President Barack Hussein Obama just became the first American head of state to host a Passover Seder in the White House, making clear that he is not just a friend to the Jewish people, but one who understands Jewish identity and history. The Seder is the most faithfully observed event on the Jewish calendar, and one of the most moving and meaningful, celebrating the liberation of Jews from their first overwhelming oppression. Obama, being black, understands and identifies.
At the same time, Obama and his administration have been laying the political groundwork for a potential confrontation with Israel when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits Washington and when Obama returns the visit in Jerusalem. Netanyahu and his far-right foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, have both made recent statements that appear to draw Israel back from the Annapolis declaration and even from the two-state solution.
Obama responded promptly and in no uncertain terms to these tests. He reiterated America’s commitment to the process begun at Annapolis and to the establishment of a Palestinian state living in peace with Israel. We sometimes forget that George W. Bush was the first president to declare support for a Palestinian state, and that although he thoroughly indulged Israel’s dilatory approach to it, he ultimately did become involved.
Obama is continuing the Bush administration’s official policies, but the circumstances are very different. Israel has a much more right-leaning government than it had during the Bush years, and the U.S. has a much more left-leaning one. President Obama understands that many members of Congress are strong supporters of Israel, and that is why he is intently communicating with them, taking steps to soften the possible blow of an open disagreement with Israel’s new government. Why should there be a problem?
In the first place, Netanyahu is beholden to the large minority of Israelis—around 30 percent—who oppose a Palestinian state, and to a smaller but very vocal minority who strongly support the settlers’ movement. This means people who want to keep the West Bank and Gaza indefinitely as a part of a greater Israel, an outcome incompatible with a Jewish state unless Palestinians become a permanently disenfranchised and oppressed majority. In this scenario, Israel really would resemble apartheid South Africa.
Many settlers are trying to bring this about by illegally expanding settlements and satellites of settlements, creating facts on the ground that they believe will lead to annexation. Apparently they were not impressed by the fact that their comrades were dragged out of Jewish settlements in Gaza—by force, by Jewish soldiers, and on the orders of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who had been one of their greatest friends.
Just like the state of Israel sixty years ago, the Palestinian state is an idea whose time has come, or at least will come soon. Most Israeli Jews understand this. But it will not come automatically. Palestinians and Israelis have obligations under the “road map” and under the Annapolis declaration, and neither side has met those obligations.
Palestinians as a people have neither meaningfully recognized Israel’s right to exist, nor renounced extreme violence as a means to destroy it. Large numbers support Hamas, which is determined to overthrow Israel and which rules in Gaza and has great influence throughout the West Bank. It is closely aligned with Iran, which is rapidly nuclearizing and which has repeatedly called for an end to the Jewish state. And it continues to rocket and shell Israeli towns.
But Israel continues to look the other way as settlers build and multiply. It maintains a network of checkpoints not just around but within the West Bank that deeply hurts Palestinian economic health, and it keeps 1.5 million Gazans from leaving that territory for almost any reason—even months after a supposedly successful war on Hamas in Gaza. It is fine and true to say that these measures have saved Israeli lives, but to say that they are tenable in the long run is sheer folly.
On top of that well-known collection of insults against Palestinians in the territories, we now see increasing pressures on the Arab minority within Israel. They have always been second-class citizens, just as blacks were until recently in the U.S., but now they are being formally threatened with loyalty tests that could lead them to lose their Israeli citizenship altogether. The line between the racist right-wing fringe that has long called for expulsion of Israel citizens and a party in power loudly demanding loyalty tests has blurred.
I understand why some Israelis see a need for even the most extreme of these measures. I see the need for some of them myself. But at this point in history it is no longer possible to simply say that they’re needed for security and ignore the suffering caused by them. At this point in history Israel must act as boldly in the pursuit of peace as it has in the execution of war; because if we have learned one thing from history, it is that without justice, there will never be any peace.