US top envoy leaving, and so should his politics

Posted: November 11th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, the US and us | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off

Dennis Ross was the architect of a policy that centered on shielding the Israeli government from pressure while hoping that it would decide to end the occupation on their own. The result was an epic, two-decade long failure

Dennis Ross, president Obama’s top adviser on Israel-Palestine, is leaving the White House by December. Ross, a veteran diplomat who took part in the negotiations through the 90′s and until the failed talks between PM Barak and Arafat at the beginning of the previous decade, has let his decision be known in a lunch with Jewish leaders. This is not surprising: Ross has enjoyed good relations with Israeli and Jewish officials. Last night, when Ross’ departure was made public, Haaretz’s headline was “Netanyahu’s friend in the White House is leaving.”

Dennis Ross might have been valuable for the president in maintaining good relations with Israeli lobbyists in Washington and inside the Democratic Party, but his Middle East policies were a disaster. If a single man can be blamed for a two decades of failure, Ross is this person.

More than any neo-con, Ross can be identified with the way American administrations tried to broker a deal between Israelis and Palestinians in the last twenty years: creating a space for an Israeli internal conversation and once consensus is reached, forcing the Palestinians to agree to the Israeli terms, usually through a combination of threats and bribes targeting the political elites (serving as “Israel’s lawyer,” a diplomat working under Ross in Camp David called it).

The outcome was the one any reasonable person could expect: Shielded from outside pressure, Israelis have continued to strengthen their hold over the West Bank, while the “vigorous internal debate” in “the only democracy in the region” reached nowhere. At the same time, the Palestinian leadership, being forced to make more and more concessions without getting anything in return, lost all credibility with its own people, giving rise to other forces, which weren’t seen as taking orders from abroad.

The hope that the Israeli political process would lead the government into leaving the West Bank has failed again and again. Left on their own, it was proved that Israeli leaders will always prefer not to spend their limited political capital on evacuating settlements. The only exceptions – the Oslo accord and the Gaza pullout – came after the first and second Intifadas. The tragic truth is that violence has been very effective in gaining Israeli concessions, while America’s one-sided diplomacy only bought Jerusalem more and more time to expand settlements and make the two-state solution impossible.

True to his bizarre version of peacemaking, in the last couple of years Ross has been busy defending the most extreme government Israel has known, led by a Prime Minister that publicly boasted about the way he manipulated and deceived Ross’ own bosses at the Clinton administration. Finally, the Palestinian side lost both patience and faith in President Obama and his administration, and turned to the international community instead. Palestinians I spoke to last month told me that the boost in Abbas’ popularity wasn’t because of the UN bid itself – Palestinians are smart enough to understand it would get them nowhere – but because he finally stood up to the United States. Nothing could be more telling.

At the same time, the Israeli opposition was forced to support the Netanyahu government line, because when it comes to the peace process, no mainstream Israeli leader would take a position that is further to the left than the American negotiator. Ross and his team pretty much guaranteed that there wouldn’t be an effective opposition to Netanyahu at home and no pressure from abroad. Given these conditions, seeing the Israeli position move further to the right – the government now opposes concessions offered by both Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert in previous rounds of negotiations – shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

Ross is finally out – let’s hope that this time it’s for good – but his ideas are still popular in Washington, and even in some European capitals. It’s hard to believe, but there are still serious, well-meaning politicians and diplomats who think that left on their own, Israelis wil simply wake up one day and decide to end the occupation. It won’t happen. The next Israeli government could actually be worse than this one, as hard as it is to imagine. Even if Netanyahu is not elected again, there isn’t a serious political force, or a single political leader, who sees it as his or her mission to lead Israel out of the West Bank and there won’t be any mainstream party even running on this platform in the next election. The current trends could easily continue for another decade.

Hopefully, Ross’ departure will serve as an opportunity to examine the entire American and European approach to the conflict, to the Palestinians, and to the government in Jerusalem.

Haaretz’s pundit takes on US envoy Ross for aiding Netanyahu

Posted: July 5th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , | 1 Comment »

Akiva Eldar, an expert on the peace process, avid supporter of the two-states solution and author of “Lords of the Land,” a history of the Israeli settlement project, harshly criticizes the White House’s envoy to the Middle East, Dennis Ross, for backing the demands of an extreme rightwing Israeli government.

In an Haaretz article, Eldar also advises to Palestinians to continue their UN bid, and if it fails, dismantle the Palestinian Authority and let Israel face the consequences of direct control over the West Bank’s Palestinians. I think this piece is important, because it shows that following the Palestinians, the Israeli left might be also losing its faith in the American-sponsored never-ending, nowhere-going “peace process.”

For years he [Ross] has been nurturing the myth that if the United States would only meet his exact specifications, the Israeli right would offer the Arabs extensive concessions.

During the years he headed the American peace team, Israeli settlement construction ramped up. Now Ross, the former chairman of the Jewish People Policy Institute, is trying to convince the Palestinians to give up on bringing Palestinian independence for a vote in the United Nations in September and recognize the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people – in other words, as his country, though he was born in San Francisco, more than that of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who was born in Safed.


If Obama really intended to justify his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize, he would not have left the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the hands of this whiz at the never-ending management of the conflict.

Read the rest here.

Following the Obama-Netanyahu meeting

Posted: May 21st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Right, The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off

Even as the two leaders reveal their differences, the White House continues to oppose both the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation and the Palestinian Authority’s moves at the UN – without getting anything from Jerusalem in return

Daily papers are not printed in Israel on Saturdays – weekend editions are distributed on Fridays, and the political commentary pieces go to press on Thursday afternoons. U.S. President Barack Obama gave his speech on the Middle East on Thursday evening, and throughout the week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s people insisted, both on and off the record, that the speech not be too hard on Jerusalem. The new national security advisor, Yaakov Amidror, actually denied a story on Yedioth Ahronoth reporting his knowledge that President Obama would mention the pre-1967 borders in his remarks, claiming that “the only correct thing in this piece was my and the former NSA’s name.”

Well, Obama did mention borders, and Netanyahu made some harsh comments on Thursday night, declaring that he “expects to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of U.S. commitments made to Israel in 2004.” So it happened that while the newspapers’ weekend political sections and op-ed pages reflected a somewhat smooth ride for Netanyahu in Washington, the front pages told the story of a new rift between the American president and the Israeli prime minister.

The confrontation couldn’t have been clearer after the White House meeting between the two leaders. Netanyahu even went so far as declaring his opposition to the president’s positions to his face – before lecturing him on Jewish history and Middle East politics. There wasn’t even an attempt made to disguise their differences and mutual mistrust.

Netanyahu’s problem is not so much with the White House, which already made it clear that it would not support a Palestinian unilateral declaration of independence. In recent weeks, Israel launched a diplomatic counter attack, aimed at bringing as many European countries as possible to vote against the Palestinian initiative at the United Nations in September. But when the U.S. administration publicly confronts Netanyahu, more countries are likely to go a step further and take diplomatic initiatives that support the Palestinians. In the past, anonymous proxies to Netanyahu told the Israeli press that they suspect the White House is behind some such moves on the part of the Europeans. Similar theories are now likely to reemerge, and perhaps we will even see a return to the rhetoric of “Obama as Pharaoh,” which was sounded by government ministers in the months after the elections.

Netanyahu’s harsh response to the president – both in his Thursday statement and in his comments after the White House meeting – suggests that he intends to maximize the political capital such a confrontation might bring him with his base. So far, the diplomatic deadlock and the growing isolation of Israel have not hurt Netanyahu with the public, and according to recent polls, if elections were held today, their results would be pretty similar to the previous ones. If, on the other hand, the prime minister were to embark on a serious peace initiative, his coalition is likely to collapse. Netanyahu knows that, and he is unlikely to agree to any concessions before November 2013, when new elections are scheduled. The problem is that even those elections could result in the same coalition and political pattern.

I must admit that the logic behind the U.S. administration’s move is not entirely clear to me. There is no hope of launching meaningful negotiations anytime soon. Even if the president can somehow get Netanyahu and Abbas into the same room – a very unlikely scenario, given the political circumstances on both sides and the proximity of elections – one can say with some certainty that nothing would come of it.

At the same time, the White House opposes both the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation and the Palestinian Authority’s moves at the UN, and might even to do some work behind the scenes in support of Israel’s positions on these issues – without getting anything from Jerusalem in return. In fact, a substantial opposition to the Palestinian UN effort is likely to strengthen Netanyahu at home, and could even secure his re-election. Does the administration hope that by confronting both sides we might achieve a breakthrough before September? I find it hard to believe. PM Netanyahu made it clear he will never allow a real Palestinian state, so it’s time to look for new paths to end the occupation.

The solution, I believe, lies the in recognition of the Palestinians’ right to oppose the occupation through diplomacy, as well as in support of growing non-violent protests and in respect for their political choices. This road might take longer to achieve results, but the alternative could be a recipe for the renewal of violence, once the current path leads to its inevitable dead end.

American-Israeli bluffs and the success of palestinian unilateralism

Posted: April 26th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Right, The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

President Abbas has told Newsweek he is disappointed with Obama, but the American President has actually done a nice job of revealing the American double-standards with regards to Israel. Meanwhile, Jerusalem’s hawks are suggesting that in response to a Palestinian declaration of independence, Israel should annex the West Bank. Not such a bad idea

First Lady Michelle Obama, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas & President Barack Obama (photo: Lawrence Jackson/United States Government Work)

Newsweek has an interesting interview with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. It’s titled “The Wrath of Abbas,” and in it Abu-Mazen shares with Dan Ephron his frustration and disappointment over the US administration’s recent moves, and most notably, the attempt to block the Palestinian diplomatic effort at the UN.

The US has vetoed a Security Council resolution demanding Israel would stop all settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and in recent weeks the administration has stepped up his rhetoric against the attempt to get UN recognition for a Palestinian state. Instead, the US is demanding that the Palestinians return to direct negotiations with Israel.

The heart of the matter for Abbas is the way the US backed down from its demand to freeze construction in the settlement as a precondition to negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

… He [Abbas] told me bluntly that Obama had led him on, and then let him down by failing to keep pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a moratorium on settlement building in the West Bank last year. “It was Obama who suggested a full settlement freeze,” Abbas explained. “I said OK, I accept. We both went up the tree. After that, he came down with a ladder and he removed the ladder and said to me, jump. Three times he did it.”

Naturally, Abbas couldn’t agree to negotiate with Israel as construction in the settlements goes on – not after Washington itself put forward a demand to stop such activities. This is probably what John Kerry and other foreign policy veterans referred to when they claimed that the administration “has wasted 1.5 years.” But I am not so sure time was in fact wasted.

American administrations have been demanding Israel to stop building its settlements – and protesting when Jerusalem ignored them – for decades. All President Barack Obama did was try to actually uphold the stated policy – one that was shared by Democrats and Republicans alike. The result was a major crisis between Jerusalem and Washington, which hurt the President even in his own party.

In other words, the demand to freeze the settlements revealed that all previous demands and condemnations were no more than lip service, and that in fact over the years all administrations shared a support for unilateral Israeli activities in the West Bank and Gaza. This is why veterans of the peace process like Dennis Ross and John Kerry might claim it was a failed policy – because it called their bluff – even if that wasn’t what the President intended to do.

The problem was not Obama’s demands from Israel, but rather the fact that he backed down from them — “came down from the tree,” as Abbas put it — because of his political problems back home. Netanyahu was able to manipulate Washington in his favor, and the administration is now back to the old game: advocating direct negotiations and “monitoring” Israel’s actions on the ground, which is the code word for turning a blind eye.


All this is not enough for the hawks in Israel, who hate Obama with such a passion that they suspect he is behind the recent European moves and even the Palestinian unilateral effort. Ironically, a one-on-one with Israeli Benjamin Netanyahu would have probably resulted with the same headline as Newsweek’s interview with Abu-Mazen (except for the different name in the title, of course).

Meanwhile, the administration is floating the idea of publishing “Obama’s parameters” for a two state solution – ones that are likely to be rejected by both sides, as they are based on the 67′ borders (which Jerusalem doesn’t accept) and exempt Israel from its responsibility for the refugees problem, which is a non-starter for the Palestinians. Still, putting forward guidelines for a solution is not a bad idea, as long as the Americans don’t actually expect Netanyahu to negotiate on them in good faith.

There is zero chance that the Israeli Prime Minister will deliver any kind of solution. Netanyahu will not evacuate settlements; at best, he will create the false impression of agreeing to do it in a far away future, hoping that some turn of events will rescue him from the need to keep up his promises. It’s not just Netanyahu’s character and upbringing that pushes him to the right, but also the hawkish coalition he has built, the hard-line advisors he has surrounded himself with (the latest being the recently-appointed National Security Council Chairman Yaakov Amidror), the messages he is sending the Israeli public, his connection to the neo-cons in Washington, and the threat from Avigdor Lieberman in the coming elections. In short, all signs point in the same direction: Netanyahu is playing on time.

Recently, some Israeli hawks have come up with a new idea: Answering a Palestinian declaration of independence with annexing the West Bank and canceling the Oslo accords (didn’t we do the second part at least a dozen times in the past?). It is unfortunate that this idea has very little hope of materializing. As even the settlers know, the Palestinian Authority and the “disputed” status of the West Bank is this government’s greatest—and perhaps only—diplomatic asset. I don’t suppose the Knesset members who initiated this idea meant that Israel should make the Palestinians equal citizens — those rightwing fanatics want the land, not the people — but annexing the territories will be the first step on a one way road that leads to the one-state solution. And as I wrote in the past, this is an option that should stay on the table.

Why isn’t Netanyahu promoting the new deal on the settlements?

Posted: November 14th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , | 18 Comments »

An e-mail I got from an American friend (based in Tel Aviv) in response to my last post makes a noteworthy observation:

An interesting element here is the way American papers are saying Netanyahu agreed to push for a settlement freeze while Israeli media has him, somewhat indifferently, just bringing the American proposals to his cabinet. The difference sounds subtle but it’s not. I haven’t seen a word about Netanyahu arguing before the cabinet why the deal is worthwhile and should be approved. It sounds to me like he told Clinton he’d push, but back in Israel he’s letting his deputies trash a proposal he didn’t want in the first place.

I’m not in Israel right now, so I don’t hear everything that’s being said by the Israeli media, but that’s the impression I’m getting too: Netanyahu is getting credit in the US for agreeing to the new deal, while in Israel he is not going publicly in favor of it. In fact, since the “process” started, Netanyahu hasn’t really prepared the Israeli public for concessions – on the contrary, he is constantly declaring that “the Palestinians are not ready,” thus moving the Israeli public opinion to the right and making future concessions even harder to imagine.

Also worth reading is Mitchell Plitnick take on the new offer. According to Mitchell, since Israel was offered even more by Dennis Ross recently, seeing the new deal as a major setback is “much ado about nothing.” Read his post here.

Diplomacy: Is Obama leading us to a new Camp David?

Posted: August 2nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Right, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off

Last week, the Arab League authorized Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to engage in direct negotiations with Israel. Abbas is still refusing the talks, but estimates are it’s only a matter of weeks before negotiations will be launched. So it seems that the US administration finally got its first achievement: Palestinians and Israelis will be talking again.

In recent months, the US administration abandoned its initial policy, of applying pressure on the Israeli government, and instead put the heat on the Palestinians. Whether the change of course was taken due to the political price the president was paying at home for his public disagreements with the Israeli government or simply because those in the administration closer to Israel finally had the upper hand, the shift in the American policy remains unmistakable.

According to Palestinian sources, in a letter to president Abbas, the administration threatened that failure to resume negotiations will have “grave consequences” for American-Palestinian relations. On the other hand, if Abbas agreed, he was promised a Palestinian state “within a couple of years”.

I won’t go into why the Palestinians refused to negotiate with Netanyahu’s government to begin with (I addressed this issue here). What’s important is that unlike Israel, president Mahmoud Abbas has no leverage in Washington. He can’t disobey an American president in the way an Israeli PM can. If Washington and Jerusalem want direct negotiations, they are all but inevitable.

On the verge of a new round of talks, it’s important to look on the lessons of the past.  the last time the Palestinians were forced to negotiate with Israel against their will was at Camp David. Back then, the Oslo agreements reached a dead end (a leaked video recently revealed PM Netanyahu boosting on how he managed to stop Oslo), hostility and mistrust were on the rise, and an Israeli leadership, with the help of an American administration eager for immediate success, tried to impose a final agreement. Just like today, at first the Clinton administration rejected the idea of a summit on the final agreement, but Prime Minister Ehud Barak was able to convince them that this was the only way to go.

In his important article on the failed 200o summit, Robert Malley, who was a member of the US team to the talks, analyzed the internal dynamic both on the Palestinian and on the Israeli sides coming to Camp David and during the negotiations. The similarities to the situation today are striking:

Barak’s team was convinced that the Israeli public would ratify an agreement with the Palestinians, even one that entailed far-reaching concessions, so long as it was final and brought quiet and normalcy to the country. But Barak and his associates also felt that the best way to bring the agreement before the Israeli public was to minimize any political friction along the way. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had paid a tremendous political (and physical) price by alienating the Israeli right wing and failing to bring its members along during the Oslo process. Barak was determined not to repeat that mistake.

Much in the same way, Netanyahu’s main concern today is to keep his government intact and the public behind him. He made it clear that he would not make any step that would put his coalition in danger.

Barak saw no reason to needlessly alienate the settler constituency. Moreover, insofar as new housing units were being established on land that Israel ultimately would annex under a permanent deal—at least any permanent deal Barak would sign—he saw no harm to the Palestinians in permitting such construction


In Barak’s mind, Arafat had to be made to understand that there was no “third way,” no “reversion to the interim approach,” but rather a corridor leading either to an agreement or to confrontation. Seeking to enlist the support of the US and European nations for this plan, he asked them to threaten Arafat with the consequences of his obstinacy: the blame would be laid on the Palestinians and relations with them would be downgraded. Likewise, and throughout Camp David, Barak repeatedly urged the US to avoid mention of any fall-back options or of the possibility of continued negotiations in the event the summit failed.

This logeic was interpreted by the Palestinians as an attempt to force on them accepting an agreement that they couldn’t swallow. I suggest reading the next part carefully (my italic):

behind almost all of Barak’s moves, Arafat believed he could discern the objective of either forcing him to swallow an unconscionable deal or mobilizing the world to isolate and weaken the Palestinians if they refused to yield. Barak’s stated view that the alternative to an agreement would be a situation far grimmer than the status quo created an atmosphere of pressure that only confirmed Arafat’s suspicions—and the greater the pressure, the more stubborn the belief among Palestinians that Barak was trying to dupe them.


On June 15, during his final meeting with Clinton before Camp David, Arafat set forth his case: Barak had not implemented prior agreements, there had been no progress in the negotiations, and the prime minister was holding all the cards. The only conceivable outcome of going to a summit, he told Secretary Albright, was to have everything explode in the President’s face. If there is no summit, at least there will still be hope. The summit is our last card, Arafat said—do you really want to burn it? In the end, Arafat went to Camp David, for not to do so would have been to incur America’s anger; but he went intent more on surviving than on benefiting from it.

As for the US, what damaged its role as a mediator more than anything was an exaggerated understanding to the Israelis’ political concerns at home.

As the broker of the agreement, the President was expected to present a final deal that Arafat could not refuse. Indeed, that notion was the premise of Barak’s attraction to a summit. But the United States’ ability to play the part was hamstrung by two of its other roles. First, America’s political and cultural affinity with Israel translated into an acute sensitivity to Israeli domestic concerns and an exaggerated appreciation of Israel’s substantive moves. American officials initially were taken aback when Barak indicated he could accept a division of the Old City or Palestinian sovereignty over many of Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods—a reaction that reflected less an assessment of what a “fair solution” ought to be than a sense of what the Israeli public could stomach. The US team often pondered whether Barak could sell a given proposal to his people, including some he himself had made. The question rarely, if ever, was asked about Arafat.

A second constraint on the US derived from its strategic relationship with Israel. One consequence of this was the “no-surprise rule,” an American commitment, if not to clear, at least to share in advance, each of its ideas with Israel. (…) the “no-surprise rule” held a few surprises of its own. In a curious, boomerang-like effect, it helped convince the Palestinians that any US idea, no matter how forthcoming, was an Israeli one, and therefore both immediately suspect and eminently negotiable.


Ehud Barak was warned by the Israeli intelligence that failure in Camp David would end in another round of violence, yet he chose to try and impose on the Palestinians the final agreement he wanted to have. The US Administration had its issues with this approach, but it decided to back Barak. Dennis Ross, the US special envoy to the Middle East at the time, played a key role in this decision. Later, Ross had a major part in creating the American tendency to back the Israeli side and ignore the Palestinians during the negotiations. Aaron David Miller, who was on Ross’ team, accused him of leading the US to act as “Israel’s lawyer“. This policy had resulted in disastrous consequences for both Palestinians and Israelis.

Barak and Netanyahu, The Israeli hawks that rejected the Oslo accord, are in power again, and Dennis Ross is again advocating pressure on the Palestinians so that they would agree to an agreement the Israeli public would have no troubles with.

The frightening part is that nothing really changed in the Israeli-American position since the year 2000. Israel still refuses land exchange that would leave the Palestinians with a territory equal to the occupied land of 1967 (according to Mr. Malley’s account that was a major part of the reason negotiations broke in Camp David). If anything, it seems that the current Netanyahu-Barak government is willing to fewer concessions then those of the Barak’s 1999-2001 government. Just like in the 90′s, Netanyahu is still refusing to evacuate the Jordan Valley and East Jerusalem. The only difference is that now he is willing to call the remaining territory “a Palestinian state”.

The year 2000 was not that long ago, and I remember well the failure of Camp David. Back then, no one imagined how bad the second Intifada would be for both sides, just as it’s hard to imagine what a new round of violence might bring. I hope the Obama administration, whose motives I don’t doubt, would look deep into those lessons, and avoid taking the same path.

Diplomacy | Why won’t the Palestinians agree to direct negotiations with Israel?

Posted: July 5th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

One of the most repeated talking points of Israeli leaders these days is that by refusing direct negotiations, the Palestinian leadership is proving (again) that it doesn’t want peace. It is, Israelis say, another case of Arab Rejectionism.

Even members of the Israeli Left often wonder: if the Palestinian leadership really wants its own state, why not negotiate? What do they have to lose? After all, they can’t hope for a more sympathetic American administration, so why not take advantage of the current political circumstances, and try to gain something?

I’m not in the business of defending whatever the Palestinian Authority does (clearly an impossible task), but I do think that from his own perspective, Abu-Mazen is doing the right thing in refusing direct negotiations with the Israeli government (or at least postponing it as much as he can). The reason for this is the unbalanced nature of the diplomatic game.

By “unbalanced” I don’t mean that Israel is the strong side. Clearly, Israel has the upper hand from a military perspective, but this is not the important issue on this stage of negotiations. The unbalanced nature of the negotiations refers to the currency both sides are expected to exchange, and the moment in time in which they would exchange it.

It is pretty clear what does the Palestinian Authority want from Israel: land. Israel is expected to leave the territory it captured in 1967, give or take some minor changes. But what does Israel expect to get from the Palestinians? Most people will answer “security”. But that’s not true. Israel’s security will be put at risk by evacuating the land, and there is nothing the Palestinians can say or do that would eliminate this risk. Any kind of agreement Abu-Mazen signs won’t promise that in five, ten or twenty years the Palestinians won’t decide to attack Israel (or Israel the Palestinians, for that matter). The Peace we all hope for will depend on political circumstances and the way both leaderships conduct themselves in the years to come, not on documents they sign today.

The thing that Israel needs from the Palestinians is not security. It’s something even more important, and the one currency Israel was always short of: legitimacy. Legitimacy in the eyes of the international community, and legitimacy in the eyes of most of the Arab world. That what Israel lacks, and that’s what the Arabs have offered it in the 2002 Arab League peace initiative: full legitimacy in exchange for a full withdrawal. Back then Israel declined this offer, so the Palestinians kept hitting it where it hurts, by questioning Israel’s legitimacy in controlling the West bank or even its entire right to exist.

And here is the important part: Israel will gain some legitimacy from the first moment of negotiations, while the Palestinians will get the land only after an agreement is signed, and even this is not certain (Israel have never completed fulfilling its part in the Oslo agreement, for example). In other words, the Palestinians start paying when they enter the negotiating room, while Israelis only pay at the exit.

For an Israeli Prime Minister – given his own political considerations – it will be very tempting to stay in the room forever.

Read the rest of this entry »

Why Israel would never evacuate settlements without considerable outside pressure

Posted: April 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Left, The Right, The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

(a short exercise in rational choice)

Many people, including supporters of the two state solution, have argued recently that the United States should not apply pressure on Israel in order to make it leave the West Bank. Their basic claim is that since evacuating the West Bank is in the long term interest of Israel, Israel, being a democracy, would do so itself, when the right time will come (for example, when it will face a reliable Palestinian leadership and receive assurances for its security). The role of the international community, these people argue, is to create the right conditions for such withdrawal. In Obama’s White House, it is said that Dennis Ross holds such view.

I will try to explain why I disagree with this approach, using something like a Rational Choice model. In short, Rational Choice theory claims that all humans try to maximize advantages by weighting costs against benefits when taking decisions. It sounds pretty self-evident, but there has been a lot of criticism regarding this notion. People might also argue that putting the Middle East and “rational” in the same sentence is somewhat absurd. However, I think that this could be a useful exercise for understanding the political dynamics in Israel. The main advantage of this line of reasoning is that it frees us from questions of ideology or character, which tend to blur our judgment.


The basic assumption of this model is that no leader will take an action that is likely to bring his downfall. In this context, we should remember that Israel’s political system is very unstable. It is one of the most direct systems in the West, which makes it very easy to bring down a Prime Minister.

Let’s look at Benjamin Netanyahu’s government: if he even declares he is going to evacuate settlements, let alone split Jerusalem, his rightwing partners will leave his government. Theoretically, Kadima and Labor could save him in the name of peace, but Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak are rational actors as well (for the sake of this debate. Nobody knows what goes on in Barak’s mind). What do you think will happen when they have a shot at getting Netanyahu out of the way and going immediately to elections? Naturally, they won’t do it over the peace process, because their voters would punish them. It will be on some side issue, but the outcome will be just the same: the government falls and we would have elections.

Netanyahu, of all people, knows that: this is exactly what happened to him in his previous term as PM: after hesitating for two years, he handed Hebron to the Palestinians. The settlers left the government, the Left imposed new elections in 1999, and Netanyahu lost to Ehud Barak.

But even if our leader is able to pull it off politically, his troubles are just beginning: Every Prime Minister that will try to evacuate settlements will have to confront the settlers and their establishment for what would be their political showdown. The settlers will have nothing more to loss; all scenarios, from a fierce political fight to a civil war, are possible. Israel had around 9,000 settlers in Gaza, most of them considered “moderates” or non-ideological – and still, evacuating them left a political and social trauma that the country has yet to overcome. The offers made by Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert to the Palestinians would have had at least ten times this number of hardcore ideologist evacuated. I don’t think anyone can tell which way this might go. And here is the real nugget: estimates are that around 25 percent of combat soldiers in Israel are national-religious, some of them already declared that they wouldn’t take part in evacuations of Jews.

I’m not saying evacuating the settlements is impossible. I’m just claiming that it will be very hard to carry out. All evidence from the past show how high the cost of handing territory to the Palestinians is: out of the three PM’s who tried to do this, one (Netanyahu) fell from power, the other (Sharon) had to split his own party and didn’t finish the job, and a third (Rabin) paid with his life.

Here is the heart of the matter: an Israeli leader who considers withdrawal from the West Bank and evacuation of settlements needs to ask himself what’s the political price he might pay, and compare it with the political price of maintaining the status quo. The lower the cost of the status quo is, the less likely is the Israeli leader to evacuate settlements.

In order to increase the likelihood of evacuation, one must increase the political cost of maintaining the status quo (lowering the cost of evacuation doesn’t seem very likely). Unless we do so, the Israeli leader is likely to avoid negotiations or negotiate forever, hoping that political circumstances might change in his favor.

Read the rest of this entry »

Of all people, it is Dennis Ross who comes to Netanyahu’s aid

Posted: March 28th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off

800px-Dennis_RossLaura Rozen has an excellent story in on the internal battle in the administration regarding how to approach the Israeli government from now on.

Apperantly, while several people close to special envoy George Mitchell believe that the US must continue putting clear demands before Netanyahu’s extreme-right government in order not only to get some results, but also to restore the administrations credibility in the Arab world, some Oslo veterans, led by Dennis Rose, believe that the White House should avoid steps that might put Netanyahu’s coalition in danger. In other words, Dennis Ross actually thinks that the president of the US should be careful not to agitate Eli Yishay or Avigdor Liberman, because that might make the Israeli government fall.

This is what one of Laura Rosens’ anonymous sources had to say:

“He [Ross] seems to be far more sensitive to Netanyahu’s coalition politics than to U.S. interests… and he doesn’t seem to understand that this has become bigger than Jerusalem but is rather about the credibility of this Administration.”

What some saw as the suggestion of dual loyalties shows how heated the debate has become.

Last week, during U.S.-Israeli negotiations during Netanyahu’s visit and subsequent internal U.S. government meetings, the official said, Ross “was always saying about how far Bibi could go and not go. So by his logic, our objectives and interests were less important than pre-emptive capitulation to what he described as Bibi’s coalition’s red lines.”

This development shouldn’t come as a surprise to those who follow Denis Ross closely. While I do think Ross truly whishes end the occupation and advance the two state solution, he is clearly a man living in the past, and his involvement in the Oslo process might stand in the way of his better judgment. He blames the Palestinians and the Palestinians only for the failure to reach peace in the end of the previous decade, and consequently, believes that the US must apply constant pressure on the Arab side in order to get results. This was the exact attitude taken by the Bush administration, and anyone can see where it got us.

Ross dedicated a chapter of his recent book, Statecraft, to the steps which should be taken by the US in order to promote a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinian. His ideas would have won him praises in the AIPAC convention, as they all deal with ways to deal with the Palestinian side. The only thing the administration have to do with regards to Israel, according to Ross, is declare its commitment to the two state solution – something even George W Bush didn’t have a problem saying.

Reading this book, I got the feeling the Denis Ross thinks that the Israeli PM is still Yitzhak Rabin. The notion that US policy should fall in line with a government ran by radical nationalists like Liberman and Yishay is so absurd, that I don’t even understand how he rationalizes it for himself. As Gidon Levi wrote today in Haaretz, President Obama did better service for both Israelis and Palestinians in the last two weeks than any other politician in the last decade. We should all pray he doesn’t let Denis Ross disrupt him.

Obama’s Middle East Plan

Posted: May 10th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The weekend papers dealt mainly with the new policy for the Middle East that US president Barak Obama is supposed to present in the following weeks, maybe even before his meeting with PM Benjamin Netanyahu.

Most pundits and reporters agree on this: the administration is determined to prevent Israel from attacking Iran (it is unclear whether Israel can actually do that on its own, and without flying over American occupied Iraq. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine the US shooting down Israeli jets). Obama will offer the Iranians some kind of deal – maybe one which will include financial benefits, in exchange for freezing its nuclear program and giving the UN inspectors unlimited access to all facilities.

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