President Barack Obama, during his visit to Israel, spoke at the Jerusalem Convention Center to Israeli students. It was a typically pragmatic speech, reminding the audience that US will defend the country against those who oppose its “right to exist” while at the same time outlining how Palestinians deserve a state of their own.
It spoke to issues key to Israeli foreign policy and politics: removing Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria, preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and calling Hezbollah a terrorist organization.
Obama mentioned Israeli settlement activity by name one time in the entire speech. It came in this section:
…Negotiations will be necessary, but there is little secret about where they must lead – two states for two peoples. There will be differences about how to get there, and hard choices along the way. Arab States must adapt to a world that has changed. The days when they could condemn Israel to distract their people from a lack of opportunity are over. Now is the time for the Arab World to take steps toward normalized relations with Israel. Meanwhile, Palestinians must recognize that Israel will be a Jewish state, and that Israelis have the right to insist upon their security. Israelis must recognize that continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace, and that an independent Palestine must be viable– that real borders will have to be drawn. I’ve suggested principles on territory and security that I believe can be the basis for talks. But for the moment, put aside the plans and process. I ask you, instead, to think about what can be done to build trust between people… [emphasis added]
The mention was couched in Israeli propaganda—Arab states must adapt to the world, they must stop distracting their people from issues at home by condemning Israel, Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish State and Israelis have a right to security.
Settlements are a key obstacle to peace. A United Nations fact-finding mission concluded in January of this year:
…The establishment of the settlements in the West Bank including East Jerusalem is a mesh of construction and infrastructure leading to a creeping annexation that prevents the establishment of a contiguous and viable Palestinian State and undermines the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.
The settlements have been established and developed at the expense of violating international human rights laws and international humanitarian law, as applicable in the OPT [Occupied Palestinian Territories] as notably recognised by the 2004 ICJ Advisory Opinion.
The settlements are established for the exclusive benefit of Israeli Jews; settlements are being maintained and developed through a system of total segregation between the settlers and the rest of the population living in the OPT. This system of segregation is supported and facilitated by a strict military and law enforcement control to the detriment of the rights of the Palestinian population…
The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court describes the crime of apartheid as an inhumane act “committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.” What is described by the UN above is apartheid.
Obama actually described this oppression when he suggested Israelis show empathy for what Palestinians experience:
…[T]he Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and justice must also be recognized. Put yourself in their shoes – look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day. It is not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. It is not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands; to restrict a student’s ability to move around the West Bank; or to displace Palestinian families from their home. Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer. Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land…
There can be no peace if policies of apartheid continue to perpetuate.
Obama is getting and will get a lot of attention for calling Israeli settlements “counterproductive,” but before the speech, Major Garrett of CBS News asked him the following question at a press conference with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas:
I want to get a little more specific on the issue of settlements and the overall peace process. Mr. President, when you began your administration, you called for a halt to new settlement activity. That held for a while, then dissipated and then late last year, when the Israeli government announced very sensitive settlement activity in the E-1 zone, your administration put out a statement that many in this reason thought was tepid or non-responsive. What would you say here in Ramallah to those entrepreneurial Palestinians you reference who believe you have either been equivocal or unresponsive to the issue of Israeli settlements?
And to you President Abbas, do you believe it is necessary for the peace process to start with a declaration publicly from the Israeli government that it will either slow down or stop entirely new settlement activity?
Obama’s answer was empty and lacked clarity. It was a dodge and, if one listened to him articulate the answer, it was clear he was trying to find the quickest route possible to a platitude that he could offer instead of a concrete answer:
…I think I answered the question previously about settlements. You mention E-1, in particular. I think that is a—An example of a—At least a public statement by the Israeli government that would be difficult to square with a two state solution. I said that to Prime Minister Netanyahu. I don’t think that’s a secret. With respect to whether there’s a requirement for a freeze or moratorium [pause], I want to repeat what I just said earlier, which is if the only way to even begin the conversations is that we get everything right at the outset or at least each party is constantly negotiating about what’s required to get into talks in the first place, then we’re never going to get to the broader issue, which is how do you actually structure of Palestine that is sovereign, contiguous and provides the Palestinian people dignity? And how do you provide Israel confidence about its security? Which are the core issues.
He added, “That’s not to say settlements are not important. It is to say if we solve those two problems, the settlement problem will be solved. So, I don’t want to put the cart before the horse. I want to make sure we are getting to the core issues and the substance, understanding that both sides should be doing what they can to build confidence, to rebuild a sense of trust, and that’s where hopefully the US government can be helpful.”
This answer, in the presence of Abbas, is a clear indication that, whether Obama and others in the US government find the settlements to be “counterproductive” or not, there will be no pressure applied to Israel to stop the settlements.
Structuring a Palestinian state and ensuring Israel is confident in security are also abstractions in this answer. Nobody knows what any of this will mean for the Israeli or Palestinian people and, if there is no settlement freeze, chances are the borders being negotiated in discussions of peace agreements will continue to be threatened by the fact that they continue to be redefined by settlers. It means should there ever be an agreement there will still be this issue of people occupying land they have no right to claim as their own.
Here is what Abbas had to say to Garrett’s question:
[translated] Regarding the issue of settlements, it is not only our perceptions that settlements are illegal but it is a global perspective. Everyone conisders settlements not only a hurdle but even more than a hurdle to a two state solution. We mention and we remember that the Security Council during the ’70s and ’80s not only condemning settlements but demanding ending them and removing them because they are illegal. We are asking for nothing outside the framework of international legitimacy. Hence, it is the duty of the Israeli government to at least halt the activity so that we can speak of issues and when we define our borders and their borders together each side will know its territory in which it can do whatever it pleases…
Abbas also suggested that the “new generation reaches the conviction that it is not possible” to have a two state solution when they see settlements being built.
None of the above is written to say whether a two state solution is the solution for peace nor is it written to negate the value of considering a possible one state solution. However, it is to say that, as slick, clever and well-calculated his visit to Israel appears to have been so far, the statements he is making and the way forward, which he is promoting, are not even good from a pragmatic perspective.
US foreign policy is so controlled by Israel that the US sides with Israel and all key obstacles to peace, including silence on settlement freeze which would be proper response to activity clearly in violation of international law.
President George W. Bush said in January 2008 almost the exact same thing Obama said when asked about settlements by Garrett: “These negotiations must ensure that Israel has secure, recognized, and defensible borders. And they must ensure that the state of Palestine is viable, contiguous, sovereign, and independent.” He stated in speeches that Palestinians had a right to a state of their own. So, there is nothing that profound about what Obama had to say on Palestinian statehood except for the fact that he made an attempt to show he empathizes with the Palestinian people by telling Israelis “put yourself in their shoes. Look at the world through their eyes.”
In the end, he can say, “It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day.” He can say, “It is not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. It is not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands; to restrict a student’s ability to move around the West Bank; or to displace Palestinian families from their home.” He can say, “Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer. Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land,” but none of it matters if he the United States is only going to call the settlement activity “counterproductive” and not criminal and refuse to call for a settlement freeze and even the removal of settlements.