Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Binyamin Netanyahu and Israeli rejectionism offered as "peace"

Much has been made, in the past couple of days, of Sunday's speech by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu where he purportedly "endorsed a Palestinian state beside Israel for the first time." The United States and Europe have publicly welcomed the speech as a "move towards peace," and this has been reflected in the headlines of the American and British media. All take on some variation of the "Netanyahu backs Palestinian state, with caveats" title used by the New York Times.

But, whilst so much emphasis and focus has been placed on this supposed "endorsement" of Palestinian statehood, not enough has been placed on the "caveats" which negate the prospect almost entirely. Fleeting attention is given to the fact that Netanyahu "seemed to offer little room for compromise or negotiation," but comment or context is lacking, whilst comment from Israeli hawks that the speech was "true and courageous" and "a balanced speech that the coalition can live with" could be found in abundance.

The comment by Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat that the speech amounts to "a series of conditions and qualifications that render a viable, independent and sovereign Palestinian state impossible." Instead, coverage laments the fact that "Palestinian negotiators have long refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish state" because of the "contention" that it "would be detrimental to the status of Israel’s Arab minority" and "prejudge the refugees’ demand for a right of return." After this passing mention, the status of minorities and demands of refugees can be dismissed out of hand.

Returning to the issue of "caveats," any serious analysis of Netanyahu's words quickly finds that he does not "accept Palestinian statehood" at all. Rather, the "caveats" turn his purported "acceptance" into what amounts to a demand for near-unconditional capitulation from the Palestinians on every issue. This, no doubt, is why the Council of Foreign Relations declared the speech "unlikely to assuage Palestinians," who indeed rejected it as having "sabotaged all initiatives, paralysed all efforts, and challenges the Palestinian, Arab and American positions," leading the Jerusalem Post to lament the Palestinian Authority's "hysterical, hasty and clearly miscalculated response" to the speech. After all, anything short of full acceptance of Israel's position amounts to "completely rejecting" the peace process.

So, what were the "caveats" that have caused so much contention? In a nutshell, the "state" that Netanyahu will accept must be completely demilitarised, must allow expansion of existing Jewish settlements, must surrender Jerusalem wholly to Israel, and must utterly outlaw Hamas. Only somebody wholly ignorant of the history and politics of the region could even begin to humour these demands as acceptable.

Take demilitarisation. Netanyahu insists that he wants to see the "
solution of a demilitarised Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state." This will secure the "necessary security arrangements" of Israel, who face a "circle of hostility" from terrorists and "huge waves of suicide bombers." The necessary security arrangements of the Palestinians are aptly demonstrated by the blockade of the Gaza Strip, which Oxfam and the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) condemned the brutal siege and "unprecedented level" of poverty it caused. The invasion of the Strip by Israel, after they rejected a renewed ceasefire offer from Hamas, and the quick pacification of the territory by one of the best equipped armies in the world is also a case in point. The United Nations condemnation of Israel for war crimes during the invasion, including the use of white phosphorous, speaks for itself.

To take the issue of settlements and of Jerusalem together, what the Israeli PM's terms amount to is the classic Israeli rejectionist position. Israel gets to have a unified Jerusalem as its capital, and colonise all viable areas of the occupied territories. The Palestinians can call what is left "a state" if they so wish. Netanyahu insisted in his speech that "
we have no intention of building new settlements or of expropriating land in order to expand existing settlements," but added the useful "caveat" that "there is a need to allow the residents to lead normal lives, to allow mothers and fathers to raise their children," essentially an immediate rejection of his previous sentence.

Netanyahu's stance on Hamas, meanwhile, demonstrates aptly what form the leadership of a demilitarised Palestine would take. He has insisted that Hamas's presence in the Gaza strip is an immediate dampener on any potential talks;
Above all else, the Palestinians must decide between the way of peace and the way of Hamas. The Palestinian Authority must impose law and order in the Gaza Strip and overcome Hamas. Israel will not sit at the negotiating table with terrorists who seek to destroy it.
This may seem reasonable. Hamas are a militant Islamic organisation with a commitment to the destruction of Israel enshrined in their charter. But that is not all they are. Hamas gained control of the Gaza Strip in remarkably free and fair elections due to their grassroots social and health programs, and the fact that it dedicates a large portion of its $70 million annual budget to an extensive social services network of relief and education programs, schools, orphanages, mosques, healthcare clinics, soup kitchens, and sports leagues. Moreover, they have repeatedly called for a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, with minor and mutual adjustments - the international consensus consistently rejected by the United States and its Israeli client. Netanyahu's comment on the Palestinians' attitude to peace is better applied to his own side;
The closer we get to a peace agreement with them, the more they are distancing themselves from peace. They raise new demands. They are not showing us that they want to end the conflict.
These factors not withstanding, the issue would still remain that one of Israel's prime conditions for "peace" is that the democratically-elected government of Gaza is "overcome" by an opposing force with a weak to non-existent democratic mandate in order to "impose law and order" does not speak well of Israeli intentions. Netanyahu may insist that "
we do not want to force our flag and our culture on them," but his "caveats" speak the opposite. Were the Palestinians to agree to what Netanyahu's speech offered, the inevitable result would be a helpless mass of people controlled by an Israeli client government within Israeli-controlled borders.

Where there has been acknowledgement of this in the press, the mindful question has been how Barack Obama will respond to this "challenge." The Independent commented that Netanyahu's stance on settlements was "a blow to Mr Obama" whose "
more even-handed ... approach" to the situation involved requesting "a halt to such construction."

In fact, as reported by BBC News, Obama declared the speech to be "positive movement." But then, those expecting a radical US President who would make a concerted drive for peace and overtly condemn the illegal colonisation and acts of terrorism perpetuated by the state of Israel were always expecting too much. In September 1993, Bill Clinton got then-Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin to shake hands with Yasser Arafat before the press on the White House Lawn. Dovish US Presidents always make greater overtures towards peace and reconcilliation. Beyond the rhetoric, however, little truly changes.

There may indeed be cause for optimism regarding the peace process. The "second superpower" of public opinion has forced much greater concessions by elites in the past, so anything is possible. But we keep failing to learn the lesson of history - that those in positions of power must be judged by their actions, not their words.