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    May 10, 2010 Edition 10                      Palestinian-Israeli crossfire
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  Proximity talks
  . Just plain lucky        by Yossi Alpher
To his credit, Netanyahu prefers direct negotiations.
. How to bolster a delicate situation        by Ghassan Khatib
The make-or-break issue is, as it has always been, Israel's settlement behavior.
  . The best of a bad lot?        by Gilead Sher
My hope is that the Obama administration will stay hands-on for the whole course.
. The price of indirect talks        by Mkhaimar Abusada
Palestinians hope the Americans will not allow Israel to dictate its vision of peace.

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Just plain lucky
by Yossi Alpher

The Israeli-Palestinian proximity talks beginning now will almost certainly end in failure. There is little room for optimism regarding these talks or any other form of peace process that brings together the political camps of PM Binyamin Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas.

The gap between the core beliefs of Netanyahu and Abbas is simply too wide. The former wants to hold on to "united Jerusalem" and the Jordan Valley and is bound by his right-wing coalition to an even more demanding territorial concept, if not to effective neutralization of the two-state concept. His settler allies are sure to look for opportunities to sabotage the talks. Netanyahu himself is building up an "incitement" file with which to batter the Palestinians, even as Israel's own problem of incitement against Palestinians grows under a reactionary government.

For his part, Abbas insists on the right of return and exclusive Arab control over the Temple Mount in Jerusalem--both inevitably deal-breakers. And between his own Fateh hawks and Hamas, Abbas is constrained even further.

To his credit, Netanyahu prefers direct negotiations. It is Abbas who appears to fear face-to-face meetings that might, when they fail, compromise his standing in the eyes of his extremists, and who has linked even his agreement to a mere four months of proximity talks to Arab League approval. Here we have not one but three steps backward for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process: indirect rather than direct talks, an Arab veto and a short time limit.

Netanyahu needs these negotiations more than Abbas, and he needs them to last as long as possible. Israel now confronts an active school of thought within the American military that blames the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate for US military difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan and for Iranian and Hizballah propaganda successes in the Arab world. To the extent Israel is held to blame for the stalemate--Abbas, who should be sharing the blame, seemingly gets a pass from his fellow Muslims--it is sustaining serious damage to its image in the halls of power in Washington. The new peace process, however problematic and partial, helps mitigate that damage by enabling US generals in the field to point to at least a temporary US success in cultivating Arab-Israel peace.

In the Netanyahu government, only Defense Minister Ehud Barak appears to understand the gravity of this new linkage equation. Netanyahu thinks everything is fine with America because American Jews still support Israel. Hence he is just plain lucky to have these proximity talks. Under these circumstances, he is not likely to recognize the urgent need to reorganize his coalition and replace right-wingers with centrists.

The advent of proximity talks follows some 15 months of mediation mistakes by the US. Yet the only mitigating factors in this otherwise bleak picture appear to be President Barack Obama's commitment and the determination of his peace emissary, George Mitchell. If Obama is indeed readying his own final status proposal and/or an international peace conference for the day the failure of these talks can no longer be denied, he should direct his attention away from the looming Netanyahu-Abbas failure--a wise mediator will not step into that huge gap with "bridging" proposals--and toward the only success story in town: the Palestinian Authority's bottom-up state-building program in the West Bank.

American efforts should focus not only on the hapless task of squeezing success out of doomed proximity talks, but on the inevitable political endgame suggested by the Palestinians' successful state-building effort: international recognition of their state followed by a concerted effort to focus Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on the issues of inter-state borders and security, including in Jerusalem.- Published 10/5/2010 © 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.

How to bolster a delicate situation
by Ghassan Khatib

George Mitchell, the US special envoy to the peace process, seems to have succeeded for a second time in getting both Palestinians and Israelis to agree to start proximity talks. The first time around, the talks were sabotaged by an Israeli decision to build 1,600 settlement units in occupied East Jerusalem during a visit by Joe Biden, the US vice-president. This time, the situation remains equally delicate.

The two sides give every impression of having been dragged into accepting these negotiations after heavy pressure from the outside, especially the US. Yet their decisions to accept to talk were taken for different and contradicting reasons.

The Israeli decision was taken against the will of a majority of the Israeli Cabinet. There have been reports and "accusations" in Israel that Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, might have offered the US administration commitments to freeze or slow settlement expansion. If true, this is a position that hasn't been approved by his own coalition and hasn't been made official.

In addition, also according to media reports in Israel, Netanyahu seems to have accepted to negotiate final status issues, including Jerusalem and refugees. This would also be controversial within the current Israeli political leadership, where there is little appetite for such negotiations.

The Palestinians, meanwhile, also found it difficult to agree to resume negotiations. President Mahmoud Abbas had to hold a rare vote in the PLO's Executive Committee, and did so only in an unusual joint meeting with Fatah's Central Committee. The latter's inclusion, most observers believe, was an attempt to ensure that strong opposition to a resumption of negotiations without a clear and official Israeli commitment to freezing settlement construction could be overcome. It was, but only with a majority decision.

This is setting aside for a minute the very clear opposition from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, non-PLO factions. Abbas also needed to get support from the ministerial follow-up committee of the Arab League in the face of opposition from Syria and Lebanon.

It all, the situation leaves the parties and the US with a fragile process that can be easily sabotaged by spoilers on both sides, who will keep looking for reasons to prove that they were right. The best way to thwart such negative attitudes is to show progress toward achieving whatever non-contradictory strategic and tactical objectives the sides have.

Palestinians need to see that the substantive aspects of the conflict--i.e., Jerusalem, refugees, water as well as settlement and borders--are being negotiated in accordance and with respect to the agreed terms of reference, particularly the relevant resolutions of the UN Security Council, signed agreements and the roadmap. Israelis, meanwhile, have to see that their concerns about security and regional integration are also being negotiated seriously.

It is also important that talks show progress vis-a-vis the parties' short-term requirements. Here the main determining factors will be Israel's settlement activity and continued calm on the ground.

The security situation has remained calm for a while now and there is little reason for that to change. The make-or-break issue is, as it has always been, Israel's settlement behavior. The international community, led by the US, has to do whatever it takes to ensure that Israel does freeze the expansion of settlements. If it fails, the Palestinian leadership will find it hard to continue with indirect negotiations. And if the leadership continues against the will of the majority, this will further weaken its public position. This, in turn, will only play into the hands of the Islamic opposition led by Hamas.

In parallel, the chances of success for this newly renewed process will double if the international community continues to show practical support for and political commitment to the Palestinian government's program of building the institutions of state and ending the occupation. Such support will have the effect of showing Israelis that there is an alternative to bilateral negotiations if Israel insists on keeping those negotiations hostage to its will by dragging its feet, imposing facts on the ground and manipulating the international preference for a bilaterally negotiated two-state solution.

In fact, there should to be a clear international position that should Israeli actions undermine the talks and thus chances for a bilaterally negotiated solution, there are alternatives. There are significant indicators that the international community is moving in that direction, including the acceptance by first Europe, then the US and finally the Quartet in Moscow of a time frame for negotiations, compatible as it is with the timeframe spelled out in the Palestinian government program.

Finally, it will also be important that the international community encourage reconciliation between the different Palestinian factions. Palestinian unity is an important prerequisite for ensuring any outcome in negotiations. The international community simply needs to promise recognition and continuous support to any national unity government, even if it includes Hamas, as long as such a government is committed to international law and the relevant resolutions of the UN.- Published 10/5/2010 © 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.

The best of a bad lot?

by Gilead Sher

The good news first: after more than a year wasted over trial and error in United States foreign policy, President Barack Obama has set the Israeli-Palestinian process back on track. The bad news is that for the first time in close to two decades, Israelis and Palestinians will be talking indirectly to one another.

The White House has had no sense of urgency with regard to resolving this dispute. Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan presented--and still do--a pressing series of headaches, thus consuming the administration's attention. Moreover, Obama's inner circle has been oblivious to the fact that while pressuring the Israeli government there is also a need for a binding, continuous, disciplined negotiation process. Indeed, there exists only one acceptable facilitator that can impose such a process on the parties and ensure that neither of them deviates from it: the United States.

My hope is that despite all the difficulties and obvious spoilers, the Obama administration will from now on stay hands-on for the whole course. After all, the two-state solution is by no means in the interest of Israel alone: it is clearly in the interest of the United States as well as the rest of the international community and the Arab world, in order to foster global stability.

The bare minimum that proximity talks might aim at attaining is that they serve as a springboard for restoring, little by little, some trust between the parties. A negotiating process, albeit an indirect one for a limited period, should interject hope into the cynical, frustrated and mistrusting political environment in both constituencies.

Polls consistently demonstrate that Israelis overwhelmingly support the two-state solution. But this majority does not echo politically. Israelis are starting to realize this, and groups like Blue White Future and the Council for Peace and Security are getting their act together to change the course. They say: we are Israeli, Jewish and Zionist and refuse to apologize for it; ending the conflict with the Palestinians will secure Israel in recognized boundaries, thus ensuring its democratic character and Jewish identity. Time is running out for the two-state solution.

There are long odds for the talks to tackle substantively the core issues. Yet don't we all know what a final agreement will ultimately look like? An interlocking resolution of the issues of Jerusalem, the holy sites, the refugees, territory, borders and settlements and security through a negotiated agreement holds no surprises. The Clinton parameters spelled out the basic practicable compromise almost a decade ago. In fact, from the outset of the peace process each and every political initiative to end the conflict has led to the same fundamental solutions.

Moreover, several track-two and NGO projects and other channels of research and dialogue have produced valuable outcomes in recent years. These include studies on boundaries, territorial swaps, options for arrangements at the holy sites, a special regime in the Old City of Jerusalem as well as comprehensive compensation and rehabilitation mechanisms for the refugees. In due time, these thorough plans may well be incorporated into official channels of negotiation and, subject to staff work and processing, serve as toolkits for the parties.

Based on these developments, should we expect Obama to present his own plan? By no means, and certainly not yet. There is no benefit in laying out so early in the process a plan that risks rejection by either party, which as a consequence would seriously decrease Obama's leverage. If the parties do make progress and there is a reasonable chance of reaching partial agreement on territory, security and the establishment of the Palestinian state, only then should the president present his bridging proposal and further address the parties' differences.

It might then be a good idea for the president to provide a regional setting for the bi-lateral negotiations, such as the contours of the Arab Peace Initiative. The US should encourage Israel and the Arab League states to explore common ground in expanding the scope of a hoped-for Israeli-Palestinian agreement. In that context, Israel should acknowledge the API's significance and state that it could be a framework for further talks. Arab leaders should tell their constituencies that no agreement would allow a significant return of refugees to Israel.

Parallel to the talks, the positive traction of changing realities on the ground should continue. We have recent examples of cooperation in security, trade, economy, agriculture and industry in the Jenin and Nablus areas. Little is known about the scope of the Israeli-Palestinian economic turnover: four billion dollars in 2009. Thanks to the excellent work done by General Dayton's team and other missions, the daily lives of Palestinian inhabitants in these areas have dramatically improved. Combined with PM Salam Fayyad's institution-building, the bottom-up approach provides tangible testimony to prospects for peaceful coexistence.

Last but not least, Israelis and Palestinians need to prime their constituencies and prepare the ground for acceptable and legitimate compromise. We need to gradually ready the hearts and minds of our publics for transformation. This requires intensive and open public discourse, internal dialogue and hard work, along with a tight security environment. Only when the public mindset has overcome its initial resistance and accommodated to change, will public opinion be supportive. Only then will the respective leaderships feel they can count on popular support for the decisions to be taken on the road to peace.- Published 10/5/2010 © bitterlemons.org

Attorney Gilead Sher was head of bureau and policy coordinator for PM Ehud Barak. He served as co-chief negotiator in 1999-2001 at the Camp David summit and the Taba talks. His book "The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Negotiations, 1999-2001: Within Reach" was published by Routledge in 2006.

The price of indirect talks

by Mkhaimar Abusada

The PLO Executive Committee's decision to approve so-called proximity talks between the Palestinians and Israelis marked a shift in Palestinian politics. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had previously stated that there would be no talks with Israel until it halts all settlement expansion, including in East Jerusalem. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, on the other hand, has not veered from his vow that building in Jerusalem is just like building in Tel Aviv.

The move is seen as a success for the US Middle East peace envoy, George Mitchell, who has been shuttling between Tel Aviv and Ramallah, as well as many other Arab capitals, for the past 16 months. Indirect talks will be based on more Mitchell shuttle diplomacy between Abbas and Netanyahu. In spite of this, the indirect talks can be considered a low point in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, which have shifted from direct bilateral talks to indirect ones.

The administration of US President Barack Obama is confronted with a complicated situation in which both parties are not particularly interested in peace talks. During the previous Clinton and Bush administrations, the United States had to be pushed by Palestinian and Israeli interests in the peace process before Washington got involved. The Obama administration, however, considers the continuation of the stalemate in the peace process to be dangerous to its interests in the region generally.

Hamas and many other Palestinian groups have voiced their rejection of indirect talks. Hamas described the notion as absurd and argued that the move would only legitimize Israel's occupation and will be used as cover for its land confiscations, settlement expansion and other aggressive measures against the Palestinian people. The PLO argues that the move serves the Palestinian national interest and shows its willingness to reach a negotiated peace with Israel on the basis of the two-state solution. Hamas simply says the PLO should "stop selling illusions to the Palestinian people".

The PLO also says that it has received assurances from the Washington that any party that resorts to provocative measures will be publicly fingered by the US. Indeed, one positive thing about indirect talks is that the US, as represented by George Mitchell and his team, will be at the table, unlike in previous bilateral talks in which the balance of power favored Israel to dictate its will to the Palestinians on the basis of "take it or leave it". Israel negotiates for the sake of negotiating, all the while creating new facts on the ground that make it impossible for the Palestinian side to continue. This time, Palestinians hope the Americans will not allow Israel to dictate its vision of peace.

The PLO statement on the proximity talks confirmed that all final status issues--borders, Jerusalem, refugees, water and security--will be on the table. This is also a small victory for the Palestinians, because although the parameters for peace between them and Israelis are well known, the Netanyahu government would prefer to start the talks from point zero and limit the topics discussed.

The proximity talks are expected to continue for only the four months approved by the Arab foreign ministers. If they prove successful, indirect talks will be upgraded to direct talks. Netanyahu has stressed that final status issues cannot be resolved without direct negotiations. Mitchell and his team will utilize all the tools at their disposal to make indirect talks successful.

But any move on the ground by Netanyahu could endanger the talks. Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat recently affirmed that Palestinians want to give negotiations a chance, but that success was mainly up to Israel, whose actions could doom the peace process. He added that the Israeli government has a choice, either peace or settlements, and it can't have both. The Palestinians do not want to be blamed for obstructing indirect talks but will not hesitate to pull out.

Hence, the chances of success depend on Netanyahu's willingness to depart from his own right-wing positions and policies. If Netanyahu chooses ideology over compromise, the results are obvious. But the price of failure will be very costly. These indirect talks mark the last chance for peace, and the Palestinians have long ago started to search for other options and scenarios.

The failure of indirect talks will harm Abbas and discredit what is left of his leadership among the Palestinians. If that happens, the United States and the international community will have to be prepared for a volatile period in Palestinian politics.- Published 10/5/2010 © bitterlemons.org

Mkhaimar Abusada is a professor of political science at al-Azhar University in Gaza.

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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.