A dozen years ago we attended the annual meeting of the American Jewish Committee in Washington. For the centenary function of the organisation the cast included then President George Bush, Kofi Annan, Director General of the United Nations and Angela Merkel.
At one of the other sessions John McCain and Joe Biden were guest speakers as well as a junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama.
McCain arrived late and bounced onto the stage humbly apologising, having been held up by a session of the Senate. The audience, overwhelmingly Democrats, gave him a standing ovation in recognition of a true friend. He was followed by a tall, greying, stately patrician, Senator Joe Biden, who too was well received. Biden had been a true friend of Israel, attested by his voting record in the Senate and confirmed by his many friends in the audience.
Much has changed since then. McCain has passed away; the junior senator became President of the United States and Biden became his Vice President. I felt that Obama’s speech at that event was disappointing, showing little understanding of the situation in the Middle East. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, his period in office were eight wasted years. Biden, as Vice President, clearly had to toe the line.
Now we know that John Kerry, as Obama’s Secretary of State, ricocheted between Washington, Jerusalem and Ramallah, chastising Israel’s prime minister while begging Abbas to attend a meeting with Bibi, all to no avail. So why did Abbas reject the pleadings of such a sympathetic American government?
Before we seek to answer where Biden stands now on the Israeli Palestinian issue, we should take a detour which will lead us to our first indication of his thinking.
It is a tradition for presidential candidates to speak to AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, but not to appear at the conference of J Street, the Jewish organisation highly critical of Israel. Biden set a precedent by being a keynote speaker at the J Street conference, the first hint of a change in his position.
To understand the implication of the decision to promote J Street, one should start with the organisation’s mission statement which reads: ‘We believe the Palestinians too have the right to a national home of their own, living side-by-side with Israel in peace and security.’
Is this a practical statement or pie in the sky? I believe that most of Israel would theoretically agree to a two-state solution although endless Palestinian provocations have tempered their resolve. But what about the Palestinians? What would the Palestinian attitude be? Would they be willing to live ‘side-by-side with Israel in peace and security’?
Underpinning the Palestinian Authority’s position is the notion of the right of return; a right granted by a country to whomever it chooses to grant that right. Thus, Spain has granted rights to Jews who can trace their ancestry to Spain. Jihadis who left Australia to fight for Isis may not have that right. Whatever the case, it is the country that grants the right; it is not a right of former residents who are absent. If the government does not grant that right, there is no right of return.
There is another difficulty with the Palestinian demand. A right of return implies that one is returning. Clearly, it doesn’t apply to those who were never there. Thus, future generations of those who fled are not returnees; they are therefore not entitled even if there were a right of return. And finally, the theoretical right would have applied to those born in the 1940s, few of whom are alive today and will dwindle to single figures in the near future. Nevertheless, the Palestinian leadership insists on this non-existent right.
Taking the concept further is the slogan chanted by all anti-Israeli organisations: From the River to the Sea / Palestine will be free
The river is the River Jordan, the eastern border of the disputed territory and the sea is the Mediterranean. In other words, Palestine will incorporate all of Israel; a promise that would appear to negate the idea of ‘living side-by-side with Israel in peace and security’.
These twin concepts are pounded into Palestinian children from the nursery and seared into the hearts of the citizenry. A leader who concedes on these essential demands would need to either immediately book his flight out of the country or prepare for martyrdom.
Back to J Street’s mission statement: a ‘two-state solution’ implies the negation of the right of return and ‘the river to the sea’ dream. If Arafat, who Israel hoped would be the Palestinian Mandela, couldn’t set aside these dreams and deal with real compromise, what hope is there for today’s weak leaders?
Joe Biden’s heart was in the right place before became vice president, after which he had to follow Obama’s lead. Now he has been nominated by a Democratic party largely beholden to the Bernie Sanders brigade.
‘The Donald’ is a debating superstar, he can put on his own show. Biden on the other hand will need all the resources he can muster and that means recruiting Sanders’ young, enthusiastic followers; rank and file party workers who will go the hard yards for him organising in cities, towns and villages, designing strategies, fundraising, footslogging door to door. What’s in it for them? What will become of Biden’s convictions? What compromises will he have to make, what policies will the Democratic party saddle him with?
The decision to speak at the J Street conference was one of the first indications of a move to an ‘even-handed’ policy which under Obama led to paralysis. The Palestinians will continue to play the pretence of believing in a two-state solution while having no intention whatsoever of agreeing to one. The question is: Will Biden act in recognition of this fact or will he continue to play the phony game of peace-maker?
His choice of vice president will be the next indication of the kind of administration he intends to build. This decision is crucial since he will not be running for a second term. The next indication will be his response to Israel’s plan to annex the West Bank settlements.
The Democratic Convention should provide some revealing and almost certainly uncomfortable answers.
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