By Rami G. Khouri
The moment of reckoning in US-Israeli relations is approaching much more quickly than could have been anticipated months ago, due to two related developments: the hard-line position of the new Israeli government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the obvious, but undeclared, linkages between progress in US-Iranian relations and progress in Arab-Israeli peace-making.
The friction between the American and Israeli positions on how to proceed in Arab-Israeli peace-making was on stark display in Tel Aviv and West Jerusalem on Thursday. The US Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell re-stated the
American commitment to a two-state solution, while Israel’s prime minister, as well as the interior and foreign ministers, took positions clearly designed to sidetrack any serious negotiations.
The fascinating new diplomatic landscape that seems to be emerging sees the United States and the Palestinians firmly seeking a two-state solution, while the Israelis occupy rather different terrain. Israel now emphasizes four priorities: ending the mini-rocket attacks against Israel from the Gaza Strip, dealing with the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, improving the economy of the occupied Palestinian territories, and securing Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state as a first step toward any peace talks.
This occurs at a time when, according to Israeli press reports by respected writers like Shimon Shiffer in the daily Yedioth Aharonot, the Obama administration is quickly losing patience with Israel’s position and has expressed a determination to conclude an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement on the basis of two adjacent states by the end of Obama’s first term. Washington reportedly is quietly signaling its displeasure with the Netanyahu stance.
It is too early to tell whether we are witnessing the early stages of the US slowly taking back control of its wider Middle East policies from Israel and pro-Israel extremists in the US Congress, lobbies and think tanks who hijacked it in recent decades. It would be exciting and historic indeed for the US to pursue Middle East policies that foster American national interests, while responding rationally to the legitimate interests of the Israelis, Arabs, Iranians and Turks who live in the Middle East.
Israel’s evasive tactics are not new. Most Israeli governments in the past 40 years have adopted positions generally seeking to postpone Israel’s coming to grips with three critical realities: ending colonization of, and withdrawing from, all the Arab lands occupied in 1967; accepting the creation of a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, with Jerusalem as the shared capital of Israel and Palestine; and agreeing to a negotiated, mutually-acceptable resolution of the 1947-1948 Palestinian refugees issue that is based on relevant UN resolutions and refugee law.
The last four American administrations failed to push Israel to negotiate seriously on these issues. The cost of such a reckless policy has become too high for the US to accept indefinitely, it seems. Total American acquiescence to hard-line Israeli positions has pushed most of the 400 million or so people in the Middle East to rise up defiantly and angrily against the US and Israel. The result has been a Middle East widely ravaged by wars, rebellions, terrorism, occupation, resistance and increasing desperation – manifested in inter-linked conflicts and ideological confrontations in half a dozen distinct arenas.
The US has taken a courageous initiative in revising its policy of pressure, threats and boycotts towards Iran and Syria, and that policy will have more chances of succeeding if Israeli-Palestinian and wider Arab-Israeli peace talks proceed in parallel. A critical first step in that direction remains securing Israeli acceptance of equal and simultaneous rights for Palestinians and Israelis – rather than the failed policy of demanding a priori Arab recognition of core Israeli demands on security and statehood, before Arab rights can be discussed or Israeli colonization reversed.
This is the pivotal peace-making principle on which the US and Israel have yet to clarify their positions. Washington’s rhetoric accepts this, but its policy on the ground has been different. The Israelis seem opposed to it in rhetoric and practice. The Arabs – after decades of refusing to do so – support peaceful negotiations to allow Israelis and Arabs to achieve their national rights in a parallel way. This is the moment for the Arab world, and Palestinians in particular, to reaffirm more clearly than ever their willingness to live in peace with a majority-Jewish Israeli state that treats all its citizens equally, ends colonization policies, withdraws from lands occupied in 1967, and coexists with a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem.
George Mitchell’s mediating task is clear, and he certainly has the experience and the skills needed to succeed. What remains unclear is where his own American government stands on these issues. We may soon find out.
Rami G. Khouri is publishes bi-weekly by THE DAILY STAR.