Sympathy for Palestine in Congress has rarely been matched by action

For decades I have been talking to high-level figures in government about the need to enact change. At best, I got empty words in return.
epa02767312 Palestinian protesters hold Palestine National Flags during a protest near the Erez border crossing between the northern Gaza Strip and Israel on 05 June 2011  as Israeli security forces go on high alert while Palestinian activists in Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza and Arab states bordering Israel plan demonstrations on the 44th anniversary of the 1967 Six Day War  EPA/ALI ALI *** Local Caption ***  02767312.jpg

A quarter of a century ago, when the two-state solution was still possible and we were optimistic that there was a path to get there, I was co-chairing Builders for Peace (BfP), a post-Oslo project launched by then vice president Al Gore. It was created to support the ongoing peace process by promoting economic development and employment in Palestine. As we repeatedly made clear, our goal was not to substitute economic progress for peace, but to create the prosperity and hope needed to sustain the process until the "final status negotiations" that were to occur at the end of a five-year transitional period.

After frequent trips to the region in those early years after Oslo, I became deeply concerned that things were not going well. New hardships were being created for Palestinians by the closures and expanded checkpoints Israel put in place after a Jewish extremist massacred Palestinians at Al Ibrahim Mosque. The brutal and demeaning behaviours exhibited by Israeli soldiers at checkpoints and in Hebron were deepening animosity. American businesses that had initially expressed interest in investing in Gaza or the West Bank gave up after realising that Israelis weren't interested in allowing Palestinians to freely import raw materials or export finished products. Nor were the Israelis allowing Palestinians access to resources in the territories.

Meanwhile, settlement expansion was continuing at a rapid pace. At one point, I met president Bill Clinton and he asked me how BfP was progressing. I told him that honestly, we weren't doing well at all. After relaying my observations and concerns to him, I said, "Since Oslo, Palestinians have become poorer, less employed, less free and have lost more land to settlements. They aren't experiencing the benefits of peace and are losing hope".

What troubled me most, I told the president, was that his negotiators were ignoring our entreaties to take seriously these Israeli-imposed impediments to Palestinian prosperity and freedom. They saw our work as a nuisance and a distraction from their "important peace negotiations". If this mind-set of ignoring Palestinian rights and the impediments being created by the Israelis continued, I warned Mr Clinton, Palestinians would lose trust in the United States, the process and the hope that they would ever be free of the occupation. President Clinton was upset by my report and asked me to write him a detailed memo, which I did. Nothing, however, was done to correct this downward spiralling trajectory, which has continued until the present day.

I have been prompted to write these reflections because of two recent developments. The first is a discussion taking place in Israel following the meeting between Israel's Defence Minister Benny Gantz and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, followed by reports of Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's plan to "shrink the conflict" by offering economic palliatives to improve life for Palestinians under occupation. Instead of the Oslo formula of "land for peace" the "new" idea (actually, it's an old idea) is to exchange "economic benefits for security". This turns the initial logic of the peace process upside down. Instead of ending the occupation, the Bennett/Gantz proposition is to make life easier for Palestinians so they will accept its continuation. "Shrinking the occupation" is merely a cynical ploy to mask Israel's consolidating control over the lands occupied in 1967.

epa07491046 Benny Gantz, former Israeli army chief of staff and candidate for prime minister of the Blue and White Israeli centrist political party speaks during the final stage of his electoral campaign in Tel Aviv, Israel, 07 April 2019. According to media reports, pre-election polls predict a tight race between Gantz and incumbent prime minister Netanyahu. Israel will go to the polls on 09 April 2019.  EPA/ABIR SULTAN
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The downward spiral has continued to this day

The second development that prompted me to recall what the US failed to do in the post-Oslo period is a bill, the "Two-State Solution Act" (TSSA), being introduced by a number of progressive members of Congress. It is difficult to find fault with much of what's in TSSA, other than the fact that what it proposes is 25 years too late to make a difference. It calls for making US aid to Israel conditional on there being no more expansion of settlements, which TSSA affirms are illegal, and violations of Palestinian human rights. These are all well-intentioned gestures, but as the saying goes, proposing them now is like "closing the barn door after the horses have all escaped".

TSSA ignores the realities that have been created by decades of US neglect that have allowed Israel to run roughshod over the occupied lands resulting in what Human Rights Watch calls an apartheid regime. There are well over 650,000 Israelis living in strategically located West Bank settlements. They are connected by Jewish-only highways and protected by checkpoints that carve the territory into pieces.

The TSSA may make its sponsors feel good that they've taken a principled stand for human rights, and I salute their courage; I know, after all, some pro-Israeli groups will make every effort to punish them. At the same time, I must also acknowledge the sad truth that a viable two-state solution is no longer possible given the immense settler presence in the occupied lands, placed in locations specifically designated to make it impossible to allow for an independent, viable Palestinian state.

Given that reality, it's pointless to try to give a transfusion to a cadaver that's been eaten up by cancer. And so, 25 years after I wrote my memo to Clinton, we have arrived at this sorry state of affairs. Israel, acting with impunity born of the neglect of Palestinian rights and the enabling hand of successive US presidents and Congresses, is proposing cynically to make Palestinian life better as it consolidates its hold over the occupied lands. Meanwhile, some members of Congress, thinking they are doing the right thing, are proposing a bill – which will never pass – that tries to save the two-state solution, which is beyond saving. It’s all both sad and maddening. It didn't have to be this way.

Published: October 5th 2021, 4:00 AM
James Zogby

James Zogby

Dr James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute and a columnist for The National