At first glance, Barack Obama's three-day visit to Israel last week appeared to offer a boost to the idea that a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is possible and renewed inspiration for pursuers of peace. On closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that Obama's visit dealt a severe blow to Palestinian moderates and to the very possibility of achieving the viable Palestinian state he ostensibly supports.
The mistaken first impression is a tribute to the president's abilities as an orator. In his keynote speech to Israeli students in Jerusalem, he went over the heads of the Israeli government to not only highlight the hazards of continued Israeli military occupation but also linked peacemaking to ''justice'' for Palestinians.
''Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer,'' Obama said. The comment was particularly apt because of Israeli plans to evict about a thousand Palestinians from their villages in the West Bank's south Hebron hills to make way for an army firing range. This is part of Israeli policies in the rural West Bank that expand the illegal settler presence while pressuring Palestinians to leave.
Obama did not venture to say this, but Israel has actually created an entire system in Area C, the part of the West Bank under its full control, about which the word unjust is a gross understatement. At Har Shmuel, just five minutes drive from where Obama gave his speech, settlers are encouraged to construct and expand, while just across the road Palestinians in Nabi Samwil village are banned from installing even a toilet for their children's school and have their sheep and cow pens demolished by security forces. With a new, pro-settler cabinet in place in Israel, that is the reality Obama must urgently redress. But in his visit he showed that he is probably not up to this task.
The speech made left-wing Israelis feel good by stressing peace is possible and telling them what they already know: the occupation is bad. In his remarks, Obama called on Israelis to empathize with Palestinians, to ''put yourself in their shoes.''
''It is not fair that Palestinian children cannot grow up in a state of their own. Living their entire lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements not just of those young people but their parents, their grandparents, every single day. It's not just when settler violence against Palestinians go unpunished,'' he said.
But there was a strong dissonance between parts of the speech and the actual policy positions the president took—and did not take—during his meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. On the major issues disclosed to the public, settlements, Jerusalem and recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, he effectively backed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Moreover, read in its entirety, the Jerusalem speech itself represents a major erosion, even reversal, of Obama's own positions on the settlements and the history of the conflict. This can only intensify existing questions about Washington’s ability to be an honest broker.
Most telling was Obama abandoning his previous support for the Palestinian demand that Israel freeze settlement construction as a precondition for the resumption of peace talks. ''If the expectation is that we can only have direct negotiations when everything is settled ahead of time, than there is no point for negotiations, so I think even if there are irritants on both sides it is important to work through this process,'' he said in a press conference in Ramallah hours before the Jerusalem speech.
Obama's position puts all the pressure on Abbas and none on Netanyahu, even though the latter party is breaching the Fourth Geneva Convention, which bans an occupying power from moving its nationals into occupied territory. The moderate Palestinian leader now faces the unenviable choice of agreeing to a resumption of talks that he fears will be a mere cover for further Israeli settlement expansion and de facto annexation of the West Bank—or of staying away from the negotiations and being painted as a rejectionist by Netanyahu and Obama.
Indeed, in contrast to his apparently principled position during the early part of his first term, Obama's condemnation of settlement building during his Jerusalem speech seemed quite hollow and pro forma, nothing to really concern Uri Ariel, the new Israeli minister of housing from the annexationist Jewish Home party. The president said only that settlement building was ''counterproductive'' to efforts to achieve peace. This was a major retreat. In his Cairo speech in 2009, Obama said ''The US does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.''
Moreover, in Cairo, Obama pledged to link Israel's stance on peacemaking efforts and U.S. support, saying ''America will align our policies with those who pursue peace and we will say in public what we say in private to Israelis and Palestinians and Arabs.'' In Jerusalem and indeed throughout his Israel visit, Obama was at great pains to stress the unconditional and eternal nature of U.S. support for Israel, implying that it will be forthcoming regardless of Israel's stance on settlements and other issues. ''As long as there is a United States of America, you are not alone,'' he said.
To Palestinian moderates still questioning why the United States opposed the November UN General Assembly resolution recognizing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza alongside Israel, the president promised that Washington would veto any further Palestinian attempts to turn to the UN or international institutions. And Obama also made clear that the Palestinians would have to recognize Israel as a Jewish state—despite the fact that this demand has never been made of other Israeli peace partners, such as Egypt and Jordan. This backing of the Israeli position on a key issue was made without giving Abbas anything in return.
What Obama did not say during the visit is no less significant. There was no mention of his previous support for the Palestinian position that negotiations should be based on Israel's pre-1967 borders with land swaps, something Israel rejects because it would impinge on its claims in the West Bank. And despite the fact that Obama spoke in Jerusalem, he made no mention of the idea that the city should become the capital of the two independent states, leaving the impression he backs the current status quo of Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem.
In terms of Palestinian history and the very reasons for Palestinian statehood, in Jerusalem Obama also staged a marked retreat from his own past. It is hard to challenge AIPAC, and he may have lost the very will to envision peace as he called on the Israeli public to do. According to Obama's Jerusalem speech, the reason an independent Palestinian state needs to be established actually has little to do with the Palestinians themselves. Rather, it is because Israel has a demographic problem: how to remain a Jewish state while ruling over a growing population of Arabs. ''Given the demography west of the Jordan River, the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine,'' Obama said.
That is a far cry from his position in Cairo, which empathized with Palestinians displaced during Israel's establishment in 1948 and the plight of refugees in camps: ''The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own.''
At the moment it seems that beneath some rhetorical flourishes the president may be doing exactly that.
Ben Lynfield writes from the Middle East for the Scotsman and other publications.
Image: Flickr/The Israel Project. CC BY-SA 2.0.