How Obama's Change Message Can Go Global

In their meeting today, Bibi Netanyahu will ask Obama for help with Iran. Obama should tell him to tear down his illegal settlements first.

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In their meeting Monday, Bibi Netanyahu asked Obama for help with Iran. Obama should make him to tear down his illegal settlements first.

It’s an obvious cliché to point out that he who controls the agenda also controls the outcome, but nowhere is this truer than when dealing with Israel/Palestine. There are plenty of reasons for this; not least among them is the complexity of the issues, the shifting alliances of the players, and the essential intractability of underlying conflict.

The press will undoubtedly focus their attention on rhetoric and body language. Did Obama sound like he meant it when he threatened Iran? Did Bibi come close enough to endorsing a two-state solution to satisfy his American hosts? These are, however, diversionary atmospherics.

If Barack Obama really means to remake U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, he will condition his cooperation on Iran with a public demand for the dismantlement of all illegal settlements built since Israel put its signature on the U.S.-sponsored 2003 “roadmap.”

A curtain-raising report on Bibi Netanyahu’s visit to Barack Obama’s Washington in Israel’s Ha’arretz newspaper on Sunday explains that the newly elected, hardline Israeli prime minister will tell Obama that “without dealing with Iran, it would be difficult to advance the peace process with the Palestinians. He will ask Obama to coordinate the American-Iranian dialogue with Israel, and stress the importance of acting firmly against Iran should this dialogue fail.”

Indeed, Bibi wants to deal with Iran and nothing else. Iran is a genuine threat to Israel’s existence and Netanyahu has bet his credibility on solving the problem, by hook, crook, or pre-emptive attack if need be. As for the Palestinians, they can wait, indefinitely as far as he is concerned. Israel’s ruling right-wing coalition has little interest in peace save the kind that Rome offered Carthage. That’s why he argues that peace with Iran is impossible unless Iran is first disarmed. Neocon supporters of Netanyahu like David Frum propagate this view as well. “The right target for the Obama administration’s urgent pressure is Iran, not Israel. The obstacles to peace are the animosities of Israel’s neighbors, not the personality of Israel’s prime minister.” In Congress, the language has already heated beyond the boiling point. Republican Minority Whip, and the party’s only high-profile Jew, Eric Cantor, told a gathering at AIPAC this week that "men are pointing guns at Israel, indeed at Jews everywhere, promising to kill us,” adding that Iranian President Ahmadinejad's goal is not merely building a bomb but "killing all the world's Jews." Cantor co-signed a letter to Obama with Democratic Majority Leader Steny Hoyer—one that may have been authored by AIPAC, judging by its url—arguing that the U.S. must insist on putting peace on the back burner until it receives “an absolute Palestinian commitment to end violence, terror, and incitement.”

Like Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians first recognize Israel as a Jewish nation-state, this is an obvious non-starter. Thing is, when it comes to genuine peace between Israel and the Palestinians, almost everything is a non-starter. Part of the problem is obviously the increasing popularity of Hamas, something the invasion of Gaza exacerbated. No Israeli government is ever going to cut a deal with an organization whose charter is dedicated to its destruction. The Israeli population would never allow it. But most analysts agree that Hamas’s popularity is less a reflection of a Palestinian endorsement of the concept of rejectionism when it comes to peace than one of the notion of resistance to the never-ending humiliation of Israel’s iron-fisted occupation of the West Bank and its strangulation of normal life there, as well as Gaza.

The same Ha’arretz report says that senior Obama administration officials “noted that Obama and Netanyahu would discuss the issue of West Bank settlement building.” This is where the agenda—and the fact that Obama his hosting the meeting—becomes key. In the Palestinian territories—indeed, everywhere in the world save the United States and Israel—the expropriation of Palestinian land and the creeping expansion of Israeli settlements—many of whose inhabitants have recently taken a turn toward vigilantism—is seen as just as much of a barrier to peace as either Palestinian terrorism or Iranian nukes. Aaron David Miller, a longtime U.S. diplomat in many administrations, wrote in Newsweek earlier this year that “In 25 years of working on this issue for six secretaries of State, [he] can't recall one meeting where we had a serious discussion with an Israeli prime minister about the damage that settlement activity—including land confiscation, bypass roads and housing demolitions—does to the peacemaking process.” (In January 2009, Israeli political activist group Peace Now stated that settlement construction rose by 60 percent from 2007 to 2008, and Netanyahu has begun expanding even this pace.)

If Barack Obama really means to remake U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, and signal to the Palestinians and their supporters that the United States is serious about learning from its past failures in the region, he will condition his cooperation on Iran with a public demand for the dismantlement of all illegal settlements built since Israel put its signature on the U.S.-sponsored 2003 “roadmap.”

That would be “change” that Palestinians, indeed, most of the world, could believe in. It might also be smart first step on the road to isolating Iran, rather than Israel, when it comes to building support for ending its nuclear-weapons program, should that fateful moment ever actually arrive.

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Eric Alterman is a professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and a professor of journalism at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author, most recently, of Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America's Important Ideals and a columnist on Jewish issues for Moment magazine.