How Obama Demolished Palestinian Chances for Statehood

Benjamin Netanyahu may as well have canceled his trip to Washington: Barack Obama did the work for him, or most of it. But the prime minister is already on his way, so he should at least send to the White House a big bouquet of flowers.

Netanyahu can sit back and relax. It’s not that Obama didn’t say clear, firm words on the Middle East; it’s just that most, if not all, of them could have been said by Netanyahu himself, who would then go on doing as he pleased.

The 1,500 new apartments in Jerusalem will be built, speech or no speech. The real test for that speech, as for any other, is what happens next, and the suspicion is that nothing will happen at all.

Obama didn’t say a word about what will happen if the parties disobey him. This was the king’s speech, but the king already appears a little naked. Considering America’s weakness, and the power of Congress and the Jewish and Christian lobbies working on behalf of the Israeli government, the Israeli right wing can relax and go on doing what it does.

Yesterday, the U.S. president demolished the Palestinian’s only accomplishment so far – the wave of international support for recognition of statehood in September. September died last night. After America, Europe too will have to withdraw its support; hopes have ended for a historically significant declaration at the United Nations.

The Palestinians are left once again with Cuba and Brazil, while we get to keep America. Here’s another reason for a sigh of relief in Jerusalem: No diplomatic tsunami is forthcoming, the United States is sticking with Israel.

Regrettably, the president also voiced reservations about the Palestinian unity government. The United States supports Israel’s demand for the Palestinian state to be demilitarized, it supports postponing discussions on the refugees and Jerusalem, it talks about Israel’s security and Israel’s security alone, saying nothing about security for Palestinians. All these are impressive, even if virtual, achievements for Israel.

The Palestinians yesterday were not listed among the oppressed Arab people of the Middle East who need to be liberated and aided on the way to democracy. Obama spoke impressively about America’s corrupt allies in the region, and provided further enlightened encouragement to the people of the region.

If the first Cairo speech provided the initial inspiration, Cairo 2 provided a more significant push. Obama and his determination on this should be praised. His words were heard not only in Damascus and Benghazi, but also in Jenin and Rafah. Did he mean to praise Majdal Shams as well? Hooray for the unarmed protesters, hoping Obama meant Palestinian ones as well. If he did, it’s a pity he didn’t say so.

When he mentioned the Tunisian vendor who was humiliated by a policewoman who overturned his stall – the vendor who later set himself and the revolution ablaze – was Obama thinking about the hundreds of Palestinian vendors who have suffered the exact same fate at the hands of Israeli soldiers and policemen? When he spoke nobly about the dignity of the oppressed vendors, was he speaking about their Palestinian brethren as well? The speech didn’t show this enough.

The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians was sidelined in Obama’s speech for the most part, more so than it deserved. This conflict still incites great passions in the Arab world, and with all due respect for the new Marshall Plan for Egypt and Tunisia, the Arab masses don’t want to see another Operation Cast Lead and more checkpoints on their TV screens. When it got to us, the tone was different.

Yes, there were stern words about how a Jewish and democratic state is not compatible with an occupation. There was even a proper presidential plan – the ’67 borders with corrections, a Palestinian state and a Jewish state, Israeli security and the demilitarization of Palestine.

But let’s not get too excited. We’ve heard it before, not only from American presidents, but from Israeli prime ministers. And what did we get? Yet another Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem.

The heart wants to believe that this time it’s different, but the head – wise from bitter experience after years of shelved peace plans and vacuous speeches – is finding it hard to believe.

The optimists will say that yesterday signaled the end of the Israeli occupation. The pessimists, and I, regrettably, among them, will say that it was just another speech. It changed virtually nothing for the better, virtually nothing for the worse.

Gideon Levy writes for Ha’aretz.


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