Obama’s Real Israel Problem – and it isn’t Bibi

Aaron David Miller is right: President Obama does have an Israel problem. But Miller is wrong about the roots of the problem.

Like Israeli politicians of all parties, Benjamin Netanyahu has the wrong policy toward Palestine. Photo by World Economic Forum.

Like Israeli politicians of all parties, Benjamin Netanyahu has the wrong policy toward Palestine. Photo by World Economic Forum.

The problem isn’t Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or his Likud Party, or even Israel’s current extreme right-wing government. Israel’s fundamental policy toward the Palestinians is the problem, and that policy has hardly changed, despite the seemingly diverse sequence of left, right and center parties that have been in power.

Just look at the occupation of the territories seized in 1967 — the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. Settlement building, along with all the land and water theft that goes with it, began just weeks after the Six-Day War. And a right-wing government wasn’t in power; it was Mapai, the left-wing precursor to today’s Labor Party. The right wing wouldn’t come to power until almost three decades after Israel’s founding, when Menachem Begin led the Likud coalition to victory in 1977.

Settlement construction and expansion started right after the war and continued under all the leftist (in the Israeli context) governments. By the time Likud came to power 10 years after the 1967 war, there were already more than 50,000 Israeli settlers living in Jews-only settlements in the occupied territories, most of them in occupied East Jerusalem, with smaller numbers in the West Bank and Gaza. Settlement expansion advanced under Labor, Likud and Kadima-led governments. Now there are more than 600,000 settlers living illegally in Palestinian territory, divided between the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

As Moshe Dayan, a former defense and foreign minister, explained, the settlements were necessary “not because they can ensure security better than the army but because without them we cannot keep the army in those territories. Without them the [Israel Defense Forces] would be a foreign army ruling a foreign population.”

The different parties, prime ministers and officials sometimes used different language. Some repeated the words the international community wanted, a “land for peace” deal and “two states”; others insisted that only “peace for peace” or “Jordan is Palestine” was acceptable. Some spoke loudly in defense of settlements, while others only whispered.

But there was no diversity of substance. What happened in the real world, the “facts on the ground,” continued regardless of which party was in power.

Other things continued too — settler violence against Palestinians, expropriation of Palestinian land and water, illegal closures, collective punishments including massive armed assault, arrest without charge, extra-judicial assassinations and the siege of Gaza.

Of course, that’s just in the occupied territories. Inside Israel, Arab Israelis – those who survived the dispossession of 1947-48 – live as second-class citizens. They have the right to vote, but they are subject to legalized discrimination in favor of the Jewish majority. The Israeli human rights organization Adalah reported to the United Nations more than 20 such discriminatory laws, the most important of which deny Palestinian citizens equal rights on issues of immigration and citizenship as well as land ownership. And outside, the Palestinian refugees, now numbering in the millions, have been denied their internationally guaranteed right of return by Israeli governments of every political stripe.

The whole range of Israeli political parties has continued to implement these same policies. They may talk a different talk, but they all walk the same walk.

What none of these governments is prepared to acknowledge is what it will take for a real solution, one that is lasting, comprehensive and just: human rights and equality for all based on international law. It shouldn’t be more complicated than that. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights specifies everyone has the right to return to their home country, no exceptions; that everyone has the right to live in safety, no exceptions; that everyone has the right to an equal say in the government that rules their country, no exceptions.

Every law should treat all citizens the same, no exceptions. Every government has the obligation to live up to the treaties it has signed, including the U.N. conventions on human rights, against racism, the Geneva Conventions and more. Israel has signed them all. Yet not one Israeli government, of any party, has implemented them.

As long as the United States provides the Israeli government more than $3 billion in aid every year, regardless of those violations, and protects Israel from being held accountable in the U.N., regardless of those violations, no Israeli prime minister has much reason to change. That’s Obama’s Israel problem — not Netanyahu. Changing U.S. policy should provide the solution.