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5 June 2009
A CNN headline, reporting Obama’s plans for his June 4 Cairo address, reads ‘Obama looks to reach the soul of the Muslim world.’ Perhaps that captures his intent, but more significant is the content hidden in the rhetorical stance, or more accurately, omitted.
Keeping just to Israel-Palestine — there was nothing substantive about anything else — Obama called on Arabs and Israelis not to ‘point fingers’ at each other or to ‘see this conflict only from one side or the other.’ There is, however, a third side, that of the United States, which has played a decisive role in sustaining the current conflict. Obama gave no indication that its role should change or even be considered.
Those familiar with the history will rationally conclude, then, that Obama will continue in the path of unilateral U.S. rejectionism.
Obama once again praised the Arab Peace Initiative, saying only that Arabs should see it as ‘an important beginning, but not the end of their responsibilities.’ How should the Obama administration see it? Obama and his advisers are surely aware that the Initiative reiterates the long-standing international consensus calling for a two-state settlement on the international (pre-June ’67) border, perhaps with ‘minor and mutual modifications,’ to borrow U.S. government usage before it departed sharply from world opinion in the 1970s, vetoing a Security Council resolution backed by the Arab ‘confrontation states’ (Egypt, Iran, Syria), and tacitly by the PLO, with the same essential content as the Arab Peace Initiative except that the latter goes beyond by calling on Arab states to normalize relations with Israel in the context of this political settlement. Obama has called on the Arab states to proceed with normalization, studiously ignoring, however, the crucial political settlement that is its precondition. The Initiative cannot be a ‘beginning’ if the U.S. continues to refuse to accept its core principles, even to acknowledge them.
In the background is the Obama administration’s goal, enunciated most clearly by Senator John Kerry, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to forge an alliance of Israel and the ‘moderate’ Arab states against Iran. The term ‘moderate’ has nothing to do with the character of the state, but rather signals its willingness to conform to U.S. demands.
What is Israel to do in return for Arab steps to normalize relations? The strongest position so far enunciated by the Obama administration is that Israel should conform to Phase I of the 2003 Road Map, which states: ‘Israel freezes all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements).’ All sides claim to accept the Road Map, overlooking the fact that Israel instantly added 14 reservations that render it inoperable.
Overlooked in the debate over settlements is that even if Israel were to accept Phase I of the Road Map, that would leave in place the entire settlement project that has already been developed, with decisive U.S. support, to ensure that Israel will take over the valuable land within the illegal ‘separation wall’ (including the primary water supplies of the region) as well as the Jordan Valley, thus imprisoning what is left, which is being broken up into cantons by settlement/infrastructure salients extending far to the East. Unmentioned as well is that Israel is taking over Greater Jerusalem, the site of its major current development programs, displacing many Arabs, so that what remains to Palestinians will be separated from the center of their cultural, economic, and sociopolitical life. Also unmentioned is that all of this is in violation of international law, as conceded by the government of Israel after the 1967 conquest, and reaffirmed by Security Council resolutions and the International Court of Justice. Also unmentioned are Israel’s successful operations since 1991 to separate the West Bank from Gaza, since turned into a prison where survival is barely possible, further undermining the hopes for a viable Palestinian state.
It is worth remembering that there has been one break in U.S.-Israeli rejectionism. President Clinton recognized that the terms he had offered at the failed 2000 Camp David meetings were not acceptable to any Palestinians, and in December, proposed his ‘parameters,’ vague but more forthcoming. He then announced that both sides had accepted the parameters, though both had reservations. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met in Taba, Egypt to iron out the differences, and made considerable progress. A full resolution could have been reached in a few more days, they announced in their final joint press conference. But Israel called off the negotiations prematurely, and they have not been formally resumed. The single exception indicates that if an American president is willing to tolerate a meaningful diplomatic settlement, it can very likely be reached.
It is also worth remembering that the Bush I administration went a bit beyond words in objecting to illegal Israeli settlement projects, namely, by withholding U.S. economic support for them. In contrast, Obama administration officials stated that such measures are ‘not under discussion’ and that any pressures on Israel to conform to the Road Map will be ‘largely symbolic,’ so the New York Times reported (Helene Cooper, June 1).
There is more to say, but it does not relieve the grim picture that Obama has been painting, with a few extra touches in his widely-heralded address to the Muslim World in Cairo on June 4.
Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor (retired) at MIT. He is the author of many books and articles on international affairs and social-political issues, and a long-time participant in activist movements. His most recent books include: Failed States, What We Say Goes(with David Barsamian), Hegemony or Survival, and the Essential Chomsky.