Apartheid, Bantustans and Obama’s empty words (Walt and Miller agree)

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Obama’s visit has produced harmonic convergence in Aaron David Miller and Steve Walt. “Been There, Done That,” is Miller’s headline. “Empty Words” by Steve Walt, who says rhetoric doesn’t move leaders, power politics does, and Obama will never use the tools at his disposal to pressure Israel to end its current policy, apartheid and bantustans and colonialism:

He did not say that future American support for Israel would be conditional on its taking concrete steps to end the occupation and allow for the creation of a viable state (i.e. not just a bunch of vulnerable Bantustans)…

For realists like me, in short, halting a colonial enterprise that has been underway for over forty years will require a lot more than wise and well-intentioned words. Instead, it would require the exercise of power. Just as raw power eventually convinced most Palestinians that Israel’s creation was not going to be reversed, Israelis must come to realize that denying Palestinians a state of their own is going to have real consequences. Although Obama warned that the occupation was preventing Israel from gaining full acceptance in the world, he also made it clear that Israelis could count on the United States to insulate them as much as possible from the negative effects of their own choices. Even at the purely rhetorical level, in short, Obama’s eloquent words sent a decidedly mixed message.

Because power is more important than mere rhetoric, it won’t take long before Obama’s visit is just another memory. The settlements will keep expanding, East Jerusalem will be cut off from the rest of the West Bank, the Palestinians will remain stateless, and Israel will continue on its self-chosen path to apartheid. And in the end, Obama will have proven to be no better a friend to Israel or the Palestinians than any of his predecessors. All of them claimed to oppose the occupation, but none of them ever did a damn thing to end it. And one of Obama’s successors will eventually have to confront the cold fact that two states are no longer a realistic possibility. What will he or she say then?

Aaron David Miller writes that Obama’s trip has the feel of checking boxes; and nothing will eventuate. I wish Miller didn’t call Netanyahu “Bibi” even as he uses last names for everyone else. What’s that about?

Until we have a lot more information, it might be better to see the president’s inaugural visit to Israel as more about managing old business and checking boxes than as a determined leap into the wonderful world of two-state diplomacy..

If he pushes too hard on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, however, he may well run into open opposition and hostility. No matter how well this visit went, there are fundamental differences between Bibi and Obama on the core peace-process issues — particularly on territory and Jerusalem, where Obama is much closer to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. Moreover unlike Iran, progress on the peace process could fracture Netanyahu’s own party, bring down his government, and set up another test of wills with the United States.

Obama knows the score, and has seen the movie. The glow in the aftermath of this reset will vanish quickly the harder he pushes Israel on the Palestinian issue. The real issue is this: Is the reset functional? Can Obama work toward a process that brings Netanyahu along without triggering a crisis, and still keep the Palestinians on board?

Right now, it seems like a circle that’s very hard to square.

Right now, the administration has no strategy — or at least not one that holds a lot of promise. The current approach seems to be pressing for negotiations that lead to a provisional Palestinian state, based on a tradeoff between security for Israel and sovereignty for the Palestinians. Borders first, so to speak — and then negotiation of a more general character on the identity issues, Jerusalem, and refugees.

I’m not critical of this approach, because frankly there doesn’t seem to be a much better one right now. But we’re deluding ourselves if we think it can work quickly, or perhaps at all. It’s a very pro-Israeli approach, in that it calls for direct talks without preconditions, says nothing on settlements, and doesn’t include a timeline to resolve the final status issues. And it really does presume an enormous amount of trust between Netanyahu and Abbas, which currently doesn’t exist.

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