By Kim Bullimore *
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has claimed victory in the wake of US President Barak Obama’s first speech to the United Nations General Assembly and the September 22 meeting in New York between Netanyahu, Obama and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. In his September 23 UN speech, Obama confirmed that Washington had retreated on its previous demand that Israel halt building new illegal settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, stating that “the time has come to re-launch [peace] negotiations — without preconditions”.
“I’m pleased that President Obama accepted my request that there should be no preconditions”, Netanyahu told Israel Radio in a telephone interview later that same day. He also said: “I commend this important speech of Obama’s and his call to renew the peace process without preconditions. I commend his unequivocal support of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.”
Obama’s accommodation to Netanyahu’s position, however, was not a surprise, as the previous day Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, revealed that Washington was about to back down on the “demand” that Israel temporarily freeze settlement building. Mitchell told Reuters news agency: “Neither the president nor the Secretary [of State, Hillary Clinton] nor I have ever said of any one issue … that it is a precondition to negotiation.” He went onto say, “we do not believe in preconditions. We do not impose them and we urge others not to impose preconditions.”
While both Mitchell and Obama claimed that there should be “no pre-conditions” on peace negotiations, both made it clear that this only applied to Israel and that the Palestinians were expected to meet a number of “pre-conditions”, including recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state”, thus negating the right of Palestinian refugees driven into exile by the Zionists in 1948 to return to their homeland, and ending armed resistance to Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinian territories seized in June 1967.
Despite claims by the Abbas and his team of negotiators that Obama had recognised the right of Palestinian state to exist in the territory seized in 1967, Obama did no such thing. Instead, while he noted that Palestinians needed a contiguous territory and that the 1967 occupation must end, he made no call for removal of all of the Israeli settlements from the occupied West Bank and East Jersusalem, nor for the dismantling of Israel’s apartheid wall. As a result, Obama has given Washington’s stamp of approval for Israel to retain some, if not all, of Israel’s illegal settlement infrastructure built on stolen Palestinian land. Ofir Akunis, an MP from Netanyahu’s Likud party told the September 24 Tel Aviv Haaretz Daily that this means “construction in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] will continue alongside the diplomatic talks” with the Palestinian Authority.
With Obama’s tacit blessing, Israel will continue to create “facts on the ground”, ensuring that more and more Palestinian land is illegally annexed to Israel. Since 1993, when Israel agreed to begin peace negotiations with the Palestinians, Israel’s continued settlement construction in the occupied West Bank has resulted in the illegal Israeli settler population doubling to approximately 300,000, while the number of settlers living in occupied East Jerusalem is estimated to be around 180,000.
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Prior to Obama’s UN speech, there had been much speculation in the corporate media that Obama would “pressure” Israel to stop settlement activity in order to clear the way for a resumption of peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, which has been under intense pressure from the Palestinian masses not to do so until this activity was halted. According to Paul Woodward, the editor of the well-respected web journal, War in context, Obama’s UN speech revealed “that in the end, it turned out that ‘pressure’ from the Obama Administration amounts to strong words with no visible force behind them”. Woodward went onto point out that this “pressure” comes “in the form of sternness — no doubt quite effective when Obama insists to [his daughters] Malia and Natasha that it’s bedtime, but not very impressive when it’s directed at the likes of Benjamin Netanyahu”.
While Netanyahu has emerged in a much stronger position, the New York “tripartite summit” has resulted in the wholesale undermining of Abbas’ position. Previously Abbas had refused to meet with Netanyahu or restart negotiations without a clear commitment from Israel to halt settlement activity. Abbas has sought to salvage his reputation by claiming he was forced into the meeting by Obama, with one of his staffers telling the September 24 Jerusalem Post, Abbas “couldn’t resist the heavy pressure the Americans put on him. In fact, he went to the meeting with Netanyahu against his will.”
Abbas’ capitulation, however, reflects the fundamental flaw in the Fatah leadership’s whole strategy for advancing the Palestinian national liberation cause — reliance on getting Washington to pressure Israel to accede to Palestinian demands, rather than exerting pressure on the Israel rulers by mobilising the Palestinian masses to resist Israel’s illegal occupation. “In all honesty, we want to protect our relations with President Obama under any conditions”, Abbas told the London-based al-Hayat newspaper after the New York summit. “We don’t want to come out with a crisis with the Americans, or create a crisis.”
The assumption behind Abbas’ strategy is that Washington is a neutral mediator, when in reality it is Israel’s prime backer. And while the Israeli rulers pay lip-service to the idea of the Palestinians eventually having an independent state, their real goal, which they have continuously worked at since Israel was set up in 1948, is to assert Israeli control over the entirety of Palestine.
Since having colluded with Washington in the toppling of the popularly elected Hamas-led PA government, Abbas has increasingly lost credibility among the Palestinian masses as an effective leader of their struggle for their national rights. His capitulation on the conditions for restarting negotiations with Israel will only further erode his standing. Hamas denounced Abbas for attending the New York summit, with Hamas spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri saying, “the only person to benefit from the New York meeting is Netanyahu because it will improve his image and give him cover to continue building settlements”.
* Kim Bullimore spent 12 months living and working in the Occupied West Bank in 2007-2008 with the International Women’s Peace Service. She writes regularly on the Palestine-Israel conflict for the Australian newspaper, Direct Action and has a blog at www.livefromoccupiedpalestine.blogspot.com.