2012 Palestine Center Annual Conference – Panel I


Video and Edited Transcript
Mr. Hrair Balian, Mr. Mark Perry, and Ms. Helena Cobban
Transcript No. 375 (9 November 2012)



9 November 2012
The Palestine Center
Washington, DC


Mr. Hrair Balian:

I was asked to speak today as the first panelist on expectations from the US administration with respect to the Arab awakening countries. On this front, the expectations can be brighter than in the case of the elephant in the room, that is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, in which the US administrations’ past record and the expected record in the second term administration, the past record has been dismal; the expected record in the new administration, in my view, cannot be much better. What I propose to do in the few minutes available to me is to outline President Obama’s promise when he took office in 2009, promise in the case of the Middle East obviously, his performance in the past four years and what can be expected based on this performance.

I start with President Obama’s Cairo speech, seminal speech in June of 2009, where he promised to open a new chapter in relations between the US and the Muslim world, and by extension the Arab world. He said, and it’s worth to remind ourselves, “I have came here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the US and Muslims around the world; one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition. Instead they overlap and share common principles, principles of justice, and progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.” More specifically, President Obama promised not to turn his back on the legitimate Palestinian aspirations for dignity and a state of their own. He promised that the US will welcome all elected peaceful governments, provided they govern with respect for all their people. He promised that the US will protect religious freedom, will partner with any Muslim-majority country to support expanded literacy for girls and employment opportunities for women. He promised that the US will invest in education in the region, and he would seek a broader engagement with the region beyond oil and gas. While he also addressed the problem of violent extremism in all its forms, he promised to partner with Muslim communities to combat such manifestations.

Now for the deeds and the record. With the exception of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where the administration’s record is, as I said, dismal, I agree with those who say that President Obama’s administration has done a much better job in the Arab transition countries than he has been credited for. The administration has engaged behind the scenes with all actors, including the military, the Muslim Brotherhood, the liberals and beyond, trying to keep the transitions on track. For this the Romney folks have accused President Obama of leading from behind. The administration has remained engaged with a light footprint in Egypt and Tunisia from the outset and in Libya once Qaddafi was ousted. However, the administration has failed to push “friendly” regimes such as Bahrain, Kuwait and Jordan to enact serious reforms before the political crisis spiraled out of control. In countries where transition has been violent, such as in Syria, Yemen and Libya at first, the administration’s record has been mixed. In the period ahead, the new administration is likely to continue the cautious, pragmatic and the-behind-scenes approach of the past two years. As they wind down the war in Afghanistan, as they struggle to manage the standoff with Iran and as they struggle to address the civil war in Syria. Will President Obama take risks in the Middle East in the second term to secure a place in history for himself as some have predicted? Frankly, I doubt it, that is not his style. That has not been his style and it will not be his style in the second term.

Time does not allow us to examine in detail the administration’s record in each of the Arab awakenings countries. But in two countries, Egypt and Syria, where transitions have followed opposite paths, one peaceful and the other obviously violent, the administration’s record to date and their likely engagement in the period ahead deserves a closer look. Because of the impact both of these countries and the course of events in the next years in those countries would have on the rest of the Arab world. First let’s take a closer look at Egypt, in terms of the record, in terms of the administration for the past two years, initially president Obama’s response to the uprisings was cautious and calculated, perhaps I should say hesitant. Ultimately President Obama supported the popular movement, and called for Mubarak to step down, and ultimately, this was within a few days after the movement had started, frankly. On the economic front since February 2011, Obama has proposed plans for US engagement with Egypt, which include two billion dollars to fund private investment. One billion in debt relief, one billion in long guarantees for infrastructure and job creation, and currently the administration is involved in supporting a 4.8 billion dollar loan being negotiated between Egypt and the International Monetary Fund.

One contentious issue between the US and Egypt has been the way in which Egypt has treated half a dozen US based nongovernmental organizations and their activities in the country, in 2011 and early 2012. As a result of the controversy, Congress had frozen the 1.3 billion dollar US aid to the Egyptian military, which was then released after the US ngo representatives were released from jail and allowed to leave the country earlier in the year. And the Secretary Clinton released the funds and they were transmitted to, transferred to Egypt. But equally and more importantly on the political front, true to the Cairo speech promise, the Obama administration avoided the kneejerk reaction of the American Bush Administration in 2006 when another branch of the Muslim brotherhood, Hamas, won the Palestinian elections in the Occupied Territories of Gaza. Wisely they avoided this kind of approach, and they engaged very early on with the Muslim Brotherhood following their parliamentary elections and continue to do so following the presidential win of Morsi, in June of this year. Also significant, the administration pressed the military, the SCAF, to give up military functions in June of this year, and transfer all of executive authority to the elected government and the elected president.

Now, obviously the transition in Egypt is still incomplete. A new constitution is being drafted as we speak, probably a full draft will be released within the next two weeks or so, that is what president Morsi expects when we met, I had the privilege of traveling with President Carter two weeks and meeting President Morsi, and he was expecting to have a new draft out, despite all the difficulties and controversies surrounding court decisions on the process of drafting this constitution. And he expects to put this new constitutional draft to popular discussion for a month and then immediately after that a referendum will take place, a popular referendum will take place to approve the new constitutional draft. At least that is the plan. And following that there will be parliamentary elections again in Egypt. It would be reasonable to expect that the Obama Administration will remain engaged in this process, always from behind the scenes nudging Egypt to adopt an exclusive and tolerant constitution, and complete this democratic transition.

But the key for this transition to be successful will also depend on economic issues. Egypt is in a very very difficult economic position. It has used up much of its foreign reserves, much of its foreign investments have dried up. Unemployment has shot up, and the government is being forced to increase the subsides to consumer goods that it has paid in the past and continues to pay today. The Obama administration can be expected to ensure, that the new Egypt will continue to honor its treaty obligations with Israel – that is the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. Although there are some voices in Egypt calling for a renunciation or a major revision of these treaty obligations, those are very isolated voices. The intention of the Morsi administration in Egypt is to, at least the state of intention, is to continue honoring its treaty obligations with Israel, though, they may negotiate with Israel on some aspects or revisions of this treaty, in particular larger presence of the Egyptian military in the Sinai Peninsula. Thus, a pragmatic, moderate, and tolerant Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt can be expected to have a positive influence in the rest of the Arab world’s transition to democracy in the years ahead. However, this is not to ignore the pressure from more radical elements of the Muslim Brotherhood’s rank and file, and more significantly the ultra-conservative Salafist forces in Egypt. The struggle between the more moderate leadership of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt and the more radical rank and file of the Brotherhood and the Salfis would determine the course of events in Egypt in the years ahead and also the course of events in the Arab world and the course that the Arab awakening would take in the Arab world in the years ahead.

Now let’s turn for a few minutes to Syria. For the past 20 months of the Syria uprising, the administration has resisted very wisely pressure from many quarters, American, international and Syrian to support a wider military intervention for a country under one guise or another, humanitarian intervention, safe havens, no fly zones, arming the opposition, wisely they have resisted all of these pressures. However the administration in my view has deferred excessively to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, regional powers who have poured, in my view, oil on the Syrian fire, by financing and arming the military wings of the opposition reinforcing there intransigence. In August of this year, the administration signed a covert directive authorizing clandestine support by the CIA and other agencies for the rebels, and has been stepping up support gradually ever since. Not much is known about this support but in my view it is a slippery slope towards more military engagement in Syria, which is an unwise course. So in addition to this limited support to this unarmed support, the administration has engaged in a futile effort to unite the hopelessly fragmented opposition by trying to buttress the Syrian National Counsel, and in the last week or two, a new outfit called the Syrian National Initiative. In my view, this effort will fail. The administration has also paid lip service to cooperation with the permanent 5 members, in particular Russia and China, of the Security Council, to arrive at a common position and a Security Council mandate for intervention on Syria. However, despite this lip service however, reality has been disappointing. A case in point is the June 2012 communiqué issued at the conclusion at the meeting of the international community at Geneva, a meeting convened by the former special envoy to the UN and Arab League, Kofi Anan.

While the US and Russia agreed on this communique, a detailed roadmap for a political transition communiqué, the day after the communiqué was issued in Geneva unfortunately the US torpedoed any possibility of cooperation with the Russian federation, perhaps indicating disagreement within the administration on how to deal with Syria. I think it behooves the administration in the new period to return to that agreement, find common language with Russia and support the new envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in his efforts for a political transition. Otherwise the country will descend further in to chaos, bloodshed, destruction and sectarian divide, infecting in the process neighboring countries, in particular Lebanon and Jordan.

The second term Obama Administration would do much better if it focused on a UN Security Council mandate under Chapter 7 rather than how to strengthen the opposition to defeat the Assad regime. Such a Chapter 7 resolution in the Security Council should call for an immediate ceasefire, UN peace keeping forces ten to fifteen thousand strong, a strict arms embargo on both side, an interim transitional government, which was already agreed in the June Geneva communiqué calling for this transitional interim government to have full executive powers and this interim government to be appointed possibly by the UN rather than created through negotiations between the regime and the opposition which would never take place. What would happen to Assad was left open, President Assad was left open in the June [2012 Geneva] agreement. But when the agreement called for full executive powers to be transferred and transmitted to an interim government obviously it is calling for Assad, at the very least to step aside, if not to step down. And to continue persisting that Assad step down should be a precondition for anything else to be happening in Syria I think is counterproductive. The formula found in the Geneva communiqué should be revived and implemented for the country to move forward. I agree that all of this is easier said than done, but it is really the only way forward, and the only way away from further militarization of the conflict if that could be imagined at this point, because the current stalemate between the two sides cannot be broken by force alone, and if it is broken then the outcome is likely to be even more chaotic.

To conclude, the Middle East since the Arab Awakening has been full of challenges obviously; each requiring a tailor made policy. How the second term administration will react to these unfolding events in the two countries I try to detail will have an impact on developments in the rest of the region. And how the new administration addresses the elephant in the room, the Israeli Palestinian conflict, will be the defining characteristic of President Obama’s legacy in foreign policy. There are two other issues that I have not touched on that is Iran, somebody else will address that, and the drone war in the region against terrorism and that is a whole other topic.

Mark Perry:

Hi, I am Mark Perry. Nice to see you. I love being here, this is the second time I have been at this conference and I love doing this because it gives me an opportunity to talk bluntly. Four days ago the American people in their wisdom reelected a Kenya born socialist, Arab apologizing, community organizing, terrorist affiliated president of the United States. The more they described him thus, the more I could not wait to vote for him. And I say this with some pride as a lapsed republican. And so I have been asked this morning to talk about what we might except from a man in his second term who as a man in his first term said he would do something about the Palestinian Israeli problem and then proceeded to absolutely nothing. I hope you don’t mind if I tell a story about the past before talking about the future. And it is a somewhat personal story so if you will bear with me and also give me the liberty of believing what I am telling you. I am going to talk about the two-state solution in the context of the second intifada which I witnessed. As I recall in 1994 sitting here in Washington as Mr. Arafat who I knew personally came to Washington to sign the Oslo declaration, the Washington Declaration and I was seating with Itamar Rabinovich, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, when Mr. Arafat showed up and I was having a discussion with him and there on the TV was Arafat getting off the plane and I was beside beside myself. I thought, finally, I couldn’t believe it, Yasser Arafat in Washington and I was very emotional and Itamar Rabinovich looked at me and he said “What are you doing?” I said “Well, I never thought I would see this day,” and he said “You’re getting emotional!” He said “Ah my friend listen to me carefully, this is only the beginning, this is the beginning of a long process and here is what is going to happen. The Palestinians are going to sit down and they are going to tell us their story. And we are going to sit down and tell them our story. We are going to exchange national narratives. And it’s going to take a long time, it might take a 100 years and sometime the exchange of their stories will be accompanied by gun fire, so get ready, this is only the beginning.” He was right and I was wrong.

Over the period of the next ten years from 1994 to the beginning of the second intifada, here is what happened. Arafat made the following deal: in exchange for coming back into Jerchico and Gaza, he promised he would provide the Israelis with security. He would hire Palestinian security forces, which he would bring in with him to arrest Palestinians. And in exchange he would get land and governance, slowly but surely. That was the deal. That was Oslo. I asked him what the deal was and he laid it out. And then one day Mr. Clinton called him and said “Come to Camp David and meet with Ehud Barak and we will sign the final resolution to this conflict.” And as Mr. Arafat said during the second intifada when I asked him how did this mess start, he told Mr. Clinton “I am not going to come. I think this is a bad idea. My people aren’t ready. I haven’t consulted with Mr. Mubarak, I haven’t consulted with the King of Jordan, I haven’t prepared my people, Hamas is opposed to this, I haven’t called the PLO Executive Committee, I haven’t had the proper meetings, now is not the time.” And Mr. Clinton said “I insist, come anyway.” He [Arafat] said, “Mr. President I just don’t think this is going to work.” He [Arafat] said, “Well Mr. Clinton insisted.” And I said “Well this doesn’t really tell the story of the second intifada Mr. Arafat,” and he said “Listen, here was the deal,” and he explained it to me very vividly through a series of meetings. He said “You have a lady who has blinders on with the scales,” and I said “Yeah the scales of justice,” and he said “Yeah scales of justice and they are even,” and I said “That’s right.” He said “Well, we have those scales but they are not even, the Israeli’s have a military, we don’t have a military. The Israelis have a good economy, we don’t have a good economy. And the Israelis have the United States of America, we don’t.” And he said “So here was the deal. I would provide the Israeli’s with security but at key moments during our agreement I could pick up that phone”, this was in his office, “and I could call the president of the United States and I could say Mr. President I am in trouble. They’re building settlements, they are shooting Palestinians, call the prime minster of Israel and balance those scales, please. I need this or I need this, I can’t arrest this guy, I need this guy to come in from the outside. And the president of the United States, Mr. Clinton would call the prime minster of Israel and say ‘Arafat needs help, please help him,’ and the prime minster of Israel would do it and those scales would be balanced because the US would weigh in and balance those scales. And I counted on that was the only thing that was going to make Oslo work. And I kept arresting those people, those Palestinians and putting them in jail because I had trust that the United States would balance those scales.”

You with me on this? Makes sense yes? This was Arafat’s explanation to me. He said, “So I went to Camp David and we worked through Camp David, and I am not surprised,” as he told me “it didn’t work. And I left Camp David, and Mr. Clinton promised me they wouldn’t blame me for leaving, and I went to Taba, and we came close but it still wouldn’t work and he blamed me, and I came home here, to Palestine, and Mr, Sharon, marched on the Temple Mount.” I was in Jerusalem the night before Mr. Sharon marched on Temple Mount, the night of September 29th 2000. The Palestinian Authority had a 9.2% growth rate, 9.2% growth rate. The hotels were full. The roads were paved. People had jobs. The ministries were humming. Sharon marched on the Temple Mount and within the next week there were riots and protests and 56 Palestinians died under Israeli gunfire. And as Arafat told me, “The pressures were enormous, so I picked up the phone and I called the president and I said Mr. President you have got to do something. Please call the prime minster of Israel and rebalance the scales. And Mr. Clinton said, ‘No sir I won’t do it.’” And Arafat looked at me and said, “So I took the keys to the jails and I unlocked the doors, and I unbalanced the scales.” That was the second intifada. Now I abhor violence and you abhor violence. But those are the facts of life. Force and politics work hand in hand. My argument here is that nothing has really changed since those days. Here is where we are in the West Bank: Israeli settlements are booming and the Palestinian people are quiescent and we know and it’s a fact, go check, that the only time in Palestinian history that settlements haven’t been booming is when Israelis have been dying. And Palestinians know that. And it is bubbling in the West Bank.

Now here is part two of the story and then I’ll sit down. And it doesn’t seem to be related but it is. We just had a national election, and I sat up until 4 o’clock this morning and I am starting to feel it, studying the returns from three counties in Florida: Miami Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach. There are 513 thousand American Jews in those two counties. It is the fifth largest population of American Jews in the world. They voted 70% for Barack Obama and 30% for Mitt Romney. Wrap your brain around this. If this had been the 2000 election and not the 2012 election, Mitt Romney would have carried Florida, not Barack Obama. You see what I am saying? Remember George Bush carried Florida and Palm Beach County in a contested election by carrying the Jewish vote by some 21% in 2000. So if Romney had carried Florida with 30% of the Jewish vote, it would have been a very much different election. Except for the following: if Romney would have carried the election in Florida, it wouldn’t have mattered and Obama would have won anyway. So the Jewish vote in Florida wouldn’t have counted, because Florida wouldn’t have counted.

Okay, next New York State. There are 1.9 million American Jews in New York State, the third largest population, the second largest population of American Jews in the world, outside of Tel Aviv. Nine hundred and eighty nine thousand of them by my reckoning, voted in the election; 70% of them voted for Barack Obama, let’s suppose. Let’s suppose 95% of voter turnout, Jewish American, and let’s suppose further what didn’t happen actually did happen that 100% of Jewish Americans in New York City, in New York voted for Mitt Romney, not Barack Obama. Barack Obama would have stilled carried New York and would have won the election. So here is the deal, ladies and gentleman, this was a really important election because AIPAC’s promise to Israel is that Jewish Americans will vote for Israel, and that the third rail of American politics is Israel, and that the United States of America can’t impose peace on the Israeli Palestinian conflict because it means imposing peace on Israel and doing so is political suicide. Well guess what, this last election shows that’s not true. That’s not true.

At J Street, you remember them, the enemies of Israel, that is to say a pro-American Jewish American organization. The J street survey said that Jewish Americans vote on the following issues, in order of importance: the economy, medicare and social security, the deficit, taxes and education, number 6, Israel. Josh Mandel in Ohio ran on the rather dubious platform that Barack Obama had thrown Israel under the bus and was an enemy of Israel. Why this would matter to the out of work auto workers of Toledo and Akron is a puzzle to me. But it didn’t work and it’s never going to work again. So here is my message to you and to Barack Obama. He can do this. We give 3.5 billion dollars in aid to a country that is running a budget surplus, sitting on a well of natural gas, and has an unemployment rate of 6.9%, that we provide one quarter of their defense needs, and here is his message, “You will come to an agreement with the Palestinians or you will defend your country with little red wagons. So do it.” Thank you very much.

Helena Cobban:

Well I got two hard acts to follow. It’s great to be back here, thank you to Yousef and everybody here at the Jerusalem Fund for holding this really timely conference. I am Helena Cobban. I am the owner of Just World Books. And I just want to tell you that our latest book is Wrestling in the daylight by Rabbi Brant Rosen, the subtitle is a Rabbi’s path to Palestinian solidarity. The reason I mention this right now is Rabbi Brant Rosen is coming to Washing DC in early December. My good friend Grace Said is helping to organize this event. We have got flyers outside, if you’re interested in getting people to come and listen to Rabbi Brant that would be fabulous. We also have a super list for 2013, so go to our website www.JustWorldBooks.com and you’ll learn all about.

I want to applaud my friend Hrair Balian for his great presentation and just to add to what he said, let’s not forget that there are more than 500,000 stateless Palestinians in Syria who are caught in the meat grinder of this violence, as we know. And I think that all of us here at the Palestine Center need to remember that stateless Palestinians, most of them Muslims many of them Christians, and their community is being torn apart by this violence, another reason for us all to care and to try to ramp down the violence. When I was thinking what can I write, what can I say here this morning, I was thinking if I was still writing my column for the Christian Science Moniter in 800 words what would I write today? Luckily I have more than 800 words. But I think I need to speak a little fast, so I shall do, anyway. And what I would have done, first and foremost is to call on our newly elected president Barack Obama to be bold, now is the time to be bold. I don’t know how many of you read David Ignacious’ excellent column yesterday in which he recalled that after Johnson was elected for the first time, when his first term was after the assassination of Kennedy; he said “Right now I have been elected for my second term, effectively, I am going to take major steps. What is the presidency for?” Dido. President Nixon went to China, 1972 right after his election. Same thing, he made the decisions beforehand but announced it the second he was reelected. Leaving your bold moves until the end of your second term, so called bold moves, is what President Clinton did on the Middle East, it’s what President George W. Bush did on the Middle East. And we know how catastrophic, how damaging for peace both of those abortive attempts were. So President Obama needs to be bold and he needs to be bold now on this issue if he is to have the kind of mark that he can on the history of the region.

Of course, there are many issues that he needs to deal with immediately, I had a list somewhere obviously the first one is the fiscal cliff. Then we’ve got Iran and Syria. That’s right, I think I remembered them all. But Israel and Palestine has to be right up there, it is related to fiscal matters in many different ways. One is that it is the cause of so much anti-American feeling, in that important region of the world and worldwide that it feeds our need for defense and therefore the defense budgets. If we can resolve this issue, it’s not that all our defense needs will suddenly be met through love and singing Kumbayya but it will certainly help our strategic posture in this region and worldwide. So it is related to the fiscal cliff indirectly; it’s much more directly connected to the issues in Syria and Iran. It cannot be left off the agenda if the president is going to be acting boldly.

I want to look quickly at a couple of issues. The first is what is this thing called the “peace process” and the second one is to really unpack the nature of Israeli rule over the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and then I’ll come back to this issue of what is it that we should call on our president to do right now, at the dawn of his second term. So I have been thinking quite a bit about the peace process not least because I am married to a guy who wrote a book called The Peace Process and we talk about it a lot, a lot. I think that we have to look at the influence in particular of Dennis Ross, in stressing the process rather than the results, which he has done every since he was influential at the beginning and throughout the Clinton administration in the 1990’s. Denis had gotten it I guess from work he did in a minor capacity on confidence building measures in the US-Soviet arena which was actually his arena on such expertise as he has. He is not a Middle East specialist. That doesn’t stop him from being very influential.

The effect of this stress on process and in some cases I would argue most likely in Denis Ross’s case, the intent of this stress was to provide a cover through endless going on, and having things happen in the so-called peace process and a conference here and a meeting there and a letter delivered here, the effect was to provide a cover for the continued building of illegal Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. I can’t stress that enough. This effect has continued throughout the past 39 years. Thirty nine years, a period that I choose because it is the period in which the US has clearly dominated and monopolized the diplomacy on this issue. The last major significant international gathering at which there was another party involved was the peace conference, Geneva conference in December 1973 right after the 1973 war. After that, Kissinger kidnapped the entire peace process, shut the Soviets out, shut the Europeans when they tried to make a little bleats in Venice in 1980, and the US has completely monopolized the peace making diplomacy such as it has been on this issue ever since 1973.

There is of course now this thing called the Quartet, which is highly anomalous. Whoever would think that the United Nations would be subordinate to the US in an international body? I needn’t go on about the Quartet. But just bear in mind this whole thing called the peace process and it always generates photo opportunities, news headlines, this that and the next thing, but [in the] meantime, what is happening is that the Israeli matrix of control on the ground in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem continues, and continues and continues. This is the nature of Israel’s rule over the Occupied Palestinian Territories, precisely the spreading and sustenance of a matrix of control over the land, and a matrix of as we now know how to call it in this country, a matrix of disposition over the lives of the Palestinian residents. That is, they say who can come and who can go, who can visit, who can’t visit, who can go to a hospital, who can’t go to a hospital, who goes to jail, who goes to this bigger jail which is Gaza or who goes to that smaller jail which is in Ashdod or somewhere else – matrix of disposition and matrix of control.

Plus, and this of course is why they do it, there is the continued implantation of an entire Israeli settler society, into the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and control of the land and resources of the area. Now, before Oslo, when I would visit the West Bank, you’d see little isolated settlements, usually on hilltops, and the road system was Palestinian, and the settlers had to come and go, sometimes it would be a little scary for them, but they chose to go and live there, illegally. After Oslo the whole thing changed. After Oslo, the settlers got the road system, with Arafat’s express permission, and this was one of the fundamental flaws of Oslo, and the Palestinian cities, towns and villages became isolated enclaves with access to and between them completely controlled by the Israelis. Of course I did grow up in England in the 1950’s and 1960’s, at a time of decolonization by Britain and France primarily, of the divesting ourselves of the colonies that we had had worldwide. I’ll come back to that in a moment.

But one of the major ways in which those colonial powers sought to maintain their colonial control over indigenous populations was precisely through movement control, through what counter insurgencies call quadrillage, you quarter off the land and then you make access going through very difficult if not impossible. In the case of Kenya it was particularly harshly applied. They had a whole system of prison camps called “the pipeline”, in which terrible abuses occurred. I mention this because Barack Obama’s grandfather was one of the people who was put into one of these camps, and suffered most grievously. Right now in the British courts, Kenyan survivors of that system of torture are winning their right to have a day in court for having been castrated by the British authorities in Kenya, as part of that. Barack Obama needs to understand that this is a part of this whole phenomenon called colonialism. I’m sure he does at some very deep level, but what we need to understand is that colonialism is precisely what is happening, in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem right now. I think it’s more useful as a discourse than the discourse about apartheid. Apartheid is, in a sense, the South African authors of apartheid thought that black South Africans could have some political rights, somewhere provided it was out there in the Bantustan, and gave them the pretense of independence for the Bantustans. This [colonialism] is more vicious.

I mentioned growing up in an era of decolonization, in Britain. One thing that we knew was that maintaining that system of colonial control actually, once you’ve ripped off all the resources and everything like we did in India in the 19th Century, it becomes a massive financial drag on the colonizing power – and that was why, in the 1950’s and 1960’s Britain and France gave up the colonies. Maybe there were some stirrings of conscience, but they were not what drove the decolonization. Israel today is the only colonial power in history whose system of colonial administration of the indigenous people of Palestine is fully funded by outsiders – American and European, and that was a marvelous benefit that they got from Oslo. Prior to Oslo, remember, they had to pay the costs of colonial administration themselves. But since Oslo, with the creation of this thing called the Palestinian Interim Self-Governing Authority that was fully funded and has been since 1994, by external donors, Israel is the only country that not only doesn’t have to pay the costs of colonial administration itself, it actually makes a handy profit off it because everything that goes in whether it’s cement or school books that go into the PISGA areas goes through Israel and the Israeli traders and customs authorities take their handy percentage from it. So it’s a modestly profitable venture for them, to carry on having the EU and the US do this.

The other great benefit that the Zionists got, and when I say Zionists I mean people primarily in Israel who have a specific Zionist colonialist project, in particular in the West Bank including East Jerusalem, the other main benefit that they got from Oslo as I mentioned was that Oslo specifically allowed the building of the settlers’ own massive transportation infrastructure with the transformative effects that had on the human geography of the whole of the West Bank, and the ease with which entire settler communities can now drive to Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, through Jerusalem, from Kiryat Arba, wherever they want to go, you know, they’ve got their own roads, these things that are called apartheid roads. That was specifically allowed by the Palestinian leadership in Oslo.

So what’s happened to this thing called the “peace process”, with regard to the Palestinians? Oslo, as we may recall, ancient history, I was on that lawn too – it was amazing, I have to tell you, sitting on the lawn, the White House lawn in September 1993 and seeing all these American Congress members and leaders of the American Jewish community who just the day before had been excoriating the PLO, and saying “we can never deal with them, they are terrorists.” They turned on a dime the moment that Rabin concluded Oslo, and if you wanted an example of what is the true nature of some of these organizations and the members of Congress that they buy and pay for, then that was the prime example. As it happens, actually next year I’m going to publish M.J. Rosenberg’s fabulous tell-all memoire of his times at AIPAC. It’s called AIPAC and Me, by M.J. Rosenberg.

Oslo was supposed to lead to the conclusion, if you read the text, of a final peace agreement by May 1999. It failed to. Thus the body called the Palestinian Interim Self-Governing Authority, people forget that, they call it the Palestinian Authority as though it has some authority – it’s the Palestinian Interim Authority, whose term finished in May 1999, it became entrenched. People started to treat it as a government, it is not a government. In the West Bank as Mark told us so vividly, it has continued to police the indigenes on behalf of the colonial project. So what should we who support peace, justice and the equal worth of all human persons, what should we call on our own government, here in the United States, to do now? As I mentioned earlier, we need to urge our government to be bold, and to be bold in a speedy and timely fashion, not to leave it to the end of the second term.

We need to recognize that it may be hard for any government to back out of many previous commitments that previous US governments and actually President Obama himself has made, however wrongheaded and actually illegal some of those commitments may have been, let’s look back for example at President Ronald Reagan’s re-designation of the settlements as not necessarily illegal, he was kind of agnostic on the matter, but then fast forward to George W. Bush’s April 2004 letter to Sharon in which he promised that the major settlement blocks, “facts on the ground” or however he described them, could remain with Israel, in the event of a final peace. Now all of those commitments and changes of policy are number one illegal; number two, they’re not actually dispositive, if Ronald Reagan can change the US government’s view of settlements, from one thing to another thing, then another president can change them back, say “Actually we’ve viewed the legal basis of this and it turns out that the settlements are illegal.” Why not? Ronald Reagan can switch it one way and Barack Obama can switch it another way, because it actually happens that they are illegal. Everybody else in the international system agrees about that.

Then there is the whole history of US diplomatic engagement on this issue, as Mark pointed out, we have Clinton and his last ditch effort, highly politicized effort at a time when he was trying to help Ehud Barak’s failing political fortunes and failed at every level, but he did produce something called the “Clinton Parameters” that were positions adopted by the US government at Annapolis, and so on and so forth. Again, not dispositive, we don’t have to say that policies have to stay in that track, in that misguided misbegotten track. We can call for different policies.

We need to be bold; our government needs to be bold. The best course is that we need to find something that we could surely demand, based on our own principles, as Americans that would move the policy in a good direction and that would be very hard for President Obama to explicitly reject. I was trying to think, what should our call be for? And here’s what I came up with, I’d obviously be delighted to have other suggestions, and get into a discussion, I think we should call for our administration to state clearly and very soon, two things: firstly, that it will work for the speedy conclusion and implementation of a final peace agreement, not a process. Let’s ban the word “process”. The whole theory of this “confidence building measures” thing, is that by having these prior discussions, side discussions, back channel discussions, you build confidence. It hasn’t happened. It has destroyed confidence over the course of the 15-20 years since Oslo. It has massively destroyed confidence on both sides. So let’s do away with that whole idea of a process being worth anything. It’s the peace agreement that we need. It is thirteen years overdue, if not actually 45 years overdue but we can look at that a little bit later.

This peace agreement moreover and all other actions of the government should be based on the requirements of international law, and the US government will work with all relevant parties to ensure this. Does this sound terrifically radical? It shouldn’t. There is no other area of foreign affairs in which stressing compliance with international law would be considered radical. But in this case, it is and makes me seem like some kind of wild-eyed, bushy-haired outsider. But people, international law is there for a reason. How long is it since we heard a US leader mention the concepts of international law and Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy in the same sentence? I can’t remember it.

Then I was thinking of what kind of bold actions the president might take that would change the dynamics and change the balance. One thing I thought, I’m actually as it happens working on Ambassador Chas Freeman’s collection of writings about China, which we’re about to publish. He was President Nixon’s interpreter during that breakthrough meeting in Beijing with Chairman Mao in 1972, April 1972 I think. It’s a wonderful compendium, but just think of the boldness of Nixon doing that. Prior to his re-election, up until that point, he had been one of the most anti-yellow peril, anti-Chi-Com, anti-all that, but he was the one who said, “Look, we need to resolve what’s happening” and it was actually mainly to do with troubles they had in Vietnam, but also a move in the global balance of power against the Soviet Union, “We need to actually reach out and include the Communists.” So he went to Beijing. I think we should demand, or require or ask, our president to go to Jerusalem, where he would have two meetings. One would be with the Israeli foreign ministry or the Knesset in West Jerusalem, and the other, and he should obviously insist on this, with elected Palestinian parliamantarians in Orient House. That would certainly send a powerful message.

East Jerusalem is occupied. Everything that the Israeli colonial powers have done to change the so-called “facts on the ground” in East Jerusalem is illegal, null and void under international law. If there is to be a viable two-state solution, I’m not sure that it’s still possible, but if there is to be one, then East Jerusalem will have to be the capital of the Palestinian state, and under those circumstances West Jerusalem can be the capital of the Israeli state. The idea of visiting East Jerusalem would, I think, be a super one, and not just to do the Rahm Emanuel thing of going under Israeli police and military escort to the Wailing Wall, which is also part of East Jerusalem, to say some prayers there, although prayers would not be a bad idea.

I recognize that President Obama has other priorities, as I mentioned at the beginning, but this one is huge and can affect everything else. Three hundred and eighty million people in the Middle East, I’m not counting North Africa or anything west of Egypt, three hundred and eighty million people in the Middle East all care deeply about this issue. Of these, less than eight million are Israeli citizens. Do we actually uphold the equality of all human persons in the region by continuing to base our policy on the claimed needs of this tiny minority in the region? I’m not calling for the legitimate interests and concerns of the Israeli citizens to be overridden, but neither do I think it is either right or sustainable for the legitimate interests and concerns of the other three hundred and seventy two million people of the region to be ignored, including among that the legitimate rights and interests of ten million Palestinians worldwide, and the concerns of all the people around the world, many billions of people, for peace in this region. So I think that our president has a unique opportunity; he needs to take it now, and if he can’t do it now, and if he just fritters away this immense political capital that he has accrued, on talk about a peace process, somewhere down the line, then he will be making a massive mistake and he will certainly be digging the final coffin for the two-state solution and thus for a Jewish state in Palestine. Thank you.

Hrair Balian is Director of the Conflict Resolution Program of The Carter Center, where he oversees the program’s efforts to monitor conflicts around the world and coordinates the Center’s cross-program efforts in the Middle East. He is also an adjunct professor at the Emory University Law School, teaching an advanced international negotiations seminar. Since 1991, Mr. Balian has worked in the Balkans, Eastern Europe, the independent states emerging from the former Soviet Union, the Middle East, and Africa, serving in intergovernmental organizations (the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) and non-governmental organizations (International Crisis Group and others).

Mark Perry 
is an American author specializing in military, intelligence, and foreign affairs analysis. His articles have been featured in a number of leading publications including Foreign Policy, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Nation, Newsday, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio). He is the former co-Director of the Washington, DC, London, and Beirut-based Conflicts Forum, which specializes in engaging with Islamist movements in the Levant in dialogue with the West. Perry also served as an unofficial advisor to late PLO Chairman and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat from 1989 to 2004. He is the author of Partners In Command (Random House, 2009) and Talking To Terrorists (2011) and is currently working on a study of the relationship between General Douglas MacArthur and President Franklin Roosevelt (Basic Books, 2013).

Helena Cobban 
is a British-American writer and researcher on international relations, with special interests in the Middle East, the international system, and transitional justice. In March 2010, she founded a new book-publishing company, Just World Publishing, LLC. By September 2012, its principal imprint, Just World Books, had published twelve titles on current foreign-policy issues. Ms. Cobban has also published widely in other print media on three continents. From 1993 through 2006, she contributed a regular column on diplomatic and strategic affairs to Al-Hayat (London). She has served as a Visiting Senior Fellow at Harvard University, Georgetown University, the Brookings Institution, and elsewhere. She currently sits on the Middle East Advisory Committee of Human Rights Watch.

This transcript may be used without permission but with proper attribution to The Palestine Center. The speaker’s views do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jerusalem Fund.