Peace Process Overshadowed
Peace Process Overshadowed
This week the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) held their annual conference in Washington, DC and per usual, it was an opportunity for U.S. politicians to reaffirm their commitment to Israel. The conference also gave Israeli leaders a chance to present their case to a sympathetic U.S. audience. Last year, many of the major speeches at the conference responded to President Obama’s speech just days before and focused on the “indefensible” 1967 borders and the meaning of “land swaps.”
At this year’s conference, the Israeli Palestinian conflict was largely absent from the discussion. Iran, the country’s nuclear ambitions, and the potential for military action dominated the agenda and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seemed to be just an annoying blip on the radar.
President Barack Obama spoke to AIPAC conference attendees on Sunday morning, before notably the largest conference AIPAC has ever had. There was likely hope among those gathered that the president would make clear the U.S. willingness to take military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities. In his speech, President Obama stated that, “no Israeli government can tolerate a nuclear weapon in the hands of a regime that denies the Holocaust, threatens to wipe Israel off the map, and sponsors terrorist groups committed to Israel's destruction.” He reiterated that he “will take no options off the table.”
In perhaps his strongest language yet, President Obama offered a clear warning that military options are on the table. “Iran's leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment. I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And as I have made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests.”
President Obama, who in the same venue a year agosaid, “[N]o matter how hard it may be to start meaningful negotiations under current circumstances, we must acknowledge that a failure to try is not an option. The status quo is unsustainable,” this year mentioned the Palestinians only five times. He making the argument for seeking peace, he emphasized the U.S.-Israel bond that was reflected in the rest of his remarks. He said, “I believe that peace with the Palestinians is consistent with Israel's founding values because of our shared belief in self-determination, and because Israel's place as a Jewish and democratic state must be protected.”
Following the president’s speech, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a statement saying, "I very much appreciated the fact that President Obama reiterated his position that Iran must not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons and that all options are on the table. I also appreciated the fact that he made clear that when it comes to a nuclear armed Iran, containment is simply not an option, and equally in my judgment, perhaps most important of all, I appreciated the fact that he said that Israel must be able to defend itself, by itself, against any threat.”
The two leaders met privately in the Oval Office for two hours and then offered brief formulaic statements. President Obama stated the bond between Israel and the U.S. is “unbreakable” and “rock-solid.” Prime Minister Netanyahu told the assembled reporters, “if there's one thing that stands out clearly in the Middle East today, it's that Israel and America stand together.”
Monday evening, Prime Minister Netanyahu addressed the attendees and focused his entire speech on Iran. The prime minister emphasized the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran and insisted, “Israel must always reserve the right to defend itself.”
Obama had a lot to prove Sunday morning. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman writes that the U.S. president may have exceeded expectations. Friedman wrote on Tuesday, “The only question I have when it comes to President Obama and Israel is whether he is the most pro-Israel president in history or just one of the most.”
Some of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s critics pointed out that he did not mention the peace process or the changing Arab world at all in his speech. +972 Magazine’s Roee Ruttenberg wrote, “Note the word ‘Syrian’ is mentioned only once (and it is referenced in regard to Iran), and the word ‘Palestinian’ appears zero times. Even Obama, in his speech the day before, use the ‘P’ word five times.”
Blogger Philip Weis noted that in the press conference following Obama and Netanyahu’s closed door session, the dynamic had changed since the two leaders met last. He described Obama’s comments and phrasing as a “thumb in [Netanyahu’s] eye,” laid responsibility for pursuing peace and security in the region squarely at the prime minister’s feet.
In addition to responses from journalists and commentators, several U.S. faith-based organizations came together to write a letter urging Congress to reject S. Res. 380, legislation on Iran sponsored by Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) in the run up to the AIPAC conference. The letter states that this legislation sets a dangerously a low threshold for war and undermines U.S. diplomatic initiatives. Companion legislation, H. Res. 568, has also been introduced in the House by Rep. Illeana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-18) and Rep. Howard Berman (CA-28).
The letter includes statements from several leading U.S. security establishment experts that warn of the implications of this legislation, for example an assessment from Colin Kahl, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East who says, “I think that all of us in this town need to be very careful of taking positions, whether its up on the Hill or out there, that box in our negotiators from being able to find a diplomatic solution... That’s what concerns me about the resolution.”
CMEP board members Diane Randall (Executive Secretary of the Friends Committee on National Legislation), Robin Aura Kanegis (Director of Public Policy and Advocacy for American Friends Service Committee), Russell Testa (Director of the Holy Name Province Franciscan [OFM] JPIC Office), and Rachelle Lyndaker Schlabach (Director for the Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Washington Office) are among those endorsing the letter.
CMEP Executive Director Warren Clark is in the Holy Land and had the opportunity to meet with Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat in his office in Jericho.
Mr. Erekat emphasized that Palestinian officials are still intent on negotiating a two-state solution. Warren writes, “Erakat said ultimately only Israel and the Palestinians can make peace with each other. … For their part, it is the Palestinians that recognize Israel and are offering terms and making concessions for peace.”
Mr. Erekat also noted that it is vitally important to U.S. interests to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that the upheaval in the Middle East are not just about economic advancement but also the deeply felt need for human dignity and governments that are responsive to the needs of their people. The Palestinian struggle for dignity and self-determination was an essential part of this picture, and the region will not be stable until this conflict is resolved.
Check CMEP’s Facebook page for additional updates from Warren Clark while he’s in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
This Thursday marked the 101st anniversary of International Women’s Day and people across the globe commemorated it in an incredible diversity of ways. In the Palestinian Territories, the Palestinian Authority has designated Women’s Day as a national holiday and schools and government offices were closed in honor of the UN-designated annual event.
In commemoration of Women’s Day, the works of five Palestinian female photographers are prominently displayed on billboards in Ramallah. The “Ehna Men Hon” (We are from Here) project aims to challenge stereotypes and gender roles in Palestine and create a dialogue in the community.
Palestinians also used the national holiday to champion one particular woman currently in the headlines. Palestinian prisoner Hannaa Shalabi has been on a hunger strike for over 20 days in protest over her administrative detention. In Gaza, around 1,000 women demonstrated in the streets, calling for the release of Shalabi. There were other rallies for her release in the West Bank and Jerusalem.
At the Qalandia checkpoint near Ramallah, hundreds of women gathered to support the hunger-striker, but the demonstration ended in chaos when Israeli soldiers used water cannons and a “scream truck” which emits a high-pitched noise, to disperse the crowd; Palestinian youth began to throw stones and Israeli forces responded with tear gas.
For the first time since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in 2007, Israel allowed the UN’s World Food Program to export 140 tons of date bars from Gaza to the West Bank. This is the first time Gazans have been able to export their goods to fellow Palestinians in the West Bank. Before the 2007 ban, 85% of Gaza’s goods were sold in Israel and the West Bank. Today, 83 percent of the factories in Gaza are idle or operating at half their capacities.
Mohammed al-Talabani, the owner of the cookie factory making the date bars, said "They're letting me do so now after eight months of negotiations. The World Food Program bought 150 tons of cookies from me, and they'll give them to schools in the West Bank."
Sari Bashi, director of the Israeli human rights group Gisha, praised the development in an official statement and encouraged the Israeli government to allow more trucks through on a regular basis. She said, “This is an important step toward fulfilling the Israeli government's commitment to allow economic development for Palestinians living in Gaza. The question is whether this is a one-time gesture to the WFP or a change in policy. If marketing goods to the West Bank can be approved once, why can't it be allowed on a routine basis?”
According to the Washington Post, Israeli defense official Maj. Gay Inbar says he does not envision a resumption of exports. However, Israelis are installing a scanner at the Israeli-Gaza border checkpoint later this year that should expedite potential shipments.
Four Palestinian athletes will be heading to London for the 2012 Olympic games, despite the hardships they encounter. Bahaa al-Ferra runs on the bumpy Gaza streets for three hours a day to train for the 400-meter race. While the Palestinian athletes are not quite up to Olympic qualifying standards, the International Olympic Committee invites them to represent Palestinians by competing on the global stage.
Majed Abu Maraheel, who waved the Palestinian flag in the 1996 Olympics says, "It sent a message to the world that the Palestinians also have the right to be in the games.”
The Palestinians have received funds to build an Olympic sized pool in Jericho, which will be completed this year, and four gyms across the Territories will be ready in two years.
Register today for CMEP’s 2012 Advocacy Conference! There are only five days left to register for the conference at the our early bird rate. If you sign up before March 14, you get an Early Bird discount! Just enter “gets the worm” as the promotional code to receive savings.
This annual gathering taking place this year June 18 -19 in Washington, DC, is a unique opportunity to update and expand your knowledge about the ongoing conflict in the Holy Land. The conference will offer relevant and timely insight into the prospects for peace and present you with innovative and useful tools to advocate for peace in your community.
Additional information about lodging is now available on our website so make your reservations today!
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Formed in 1984, Churches for Middle East Peace is a coalition of 24 national Church denominations and organizations, including Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant traditions. It works to encourage U.S. government policies that actively promote a just, lasting and comprehensive resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ensuring security, human rights and religious freedom for all people of the region.