‘Passive US risking last opportunity for two-state solution’- activist
US President Barack Obama went to Israel in March 20-23, the visit was his first foreign trip of his second term in office.
Despite meeting with representatives of both Israeli and Palestinian governments, the US president failed to bring a new Middle East peace plan to the table and instead only signaled Washington’s support for Israel, says Palestinian activist Mustafa Barghouti.
The speech delivered by US President Barack Obama on 4 June 2009 from the Major Reception Hall at Cairo University in Egypt is broadly referred to as "A New Beginning".
It honored a promise Obama had made during his first presidential campaign to give a major address to Muslims from a Muslim capital during his first few months as president.
The speech called for improved mutual understanding and relations between the Islamic world and the West pushing the two sides do more to confront violent extremism. However, it was restoring peace between Israel and Palestinians that got in the limelight.
Obama reaffirmed America's alliance with Israel, calling it "unbreakable", but also described Palestinian statelessness as "intolerable" recognizing their aspirations for statehood and dignity as legitimate.
RT:After Barack Obama gave his famous Cairo speech four years ago, you said that this is the best speech ever made by an American president particularly regarding the Palestinian issues. Four years on would you agree with the sentiments you expressed then?
Mustafa Barghouti: It was the best speech – I would still say so. But he didn’t follow on it. On the contrary, he retreated from what he said and that was very disappointing and unfortunate. Instead of pushing the Israelis to stop settlements as he promised, he stopped talking about the matter.
RT:Why do you think?
MB: I think he bent down under the Israeli pressure from one side but also under the American establishment. He had an opportunity after the second election to proceed, to make a special mark in history especially after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, but unfortunately none of that has happened. If this passiveness of the US continues, especially at this time, this would mean allowing the Israelis to kill the very last opportunity of two-state solution.
RT:Are we just talking about passivity or we are talking about specific grievances? Because when Obama was here we did see demonstrations on the Palestinian streets. What are the issues that the street is angry about?
MB: The street is angry about many things. First of all, they see that the US is totally biased to Israel. And it’s not hiding it; it’s even declaring it constantly. Secondly, they see that the Americans are monopolizing the peace process leadership. By monopolizing it they are not doing their job and at the same time not allowing any other party to do this job. There were many negative gestures even during the visit of President Obama.
He refused to meet one of the Israeli prisoners’ child. He refused to listen and to hear the Palestinian grievances and pain. Another negative matter was that he visited Israeli, which contains stolen materials from the occupied territories. In our opinion this shouldn’t be done by an American president because he would be legalizing an act of theft from the Palestinian side. He visited Rabin’s grave, which is good, but he refused to visit Mr. Arafat’s stone. He could agree or disagree with President Arafat, but he was a symbol for Palestinians. Both these people were assassinated by the enemies of peace. So there is this lack of equality, lack of evenhandedness that makes the Palestinians angry especially when they realize that the US is the biggest supporter of Israel.
Why doesn’t Obama have the will? Is it because he has so much pressure on him or you put the blame on his shoulders?MB: He is, of course, to be blamed. It’s not just the pressure, because he is definitely the most knowledgeable American president of the Palestinian issue given his background. But more importantly, he is a man that comes from a certain background of people, who suffered from segregation. If it wasn’t for the civil rights movement that fought segregation in America he would have never become the president of the US. He himself should be more sensitive to the issue of segregation that is being built in Palestine.
RT:What about the fact that he met the Israeli leaders in West Jerusalem and the Palestinian leaders in Ramallah. Wouldn’t it be the most symbolic gesture if he had met the Israeli leaders in East Jerusalem or had left Jerusalem out and perhaps met the Israeli leaders in Tel-Aviv?
MB: Absolutely. Visiting the Israeli leaders in West Jerusalem is a way of recognizing that the US officially doesn’t recognize that fact that Jerusalem is not a capital there.
RT:Do you think that’s what they are trying to tell us?
MS: I know he should have met people in East Jerusalem as well. He met a number of young people, who were chosen for him. But these are not the real people, who are in the streets or who are organizing the non-violent resistance in Palestine, or who are making the Palestinian Spring. This selectivity is unacceptable. This lack of equality makes the Palestinians very angry and disappointed. They didn’t have much hopes anyhow from the visit, but Mr Obama didn’t surprise anybody.
RT:What about that fact that he gave an address to the Israeli public, but he didn’t address the Palestinians?
MS: It’s another indication that he was making the visit to Israel, and on the way he was meeting with Palestinians. I’m not talking only about the amount of time but about the nature of that evidence. I wish he would have visited, for instance, Hebron to see with his own eyes the system of segregation Israel has created. I wish he would have gone to the Palestinian University and met with Palestinian students that are not selected specifically to meet with him.
RT:Maybe you are being too critical on president Obama? I mean he did come to Ramallah, he did meet with the Palestinian leadership and prior to his visit the White House didn’t present the trip as if he was going to make any big announcement. The expectation was low.
MS: The question is would he have visited Ramallah if he wasn’t visiting Israel. I doubt it. We are not saying it’s bad that he visited Ramallah – it’s good that he visits. But the question is what is coming out of this visit and the bigger question is why does this American passiveness continue? This passiveness at the time when the whole possibility of two-state solution was killed by bulldozing the settlements is unacceptable. This means that those who are silent about this destruction don’t even dare to criticize it. And that is not something good for Palestinians or Israelis.
RT:In the final equation what was the significance of his trip?
MS: That’s the problem. There is no significance. He came when Israel had just elected the most extreme government in its history, a government that declared long before his arrival that is not going to allow the Palestinians to stay. What they are offering the Palestinians is a self-governing status within the system of apartheid. In the new government’s program there is no mention of a Palestinian statehood. One of the leaders of this government, the minister of housing, was a settler himself. He has just declared that there will be no place between the river and the sea for more than one state, which is Israel, and Palestinians have to accept that. So basically he came to a government that is the most racist, the most antagonistic to the possibility of peace. And they didn’t say a word about it.
RT:As you say the Israeli state, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, has moved from being a right-wing government to the extreme right-wing government. But even if Netanyahu wanted to make peace his hands are now tied by the Israeli government.
MS: Well, of course, he created the settlement movement and contributed to it. He made these settlers so strong. Now they are in the government. Three of them are ministers, another one is the head of the Knesset financial committee. So it’s a monster that Netanyahu himself created or participated in creating. Now he shouldn’t complain that he cannot do much because of this monster. He is part of the problem – not part of the solution.
RT:There are many who say that it’s in America’s interest to continue the occupation. It’s good business if nothing else. Do you agree with this?
MS: I know there is a strategic alliance between the US and Israel. I think continuation of occupation and the system of apartheid is contradictive to the same values that the US speaks about all the time day and night – democracy, the respect of human rights etc. Secondly, I think that this apartheid system contradicts even the American interests in having stability in the Middle East.
Those who think that the situation in the Middle East will remain as is are shortsighted. Sooner than later the prevalence of democracy you will see more and more people in the Middle East siding with the Palestinians and demanding the right of the Palestinians. The continuation of the system of apartheid is the most destabilizing factor in the Middle East.
RT:Do you think that right now during his second term in office President Obama could put pressure on Israel? Maybe it’s just the beginning of hearing both side and that it could develop into something else?
MS: We’ll believe it when we see it. Up till now we’ve seen none of that. We are not going to sleep with illusions – we are going to look at facts and realities. Meanwhile, we have to make our own reality and we’ve made up our mind – we will create our own reality by insisting on changing the balance of power, through our non-violent resistance, by trying to unify all Palestinians and demanding a strong solidarity campaign including boycott divestment sanctions against the Israeli apartheid system like was done in South Africa. In other words, we are not dependent and we will not be dependent on whether America will change its mind or not. We will take it in our hands.
That’s the meaning of the new non-violent movement in Palestine – taking the initiative in our hands, and putting our facts on the ground, and encountering Israeli facts on the ground with Palestinian facts on the ground. If the US changes its position, than that would be positive but we are not going to wait.
RT:President Netanyahu said at the UN that the deadline for Iran’s nuclear program is this coming spring. Do you think that might be the real issue on the table during President Obama’s resent visit?
MS: Well, clearly in what was stated the issue of Iran was put ahead of the Palestinian issue. That’s clear to everybody. But I think that’s wrong and that’s a mistake. Israel has always had an excuse for not dealing with the Palestinian issue. First it was the fact that the Palestinians are in alliance with the Soviet Union, then it was Egypt, Syria, Iraq, now it’s Iran, maybe tomorrow it will be Azerbaijan. I don’t know. They always have an excuse but the Iranian issue is not an issue that should prevent dealing with the Palestinian issue, which is much older, and much more serious, and has much more impact than the Iranian issue.
RT:President Obama has spent more one on one with Netanyahu than he has with any other leader. Who do you think is calling the shots?
MS: I don’t know. I know one thing that chemistry wasn’t good regardless how much time they spent. I know one more thing – President Obama had much better positions before he had all these hours with Netanyahu than he has now.
RT:What does the Palestinian authority get from this recent visit?
MS: The most important thing is that Obama is the first American that visited Palestinians after the state was declared. That is important of course but I don’t see any other effects.
RT:Does it weaken the PA in a sense that there is so much anger on the Palestinian streets and they are welcoming president Obama on Obama’s terms?
MS: I don’t know if it weakens the PA. I know what will weaken them very much is if they agree to go back to the negotiations without complete settlement freeze and without clear terms of reference. If they do so and bend down under the US and Israeli pressure than they will lose a lot of their popularity and a lot of their credibility.