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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
The Holy Quran A Pictorial Gallery
Muslim Minorities in Non-Islamic Milieus
Virtual Museum of Islamic Arts and Culture
Vol. 4    Issue 05   16-31 July 2009

Baker’s Ghost in Cairo


NEW YORK — I hope President Obama has been reading James Baker in preparation for his speech Thursday to the Muslim world. It was in the time of the former secretary of state, two decades ago, that the United States last had a balanced approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Here’s what Baker told the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee — the pro-Israel lobby — on May 22, 1989: “For Israel, now is the time to lay aside, once and for all, the unrealistic vision of a Greater Israel.”

He continued: “Israeli interests in the West Bank and Gaza, security and otherwise, can be accommodated in a settlement based on Resolution 242. Forswear annexation; stop settlement activity.”

Those words make startling but depressing reading: Little has changed in 20 years. After Bush 41 and Baker, we got Clinton’s love affair with Yitzhak Rabin (“I had come to love him as I had rarely loved another man”); the disintegration of Oslo after Rabin’s tragic assassination; and the Israel-can-do-no-wrong policy of Bush 43.

Balance — the credential no honest broker can forsake — vanished from American diplomacy. I don’t believe that’s been good for Israel. The Jewish state needs to be challenged by its inseparable ally if it is to achieve the security it craves.

Obama is speaking on a significant date. June 4 is the day before the outbreak of the 1967 war that led to the 42-year occupation of the West Bank. U.N. Resolution 242, invoked by Baker, called for the “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.” It has, with the exception of Gaza, been ignored.

The president must talk about the cost to Israel — and to U.S. standing in the Middle East — of the occupation and expanding settlements. Campfire Kumbaya about his part-Muslim family and schooling in Muslim Indonesia is not going to win over disaffected Arabs focused on dwindling Palestine. He must be honest to Israel and unafraid to address the issue of justice for Palestinians.

I said little has changed in two decades. But some things have. The wall-fence has gone up, putting some 10 percent of West Bank land on the Israeli side of the barrier. The Israeli settler population of the West Bank has more than tripled to some 300,000. A network of garrison-like settlements, roadblocks and settler-only highways has built Palestinian humiliation into the very fabric of what Baker called “Greater Israel.”

Adam Bittlingmayer, a Google software engineer recently in the West Bank, sent this personal (and not corporate) view to me on his return: “I think the most important word to repeat is ‘humiliation.’ Palestinians can be successful software engineers, they can have an espresso in a café and blog on their MacBooks, but they cannot hide from their children that they are powerless in the face of an Israeli teenager holding a gun who may or may not be in a good mood.”

There have been other changes since 1989. The United States has formally embraced a two-state solution just as that solution was looking more vulnerable to demography and Palestinian disillusionment.

The Palestinian movement has fractured and Hamas has emerged as a powerful force within it. Political Islam has grown as a core expression of Muslim anger and identity. Jihadist terrorism has coalesced at its violent fringe.

Arab states, through a 2002 peace plan, have offered recognition to Israel within its 1967 borders, and that plan has received the support of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, whose members include Iran.

Not least, heroic Israel has teetered, in the eyes of many, toward bellicose, bullying Israel, whose two most recent wars have been inconclusive at best.

Place those developments on a scale and I don’t see a stronger Israel. The status quo is in fact never static. Obama, as a friend of Israel, must find ways to say that the occupation deadlock cannot be in the Jewish state’s interest.

The Muslims between the Mediterranean and Jordan River will soon outnumber the Jews. At that point, to remain a Jewish state, Israel must become a non-democratic state. Palestinian statehood — alongside Israel’s — has become essential to Herzl’s dream.

By using language not seen since Baker on halting the settlements, the Obama administration has started to hold Israel accountable.

Obama must of course do the same with Arabs and Palestinians. Again, Baker is a good guide: “Let the Arab world take concrete steps toward accommodation with Israel, not in place of the peace process, but as a catalyst to it.” Or: “Translate the dialogue of violence in the intifada into a dialogue of politics and diplomacy. Violence will not work.”

Abba Eban, the former Israeli foreign minister, once called the 1967 borders “the Auschwitz borders.” But Eretz Israel is a dead end; and the cultivation of traumatized memory offers Israel no path to 21st-century peace. The reconciliation Obama seeks with the Muslim world, and Israel’s reconciliation with itself, must be anchored, with mutually agreed adjustments, in the geography of June 4, 1967. The president’s June 4 speech will fail if it does not make that clear.

(Source: International Herald Tribune, 3 June 2009)

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