"This is how I understand the struggle...To stand steadily like spears, and never give up." Naji Al-Ali

Monday, October 4, 2010

What Obama Hasn't Changed About the Mid East Peace Process

Forgive my cynicism, but you will not see me holding my breath in anticipation of a comprehensive and just conclusion to the Arab-Israeli conflict, not this time around, not even with Mr. Change himself at the helm of negotiations. To illustrate my point, and for the benefit of all of you following along at home, let me recap what hasn’t changed with the most recent incarnation of peace talks:

The Past: Israel has done its best to extort the United States government in exchange for participation in or acceptance of peace initiatives.

For example, in exchange for Israel’s participation at the 1991 Madrid Conference, the United States was forced to instrument the revocation of UN Resolution 3379, which equated Zionism (the ideological foundation of which presumes that Jews as a distinct ethnic group have exclusive and special rights in contrast with other ethnic groups) with racism (the ideological foundation of which presumes that a distinct ethnic group has exclusive and special rights in contrast with other ethnic groups).

In another instance, President Nixon was only able to persuade the Knesset to formally accept UN Resolution 242, which called for withdrawal from the territories Israel captured in 1967 (and to this day still occupies in part, in contravention of international law) by giving “private assurances that Israel would receive additional US aircraft,” according to John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, authors of The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy. Similarly, “[Israel’s] acceptance of the cease-fire that ended the so-called War of Attrition with Egypt…was bought by a US pledge to accelerate aircraft deliveries to Israel, to provide advanced electronic countermeasures against Egypt’s Soviet-supplied anti-aircraft missiles, and, more generally, to maintain the balance of power.”

In fact, as Mearsheimer and Walt point out:
This pattern continued though the 1970’s, with Presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter pledging ever-larger sums of aid in the course of the disengagement talks with Egypt and during the negotiations that lead to the 1978 Camp David Accords and the 1979 Egypt-Israeli Peace Treaty…In much the same way, , the Clinton administration gave Israel increased assistance as part of the peace treaty with Jordan in 1994, and Clinton’s efforts to advance the Oslo peace process led him to pledge an additional $1.2 billion in military ai to Israel to win Israel’s acceptance of the 1998 Wye Agreement [which Netanyahu promptly suspended].
Before being supplanted by Iraq in 2005, Israel was the number one annual recipient of US foreign aid, followed by Egypt and Jordan respectively. It is common knowledge that Egypt and Jordan receive these US funds with the precondition that they maintain peaceful relations with Israel. In this way, the US essentially picks up the tab for Israeli aggression.

The Present: According to Ynetnews among other sources, Israel’s leading Likud party has demanded concessions and guarantees from the Obama Administration in exchange for extending its settlement “freeze,” despite the fact that the entire international community including the United States regards these settlements as completely illegal. Apparently Obama is taking the bait, though the specifics of his pay-off to the Israeli mob are disputed.  The Guardian reports that Obama sent Netanyahu a letter which requests a “60-day renewal of the freeze. In return, Obama guarantees to demand no further extensions, to ensure that the future of Jewish settlements would become part of final status negotiations, and to veto any United Nations Security Council resolution relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the next year, while talks continue. He pledges to support a continued Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley after the establishment of a Palestinian state. The letter also acknowledges Israel’s security needs and the need to upgrade its defense capabilities, and promises to consult Israel and the Arab states on US policy on Iran.” 

The Past: When carrots don’t work, the US has with increasing rarity attempted to use sticks to incentivize Israeli compliance with US policy objectives. In the past 30 years, Israel has come to understand such threats as purely symbolic gestures, as no president has made good on their harsh words.

Case in point: Mearsheimer and Walt point out, “In 1991, the first Bush administration pressured the Shamir government to stop building settlements and to attend  a planned peace conference by withholding the $10 billion loan guarantee, but the suspension lasted only a few months and the guarantees were approved once Yitzhak Rabin replaced Shamir as prime minister.” While Israel agreed to halt construction of new settlements, it continued to expand the existing blocs and the settlements grew at a rate almost 10 times faster than the natural growth of Israel Proper’s population.

The Present: In the first week of January, under the direction of Obama, Middle East Envoy George Mitchell had stern words for the Israeli government, threatening to withhold aid if the country did not make decisive moves toward peace, including making good on its promise to halt settlement construction. However, just as before, Israel called Mitchell’s bluff, holding the moratorium in word more than deed, as new settlement construction only decreased by 50%, existing blocs grew, and Israel continued to seize Palestinian land. Even as the moratorium has expired, directly resulting in the cessation of negotiations, aid to Israel is not in jeopardy.

The Past: In 1975 President Reagan and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were becoming impatient with Israel’s “intransigence to disengage with Egypt” as Mearsheimer put it. Both called for a reassessment of US aid to Israel, but were stymied by an AIPAC-sponsored letter penned by 76 senators concerned with maintaining current levels of military and economic support. Reagan and Kissenger were then forced to pursue other methods of negotiation.

The Present: 87 senators have written a letter to President Obama, whole-heartedly supported by AIPAC, urging him to make sure Abbas does not leave the negotiating table regardless of the resumption of Israeli settlement construction. In response Israel News reports the administration is pressuring Abbas “not to quit the talks regardless of whether Israel extends the moratorium or not.”

The Past: Undermining the US’s stated policy objective of achieving nuclear non-proliferation in the Middle East, Israel is currently the only power in the region known to have nuclear and chemical weapons. President Kennedy eventually relegated on his efforts to have IAEA officials properly appraise Israel’s nuclear ambitions, while President Johnson, confronted with the knowledge that the country had in fact acquired WMD, chose to ignore this reality.

The Present: Last month the IAEA failed to pass a resolution aimed at Israel’s WMD program, with 51 mostly Western countries (spearheaded by the United States) voting against it, citing the possibility that the resolution would undermine peace negotiations. Before the incident, Obama explained his strong opposition to singling out Israel on the issue of non-proliferation. The irony is clearly lost on him.

The Past: In December 1982, during a lame-duck session, Congress attempted to provide a $250 million increase in military aid to Israel in the wake of the invasion of Lebanon, the use of cluster bombs, the illegal use of US weapons for offensive purposes, as well as the IDF’s complicity in the massacres at Sabra and Shatila. Following this move, President Reagan and his new Secretary of State George Shultz reinstituted a 1981 Memorandum of Understanding on strategic cooperation in 1983.

The Present: In the midst of Operation Cast Lead, which killed more than 1,400 Palestinians and from which Israel was later found to have committed war crimes as well as crimes against humanity (per the Goldstone Report), on January 16th, 2009, Congressed signed a Memorandum of Understanding essentially endorsing the operation  and pledging unconditional support for the State of Israel. While vocal on a number of policy issues before his inauguration, Obama said nothing of this development, and has yet to negatively address the MOU.

For those of us concerned with history, it has become increasingly evident that there is nothing new to discuss. Palestinians are still not represented by a competent, unified and truly legitimate leadership. Israel is still employing the same tired tactics. But what’s most disheartening about the latest spectacle is Obama’s handling of the situation. Far from being the beacon of hope and progress he claimed himself to be in Cairo (does anyone remember, “It’s time for these settlements to stop,” or was I just hearing things?), Obama has shown he is no different from his predecessors.

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