When US President Barack Obama spoke on the Middle East and north Africa recently, the Arab and Muslim world was not very excited, receiving the news with a rather tepid embrace of indifference.
Why? To begin with, there was nothing new in what Obama said. Regardless, his mention of the return to 1967 borders for occupying Israel was wrapped in somewhat indecisive and irresolute tone.
The Arab and Muslim world has since the Cairo Speech of June 2009 seen American actions that are at variance with the spirit of what was said. It is not a new Washington. It is just Obama’s new realisation of how to survive in DC.
Regardless, Obama’s non-committal stance was still too much for the Israeli lobby led by the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (Aipac).
Predictably, no sooner had Obama finished his delivery than tongues starred wagging, from Washington to Tel Aviv. Obama had rattled the Zionist body politic. Yet again!
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was due in Washington, reacted dismissively by declaring a new phrase in the ever-growing lexicon of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: “indefensible 1967 borders”. As in, “Israel would never return to such indefensible borders”.
For rubbing Israel up the wrong way, Obama had to unsay several things of his May 19 speech. He almost literally ran to Aipac, where, before his election, he had pledged to support the Zionist line, Jerusalem – “the undivided capital of the Jewish state”.
At the Aipac conference, Obama declared the US’s “ironclad” commitment to Israel. He said there was no way Palestinians could get a national state through the UN – Israelis could effectively get whatever they wanted.
One wonders whether this is the same Obama who advocated multilateralism through respect of international treaties.
Israel was established by the UN. The Palestinians too, given their right of self-determination, should seek their state recognition through the UN.
The jingoistic phrases wear off as new realities emerge. The Arab Spring points to such new realities.
Israel will no longer hold the ace of spades in the democracy deck of the region. In fact, its ethnic identity as a basis for a nation will become ever more apparent to its supporters on Capitol Hill. Netanyahu has once more addressed a joint session of Congress. Here he got applause and standing ovations. Like in a theatre of the absurd, the paradox was palpable. Here was multiracial US supporting an entity based on ethnicity. Here was the Land of the Free, cheering on a man who essentially should be in the dock for possible crimes against humanity for his vocal support for ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.
The human spirit knows no limits to its propensity to seek liberty. There has been a dash of irony recently when the current “supposedly secure” Israeli borders were breached on May 15.
On this 63rd anniversary of the establishment of the Jewish state which Palestinians remember as the nakba (catastrophe), protesters were mowed down by live fire from Israel as they tried to enter the occupied lands from Gaza, Lebanon and the Golan Heights.
Regardless of their violent crush at the hands of Israeli forces, the symbolic message of their act was clear: “We cannot continue to live as refugees when we know our homeland.”
This is a glimpse of things to come, inspired by the revolutionary wind of the Arab Spring.
Israel should know that any procrastination and inflexibility in ending the occupation of Palestine renders the idea of a two-state solution impractical.
The tales that place all the blame on Palestinians in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are becoming worn and will soon become unacceptable excuses for Israel not to return to the negotiating table.
What will remain are the hard facts that Israel is an occupying power.
Israeli leaders claim from time to time to be in pursuit of peace. For now, however, Israel seems to be running away from a prospect of peace by its refusal to accept a Palestinian Authority made of reconciled factions of Fatah and Hamas as a negotiating partner.
Netanyahu’s precondition of acceptance of a Palestinian state only when Mahmoud Abbas accepts the existence of Israel is disingenuous, considering that Israel refuses to accept the existence of Palestine on 1967 borders.
Israel would not be doing Palestinians any favour by returning to the 1967 borders. The international community through the UN has recognised this as a basis for the resolution of the conflict.
It is a matter of giving back Palestinian land to its occupied people.
The project of a Jewish state is under threat not from Hamas, Iran or Syria, but from its own policies.
What will become clearly indefensible are not the “1967 borders”, but the antiquated policies of apartheid on which occupying Israel is established.
l Maulana Ebrahim I Bham is the chief theologian and general secretary of the Council of Muslim Theologians in Joburg.