On Saturday, thousands gathered across Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories to demonstrate against the Prawer-Begin Plan—a controversial bill currently under review in the Israeli Knesset (Parliament) that could displace up to 40,000 Palestinian Bedouin from the Negev Desert.
“Free, Free Palestine!”
I used to lead the chants at protests as a teenager, but I was never entirely sure of what they meant. Of course, I knew my history. I knew that in 1948 the state of Israel was established leading to the expulsion of 100s of thousands of Palestinians to villages and refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza. I knew that many more had fled the country, creating a diaspora of Palestinians larger than the amount of Palestinians that remained in Palestine. I knew that it seemed that at the slightest flinch from Hamas that Israel bombarded the Gaza Strip with F16s and drones, raining missiles from the skies over a strip of land that was already described as the largest open-air prison in the world.
On 18 May 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to to publicly encourage a Palestinian/Israeli accord based on the 1967 borders. Not only that, but he did so in the context of a speech about freedom and self-determination throughout the Middle East before a largely unsympathetic audience at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the notoriously hawkish pro-Israel lobbying organization in the United States. His words were measured, even conservative, but it is worth revisiting them here:
…a lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples. Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people; each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace. So while the core issues of the conflict must be negotiated, the basis of those negotiations is clear: a viable Palestine, and a secure Israel. The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.
It was a surprising speech, one that Obama may never have given if not for the death of Osama bin Laden and the resulting uptick in his approval ratings. Perhaps he learned in the first two years that political capital is a terrible thing to waste. Whatever the reason for his time, this was a speech with great symbolic import. A U.S. president mired in racialized conspiracy theories about his own origins and his own beliefs at home is not the most likely candidate to offer criticisms of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. And he’s certainly not likely to do it before an audience at AIPAC, through a televised address. The speech means something, and it’s important to consider both what it does and does not do.