Saturday, January 31, 2009

Taking Obama At His Word on Palestine

In his interview with al-Arabiya, Obama obviously failed to state many things that need to be stated by a U.S. president in order to establish for the U.S. even a remotely “balanced” position relative to the Mideast’s contending parties (something the U.S. has traditionally claimed to desire), not to mention a “fair” position that would recognize Israeli repression and expansion. Perhaps Obama seeks neither a fair nor a “balanced” position (whatever “balanced” might mean between a destroyed Palestinian society and an Israeli regional superpower); indeed, there is enormous evidence to that effect. Or perhaps he calculates that things should move one step at a time, so Americans can awaken gently from their coma of denial about Mideast realities.

Whatever the truth about Obama’s calculations, he said two things that are, especially when taken together, potentially revolutionary for international relations:

  1. “You will be judged on what you've built, not what you've destroyed.”
  2. “I think it is possible for us to see a Palestinian state -- I'm not going to put a time frame on it -- that is contiguous, that allows freedom of movement for its people, that allows for trade with other countries, that allows the creation of businesses and commerce so that people have a better life.”

If we take Obama at his word, and in these first days we owe him that much respect, these are very serious words. The first sentence implies much for Gaza: the end of Israeli freedom to destroy society, economy, infrastructure at will. It further implies the beginning of the first broad international post-1949 effort sincerely to take into account the legitimate desires of Palestinians to be able to live normal lives.


How Can a Palestinian State Be "Contiguous"?

Note on this map that Israel chops what is left of Palestine in half, separating Gaza from the West Bank.

Note on this map the complex pattern of illegal Israeli settlements imposed on Palestinian territory.

Note on this map the complex pattern of Israeli and Palestinian sections of Jerusalem, which both sides will want as their capital.

Thanks to the Institute for Mideast Understanding for these maps.


The second sentence, with the significant word “contiguous,” implies enormous changes for Palestine. Take a look at the map: creating geographic contiguity between Gaza and the West Bank implies real political change. Palestine would be physically unified, which would have an instantaneous and dramatic impact on Fatah-Hamas rivalry: the two groups would no longer be separated by Israel. This would probably result in Hamas rule over all Palestine, given the impact of the recent Israeli attack on Gaza, assuming a new democratic election there. If, instead, Israel interfered to prevent democratic elections from being held again (first held in 2006), that would only serve to further radicalize Palestinians and justify a Hamas turn away from its post-2005 move toward participation in the democratic process rather than violent opposition.

As for the idea of internal West Bank contiguity, take a look at the map again – at a map of how roads and Jewish/Palestinian towns are laid out. “Internal West Bank contiguity” implies the end to Israel’s Bantustan policy, the end to Jew-only highways cutting the West Bank into tiny Palestinian enclaves surrounded by Jewish settlements, the establishment of the principle that Palestinians have certain rights in their own land. It does not necessarily imply the removal of all Israelis from the West Bank, but it certainly raises the question and pushes Israel toward, at a minimum, some sort of compromise approach that would enable both ethnic groups to live equitably in close proximity.

Now combine Obama’s two statements. Imagine a unified, energized Palestine receiving international aid to rebuild its society. What does all this logically imply for current Israeli policy?

Renewed Israeli repression of a freshly contiguous Palestine in the process of being rebuilt by a U.S.-led coalition of donors would be a dangerously provocative approach. Given that there is already much discussion in Israel about the wisdom of rejecting the “greater Israel” policy in favor of a pullback to Israel’s internationally recognized, pre-1967 war borders, Obama’s two statements together open the door to a new path toward serious compromise between Israel and Palestine. The logic of President Obama’s two statements, taken seriously, leads directly to substantive negotiations over the nature of a Palestinian entity with some real measure of autonomy, and the momentum of that would lead away from Israeli colonial oversight toward Palestinian independence. Of course, this whole very positive story depends on taking Obama at his word.


Renegade Eye said...

Blogrolling was hacked. When it's fixed, I'll return the favor, and link to this blog.

I don't have confidence in a solution, that creates a Palestinian state, run by Hamas or Fatah. Neither have rejected the neoliberal agenda. It will be a source of cheap labor for Israel.

Policy will be different under Obama than it was with Bush. They agree on goals. Diplomacy will return.

The US needs Iran and Syria's help to redeploy from Iraq. It will come with a price.

William deB. Mills said...

I share your concern about the nature of a future Palestinian state. Even more concern is warranted because, to my knowledge, no one is even talking about seriously designing a viable state (despite loosely throwing that word around). State viability requires both economic security, to which you alluded, and physical security, i.e., a Palestinian army.

The U.S. need for help from its antagonists to redeploy from Iraq and achieve other goals is a huge invisible elephant in the room. The U.S. (again) needs help from Iran in Afghanistan, as well. The U.S. and Israel also need help from Iran in the Levant. Surely someone must be doing a good study of this issue...