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To Succeed Where Clinton Failed, Obama Needs a History Lesson

The renewed Israel-Hamas war in Gaza presents the incoming Obama Administration with its most difficult immediate foreign policy challenge. Yet it also offers Obama a well-timed opportunity to act on his promise to return to the aggressive Mideast diplomacy that characterized the final years of the Clinton Administration.


But with much of the Clinton-era Middle East team working for Obama, what hope is there that the new Democratic Administration will fare any better than its predecessor?

To succeed where Clinton failed, President Obama would be well-advised to leave his deputies to put out this latest fire, which soon enough will burn itself out, however bloodily. Instead, Obama should focus his considerable intellect on forging a fundamentally new American understanding of the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its continued impact on relations between the two peoples.

Without such a reappraisal of the conflict's roots and contemporary drivers, President Obama will find it impossible to shepherd Israelis and Palestinian towards a final peace agreement.

To begin such a reappraisal, Obama will have to disabuse himself—and through him, the American foreign policy and media establishments—of the widespread notion that Israel's 40-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has been rooted in its legitimate security needs. This claim, long accepted as fact, is easily disproved.

If Israel had been concerned primarily about security when it conquered the West Bank and Gaza Strip in June 1967, it would have cordoned off the Occupied Territories, stationed troops in strategic locations to prevent infiltration and protect their borders with Egypt and Jordan, and explained to the Palestinians that until they demonstrated a willingness to live in peace with Israel they would remain under military occupation, in accordance with the internationally recognized laws of war.

But instead of merely securing the Occupied Territories Israel initiated a settlement enterprise that gradually took over the country's political and military establishments, which today remain dominated by men who from the start opposed the Oslo peace process.

That the number of settlers in the Occupied Territories doubled during the years of the Oslo peace process (1993-2000) is merely the most glaring fact on the ground gainsaying the argument that Israel has continued the Occupation merely to protect its security. The huge swaths of Palestinian land expropriated, homes destroyed, and trees uprooted amidst an ever expanding settlement infrastructure fills out the reality of four decades of occupation.

The settlement imperative did not begin in 1967, however. Settling and “judaizing” Palestine (yehud is the official Hebrew term for this policy) have been at the heart of the Zionist enterprise since the first pioneers arrived in the late 19th century. As Israeli sociologist Gershon Shafir demonstrated in his seminal 1989 book, Land, Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, the drive to “conquer the land” helped transform Zionism into a “militant nationalist movement” by 1909, the year the first Kibbutz, Degania, and the first Jewish town, Tel Aviv, were established.

[ad #go-daddy-468x60]A century later, as Tel Aviv prepares to celebrate its 100th anniversary, the settlement system remains the most potent political force in Israel.

Only by understanding just how profoundly the drive to settle the West Bank has shaped Israeli identity and policies can Obama understand why its been so hard for Israel to abide by the “land for peace” formula underlying the Oslo peace process. Focusing on settlements would also remind Obama and his Mideast peace team that while the current fighting is concentrated in Gaza, the prize over which both sides are fighting remains the biblical heartland of the West Bank.

Perhaps most important, such a focus would illuminate for the new President how important was America's unwillingness to pressure Israel on settlements in dooming the Oslo peace process. It was precisely during the crucial 1994-99 period, while the Clinton Administration was busy enhancing Israeli-Palestinian “security cooperation,” that Israel tightened its matrix of control over the Territories right under America's nose.

By focusing myopically on security as the sine qua non for advancing the peace process, Clinton failed to understand that Israel's exploding settler population was a far greater long term security threat than the mostly non-violent Palestinian opposition to the peace process such cooperation was aimed at neutralizing.

It goes without saying that a deeper understanding of Palestinians' history of failed resistance against Zionism would also help Obama refashion a more successful diplomatic strategy. Three components of that history are particularly relevant today: First, while long ignored by the media and politicians, most Palestinian resistance against Jewish/Israeli settlement has been non-violent. But grass-roots Palestinian activism has always been suppressed, usually violently, by whoever has governed the country—whether by the country's Ottoman rulers a century ago or by Israel today.

Second, from the start the official Palestinian leadership has been riven by corruption, factionalism, and political incompetence that has rendered it unable to put the interests of the people ahead of the economic and political interests of the elite. In the 1920s, Palestinian leaders railed against Zionism by day only to sell land to Zionists at night. Seven decades later, “moderate” leaders like PA President Mahmoud Abbas became rich off of Israeli-sponsored monopolies, while Israel strengthened its economic and territorial control of the West Bank with only muted opposition from the Palestinian Authority.

These two dynamics should tell Obama that supporting corrupt and ineffective leaders merely because they are moderates has in fact strengthened the radicalism that has doomed the peace process. (Obama would hopefully also realize that the same dynamic holds true for America's support of corrupt and authoritarian leaders across the Arab world.)

With such an understanding, it becomes apparent that US diplomacy needs to be refocused away from supporting elites and towards encouraging Palestinian civil society to develop more successful grass roots strategies, when possible in coordination with Israeli peace forces, to oppose an occupation that the United States has for too long enabled.

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Indeed, the final lesson of Palestinian history is that as long as ordinary Palestinians are not empowered politically, violence and even terrorism will be accepted by many as the only tool of resistance left to them, even if such a strategy is considered morally, legally and strategically illegitimate or ineffective by outsiders.

The most important outcome of a reconsideration of Israeli and Palestinian histories would be to give President Obama the moral and political authority to put forth a final peace agreement the two parties would find it nearly impossible to oppose. Such a settlement would include the following elements:

  • Israel would agree to withdraw to the 1967 boundaries of the West Bank and Gaza. The only exception would be the Jewish suburbs in East Jerusalem established between 1967 and 1993, which most Palestinians have accepted would be retained by Israel in exchange for a an equivalent piece of Israeli territory being transferred to Palestinian control.
  • All other West Bank settlements would be dismantled, save for any that Palestinians allowed to remain in exchange for financial and territorial compensation.
  • East Jerusalem would become the Palestinian capital, while greater Jerusalem would remain an open city based on the formula of “two capitals for two peoples.”
  • Israel would agree to the return of a politically significant number of Palestinian refugees, but one small enough not to change the long-term demographic balance inside the country. Given the presence of hundreds of thousands of illegal foreign workers in Israel, at least 100,000 Palestinians could return without upsetting the demographic balance if an equivalent number of foreign workers departed. Additional Palestinians could be admitted in exchange for an equivalent number of Israelis remaining in settlements inside Palestine.

With history on his side, Obama could take the politically unprecedented step of informing Israel that its refusal to sign this agreement would bring the suspension of all US non-humanitarian economic and military support. In other words, if Israel continues to put settlements ahead of peace, it will have to go it alone.

The inducements to encourage an Israeli Yes would be equally powerful, moving beyond continued military and economic aid to include full membership in NATO and even the European Union (which would significantly advance the much sought after globalization of Israel's economy). It is inconceivable that any of Israel's adversaries, including Iran, would attack it when such an action would automatically invite a full-scale war with Alliance, which would have front line troops stationed in the country.

Crucially, under such an arrangement Israel would be placed under NATO's nuclear umbrella. It could then transfer its nuclear weapons to NATO control, which would take away the most important Iranian justification for pursuing its own nuclear arsenal. This would pave the way for a denuclearization of the Middle East, and in so doing alleviate what is by far the most dangerous threat to Israel's long term security.

For its part, a Palestinian No would mean an American green light for Israel to continue the occupation indefinitely, which would weaken Palestinian society until it is forced to accept whatever crumbs of sovereignty offered by Israel. But a Yes would bring about the rapid establishment of a territorially viable Palestinian state in the vast majority of the West Bank and Gaza, a dream presently beyond the hopes of most Palestinians.

Were Obama courageous enough to put forward such a plan, it would no doubt be vehemently opposed both by the Israeli government (although outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has recently accepted much of its territorial component). The American Jewish leadership, its allies in Congress, and most of Obama's senior Mideast advisors, whom to a person have strong ties to Israel and the Jewish establishment, would also oppose it.

But the American people, including many American Jews, along with the majority of Israelis and Palestinians, would undoubtedly support a plan if if it were put forward in the right historical and political context.

Even more important, a bold yet fair plan would also demonstrate a level of resolve and creativity that have long been lacking in American foreign policy. Such traits would well serve President Obama as he tackles even more dangerous quagmires in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran.

One thing is for sure, if Obama limits his horizons to the failed visions of his Clinton-era Mideast team, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and with it America's larger problems in the Muslim world, are going to get a lot worse in the coming years.


Mark LeVine

Mark LeVine is professor of modern Middle Eastern history, culture, and Islamic studies at the University of California, Irvine, and author of the forthcoming books: Heavy Metal Islam: Rock Religion and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (Random House/Three Rivers Press, July 8, 2008), and An Impossible Peace: Oslo and the Burdens of History (Zed Books, in press). He is also author of Why They Don't Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil (Oneworld Publications, 2005), and Overthrowing Geography: Jaffa, Tel Aviv and the Struggle for Palestine, 1880-1948 (California, 2005), and co-editor of Reapproaching Borders: New Perspectives on the Study of Israel-Palestine (Rowman Littlefield, 2007), Religion, Social Practices and Contested Hegemonies: Reconstructing the Public Sphere in Muslim Majority Societies (Palgrave, 2005) and with Viggo Mortensen and Pilar Perez, of Twilight of Empire: Responses to Occupation.

Republished with permission from the History News Network.