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One of the most important political dynamics in the Middle East these days is the escalating war of words between the United States and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the international demand to freeze Jewish settlements and colonies in Arab lands occupied in 1967. It is surprising yet heartening that the Obama team has come out strongly demanding that Israel freeze the expansion of all settlements and colonies, with no exceptions for natural growth, pre-approved projects or anything else.
More unusual has been the American president’s public reiteration of this position, including in the presence of the Israeli prime minister in the White House. The United States took this stance one significant step forward a few days ago when it publicly called for the reversal of official Israeli approval for building a new Jewish housing project in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Arab east Jerusalem.
Settlements expansion is only one of many core issues comprising the Palestinian-Israeli and Arab-Israeli conflict; yet it has become the litmus test of three critical dynamics that may determine whether this conflict moves towards peaceful resolution or continues to radicalize and destabilize the entire Middle East as it has for over 60 years. These three are US-Israel relations, Israeli compliance with international laws and norms, and the capacity of the Arabs to engage meaningfully in promoting a credible peace process.
President Obama has taken a very strong, public position against continued Israeli colonization probably because he understands that this position enjoys the backing of international law, American public opinion, every other country in the world, and probably a majority of Israelis themselves who would sacrifice their colonization program for a genuine, lasting, and comprehensive peace agreement with all the Arab neighbors.
If Obama runs into problems with his economic reform and health care programs, the pro-Israeli zealots in the United States could jump on the president’s vulnerability to help him inside the US if he backs off pressuring Israel on its colonization ventures. Much of this will depend on how the debate is framed, which raises the second point: Will Israel finally be forced by global pressure to comply with international law and UN resolutions, or will it forever decide where it complies and where it defies the rest of the world’s sense of right and wrong?
A few days ago, replying to Washington’s demand that Israel stop colonizing Arab east Jerusalem, Netanyahu said: “United Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish people and the state of Israel. Our sovereignty over it cannot be challenged. We cannot accept the idea that Jews will not have the right to live and purchase in all parts of Jerusalem.”
Well, the whole point of living by the rule of law is that your rights are restricted by the rights of others — in this case, Israel’s right to live in West Jerusalem is restricted by its acceptance of the rights of the Palestinian Arabs to enjoy sovereignty in East Jerusalem. Israeli settlements and colonies are an illegal, criminal activity, and even the United States now has the basic decency and courage to say this out loud. Israeli “sovereignty” over all of Jerusalem is rejected by the entire world, other than a few Christian fundamentalist nut-cases in the United States and their equally extremist Likud-run pro-Israeli lobbyists.
The third issue that must be clarified soon is whether the Arab world will watch this political drama on television as disinterested bystanders, or get serious and engage in tough diplomacy by clarifying to Israel our will to coexist on the basis of equal and simultaneous rights for Arabs and Israelis without perpetually making one-sided concessions due to our own collective weakness.
President Obama and his family touched the world earlier this month when they visited Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, the former depot of the transatlantic slave trade that reminds the world of the evils and inhumanities of the colonial era. Obama said there: “As painful as it is, I think that it helps to teach all of us that we have to do what we can to fight against the kinds of evils that sadly still exist in our world, not just on this continent but in every corner of the globe.”
One of those evils in our corner of the globe, in the view of the entire world, is Israeli colonization in occupied Arab lands that many of us see as perhaps the last, lingering remnant of the sort of 18th and 19th Century colonization that included the transatlantic slave trade.
Our common challenge is to reconcile the two legitimacies of Israeli and Arab nationalism in Palestine by creating two adjacent states and resolving the refugee issue. The twin first steps to this must be Arab acceptance of Israel — this has been offered and reiterated repeatedly since 2002 — and Israel’s reciprocal acceptance of Palestinian statehood through the proxy act of agreeing to cessation of Jewish colonization as a first step on the road to genuine peace and coexistence.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.
Copyright © 2009 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global
Reporting from Belfast, Northern Ireland --
The extremists who tried to sabotage peaceful coexistence in Northern Ireland by killing three British security personnel over the last week may have wound up strengthening it instead.
Residents and leaders of this tiny province, including thousands of Protestants and Roman Catholics who took to the streets Wednesday, have united in condemning the shootings, producing scenes that have left even jaded observers agog at how much has changed here since the end of the so-called Troubles a decade ago.
Deadly attack on British base rattles Northern Ireland. 2 British military personnel killed in Northern Ireland. Boom gives way to bust in Ireland's oversold economy. There was the sight of top government ministers Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, two men who would once have spat at each other -- or worse -- across the sectarian divide, standing side by side demanding that the gunmen be brought to justice. McGuinness, who supported the killing of British soldiers during his time as an Irish Republican Army commander, then shocked everyone by denouncing the attackers as "traitors," an epithet fraught with historical meaning here.
Protestant hard-liners, who used to clamor for retaliation and aggressive government crackdowns, have appealed for restraint."Peace has to be worked at. It's always fragile," said Desmond Lowry, 49, a nurses union activist who joined protesters at the imposing Belfast City Hall. "What's happened is a solidarity I've never seen before, across all parties, saying we have to reject these actions."
Two British soldiers died Saturday in a hail of bullets outside an army barracks, and a veteran policeman was shot to death Monday while responding to a call for help in a strongly republican neighborhood. Republican splinter groups have claimed responsibility for the shootings, the first violent deaths of British security personnel in Northern Ireland since the so-called Good Friday peace accord in 1998.
The attacks have presented the power-sharing provincial government in Belfast, which resulted from the accord, with its most serious challenge so far. Concern over the potential fallout led Robinson and McGuinness, Northern Ireland's first minister and deputy first minister, respectively, to temporarily postpone their departure for an official visit to the U.S. and a meeting with President Obama.
Authorities have been on alert for any copycat attacks or reprisals by Protestant loyalist paramilitaries. But the outpouring of public solidarity has, to some degree, allayed fears of an immediate slide back into the chaos of the past, in which more than 3,500 people were killed.
Paul Dixon, an expert on Northern Ireland at Kingston University in London, praised political leaders for their response to the killings. "These attacks not only represent a setback, but they can represent an opportunity in further entrenching the peace process," he said.
Dixon cited as precedent a bombing by a republican dissident group in the town of Omagh in 1997, which killed 29 people but helped cement support for the peace process and paved the way for the Good Friday agreement.
Still, residents here acknowledge their fear that a few militants on either side could escalate the violence until it engulfs whole communities again. Most children still attend all-Catholic or all-Protestant schools, and the economic benefits of peace have been unevenly spread, sparking some disillusionment and resentment in deprived neighborhoods on both sides.
"The devil makes work for idle hands. That is a danger," said Billy McQuiston, 52, who spent a dozen years in prison as a loyalist paramilitary member. "But in honesty, I don't think there's anyone who has an appetite to go back to violence."
McQuiston lives along Belfast's Shankill Road, a Unionist stronghold where billboards still pay fierce homage to the British crown and signs honor Protestants killed during the 1970s.
But the relative peace of the last decade has delivered freedoms that many now cherish, and erstwhile hard-liners want their children to grow up without fear.
"Going to shops, you're not getting searched. There's no fear of car bombs or anything like that. To start to live with that again would be really drastic," said Anna Godfrey, 60, as she picked up groceries at a shop along Shankill.
Peace advocates took heart when Dawn Purvis, the leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, which has ties to Protestant hard-liners, rejected the idea of reprisals to the recent killings.
"I appeal to those who are thinking of retaliation in any form to listen to the united response of our community and politicians," Purvis said in a speech in Stormont, the power-sharing assembly. "Do not respond to those criminals, because that is what they are. Do not give them any credibility, and do not legitimize their actions."
In some ways, the killings of the two soldiers and the police officer were more a matter of when than if.
Authorities recorded more than a dozen attacks on police in the last year and a half by suspected republican dissidents, including one using a rocket-propelled grenade. Last month, authorities found a 300-pound car bomb that they said a splinter group had intended to detonate outside a British army base but abandoned after something apparently went wrong.
Last week, the chief constable in Northern Ireland said he had asked for help from a special forces unit of the British army in gathering intelligence on dissident republicans.
In the Saturday attack, gunmen lay in wait for the soldiers to come out of their barracks in the county of Antrim to pick up a pizza delivery.
"They weren't amateurs. It was professionally conducted and well-planned," said Allison Morris of the Irish News, the only journalist to have met with leaders of the three main dissident republican groups.
The groups' memberships are small, and personality clashes have prevented them from working together, Morris said. The newest group, known as Oglaigh na hEireann, which translates loosely as Soldiers of Ireland, boasted to Morris of having enlisted experienced bomb makers from the old IRA. It claimed responsibility for the bomb found last month.
The groups appear to be trying to recruit members in depressed Catholic neighborhoods.
"It's fertile ground for them because there are so many young men who feel they have no purpose," Morris said.
Cathy Pugh, 46, who joined the peace rally in Belfast on Wednesday, said it was important that officials bring in investment and increase spending on education to create opportunities for young people.
"If people have jobs and they can achieve something worthwhile, if they can contribute to the wider community, there's got to be more to that than going out and shooting somebody," she said.