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Obama Needs To Tell It Like It Is

Ever since Barack Obama’s election, many have been eagerly awaiting the “new” approach they hope he will bring to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in contrast to his predecessor. Yet rather than revealing change, my most recent visit to the region in April brought home to me how much of the Bush approach has been maintained under Obama and the Madrid Quartet with its special envoy Tony Blair.

That similarity is most clearly demonstrated by the huge contradiction that exists between the rhetoric of these major players when they talk about a “peace process” and the reality on the ground in Palestine/Israel.

Listening to diplomats and politicians from the US and Europe over recent weeks, there has been a common theme. The general message in that theme is that under Obama, the US is not to going to allow Israel to do whatever it likes. Indeed, Netanyahu is now faced with enormous pressure to do something about illegal Israeli “outposts” in the West Bank, while the US is also apparently seeking a “freeze” in settlement growth.

According to reports in the Israeli press this week, Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have agreed on a “deal” to offer the Americans, whereby “Israel will dismantle the 26 illegal outposts in the West Bank within a matter of weeks in return for the resumption of the ‘natural growth’ of existing settlement blocs”.

This offer represents one of the underlying points of agreement in mainstream Israeli political language. Although Netanyahu’s “centre-right” government is typically seen as a challenge to the official “peace process”, there is remarkable consensus in Israeli politics about a perceived right Israel has to hold onto illegal colony blocs built in the Palestinian territories.

Tzipi Livni, of the “centrist” Kadima, opposes the outposts because to ignore them “harms our ability to maintain what is truly important, which includes the settlement blocs”. The Government’s role, according to Livni, is “to maintain the majority of Israelis who live in Judea and Samaria in the blocs”.

It is revealing that Livni — presented as a relatively “dovish” figure — refers to the occupied Palestinian West Bank in Jewish and biblical terms. (Meanwhile, a Palestinian leader who dares to consider Israeli territory as “Palestine” is instantly condemned as a hateful rejectionist.) But perhaps more specifically relevant at this particular moment is the way the Israel’s leadership uses a special language to represent the landscape — the way it speaks of settlements, outposts, compromises, and “deals”.

Outposts have long served a useful purpose for Israeli governments; a safety valve for the extreme right, they can also be symbolically dismantled when the international heat is on. The outposts also serve to rhetorically legitimise the main settlements. Israel can chose to see outposts as “illegal” because they have not been officially authorised by the Israeli state. But in fact, every single house in Israel’s web of colonies is prohibited under international law. Under that law, it is not for Israel to decide whether a collection of Israeli shacks built on Palestinian land is illegal or not; a dozen fanatic settlers on a hilltop is as illegitimate as the large illegal settler colony Israel calls Ma’ale Adumim.

There are plenty of these misrepresentations dogging the official discourse over Palestine/Israel. Another crucial thing to keep in mind — yet easily lost in the Western public perception of the conflict due to the idea of “two warring sides” — is that Israel has total control over the territory of Israel/Palestine. Even taking into account the creation of the Palestinian Authority, and the parallel division of the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) into differing zones of autonomy, Israel controls the borders, airspace, and natural resources.

There is, in fact, already a de facto “one state”, albeit one of apartheid control that assigns particular rights to different groups of people. An Israeli who lives in Tel Aviv detects no great difference should he or she drive to the illegal Israeli colony of Ariel for example, inside the West Bank. There is a greater Israeli military presence, but there is no sense that one is crossing a frontier or going anywhere other than to a continuation of Israeli territory.

Israel’s military rule in the OPT is focused to a large extent on maintaining an unequal land regime: unequal in terms of access, ownership and sovereignty. Palestinians are alienated from their private and public land through various means and under a variety of guises: kept out of colonies and their associated infrastructure (e.g. settler roads), “nature reserves”, and military training zones.

The consolidation and expansion of Israel’s fragmentation of the OPT began, ironically, under the Oslo Accords. The OPT was divided into three (non-contiguous) areas: A, B, and C, where each category represents the level of Israeli control in ascending order. The land in category C remained under both Israeli military and civil control — and still makes up about 60 per cent of the West Bank.

In more recent times, East Jerusalem and the West Bank have become increasingly fragmented by both the physical and bureaucratic policies of the Israeli authorities. For example, in some areas, only Palestinians who can prove residency are permitted entry through the ubiquitous checkpoints.

Then, of course, there is the Separation Wall, begun in 2002 and subject to an ICJ advisory at The Hague in 2004 which found the entire structure to be illegal. The Wall’s route has divided Palestinians from Palestinians, isolating precious tracts of farmland, and meant that thousands of Palestinians need permission to live in their own homes.

During my most recent visit to Palestine in April, I saw how Israel’s parallel absorption of the OPT and implementation of an apartheid system of ethnic domination had continued to advance. The Bethlehem region, for example, has been almost entirely cut off from its historic twin city, Jerusalem. There is a shortage of space, jobs, and hope.

The UN released a report on the Bethlehem governorate, documenting how due to Israel’s annexation and confiscation policies only 13 per cent of the area’s territory is available to the Palestinians. There are 19 settlements, with a population of close to 90,000. Yet Israel does not consider these colonies “outposts”; for Israel, many of them are not even on the table.

Travelling around the OPT, the idea of a genuine Palestinian state emerging — as opposed to a few “autonomous”, walled-in enclaves policed by a compliant native authority — seems far-fetched to say the least. The permanently temporary occupation has put down roots that no Israeli government will – or wants to — pull up.

Jayyous is a village in the Qalqilya district resisting the Separation Wall and the loss of precious farmland. Standing by one of the Wall’s gates, a short distance from the residents’ houses, I could clearly see the skyscrapers of Tel Aviv in the distance. Two peoples, living parallel lives under the same Israeli rule: one group free, the other trapped behind walls and electric fences.

Events on the ground are changing the nature of the conflict, yet the official rhetoric of Western politicians has not even begun to catch up. In fact, while there are plenty of acknowledgments by everyone from John Kerry to Tony Blair that “time is running out for the ‘two-state solution’” (which is the permitted phrase when discussing Israeli colonisation in the OPT), no appropriate measures are then proposed. Rather, the urgency is to create a Bantustan state under “good” Palestinian rule, shaped by conditions determined by Israel.

For international politicians, Palestinians’ land, sovereignty, and security are to be bargained over, weighed up against the “Iranian threat” or Israeli domestic political considerations. This willingness to be politically “flexible” over core Palestinian rights ignores the violence done by Israel on a daily basis. Meanwhile the fragmentation of the OPT continues to worsen and Israeli apartheid is consolidated.

By continuing to “deal” in terms which do not reflect these realities for Palestinian people, Tony Blair, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are opting for irrelevancy and hypocrisy.

First published in newmatilda.com.

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