Will Israel return the gift of statehood?
In November 1917, the British government sent a letter to Baron Walter Rothschild, the leader of the British Jewish community, which acknowledged full support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
In part, the statement read:
Dear Lord Rothschild… “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people… it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”
This famous document paved the way for Israeli independence on May 14, 1948, an otherwise joyous event that was celebrated far less enthusiastically on the Arab street than in Jewish quarters around the world.
Today, it is not Israel that is searching for its national homeland, but the Palestinian people. But instead of an internationally accepted treaty, the Palestinians are watching separation barriers and illegal settlements block their dream of a homeland. But with global tensions simmering over the Israel-Palestinian issue, and Iran posturing on the global stage (more out of fear and pride than courage and confidence), it seems like a perfect time to put ink to a two-state agreement.
Yet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Washington for talks with US President Barack Obama, seems content with the current state of affairs.
On Monday, the hard-liner Netanyahu arrived in Washington for a meeting with Obama to discuss the question of what to do about Iran, US-Israeli relations and the most contentious issue of all, Palestinian statehood. Yes, the issues remain the same, only the leaders have changed.
But it is this changing of the guard in Washington that most disturbs Israel. Gone from the halls of Washington are the loyal Bush neoconservatives, the radical right movement that supported Israel through thick and thin. Netanyahu, who served before as the Israeli prime minister during Bill Clinton’s presidency, had no idea what to expect from the Democrat Barack Obama, who promises to be a more discerning partner than George W. Bush.
Still, Israel has a way of going its own way when the chips are down. And Netanyahu certainly understands that the relationship between Israel and the United States is one that is connected by countless visible and invisible threads to ever breakdown completely. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), for example, is the most powerful foreign lobby working in the US with, while Jewish-American voters remain a core component of both the Democrats and the Republicans.
Nevertheless, Netanyahu wasted no time demonstrating to the young Obama that he doesn’t follow orders from the new White House. Shortly before Netanyahu departed for the US, Israel ignored pledges to halt construction of new settlements in the West Bank by breaking ground in Maskiyot, a suburban outpost that will soon be filled by Jewish families that were evacuated from the Gaza Strip. A government spokesperson, however, said the settlement construction and the timing of Netanyahu’s visit were “simply a coincidence.”
At the press conference following the private meeting, Obama made a direct connection between permanent peace in Palestine and the ability to deal with Iran.
“To the extent that we can make peace with the Palestinians – between the Palestinians and the Israelis, then I actually think it strengthens our hand in the international community in dealing with a potential Iranian threat,” the American president said.
The next comment by Obama showed the striking difference between his administration and that of his more hawkish predecessor, George W. Bush, who had no qualms about resorting to military force when simple diplomacy could have sufficed.
“Now, understand that part of the reason that it’s so important for us to take a diplomatic approach is that the approach that we’ve been taking, which is no diplomacy, obviously has not worked. Nobody disagrees with that.”
Obama then mentioned Hamas and Hezbollah, two militant organizations that are committed to a national homeland for the Palestinian people [In July 2006, Israel, in response to a Hezbollah attack on an Israeli patrol vehicle, opened an offensive inside of Lebanon against the militants; the Israeli Defense Forces did not fare well in the war, and settled for a UN-brokered ceasefire; In December 2008, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip in response to increased missile strikes on Israeli territory; Israel was harshly criticized in the international community for the attack that killed an estimated 1,200 Palestinians and left tens of thousands homeless].
“Hamas and Hezbollah have gotten stronger… And so not talking – that clearly hasn’t worked. That’s what’s been tried. And so what we’re going to do is try something new, which is actually engaging and reaching out to the Iranians.”
Netanyahu made no comment about the ongoing construction settlements in the West Bank, which even the Bush administration opposed, or a two-state solution for Palestine. But he did speak out for peace so long as the Palestinians “recognize Israel as a Jewish state.”
“I want to make it clear that we don’t want to govern the Palestinians. We want to live in peace with them. We want them to govern themselves, absent a handful of powers that could endanger the state of Israel. And for this there has to be a clear goal. The goal has to be an end to conflict. There will have to be compromises by Israelis and Palestinians alike… If we resume negotiations… then I think the Palestinians will have to recognize Israel as a Jewish state,” Netanyahu said.
The closest that the Israeli Prime Minister got to actually pronouncing the words “a Palestinian state” came with the following closing comment:
“I think we can envision an arrangement where Palestinians and Israelis live side by side in dignity, in security, and in peace.”
A Palestinian-Iranian Linkage?
In response to a reporter’s question concerning a possible “linkage” between a successful solution to the Iranian challenge and peace with the Palestinians revealed discontinuity between the two leaders.
Obama said that he believed that “if there is a linkage between Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, I personally believe it actually runs the other way.” What Obama says next shows how he and Netanyahu disagree over how to manage foreign policy in the Middle East.
The American president said: “To the extent that we can make peace with the Palestinians and the Israelis… I actually think (note that he is almost surprised himself, or half apologizing, for his comment by uttering the unnecessary word “actually”) it [i.e. peace with the Palestinians] strengthens our hand in the international community in dealing with a potential Iranian threat.”
In Netanyahu’s response to the same question, he immediately refutes the “linkage” possibility.
“There isn’t a policy linkage, and that’s what I hear the President saying, and that’s what I’m saying too. And I’ve always said there’s not a policy linkage between pursuing simultaneously peace between Israel and the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world, and to trying to deal with removing the threat of a nuclear bomb.”
If anything was clear following this first meeting between the Israeli and American leaders, it’s that a Palestinian state continues to remain a distant dream. This is unfortunate because it is readily imaginable, as Barack Obama already mentioned, how weakened all of Israel’s opponents would become instantaneously if a two-state solution.