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Answering Obama’s UN Address

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Cross-posted from Tikkun Daily.by Stephen Zunes

During the Bush administration, I wrote more than a dozen annotated critiques of presidential speeches. I have refrained from doing so under President Barack Obama, however, because - despite a number of disappointments with his administration's policies -- I found his speeches to be relatively reasonable. Although his September 21 address before the UN General Assembly contained a number of positive elements, in many ways it also contained many of the same kind of duplicitous and misleading statements one would have expected from his predecessor. Below are some excerpts, followed by my comments.

On Palestinian Statehood and Middle East Peace:

Obama at the U.N.

One year ago, I stood at this podium and I called for an independent Palestine. I believed then, and I believe now, that the Palestinian people deserve a state of their own. But what I also said is that a genuine peace can only be realized between the Israelis and the Palestinians themselves. One year later, despite extensive efforts by America and others, the parties have not bridged their differences... It's well known to all of us here. Israelis must know that any agreement provides assurances for their security. Palestinians deserve to know the territorial basis of their state.Obama's stated support for the establishment of a Palestinian state based roughly on Israel's pre-1967 borders is far more explicit than that of any previous president, subjecting him to harsh criticism from both Republicans as well as a number of Congressional Democrats. However, given that the Palestine Authority has already "provided assurances" for Israel's security by agreeing to, as part of a final peace settlement,an internationally supervised disarming of any and all irregular militias, a demilitarization of their state, and the banning of hostile forces from their territories, only to be met by Netanyahu's continued refusal to withdraw from the occupied territories, it raises questions as to why Obama implied that both sides needed to "bridge their differences."

Now, I know that many are frustrated by the lack of progress. I assure you, so am I. But the question isn't the goal that we seek - the question is how do we reach that goal. And I am convinced that there is no short cut to the end of a conflict that has endured for decades. Peace is hard work. Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the United Nations - if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now.

The main reason that UN resolutions have failed to resolve the conflict is that the United States has vetoed no less than 42 otherwise unanimous Security Council resolutions calling on Israel to live up to its international legal obligations and has blocked the enforcement of scores of other Security Council resolutions Washington allowed to pass .Ultimately, it is the Israelis and the Palestinians - not us - who must reach agreement on the issues that divide them: on borders and on security, on refugees and Jerusalem.

The UN Charter and international law has always put the impetus on the occupying power, not the country under occupation, in reaching an agreement on issues that divide them. UN Security Council resolution 242, long considered the basis of a peace settlement and cited in a number of subsequent resolutions, reiterates the illegality of any nation expanding its territory by force, yet Obama now insists that the two sides must "reach agreement" on that question. Similarly, UN Security Council resolutions 252, 267, 271, 298, 476, and 478 - passed without U.S. objections during both Democratic and Republican administrations - specifically call on Israel to rescind its annexation of Jerusalem and other efforts to alter the city's legal status. Yet Obama also now insists that occupied East Jerusalem be subjected to an "agreement" between the occupying power and those under occupation.

Ultimately, peace depends upon compromise among people who must live together long after our speeches are over, long after our votes have been tallied. ...And that is and will be the path to a Palestinian state - negotiations between the parties.

Obama puts forward this false symmetry between Israel - by far the strongest military power in the region - and the weak Palestinian Authority, which governs only a tiny series of West Bank enclaves surrounded by Israeli occupation forces. The United States rejected calls for negotiations by Iraq when it occupied Kuwait and never insisted that Kuwaiti statehood could only be reclaimed through "negotiations between the parties."

We seek a future where Palestinians live in a sovereign state of their own, with no limit to what they can achieve. There's no question that the Palestinians have seen that vision delayed for too long. It is precisely because we believe so strongly in the aspirations of the Palestinian people that America has invested so much time and so much effort in the building of a Palestinian state, and the negotiations that can deliver a Palestinian state.

In reality, the United States long opposed the establishment of a Palestinian state and did not formally endorse the idea until as recently as 2003. As far backs as 1976, the United States vetoed a UN Security Council resolution calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the 22 percent of Palestine under Israeli occupation, which included strict security guarantees for Israel. Now Obama is preparing yet another veto to block Palestinian national aspirations.

But understand this as well: America's commitment to Israel's security is unshakeable. Our friendship with Israel is deep and enduring. And so we believe that any lasting peace must acknowledge the very real security concerns that Israel faces every single day.... The Jewish people have forged a successful state in their historic homeland. Israel deserves recognition. It deserves normal relations with its neighbors. And friends of the Palestinians do them no favors by ignoring this truth.

Israel would be far more secure behind internationally recognized and guaranteed borders than an archipelago of illegal settlements and military outposts amid a hostile population. The Palestinian Authority, backed by the entire Arab League, has already pledged security guarantees for, and full diplomatic relations with, Israel in return for its withdrawal from the occupied territories. If the United States really cares about Israeli security, it would force Israel's right-wing government to accept the reasonable proposals of "land for peace."

Each side has legitimate aspirations - and that's part of what makes peace so hard. And the deadlock will only be broken when each side learns to stand in the other's shoes; each side can see the world through the other's eyes. That's what we should be encouraging. That's what we should be promoting.

The legitimate aspirations - for peace, security, and national self-determination - for both Israelis and Palestinians cannot be denied, and Obama is one of the first American presidents to even acknowledge that the Palestinians, and not just the Israelis, have such legitimate aspirations. Indeed, his potential Republican rivals in next year's presidential election have attacked him for such even-handedness.

However, even if one agrees that both peoples indeed have equal rights to such aspirations, the fact remains that Palestine remains occupied and Israel is the occupier. The Palestine Authority is only asking for 22 percent of historic Palestine (the West Bank and Gaza Strip), but the Israelis are insisting that that is too much. The right-wing Israeli government - backed by an overwhelming bipartisan majority of Congress - insists on annexing much of the West Bank in a manner that would leave a Palestinian "state" with only a series of tiny, non-contiguous cantons surrounded by Israel, much like the infamous Bantustans of apartheid South Africa. Obama, then, is putting forward a false symmetry in regard to a very asymmetrical power relationship.

This body - founded, as it was, out of the ashes of war and genocide, dedicated, as it is, to the dignity of every single person - must recognize the reality that is lived by both the Palestinians and the Israelis. The measure of our actions must always be whether they advance the right of Israeli and Palestinian children to live lives of peace and security and dignity and opportunity. And we will only succeed in that effort if we can encourage the parties to sit down, to listen to each other, and to understand each other's hopes and each other's fears. That is the project to which America is committed. There are no shortcuts. And that is what the United Nations should be focused on in the weeks and months to come.

Unfortunately, in the more than 20 years since Palestinians and Israelis sat down and started listening to each other in negotiations, Israel has more than doubled the number of colonists in the occupied Palestinian territories in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, a series of UN Security Council resolutions, and a landmark 2004 advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice, all of which call on Israel to unconditionally withdraw from these settlements. The United States has pledged to veto any sanctions or other proposed actions by the United Nations to force Israel to live up to its international legal obligations.

Israel is also violating provisions of the Road Map, the Tenet Plan, the Mitchell Plan, and various other interim peace agreements that call for a freeze in additional settlements. Israel is continuing to expand these illegal settlements despite repeated objections from Washington, but Obama has steadfastly refused to condition any of the billions of dollars of U.S. aid to the rightist Israeli government to encourage them to stop. Given that Netanyahu has pledged to continue building these settlements on the very land the Palestinians need to establish a viable state regardless of negotiations, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has not surprisingly come to the conclusion that continued talks are pointless.

Obama's insistence that the UN not recognize a Palestinian state without Israel's agreement despite its recognition by more than 130 countries also reveals a double standard, given that the United States supported Israel's application for membership in the UN back in 1948 without demanding that it first sit down with the Palestinians and negotiate borders and other issues. More recently, the United States did not demand that Kosovo negotiate an agreement with the Serbs regarding its independence and has supported its membership in the UN, even though legally Kosovo is a province of Serbia, whereas the UN recognizes the West Bank as a territory under foreign belligerent occupation.

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