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The truth Obama should have told the people of Israel

The US president used his visit to engage in symbolism intended to improve his reputation in an Israel that deeply distrusts him.

Barack Obama's visit to Israel this week is an effort to mend fences after four years of relatively strained ties. "Peace must come to the Holy Land," the US president said, but he was no more specific than that.

No wonder: a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is very unlikely at present. The real question is whether they are even a priority today, given the uprisings throughout the Middle East.

For decades, the fate of the Palestinians was at the centre of Arab concerns, a yardstick for regimes in the region. Arab leaders were judged by how effectively they defended Palestinian rights. However, with the outbreak of the Arab revolts in 2011, suddenly it was domestic concerns that preoccupied Arab populations. Societies turned against their rulers, therefore against states themselves, which had become vast enterprises of repression offering no path to improvement.

But if repression and a lack of progress characterised the Arab state for so long, what does this say about Israel? For its Jewish citizens, Israel has been democratic and its economy has developed in ways comparable to that of the industrialised countries. And yet Israel still controls, directly or indirectly, the destiny of large numbers of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. For decades, Israel has systematically undermined their aspirations for a state.

In this regard Israel is as dysfunctional as its Arab counterparts. Some 2.6 million Palestinians live in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, while another 1.7 million live in Gaza. Israel's policy has been to isolate these areas from Jewish population centres, even as it has built settlements and integrated portions of the territories into Israel proper, while permitting limited self-rule by Palestinians elsewhere. From an Israeli perspective this policy has been successful.

But what lies ahead? If the Israeli aim, or at least that of the present government, is to further incorporate the West Bank and East Jerusalem into Israel, the demographics may prove insurmountable. The Israelis should look at the example of surrounding countries. No population can see its legitimate ambitions indefinitely ignored and its protests silenced. At some point, even in the inert Arab world, something has to give.

This is the message Mr Obama should have delivered to the Israelis - and publicly. Israel has never been immune to violence, even if its capacity to protect itself is high. Arab regimes, from Egypt to Syria, from Libya to Tunisia, were champions of tyranny, their security institutions designed to ensure that power remained in the hands of the leader. Israel, given its image in the world, has less latitude than Arab dictatorships to resort to the wanton suppression of Palestinians who may revolt again to secure their national rights.

Perhaps it's not surprising that the Israelis were, early on, among those most worried about the so-called Arab Spring. Arab dictators brought predictability; free elections do not. Israel's peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan were concluded with autocrats who made sure they would be preserved. Israel also had a de facto non-aggression pact with Syria's leadership, making the occupied Golan Heights among the most peaceful boundaries in the region.

The dictators also let Israel draw attention away from the Palestinians. After all, if the Arab states were readily abusing their populations, Israel could portray itself as a democratic exception - which it is, for its citizens. At the same time, the Palestinians could be depicted as by-products of dictatorial Arab orders, allowing the Israelis to argue that by surrendering land, they would only help create a new outrage to democracy.

Finally, Arab dictators often permitted Israel to hold off ceding occupied land. Which country would push the Israelis hard when their negotiating partner was an autocrat who, to ensure his own political survival, refused to move too far for peace? Syria's Hafez Al Assad is an example. He made military concessions to regain the Golan, but was so reluctant about entering into a warm peace with Israel that when talks collapsed in 2000, Israel paid no price.

Mr Obama used his visit to engage in symbolism intended to improve his reputation in an Israel that deeply distrusts him. He visited the tomb of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, and the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. In those ways Mr Obama effectively reaffirmed the two most powerful drivers of Israeli statehood: the need to establish a Jewish state and to defend Jews against annihilation.

But he missed the chance to get across the point that Jewish nationalism did not take place in a vacuum, and that the Jewish yearning for security was achieved by denying security to others. Palestinians were dispossessed by Israel's creation, and in the context of the Arab uprisings against the injustices of those in power, this reality has become more pertinent than ever.

And things won't improve if Israel continues its settlement building in the West Bank. Once that happens, prospects for an independent Palestinian state will disappear, and Israel will have to address the presence of a large Palestinian population under its military control. Palestinian leaders may well abandon their phoney autonomy and argue that it is up to Israel to again bear the burden of full-scale occupation.

The lessons of the Arab uprisings will weigh heavily on the Palestinian imagination. If the most brutal Arab regimes could be defeated, many will think, then Israel, so keen to prove its commitment to democratic values, can surely be defeated as well.

 

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut

On Twitter: @BeirutCalling

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