine Liberation Organization tried to declare independence in 1988, but at the time it wasn’t feasible to implement it in any meaningful way. Times have changed, though, and such a declaration now might develop a dynamic of its own.

In November, the Israeli government became alarmed when reports surfaced that major EU countries and some US officials might support a Palestinian declaration of independence. “The reports indicated that Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has reached a secret understanding with the Obama administration over U.S. recognition of an independent Palestinian state. Such recognition would likely transform any Israeli presence across the Green Line, even in Jerusalem, into an illegal incursion to which the Palestinians would be entitled to engage in measures of self-defense.”

As South African/American journalist Tony Karon put it, “In the shocked aftermath of the 1967 war, Fatah took the lead in breaking the Palestine Liberation Organisation free of the tutelage of the Arab League, in a declaration of independence that put their fate in their own hands rather than relying on Arab armies to defeat Israel. Today, they face a similar challenge—declaring independence from Washington and once again taking their fate into their own hands.”

The EU looks ready to recognize Palestinian statehood, and so does Russia. The Arab world, Africa, Latin America, and Asia would probably support it, and Fayyad has said he presented the proposal to the US and got no signal of opposition.

“It’s a very dangerous move,” said a senior Israeli foreign-policy official. “More and more cabinet ministers understand that diplomatic inaction on Israel’s part is likely to bring international support for the Fayyad program.”

If the US threatens to veto it, the Palestinians could say, “You’ve failed in all your attempts at brokering negotiations, even when we had a moderate leader like Abbas who was committed to non-violence. You couldn’t even get Israel to stop expanding settlements. The entire Arab League put forth a two-state peace initiative, and Israel simply ignored it. And you’ve said over and over that a Palestinian state is in the American interest. Why would you veto this?”

Besides, as Henry Siegman of the Council on Foreign Relations and former Executive Director of the American Jewish Congress writes, “The assumption, implicit in Israel’s occupation policy, [is] that if no peace agreement is reached, the ‘default setting’ of UN Security Council Resolution 242 is the indefinite continuation of Israel’s occupation. If this reading were true, the resolution would actually be inviting an occupying power that wishes to retain its adversary’s territory to do so simply by means of avoiding peace talks—which is exactly what Israel has been doing.”

The US might veto it anyway, but even a vetoed resolution would bring attention to the fact that the US has failed, that Israel and America are the primary obstacles to a fair two-state peace, and that the EU has been pouring money into PA institutions toward a state for 16 years, and all that’s been achieved is more settlements and a great deal of death and destruction.

If US didn’t veto it and the UN passed a Security Council resolution recognizing Palestine within 1967 borders, it would allow Palestinians to leverage much greater international pressure against Israel for continuing to expropriate land, build settlements, and maintain the siege and occupation.

According to Richard Silverstein, “It would embolden international institutions like the World Court to more energetically pursue claims against Israel.” It would enable the UN to take a leadership position rather than a backseat to the US. Israel would be further isolated, more vulnerable to boycotts, divestment, and sanctions. It could be “precisely the bucket of cold water needed to bring Israel (or at least the significant pragmatic segment within Israeli society) to its senses.”

Netanyahu is Playing a Dangerous Game

Meanwhile, with or without a declaration, grassroots pressure on Israeli is heating up around the world. Things are being said in American papers, in the US Congress, and on American TV that would have been unthinkable just two or three years ago.

When Ehud Olmert, who was Prime Minister of Israel when the assault on Gaza took place in early 2009, did a US speaking tour in October 2009, he could barely speak for being disrupted, subjected to mock citizens’ arrests, and called a war criminal by audiences in Chicago, San Francisco, and elsewhere. President Shimon Peres was recently greeted by angry demonstrations in Argentina and Brazil. More and more Israeli leaders are afraid to travel abroad for fear they’ll be arrested on war crimes charges.

In February, Hampshire College in Amherst, MA became the first US college to divest from companies on the grounds of their involvement in the Israeli occupation of Palestine. (Hampshire was also the first US college to divest from Apartheid South Africa thirty-two years ago based on similar human rights concerns.) Nine months later, in November, Hampshire hosted a National Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Conference that seemed grounded, strategic, and prepared to win. Campuses all over the country now have organized cells pushing for divestment. (My alma mater, Stanford University, was on this bandwagon early.)

Roger Cohen suggested in the New York Times that we should talk to Hamas and Hezbollah. He wrote, “Perhaps Hamas is sincere in its calls for Israel’s disappearance — although it has offered a decades-long truce — but then it’s also possible that Israel in reality has no desire to see a Palestinian state. One view of Israel’s continued expansion of settlements, Gaza blockade, West Bank walling-in and wanton recourse to high-tech force would be that it’s designed precisely to bludgeon, undermine and humiliate the Palestinian people until their dreams of statehood and dignity evaporate.”

He said that “Israel has the right to hit back when attacked, but any response should be proportional and governed by sober political calculation. The Gaza war was a travesty; I have never previously felt so shamed by Israel’s actions.”

And in the comment section of his article, nearly every reader-recommended comment agreed with him.

The debate on TV is still almost entirely one-sided, with scant attention paid to Palestinian realities, rights, and arguments. But that truth-telling jester, Jon Stewart, is ahead of the curve on this, too. He was practically the only person on cable television to express outrage over what Israel did to Gaza.

Given that Jon Stewart is such an opinion-maker—voted the most trusted man in news after Walter Cronkite died—it’s heartening that his views on Israel/Palestine are so spot-on. (I never fail to notice that whenever he shows a map of Israel, he cuts out the occupied West Bank, Gaza, and Golan Heights.)

He went further in October by inviting my old boss, Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi, and a Jewish-American peace activist named Anna Baltzer to give a joint interview on his show. There was huge pressure to cancel it from the usual suspects, but Jon remained resolute and the show went on. Mr. Stewart did throw a lot of bogus Israeli talking points at them, but he also gave them space to respond to them. And when a Zionist in the front row shouted, “Liar!” after Dr. Barghouthi said Palestinians had been subjected to a system of segregation, Jon Stewart made fun of him. When he cat-called again, he was escorted from the premises. The crowd repeatedly cheered Anna and Dr. Barghouthi, and the video rocketed to near the top-rated Daily Show interview of all time.

The international movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) called for by Palestinian civil society in 2005 has also gained momentum. A multinational corporation called Veolia abandoned the Jerusalem Light Rail project that served to entrench the occupation of East Jerusalem after a concerted international grassroots campaign. The Norwegian government divested from Elbit Systems because of its role in the construction of the illegal Wall.

(My friend Mohammad Othman, now in Israeli prison, was instrumental in the Norwegian divestment. Unfortunately, Palestinian non-violent efforts are being cracked down on by Israel with increasing brutality. But that’s a long story that deserves its own post.)

And Henry Siegman, former director of the American Jewish Congress, wrote an article in The Nation that calls Israel “the only apartheid regime in the Western world.”

This is just the tip of the iceberg. As Israeli journalist Gideon Levy put it, Israel is rapidly becoming a nation alone.

The point is (according to Israeli journalist Naom Sheizaf), “all those opposing the occupation here and abroad, shouldn’t occupy themselves with hopes of political change in Israel. Chances are it won’t happen soon, and even if it does, it probably won’t help much… But international pressure on Israel does help… Israelis may complain of double standards, ask why the world couldn’t pick on China or Sudan (truth is it does), but in the end, the pressure gets to us. It makes pundits suggest new ideas and politicians explore new positions, since everybody fears that any solution forced by the international community will surely be worse than the one we come up with.”

Washington Shifting Ever-so-slightly

Even the American Administration is showing signs of getting fed up. Congress did pass its idiotic legislation condemning the Goldstone Report by a vote of 344 to 36, with 22 abstentions. But believe it or not, that’s a narrow win compared to the usual mindless passage of pro-Israel legislation. Several Congressmen, including two who actually visited the Gaza Strip—Brian Baird and Keith Ellison—came out strongly against the measure. Brian Baird even compared his own twin boys to the dead children of Gaza.

There was never a question that the legislation would pass, but according to Josh Ruebner of the US Campaign to End the Occupation, “[after] watching more than 10 years of debate on Israel/Palestine resolutions in Congress, I cannot remember one which featured such a robust performance by the opponents of a ‘pro-Israel’ resolution and such a feeble performance by its supporters. Clearly the discourse on Israel/Palestine has changed in the general public and it seems like more Members of Congress are starting to get it.”

The Obama Administration may be starting to catch on, too. According to Israeli analyst Daniel Levy, “It is not the new approach of the Obama administration that has failed, but rather, this is a moment of clarity regarding the bankruptcy of the old approach that has guided policy for over a decade and that the Obama team had inherited and embraced. As Rob Malley and others have argued, what is needed now is a review (as has been conducted in other foreign policy areas) and a testing and likely abandonment of many of the prevailing policy assumptions.”

Daniel Levy again: “During his first term as prime minister in the late 90’s, Benjamin Netanyahu made an enemy of then US President Clinton and played the Republican congress against the Democrat president. This directly led to the collapse of Netanyahu’s government and his fall from office. Judging by today, Netanyahu is keen for a repeat performance albeit under circumstances even less propitious for him politically.”

Netanyahu’s stubbornness on settlements may have led Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to call for an “independent and viable [Palestinian] state based on the 1967 lines.” This really is unprecedented—the first explicit American call for negotiations based on international law rather than on Israel’s wants and needs. On a recent trip to Jerusalem, Clinton asked Netanyahu to reference a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders in negotiating guidelines. He refused. Relations between Obama and Netanyahu are reportedly getting colder by the minute.

Unfortunately, the Israel lobby is still very strong. “If Obama tries to make aid to Israel conditional on a settlement freeze,” writes Stephen Walt in the Washington Post, “Congress will simply override him. Putting real pressure on Israel risks alienating key politicians and major Democratic fundraisers, as well as Israel’s supporters in the media, imperiling the rest of Obama’s agenda and conceivably his prospects for reelection. Moreover, several of Obama’s top advisers, such as Dennis Ross [a stalwart unofficial agent of the Israel lobby and prominent cheerleader for the Iraq war], are enthusiastic supporters of America’s ‘special relationship’ with Israel and would almost certainly oppose using U.S. leverage to force Israeli concessions. Obama and special envoy George Mitchell are negotiating with one hand tied behind their backs, and Netanyahu knows it.”

But it’s increasingly obvious that we can’t simply deny Hamas’ existence, starve, bomb, and blockade Gaza, and hope they’ll go away. Hamas has shown many signs of moderation, and each has been ignored. Before elections took place in January 2006, they dropped the call for the destruction of Israel from their manifesto. Hamas has also renounced suicide bombings, and the Hamas leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, said his government was willing to accept a Palestinian state on the ’67 borders.

So if Palestinian ‘extremists’ are willing to settle for less than 22% of historic Palestine, and the rest of the Arab world is, too, what is Israel waiting for?

Because if there’s no two-state solution—if negotiations don’t work, non-violent resistance doesn’t work, unilateral declarations of independence don’t work, and if Israeli settlers continue to consolidate their hold on big chunks of the West Bank, leaving only isolated pockets for the Palestinians, cut off from one another by the network of settler-only roads and tunnels that link the settlements to Jerusalem and each other, and the Israeli government has no will or incentive to end this state of de facto apartheid…

The two-state solution may be dead.

“If that is so,” says the Financial Times, “then the prospect is for a long and bitter fight for equal rights within one state. That would spell the end of Israel as a democratic Jewish state. It would come to resemble in many ways the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. If Mr. Netanyahu believes that he has achieved a victory by refusing to halt the settlements, he is wrong. It is more like a project of national suicide.” (Article reprinted here.)

This argument for a one-state solution by Ali Abunimah of Electronic Intifada is bold, well-researched, and imminently logical. The number one argument against the one-state solution is apparently, “Poll after poll says Israeli Jews would reject it.” Well, what if the continuation of Jim Crow had been left up to Southern white voters?

Israeli commentators are starting to figure this out, too. If they don’t get serious about two states soon, one state looms. They’re even saying it on the Op-Ed pages of mainstream Israeli papers like Yedioth Aharonoth: The status quo is dying.

For the record, I’m not yet indelibly in the one-state camp. But it does seem like the fairest and most elegant solution, and Israel has no one to blame but itself for undermining the two-state formula. Also for the record, I wasn’t thinking seriously about a one-state solution until the assault on Gaza in early 2009. And I don’t think I’m alone.

Either way, it’s increasingly clear that the US can either midwife peace with justice (talk with Hamas, encourage a Palestinian unity deal, and negotiate in good faith based on international law) or let Israel continue its path of destruction and wait for Palestinian resistance to rise again and the rest of the world to back Israel into a corner with boycotts. Netanyahu’s not smart enough to realize this, but we should be.

You’ve got a Nobel Peace Prize, Mr. Obama. Earn it.

Pamela J. Olson: I grew up in small-town Oklahoma and studied physics and political science at Stanford University, class of 2002.  In 2004-5, I worked as a journalist based in Ramallah and served as the foreign press coordinator for Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi when he ran for President of the Palestinian Authority. I’ve published articles in CounterPunch, The Stanford Magazine, Electronic Intifada, Israel’s Occupation Magazine, Mondoweiss, and The Palestine Note. My CV is available here.

In January of 2006, I moved to Washington, DC to try to bring what I had learned to the halls of power. I worked at a Defense Department think tank,  where I was at best ignored when I spoke about what I had witnessed in the  Middle East, at worst called naïve or brainwashed. (Fox News was playing 24  hours a day on the top floor of our building.)  In 2007, I quit and started writing [a book] Fast Times in Palestine. I expect to  have it finished in early 2010.

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