Adel Safty
Gulf News (Opinion)
November 16, 2009 - 1:00am

Although the peace process is at an impasse, two recent debates about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have started to redefine some of the most fundamental issues of the conflict: the first started in the US and focuses on the nature and appropriateness of the unconditional American support for Israel; the second is taking place in Israel itself and addresses such fundamental issues as the very nature of being a Jewish state, and, crucially, the wrongs the Palestinian people have suffered.

Both debates are long overdue and ignoring the questions they raise has done little to advance the search for a peaceful settlement of the conflict.

Consider the nature of the issues at stake. In the US, the debate started when two professors, not known for their radical views (John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt) wrote about "the Israel lobby" and dared to question whether unconditional American support for Israel had served American foreign policy.

Supporters of Israel were outraged, and asked in disbelief how anyone could dare suggest that "there was a cabal of die-hard Zionists" in the media and in Congress working to ensure that US policy was defined by the pro-Israel lobby.

The temerity of the two professors foretold a slow but significant change in American public opinion and in its willingness to challenge the pro-Israel party line. Israel's war in Lebanon and Gaza complicated the task of the Israeli lobby and undermined its claim that Israel really wanted peace but could not find a partner among the Palestinians.

It was against this background that the new Obama administration was able to assert its support for the security of Israel, but not for its ongoing colonisation of Palestinian land — a position no previous president found it possible to articulate as forcefully as Barack Obama did.

In subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, ways, Obama asserted his independence from the Israeli lobby and its so far unchallenged monopoly on the narrative of the conflict.

Making a point

Earlier this year, the New York Times noted that Obama, unlike previous presidents, took his time meeting the Israel lobby. He included in the meeting leaders of a new pro-Israel organisation called J Street, which, unlike the pro-Likud main Israel lobby organisations, supports a peace agreement with the Palestinians based on the two-state solution.

The powerful members of the various organisations making up the Israel lobby had strenuously objected to the inclusion of J Street in the meeting.

Obama ignored these objections.

Last month, J Street held its first conference. The attendance apparently exceeded all expectations and validated J Street's contention that their pro-Israel pro-peace position is supported by a large segment of American and Israeli public opinion.

At the White House meeting, the principal representatives of the Israeli lobby argued that exposing US-Israel differences serves the interests of neither country. Obama surprised the participants when he said: "I disagree, we had eight years of no light and there was no progress."

Further, when Obama nominated Charles W. Freeman, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, as chairman of the National Intelligence Council, Israel's loyal supporters in Congress and the Israel lobby vehemently objected and led a campaign of vilification that ultimately forced Freeman to withdraw his name.

But the fact that someone like Freeman was nominated by Obama in the first place was highly significant.

Freeman once said that "the brutal oppression of the Palestinians by the Israeli occupation shows no sign of ending". He also said that Israel "excels at war; sadly, it has shown no talent for peace".

In the pre-Obama environment, Freeman would never have been nominated.

Growing isolation

In Israel, the growing isolation of the country internationally, the Goldstone report's finding that the Israeli military committed war crimes in Gaza, forced Israeli politicians to undertake an unprecedented move: to schedule a hearing in the Knesset on Israel's international standing in light of the Goldstone Report and of the "continuing process" of "decline" in the nation's reputation.

Israeli writer Ari Shavit opined that Israel had lost, not its reputation, but its very legitimacy. Writing in the Israeli paper Haaretz, Shavit argued that unless a major diplomatic and moral effort is undertaken, "Israel will become an international pariah".

Writing in the Jerusalem Post, Bradley Burston commented on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's demand that the Palestinians recognise Israel as "the national state of the Jewish People", which he described as a pretext to "deflect demands for a colony freeze".

Israeli academic Gideon Levy forcefully stated "Israel is living a lie, pretending that the occupation does not exist, that it is just, temporary and unavoidable" He called for concrete action to make the Israelis understand that "the injustice they are perpetrating comes with a price tag".

These new voices in America and Israel are changing the narrative of the conflict and the questions they raise will surely influence its final outcome.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017