May 23, 2011 Edition 13 Palestinian-Israeli Crossfire
Obama's evolving policy
Losing sight of the 1967 borders means losing sight of two states  - Ghassan Khatib
Two main points were very problematic for Palestinians.

Beware the ides of September  - Yossi Alpher
It's time to prepare not for a bilateral process but for a UN process.

Rights, but not for Palestinians  - Saree Makdisi
The point is that the Arab world is not what it was a year ago.

The revolt of the masses  - Aluf Benn
This "diplomatic humility" underlies Obama's fresh start on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

To subscribe, simply click on the link : subscribe. The following articles may be republished with proper citation given to the author and

At our website,, you will also find past editions, an extensive documents file and information about us, along with relevant subscription information.

Losing sight of the 1967 borders means losing sight of two states
 Ghassan Khatib
US President Barack Obama's long-awaited speech on the "Arab spring" and the Arab-Israel conflict has created controversy and spurred contradicting reactions in Israel, Palestine and the Arab world.

The immediate and most prominent reaction was that of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who objected publicly to Obama's reference to the borders of 1967 as the basis for negotiations. This automatically made this part of the speech the most dramatic.

Two days later, in another speech in front of the Israeli lobby group AIPAC, President Obama repeated his reference to the same borders. This time, however, he did not leave the reference ambiguous enough to satisfy both Palestinians and Israelis, rather "explaining" in a manner that won him 49 rounds of applause and prompted a satisfied reaction by Netanyahu.

These two speeches, which will have limited effect on the chances of resuming the peace process or moving things forward, will nevertheless have positive outcomes on the chances for President Obama to stand a second term. They will also build on the political strength of Netanyahu in Israel and empower his right-wing coalition. The positive response by right-wing ministers and settlers to Netanyahu's "achievement", i.e. forcing Obama to backtrack on the 1967 borders, shows this is true.

To leave aside the borders of 1967 in order to accommodate "change on the ground" means legitimizing and encouraging illegitimate Israeli settlement. Obama did not once mention the issue of illegal Israeli settlement construction. The logic of legitimizing these activities in order to be "realistic" is very dangerous. Indeed, it undermines the fundamental meaning of the two-state solution. If the 1967 borders are now to be "modified" according to changing realities, this will only encourage the more powerful party to make further illegal changes in the hopes that these, too, will be accepted.

A two-state vision that is detached from the borders of 1967 holds little interest from the Palestinian perspective.

On a positive note, President Obama mentioned several strategically significant issues that Israel has been refusing to hear. These could have some effect on Israeli strategic thinking, coming as they did from the leader of the United States. These four strategic changes do not allow for procrastination. They are demographic changes between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea that will make a Jewish and democratic state impossible, changes in the Arab world that will make an agreement more difficult, technological transformations that will make borders without peace more vulnerable, and finally, changes in international public opinion that are encouraging Palestinians to pursue their case in the United Nations.

On the other hand, two main points were very problematic for Palestinians. The first one was the president's dismissive reference to the Palestinian intention to take their cause to the international community in the UN in September. President Obama cannot, on one hand, fail to reinstate bilateral peace negotiations that will bring this illegal occupation to an end and, on the other hand, prevent Palestinians from resorting to the house of nations, where conflicts between peoples and states are to be addressed.

Obama rightly said that the status quo is unsustainable. That's why Palestinians believe that if, between now and September, the US administration is not able to convince Israel to stop settlement expansion and resume talks for the two-state solution on the basis of the 1967 borders, this status quo will collapse. This is why the Palestinian leadership wants the world community to intervene in this conflict in a more serious and collective manner.

Obama's other main problematic reference was to the "Jewishness" of the state of Israel. This is an artificial obstacle that was created by Israel in order to avoid serious engagement in peacemaking. States cannot be recognized on religious, ethnic, or racial bases in our modern times. Israel does not include only Jews, and supporting the Jewishness of the state will endanger the future of one-fifth of its citizens, who are Arabs. It will also jeopardize the legitimate rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their land, as sanctioned by international law and United Nations resolution 194.-Published 23/5/2011

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views.

Beware the ides of September
 Yossi Alpher
President Barack Obama's two recent speeches on the Middle East, at the State Department and the AIPAC conference, and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's response and related rhetoric, indicate that neither really understands that September at the United Nations is the only relevant arena they should be addressing. Meanwhile, Netanyahu picked a totally superfluous fight with the American president.

That Obama appears to be interested in lofty ideals of self-determination for the people in the Middle East, while Netanyahu is playing to his hawkish home coalition and his misguided supporters in America, is really irrelevant. So, to a large extent, is the two leaders' mutual display of hostile body language. We already knew they didn't like one another. What's more important is that neither has a viable peace plan that might postpone or render unnecessary the September confrontation.

Last week at the State Department, Obama apparently thought he was serving Israel's real needs. He acknowledged the problematic nature of dealing with Hamas. He recognized the need for adjustments, through land swaps, to the 1967 lines that are the inevitable focus of Israeli-Palestinian border negotiations ever since the Rogers plan of 1969. He introduced the important innovation of prioritizing a deal over borders and security before the parties tackle the more intractable and perhaps unsolvable issues of refugees and holy places. He avoided mentioning the Arab Peace Initiative, which Netanyahu rejects (and which presumably appears at least temporarily irrelevant to the US president in view of the chaos in the Arab world). He supported Israel's right to be a Jewish and democratic state and its capacity to defend itself by itself. He insisted on the urgency of ending the conflict.

Not only was Netanyahu's response of publicly lecturing the president a display of arrogance and bad manners. The Israeli prime minister seemingly insisted on misunderstanding Obama, as if the latter had endorsed Hamas and the right of return and as if the 1967 borders plus settlement blocs (Netanyahu's latest position) are any more or less defensible than the 1967 borders plus land swaps, when in fact they mean the same thing. Netanyahu's arrogance presumably in part reflects his belief that the US-Israel special relationship at least requires that Obama inform him in advance of the policy positions he intends to present. Obama presumably believes that Netanyahu, through his behavior over the past two years, has forfeited this right. On Sunday, at the AIPAC conference, Obama tried again to explain what he meant, while padding his delivery with even greater support for Israel's security needs.

Meanwhile, the Palestinians are escalating, with mixed consequences. PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas published an op-ed in the New York Times that grossly distorts the history of the events of 1948, paints him as an anachronism and presumably convinced a few more Israelis of good will that he will never be a partner for ending this conflict. On the other hand, the Nakba day attempts to breach Israel's border fences seemingly integrated the Palestinian struggle with the Arab revolutionary wave.

Obama, it is important to note, dealt very differently with these two phenomena: by reassuring Israel of his support for its status as a Jewish state and postponing even discussion of the refugee issue to a time when the conflict moves to a state-to-state basis, he served a basic Israeli need. But by preaching the gospel of Arab people power, he may be understood in some Palestinian quarters to be endorsing another intifada after September. And by not energetically inaugurating a renewed peace process, he made sure that September will happen.

Notably, Abbas has said nothing in response to Obama's new policy presentation. He is presumably unhappy with Obama's demand to prioritize territory over refugees, even though that is exactly what he seeks to do at the United Nations in September, and with Obama's demand for clarifications regarding Fateh-Hamas dealings, which will probably no longer be important even to Abbas after September.

The main thrust of Obama's State Department speech was an attempt to integrate all aspects of American policy with regard to a radically changing Middle East. It's not clear why he felt the need to do this when he is not about to intervene on behalf of the Syrian or Bahraini masses and he has no active, US-sponsored peace process to offer Israelis and Palestinians. To talk about the Middle East "not as it is, but as it should be" is extremely ambitious and almost certainly over-reaching. As with his Cairo speech some two years ago, he is in danger of falling hostage to a paradigm of words that replace actions.

This writer has only one hope left. After this week, the speechmaking will be over for a while. All those Israelis, Americans and Europeans of good will who for months have evinced confidence that it is still possible to squeeze a viable peace process out of Obama, Netanyahu and Abbas, should now come to their senses. It's time to prepare not for a bilateral process but for a UN process. It's not too late to leverage the Arab UN initiative into a win-win dynamic for both Israelis and Palestinians that will transform a seemingly hopeless morass into a far more manageable two-state conflict.-Published 23/5/2011 ©

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Rights, but not for Palestinians
 Saree Makdisi
"We support a set of universal rights," declared US President Barack Obama in his long-awaited speech last week. "Those rights include free speech; the freedom of peaceful assembly; freedom of religion; equality for men and women under the rule of law; and the right to choose your own leaders--whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus; Sanaa or Tehran."

He might as well have added, "but not, of course, if you live in Gaza or Qalqilya; Shatila or Burj el Barajneh; Jaffa or Nazareth or Jerusalem."

Thursday's speech was billed as Obama's second major attempt to reach out to the people of the Arab world, following a talk he gave in Cairo shortly after coming into office. But he made it perfectly clear that official America remains absolutely blind and deaf to the energy currently sweeping through the Arab world, especially when it comes to the all-important question of Palestine.

Obama's speech represented in many senses the culmination of the political schizophrenia that has characterized American foreign policy for decades. On the one hand, he reiterated the tired old claim that America is the beacon of universal rights. On the other hand, he made it clearer than ever that, even if the United States now begrudgingly admits that some Arab citizens ought to enjoy those rights, it adamantly refuses to countenance their extension to the Palestinian people.

Yet the fundamental rights for which the people of Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain, and Yemen have been struggling--and which the people of all other Arab countries aspire to as well, even if they don't always dare to say so out loud--are the same rights for which the Palestinian people have been struggling for over six decades now. Just as the police forces or armies of Syria, Egypt, Yemen and so on have been repressing their people's rights, the Israeli police, border guards, army and intelligence services have been repressing the rights of Palestinians. They do so by maintaining the occupation and colonization of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem; by protecting the apartheid regime within pre-1967 Israel that denies fundamental rights to Palestinian citizens of the state (beginning with refusing to acknowledge that they are in fact Palestinians, not just deracinated "Israeli Arabs" with no genuine national identity); and by continuing to use armed force to block the right of return of those Palestinians who were expelled from their homes over 60 years ago.

President Obama could have taken this opportunity to acknowledge the continuity linking seamlessly together the uprisings or intifadas taking place across the Arab world and the Palestinian struggle. Instead, he sought to separate them. It is remarkable that a speech supposedly directed at the Arab world should have such little interest in actually engaging a reality that is patently obvious to all Arabs.

But ultimately that does not matter. The point is that the Arab world is not what it was a year ago. The people of the region--including the Palestinians--have learned to believe in the possibility that, by sheer persistence, willpower and steadfastness ("sumoud"), they can transform political realities that had once seemed stubbornly impervious to change. (Who, a year ago, would have imagined Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who seemed to have become a pharaoh of the modern age, thrown out of office in humiliation?) The calls for democracy and self-determination in the Arab world are not empty slogans tied to a fantasy version of America as the guarantor of freedom, but the products of extraordinary political sophistication at the popular level--and of an awareness that the Arab world is being transformed despite America, not because of it.

For Arabs in general, and Palestinians in particular, the real lesson of President Obama's speech last Thursday, and, even more so, of the one that followed it at AIPAC, is that official America is not yet ready to take them seriously as agents and masters of their own destiny. The only conceivable Arab and Palestinian response is to stop taking official America so seriously in turn: to separate themselves from the official American narrative of a "peace process" (which has, in any case, proven its bankruptcy); to look to themselves to continue developing their own strategies for achieving their rights based on the nonviolent protests and symbolic actions that proved so successful in Egypt and Tunis and in countless other struggles for freedom in other times and places (the Palestinian Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement is an exemplary case); and to insist that there will be no peace without justice for all Palestinians--the ones under occupation, the ones enduring apartheid inside Israel, and the ones whose right of return to their homeland has been blocked for six decades.-Published 23/5/2011 ©

Saree Makdisi is a professor of English and comparative literature at UCLA. He wrote, among other books, "Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation".

The revolt of the masses
 Aluf Benn
In his Middle East speech on May 19, President Barack Obama effectively outsourced American foreign policy to the masses in the Arab world. Exposing himself as a true radical who believes in popular power, Obama praised the people of the Middle East and North Africa "who had taken their future into their own hands".

Obama spoke with admiration of courageous individual acts that lead to political change--from the Boston Tea Party through Rosa Parks to Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor whose defiance in the face of oppression sparked the "Arab spring". "Sometimes, in the course of history, the actions of ordinary citizens spark movements for change because they speak to a longing for freedom that has built up for years," said the president.

His support for the protesters stood in stark contrast to Obama's frustration, anger and dismissal of regional leaders, whom he described as a bunch of backward-looking autocrats. And while careful not to mention America's remaining allies in the region, the Saudis and Jordanians, in his hit list, Obama made clear that for the Arab dictators the only game is "change or go".

Not even Israel, which praises itself as "the only democracy in the Middle East", passes Obama's bar. Instead, he warned Israel that "the dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation." And although he did not mention him by name, Obama is clearly counting Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu among those who favor "the shackles of the past" over "the promise of the future".

Obama's main lesson from the Arab spring appears to be the preference of human values over cold-blooded national interests. In the early days of his presidency, Obama based his foreign policy on promoting American interests abroad. He even argued that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a "vital national security interest" of the United States. But that was in April 2010, when Middle Eastern governments still appeared as eternal forces of nature. In May 2011, however, Obama puts "advancing our values" before "strengthening our security" and treats the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a problem of human suffering and fear, rather than as a strategic issue.

And how is Obama going to promote self-determination and other universal rights? Acknowledging America's inability to foresee or to influence the regional upheaval, he shrugs off active diplomacy. Instead of appointing presidential envoys or holding summit meetings and trying in vain to influence intransigent leaders, Obama is betting on the oppressed to throw away their shackles: "It is not America that put people into the streets of Tunis and Cairo--it was the people themselves who launched these movements, and must determine their outcome." Ever mindful of America's declining power, the president prefers to play the referee, or the professor delivering his students' report card, rather than the world-changing activist like Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, or Richard Nixon.

This "diplomatic humility" underlies Obama's fresh start on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Laying out a new framework for negotiations, Obama appeals to the leaders who had evaded his peace efforts to reconsider their misjudged, backward-looking policies. Burned by two years of failure, he offers no action on the ground--no settlement freeze, no White House summit, no new American envoy to succeed George Mitchell--just castigating PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas for his "symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the UN in September" and Netanyahu for his refusal to "move forward". Frustrated and angry, Obama dismisses past efforts to achieve peace as an "endless process that never produces an outcome." Interestingly, he even throws away the Arab Peace Initiative--praised in his 2009 Cairo address as "an important beginning" but not even mentioned in the sequel.

Given both sides' mistrust and entrenchment, Obama's new recipe for a Palestinian state--negotiating its borders based on a formula of "1967 lines, plus agreed swaps and security measures, minus Jerusalem and refugees"--is bound to fail just like its predecessors. Netanyahu and Abbas are not going to see the light just because Obama gave a speech and rush to hug each other in a mutual compromise.

This leaves open the other route, which Obama endorses wholeheartedly: nonviolent popular protest that leads to bottom-up change. According to the new Obama doctrine, those who seek self-determination and freedom should grab it and not wait until their leaders or Uncle Sam fulfills their hopes. "Across the region, those rights that we take for granted are being claimed with joy by those who are prying loose the grip of an iron fist," lauded Obama, further praising "the moral force of non-violence".

Last week's Nakba day marches along Israel's borders have marked the advent of non-violent mass protest in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, and probably serve as the harbinger of the coming third intifada. Obama's speech gives unprecedented American sponsorship to the marchers. If the Palestinians take his words seriously, we're going to see many, many more Nakba days in the coming months.-Published 23/5/2011 ©

Aluf Benn is the editor-at-large for Haaretz.