RAMALLAH, West Bank — As the summit between U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approaches, most of the discussion has focused on whether the newly elected Israeli leader will finally say that he backs a two-state solution.
This is the wrong approach. Israelis should not determine the status of the Palestinian entity, nor should Palestinians have a say in what Israelis call their own state.
The only question that Obama should ask Netanyahu is, when will Israel quit the occupied Palestinian territories?
Attempts at obfuscation — whether by talking about an “economic peace” or insisting that Arabs recognize the Jewishness of the state of Israel — should not be allowed to derail the goal of ending the inadmissible occupation.
During Obama’s first meeting with a Middle East leader, a simple and courageous Arab plan was outlined. Empowered by Arab leaders, Jordan’s King Abdullah II officially presented the peace plan devised by the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic States. Despite the Israeli wars on Lebanon and Gaza, Arabs offered normal relations with Israel once it quits the lands that it occupied in 1967.
The plan also calls for a “fair” and “agreed upon” resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem. The fact that Israelis and Palestinians need to agree on a solution of the refugee issue neutralizes unwarranted Israeli fears about the demographic threat posed by the Palestinians’ right of return.
Last summer, when he was shown a poster with 57 Arab flags representing the countries that will normalize relations with Israel, then candidate Obama told Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that the Israelis would be “crazy” to reject that plan.
Obama’s impressive signals since taking office — telephoning Arab leaders before European allies, appointing special envoy George Mitchell and speaking on Al-Arabiyeh for his first interview — reflect a different approach from the staid and unimaginative past.
The United States has repeatedly opposed the 1967 Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and has called for its end. It has consistently voiced disapproval of settlement activities. Leaders of both major U.S. parties have articulated a policy that calls for a viable, contiguous Palestinian state on the lands occupied in 1967.
The U.S. has also opposed Israel’s unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem and — along with every country on the planet — refused to recognize the application of Israeli law to residents of East Jerusalem.
Yet Israel’s actions on the ground have gone counter to American and international positions. The newly established Israeli government refuses even to pay lip service to the internationally accepted requirements for peace. On the other hand, the freely elected Palestinian leadership faces international boycott until it accepts a solution that the Netanyahu government rejects.
Among the international community’s demands of Israel has been the acceptance of the two-state solution and a total freeze on all settlement activity, including expansion and natural growth. Freezing settlement will certainly be a central focus of the robust diplomacy of Mitchell and his team. Mitchell, who was deeply involved in crafting the settlements language of the Mitchell Report of 2001, understands the capacity of the settlements to destroy the prospect for a two-state solution.
Jerusalem is another on-the-ground issue that will be a litmus test for the Obama administration. Demolition of Palestinian houses and Israeli provocations in East Jerusalem highlight the need to confront this issue without delay. The focus of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the Middle East is Jerusalem’s importance to Christians, Muslims and Jews, so attempts to Judaize the Holy City must stop immediately.
A third imperative for Palestinians is to reunite the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Irrespective of the outcome of the internal Palestinian dialogue taking place in Cairo, there is a need to reconnect Palestinians. There is no excuse why Palestinians living in either remaining sliver of Mandatory Palestine should be barred from traveling to the other part of the occupied Palestinian territories.
Israeli officials’ claims that barring the movement of people and goods is required for security reasons do not withstand scrutiny. Under the leadership of U.S. Gen. Keith Dayton (Mitchell’s security deputy), the most vigorous security checks can be made to allow such travel.
With renewed peace talks, results must be stressed over an endless process. The last failed promise by President George W. Bush came at Annapolis in late 2007, when he vowed that an independent, viable and contiguous Palestinian state would be created before the end of his term.
More than four decades after U.N. Security Council resolution 242, occupying land by force, illegal construction of exclusive Jewish settlements and restrictions on movement continue unabated. Time is no longer on the side of those who favor two states.
The Obama administration must seize the initiative and insist that Netanyahu unequivocally support the two-state solution. Otherwise, tension looms in the Israeli-American relationship, and calls for one state with equal rights for all will begin to drown out older ideological visions, as settlement activity forecloses the prospect of two states.
Daoud Kuttab runs the media NGO Community Media Network. He is a former professor of journalism at Princeton University. © 2009 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)
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