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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Israeli-Palestinian Talks Are Quietly Foundering

This piece was originally published at LobeLog

If John Kerry wants to find a silver lining in the heavy criticism US foreign policy has faced due to the events in both Egypt and Syria, he Israel-Palestine-Kerry-Indyk-620x350might find it in, of all places, the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

The secretary of state embarked on the talks by saying there would be no discussion of them in the media; that any reliable information about them would only come from him; and that he would not talk about them. Given the history of leaks in such talks and the widespread coverage generated by any negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, this seemed like a very ambitious promise. But amid an imminent attack on Syria after the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime and the controversial, tacit US support for a coup in Egypt that turned out to be a lot more bloody than Washington probably expected, attention has been completely drawn away from the Israel-Palestine conflict. Continue reading

Kerry’s Last-Ditch Effort As Quixotic As Ever

On the eve of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s fifth trip of the year to Israel and the Palestinian Territories, little has changed. Despite Kerry’s entreaties not only to both parties but also to Jewish-Americans to come into his “Tent of the Peace Process,” every indication on the ground is, at best, more of the same. The only changes have made it more obvious than ever that the two-state solution, as previously conceived, is dead.

In advance of delaying this trip in order to consult with the rest of the administration’s leadership on increasing military aid to the Syrian rebels, Kerry spoke to the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) annual meeting in early June. He entreated the audience to speak out in a voice that the Israeli leadership could hear in support of the moribund two-state solution.

Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, widely regarded as the government’s “fig leaf” whose role is to mask the rejectionism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, echoed Kerry’s call. And the AJC, along with other Jewish-American organizations, got an immediate chance to respond. Yet that very opportunity demonstrated the futility of Kerry’s and Livni’s efforts.

First, Netanyahu’s Deputy Defense Minister, Danny Danon, of Netanyahu’s own Likud Coalition, declared that “…if there will be a move to promote a two-state solution, you will see forces blocking it within the [Likud] party and the government.” Danon accurately pointed out that “…the majority of Likud ministers, along with the Jewish Home [party], will be against it.” Indeed, Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, an outspoken opponent of a Palestinian state who advocates Israeli annexation of more than 60% of the West Bank, followed up Danon’s remarks by saying that the two-state solution is dead and “We need to build, build, build.”

Netanyahu tried to distance himself from the comments, but most understood that Danon and Bennett were simply being straightforward about the Israeli government’s makeup and direction. Indeed, it was telling that, just a few days before Kerry was due to arrive for his latest visit, Netanyahu attended the dedication of a school named after his father in the West Bank settlement of Barkan. While his aides insisted that Netanyahu did not mean to make a political statement with his appearance, his words at the school say otherwise. “The most important thing is to deepen our roots, because all the rest grows from there,” Netanyahu said. “We are here today to deepen our roots.”

The Palestinian Authority has responded to all of this by pointing out that Israel is acting against the two-state solution. “Every time Kerry comes, [Netanyahu] does something to undermine the possibility of a Palestinian state,” said Palestinian lead negotiator, Saeb Erekat. “It’s more than provocative, it’s devastating. This government’s policies are disastrous for Palestinians, Israelis and the region. I don’t know what purpose it serves to undermine the two-state solution.”

Yet the Palestinians continue to be divided, and not just between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. Rockets launched from Gaza Sunday night are believed to have been fired by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza. The act was reported to have been undertaken to spite Hamas, which had killed an Islamic Jihad operative while ostensibly arresting him.

The continuing divisions, especially the constantly sputtering reunification process between Hamas and Fatah is yet another reason why the two-state solution as previously conceived is, in fact, inconceivable now, no matter how much wishful thinking Kerry engages in. While indications remain that both Israelis and Palestinians support the creation of a Palestinian state, the positive answers to that abstract question may not even reflect the scope of public opinion.

In December 2012, the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research asked Palestinians about the two-state solution. The majority supporting the proposal was still there, though it was down to only 52%. But when asked about a demilitarized state, only 28% supported that idea, while a robust 71% opposed it. This can hardly be surprising. After all, a Palestinian state would not only be neighboring the country that has occupied it for 46 years, but there is also the flux in which the neighboring countries — Syria, Jordan, Egypt — find themselves today. If a threat did materialize against a fledgling Palestinian state, it is hard to imagine that Israel would put its soldiers in jeopardy to defend the neighbors they regard as untrustworthy and frankly, distasteful.

But such a state is a sine qua non for Israel, and not only for reluctant “peacemakers” like Netanyahu. A demilitarized Palestinian state was clearly the vision of Netanyahu’s predecessors, to the extent they would agree to a Palestinian state at all. And, in Israeli political discourse, the so-called peace camp — including such parties as Labor, Yesh Atid, Kadima and even the most left-wing Zionist party, Meretz — is unanimous in calling for a demilitarized state.

It is said that this is Kerry’s last-ditch effort. If the Israelis and Palestinians move no closer on this trip, Kerry is prepared to abandon his shuttle diplomacy to focus his efforts on issues that may prove more malleable. The Israelis would certainly like to see negotiations resume, as this takes pressure off of Israel in the international arena, especially with Europe. This explains why Naftali Bennett, who is so hostile to peace with the Palestinians, states that he would not “veto” talks.

But political realities dictate something very different. Bennett, and indeed Netanyahu, may want to see talks resume, but they do not want them concluded with a Palestinian state. The Palestinians themselves cannot present a united front; the Palestinian Authority does not represent all of the population nor do its positions align with any but a small minority of the Palestinian people. And the United States is not prepared to insist on results. That is why so many say the two-state solution is dead. Kerry should learn the obvious lesson and either re-think his policy approach or, as he is threatening, turn his attention elsewhere.

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.

A Desperate cry for help from Abbas

As President Barack Obama’s first trip to Israel approaches, one senses desperation from the Ramallah headquarters of the Palestinian Authority. Obama’s scheduled stop in the West Bank has all the trappings of an empty gesture masking the real goal of creating coordination between the President and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the issues of Iran and Syria. Meanwhile, protests in the West Bank are spreading as Palestinian hunger strikers inspire defiance against Israel’s ongoing occupation.

In that context, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is seriously trying to convince Obama to focus attention back on the question of Palestine and the occupation. Abbas’ advisor Muhammad Ashtiya told the Israeli daily Ha’aretz on Monday that the PA is trying to get Obama to jumpstart the peace process by putting forth a formula for talks that “…will guarantee the end of the occupation in the territories of ’67.” Such a formula would make it unrealistic to talk “…while the Israeli government continues to build settlements and establish facts on the ground that will thwart a future agreement.”

In other words, the Palestinians would drop their (entirely reasonable) “preconditions” in favor of the US setting them. It’s hard to see Obama doing this to say the least. But Ashtiya is right in saying this is the only way for talks to resume. That’s why they won’t.

The very next day, US Secretary of State John Kerry revealed the itinerary for his first trip overseas in his new job. The Middle East leg will include Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Qatar, but not Israel. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland explained that Kerry did not want to disrupt Netanyahu’s coalition-building process. While that may be true, an Obama Administration that would even consider the sort of steps the PA is currently suggesting would want to push Netanyahu toward a coalition that would accept a US framework. Any notion that Obama was considering a step like that at this time is contradicted by Kerry’s demurral.

Perhaps at some point later in his second term Obama will try to fix the mess we call the Israel-Palestine conflict. But right now the task involves too many pitfalls and too few promises. Obama knows Netanyahu will buck any serious effort at US mediation, just as he knows that former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni taking the reins of talks with the Palestinians is nothing more than window dressing. Netanyahu has some incentive to appear more reasonable than he has for the past four years, but very little to actually try to forge a deal with the Palestinians. The Israeli public is nervous about the status quo, but that has more to do with their view that their government is isolating them from the rest of the world through brash statements and provocative actions than any sense of urgency to end the occupation.

Obama knows that Congress will revolt at the behest of AIPAC at any perceived pressure on Israel. With major battles over taxes and budget cuts looming, nuclear issues with Iran and now North Korea coming back to the fore and a Republican contingent determined to undermine his every move, Obama is not going to risk aggravating the Democrats in Congress that he absolutely must keep in line.

So Abbas is shouting into the wind here. The same sense of calm that keeps Israelis comfortable enough to refrain from pushing their government toward a resolution of the conflict also makes contemporary crises like Syria and the disposition of Hezbollah in Lebanon seem far more urgent. Yet this too, like Iran, is a bone of contention with congressional Republicans. Obama has no wish to increase his foreign policy difficulties.

Abbas’ options are becoming very limited. Israel has quietly and slowly been easing the siege on Gaza and while the situation there remains grim, there can be little doubt that even incremental improvements (which have largely consisted of some small imports of building materials and considerably larger imports of Israeli products) strengthen Hamas’ hand. As Palestinian reconciliation remains far off, Abbas is feeling domestic pressure from his political rivals. Add to that increasing protests, hunger strikers and the continuing, gradual growth of the global Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions movement (BDS), and Abbas is getting boxed in. Without some opening which only Obama can create, the credibility of Abbas’ program of negotiating with and reassuring Israel is dwindling to zero.

The Palestinians need the United States to bring forth a plan — Abbas and Ashtiya are not wrong about that. But Obama is not going to do that and risk alienating many in his own party unless it turns into something Israel wants. Netanyahu obviously doesn’t want it, and it’s not immediately apparent what Israeli leader would. But if the Palestinians — through non-violent but firm means such as the International Criminal Court, the BDS movement and continued appeals to Europe and Arab and Muslim countries that have relations with Israel — can increase pressure and make Israel’s populace less comfortable with the status quo, perhaps Israel will put forth a new leader with a peace mandate along the lines of that which they gave to Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak.

In that context, a president like Obama might have more options. But as it stands now, the Palestinian strategy should be based on the US being an obstacle, not a help.