Obama Israel Trip: Obama Should Keep the Palestinians in Mind Too — Not Just Israelis

On the eve of President Barack Obama’s first trip to Israel and the West Bank as president, he has been the target of criticism over his administration’s unconditional support for Israel. The White House has downplayed expectations for the trip, simply saying that the administration is "willing to continue to play a facilitating role" in the region although the only thing the U.S. is really facilitating is the continuation of the Israeli occupation. Obama has taken with him no new proposals for the peace process, nor does he have plans to put pressure on Israel to work toward a Palestinian state.

Critics, however, have argued that this is exactly what he should be doing. Interestingly, as Chris McGreal reports in the Guardian, it is supporters of Israel in the U.S. who are arguing that Obama needs to take a tougher stance toward Israel and push for the creation of a Palestinian state in order to "save Israel from itself."

This criticism is based on concerns that the changing demographics in the region are endangering Israel’s continued existence as a Jewish state. And yet while any criticism of America’s unconditional support for Israel should be welcomed, the criticisms are limited and one-sided in that they largely ignore the Palestinians' side of the situation.

While in Israel and the West Bank, Obama will simply be undertaking what the Los Angeles Times aptly labelled a "listening mission." However, a study presented last month by Hebrew University professor and demographic expert Sergio DellaPergola highlighted the demographic changes in the region, showing that Jewish people now constitute a minority of the people under Israeli rule in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. In light of this, some critics argue "Israel's democratic and Jewish character are threatened by its reluctance to give up territory to an independent Palestine"; hence, the U.S. government should become more actively engaged in the push for a two-state solution.

David Aaron Miller  who was previously an adviser on Middle East policy to six different U.S. secretaries of state and a negotiator on the Israel-Palestine peace process under the Clinton administration  advised Obama to take heed of the demographic situation and emphasized the "importance of acting in the present to avoid future catastrophes." Miller argued, "Demographic trends mean that Israel can't have it all. It can't be a Jewish state, a democratic state, and a state in control of its whole historical land. It can only have two of its objectives at a time."

S Daniel Abraham, an American billionaire and close friend of American and Israeli leaders, echoed Miller’s warning. He argued that in light of DellaPergola’s findings, the "dreaded tipping point  which advocates of the two-solution have been warning about for years  has finally arrived." According to Abraham, "Obama should realize that Israel's continued presence in the West Bank is an existential threat to its continuity as a democratic, Jewish state  and time is not on Israel's side."

The logic of Miller and Abraham’s arguments is that without the establishment of a Palestinian state, Israel will eventually have to find a way to incorporate the Arab population of the West Bank into Israel. According to Abraham, this would either mean that Israel ceases to be a Jewish state, or that the Arabs of the West Bank are denied the right to vote and Israel thus ceases to be a democracy. Clearly both Abraham and Miller favour the third option: the creation of a Palestinian state.

Other Israel supporters, including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the former heads of the Israeli internal security organisation Shin Bet interviewed in The Gatekeepers documentary, have also made the argument that Israel’s occupation is harmful to Israel itself.

Obama can go on "listening," but all the while, the status quo prevails. And while this is most certainly not benefiting the Palestinians, increasingly supporters of Israel are also arguing it endangers Israel.

Although the Obama administration can be rightly criticised for its current policy, this should not simply be done on the basis of how it is affecting Israel and Israelis, but also on the basis of how it is affecting Palestinians. Abraham does mention the Palestinian desire for a homeland, but the overwhelming thrust of the criticisms outlined above is that Obama should push for a two-state solution because of dangers of the status quo to Israel, rather than because of the right of the Palestinians to self-determination. In this equation, Palestinian independence is relegated to a by-product of the desire to preserve a Jewish, democratic Israel.