Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Obama wants peace, but will Congress pressure Israel?

President Barack Obama is investing a good measure of his political capital in the Middle East without receiving, so far, much support from the United States Congress. Last week, the president’s special Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, was in Israel to work toward reaching a better understanding over limiting Israeli settlements. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates and National Security Advisor James Jones were also in Israel to offer assurances of continued American loyalty. But will Obama be pressured to slow down peace promotion by Israel’s supporters in the Congress?

Observe Senators Evan Bayh, an Indiana Democrat, and James Risch, an Idaho Republican, who recently asked their colleagues to sign a letter to Obama to lean on Arab states to show new “dramatic gestures toward Israel”. The senators expect the Arabs to suddenly improve their ties with Israel, including expanded economic cooperation and improved media coverage. Their initiative does not mention any reciprocal obligation of Israel to stop the expansion of settlements in the Palestinian territories.

Obama was urged by Bayh and Risch to pressure the Arab states into being friendlier toward Israel. In their appeal, the Arabs are asked to take new conciliatory steps after Israel occupied their land, annexed territory, built (and still builds) illegal communities, strangles the occupied territories with a massive security infrastructure, particularly the separation wall, and responds to local insurgencies with devastating wars. The two senators implied in their letter to Obama that the president was being harsh on Israelis – by asking them to stop illegal acts – and was being soft on the Arabs – by not asking them for more concessions.

Equating the Israeli land-grab with Arab diplomatic defensiveness is confusing apples with oranges, if not confusing cause with effect. This is not to deny that the Arab states have contributed to the misery of Palestinians. However, to expect the White House to lean on Arab governments to improve their relations with Israel at this time is a case of asking Barack Obama to add insult to injury.

The Bayh-Risch measure feeds the defensive posture of Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu fears that stopping the building of settlements would be an admission of guilt, an admission which may lead to the unraveling of a massive economic project. The Israeli prime minister sees Obama’s call for temporary compliance as an end to the myth that the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem exist to enhance Israel’s security. He sees any willingness to freeze settlements as a one-sided concession by Israel.

The senators should realize that the Arab states are not in a position to add substance to the historic 2002 Arab peace proposal made to Israel. The offer, which Israel has so far shunned, is both generous and dramatic enough. In the two-state proposal, one designed to lead to the emergence of Israel coexisting alongside a Palestinian state, Israel is allocated 78 percent of the land and the Palestinian state is allocated 22 percent – the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. Twenty-two Arab states are willing to forget the past and absorb millions of Palestinian refugees.

What more dramatic gestures should the Arab states be offering at this juncture? The Arab peace plan will require hard work, reconciliation and forgiveness from each side. Progress at the negotiating table is bound to generate goodwill and will result in the improvement of relations between the sides in the conflict.

The “dramatic gestures” the senators anticipate would naturally materialize through progressive steps of reciprocity. Dramatic results in improved relations would emerge when refugees accept compensation for loss of land and when Israel accepts a shared Jerusalem. The gestures would surface once Hamas accepts Israel and once Israel changes its negative attitude toward Arabs. The gestures would appear when Arabs recognize the suffering of Jews, including those who emigrated from the Arab world under pressure, and when Israelis admit the suffering they inflicted upon Palestinians they displaced. Nothing would be more dramatic than for Arabs and Israelis to stop demonizing one another, or for both sides to commit themselves to working together to solve mutual problems such as water shortages, ecological threats, health hazards and the curtailment of minority rights.

Bayh and Risch would do better to mobilize their bipartisan energies to promote justice and reconciliation. Only by helping push the peace process forward could the senators expect goodwill on all sides.

Ghassan Michel Rubeiz is an Arab-American commentator. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.


Blogger Robby said...

I agree with some of the Saudi plan, but don't understand why allowing the Palestinians to settle in Arab countries would be a favor to Israel - shouldn't it be considered a favor to the Palestinians?

Please read this column by Daoud Al-Shiryan, Al-Hayat columnist and deputy secretary-general of Al-Arabiya TV.

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