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The Struggle: Obama, Abbas And Netanyahu

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It is a compelling story: a thirteen-year-old boy, whose family was forced from home as wartime refugees, still yearning more than six decades later to return.

It is also a familiar story: exile and the yearning for return, after all, are embedded in the memory of the Jewish people. Precisely that yearning framed Zionism and the birth of Israel. Indeed, Jewish history and geography are so compelling that Palestinians enthusiastically embrace them.

The thirteen-year-old boy was Mahmoud Abbas. Writing in The New York Times (May 17), the Palestinian Authority president claimed Palestine as “our homeland.” But he neglected to say why “our Palestinian state remains a promise unfulfilled.” It is because Palestinian leaders have persistently rejected every proposal for a two-state solution since 1922 and have repeatedly gone to war to prevent it.

Abbas reiterated familiar Palestinian tropes with a new twist. Following the UN partition recommendation of 1947, he asserted, “Zionist forces expelled Palestinian Arabs to ensure a decisive Jewish majority in the future State of Israel, and Arab armies intervened.”

That is exactly backward.

It was the Arab invasion (“intervention”?) not “Zionist forces,” which triggered the war in 1948 that impelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to flee from their homes. Indeed, thirty-five years ago Abbas himself acknowledged (in the official PLO journal) that invading “Arab armies,” entering Palestine, “forced [his family] to emigrate and to leave their homeland.”

The day before Abbas’s op-ed appeared, Prime Minister Netanyahu reminded the Knesset that the “root of this conflict never was a Palestinian state, or lack thereof. [It] is, and always has been, their refusal to recognize the Jewish state. It is not a conflict over 1967, but over 1948, over the very existence of the State of Israel.”

Netanyahu firmly stated Israeli peace terms: the Palestinian Authority (with its recently restored partner Hamas) must recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish nation. The Palestinian refugee problem, manipulated to bludgeon Israel for sixty-three years, must be solved outside Israel’s borders. Any peace treaty must safeguard Israel’s security, with Jerusalem as its united capital.

Natanyahu did not itemize the “painful concessions” required of Israel, but they were immediately evident. He insisted that (unidentified) “settlement blocs” must remain part of Israel, but that would leave 120,000 Jewish settlers living outside the “blocs” to face expulsion from their homes.

Implicit in their removal would be Israel’s relinquishment – forever – of all but a tiny sliver of Judea and Samaria. That aligns Netanyahu with the Israeli secular left, which has insisted that all claims to the biblical homeland be ceded to the Palestinians.

Among the Israelis implicitly slated for expulsion by Netanyahu’s exemption are the residents of Elon Moreh, where God promised Abraham, “To your descendants I will give this land.” Their exodus would be shared by the inhabitants of nearby Shilo, site of the sanctuary for the Ark of the Covenant, brought from Sinai after the exodus from Egypt; residents of Beit El, where Jacob dreamed of the angels; and the Jews of Hebron, the oldest Jewish city in the land of Israel, where the tombs of the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs are located.

Netanyahu’s right-wing Knesset critics responded furiously to his settlement “bloc” statement. National Union party chairman Ya’akov Katz decried the prospect of the prime minister “drawing up a list of who will be expelled and who will not.” Likud leader Danny Danon suggested that Israel consider extending its jurisdiction over all Jewish settlements and uninhabited land in the West Bank.

MK Tzipi Hotovely reminded Netanyahu that a return to 1967 borders would also mean the repartitioning of Jerusalem, without the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, or the Old City remaining inside Israel. Left unsaid was that any attempt to forcibly evacuate 120,000 Jews would provoke a violent, perhaps irreparable, rupture.

But it was President Obama’s May 19 speech that blew the lid off the land-for-peace pot. “The dream of a Jewish and democratic state,” he warned – echoing the mantra of Jeremy Ben-Ami’s J Street – “cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation.” Then came the clincher: “We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.”

Obama thereby repudiated presidential assurances to Israel that began with Lyndon Johnson and included President Bush’s letter to Prime Minister Sharon (2004): “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.”

Obama embraced Abbas’s insistence that Israel must relinquish its historic claim to the biblical homeland of the Jewish people. Perhaps he would also consider relinquishing Arizona, New Mexico and California to return the United States to its pre-1848 borders.

Obama’s willingness to sacrifice Israeli security infuriated Netanyahu, whose sharp protest to Secretary of State Clinton impacted on presidential comments when the two leaders met with reporters the next day. Obama’s boilerplate about firm American bonds with Israel and concern for its security was conspicuous for its omission of any reference to 1967 borders.

When Netanyahu spoke, he turned to the president and stated bluntly that Israel “cannot go back to the 1967 lines – because these lines are indefensible.” Nor would Israel negotiate with a government that includes Hamas, “the Palestinian version of al Qaeda.” He reminded Obama: “a peace based on illusions will crash eventually on the rocks of Middle Eastern reality.”

The “Obamination” (as Hebron spokesman David Wilder characterized the president’s speech) coincided with an Israeli announcement of approval for 1,500 housing units in Har Homa and Pisgat Zeev, beyond pre-1967 borders. It was, if coincidentally, an appropriate Israeli response.

In his AIPAC speech on Sunday, Obama still remained silent on the Palestinian refugees’ “right of return.” Instead, he raised another demographic bogeyman: “the number of Palestinians living west of the Jordan River is growing rapidly and fundamentally reshaping the demographic realities of both Israel and the Palestinian Territories.”

But respected Israeli demographer Yoram Ettinger, noting that 66 percent of the population between the Jordan and Mediterranean is Jewish, has concluded from stable Palestinian and rising Jewish birth rates that “there is no demographic machete at the throat of the Jewish state.” But Palestinian exaggerations are catnip for “demographers of doom,” whose ranks Obama has now joined.

Obama desperately needs a history lesson. The League of Nations Mandate (1922), citing “the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine,” recognized “the legitimacy of grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country.” When Great Britain lopped off three-quarters of Palestine to establish Trans-Jordan (the first Palestinian state), Jews were still assured the right of “close settlement” in the remaining land west of the Jordan River. That right has never been rescinded.

Sixty-four years ago the UN voted for a Palestinian state alongside Israel. But the Palestinians, never (in Abba Eban’s memorable phrase) missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity, also rejected that partition plan. Now there are two de facto Palestinian states. Jordan, with a majority Palestinian population, comprises three-quarters of Mandatory Palestine. Gaza is a Hamas fiefdom. There is no reason for a third, least of all in biblical Judea and Samaria.

The lingering question is whether Netanyahu will stand firm or, as he did with Clinton over Hebron (1997) and Obama on the settlement freeze last year, once again capitulate to presidential pressure. Time will tell.

Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of “Hebron Jews” (2009). His new book, “Brothers at War: Israel and the Tragedy of the Altalena,” has just been published by Quid Pro Books.

About the Author: Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of “Jewish State/Pariah Nation: Israel and the Dilemmas of Legitimacy,” to be published next month by Quid Pro Books.

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