Throughout decades of struggle for Palestinian freedom, there has been little cause for optimism. Today, I am optimistic.
President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo last week was the most compelling I have ever heard from an American president. He articulated an understanding of the roots of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that we have not heard from previous American presidents. By acknowledging the legitimate aspirations of Palestinians for freedom, dignity and a state of our own, Obama has shown that he may have what it takes to provide the constructive, evenhandedpeace-brokering that past American efforts lacked.
But already I see his opponents in Israel and Washington mobilizing to protect a greater Israel stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. What Obama seems to understand, that these maximalists do not, is that a maximalist position leaves only two options on the table: continued apartheid for Palestinians living under Israeli rule or one state with equal rights for all. If West Bank settlement activity continues, there will be no possibility of a viable Palestinian state. Indeed, it is already questionable whether a viable Palestinian state will be possible if Israeli settlements, along with the infrastructure built to support them — checkpoints, the apartheid wall and system of segregated roads — are merely stopped and not removed.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said it is "unreasonable" for Obama to demand that settlement expansion, including natural growth, stop. Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) said after Obama’s Cairo speech, "there was a sense in here of a moral equivalency between those who are driving for a Palestinian state and the state of Israel." Respectfully, I would remind the congressman that we are pursuing freedom and Israel is denying it — much as African-Americans pursued freedom from the Jim Crow discrimination inflicted in the American South and black South Africans pursued freedom in apartheid South Africa.
The language of Netanyahu and Pence is restrained compared with the rhetoric of Daniel Hershkowitz, Israel’s science minister and leader of the right-wing Jewish Home party. He declared, "The American demand to prevent natural growth is unreasonable, and brings to mind Pharaoh who said: Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river." Settler leader Nadia Matar — who on a recent fundraising trip to New York called for the assassination of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas — has launched a campaign against Obama with posters calling him an "anti-Semitic Jew-hater."
At what point do American leaders stand up for their president and tell Netanyahu to rein in the excesses of a governing coalition that has already sought laws prohibiting commemorations of the Palestinian nakba, or dispossession of 1948, and limitations on political speech advocating an Israel for all its citizens rather than an ethnocratic Jewish state. It is on this last point that I hope Obama will come to understand that the 20 percent of Israel’s citizens who are Palestinian, and indigenous inhabitants of the land, are right to be concerned by assertions that Israel be a Jewish state rather than a state of all its citizens.
Simply calling for an Israeli freeze on settlements is insufficient. American military aid to Israel may have to be threatened before Netanyahu’s government will agree to a real freeze. The Washington I have known, while often privately supportive of Palestinian aspirations for freedom, will cringe at the prospect of sanctioning Israel. Democrats and Republicans alike will buck the president. But will Netanyahu and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee have more say with the U.S. Congress than the president? I do not believe they will.
Obama has a trump card. Two states now, he must say, or given the fact that Palestinians will never accept to live as slaves of the occupation or Israeli apartheid, Israel will be left with no other option than to grant equal rights for all living under its rule. This looming demographic reality is a game changer. Yes, Israel continues to lurch toward consolidating apartheid. But I have every confidence that this American president will insist on a different path.
Mustafa Barghouthi is secretary general of the Palestinian National Initiative and a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council.