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George Mitchell, President Obama’s Special Envoy for the Middle East, and Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority

Particularly significant is his first substantive statement on foreign affairs, on January 22, at the state department, when introducing George Mitchell who is to serve as his special envoy for Middle East peace.

Mitchell is to focus his attention on the Israel-Palestine problem in the wake of the recent United States-Israeli invasion of Gaza. During the murderous assault Obama remained silent apart from a few platitudes, because, he said, there is only one president.

On January 22, however, the one president was Barack Obama, so he could speak freely about these matters. Obama emphasised his commitment to a peaceful settlement: “It will be the policy of my administration to actively and aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as Israel and its Arab neighbours.”

But he left vague his policy’s contours, apart from one specific proposal: “The Arab peace initiative,” Obama said, “contains constructive elements that could help advance these efforts. Now is the time for Arab states to act on the initiative’s promise by supporting the Palestinian government under President [Mahmoud] Abbas and Prime Minister [Salam] Fayyad, taking steps toward normalising relations with Israel and by standing up to extremism that threatens us all.”

Obama is not directly falsifying the Arab League proposal, but his carefully framed interpretation is instructive.

The proposal indeed calls for normalisation of relations with Israel — in the context, it must be noted, and only in the context, of a two-state settlement, the so-called international consensus that the US and Israel have blocked, virtually alone, for more than 30 years.

Obama’s omission of that crucial fact — Israel and Palestine as coexisting states on the international border, with perhaps minor and mutual modifications — can hardly be accidental. It signals that he envisions no departure from US rejectionism. His call for the Arab states to act on a corollary to their proposal while the US ignores even the existence of its central content — the precondition for the corollary — surpasses cynicism.

On the ground, the most significant acts that undermine a peaceful settlement are the daily US-backed actions in the occupied territories, all recognised to be criminal: taking over valuable land and resources and constructing what the leading architect of the plan, Ariel Sharon, called “Bantustans” for Palestinians.

But the US and Israel continue to oppose a political settlement even in words, most recently in December when they (and a few Pacific islands) voted against a United Nations resolution supporting the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination (passed 173 to 5).

In referring to the “constructive” proposal Obama had not one word to say about the settlement and infrastructure developments in the West Bank, and the complex measures to control Palestinian existence, designed to undermine the prospects for a peaceful two-state settlement. His silence refutes his oratorical flourishes about how he “will sustain an active commitment to seek two states living side by side in peace and security”.

Obama persists in restricting support to Abbas and Fayyad, who represent the defeated parties in the January 2006 election, one of the most free elections in the Arab world, to which the US and Israel reacted, instantly and overtly, by severely punishing Palestinians for opposing the will of the masters. Obama’s insistence that only Abbas and Fayyad exist conforms to the consistent Western contempt for democracy unless it is under control.

Obama also provided the usual reasons for ignoring the elected government led by Hamas. “To be a genuine party to peace,” Obama said, “the quartet [the US, the European Union, Russia and the UN] has made it clear that Hamas must meet clear conditions: recognise Israel’s right to exist, renounce violence and abide by past agreements.”

Unmentioned, as usual, is the inconvenient fact that the US and Israel bar a two-state settlement, virtually alone; they, of course, do not renounce violence and they reject the quartet’s central proposal, the “road map” — Israel formally accepted it, but with 14 reservations that effectively eliminate its contents. A great merit of Jimmy Carter’s book, Palestine: Peace not Apartheid, is thought to have brought these facts to public attention for the first time in the mainstream.

It is perhaps unfair to criticise Obama for this further exercise of cynicism, because it is close to universal.

Also near universal are the standard references to Hamas: a terrorist organisation, dedicated to the destruction of Israel (or maybe all Jews). Omitted is that, unlike the two rejectionist states, Hamas has called for a two-state settlement in terms of the international consensus: publicly, repeatedly, explicitly.

Obama said: “Let me be clear: America is committed to Israel’s security. And we will always support Israel’s right to defend itself against legitimate threats.”

There was nothing about the right of Palestinians to defend themselves against far more extreme threats, such as those occurring daily with US support, in Gaza and the occupied territories. But that again is the norm.

The deceit is particularly striking in this case because of the occasion of Mitchell’s appointment. His primary achievement was his leading role in the peaceful settlement in Northern Ireland, which called for an end to IRA terror and British violence. Implicit is the recognition that, wheras Britain had the right to defend itself from terror, it had no right to do so by force, because there was a peaceful alternative: recognition of the legitimate grievances of the Irish Catholic community that were the roots of IRA terror.

When Britain adopted that sensible course, the terror ended. Mitchell himself might welcome a serious two-state proposal. In 2001, for the George W Bush administration, he chaired an international panel, the resulting report of which at least barred any further Israeli settlement activity on the West Bank. The Mitchell Report, although formally accepted and praised by the US and Israel, was completely ignored.

For Mitchell’s new mission with regard to Israel-Palestine, the implications of Obama’s remarks are obvious: a genuine two-state settlement isn’t on the table. Mitchell’s first mandate for the Middle East is to open discussions and to listen to everyone — everyone except, presumably, Hamas, the elected government in Palestine. Obama’s omissions are a striking indication of the commitment to his administration of traditional US rejectionism and opposition to peace, except on its own extremist terms.