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.

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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.


PM Netanyahu is cornered, and the US shouldn’t save him

Posted: April 14th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Right, the US and us | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment »

Benjamin Netanyahu (photo: The Jewish Agency for Israe)

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is cornered. Netanyahu is looking for a diplomatic initiative that would save him from a UN recognition of a Palestinian state, followed by a declaration of independence, in the coming fall. What a couple of years of pressure from an American president didn’t do, Palestinian unilateralism did.

The Israeli Prime Minister has no hope of winning a majority at the UN’s general assembly, yet he still wishes to get some of the western Europeans counties on his side, possibly also Russia. But most of the European leaders don’t trust him personally, and doubt his ability or desire to take real action that would end 44 years of occupation. Caught between the international pressure and his rightwing partners—which he himself brought into the coalition—Netanyahu seems to be moving in circles. He told the German Chancellor he would present a diplomatic initiative in a major speech, then, when speculations on the content of his plan began, his proxies told the Israeli media that Netanyahu never promised any new declarations.

Now Netanyahu is at it again: reports of a new offer are leaked to local papers, Shimon Peres is sent to the White House carrying diplomatic messages, and a new venue is chosen for the historic announcement: the US congress, where Netanyahu enjoys more respect and support than in the Israeli Knesset.

But even a dozen standing ovations for the Israeli Prime Minister on the Hill won’t hide the fact that he has nothing to say. According to Barak Ravid’s report in Harretz, Netanyahu’s “diplomatic initiative” consists of the re-deployment of some army units in the West Bank, without removing a single settlement; a small scale version of the Oslo accord – the same document that Netanyahu made his career opposing. Perhaps it’s time for him to send some flowers to Rabin’s grave.

It should be said again: there is absolutely no hope that Netanyahu will deliver on the Palestinian issue. He avoided any opportunity to generate some concrete moves in the important first two years of his term. He is now at the hands of his rightwing political partners, and most notably, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. He has surrounded himself with rightwing advisors, the latest addition being Yaakov Amidror, the recently appointed national security advisor. There are even talks that Netanyahu is close again to Uri Elitzur, his former chief of staff who became a passionate advocate of the One-State Solution. And beside, the elections are only a couple of years ahead. Netanyahu won’t initiate a move that could backfire exactly when Israelis go to the polls.

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There is also some talk of an American initiative. Senator John Kerry suggested this week that the US could soon embark on yet another effort to renew negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, perhaps even present its own peace initiative. Speaking to a gathering in Washington of leaders from the Muslim world, Kerry said

“I suspect that it’s very possible that President Obama will even step out ahead of that and will possibly– I say possibly–make his own contribution to where he thinks the process ought to go in the meantime. Conceivably, that can come together in a responsible effort that produces a transition here,” Kerry said. “I think we can get to borders and the fundamental issues fairly quickly and its conceivable that between now and September we will do that.”

Many liberals think that a US peace plan is the way to go. Shortly after a visit to Israel The New Yorker editor, David Remnick, called for Obama to “speak clearly and firmly,” on the issue, meaning to present his own peace plan for a final settlement between Israelis and Palestinians.

For a long time, this has also been the dominant view in the Israeli Left: That one day the US will “rescue” us by presenting Jerusalem with an offer that it can’t refuse. But if the past two years have taught us something, it’s that even an administration that is more sympathetic to the Palestinians is unable or unwilling to push Israeli out of the West Bank.

The hopes that president Obama will travel to Jerusalem to present a bold plan, and by the sheer power of his words will create a political change in Israel—perhaps even bring the left back to power—shows a troubling lack of understanding of Israeli culture and politics. If anything, such a visit would make Netanyahu stronger, by presenting him as a man who brought Obama to Jerusalem on his own terms.

UPDATE: Yedioth Ahronoth daily reported yesterday that the Administration is about to present guidelines for a peace effort, very similar to the Clinton parameters.  According to Yedioth, this will be done before Netanyahu’s speech in Washington.

The administration should recognize the limits of its power. Everybody knows that “Israel is an internal political question in the US,” but that’s only half the problem. Confronting Israel is extremely costly on political currency, while getting Israelis and Palestinians talking or even signing an agreement is not that a big political achievement for a president. Israel can make life miserable for Obama, but it cannot make him more popular.

Another round of negotiations brokered by the US is bound to lead to the same failure we witnessed in previous talks and summits. At a certain point both parties will disagree on something. The US won’t be able to get concessions of Israel, so it will twist the Palestinian’s arms. The Palestinians will have to choose between a solution that won’t meet their basic needs, and leaving the talks, and being blamed for missing another great opportunity. Nothing good will come out of either.

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So, what’s the solution? From a US perspective, it’s very simple: Stay out of the way, and let others take the lead. European leaders are not facing the unique political difficulties an American president has to overcome when dealing with Israel. The international community can apply effective pressure on Jerusalem, and such pressure can change the political dynamic here. Netanyahu’s recent troubles at home may suggest that in a way, it’s already happening.


The siege on Gaza is the real crime

Posted: December 27th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, war | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off

Exactly one year after operation Cast Lead, Gaza is still the world’s largest prison.

The media is discussing the possibility of a prisoner exchange deal, as well as the effort to renew peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, the Goldstone report and the allegations of war crimes, but the real crime is happening right before our eyes: the Israeli-Egyptian siege of the Gaza strip.

According to the CIA Factbook, there are 1.5 million people living on the strip’s 360 sq. km (slightly more than twice the size of Washington, DC). They are not allowed to travel anywhere, and their lives are reduced to little more than survival. Israel does not allow building material, supply for farming or factories, school needs and many food items into the strip. 80 percent of the population in Gaza depends on humanitarian aid for its survival. The houses which were destroyed in the war can’t be rebuilt, and thousands of people are forced to pass a second winter without shelter. 4.5 billion dollars collected for the reconstruction of the strip can’t reach Gaza.

You can read more about the siege and it’s consequences on Gisha site.

The Israeli government does not explain the reasons for the siege. It’s obviously not part of an effort to force the return of Gilad Shalit, since the siege is not part of the deal discussed between Israel and Hamas. It’s not about the rockets as well – since there aren’t almost any these days.

The IDF just launched a special page on its internet site to mark a year to the war. It’s titled “Days of Quiet”. One of the articles on the page tells the story of the Kabatim, the security officers of the Israeli towns and settlements around the Gaza strip “who used to look for missile launches at nights… and now have to fight boredom.” That’s not Peace Now saying; it’s the IDF.

So why does the siege go on?

It’s not about preventing the Hamas from stocking arms. Hamas does that through the tunnels below the Egyptian border, and Israel is checking any cargo entering the strip through its side. Forbidding trucks of pasta from getting into Gaza – as Senator Kerry was shocked to find Israel doing – has nothing to do with national security.

Is the siege a way to make the people of Gaza bring down Hamas, something both Jerusalem and Washington wishes for? If so, it’s both an immoral and inefficient way. If operation Cast Lead and the year following it proved something, it’s that Hamas is here to stay. It’s bad news for Israel and possibly for the peace process as well, but collective punishment against 1.5 million people is not a legitimate response.

Asked about the siege, most Israelis would say that the Palestinians deserve it: they elected Hamas, which launched rockets and does not recognize Israel’s right to exist, so they got it coming, more or less. This is basically the same rational terrorists use for justifying suicide attacks against Israeli civilians: they supported the occupation and all it lead to, they elected Likud, so they also have it coming. Both rationalizations are false. Suicide attacks are unacceptable, and so is the siege.


A Message from the White House

Posted: March 2nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: elections, The Right, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

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There are already some signs indicating a change of tone regarding the Palestinian issue from the Obama administration.

Sen. John Kerry’s visit to Gaza and to Syria was the first of them. Though Kerry is not an official WH envoy, it is clear he wouldn’t have gone without some sort of approval from the president. There haven’t been a top level American visit to Gaza for some time, and Syria was until recently part of ”the axis of evil”, so this visit could hint a rapid shift from the Bush policies.

Another sign was the intended appointment of former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Chas Freeman, to the role of Director of the National Intelligence Council. Freeman is a know critic of Israel’s occupation of the West bank, and the news of his candidacy already drew criticism from the Jewish Lobby
 
But the clearest massage to come out of Washington was Hilary Clinton’s trip to the Middle East. Clinton is taking part in the Gaza donor conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, and will later on arrive to Jerusalem. Haaretz’s Natasha Mozgovaya mentioned it today, and wondered what exactly the Secratery of State would say to the Israelis. But that’s missing the point. The visit is the message, and it is a very strong one. There is no government in Israel. I don’t remember such a high level visit under similar circumstances. This could – and I believe should – be seen as a blunt interference in local politics.

The night after the election in Israel, the WH was too confused to understand who of the two candidates won, and therefore who should be congratulated by the president. Obama ended up calling president Peres, and complimenting him on Israel’s democratic process, like we were some African nation holding its first elections ever. But now the administration knows who the next PM will be. They also understand that in all likelihood, Netanyahu’s partners will be from the extreme-right. By sending Clinton to Jerusalem before we have a government, they send Jerusalem a very clear message: the diplomatic game starts now. Are you in or are you out?

If Netanyahu does give the Foreign Office to Liberman, the world might feel it got its answer.