Part 1: Change is in the wind
Israel and Palestine after the Flotilla
By Jack A. Smith / The Rag Blog / July 6, 2010
[This is the first of a four-part series in which Jack A. Smith will assess multiple aspects of the situation in Palestine, including the relations between Israel and the U.S., Israel and the Palestine National Authority, the Palestinian split between Fatah and Hamas, the action and inaction of the Arab states, the new role of Turkey, the key importance of Iran, and the future of Washington’s hegemony in the Middle East.]
There are times in world politics when a relatively small incident can trigger a major chain of events, depending on circumstances. Another way of expressing this is contained in the ancient Chinese proverb, “A single spark can start a prairie fire” — particularly when conditions include a warm gusty wind and the grassland is dry.
This analogy comes to mind in the aftermath of the violent illegal interdiction by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) of the six ships and nearly 700 people in the humanitarian Gaza Freedom Flotilla in the Mediterranean Sea over a month ago, killing nine Turkish supporters of Palestinian national rights and wounding about 50 other voyagers.
Is it possible this incident may represent the start of a transitional moment leading toward substantial change for the Palestinians, Israelis, and perhaps the Middle East in general? We think yes, and the process has already begun. How far it goes, nobody knows, but conditions are ripe for change.
After three years of increasingly tightened sanctions against the 1.5 million beleaguered Palestinians resident in the Gaza Strip, Israel has been forced to ease its near-total blockade — not because of decisions by the UN and the several big powers that have been working with Israelis and Palestinians to achieve a settlement, but by the action of a people’s movement.
Israel’s use of brute force on the high seas against a boatload of civilians on a brave journey motivated by compassion for a suffering people swiftly sent a tidal wave of international criticism and anger crashing against Israel’s shores. As always, the Jewish State sought to depict itself as the victim, but times have changed in recent years and the victim of yesterday, for whom humanity still mourns, is now perceived as an executioner of today, extracting 10, or 50, or 100 eyes for an eye.
Much of the anger directed at the Tel-Aviv government this last month began to coalesce when Israel attacked Lebanon and Gaza in the summer of 2006. It grew after Israel’s vicious three-week invasion of defenseless Gaza starting in late December 2008. But it took the bungled flotilla attack for this gathering criticism to breach the levees.
Now what? In the wake of the flotilla fiasco and public disapproval, obdurate Israel is obliged to make some concessions to the so-called Quartet, which is composed of the UN, European Union, U.S., and Russia — a group formed eight years ago to resolve differences between Israel and Palestine leading to the establishment of two separate states.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington today, July 6; it is their first meeting since before the May 31 killings. Each side probably will make some concessions since the main task for both leaders is to convey the impression of moving forward in cordial unity after several months of apparently strained relations.
One of the principal topics of discussion will be converting the present indirect talks between Israel and the Palestine National Authority (PNA) — with American mediator George Mitchell going back and forth between the parties — into face-to-face direct negotiations. The PNA is reluctant to take part is such meetings until the Netanyahu government agrees to extend its temporary ban on building new settlements on Palestinian territory. We will discuss the other issues between Tel-Aviv and Washington throughout this article.
The Obama Administration supports Israel politically and militarily, and has raised Washington’s annual subsidy to Israel to $3 billion beginning in October. It believes, however, that the Tel-Aviv regime’s disproportionate violence, illegal occupation of the West Bank (with a population of 2.8 million Palestinians) and foot-dragging on facilitating a Palestinian state undermines U.S. hegemony in the Middle East, and its imperial interests worldwide.
President Obama refused to blame Israel for shooting unarmed civilians at sea, saying only that “the United States deeply regrets the loss of life and injuries.” Nor has the White House used its decisive power to permanently halt the building of settlements on territory illegally seized from the Palestinians 43 years ago, much less to withdraw from the land it illegally occupies in the West Bank.
Netanyahu’s governing extreme right wing and ultra-orthodox religious coalition exhibits no desire to curtail the establishment of Jewish settlements on Palestinian lands, to end its occupation of the West Bank, or to work seriously toward the creation of a Palestinian state. Hardline religious sectors entertain the belief that Israel was “given to the Jews by God.” (Were the Palestinians to make an identical claim based on equivalent evidence they would be dismissed as typical Islamic religious fanatics.)
In this four-part series, we will discuss all these matters in detail, report on the actions of President Obama and Congress, explore the role of Turkey and Iran, the split between Fatah and Hamas, the disunity within the Arab world, and anticipate possible geopolitical outcomes throughout the Middle East.
The people of the Gaza Strip are still suffering from sanctions and many other indignities, but the pain of a total blockade and virtual collective imprisonment is easing for now in this narrow 25-mile long territory on the Mediterranean coast set aside in 1949 to accommodate some of the Palestinian refugees displaced by the creation of the State of Israel.
The world’s principal human rights organizations welcomed the partial lifting of the blockade, but called for it to be entirely ended. Said Amnesty International:
This announcement makes it clear that Israel is not intending to end its collective punishment of Gaza’s civilian population, but only ease it… Israel must now comply with its obligations as the occupying power under international law and immediately lift the blockade.
The UN Relief and Works Agency, which oversees the Palestinian refugee community, declared June 20 through spokesperson Christopher Guinness:
We need to have the blockade fully lifted…. The Israeli strategy is to make the international community talk about a bag of cement here, a project there. We need full unfettered access through all the crossings.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, which rarely speaks out on such matters, called for a complete end to the blockade June 14, noting that the embargo has destroyed the territory’s economy and ruined its health care system.
This small concession on sanctions has not changed the political goals of the Israeli government. In general it seeks the destruction of Hamas (the Islamic Resistance Movement) that governs Gaza; the domination and manipulation of PNA) and Fatah (the Palestine Liberation Movement), which leads the PNA from the West Bank; the maintenance of Israeli occupation forces and illegal Jewish settlements on Palestinian land; and widening its control of Jerusalem.
Netanyahu’s objective is to keep the Palestinians in a condition of neocolonial subjugation as long as possible. The real desire of the right wing government coalition is to permanently absorb as much Palestinian land as possible. The Quartet some time ago encouraged Israel to work toward establishing a two-state solution in 2012, but the current regime poses innumerable obstacles to an equitable settlement, seeking to delay an agreement for many years or forever if possible.
On June 29, neofascist Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman announced there was “no chance” of meeting a 2012 deadline. Lieberman indicated some time ago that he would consider the idea of two states if Israel’s 1.3 million Arab inhabitants — second class citizens in their own land — would be uprooted and “transferred” to the Palestinian side of the border, which is hardly likely.
Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party already suggests that most Israeli Arabs are “disloyal” and should have their citizenship revoked. “No loyalty, no citizenship” was its election slogan in what Israel’s supporters term “the only democracy in the Middle East.”
PNA President Mahmoud Abbas conducted a rare meeting with reporters from the Hebrew press last week in Ramallah, for three hours no less. The Jerusalem Post editorialized July 1 that the event…
…can be seen as an attempt — quite possibly with heavy U.S. encouragement — to reach out to the Israeli public. There was nothing particularly new in what Abbas had to say. But the general impression that the PNA head will most likely have succeeded in conveying to the Americans is that he is showing a readiness to push ahead with negotiations on the final-status issues of security and borders, while Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has proffered nothing but a wall of silence. “We have yet to receive a sign from Netanyahu on progress,” Abbas said.
Two more moderate political parties — Kadima, which calls itself “centrist” but functions on the right, is the largest party in the Knesset (parliament); and the Labor Party, which still sports a “center-left” label but is center-right at best and rightist when it comes to the Palestinians — is more amenable to the two-state proposition.
But neither has evidenced an interest in anything more than a weak, virtually dependent Palestinian state. And no mainstream Israeli party gives credence to the left idea advocated by some of transforming Israel-Palestine into a single progressive multi-ethnic, multi-religious state based on true equality and mutual benefit.
President Obama is said to be considering the idea of proposing “an independent, democratic and contiguous” Palestinian state that — “for Israel’s security” — would not be allowed to have an army or enter into a mutual security pact with another country. Given the recent history of Israel’s violent military incursions into neighboring states, it seems logical to inquire, what about Palestinian security?
For his part, Netanyahu evidently has learned nothing from the international criticism of Israel’s harsh blockade and the attack on the flotilla. He told the Knesset recently that “they want to strip us of the natural right to defend ourselves. When we defend ourselves against rocket attack, we are accused of war crimes. We cannot board sea vessels when our soldiers are being attacked and fired upon, because that is a war crime.”
Uri Avnery, the leader of the Israeli Peace Bloc, Gush Shalom, sees things differently, as he wrote June 19:
For years, now, the world sees the State of Israel every day on the TV screen and on the front pages in the image of heavily armed soldiers shooting at stone-throwing children, guns firing phosphorus shells into residential quarters, helicopters executing “targeted eliminations,” and now pirates attacking civilian ships on the open seas. Terrified women with wounded babies in their arms, men with amputated limbs, demolished homes. When one sees a hundred pictures like that for every picture that shows another Israel, Israel becomes a monster.
Commenting on the Israeli government’s actions, the conservative weekly The Economist declared June 5:
Israel is caught in a vicious circle. The more its hawks think the outside world will always hate it, the more it tends to shoot opponents first and ask questions later, and the more it finds that the world is indeed full of enemies… He [Netanyahu] does not give the impression of being willing to give ground in the interests of peace.
Time Magazine put it this way June 21:
Besides fracturing the Jewish state’s relations with Turkey, its most important Muslim ally, and undermining a nascent rapprochement with the Obama Administration in Washington, its most important ally of all, the flotilla fiasco also invited fresh judgment of the kind of democracy Israel has become: a conspicuously belligerent one, reflexively disposed toward the military option whatever the problem at hand — and apt to look bad doing it.
(More to come.)
[Jack A. Smith was editor of the Guardian — for decades the nation’s preeminent leftist newsweekly — that closed shop in 1992. Smith now edits the Hudson Valley Activist Newsletter, where this series also appears.]