Q: Do you see any difference between the policies of former US President George W. Bush and his successor Barack Obama regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
A: In substance, there is little difference. Obama has reiterated Bush’s positions, in virtually the same words. Like Bush, he has called for a “Palestinian state,” and like Bush, he leaves what he means entirely vague. It can easily be interpreted to be the same as Netanyahu’s position in 1996, when he became the first Israeli prime minister to countenance the establishment of a Palestinian state, a fact that seems to be forgotten. Shimon Peres had just left office declaring forcefully that there would never be a Palestinian state. Netanyahu’s information minister, when asked whether he would adopt the same policy, answered that if Palestinians wanted to call the fragments left to them “a state,” that was fine: Or they could call them “fried chicken.” We do not know whether Obama means “fried chicken.” We do know that he very carefully evaded the core of the Arab Peace Initiative that he praised.
He called on the Arab states to proceed to normalize relations with Israel. But he scrupulously omitted the fact, which he surely knew, that this step was conditional on acceptance of the long-standing international consensus on a two-state settlement that the US and Israel have blocked for 35 years, with rare and temporary departures from this stern rejectionism — not just in words, but more importantly in deeds. On settlements, Obama avoided any mention of existing settlements, and repeated the words of the “road map” on expanding settlements. He also made it clear he would not follow the precedent of George Bush senior, and impose a slight penalty on Israeli expansion of settlements. Rather, he said, his steps would be only “symbolic.”
Q: Do Obama’s recent overtures to the Muslim world signify a different US approach to the Middle East?
A: The rhetoric is different. On substance, there is little that is new. Obama has cultivated a style of presenting himself as engaging and friendly, and as a blank slate, on which his audience can write their hopes and wishes, believing, if they choose, that he is “on our side.” The same is true on the domestic scene.
Q: Does Israel’s refusal to halt settlements risk damaging relations between it and the US?
A: There is always a risk, and as I mentioned, for a brief period under Bush senior, Washington imposed a slight penalty. What will happen now, we cannot be sure. Israel has just exploited the focus of attention on Iran to announce substantial settlement expansion, so far eliciting no response in Washington. And it may be noted that Obama is implementing an increase in military aid to Israel for an unprecedented 10 years into the future. Also of significance is the rapid expansion of US hi-tech investment in Israel, notably a huge Intel plant intended to carry out a revolution in chip manufacture. There is, typically, a close relation between government and corporate policy, for obvious reasons, and there are other close ties, particularly military and intelligence, that are well-known and stable.
Q: How will the decision taken by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to form a government without Hamas affect the peace process?
A: Whether one likes it or not, Hamas won a free election in January 2006. Israel and the US (with the EU tailing behind politely) reacted instantly by harsh punishment of the population for this transgression. Those familiar with modern history should have been aware that there is nothing at all surprising about this reaction, or about the unwillingness of the intellectual classes to face what it indicates about the fashionable concept “democracy promotion.” Later Israel imprisoned much of the elected government. Israel and the US then instigated a Fatah military coup to overturn the government. When this failed, punishment of the population became more severe. Meanwhile US-backed Israeli programs are crushing Gazans and expanding Israeli control over the West Bank. The US and Israel, meanwhile, continue to reject the long-standing consensus on a two-state settlement. What exactly do we mean by the phrase “peace process” under these circumstances?
Q: The right of return for Palestinian refugees has been a barrier to previous peace negotiations. Do you think it will be again?
A: Not really. It is useful to consider the one break in US-Israeli rejectionism: January 2001, Bill Clinton’s final month in office. By late 2000, Clinton realized that his proposals at the failed Camp David conference could not be accepted by any Palestinians. In December, he proposed his “parameters”: imprecise, but more forthcoming. He then announced that both sides had accepted the parameters, and both had reservations. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met in Taba to deal with their differences, and came very close to a final settlement, more or less in line with the international consensus. In their final news conference, they reported that with a few more days, they might reach a complete agreement, but Israel called off the negotiations prematurely, and they never continued formally — informal talks led to the Geneva Accord of December 2003. There is extensive evidence available in Hebrew and English sources. The Taba negotiations and the Geneva Accord reached essentially the same formula: Israel should recognize the right of return, but Palestinians should recognize that it will not be implemented within Israel except in small numbers, and refugees would have to be absorbed in the Palestinian state or elsewhere. One may argue that that outcome is unjust, but in the real world, it is the most that can be attained. To dangle vain hopes before the eyes of miserable refugees is hardly a moral stance, in my opinion.
Q: Is an attack by Israel on Iran a likely scenario?
A: No one knows. The Bush administration made it quite clear that it opposed an attack. During the 2008 presidential campaign — the most sensitive period in domestic politics — the Israel lobby pressured Congress to pass a resolution that amounted to a blockade against Iran, an act of war. They had lined up many supporters, but the effort suddenly ended, presumably because the Bush White House indicated it was opposed. I presume Obama is continuing this policy. It is I suppose technically possible for Israel to attack Iran, possibly using submarines armed with nuclear missiles. The consequences could be very severe, in many domains. We might also recall that Israel’s attack on the Osirak reactor in Iraq in 1981 initiated Saddam Hussein’s nuclear-weapons program. That was reasonably clear from physical inspection at once, later confirmed by defectors, and more recently by high-level US intelligence.