The Devil's in the Discourse

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently illustrated how completely the administration has bought into the Israeli discourse.
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Three aspects of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's Saban Center speech on Friday have escaped general notice. First, though she spoke boldly of asking "tough questions and expecting substantive answers" on the core issues of the conflict, the process will not culminate in a "just, lasting and comprehensive peace" as Clinton claimed, but rather a framework agreement. What is a framework agreement? As defined by United States peace envoy George Mitchell in early September at the short-lived revival of direct Israeli-Palestinian talks, this peculiar American innovation is said to be more than a declaration of principles but less than a full-fledged treaty. It is supposed to establish "the fundamental compromises" that would then be fleshed out in a comprehensive agreement to end the conflict.

This bodes ill for the Palestinians, who have already signed a declaration of principles as well as a dozen other compromise-filled agreements with Israel between 1993 and 2000. Worse, it sounds like they would now be expected to compromise on their right of return, while actual freedom awaits a peace treaty that would then still have to be implemented -- who knows when? A second Obama term? Or his successor's? And meanwhile, Israel would continue to colonize. Then Clinton, perhaps unwittingly, further exposed the U.S. pretense of even-handedness. She claimed that the Obama administration, like its predecessors, does not accept the "legitimacy of continued settlement activity." However, some of those predecessors defined all settlements as illegal. This administration's phrasing, which it has used before, suggests that some settlements are more legitimate than others: it is "continued" activity that is said not to have legitimacy rather than the entire illegal enterprise. This puts the Obama administration in the same camp as George W. Bush, who also supported Israel's territorial and other ambitions in his April 2004 exchange of letters with former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Finally, Clinton illustrated how completely the administration has bought into the Israeli discourse. In her eagerness to support an Israel that is both Jewish and democratic, she skated perilously close to racism. She warned that "the long-term population trends that result from the occupation" were endangering the Zionist vision. In other words, that another four million Palestinians might soon demand equal rights in an Israel that has effectively controlled all of mandate Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea since 1967. These are murky waters indeed. One cannot imagine a political leader in any real democracy applying the same reasoning to their country. Would U.S. leaders speak of long-term Black, Hispanic, or Muslim population trends that endanger America as a "white and democratic" or as a "Christian" state? In the modern era, democratic states are expected to be constructs in which all citizens are equal under the law, irrespective of race or creed. In fact, as it stands today -- and without the addition of another four million Palestinians -- Israel is demonstrably not a democracy for its 1.6 million Palestinian citizens, who cite over 20 laws on the books that discriminate against them. Bills are regularly introduced in the Knesset, some by leading cabinet ministers, to tighten the screws on equality. Racism is rapidly on the rise among the population. In the most recent example, dozens of Israeli municipal chief rabbis signed a ruling forbidding renting homes to gentiles (read: Arabs). "We don't need to help Arabs set down roots in Israel," one of the rabbis explained, as though Palestinians have no rights in their native land. This is the democratic Jewish state Clinton extols. The U.S. is now on the wrong side of the discourse in more ways than one. The letter sent this month by 26 former European Union leaders to top EU officials and member states challenged the open-ended nature of the U.S. peace process -- and America's monopoly over the Middle East -- by proposing a deadline of April 2011 to refer the conflict to the international community if there is no progress. The letter is remarkable for the bluntness with which it demands that Israel be held accountable for its actions and be made to pay for the costs of its occupation. The leaders' call for sanctions is particularly important because it comes against the background of a fast-growing civil society movement to boycott Israel, as well as steps by a growing number of European pension funds to divest from companies involved in the occupation. It thus gives credibility to the growing BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement in the face of intensive Israeli attempts to tar it as anti-Semitic even though many BDS advocates are in fact Jews. These are significant shifts in the discourse. As happened in the case of South Africa, when enough people frame the issues differently, then superpowers lose their sway and justice and equality for all are upheld as the only possible alternatives to conflict. Nadia Hijab is co-director of Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network.

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