The NY Times headline reads: “Obama Pins Mideast Hope on Limiting Settlements.” They label it “News Analysis” but it’s really a propaganda opinion piece. More below.
The headline makes it clear what the thrust of the piece is: By putting such an an emphasis on settlement Obama is at best being naive and at worst is really siding with Israel’s enemies. The headline is reinforced by the very first sentance of the piece:
Iran seems to be hurtling toward nuclear weapons capacity, Hezbollah could win Sunday’s election in Lebanon and Hamas is smuggling long-range rockets into Gaza again. So why is President Obama focusing such attention on the building of homes by Israeli Jews in the West Bank?
Bronner tries to cover the propaganda in the next sentence, claiming that the above question is Bibi’s complaint (thus not necessarily Bronner’s opinion). It is also true that the editors choose the headline, not the writer. However, by putting that sentence at the top of the piece and not in quotes, Bronner makes his opinion blatantly obvious.
The sentence is unequivocally a false description of what Obama is saying and doing. Did Ethan Bronner even hear Obama’s speech? Everyone can (and should) see it for themselves. Obama spent just as much time talking about the dangers of nuclear proliferation and his stance on democracy as he did about the Israel/Palestine conflict.
Bronner is also implying that Obama is only making demands on the Israelis and ignoring Palestinian violence. Again, Obama spent a good part of his speech (perhaps more than on the topic of settlements) addressing that issue as well. Here is Obama himself in a press conference in France, no doubt relating to coverage similar to that of the Times:
I’ve discussed the importance of a cessation of settlement construction, but I also want to reemphasize, because that’s gotten more attention than what I’ve also said, which is the Palestinians have to renounce violence, end incitement, improve their governance capacity so that Israelis can be confident that the Palestinians can follow through on any commitments they make across the table.
This misrepresentation of Obama’s motives can be partially “understood” because it is quite shocking to hear an American President be so forthright about the settlements. After all, it has been more than 17 years since any US President has been so blunt on this issue. However this distortion of Obama’s position is only part of what’s wrong with this “analysis.” The other part is the proposition that the settlements are not a key issue. Again, the very first sentence starts to make this case. What an innocent term Bronner uses for describing the settlements project: “Israeli Jews building homes.” A more honest description would be “Israeli Jews kicking Arabs out of their homes to steal their land,” or “Israeli Jews destroying Arab homes and killing innocent Arabs in order to hold on to stolen property,” or “Jews and Arabs embroiled for years in a never ending conflict of death and destruction so that some Israeli Jewish fanatics can live in beautiful homes on stolen property subsidized by Israeli and US taxpayers.” But more on that in a bit.
As usual in such “analysis” in the Times, only Israelis are interviewed. “Balance” is provided by presenting viewpoints across the Israeli spectrum. First Yossi Beilin, the “leftist.” Beilin is a strong critic of the settlement project and I am sure Bronner could have gotten many clear arguments from him why the settlements are one of the key issues that must be addressed. Instead, he uses Beilin as support for his thesis that Obama is criticizing the settlements because its easier than dealing with more fundamental issues:
“Obama may have found the soft underbelly of Israel, because ending settlements is a consensus issue in the world, among American Jewry and even among a majority of Israelis,” said Yossi Beilin, a former leftist minister and member of Parliament who now runs a private consulting firm. “He needs a strong regional coalition to leave Iraq — and not to leave it to Iran. And it seems like he sees ending settlements as a way to start this process. The only question is whether Netanyahu can do what is needed.”
The administration is starting with settlements for two reasons. It wants to send a message to the Arab world that the previous eight years of siding consistently with Israel are over — hence the Cairo speech and the focus on improving relations with Muslims. And it is one place where it actually has leverage — given the American backing of Israel, it can push Israel to live up to its commitment far more easily than it can persuade Hamas to abandon violence.
This discussion ignores the real reason why Obama is addressing the settlements head on: the settlement project was deliberately designed by its key architect, Arik Sharon, to make creating a Palestinian state extremely difficult. First, as Bronner himself notes there are more than 300,000 Israeli Jews living in the settlements. They and their extended families form an important voting bloc who are natural opponents to dismantling settlements. And that is exactly the main point of Sharon’s design: without dismantling settlements a viable Palestinian state with contiguous territory cannot be created in the West Bank. The settlements were built in a deliberate fashion to make it extremely difficult to define a border between a Palestinian and Israeli state. In other words, the settlements are a key logistical obstacle to the formation of the state of Palestine. The settlement project must be stopped and dismantled if a two state solution is to become a viable option.
A recent article in Ha’aretz shows just how much Obama and his advisers understand this. They are not asking the Israelis to stop settlement construction merely to “improve relations with Muslims.” They are asking Israelis to stop the settlements so that it will be possible to actually salvage a two state solution and define a border between the two countries:
Senior U.S. officials, including President Barack Obama’s Mideast envoy George Mitchell, say they might propose immediate talks on setting Israel’s border along the West Bank. The move comes in light of Israel’s opposition to a freeze on settlement construction and would determine which settlements will remain in Israel in a final deal that would see the emergence of a Palestinian state.
The American proposal was raised in recent weeks following Israeli suggestions that there is no reason to cease construction in the large settlement blocs. Such construction would accommodate natural growth. The Israelis say that since those blocs will remain in Israel under a final-status agreement, there is no point in preventing construction. The Israeli position was mainly directed at the blocs of Gush Etzion, Alfei Menashe, Ariel, Ma’aleh Adumim and certain areas adjoining Jerusalem.
The American officials countered by suggesting that they initiate immediate negotiations on the border between Israel and a future Palestinian state. This, the Americans insisted, would make it easier for everyone to decide where settlement construction could take place.
In other words, the Americans are saying that its not the construction of settlements per se that is the issue.The issue is that this construction interferes with the goal of defining a border. If Israel doesn’t want to stop construction – no problem. Just tell us where the border is please!
The next “expert” Bronner brings is a “middle-of-the-road” type. He provides the standard “centrist” Israeli argument about why peace negotiations won’t go anywhere: the Palestinians are divided and their moderate leadership is weak. In other words its all the Palestinians’ fault. The flip side of this argument is that dismantling the settlements will rip Israeli society apart. I noted earlier that precisely such a scenario was part of Sharon’s plan. Israeli governments have always argued that they can’t stop the settlements because it is too politically difficult. Bronner in the Times’ Week in Review has a whole piece entitled “The Divisions Among Israelis and Palestinians” where he expands on the weak Palestinian/strong settlers argument for the impossibility of an Israel/Palestine agreement.
This “weak Palestinian” argument ignores the fact that the Israelis have done everything in their power over the past 40+ years to keep the Palestinian leadership divided and weak, up to and including helping along the establishment of Hamas. Specifically, the continued construction of settlements undermines Palestinian moderates and encourages extremism. Looking back at the failure of the Oslo process, one can more clearly understand this dynamic and the context of Obama’s emphasis on the settlements.
Clinton, unlike Obama, did not press the Israelis on the settlement issue. Under Netanyahu and then Barak, the settler population doubled as part of “natural growth.” The Palestinians saw the continued expansions of settlements and continued to suffer under military occupation in Gaza and the West Bank. (Keep in mind that the main function of the military occupation, particularly its most humiliating and violent aspects, is the protection of the settlements project. Cf. my City of the Dead series.) The Palestinians quickly lost faith in the Oslo process which legitimized Hamas “resistance” in their eyes. Hamas’ violence in turn undermined Israeli support for Oslo. The deteriorating loss of faith on both sides led to the second Intifada, and the Oslo processed died an untimely death. Stopping settlement construction will go a long way to convincing Palestinians that Israel is serious about a peaceful settlement, and is a prerequisite for a serious negotiations process.
As for the “divided leadership,” Israel can solve this problem in five minutes. If Israel released Marwan Barghouti from jail, a strong, charismatic, moderate leader could quickly unite the squabbling Palestinians and reach a credible agreement with the Israelis. (It will be interesting to see if the Obama administration brings pressure to bear on this point.)
The “strong settlers” argument ignores the fact that it was relatively easily for Sharon to dismantle the Gaza settlements when he decided it was necessary to do so. Despite all the dire predictions of civil war, with a little bit of palm grease the settlers went away relatively quietly. Which brings us to the third “expert,” the right wing representative:
“Settlements aren’t the problem and removing them isn’t the solution. Israel foolishly dismantled 21 Gaza Strip settlements in 2005. Did peace blossom all over as a result? Precisely the reverse occurred. The razing of Israeli communities was regarded as terror’s triumph, expediting the Hamas takeover.”
This is a rewrite of history. Israel dismantled the Gaza settlements because Sharon came to the realization that protecting the settlers through military occupation of Gaza was way too costly and dangerous. The Israeli presence gave the Palestinians the motivation and the open passages gave them the access to enter and attack Israel.By withdrawing and turning Gaza into one big prison, Sharon effectively locked in the Hamas militants and made infiltrating Israel far more difficult. The rise of Hamas to political power also lowered their motivation to attack Israel as they moved from militant opposition to political leadership.
“Peace did not blossom” since this action was totally unconnected to any Israel/Palestine negotiations (which is why I opposed this action at the time). Sharon made no effort to leverage his withdrawal into a political dialog with the Palestinians since that was not at all his motivation for this action. Despite my initial opposition, I have to admit in retrospect there was a huge positive effect to the Gaza withdrawal. The military confrontation between the Israelis and Hamas lessened considerably and eventually turned into a cease fire. Civilian deaths on both sides were largely reduced, even with the ridiculous and totally unnecessary blow up last summer. This relative calm can now be effectively used to renew serious negotiations.
I leave the last words to President Obama:
For decades then, there has been a stalemate: two peoples with legitimate aspirations, each with a painful history that makes compromise elusive. It’s easy to point fingers — for Palestinians to point to the displacement brought about by Israel’s founding, and for Israelis to point to the constant hostility and attacks throughout its history from within its borders as well as beyond. But if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth: The only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.
That is in Israel’s interest, Palestine’s interest, America’s interest, and the world’s interest. And that is why I intend to personally pursue this outcome with all the patience and dedication that the task requires. The obligations — the obligations that the parties have agreed to under the road map are clear. For peace to come, it is time for them — and all of us — to live up to our responsibilities…
Too many tears have been shed. Too much blood has been shed. All of us have a responsibility to work for the day when the mothers of Israelis and Palestinians can see their children grow up without fear; when the Holy Land of the three great faiths is the place of peace that God intended it to be; when Jerusalem is a secure and lasting home for Jews and Christians and Muslims, and a place for all of the children of Abraham to mingle peacefully together as in the story of Isra, when Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed, peace be upon them, joined in prayer.