Sunday, November 8, 2009

What Can Obama Do About Palestine, Meanwhile?

My old friend Danny Rubinstein, who has covered the West Bank pretty much since the occupation began, came over Friday afternoon. He had covered this week's expulsion of Palestinian residents from their disputed home in Sheikh Jarrah. He had just come from conversations with Palestinian journalists in East Jerusalem, and was not in a cheerful frame of mind.

One gets the feeling that things are coming to a head, he says, what with Mahmoud Abbas' announcement that he would not seek reelection, and Netanyahu headed to a Washington whose Congress had just denounced the Goldstone Report. The Israeli government is doing what it can to defend the status quo. But the status quo engenders a disaster, and the Obama administration is understandably distracted.

The question is not whether time is running out on a two-state solution, as if one state, like South Africa, could ever happen here. The real question is whether we are going to prevent the kind of general violence that will turn Israel and Palestine into a Balkans-style conflict, with Jerusalem a kind of Sarajevo, and the Israeli Arab villages of the Little Triangle a kind of Bosnia. Without palpable outside action to move Israel off the status quo, especially from the Obama administration, the streets of the West Bank will blow. But Obama has no desire to pick a fight with any senators just now, not until 60 of them vote to end the inevitable Republican filibuster.

ABBAS, YOU SEE, is not the point. He has been a force for reconciliation, perhaps the best partner Israel could ever have (or so former Labor minister Ephraim Sneh writes in today's Haaretz), but his personal prestige was never very great. That he is threatening to withdraw from politics is a symptom of danger, not a danger in itself. For Abbas has always been a kind of national working hypothesis: that Ramallah's secular bourgeoisie was a natural leadership to bring forth a state, and that its power to create the rule of law, and its prospects in the regional economy, justified patience; that the continuing flow of money from the international community justified having a person in the (albeit diminished) Palestinian Authority that outsiders could trust.

But when ordinary people in the streets of the West Bank start to believe that this leadership cannot be trusted to deliver--that donor money is meant to palliate them during a silent ethnic cleansing of Jerusalem and the annexation of their land by settlers--Hamas will appear the only game in town. We seem to be in a race between the vote on healthcare in the Senate and the outbreak of riots around Al-Aqsa.

THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION cannot just sit on its hands, and seems to know what it needs to do in the long run. But what exactly can it do in the short-run to reassure Palestinians without inciting a public backlash among senators eager to prove their "friendship" to Israel. The dispute over a "settlements freeze" has proven a dead end, since everybody (including leaders of the PA) have been working on the assumption that at least some of the citified settlements will be annexed to Israel, while Palestine would be compensated with a land swap. Neither could the Obama administration endorse the Goldstone report, which Palestinians justifiably regard as a touchstone of others' empathy for them, without laying itself open to charges that it is cavalier about missiles falling on Israel.

Somehow, then, the administration has to signal that it is not only serious about pursuing a Palestinian state but that it has a pretty clear understanding of what that state would look like, where its borders will be, and so forth--and that it is not simply a cheerleader for negotiations that will, under present circumstances, prove fruitless. But how do you buy time without appearing to endorse the status quo? How do you signal the outlines of the state without presenting the whole plan for a state?

ALL OF WHICH brings me back to Rubinstein. Perhaps the most depressing thing he told me confirms apprehensions I wrote about in Harper's last month, that while the Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad is trying to build out the foundations of a Palestinian state--say, through massive construction projects in and around Ramallah--he is being thwarted in all kinds of ways by the occupation authorities and the IDF. Almost no developments in Area A (the cores of Palestinian cities), for example, can fail to encroach on Areas B and C where the IDF controls the roads and airspace--more than 60% of the West Bank. "He is trying to break ground on the Al-Ersal project and he is suddenly up against a road the settlers use only for themselves in Area C. This is so called 'state land,' the Israeli government has taken from Jordan and calls its own."

But here, precisely, is an opportunity for the American government, is it not? Suppose the Obama administration were to commit, say, $50 million to this project and use its public influence to seek its construction. If the Israeli government gets in the way, then it is obstructing a joint Palestinian-American project. If the question comes up whether parts of Area B or C around the project are ultimately going to be part of the Palestinian state, then the American administration can signal--that is, in advance of any negotiation--that it is siding with the Palestine authority over the interests of the settlers.

The point is, we have to move away from statements of principle to manifest demonstrations of intention. America has to become Palestine's partner not only in training police, but in expanding the foundations of commerce and statehood. Just as important, the Obama administration needs to prove that, unlike its predecessor, it will not become an inadvertent tool of the settlers.

And if while it's focussed on its domestic priorities the administration can't avoid a fight with AIPAC's favorite politicians, let it be over something the vast majority of Israelis, let alone Americans, would support. I mean the peaceful development of Palestinian civil society in parts of the West Bank where cities are growing and, border or no border, settlers have crossed all bounds.


Basil Hakki said...

Good question. Interestingly, Thomas Friedman dealt with this very question in an editorial "Call White House, Ask for Barack" in a N.Y. Times editorial on Nov. 8, 2009. The gist of his thesis is that prospects for peace now are zero. So the best thing that the U.S. administration can do is to disengage, and wait for the two parties of the conflict to come to their senses, somehow or another.
I don't usually agree with Friedman, but this is one of the rare occasions in which I think that he is right.

Jeff Blankfort said...

One of the critical but less noticed differences between the British colonialists and their Israeli successors and counterparts is that the former did practically nothing to interfere with the building of both political and commercial Jewish institutions in pre-state Palestine whereas successive Israeli administrations have made it a point to prevent the Palestinians from doing the same under their occupation. Obama has neither the will or the power to confront the AIPAC-controlled Congress over this.

Rubenstein, BTW, was one of the first, if not the first, mainstream Israeli journalist to use the term "apartheid"to describe Jewish rule over the West Bank.

ej said...

"Neither could the Obama administration endorse the Goldstone report, which Palestinians justifiably regard as a touchstone of others' empathy for them, without laying itself open to charges that it is cavalier about missiles falling on Israel."
Hardly. No substance in this claim.
As for Thomas Friedman, he's never been right before, and he's not right this time. This implicit notion of waiting for two (purportedly equally culpable) errant forces to 'come to their sense' is a joke.

Y. Ben-David said...

Jeff Blankforth-
Dr Avishai's Palestinian entrepeneur friend Sam Bahour said quite explicitly that ARAFAT did nothing to build a proper infrastructure for a properly-run state that would encourage business.
During the British Mandate period, the British encouraged the Arabs to set up an Arab Agency just like the Jews had the Jewish Agency which would have a great deal of autonomy to run the affairs of their community and which would have the power of taxation. THE ARABS ADAMANTLY REFUSED TO DO THIS. They asked why they should tax their people when they could get the British to give them the money. It is the same today...the Palestinian Authority is totally dependent on EU and American handouts to finance the Authority's expenditures. Why should the Palestinians pay for their government when they can get outsiders to do it? (call it a modern form of the dhimmi "jizya" tax). Arafat's regime was officially "socialist" which means the PA controlled the economy and set up a lot of monopolies who were given to friends and relatives of top PA officials. There never was any interest in setting up the kind of "entrepeneural class" that Dr Avishai is always pushing. This is not unusual in the Arab world...most of the regimes find it dangerous to allow independent entrepeneurs to operate because they can become a political threat to those in power...thus it is preferable to maintain tight control over business sector and are quite willing to hobble it in order to preserve their power. Same with the Palestinians. Dr Avishai's belief that somehow the entrepeneurs will "push aside" the armed FATAH or HAMAS people is a fantasy.
It is time to face contractual Israeli-Palestinian peace is possible because neither the Palestinians nor wider Arab/Muslim world want it. Sorry.

Shoded Yam said...

"...During the British Mandate period, the British encouraged the Arabs to set up an Arab Agency just like the Jews had the Jewish Agency which would have a great deal of autonomy to run the affairs of their community and which would have the power of taxation. THE ARABS ADAMANTLY REFUSED TO DO THIS. They asked why they should tax their people when they could get the British to give them the money. It is the same today..."

I have this friend of mine who bought this 60 year old house in Staten Island, NY. You know what I'm talking about. Brick and mortar, real plaster walls, slate shingle roofs. The whole nine yards. Anyway, we were remodeling one of the bathrooms (pull chain septic tanks, I shit thee not) and had to replace a few things. The two of us go to this plumbing supply house over in Brooklyn. He hands the clerk some calcified, encrusted, galvanized piece of crap and asks the guy; "Can you replace this?" The clerk looks at it and says; "Sure. Let me go to the stock room, climb into my time machine, go back to 1957, and I'll get it for you."

Likewise, the only way the aforementioned specious argument becomes operative, is if you get in YOUR time machine and go back to 1936. Because in 2009, that contention holds about as much water as that sixty year old rusty pipe.

In 1936, Arab Palestine was agrarian in nature, with a largely uneducated population, easily manipulated by any carnival barker that came down the pike, who when they weren't busy tip-toeing through the camel shit, were slaving as tenant farmers coaxing a few lousy shoots out of rocky top soil and then almost gratefully experiencing an early demise from any number of terminal maladies and contagion.

In 2009, Arab Palestine, while not utopia, is for the most part literate, has access to higher education. It has a burgeoning sophisticated, even cosmopolitan business class, a much reduced infant mortality rate, greater life span, and access to a much larger world of ideas by means of the internet and mass media. As their horizons have expaned, so to their creativity and imaginations. Not to mention the fact that in-door plumbing and electricity hasn't hurt either. I should also like to add that these changes are in no small measure, due to Israel and more to the point Israelis.

I remember a few years ago, my wife and I were watching a news show. There was some footage of Palestinian security officers going about their business. While that in of itself is not remarkable, what was remarkable was the fact that they looked identical to Mishmeret G'vul. Same cut of uniform, same afoadim, same baseball caps. The picture above Dr. Avishai's article looks more like Kiryat Ono, than Ramallah or Amman. While I'll grant you that bakshish and corruption are endemic to most arab societies, it would appear, at least in the modern era, that the Palestinians are taking their cues from elsewhere.

Potter said...

I am afraid that Tom Friedman has it right in his November 8th op-ed "Call White House, Ask For Barack".

Y. Ben-David your arguments are either a cherry picked version of the past and/or a reaction to extreme elements as though they were the whole story. You do not look for any positive way forward, nor see any disaster looming in it's absence.

These responses are simply excuses to rule out coexistence, and, I believe now, for fear of it. I have no hope that a thoughtful response will make a dent. But SY's is an excellent response above.

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