By Ghassan Khatib
US President Barack Obama’s long-awaited speech on the “Arab Spring” and the Arab-Israel conflict has created controversy and spurred contradicting reactions in Israel, Palestine and the Arab world.
The immediate and most prominent reaction was that of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who objected publicly to Obama’s reference to the borders of 1967 as the basis for negotiations. This automatically made this part of the speech the most dramatic.
Two days later, in another speech in front of the Israeli lobby group AIPAC, President Obama repeated his reference to the same borders. This time, however, he did not leave the reference ambiguous enough to satisfy both Palestinians and Israelis, rather “explaining” in a manner that won him 49 rounds of applause and prompted a satisfied reaction by Netanyahu.
These two speeches, which will have limited effect on the chances of resuming the peace process or moving things forward, will nevertheless have positive outcomes on the chances for President Obama to stand a second term. They will also build on the political strength of Netanyahu in Israel and empower his right-wing coalition. The positive response by right-wing ministers and settlers to Netanyahu’s “achievement”, i.e. forcing Obama to backtrack on the 1967 borders, shows this is true.
To leave aside the borders of 1967 in order to accommodate “change on the ground” means legitimizing and encouraging illegitimate Israeli settlement. Obama did not once mention the issue of illegal Israeli settlement construction. The logic of legitimizing these activities in order to be “realistic” is very dangerous. Indeed, it undermines the fundamental meaning of the two-state solution. If the 1967 borders are now to be “modified” according to changing realities, this will only encourage the more powerful party to make further illegal changes in the hopes that these, too, will be accepted.
A two-state vision that is detached from the borders of 1967 holds little interest from the Palestinian perspective.
On a positive note, President Obama mentioned several strategically significant issues that Israel has been refusing to hear. These could have some effect on Israeli strategic thinking, coming as they did from the leader of the United States. These four strategic changes do not allow for procrastination. They are demographic changes between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea that will make a Jewish and democratic state impossible, changes in the Arab world that will make an agreement more difficult, technological transformations that will make borders without peace more vulnerable, and finally, changes in international public opinion that are encouraging Palestinians to pursue their case in the United Nations.
On the other hand, two main points were very problematic for Palestinians. The first one was the president’s dismissive reference to the Palestinian intention to take their cause to the international community in the UN in September. President Obama cannot, on one hand, fail to reinstate bilateral peace negotiations that will bring this illegal occupation to an end and, on the other hand, prevent Palestinians from resorting to the house of nations, where conflicts between peoples and states are to be addressed.
Obama rightly said that the status quo is unsustainable. That’s why Palestinians believe that if, between now and September, the US administration is not able to convince Israel to stop settlement expansion and resume talks for the two-state solution on the basis of the 1967 borders, this status quo will collapse. This is why the Palestinian leadership wants the world community to intervene in this conflict in a more serious and collective manner.
Obama’s other main problematic reference was to the “Jewishness” of the state of Israel. This is an artificial obstacle that was created by Israel in order to avoid serious engagement in peacemaking. States cannot be recognized on religious, ethnic, or racial bases in our modern times. Israel does not include only Jews, and supporting the Jewishness of the state will endanger the future of one-fifth of its citizens, who are Arabs. It will also jeopardize the legitimate rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their land, as sanctioned by international law and United Nations resolution 194.
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with bitterlemons.org.