In the United States and Europe, the Israeli right, epitomized by the Likud Coalition, has always been the “opponent of peace,” while the Labor Party and, later, Kadima were the “pursuers of peace.” This was always a false dichotomy. It would have been somewhat truer to say that supporters of Likud were usually, but far from always, opposed to the two-state solution that Oslo envisioned, while Labor and Kadima supported it. Continue reading
When it comes to Israel and the Palestinians, it’s never foolish to be a pessimist. About fourteen months ago, when John Kerry began his quixotic task of driving the two parties toward a final agreement to end their conflict, there was a trickle of optimism from those who are irrevocably committed not just to a two-state solution, but specifically to the Oslo process. The pessimists, by contrast, came in all shades, with a variety of visions of failure. One of the most prominent theories was that this would be yet another US exercise in building talks to nowhere.
That is exactly where things stand now. US Secretary of State John Kerry went to Jerusalem on Monday in an attempt to save the talks after a deadline passed on March 29 for Israel to release the last 26 Palestinian prisoners it had agreed to let go in order to give Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (with whom Kerry was also supposed to meet, but the meeting was mysteriously cancelled at the last minute) the political space he needed to engage in talks with Israel. But what is it that he’s trying to save?
Kerry started on this road with the goal of reaching a final agreement. Then he scaled back the goal and declared that the April 29 deadline, which Abbas had vowed not to go past, would be the date by which a framework for continuing talks would be reached. Now the goal is merely to extend the talks beyond April 29 in order to find a framework. That is the very definition of pointless talks.
Kerry might or might not succeed in getting his extension. President Barack Obama is very much behind his efforts and that is not a force the Israelis, much less the Palestinians, can blithely ignore. But it raises the question: why even pursue this, especially now when the US is facing more pressing matters?
In the past, an argument could be made to keep talking, in order to push the Oslo process forward. But today, the Palestinians and Israelis are further away from an agreement than they have been at any time in over two decades, with growing animosity and mistrust. It is difficult to see where the Palestinians could possibly compromise more than they have on territory, Jerusalem, refugees and their own sovereignty. On the Israeli side, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a relative moderate in a mostly far-right coalition that he has shown no inclination to abandon. On the contrary, he is constantly moving to appease his right flank. Then there’s the question of why any Israeli leader would reach an agreement with the Palestinians. As Netanyahu put it, “In any case, there won’t be any deal without Israel knowing clearly what it will get in exchange.” And what can the Palestinians offer?
Netanyahu’s own Likud party has moved farther right, and much of it would like nothing better than to see an end to the negotiations with the Palestinians. They feel that Israel could then start contemplating and preparing, both politically and physically, unilateral moves, up to and including annexing major chunks of the West Bank, or even all of it. But Bibi himself understands that ongoing talks reduce the pressure on Israel from Europe and other, non-US powers. And, of course, they keep the United States happy.
For Israel, whether the talks collapse or not, the situation is eminently workable. If they fall apart, it was the Palestinians, they will say, who stopped talking. For the right-wing governing coalition, the increase in heat from Europe and potential Palestinian legal action at the United Nations or the Hague will be more than offset by their perceived freedom to act unilaterally. If the talks continue, Israel is right where it is today, which is not a bad position from Netanyahu’s and much of the current government’s point of view, even for those for whom continuing talks is less than optimal.
Talks for the sake of talks
In reality, the party that really wants these talks to continue is the United States.
There are many false clichés that have been uttered about the Oslo peace process. Among the falsest has always been “The US cannot want peace more than the parties do.” In fact, it can, and current events prove it can even want negotiations more than the parties do. The Obama administration is really the only one that fully benefits from continuing the talks, and that’s why there is such a major push now to save them.
One would normally wonder why, when the United States is facing its most serious confrontation with Russia in a quarter of a century, the Secretary of State would head to Israel not to bring results but merely to continue talks, which virtually no one believes will succeed.
On Monday news broke that the Obama administration was considering playing one of its biggest cards with a right-wing Israeli government, freeing the convicted American spy for Israel, Jonathan Pollard. They’d do this not to wring major concessions that could be part of a foundation for a permanent deal from Israel but merely to keep the current talks afloat. Again, why? It seems like an awfully high price for a miniscule return.
Right now, for the Obama administration, this is all about timing, and that’s why just getting an extension of the talks is so important. Obama is taking a major beating over his handling of Russia and Ukraine, even from some erstwhile supporters of his foreign policy. His party is in serious danger of losing the Senate in November, leaving both houses of Congress in the hands of Republicans whose sole focus is opposing and undoing anything Obama has ever done or will do. The growing ability of Obama’s rivals on Capitol Hill to paint the president as weak-willed could also present serious problems in other foreign policy areas, especially the nuclear talks with Iran.
Put plainly, Obama cannot afford to have another foreign policy failure on his hands right now. This is especially true in so politically sensitive an arena as Israel and after putting so much of his administration’s energy into this effort from day one of his second term. Obama and Kerry are not blind; they know very well that there is no longer any chance of bringing Netanyahu and Abbas to an ultimate agreement, and that whether talks continue or not, each passing day drives hope for a resolution farther away, rather than bringing it closer. They know the talks will fail, they just need them to fail at a later date, one which, hopefully, will be less damaging to the administration’s overall foreign policy for the next three years.
If the Israelis see a win in either direction, and the United States needs the talks to continue, the Palestinian Authority has absolutely no interest in extending the deadline for negotiations. Back in January 2013 Mahmoud Abbas might have held some slim hope that a second-term Obama presidency with Kerry leading the State Department would pressure Israel in a way that hasn’t been seen in decades to finally quit the West Bank. As naïve as that sounds, one could have built a credible case for a slim possibility of that back then.
But now the Palestinians have watched as Kerry caved in at every turn to the Israelis. He agreed that Israeli security would be the top priority above Palestinian freedom; that an Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley after the ostensible end of the occupation was acceptable; that negotiations must be held despite ongoing Israeli settlement expansion; and in the most stunning example of lack of spine, Kerry agreed that the Palestinians should recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The idea that there would be any kind of pressure from Washington other than the political theater built on the lack of rapport between Obama and Netanyahu was definitively ruled out by John Kerry.
Instead, the Palestinians are being pressured to forego their red line, which was negotiating past the deadline that Kerry himself set. They are being pressured to continue to refrain from pursuing the legal channels that are open to them in the international system as well. For eight months, talks have dragged on with nothing whatsoever to show for it. And if there is one clear result of the two decades of the Oslo process, it is that from top to bottom in Palestinian society, patience has completely run out with talks that produce nothing while the settlements expand and the occupation tightens. The Palestinians only lose by extending talks. The only Palestinians who gain are the very few among the leaders, Abbas, lead negotiator Saeb Erekat, and their cohorts. The Palestinian Authority exists in the diplomatic arena only to pursue the US-brokered peace process. If it ends, so does the PA’s usefulness as the national leadership and they know it.
The three parties have three very different agendas, and that is very far from a recipe for success. Israel will do all right in any case, at least in the short term, and the United States may very well get what it wants through the sheer exercise of power. But in terms of the ostensible goal of Palestinian freedom, the Palestinians have absolutely no reason to continue these talks. If they agree to do so, it might well be seen as the final, quisling act of betrayal by a powerless leadership that thought it could sit down with one regional and one global superpower and be treated as an equal.
via IPS News
The Oslo peace process has failed and Europe must take stronger leadership in the Middle East, according to a distinguished group of former European leaders that is pushing for a stronger and more independent European stance on the Israeli occupation.
And some United States analysts believe the European Union’s current leadership may heed the call.
A recent letter from the European Eminent Persons Group (EEPG) to the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Catherine Ashton, is deeply critical of both the EU’s and the United States’ approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict and calls for specific steps to try to save the two-state solution.
The letter was signed by 19 prominent Europeans – amongst them seven former foreign ministers, four former prime ministers and one former president – from 11 European countries, including the UK, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and Latvia.
“We have watched with increasing disappointment over the past five years the failure of the parties to start any kind of productive discussion, and of the international community under American and/or European leadership to promote such discussion,” the letter said.
Specifically critical of the U.S.’s role, the letter also stated that President Barack Obama “…gave no indication [in his recent speech in Jerusalem] of action to break the deep stagnation, nor any sign that he sought something other than the re-start of talks between West Bank and Israeli leaders under the Oslo Process, which lost its momentum long ago.”
The EEPG criticised what they referred to as “the erasing of the 1967 lines as the basis for a two-state (solution).” They called for changes in EU policy and some specific steps to promote peace.
They called, among other points, for an explicit recognition that the Palestinian Territories are under occupation, imposing on Israel the legal obligations of that status; a clear statement that all Israeli settlements beyond the 1967 border be recognised as illegal and only that border can be a starting point for negotiations; and that the EU should actively support Palestinian reunification.
The notable leaders also called for “a reconsideration of the funding arrangements for Palestine, in order to avoid the Palestinian Authority’s present dependence on sources of funding which serve to freeze rather than promote the peace process,” an acknowledgment that the often praised “economic improvement” in the West Bank has been built on international donations and is not sustainable.
The timing of the letter, sent just after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s most recent trip to the Middle East, was a clear statement that the EEPG does not believe the current round of U.S. diplomacy is likely to achieve significant progress. The letter has received only moderate publicity, yet EEPG’s co-chair, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, believes that the recommendations of the Group can get the long-dormant peace process back on track.
“We have had an acknowledgement from Ashton’s office to say that a response is being prepared,” Greenstock told IPS. “The letter recommends a strategic change, which is a big ask. The first step must be to start a more realistic debate about the poor results from recent policy. We then hope that our recommendations will get a good hearing.”
Greenstock also expressed confidence that EU leadership can not only contribute to reviving diplomacy but can also help the United States realign its policies toward a more productive track.
“The EEPG recognises that a U.S. role is indispensable,” he said. “But the current American stance is unproductive. We believe the Europeans can at least lead on exploring some alternatives, which could in the end be helpful to Washington.”
Hard-line pro-Israel voices have long insisted that only the United States should be mediating between Israel and the Palestinians. Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and leading neo-conservative pundit, sharply criticised the letter in his blog.
“This letter is a useful reminder of European attitudes, at least at the level of the Eminent: Blame Israel, treat the Palestinians as children, wring your hands over the terrible way the Americans conduct diplomacy,” Abrams wrote.
“The Israelis will treat this letter with the derision it deserves, and the Palestinians will understand that because this kind of thing reduces European influence with Israel, the EU just can’t deliver much. Indeed it cannot, and the bias, poor reasoning, and refusal to face facts in this letter all suggest that that won’t be changing any time soon.”
But Paul Pillar, a professor in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Programme who spent 28 years as a CIA analyst, thinks Washington might welcome a European initiative along the lines suggested by the EEPG.
“I don’t think that European activism along this line would cause a great deal of heartburn, political or otherwise, in the White House,” Pillar told IPS. “Of course for the United States to take the sorts of positions mentioned in the letter would be anathema to the Israel lobby, and thus the United States will not take them.
“But it would be hard for the Israeli government or anyone else to argue that merely acquiescing in European initiatives is equivalent to the United States taking the same initiatives itself. If the EU were to get out in front in the way recommended by the EEPG, President Obama would say to Netanyahu and others – consistent with what he has said in the past, ‘I have Israel’s back and always will.
“But as I have warned, without peace we are likely to see other countries doing more and more things that challenge the Israeli position.’”
Chas Freeman, former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and former president of the Middle East Policy Council, believes the EU has lost patience with U.S. policy in the Middle East and that Israel will soon need to contend with an EU that is more demanding than it has been in the recent past.
“The international community has long since lost confidence in American diplomacy in the Middle East,” Freeman told IPS. “Europe is not an exception, as shown in trends in voting at the United Nations. The ‘peace process’ was once the emblem of U.S. sincerity and devotion to the rule of law; it is now seen as the evidence of American diplomatic ineptitude, subservience to domestic special interests, and political hypocrisy. Europe no longer follows American dictates.
“The EU has its own divided mind. Israel must make its own case to Europeans now. That will not be easy.”
Greenstock believes the urgency of the moment can lead to firm European action. Asked why the EEPG members are taking bolder stances now than when they were in office, he said: “When most of the signatories were in office, there was still some hope that Oslo-Madrid could produce a result. Time and a lack of recent effective action has changed that. Almost every observer now thinks that the prospects for a two-state solution are fading. Hence the urgency.”
In this week’s piece at Souciant, I start taking a look at what Barack Obama’s second term may look like in terms of Middle East policy now that Mitt Romney has bungled himself into a position where he will need an unprecedented comeback to defeat the incumbent. Yet, while I see serious trouble for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has actively worked for Obama’s defeat, I don’t see a lot of fundamental change in Washington’s attitude in the region for the next four years. At least, not at the instigation of the White House; change will come from the region itself, if it comes at all.
My column for Souciant this week looks at the execrable “Levy Report” which claims that Israel’s occupation is legal under international law and recommends that Israel retroactively legalize most the outposts that were set up contrary to even Israeli law. Yep, that’s what it said, this is not The Onion. the recommendations are unlikely to be accepted even by teh Netanyahu government that commissioned them, but I explore what impact they will have. Check it out.