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Is Obama Treating Palestinian Violence as an Inevitability?

The president may have inadvertently encouraged attacks against Israelis for their settlement policies.

by
Daniel Mandel

Bio

December 11, 2009 - 12:00 am

Late last month, upon receipt of news that Israel was proceeding with a program of urban construction for Jews in parts of Jerusalem lying beyond the old 1948 armistice lines, President Barack Obama said that he opposed it because it could be “very dangerous.”

There is not a person inside or outside the region who does not know that such language, in this context, is a euphemism for the threat of Palestinian violence. It is therefore astonishing — or ought to be astonishing — that Obama did not couple this observation with any statement on the unacceptability of such rioting or terrorism, or, if he believed it likely, did not publicly counsel against any Palestinian resort to violence.

Such a failure encourages the very thing that prompted Obama’s warning.

In recent days, both before and since his statement, senior Palestinian Authority officials from Mahmoud Abbas down have foreshadowed a return to violence. For example, former PA Prime Minister Nabil Sha’ath said two days before Obama’s comments that:

Today we have the right to return to the armed struggle in order to restore our rights. … [W]e have the right to turn back to the alternative [routes]. … If negotiations fail, we will turn to armed struggle. This is our right, as I have said. … International law stipulates that, when an occupying [force] takes one’s land and harms one’s honor, one has the right to resort to armed struggle.

So what prompted Obama to admonish the Israelis but not the Palestinians? The U.S. and Israel have never seen eye-to-eye on Jews moving beyond the pre-1967 armistice lines that divided Jerusalem. Contrary to the view of successive Israeli governments, left and right, and the bulk of the Israeli public, the U.S. acts as if there is, or should be, a prewar-style gentleman’s agreement to prevent Jews from entering certain neighborhoods.

But then the U.S. and much of the world believe, or pretend to believe, that the Arab war on Israel is really a purely national conflict about territory, not an ideological conflict about Israel’s existence.

That being the case, and faithful to his position, Obama nonetheless could have said, “I do not agree with this policy because I want Israel to divide Jerusalem in the context of a full peace treaty with the Palestinians. At the same time, I warn against any exploitation of this development by extremists and urge the authorities, Israeli and Palestinian, to take all steps to prevent violence.”

Prudence alone would have dictated no less. But he didn’t.

It is therefore as if Obama was saying that there is some correspondence between the alleged offense of Israelis building apartments and Palestinians resorting to riots — or worse — on this pretext. This amounts to suggesting that Palestinian violence is a natural and excusable reaction to Jews building houses.

For the American president to say or imply this is itself, to coin a phrase, “very dangerous.”

History shows that much of this conflict has been exacerbated by this brand of amoral neutrality toward violence that has allowed extremists to set policy:

1921: In British-controlled Palestine, after rumors present an intra-Jewish clash as an anti-Arab uprising, Arabs riot in Jaffa, killing Jews. The British response? A temporary suspension of Jewish immigration into Palestine.

1929: The Palestinian leadership incites large-scale pogroms against Jews throughout Palestine, based on trumped-up stories of Jews attacking Muslims and Muslim shrines. The British response?  A commission of inquiry recommends curtailment of Jewish immigration.

1996: Palestinians riot in Jerusalem following trumped-up rumors circulated by Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority that Israel’s opening of a Jerusalem archeological tunnel is designed to harm the mosques on Temple Mount. The international response? Criticism of an unnecessary Israeli provocation and renewed pressure on Israel to make further concessions.

2000: A pre-arranged visit to Temple Mount by Israeli politician Ariel Sharon is distorted by Palestinian media as being gratuitous violation of Muslim sanctuaries, producing riots and a terror wave. The international response? Condemnation of Israeli provocation and demands for more concessions in on-going peace talks.

Common to these examples (and others) is this clear fact: Palestinian violence, often based on lies fomented by unscrupulous men, is turned into a paying proposition. Far less clear is why President Obama would wish to encourage this time-honored Palestinian stratagem.

Even allowing that his comments stem from a background of pro-Palestinian partisanship, they are devoid of common sense and finesse, since Obama is seeking to reconvene peace talks. (The absence of such talks is itself the result of this policy of demanding a Jewish construction freeze that the Palestinian Authority never made a pre-condition for talks until Obama himself did, before backtracking — but only somewhat). Yet resuming talks, useful or useless as these might be, cannot occur if Obama assists a resort to violence by Palestinians.

To treat Palestinian violence as a social inevitability, like common theft, best dealt with by not attracting the thieves’ notice is to put a premium on it and to ensure its recurrence. Can Obama actually want this? And where then will his Arab/Israeli policy be?

Daniel Mandel is a Fellow in History at Melbourne University, Director of the Zionist Organization of America’s Center for Middle East Policy and author of H.V. Evatt and the Establishment of Israel: The Undercover Zionist
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