Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Changing the Subject
When was the last time you read about a meeting of AIPAC and didn’t see a single headline about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process? The speeches by government leaders about the Iran nuclear threat, the expected political posturing by Republican presidential candidates, and the ravings of right wing zealots like Liz Cheney (you’ll recall her father’s brilliant strategies that have so enhanced security in the region) were not surprising. What was remarkable was the deafening silence about a conflict that has lasted over six decades and that has typically been the issue most discussed in AIPAC Conferences where the goal has been to ensure that the United States remains Israel’s chief military patron and primary accommodator of the continued Occupation and settlement of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This year the subject seems to have been effectively changed.
President Obama, criticized in the past by Israel defenders for being too pushy about expanding settlements and for having the audacity to suggest that negotiations begin with the 1967 borders, appeared the chastened school boy. While giving a nod to the importance of the peace process, he went on to blame everything and everyone but Israel for failure – “the upheaval and uncertainty in Israel’s neighborhood. . . from the horrific violence raging in Syria, to the transition in Egypt. And the division within the Palestinian leadership makes it harder still – most notably, with Hamas’s continued rejection of Israel’s very right to exist.” He then criticized the Goldstone report, trumpeted the US boycott of the Durban Conference on Racism Commemoration, and denounced the Palestinian statehood initiative at the UN last September (speech in Politico, March 4, 2012).
I get it. The audience, the overheated U.S election year politics, the uncertainty in the region, and of course the very real threat Iran poses easily distract us from the simmering conflict. But it’s hard not to believe that for people like Prime Minister Netanyahu and his right wing cabinet Iran is also a convenient, if not particularly welcome distraction, shifting its patron’s attention from relentless expansion of Jewish settlements, Palestinian home demolitions, and land grabs in East Jerusalem. Palestinians get it, but that doesn’t make the pill any less bitter. “It was very clearly an election speech to win votes and influence people in the U.S. and Israel,” Hanan Ashrawi, a highly respected Palestinian leader told the press. “We couldn’t believe that the U.S. president is out there to prove that he is good for Israel, that for three years he has done everything Israel wanted. In many ways, people saw that as demeaning.” Ms. Ashrawi may have found this demeaning to Palestinians. Frankly, the one who was most demeaned was the president himself who, while trying to assert his independence over Iran policy, appeared completely cowed by Israel and his political opponents here on the question of the continued Occupation.
In the long run this could be as dangerous a game for Israel as the Iranian threat. Israeli human rights activist, Jeff Halper, recently wrote a piece essentially announcing the death of the two state solution:
“The bulldozers have been busy throughout that one indivisible country known by the bifurcated term Israel/Palestine. Palestinian homes, community centers, livestock pens and other “structures” (as the Israeli authorities dispassionately call them) have been demolished in the Old City, Silwan and various parts of “Area C” in the West Bank, as well as among the Bedouin – Israeli citizens – in the Negev/Nakab. This is merely mopping up, herding the last of the Arabs into their prison cells where, forever, they will cease to be heard or heard from, a non-issue in Israel and, eventually, in the wider world distracted by bigger, more pressing matters,” (February 19, found at www. mondoweiss.net )
Halper is even harsher with Palestinian leaders who, he claims, have accommodated the turning of the West Bank into a kind of “Bantustan” enforcing the conditions of the Occupation in exchange for modest economic and political gain. Noting statistics such as the demolition of 120 Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem in 2011 and the announcement by Israel of the construction of close to 7000 housing units for Jews in East and “Greater” Jerusalem, the European Union has said that “if current trends are not stopped and reversed the establishment of a viable Palestinian state within the pre-1967 borders seems more remote than ever. The window for a two-state solution is rapidly closing.”
If this window does close, then what? With all our peace process eggs in the two-state solution basket the international community, Palestinians, and Israelis will be left with no real options save a new eruption of violence or the evolution of some kind of unitary state in which Israeli Jews will ultimately control their country as a religious and ethnic minority amid a majority Arab population. Does anyone see this as a just or peaceful vision for the future? How is this not just as dangerous, albeit less dramatic, an end game as a nuclear Iran?
Yet Israeli leaders seem ready to employ the Iran distraction to its short term advantage while the U.S. administration presents itself spineless in the face of right wing U.S. and Israeli politicians and Christian Zionist zealots. As long as three years ago I began hearing Israeli leaders “changing the subject” to Iran whenever the question of the Occupation was raised. Iran is a clear danger. But must that danger be allowed to obscure another, and this one not just a potential danger, but a present reality? As long as the U.S. continues to foot the bills and keep its mouth shut, I guess the answer is yes.
John H. Thomas
March 8, 2012