The Peace Process Is Dead: Thanks, Obama

As the curtain drops on 2017, it drops too on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as we have known it. At the age of 24, that process has finally died, with none other than President Donald Trump

Shimon Peres, John Kerry and Mahmoud Abbas at the World Economic Forum in May 2013

pulling the plug. But let’s not give him too much credit or blame for that. The killing blow was struck by his predecessor, Barack Obama.

There was much to like in Obama’s presidency, especially given the mess he was handed in 2009 and the unprecedented obstructionism of the Republican Party during his tenure. But he also had abject failures that were due to his own shortcomings, and the sharp degeneration in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict under his watch is at the top of the list. Read more at LobeLog

A Fried Peace Process

There is a word in Hebrew that marvelously describes what Benjamin Netanyahu has turned both the Palestinian Authority and the

John Kerry meets US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro in Tel Aviv, March 31, 2014.

John Kerry meets US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro in Tel Aviv, March 31, 2014.

Obama Administration into. That word is “frier.” Not as in a vat of oil to make chips, but as in what would be most closely translated as “sucker,” a person who is easily scammed, who buys the Brooklyn Bridge with their life savings.

The deal which, according to the New York Times, US Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to sell today to the Palestinians exemplifies everything that is wrong with the American-brokered Oslo process. The deal itself was hammered out only between Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It reflects the absence of the Palestinians in the discussions, because it offers them nothing but the opportunity to capitulate again to American and Israeli power.

Under the terms of the deal, the United States would release Jonathan Pollard, the Jewish American who was sentenced to life in prison in 1987 for spying for Israel. Pollard has been a cause celebre for the right wings of both the American-Jewish and Israeli communities for years, but no president has ever seriously considered releasing him before. Israel would, essentially, concede nothing in exchange.

The Israelis would agree to “show restraint” in expanding settlements in the West Bank. That is a vague and meaningless wording which, given the amount of construction Israel has undertaken when they’ve actually agreed to what they call a “freeze” cannot possibly have any real impact. Continue reading

Kerry’s Latest Mideast Trip Doomed Before It Starts

It may seem like US Secretary of State John Kerry is chasing his own tail with regard to the Israel-Palestine issue. But he is, intentionally or otherwise, raising some important questions. One is what the official Israeli position really is on the two-state solution. Perhaps the most important one is how foolish, inept and impotent will the United States allow Israel to make it appear? And of greatest concern to Americans, why is this President even less willing to confront Israel, at so dire a time, than any of his predecessors?

At some point during President Barack Obama’s and Kerry’s last trip to Israel earlier this year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to put a hold on issuing any new tenders for more settlement construction. To most, this means a settlement freeze, but it’s nothing of that kind.

Building continues at a fast pace, due to a very large number (some 1,500 residential units) of tenders approved between the Israeli elections and Obama’s visit. This was, of course, intentional, as Netanyahu knew he would probably need to make some kind of gesture to Obama. And another huge round of approvals is just waiting, held up in channels, and will probably be approved sometime in the next couple of months. In terms of construction work, there is likely to be almost no noticeable break.

But even this was not enough for Netanyahu. For much of the past months, the temporary hold on new tenders was only rumor. But a few days after Israel’s Army Radio announced it and the settlement watchdog group, Peace Now, confirmed it, Israel announced the approval of tenders for 296 units in the settlement of Beit El. Shortly after that, the Israeli government announced that it would declare four “settlement outposts” newly legal. The outposts are wildcat settlements set up without governmental approval (all settlements on territory captured by Israel in the 1967 war are illegal under international law). Sometimes Israel destroys them, sometimes it ignores them; in recent years, it has taken to legalizing some of them retroactively.

That Israel took these steps mere days before Kerry’s return to the region cannot be ignored. It was yet another direct slap in the face by Israel to its benefactor and the one country that stands behind it no matter how egregious Israeli behavior may be. This time, even Kerry took note.

He took the unusual step of summoning the Israeli ambassador for an explanation, and, from reports, at least some degree of dressing down. Which is all well and good, but Israel has no reason to worry about it. Apart from a perhaps unpleasant conversation for its Ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, Israel will face no consequences for once again embarrassing the United States.

How do we know this? Well, despite these Israeli actions, the United States pushed the European Union into delaying a vote on labelling imports from Israeli settlements, distinguishing them from products made in Israel proper. Of course, the US is willing to do this in part because it feeds the illusion that there’s a peace process for Kerry to work on, one which would be hindered by an EU move of this sort.

The middle of June has been set as an arbitrary deadline for Kerry’s efforts. Not coincidentally, Iran’s presidential election is scheduled for June 14. At that point, we can expect the Palestinian issue, already pushed aside by first, the Iran war talk, and more recently by the escalating Israeli involvement in Syria, to be completely shunted. Mid-June is also the point at which the EU is now scheduled to vote on labelling settlement products.

This would seem to be a process of going through the motions for the Obama Administration. Obama himself subtly indicated to the Israeli public in his speech there that he was not going to stop them from committing national suicide if that was their chosen course. Meanwhile, he seems only too eager to please AIPAC and the rest of their lobbying cohorts. Meanwhile, his Secretary of State is becoming a laughingstock as a result.

The Palestinians have been cynical about Kerry’s efforts from the beginning. Before this latest trip, one unnamed Palestinian “senior official” expressed his pessimism, saying that the Palestinian position of insisting that Israel release Palestinian prisoners and cease all settlement activity has not changed and neither has the Israeli position. Israel, for its part, continues to mouth platitudes about supporting Kerry’s efforts while acting to thwart them on the ground at every turn.

But while the Israelis are making the right official statements, they are also sneering at Kerry. The Israeli journalist Barak Ravid sums up the view of Kerry, both in Israel and among more veteran diplomatic hands in the US: “A senior Israeli official who has met with Kerry several times said the secretary of state has a messianic enthusiasm for the Israeli-Palestinian issue and acts like someone who was sent to bring the redemption. A Western official familiar with Kerry’s activity agreed with this assessment. ‘Sometimes there’s a feeling that Kerry thinks the only reason his predecessors in the job didn’t bring about a peace agreement is that they weren’t John Kerry,’ he said.”

This is not a negotiator who is inspiring confidence either at home or abroad. And he’s allowing Israel to make a fool of him. Even if this is, as one hopes, a strategy to move the United States out of the center of this conflict, which it is politically incapable of resolving, the cost is becoming very high. And while Israel laughs at Kerry, the only Israeli cabinet member who has shown any semblance of interest even in the failed Oslo process, Tzipi Livni, is isolated in that cabinet and fending off assaults from her left and right as she debates the governmental majority over whether Israel is even interested in a two-state solution. Likud and HaBayit HaYehudi, two of the four major coalition partners, both officially oppose it in their party platforms. The other two, Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beiteinu, both officially support some kind of two-state solution, but with conditions that are incompatible with any conceivable agreement.

Kerry’s credibility as Secretary of State is off to a shaky start, to say the least, and the lack of regard with which he is being held by not only the Israelis but also the Palestinians is going to hurt him throughout the world and especially in the Middle East. In the worst case scenario, that will severely handicap US diplomatic options, which would inevitably mean a focus on non-diplomatic means to secure perceived US interests.

In the article, Ravid mentions former US Secretary of State James Baker, who managed to get the ultra-right wing Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to the Madrid Conference, which ultimately led to the Oslo peace process. The surrounding circumstances have certainly changed in more than twenty years since Baker’s day. But while the circumstances that both forced and allowed Baker and his boss, George H.W. Bush, to push Shamir to Madrid are radically different, that’s not the greatest factor.

The real difference is that Baker and Bush were willing to exercise real pressure on Israel to get Shamir to acquiesce. That is something Obama has repeatedly shown he won’t do. No matter how insulting Netanyahu’s behavior, no matter how much Israel acts to counter the best interests of the United States, as well as of itself, Obama will do no more than make mild statements calling Israel “unhelpful.” And Israel couldn’t care less about that.

It’s easy, and certainly correct, to blame AIPAC for this state of affairs. But even AIPAC has its limits, and they cannot brazenly defy a second-term President who is determined to get something done. Bush the Elder did it. Bill Clinton did it at Wye River. Even Bush the Younger did it in 2003, when he reduced Israel’s loan guarantees after Israel refused to alter the route of its security fence according to US wishes.

Somehow, Obama can’t find the same backbone. And ultimately, even if Kerry’s efforts were far more sensible than they are, without that level of presidential backing — a level that all of Obama’s predecessors reached, despite their own one-sided and destructively myopic support of Israeli excesses — there is no chance for success.

Israel, UK And US Fail To Get Palestinians To Withdraw Or Blunt UN Resolution

The vote in the United Nations General Assembly on the Palestinian application for non-member status is a foregone conclusion. They’re going to win and it’s not really going to matter much, at least in the short term. Nonetheless, the decidedly warped world of diplomacy around the Israel-Palestine conflict has managed to give us a small degree of drama around the bid, which is also illustrative of why there seems to be so little hope for change.

I posted a draft of the resolution on my blog earlier this month. You can see the final version here (pdf). There is simply nothing there that anyone with even the mildest interest in resolving the conflict could have the slightest objection to. This says a lot about where Israel and the US stand. No, the drama lies outside, with the Israeli-US-UK efforts to scuttle the initiative.

It’s been clear for quite some time that the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was not going to back down from bringing this resolution to the UNGA. At this stage, any threatening actions by Israel or the US could cause the PLO’s collapse, which Israel very much wants to avoid. So they had no way to stop the initiative from going forward and instead tried to change the substance of the resolution.

That, too, failed, but the changes they tried to make are instructive. Israel wanted to change or insert three conditions, none of which made any sense for the Palestinians. The US took the three conditions whole cloth and tried to convince the Palestinians to insert them. When that failed, it was passed off to the UK, who could offer the Palestinians something the US could not — namely, a yes vote on the UNGA resolution if they agreed to these conditions. Based on various reports, it seems that the Palestinians simply wanted to end the debate and went ahead and submitted the proposed resolution to forestall further discussion of it.

So, all the attempts at change seem to have failed. But the truth is that there is very little here for Israel to be worried about, at least for the time being. And this is why their reaction, as well as those of the US and UK, are all very telling. Let’s look at the three conditions Israel wanted to insert:

  1. 1. Israel wanted the resolution to state that the Palestinians would not seek membership in the International Criminal Court (ICC). Had the Palestinian Authority (PA) agreed to this, it would have sacrificed the one tangible benefit it gets from the General Assembly’s recognition of its non-member status. The other benefits are a matter of prestige and hopefully some diplomatic weight. But this is something the Palestinians can actually use at some point. Israel does not want to answer to the ICC, a court in which it is not a member, but whose decisions can make Israel more uncomfortable and give weight to protest movements, especially in Europe, where there is much more regard for international law than in the United States.
  1. Indeed, had the PA agreed to something like this, the reaction in the West Bank might have been as bad as if they had agreed to withdraw the resolution altogether. That issue only gets magnified in the wake of Hamas emerging from the latest Israeli bombing campaign in Gaza not only alive, but strengthened politically and with a ceasefire whose terms are surprisingly favorable to the government of Gaza.
  1. I strongly suspect that while the possibility of Palestine going to the ICC is probably the single most vexing aspect of this move in Israel’s eyes, they also probably knew that this was a non-starter, and perhaps didn’t even really want the PA to agree, as it might have spelled doom for the quisling Authority. In any case, it was a foregone conclusion that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would refuse Israel’s condition.
  1. 2. Israel wants a clause stressing that this is a symbolic decision that grants no sovereignty over the West Bank, Gaza Strip or East Jerusalem. This was just an attempt at bullying. The UNGA resolution is, by definition, symbolic. It does not carry the weight of law, but merely expresses the view of the GA, as far as such weighty matters as sovereignty are concerned. Yes, specific statuses in the GA can allow the Palestinians access to certain international bodies, but there is no recognition of sovereignty here, nor could there be.
  1. Israel wants this kind of statement to blunt the impact of the resolution in the diplomatic field, but really it wouldn’t do much of that either. It was just a way to diminish the Palestinians’ claim on paper, and more than anything else, it was a lead-in to the one thing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu really hoped to get out of this.
  1. 3. Israel wants any decision to include a Palestinian commitment to renewing direct negotiations with Israel without preconditions. This has become Netanyahu’s Holy Grail. He would love nothing more than the continuing sham “peace process” to drag on while settlements expand. But he also knows too much had already been discussed in the Oslo process, and fears, perhaps with some reason, that US President Barack Obama might eventually press for an endgame along the lines of the Clinton Parameters. Even if he doesn’t, Bibi doesn’t want to maintain the framework of withdrawal from more than 90% of the West Bank and some sort of sharing of East Jerusalem.
  1. For Netanyahu, “no preconditions” is a mantra, but one which means something very different than what the term implies. “No preconditions” means starting from absolute zero from the Palestinian point of view. It means no presumption that the 1967 borders are the starting point for discussion, or that there is any legitimate Palestinian claim to East Jerusalem. It means forgetting the Oslo Accords, other than perhaps the lines that Netanyahu wants to hold talks with the starting point at the facts on the ground. Those facts involve the settlements, including those in East Jerusalem that cut the city off from the rest of the West Bank and hemmed Bethlehem in, among other Palestinian towns. They include separation between the West Bank and Gaza and no presumption that they must be rejoined.
  1. Within that framework, any land Israel surrenders, any settlement or outpost Israel evacuates, is a “concession” to the Palestinians and more than that, a gift and symbol of Israeli largesse. Given not only Netanyahu’s right-wing orientation, but the even more radical rightward tilt of his party and, even more, his coalition, this is the only way he could sit and talk with the Palestinians, even if it is just for show. In other words, no preconditions means no to any Palestinian conditions at all and yes to plenty from the Israelis.

Ultimately, Israel knew it would have to tolerate this Palestinian move. It really couldn’t even respond to it without risking its West Bank subcontractor whose demise would mean that Israel would have to foot much more of the bill for its occupation. So, they tried to get the one thing they thought they had at least an outside shot at: talks without preconditions.

Israel’s failure to achieve that goal is not surprising. But the buy-in Netanyahu got from both the US and UK is something we should all be looking at. Abbas didn’t break off talks with Netanyahu on principle, or even because of settlement expansion itself. He broke them off because he knew that, after 17 years of negotiations in the shadow of expanding settlements, the clock had expired and the Palestinian people would no longer tolerate such a state of affairs. The peace process had been exposed as a sham to cover an entrenching occupation, and only a complete halt to settlement construction would allow Abbas to come back to the table without seriously risking the existence of the PA.

Maybe the US and UK knew that Abbas would not accept the “no preconditions” condition and that’s why they felt comfortable pressing for it. But I doubt it. Both countries simply want to see talks resume, fearing the stalemate and vacuum diplomatic silence produces while Hamas continues to establish itself as the more credible Palestinian leadership body.

And what choice do the US and UK have? The same choice they’ve always had, the same one that was always the only way this was ever going to be resolved: pressure both sides — but especially the powerful and comfortable one, Israel — to make the deal. (Pressure on Israel has been totally absent, while both the US and UK are quite practiced in pressuring the Palestinians). Remind them that the exports they both depend on, the cooperation they both need, will no longer be so forthcoming if they don’t achieve a lasting peace.

And, of course, that is an option that neither country is willing to take for no good reason other than domestic politics. This isn’t about forcing anything on anyone. Israel and the Palestinians are perfectly free to choose their own course, but if they choose one that is contrary to US or UK interests, those countries can also choose not to do business with them. This wouldn’t exactly cripple either nation, but domestic politics continue to rule the day, and the craven leaderships in both countries cannot even conceive of such actions.

A Mock UNGA Resolution

For my International Law class (for those who don’t know, I’m working on my Master’s Degree at University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy), I was asked to write a UN resolution and a strategy for getting it adopted. I thought folks here might be interested in seeing what i came up with, as sort of a thought experiment.

The UN General Assembly Hall

Keep in mind, the idea here was to be realistic and come up with a resolution that made sense to present. I am in the role of an adviser to Mahmoud Abbas, and the time was supposed to be mid-2011, so I could focus on the real possibility, at the time, of going to the UN that coming September. The scope is narrow, so I’m not trying to get him to rethink his entire approach to the occupation.

So, of course, I’m recommending a General Assembly, rather than a Security Council approach.

Comments are welcome. The resolution I wrote is pasted below. The longer strategy paper (in an MS Word document)  is at this linkContinue reading