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Obama's Mistaken Middle East Peace Strategy or No More Negotiations to Nowhere!

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While doves in the American Jewish community are lining up to support President Obama in his supposed confrontation with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, the hard-nosed supporters of the Occupation can sigh with relief. Nothing proposed by Obama is likely to change the realities on the ground in the West Bank.

Obama's insistence that negotiations begin again between Israel and the Palestinians toward a final settlement agreement sounds "tough" and "standing up to Israel" only to those who have no historical memory. But Netanyahu and the Israeli right-wingers who now run the Israeli government remember very well the willingness of a previous Likud prime minister (and former underground terrorist) Yitzhak Shamir to participate in just such negotiations in the early 1990s. Shamir explained to his constituents that he could sit in such negotiations for the next twenty years and still never concede anything that would resemble a viable Palestinian state: that is, one not still dominated by Israeli settlers, with their own exclusive roads and military protectors, which would make such a state nothing more than a string of Palestinian cities isolated from each other.

Why then will Netanyahu resist such negotiations? Why will the 50% of the Congress that showed up at the AIPAC conference -- to prove their loyalty to Israel's most extreme rightist government ever -- also do everything they can to block Obama were he to decide to demand for Israel to start negotiating a two state solution? Because the Right has learned that it works to press for far more than they can settle with, and then appear to be "compromising" when they are actually giving little more than what they really wanted in the first place.

Over the past several decades, by vehemently staking out extreme positions the Right both in Israel and the U.S. have managed to shift the center of public discourse far to the Right. Positions once advocated by centrist Labor Party people in Israel (dismantling all the settlements in the West Bank, not just the so-called "illegal settlements") or by centrist Democrats like Clinton in the US (universal health care) are labeled "extreme leftist" views (health care is now called "socialism," for example).

In response, yesterday's centrists, now stuck with the label "left of center," think they are doing well if they can achieve success by "winning" concessions that were once the positions of moderate Republicans or moderate Likudniks. So the Democrats in the U.S., and now the peace forces in the Jewish community, imagine that they are winning some serious victory if they get those peace negotiations started again, when there is no reason to believe that they would lead to the kind of Palestinian state that is economically and politically viable, and to a just settlement for Palestinian refugees-the only outcome that could actually provide the preconditions for lasting security for Israel.

Don't put it past Netanyahu to make a dramatic "concession," either when he meets with Obama at the White House or when Obama visits Israel: that Israel is willing to acknowledge the goal of a two state solution and even to start negotiations again, if the Palestinians (including Hamas) renounce all violence (something the US won't do in regard to its mission in Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan) and if they agree to recognize Israel as a Jewish state (though the US would never recognize, say, Saudi Arabia as a Muslim state -- because we'd never want to impose a particular religious or ethnic identification on any state we recognize). Still, I don't put it past Netanyahu to let go of these demands at some point in the process, because he is a wily negotiator who knows how to deal with U.S. pressure -- namely to appear to be making huge concessions while actually implementing none of them. Thus, when he was Prime Minister in the 1990s, he acceded to Bill Clinton's desire to appear to be making peace, but after a torturous process agreed to Israel to allow Palestinians some autonomy (not sovereignty) over about 2/3 of the West Bank (less than 14% of pre-48 Palestine). Meanwhile, he encouraged expansion of settlers so that between the signing of the Oslo Accord at the White House in 1993 and the time that the second Intifada began in 2000 the number of settlers on the West Bank had actually doubled (though to be fair, part of that process took place with the blessings of Rabin before he was murdered by an Israeli right-wing religious fanatic and by Ehud Barak who now serves at Defense Minister in Netanyahu's government). The point here is that Netanyahu knows how to play "cat and mouse" excellently, and unless the US is prepared to impose a fair settlement agreement, Netanyahu could easily agree to start negotiations again and then produce nothing that would satisfy even the most beaten-down and ready-to-compromise Palestinian Authority leadership.

So should the Obama administration suddenly start acting tough, using the power of the U.S. purse to pressure Israel to make significant concessions? Would that be the equivalent on the Left of the successful strategies of the Right in recent decades?

The answer is no. Not at this point, given the current configuration of American and Israeli politics. To do so would require Obama to spend lots of his political capital on an approach that is unlikely to succeed, given the likelihood that such pressures would be undercut by the AIPAC-subservient Congress and would not be understood or supported by the American people, such pressure would be resisted massively by an Israeli government made up of parties that made no attempt to hide their opposition to the creation of a viable Palestinian state anytime in the foreseeable future (their sole goal: delay, delay, delay). And count on the extremist elements in Hamas, themselves quite content to let Israel continue the Occupation and make it so hard on Palestinians that more and more will be driven to Hamas' Islamic fundamentalist worldview or to its "armed struggle" perspective (though we do remember that Hamas has offered a twenty year cease-fire with Israel within which time a final settlement could be negotiated if Israel were to stop its violence against Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank and release Palestinian prisoners held without trial under horrific conditions), to take some kind of provocative violent actions to undermine any movement for peace, just as extremists among the Israeli settlers have been doing quite consistently in the past several years.

A far more effective strategy would be for the Obama Administration to forget about positioning itself as a neutral convener of negotiations, and instead develop and popularize in the U.S. and Israel the details of what a fair and just solution would be: 1. the creation of a Palestinian state in all of the West Bank and Gaza (with small border modifications mutually agreed upon to allow Israel to retain control of the historically Jewish parts of Jerusalem and to incorporate some border settlements, in exchange for giving Palestine equal amounts of land) that had full control of its own borders, 2. an international force that would protect both countries from the terrorist fringes in both populations that will likely resist any peaceful accommodation, 3. generous reparations for Palestinian refugees as well as for Jewish refugees who fled Arab countries, 4. fair sharing of the water and other resources, 5. Israeli settlers allowed to stay in their West Bank homes, but only as citizens of Palestine with no vote in Israel and subject to the laws of the Palestinian state without recourse to Israeli courts or armies, 6. a Truth and Reconciliation commission empowered to require testimony and to stop all teaching of hatred or demeaning of the "Other" in schools, media and religious institutions.

Obama could take another step that would help make this case to the American public: he should start a series of high profile meetings with those in Israel and the US who have been advocates for peace and for a genuine reconciliation of the heart between Israelis and Palestinians. The American people must be exposed to the voices and experiences of all the stakeholders, especially the many moderate Palestinians. But also let Obama introduce the American people to the vigorous debates that go on within Israel and within the worldwide Jewish diaspora itself, so that AIPAC is not the only voice being heard. Let Obama bring to the attention of the American public Israeli voices like Avrum Burg, Yossi Beilin, Uri Avnery, Rabbi Arik Aschermann, and American organizations like J Street, Brit Tzedeck, the American Friends Service Committee, the Rabbis for Human Rights, Churches for Middle East Peace, the Network of Spiritual Progressives, the Shalom Center, and Tikkun. And don't underestimate the impact that Obama could have in Israel itself were he, on this visit in June and in subsequent visits explain to the Israeli public and the Palestinian public how to understand the way the other side sees their situation, why both sides need a fundamental new attitude of open-hearted compassion and genuine repentance, and why, if both sides can approach the issue from that standpoint and accept the points articulated above, both sides could achieve what they need: peace, security, and self-respect. Such a compassionate discourse, if it became the center of a serious campaign to change public opinion in Israel, Palestine and the U.S. (with the kind of money behind it that the US used to try, during the surge in Iraq to change its image among Sunnis and Shi'ites), could even have the impact of weakening the public support that Hamas has been building in the past decade, though we can be sure that they and their counterparts among Israeli ultra-nationalist and Jewish fundamentalist extremists, will do all they can to undermine this kind of peace-generating effort.

If Obama were to teach the American public and Israeli public how to understand both sides of this struggle as having legitimate claims and legitimate anger, recognize their need to overcome past humiliations and trauma, and simultaneously advocate for this solution, he might foster the kind of American and Israeli majorities that would enable him to, at some later point, use American power to impose peace if the two parties can't get there any other way.

You personally can help by sending these ideas to the White House yourself, ask your local and national media to carry this kind of analysis as well as their more limited pro-AIPAC views, and also by challenging your own elected Congressional representatives (in the House snd Senate) to realize that this approach is the best way to achieve peace and security for Israel -- not the way of capitulating to the AIPAC demand that the US never put forward a substantive analysis of what we in the US are for in terms of a settlement agreement! You could also circulate this to people on your email lists, and you could JOIN as a dues paying member Tikkun/Network of Spiritual Progressives and help us raise the money to hire organizers to build the organization that puts forward these ideas (at www.spiritualprogressives.org). You can help us get interns to volunteer for the summer of for the Sept 09-June 2010 year, and you could volunteer time yourself to help us do outreach from your own computer and your own telephone (in which case, contact Kay@tikkun.org). Donations to Tikkun are tax-deductible, and you can also put Tikkun in your will as a charitable bequest.

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