Not so long ago, when Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) of the Democratic Progressive Party was president of Taiwan, Washington berated him for seeking UN membership for Taiwan or holding referendums on the matter. By acting in the interests of national dignity and through democratic means, Chen was somehow endangering the peace in the Taiwan Strait, acting provocatively and threatening the “status quo.”
Fast forward to last Monday. A leader of another US democratic ally — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — delivered a major policy speech that for all intents and purposes scuttled any chance of peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Finally “bowing” to pressure from US President Barack Obama, Netanyahu cautiously entertained the idea of a “Palestinian state” for the first time, but, as one Israeli writer put it, he uttered the words “like a rotten tooth pulled from its socket without anesthesia.”
In his speech, the hardline Netanyahu also abandoned previous peace strategies, made no reference to the Palestinians’ connection to the land and refused to freeze Israel’s illegal settlements in the West Bank. He also avoided mention of an Arab initiative that would grant recognition to Israel in exchange for a full Israeli withdrawal from land it captured in the war of 1967.
His request that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state also killed any chance of right of return for Palestinian refugees who live abroad — often in refugee camps — since they (or their ancestors) were expelled at the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.
His conditions for a Palestinian state, meanwhile, included ironclad security guarantees, full disarmament in the Palestinian Territories, no Palestinian control of airspace, no right to form military alliances and Israeli sovereignty over all of Jerusalem — all of which would make it impossible for Palestine to be a viable state.
Netanyahu’s tone, journalist Akiva Eldar wrote in the Israeli Ha’aretz newspaper, was “degrading and disrespectful … that’s not how one brings down a wall of enmity between two nations, that’s not how trust is built.”
And yet, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said on June 15 that Netanyahu’s speech was “a big step forward,” while Obama said he saw “positive movement.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, meanwhile, called it a “first, important step in the right direction toward realizing a two-state solution,” former US president Bill Clinton saw Netanyahu’s speech as “opening moves,” while the EU dubbed it “a step in the right direction.” All of a sudden, Gertrude Stein’s rose was no longer a rose.
To be fair, many world leaders also insist that Israel freeze its settlements. But that is beside the point.
Rather than be a cause for optimism, Netanyahu’s speech spells disaster — and may have been made to ward off pressure from Obama. Netanyahu remains a hardliner and a friend of Israel’s religious right.
Palestinians and most of the rest of the Arab world saw through Netanyahu’s language and will reasonably treat the speech for what it was — empty rhetoric.
Violence will resume and Palestinians will once again be blamed for snubbing yet another “peace” initiative by an Israeli leader.
It is ironic that in their criticism of Chen, the US and the West — which all endeavored to frustrate his efforts to join the UN or hold referendums — rarely qualified their criticism with calls on China to stop threatening Taiwan with missiles and military maneuvers or stop blocking it from joining multilateral organizations.
Chen exercised democracy and was reviled for doing so. Netanyahu, on the other hand, undoes years of peace efforts and potential progress and is hailed as taking a step in the right direction.
Chen was a “troublemaker,” an “extremist” who threatened peace in the Taiwan Strait yet never departed from democratic norms or relied on force to achieve his aims.
Netanyahu, who never shied from unleashing the Israeli military, is taking “big steps forward” by aborting peace and seeking — quite undemocratically, it must be said — to turn Israel into an exclusionary “Jewish state” based on “race” and/or religion.
If, in Washington’s book, Israel and Taiwan are supposedly on the “right” side, our side, and both are supplied with billions of dollars in US weaponry, why the different treatment?
The answer to that question is China. Despite its rhetoric, the US government is making it increasingly clear that it will not defend democracies beyond a certain cost, and will do so only when ideology dovetails with real or, in the case of Israel, imagined geopolitical interests.
Perhaps if the Chen administration had done more to convince Washington that Taiwan matters on the level of unenlightened self-interest — as Jerusalem does brilliantly — rather than simply assume that the US will back its efforts because it is a democracy, Taiwan would have had more room to maneuver.
J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei.
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