As President Barack Obama pumps new energy into what had been a moribund peace process, Jewish leaders are voicing concern that his line in the sand against new Israeli construction on the West Bank is unmatched by a concrete, reciprocal demand from the Palestinians.
Although Obama, in his address to the Muslim world from Cairo last week, emphasized the need to abandon violence and for Israel’s enemies to accept its right to exist, some fear the pressure on Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will send a different message.
“When [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas came to Washington he said he didn’t have to do anything, and no one in the White House or State Department challenged him,” said Abraham Foxman of the
In recent weeks Netanyahu and Abbas have been trading recriminations about which side is fulfilling its obligations under the road map for Middle East peace established in 2003.
“We want an end to the conflict and we want reciprocity in the demands made of both sides, and in carrying them out,” said Netanyahu.
Abbas insists he is cracking down on terrorism. On Sunday his forces raided the stronghold of a Hamas commander in Kalkilya, resulting in a firefight that killed three Palestinian Authority policemen, two Hamas members and a civilian, and they reportedly seized a large cache of bomb-making material.
But in an interview last month with The Washington Post, Abbas said he cannot hold peace talks or lobby Arab states to encourage the process “until Israel agrees to freeze settlements and recognize the two-state solution. Until then we can’t talk to anyone.”
And a Hamas spokesman, reacting to Obama, told CNN last week that it would be premature to discuss recognition of Israel until after a complete withdrawal from the West Bank. “People are asking Palestinians to give concession to the occupier,” said Ahmed Yousef, while dismissing rocket attacks from Gaza into southern Israel as “a signal to the world” about the Palestinian plight, and one that has not harmed as many people as the recent Israeli military response.
Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, said Obama should press the Palestinians to change a culture of war against Israel.
“He should be asking them to end incitement against Jews and Israel in their schools and media and speeches and rename the schools and streets that are named for terrorists,” says Klein. (Obama reiterated his call for Palestinians to end incitement against Israel during a visit to Germany last week.) “They should also arrest hundreds of Palestinian terrorists on Israel’s list and outlaw terrorist groups, as required in all the agreements.”
In interviews with The Jewish Week, several Palestinians living in the United States said they felt that while cracking down on violence should be part of the process, the onus is largely on Israel.
“[Obama] singled out Hamas, saying they have to accept agreements and live up to expectations,” said Fadi Elsalameen, 25, a native of Hebron and alumnus of the Seeds of Peace coexistence program for Arabs and Jews. “But he did say Hamas has some support, so he left that door open, in a way, in Gaza. It’s only fair that there are expectations on both sides.
“Under the road map [for Middle East peace], the first phase specifically talks about taking control of security and cracking down on illegal movements, terrorist movements on the West Bank and on the Israeli side complete freeze of settlements.”
Elsalameen, who recently completed a graduate degree in international relations at Johns Hopkins University and is the executive director of Palestine Note, an upcoming blog about the peace process, said the events in Kalkilya was seen as a sign that Abbas’ faction is “trying to show they are living up to their end of their bargain by implementing the rule of law and maintaining security.”
As to the demand for addressing the content of Palestinian textbooks and TV broadcasts, Elsalameen said, “It’s reasonable to oppose incitement of all forms and at the same time [the demand] is unreasonable because, honestly, the last place where Palestinian children go to look for incitement is the textbooks. They interact with Israeli solders on the streets. If they are shaped by textbooks it’s much less so when compared to interaction with soldiers and settlers.”
Rhetoric against Jews and Israel “should be removed, clearly, 100 percent, but you have to talk about, at the same time, the laws in the Knesset asking to expel Israeli Arabs or have them join other states or something. So instead of textbooks, these are racist laws in the Israeli Knesset…”
The textbook issue, Elsalameen said, “is a counterargument from Israelis to take away focus on the settlement freeze. When there is improvement on the ground and an active peace process it makes sense [to address the textbooks], but it goes against the natural progression of the peace process.”
Nabiel Fareed, 64, an importer of olive oil and former president of the now-defunct Palestinian American Chamber of Commerce, said the task of negotiating with the Palestinians is complicated by the lack of a unified government.
“You have Gaza and Ramallah, and there are differences between the two,” said Fareed, who lives on Long Island. “On one side there is a lot of corruption and mistrust on the part of the people, so the question is not what Abbas can do. The cards are in the hands of the Israelis for the peace process to continue or not continue. We must not forget the West Bank is still under Israel’s control, and it still controls who enters and exits Gaza.”
Fareed said the issue of incitement “should not be an obstacle. There are some small parties in Israel that openly call for more settlements, so you have extremists on both sides. And there are Israeli books [that consider] nonexistent the rights of the Palestinians.
“As I have said to many of my Jewish and Israeli friends, in the long run, a state must come from you,” Fareed continued. “It is in Israel’s interests to have the peace and not continued occupation … It’s time for both sides to acknowledge the rights of the other side, but the first step really should come from the Israelis.”
The 2005 Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, he said, can’t be seen as a full concession because “they withdrew from inside of Gaza but still control the outside: the water, electricity all come from Israel. People can’t even go and fish in the sea without Israeli control. It’s important for both sides to acknowledge the rights of the other to exist in peace and dignity, which so far doesn’t exist at all in the West Bank.”
Zead Ramadan, president of the New York chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, said that despite the media focus on a settlement freeze, Obama had articulated his expectations from both sides.
“Obama was pretty clear that it’s a two-sided argument,” said Ramadan, 42, a Kuwaiti-born Palestinian and a restaurateur living in Riverdale. “[He] made clear that settlements are a hindrance to the peace process and that the violence by extremists on the side of the Palestinians is a hindrance.”
But Ramadan argued that the ability of the Palestinian Authority to crack down on extremists has been hampered by the effects of Israeli crackdowns and retaliations.
“I don’t think the Palestinian Authority has had the resources to address everything, because the infrastructure … of the Palestinian occupied land has been devastated whenever the Israeli government felt that it should be. If the resources had been sustained and the institutions could be sustained then growth can be sustained and the ability to control negative elements on the Palestinian side can be addressed.”
Daniel Pipes, director of the pro-Israel Middle East Forum, called that approach “very creative.
“Israeli attacks took place to stop the terrorism and now are portrayed as its cause?”
Pipes said Obama should demand of the Palestinians “a total and protracted end to
violence, accompanied by a political culture that encourages normalization of relations with the Jewish state.”