x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

A gesture in Washington will not force the hand of Israel

Barack Obama's Middle East speech brought a bellow of outrage from Israel's government, but really it was just business as usual.

Take your choice. One: President Barack Obama's endorsement of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations based on the pre-June 1967 armistice line with territorial "swaps" marks a significant step towards peace. Or two: he uttered a meaningless statement of good intentions that hides the fact that the so-called peace process is more about process than peace. When Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded by screaming like a wounded animal, he gave the impression that Mr Obama was doing an Eisenhower by demanding Israel withdraw from the territories it conquered by force. Relax, Bibi. Washington's genuflection towards world opinion won't change a thing.

What did Mr Obama actually say in the Ben Franklin Room at the US State Department last Thursday? Apart from his endeavour to co-opt the Arab Spring, it was business as usual. When he said that "we will not tolerate aggression across borders", he was referring to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, not to Israel's conquest of the West Bank, Gaza, Golan and Sinai.

He said: "We support a set of universal rights. Those rights include free speech; the freedom of the peaceful assembly; freedom of religion; equality for men and women under the rule of law; and the right to choose your own leaders - whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus; Sanaa or Tehran." Not, however, if you live in Gaza and elected Hamas. Nor if you live in Ramallah and vote for sovereign statehood.

"What we will oppose is an attempt by any group to restrict the rights of others, and to hold power through coercion - not consent," Mr Obama asserted. Israel, however, restricts the rights of Palestinians in the West Bank to travel from one village to another, to attend school, to pick olives in groves that have been stolen by settlers, to demonstrate peacefully against occupation and to collect and disburse their own taxes. Israel holds power over the lives of 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and 1.7 million in the Gaza Strip "through coercion - not consent". That, however, is permitted.

Mr Obama offered advice to the Palestinians: don't seek United Nations recognition of independence. "For the Palestinians," he said, "efforts to delegitimise Israel will end in failure. Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won't create an independent state."

What he means is that the United States will not permit a Palestinian declaration of statehood to lead to a state. This is despite the fact that declaring independence does not delegitimise the occupying power, whether those seeking freedom were Algerians from France or American colonists from Britain. The survival of Britain and France was not in question, any more than Israel's would be under a two-state solution. It merely delegitimised the occupation and asked the occupiers to go home and govern themselves. The UN resolution that partitioned Palestine in 1947 called for the establishment of a Jewish and an Arab state. That resolution, which effectively created Israel, would be fulfilled with the establishment of its independent neighbour. Recognition of the Palestinian state enhances Israel's legitimacy with Palestinian and world acceptance of both states proposed by the UN in 1947.

Mr Obama addressed himself to Israel as well, saying that it too "must act boldly to advance a lasting peace". How boldly? "The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognised borders are established for both states."

Mr Netanyahu, who met Mr Obama in Washington the day after his apparently bold intervention, rejected outright borders "based on the 1967 lines". That much was to be expected, as it is a long time since Israeli prime ministers masqueraded as statesmen. No Israeli prime minister would agree with the words of any American president that do not recognise Israel's right to confiscate land in the West Bank, displacing Palestinians and planting settlers in their place. Mr Netanyahu warned: "These were not the boundaries of peace. They were the boundaries of repeated wars."

Up to a point. After the 1949 Armistice Agreements were signed, there were two more Israeli wars. The first, initiated by Israel to conquer Sinai and Gaza, was in 1956. The second was in 1967, when Israel moved the frontiers. Since then, Israel has been less secure - fighting the war of 1973 against Syria and Egypt, invading Lebanon in 1978 and 1982, waging further battles in Lebanon and launching many onslaughts against Gaza. Israel had more peace within the 1949 Armistice lines than it has since 1967. Does Mr Netanyahu want peace or time to build more settlements?

However vague Mr Obama's statements were, anything short of full public support for the illegal policy of stealing property and oppressing those who object would earn an Israeli rebuke. That is normal politics, and Mr Obama - as he showed when he acquiesced to Israel's rejection of his call for a freeze on settlements proved - is not someone who relishes confrontation.

The president who vacillated on the Arab Spring and the bombing of Libyan government forces is unlikely to strike a firm posture in Palestine. He is not the first president to call for the pre-1967 lines as a starting point for negotiations. And he will not be the first president to leave office without having achieved peace between Israelis and Palestinians. One can only hope he will be the last.


Charles Glass is the author of several books on the Middle East, including Tribes with Flags andThe Northern Front: An Iraq War Diary. He is also a publisher under the London imprint Charles Glass Books