During a recent visit to Washington, I met with several members of Congress to discuss the prospects for Palestinian and Israeli peace. This included a marvelous, unexpected introduction to Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the courageous civil rights advocate. The Palestinian National Initiative, which I head, works to emulate the nonviolent resistance to segregation that Lewis personified. For too long, however, our best efforts have been stymied by America’s lack of evenhandedness. Many people in Washington believe the main obstacle is AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby.
One way for Washington’s leaders to sidestep the AIPAC obstacle is to travel to Gaza. Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) went and was shocked. “The amount of physical destruction and the depth of human suffering here is staggering,” Baird wrote on his Congressional Web site. “Entire neighborhoods have been destroyed, schools completely leveled, fundamental water, sewer, and electricity facilities hit and relief agencies heavily damaged … What went on here, and what is continuing to go on, is shocking and troubling beyond words.”
I believe that under an Obama administration Israel will no longer have carte blanche to lay waste to Gaza. But the new administration must recognize that there can be no peacemaking without talking to the whole Palestinian political spectrum following democratic elections in 2006.
I brokered the first Hamas-Fatah agreement in 2007. The same can be done now, but there must be assurances from the West that a unity government will be recognized.
Despite the Obama administration’s reluctance to deal with the government Palestinians elected, a breath of fresh air is clearly blowing through Washington. And just in time. Another few years and the two-state solution will be finished, done in by relentless Israeli settlement expansion. With Peace Now in Israel reporting government plans for another 73,000 West Bank housing units, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton must speak out against settlement activity.
In Israel, the Obama administration appears likely to be constrained by a right-wing coalition government led by Benjamin Netanyahu; a government in which neo-fascist Avigdor Lieberman is the kingmaker. I do not employ the term “neo-fascist” lightly. But Lieberman’s calls for loyalty oaths and transferring Palestinian citizens out of Israel are demagogic and dangerous.
The Obama administration, alert to the closing window of opportunity for a two-state outcome, will have to counter Netanyahu’s prescriptions for Palestinian economic development — a Potemkin village on the West Bank — as a substitute for Palestinian freedom.
Netanyahu’s plan is a fig leaf. My recent conversations in Washington suggest it will be seen as such. Economic development cannot replace political freedom. The question is whether American officials will have the courage to stand up to Netanyahu and an Israel lobby that for the most part lacks the moral courage to criticize Lieberman’s racism, let alone Netanyahu’s intransigence on ending the occupation.
The administration can help level the playing field by taking three steps. First, insist Israel immediately stop all settlement activity. Second, reject Israel’s embrace of apartheid. One set of laws for Jewish settlers and another for Palestinians is unacceptable. Third, accept our democratic choice.
I am convinced that an evenhanded mediator such as former Sen. George Mitchell will soon find that we are not the recalcitrant party. He will uphold American principles and serve American interests if he has the courage to say so. And let us hope that more American officials go see for themselves the harm Israel is causing Palestinians — and long-term Israeli interests — with American tax dollars.