Mr President, be true to yourself!

Barack Obama is held in great esteem by millions of people who admire his forthrightness, his integrity, and his attitude of “we are not beyond reproach”. Without a shadow of doubt he deserves a second term and Republican gainsayers must be ignored. But he will lose his standing if he abandons the Palestinians.

This week the US President told the UN General Assembly that the Palestinians deserve their own state, but that this would only be achieved through talks with Israel. Addressing the UN general assembly in New York, he suggested that negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians are the only way to ensure a lasting peace. Obama affirmed that, “The Palestinian people deserve a state of their own,” but he offered no new initiatives and did not repeat earlier calls for negotiations to be based on the borders at the time of the 1967 war.

“Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the UN – if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now. Ultimately, it is Israelis and Palestinians who must live side by side. Ultimately, it is Israelis and Palestinians – not us – who must reach agreement on the issues that divide them: on borders and security, on refugees and Jerusalem,” he said. But this is where it all begins to unravel. Of course Israel and Palestine must agree to cooperate in their own and their neighbour’s best interests and to help bring peace to the region. But geopolitical, economic, and historical realities are also heavily in play and Obama is certainly not naive enough to believe otherwise.

Obama spoke about the US’s “unshakeable” commitment to Israel’s security, and said that any lasting peace must recognise Israel’s “very real security concerns”. He spoke at length about Israeli suffering, but made no mention of the difficulties of life under occupation, or the impact of expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Which gallery was he playing to?

The president said, “Let’s be honest: Israel is surrounded by neighbours that have waged repeated wars against it. Israel’s citizens have been killed by rockets fired at their houses and suicide bombs on their buses. Israel’s children come of age knowing that throughout the region, other children are taught to hate them… Israel, a small country of less than 8 million people, looks out at a world where leaders of much larger nations threaten to wipe it off of the map. The Jewish people carry the burden of centuries of exile, persecution, and the fresh memory of knowing that six million people were killed simply because of who they were.”

True enough, but that does not take into account the sufferings of the Palestinians. Who manufactures and pays for the weapons used by the Israelis in their attacks and retaliations? In what overt and covert ways are Palestinians provoked? Does the legacy of Israeli persecution down the centuries culminate in oppression of others (especially now that the tables have been well and truly turned for the past few decades) or in empathy and the potential for reconciliation?

To cap it all, “Friends of the Palestinians do them no favours by ignoring this truth [historical persecution], just as friends of Israel must recognise the need to pursue a two state solution with a secure Israel next to an independent Palestine.” This is convoluted. Responsibility for six million people killed during the Holocaust can be laid at the door of Hitler’s Germany and all those secular and religious powers that stood by and permitted it to happen. Yet, the same argument can be applied in reverse: persecution of the Palestinians can be laid at the door of Israel and all those secular and religious powers that stand by and permit it to happen.

President Obama faces deeply embedded hostilities and obstacles. By a unanimous Senate vote and a 407 to 6 majority in the US House, Congress demanded that Palestinian leaders “cease all efforts at circumventing the negotiation process, including through a unilateral declaration of statehood or by seeking recognition of a Palestinian state from other nations or the United Nations.” Furthermore, Congress, in the words of its resolution, expects President Obama to “lead a diplomatic effort to oppose a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state and to oppose recognition of a Palestinian state by other nations, within the United Nations and in other international forums prior to achievement of a final agreement between the Government of Israel and the Palestinians.”

In contrast, a lead article in The Economist (24 September 2011) was unequivocal:

“The Palestinians deserve a state, just as the Israelis do. The United States, the European Union and the Israeli government have all endorsed a two-state solution. There is broad agreement that the boundary should be based on the pre-1967 one, with land swaps allowing Israel to keep its biggest settlements close to the line, in return for the Palestinians gaining land elsewhere; Jerusalem should be shared; and the Palestinians should give up their claimed right of return to Israel proper. That still leaves much room for negotiation. But provided that the Palestinian request at the UN… does not undermine the basic terms of this deal, it is hard to see why any peacemaker, including America’s Barack Obama, should oppose a proposal that nudges Palestine closer to real statehood.”

Be brave Mr President, stand up for the Palestinians! Take Polonius’s advice to Hamlet: “To thine own self be true.” The world will be a better place.

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