Reaction in the Middle East was more cautious - evidently Palestinians and Arabs were less impressed than their Western counterparts at the sight of a US president lecturing them about non-violence while what's left of Gaza continues to rot under US/Israeli siege (they might also recall, even if Western commentators do not, that the December/January massacre was "carried out with weapons, munitions and military equipment supplied by the USA and paid for with US taxpayers’ money").
Before examining the content of Obama's 'bold vision', it's worth taking a brief look at the immediate context on the ground. Settlements are being constructed in the West Bank at a rate not seen since 2003, the year the 'road map' was formulated. More than 3,200 housing units have been built in West Bank settlements since the beginning of 2008, and construction is planned for a new town in the 'E1' area of the West Bank, a development that would render a contiguous Palestinian state impossible and would, observers warn, 'trigger the collapse of the weakened Palestinian Authority, or drive it into armed resistance again'. House demolitions continue: on June 4 Israeli soldiers demolished the homes of 18 families in the Jordan Valley, displacing 130 people, including 67 children. In East Jerusalem settlement activity continues apace, with the government planning to demolish a Palestinian kindergarten and wholesale market to make way for a hotel and a commercial building. Only 13% of East Jerusalem is zoned for Palestinian construction, while illegal settlements occupy 35%.
Ahead of Obama's speech attacks by PA and Israeli forces against Hamas sharply escalated, perhaps in an attempt to provoke a politically useful response.
In Gaza, reconstruction efforts are non-existent in the face of the "extreme closure regime" (World Bank) being imposed by Israel.
In recent months the Israeli government "has been steadily reducing the variety of supplies entering Gaza" [.pdf]:
"Over the three months of February to April 2009, an average of 65% of all commodities entering Gaza were food items, 86% of which were restricted to a narrow range of seven basic foodstuffs; even then, items, such as macaroni and dates, have been denied entry. It was only after the intervention of US officials that the government of Israel allowed macaroni into Gaza after weeks of delay. On a visit to Gaza in February 2009, a US Congressman asked, "When have lentil bombs been going off lately? Is someone going to kill you with a piece of macaroni?" In March 2009, the government of Israel prevented US-funded food parcels from entering Gaza due to the inclusion of canned tuna, biscuits and jam; they were added to a long list of items `under review',which included wooden toys and maths and science kits."
, a leading academic specialist on Gaza, reports that since 'Operation Cast Lead', "Gaza's already compromised conditions have become virtually unlivable":
Livelihoods, homes, and public infrastructure have been damaged or destroyed on a scale that even the Israel Defense Forces admitted was indefensible. In Gaza today, there is no private sector to speak of and no industry. 80 percent of Gaza's agricultural crops were destroyed and Israel continues to snipe at farmers attempting to plant and tend fields near the well-fenced and patrolled border. Most productive activity has been extinguished.
One powerful expression of Gaza's economic demise--and the Gazans' indomitable will to provide for themselves and their families--is its burgeoning tunnel economy that emerged long ago in response to the siege. Thousands of Palestinians are now employed digging tunnels into Egypt--around 1,000 tunnels are reported to exist although not all are operational. According to local economists, 90 percent of economic activity in Gaza--once considered a lower middle-income economy (along with the West Bank)--is presently devoted to smuggling.
Today, 96 percent of Gaza's population of 1.4 million is dependent on humanitarian aid for basic needs. According to the World Food Programme, the Gaza Strip requires a minimum of 400 trucks of food every day just to meet the basic nutritional needs of the population. Yet, despite a 22 March decision by the Israeli cabinet to lift all restrictions on foodstuffs entering Gaza, only 653 trucks of food and other supplies were allowed entry during the week of May 10, at best meeting 23 percent of required need." [my emph.]
Turning now to Obama's speech, there is little to celebrate, at least with regards to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Rhetorically it achieved everything it set out to: distance Obama from the overtly imperial posture and reckless aggression of the Bush administration, portray the US as interested in dialogue over confrontation and win points in the region by appearing to empathise with popular concerns and aspirations. After seeing Obama's PR team in action during the election campaign, the competence of the speech should come as no surprise. More interesting was the importance attached by media commentators to what was openly billed as an exercise in propaganda. For example, Obama won much praise for describing the plight of the Palestinians as "intolerable" and for outlining the need for a Palestinian state. Yet his predecessor used precisely the same language and this didn't stop him from facilitating accelerated settlement construction, the continued fragmentation and dismemberment of the West Bank and the virtual destruction of Gaza.
With regards to policy, what little the speech offered was totally inadequate. When he spoke about settlements, Obama chose his words carefully:
"The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop." [my emph.]
In other words, Obama had nothing to say about the vast network of settlements and settlement infrastructure Israel has already constructed in the West Bank, which by itself is more than sufficient to prevent the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. Instead he restricted himself to opposing on-going settlement construction. In so doing he merely repeated the official (though not operative) position of virtually every US administration since 1967
"[T]he immediate adoption of a settlements freeze by Israel, more than any other action, could create the confidence needed for wider participation in these talks. Further settlement activity is in no way necessary for the security of Israel and only diminishes the confidence of the Arabs that a final outcome can be fee and fairly negotiated".
"I don't think there is any greater obstacle to peace than settlement activity that continues not only unabated but at an advanced pace."
"Consistent with the Mitchell plan, Israeli settlement activity in occupied territories must stop, and the occupation must end through withdrawal to secure and recognized boundaries, consistent with United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338."
Those were the Reagan, Bush I and Bush II administrations, respectively. In policy terms, as Yehuda Ben-Meir observes, "not only could Bush have delivered the same speech, he did - almost everything the current U.S. president said in Cairo was said many times over by his predecessor." Geoffrey Aronson notes that "for more than three decades, on again off again promotion of a settlement freeze by the U.S. has failed to slow settlement expansion", and indeed "more often than not" has resulted in "U.S. support for settlement expansion". Unless Obama is willing to go beyond rhetoric and apply real pressure on Israel to end its rejectionism, even this limited demand will get lost amidst endless Israeli protests about "natural growth", attempts to re-draw settlement boundaries, and so forth. Unfortunately he appears to have ruled out all but the most 'symbolic' measures to secure Israeli compliance, with even the mild step of placing conditions on loan guarantees reportedly 'not under discussion'. Certainly there are no indications that the U.S. will place conditions on military aid to Israel, which Obama has pledged to massively increase.
In another echo of his predecessor, Obama repeated his previously stated policy of refusing to engage Hamas until it renounces violence and recognises Israel's "right to exist" - conditions accurately described by a former chief of Israeli military intelligence as "ridiculous, or an excuse not to negotiate." Moreover, there are signs that he will retain the disastrous Bush policy of 'divide and rule' in the occupied territories. The US continues to train and finance PA "security forces" that effectively function as proxies for the US and Israel, and Obama recently praised Abbas for refusing to share power with Hamas:
"One thing that I didn't mention earlier that I want to say I very much appreciate is that President Abbas I think has been under enormous pressure to bring about some sort of unity government and to negotiate with Hamas. And I am very impressed and appreciative of President Abbas's willingness to steadfastly insist that any unity government would have to recognize the principles that have been laid by the Quartet." (h/t MondoWeiss)
Given the almost universal recognition among serious analysts of the conflict that political reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah is a prerequisite for any serious attempt at peace, Obama's refusal to engage Hamas and apparent opposition to a unity government reveals a lot about the sincerity of his 'vision'.
Hamas, for its part, has struck an accomodatory tone in recent weeks, with Khaled Meshaal declaring that it 'will not obstruct' a two-state settlement. Senior Hamas official Salah Bardawil described Meshaal's comments as part of "Hamas's new policy", explaining:
"We aspire to establish a Palestinian state from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. But practically, considering the situation, Hamas wants to realize its rights, to establish a Palestinian state. The entire world talks about the principle of two states for two peoples, but we see only one state, the State of Israel, which still has no clear borders and does what it wants even in the area under control of the PA. Give us a state and we'll talk about recognition."
Asked if the Palestinian state with Hamas would recognize the State of Israel, he said yes, "If our demand is met and a Palestinian state is established, we will recognize Israel, because we will have a state and they will have a state. At the moment, the situation is that one state controls another state."
He also said: "The matter of recognition is a personal matter, you recognize us and we'll recognize you. There are no magic solutions. One way is to continue the violence and the war, another is mutual recognition and the establishment of the Palestinian state. The state of Palestine will end the fighting with Israel."
Hamas will issue an important statement tomorrow outlining its position on a potential Obama "peace process" that will likely continue this theme. The organisation has made many similar statements in recent years - for example in 2007, when Meshaal explained that,
"There will remain a state called Israel ... The problem is not that there is an entity called Israel ... The problem is that the Palestinian state is non-existent...
"As a Palestinian today I speak of a Palestinian and Arab demand for a state on 1967 borders. It is true that in reality there will be an entity or state called Israel on the rest of Palestinian land ... This is a reality but I won't deal with it in terms of recognizing or admitting it".
All of Hamas's overtures in the past were flatly rejected by the US and Israel, under the same ludicrous pretexts the Obama administration is using to isolate Hamas today.
Netanyahu will also issue a response to Obama's speech tomorrow. He will likely use the words "Palestinian state", thereby provoking the commentariat to collectively cream itself, while rejecting the complete settlement freeze Obama has demanded. Of course, Netanyahu's use, or lack thereof, of the words 'Palestinian state' is completely insignificant unless the nature of that 'state' is defined. Indeed, as Noam Chomsky points out,
'it was Netanyahu's 1996 government that was the first to use the phrase ['Palestinian state']. It agreed that Palestinians can call whatever fragments of Palestine are left to them "a state" if they like - or they can call them "fried chicken"'
As Aluf Benn reports, if the US applies serious pressure on Israel to end, or at least moderate, its rejectionism, Israel will ultimately be forced to comply. But as Amitai Etzioni observes, by manufacturing a dispute over such comparatively trivial issues Netanyahu will be able to present his 'retreat' to the rejectionist position of previous Israeli governments as a huge concession, thereby reducing the pressure to make genuine 'concessions' where it really matters. It is not difficult to see how Obama, eager to demonstrate to the Arab world his determination to confront Israeli expansionism, would benefit from such a contrived crisis either.
It is, in any event, clear from Netanyahu's record and policy statements that any 'Palestinian state' he refers to will be "fried chicken" (i.e. something approximating the status quo) as opposed to the territorially contiguous, viable state demanded by the international consensus. That is Netanyahu's vision, and the evidence thus far suggests that Obama, 'bold' rhetoric aside, will do nothing to seriously challenge it.
Cross-posted at The Heathlander