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Bush in Jerusalem: Rhetoric Trumps Substance

January 18th, 2008

After meeting separately with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, President George Bush made a policy statement in Jerusalem on January 10.

Now that his whirlwind tour of the Middle East is over and we have had some time to digest the meanings of Bush’s statement, the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation would like to share with you our analysis of Bush’s rhetoric and its policy implications (or lack thereof).

* Overview. Bush’s first trip to the Middle East as President had no impact on actual U.S. policy toward Palestine/Israel. While his statement in Jerusalem contained some interesting rhetorical developments, the substance of U.S. policy has not changed and remains in violation of human rights and international law. Although we can take some satisfaction in helping to shift the terms of the discourse in a positive way, the policy hasn’t changed and we still have a lot of educational and advocacy work to do to fundamentally shift U.S. policy toward support for human rights and international law. While Bush claimed to call for an end to Israel’s occupation, he has actually expanded the military aid and weapons provided to Israel that enable it to continue its military occupation. While Bush claimed to call for a viable and contiguous Palestinian state, he has undermined it at the same time by backing Israel’s Apartheid Wall and supporting its annexation of massive settlement blocs on expropriated land. And Bush policy continues its failures by negating the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes, and by supporting continued Jewish privilege and inequality for Palestinians within Israel.

* Ending the Occupation. Perhaps the most rhetorically surprising element of Bush’s policy statement was his call, apparently in response to regional pressures as well as changing discourse in the United States, for an end to Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian territories conquered in 1967. Bush stated “The point of departure for permanent status negotiations to realize this vision seems clear: There should be an end to the occupation that began in 1967.”

This was a stronger statement than the previous one by his administration, delivered by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell in a November 2001 speech at the University of Louisville, in which he stated that “
For the sake of Palestinians and Israelis alike, the occupation must end and it can only end through negotiations.”

The Bush administration’s claiming the language of “ending the occupation” is, at a rhetorical level, a welcome development, reflecting the pressure the Bush administration has been under from the work of all of us who continue to challenge Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip as a crucial component of Israel’s systemic human rights violations against Palestinians. Bush’s statement on occupation is also an indication of how far we have come in helping to shift and reorient U.S. discourse on Palestine/Israel; this type of a statement from the President of the United States would have been unimaginable just 10 years ago.

But, while we can take some pride in helping to shift the terms of the debate, we are all too aware that rhetorical shifts do not mean a shift in substance. If Bush were serious in his desire to “end the occupation,” then his administration would not have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Israel in August 2007 to increase U.S. military aid by 25%, totaling $30 billion over the next decade. Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian lands would be difficult—if not impossible—to sustain without the key military hardware and billions in military assistance that U.S. taxpayers give to Israel. Since the Bush administration signed the new aid agreement, US Campaign supporters have generated more than 10,000 letters to Congress and the President opposing this military aid to Israel.As Congress begins the process of FY2009 appropriations in upcoming months, there is still time to register your opinion by clicking here.

Most importantly, when Bush speaks about “ending the occupation,” it is clear that he does not mean a complete end of the occupation of territories conquered by Israel in 1967, as required by UN resolutions and international law (as we discuss below in our analysis of Bush’s statement on the viability of a Palestinian state).

* Palestinian Statehood. In his statement, Bush claimed that the endgame of negotiations “must ensure that the state of Palestine is viable, contiguous, sovereign, and independent.” In more colloquial language, Bush also stated on this trip that “Swiss cheese isn't going to work when it comes to the outline of a state.”

If they really reflected Bush administration policy, these statements could indicate recognition that a Bantustan-style Palestinian state would not be acceptable. They could reflect tacit acknowledgements that previous Israeli offers of “statehood” have not met the basic threshold test of viability. Ironically, these statements on the need for viability of a future Palestinian state also can push forward our work in helping to deconstruct the myth of Israel’s “generous offer” at Camp David.Rhetorically, they are a far-cry from Bush’s earlier attempts to paint then-Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat as a spoiler of the “peace process” for rightfully rejecting a “Swiss cheese” offer of statehood that Bush now claims to also oppose.

However, here again, the rhetoric has virtually nothing to do with Bush’s actual policy. In January 2004, the Bush administration submitted a 112-page statement to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), arguing strenuously against the court’s competence to judge the legality of the Wall that Israel had begun constructing in the West Bank. Instead of supporting international law and condemning Israel’s illegal Wall, the Bush administration tried every trick in the book to shield Israel from any legal or political consequences for building the Wall. How can an administration that tried so hard to prevent the ICJ from taking action on Israel’s Separation (Apartheid) Wall, which cuts up the Palestinian West Bank into isolated and disconnected open-air prison enclaves and is a central component of Israel’s policies to consolidate Apartheid, expect anyone to believe them when they turn around and claim to support a “contiguous” and “viable” Palestinian state?

Most of all, Bush’s claim of support for a viable and contiguous Palestinian state directly contradicts his officially-declared support for Israel’s retention and annexation of huge swathes of territory and most of the illegal settlement blocs in the occupied Palestinian West Bank and East Jerusalem. In an exchange of letters with then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in April 2004, Bush stated that “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli [sic] populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.” In other words, Bush promised Sharon that Israel’s illegal colonization activities in East Jerusalem and the West Bank would be allowed to stand. No viable, contiguous Palestinian state is possible without the dismantling of all of Israel’s settlements–and under international law ALL settlements are illegal—in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and a complete end to Israel’s occupation of all territory conquered in 1967.

Moreover, in his statement, Bush limited his remarks on Israeli colonization to the narrow focus of “ending settlement expansion and removing unauthorized outposts,” rather than confirming the illegality of all Israeli settlements in occupied territories, as required under international law. (However, even Bush’s tepid call to end settlement expansion is going unheeded by Israel. On December 23, Israel’s Construction Ministry confirmed Olmert’s post-Annapolis announcement that its 2008 budget includes plans to build 500 housing units in Jabal Abu Ghneim (Har Homa) and 240 housing units in Ma’aleh Adumim, both settlements built on occupied lands outside of Jerusalem.)

* Palestinian Refugees. Bush devoted one brief sentence to the issue of Palestinian refugees in his statement: “I believe we need to look to the establishment of a Palestinian state and new international mechanisms, including compensation, to resolve the refugee issue.” Several mainstream news stories and commentaries took note of the fact that this statement was Bush’s first supporting compensation for Palestinian refugees and therefore represented a significant policy change. But although compensation absolutely should be one component of resolving the Palestinian refugee issue, Bush’s statement actually consolidates his rejection of the real rights of Palestinian refugees.

Regarding the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes, UN General Assembly Resolution 194 states that “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their [sic] neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.” In other words, compensation AND the right of refugees to return is not an either/or proposition. By the standards of human rights and international law recognized in all other cases of forced migration and displacement, Palestinian refugees and internally displaced persons have the right to return to their homes, to restitution, and to compensation for property destroyed or expropriated.

In this and previous statements, including the 2004 letter of guarantees to Sharon, Bush negates the internationally-mandated Palestinian right of return and replaces it with a vague compensation scheme coupled with a “resettlement” of some Palestinian refugees in the future Palestinian state, even though these refugees are not from the territory that would make up that state. This subversion of human rights and international law cannot be the basis upon which to build a just and lasting peace.As part of any peace agreement, Israel must recognize the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and Palestinian refugees must be afforded opportunities to implement this right.

In his speech in Jerusalem, as well as in the guarantees provided to Sharon almost four years ago, Bush essentially took over the power to grant or deny Palestinians various rights guaranteed to them under international law. Rather than supporting a real peace process, under international rather than U.S. leadership, Bush simply announced which Palestinian rights were completely off the agenda, as if he were the legitimate arbiter of other people’s human rights.

* Israel as a “Jewish State”. Bush linked his position on Palestinian refugees to his so-called “vision” of “establish[ing] Palestine as a homeland for the Palestinian people, just as Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people.”  Whether in that more nuanced formulation, or in the more direct terms he used earlier in his trip—“The alliance between our two nations helps guarantee Israel's security as a Jewish state”—Bush’s support for recognizing the “Jewish” nature to the State of Israel is very dangerous as a tenet of U.S. policy.

All states have the obligation to serve and represent all of their citizens regardless of their ethnicity or religion.Privileging one group of citizens over another based on ethnic or religious affiliation is defined by international law as Apartheid–specifically, it is a violation of the UN’s International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Such discrimination is considered a crime against humanity. Just as the civil rights movement in the United States fought—and continues to fight—to transform this country into a state of all of its citizens, so too must Israel be a state of all of its citizens.

Recognizing Israel as a “Jewish state” as a pre-condition of a peace agreement, as demanded by Olmert before the Annapolis conference, will consolidate and sanction the Apartheid laws of Israel that codify discrimination against its Palestinian citizens, who comprise at least 20% of its population.

The reality is that Israel, as it exists today, is a bi-national, multi-religious state whose composition defies Bush’s—and Olmert’s--simplistic formulation of Israel being a “Jewish state” and Palestine being a “Palestinian state”. No U.S. policy should be based on perpetuating Jewish privilege and Palestinian inequality inside of Israel, especially when this formulation also comes at the expense of the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes inside Israel