HIJAB: Just as well that Obama had no details about Middle East peace 19May11 May 20, 2011

by Nadia Hijab  -  The Hill’s Congress Blog -  19 May 2011

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict – temporarily pushed off the front pages by the killing of Osama bin Laden – is squarely back in the news as the Obama administration and Israel try to set the agenda in advance of the Palestinian plan to request full membership at the United Nations this September.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is sure to grab the lion’s share of the spotlight with speeches scheduled at a joint session of Congress and at AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and a meeting with President Barack Obama.

But in the world beyond the Beltway, Netanyahu is seen as the main stumbling block to peace, and his expected media blitz won’t help him spin his vision of a greater Israel dominating most of the land and resources between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, with a Palestinian statelet under its control. Nor will the pre-visit announcement that Israel is planning to construct even more illegal settler homes in occupied East Jerusalem.

It’s just as well that President Obama did not present a detailed vision for Middle East peace in his State Department speech today. He has lost considerable credibility given his inability to secure a settlement freeze, let alone a withdrawal of Israeli soldiers and settlers from the occupied territories. Instead, President Obama simply restated some known U.S. positions with seeming firmness – two states, agreed land swaps – and assured Israel of unwavering U.S. support without sticking his neck out on issues such as the Palestinian refugees’ right of return or Jerusalem. Sadly, his silence about the illegality of Israel’s settlement enterprise only emboldens the settlers.

Israel and America – the former accustomed to exercising absolute power over the Palestinians and the latter so practiced in pressuring the weaker party – still insist that direct negotiations are the only way forward, an absurd posture after 20 years of failure.

Meanwhile, the world has moved on. Post-Mubarak Egypt’s hosting of Hamas and Fatah at a reunification ceremony earlier this month in Cairo begins to heal the damaging split that opened between the two factions in 2007. Egypt has also signaled it will no longer play a part in maintaining Israel’s siege of Gaza.

A unified body politic will strengthen the Palestinian leadership’s hand in pushing for statehood, especially as Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal is now an unequivocal advocate of a sovereign, independent Palestinian state “in the 1967 lines with Jerusalem as its capital, without any settlements.”

Israel, of course, has harshly criticized the unity deal. By contrast, major Western powers – including Britain, France, and the U.S. administration (though not Congress) – are waiting to see what positions a new Palestinian government will take. As things stand, Hamas and Fatah have agreed to set up a government of technocrats that will not have responsibility for negotiations, for which the Palestine Liberation Organization is responsible.

Yet diplomacy no longer holds much attraction for Palestinians. Many now favor non-violent direct action. With young people playing a major part, Palestinians around the world held marches this past Sunday to demand the right to return from enforced exile to their homes and lands. Many of the unarmed demonstrators paid with their lives when Israel met them with bullets in the occupied Golan Heights, on the Lebanon border, and in Gaza and the West Bank, and many more were injured.

This public demand for a right that is recognized under international law and by U.N. resolutions but has not been implemented for 63 years will make it harder for Palestinian leaders to cut an unjust deal on refugees along the lines of those reportedly considered during the Oslo negotiations; namely, a symbolic return for a small number to the part of Palestine that became Israel in 1948, and accommodation in the territories occupied in 1967 and host countries for the rest.

In fact, the longer Israel refuses to recognize Palestinian rights, the stronger the hand of the Palestinians will get. The boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, launched in 2005, is now such a powerful force that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said that he fears “it will start coming at us like a glacier, from all corners” after Palestine becomes a member state of the U.N.

Although there are still unanswered questions among Palestinians as to the benefits and pitfalls of the push for U.N. member status – including about the seriousness with which the PA will pursue it – it is clear that statehood would also pose a legal challenge to Israel. Attorney Michael Sfard, a human rights advocate who helps provide legal assistance to Palestinians, says Israel should expect “a legal tsunami.”

Seen in this light, U.N. member status is just one step in a struggle that already involves legal and economic challenges, civil resistance, and reframing the discourse. Netanyahu and Obama have frittered away the opportunity for a negotiated settlement over the past two years. It is the Palestinians who are now setting the agenda for freedom and self-determination.

Nadia Hijab is co-director of Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network.

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