President Obama: It is now the time for Palestine

For Obama, having lost control over both the Congress and the Senate at the end of last year, it’s been even more of a challenge not to spend his remaining time in office as a lame duck.

An Israeli Arab demonstrator holds a Palestinian flag during a protest in Nazareth, Israel's largest Arab town (photo credit: REUTERS)
An Israeli Arab demonstrator holds a Palestinian flag during a protest in Nazareth, Israel's largest Arab town
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The deal with Iran – or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed in Vienna on July 14 – is a done deal. Without going into the merits and shortcomings of the deal itself, it marks an unexpected yet clear trend. In a matter of a couple of months, US President Barack Obama became an advantage for Democratic candidates running in the 2016 US presidential election race.
This continues to amaze people in Washington, D.C., as well as globally, considering it was just eight months ago that candidates running for the Senate and Congress asked Obama’s team for the president to refrain from publicly endorsing them, let alone join their canvassing efforts. Now Hillary Clinton endorses the deal with Iran, and her campaign policy chief, Jake Sullivan, adds how central Clinton was to “building... the coalition and starting the diplomacy that resulted in what happened today.” Running for the party leadership and country’s presidency to her left, Senator Bernie Sanders naturally hailed the Iran pact as a “victory for democracy.”
It is not that the pact isn’t controversial, but rather Obama’s recent record on various issues has made his presidency a source for pride.
In a rapidly globalizing and multipolar world, with an America that faces deep social divisions and an economy burdened by unprecedented debt, it would have been difficult for any president to advance his foreign and domestic policies.
For Obama, having lost control over both the Congress and the Senate at the end of last year, it’s been even more of a challenge not to spend his remaining time in office as a lame duck. With a series of rulings outside of the Senate and Congress, by the executive branch, state legislatures, as well as in the Supreme Court – president Obama is on a roll.
It goes beyond, of course, his signature health reform being upheld against countless appeals. Obama came back into the game by breaking archaic taboos: from reaching out to Cuba, through endorsing gay marriage, and successfully calling for the confederate flag to be brought down in several southern states following the Charleston church shooting. In the crucial time between completing the Iran deal and entering the full-blown 2016 election season, Obama may break yet another taboo: enabling Palestinian statehood.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been on Obama’s agenda from his first day in office. While it’s difficult to be certain, it seems the president’s efforts to broker a deal have stemmed from a deep sense of justice. Sure, he needed to justify his early winning of a Noble Peace Prize. Entering the lion’s den of Middle East diplomacy was also in the interest of his ally, Israel, as well as that of his own country. Nevertheless, he also seems to have been motivated by a genuine commitment to justice.
It is that universal commitment which gives America the moral legitimacy to meddle so deeply in the conflict between two peoples living some 9,000 km. away from its capital. It is also that commitment which made an American president prefer talking to thousands of Israeli students at the human level, reminding them that their ability to “make their own decisions, to get an education and a good job, to worship God in their own way, to get married and have a family” should be shared also by the young Palestinians he met in Ramallah, and by “young Palestinians who yearn for a better life in Gaza.”
Furthermore, last May at the Adas Israel synagogue in Washington, Obama spoke of shared American, Jewish, human or “universal values that have led to progress over a millennium...
The same values that led to the end of Jim Crow and slavery.
The same values that led to Nelson Mandela being freed and a multiracial democracy emerging in South Africa... the same values that lead us to speak out against anti-Semitism.”
In the course of the 19th century, rivers of blood were shed in the name of equal civil rights. In 2015, President Obama should recognize the right of Palestinians to have full civil rights in their own state.
As Obama said in an interview for Israel’s Channel 2 last month, it does not seem likely that even a framework agreement will be possible during his presidency. Gaza’s Hamas is an internationally recognized terrorist organization, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank has lost all democratic legitimacy and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is, well, Netanyahu. Nevertheless, in the absence of progress, regression is still very possible: another war with Gaza is only a matter of time; Abbas is 80 years old and a heavy smoker, and his departure could transform the entire Palestinian national struggle for statehood into a campaign for civil rights in Israel; and Netanyahu’s government often acts like a puppet of the settlers’ lobby. It is therefore not a surprise that popular support for the two-state solution is dwindling, as demonstrated in a June poll by the Hebrew University and the Palestinian Center for Policy Research.
What the international community can do in the face of such poor political leadership in Israel and Palestine is guarantee to their respective peoples that their right to self-determination is not just circumstantial, but principled. This guarantee need not come through boycotts or sanctions on either side, but through diplomacy and upholding international law. Since 2011, both states and international organizations (UN agencies) began concretizing their recognition of the state of Palestine alongside Israel in numerous positive steps: opening embassies, signing treaties and more. Virtually all EU member states have recognized Palestine at the UN, and even in Germany positive steps are made toward recognizing Palestine in the Bundestag.
It is too easy to classify and dismiss any action by the international community as “delegalization of the State of Israel.” An alternative perspective to that of the government distinguishes international actions to build Israel and Palestine from those that seek to hurt either side.
While boycotts and sanctions often aggravate the politics, and always hurt the livelihood of ordinary citizens, declarative and symbolic acts of recognition are completely in line with the “do no harm” principle. In fact, they are imperative for those who view support for Israel, a two-state solution and justice as complementary, rather than contradictory.
It is from that perspective that over 1,000 Israeli dignitaries published a call to the UN Security Council to admit Palestine into the organization, and – following the recent deal with Iran – the Policy Committee of the Israeli Peace NGO Forum called upon “the government of Israel, the United States... [and all] Arab and Muslim states to adopt a similar diplomatic approach and determined strategy towards a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
President Obama will rightly refrain from pushing for another round of “peace talks,” but his foreign policy legacy can still present a breakthrough in the dangerous impasse between Israel and Palestine.
An American “yes” vote, or at least no veto, on a forthcoming initiative for Palestinian statehood at the UN Security Council will not make Obama any more popular in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, but neither will it hurt a single hair of any Israeli citizen. On the contrary: it may help strengthen the moderates who still support a two-state solution, at both the grassroots and the elite level.
American-Israeli relations will remain strong, as they did following Ford’s “reassessment,” Carter’s push for a withdrawal from Sinai, Reagan’s recognition of the PLO, Bush 41’s “Middle East Peace Conference” in Madrid, Clinton’s parameters, Bush 43’s “Roadmap” including a call to “freeze all settlement activity” and “ending the occupation that began in 1967,” and indeed Obama’s own turbulent relationship with Netanyahu. At the twilight of his presidency, Obama must not condition his vision with procedures like bilateral “peace talks,” which both Israeli and Palestinian leaderships failed at in the past. It is now the time for great decisions, which will – in the long term – benefit Israel too, as Martin Luther King Jr. once put it: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” At the UN, don’t be silent. Say yes to the state of Palestine.
The author is a PhD candidate and a member of the Policy Committee of the Israeli Peace NGO Forum.