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Palestinian Luftmenschen

by Michael Lame, posted on September 26, 2011

For anyone not familiar with one of the Yiddish language’s great contributions to the English lexicon, a luftmensch (luftmenschen – plural) is an impractical person with one’s head in the clouds, more concerned with ideas than with making one’s way in the world. Although the term has often been applied to a certain kind of Jewish dreamer, in the Middle East today the term seems less fitting for Israelis than it does for Palestinians, who dream of a state but fail to take the necessary steps to bring it into existence

Mahmoud Abbas, the PA president, deserves the Luftmensch of the Year Award. He has gone to the United Nations to seek that which the UN cannot provide, namely, a sovereign Palestinian state.

So how does one create a new independent nation?

A) By declaring it?

B) By winning a war of liberation?

C) By signing a withdrawal agreement with one’s occupier?

D) By gaining admittance to the United Nations?

Declaring a State

Yasser Arafat tried the declaration of independence route years ago, in 1988, during the first intifada. It didn’t work. Although the State of Palestine was unilaterally proclaimed, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem did not end. Nevertheless, Arafat’s successor, Abbas, signed the Palestinian letter of application for UN membership last week as “President of the State of Palestine.”

Winning a War of Liberation

One Nakba and two intifadas have shown that the likelihood of the Palestinians winning their independence on the battlefield is slim to nil. Palestinians can kill Israelis but they can’t kill Israel or defeat it militarily.

Reaching Agreement with the Occupier

In his speech to the UN General Assembly on Friday, September 23, Abbas correctly pointed out that Israeli settlements in the West Bank pose a serious obstacle to the creation of a contiguous, viable, and sovereign Palestinian state. But that obstacle is not insurmountable, nor is it the only one.

Even if the government of Israel declared an absolute moratorium on Israeli construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and even if it were willing to withdraw every last Israeli from the West Bank, the gap between the Palestinian and Israeli positions on the future of Jerusalem remains vast, as does that regarding Palestinian refugees, not to mention security arrangements.

For all the optimistic statements that the gaps between the two sides have narrowed from the Camp David talks in 2000 to those at Taba in 2001 to the Abbas-Olmert talks of 2007-2008, the fact remains that no meeting of the minds has occurred and no agreement has been reached between Palestinian and Israeli officials that would allow for the emergence of a sovereign Palestinian state.

Adding to the unpromising complexity of the situation is the presence of two competing Palestinian governments, neither of which shows any inclination to disband or to genuinely cooperate with its counterpart. If an agreement with Israel is reached by the Fatah-dominated PLO, it will likely be rejected by Hamas and disregarded in Gaza.

Gaining UN Membership

Reaching a deal with the Israelis, then, is a very tough proposition. Going to the United Nations is much easier.

The largely dysfunctional “international community”, as represented by the UN General Assembly, would like to give the Palestinians on paper what it cannot give them in fact ­­– a sovereign state.

Once before, in 1947, the GA attempted to peacefully establish a Palestinian state alongside an Israeli state – “the Arab State” and “the Jewish State”, in the exact words of the partition plan resolution. The GA failed miserably in that attempt. Within 24 hours of passage, that resolution resulted in the outbreak of open hostilities which led to war in what was then British Mandatory Palestine. What the General Assembly could not give the Palestinians then it cannot give them now.

Real power at the UN resides in the Security Council. That body, however, will not accept the Palestinian application for UN membership, if for no other reason than the well-publicized American promise to veto it if the resolution is not buried in committee or voted down.

Given that the Security Council won’t support the Palestinian request and the General Assembly is powerless, what is the point of going to the UN, other than to gain publicity and to make Israel squirm?

The General Assembly could grant Palestine an upgrade from its current “observer” designation to that of a “non-state member”, a status currently accorded to the Vatican. That, in turn, could give Palestine access to the judicial processes associated with UN membership, thereby providing it with legal forums for attacking Israel’s occupation policies and making life abroad unpleasant and uncertain for Israeli military officers and political leaders.

Yet even a strong show of support in the GA will not produce new facts on the ground where Palestinians live. It won’t result in citizenship and passports for any of the hundreds of thousands of stateless Palestinian refugees and their descendants. It won’t remove a single roadblock. It won’t prevent the destruction of Palestinian homes built without permits that cannot be obtained from Israeli officials. Nor will it stop the construction of new Israeli houses and roads east of the green line.

The Need for Agreement

There simply is no independent Palestinian state for anyone to recognize. Nor will there be until and unless Palestinians and Israelis reach an agreement between themselves – perhaps with outside assistance – that both sides can live with.

Palestinians are entitled to dream big. Doing so does not make them luftmenschen. That distinction comes from taking dreams seriously which are not grounded in reality or from not taking the practical steps necessary to realize the dream you say you are committed to. The reality of the Middle East is that, for the foreseeable future, the Palestinians are here to stay and Israel is here to stay. These are asymmetrical statements, in keeping with the total asymmetry of the Palestinian-Israeli relationship.

Since Israel is here to stay and is too strong to be defeated militarily or brought down economically, it must be dealt with through negotiations and diplomacy. And since it is the stronger party by far, the attempts to “level the playing field” or to have the parties negotiate as equals are doomed to failure; they are inconsistent with the reality of the situation.

Weaker parties negotiate deals every day – in politics, in international relations, in business. Such deals are not the best imaginable deals from the weaker party’s perspective but they may be the best possible deals under the circumstances.

Alternatively, the Palestinians can wait for some distant day to arrive when they will no longer be in an inferior negotiating position. But no one knows if such a day will ever come or how many more generations of Palestinians will have to suffer until then.

The Need for Cooperation

A new Palestinian state cannot survive without cooperation from Israel on a host of issues large and small: security, water, commerce, communications, transportation, tourism… The list goes on and on.

One of the toughest of those issues is Jerusalem. To establish Yerushalayim/Al Quds as the capital of two states, which is a questionable proposition at best, becomes truly impossible without a minimum of good will and trust between Israelis and Palestinians.

If it wanted to, Israel could strangle a Palestinian state at any time, especially in its early years of sovereignty. So the very idea of Palestine living alongside Israel “in peace and security” can only be realized if Israel accepts it and supports it. This means that the question of HOW a Palestinian state might come into existence is just as important as the question of WHAT borders and what powers that state will have.

The more adversarial and acrimonious the relationship is between Palestinians and Israelis prior to statehood, the more demanding Israel will be in its security requirements and the more limitations it will seek to place on Palestinian sovereignty. What Palestinian leaders do today will largely determine what sort of entity they will lead tomorrow – an entity that will only be born with the acquiescence of the Israeli government.

Luftmenschen of the Middle East

Of course, all of these statements can be flipped around. One could argue that it is the Israelis who are the true luftmenschen for dreaming and talking of peace when their actions push the possibility of peace further and further away. The harsher the Israelis treat the Palestinians today, the less likely it is that Palestinians tomorrow will accept Israel as a potential partner and a permanent neighbor.

And yet, after all the blame for the decades of missed opportunities, blame that justifiably falls on the leaders – Israeli leaders and Palestinian leaders, American, European, Arab, Russian, and UN leaders – one fundamental difference continues to separate Israelis from Palestinians. Israelis have their own state. Palestinians do not. If it truly is the Palestinians’ primary goal to gain a sovereign state for themselves, then they would do well to act based on an honest assessment of how they are most likely to achieve their goal. Otherwise they will continue to deserve the name of luftmenschen.

Note: Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

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Obama and McCain: the Language of Foreign Policy

by Michael Lame, posted on June 27, 2011

Afghanistan: the end of the surge

It must be very difficult to construct an intelligent American foreign policy in this era of limited financial resources and even more limited popular appetite for international incursions. Yet somehow President Obama has managed to announce a significant increase and, a year and a half later, a significant decrease in America troop levels in Afghanistan with very little fanfare and very few statements from the White House on how this largely forgotten war has progressed. And even more strangely, because he did it almost without public acknowledgement, Obama has succeeded in launching the United States into another armed conflict in yet another Muslim country – Libya.

Beyond decision-making in the White House and voting in the Congress, the language of America’s foreign policy, in Alice-in-Wonderland style, has grown curiouser and curiouser.

The president announced on June 22nd that he is withdrawing troops from Afghanistan not because we have won the war or because they are no longer needed but because he said he would when he announced the surge.

This is foreign policy conducted as a matter of personal integrity by our armed forces commander-in-chief. It has little to do with facts on the ground, with the recommendations of our military leaders, with the increasingly vocal opponents of the war, or with America keeping its word to the countries we say we wish to rescue. That Obama announced an arbitrary end date for the surge when it began and now keeps his word by withdrawing the troops according to that arbitrary schedule is no cause for celebration at home or abroad. It is, however, another example of the personalization of the office of the presidency that has characterized Obama’s approach to his job since he entered the White House.

Notice the odd syntax the president uses to justify withdrawing troops. He does not say that we have met our goals and that the enemy has been defeated. He claims instead that “we are meeting our goals” and “we’ve inflicted serious losses on the Taliban and taken a number of its strongholds.” These carefully chosen words are truly underwhelming. “We are meeting our goals.” Why withdraw troops before we have met our goals? We have taken “a number” of the Taliban’s strongholds. What number is that? Is it three or thirty? We are not told if this represents ninety percent of their strongholds or only nine percent. We’ve inflicted “serious losses”. That is a subjective term. How serious is “serious”? “Serious” is not “decisive”.

Obama does not claim that we have turned the tide of battle. Instead, he claims that “tonight, we take comfort in knowing that the tide of war is receding.” Why is it receding? That should be the question he answers. Is it because we’re winning? Is it because the Taliban is regrouping and waiting for us to leave? Or is it simply because tides, by their nature, ebb and flow? The tide of war that “is receding” this year may advance next year. Then again, it may be that the reason the tide of war is receding is provided by Obama in his next sentence: “Fewer of our sons and daughters are serving in harm’s way.” Is the president saying that “the tide of war is receding” because we’re withdrawing from the battlefront? That’s a plausible explanation, but not a reassuring one.

He continues, “We have ended our combat mission in Iraq…And even as there will be dark days ahead in Afghanistan, the light of a secure peace can be seen in the distance.” Not “my commanders assure me that within two years we will have destroyed the Taliban as a fighting force”. Not “they can’t hold out much longer against our superior fire power or against the strategic brilliance of General Petraeus.” Not even “I see the light of a secure peace in the distance” but rather the passive tense with no discernible speaker: “the light of a secure peace can be seen in the distance.” But who sees it and what is the evidence for it?

“These long wars [in Iraq and Afghanistan] will come to a responsible end.” Really? What makes you think so, Mr. President? Make the case.

He doesn’t make the case. He doesn’t really try. Yet he emphasizes responsibility. In fact, he uses “responsible”, “responsibly”, or “responsibility” seven times in his brief little speech of only 2,030 words. Four of those instances are about the Afghans finally taking responsibility for their own security. The Afghan government “must step up its ability to protect its people.” But whether the Afghans have shown that they are capable of taking responsibility or willing to take responsibility for their own security are questions the president barely touches upon.

The speech seemed short, especially in comparison to the December 1, 2009 speech in which he announced the surge. In that earlier speech, the president carefully laid out the objectives, the strategy, the history of the war, and the importance of waging it. He did so in 4,636 words – more than twice the length of his June 22, 2011 speech, in which he announced the end of the surge.

Perhaps to add a bit of gravitas to an otherwise lightweight presentation, Obama modeled some of his closing paragraph after that of Lincoln’s second inaugural address. Compare Obama’s “let us finish the work at hand” with Lincoln’s “let us strive on to finish the work we are in”, or Obama’s “With confidence in our cause; with faith in our fellow citizens; and with hope in our hearts, let us go about the work of extending the promise of America”, with Lincoln’s “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right…let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds…”

Even for a man of Obama’s reputed eloquence, it’s hard to compete with Abraham Lincoln.

McCain: “Our interests are our values”

A more blunt-spoken American politician, Obama’s opponent in the last presidential election, minced no words last week as he confused and conflated two essential elements of America’s foreign policy. Senator John McCain, on ABC’s This Week, was asked about America’s national interests in Libya. He responded as follows:

“The fact is, our interests are our values. And our values are that we don’t want people needlessly slaughtered by the thousands if we can prevent such activity.”

This does Obama one better. The president has long spoken of “our interests and our values” – lumping them together. Now McCain proclaims that interests and values are identical. That’s a dangerous approach to foreign policy. We need clear thinking about a set of distinctions on which to base our actions overseas. Interests have traditionally referred to benefits to our national life – economic, military, political, and strategic benefits.

The Bahraini government, for example, provides the United States usage of a base for the Fifth Fleet. That is a significant military and strategic benefit to our country. The U.S. has a national interest in maintaining that base. If the Khalifa family, which has ruled Bahrain since the late 18th century, falls and is replaced by a Shia-dominated government, democratic or otherwise, that political upheaval might result in the loss of our base. Our interests lie with the Sunni rulers, not with the Shia majority. That’s not the end of the story, however.

Our values are not the same as our interests. They are something quite different. They are moral goods. The promotion of democracy, the rule of law, civil liberties, protection of civilians, etc. – these are American values, which are, at times, opposed to our interests. Even when they are not, they represent an independent set of variables.

The prevention of genocide, for example, is a value which several U.S. presidents have espoused. President Clinton has said he regretted not having intervened in Rwanda to prevent the mass murder of Tutsis that occurred there in 1994. His approach might be the best American policy – non-intervention coupled with subsequent statements of regret for not intervening. This way we don’t get into the messy business of separating warring tribes or of nation-building. And we get to say how sorry we are that we didn’t do anything. A contrite superpower. How lovable.

That approach also means that we don’t save lives. 800,000 people died in Rwanda. America was not responsible for it happening. Nor did it take responsibility for preventing it. Given America’s traditional non-intervention in military struggles in sub-Saharan Africa – the Congo, Darfur, the Ivory Coast, among others – I question whether Bill Clinton then or Barack Obama today would actually intervene to prevent another Rwandan-style tragedy.

All American presidents, for the foreseeable future, must learn to live with the uncomfortable knowledge that our resources are limited, our taxpayers are angry, and the world remains a bloody place beyond America’s capacity to staunch the flow of blood. This is not a noble truth, but it is one that Americans can tolerate if it is presented clearly and honestly.

Samantha Power: “a duty to act”

Samantha Power, appointed by Obama to the National Security Council, is a strong proponent of American intervention to prevent genocide. In her Pulitzer-prize-winning tome, A Problem from Hell, she concluded that:

“The United States should stop genocide for two reasons. The first and most compelling reason is moral. When innocent life is being taken on such a scale and the United States has the power to stop the killing at reasonable risk, it has a duty to act…[T]he second reason: enlightened self-interest…[A]llowing genocide undermine[s] regional and international security…[S]ecurity for Americans at home and abroad is contingent on international stability.”

Thus she attempts to make the case that intervention to prevent mass murder brings together America’s values and its interests. Her case, however, is not compelling. She argues morality persuasively, but the interest argument seems like an add-on and a stretch.

On what basis does the U.S. have “a duty to act” to save the lives of non-Americans? It’s a harsh and ugly question but it needs to be asked. Saving the lives of Americans is the duty of an American president. Saving other peoples’ lives is a mitzvah –a good deed – but not an American president’s duty. And what constitutes a “reasonable risk” when saving the lives of Libyans or Afghanis? The life of one American or the lives of a thousand Americans? A hundred million dollars or a hundred billion dollars?

We could have used the Bill Clinton approach in Libya, urging Gaddafi not to attack civilians but not intervening when he did and subsequently lamenting the loss of life. Obama, McCain, and other advocates of humanitarian intervention in Libya made much of Gaddafi’s speech on March 17, directed at the rebels in Benghazi:

“Those infidels who are attempting to burn down our country to the ground, we should have no mercy on them. Those are the traitors…those infidels and traitors we promise to deal with…We will track them down, and search for them, alley by alley, road by road…”

However, Gaddafi stated repeatedly that he was not talking about the entire population of Benghazi:

“But the peaceful individuals of our people … should put down their weapons, there is no danger. They should not feel unsafe…Throw away your arms and find a way out of the city, and then you are saved.”

Would Gaddafi have killed everyone in Benghazi? We don’t know. But many American leaders who advocated intervention, including Senator McCain, grossly exaggerated Gaddafi’s statement to make it sound as if he planned on murdering the entire population of Libya’s second largest city. It’s difficult to base a sane foreign policy on misreadings – intentional or otherwise – of foreign leaders’ words and deeds. Only a week ago, McCain claimed that:

“If we had not intervened, Gadhafi was at the gates of Benghazi. He said he was going to go house to house to kill everybody. That’s a city of 700,000 people. What would he be saying now if we had allowed for that to happen?”

Asking the right questions about intervention

Of course, the questions about U.S. policy towards Gaddafi are different now that we are in this armed conflict. “Should we have gotten in?” is no longer relevant. But as our extended stay in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown, the questions must constantly be asked: Why are we there today? What is at stake for America? How will America be affected if we leave now? How will America be affected if we stay? Other questions must be asked about the impact of our intervention on the Iraqis, the Afghanis, the Libyans, and others, but these questions should be addressed separately. In political discussions, the distinctions tend to blur. A question about our ability to defeat the Taliban is countered with a protest about the fate of Afghani women if the Taliban return to power. These are separate issues. Our interests and our values are not the same.

How refreshing it would be for a senator or a president to tell the American people the truth about our interests in the various countries of North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, distinguishing our interests from our values, and, having enunciated both, then publicly weigh the two and come to a decision whether to act or not. I long for such a day and such a politician.

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Right of Return: the ongoing illusion

by Michael Lame, posted on June 4, 2011

Hanan Ashrawi was in town last week. A member of the PLO executive committee and a long-time Palestinian spokesperson, negotiator, and politician, she is a well-known figure in Washington, DC. After delivering a prosaic and predictable talk at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, Ashrawi came to life, as most speakers do, during the Q&A.

Marwan Muasher, Jordan’s former deputy prime minister, introduced her as “someone who has always spoken truth to power.” When Muasher called on me, I asserted that it might also be useful to speak truth to the powerless, particularly to Palestinian refugees. Whether or not there exists a right of return, and regardless of the language in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or in U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194, the Israeli public across the political spectrum is united in its opposition to the return of the refugees.

At what point, I asked, is it time to have a conversation with Palestinian refugees about alternative futures?

In response, Ashrawi offered a three-stage formula, none of which required any truth-telling by the Palestinian leadership:

Step One: “Israel has to acknowledge its responsibility and culpability” for the creation of the refugee problem. “We know what happened. ’48 is clear,” she said. “There is a clear [historical] narrative that has to be acknowledged.”

Step Two: Israel must acknowledge the validity of the Palestinians’ right of return. “All refugees have these rights. The Palestinians are no exception.”

Step Three: Individual Palestinian refugees must be given the choice whether and how to exercise the right of return. “You can discuss alternatives and options provided you give them the right to choose.”

Each part of this formulation is problematic. In today’s Israel, not one of these three steps is acceptable to Netanyahu, Livni, Barak, Peres, or any other mainstream political leader.

Step One – Are the Jews solely to blame for the Nakba? No single, clear, historical narrative has emerged which is accepted by Arabs and Jews alike about what happened in 1948, who started it, and who did wrong to whom. Instead we have conflicting narratives. Compare, for example, the works of Efraim Karsh with those of Rashid Khalidi, Avi Shlaim, or Benny Morris. The disagreements among scholars of the period are profound and unlikely to be resolved any time soon. We should not assume that we already know the whole story about 1948. The Palestinian and Arab equivalents of Israel’s “new historians” have not yet written their tomes.

Last week in the Wall Street Journal, Fouad Ajami discussed that most fateful and controversial of years, 1948:

“Few Arabs were willing to tell the story truthfully, to face its harsh verdict. Henceforth the Palestinians would live on a vague idea of restoration and return. No leader had the courage to tell the refugees who had left Acre and Jaffa and Haifa that they could not recover the homes and orchards of their imagination.”

Step Two – Acknowledging a Palestinian “right of return” is a step too far for most Israelis, even those who sympathize with the plight of stateless Palestinian refugees. The right to a home? Yes. The right to citizenship in a state? Yes. The right to return to a former home that has been occupied by three generations of Israelis for more than sixty years? No.

Ashrawi’s Step Three is an obvious non-starter with Israelis. They will not agree to millions of Palestinians deciding individually whether they will move to pre-’67 Israel. That Israel will contribute to a compensation fund for their loss of land and livelihood, on the other hand, is eminently possible.

In the 2008 negotiations between then-prime minister Olmert and Abbas, Olmert is reported to have offered to allow one thousand refugees per year to immigrate to Israel for a total of five years. That’s five thousand people out of a total of more than half a million Palestinians who lost their homes in ’48 and several millions of their descendants. Not surprisingly, Abbas rejected Olmert’s number as far too low. Yet for Netanyahu, the acceptable number is zero.

Netanyahu’s insistence that Jerusalem remain the undivided capital of Israel is a deal-breaker for the foreseeable future. So is the Palestinians’ insistence on an acknowledged and exercised right of return. It doesn’t follow that either side should necessarily give up or moderate its position. But unless it does, peace between the two peoples is a long way off.

Mahmoud Abbas on Refugees’ Rights

Lest you conclude that Ashrawi is alone among moderate Palestinian leaders in insisting both upon the principle of the right of return and upon its implementation based on individual Palestinian choice, consider last month’s New York Times op-ed penned by Mahmoud Abbas. His autobiographical opening paragraph is telling:

“Sixty-three years ago, a 13-year-old Palestinian boy was forced to leave his home in the Galilean city of Safed and flee with his family to Syria…Though he and his family wished for decades to return to their home and homeland, they were denied that most basic of human rights.”

The Long Overdue Palestinian State” reads the title of the op-ed. One might wonder why the lead paragraph of this promotion for a two-state solution is all about refugees, a subject to which Abbas returns repeatedly in the Times piece. Without any reference to refugees, a cogent argument can be made for the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza in which perhaps four million Palestinians currently live under occupation. But clearly for Abbas, the refugees are the heart of the problem:

“Zionist forced expelled Palestinian Arabs to ensure a decisive Jewish majority in the future state of Israel…Indeed, it was the descendants of these expelled Palestinians who were shot and wounded by Israeli forces on Sunday [Nakba Day] as they tried to symbolically exercise their right to return to their families’ homes.”

And later in the op-ed:

“A key focus of negotiations will be reaching a just solution for Palestinian refugees based on Resolution 194, which the General Assembly passed in [December] 1948.”

Mahmoud’s last sentence, like his first, is about refugees:

“Only if the international community keeps the promise it made to us six decades ago, and ensures that a just resolution for Palestinian refugees is put into effect, can there be a future of hope and dignity for our people.”

Hanan Ashrawi and Mahmoud Abbas need to be taken seriously when they speak of refugee rights. It is a mistake to assume that all the talk about justice for Palestinian refugees is merely a negotiating tactic that will be dropped at the appropriate point in the negotiations.

U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194

For those who have not yet committed it to memory, the paragraph on refugees in 194 reads as follows:

“11. Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible”.

Notice that the above paragraph does not mention a “right of return” or anyone’s rights at all. Nor does it specify which governments or authorities are responsible for paying compensation.

From Israel’s point of view, it also contains loopholes which could prevent its implementation: “the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date…” [Emphasis added.] How does one measure the willingness of returning refugees to live at peace with their neighbors? Perhaps with the requirement that they take a loyalty oath to “the Jewish state of Israel”, which most returning Palestinians would be loath to do. Or Israel could claim that the earliest practicable date is the day after Lebanon and Syria sign peace treaties with Israel.

Section 11 doesn’t even specify that “the refugees” are Arabs or Palestinians. Israel can claim that the term also applies to the hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from Arab countries who fled to Israel and that any compensation package must include payment to them as well.

Another section of Resolution 194 established the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine, which failed in its efforts at conciliation after the ’48 war and which few people have heard of since the early 1950s. I just discovered that the UNCCP, based in New York City, still exists and continues to issue its annual “Progress Report”, which the General Assembly gratefully acknowledges each year!

Two important points are usually left out of Palestinian references to UNGA 194. Unlike Security Council resolutions, General Assembly resolutions lack the force of international law and therefore need not be followed or enforced by member states. And 194 contains other provisions that Palestinian leaders never mention and do not support:

“8. Resolves that, in view of its association with three world religions, the Jerusalem area, including the present municipality of Jerusalem plus the surrounding villages and town,…should be accorded special and separate treatment from the rest of Palestine and should be placed under effective United Nations control”.

In other words, 194 reiterates the call of the original UN General Assembly partition plan (UNGA 181) for the internationalization of Jerusalem and its environs under UN control.

There is a reason why Abbas does not bring up this section. He wants east Jerusalem for the capital of a new Palestinian state, while Netanyahu insists that Jerusalem will remain the united capital of Israel. Neither sides wants Section 8 of 194 realized. The PLO and the Arab states insist, however, on the implementation of Section 11.

Alternately heralding and ignoring sections within the same resolution need not be condemned. After all, consistency is less important to national liberation movements and to nations than is survival. But this selectivity reveals a truth: Palestinians don’t support a right of return because they believe it’s called for in 194. They support 194 because they believe it calls for a right of return.

In this regard, Palestinians are like Israelis, Americans, Chinese, and every other people on the planet. We use the arguments we think will sell. There is no evidence that Palestinians have any greater reverence for human rights or international law than do other peoples. They argue for human rights and international law because these arguments support their position and resonate with a certain segment of western society. They also open up certain avenues of action in international bodies. It may be a matter of principle, but it is definitely a matter of politics.

UNGA 194 is complex, ambiguous, and at least partially obsolete. Attempts to resolve the conflict in Palestine based upon it have failed miserably. Perhaps someday, would-be peace makers in the Middle East will stop reciting, as “terms of reference”, the series of failed Security Council and General Assembly resolutions that tie us so disastrously to the past: 181, 194, 242, 338, 1701, 1860, etc.

If you repeat something long enough, eventually you believe it, whether it’s true or not. The constant refrain of “the Palestinian people’s inalienable right of return” has shaped Palestinian aspirations. It has also helped shape Israeli intransigence on the subject.

In Thursday’s Haaretz, Ari Shavit predicted that “in the coming years the Palestinians will not compromise on the right of return” and that “no moderate Palestinian leader will be able to face the refugees and persuade them to give up their homes and villages.” For these reasons, among others, Shavit concludes that “there will be no peace with the Palestinians. Not this year, not this decade, perhaps not this generation.”

The future of the refugees

The real question is whether Palestinian refugees will be offered an opportunity for normalcy without their fate being held hostage to a moribund peace process. The uncaring harshness of Netanyahu’s rhetoric on the subject coupled with the doctrinaire approach of Ashrawi and Abbas leave the refugees stuck in a perpetual limbo. It is possible for Israel, the PA, the Arab states, and the world’s major powers to all agree – without referencing 194 – that the plight of the still largely stateless Palestinian refugees must be and will be urgently addressed.

What happened to Palestinians in 1948 remains important, but what happens to them in 2011 and beyond is of far greater import. The refugees and their descendants deserve the world’s attention and its action.

Note: Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

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A Tale of Two Speeches

by Michael Lame, posted on May 23, 2011

Here is how Barack Obama explained his policy to an AIPAC annual policy conference in Washington:

“Now let me be clear. Israel’s security is sacrosanct. It is non-negotiable. The Palestinians need a state that is contiguous and cohesive, and that allows them to prosper – but any agreement with the Palestinian people must preserve Israel’s identity as a Jewish state, with secure, recognized and defensible borders. And Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.” [Emphasis added.]

That last bit about Jerusalem drew a standing ovation from the supportive audience. I still remember listening to that speech live on C-SPAN, delivered by then-presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Obama on June 4, 2008.

How could he have committed himself to a unified Jerusalem in the same speech in which he promoted a two-state solution? I couldn’t believe that he said that. I thought perhaps he had misread the text or that maybe Dennis Ross had written it and Obama hadn’t read it over first.

Sure enough, the next day an Obama campaign adviser clarified that “Obama did not rule out Palestinian sovereignty over parts of Jerusalem when he called for Israel’s capital to remain ‘undivided’.” In other words, he took it back, by means of a convoluted explanation.

This year, now-President Obama similarly walked himself back – through another tortured explanation – from a statement he made in last Thursday’s State Department speech on the Middle East and North Africa.

Compare Thursday’s speech at State with Sunday’s speech at this year’s AIPAC conference. Here is Obama’s formulation on Thursday:

“We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.”

And here is Obama’s clarification of that sentence in front of AIPAC:

“By definition, it means that the parties themselves – Israelis and Palestinians – will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967. [Emphasis added.] That’s what mutually agreed-upon swaps means…It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last 44 years. It allows the parties themselves to take account of those changes, including the new demographic realities on the ground, and the needs of both sides.”

A Forgettable Speech

The formulation about the ’67 borders overshadowed everything else in Obama’s State Department speech. But the Israeli-Palestinian section only came at the talk’s tail end. Before that he spoke about America’s interests, the “Arab Spring”, and regional economic development.

He scolded the Bahraini government. He gave Assad one more chance. He reminded Yemen’s President Saleh that he said he would leave office but hasn’t. He praised the people who took to the streets in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere. None of these statements were definitive or consequential.

Nor did big news come from Obama’s new commitment to economic development in the Arab countries now “in transition to democracy”. The dollar figures offered were puny compared to the magnitude of the economic problems facing the countries in question.

Egypt’s national debt currently stands at more than $32 billion. Obama proposed relieving Egypt of “up to $1 billion in debt” and guaranteeing another $1 billion in Egyptian borrowing. So we write off $1 billion in debt and help Egypt incur an additional $1 billion in debt. OPIC will support investment “across the region’ – not just in Egypt – to the tune of $2 billion. These measures will help, but all of them together are little more than a drop in the bucket. Remember Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package? That was designed to get America’s economy back on track in a nation of 300 million people. Is Egypt, a nation of 80 million, going to see its economy revved up on less than $5 billion of new foreign assistance?

Whether Egypt is ruled as an authoritarian kleptocracy or as a transparent democracy, its economic problems are enormous. Even if the U.S. was not in its current weakened financial condition, the task of creating a healthy Egyptian economy is far beyond the capacity and capability of the United States. We can’t do it. Nor, I would argue, is it the legitimate role of the U.S. government to revamp, from top to bottom, another nation’s economy. So we give them a little help, but we know and they know that it’s insufficient. It’s a gesture of support rather than a promise of a turnaround.

Almost by default, given how little substance the president offered regarding economic development and the “Arab spring”, the headlines from Obama’s speech were not about the political upheavals across the Arab world or their economic consequences. Instead, they were all about the terms for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Negotiation Fatigue

There is little that should worry Israelis or encourage Palestinians about either of Obama’s speeches this past week. The president said nothing to indicate that he plans to take any action on the subject of Israeli-Palestinian relations. The one exception is that he made clear his intention to veto a Security Council resolution coming up in September for the admission of Palestine to U.N. membership. He just lost his negotiator, George Mitchell, and there’s no evidence so far that he intends to appoint a replacement.

As he said in his State Department speech, “the international community is tired of an endless process that never produces an outcome.” Perhaps the American people are likewise growing tired of special envoys and secretaries of state flying around the Middle East, racking up frequent flier miles, with nothing to show for it. David Ignatius wrote in the Washington Post after Thursday’s speech, this administration is long on vision and short on follow-through.

Clarifying or even changing the basis for negotiations doesn’t really matter if there are no negotiations. Currently there are none between Netanyahu and Abbas, nor are there likely to be any in the near future, for at least four reasons:

1) The Palestinians have vowed not to negotiate as long as Israeli construction continues in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Israel refuses to halt or slow down construction.

2) The Israelis will refuse to negotiate with a Palestinian government which includes Hamas. Fatah and Hamas recently signed an agreement to govern jointly.

3) Right now neither side is anxious to restart negotiations because neither is willing to make the concessions which it knows the other side will demand. Bibi doesn’t want to give up on a united Jerusalem as Israel’s capital or on retaining the Jordan Valley. Abu Mazen won’t give up east Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state. Nor will he agree to allow settlement blocs to remain which Netanyahu is determined to keep. Nor will he give up the principle of the right of return.

4) The uncertainty about the future of Israel’s other Arab neighbors, in particular Egypt and Syria, reinforce Netanyahu’s already extreme reluctance to move towards compromise with the Palestinians.

What can we take away from the president’s address? Shadi Hamid, of the Brookings Center in Qatar, captured the essence and likely impact of the State Department speech: “This is the Obama style: Try to appeal to everyone and end up disappointing everyone.”

Negotiation Fixation

The real problem lies not in the president’s words but in his thinking. He is fixated on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as the only way forward. The Israelis and Palestinians have adopted the same mind-set, so that they are largely unwilling to take any constructive action on their own without receiving something back from the other side.

The PA doesn’t undertake a public campaign to prepare Palestinian refugees for the prospect that there will be no return to their pre-’48 homes because that would mean giving up a bargaining chip in some future negotiations. (It would also expose the leadership to both political and physical danger.)

Israeli leaders don’t withdraw financial subsidies from West Bank settlements or initiate a conversation with the Israeli public about a final end to new settlements because they hope to trade a cessation of future construction for some concession from the PA when talks finally begin. (Such a debate might also topple Israeli leaders and possibly fracture Israeli society.)

There are reasons, then, both for the lack of Israeli or Palestinian unilateral action that might bring peace closer and for the absence of an internal dynamic on both sides that would push them towards negotiations.

The Virtues of Hesitation

Although he closed his speech last week by asserting that “we cannot hesitate to stand squarely on the side of those who are reaching for their rights,” that is exactly what Obama has done on multiple occasions. He hesitated in 2009 when Iranians took to the streets to protest a fraudulent election, and he hesitates today to call for Assad to step down. But given how unpredictable the changes in Egypt and elsewhere are proving to be, consistently “getting ahead of the curve” might not be the best American policy.

Presidential hesitation is an appropriate response to momentous changes in the world that do not immediately threaten the United States.

Before the president launches a new initiative for Middle East peace or appoints a successor special envoy or even makes another speech on the subject, he would do well to hesitate for a bit, to listen to a set of voices different from those he has been listening to for the last two years, and to re-think the role the U.S. can afford to play in the next round of this ongoing saga.

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