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What Obama will discover in Jerusalem and Ramallah

Obama wants to speak to the Israeli people, but has nothing to tell them. He wants to speak to the PA, but will discover his appeasement of the Israeli Right has nearly killed it.

By Yacov Ben Efrat

U.S. President Barack Obama (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

In March, after Bibi Netanyahu forms Israel’s new government, U.S. President Barack Obama intends to arrive for a first historic visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Obama wants to talk with the Israeli people, but has nothing of note to tell them. First on the American president’s crowded agenda will be Iran, and then Syria. Last will be the Palestinian issue, concerning which he has no new initiative.

That Obama is distancing himself from the Palestinian question is unsurprising. He has already crashed and burned on that one, when he named George Mitchell his special envoy, in vain. In response to Obama’s demand, Netanyahu did freeze settlement construction for ten months, but then he renewed it with greater vigor. Meantime another term in office has passed, both in Israel and in the United States, without even the semblance of an Israeli-Palestinian political process, and four more arid years lie ahead. Netanyahu committed himself to the principle of two states, but his actions belied it – the settlements expanded and the would-be Palestinian state continued to shrink.

Palestinians are economically bankrupt

On the Palestinian side of the Separation Barrier, senior members of the Palestinian Authority (PA) are running around as if trapped in a maze, looking for any way out. Whether in the West Bank areas under PA control, or in Gaza under Hamas, a catastrophe is unfolding, in the fullest sense of the word. Yet this subject is absent from Israeli public discourse. Periodically we hear about what goes on in the West Bank, the account buried on an inside page of the newspaper, when some young Palestinian man or woman is killed by IDF fire under murky circumstances and an investigation is opened into the matter. The issue at the top of today’s agenda is “equal sharing of the burden” by the ultra-orthodox in Israel’s military and economy; no one is interested in “the conflict.” The Israeli middle class has wearied of funding the ultra-orthodox, and people are pleased to see Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid joining forces to make life easier.

Doubtless it will not be long until the unrest in the West Bank becomes palpable to the Israeli public on its side of the wall. The economic situation is bad. The PA is not paying salaries because its coffers are empty; since it employs 16 percent of the Palestinian workforce, the entire local economy is paralyzed. A Palestinian teacher earns NIS 3,000 a month, and a laborer not more than NIS 87 a day. (Compare that to Israel’s minimum wage of NIS 182 per day.) According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, unemployment stands at 20 percent, reaching 34 percent among young people aged 15–25. What we’ve got is an active volcano, with the lava boiling over. Rather than do anything, Israeli leaders apparently prefer to hope that the lava won’t flow past the Separation Barrier.

What is causing the economic crisis in the West Bank? The EU and the Arab countries provide billions to the Palestinian Authority, hoping that the conflict will be resolved and the Palestinian State achieve economic independence. This arrangement has been around for 22 years now, and instead of serving the Palestinian people, it serves the Israeli occupation, which uses the time to expand the settlements. The Europeans respond to the stalemate by delaying grants and preparing a blacklist of settlement exports. The goal is to force the Israeli government to stop investing in the settlements and start resolving the conflict.

Israel for its part “punishes” the Palestinian Authority, holding up payments of tax money it has collected at customs points on imported goods entering PA territory. This further empties the already strained Palestinian treasury. One of the absurd outcomes of this mode of economic punishment concerns the supply of electricity to the PA, still provided by the Israel Electric Company (IEC). Without work and salaries, residents of the territories cannot pay their electric bills to the PA, so its debt to the IEC keeps growing. The Israeli government pays what the PA owes to the IEC and recoups those funds from the tax money the government is supposed to transfer to the PA. Thus the Palestinian economy is stuck, with no way out of these vicious cycles of the Occupation.

Abu Mazen and Hamas: Politically bankrupt

Given this warped reality, Abu Mazen has struck out in every direction. First, he turned to the UN General Assembly seeking recognition of Palestine as an observer state. This was granted but, in the event, it only made things worse. As punishment for his UN initiative, the US Congress decided to delay financial aid to the PA. Once again, it became clear that the PA is totally dependent on Israel. Abu Mazen learned the hard way that declaring a state isn’t enough; one must also establish it – and without territory, without money and without an economy, the prospects for a sustainable regime are nil. Abu Mazen’s UN initiative turned out to be no more than a political exercise, intended to show Palestinians that the PA is not sitting and twiddling its thumbs.

Meanwhile, Abu Mazen also turned to Hamas. This move was intended to display a united front and undermine Israel’s claim that, because of a rift between the PA and Hamas, it has no partner for peace. On February 8, Abu Mazen met with Khaled Mashal in Cairo, and they made the heads of all the Palestinian factions come along to Cairo too — to draw up a memorandum of understanding to end the divisions. At the conclusion of the talks they parted friends. No agreement resulted, however, and it’s doubtful one ever will.

Hamas rules Gaza with an iron fist and is not interested in new elections. Hamas fears, not without justification, that if it were to win the elections, neither Fatah nor the rest of the world would recognize the outcome. On the other hand, if Fatah were to win, Hamas would lose control of Gaza. Thus elections are not an option now, and without elections there is no way to overcome the internal Palestinian split.

The split arises from an absence of strategy about the way to establish a Palestinian state. On the one hand, after 22 years of futile talks, clearly the path of negotiation has been exhausted. On the other hand, the armed struggle by Hamas has also been exhausted, given that in the wake of Israel’s recent “Operation Pillar of Defense,” aka “Pillar of Cloud,” the Hamas government reached an agreement with Israel. The agreement included three points: an end to targeted assassinations by Israel, an easing of Israel’s blockade on Gaza, and an end to Gazan attacks on Israel.

This arrangement gives Hamas breathing room but it doesn’t solve the real problem: the continuing occupation. Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi promised Obama he would ensure quiet in Gaza in return for financial aid. But in order to enforce quiet, he needs conciliation between Fatah and Hamas, and as long as that is impossible, Gaza will continue to bleed.

To reach economic stability, Gaza must be liberated from dependence on Israel and have an open crossing between Rafah and Egypt. Control of the Rafah crossing, however, is mired in disagreement. Egypt made a commitment to the international community that the crossing into its territory would be under PA control with Israeli supervision. Hamas of course refuses to let Abu Mazen set foot in Gaza. Hence, without the presence of Abu Mazen, Egypt cannot open the Rafah crossing, and Gaza remains tied to the Israeli umbilical cord.

In despair, the Egyptians decided to flood the tunnels connecting Sinai and Gaza, to send a message to the Hamas leadership that they must be more flexible toward Fatah. Abu Mazen, for his part, began arresting Hamas members in the West Bank. This led Mousa Abu Marzook, Deputy Chief of the Hamas political bureau, to complain that the arrests are damaging Palestinian reconciliation and constitute proof that elections cannot be held (Al Hayyat, February 14).

What Obama will discover on his visit

When Obama reaches PA territory, he will see that his policy of appeasing the Israeli Right has nearly killed the PA. Perhaps he understands that his policy of appeasing the Mubarak regime in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia eventually led to the Arab Spring. This script may be repeated in the PA territories: when the young people, the university graduates, do not find work, they will take to the streets in protest, and their anger will be directed above all at the PA, which is directly responsible for their situation. At the end of the day, it is the PA that is late in paying salaries, that is not creating jobs, and that cannot persuade Israel to negotiate.

One may reasonably assume that Obama also knows what the entire world knows: the new Israeli consensus, encompassing all the Zionist parties, accepts the doctrine formulated by Avigdor Lieberman, holding that the conflict cannot be resolved. What’s left, then, is to manage the conflict through negotiations, the declared goal of which is the establishment of a Palestinian state within temporary borders. Having already experienced the Oslo accords, the Palestinians have already seen how the temporary becomes permanent, and there is no way they will accept this.

Obama is going to miss another chance to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Anyone surprised by this ought to remember that we have here the same Obama who missed a historic chance to repair American society, when he caved in repeatedly to the extreme right.

Yacov Ben Efrat is the General Secretary of the DAAM Party in Israel.

This article was first published on Challenge Magazine and is re-posted here with permission.

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    1. Musa

      Some corrections to an otherwise reasonable article. First, there was never any actual freese of set constrcion. This means that yacob is factually wrong and that the situation is in fact worse than he proposes.

      Secondly, why does the israeli non zionist liberal left — including incidentally this entire website — precludes apriori the option of further cleansing of palestinians Why do you think that the situation will remain ‘the same’ or that israeli will only ‘manage’ the existing situation rather than make it more favourable to its own annaxation and demographic consideration? I sould say that during the last 2 3 years i occasionally raised this issue here and was never granted any answer why this is excluded. The trust that you all have here on the so called civilzed to prevent further changes in the demographic composition of the territory is both naive and baseless. The world gets used to everything after few weeks.

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        Possibly because Israel has no reason to expel the Palestinians? The Palestinians are not any longer a demographic consideration as even most annexationists have no desire to absorb or rule the areas where the Palestinians have large urban areas. Basically, the reason is that the status quo (even during a violent intifada) is just so much vastly cheaper than the option you are proposing that it makes no sense to speak about it.

        Notice that this explanation has nothing to do with being ‘civilized’.

        Reply to Comment
        • Musa

          The first think to bear in mind is that Zionism is historically a synonym to cleansing. Zionists never supported the partition of the territory and are interested in the entire area with as many Palestinians as possible.

          Israeli Jews are already a minority between the river and the sea. They at the same time uninterested in Palestinian state that is viable (East Jerusalem is already annexed and there will be no legitimate Palestinian state without it). As the number of non-Jews rise, the Zionist who want the territory without Arabs will find reasons to cleanse. To that end, a huge Palestinian intifada or a war with Iran is precisely what the Israeli leadership craves for.

          Your job in the matrix is to spread hasbara. To tell us that we should not worry. But we are worried because Israel is a colonial criminal state that in principle would like the Palestinian people to disappear from Palestine and preferable from earth. Israelis and Zionist Jews will have no problem with cleansing. Like you they will find way to explain it to the world as the best thing that could have ahppened to the Palestinians.

          To Jacob and this website I say: do not dismiss the emergence of a 1948 or a 1967 expulsion situation lightly. Study the history since 1882 carefully and you will sea that cleansing is the norm and is a constant. To propose that Israel just wishes “to manage” the situation or to stuck to the status quo is a form of delusional wishful thinking that has no empirical foundation in reality or history. Israel is after the entire territory with as little Palestinians as possible. Do you honestly think that neo-Nazi Jews such as Danon, Bennet, and most of the likkud only want area C? Wake up liberals, wake up. the world will neither care, nor do much, if half a million Palestinians will be displaced. Don;t you remember that Jordan is the Palestinian state? Even if they don’t say, that is precisely what most Zionists think and hope for. And BDS is the best think that happened to the Zionists because they like those who play with fire and they very much like those who advocate for all or nothing. But the Palestinians in any event cannot do anything alone. The unfortunately do not know how to do politics and they cannot get their act together.

          Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            Right, I didn’t think I would get a rational argument and I was not disappointed.

            I also love the argument that you can’t have a ‘legitimate’ state without Jerusalem. Why the heck not? What precisely prevents a Palestinian state with Ramallah as the capital instead as it already is. If you argue that Jerusalem is the center of Palestinian cultural, political and economic life then you probably haven’t been there in the past 10 years. More importantly, Israel doesn’t control the Palestinians in Gaza and the same situation can be applied to the West Bank regardless of whether the entity that emerges is ‘legitimate’ or not whereby Israel can control much territory and leave the Palestinians with areas A&B and there is absolutely no reason to expel any significant number of Arabs.

            So, your entire line of reasoning is based on the premise that Zionism is somehow ideologically committed to ethnic cleansing when all that it is really committed to is ensuring the continued existence of a Jewish state. If your premise was right there would be no Arabs left in Israel at all after 1948 and none in the territories in 1967. You disprove your own premise when you recall that there is a presence of a large number (though not a majority) of Arabs in the territories over which Israel has military domination.

            Reply to Comment
        • No longer a “demographic consideration?” Then why did the High Court rule, 7-6 that Palestinian spouces of Arab Israeli citizens cannot live in Israel, the Chief Justice, writing for the Court, saying that equal treatment should not yeild national suicide? The issue was not one of importing terrorists; I’m sure spouces would be delayed at least a year before being admitted after background checks. The issue was directly demographic. As to not absorbing the Bank, what exactly do the settler subsidies and IDF protection amount to?

          Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            That’s the thing. The demographic argument is done because it has been dealt with. There is no threat whatsoever that Arabs will become the majority of the citizens of Israel. The other demographic threat is meaningless. Ooh. There will be two million Arabs in Gaza.. Who gives a crap? The same applies to the WB.

            The settlements and the IDf are about ensuring that Israel will hold the strategic territories in the future. They are a symptom of the future annexation of parts of the West Bank, something that negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians already assume anyway.

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          • Zephon

            How are you Jewish? Who gives a crap? How about God? How about Jewish conscience? How about Jewish ethics, or how about all of Judaism?

            I never thought I would EVER see the day that I would read such venomous words from an individual claiming to be Jew. And I have seen many ugly sentences that kept getting worse and worse but never ‘who gives a crap’. I mean wow have you got it so wrong. Because even in the lowest points in Israels history, an Israeli would at least recognize the evils being done and show remorse however small that remorse was – it was there. Even the generals that are long gone gave a damn.

            You’ve brought tears to my eyes.

            I am never going to forget those words.

            ‘Who gives a crap?’

            You have truly lost your soul. I have never felt such an evil chill down my spine by words before – you’re pure irredeemable evil.

            No candle will ever light your way – you’re blind.

            Reply to Comment
    2. XYZ

      Although this piece makes a number of good points, it also perpetuates a number of “progressive” myths about the conflict:
      (1) The comparison of Israeli wages with Palestinian wages. Yes, Israeli wages are higher than Palestinian wages, they are also higher than Egyptian wages and wages in the Congo. The cost of living in the Palestinian territories is lower than in Israel. The standard of living in the Palestinian territories is lower than in Israel, but the “progressives” would protest if the Palestinian ecnonomy was incorporated/annexed into Israel’s (the old “domination” demon) so one should not expect them to be the same. The Palestinian economy is plagued by the same problems the other Arab countries have…corruption, nepotism and inefficieny.

      (2) The claim that “Gaza must be liberated from ‘dependence’ on Israel and having open crossings into Egypt”. First of all, Gazans buy Israeli products because they want them…cheaper and higher quality than what they could get from other sources. Secondly, the Egyptians, for their own reasons, refused to allow HAMAS to open an office in Cairo and is controlling access to Gaza. Ask them why this is.

      Reply to Comment
      • leen

        I would recommend you read a report by the United nations Conference on Trade and Development, it’s called ‘the Economic dimensions of prolonged occupation: Continuity and change in israeli policy to Palestinian economy’. Very informative and although I am no economist, I think that document can answer your questions better and will give you a better explanation on WHY things are the way they are.

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      • Andrew Miller

        The suggestion that wage differences are offset by standard-of-living differences is inaccurate. Palestinians are dependent on Israel for much of their food, their construction materials, most of their water, their electricity (did you read the article?), and much else. The cost for all of these necessities is comparable to what Israelis pay, even though Palestinians earn far, far less. The author’s points about the Palestinian economy are sound, as anyone who knows the basic effects of the occupation on the Palestinian economy will realize.

        Reply to Comment
        • The Trespasser

          “The cost for all of these necessities is comparable to what Israelis pay”

          No. Palestinian pay 2-5 times less for EVERYTHING.

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      • Andrew Miller

        This is an excellent, thoughtful, well-written article…until the last paragraph. There Ben Efrat overestimates what Obama has the potential to do.

        Given all of the constraints imposed on him (by Congress, by certain voting blocks, etc.), Obama has never been capable of “repairing American society” all on his own.
        Nor is he capable of single-handedly resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

        Reply to Comment
    3. rsgengland

      There can’t be any form of settlement to this situation until the refugee situation is resolved.
      Every agreement will stumble and fall on this issue.
      The Palestinians can’t/won’t accept anything less than total and absolute right of return.
      The Israelis can’t/won’t allow the right of return as it will spell ‘suicide’ for Israelis.
      There is also the issue of the million plus Jews ETHNICALLY CLEANSED from the Arab/Muslim lands due to the wave of Antisemitism that swept the Middle East/North Africa after the creation of the State of Israel.
      Those Jews were expelled/forced to flee as a punishment for Israels creation, and not because they were Zionist. They would have been able to dispose of their property and possessions, and leave with some money, as opposed to the way they arrived in Israel, destitute and penniless.

      Reply to Comment
      • Michal

        Yes, that was tracig, but when those Jews arrived here destitute and penniless, Israel immediately gave each person a new citizenship, health care, housing (usually terrible quality, but that was true for most of the early wave of immigrants), and language lessons. They were given all the tools to build something new. So what is that “issue” about now? Some of those countries that expelled Jews (or made it impossible for them to stay) had also absorbed many Palestinian refugees WITHOUT (in most cases) giving them the same things: citizenship, healthcare, housing. So shouldn’t the priority be to figure out how to make sure that everyone involved who is still without a nationality gets a nationality? “Right of return” can mean many different things, as is clear from looking at Israel today. It’s not like the “right of return” has caused all of the Jews in the rest of the world to come crowding into Tel Aviv.

        Reply to Comment
      • As I’ve said elsewhere on this site, I truly doubt a Bank Administration would welcome all the exterior refugees; and placing these in Israel is probably economic suicide, let alone national. All indicators seem to point to the continuing encorachment of Israel into the Bank (as the settlers pray), leading to bantu administrative areas under high Palestinian density. Actually, this is what you have now. There will be uprisings; they will be slapped down. The reality logic of national salvation has failed. Not for you, but them. Such is apartheid.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          As long as they perceive national salvation to be our national destruction there will be no peace and there will be no choice but to continue to ensure that they fail to achieve their salvation. I call this common sense.

          Reply to Comment
        • Shmuel

          “Such is apartheid”

          You love to slap on this blood libel that has nothing to do with reality. Are you a racist, Greg?

          Reply to Comment
    4. CRBG

      This article seems to imply that the only money that goes to the Palestinians comes from the Israeli transfer payments (tax money), but that’s not true. Much more money gets sent directly from the international community to Palestine (even Canada sends money to Palestine even though the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, is Pro-Israel, anti-Palestine) than Israel sends through tax transfer payments. Where is the accounting of all the foreign aid? What’s happening to all that money? Billions of dollars gets sent from the international community, and yet the PA cannot pay its own salaries, and unemployment among young people is reaching 35%. WHY????? Where is all the foreign aid going?????

      I’m also suspicious of the argument that Rafah must be opened in order for Gaza to survive. The assumption is that the GDP growth or economic state of affairs in Egypt is far greater than it is in Gaza and that Egypt can help support Gaza financially. Egypt’s poor are probably poorer than the Gazans. The new Islamist government has now limited subsidized bread for poor Egyptians to only 3 loaves per person. I’d like direct answers to the following questions:

      Currently, what is the GDP of Egypt? of Gaza? of the West Bank? How much foreign aid does each of these “nations” receive? Instead of using transfer payments from Israel to pay PA salaries, why not use foreign Aid paid yearly (in the billions of dollars) to the PA? If foreign aid was distributed equally amongst civilians, how much money would each man, woman, and child in Gaza and the West Bank receive?

      Do Arab intellectuals and journalists have the courage to ask for accounting of the foreign aid sent to Palestinians yearly?

      I know you’ll probably reject the following article out of hand because it sounds like it voices a right-wing American attitude, but please read it with a grain of salt, and tell me whether there is any truth at all to the idea that culture influences economy:


      Reply to Comment
      • Since I have no reason to believe Palestinians are no worse than good Americans, I suspect much money has migrated into bank accounts outside the Bank.

        But money does not make an economy. The intra-Bank transportation and import/export restrictions, coupled with the control of land and Israel imported of goods, make viable economic growth nigh impossible. What’s left is an economy propped up on currency exchange in bubble areas. I suspect that much of the economy is little more than welfare relief in circulated goods and services.

        If you don’t trust the Palestinians, they can not grow their economy. Another black hole.

        Reply to Comment
    5. aristeides

      The article falsely suggests that Obama actually has a chance to solve the conflict. He doesn’t, and he wouldn’t take it if he did.

      These visits are all ceremonial and scripted well in advance. Obama won’t discover anything in the opaque bubble he’ll travel in.

      Reply to Comment
    6. “One of the absurd outcomes of this mode of economic punishment concerns the supply of electricity to the PA, still provided by the Israel Electric Company (IEC). Without work and salaries, residents of the territories cannot pay their electric bills to the PA, so its debt to the IEC keeps growing. The Israeli government pays what the PA owes to the IEC and recoups those funds from the tax money the government is supposed to transfer to the PA. Thus the Palestinian economy is stuck, with no way out of these vicious cycles of the Occupation.”

      This sounds strangely like the loan system of Jim Crow black farmers, who would be in perpretual debt for supplies, servicing it with the crop, so never advancing economically.

      Reply to Comment
      • The Trespasser

        >“One of the absurd outcomes of this mode of economic punishment concerns the supply of electricity to the PA, still provided by the Israel Electric Company (IEC). Without work and salaries, residents of the territories cannot pay their electric bills to the PA, so its debt to the IEC keeps growing. The Israeli government pays what the PA owes to the IEC and recoups those funds from the tax money the government is supposed to transfer to the PA. Thus the Palestinian economy is stuck, with no way out of these vicious cycles of the Occupation.”

        As a matter of fact, Israeli and Palestinian Arabs are quite notorious for their reluctance to pay any Zionist bills, which is why money have to be extruded by any ways possible.

        However I’m sure that IEC wouldn’t mind if some international fund would pay Palestinian’s debts. Wanna make a first payment of $1000?

        Reply to Comment
    7. I know it’s very easy to feel cynical in the world, especially in the ironclad system that props up the Occupation.

      On the other hand…as an American oleh who also follows American politics, I can see clearly that Obama is a different politician than he was 4 yrs ago (we hope anyone can grow in 4 yrs!). Already, he is fighting the Republicans in less conciliatory ways.

      We hope that he will be less conciliatory to the Israeli right also. Why, for one, did he decide to make his FIRST foreign trip in his second term to Israel/Palestine?
      In any case, reality trumps predictions. In about 4 weeks, we’ll know if he’s the “same old Obama”, or if he realizes that the same tired policies in Israel/Palestine will probably soon result in increased violence, increased death.

      Reply to Comment
    8. klang

      Palestinian Authority (PA) are running around as if trapped in a maze, looking for any way out…. there is an easy way out. The PA should enter negotiations with Israel, without preconditions. Obamas imposition of a settlement freeze gave the PA veto power on whether to have negotiations, but the longer the negotiations are delayed, the more the settlements will grow. Missteps by Obama and the PA have delayed the 2 state solution. We are soon getting to the point that the only solution is federation of Arab cities West of the Jordan River (Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, Hebron, Umm al Fahm, etc) with Jordan

      Reply to Comment
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