Drunken diplomacy: new settlements

Barack Obama should demand an end to settlement expansions in the West Bank, putting Israel on the road to redemption.

By October 3 construction is well under way at Elazar, south of Jerusalem, as part of further settlement expansions within the West Bank [EPA]


That’s the best the US could do.

The Israeli government ends a 10-month suspension on settlement construction – it was, in fact only a partial freeze, but that’s another story – and cement and bulldozers immediately start to spread across the West Bank. Did anyone really expect better?

As I watched this depressing spectacle unfold, an interesting morality tale came to me. A saga that well-summarises the American response to Israel’s open renewal of settlement expansion.

Imagine you are a celebrity of the stature of Tom Cruise. One of your fellow celebrities – a close friend – has a long history of alcohol abuse. Finally, he decides to sober up, declaring that he won’t touch a drink for the next ten months. He claims to want to become a bit healthier and gain back some respectability among his peers and the wider public.

When he stops, however, he declares that this was just a short-term self-help campaign. At the end of his drinking hiatus, he intends on pouring himself another drink and going back to his old ways. Yet his old ways of constant drunkenness and fighting have gotten both of you into heaps of trouble.

The public and media routinely question why you fail to cut him loose, but you brush off the matter in the name of loyalty and his well-being. “He’s got some issues,” you declare, “But who doesn’t?”

As the period of relative sobriety ends, you try to talk to him about staying straight and changing his abusive ways towards his neighbours. But as soon as the day comes, he reaches for the nearest bottle of bourbon to pour himself a drink.

What are you supposed to do in this situation?

The correct answer is pretty obvious (unless, of course, you’re also an addict, behaving increasingly the same way he is).

Drunken diplomacy

So why can’t Barack Obama, by all accounts a fairly sober fellow, see that “friends don’t let friends drive drunk,” never mind allow them to rob the corner liquor store over and over again?

If you read the mainstream press in the US and many European countries, Israel comes off as the semi-reformed alcoholic: determined to throw away months of sobriety to chase a dream that can only end in ruin. And the US, well, no one even thinks to question why the US is standing by frozen in place, allowing for alcohol to be poured down Israel’s metaphoric gullet with reckless abandon.

Not a single piece of mainstream reporting or commentary has thought to challenge this ludicrous narrative of impotence: as Israel’s most important benefactor, patron, and, in fact, supplier, the Obama administration could quite simply “just say no”.

It could – and should – declare that as a good friend and a party to the conflict whose very security is threatened by Israel’s actions, it will suspend its support until Israel decides to sober up.
Sure, congress will cry bloody murder at the thought of threatening to cut off aid. But it’s hard to think of a simpler, more logical equation with which to justify a seemingly controversial policy.

Hypocrisy carousel

Instead, in his recent UN address, President Obama declared that “responsibility begins with the parties themselves, who must answer the call of history,” while explaining that while the nice words of Netanyahu and Abbas “must be followed by action, and believe[s] that both leaders have the courage to do so”.
He did say that “each of us has a responsibility to do our part as well” to bring peace. But when it was time to man-up and assume that mantle, the US once again stood by and allowed its client to engage in precisely the activity that will render all its efforts to bring peace a waste of time.

Of course, the US is not the only party behaving hypocritically or cowardly in this situation. Most every other actor in this drama – aside from the Israeli government (which is merely doing precisely what it said it would do) – has requited itself equally as poorly.

European leaders like France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and Britain’s Foreign Minister William Hague have “deplored the decision to resume settlement construction” and declared how “very disappointed” they are at the decision. But neither is threatening any consequences for Israel’s actions, so why should it stop?
Name, blame and shame

Palestinian militants have expressed predictable outrage, but little in the way of any positive alternative. Hamas leader Khaled Mishal demanded the PA stop negotiations, declaring that “to negotiate without a position of strength is absurd”.

But that is a throwaway line at best, tossed out by someone with nothing better to say. Hamas has done nothing in the last decade to shape a strong Palestinian position (in fact quite the opposite), and he surely knows that.

As for the PA, chief negotiator Nabil Shaath explained his “surprise that America is unable to stop” settlements. But such surprise is feigned, at best. The US has never lifted a finger to stop settlements during the almost two-decade long Oslo era; nor for that matter has the PA, which to this very day has continued negotiating despite the ongoing theft of land and building of settlements.
The reason, of course, is that the PA as an institution is entirely the creation of the peace process, and if it ends, so will the PA.

It’s the PA that allowed much of the Palestinian elite, including Mr. Shaath and Abbas, to grow incredibly rich through the corruption and lack of accountability. Such corruption was designed into the system to ensure that the Palestinian elite would be too invested in the process to stop it, no matter how far astray it goes.

Going precisely as planned

Netanyahu, of course, is playing hardball – a negotiating tactic that Israel has employed successfully for decades. So who can blame him for continuing to use it as long as it works?

The reality is that the longer he holds out, the more facts are created on the ground, and the more territory will wind up remaining part of Israel in any final peace deal; more pressure will grow on Palestinian leaders to agree to a new “compromise”.

Israel will be doing this while calling for a halt (at least broadly speaking) in construction everywhere else.

What few people understand is that Palestinians doomed themselves to precisely this scenario when they allowed settlements, which have been declared illegal under international law, to become a legitimate object of negotiation in final status agreements as part of the original Oslo accords. And a severely weakened, poorly staffed and already corrupt PLO had little ability to understand, never mind challenge this arrangement.

In the end, everything has gone pretty much according to plan for Israel, with the US playing its assigned role splendidly.

The only hope the Palestinians have is to do is change the script, to move away from a peace process system that from the start was rigged against them, and demand the establishment of a new political arrangement in the space of Israel/Palestine.

Until they do, one thing is for sure: the status quo will continue. Everyone who can stop Israel will look away while offering empty platitudes about responsibility and courage that no one bothers to take seriously anymore.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. He has authored several books including Overthrowing Geography: Jaffa, Tel Aviv and the Struggle for Palestine (University of California Press, 2005) and An Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books, 2009).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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