Obama Can Convince Israel

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Jeff Halper has an hour between speaking at a rally in Sydney and a spot on Islamic radio in the Western suburb of Lakemba. The American-born Israeli and Nobel Peace Prize nominee is in Australia to push his call for international intervention on the issue of Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. The founder of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolition (ICAHD) has given up on any solution coming from within Israel.

I start by asking Halper why he chose to focus his opposition to the occupation on the issue of demolitions.

"When ICAHD began in 1997, Netanyahu was Prime Minister, the Oslo peace process was in collapse, so it was clear the occupation was going to continue and get stronger," he says.

Palestinian friends had told him that the demolition of houses was one of the most painful aspects of the occupation. "Since 1967, Israel has demolished about 24,000 Palestinian homes, almost all homes of innocent people. There’s no security element, they’re not homes of terrorists."

Most demolition occurs as part of collateral damage in military invasions. In the last invasion of Gaza, 4000 Palestinian homes were destroyed. Coupled with Israel’s 42-year-old policy of refusing building-permits to Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, Halper sees this as a strategy of forced emigration.

Halper’s organisation attempts to stop the demolitions — physically. "We get in front of bulldozers, we chain ourselves inside houses, we mobilise journalists and diplomats to come out and stop the demolition process," he explains.

The idea is to make each demolition matter. "We ask why — if security’s not the reason, if this family isn’t a terrorist family — are they demolishing their home? What’s the policy, what’s the intention?"

"Israel presents this conflict as ‘a Western democracy defending itself against terrorism’," he says. Halper reframes the occupation as proactive, not reactive. "Israel is not the victim here," he says.

Halper believes that all political parties in Israel now speak the same soundbyte. "Labor, as a military party, has this concept of security; the Arabs are our permanent enemies and therefore we have to control them forever. Likud, particularly under Netanyahu, come at it from a nationalist perspective; this is not the West Bank, it’s ours, it’s Judea and Samaria. And the religious parties’ perspective is that God gave us this country; we’re redeeming the land. Wherever they’re coming from, they pursue the same policies."

For evidence of the terminal state of Israeli politics he points to the recent invasion of Gaza, which occurred while Bush was still US president. "Within Israel, people believe the invasion weakened Hamas, restored Israel’s integrity after recent failures in Lebanon, and presented to Obama, as a fait accompli, Israel’s value as deterrent ally."

But the international perception of the invasion has been very different, says Halper. "Israel was seen as the bully, and Islamic fundamentalism got stronger. International opinion thinks, ‘We have to get out of this, and Israel is not helping’."

But after years of conflict and propaganda, Israeli politicians and citizens alike believe their security depends on the occupation. Halper sees no possibility of this mindset shifting anytime soon. He is on a mission to garner support for a solution imposed from outside.

Halper borrows Kissenger’s adage that nations don’t have friends, but interests. He sees himself as part of an effort to convince the international community generally, but the US most importantly, that their long-term interests lie in resolving the Palestinian occupation. Successfully achieving the stated aims of the Obama Administration — getting out of Iraq, reconciling with the Muslim world — requires such resolution.

Halper is not naïve. He recognises that ending the occupation will involve upsetting deeply vested interests in both Israel and the US. He refuses to accept such opposition as insurmountable, however, and is confident that a viable approach does exist. But Halper wants me to understand the obstacles before he gets to the solution. Firstly, that Obama will need to resolve deep contradictions in US policy.

"The Pentagon has budgeted US$1.4 trillion for the development of new weapons systems over the next 20 years, and promised Israel US$30 billion in arms over the next eight years. That’s US$30 billion for the American arms industry. If you take that out, how many Americans will lose their jobs?"

Within Israel, Halper points to the long-established dependence of Israel’s economy on the same armaments industry the US economy relies on. Since Kennedy, Israel has positioned itself as an essential component, almost an extension, of US power in the region. The requirements of managing the occupation have afforded Israel an opportunity to develop cutting-edge technology for export.

Such are the enmeshed interests and powerful influences that Halper says maintain the occupation. He believes this status quo has come to imperil US interests. "Neither the US or the Europeans are going to sell their interests out for the sake of Israel." Which brings our Nobel nominee to his end-game strategy.

"There’s an approach Obama can take to assert himself over Israel," says Halper. "You see, for Israelis, the problem isn’t the Occupied Territories — they don’t want them. Their problem is security. ‘You can’t trust the Arabs,’ they’ve been told by their leaders; ‘the Arabs are waiting in ambush’. Israelis all say they want peace, but ‘we can’t have it because the Arabs don’t want it.’"

Halper’s formula has three stages. "First, Obama must assure Israel, ‘We love you’. Second, he guarantees Israel’s security; Israel can become a member of NATO. And third, the occupation is over — period. You have to be out of every square inch in three to four years. We, the international community, will pay for the redeployment, which the World Bank estimates will cost about $140 billion."

And when Congress refuses? Halper refers to a strategy of "dual loyalty" that Obama can employ against Congress. As a precedent, he points to Ronald Reagan’s response to Congress when, under pressure from Israel, it attempted to block the US sale of sophisticated surveillance aircraft to Saudi Arabia.

"Reagan stood up and said ‘I am the Commander and Chief, and this is in the vital interests of the US, and you’re all American Congressmen’. The sub-text that the Jews picked up was this issue of dual loyalty. Reagan said to Congress, ‘Are you Americans or are you Israelis?’" Congress backed down.

By bringing the Israel lobby face-to-face with this notion of dual loyalty, Halper is sure Obama will be able to overcome Israeli resistance to ending the occupation. He advises Obama to speak privately with the Jewish leaders, including members of Congress, to get their help convincing Israel to end the occupation.

"I think that the US Jewish community has the clout to go to the Israeli Government, to sit down with Netanyahu, without any bullshit, and say, "This is how it’s going to be." How can the Israeli Government baulk? Who can it appeal to? The people they would appeal to would be the people telling him to do it."

Halper is sure the Israeli public would respond. "Once their security concerns are allayed, they’d be more than happy to get rid of the occupation.

What about the settlers?

"Only 15 per cent of the half-million settlers are there for ideological reasons, the rest because that’s where the Government built affordable housing. They’re working-class and middle-class people who’d be happy to move back so long as their standard of living doesn’t fall. They won’t go back to the housing projects," he says. "That’s the tricky part. But you’ve simply got to rebuild these settlements 10 kilometres away on the other side of the border. Then you’d have a pool of housing for the Palestinians. It’s easy."

Easy?

Halper knows that many find his optimism blithe, even absurd. He responds that no process has so consistently and so blindly disregarded the facts on the ground as the occupation. And few can claim comparable experience at the coalface of reconciliation — Halper lives in West Jerusalem, among Avigdor Lieberman’s ultra-nationalist supporters.

Now he’s off to Lakemba, then to Japan and China, Europe and America, putting his case. Then it’s back to opposing demolition, and the rebuilding. "Always, the rebuilding."

New Matilda

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