Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Obama, the Holocaust and the Palestinians

Excerpts from Tony Karon's Cairo analysis:

He became the first American president to officially enter into the public record an official acknowledgment of the Palestinian national trauma known as the “Nakbah”. He didn’t use the term, of course, but he made clear that for the Palestinians, Israel’s creation in 1948 was a catastrophe that resulted in their “displacement,” leaving many languishing in refugee camps ever since. That trauma was followed, since 1967, with the humiliation of occupation. So, Obama identified the Palestinians as an oppressed and dispossessed people engaged in a struggle for their national rights — although he was sharply critical of their methods, and urged them to follow the strategic examples of the African-American civil rights struggle and the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, even if some of his characterizations and comparisons were a bit iffy.


Obama here roots the Palestinian plight in the expulsions of 1948 — he’s not just talking about the Palestinians under occupation; he’s talking about the refugees, too, and vowing not to turn his back on them, even if a two-state solution necessarily truncates their aspirations. To frame the Palestinian national experience as a 60-year quest for statehood is misguided, of course — as Rob Malley and Hussein Agha make clear, the Palestinian national movement has always been organized around the principle of throwing off occupation and recovering that which was taken from Palestinians in 1948. Statehood, as in the two-state conception in which the Palestinians would have cede their claims to much of what was once theirs, was a realpolitik political compromise adopted by the PLO leadership from around 1988, and never especially enthusiastically embraced by their base. Still, it appears increasingly likely that Hamas will, in its own way, reach a similar realist conclusion, based on the fact that as much as they’d prefer that Israel had never been born (so would Mahmoud Abbas and all of Fatah, frankly), they know it’s not going anywhere.


The grim reality for Palestinians is that they were a forgotten people until the late 1960s and early 70s, when the PLO’s campaign of high profile terror attacks put them back in the headlines. And the only reason Israel agreed to talk to the PLO ahead of the Oslo Accords was that the intifada uprising that began in 1987 made the occupation politically untenable. Moreover, following Obama’s civil rights analogy, Palestinians could not peacefully appeal to the “ideals at the center of” Israel’s founding for full and equal rights in the way that African Americans did of the United States, since the very principle of a “Jewish State” required their exclusion. (If the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan had been implemented, Palestinian Arabs would have been 45% of the population of what would become Israel).

And as for using South Africa as a stick with which to beat home the message that the Palestinians have to “renounce violence”, it ought to be remembered that the Nelson Mandela and the ANC never, in fact, renounced violence, until the apartheid regime had accepted the principle of democratic majority rule.

Still, far more significant than these flaws in his reasoning is the fact that Obama appeared to acknowledge that the Palestinians have a right to resist their plight — he challenged their resorting to violent resistance, instead urging them to pursue non-violent means of resistance, both on moral grounds and also because they’re more likely to effective. And in suggesting that the Palestinians learn from African-Americans or black South Africans under apartheid, he was recognizing their narrative of dispossession and oppression.

I don’t remember the Palestinian side of the story ever having been explained to the American people by its government in this way. Instead, the Palestinians have usually entered the American conversation on the conflict mostly through the prism of the Israeli narrative, i.e. as a threat to Israel. Obama, as the NYT noted Israel’s boosters are complaining, has elevated the Palestinian narrative to equal status.


The narratives also connect, of course: It was not the Palestinians who authored the Holocaust, yet they paid a heavy territorial price for the establishment Jewish safe haven in its wake. And their resistance to their dispossession, and later occupation, has reinforced the belief, among many Israelis, that they remain under threat of extermination — a belief often callously exploited by politicians with an expansionist agenda: They called the 1967 borders “Auschwitz borders” (even though those included twice as much territory as was awarded to Israel in the UN Partition plan), and began to expand their grip on the West Bank. And any move, even by Israeli authorities, to evict settlers who have stolen and colonized Palestinian land, is denounced by settlers and their supporters as an echo of Jewish dispossession under Nazism.

One of the sticking points in talking to Hamas, on the other hand, is its refusal to recognize the State of Israel. Yet that’s explained by the place of the Nakbah in the Palestinian national narrative: For many Palestinians, even Fatah supporters, “recognizing” Israel appears to be a demand that they accept and legitimize the very “dislocation” of 60 years ago that Obama recognized.

In recognizing both competing narratives, Obama has waded into the conflict’s most intractable issues.

He hopes to navigate that minefield with the two-state concept, which is why he was so harsh on Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem — their very existence undercuts prospects for a two-state solution, not simply because they were created in violation of international law, but because the physical space they occupy makes a mockery of the physical integrity of any Palestinian state. (To recap on our political geography, the 1947 partition plan offered what the Palestinians deemed a bitter pill by requiring that they, then 55% of the population and owners of most of the land, accept 55% of Palestine being awarded to a Jewish state comprised mostly of refugees from Europe, leaving them in political control of the remaining 45%. The 1948 war left them, under Egyptian and Jordanian authority, in control of the West Bank and Gaza, comprising only half of what had been allocated them in the partition plan — and those territories came under Israeli occupation after the 1967 war. When the Palestinians in 1988 moved to accept a state on the occupied 22% of historic Palestine — the West Bank and Gaza — that was a massive compromise. But ever since then, the settlements have been systematically carving up and shrinking even that 22%…)


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