Is Obama serious about a Palestinian state?


The phrase “two-state solution” didn’t cross the lips of Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, at his press conference with President Barack Obama in the White House on 18 May 2009.  Netanyahu did express “the desire to move the peace process forward” and went as far as to say that he wants Palestinians to “govern themselves”, telling Obama:


“I share with you very much the desire to move the peace process forward.  And I want to start peace negotiations with the Palestinians immediately.  I would like to broaden the circle of peace to include others in the Arab world … .

”I want to make it clear that we don’t want to govern the Palestinians.  We want to live in peace with them.  We want them to govern themselves, absent a handful of powers that could endanger the state of Israel.” [1]


The final clause contains the rub – he wants Palestinians to govern themselves, except in areas where, on the grounds of “security”, Israel deems it necessary to govern them.  Not that this is much different from previous Israeli Governments, which never left much doubt that any Palestinian “state” would be effectively under Israeli control.


In US national security interests

Obama made it clear at the press conference that achieving a “two-state solution” was now a US foreign policy objective.  He said:


“I have said before and I will repeat again that it is I believe in the interest not only of the Palestinians, but also the Israelis and the United States and the international community to achieve a two-state solution in which Israelis and Palestinians are living side by side in peace and security.”


He later repeated the view that “pursuing Israeli-Palestinian peace” is in “the United States’ national security interests”.


A corollary of this is that, should the Israeli Government refuse to pursue a two-state solution, then US national security interests would diverge from those of Israel, with the implied threat that the US would then have to pursue its own interests.


George Mitchell, Obama’s Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, has had very little to say in public about his mission, but he has used a similar formulation repeatedly, at the stops on his travels around the Middle East, so the formulation has obviously been carefully prepared.  For example, in Jerusalem on 16 April 2009, he said:


“Policy of the United States under President Obama is clear. Beyond any doubt it is in the United States national interest that there be a comprehensive peace settlement in the middle east which would include settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a two-state solution involving a Palestinian state living side by side alongside the Jewish state of Israel in peace and hopefully stability and prosperity.” [2]


As far as I am aware, the US has not used this formulation before. 


Freeman on US interests

Obama has not spelt out in what sense a two-state solution is in the national interests of the United States, apart from a vague implication that achieving it, or at least working even-handedly towards it, is necessary to improve US relations with the Muslim world.


When I came across Obama’s use of this formulation, it reminded me of remarks by Charles W Freeman, whom Obama appointed as Chairman of the US National Intelligence Council last February, but who later resigned, having come under attack from the Israeli lobby in the US (see [3]).


Over several years, Freeman has dared to state the obvious about US-Israel relations, namely, that Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, and America’s continual and uncritical support for Israel, is a generator of anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world and a recruiting sergeant for al-Qaeda.  For example, in a speech on 24 May 2007, he urged the US to act in its own interests, which, he asserted, were not the same as Israel’s:


“There will be no negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians, no peace, and no reconciliation between them – and there will be no reduction in anti-American terrorism – until we have the courage to act on our interests. These are not the same as those of any party in the region, including Israel, and we must talk with all parties, whatever we think of them or their means of struggle.


“Refusal to reason with those whose actions threaten injury to oneself, one's friends, and one's interests is foolish, feckless, and self-defeating. That is why it is past time for an active and honest discussion with both Israel and the government Palestinians have elected, which – in an irony that escapes few abroad – is the only democratically elected government in the Arab world.


“But to restore our reputation in the region and the world, given all that has happened, and to eliminate terrorism against Americans, it is no longer enough just to go through the motions of trying to make peace between Israelis and Arabs. We must succeed in actually doing so. Nothing should be a more urgent task for American diplomacy.” [4]


So, according to Freeman, it is in the US national interest to bring about a settlement between Israelis and Arabs in Palestine – not least because it would make the US safer by removing a ground for generating anti-US sentiment, and al-Qaeda recruits, in the Muslim world.


Scowcroft & Brzezinski on US interests

The present US administration has not deployed this argument.  But, people close to Obama are doing so.  Listen to this:


Osama Bin Laden did not commission attacks in New York and Washington, DC to ‘free Palestine’. Yet tens of millions of young men and women in the Arab world and the Muslim world beyond – the products of demographic ‘youth bulges’ in challenged economies – are targeted for recruitment by al-Qaeda and its affiliates partly on the basis of ongoing defeat, injustice and humiliation in the Arab-Israeli context. Some of these recruits have found their way to Iraq. Others no doubt await opportunities to strike at American interests and persons … .


“ … it is essential that the incoming administration make Arab-Israeli peace a high national security priority from the beginning. A comprehensive Arab-Israel peace will not erase al-Qaeda. Yet it would help drain the swamp in which the disease thrives and mutates.”


This is from a document, entitled A Bipartisan Statement on U.S. Middle East Peacemaking [5], containing recommendations to the Obama administration from a bipartisan group of ten former senior government officials, including Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, who were National Security Advisers to, respectively, President George HW Bush and President Jimmy Carter.  Brzezinski was a foreign policy adviser to Obama during his election campaign.


Since 9/11, Israel has attempted to portray its oppression of Palestinians as a part of the US “war on terror” against al-Qaeda, even though Israel has rarely if ever been an al-Qaeda target.  Under the previous US administration, this ludicrous portrayal was never questioned.  Now, Scowcroft, Brzezinski et al are stating the obvious – that the “ongoing defeat, injustice and humiliation” of Palestinians by Israel, and US backing of Israel, is a recruiting sergeant for al-Qaeda. 


Since 9/11, protecting the US homeland, and US interests abroad, from al-Qaeda has been an obsession in US politics.  So, if bringing about a settlement in the Middle East comes to be seen as a means of reducing the threat from al-Qaeda, then even the famed power of the Israeli lobby in the US would have difficulty resisting a determined attempt by the US administration to force Israel into allowing a Palestinian state to be set up.


Determined attempt?

This begs several rather large questions.  First, will Obama really make a determined attempt to establish a Palestinian state?  Second, is there the remotest chance of a state that could reasonably be described as viable and independent being established?.  To do so would require the US to apply enormous and unprecedented pressure on Israel.  Or will Obama end up pressurising Palestinians – by far the weaker party – to accept an entity that is neither viable nor independent?  A factor working against the latter is that the outcome has to serve the US purpose of making its peace with the Muslim world and helping reduce the threat from al-Qaeda.


The signs are that Obama is going to make a determined attempt.  This is not going to be a rerun of Annapolis, in which the US was a disinterested bystander in a process embarked upon by a lame duck president with only twelve months of his presidency left.  In those circumstances, it was very easy for Israel to spin the process out to an unsuccessful conclusion.


This time, a president with at least four, and maybe eight, years in the White House ahead of him has declared that establishment of a Palestinian state is in the US national security interest.  This time, the US is not going to be a disinterested bystander.  This time, all Israel’s talents for prevarication and obstruction will have to be deployed in an attempt to spin the process out to an unsuccessful conclusion.


“Big trouble”, if Israel attacks Iran

The prevarication and obstruction has begun.  In advance of his visit to Washington, it looked as if Netanyahu would try to put negotiations with Palestinians on the long finger by focussing attention on the (alleged) threat to Israel’s existence from Iran’s nuclear activities. 


But, Obama saw that one off by arguing that a settlement in Palestine would make it easier to get international co-operation for dealing with Iran.  He put it this way at the press conference:


“To the extent that we can make peace … between the Palestinians and the Israelis, then I actually think it strengthens our hand in the international community in dealing with a potential Iranian threat.”


This cannot be denied, so Netanyahu will have to give the appearance of being willing to negotiate with Palestinians, while Obama pursues negotiations with Iran.


Meanwhile, Obama sent CIA Director, Leon Panetta, to Israel in late April to meet Netanyahu and warn him not to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.  See Jerusalem Post article, entitled CIA head: Jerusalem knows not to attack Iran, published on 20 May 2009 [6], which quotes Panetta as saying:


“Yes, the Israelis are obviously concerned about Iran and focused on it. But [Netanyahu] understands that if Israel goes it alone, it will mean big trouble. He knows that for the sake of Israeli security, they have to work together with others.”


Israel’s political leaders are almost unanimous in saying that Iran is, or is about to become, a threat to Israel’s existence.  Now, Obama has forbidden Israel to take the action that many of them say is essential to counter the threat.  That is an extraordinary thing for him to do, and it is even more extraordinary for him to make public the fact that he has done it.


Recognise Israel as a Jewish state?

Netanyahu did attempt to lay down a pre-condition for negotiations, namely, that Palestinians “will have to recognize Israel as a Jewish state”.  The Olmert Government made the same demand prior to the Annapolis conference in November 2007, but President Abbas, as PLO Chairman, rejected it and there was no mention of “a Jewish state” in the Joint Understanding between Olmert and Abbas on that occasion [7].  Abbas has rejected it again this time and it is unlikely that the US will allow Netanyahu to halt the process before it begins over this issue.


It is worth noting that, when the PLO recognised Israel’s right to exist at the time of the Oslo Agreement, the character of the state was not defined.  PLO Chairman, Yasser Arafat’s letter to Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, merely said:


"The PLO recognizes the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security." (see, for example, [8])


Palestinian leaders have always rejected out of hand demands that they recognise Israel as a Jewish state – for good reasons.


First, accepting that Israel is a Jewish state would be tantamount to giving up the right of Palestinians to return to Israel.  After all, why should non-Jews be allowed to return to live in what is acknowledged to be a Jewish state?


Second, accepting that Israel is a Jewish state would compromise the status of the nearly 1.5 million Palestinians living in Israel now.  It would call into question whether they as non-Jews should have the same rights as Jews in Israel, or even whether should they be allowed to remain in Israel.


The Roadmap

In April 2003, the US published a document setting out a framework for negotiations between Israel and the PLO, called is A performance-based roadmap to a permanent two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict [9].  Obama seems to be determined that this Roadmap will form the basis for future negotiations – and that this time, unlike Annapolis, Israel will have to fulfil the pre-conditions contained in it.


Phase I of the Roadmap requires Israel to take the following steps:


(a)     “Israeli leadership issues unequivocal statement affirming its commitment to the two-state vision of an independent, viable, sovereign Palestinian state”


(b)     “GOI [Government of Israel] immediately dismantles settlement outposts erected since March 2001”, and


(c)     “Consistent with the Mitchell Report, GOI [Government of Israel] freezes all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements)”.


At the time, the Israeli Government, headed by Ariel Sharon, approved the Roadmap by 12 votes to 7, but entered 14 reservations [10].  However, these reservations did not relate to points (a), (b) or (c).


Netanyahu, Sharon’s successor as leader of Likud and Prime Minister, hasn’t specifically repudiated the Roadmap, mindful perhaps of the fact that Israel (and the US) is forever demanding that Palestinians stick to past agreements.  However, he is not prepared to commit to the objective of it, that is, a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


Freeze settlement activity

Nor is he prepared to abide by the pre-condition to “freeze all settlement activity”.  Obama said at the press conference:


“I shared with the Prime Minister the fact that under the roadmap and under Annapolis that there’s a clear understanding that we have to make progress on settlements.  Settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward.  That’s a difficult issue.  I recognize that, but it’s an important one and it has to be addressed.”


That’s not very precise, but in an interview with Al Jazeera the next day, Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, was more precise:


“… we want to see a stop to settlement construction, additions, natural growth – any kind of settlement activity.” [11]


She was even more precise, and insistent, on 27 May 2009 after a meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister, Ahmed Ali Aboul Gheit:


“With respect to settlements, the President was very clear when Prime Minister Netanyahu was here. He wants to see a stop to settlements – not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions. We think it is in the best interests of the effort that we are engaged in that settlement expansion cease. That is our position. That is what we have communicated very clearly, not only to the Israelis but to the Palestinians and others. And we intend to press that point.” [12]


Netanyahu didn’t have the courage to say anything about settlements at his press conference with Obama.  However, when he returned to Israel, he declared that settlement activity would not be frozen, saying on 24 May 2009:


"We do not intend to build any new settlements, but it wouldn't be fair to ban construction to meet the needs of natural growth or for there to be an outright construction ban.” [13]


In an attempt to mollify the US about refusing to freeze settlement activity, it looks as if Israel is going to make a show of dismantling a few outposts, which, if past experience is anything to go by, will be reconstructed within hours.  According to a Ha’aretz report [14], Defense Minister, Ehud Barack, the person responsible for dismantling outposts, says he is going to dismantle 22 (out of well over a hundred). 


(However, according to the same report, Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, says that “Israel should only evacuate outposts as part of a comprehensive peace plan”.


He also said that the Roadmap was “the only valid peace process for Israel” and that Israel “was not bound by commitments it made at the 2007 Annapolis peace conference to pursue the creation of a Palestinian state”.


Could the Israeli Foreign Minister be ignorant of the fact that the Roadmap commits Israel (a) to pursue the creation of a Palestinian state, (b) to immediately dismantle all settlement outposts erected since 2001, and (c) to freeze all settlement activity?)


Jerusalem undivided

On 21 May 2009, just after he got home from Washington, Netanyahu spoke at a Jerusalem Day ceremony – and ruled out Israel relinquishing any part of Jerusalem.  He said:


“United Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. Jerusalem has always been - and always will be - ours. It will never again be divided or cut in half. Jerusalem will remain only under Israel's sovereignty.” [15]


The US State Department responded, saying:


Jerusalem is a final status issue. Israel and the Palestinians have agreed to resolve its status during negotiations. We will support their efforts to reach agreements on all final status issues.” [16]


Jerusalem is one of the final status issues specified in the Roadmap – the others are borders, refugees and settlements.


PLO pre-conditions

The Palestinian position on negotiations with the Israeli Government was set out in a statement by Saeb Erakat for the PLO on 5 May 2009 [17].  He was responding to Netanyahu’s speech to AIPAC when he called for a “fresh approach” to peace between Palestinians and Israelis.  Erakat replied:


“Successive Israeli governments have failed to implement their obligations under existing agreements. When Netanyahu speaks of a fresh approach to peace, implementing Israel’s obligations under existing agreements is precisely the fresh approach that Palestinians and the international community expect of his government.


“This includes an immediate freeze on all settlement activity, particularly in and around occupied East Jerusalem, and lifting all restrictions on freedom of movement and access for Palestinians both in and out of, as well as within, the occupied Palestinian territory, including an immediate end to the siege on Gaza.


“And Netanyahu must explicitly endorse the establishment of an independent, viable and sovereign Palestinian state, which remains the cornerstone of the two-state solution. Negotiations for their own sake, without a clearly defined end goal, are no substitute for a just and lasting peace.


“A commitment to past agreements, and implementation of Israel’s existing obligations, will create the environment needed to rebuild the legitimacy and credibility of the peace process, and send a message that the Palestinians have a partner for peace.”


Erakat said that economic prosperity for Palestinians rested on Israel ending its occupation:


“Economic development is a right to which Palestinians are entitled, but which they have been denied as a result of Israel’s occupation.


“Israel’s regime of checkpoints, road blocks, permits, settlements and the construction of Israel’s Wall, which fragment the occupied Palestinian territory into isolated cantons and strangle all freedom of movement for goods and people, remains the major obstacle to economic development for Palestinians.


“Without a political settlement, meaning an end to Israel’s occupation and the establishment of an independent and viable Palestinian state, talk of economic peace will be seen for what it is, namely an attempt to normalize and better manage the occupation.”


In an interview with Akiva Eldar of Ha’aretz on 26 May 2009, PLO negotiator, Ahmed Qureia said:


“There will be no negotiations without an evacuation of the outposts established since 2001.” [18].


The PLO position appears to be that there will be no negotiations with Israel unless the Israeli leadership


(a)     issues an unequivocal statement affirming its commitment to the two-state vision of an independent, viable, sovereign Palestinian state


(b)     dismantles the settlement outposts established since 2001


(c)     freezes all settlement activity


(d)     lifts all restrictions on freedom of movement and access for Palestinians both in and out of, as well as within, the occupied Palestinian territory


(e)     ends the siege of Gaza


The PLO has solid grounds for setting down these pre-conditions.  Points (a), (b) and (c) are explicitly stated in the Roadmap.  Points (d) and (e) are part of the Agreement on Movement & Access, which Israel signed in November 2005 and has signally failed to honour since.


US position

It remains to be seen if the PLO will get US backing for maintaining these pre-conditions.  In theory, the US agrees with them.  Speaking at a special Security Council meeting on 11 May 2009, called by Russia to discuss “the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”, Susan Rice, the US Ambassador to the UN, set out the US position on these points as follows:


“This meeting of the Council underscores the priority that the international community places on achieving a secure, lasting and comprehensive peace in the Middle East. That must include a two-State solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace and security. …


“For its part, Israel must halt settlement activity and dismantle outposts erected since March 2001. Israel must also allow the Palestinians freedom of movement, increased security responsibilities and access to economic opportunities. …


“We strongly support reopening Gaza’s border crossings in a controlled, sustained and continuous manner with an appropriate monitoring regime involving international and Palestinian Authority participation.” [19]


The meeting was virtually unanimous on these points.  Remarks by David Miliband for the UK and by Bernard Kouchner for France were unusually forthright about Israel’s obligations.


Since the meeting was to deal with issues of interest to Israel, it could have asked to participate.  However, it chose not to.  Reading the proceedings of the meeting, one can see why: if it had turned up, it would have been in a minority of one on all these points.


Ban Ki-Moon position

The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, gave a report to the meeting, which contained blistering criticism of Israel’s behaviour.  Here’s a sample:


“Palestinians continue to see unacceptable unilateral actions in East Jerusalem and the remainder of the West Bank — house demolitions, intensified settlement activity, settler violence and oppressive movement restrictions due to permits, checkpoints and the barrier, which are intimately connected to settlements. The time has come for Israel to fundamentally change its policies in this regard, as it has repeatedly promised to do but has not yet done. Action on the ground, together with a genuine readiness to negotiate on all core issues, including Jerusalem, borders and refugees, based on Israel’s existing commitments, will be the true tests of Israel’s commitment to the two-State solution.”


“I am convinced that the policy of continued closure of the Gaza Strip does not weaken Israel’s adversaries in Gaza, but does untold damage to the fabric of civilian life. Nearly four months after the conflict, in which 3,800 houses and two health-care centres were destroyed, and 34,000 homes, 15 hospitals, 41 health-care centres and 282 schools sustained varying degrees of damage, we cannot get anything beyond food and medicine into Gaza to assist a population that had been in the midst of a war zone. This is completely unacceptable.


“I call on Israel to respond positively to repeated calls to allow glass, cement and building materials into Gaza. In the aftermath of the war and given the level of human suffering now evident on the ground, I seek the support of all members of this Council and the Quartet for the United Nations efforts in Gaza. We are ready to work with local businessmen to help start action to repair and rebuild houses, schools and clinics. I can assure all Council members that we will continue to ensure the full integrity of programmes and projects.” [19]


UN Secretary Generals are normally very circumspect in what they says about member states, particularly states that are allies of the US.  It is a sign of the times that Ban Ki-Moon felt able to deliver that.  He knew the US wouldn’t disapprove.


David Morrison

29 May 2009