Commentary - Peter Larson (NCCAR)
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One Step forward, Two Steps Back:
This time, in Jerusalem, the refugees were not even mentioned. It is as if the refugee question no longer existed, or was even worth mentioning.
The only concerns Obama seems to have now are for those Palestinians living in the West Bank (in fact, although he mentioned the West Bank several times, the word Gaza only crossed his lips once.) Obama’s two-state solution therefore seems to only focus on the West Bank, which is 22% of the total area of historic Palestine and where about a quarter of the total Palestinian population lives.
The second step backward is worse
Having apparently narrowed the Palestinian question to the West Bank, Obama then introduced something completely new into official US discourse. “Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state,” he demanded.
This is both new and significant. In Cairo he had simply repeated the American position that Israel should be recognized as a State. (Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt, for example, recognizes the State of Israel. It says nothing about Israel as a “Jewish State”.)
To those who have not visited Israel, the real meaning of “Israel as a Jewish state” might not be immediately obvious. Of course Israel is, in every possible way a “Jewish country”. Eighty percent of its citizens are Jewish. Its flag is the Star of David, its weekend is Friday/Saturday, its national holidays are the Jewish holidays, there is a mezuzah on every doorway and so on. Nobody could mistake it for anything else.
In a similar vein, (though with rather less fervour) it is also fair to say that Canada is a Christian country. (77% of Canadians say they are Christian, we generally follow Christian traditions & holidays, and even our swear words often have a Christian origin, etc.)
But while Canada is a Christian country, it is a secular state. That is to say, we are all equal before the law. All Canadians, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, atheist or otherwise, are all LEGALLY equal.
Israel, on the other hand, describes itself as a “Jewish State,” a state in which dozens of laws explicitly favour Jews and therefore discriminate against about the 20% of its population that is non-Jewish (mainly Muslim and Christian citizens of Palestinian origin).
Of course, there is discrimination and racism in every country in the world, including Canada and Israel. But in a secular, democratic state like Canada, discrimination on racial or religious grounds is against the law.
Israeli law does say that everyone is equal. But it also says that Israel is a Jewish state. Where these two notions are in contradiction, the Jewishness almost always trumps the democracy. As a result, in the Jewish State of Israel, the courts have found that it is legal to favour Jews (i.e. discriminate against non-Jews) in housing, education, employment, land ownership, family reunification amongst other areas. In fact, there are an increasing number of laws in Israel that specifically favour Jews – even secular Jews who are not religious at all.
In calling on the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, Mr Obama apparently accepts (or is unaware of) these flagrant violations of basic democracy. Ironically, Israel continues to call itself the “only democracy in the Middle East”, even as a democratic wave gradually sweeps through many parts of the region. Meanwhile, Israel’s new laws make it increasingly similar to those states in the Middle East which are resisting the democratic trend.
Mr. Obama seems to have followed the Economist’s suggestion – to keep alive the hope that someday there might be a two state solution. To keep that “hope” alive, and to maintain credibility in the Western World, he had to show the Palestinians in the West Bank that he “understood” their pain, while at the same time telling Israelis that the US would back them, no matter what. He appears to have been brilliantly successful.
At the same time, however, he backtracked significantly on his earlier statements in Cairo. He narrowed the issue to mean only the West Bank, apparently giving up any sympathy for the 4.7 million Palestinian refugees and essentially ignoring Gaza. And he even gave in on a basic tenet of US democracy – namely that all citizens are equal – by endorsing an undemocratic Jewish State which legally discriminates against 20% of its own population.
I call that one step forward, two steps back.
National Council on Canada-Arab Relations (NCCAR)
March 25th, 2013