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Obama and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: It’s Time to Act

As President Barack Obama travels to Israel and Palestine in the spring, Washington’s unconditional backing of Israel could soon begin to harm U.S. interests and security in Arab Muslim countries.

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Inter Press Service

As President Barack Obama travels to Israel and Palestine in the spring, Washington’s unconditional backing of Israel could soon begin to harm U.S. interests and security in Arab Muslim countries.

Recent Pew and Gallup polls show animosity toward the U.S. in many Muslim countries has deepened since he took office with most respondents citing U.S. support for Israel as a major cause for their antagonism.

Obama’s visit should offer more than photo-ops and soaring rhetoric. Arabs have heard these speeches before, and they no longer appeal to the youthful generation, in particular.

Four years ago, the president said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was unsustainable. Now is the time to resolve it if the Palestinians are to live in freedom and dignity, if Israel is to be accepted in the region as a secure state, and if the U.S. is to preserve its influence in the region’s new political era.

U.S. backing of Israel in recent decades, coupled with official Arab acquiescence, served Israel well without inflicting too much damage on U.S. interests in the region. But this is no longer tenable.

Popular upheavals have toppled pro-Western regimes and are threatening others. Political Islam has come to power in Egypt and elsewhere. New Arab governments are now responsive to their peoples, and the security or mukhabarat state is being replaced by populist politics.

Israel also has witnessed significant demographic, religious and political changes. European liberal secularism, which governed Israel for decades, has given way to extremist politics pushed by smaller fringe parties, not unlike the U.S. Tea Party.

On the verge of bankruptcy and devoid of internal popular legitimacy, the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah is rife with corruption and inefficiency.

Support of Israel is driving rising U.S. negativity in the region, according to polls and media reports. Other policies contributing to anti-Americanism include drone strikes and indifference toward the plight of the Syrian people. Palestinians are becoming more desperate, and Israel continues to build settlements without fear of condemnation from Washington.

The president and his second-term foreign policy team should think creatively about Israel and Palestine. The so-called peace process is no more than a pipedream to which some Arab and Western governments unrealistically still cling.

As Washington rethinks its position on the conflict, it should consider the following realities.

First, while the popularly elected, Islamically-led Arab governments are committed to peaceful relations with Israel, they are becoming less tolerant of Israel’s continued intransigence toward the Palestinians.

The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the Tunisian al-Nahda believe peace with Israel in the long run requires Israel to settle its conflict with Palestinians on the basis of justice, equality, and realism.

They expect Israel to terminate its 46-year old occupation, end its siege of Gaza, and allow the Palestinians to live in their own independent nation with Jerusalem as its capital. Under the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, Arab governments committed themselves to peace with Israel in exchange for a return to the 1967 borders.

As one Palestinian told the author, “This is not rocket science. Everyone knows what should be done, and yet no one does anything about it.”

Second, with Hamas and Fatah inching toward reconciliation, the Palestinian public is becoming more empowered to wage an active non-violent resistance campaign against Israel in the occupied territories.

Third, the Palestinian community in Israel, roughly 21 percent of the population, is reasserting its national identity and engaging in a national campaign for justice and equality. Feeling empowered by popular upheavals in neighbouring countries, this community is demanding equal rights as indigenous inhabitants of the land and an end to discrimination.

Many in Washington argue that Washington’s unconditional backing of Israel has not harmed U.S. interests or endangered Israel’s security despite official Arab public criticism. They cite several indicators to bolster their status quo position.

First, “political Islam” is diverse and does not express a monolithic view about U.S. standing in the region or its perceived anti-Palestinian stance. Sunni Saudi Arabia, Shia Iraq, and Muslim Brotherhood Egypt have not shown a serious inclination to go to bat for the Palestinians, according to this position.

Second, although Arab countries have repeatedly defended the Palestinian cause in international forums, they have done very little to support the Palestinians as a people. Many Arab governments, which defend the Palestinianism of the cause refuse Palestinians entry visas to their countries.

Third, most Arab governments are pre-occupied with domestic security and economic issues, and have turned to the U.S. for help. U.S. forces are stationed in Arab and Muslim countries, which also receive substantial U.S. economic aid. These needs often trump official Arab support for Palestine and mute any retaliatory action against the U.S. for its pro-Israeli position.

Fourth, Arab regimes that are fighting for survival – for example, Syria and Bahrain – are involved in quashing anti-regime revolts and have no interest in the Palestinian cause

So where do we go from here?

First, the status quo defenders’ assessment is short-sighted and ignores the recent history of the Middle East. Empowered Arab publics will no longer tolerate their governments’ hypocrisy in the face of U.S. regional hegemony or Israeli intransigence.

Second, although Arab publics cannot fight Israel militarily, they could wage massive civil rights campaigns, hunger strikes, and challenges to the Gaza blockade. The Palestinian BDS (Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions) campaign has resonated globally and has deepened Israel’s international isolation despite U.S. opposition to the movement.

Third, the Palestinian public seems to have moved increasingly away from a two-state solution towards a “one Palestine” in which the inhabitants would enjoy equal rights and access to economic opportunity regardless of religion or ethnicity.

Despite its military prowess, Israel would be severely challenged by a global Palestinian civil rights campaign. As a non-violent Palestinian activist said, “Israel faces a stark choice: either end the occupation or give Palestinians Israeli citizenship.”

If the U.N. Security Council and the International Court of Justice begin to take action against Israel, Arab governments will have to re-assess their peace treaties with the Jewish state. The U.S. also will have to respond to preserve its interests in the region. It is doubtful Washington has the luxury of time before it’s forced to act.

Emile Nakhleh, a former Senior Intelligence Service Officer, is a research professor at the University of New Mexico and the author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing Society.

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