Prospects for Palestinians dwindling

Is there any hope for Palestine?

At a Dec. 7 meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition, GOP presidential candidates once again accused President Barack Obama of endangering Israel's security by his support for Palestinian "hardliners."

Their repeated attacks are an attempt to whittle away at Jewish support for Obama. They're also appealing to evangelical Christians, many of whom believe Israeli annexation of the West Bank (part of the biblical Holy Land) is a necessary prelude to the return of Jesus.

Obama, in a May 19 speech on Middle East policy, said that "the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps." He was referring to the border that existed before Israel occupied the west bank of the Jordan River in the Six Day War of 1967.

The "swaps" would be compensation to the Palestinians for land now occupied by large Israeli settlements. There are about 500,000 Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank, including about 200,000 in East Jerusalem.

The Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the rest of the occupied territories are viewed by the rest of the world as illegal, as violations of international law. Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states that an "Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies."

Official U.S. policy has agreed with the rest of the world about the settlements, though not without some fudging on the word "illegal." For instance, on Feb. 18, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice voted alone against a U.N. Security Council resolution declaring that Israeli settlement activity was illegal and must stop.

After the vote, Rice was asked whether the United States had changed its position on the settlements. She replied: "On the contrary, we reject in the strongest possible terms the legitimacy of continued settlement activity."

Right after Obama's May 19 endorsement of pre-1967 borders as a basis for negotiation, divine wrath descended on him in the form of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was scheduled to visit the next day. At a joint news conference, Netanyahu lectured Obama on how wrong his suggestion was.

He then reiterated his message before a joint session of Congress. As the New York Times reported, "Mr. Netanyahu received so many standing ovations that at times it appeared that the lawmakers were listening to his speech standing up." This was an embarrassing episode for the United States.

Israel has received $109 billion in mostly military aid since 1949, including $3 billion for 2011. The United States has committed itself to maintain Israel's "qualitative military edge," defined as "the ability to counter and defeat any credible conventional military threat from any individual state or possible coalition of states" (Naval Vessel Transfer Act of 2008).

Israel is a U.S. client state. Yet its prime minister feels free to come here to publicly scold the American head of state in front of the news media and Congress.

There appears to be no end in sight to the impasse between Israel and the Palestinians. Or, at least, none that is morally or politically acceptable.

Three outcomes are conceivable: a single Jewish and Palestinian state comprising Israel and the West Bank; Israel and Palestine coexist as separate states (the "two-state solution"); or Palestinians are "ethnically cleansed" from an expanded Jewish state that includes all or part of the West Bank.

The first outcome would be contrary to Israeli insistence on a "Jewish state." Many Israelis worry that the higher birthrate among Arab residents of Israel (excluding the West Bank and Gaza) already threatens its Jewish character.

It's probably too late for the second outcome. The continuing Jewish settlement of the West Bank may be too far along to be undone without a civil war. The fact that all Israeli governments since 1967 have expanded settlements suggests that Israel never intended to let go of what it calls Judea and Samaria.

That leaves the third outcome: ethnic cleansing. As Uri Avnery, leader of Gush Shalom (Peace Coalition) has written, "This means that at some time, when international conditions are opportune ... the government will drive out the non-Jewish population."

U.S. critics of Israeli policy are often accused of anti-Semitism. It's hard to have an open and honest discussion of U.S. policy toward Palestine. Yet such a discussion is urgently needed.