Posted on May 19, 1997 in Washington Watch

In the very early stages of the Madrid process, five Arab states offered an important confidence building gesture to the Israeli government. Their offer: if Israel would agree to stop settlement construction, they would agree to suspend the secondary boycott against countries and companies doing business with Israel.

Then Secretary of State James Baker heralded the gesture and the peace effort took a giant step forward.

Looking at the record establishes that Israel has not lived up to its end of this bargain. In the five years since the Arabs made this confidence-building move, Israel has confiscated more Palestinian land and built more Jewish-only housing units than in any other previous five year period of the occupation.

Meanwhile, several Arab states even made gestures to end the primary boycott by opening Israeli trade offices and by inviting Israeli trade delegations to both multilateral and bilateral trade meetings. A Jewish friend commented that the lights of Tel Aviv at night are the clearest evidence of change. Huge electronic billboards advertising companies and products never before available in Israel, because of boycott restrictions, now dominate the Tel Aviv night sky.

I believe that it’s time to reevaluate the Arab move.

While the U.S. continues to oppose any remnants of the Arab boycott—using excessive language, calling it “repugnant” or “vile”, to establish its case, clearly the Arabs have a right to demand an accounting from Israel and the U.S.

And since Israeli settlement construction and new land confiscations continue, it might even be time for the Arab League to reinvigorate the entire effort.

I was brought up to believe that the boycott was an Arab response to the massive injustices done to the Palestinians during the creation of the state of Israel. Let us recount what Israel did right after 1948:

· 6,500,00 dunums of Arab land were confiscated;

· at least 385 Palestinian villages were completely destroyed;

· tens of thousands of homes, stores, orchards, and farmlands were simply taken over; and

· over 875,000 Arabs were made refugees and denied their rights.

The sad truth is that despite a good faith effort to resolve some of these injustices through a staged peace process, the major tragedies that have befallen the Palestinian people have not only not been addressed but are now growing—with new tragedies and injustices added each day.

I do not favor the method of embargo. An honest and balanced peace process is to be preferred. But if the Arab world does not strengthen its position in this process and place its just and historic grievances on the negotiating table, I fear that the inequity in the current peace process will not be remedied and Palestinian grievances will not be resolved.

I propose taking a lesson from the U.S. Congress. In an effort to strengthen the U.S. case against Cuba and to enlist international support for its embargo, the Congress passed a controversial amendment last year entitled the “Cuba Liberty and Democratization Solidarity Act”. (The Act is better known as the “Helms-Butron Act” after its two sponsors, Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) and Dan Burton (R-IN).) Although reviled by supporters of free trade and contested by our allies in the Americas and Europe, the Act deserves to be examined for its practical applications.

Under the heading, “Protection of Property Rights of United States Nationals” the Act establishes that:

The Congress makes the following findings:

(1) Individuals enjoy a fundamental right to own and enjoy property . . .

(2) The wrongful confiscation or taking of property . . . by the Cuban Government, and the subsequent exploitation of this property at the expense of the rightful owner, undermines the comity of nations, the free flow of commerce, and economic development.

(3) Since Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba . . . he has confiscated the property of –
(i) millions of his own citizens;

(ii) thousands of United States nationals; and

(iii) thousands more Cubans who claimed asylum in the United States as refugees . . .

(5) The Cuban Government is offering foreign investors . . . [opportunities] using property and assets some of which were confiscated . . .

(6) This “trafficking” in confiscated property provides badly needed financial benefit, including hard currency, oil, and productive investment and expertise, to the current Cuban Government and thus undermines the foreign policy of the United States . . .

(8) The international judicial system, as currently structured, lacks fully effective remedies for the wrongful confiscation of property and for unjust enrichment from the use of wrongfully confiscated property by governments and private entities at the expense of the rightful owners of the property.

(9) International law recognizes that a nation has the ability to provide for rules of law with respect to conduct outside territory that has or is intended to have substantial effect within its territory.

(10) The United States Government has an obligation to its citizens to provide protection against wrongful confiscations by foreign nations and their citizens, including the provision of private remedies. . . .

And based on these findings the Act establishes provisions designed to force foreign companies into observing the U.S. embargo by threatening them with lawsuits and other penalties.

I hasten to add that while I have disagreed with the Act, I do understand the frustration of some Cuban Americans seeking to restore their rights and freedoms in Cuba, by means of a remedy as dramatic as this Act. And I believe that the even more disturbing injustices experienced by the Palestinians and their frustrations require at least as dramatic a response.

What is important about framing an action in this way is that it focuses attention on the principles of justice and rights and on the people who are victimized by the abuse of these principles. And this is what I believe the Arab League must do.

It is important in this period to educate the West about the history of injustice that has been the fate of the Palestinian people. If necessary, action must be taken to demand restoration of their just rights. To establish the justification for taking these actions, the world must be reminded of the millions of lives that are at stake in this context.

It is imperative that there be a public accounting of the losses incurred by the Palestinians, and countries and businesses must be informed that they can no longer benefit at the expense of Palestinian losses. Both Israelis and Palestinians and the world community as a whole, must know that the Palestinians are full human beings with rights and there will be accountability for actions that harm them. There are recent examples of Jews, Bosnians, South Africans, Poles, and Cubans doing the same. Palestinian rights are no less worthy.

I’m sure that some in the U.S. Congress will protest such an Arab action and use their special vocabulary reserved for any actions taken by Arabs—but when the humanity of the Palestinians is established and the reality of their losses and suffering is understood, more will be done and balance might be restored.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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