This week in the United Nations, Obama's behavior toward the Palestinian tragedy was that of what Americans disparagingly call “just another politician.” The man whose words inspire dreams and who proclaimed that an unjust world can be changed has offered second-rate sophistry as an argument against the recognition of a Palestinian state by the UN. Telling the Palestinians that they should negotiate with Israel instead of soliciting international recognition is an insult to universal intelligence. Peace talks on the primary tumor in the Near East have been languishing since 20 years ago! Multilateral talks began with the Madrid conference of 1991; there was a moment of face-to-face hope with the Oslo Accords of 1993; the talks dragged on painfully in Camp David in 2000, Taba in 2001, Annapolis in 2007...
Mediators, special envoys, quartets, summits and talks under all types of formulas - public and secret, direct and indirect, bilateral or in groups - have all taken place over two decades with the result we all know: The Palestinian State remains unborn. Not only does the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank continue, but the confiscations of Arab land and the construction of Jewish colonies have continued at a steady pace. The main news of the last few years has been the construction of an Israeli security wall, which, according to the Hague, is illegal.
Physical barriers, military checkpoints and colonial fortresses (there are now half a million colonists) have turned East Jerusalem and the West Bank into a nightmarish labyrinth for its original Palestinian inhabitants. In fact, they make the existence of a minimally rational Palestinian state in these areas unfeasible. Today, this would be nothing more than an archipelago of Bantustans, not to mention that leper colony called Gaza.
So Obama distorts. It takes two to tango, and the Israeli strategy is transparent and effective: Avoid negotiating under one pretext or another in order to continue colonizing the territories in which the Palestinian state should be located. Even the moderate Mahmoud Abbas has finally realized this and thus decided to bring the case directly to the UN. He has been answered with another fallacy: Obama denying the importance of UN recognition of the Palestinian state. But it does have significance; Israel bases its legality and international legitimacy on General Assembly resolution 181, which, in 1947, partitioned in two the territory then known as the British Mandate in Palestine.
We all know why Obama is behaving like this; in the U.S., the long race to the presidential election has begun, and no one can win if he is accused of “betraying” Israel. Even so, the president and Nobel Peace Prize winner could have been more subtle. The Abbas initiative, as Lluís Bassets pointed out yesterday in this newspaper, could not have been any more peaceful, legalistic and multilateral. With more than 120 countries supporting the birth of a Palestinian state, Abbas came to New York with a big olive branch.
Obama responded to him with the worst phrase of his presidency, "There is no shortcut…Peace is hard work.” He lectured to the representative of a people that lost most of their land in from 1947 to 1949 and the rest in 1967, a leader who is trying to build his people’s state on only 22 percent of their historic homeland and who maintains a tradition of recognizing Israel and supporting peace ever since the Palestinian Liberation Organization summit held in Algiers in 1988. This commitment to peace was then ratified in Oslo in 1993 and agreed to by the Arab League in Beirut in 2002. This is the longest and most tortuous road followed by a community in our times.
With Wednesday’s speech in the UN, Obama has erased in one stroke all the positive effects of the speech he gave in Cairo in June 2009, when he acknowledged, “On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people — Muslims and Christians — have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than 60 years they've endured the pain of dislocation…They endure the daily humiliations — large and small — that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable.” Those words awakened in the Arab world the hope that finally there would be someone in the White House who was honest and impartial in this matter. But now Obama does not even ask to freeze settlements or cite the 1967 borders as the basis for the separation of the states of Israel and Palestine.
This is sad. The author of the idea that Palestine would become a member of the U.N. was none other than Obama himself. On Sept. 23 of last year, speaking before the General Assembly, he said that his desire was that in 2011, the United Nations would have a new member in 2011: “An independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel.” The Palestinians took him at his word.
What irresolvable contradiction is there in the UN recognizing the state of Palestine and having the parties carry out direct negotiations to finalize the details? Only a sophist can see it. On the other hand, the difference with what has gone on over the last 20 years is that instead of being negotiations between occupiers and occupied, they would be somewhat more equal.
Before becoming “just another politician” on this matter, Obama dreamed that the U.S. would build more balanced relations in the Middle East. The popular struggles for the democratization of the Arab world and the return of Turkey to the Eastern Mediterranean scene have been making it easier. But no, we now confirm that the U.S., even with Obama, is still tied to a “special relationship” with Israel which alienates it from Arabs, Turks and Persians. Its influence in the Middle East — and this was written in the Herald Tribune by none other than Turki bin Faisal, ex-chief of the Saudi secret service — can do nothing but continue to shrink.