President Barack Obama’s speech before the United Nations last Friday was nothing short of a nightmare for the many Americans who had been hoping that the moral authority this man had once commanded would emerge at this historic moment in the future of the Middle East.
For those supporters of Israel who, though increasingly shocked and dismayed at Israel’s ongoing military occupation of the Palestinian Territories are still passionate believers in the possibility of a “democratic, Jewish state,” the speech read like an obituary for the dream of a “liberal Zionism”. Obama’s lips were clear: the occupation is not ending any time soon, and we are in no hurry to pressure Israel to make peace. It was as if Benjamin Netanyahu himself had written the speech.
It should not have been a surprise, but it was. Since January, we have seen nation after Arab nation erupt in protests and demand an end to tyranny, and it seemed only natural that the Arab Spring would eventually reach Palestine as well. When Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declared his intention to seek statehood for Palestine at the U.N., it seemed a step in the right direction for the nine million Palestinians who live scattered between the West Bank, Gaza, and the countless refugee camps of the neighboring countries.
Indeed, the step was part of a long history of nonviolent resistance to Israeli occupation and aggression that has been integral to the Palestinian struggle for many years. While many headlines in recent decades have focused on Palestinians militants, the reality is that both the 1st and 2nd Intifadas in the Occupied Palestinian Territories began as movements of peaceful civil resistance that sought to defeat a military occupation that had no intention of going away.
Since 2002, for example, weekly rallies have been held in East Jerusalem, Qalqilya, and other cities across Palestine to protest the restrictions on freedom of movement imposed by the Israeli occupation. These rallies, attended by Palestinians, Israelis, and many international observers, are regularly attacked by Israeli Defense Forces, who have wounded and even killed nonviolent protesters. “Armed only with their dreams, courage, hope and slogans in the face of bullets, tanks, tear gas and bulldozers,” as Palestinian President Abbas eloquently described them at his speech at the U.N., these protesters have redefined Palestinian resistance and brought worldwide attention to the realities of military occupation.
Unfortunately, the U.S. and Israel continue to ignore these demands. For years, the Palestinians have been brought to the negotiating table and told to make concessions. And for years, Israel has used these negotiations as a cover to hide their intolerant position. For example, in the period between 1993 and 2000 during which the Palestinians and the Israelis were involved in the “peace process” following the signing of the Oslo Accords, Israel nearly doubled the population of the Israeli settlements in the Palestinian West Bank, according to the Foundation for Middle East Peace. Why should the Palestinians return to any negotiations when history has shown Israel’s unwillingness to take them seriously?
Public opinion around the world, particularly in Europe and the United States, has slowly shifted against Israel in the last decade as they’ve witnessed how Israel manipulates negotiations and systematically abuses human rights. A recent survey of Conservative Jewish rabbis in America reported that 44 percent admitted to being “sometimes ashamed” of the Jewish State’s policies and 78 percent view the settler movement unfavorably. Even in Israel, a Hebrew University poll conducted two weeks ago revealed that nearly 70 percent of Israelis would accept the Palestinian state if it succeeded.
Essentially, in his speech President Obama revealed himself to be more pro-Israeli than even the Israelis themselves, and he made it clear to Palestinians that no matter how peaceful or how violent they choose to be in their struggle for freedom the United States will reject their cries.
Many Americans have long considered Israel a strong ally and have turned a blind eye to its military occupation, focusing instead on the nominally democratic and liberal Zionism that seemed to characterize Israel proper. Even though Israel was engaged in less-than-moral conduct in the Occupied Territories, they reasoned, with a little pressure they would come to their senses and recognize the right of Palestinians to freedom and security in their own state.
This stance is, as of last Friday, untenable. Our president is unwilling to put any pressure on Israel to conform to international standards of human rights in its treatment of the Palestinians, and the result is an immoral, illegal military occupation with no end in sight. With every day that passes it becomes clearer that Israel’s so-called “excesses” are actually its very nature, and its steady refusal to withdraw from the Occupied Territories or acknowledge the Palestinians’ right to exist is not going to change.
It is impossible for any serious progressive to claim that Israel wants peace and the U.S. will help it get there. President Obama’s speech at the General Assembly was, for all intents and purposes, a nail in the coffin for liberal Zionism.
Alex R. Shams is an A.M. candidate in Middle Eastern Studies.