Myth-Making and Obama’s UNGA Speech

Once again, in his speech Wednesday at the United Nations, President Obama revealed the reduced importance of the Israeli-Palestinian

Obama speaking at last year's UNGA

Obama speaking at last year’s UNGA

conflict on his agenda. He also revealed just how out of touch his entire country is with respect to reality.

The Israel-Palestine conflict was the last specific global issue mentioned by Obama in his address to the UN General Assembly, and his wording was straight out of the playbook. It was also only mentioned briefly and without any hint that the United States would be taking any action at all on the issue.

Here’s what he said:

Leadership will also be necessary to address the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. As bleak as the landscape appears, America will never give up the pursuit of peace. The situation in Iraq, Syria and Libya should cure anyone of the illusion that this conflict is the main source of problems in the region; for far too long, it has been used in part as a way to distract people from problems at home. And the violence engulfing the region today has made too many Israelis ready to abandon the hard work of peace. But let’s be clear: the status quo in the West Bank and Gaza is not sustainable. We cannot afford to turn away from this effortnot when rockets are fired at innocent Israelis, or the lives of so many Palestinian children are taken from us in Gaza. So long as I am President, we will stand up for the principle that Israelis, Palestinians, the region, and the world will be more just with two states living side by side, in peace and security.

Could this have been any emptier? Just last month, Israel and Hamas were engaged in the biggest uptick in violence since the Second Intifada was in full swing.

The message from Obama comes through, though: We’re no longer interested in forcing the parties to the table. The subtext behind that is a US surrender to the stubbornness of the far-right wing government running Israel these days. The US will stop pressuring Israel for talks, and indeed, it already has. The question this raises, of course, is how the Obama administration will respond when and if the Palestinian Authority makes good on its repeated threats to bring this issue to the UN and the International Criminal Court.

In such a case, Obama will undoubtedly condemn the Palestinians’ “unilateral action”de facto US policy dictates that when the Palestinians take action, it is to be condemned, but when Israel does the same thing, it is, at worst, “unhelpful.” Yet the real question for the Palestinians is whether the United States will have any other response outside of some pro forma public statement. Obama’s hands-off approach seems to imply that it will not, though Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would be unwise to count on that.

But there’s another piece of this statement worth examining. Obama said, as he has many times, that the situation is unsustainable. He also notes that one myth that has long been held by many has been exposed as false by recent events: the notion that Palestine is the key source of instability in the region.

Obama is correct about the exposed old myth, but he merely spouts another in its place. Of course the occupation will not remain the same as it is today. It has changed some of its characteristics, almost always to the detriment of the Palestinians, many times since 1967. But the essence of the matter, the relationship between an occupying power and an occupied people locked in a conflict over land, rights, narratives, nationalism and competing claims of justice, has endured quite well over those years.

The Israeli right-wing was long aware, and often stated, that their subjugation of the Palestinians was not the main cause of instability in the region. Of course, there was a time when there was a much stronger argument for that myth. When the many Arab regimes, throughout most of the 20th century, were comfortably entrenched in power, things were pretty stable, as they often are under dictatorships that maintain their control. Under those circumstances, the cry of “Free Palestine” was heard much more loudly, as it was the only one the dictators would permit. Due to many factors (especially the US invasion of Iraq), that stability was shattered and, as one would expect, much of the Arab world, while not forgetting the Palestinians, demonstrated a focus on the miserable conditions they themselves were living in, and conflicts within their own countries. Thus, the myth was exposed.

But we don’t need a shakeup like the Arab Awakening to see that the claim that the occupation is “unsustainable” is a myth. We really need only see that it has endured for more than 47 years, and when circumstances did threaten the status quo, Israel adapted its occupation to meet those circumstances. The most obvious example of that is the massive tightening of the occupation and even more massive expansion of settlements that constituted Israel’s response to the Oslo Accords.

It’s a truism that any oppressive regime eventually meets its demise. That is clearly not what Obama means when he calls the occupation “unsustainable.” Rather, he means what so many others mean: Israel cannot continue to hold millions of Palestinians without rights. But, like so many other myths around Israel-Palestine, this one doesn’t bear scrutiny. Israel has done this for 47 years, and can do it for the foreseeable future. The demise of the occupation regime will come, as the demise of all regimes eventually come. But there is nothing particularly unsustainable about this one.

The Israeli right has become the Israeli mainstream, and they are busily coming up with ideas for how to sustain this occupation or, as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman likes to put it, “manage” the conflict. They recognize that the fear, ingrained in the thinking of many of the early Zionist philosophers of a Jewish Israel ruling over a majority of disenfranchised Muslim and Christian Arabs is unfounded. It turns out that contrary to the expectations of the early Zionist thinkers, Israelis can live with denying rights to Arabs, and the world is prepared to tolerate it, despite the clucking of tongues it evokes.

This issue can be traced back all the way to Theodor Herzl, and it was actively dealt with by Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and, most notably, by the person in charge of land acquisition for the Jewish National Fund both before and after the State of Israel was established, Yoseph Weitz. In modern times, this notion has been expressed as a “demographic time bomb,” most notably by Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert.

But there’s no reason to believe this is really a problem. After all, according to the February 2014 report of Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, there are about 6,119,000 Jews in Israel and the West Bank. Between the West Bank, Gaza and Israel, there are some 5,894,631 Palestinians, according to the CIA World Factbook. Given the different population growth rates, Palestinians will be a majority very soon, but the day that happens, what is going to change? On the ground, in day to day life, what will be different than the day before?

The answer, of course, is that nothing will change and the Israeli right-wing understands this. The United States, on the other hand, apparently does not. More to the point, the many activists who believe that Jews going from 51% of the population to 49% of it will suddenly mean that Israel is an apartheid state, as both Olmert and another former Prime Minister, Ehud Barak warned, also do not understand that when that line is crossed, nothing will change. Nothing will change when that so-called demographic time bomb goes off.

So, while right-wing leaders like Naftali Bennett consider ways to continue to “manage” the Palestinians indefinitely, Obama and a great many others, in the United States, Israel, Europe and even some among the Palestinians, continue to engage in myth-making and wishful thinking.

If this conflict is ever to be resolved, the only path to it entails full acknowledgment of the realities, on the ground, in the international diplomatic sphere and in politics. Anyone who truly believes that the demographic counter clicking down to under 50% Jewish will somehow shock the Israeli people and their government into recognizing the injustice of the occupation is engaging in fantasy. Such demographic changes are gradual, and this cushions the change so it is not a shock. In 1960, Whites, who were always an overwhelming minority, made up less than 20% of the population of South Africa, and Jews are unlikely to ever be anywhere near that small a minority in Israel-Palestine.

This is only one of many myths that need to be abandoned for any kind of resolution to be possible. It’s no less important to dispel these fanciful notions than it is to counter the stereotypes of Palestinians that are so widely held in the United States, Israel and elsewhere (like “they just want to kill the Jews” for instance). One way we will know people are serious about taking on this vexing conflict is when we see them abandon false notions and recognize that Israel-Palestine can contribute to a better world simply by ending the injustice and violence. When that’s the motivation, and it is applied to both sides, we’ll be getting somewhere.

The Tangled Web of a U.S.-Iran Thaw

The real Iranian nuclear threat has apparently already taken hold. New Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s so-called “charm offensive” has sent the war hawks scurrying as if the bomb had really gone off.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been relentless in his increasingly desperate efforts to cast Rouhani in the same mould as his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As Marsha Cohen points out, however, his tones are ringing hollow. Ahmadinejad provided Netanyahu with the almost cartoonish foil he needed, but Rouhani strikes a much more reasonable pose.

In the US, the counter to the charm offensive is kicking into high gear. Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY), the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was thoroughly dismissive of Rouhani’s speech at the UN General Assembly, which most observers considered conciliatory and matching a similar tone by US President Barack Obama. Engel, by contrast, said: “Far from engaging in a ‘charm offensive,’ he repeated too many of the same old talking points blaming the United States and our allies for all of the world’s ills.”

Even before Rouhani’s speech, the neoconservative Emergency Committee for Israel launched a web site attacking Rouhani. The site, dubbed “The Real Rouhani,” pieces together some legitimate and some questionable news reports on the Iranian president, most of which are quotes and citations taken out of context to sound more sinister than they are. They sum it all up by calling Rouhani a Holocaust denier, something Netanyahu has also done.

It’s fair to be dissatisfied with Rouhani’s evasion of questions on the Holocaust, which becomes an issue for outsiders largely because Ahmadinejad made such a spectacle of it during his time, a very real and despicable spectacle which was naturally magnified by the Western press. Rouhani initially ducked the question by saying he was not a historian. While in New York, and probably realizing that this response was not having the desired effect, Rouhani told CNN “…in general I can tell you that any crime that happens in history against humanity, including the crime the Nazis created towards the Jews, is reprehensible and condemnable…Whatever criminality they committed against the Jews we condemn.”

That’s better, but it probably leaves the Holocaust denial bullet in Netanyahu and the neocons’ gun. Doubtless, Rouhani is trying not to raise more hackles among the Iranian conservatives that Ahmadinejad represents than he has to, but this is probably one he can and should go farther with. Still, even before Rouhani’s clarification, the Holocaust denier trope didn’t seem to be getting much play, certainly nothing like it did with Ahmadinejad. But right now, people are looking with hope to Rouhani; if that should change, his weak response to this question will certainly come back to haunt him.

Some have expressed disappointment with Rouhani’s UN speech, having hoped for a bolder step forward toward the U.S. This is reinforced by the White House claim that they proposed a brief meeting on the margins of the UN but were rebuffed by the Iranians, who said it was too complicated at this time.

The naysayers are wrong. A meeting with Obama, however brief, would certainly have pleased Western peace supporters, but in Iran, where crippling sanctions are hammering people every day and where, despite Obama’s conciliatory words, people are understandably skeptical of U.S. intentions, such a meeting would have been premature. It could easily be used by conservatives to demonstrate weakness on Rouhani’s part, portraying it as a warm gesture to a government that is strangling Iranians with no promise, or even indication that an easing of the sanctions regime is on the horizon.

Even in the West, it is probably better that no chance encounter took place. Although the U.S. tactic of refusing to talk is a dead end that produces no tangible benefits for anyone (as Stephen Walt aptly points out), since we have pursued it, raising hopes for a quick breakthrough is probably unwise. Expectations need to be managed.

The U.S.-Iranian impasse is much deeper than the nuclear issue and the mutual antipathy between Israel and the Islamic Republic. Many more issues are involved, and they mount on top of a long history of problems between the U.S. and Iran, of which the 1953 CIA-backed coup and the 1979-80 hostage crisis are only the best known.

Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies offers a good rundown of the various issues and complications facing the two countries in any attempt to thaw relations. The major flaw, though, in Cordesman’s piece is that he frames the current issue within the notion of a relentless Iranian march toward a nuclear weapon. This doesn’t mesh with the facts, as intelligence estimates for the past six years, including those of the U.S. and Israel, agree that Iran has halted its pursuit of a nuclear weapon, while retaining the ability to start the process again. An Iranian weapons program only seems to have existed in the early years of the century, when U.S. ambitions for regime change were at their height.

Beyond that point, Cordesman gives a good description of the complexities inherent in trying to turn back years of U.S.-Iranian enmity. But he does an even better job of laying out the case for why the status quo serves neither country well and why a warming of relations can bring great benefits to both countries and the entire Middle East.

One major issue that divides the two countries is, indeed, Israel. If Iran and the U.S. wanted to try to patch things up, even if the nuclear issue was resolved to mutual satisfaction (something that is complicated but far from impossible in and of itself), the Israel-Palestine question moves to center stage. What becomes of Iranian support for the Palestinian cause, for Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the more meager support it offers to Hamas?

More than likely, this is why Obama, in his speech, put the two issues so closely together. While he didn’t specifically link the two, their proximity in the text was suggestive, and explained a bit of why he and Secretary of State John Kerry have put so much effort into rekindling talks between the two peoples. Obama understands, and he’s subtly communicating to Israel, that he needs to see a Palestinian state created, one which Iran can support, if there is to be sufficient warming of U.S.-Iran relations to enable a reasonable chance of resolving the nuclear issue.

This is precisely why Netanyahu is so alarmed by the prospect of a negotiated deal, as opposed to an Iranian surrender, on the nuclear issue. The prospect of a viable deal on Iran’s nuclear program will allow and encourage domestic and international pressure on Israel to make a deal, and, even if it is a deal remarkably favorable to Israel, Netanyahu does not want to engage in that political fight with his own party and the rest of his right-wing coalition. Much better to see Iran be forced, whether by sanctions or firepower, to give in to international demands. Moreover, those demands will be very different in the context of negotiations.

Obama, in his speech, recognized Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear power. That affirmation, though self-evident, indicates a willingness to allow enrichment on Iranian soil, something Netanyahu adamantly opposes, but which, with sufficient transparency, will satisfy every other country in the world if the United States gives the program its blessing. In the context of an Iranian surrender, it is much more likely that enrichment programs could be transferred to a third country, like Russia.

So, Netanyahu has gone on an anti-Rouhani crusade. With the most extreme of neocon groups joining him, it is likely — if Netanyahu persists and if Rouhani does not sufficiently influence Western hearts and minds fast enough (which he likely can’t do without agitating his own right flank) — that other right-wing groups, followed by more centrist hawks, will soon add their voices to the anti-Rouhani chorus.

Pro-dialogue forces will have a tough task. The process simply can’t move too fast or it will careen off the tracks. But a slow process gives more opportunity for the hawks. Persistence in support of a rational approach will not be easy, but standing fast to support dialogue and the gradual easing of sanctions in exchange for gradually increasing transparency in Iran is the best and wisest option.

Hearts and Minds With Palestine

In this week’s piece for Souciant, a rundown of some of the effects of the surprisingly impactful Palestinian victory at the UN General Assembly.

The Draft Resolution the Palestinians Plan to Submit to the UNGA

Pasted below is the full text, as it currently stands, of the resolution the Palestinian Authority is planning to bring to the UN General Assembly, apparently on November 29.

The resolution is extremely mild, calling for the State of Palestine to be accorded the same status in the GA as the Vatican has. It also calls for a two-state solution, the resumption of talks based on the relevant resolutions and past negotiations, and for the Security Council to consider “favorably” the application for full membership submitted last year.

None of this can be considered radical or extremist, and most of it is obviously necessary if there is to be any progress toward any resolution. While it can be argued that the two-state solution has already passed the point where it can be reasonably implemented, this remains the stated goal of the US, EU, Palestinian Authority, Arab League and even Israel. It’s pretty hard to see any reasonable argument against this resolution, and even harder to see why this would send the US and Israel into the tizzy it hasContinue reading