Netanyahu was the one to stop Israeli-Palestinian talks

Posted: August 20th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: The Left, The Right, the US and us | Tags: , , , | Comments Off

The Israeli media is reporting a high-level effort to resume negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians was brought to an end a couple of weeks ago at the Benjamin Netanyahu’s orders. The prime minister, meanwhile, continues to claim he has no partner.

Coming up to September and the UN bid by the Palestinian Authority, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu claims that the Palestinians refuse to negotiate with his government, and therefore urges the world to oppose their diplomatic moves, “in the interest of peace.”

Many echo this talking point: It’s being voiced no not only by advocates for the Israeli right in America (here, here, here, and here) but also by critics of the current Israeli government, sources in the Obama administration and even an editorial in the New York Times.

I intend to write a separate post on the way Israel is manipulating the world’s public opinion by using the term “peace” when it actually means maintaining the status quo; I also have my doubts on the UN bid and the false notion of “Palestinian statehood” when in reality the occupation only deepens—a better idea might be to dismantle the PA altogether—but it is important to note that even on this very issue of negotiations, the Israeli prime minister and the people speaking in his name are far from telling the whole truth.

As various media outlets in Israel have revealed that in recent weeks, Israeli president Shimon Peres has had a secret negotiating channel with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. According to a report in the daily Maariv, Peres—who has  often acted as an unofficial envoy for the government, given the rivalry between Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and the latter’s poor image in the world—has met with Abbas four times, discussing various details regarding the resumption of formal negotiations between the two parties. In-between these meetings, Peres also had a one-on-one with president Obama, which could be indicative of the importance attributed to these talks.

Netanyahu was aware of Peres’s moves, and according to the Israeli president’s closer circles, approved them. Yet a couple of weeks ago, Netanyahu surprisingly called off a meeting between Peres and Abu-Mazen, effectively closing the secret channel.

According to Maariv, the Palestinian president was already on his way to Amman, where the meeting was supposed to take place, when an aide to Peres notified him over the phone that the meeting was cancelled at the order of the Israeli PM. According  to Netanyahu’s associates, this wasn’t a good time for an understanding with the Palestinians, given the political circumstances in Israel, Ben Caspit reported.

According to Maariv, President Peres is now “completely exasperated” with Netanyahu.

My guess is that Netanyahu felt that Peres was getting closer to some understanding—anything—with Abbas, and this was against his goal of prolonging negotiations without offering concessions, as a way to get the international pressure off his back while keeping the Israeli consensus behind him (at least on this issue). In my opinion, there was little to no hope that that these talks would have led to anything, but still, it’s important to note that as soon as there was the slightest whiff of progress, even that informal channel became way too much for the Israeli prime minister.


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.


Please, no more peace plans

Posted: February 14th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Right, The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , | 11 Comments »

The Israeli leadership wants to hold on to the status-quo, the Palestinian leadership is split, and the US discovers the limits of its power. Under these circumstances, the problem is not the lack of solutions for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the absence of political forces that could implement them. A response to Bernard Avishai

Olmert, Abbas and Bush at the opening of the Annapolis talks (U.S. Navy photo by Gin Kai)

Olmert, Abbas and Bush at the opening of the Annapolis talks (U.S. Navy photo by Gin Kai)

Some 20 years ago, just before I started my mandatory service in the IDF, I remember reading “No Trumpets, No Drums” by Sari Nusseibeh & Mark Heller. The Israeli and Palestinian authors of the book conducted negotiations for several months, leading to the outline of the two-state solution described in the book. At the time, the idea of a Palestinian state was still a taboo for most of the Israeli public, even in the Left, and I still remember going through the book and realizing that there might, after all, be a solution to what used to be called “the Palestinian problem.”

Reading Bernard Avishai’s excellent piece on the negotiations between Olmert and Abbas in this week’s edition of the New York Times Magazine, I couldn’t help remembering “No Trumpets, No Drums.” The similarities between the agreement Nusseibeh and Heller reached and the ideas discussed by the Israeli Prime Minister and the Palestinian president were striking, only this time they didn’t bring any sense of hope with them.

Another memory: Recently, I attended a public peace conference hosted by an Israeli-Palestinian NGO. Between the formal debates, I had a few conversations with representatives of different peace groups. Over dinner, one of them told me of a peace plan he came up with. “It’s not that different from the Geneva Initiative,” he admitted, “only with a few modifications.” A businessman I met was working on establishing an Israeli-Palestinian civilian think tank. His goal: To come up with a plan for a two-state solution…

In recent years, I have also met plenty out-of-the-box thinkers: People proposing a formula for a Palestinian-Israeli confederation; those who dream of abolishing national borders in the Middle East; and even a guy who claims that the Palestinians are the lost Jewish tribes, and therefore, see no reason for the conflict. All we need, he told me, is to explain this to people.

In short, there is no shortage of solutions (and it’s not surprising the serious ones look quite similar). The more the situation on the ground deteriorates, the more plans people come up with. I guess it’s only natural, and I don’t want to dismiss this tendency altogether. Ideas are important. They show people that the current trends can change, and they can lead to political action. The problem, I think, is that in recent years, all these plans and ideas replaced politics, and therefore, became counter-productive.

——————————

Many people looked at the failed Annapolis process as a missed opportunity, a version of the “generous offer” narrative used to describe the Camp David summit in 2000. Look how close the two sides are, these people say. If only the administration was more engaged we could have had an agreement. If only the war in Gaza didn’t break out. If only Ehud Olmert stayed in power.

But wasn’t the war evidence to the fact that it’s impossible to sign an agreement with only half the Palestinian Authority, and leave Gaza out of the process? And didn’t the result of the Israeli elections prove that the public prefers Netanyahu’s rejectionism to Kadima’s two-state platform? Couldn’t the failure to reach an agreement serve as proof that at least one of the parties – if not both – find the negotiation’s outcome impossible to live with, or simply impractical?

I believe that the problem is not the absence of a plan, but that of a leadership which is able to carry it out. Olmert went further than any Israeli leader, but he still didn’t come close to the minimum the Palestinians could have lived with (the reaction to the Palestine Papers reveals how far behind from its leadership was the Palestinian public). And while the Israeli PM was negotiating, Netanyahu and Lieberman warned of these “dangerous concessions” and made it clear that the next Israeli government would not see itself committed to the understandings between the lame-duck Prime Minister and the Palestinian President (when the crucial meetings between the two leaders took place, Olmert has already announced he would retire form his post due to corruption allegations, and that he wouldn’t run for re-election). It seems that the talks between Olmert and Abbas were closer in spirit to the Nusseibeh-Heller negotiations or to the talks that led to the Geneva Accord than to the Oslo process: full of good-will, but short on political authority that could back it up.

—————————–

How do we get out of this dead-end? Avishai thinks that the US should present its own peace plan, based on the points of agreement between Olmert and Abbas. He writes on his TPM blog:

The point is, an Obama plan should be presented first to (and coordinated in advance with) the EU, the Quartet, the leaders of the OECD, and congressional leaders for that matter. It should be declared consistent with Olmert’s offer and designed (as Olmert’s offer was) to be “in the spirit” of the Arab League Initiative of 2002. Its great victory would not be in (immediately) getting Israelis and Palestinians to yes, but in creating an international consensus which all sides, especially Netanyahu and Israeli leaders and journalists more generally, would have to contend with for the foreseeable future. Obama could make the plan concrete by, for example, offering to provide funding for the RAND Corporation’s ARC project, tying a Palestinian state together with a transportation corridor, and offering Israeli infrastructure companies the chance to participate.

In the NYT piece, Avishai explains:

It is hard to imagine Netanyahu resisting an Obama initiative should the president fully commit to an American package based on these talks and rally the E.U., Russia and the United Nations.

Is it so hard to imagine? Some described the moratorium deal offered by the Administration last autumn as the best ever for Israel, and yet, Netanyahu rejected it. And it wasn’t even about a full peace treaty, just 90 days of settlement freeze, a good-will move that would enable negotiations to move forward.

Right now, there is no political force in Israel which is able to carry out the evacuation of settlements necessary for a peace deal, or to sell the Jewish public the return of dozens to hundred of thousands of Palestinian refugees. Without those, there would be no peace. There could be some intermediate treaty or a unilateral withdrawal, but it won’t bring peace.

The current Israeli leadership can’t even agree on a peace plan that would hand the Palestinians 60 percent of the West Bank, as some ministers proposed. The Knesset has a block of 60-65 members that would never agree to the concessions offered by Ehud Barak in Camp David, let alone those negotiated by Olmert. That’s the reason for the absence of peace talks – there is nothing to discuss.

If we had learned something during President Obama’s first couple of years, it’s his administration’s limits in applying effective pressure on a determined rightwing Israeli government. The administration tried to play it tough, but Netanyahu called their bluff – and won. Many people in Israel and Palestine, including myself, were hoping for a better outcome, but I don’t think the administration is to blame, in spite of mistakes it made. The political circumstances are such that applying pressure on Jerusalem is simply too expensive, in terms of political currency. A president might lose a lot by confronting an Israeli PM, and gain very little. Perhaps that’s the reason that the last two presidents pushed their peace plan just as they were getting ready to leave the White House.

——————————-

So, what should the US do? In my opinion, the answer is not much, at least for the time being. As recent events taught us, there are limits to the ability to shape the Middle East’s politics from the Oval Office. The US should take a step back, and most importantly, let Jerusalem face the consequences of the occupation by gradually lifting the diplomatic shield it provides Israel with. It should be done in a smart enough way not to hurt the administration politically, but the message needs to be clear: If Israel continues to hold on to the West Bank, it will become more and more isolated. With time, this message would resonate with policy makers and with the Jewish public.

We could also hope that the Palestinians will be able to unite their government, so that when the opportunity presents itself, the leadership that negotiates the end of the occupation would enjoy a greater legitimacy than Abbas and Saeb Erekat did in 2008. Hamas has a veto power over agreements, just as the Israeli Right has. If these forces are not engaged with, there isn’t a plan in the world that would bring peace.


The Palestine Papers: An end to the myth of Israel’s generosity

Posted: January 24th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , | 10 Comments »

Instead of going through the commentary on the recently released “Palestine Papers,” I suggest readers start by checking out some of the documents themselves. Even for those suspicious of the “generous Israeli offer vs. Arab rejectionism” narrative of the 2008 talks as I was, some of the documents are quite shocking.

Take, for example, this meeting, in which the Palestinian side learns that the Israeli negotiators wouldn’t agree to use 1967 borders even as a starting point (h/t Matt Duss):

Udi Dekel (Israel):     As you know, our guiding principles are UNSC Res. 242, the need for boundaries that can provide security for Israel, and we’re talking about the situation on the ground, as per Pres. Bush’s letter.

Samih al-Abed (Palestinian):      Do you mean the situation as it was then, or now?

UD:     Reality now… But we’re not going to argue.  We can’t change reality on the ground.  We don’t see the 1967 border as a reference, first because we don’t even know exactly where the line is.

SA:      We have all the maps that were signed by you.

UD:     But that wasn’t exactly the line on the ground.

SA:      If not the 1967 line, then what is your reference?

UD:     We said already, the situation on the ground.

And here Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni insists on annexing the settlement of Ariel – which lies some 15 miles to the east of the Israeli border, deep in the West Bank:

Livni: The idea behind our desire to annex Ariel settlement was not to get more water but because thousands of people live there. We want to have an answer for those who have lived there for forty years.

Future borders will be complicated but clear. I have seen in Yugoslavia how areas can be connected. The matter is not simply giving a passport to settlers.

Abu Ala: Having Ariel under our control means also that the water basin will be under our control.

Livni: We have said that even if we agreed to have Ariel under Israeli control, we have to find a solution to the water issue.

Abu Ala: We find this hard to swallow.

Rice:  Let us put Maale Adumim and Ariel aside. I am not trying to solve them here.

Or the now-famous Yerushalyim quote, in which Palestinian negotiator Dr. Sael Erakat used the Hebrew name when referring to Jerusalem:

Erekat: Israelis want the two-state solution but they don’t trust. They want it more than you think, sometimes more than Palestinians. What is in that paper gives them the biggest Yerushalaim in Jewish history, symbolic number of refugees return, demilitarised state… what more can I give?

——————————-

The obvious result of the massive leak of documents would be a blow to the Palestinian Authority’s credibility, and most notably, to the public image of president Mahmoud Abbas and chief negotiator Saeb Erakat.

The documents, published by Al Jazeera and the Guardian, reveal the extent of concessions offered by the Palestinian leadership at those talks, and expose the PLO leaders to charges of betrayal of the Palestinian cause – not so much because of the offers themselves, but more due to the tone used by the Palestinian negotiators (Erekat calling PM Sharon “our friend,” using the Hebrew name for Jerusalem, and more), and due to their cooperation with Israel in the persecution of Hamas activists. It’s not clear yet whether the PA leadership can survive this crisis.

Evaluating the effect of the Palestine Papers on the Israeli side is even harder.

Prime Minister Netanyahu will probably not suffer any damage on the home front, at least in the short term. Netanyahu might even use the papers to claim that his government’s construction projects in occupied East Jerusalem pose no threat to the peace process, since the Palestinians have already agreed to give up most of the Jewish neighborhoods in this part of the city.

The Israeli government would also benefit from a renewal of the internal war on the Palestinian side. For years, Israel has tried (and for the most part, succeeded) to break Palestinian society into sub-groups with different political interests and agendas. When those groups fight each other, the Palestinian cause suffers.

Yet from a wider perspective, the release of the Palestinian offers during the 2008 talks serves as proof that Israel in fact had a partner for peace on the Palestinian side. Actually, the question from now on will be whether Israel itself is a partner for an agreement. Furthermore, after the steps Palestinian and Israeli negotiators took towards each other in previous rounds of talks, the current Israeli offers, such as a temporary state on half of the West Bank’s territory, will appear cynical and unrealistic.

For years, Israel has used the peace process as a way to hold back international pressure on the Palestinian issue. It will be harder to do so from now on.  This will be Netanyahu’s greatest problem.

As far as the Israeli public is concerned, opposition leader Tzipi Livni comes out fine from the papers. Unlike the Palestinian negotiators, Livni can’t be accused of double talk. She presented the same hardline positions both in public and in private. Yet Livni will soon try to position herself as an alternative for the right-wing government of Netanyahu, which had Israel isolated in the world and damaged relations with the US. Given her attitude during the 2008 talks, how could Livni convince the Israeli public and the international community that she can succeed in negotiating a deal with the Palestinians?

More than anything, it’s the very notion that Israelis and Palestinians can reach an agreement on the two-state solution that suffered another tremendous blow (some people in the US administration apparently gave up on this even before the papers were released). Many people believe that Israel went as far as it could in the offers that were handed in 2008 to the Palestinians; now they may think that the Palestinians did the same, and yet the distance between the two parties remains too big. It seems that Israeli leaders are simply unable to deliver the minimum required to solve the Palestinian problem. No wonder that one of the first Israeli politicians to comment on the papers was Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, which said that the documents proved a final agreement impossible to achieve.

Even for those who don’t subscribe to Lieberman’s ideas, it’s clear that a new approach is needed. Will it be the unilateralism president Abbas is promoting, the mounting international pressure on Israel, the “nation building” effort by PM Salam Fayyad, or even another Palestinian uprising that changes the political dynamic? Only time will tell.


Israeli rejectionism?

Posted: June 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Settlements | Tags: , , , , , , , | 21 Comments »

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas recognizes Jewish rights in Israel, and is ready for a two state solution with some borders modifications that will allow Israel to keep some of the bigger settlements.

In a meeting in Washington with 30 Jewish leaders, among them those who supports Netanyahu’s government such as AIPAC and ADL, Abaas declared that if Israel accepts a solution based on the 67′ borders, direct negotiations can resume.

Haaretz reports:

The Palestinian president said during the discussion that he had in the past proposed creating a trilateral commission to monitor and punish incitement, but that Israel did not agree to it.

When asked what he could offer Israelis to show that he was serious about peace initiatives, Abbas reminded the participants that he had addressed the Israeli public in an interview on Channel 10. “Why wouldn’t Bibi go to Palestinian TV and do the same?” said the Palestinian president.

“I would never deny [the] Jewish right to the land of Israel,” Abbas then declared.

A few months ago, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said that he is ready to have the Palestinian refugees return to the Palestinian state (rather then Israel), so basically, it can be said that all of Israel’s major concerns have been met by the Palestinians. We need to appreciate the price Palestinian leaders are paying at home for such declarations.

Yet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to show very little enthusiasm for the diplomatic process, and his senior cabinet ministers keep opposing any concessions. Deputy PM Moshe Yaalon just recently said in an interview to Yedioth Ahronoth that “nobody in the seven ministers cabinet (the Government’s decision making forum) believes we can reach an agreement.”

The reason for Israeli rejectionism lies in the internal political dynamic in Israel. No matter what Palestinians say or do, Israeli leaders have no real incentive to go through the extremely difficult process of evacuating settlements. This is why they are preparing the public for a failure of the negotiations, even though we now have the most moderate Palestinian leadership ever.

UPDATE: Laura Rozan’s report of Abbas’ meeting with Jewish leaders refers to a couple of important issues which Haaretz didn’t mention: PM Olmert’s “generous offer” which the Palestinians supposedly turned down, and the demilitarization of the Palestinian state:

It was his first such public forum speaking event in Washington ever, Brookings’ Vice President and former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk noted when he introduced the Palestinian leader, who he said he had known since 1993.

(…)

Indyk pointed out that it’s generally understood in the West that Abbas did not accept the proposal Olmert offered, based on 1967 borders and agreed land swaps, but Abbas said they were still negotiating when Olmert stepped down amid an Israeli corruption investigation.

“The man has said in the clearest of terms he accepts Prime Minister Netanyahu’s assessment of a demilitarized state,” former Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) told POLITICO Thursday. “He doesn’t want tanks, he doesn’t want missiles, he wants an internal security force.”