Akram Baker
Bitterlemons (Opinion)
December 22, 2010 - 1:00am

Much has been said about United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's December 10 speech at the Brookings Institute. Analysis has ranged from it being admission of complete failure on the part of the Obama administration and a win for Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (with US President Barack Obama backing down on the settlements) to some in Palestinian-American circles declaring it a victory for the Palestinians (with the withdrawal of the much-criticized, so-called US "security sweetener" package for Israel in return for a 90-day settlement-building moratorium). All of these may be correct in a technical sense, but they completely miss the greater meaning. No new American policy was laid out in Clinton's speech. She utterly failed to lay out any novel approaches to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What was interesting was the very subtle change in tone.

Looking first at the visuals, all that was left was for Clinton to put a Star of David crown on her head to underscore just how much she loves Israel. The large backdrop was a montage of dual Israeli and American flags with--more or less--only the Israeli one showing on TV and still images of those behind the podium. I was just waiting for the PA system to break into a rousing rendition of HaTikva. And as is so depressingly common, Secretary Clinton spent the first ten minutes or so of her address parroting every declaration of love possible about the enduring and infinite strength of US-Israel relations. But then something, however subtle, changed. She mentioned Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who was in the audience, and began what could only be called a glowing appraisal of the Palestinian leader.

With Israel, she spoke in general platitudes about the relationship, words taken from the standard handbook if you wish, while with Fayyad, the secretary not only heaped praise in the abstract, but was very specific in her comments: state-building, institution-building, security, economics, infrastructure. And all of this accomplished "under very difficult circumstances"--read: Israel is not helping him, as it should.

On the other side, Clinton had very few nice things to say about Netanyahu. To those who were looking, it was clear that she was seriously miffed about Bibi passing on her way-too-generous offer of unrivalled security, military and political carrots for nothing more than an inconsequential short halt to settlement-building. It had seemed for a while that the US administration was trying its best to imitate Spike Lee's Mars Blackmon in its "Please, baby, baby, please" approach toward incentives for Israel to end its intransigence. Sources say that Obama was particularly upset about the rejection, feeling that Clinton had gone too far in the first place. Whatever the reason, the secretary of state was not happy with the way Israel's government was treating them.

At the same time, there were undertones that Clinton was not happy about the way Obama had thrown down the gauntlet about settlements in the first place, feeling that he shouldn't have bet the barn from the outset of his term. But she qualified that stance with her very clear rejection of the settlement "experiment". I believe that Obama was absolutely right in understanding that stopping the settlements is the first step toward resolving the conflict--which can only come with an end of the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

I have no doubt in my mind that the Americans, Obama and Clinton in particular, know what has to be done to end the conflict. There are enough papers and resolutions and plans to fill the entire White House twice over explaining in finite detail how to divide the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan: an end of the Israeli occupation of 1967, compensation of refugees with a symbolic return of a few to Israel and joint sharing of Jerusalem under international protection. I cannot believe that intellectually, they do not have a firm grasp on this reality. However, what is needed is political will to implement the solution. Clinton forcefully set out the parameters, but just as weakly failed to inject the key element for success: accountability. By not putting the parties (especially Israel) on notice that failure to meet the following measures will lead to A, B and C, she--like administrations before her--took the bite out of her bark. Carrots without sticks are just vegetables.

The hard fact is that Israel cannot continue to occupy Palestine with impunity. Over the long term, it cannot survive unless it decides that making peace with the Palestinians is the only way to guarantee its future. Its military strength is fleeting and no country in history has ever survived on that alone. If the US really cares about Israel, it has the moral responsibility of telling the Israelis as much in unambiguous terms. All the rest is nothing more than an academic exercise. Maybe, just maybe, the tone in Hillary Clinton's voice was the first faint sound of that happening.


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