Obama’s Cairo Address, Part II

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Throughout the global media, pundits of all stripes have been evaluating Obama’s Cairo speech and parsing its language. Although the address has elicited mostly positive reviews, albeit with some skepticism, there have been some notable criticisms as well.

Charles Krauthammer, for one, responded to Obama’s even handed call for mutual Israeli and Palestinian sacrifice with an analysis of his own:

In the 16 years since the Oslo accords turned the West Bank and Gaza over to the Palestinians, their leaders built no roads, no courthouses, no hospitals, none of the fundamental state institutions that would relieve their people’s suffering. Instead they poured everything into an infrastructure of war and terror, all the while depositing billions (from gullible Western donors) into their Swiss bank accounts.

I don’t believe that anyone, Obama included, is eager to praise the corrupt and ineffective government the Palestinians have endured. Arguably, Yasser Arafat’s judgment to decline Rabin and Clinton’s peace deal has done more to disadvantage his own people than any Israeli policy.

 Nonetheless, I flatly reject any argument placing Israel above any moral or political accountability, especially with respect to settlement growth. Krauthammer, however, envisions a casual relationship, at best, between Israeli policy and international (and domestic) law,  describing settlements as “thriving towns close to the 1949 armistice line, many of them suburbs of Jerusalem.” Moreover, he laments that any US policy halting settlement expansion “means no increase in population. Which means no babies.”

While I’m sure these “thriving towns” have offered terrific suburbs for growing families, they are plainly illegal. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz recently uncovered secret government databases confirming that about 75 percent [of settlement] construction…has been carried out without the appropriate permits or contrary to the permits that were issued.” Additionally, the “database also shows that, in more than 30 settlements, extensive construction of buildings and infrastructure…has been carried out on private lands belonging to Palestinian West Bank residents.” The relative merits of the “suburbs” this land provides are irrelevant—the rule of law should remain paramount in a liberal democracy such as Israel.

What’s most aggravating, however, is the right wing’s insistence on simply dismissing any Palestinian claim to their own land, notably by either adopting the Messianic language of the Old Testament or simply reducing the Palestinian population to collective “terrorists.” In another piece responding to Obama’s address, Caroline Glick of the Jerusalem Post notes in passing that Obama “ignored the fact that every Palestinian political faction is also a terrorist organization.” Assuming that’s true, why does Benjamin Netanyahu still rely on Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Fatah “political faction,” to achieve better security in Palestine? Surely the hawkish Prime Minister knows better than to consort with terrorists.

Glick proceeds to state that “Obama’s assault on Israeli construction and his unsubstantiated, bigoted claim that the presence of Jews in Judea, Samaria, and Jerusalem impedes progress towards peace ensures that there will be no agreement whatsoever between Israel and the Palestinians.” Aside from arrogantly describing the West Bank with its antiquated, Biblical name—and thereby divesting any Palestinian claim to it—Glick never explicates why it is “bigoted” to describe the settlements as impediments to peace. Often dividing Palestinian land, these settlements are completely unnecessary fixtures that have heightened tensions with neighboring Arabs, the Israeli army and bred a dangerous class of messianic Israelis bent on annexing the whole of “Israel,” as the Bible intends. Divisive, violent and ultimately superfluous, these settlements have acted as one of the most significant impediments to peace.

It was probably inevitable that Obama’s mutual recognition of Israeli and Palestinian suffering would attract both Jewish and Muslim approbation. To my mind this is part of his strategy: by establishing a middle ground on the Israeli-Palestinian question, he’s allowing fringe elements on both sides to ideologically dig in and drift farther afield from moderate voices. The appearance of Krauthammer and Glick’s criticism is part of this process—by allowing the partisans favoring illegal and archaic definitions of Israeli law to surface, Obama will be able to distinguish between the people invested in pragmatic solutions and myopic ideologues.

Understanding this distinction–on both the Israeli and Palestinian side–will be critical as this process moves forward.

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