Israel remains intransigent on Palestine

When Barack Obama became US president in January 2009, he expressed his determination to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the major threat to West Asian peace and to US interests in the Muslim world. Obama signaled a new approach by addressing the Muslim world and appointing Northern Ireland peacemaker George Mitchell special envoy to restart negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis. Obama also called on Israel to halt construction of Jewish colonies in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank and to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority for the creation of a Palestinian state on land captured by Israel in 1967. He spoke movingly of the suffering of Palestinians and their need for a state.

His words were music to the ears of Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims who believed that Obama would use US leverage with Israel to resolve the core regional dispute. However, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu remained deaf to Obama’s call. He flatly refused to freeze Israel’s colonisation drive. Even when Obama persuaded Netanyahu to agree to a cosmetic reduction in colonisation, the Palestinians refused to talk.

Obama took no action against Israel which receives $3 billion annually in US aid as well as arms and political support. Already weakened by the loss of Gaza to Hamas and its inability to secure benefits for its people, the Palestinian Authority was in no position to drop its demand for a freeze while Israeli colonies eat up land designated for the Palestinian state.

By carrying on with colonisation, Netanyahu was merely following a longstanding Israeli strategy of adopting policies certain to sour Arab-Muslim relations with the US. Ever since its founding in 1948, Israel has done its utmost to undermine rapprochement between its antagonists and the US. Israel wants to be Washington’s only friend and ally in West Asia even if this poisons US relations with Arabs and Muslims.

Netanyahu slipped up, however, when, during a visit of US Vice President Joe Biden, his government declared that it plans to construct 1,600 new Israeli housing units in Palestinian East Jerusalem. Although previous Israeli governments had suffered no ill-effects after such announcements were made while hosting senior US and European figures, Obama was furious. The declaration was seen as a slap to Biden and a humiliation for the administration. The timing was bad.

The declaration coincided with testimony in the US Senate by US regional commander General David Petraeus who said that ‘insufficient progress’ in resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is inflaming Arab and Muslim anger against the US and constitutes an impediment to the achievement of US objectives in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. Israeli intransigence, he said, is jeopardising US standing in West Asia and on the Afghan-Pakistan fronts.

Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on Netanyahu to withdraw approval of the new housing project, make a ‘substantial gesture’ towards the Palestinians and declare that all ‘core issues’ in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will be on the table in fresh talks brokered by Mitchell. Netanyahu counter-proposed “mutual confidence building measures” to be undertaken by both Israel and the Palestinians although it is Israel’s actions which led to the suspension of negotiations.
Last week’s clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces in East Jerusalem and the West Bank have made it imperative for the US secure commitments from Netanyahu on which he will act. Independent Palestinian politician Mustafa Barghouti warns that his people are on the brink of a third Intifada, a popular rising involving Gandhian civil disruption and disobedience. This is likely to embrace the Palestinian Authority, generally regarded as Israel’s surrogate, as well as Israel. Meanwhile, Obama is being blamed by the US hard-line pro-Israel lobby for tensions with Israel.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the chief factor that defines Arab and Muslim attitudes towards the US. Israel’s military campaigns against the Palestinians and its neighbours, its siege and blockade of Gaza, and land-grab in East Jerusalem and the West Bank are seen by West Asian regimes as existential threats. Until Israel permits Palestinians to establish an independent state, withdraws from the occupied Syrian Golan and signs peace treaties with the Arab states, nuclear powered Israel will be regarded as a dangerous rogue state unleashed by the West on West Asia.
Consequently, US attempts to secure Arab and Muslim backing for sanctions against Iran are unlikely to bear fruit. Furthermore, Arab governments cannot be expected to crack down on wealthy citizens who fund Muslim fundamentalist groups fighting the US as long as Washington pours billions of dollars into an intransigent Israel.

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