The Democracy Revolutions and the Israel-Palestine Conflict
By Henry Siegman
March 22, 2011
For the longest time, Israeli governments have explained their resistance to Palestinian statehood by pointing to the Palestinians’ and the Arab world’s democracy deficit.
The dishonesty of that explanation has now been exposed to even the most credulous by the reaction of Israel’s government to the democratic revolutions sweeping the region. We are now told by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government that the overthrow of Tunisia’s and Egypt’s rulers and the challenges to other regional autocrats, whose regimes provided Israel with a certain stability by repressing forcefully popular Arab anger over Israel’s occupation policies, no longer allows Israel to accede to risky “concessions” that a peace accord entails.
So that while until now it was the region’s democratic deficit that supposedly prevented Israel from ending its occupation, now it is the region’s surfeit of democracy that stands in its way.
It is hard to believe there is today even a single head of state anywhere who still does not understand that Israel’s settlement project in the West Bank—secretly encouraged, financed and protected by successive Israeli governments and the IDF—never had a purpose other than to secure permanent Israeli control of Palestine from the Mediterranean to the Jordanian border. Even Chancellor Angela Merkel, who not so long ago pledged Germany’s unflagging support for Israel’s quest for security, recently told Netanyahu that no one can any longer believe anything he says about Israel’s interest in peace.
It is therefore hard to understand those who believe that the democracy revolutions in the region are a reason to urge Israelis and Palestinians to resume direct talks. Direct talks have not been resisted by Netanyahu, for they have served as an ideal cover for the continued expansion of the settlements—falsely holding out the promise that the controversy over the settlements will be resolved as soon as agreement is reached and a border has been set. So why waste time arguing about a settlement freeze now?
But the border is the one subject that Netanyahu refuses to discuss in these direct talks. If he were to disclose where he intends to draw that border, his intention to retain control over the entire West Bank and prevent the creation of a viable and sovereign Palestinian state would be exposed for all to see. Instead, Netanyahu speaks of a solution consistent with Israel’s security, which in his conception of that term cannot accommodate a Palestinian entity that is not fully under Israel’s control.
Unfortunately, Netanyahu has been aided and abetted in his deceptions by the U.S., for the Obama administration refused to endorse terms of reference that identify the 1967 border as the starting point of negotiations. The inescapable implication of that refusal is that, for all practical purposes, the Obama administration accepts the Likud’s definition of the occupied territories as “disputed territories,” to which Israel has as much a claim as the Palestinians do. Imagine what the U.S. would say to the Palestinians if they were to refer to any part of Israel as “disputed territory” to which they too have a claim.
It is not that President Obama is unaware of what Netanyahu is up to. But rather than calling a spade a spade, his administration thought it would work its way around Netanyahu’s deceptions by pressing for a settlement freeze. Instead, it was Netanyahu who worked his way around the freeze.
The lesson to be learned from the serial failures of America’s peace initiatives is that they cannot be based on a lie. We cannot pretend to believe Netanyahu’s recently announced acquiescence to a two-state solution if we are not prepared to hold his feet to the fire when it comes to the issue of the 1967 border. Our recent veto of the UN resolution condemning the settlements was so shameful not only because it helped Israel continue its settlement project but because it abetted Netanyahu’s lie that he can be for peace even if he rejects Palestinians’ rights on their side of the 1967 border.
There is no better time for a resort to truth-telling than now, when citizens in countries neighboring Israel are risking their lives in the hundreds and thousands to put an end to the lies of dictatorial “security” regimes that have denied them their rights and their very humanity.
The truth the U.S. needs to tell Netanyahu and his government is not that they must return to meaningless peace talks, but that international law and previous agreements do not allow Israel to acquire territory beyond the 1967 border without Palestinian consent. They must be told that their insistence that Palestinians must wait a generation or two, if not longer, before they will be ready for statehood is indistinguishable from the insistence of Arab dictators that they must remain in power because their people cannot be trusted to rule themselves—and equally repugnant to America’s values.
Henry Siegman, President of the U.S./Middle East Project, is a non-resident visiting professor at the Sir Joseph Hotung Middle East Program at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London and a consultant to the Norwegian Peacebuilding Centre.
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