INSIDE PALESTINE STUDIES The newsletter of the Institute for Palestine Studies
OBAMA’S LEGACY ON
ISRAEL / PALESTINE By JOSH RUEBNER
No president entered the White House
with a more nuanced understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian issue or such boundless confidence in his ability to resolve the conflict than did Barack Obama in 2009. Before his meteoric rise to the presidency, Obama had developed an intimacy with the Palestinian-American community, and an empathy with its narrative, that few politicians achieve. As an Illinois state senator with many Palestinian-American constituents, he often attended community events at which he “was forthright in his criticism of U.S. policy and his call for an evenhanded approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” according to Electronic Intifada founder Ali Abunimah’s firsthand account. Ironically, as the president most rhetorically supportive of Palestinian rights and most energetic in his pursuit of Palestinian statehood prepares to leave office, his legacy on the Israeli-Palestinian issue will not be as peacemaker. Instead, the prospects for a
negotiated two-state resolution—the formal U.S. policy goal since the waning days of the Clinton administration—appear dim, if not irretrievably extinguished. For this, the ever-rightward drifting Israeli government, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has vetoed the possibility of a Palestinian state, bears primary responsibility. But it was the willful policy choices of the Obama administration that abetted and facilitated this Israeli rejectionism. That, unfortunately, is Obama’s tarnished legacy.
Lofty Rhetoric and Good Intentions Don’t Change Policy It is “undeniable that the Palestinian people—Muslims and Christians—have suffered in pursuit of a homeland,” Obama told a rapt audience at Cairo University in a landmark June 2009 speech designed to reset U.S. relations with the Muslim world after the Bush administration. “For more than sixty years they’ve endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead.” This, Obama declared, was an “intolerable” situation for the Palestinians and he vowed, “America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.” His remarks were and remain today the most sympathetic by a sitting U.S. president on Israel’s dispossession of Palestinians. And when he visited Israel and the West Bank almost four years later, Obama did not shrink from telling an Israeli Jewish audience in Jerusalem some unpleasant truths about their government’s treatment of Palestinians. “The Palestinian people’s right to self-determination, their right to justice, must also be recognized,” the president insisted. “It’s not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands; or [restrict] a student’s ability to move around the West Bank; or displace Palestinian families from their homes.” Obama deserves plaudits for articulating Palestinian rights more forcefully and cogently than any other president. These and other statements undoubtedly reflected changes in discourse, which made it more permissible to criticize Israel, and also contributed to this dynamic. But, at the same time, Obama merits criticism for woefully falling short in devising any coherent strategy for translating such sentiments
into policy changes that would effectuate those rights. After Secy. of State Hillary Clinton emphatically and unambiguously demanded a halt to Israeli settlements in May 2009—the president “wants to see a stop to settlements—not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions”—the Israel lobby struck back in a fury. That same month, AIPAC mobilized Congress, and 76 senators and 328 representatives signed letters politely telling the president to stop airing dirty laundry with Israel in public and back off his demand for a total settlement freeze. The president received the message clearly and capitulated almost immediately.
Policies, Not Personalities, Matter On the sidelines of a G20 summit in November 2011, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy was caught in a “hot mic” moment calling Netanyahu a liar in conversation with Obama. “You’re sick of him,” Obama retorted, “but I have to deal with him every day!” The incident encapsulates the testy and frosty relations between the president and the Israeli prime minister. Obama and Netanyahu’s regular phone calls were often “heated and emotional,” according to a former senior-level administration official quoted in a ten-thousand-word Huffington Post feature, which characterized the Obama-Netanyahu relationship as the “worst ever between an American president and an Israeli prime minister.”
“The Palestinian people’s right to self-determination, their right to justice, must also be recognized.” – President Barack Obama
Several of the most serious incidents that fractured their personal relationship bear mention. During their first meeting in May 2009, Netanyahu reportedly felt shocked and blindsided by Obama’s demand to completely freeze Israeli settlements. Netanyahu paid the U.S. president back in spades when the Israeli government announced a major settlement expansion in East Jerusalem during a March 2010 official visit by Vice President Joe Biden.. In March 2015, Netanyahu’s sense of being kept in the dark on the Iran nuclear deal led to his most reckless gambit against Obama, when he conspired with former House Speaker John Boehner to address Congress in opposition to the pact, an unprecedented intervention by a foreign leader in a U.S. foreign policy debate.
Biased Peace Broker Role Foils Obama’s Negotiations When the Obama administration presented its ideas for a negotiations framework to the Palestinian negotiating team in a December 2009 “non-paper,” it became clear that the fundamental pro-Israel orientation of the U.S. approach had not changed. The starting point for U.S.-brokered talks was so full of predetermined outcomes on final status issues inimical to Palestinian rights that the PLO’s Saeb Erekat described the U.S. proposal as giving Israel “the biggest Yerushalaim [Jerusalem] in Jewish history, symbolic number of refugees return, demilitarized state. . . .What more can I give?” Despite the Obama administration’s knowledge of the Palestinians’ deep misgivings over reconvening negotiations under such flawed premises, Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George Mitchell pushed ahead anyway and presided over a short-lived round of negotiations in September 2010. Talks opened just weeks before Israel’s onetime sham settlement moratorium was set to expire, casting a pall over the negotiations from the outset. The negotiations barely progressed past a ceremonial dinner at the White House before they collapsed. If the appointment of Mitchell as special envoy for Middle East peace was a profession of objectivity in his first term, Obama dispensed with any pretense of evenhandedness in his second term by naming Martin Indyk his special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. A former researcher at AIPAC, founder of its spin-off think tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Clinton administration peace process veteran, and former U.S. ambassador to Israel, Indyk embodied the revolving door between the Israel lobby and U.S. policy-making on Israeli-Palestinian issues that vitiates U.S. claims to be an honest broker. Although from July 2013 to April 2014 newly appointed Secy. of State John Kerry presided over the most intensive U.S.-mediated Israeli-Palestinian negotiations since the Clinton administration, the quality of his exertions fell substantially short of their quantity.
Guaranteeing Israel’s Interests and Impunity at the UN The Security Council veto of the resolution on Israeli settlements was only one prominent action—taken both overtly and covertly by the Obama administration—to shield Israel’s interests in international forums. From leaked State Department cables obtained by WikiLeaks, a sordid picture emerges of the Obama administration counseling Israel on how best to mitigate the ramifications of the UN Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict (known informally as the Goldstone Report) and acting in concert with Tel Aviv to defeat any international efforts to hold Israel accountable for the war crimes documented in the 575-page report on Operation Cast Lead, in which Israel killed more than 1,400 Palestinians
in a three-week period that ended days before Obama’s inauguration. It seemed that, for the Obama administration, any initiative to promote Palestinian rights in international forums, even a largely symbolic effort, was treated as a potentially catastrophic setback for Israel worthy of top-level U.S. intervention to thwart it.
Gaza: Blockaded and Attacked Assuming office in the immediate aftermath of Operation Cast Lead, Obama recognized the “substantial suffering and humanitarian needs in Gaza. Our hearts go out to Palestinian civilians who are in need of immediate food, clean water, and basic medical care, and who’ve faced suffocating poverty for far too long.” In addition to fulfilling exigent humanitarian needs, Obama also acknowledged the imperative of ending Israel’s blockade, stating that “as part of a lasting cease-fire, Gaza’s border crossings should be open to allow the flow of aid and commerce.” Although the Obama administration made good on its promise to address the humanitarian crisis by convening an international donor conference in Cairo in March 2009, it did precious little to relieve Israel’s hermetic siege on the Gaza Strip. A leaked February 2009 cable from the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem noted that Israel “continues to reject many everyday items with limited, if any, dual use, e.g., toothpaste, shampoo, children’s toys, and
Operation Protective Edge systematically and deliberately ravaged the civilian population and infrastructure there, resulting in the killing of at least 2,251 Palestinians, including at least 1,462 civilians and 551 children.
clothing.” Sensing its impunity regarding its actions toward Gaza, Israel felt emboldened to launch a massive eight-day attack on the blockaded territory in November 2012. The attack, dubbed Operation Pillar of Defense, killed an estimated 168 Palestinians, 101 of whom were civilians according to the UN. Six Israelis were killed, 4 of whom were civilians. Rather than press for a Security Council resolution to halt the violence, the Obama administration explicitly backed Israel. At the UN, US Ambassador Susan Rice “strongly condemned the barrage of rocket fire from Gaza,” characterizing Israel’s overwhelming and disproportionate use of force as “self-defense.” This devastating but short-lived attack on the Gaza Strip was a prelude to an even more ferocious fifty-one-day Israeli assault in July–August 2014. Codenamed Operation Protective Edge, this most fearsome of Israeli offensives against Gaza since the 1967 military occupation of the territory systematically and deliberately ravaged the civilian population and infrastructure there, resulting in the killing of at least 2,251 Palestinians, including at least 1,462 civilians and 551 children. A total of 73 Israelis were killed, all but 6 of whom
Under this new deal, the United States will reportedly boost military aid to Israel even further to between $3.5 and $3.7 billion per year.
Unprecedented Military Aid to Israel As Obama prepares to leave the White House, his administration is working determinedly to ensure his legacy as the U.S. president most munificent to Israel. As of this writing, the United States and Israel are close to finalizing a new ten-year memorandum of understanding to replace the expiring agreement reached during the Bush administration. Under this new deal, the United States will reportedly boost military aid to Israel even further to between $3.5 and $3.7 billion per year. One of the major sticking points in the negotiations has been the Obama administration’s insistence that the United States phase out a provision from previous deals allowing Israel to spend 26.3 percent of its U.S. military aid allocation on its own weapons industry. This unique exemption for Israel—all other countries receiving U.S. military aid must spend the appropriation exclusively on
U.S. weapons manufacturers—amounts to a massive U.S. taxpayer subsidy of more than $800 million per year to Israeli arms makers. If the Obama administration succeeds in doing so, eliminating this subsidy will undoubtedly impinge upon the ability of Israeli weapons makers to continue researching and developing cutting-edge technologies that are field-tested on Palestinians under military occupation and then exported globally, a small silver lining in an otherwise dismal horizon where U.S. complicity in Israel’s human rights abuses of Palestinians will go on for yet another decade.
A New Paradigm for the Next President “I believe the window for a two-state solution is shutting,” Obama’s then-new secretary of state testified to Congress in April 2013. “I think we have some period of time—a year to [a] year-and-a-half to two years, or it’s over,” Kerry told Congress. Kerry’s assessment about the impending demise of the two-state solution, due to the accelerated pace of Israel’s colonization of Palestinian land in the West Bank, brought a sense of last-ditch urgency to the negotiations that he presided over and began later that year. After they collapsed in April 2014, Kerry seemed to recognize that the prospects for a Palestinian state emerging were negligible. He warned that in the absence of a two-state solution, “a unitary state winds up either being an apartheid state with second-class citizens—or it ends up being a state that destroys the capacity of Israel to be a Jewish state.” Rather than reckon with this policy implication, the Obama administration preferred, in its last two years, to keep the Israeli-Palestinian issue on the backburner to the greatest extent possible and to content itself with handing the conundrum to its successor. The next president is likely to face a very different and more challenging political landscape on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. With Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip now in its fiftieth year, and with Israel’s dispossession of Palestinians set to enter its seventieth year as the next president assumes office, Israel’s separate-and-unequal apartheid rule over all of historic Palestine is paradoxically both more firmly ensconced and more vulnerable than ever. As the Israeli government drifts ever rightward, the possibility of establishing even an attenuated Palestinian state (much less a sovereign one) seems highly improbable. But, as the naked brutality of Israeli rule becomes apparent to more people, support for the Palestinian civil society-led BDS movement is snowballing from churches, to campuses, to boardrooms, to labor unions. Just as the global anti-apartheid movement forced the isolation of South Africa’s apartheid regime and played a formidable role in bringing a transition to democracy, the Palestinian BDS movement appears poised in the coming years to replicate this success. Obama will likely go down in history as the president who had the last shot at brokering a two-state resolution of the conflict; his successor will likely be forced to grapple with a new paradigm.
About the Author Josh Ruebner is the author of Shattered Hopes: Obama’s
Failure to Broker Israeli-Palestinian Peace (New York: Verso, 2013) and policy director of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. This article appears in full in Issue 181 of the Journal of Palestine Studies
Scholar in Profile “That was a very stunning discovery of how inaccurate and how cruel uninformed stereotypes can be. ” Interview with Brian K. Barber Ph.D. Brian K. Barber Ph.D. is the newest senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies. His primary field of research has been Palestine, beginning with long stays with families in or near refugee camps in the Gaza Strip after the first intifada ended with scores of visits since. He is currently working on a book about individuals and families in Gaza and will be returning to Gaza in December 2016. He spoke with Inside Palestine Studies in November 2016.
When did you begin your research on youth and political climate in Palestine? What drew you to this region and what makes it an unusual or unique area to study? I first went to Palestine in 1994, and it was totally serendipitous in the sense that I had no plan to study in Palestine or anywhere in the Middle East. I had been invited to join a team of sociologists who wanted to study Palestinian families. I refused the invitation several times because I was very busy with research in other parts of the world, but eventually agreed and went to consult for three weeks. I was grabbed by the place and the people. The other sociologists and I did a very large survey of 4,000 refugee families who had an adolescent in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. I went back repeatedly to do that survey in 1994 and 1995. But the team wasn’t planning to go to Gaza, and I thought that was a mistake, if only for the sake of thoroughness. In those days, shortly after the first intifada ended, writing about Gaza described it as a “cauldron,” a “hornet’s nest” and extremely dangerous. My colleagues were persuaded by this talk of danger, but I felt that it simply needed to be done. I ended up replicating the survey there, adding 3,000 more families to the overall study.
What was your first encounter with Gaza like? How did it impact your views? When I first went to Gaza it was both dramatic and mysterious. I went alone. No one could really prepare me for what to expect. Virtually all the Palestinians I knew in the West Bank and East Jerusalem had either never been to Gaza or hadn’t been there for many years. So, I was fairly uninformed. I went through the Erez crossing, which is still the only pedestrian land crossing from Israel. It was primitive compared to what it is now. It was unnerving. The soldiers were not necessarily unfriendly, but mostly disinterested while they reviewed my passport. In those days you just had to show your passport if you were an American citizen. Then, I walked along the long no man’s land, pulling my suitcase, its wheels clogging with stones. Far in the distance I could see there were some cars, so I assumed that’s where the UN vehicle would be waiting for me, and it was.
What I discovered in Gaza over the next several days was a complete departure from what I had heard. The people were dramatically different from what had been told to me. They were very gentle, very kind, very hospitable and not a bit of the stereotype that people had portrayed to me before I went to Gaza. That was a very stunning discovery of how inaccurate and how cruel uninformed stereotypes can be. Now I’ll add to that, even back in 1995 there was already a clear sense in Gaza that they were being marginalized by the outside world. They already knew that people thought of them as terrorists, and they knew they were being cut-off from the West Bank and East Jerusalem. And that sense of hurt was palpable. I could sense people’s pain at being misunderstood, and that they wanted their story told. That’s what really grabbed me: this kind of suppliant need to be known as good people, and recognized for who they are.
A summary and analysis of your 20-year longitudinal study on Palestinian well-being appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of the Journal of Palestine Studies. Can you share with our readers some things you discovered about the impact of violence and humiliation on Palestinians living under occupation? When people typically think about violence, they are often inclined to think that the most dangerous or most critical forms of violence are the most traumatic. So we get really concerned when we see bombs go off or people being shot. For whatever reason, we believe the more explosive and dramatic violence is, the more damage it inflicts. Now I’m not sure where those impressions come from, but they turn out not to be very accurate.
Photography © Brian K Barber
Photography © Brian K Barber
In our study we looked at the first intifada generation as they grew to adulthood. When we looked at the types of experiences they’ve had in terms of violence, including bombs, being beaten, shot at, put in prison and so forth, we learned that the most hurtful form of violence they’ve been exposed to in the long run has been the subtle, insidious humiliation they’ve endured. It comes in many forms like verbal abuse or witnessing someone they are close to being humiliated by Israeli forces. For example, during the first intifada, fathers were ordered by soldiers to go to open fields get on their knees, and stay on their knees all day as the soldiers would parade their sons in front of them. Our study of nearly 2,000 current adults in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip found that humiliation has been more damaging in the long run than what we had previously thought, and, specifically, more damaging than other more dramatic forms of violence.
Why do you think humiliation has such a more profound and long term impact on individuals’ wellbeing in comparison with other forms of violence? The reasons I believe that this is the case is because this form of violence targets the utter core of a person. Essentially, humiliation robs people of their dignity, grace, and their ability to have self-respect. That is very destructive. Our study also suggests that people are able to deal with more physically violent things much better than the deprivation of dignity. It makes sense when you think about it, I suppose, but it has never been documented before so thoroughly. Thus, the finding makes a substantial contribution.
Why do you think doing research on Palestinian youth and psychological well-being is important? What gap is your research seeking to bridge? What role does a scholar and researcher play in combatting the injustices and humanitarian crises the Palestinians face? I think research generally is the discovery and production of knowledge. Hopefully that knowledge is useful. In the case of Palestine, one of the biggest injustices, in my opinion, is the lack of attention to individuals’ day-to-day, lived experience. So, let’s take Gazans for example. Most of what you read about Gazans, except for the occasional anecdotal piece, is pretty much non-personal. It enumerates percentages, numbers in the millions, how many people in a camp, how many people without water, and so on. So you hear startling statistics and numbers about Gaza, and they are dramatic and hopefully they move people in some circles to do something. But we don’t hear very much about what everyday people experience and feel, and I think that’s critical information. What my work in social science does is to address that specific issue. I think it’s very important that we understand more about what individual Gazans think and feel about their experiences. For example, our study documents what it personally feels like to suffer indignities, what hopes they have for the future, their reflections on their past activism, etc. We can’t, in my view, fully articulate or conceive of effective intervention until we understand the needs of the people we are trying to assist. So, the type of information that this kind of research creates is essential in order to determine ways to make a difference.
Photography © Brian K Barber
Does Anyone Still Care about Palestine? The Impact of Regional Realignments in the Middle East on the Next US Administration and the Palestine-Israel Conflict On October 14, 2016, IPS USA held its annual panel in Washington, DC, moderated by editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies, Rashid Khalidi, and featuring panelists Tareq Baconi, visiting scholar at the Middle East Institute at Columbia University; Toby Jones, Associate Professor of History at Rutgers University; Bassam Haddad, director of the Middle East Studies program at George Mason University; and IPS senior fellow, Mouin Rabbani. Each panelist addressed the question, “Does anyone still care about Palestine?,” and offered a variety of perspectives grounded in their respective fields expertise and research. This question is particularly timely not only because of the long-standing Israeli occupation of Palestine, but also because it is closely tied to understanding a rapidly changing geopolitical landscape in the Middle East, as well as likely implications for the incoming US administration. Here, it is fitting to recall last year’s panel when Paul Pillar, former CIA analyst and Fellow at the Center for Security Studies, assessed Israel’s status as a geostrategic ally to the US in the Middle East, noting that it was neither an energy importer nor a contributor to regional security.
Today, with growing Saudi anxiety regarding Iranian influence, greater Saudi gravitation towards Israel is emerging, which makes Palestine “an easy sacrifice.” However, the reality today looks very different, according to Baconi, who focused on a newly emerging geopolitical dimension in light of Israel’s recently found gas fields across the Eastern Mediterranean basin. Baconi made the case that this particular development starkly highlights the demotion of the question of Palestine in regional and international affairs, specifically in two intertwined contexts: America’s promotion of economic peace, which is likely to continue with the incoming administration; and the growing energy demands of Israel’s neighbors, such as Jordan. Ultimately, Baconi argued that while economic peace may provide some benefits, albeit at the risk of further reducing interest in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict head-on, it
would never replace the Palestinian call for sovereignty and independence. Jones continued the conversation by painting a far more depressing image of Palestine downgraded in the regional and international calculi, remarkably stating that “there has been no more enthusiastic abandonment of the Palestinian cause than by Saudi Arabia.” The historian examined the Kingdom’s relationship with Palestine, noting several critical junctures over the past twelve years that reveal that Saudi Arabia is no longer “performing a commitment” to Palestine as it did in the early half of the past century, but rather is becoming hostile towards the Palestinian cause. Jones argued that Palestine mattered for Saudi Arabia in the past because it was politically convenient. Today, with growing Saudi anxiety regarding Iranian influence, greater Saudi gravitation towards Israel is emerging, which makes Palestine “an easy sacrifice.” Unlike Baconi and Jones, Haddad’s juxtaposition of the Palestinian and Syrian questions made the case that Palestine remains a crucial element for all regional and international actors. Through examining the varied battles surrounding Syria and the wide range of actors that are fighting against each other and together all at once, Haddad argued that while the question of Palestine has not come to the fore in the Syrian case, it is likely to gain significance in the future as exit formulas begin to take shape. Rabbani wrapped up the conversation with an historical look at the panel’s question while assessing the roles of Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon. “We’ve been here before,” he said, pointing to the Palestinian experience in Lebanon during the early 1980s. Yet, as subsequent events revealed, culminating in the First Intifada, Palestinians retained the capacity to make Palestine important. As much is true today, to the extent that Palestinians are able to achieve a unified voice.
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Letter from the IPS USA Executive Director Dear Friends, Knowledge and reason are under attack. The truth is being swept under the rug. And access to scholarship, research, and unbiased analysis is more important than ever. This moment is critical. The Institute for Palestine Studies USA especially needs your financial support now. It is easy to lose hope at a time when our core values are seemingly under attack from all angles. When faced with such major challenges and disappointments, it is understandable to feel demoralized and tempting to turn away from the preservation of culture, away from the creation of knowledge, away from the commitment to justice. But we can’t afford to do so. Our work is too important to turn away from. Our journey is a difficult one. We need you standing by our side. Across the country, students are leading the charge for justice, human rights, self-determination and equality for Palestinians armed with the accurate, independent resources on Palestine that your contributions make possible. By making a contribution to IPS USA, you are standing up for knowledge. You are investing directly in the truth. You are elevating the voices of young leaders working for the rights of Palestinians. You are combatting cruel and uninformed stereotypes. And you are helping ensure the continuation of more than half-a-century of IPS commitment to equality, justice, and human rights for all. In this issue of Inside Palestine Studies, we look back at the Obama administration and Palestine and Israel, explore the impact a tumultuous Middle East is having on the Palestine question, and discuss how important it is to remember the individual in the face of it all. Here at IPS USA we know how crucial it is to understand how individual Palestinians feel about the violence, turmoil, and injustice they experience all around them. We know how essential those individual perspectives and stories are to building understanding. Policies cannot be based on stereotypes or misinformation. As our newest senior fellow Brian Barber said, “My first trip to Gaza exposed how inaccurate and how cruel uninformed stereotypes can be.” Facts matter. The truth needs to be protected. Your gift makes that happen. You can depend on IPS USA to provide unparalleled in-depth analysis and clear-eyed research. But we depend on you to fund knowledge creation. As invaluable as the preservation of history and the protection of accuracy is, it requires investment from you. Your individual gift helps protect knowledge about Palestinian history, produce analysis about the present, and tell the stories of individual lives that are shaped by both. Please don’t turn away from the pursuit of justice and protection of knowledge. Please stand by our side as we combat hate and misinformation with the same accuracy, independence and commitment to the truth we have demonstrated for more than 53 years. We’re depending on you. With endless appreciation,
Michele K. Esposito Executive Director, Institute for Palestine Studies (USA)
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