Obama Presses Israel to Make ‘Hard Choices’

‘I can continue defending you to the hilt, but if you give me nothing to work with, even America can’t save you.’

HELENE COOPER, The New York Times, May 22, 2011

WASHINGTON — President Obama struck back at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel in a speech to a pro-Israel lobbying group on Sunday, defending his stance that talks over a Palestinian state should be focused on Israel’s pre-1967 borders, along with negotiated land swaps, and challenging Israel to “make the hard choices” necessary to bring about a stable peace.

Mr. Obama, speaking before a conference of the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee, offered familiar assurances that the United States’ commitment to Israel’s long-term security was “ironclad.” But citing the rising political upheaval near Israel’s borders, he presented his peace plan as the best chance Israel has to avoid growing isolation.

“We cannot afford to wait another decade, or another two decades, or another three decades, to achieve peace,” Mr. Obama said. The world, he said, “is moving too fast.”

Administration officials said it would be up to Mr. Obama, during an economic summit in Paris next weekend, to try to talk his European counterparts out of endorsing Palestinian statehood in a coming United Nations vote, a prospect that would deeply embarrass Israel. Some French officials have already indicated that they are leaning toward such an endorsement.

“He basically said, ‘I can continue defending you to the hilt, but if you give me nothing to work with, even America can’t save you,’ ” said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator and a fellow at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan research group.

The appearance by Mr. Obama on Sunday punctuated a tense week in which he and Mr. Netanyahu made their separate cases about Palestinian statehood to American audiences. Mr. Netanyahu will address the same group on Monday and will speak before Congress on Tuesday at the invitation of Republican lawmakers.

In his speech, Mr. Obama did not directly confront Mr. Netanyahu, who, while seated next to him at the White House last Friday, rejected the proposal Mr. Obama made a day earlier that negotiations use Israel’s 1967 borders as a starting point.

Mr. Obama’s decision to stick to his position, albeit with strong reassurances about America’s lasting bond with Israel, is a risky one politically. Mr. Obama is just starting a re-election campaign, and Republicans are doing what they can to present themselves to Jewish voters as more reliable protectors of Israel than the Democrats.

Republicans moved swiftly to criticize his Middle East proposal. “The U.S. ought not to be trying to push Israel into a deal that’s not good for Israel,” the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Administration officials said Mr. Obama chose to confront Israel on the stalled peace negotiations after his aides calculated that given the historic upheaval under way in the Arab world, the United States and Israel would both benefit from being seen as taking bold steps toward ending the impasse between Israelis and Palestinians.

As Mr. Obama himself pointed out, his theme in the speech last Thursday was not extraordinary. American presidents, including George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, have consistently instructed their foreign policy aides to pursue an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians using the 1967 borders, with mutually agreed land swaps, as a basis for talks.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel, in fact, made such a proposal to the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, in 2008, as the two sides rushed to complete a peace deal before Mr. Bush and Mr. Olmert left office.

But the 1967 border issue has always been privately understood, not spoken publicly, and certainly not publicly endorsed by a sitting American president.

When Mr. Obama did so last Thursday, he unleashed a furious response from Mr. Netanyahu. The prime minister’s office put out a statement in advance of his meeting with Mr. Obama the next day in which Mr. Netanyahu said he expected to hear certain assurances from the president.

“That was Bibi over the top,” one administration official said Saturday, referring to Mr. Netanyahu by his nickname. “That’s not how you address the president of the United States.”

Mr. Obama addressed his critics on Sunday, saying, “What I did on Thursday was to say publicly what has long been acknowledged privately.”

Mr. Obama did offer words of assurance. He repeated what the Israeli prime minister so objected to — the reference to pre-1967 borders — and challenged those who he said had “misrepresented” his position.

But, he said, “let me reaffirm what ‘1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps’ means.” His view, he said, is that “the parties themselves — Israelis and Palestinians — will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967.”

“It is a well-known formula to all who have worked on this issue for a generation,” he continued. “It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last 44 years.”

Mr. Netanyahu, in his critique of Mr. Obama’s earlier remarks, had ignored the “mutually agreed swaps” part of the president’s proposal.

Mr. Obama’s remarks Sunday contrasted with those delivered a few minutes earlier by Representative Steny H. Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland, who gave a no-holds-barred speech filled with applause lines for the assembled lobbying group delegates.

Mr. Hoyer got several standing ovations, including a long one after he declared: “I believe in Palestinian statehood. But I stand strongly against one that is declared either unilaterally or by an international body,” in an allusion to the United Nations vote, which is slated for September.

Administration officials argue that one way to try to derail the United Nations vote is to have a viable peace process under way between Israelis and Palestinians.

On Sunday, Mr. Netanyahu gave a more muted response to Mr. Obama’s speech than the one he issued last Thursday. “I share the president’s desire to advance peace, and I appreciate his efforts in the past and the present to achieve it,” he said in a statement. “I am determined to work together with President Obama to find ways to renew the peace negotiations.”

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, commented on the speech by telephone from the West Bank city of Jericho: “I am waiting to hear from Prime Minister Netanyahu. Does he accept the doctrine of two states on the 1967 line with agreed swaps or not? Before we hear that acceptance, we are just grinding water.”

Ethan Bronner and Isabel Kershner contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

© 2011 The New York Times Company

Dissent is Not a Crime: Two Subpoenaed Activists Speak Out

Sat, May 14, 2011
1:00 – 3:00 pm
St. John’s Lutheran Church
322 East Washington Ave
Madison, WI

Background: On September 24, the FBI raided the homes and offices of peace activists in Minneapolis and Chicago. They seized computers, phones, documents and other personal items. The FBI has also been contacting other activists in an ongoing investigation of alleged “material support of foreign terrorist organizations.” At this point 23 citizens have been issued subpoenas to testify before a Grand Jury in Chicago.

Refusal to testify can result in a grant of immunity followed by jail for contempt if the refusal continues. The federal prosecutor can also issue criminal indictments leading to trial.

Join us to hear the stories of two dynamic and courageous women, Meredith Aby and Sarah Smith, peace and social justice activists who have been subpoenaed to testify to a secret grand jury. Find out what happened to them and why. Hear why standing against FBI raids like those imposed on Meredith, Sarah, and other activists is important to every citizen of the United States. Learn how to protect our constitutional rights to freedom of speech and association which are now at risk. Take the opportunity to support their legal struggle.

Meredith Aby has been an anti-war and international solidarity activist since 1994. She helped found the Twin Cities Anti-War Committee which has helped lead the peace movement there in challenging U.S. war and militarism in Iraq, Yugoslavia, Colombia, Palestine and Afghanistan. Aby has been on human rights delegations to Palestine and Colombia and in 2008 she helped lead protests at the Republican National Convention. In 2010 her home was raided by the FBI and she was subpoenaed to testify at a grand jury. She has refused to testify against herself and other members of the anti-war movement.

Sarah Smith studied Spanish at the University of Havana at the age of 15. In 2005, she traveled to Venezuela for the 16th World Youth Festival. At Grinnell College, she was active with their interfaith Palestinian solidarity group. Last summer she went to Israel and the West Bank with some friends. In December, all were subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury about their delegation. They too have refused to testify.

Sponsored By: American Jews for a Just Peace–Madison, Madison Pledge of Resistance, Madison-Rafah Sister City Project, Rainbow Book Cooperative, The Progressive, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom–Madison, and Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice.

April 14, 2011
Play: We Belong to the Land

Anderson Auditorium
Edgewood College
7:00 pm

A one-person drama based on the writings of Father Elias Chacour.

You who live in the United States, if you are pro-Israel, on behalf of the Palestinian children I call unto you: give further friendship to Israel. They need your friendship. But stop interpreting that friendship as an automatic antipathy against me, the Palestinian who is paying the bill for what others have done against my beloved Jewish brothers and sisters in the Holocaust and Auschwitz and elsewhere.

And if you have been enlightened enough to take the side of the Palestinians — oh, bless your hearts — take our sides, because for once you will be on the right side, right? But if taking our side would mean to become one-sided against my Jewish brothers and sisters, back up. We do not need such friendship. We need one more common friend. We do not need one more enemy, for God’s sake.

March 22, 2011
Ziad Abbas at MATC

MATC Downtown Education Center
211 N. Carroll Street, Room D240
Madison [Map]
1:30 pm – 3:00 pm

Ziad Abbas will speak on Water and Solidarity with Palestine. He will discuss Palestine’s water crisis in the broader context of ongoing displacement, military occupation, and the current political events in the Arab world.

He will tell you about the Middle East Children’s Alliance’s MAIA Project, which provides clean, safe drinking water for children in Palestine by installing water purification and desalination units in kindergartens and schools. To date, more than twenty-seven units have been installed serving nearly 30,000 children.

Ziad Abbas is from Dheisheh Refugee Camp in the West Bank. He offers listeners his own experience growing up under Israeli Occupation, along with sharp political analysis and inspiration to take action. He will discuss Palestine’s water crisis in the broader context of ongoing displacement, military occupation, and the current political events in the Arab world.

Sponsored by Madison-Rafah Sister City Project and the International Socialist Organization.

April 2, 2011
Palestine Panel at the National Lawyers' Guild Conference

National Lawyers’ Guild Regional Conference Panels
University of Wisconsin Law School
975 Bascom Mall, Madison
3:00 – 4:15 pm: Piecing Together Peace: Countering Israeli Apartheid Through Action

Featuring Jennifer Loewenstein, UW Professor, and a speaker from Minnesota’s Break the Bonds Campaign, an organization calling for the state of Minnesota to support the breaking of economic ties with the state of Israel.

A full schedule is available here.

March 21, 2011
Ziad Abbas at UW-Madison

4 – 5:30 pm
Room 336, Ingraham Hall
UW-Madison [Map]

Ziad Abbas will speak on “Palestine amid the Arab World Uprising: Facts on the Ground and Prospects for the Future”. A Palestinian whose family was uprooted from Zakariah in 1948, Ziad Abbas will discuss his experiences growing up under Israeli Occupation. He will discuss the Palestinian experience both past and present, and examine the impact of the popular uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and beyond on the future of the Palestinian people.

Sponsored by the UW Division of International Studies. Co-sponsored by Madison-Rafah Sister City Project.

March 20, 2011
Annual Rachel Corrie Dinner

Cash bar/socializing 5:30 pm
Dinner 6:00 pm
Program 7 – 9 pm
Bunky’s Cafe
2425 Atwood Avenue
Madison [Map]

Film: One Family in Gaza
Speaker: Ziad Abbas of the Middle East Children’s Alliance

This year’s dinner will be a benefit for the MAIA clean water project of the Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA). The program will feature a talk by MECA’s Associate Director Ziad Abbas and the Madison premier of the new short film One Family in Gaza.

Ziad Abbas is from Dheisheh Refugee Camp in the West Bank. He offers listeners his own experience growing up under Israeli Occupation, along with sharp political analysis and inspiration to take action. He will discuss Palestine’s water crisis in the broader context of ongoing displacement, military occupation, and the current political events in the Arab world.

He will tell you about the Middle East Children’s Alliance’s Maia Project, which provides clean, safe drinking water for children in Palestine by installing water purification and desalination units in schools and kindergartens. To date, more than twenty-seven units have been installed serving nearly 30,000 children thanks to the fund raising efforts of groups and individuals throughout the United States, including one provided last year to the Tuyor Al Jena (Birds of Paradise) Kindergarten in Rafah by the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project. MRSCP has now raised over 80 percent of the funding for a second, larger system at the UN Rafah Girls Elementary School.

One Family in Gaza tells the story of the Kamal and Wafaa Awajah family after the 2008 – 2009 Israeli invasion of Gaza. Palestinians in Gaza are depicted either as violent terrorists or as helpless victims. The Awajah family challenges both portrayals. Through one family’s story, the larger tragedy of Gaza is exposed, and the courage and resilience of its people shines through.

The dinner menu will include a vegetarian stew on rice with house salad, falafel, hummus, and babaganouj. Bunky’s is also generously donating coffee, tea and baklava desert. There will be a cash bar beginning at 5:30 pm.

Cost is $15 per person or $25 per couple. Please RSVP by Wednesday, March 16 to Donna Wallbaum at dwallbaum (at) gmail.com or phone 235-7870.

Rachel Corrie was killed in Rafah on March 16, 2003 by two Israeli soldiers who crushed her beneath the blade of a Caterpillar bulldozer while she attempted to stop the demolition of a Palestinian home. Please join us once again as we honor her memory by helping the children she sought to protect.

As always, we thank you for your support, and we hope to see you there!

February 24, 2011
Talk: "Uprisings: from the Middle East to the Midwest"

Amy Goodman in Madison

Democracy Now! Executive Producer Amy Goodman and Senior Producer Sharif Abdel Kouddous will speak on “Uprisings: from the Middle East to the Midwest” at the Orpheum Theater, 216 State Street, Madison at 7pm. The event is a benefit for WORT 89.9FM and in solidarity with Wisconsin workers.

Sharif Abdel Kouddous has just returned from Cairo, Egypt, where he has been producing groundbreaking reports on the Jan. 25th revolution. This will be his first public talk since arriving back in the US.

Feb. 23, 2011
from Democracy Now! Blog

As many as 80,000 people marched to the Wisconsin state Capitol in Madison on Saturday as part of an ongoing protest against newly elected Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s attempt to not just badger the state’s public employee unions, but to break them. The Madison uprising follows on the heels of those in the Middle East. A sign held by one university student, an Iraq War vet, read, “I went to Iraq and came home to Egypt?”

Another read, “Walker: Mubarak of the Midwest.” Likewise, a photo has circulated in Madison of a young man at a rally in Cairo, with a sign reading, “Egypt supports Wisconsin workers: One world, one pain.” Meanwhile, Libyans continue to defy a violent government crackdown against masses seeking to oust longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, and more than 10,000 marched Tuesday in Ohio to oppose Republican Gov. John Kasich’s attempted anti-union legislative putsch.

Egypt’s uprising and its implications for Palestine

Ali Abunimah, The Electronic Intifada, 29 January 2011

We are in the middle of a political earthquake in the Arab world and the ground has still not stopped shaking. To make predictions when events are so fluid is risky, but there is no doubt that the uprising in Egypt — however it ends — will have a dramatic impact across the region and within Palestine.

If the Mubarak regime falls, and is replaced by one less tied to Israel and the United States, Israel will be a big loser. As Aluf Benn commented in the Israeli daily Haaretz, “The fading power of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s government leaves Israel in a state of strategic distress. Without Mubarak, Israel is left with almost no friends in the Middle East; last year, Israel saw its alliance with Turkey collapse” (“Without Egypt, Israel will be left with no friends in Mideast,” 29 January 2011).

Indeed, Benn observes, “Israel is left with two strategic allies in the region: Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.” But what Benn does not say is that these two “allies” will not be immune either.

Over the past few weeks I was in Doha examining the Palestine Papers leaked to Al Jazeera. These documents underscore the extent to which the split between the US-backed Palestinian Authority in Ramallah headed by Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah faction, on the one hand, and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, on the other — was a policy decision of regional powers: the United States, Egypt and Israel. This policy included Egypt’s strict enforcement of the siege of Gaza.

If the Mubarak regime goes, the United States will lose enormous leverage over the situation in Palestine, and Abbas’ PA will lose one of its main allies against Hamas.

Already discredited by the extent of its collaboration and capitulation exposed in the Palestine Papers, the PA will be weakened even further. With no credible “peace process” to justify its continued “security coordination” with Israel, or even its very existence, the countdown may well begin for the PA’s implosion. Even the US and EU support for the repressive PA police-state-in-the-making may no longer be politically tenable. Hamas may be the immediate beneficiary, but not necessarily in the long term. For the first time in years we are seeing broad mass movements that, while they include Islamists, are not necessarily dominated or controlled by them.

There is also a demonstration effect for Palestinians: the endurance of the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes has been based on the perception that they were strong, as well as their ability to terrorize parts of their populations and co-opt others. The relative ease with which Tunisians threw off their dictator, and the speed with which Egypt, and perhaps Yemen, seem to be going down the same road, may well send a message to Palestinians that neither Israel’s nor the PA’s security forces are as indomitable as they appear. Indeed, Israel’s “deterrence” already took a huge blow from its failure to defeat Hizballah in Lebanon in 2006, and Hamas in Gaza during the winter 2008-09 attacks.

As for Abbas’s PA, never has so much international donor money been spent on a security force with such poor results. The open secret is that without the Israeli military occupying the West Bank and besieging Gaza (with the Mubarak regime’s help), Abbas and his praetorian guard would have fallen long ago. Built on the foundations of a fraudulent peace process, the US, EU and Israel with the support of the decrepit Arab regimes now under threat by their own people, have constructed a Palestinian house of cards that is unlikely to remain standing much longer.

This time the message may be that the answer is not more military resistance but rather more people power and a stronger emphasis on popular protests. Today, Palestinians form at least half the population in historic Palestine — Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip combined. If they rose up collectively to demand equal rights, what could Israel do to stop them? Israel’s brutal violence and lethal force has not stopped regular demonstrations in West Bank villages including Bilin and Beit Ommar.

Israel must fear that if it responds to any broad uprising with brutality, its already precarious international support could start to evaporate as quickly as Mubarak’s. The Mubarak regime, it seems, is undergoing rapid “delegitimization.” Israeli leaders have made it clear that such an implosion of international support scares them more than any external military threat. With the power shifting to the Arab people and away from their regimes, Arab governments may not be able to remain as silent and complicit as they have for years as Israel oppresses Palestinians.

As for Jordan, change is already underway. I witnessed a protest of thousands of people in downtown Amman yesterday. These well-organized and peaceful protests, called for by a coalition of Islamist and leftist opposition parties, have been held now for weeks in cities around the country. The protesters are demanding the resignation of the government of Prime Minister Samir al-Rifai, dissolution of the parliament elected in what were widely seen as fraudulent elections in November, new free elections based on democratic laws, economic justice, an end to corruption and cancelation of the peace treaty with Israel. There were strong demonstrations of solidarity for the people of Egypt.

None of the parties at the demonstration called for the kind of revolutions that happened in Tunisia and Egypt to occur in Jordan, and there is no reason to believe such developments are imminent. But the slogans heard at the protests are unprecedented in their boldness and their direct challenge to authority. Any government that is more responsive to the wishes of the people will have to review its relationship with Israel and the United States.

Only one thing is certain today: whatever happens in the region, the people’s voices can no longer be ignored.

February 20, 2011
Reception with Medea Benjamin of Code Pink

1:30 – 3:30 pm
RSVP to dwallbaum (at) gmail.com

Afternoon dessert reception with Medea Benjamin of Code Pink. Come and help us raise funds for our second Gaza water filters project, meet Medea and discuss her experiences in Gaza. This event is at a private residence in Madison. To attend, please RSVP to dwallbaum (at) gmail.com or call 239-6005. Desserts and beverages will be served. A donation for our next Maia Project water filter for the UNRWA Elementary Girl’s School in Rafah Refugee Camp will be greatly appreciated.