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Missed Movement of Opportunity

Posted by Don McLenaghen on May 25, 2011

Recently there has been an icy wind between Israel and the USA over comments made by President Obama. In a speech made on May 19th and a position he has reiterated several times since, Obama stated that the time was now for Israel and Palestine to come together and settle their differences, that at least they should be able to settle what will constitute the borders of the two states. Let’s hear what Obama said in his “Moment of Opportunity” speech.

The conflict between Israelis and Arabs has cast a shadow over the region…this conflict has come with a larger cost to the Middle East, as it impedes partnerships that could bring greater security and prosperity and empowerment to ordinary people.

For the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure.

As for Israel, the status quo is unsustainable, and Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace. The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation.

Now, ultimately, it is up to the Israelis and Palestinians to take action. No peace can be imposed upon them. But endless delay won’t make the problem go away. A lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples.

So while the core issues of the conflict must be negotiated, the basis of those negotiations is clear: a viable Palestine, a secure Israel.

We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their full potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state. As for security, every state has the right to self-defense, and Israel must be able to defend itself.[1]

To get a tone of how this was received let’s hear a clip of Israeli President Netanyahu respond to one point in the speech.

So it’s not going to happen.  Everybody knows it’s not going to happen.  And I think it’s time to tell the Palestinians forthrightly it’s not going to happen.[2]

When I first heard this quote I was taking it out of context and only wanted to use it to show the tone of the reception of Obama’s comments. However, in a speech to a joint sitting of congress, Netanyahu made it clear that peace would be largely dictated by Israel and that the Palestinians should be thankful for that. In the speech he stated:

We must also find a way to forge a lasting peace with the Palestinians. I publicly committed to a solution of two states for two peoples — a Palestinian state alongside a Jewish state.

We’ll be required to give up parts of the ancestral Jewish homeland. And you have to understand this: In Judea and Samaria[3], the Jewish people are not foreign occupiers.

We’re not the British in India[4]. We’re not the Belgians in the Congo. This is the land of our forefathers, the land of Israel — and boy am I reading a lot of distortions of history lately — no distortion of history could deny the 4,000-year-old bond between the Jewish people and the Jewish land.[5]

The Palestinians share this small land with us. We seek a peace in which they’ll be neither Israel’s subjects nor its citizens. They should enjoy a national life of dignity as a free, viable and independent people living in their own state.

The Palestinians have been unwilling to accept a Palestinian state if it meant accepting a Jewish state alongside it. They continue to educate their children to hate[6]. They continue to name public squares after terrorists. And worst of all, they continue to perpetuate the fantasy that Israel will one day be flooded by the descendants of Palestinian refugees.


I stood before my people and I said, “I will accept a Palestinian state.” It’s time for President Abbas to stand before his people and say, “I will accept a Jewish state.”[7]


The status of the settlements will be decided only in negotiations, but we must also be honest. So I’m saying today something that should be said publicly by all those who are serious about peace. In any real peace agreement, in any peace agreement that ends the conflict, some settlements will end up beyond Israel’s borders. Now the precise delineation of those borders must be negotiated. We’ll be generous about the size of the future Palestinian state[8].

Israel will be generous on the size of a Palestinian state but will be very firm on where we put the border with it. This is an important principle, shouldn’t be lost.

Jerusalem must never again be divided. Jerusalem must remain the united capital of Israel.

It’s therefore vital — absolutely vital — that a Palestinian state be fully demilitarized, and it’s vital — absolutely vital — that Israel maintain a long-term military presence along the Jordan River.  

The Palestinian attempt to impose a settlement through the United Nations will not bring peace.

Peace cannot be imposed. It must be negotiated.[9]

What are the issues Obama is raising that has created such controversy?

The two state solution.  First there are radicals, more now I think in Israel than in the Palestinian one, which opposes this and believe in a ‘one state’ solution[10]. Some do not believe Israel has no legitimacy of existence, however due to the actual existence and power of Israel this group are currently seen as radical extremist. On the other side, there are groups who believe in ‘greater Zion’, holding that Israel should not only annex (and of course ethnically cleanse the West bank and Gaza…in a humane manner) but also re-capture the Sinai in order to restore the biblical borders of Israel.  In reality a growing number of Israeli believe that settlement in the West Bank should be increased with the eventual goal of annexation once it has become suitably Jewish not for religious reasons but security and economic reasons. However, for the moment both one-staters are a minority.

Most people accept, including the majority of Israelis and Palestinians, that eventually there will be two states – one Israel and one Palestine; the crux of the issue is what those states will look like – geographically, economically and politically. A number of people forget that during the apartheid era in South Africa, there was created a number of ‘independent’ states as homelands for the ‘blacks’. These states were called Bantustans[11].

Bantu States - homelands generously created by South Africa

Bantu States. These were set up as semi-autonomous homelands for the native population of South Africa. These states were ‘internal’ often no-contiguous states that were intended to ensure the Blacks could not enjoy the rights of South African citizenship (making them more vulnerable to ‘security’ measures and economic pressure). A quick comparison of the map of the current Palestinian controlled lands to that of the Bantustan states[12] does seem rather similar and making such fears of Palestinians that their ‘homeland’ will be little more than a labour pool ghetto intended to insure Israel dominance and control without the legal obligations annexation would entail.

As stated, I get the impression that the current Israeli government (if not national sentiment) is to ensure that the two-state solution is not two EQUAL states. That said, western leaders, the UN and Israeli ‘official’ policy is the creation of two independent equal states…however the boundary of those states was the ‘flash point’ seen in Obama’s speech.

What Obama stated was the same things every President and most of the world (including several UN resolutions) have been saying for decades; that the border between Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 border.  Of course when you say 1967 border it is important whether you mean pre or post 1967 war.

Jerusalem.  Prior to the 1967 war, East Jerusalem was part of the “state” of Palestine however during the war Israel managed to capture all of Jerusalem and later annexed the ‘unified’ city. This is a big issue because both the Israelis and the Palestinians see Jerusalem as their capital.  If the starting point for negotiations is Pre-1967 war, then Jerusalem is open for negotiations, something Israel has stated it will never do and something the Palestinians insist upon…they do not understand why East Jerusalem cannot be the capital of Palestine and “west” Jerusalem Israel’s capital.

Religion. One of the reasons both sides are struggling over East Jerusalem is because it is the “old city’ and the location of three of the most important religious sites – The Wailing Wall which for the Jews is the part of the Second Temple; the Dome of the Rock which for Muslims is where Mohammad assented to heaven and lastly it’s the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Christians believe Jesus was crucified.

Irrespective of which line you use to create the two states, there is a lot of resistance on the Israeli side. This is because of three directly related issues and one indirect.

Security. Although much of the fighting between Israel and Palestinians has been lopsided, it is still true that Israelis feel a genuine fear of violence – be it suicide bombers, rocket attacks or simply mobs. The first two are perhaps realities they will always face…as long as the conflict exists; as I stated earlier, one-staters are a minority on both sides but as long as the issue is unresolved, attacks on Israel will persist.  The mobs (the intifadas for example although protests, mostly peaceful, occur weekly throughout the occupied territories) are the result of occupation; an issue that will disappear with the creation of Palestine and the removal of occupation forces.

Hamas. As part of the security issue, is often used by Israel as an excuse not to negotiate…and to be fair, Hamas has played hardball with the religio-political rhetoric. That said there are three main complaints with Hamas; first it refuses to recognise the state of Israel…however, it has indicated it will when Israel recognizes the state of Palestine with ‘appropriate’ borders. That it will not renounce violence…however Israel still practices ‘targeted killing’. That it will not recognize international agreements…unlike Israel which has dismissed innumerable UN declarations or international law.

BUT I don’t what to really defend Hamas, I think Gaza would be better without it (democracy failing again…Hamas was democratically elected) and feel disheartened conditions in Gaza are so harsh as to allow what I accept a radical group to rise to power (I shall resist the pull of Godwin on this one).

Even if we accepted that Hamas is as evil as Israel claims, the idea it is an actual or existential threat to the Middle East’s only nuclear power…a military giant claiming it fears the noisy mouse that is, at best, Hamas has a hollow ring.

That said, Hamas is in Gaza…an established border; it has little to do with the West Bank…the place where the border issue is discussed. Israel’s refusal to negotiate about borders with Fatah (the government of the West Bank) because the Palestinians are attempting to re-unify after a split in 2009, seems to be more of an excuse to not negotiate…not that I do not think that Hamas’s attitudes toward the state of Israel will not at some point be the main topic of discussion, the point Obama was making is that the location of the border could and should be negotiated now…that perhaps with the ‘land deal’ in hand, these other issues may just solve themselves with the main source of irritation being removed.

First it was war, then it was the 2000 map of Palestine to that of the Bantu States above

Settlers. Of course, Israel cannot remove its occupation forces as long as it has Jewish settlements in the West Bank[13], a lesson learnt in the Gaza Strip. The settlements are perhaps the most formable obstacle to peace. I should point out that the settlements themselves are highly illegal accounting to several international laws[14] and opinion. Sadly this is a classic (if unintentional?) tactic used by the Nazis[15], Soviets[16], Chinese[17] and other to settle ‘nationals’ on newly acquired territory so as to ensure pacification and permanent control. It also explains the resistance of Israel to ACTUALLY use the 1967 line, be it pre or post war, because if one looks at a current map of the West Bank, more than ½ of it is under settler control. IF Israel were to reconstitute the 1967 border with equivalent land swaps…well there isn’t enough land in Israel to really do that.

The Archipelago of Palestine - the view if non-Palestinian land were seen as water, what would the "state" of Palestine look like?

Right of return. This is an indirect issue and a red herring but one that gets played out in the border argument. When Israel was created a significant number of Jews and Arabs were displaced from their ancestral homes.  Most Jews emigrated willingly to the first Jewish state in millenniums while Arabs were unwilling and have been waiting for their own homeland in refugee camps for decades. Most Palestinians wishing to return to their ‘lost homes’ accept the existence of Israel and are willing (more or less) to become Israeli citizens as the price of return. Israel will never allow this to happen because of the number of Arabs claiming a right to return would so alter the demography of Israel so as to recast it as a second Palestinian state. However, most Palestinians claiming ‘right of return’ are second or third generation and do not actually expect to return to their land. They are looking more for an acknowledgment of and restitution for that loss. In this they have moral weight however I think it should be the burden of the “post WWII powers” that created Israel, largely out of guilt for the Holocaust, who should pay this restitution…being the ones ultimately responsible for the appropriation of the land.

It should be noted that Palestine was NOT created in 1967 or 1956 or 1948 because of Israel but because of Jordan and Egypt which occupied the lands the UN declared to be Palestine.

Lastly, why now? Why did Obama choose this moment to make the speech? Well, first there is not much new in the speech that has not been said before. If you look online, G.W. Bush said something similar during his presidency. It is essentially what was accepted in the Oslo Accord of 1993 and Camp David Summit of 2000.

It was also a good time because of the ‘Arab Spring’ which has seen the great apparent growth of freedom and secular democracy. However, this may not be as good as you might think. Israel, although perhaps morally opposed to the Middle Eastern dictatorships had learned to work with most of them. Their over thought has left Israel worried about threats ‘free and open’ elections might have on its own security.

However the biggest impetus for this “Moment of Opportunity” is the expected vote in September by the UN general assembly on the Palestine statehood. Palestine is planning to recognize, for the first time, the STATE of Palestine. It does this in an effort to shame Israel to the negotiation table as well as allow it greater rights under international law. It remains to be seen where this opportunity may play out but it cannot be denied it has set a fire under the Israeli government.


[4] By stating it this way, there is an implied denial of Palestine’s right to exist. IF we accept that the Israelis are not the British but the Indians, then this implicitly cast the Palestinians as the British…invaders who have not legitimate right to the land.

[5] A claim that is historically dubious, let us remember Israel ‘conquered’ the promised land from peoples whom the Palestinians could claim heritage. That said, the modern context (allowing modern to go back centuries), the lands Israel occupy now are NOT theirs…they are more akin to Americans or Canadians. That said, the state exists and as a reality has as much legitimacy to exist as Canada.

[6] This is a term that is based on perspective. Americans ‘taught’ hatred of imperial Britain before independence.

[7] This statement is equivalent, not to get all Godwin, to recognizing Germany and an Aryan State…states defined by race are innately racist and should be, even in this historically unique case, rejected. Both should recognize each STATE not racial states.

[8] He used the term ‘negotiate’ a lot and yet he seems to be dictating terms. That the state of Palestine will be a (reluctant) gift given (or taken away…if security requires it) to the Palestinians.

[13] Settlements on occupied territory are against several international laws. T

[14] (Geneva Convention-2001;UN General Assembly resolution 39/146-1984; UN Security Council Resolution 446-1979;International Court of Justice Advisory Opinion-2004…)

[15] Germans were encouraged to settle “unused” agricultural lands in Poland and Belarus as part of the “Lebensraum” principle.

[16] Russians were encouraged to settle in the Baltic countries (and to a lesser extent Central Asian countries) to help strengthen “communism”.

[17] Tibet has complained about the  high rates of Han Chinese the Chinese government has encouraged to settle Tibet.

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