It’s time the US talked to Hamas

Posted: September 14th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The positive reports coming out of the Israeli-American-Palestinian summit in Sharm el Sheikh– like those which came from Washington a week earlier – shouldn’t surprise anyone. There is a strange dynamic to these talks: both sides present an optimistic smile to the world and a hawkish, pessimistic face at home.

As both recent polls and the relative indifference of the Hebrew media reveal, the Israeli public finds it hard to believe that these talks would actually lead to the establishing of a Palestinian state. Even more telling is the fact that the Israeli Prime Minister hasn’t engaged yet in a real effort to prepare the Israeli public to what could be the nation’s most difficult moment in 62 years of independence.

But all this can change, and I guess that’s what keeps the US officials going. The process, they must believe, could influence public opinion and change the political trends. Maybe. The problem is that the US is only trying this approach with the Israelis who refuse compromise. Somehow, the same logic is never applied when the Palestinians are concerned.

While we are being told that a rightwing leader like Netanyahu, with an extreme government like the current one, actually stands a better chance to reach peace because he won’t have to deal with a meaningful opposition from his right flank, when it comes to the Palestinian society, the US will only deal with the equivalence of Meretz, if such an analogy could be made.

When the Israeli public elected again and again a rightwing leaders who never recognized the Palestinians’ right for independence (or for full civil rights within the state of Israel), the world was asked to respect the Israeli democracy and hope that with time, the political process and basic realities of the conflict would change these leaders’ views. To some degree, it’s actually happened. But when the Palestinians elected a political party which wouldn’t recognize Israel, the result of the elections was suspended – though their integrity was never questioned – and new ones weren’t held. No wonder that Hamas took power by force where it could, and than violently made both Jerusalem and Ramallah remember that they can’t ignore it.

Would the Likud have acted differently if it won the elections and was kept out of power through the intervention of foreign powers? The scenario is so hypothetical that it’s not even possible to answer such question. But let’s take it even further: what happens if under these conditions, the losing party – let’s say Labor – signs an agreement in which it is to evacuate settlements and give up East Jerusalem? I think that the only question is when violence will break, not if. The same goes for Hamas and the Palestinian society. Imagine what happens the day President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayad give up the right of return, or accept the presence of Jewish settlements blocks.

If we are to be serious about these peace talks, it should be understood that there won’t be an agreement and there won’t be peace without Hamas. It’s something most Israelis and even Americans won’t like to hear, but from a Palestinian perspective, Hamas is no different from Likud. Not because it is an extreme movement, but because it’s a well rooted and legitimate political power, too large to be ignored.

I would have loved things to be different. I think Israel should have made a more generous deal with the PLO in the eighties or nineties, so it wouldn’t have to deal now with an Islamic party which has some very radical elements in it. But that’s water under the bridge. Hamas is here to stay, so better have it as part of the political process than as the worlds’ outcast.

Having Hamas won’t be easy. It might make a “final” agreement much harder to get, but the chances of such an agreement to actually work will be much higher.

Niall O’Dowd, the secret conduit between Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and the White House in the years 92′-94′, wrote last week in the Huffington Post that an American willingness to talk to Hamas might be the out-of-the-box idea that could jump start a real process, much in the way that the Clinton Administration’s decision to grant Gerry Adams a US visa help convince the IRA to call for a complete ceasefire. I might add that it was a US decision to recognize the PLO in 1988 – when talks with the organizations’ officials were still illegal in Israel – that paved the way for the direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in the nineties. It’s time for another such bold move.

The positive reports coming out of the Israeli-American-Palestinian summit in Sharm el Sheikh– like those which came from Washington a week earlier – shouldn’t surprise anyone. There is a strange dynamic to these talks: both sides present an optimistic smile to the world and a hawkish, pessimistic face at home.

As both recent polls and the relative indifference of the Hebrew media reveal, the Israeli public finds it hard to believe that these talks would actually lead to the establishing of a Palestinian state. Even more telling is the fact that the Israeli Prime Minister hasn’t engaged yet in a real effort to prepare the Israeli public to what could be the nation’s most difficult moment in 62 years of independence.

But all this can change, and I guess that’s what keeps the US officials going. The process, they must believe, could change public opinion and alter the political trends. Maybe. The problem is that the US is only trying this approach with the Israelis who refuse compromise. Somehow, the same logic is never applied when the Palestinians are concerned.

While we are being told that a rightwing leader like Netanyahu, with an extreme government like the current one, actually stands a better chance to reach peace because he won’t have to deal with a meaningful opposition from his right flank, when it comes to the Palestinian society, the US will only deal with the equivalence of Meretz, if such an analogy could be made.

When the Israeli public elected again and again a rightwing leaders who never recognized the Palestinians’ right for independence (or for full civil rights within the state of Israel), the world was asked to respect the Israeli democracy and hope that with time, the political process and basic realities of the conflict would change these leaders’ views. To some degree, it’s actually happened. But when the Palestinians elected a political party which wouldn’t recognize Israel, the result of the elections was suspended – though their integrity was never questioned – and new ones weren’t held. No wonder that Hamas took power by force where it could, and than violently made both Jerusalem and Ramallah remember that they can’t ignore it.

Would the Likud have acted differently if it won the elections and was kept out of power through the intervention of foreign powers? The scenario is so hypothetical that it’s not even possible to answer such question. But let’s take it even further: what happens if under these conditions, the losing party – let’s say Labor – signs an agreement in which it is to evacuate settlements and give up East Jerusalem? I think that the only question is when violence will break, not if. The same goes for Hamas and the Palestinian society. Imagine what happens the day President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayad give up the right of return, or accept the presence of Jewish settlements blocks.

If we are to be serious about these peace talks, it should be understood that there won’t be an agreement and there won’t be peace without Hamas. It’s something most Israelis and even Americans won’t like to hear, but from a Palestinian perspective, Hamas is no different from Likud. Not because it is an extreme movement, but because it’s a well rooted and legitimate political power, too large to be ignored.

I would have loved things to be different. I think Israel should have made a more generous deal with the PLO in the eighties or nineties, so it wouldn’t have to deal now with an Islamic party which has some very radical elements in it. But that’s water under the bridge. Hamas is here to stay, so better have it as part of the political process than as the worlds’ outcast.

Having Hamas won’t be easy. It might make a “final” agreement much harder to get, but the chances of such an agreement to actually work will be much higher.

Niall O’Dowd, the secret conduit between Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and the White House in the years 92′-94′, wrote last week in the Huffington Post that an American willingness to talk to Hamas might be the out-of-the-box idea that could jump start a real process, much in the way that the Clinton Administration’s decision to grant Gerry Adams a US visa help convince the IRA to call for a complete ceasefire. I might add that it was a US decision to recognize the PLO in 1988 that paved the way for the direct Israeli-Palestinian talks in the nineties. Maybe it’s time for another such bold move.


Peace talks resuming: actually, there is nothing to talk about

Posted: August 23rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

The Obama administration finally got what it wanted, and the Palestinians were dragged into direct peace negotiations that would probably lead to nowhere. Even Yossi Beilin, maybe the single most committed politician to the idea of direct talks and the two-states solution, is pretty sure that no agreement will come out of this, not to mention every member of the Israeli seven-minister cabinet, the top decision-making forum, who has an automatic majority against any concessions. In this cabinet, the only difference between the “dovish” Defense Minister Ehud Barak and the “hawkish” Foreign Minister Lieberman is that one thinks we should negotiate so that the world will learn again that “we have no partner”, while the other believes we shouldn’t even do that.

As for Beilin, this is what he told the New York Times:

“I think this is a huge mistake by the U.S. administration (…) There is not a chance in the world that in a year — or two or three — peace can be achieved. The gap between the sides is too big. Netanyahu did not come to power to divide Jerusalem or find a solution to the Palestinian refugees.”

On a phone conversation I had with him a month ago, Beilin expressed similar views. At best, he said, Netanyahu will end up unilaterally withdrawing to the security barrier, and even this will happen under tremendous pressure, and when the Prime Minister feels really cornered. “Netanyahu simply can’t do it,” he said.

Yesterday, Nahum Barnea, Israel’s top diplomatic correspondent, wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth that while he received a torrent of phone calls from foreign media representatives regarding the talks, Israelis and Palestinians hardly care about them. Some people view low expectations as a good sign, but in the peace process’ dynamic they make both sides enter the negotiations with the sole purpose of blaming the other party for the inevitable failure. This seems to be the case this time as well.

Sources in the administration told the NY Times that “while talks may be risky, the current drift is even riskier, and the only possible way forward is to put the leaders of the two sides together with American help”. This is complete nonsense. When talks fail, the urge to resort to violence is higher. It seems that the administration simply wanted a political achievement here, the famous photo-op with Israeli and Palestinian leaders every president must have. Since the White House failed to get any real concessions from Netanyahu, it started applying the pressure on the Palestinians in order to create the appearance of progress.

This has been the path all US presidents, Democrats and Republican alike, have taken in the past two decades. As a precondition to dealing with them, they demanded the Palestinians to stop resisting the occupation, to change their national charter, to recognize Israel, to conduct elections, to ignore the results of the elections, and lately, to cancel the elections altogether; to negotiate while Israel is building settlements (that’s “without preconditions” for you), to arrest those opposing negotiations, to withdraw their request to have the Goldstone Report discussed in the UN, to negotiate while half their population is under siege, and to do it with an Israeli Prime Minister who refuses to accept the 67′ borders even as a starting point for the talks.

The Palestinians did all this, and more. Being the weakest party in the Middle East, they never really had any choice. Even the “moderate” Arab leaders didn’t back them when it came to confronting the White House.

And what do you know? In two decades, all these negotiations didn’t lead to the evacuation of a single settlement. Not one. It was the armed struggle, and the thousands of casualties on both sides, that made the Israeli government pull out of Gaza. This time, there were no negotiations involved.

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The truth is that there is very little to negotiate. Strange as it may seem, the Palestinians don’t have anything to give Israel. More often than we care to believe, Israel’s demands are nothing but excuses, reasons not to give the Palestinians what is theirs to begin with: their freedom.

What can Israel possibly get from the Palestinians in exchange for the termination of the occupation? A guarantee they won’t attack us? Suppose we have one – how do we know the next Palestinian government will honor it? And the one after it? The truth is we can’t know. No matter what agreement is signed, Israel will have to take care of its own security, possibly with the help of the US. For that we don’t need the talks.

Maybe we want the Palestinians to give up the right of return? But the problem is not the abstract right but the very real refugees. If we don’t come up with some solution for their situation, they will continue to demand to go back to their families’ old homes, no matter what will be written on the piece of paper president Abbas will sign, immediately before he loses the elections and disappear forever.

The same goes for Jerusalem – if the problem won’t be solved and the sovereignty will be divided, the battle over the city will go on, regardless of what any agreement might say. The latest of Netanyahu’s tricks is the demand that the Palestinians will declare that Israel is a Jewish state. This is completely absurd. Since when do we need Abu-Mazen to decide out national character? This is an internal Israeli affair, nothing to do with the talks.

In short, Israel simply asks the Palestinians to make all kinds of promises they might or might not keep, and while we debate these issues endlessly, the occupation goes on and on.

Yes, there are many minor issues to debate: borders, taxing, water etc, but there has already been a lot of thinking on these details, and there are solutions at hand. The only real question is whether Israel is capable of doing one of the two: get out from the West Bank and accept the consequences this step might have on its security, or annex the land, give the Palestinians their rights, and see the character of the state changed. Both are bad options from most Israelis’ point of view, so it’s little wonder we rather not chose. What incredible is our ability to convince ourselves that the Palestinians are to blame.


Obama not waiting for a settlements deal, will meet Netanyahu and Abbas

Posted: September 20th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , , | 5 Comments »

So even after the failure of the Mitchell talks, Netanyahu, Abaas and Obama will meet on Tuesday in New York (the Israeli media has already reported that “there will be no meeting”, but than came the White House announcement). It is, I believe, a good move by the president and the State Department, as there was a growing feeling that the push for renewal of the negotiations is losing momentum.

I wonder though if Obama didn’t get in the ring a bit too soon. The president’s involvement will be required when real negotiations kick off, and it might have been better to leave all the preliminary steps to the Secretary of State, like other administrations did before. For some reason, Hillary Clinton is all but absent from the process (or maybe she is involved, but not heard on the media here). Laura Rozen has an article in Politico.com analyzing the dynamic behind the decision to force a meeting on the two sides. She also speaks of some differences between the State Department and the White House on how to proceed:

“Very roughly, [the State Department] continues to focus on Mitchell who continues to focus on the settlements and wants to nail down that issue before moving on,” one Washington Middle East hand said on condition of anonymity. While National Security Council Middle East strategist Dennis “Ross at the White House and others want to get out of the settlement issue as soon as possible and move quickly into permanent status talks ASAP.

“I think State and Mitchell will in fact have a role in structuring the talks, but I think the initiative is coming out of NSC and the White House, partly as a bureaucratic maneuver and partly because they genuinely want to get away from the settlements issue that they feel was a mistake and the trap, and actually a quagmire, and get into permanent status talks where they can try to achieve some kind of time horizon at the very least.”

While I agree with Rozen’s conclusion that both Abbas and Netanyahu agreed to the meeting just so they won’t be blamed for failing the president’s peace plan, I don’t think that this move will help Netanyahu build up credit with the Israeli right (since he will travel to NY without agreeing to a settlements freeze). I think that the anxiety in the Right will only grow now, though it doesn’t seem that Netanyahu’s coalition might be in danger. Not yet.


What does Netanyahu want?

Posted: April 25th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: elections, In the News, The Right, the US and us | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment »

After his refusal to accept the Two State Solution, PM Benjamin Netanyahu brought up his own term for an agreement with the Palestinians: a demand that they would recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

You have to give it to Netanyahu – he was always good with PR. This new condition sounds very reasonable to almost all of the Jewish public in Israel, as well as to most of the community in the US. Naturally, the Palestinians will never accept it – not because they seek to destroy Israel, but because it will be a death blow to the legitimate political claims of the large Palestinian minority within Israel – so Netanyhu probably assumes that his new demand will help him avoid meaningful negotiations or concessions.

Why is this claim so absurd? For once, because the nature of the state of Israel – whether it is a Jewish state or “a state for all its citizens” or whatever other model – is the business of the its citizens, not the International community or the Palestinian Authority. We can just as well demand that Mahmud Abbas will announce that he accepts Israel as a Parliamentary Democracy. And what if we all decide to be Republicans tomorrow?

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