Tutu, Obama and the Middle East
By Amy Goodman
Nov 25, 2008
As President-elect Barack Obama focuses on the meltdown of the U.S. economy, another fire is burning: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You may not have heard much lately about the disaster in the Gaza Strip. That silence is intentional: The Israeli government has barred international journalists from entering the occupied territory.
Last week, executives from the Associated Press, New York Times, Reuters, CNN, BBC and other news organizations sent a letter of protest to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert criticizing his government’s decision to bar journalists from entering Gaza. Israel has virtually sealed off the Gaza Strip and cut off aid and fuel shipments. A spokesman for Israel’s Defense Ministry said Israel was displeased with international media coverage, which he said inflated Palestinian suffering and did not make clear that Israel’s measures were in response to Palestinian violence.
A cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, the group that won Palestinian elections nearly three years ago and controls Gaza, broke down after an Israeli raid killed six Hamas militants two weeks ago. More Israeli raids have followed, killing approximately 17 Hamas members, and Palestinian militants have fired dozens of rockets into southern Israel, injuring several people. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has criticized Israel over its blockade of the overcrowded Gaza, home to close to 1.5 million Palestinians. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency is warning that Gaza faces a humanitarian “catastrophe” if Israel continues to blockade aid from reaching the territory.
The sharply divided landscape of Israel and the occupied territories is familiar ground for South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He won the Nobel Peace Prize for his opposition to apartheid in South Africa. Tutu was in New York last week to receive the Global Citizens Circle Award. I sat down with him at the residence of the South African vice consul. Tutu reflected on the Israeli occupation: “Coming from South Africa ... and looking at the checkpoints ... when you humiliate a people to the extent that they are being—and, yes, one remembers the kind of experience we had when we were being humiliated—when you do that, you’re not contributing to your own security.” Tutu said the embargo must be lifted. “The suffering is unacceptable. It doesn’t promote the security of Israel or any other part of that very volatile region,” he said. “There are very, very many in Israel who are opposed to what is happening.”
Tutu points to the outgoing Israeli prime minister. In September, Olmert made a stunning declaration to Yedioth Ahronoth, the largest Israeli newspaper. He said that Israel should withdraw from nearly all territory captured in the 1967 Middle East war in return for peace with the Palestinians and Syria: “I am saying what no previous Israeli leader has ever said: We should withdraw from almost all of the territories, including in East Jerusalem and in the Golan Heights.”
Olmert said that traditional Israeli defense strategists had learned nothing from past experiences and that they seemed stuck in the considerations of the 1948 War of Independence. He said: “With them, it is all about tanks and land and controlling territories and controlled territories and this hilltop and that hilltop. All these things are worthless.” Olmert appears to have come closer to his daughter’s point of view. In 2006, Dana Olmert was among 200 people who gathered outside the home of the Israeli army chief of staff and chanted “murderer” as they protested Israeli killings of Palestinians (Archbishop Tutu was blocked from entering Gaza in his U.N.-backed attempts to investigate those killings). Ehud Olmert recently resigned over corruption allegations, but remains prime minister until a new government is approved by parliament.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki criticized Olmert for waiting until now to call for an end to the settlements: “We wish we heard this personal opinion when Olmert was prime minister, not after he resigned. I think it is a very important commitment, but it came too late. We hope this commitment will be fulfilled by the new Israeli government.” Israel is a top recipient of U.S. military aid. Archbishop Tutu says of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “When that is resolved, what we will find [is] that the tensions between the West and ... a large part of the Muslim world ... evaporates.” He said of Obama, “I pray that this new president will have the capacity to see we’ve got to do something here ... for the sake of our children.”
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.
Amy Goodman is the host of “Democracy Now!,” a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 700 stations in North America. She has been awarded the 2008 Right Livelihood Award, dubbed the “Alternative Nobel” prize, and will receive the award in the Swedish Parliament in December.
Gaza Clouds Obama’s Prospects
Dec 30, 2008
So, why didn’t they give peace a chance? Why did the leaders of Hamas and Israel not wait for the incoming U.S. president’s inauguration before mutually escalating hostilities? Here was a president-elect chosen, in part, on the expectation that he could enhance prospects for Mideast peace, even if it meant negotiating with people thought to be enemies.
Why not give that approach an opportunity to succeed regarding the future of Palestine? Why not see if Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose husband had been more successful than any other president in advancing the prospects for peace in the Mideast, could have accomplished more than the lame-duck secretary of state she will soon replace?
The question answers itself.
Unfortunately, neither Hamas’ nor Israel’s leaders believe that a meaningful peace of the sort all U.S. presidents have endorsed is in their interest. That peace stipulates two independent and viable national entities, one Israeli and the other Palestinian. Clearly, Hamas and its hard-line supporters in the region reject the goal of an Israel at peace with its neighbors and secure within its boundaries, even if those borderlines return to those existing in 1967 at the time of the Six-Day War. Further, Islamic nations in the region obviously don’t want a secure Palestine, as some support only the most radical of Palestinian movements, and the oil wealthy regimes, while eagerly throwing money at Wall Street, refuse to invest in any serious way in the Palestinian economy.
What is less obvious, particularly to Israel’s many knee-jerk supporters in the United States, is that the dominant Israeli politicians of all parties just as consistently reject the goal of a meaningful two-nation solution, if by that is meant a vibrant and truly independent Palestinian state. This last sentence represents heresy to those many who insist, as an article of faith and despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary, that Israel has never wanted anything but to live in peace with its neighbors.
Their view is colonialist propaganda, pure and simple. I first heard it while reporting from Gaza and the West Bank in the immediate aftermath of the Six-Day War, brought on by Egypt and Jordan, which were then the occupiers of what remained of Palestine. Maybe Israel’s leaders, most prominently the conquering war hero Moshe Dayan, meant it when they claimed that they had no desire to permanently occupy this land. After all, they were mostly secular Labor Party Zionists, who shunned any notion of a divine mandate to remain in control of the Promised Land.
Whatever their original intentions, the occupation created its own logic of suppression, first breeding discontent and then rebellion. It doesn’t matter whether that rebellion takes the form of stone-throwing or rocket launching; the Israeli response will always be wildly disproportionate, further damning the prospect for rational solutions. And uncritically underwriting that disproportionate Israeli response to any and all dissent will be the United States, the supplier of those F-16s doing so much damage in Gaza today.
But most U.S. presidents, with the possible exception of George W. Bush, came to view the blank check for Israel as a loser’s game. The madness at the center of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute has been widely acknowledged as the prime source of a much greater madness now codified as terrorism. And even Bush, as represented by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, recently has been forced by that reality to put pursuing a meaningful peace back on the agenda.
The fact that settling the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is central to international stability ends up informing U.S. policy, much to the chagrin of the region’s hard-liners on both sides. Throw in the prospect of a new U.S. president, who has put the waging of peace into the conversation, and it is understandable why that would threaten many in the Mideast who are wedded to the old ways of doing business. It is why Jimmy Carter, as an ex-president, has worked so courageously to confront that deadly dynamic.
Barack Obama’s challenge will be to turn his mantra of change into a practical road map for Mideast peace, a prospect made much more elusive by the Israeli blitzkrieg. But if he fails to do that and simply panders to those who have grown comfortable with this disastrous status quo, he will seriously undermine the prospects for his administration. With our severe economic problems, the last thing we need is increased Mideast instability, driving up U.S. military expenditures and the price of oil.
Robert Scheer is editor in chief of Truthdig and author of a new book, “The Pornography of Power: How Defense Hawks Hijacked 9/11 and Weakened America.”