As Obama Tours Israel, It’s Time for Action, Not Talk
During President Barack Obama’s visit in Israel, he must focus on ending the occupation.
While it didn’t make the blogosphere or the gossip columns, there was one extraordinary aspect to this year’s Oscars: Two Academy Award-nominated films for best documentary depicted the problems of the Israeli occupation of Palestine and suggest the necessity of a negotiated two-state solution.
Five Broken Cameras, made by Palestinian filmmaker Emad Burnat, documents the destruction of his village, land and his “five cameras” by the Israeli Defense Forces and Israeli “settlers.” Israeli director Dror Moreh’s film The Gatekeepers, on the other hand, tells the story of the occupation from the point of view of six former directors of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, who have enforced the occupation — and have come to recognize the occupation not only as a threat to Palestine and the Palestinians but as endangering the political and moral character of Israeli democracy.
For those who think the ending of the occupation is critical, the timing could not have been better. This moment of recognition came just weeks before President Barack Obama’s current trip through Israel and other parts of the region and just a month after the Israeli elections shook the bellicose, occupation-at-any-cost Netanyahu government off its long-thought-to-be-secure pedestal.
Contrary to the predictions of pundits, the hopes of hawks and the hand-wringing of the doves, the Israeli elections have left Israel not in the hands of a firmly entrenched, right-wing coalition but with a 50/50 split between left and right — a voting pattern very much like that in our own country last fall .
Political commentators and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself had predicted a sweeping victory for his pro-settler/pro-occupation coalition. Netanyahu saw the election as an opportunity to receive a wholesale endorsement of his policies of increasing the number and size of Israeli settlements in the Palestinian West Bank and East Jerusalem, and pre-emptive strikes against Iran.
His victory, however, was not to be. Rather, Netanyahu’s winner-take-all coaltion was bested by the rising fortunes of a new centrist party and the garnering of an increased number of seats by the traditional progressive Labor, Meretz and smaller Israeli-Arab parties — all of which are committed to the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian situation with a two-state solution: A sovereign state for the Palestinians and a sovereign Jewish state for Israelis.
Interestingly, and important for Obama on the home front, the vote in Israel for peace mirrors the votes of American Jews in last November’s election. Despite the millions of dollars spent by Sheldon Adelson and other hawkish Jews to paint Obama’s push for peace as a threat to Israel, Obama won more than 70 percent of the Jewish vote.
While all this may seem of only passing interest to many in America, it should not be. The Middle East is in transition. In the tumult of change, there is a vigorous — some would say virulent — contest for the future of the region between secular Democrats and those who would replace monarchies and military dictatorships with theocracies. While Israel occupies Palestine, it gives unwanted credence and strength to the extremists who use the occupation to flame hatred and foster terror. At the same time, the occupation is so odious that it denies Israel the support it might otherwise have from the secular Democrats with whom Israel must forge an alliance if the state is to take its rightful place in an emerging, democratic progressive middle east.
Failure to end the occupation is likely to lead not simply to the loss of Israel’s Jewish or Democratic character, but to an escalated conflict into which the United States would inevitably be drawn. As we have seen over the last decade in Iraq, Afghanistan and New York City, these battles have great meaning and great cost to the United States — both our access to resources, our security and, in light of the $3 trillion spent on wars, our financial viability.
While ending two of America’s longest wars will be signatures of the Obama presidency, the president’s Middle East trip offers the possibility of doing something more; the possibility of a foreign policy legacy that not only ends wars, but ensures peace. He can bring the Palestinians and Israelis to the table to finalize a two-state solution to the conflict that has dominated the Middle East for nearly a century.
Never before has a U.S. president had more propitious circumstances. Opportunities like this come rarely and must not be squandered. It’s time to end the discussion of talking about talking and make sure that the United States — which remains the largest outside funder of Israel and, as all leaders of Israel say, is critical to the process — brings the parties to the table and forges an agreement on land and governance. Such an agreement is to the only way to ensure the future peace and security not only of Israel, Palestine and the Middle East, but of America itself.