Obama goes for the kill

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Obama goes for the kill

Aref Assaf

Immense popular support, coupled with wide congressional baseline, President Obama is asserting America’s national interests in the Middle East- and he may succeed.

The emergence of Zionist-Jewish colonialism – otherwise euphemistically called “Israeli settlements” – as the litmus test of relations between Israel and the United States is an important indicator of how quickly the Obama administration has moved to reposition itself in the Middle East.

The latest statements by President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton represent a dramatic change in American policy rhetoric, which now unambiguously calls for a total freeze on settlements, natural growth, “outposts” and anything else the Israelis do when they transfer their population into colonies built on Arab lands occupied in 1967. Washington has dropped its previous wishy-washy practice of merely calling colonies and settlements “unhelpful” to peacemaking, and has used dramatic moments to press its point to Israel and the world.

The most telling was when Obama spoke in the White House Oval Office in the presence of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, bluntly shooting down every Israeli attempt to shift the focus of conversation to “the Iranian threat,” and instead stressing two counter-points: that resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict was probably a more important priority for reducing tensions throughout the Middle East; and that freezing settlement-building was an essential start for progress on this front.

The freezing of modern Zionist colonialism in occupied Arab lands is now a priority of American foreign policy. Three significant dimensions of this dynamic should be appreciated.

The first is the apparent change in US policy, which now emphasizes the priority and centrality of resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict among the wider challenges throughout the Middle East, and includes active top-level American diplomatic engagement. This dramatic change has been driven primarily by the sensible realization in Washington that overall American interests and standing in the region are deteriorating steadily, and American acquiescence in Israeli colonialism and other crimes is one of several reasons for this. When the US invoked its own national interest as the main criterion for its policies, it quickly realized that it needed to change those policies. This has meant becoming a more active and impartial peace-maker, rather than remaining the weapons supplier, apologist and protector of Israel and its colonial ways.

The second significant dimension of events these days is the battle of wills between the US and Israel on the issue of freezing settlements completely, and what this might mean for domestic politics in both countries. Obama enjoys immense popularity and a majority in Congress that he can rely on, and he ensures this support and neutralizes the power of the pro-Israel lobby in Congress by framing his policy as necessary for the US national interest. Netanyahu, on the other hand, leads a vulnerable coalition and does not have deep popular support in Israel. He is likely to elicit strong criticism if he keeps widening the gap between the US and Israel – the single most important political relationship for Israel – and probably will be thrown out of office if this trend continues.

The third and most important dimension in the medium and long term is about how the settlements issue fits into the wider demands of a comprehensive, negotiated peace between the Palestinians and Israelis. Freezing settlements is seen in Washington as critical to kick-starting an Arab-Israeli negotiating process, but any negotiations that hope to succeed will have to tackle the much more difficult issue of the status and rights of the Palestinian refugees. The danger is that so much political muscle and negotiating time will be expended on achieving a settlement freeze that prospects for getting the concessions needed on the refugees’ issue will lessen significantly.

Israel’s strategy is to make it seem that its concessions on settlements are so huge that the Palestinians have to make counter-concessions on the refugee issue. The trade-off Israel seeks is to drop its right to expand settlements in return for the Palestinians dropping their demand to offer the refugees a full range of options in a permanent peace accord, including the right of return for some refugees to their original homes and lands in Israel today. This is a dangerous approach because it equates Israeli settlements – an illegal, criminal act that is widely condemned by the entire world – with the legitimate rights of the refugees, which are widely recognized in law and many United Nations resolutions.

The emphasis on immediately freezing Israeli settlements is heartening, and it is reasonable to ask the Arabs to make a reciprocal gesture of equal magnitude on criminal activity from our side, such as clamping down hard on terrorism against civilians. If the US pursues a truly even-handed approach that recognizes that crimes by Israeli and Arabs must be condemned and stopped simultaneously, it will increase the likelihood that the rights of both sides can then be addressed in a more credible and fruitful manner.