What should Israel, the Palestinians and the world make of the statement by White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough that the United States expects the next Israeli government to end nearly fifty years of occupation and clear the way for a Palestinian state?
This could be a significant turning point in one of the ugliest dimensions of the Arab-Israeli conflict during the past sixty-six years—the apparent total support or acquiescence of the United States for any Israeli policy or action, and Washington’s consistent refusal to take a clear, explicit position on the two critical dimensions of the conflict and its resolution from the Arab perspective. These are the creation of a genuinely sovereign Palestinian state in lands Israel occupied in 1967, and the need to resolve the Palestine refugees’ status on the basis of existing law and UN resolutions.
The United States always danced around these with rhetorical vagueness, never fully equating what it clearly refers to as Israel’s right to absolute security guaranteed up front, with its softer support for Palestinians living a life of dignity that meets their aspirations, or some other soft touch like that. It has rarely if ever explicitly said that Israeli settlements are illegal, usually calling them “obstacles to peace” or “unhelpful,” or said that Israel’s control of the 1967 Palestinian lands is an occupation that is illegal in international law, making Israel’s judaization and colonization practices crimes that deserve adjudication and punishment.
So it is a big deal—in the rhetoric department, for now—for a senior official like McDonough, who is as close as you get in a surrogate for the American president, to say what he did last weekend, in public, and in the context of the annual gathering of the pro-Israel American lobby group J Street. He pledged that Washington would always safeguard Israel, criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s electioneering abandonment of a Palestinian state, and bluntly said that, “An occupation that has lasted for almost fifty years must end, and the Palestinian people must have the right to live in and govern themselves in their own sovereign state.”
The explicit use of the terms “occupation” and “sovereign state” have political and probably legal and diplomatic implications, should the United States wish to pursue this line of talk and action. It would allow the United States to adjust its policy on issues such as votes at the UN or elements of American financial support for Israel, such as excluding the use of American aid in the occupied territories, so as to avoid the U.S. being taken to court for complicity in Israeli criminal actions such as settlements.
We will have to wait and see if this signals a critical shift in the American position, or is just an angry emotional repost in the passing lover’s feud that is now on show between the American and Israeli leaderships. What is clear is that the Barack Obama administration is doing something that no other American administration has ever dared to do, which is to confront and challenge Israel in public on the core issue in the Arab-Israeli conflict: how to match an ironclad commitment to Israel’s absolute security with an equally pivotal commitment to genuine Palestinian statehood.
Striking that balance has always been too costly for any American politician, as we see in the detritus of the shattered careers of a handful of American congressmen and women who dared to say what the American president’s office is now saying—that a separate, truly sovereign Palestinian state is the best guarantee of Israel’s long-term security, and, as McDonough said, “In the end, we know what a peace agreement should look like. The borders of Israel and an independent Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.”
This position, in the American political kitchen, is now kosher and permissible, and it is likely to persist for a while because of the context of its utterance. It has been stated clearly and forcefully in front of a pro-Israel lobbying group that represents a milder form of Zionism than the extremist Likudniks of Netanyahu’s colonial-minded militaristic world. What happens next will be revealed in due course. The best we can hope for—and should actively work for—is to push for a greater, explicit, and actionable differentiation in American policy between supporting Israel’s existence and security and opposing its occupation policies.
The easiest and most useful way for this to happen would be for Washington now to respond positively to the 2002 Arab Peace Plan that was approved by all Arab states via the Arab League, which explicitly envisages a permanent peace between Israel within its pre-1967 borders and a new Palestinian state, and a negotiated, mutually acceptable, resolution of the refugees issue.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter at: @ramikhouri.
Copyright ©2015 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global