The Washington Delusion

What have we learned in the last week about the politics of Israel and Palestine in Washington?

Last Thursday, President Obama made a rather tepid speech about his administration's policies in the Mideast in which he again affirmed the United States' longstanding close relationship with Israel. Yet his speech was immediately greeted with criticism from leading Jewish groups and he was publicly lectured the next day by Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu at a White House meeting.

Why? President Obama used language that should have deeply pleased Netanyahu: while opposing the use of violence and repression against the people of the region in the course of the Arab Spring, he made not one mention of nearly 44 years of Israel's occupation and ongoing repression of the Palestinians.

He further stated his opposition to Palestinian efforts to ratify statehood at the U.N., his concern about the Fatah-Hamas agreement (which in the rest of the world is considered the minimal pre-condition for negotiations to take place) and proposed a plan that would delay discussion of two of the most critical issues for Palestinians, that of the status of Jerusalem and the right of Palestinian refugees to return.

But despite the standard strong tilt in favor of Israel, in the minutes after the speech, the negative backlash against Obama began simply because he stated that a two-state solution "should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps."

On the moderate left, this language was greeted with a degree of excitement, with the New York Times calling it a "significant shift" in policy and setting out "a new starting point." The right-wing Zionist Organization of America called the '67 line "Auschwitz borders" and Netanyahu insisted they were "indefensible."

In reality, Obama said nothing new. Obama himself made that very clear in his speech to AIPAC the following Sunday when he said, "There was nothing particularly original in my proposal. This basic framework for negotiations has long been the basis for discussions among the parties, including previous U.S. administrations."

Obama went to great lengths in the course of his AIPAC speech to reinforce the U.S. commitment to Israel, regardless of Israel's behavior. He bragged about increasing the cooperation between U.S. and Israeli militaries to "unprecedented levels," increased foreign military spending to "record levels," mentioned "additional support beyond military aid for the Iron Dome anti-rocket system" and concluded by saying that the U.S. is committed to maintaining Israel's "qualitative military edge."

Could it be any more clear that the U.S. has no intention of holding Israel to the standards of international law and our own foreign policy goals? Obama stood in Cairo in 2009 and demanded that Israel cease to build settlements. Israel has repeatedly refused to comply. In fact, on the same day of Obama's Mideast speech, the Israeli organization Peace Now reported that construction had begun on 294 new homes in settlements, with the approval of Israel's Defense Ministry.

On Tuesday, in a rare joint session of Congress, Netanyahu got 29 standing ovations as he presented a belligerent defense of Israel and all the reasons it can't make peace, wrapped in the rhetoric of peace-making. This reception indicates that Congress will be oppositional even to Obama's inadequate proposals.

The message is clear: the Obama administration will continue to talk about a peace process, but will not use any of the tools at their disposal, especially Israel's extraordinary level of military aid at a time of domestic distress, to insist that Israel comply with the U.S.'s quite modest policy demand that settlement building cease, which is the most minimal prerequisite for the two state solution that both Israel and the U.S. profess to want. Congress will continue to oppose even the mildest criticisms of Israel's violations of human rights and international law.

None of this is new. The so-called peace process has dragged on for nearly twenty years while Israel has used it to entrench the Occupation. The number of Israeli settlers during this period has risen to half a million, while, as Ha'aretz reported a few weeks ago, 140,000 Palestinians lost their residency rights in their place of origin between 1967 and 1994 alone.

So while the debate over the parsing of Obama's and Netanyahu's words continues, many of us are more convinced than ever that the strategy of relying upon the President or Congress to be honest brokers is fruitless at this time. But we are far from hopeless. The non-violent protest movement in Palestinian villages, supported by Israelis and internationals, give us hope. The Arab Spring, with its clear call for the dignity and freedom for all Arab people, including Palestinians, gives us hope. And the growing movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), the Palestinian call for non-violent economic action, a tool used in so many struggles to make governments accountable, gives us hope.

We don't have to play the Washington game. We can take it to the streets, to our campuses, to our synagogues and churches, and to our pension funds. We can educate, inspire, and act on our values of justice, freedom, and equality -- the very values that we wish received more than lip service from our government. We are building a movement that will eventually be strong enough to force Washington, as other generations of activists have before us on issues of fundamental fairness, to enforce policies that actually respect the rights of Palestinians and Israelis equally.