Tuesday, November 17, 2009

President Obama’s Third Mantra

Those who habitually read newspapers or listen to broadcast news know that President Obama had until now two mantras in his mind. His first mantra: “Our support of Israel to live in security is unshakable”, has been heard around the world, loudly and clearly, dozens of times.

His second mantra: “The bond between Israel and USA is unbreakable”, also has been heard around the world on many occasions. He chanted it even at the Cairo University in Egypt. “America's strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable.” These two mantras and some minor variants of the mantras have been chanted just like mantras, repeatedly, by Vice President Joe Biden, and Secretary of State Clinton, and Obama’s Middle East envoy George Mitchell every time they found an opportunity to chant them.

To those who are dismayed and bored with President Obama’s two mantras, I have some good news. Rejoice! President Obama has found a new mantra, his third, and has added it to his list. The new mantra is: “We are dismayed that Israelis are expanding the settlements”.

The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said that the Palestinian Authority “strongly condemns” the decision to build 900 housing units in Gilo, in East Jerusalem. In contrast, the Obama administration issued a statement that the administration was “dismayed” and asked both parties to avoid unilateral actions that could “pre-empt, or appear to pre-empt, negotiations.” I think his administration is sleeping; doesn’t it know that the peace process is dead and gone?

I am dismayed that The New York Times wrote that: “The news that the building plans had moved closer to approval drew a sharp response from the White House, which has declared reviving the talks to be a major policy goal.” And what was White House’s sharp response? The statement – Obama’s third mantra – that “We are dismayed that Israelis are expanding the settlements”. Here is a country that defies international laws, a country that it supports unconditionally with financial and military aid, and a country that it protects from international condemnations at the UN Security Council, and all that the Obama administration can do is express its “dismay” at Israel’s disregard for international laws?

These settlements are not only illegal per international laws, and against UN resolutions, they are opposed by almost the entire world except the USA. Yes, Obama’s administration has in the past stated that “We do not recognize the legitimacy of Israel’s settlements in the occupied territories”; but these are hollow words, not backed up with actions, actions such as ending economic and military aid to an aggressor and oppressor, and an international bully. President Obama has continued to send blank checks to Israel, and on time. It’s high time that the Nobel Peace committee stopped deluding itself that President Obama is a man of peace. I am aware that it is quite unlikely that the committee would withdraw the Nobel Peace Prize already given; but it is never too late to issue a statement expressing its regrets.

Yesh Prabhu, Plainsboro, NJ

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Declare Independence of Palestine Now

It is now abundantly clear that the stalled negotiation for peace in the Middle East is now dead.

During Secretary of State Clinton’s recent short sojourn through the region, in her joint press conference with Mr. Netanyahu in Jerusalem, she effusively praised Netanyahu’s intransigence regarding Israel’s illegal settlements in the West Bank. The peace process died when she bizarrely described as “unprecedented” Mr. Netanyahu’s paltry concession to slow down the feverish tempo of building illegal housing units in the occupied territories. Even though she hastily tried to back-track, the damage to the peace process had been done. It was as if she had given the peace process a death blow. The Palestinian negotiators were deeply shocked. Did not President Obama, and even Mrs. Clinton herself, say only a month ago that the Israeli settlements in the occupied land were illegitimate? It dawned on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that the peace process was dead, and so he announced that he will be resigning from his position soon. He had threatened to resign a couple of times on previous occasions, of course, but this time it seems that he means to carry out his threat.

At the White House President Obama has been mostly silent regarding the peace process, except for declaring at regular and frequent intervals his commitment for the security of Israel and announcing that the bond between Israel and the USA is “unshakable”. After impressing the entire world with his commitment for peace, and inspiring the world with his soaring speech and dazzling oratory from the august hall of Cairo University in Cairo, Egypt, when he said, “America's strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable…..On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own," he seems to have changed. He seems to have had second thoughts regarding Palestinians’ suffering, and has been tilting slowly, but perceptibly, towards the Israeli side. And the world has noticed this tilt. He has clearly softened his opposition to the ever expanding Israeli settlements in both the West Bank and East Jerusalem. And perhaps even more shocking: he remained silent as the Israeli government evicted Palestinian and Arab families from their homes in East Jerusalem, and bulldozed two houses.

There are credible reports that Palestinian Prime Minister Mr. Salam Fayyad is seriously exploring his own plan for peace in the Middle East that he first proposed in August 2009 in a 54-page booklet: To unilaterally declare the independence of Palestine bounded by the internationally recognized June 4, 1967 borders and with East Jerusalem as its capital. For forty years the pursuit of peace has been through endless negotiations; Fayyad would like to seek peace through a declaration. The game of Negotiation versus Declaration should be most fascinating to watch. There are reports also that the plan has earned the broad backing of the UN, the Quartet, and a few European leaders, as well as the Obama administration.

This is not really a novel or new idea as Mr. Fayyad very well knows, because this plan has precedents. For example, on 17 February 2008, Kosovo had issued its unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia, and the United States and most European Union countries, with which this declaration was coordinated, had rushed to extend diplomatic recognition to this “new country”. So, wouldn’t the USA and the same EU countries now find it awkward to oppose any such unilateral declarations of independence for Palestine? I am afraid they will not find it awkward, because in any matter that pertains to Israel, having a double standard is the norm, not the exception. Consider nuclear weapons, for example. Even though Israel possesses more than 200 nuclear weapons, all the noise one hears coming from Washington and the capitals of the EU countries is regarding the probability of Iran’s acquiring nuclear capability in two or three years. Rockets fired by the Hamas in Gaza into its occupying and blockading neighbor, Israel, is considered terrorism; but the precision missiles fired at Palestinians’ houses, schools, hospitals, mosques, sewage treatment plants, water reservoirs, and police stations, and the phosphorus bombs dropped by Israel on Palestinian civilians is considered self-defense, even though per international law, an occupying power can not claim self defense in justifying its atrocities.

Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper has reported that in secret meetings with leaders of a few EU nations, Mr. Fayyad has secured support for his grand plan. There are reports that he has discussed his plan with both President Obama and Mrs. Clinton also. Netanyahu, obviously, does not like the plan at all, and he has asked Obama to veto the plan in the UN Security Council should the proposal arrive at the Security Council.

Mr. Salam Fayyad knows that forty years of negotiations with successive Israeli governments have resulted in only three significant things that matter: Increase in numbers of the ever expanding, illegal settlements; and encroachment of vast areas of Palestinian ancestral lands; and loss of even more land for the creation of security “buffer areas”. Even though nothing will be built in these buffer areas, the Palestinians will be forbidden from entering these areas, nevertheless.

Israel now has 121 Jewish-only settlements and 106 out-posts, all of them illegal, on confiscated Palestinian land. Nearly 500,000 Israelis live in the occupied territories and East Jerusalem.

Per Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949: “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” I am certain that President Obama knows this. And yet he has decided to go along with Mr. Netanyahu’s plan of expanding the illegal settlements as the world watches in bewildered silence.

If the Palestinians truly wish to establish their independent state, they need to do only a simple thing. After suffering all the terrors of the 41 year occupation and horrors of the Gaza War, and the daily humiliations at the roadside checkpoints, the time has come to take a bold step and do the right and necessary thing: Unilaterally declare independence from Israel, just as the people of Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, in February 2008.

Let there be peace on earth.

Yesh Prabhu, Plainsboro, NJ

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

President Obama’s Peace Mask Has Cracked

On the political stage, a short period of five months might as well be an eternity. As the world turns on its axis, events least expected can and often do happen, and spin out of control; and carefully laid out plans go awry.

On Thursday June 4, 2009, President Obama spoke to the world from the august Major Reception Hall at Cairo University in Cairo, Egypt. Appropriately titled "A New Beginning", the speech was grand and impressive. He described Palestinians' statelessness as "intolerable", and recognized their aspirations for statehood and dignity as legitimate, just as legitimate as Israel's desire for a Jewish homeland. And, of course, he reaffirmed, as he had done several times before, America's alliance with Israel, calling their mutual bond "unbreakable". He was wearing his peace mask. That was only five months ago, and already it seems so very long ago.

Now, consider this scenario: Imagine an experienced ballerina on a well-lit stage, waiting to dance a beautifully choreographed "Swan Lake". But instead of playing the well-rehearsed and famous Tchaikovsky score, the orchestra suddenly decides to play rap music, and as the startled ballerina tries to take it into stride and begins to improvise, an immense hydraulic pump beneath the stage begins to slowly raise the back of the stage, and as a consequence the ballerina slides and falls on fer face. Now imagine that Secretary of State Clinton was this ballerina. That is what happened to her in Jerusalem last week. This is the sequence of a series of events that started in Washington and culminated in Morocco in a fiasco:

Last week President Obama sent Secretary of State Clinton for a short sojourn through Pakistan to assure Pakistanis of USA's long term committment to Pakistan. From Pakistan Clinton flew to Abu Dhabi, to meet PA President Mahmoud Abbas, and to urge him to rejoin the stalled peace process. He firmly declined that invitation saying that unless Israel froze all settlement activities he will not negotiate. From Abu Dhabi Mrs. Clinton flew to Jerusalem to meet Netanyahu. She emerged from a closed door meeting with Netanyahu and, in a joint press meeting made this befuddled statement: "What the prime minister has offered... a restraint on the policy of settlements, which he has just described, no new starts, for example, is unprecedented in the context of prior negotiations." In other words, Netanyahu would build the recently approved (with Obama's blessimgs) 3000 new housing units on land already confiscated from Palestinians, but he would build them at a slower pace. He will not start new settlements, but will only extend existing illegal settlements. She priased Netanyahu's offer effusively.

This statement caused a great furor in the Arab world. Mahmoud Abbas said Mr. Netanyahu's proposal was a "non-starter," in the words of his chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat. And Erekat said that halting settlement construction was the "only way to ensure the revival of the peace process." The secretary general of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, said Mrs. Clinton's remarks in Jerusalem "mean that we are once again in the same vicious circle we were in the 1990s". The Arabs saw a clear US tilt towards Israel. The Saudis were upset with Mrs. Clinton; Jordan's King Abdullah was livid. It soon dawned on President Obama that Mrs. Clinton had to tone down, and retune and fine-tune what she was saying. So here in Washington Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Philip J. Crowley clarified for The Jerusalem Post that the United States is still demanding that Israel freeze all settlement activity, but that it should not be a precondition for talks between Israelis and Palestinians.

And in Morocco, before meeting with the Arab foreign ministers, Mrs. Clinton moderated her praise for Israel's offer to restrain building settlements in Palestinian areas. Regarding Netanyahu's offer she said, "It is not what we want; it is nowhere near enough. But I think when you keep your eye on what we want to achieve, it is a better place to be than the alternative. And therefore, I think we should be trying to keep moving the parties." She insisted that Washington still considered settlement activity in West Bank "illegitimate" and that Obama wanted a freeze.

Even though Mrs. Clinton's "slip" occured in Jerusalem, the crack in Obama's peace mask occured in Washington. That is the nature of political occurences, sometimes. An event occurs in one place, but the consequence can be seen in a distant place, far removed from the place of occurence.

George Mitchell met again with Mr. Abbas, this time in Jordan, on Monday, and also with King Abdullah. In Marrakesh, Morocco, Mrs. Clinton tried to persuade skeptical Arab foreign ministers of the value of Israel's proposal. She even met Libyan foreign minister, Musa Kusa. Wow!

From Marrakesh Mrs. Clinton flew to Cairo to confer with Hosni Mubarak, and to mollify Muslims angry at her remarks at the weekend praising Israel's offer to slow down - but not freeze - settlement construction in the West Bank. Netanyahu would continue to build in East Jerusalem, however.

Be that as it may, I believe that the reason the peace process has not succeeded even after forty years' negotiations is that America loves Israel blindly. Call it motherly love. The USA feels motherly love for Israel, but it has a step-motherly attitude towards Palestinians. That is the very kernel of the problem. Until the step-motherly attitude towards the Palestinians changes, there will be no peace in the Middle East.

It is becoming abundantly clear that President Obama is not unbiased regarding Israel-Palestine conflict. His Middle East policy now has a clear, discernible tilt towards Israel. The peace mask that he wore so successfully for nine months as an unbiased arbiter for peace has cracked.

A new peace mask for Obama is on order, I suppose.

Yesh Prabhu, Plainsboro, NJ