At UN, Bibi Completes Trifecta of Hopelessness

After Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stirred up some controversy by terming Israel’s recent bombardment of Gaza a “war of genocide” Netanyahu_speechat the UN General Assembly last week, there was some speculation that the Israeli prime minister would come in breathing fire. But all Benjamin Netanyahu presented in his Monday address was the same old smoke.

Netanyahu was expected to rail against the Palestinian Authority leader, but he merely said he was “refuting” Abbas’ “lies” and instead focused on bringing his two favorite themes together: the Islamic State (IS) and Hamas are the same thing, and Iran is trying to fool the world with a moderate president while trying to acquiring a nuclear weapon. Read more at Lobelog

A Dangerous Proposal For Israel-Palestine “Peace”

This article originally appeared at LobeLog

Neither Bibi nor Abu Mazen can be happy with what the US is apparently proposing. But Israelis will accept it. Palestinians can't and won't.

Neither Bibi nor Abu Mazen can be happy with what the US is apparently proposing. But Israelis will accept it. Palestinians can’t and won’t.


The tentative outreach from Washington toward Tehran has spurred speculation about a wide variety of connected issues. The desperation with which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has responded to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s so-called “charm offensive” adds fuel to Israel’s part in those rumors. Certainly, it is clear that Netanyahu is worried about something.

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Some Hear Death Knell for a Two-State Solution

My report for IPS on John Kerry’s recent activities and a panel held last week in the halls of Congress featuring Steve Walt, Phil Weiss and Henry Siegman.

Obama’s Subtle Message To Israel: You’re Not My Top Priority

All was not as it seemed during President Barack Obama’s appearances in Jerusalem and Ramallah, where he addressed audiences of Israelis and Palestinians. On the surface, it looked like Obama was swearing fealty to Israel, and pledging unconditional US support for any and all Israeli actions. But a closer look at what was and was not said, as well as some of the surrounding circumstances, suggests that what Obama was really doing was paving a road toward a reduced US role in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The contradictions in evidence abound, and could be seen from the very beginning. Obama kept calling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by his nickname, Bibi, at their joint press conference. “Oh, yes, we’re just the best of friends. Don’t worry, AIPAC,” Obama seemed to be saying. “Any friction between us is a thing of the past.” Yet, Obama had made a pointed decision to deliver the keynote speech of his trip not at the Knesset, but to an audience from Israel’s major universities. The many students invited excluded only those from Ariel University, the lone Israeli university located in the West Bank settlements.

The ham-handed excuse offered by the US embassy, that they only invited those universities with whom they partnered, was a convenient one. They don’t work with that university because of the political ramifications, and the exclusion here was for the same reason. And that sent a message to Obama’s “good friend,” Bibi.

Not speaking to the Knesset sent a message as well, and it was reflected in Obama’s speech. There is no reason for Obama to speak in a chamber where there is so much hostility toward him. Instead, he told his young Jerusalem audience: “let me say this as a politician — I can promise you this, political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks. You must create the change that you want to see.” Translation: “I can’t work on peace with your current government. You need to drive the change and open the door.” That, too, was a message to Bibi.

But more important than what was said was what was not said. For all the fawning that Obama did, he offered nothing new or of substance — not the slightest deviation from his well-established policies. There’s no new version of Dennis Ross, Anthony Zinni or George Mitchell being sent to the Middle East. There are no new incentives or confidence-building plans, however pointless. There was just a whole bunch of pronouncements about the unshakeable bond between the US and Israel.

Does that sound like a president who intends to maintain the US’ current level of involvement? It seems more like a President who is telling Israelis exactly what AIPAC is buying. The annual military aid will continue, as will money for Iron Dome, and never mind the many federal employees who were just sequestered out of a job or furloughed. The security and intelligence cooperation is likely to continue as well. Israel will, as Obama put it, remain “…the most powerful country in this region. Israel has the unshakeable support of the most powerful country in the world.”

While the US president sent a clear signal that he holds little hope that the current Israeli government is able or willing to pursue peace in any substantive way, he also cautioned Israelis about their growing peril. “Given the frustration in the international community about this conflict, Israel needs to reverse an undertow of isolation,” Obama said. “And given the march of technology, the only way to truly protect the Israeli people over the long term is through the absence of war. Because no wall is high enough and no Iron Dome is strong enough or perfect enough to stop every enemy that is intent on doing so from inflicting harm.”

Note that it’s Israel that needs to reverse this trend, and there’s no mention of any kind of US charm offensive or even advocacy on Israel’s behalf to assist the effort. The implication is clear: Israel’s policies and actions are to blame for its troubles and the US can’t change that, and, because of the political problems it would cause, this administration will not try. Could that also result in a somewhat diminished defense at the United Nations and other international arenas, on the part of the US? Time will tell.

Obama also let the Palestinian Authority know they should look elsewhere. By choosing to condemn Hamas for the rockets that hit Sderot earlier that day during his Ramallah speech rather than in Israel, he surely alienated many in the crowd he was addressing. By refusing to use even moderately stern language on settlements or promise even the mildest pressure on Israel, he seriously undermined Mahmoud Abbas, the man he was purportedly coming to support. Throughout his speech, despite his expressions of sympathy for the daily struggles of Palestinians, Obama never mentioned Israel’s responsibility to end the occupation, let alone to respect human rights or abide by international law.

That sent a very clear message: don’t look to the United States to deliver the goods. If Abbas was listening at all, he must know that internationalizing his cause, as he did last year at the UN, is the only option Obama has left for him. It was so clear, it had to be a deliberate message.

This might all be considered fanciful until one considers the changing position of Israel in the US view. As Aluf Benn, editor-in-chief of the Israeli daily, Ha’aretz points out, the entire Middle East region is of considerably less importance in the broader geo-political strategic view of the United States. “U.S. President Barack Obama said Wednesday his visit to Israel was meant to be a reassuring one,” Benn writes. “He is here to make it clear to Israelis that America stands behind them and will ensure their security, even though the neighborhood has become tougher… The visit comes at a time when the United States is withdrawing from its deep involvement in the Middle East, amid the growing fear of Israel and other regional allies that America will abandon them to radical Islamic forces.”

Benn’s alarmist language aside, he’s right. A big part of this is the oft-discussed “pivot to Asia,” that is the cornerstone of Obama’s foreign policy. Asia’s importance is growing as the Middle East’s is shrinking. The Middle East, particularly the Arabian Peninsula, was once called the “greatest material prize in history” by the US State Department because of its wealth of oil resources. But the US and Europe both see themselves on the road to “energy independence.” This sounds a little more grandiose than it really is. Local oil resources and increased reliance on alternative energy sources will significantly diminish the role of Middle Eastern oil both in terms of serving energy needs and in terms of its role in the global economy, but it won’t eliminate it. OPEC will still be a major force in determining the price and supply of oil, but it won’t have the near-monopoly it does today.

But that’s not the only factor. The so-called “Arab Spring” is not the simple romantic vision of emerging democracy that so many in the West thought it was, while they watched Egyptians oust Hosni Mubarak. It’s also not just the massive violence of Libya and Syria. Even in Tunisia and Egypt, transitions have been bumpy and marked with dissatisfaction and political jockeying as well as some very fundamental debates about the role of women, the military, religion and other key groups and institutions in their respective societies. Moves toward true independence and self-determination in these countries will be a long and unpredictable road. And no matter who ends up controlling the oil, they will have less leverage over the West than their predecessors with even more of a need to sell their oil there. So the strategic situation will be less favorable for the Arab governments that arise from this situation.

Not to mention the situation on the ground. Israel has elected a new government that has no interest in peace with the Palestinians. Settlement expansion continues while the Israeli bunker mentality is fortified. For their part, the Palestinians remain trapped between a Palestinian Authority which has lost virtually all legitimacy in the eyes of its people but is the only acceptable “partner” for the US and Israel, and a Hamas government that no one will talk to. Both sides of that divide seem as uninterested in reunification as Netanyahu is in a viable Palestinian state.

Then there’s the big mitigating factor, the US Israel Lobby. Obama has a lot of work to do in the next four years, and he needs Congress to do it. Much of that work focuses on domestic economic issues, but there are foreign policy questions as well. He simply cannot afford to spend the political capital of his second term fighting with AIPAC all the time. Nor do his colleagues in the Democratic Party wish to see him jeopardize their chances of making gains in the midterm elections by picking a fight with Israel.

But that domestic pressure is really all that is holding the US to Israel at this point. Powerful as AIPAC is, the President can still set broader policy priorities, as he seems to be. Asia will have its own difficulties, but the interests there are growing, while the US stake in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia, Yemen, and yes, even Israel and Palestine, are diminishing. To be sure, there is still a significant US stake in the Israel-Palestine conflict. And AIPAC will make sure we pay attention to it, as will the fact that Israel is a long-standing ally and while AIPAC may represent a small minority of US citizens, most do not want to see Israel as vulnerable to attack.

Ultimately though, Obama knows that the US has spent inordinate time and energy on this issue. He also knows that it’s becoming less and less vital for US concerns that really matter to him as time goes on. So, he goes to Israel, warms some hearts and minds and gives AIPAC the platitudes and assurances it wants. As Benn wrote, “With every passing day, Israel becomes less capable of taking out Iran’s nuclear facilities by itself, while its dependence on the United States for military superiority just keeps growing.” The US will continue to lead on Iran, which is something Obama wants.

As for the peace process? Obama would like to see Israel make peace possible, but absent that, he’s sent them a message: we’ll help if you want, but until you show some interest in changing the status quo, we have bigger fish to fry.

What Obama can do in Israel-Palestine

The Israeli elections ushered in a record number of new Knesset members, yet the prospects for resolving Israel’s 45-year old occupation of Palestinian land are as dim as ever, maybe even more so. Here in the United States, some noises are being made about trying to renew the moribund “peace process,” but there is little enthusiasm about it. Indeed, most observers do not believe there is any real possibility for progress.

This sort of atmosphere tends to engender two responses. One was presented to me directly by Professor Stephen Walt, co-author of The Israel Lobby, who said:

What the United States, Israel, and the Palestinians need is a peace settlement, not more ‘peace process.’ If Obama is serious, he should lay out a detailed U.S. plan for establishing a viable Palestinian state with appropriate security guarantees for Israel, and he should make U.S. diplomatic, economic, and military support for both sides conditional on their willingness to conform to it. If either one balks, the United States should distance itself and cut off aid.

I didn’t ask, but I feel safe in assuming that, despite the merits of this proposed course of action, Steve is well aware that the chances of this happening are roughly the same as Sheldon Adelson saluting a Barack Obama parade. Still, he is far from alone in advocating for pressure on both sides. Jewish Voice for Peace leads that call from the Jewish community, which is far more divided on this question than one is often led to believe. The global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is growing and having an impact as well, including in the United States. A coalition of mainstream Christian leaders recently called for a review of US aid to Israel. And, of course, Palestinian-American and Arab-American activists continue their own dogged efforts, despite the particular obstacles they face in the US.

The other response, favored in Washington, is to simply say that the time is not ripe and the United States must manage the situation until conditions, particularly  the leadership of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, are more suitable. This view is rooted not only in Israel’s intransigence, but also in the ongoing split between the PA and Hamas, as well as a certain conservatism about any action while the region is in such a state of flux. In fact, it appears that, until something comes about to change the dynamics, this is exactly the course that the Obama Administration is likely to follow.

But there are, in fact, other options, and here’s a modest one I’d like to put forward: Obama could spend the time until other action is politically viable, either domestically or in the region, by working to correct some of the United States’ most grievous missteps. And I suggest he start by walking back George W. Bush’s 2004 letter to Ariel Sharon.

That letter, part of an exchange of such letters between Bush and Sharon, fundamentally altered the nature of negotiations and was instrumental in poisoning the atmosphere around talks between Israel and the Palestinians. However flawed the Oslo process might have been from the beginning, the promises Bush made to Sharon in his letter magnified those flaws immensely.

The significance of Bush’s letter was huge. It didn’t introduce much that was new, but it essentially gave Israel gifts in the form of matters that were supposed to be negotiated. The letter also went further in Israel’s favor with some matters than the Clinton Parameters. Those Parameters were and are the essential basis for Israel-Palestinian negotiations.

The biggest departure Bush made from the Clinton Parameters was on Palestinian refugees. Clinton included at least some acknowledgment of the importance that the Right of Return has for Palestinians and listed five possible destinations for their relocation, one of which was within Israel proper. Bush summarily executed that idea. The relevant text from his letter:

It seems clear that an agreed, just, fair and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel.

To date, this framing has ruled. It has been considered an established fact that refugees would return somewhere other than Israel and that even any token return, as was occasionally discussed by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, would happen on an insignificant level.

It was not unfair for an analyst, in 2004, to expect that such would be the outcome. But that would have been an expected result of negotiations, not an established fact preceding them. With an American president’s imprimatur, the entire framework of negotiations was changed, and the idea of refugees returning to Israel — something that is anathema to most Israelis and sacrosanct to most Palestinians — was simply decided by fiat in favor of Israel and removed from the negotiating arena.

Another passage has had even more impact: Bush’s assurance that Israel would not go back to the 1967 lines. The Clinton Parameters proposed that Israel keep the “major settlement blocs” as well. But it was Bush’s statement, again, which removed the issue from the negotiating table. In essence, he handed Israel an assurance that it would keep the “major population centers” that had grown up in the West Bank and, ever since then, Israel’s excuse for building in those settlements has been based on the argument that “everyone knows” they are going to remain in Israeli hands anyway. Again, the text of Bush’s letter:

In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion. It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.

Whereas the Clinton Parameters tied the retention of the settlements to a specific (if unbalanced) swap of land, no direct mention of the Palestinians receiving anything in exchange is made here. That has enabled Israel not only to use the US position as a cover for settlement expansion, it has also allowed them to essentially pocket these settlement blocs and negotiate over what else or how big a swath around them would be kept.

There are other points in the letter which are unworkable or inconsistent with international law, existing US policy or both. But those two points fundamentally altered the negotiating framework.

What Obama can do during his second term is walk these points back and return them to the Clinton Parameters. He can cite the Parameters’ five options for the refugees (return to the new state of Palestine or to the areas Israel swaps to that new state, settlement in the states they currently reside in, resettlement in other states or return to Israel) and reaffirm UNGA Resolution 194 as the basis for a resolution, as stated in the Parameters and in the now 10-year old Saudi peace proposal. This would be framed as a basis for negotiation, not as a finished proposal.

On the land issue, Obama could reaffirm the ’67 borders as the basis for talks, with agreed upon modifications that would amount to equivalent value when quality and quantity are accounted for. This does not amount to a map, and allows plenty of room for negotiation, including over the use of the West Bank aquifer, which is fully on Palestinian land but crucial for Israel’s needs.

If, in this context, Obama also reaffirms support for full Palestinian sovereignty and international guarantees of security for both Israel and Palestine, he could also address the condition of a Palestinian state being de-militarized, which is an impingement on Palestinian sovereignty and is a much more bitter pill for Palestinians to swallow than it was in 2000.

Of course, Congress will go ballistic, as will Israel, as the point of all of this is to take Palestinian demands just a little more seriously. But as much as Congress, AIPAC and Israel would like to deny it, that is a sine qua non for any substantive progress at this point and such a proposal would likely play very well in the EU, the UN and even with Russia and China. The Arab League will likely support it enthusiastically.

Obama would have to approach the process gradually and take the time to lay the groundwork for it. But it certainly appears right now that he has that time; he doesn’t seem to have many other cards to play in the Israel-Palestine milieu right now either. This is something that can actually be done and can have lasting effect, well after Obama is out of office. It also opens up a chance to rethink the whole outline of a two-state solution, which is the only thing that can possibly save that idea from the failure of Oslo. Obama would be well advised to try it.