b i t t e r l e m o n s. o r g
    December 6, 2010 Edition 23                      Palestinian-Israeli crossfire

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The current US role
. Peeking into the abyss        by Ghassan Khatib
It is not likely that the current administration will repeat the mistakes of Clinton’s administration.
  . Still not too late to change course        by Yossi Alpher
Creation of a Palestinian state by the UN could, if handled intelligently, be an opportunity for all.
. US mediation monopoly collapsing        by Sam Bahour
What is urgently needed is a restructuring of international mediation.
  . Mediator revisited        by Alon Pinkas
It's not America, stupid.

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Peeking into the abyss
by Ghassan Khatib

There have been contradicting reports about the outcome of ongoing American efforts to resume the peace process, which was launched by the administration in Washington at the beginning of last September and then was undermined by the resumption of full-scale Israeli settlement activities.

Since then, two parallel sets of political activities have been underway. First are American contacts with Israel to try to bring about another settlement freeze that might allow talks to continue between Israel and Palestinians.

Second, Arabs and Palestinians have been in constant consultation, trying to answer the question of what alternatives we have in case the talks collapse and American efforts to bring about a cessation of settlement activities fail.

It is not likely that the current administration will repeat the mistakes of US President Bill Clinton’s administration when it announced the failure of the Camp David negotiations. This led to a political vacuum and the eruption of violence. Perhaps that is why the US administration keeps giving the impression that efforts are still ongoing.

There have been, however, many unconfirmed media reports about the results of Israeli-American consultations over a settlement freeze and the resumption of talks. These reports include incredibly generous offers of financial, military and diplomatic support in return for relatively meaningless Israeli concessions such as a two- or three-month settlement freeze. These rumors, which have yet to be confirmed, provoke the Palestinian and Arab side for two reasons.

First, there are worries that this approach in American-Israeli consultations has been leaving Palestinians completely out in the cold. The fear is that Palestinians will be forced to agree to whatever is the outcome of these consultations.

The other reason for concern is the possibility that American efforts could infringe on the rights of Palestinians. For example, what if the US and Israel agreed that the Palestinian leadership would refrain from carrying out perfectly legal activities? Or what if the US agreed to Israeli demands that it be allowed to maintain its presence in the eastern part of Jerusalem?

Besides worrying, the Palestinian and Arab sides have been busy entertaining “alternative” strategies to pursue in case of the failure of the American effort. These alternatives are different variations of one approach: an international effort to help end the occupation and support the establishment of the Palestinian state next to Israel in order to realize the international vision of peace.

The question however, remains--what if the international community and the United States would decline to cooperate with such an approach, insisting on bilateral negotiations? This question is provoking serious debate among Palestinians and results in two possible trains of thought. One was presented recently in an interview with President Mahmoud Abbas in which he spelled out the possibility of dissolving the Palestinian Authority (although has been no articulation of the practicalities of this option). The other alternative, which is not new but also is not advocated by a majority, reflects a shift in the Palestinian political paradigm from the two-state solution to the one-state solution. Here, Palestinians in Israel, the occupied territories and the diaspora will concentrate on achieving their non-negotiable rights, including the right to citizenship, human rights, education, work, return, and so on.

As these debates continue, however, both Palestinian and Israeli societies are being radicalized in a way that is gradually, among other things, undermining the position of the current Palestinian leadership.- Published 6/12/2010 © bitterlemons.org

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views.

Still not too late to change course
by Yossi Alpher

In these early days of December, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu took time off from his seemingly endless negotiations with both the Obama administration and his own coalition over the terms for a renewed settlement-construction freeze. Netanyahu was totally immersed in Israel's biggest-ever natural disaster, a mega-fire on Mt. Carmel. Friends, neighbors, even semi-enemies--countries as diverse as the Palestinian Authority, Turkey and the United States--all gallantly helped Israel fight the fire.

It's easy to forget for a day that Israel has become dangerously isolated internationally, that the broken peace process with the Palestinians is a critical factor in that isolation, and that Washington's effort to "fix" the process is critical. Yet the issues at stake are much too important to neglect for long.

There are many reasons why this process is broken. Most are local: the quality of leadership on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides, geo-political realities like the West Bank-Gaza split and the militant Islamist threat, the toxic interaction between Israel's political system and the Palestinian issue, a weak Arab state system that offers little real support for the process, etc. But one external factor stands out: the Obama administration's failed peace strategy.

Nearly two years into Barack Obama's presidency, little in that strategy appears to have changed or evolved. An Israeli settlement freeze that parallel's PA state-building achievements remains a pre-condition for negotiations. The process, once started, will focus on a comprehensive end-of-conflict agreement to be achieved within a year, maybe two. Gaza is largely ignored, with a prayer that Hamas won't spoil things. A parallel process with Syria, which could conceivably contribute to smoother Israeli-Palestinian talks, is held hostage to Netanyahu's obstinacy and US demands from Damascus regarding Lebanon and terrorism.

Most recently, those negotiations over conditions for restarting final status talks based on a brief renewed freeze--clearly a tactical matter--have been escalated to comprise US-Israeli understandings over seemingly major strategic issues like Jordan Valley security and additional stealth attack aircraft for Israel. Even this incredible bargain has become hopelessly entangled in Netanyahu's coalition politics.

But suppose a deal eventually is struck and negotiations resume. Considering the identity of the prospective peace partners, there is not the slightest possibility the talks will succeed. What can the administration possibly hope to achieve this way?

Perhaps the most tragic aspect of this mess is that it's not just another failure on a long list that goes back 15 years or so. There is an alternative course of action at hand that, at the diplomatic level, is being largely ignored by both the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government.

The PA's state-building effort in the West Bank, which until now has been admirably financed and technically assisted by the US and the European Union, is moving into its diplomatic endgame, as Palestinians and the Arab League prepare to ask for United Nations recognition of a Palestinian state within the 1967 lines. Given the failure of a negotiated process, such an appeal is more than likely to actually happen by next fall. This combination of unilateralism and internationalism presents Israel, the US and the Arab world with either a golden opportunity or a major crisis.

An opportunity, because creation of a Palestinian state by the UN could, if handled intelligently, turn the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a state-to-state negotiation over borders, security, water and the fate of settlements, with the deal-breaking issues of refugee right-of-return and "who owns the Temple Mount/Harem al-Sharif" postponed and put into proportion. Israel could leverage its readiness to contemplate this scenario into real strategic advantages in its relations with the US and even with several Arab countries, while Washington could leverage its readiness not to veto such a solution in the Security Council into major Arab concessions to Israel. The PLO appears to agree to postpone the deal-breaking issues unilaterally and cease holding the entire process hostage to them, in a way that it cannot be seen to be doing at the bilateral level.

But all this will become a major crisis if the US, bowing to Israeli demands, ends up vetoing this two-state solution, thereby prompting tension with the Arab world and a new outbreak of Palestinian violence. Or if Washington withholds its veto without prior coordination with Israel, thereby deepening Jerusalem's isolation and international de-legitimization.

Thus far, the only sign that administration negotiators are aware of the impending challenge of the Palestinian unilateral diplomatic endgame is their demand that bilateral negotiations, if they ever begin, concentrate first on border issues, thereby presumably facilitating the PA's state-building effort. Even when the Democrats controlled Congress, not a single congressional committee dealing with the Middle East even bothered to put this critical dynamic on its agenda. And the only sign of Israeli awareness is its ongoing readiness to accommodate, however gradually, Palestinian achievements in the realm of West Bank security.

All this is far too little. But it's not too late, if only someone in Washington wakes up.- Published 6/12/2010 © bitterlemons.org

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

US mediation monopoly collapsing

by Sam Bahour

The United States is at a crossroads in its mediation of Middle East peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. The Obama administration can no longer walk on the Israeli side of the line--which is exactly where the US has been since Israel’s creation--while continuing to pay lip service to the illusion of walking on the thin line of fair mediation. Unfortunately, neither the US, nor anyone in the Palestinian leadership for that matter, has proposed anything beyond brushing the dust off already-failed initiatives and placing the burden for progress on the need for more Palestinian concessions; concessions that do not exist.

The international euphoria surrounding the US bear hug embrace of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in Ramallah is about to quickly pass and, come autumn 2011--the Fayyad government’s declared target for Palestinian statehood--the region will find itself exactly where former President George W. Bush left it: at a dead end.

What is urgently needed is a restructuring of international mediation addressing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Shuttle diplomacy by world powers unable or unwilling to commit to international and humanitarian law as a foundation for Palestinian and Israeli reconciliation is a waste of time, money and Palestinian and Israeli lives. Military occupation must end if good faith final status negotiations are ever to sincerely begin.

The US has proved beyond a reasonable doubt that its historic alliance with Israel, an “unholy alliance” as it has often been called, prohibits it from being a fair and impartial mediator. Over the years, the Israeli agenda has become a domestic US issue and is integrally linked to US elections, US foreign policy and aid, and the US military-industrial complex. The collapse of the infamous Oslo peace process gave the US a historic chance to clean its slate of its blind support to Israel. It chose not to do so, thus losing any impression of being a credible, impartial mediator.

The US is fully aware of its failed attempts at mediation, especially over the past 20 years, and thus moved to create the so-called “Quartet”. In essence, the Quartet attempted to camouflage the dominating US role in the conflict with the inclusion of the European Union, Russian Federation and United Nations. This fuzzy, ineffective diplomatic mechanism, which self-proclaims a mandate of mediating the conflict, falls short of having any real international legitimacy. Over the past years, the Quartet, currently represented by Tony Blair, quietly observed unprecedented Israeli aggression against Palestinians and a collapse of the peace process while doing little more than deciding how high to jump after being ordered to do so by the US.

An alternative to the Quartet would be to create a properly mandated UN Security Council mediation team in which no member would be allowed to exercise veto power. The team would be equipped with the necessary resources to bring Israel (the occupier) and the Palestinians (the occupied) to the table with the agenda of ending the 43-year Israeli military occupation of Palestinians. The basis for an end to the occupation would be dictated as prescribed in international and humanitarian law. This mediation team would have the authority to deploy a specified number of multinational peacekeeping forces should they be required.

The wild card actually blocking such a serious approach to mediation is the US. Why would the US accept a mediation arrangement that would definitely drive a wedge between the US and Israel? There are 101 reasons for the US to take a backseat in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, not the least being the quagmire that it created for itself in Iraq and Afghanistan or the constantly increasing costs that Israel is inflicting upon the US, both financially and politically. Sooner or later, the US must take action to remove Israel from dominating its domestic agenda. With President Barack Obama past the mid-term elections, despite recovering from a setback, he should be able to breathe a little easier and spend serious political capital to repair some of the damage that was done to his presidency when he was forced to retreat from the showdown with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu over continued illegal Israeli settlement building.

However, betting on the US or Obama to make a historic unilateral about-face is most likely a losing bet. The international community needs to urgently step up to the plate.

If the US refuses to cooperate on it own, then the international community can take action regardless. Under a well-known and tested United Nations procedure called "Uniting for Peace" (General Assembly Resolution 377 A (V)), the UN General Assembly can demand a withdrawal of Israel from the occupied Palestinian lands. The General Assembly may also call for a United Nations peacekeeping force to be sent to Palestine to protect Palestinians from the occupying power. The "Uniting for Peace" procedure has been used before, by none other than the United States.

International law must be defined and applied by the world institutions that were established for the purpose, and not by the existing superpower or the party to the conflict that can hire the better public relations firms or has the stronger military. The clear and unequivocal end to Israeli occupation, in all its forms, has the power to bring justice, security and stability to a region on the verge of self-destruction. - Published 6/12/2010 © bitterlemons.org

Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American businessman.

Mediator revisited

by Alon Pinkas

“Where’s the American Empire when we need it?” was the headline of Robert D. Kaplan’s excellent article in Sunday’s Outlook section of The Washington Post. Kaplan asserts that many of the geopolitical and geo-economic problems facing the world--currency wars, terrorism, conflicts, rogue states, collapsing states--are either caused or exacerbated by the absence of an empire, the American empire to be exact.

Is it possible that America’s diminishing superpower status or perceptions to that effect are a causal explanation for the last two years of confused United States policy in the Middle East?

A disclaimer of sorts: It’s not America, stupid. I have maintained for some time that the one thing Israelis and Palestinians have in common is their infinite ability to always fault the US for their own shortcomings and deficiencies. Naturally, Israel and the Palestinians themselves have never failed in peacemaking. It was always the American president or his “Middle East team” that just didn’t get it, goes the conventional wisdom.

Administrations come and go, yet Israel and the Palestinians are content with “proving” to Washington that the conflict is essentially intractable and that the other party is not serious. The naive Americans just can’t comprehend how complicated we and the Palestinians are and will never grasp the real intricacies of the conflicts. Accordingly, you will see more articles and statements in the Israeli and Palestinian media analyzing Washington's “failure”, its “lack of coherent policy” and the “inadequacies of the Mideast team”, and a corresponding body of literature preaching to the Americans how to get it right.

The era following the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s was frequently and conveniently termed “Pax Americana”. The end of the cold war and of the two-power tug of war in many regions misled many to believe that US foreign policy would reign supreme and America’s unparalleled power would be employed to manage, contain or terminate conflicts that interfere with its interests.

In the last decade, that premise has been questioned by the economic crisis and meltdown in the US and the economic rise of China, India, Brazil and a resurgent Russia, coupled with the US mired in two globally unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a loss of moral and political leadership during the two George W. Bush administrations. What New York Times columnist Tom Friedman calls America’s "twin addictions to Middle East oil and Chinese credit” contributed. Yet for a variety of reasons, America’s involvement in the Middle East remained relatively intense.

Until Barack Obama’s ascent to the presidency, successive US administrations from Lyndon Johnson to George W. Bush referred to the US role as that of mediator, facilitator, honest broker, provider of assurances and, at times, active diplomatic go-between. Obama is the first president to have clearly defined the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an American national security interest. This was and remains a meaningful proclamation of policy because it conceivably entails a comprehensive and coherent hands-on approach and a formidable projection of power. Unfortunately, neither has been displayed. The policy paradox is abundantly clear: the US perceives the conflict as a national security interest, yet invests less thought, less creativity, less political capital and less energy.

The midway point of Obama’s first term is a good point of reference. In terms of American interests, nothing tangible has been achieved. In terms of America’s stature, this inevitably means corrosion of power. The more corrosion, the less able the US is to mediate and the less amenable the sides are to reach accommodation or even engage in a serious process, something they have failed to do for the last two years and running.

This leaves the US with an urgent need to reassess policy. It confronts three distinct strategies:

First, step away and limit your role to general maintenance and conflict- aversion. The US cannot want peace more than the parties; the political capital expended by President Obama is too high and the likelihood of success is low. In the words of Secretary of State James Baker in 1991: “Call us when you are ready” and until then go away.

Second, step up US efforts, exert real power and coercive capabilities and in fact force Israel and the Palestinians into a Camp David process based, broadly, on the “Clinton parameters” with the support of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the EU. After all, this is not sliced-bread reinvented. All problems already have several solutions on the shelves at the State Department.

And third, admit that left to their own devices, Israel and the Palestinians are incapable of reaching a deal and present the Obama plan. Repackage the Clinton parameters, ask the EU, Russia, and the UN to sign the “best wishes” card and call Netanyahu and Abbas to the White House. Present the plan and propose that they negotiate details for a two-week period. If no deal is reached, the US will submit the plan to the United Nations Security Council. If the sides don’t like it, go back to the first option.

If I had to bet, I’d go with option three. Patience is wearing thin, the cost of inaction is too high and the failure of more-of-the-same action is not something the US can afford.-Published 6/12/2010 © bitterlemons.org

Alon Pinkas is president of the US-Israel Institute at the Rabin Center and former consul-general of Israel in New York.

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Editors Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher can be reached at ghassan@bitterlemons.org and yossi@bitterlemons.org, respectively.

Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.