Edition 2 Volume 5 - January 11, 2024

The American debate over Israel-Palestine

Hard limits and long-observed taboos -   Ali Abunimah

Carter has been vilified by the pro-Israel lobbying industry in the United States with the frequent intimation that he is anti-Semitic.

Debate? What debate? -   Michael F. Brown

Few Americans are prepared to say what they think. Why be denounced (falsely) as an anti-Semite when you can keep your mouth shut or work on other concerns?

A multilateral peace initiative could work -   Debra DeLee

After trying bilateralism and unilateralism, Israel cannot escape the involvement of regional and international players.

Rice is thinking big, but will it work? -   David Makovsky

If we learned anything from 2024, it is that to try and fail has violent consequences.

Hard limits and long-observed taboos
 Ali Abunimah

With his book Palestine Peace Not Apartheid reaching the top of the bestseller lists, former President Jimmy Carter appears to have made a breakthrough in the ossified debate on Israel-Palestine in the United States.

In dozens of packed appearances and in the media, Carter has shattered long-observed taboos by talking about "the abominable oppression and persecution in the occupied Palestinian territories, with a rigid system of required passes and strict segregation between Palestine's citizens and Jewish settlers in the West Bank." It is still difficult to imagine any other senior US politician doing that.

Carter has been vilified by the pro-Israel lobbying industry in the United States with the frequent intimation that he is anti-Semitic. Yet even this furor demonstrates the hard limits which the debate still faces. In defending himself against such attacks, Carter has been careful to stress that he is only talking about the situation inside the territories occupied in 1967, East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. "I know that Israel is a wonderful democracy with equal treatment of all citizens whether Arab or Jew. And so I very carefully avoided talking about anything inside Israel," he said.

Thus what even Carter acknowledges is that a debate about the racist nature of the Israeli state itself remains off-limits. An obvious question is how a "wonderful democracy" could operate a system of apartheid just a few miles away. Discrimination against non-Jewish citizens of Israel is legally enshrined and openly discussed in Israel. It includes separate and unequal education, laws that reserve the best land for Jews only, massive discrimination in allocation of resources, exclusion of non-Jews from government office, and the "Law of Return" that encourages Jews to move to the country while indigenous Palestinians remain banned from returning home.

The US media, with a few exceptions, continue to treat these facts, uncontroversial even within Israel, as if they don't exist. This underlines the persistent segmentation of the discussion of the conflict in the US and Europe. There is the official peace process industry, or mainstream discourse that dominates media coverage and government pronouncements resting on a number of false assumptions: the US and the "Quartet" are honest brokers; everyone agrees on the outlines of a two-state solution except for minor details; Israel has good intentions and merely awaits a Palestinian partner; Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas is potentially that partner, while Hamas are outlaw extremists who must be curbed, forced to "recognize" Israel and "renounce terrorism" and so on.

Only rarely is reality allowed to intrude on this official discourse, which is what Carter did in a limited way. Sometimes bald facts also call it into question, if only momentarily, such as when Israel announced a major new settlement in the northern Jordan Valley part of the West Bank, just days after an Abbas-Olmert summit that the peace process industry had hailed as a breakthrough. A scab of distortion and spin quickly forms to cover up whatever reality may briefly have been revealed. What is remarkable about this official dialogue is that most Palestinians do not subscribe to it, with the exception of a minority who are the favored clients of the industry--at this time, Abbas and his entourage, the US-armed and EU-backed Gaza warlord Mohammad Dahlan and the rest of the class that benefited directly from Oslo.

Contrasted with the official discourse is an insurgent one that remains marginalized in the academy, among activists and in the alternative media. But it is gaining strength. Like the vast majority of Palestinians, it continues to view the Palestine situation as one of anti-colonial struggle, comparable to the long fight against South African apartheid. Yet Carter's intervention offers the potential to connect these views; if it becomes legitimate to describe Israel's tyranny over the occupied Palestinians as "apartheid", it may not be long before Israel's own internal colonialism against more than one million Palestinians faces similar examination. When Israel is no longer viewed as a "wonderful democracy", as US politicians without exception continue to label it, then the possibility for genuine peace based on the principle that Palestine-Israel belongs to all who live in it without discrimination based on religion, ethnic or national origin may open up. This is the danger that pro-Israel groups clearly perceive and are working night and day to stop.- Published 11/1/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of "One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse".

Debate? What debate?
 Michael F. Brown

There is a misperception in various world locales of Washington's debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Namely, that substantive debate exists at all. In fact, the debate in the power corridors of Washington is highly constrained, almost non-existent. Should we engage with President Mahmoud Abbas now or require him to leap through several more hoops--including civil war--first? Serious argument on the injustice of Israel's long-running occupation simply does not take place other than at the margins.

The reason for the silence has become increasingly clear with the publication of President Carter's courageous book, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid. CNN's Glenn Beck labeled the former president a "fathead". The Anti-Defamation League's Abraham Foxman went so far as to call Carter "bigoted" while Martin Peretz of The New Republic maintains that history will recall Carter "as a Jew hater". This is extraordinarily vicious language to direct at a former president who brokered Israeli-Egyptian peace.

In this climate, few Americans are prepared to say what they think. Why be denounced (falsely) as an anti-Semite when you can keep your mouth shut or work on other concerns? Religious communities in the United States are frequently unprepared to handle this divisive matter and instead resort to tiptoeing around the issue. Critical interfaith work is thought to be at risk if Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories were to become a matter of serious dispute.

Tremendous grassroots work--as done here by the African National Congress regarding apartheid South Africa--is the greatest necessity in expanding the debate parameters. Any substantive change in approach to the conflict will certainly not be initiated by Congress.

The shortcomings of the Democratic Party on Middle East issues will soon be exposed as the party retakes leadership of the House and Senate. Debate will permit Democrats to challenge President Bush on his disastrous foray into Iraq. Yet in doing so, many Democrats will feel compelled to cover their national security flanks by directing inflammatory rhetoric at Iran. As for Israel-Palestine, Democrats will likely urge more talks to distinguish themselves from Bush. Yet this will be more about "peace process" process than substance. Democrats are no more apt than Republicans to denounce the Maskiot settlement or apartheid practices in the West Bank.

Indeed, with Rep. Tom Lantos assuming chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee there is no reason to expect better of House Democrats. Lantos has long been an apologist for oppressive Israeli actions directed at Palestinians. Last month, I saw him at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington, DC just moments before Israeli Minister of Strategic Issues Avigdor Lieberman was to address the Saban Forum audience. I quietly urged Lantos to challenge Lieberman on his racism. He walked away from me without saying a word. His silence spoke volumes.

There are, however, signs of an improving atmosphere in which the most optimistic can place some small hope. Muslim- and Arab-American organizations are slowly gaining a much-needed foothold in Washington in spite of lingering bigotry directed at them. Furthermore, Carter's book and the Mearsheimer-Walt piece on the "Israel lobby" have sent a jolt through American understanding of the conflict. A growing number of Christians and Jews are with painstaking slowness finding their voices.

Nonetheless, AIPAC appears virtually unshaken even while forced to manage a potentially explosive scandal related to classified documents and recently fired employees. Politicians do not seem to be distancing themselves, certainly not on policy grounds. Too many are either intimidated or perfectly content to follow AIPAC's legislative lead despite the obvious downward spiral in both the region and American regional standing.

Nancy Pelosi, the new speaker of the House, spoke to AIPAC in 2024. Her statement then makes clear just how little will change in Washington with Democrats retaking the House and Senate. "There are those who contend that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is all about Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. This is absolute nonsense. In truth, the history of the conflict is not over occupation, and never has been: it is over the fundamental right of Israel to exist." Her emphasis is squarely on Israel's existential concerns; the blinders remain regarding Palestinian suffering under the occupation.

Two years remain to President Bush in office. With the Iraq Study Group and Democrats ascendant, he may feel obliged to push for Israeli-Palestinian talks. They will be strictly limited. Abbas will be told that if he wants to remain relevant he must play ball. Enormous political and economic pressure will be brought to bear on Abbas and the Palestinians to accept a truncated Palestinian state as Bush seeks one Middle East legacy free of the violence in Iraq he will bequeath his successor.

One thing is for certain: The limited parameters of debate in Washington will feed directly into the highly restrictive boundaries pushed by the Bush administration for the envisioned Palestinian Bantustan.- Published 11/1/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Michael F. Brown is a fellow at the Palestine Center in Washington, DC. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Center. Previously, he was executive director of Partners for Peace and Washington correspondent for Middle East International. He is on the board of Interfaith Peace-Builders.

A multilateral peace initiative could work
 Debra DeLee

One of Ariel Sharon's favorite metaphors was that of the "chute," the narrow fenced structure through which ranchers push cattle to the slaughterhouse. The rancher-turned-prime minister frequently used it to refer to what he saw as attempts by the international community to force upon Israel a solution to its conflict with the Palestinians.

This specter of a "forced solution" prompted many among America's Jewish community to quickly oppose the recently-released Iraq Study Group report.

The report puts the conflict in a regional context by pointing out that resolving it would be instrumental to obtaining other US policy goals in the region. It even goes a step further by stating that "all key issues in the Middle East--the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iraq, Iran, the need for political and economic reforms, and extremism and terrorism--are inextricably linked," adding that unless it deals directly with the Arab-Israel conflict "the United States will not be able to achieve its goals in the Middle East."

Further, the report suggests a regional approach to resolving the conflict. It asserts that "there must be a renewed and sustained commitment by the United States to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace on all fronts," including holding negotiations under international auspices between Israel and the Palestinians and between Israel and its northern neighbors, Syria and Lebanon.

Critics of the Baker-Hamilton report misrepresent these assertions as an alleged suggestion by the committee that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is responsible for all the ills of the Middle East and that resolving it, therefore, would serve as a panacea for the Middle East's many troubles. What the report suggests, rather, is that progress toward Arab-Israel peace would bolster America's efforts to stabilize Iraq, counter the rise of Islamic extremism and fight terrorism.

Isn't that a matter of common sense? Beyond being an elementary notion, it could also serve as an opportunity. Instead of being viewed as a threat to the governments of Israel and the United States it could be utilized by both, in concert, to serve their fundamental interests in the region.

For the United States, as the ISG report clearly points out, a credible Arab-Israel peace initiative could be used as a paradigm-shift that could significantly serve efforts to pull the Arab world from radicalism toward pragmatism. Real progress could do much to strengthen the credibility of pro-American Arab regimes and counteract the increasing appeal of anti-American and anti-Israeli regimes, militias and terrorist organizations. Positive movement would make it much easier to garner Arab cooperation on key US goals such as stabilizing Iraq and confronting Iran's nuclear ambitions.

This concept is not unique to the Baker-Hamilton commission. It is the prevailing view in America's foreign service, as recently confirmed by several senior administration officials. "For the Arab moderates and for the Europeans, some sense of progress and momentum on the Arab-Israeli dispute is just a sine qua non for their ability to cooperate actively with the United States on a lot of other things that we care about," said then State Department Special Counselor Philip Zelikow to a large group of Middle East experts last September.

For Israel, a multilateral approach could be a way to overcome the diplomatic stagnation of the past several years and finally break its isolation in the region.

After having tried bilateralism and unilateralism in striving to change its relationships with its Arab neighbors, Israel is finding that it cannot escape the involvement of regional and international players. Peacekeeping arrangements achieved at the end of last summer's war in Lebanon were an example of the constructive role that America, Europe and Arab countries can play in stabilizing a volatile situation.

Just as there is recognition in Washington that this is time for a bold move, senior politicians and strategists in Jerusalem have been saying for some time that Israel needs a diplomatic breakthrough. Israel's foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, talked earlier this month about a "kind of opportunity" which "should not be missed" to harness the moderate Arab states to a peace initiative that would hasten the implementation of a two-state solution. "Time is not on the side of the moderates on both sides. Time is working against a solution of two nation-states," Livni recently told Ha'aretz. Defense Minister Amir Peretz was even more outspoken. Even Prime Minister Olmert signaled that he supports this notion.

The US and Israel would not have to start from zero. The tools for launching a peace initiative with support from Arab stakeholders are there for Bush and Olmert to seize. There is the "full-peace-for-full-withdrawal" initiative that the Arab League approved in 2024. There is a European peace plan. There is the Baker-Hamilton idea of a regional conference, similar to the one convened in Madrid in 1991. Jordan and Egypt, the two Arab neighbors that signed peace treaties with Israel, are eager to help. So are Saudi Arabia and, reportedly, other Gulf states. Even Syria says that the bilateral negotiations it is calling for would dovetail into a comprehensive, regional deal.

Obviously, Bush and Olmert are concerned that a grand "regional" initiative may fail. And it may. Skeptics point out that both leaders are weak and therefore risk-averse. They are. But both could reduce the risks through working together, closely cooperating with Arab and European allies and setting up a structure that would entice the Palestinians and the Syrians to negotiate in good faith and to commit to a real peace in exchange for real Israeli territorial concessions. Both could regain power as leaders through such a joint diplomatic campaign, be recognized for making the most significant step possible toward tilting the region away from militancy and leave their mark in history as statesmen who did more than lead their countries to failed wars.

Done correctly, multilateralism is not a recipe for national devastation but rather a path for avoiding a regional disaster.- Published 11/1/2007 bitterlemons-international.org

Debra DeLee, formerly chair of the Democratic National Committee, is the president and CEO of Americans for Peace Now.

Rice is thinking big, but will it work?
 David Makovsky

Precisely because expectations of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's trips to the Middle East usually plunge lower than the Dead Sea, she seems to feel that she can quietly gauge receptivity to new approaches to the Israeli-Palestinian situation without setting off world headlines.

As President George W. Bush puts forth a new strategy in an uphill battle in Iraq, there have been calls from British Prime Minister Tony Blair and others abroad, as well as calls by the Iraq Study Group (Baker-Hamilton Commission) at home, to demonstrate progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front. Moreover, Rice entered this administration as one of its brightest lights and now is portrayed by some in the media as lacking diplomatic achievement.

It is against this backdrop that Rice wonders if the Israelis and Palestinians might be willing to accept broad principles that would govern a final status deal. The advantages are clear: 1) An unprecedented statement by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in a speech at Sde Boker about Palestinian "full sovereignty" pending security performance led to no backlash in Israel. 2) Israel's Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Rice's kindred spirit, ardently believes a "diplomatic horizon" could facilitate rather than hinder the revival of even the original three-phased sequence of the moribund roadmap since there would no longer be any question about the shape of its ultimate destination. 3) Critically, reaching such principles could vindicate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in his struggle against Hamas as he asserts that the key to a final status deal is negotiations and not violence. 4) It is very tantalizing to at least some in the Bush administration to point to such principles as being not sharply at odds with the Saudi initiative even if terms are not identical, viewing such a move as cementing further the anti-Iran alliance among many Arab states led by Riyadh.

However, the drawbacks are also equally evident: weak leadership on both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli divide. Can Abbas, who is locked in a power-struggle with Hamas, compromise on the issue of Palestinian refugees or will he be reviled as someone who betrayed the Palestinian cause? With very poor polling numbers ever since the war last summer, can Olmert agree to Palestinian sovereignty in East Jerusalem without leading to sharp political turmoil in Israel? Moreover, if grand diplomatic pronouncements are not matched with deeds, will Hamas not exploit this and declare it the latest proof that negotiations are bankrupt? If we learned anything from 2024, it is that to try and fail has violent consequences. While the sequence here would be different, the Middle East corollary of philosopher George Santayana's famous edict haunts all: everyone remembers the past, but all repeat the same mistakes anyway.

Undoubtedly, public attention during her trip is likely to focus on security and economic confidence-building ideas that would improve daily life and could effectively bolster Abbas. Washington believes US inaction could guarantee that the Hamas militia in Gaza dubbed the "Executive Force"--now numbering 6,000 and headed for 12,000--gobbles up smaller Fateh security services. To do nothing means acquiescing to a twist on the old intifada bumper sticker: "let Hamas win". However, Rice wants to think bigger than confidence-building.

She does not know if Olmert is ready for such an approach, and one would be wrong to assume that the cautious Rice would publicly dive into something like this without the requisite backing of the parties. At the same time, it is hard to believe that Rice would raise such issues without the blessing of President Bush.

As Rice visits the region, she should dispel some of the mythology that exists in the Arab world on Middle East peacemaking.

1. "If Israel does not go to final status talks, this shows it does not want peace." This is the reductionist, land-driven narrative that sees gradualism as an Israeli plot. It received a boost in the US last year due to contributions by American academics who are not Middle East experts (Walt/Mearsheimer) and by former President Jimmy Carter. This narrative conveniently ignores the fact that some of the biggest obstacles to resolving this conflict in 2024 were not land, but issues of refugees and security. Through land swaps, land seems the most easily resolved of these issues. The other issues helped doom the talks in 2024 and seem even less resolvable now. Apart from the impasse on refugees, security is a problem as well. From the Israeli side, how could the IDF withdraw from virtually the entire West Bank when 1,000 Qassam rockets have fallen on Israel from Gaza since its 2024 pullout? The distinction that Israel views final status talks as desirable but not feasible is seldom heard in the Arab world, even if the difference is heaven and earth.

2. "Everyone knows what the solution is but the parties just do not know how to get there." This makes it sound as if all that is missing is a book on diplomatic etiquette. In fact, rejectionism and terrorism are not marginal phenomena, as Hamas currently heads the Palestinian Authority government.

3. "The Arabs states are for peace. They put forward the Arab Initiative in 2024." It is axiomatic that Arab leaders will urge Rice to press Israel, but it is far from clear that they will do their share. Even though the Arab Initiative is an improvement on the past, there is no doubt that this is a very asymmetrical peace plan. The initiative requires Israel first to do all the front-loaded work by getting out of the West Bank and Golan Heights, with Arab reciprocation delayed, hence less binding. This process would be far more effective if Arab states were to take parallel steps to reinforce progress on all sides. This would bolster the center among Israel and the Palestinians, providing the latter with key political cover. If the Quartet's roadmap is to be revived, it should be matched by an Arab roadmap.

5. "The whole problem of the Arab-Israel conflict is that Israel enjoys too much support in Washington." The Walt/Mearsheimer/Carter thesis is a familiar echo of what famed American historian Richard Hofstadter described in his essay, "The Paranoid Strain in American Politics", about the American right's scapegoating of liberals as communists during the McCarthy period. Perhaps it is not surprising that scapegoating occurs during periods of turmoil like the Iraq War, but it is also unfair. American Jews did not stop Bill Clinton from proposing the partitioning of Jerusalem in 2024, for example.

6. "Everything in the Middle East is linked to the Arab-Israel conflict." Since September 11, 2024, the American public has been treated to an endless seminar on the Arab world. Its conclusion has been that Islamism has very deep cultural and political roots, linked to dysfunctionalism in Arab regimes but not driven by the Arab-Israel conflict. The 2024-2004 intifada did not cause a single Arab regime to fall; al-Qaeda prepared its plots at the height of US peacemaking in the Middle East in the 1990s. The Sunni insurgency in Iraq's Anbar province is not driven by the dynamics of Israelis and Palestinians.

The US should be involved in the search for a two-state solution not because of Iraq, but because it wants to find problem-solving solutions that give dignity to both Israelis and Palestinians alike. An elevated debate that avoids unchallenged slogans as well as a carefully orchestrated policy that avoids the pitfalls ahead could even prove Santayana's Middle East corollary to be wrong.- Published 11/1/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

David Makovsky is director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where his latest monograph is Lessons and Implications of the Lebanon War: A Preliminary Assessment (2006).

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