Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has just finished another trip to the US, this time including an important meeting with US President Barack Obama.
The meeting has since been presented by Israeli officials and media as a political breakthrough in both US-Israeli relations and Israeli-Palestinian relations. The reasons for this range between comparing the current atmosphere in US-Israel relations with the previous visit and Obama's apparent support for the main tenet of Israel's PR campaign during the visit, namely the need to move to direct negotiations with the Palestinians after five rounds of indirect talks.
In the media and on the public level among Palestinians, however, the visit created disappointment, especially since both had been under the impression that the Palestinian leadership and the US administration were on the same wavelength regarding what was required to move from proximity to direct talks.
If the conflict is about public relations, then there is no doubt that Netanyahu has managed to score a very valuable victory over the Palestinians. However, if success is measured in how much progress is made toward peace between the two sides, then Netanyahu's visit achieved nothing.
Since the renewed American peace efforts, which started immediately after the US elections and the inauguration of the current president, Palestinians have warned against repeating the previous 18 years of unsuccessful negotiations. They have stressed the fact that Israel has stalled talks simply in order to unilaterally create new facts on the ground that undermine the Palestinian position.
The ultimate result is a functional division between the Israeli military and the Palestinian Authority in governing the occupied territories. And the last thing Palestinians want to see now is a resumption of negotiations alongside continued settlement expansion.
When the Americans suggested proximity talks, it was understood that they would serve to create a conducive atmosphere for productive and serious negotiations. This would happen by ending the expansion of settlements and showing signs of seriousness and readiness for productive negotiations.
During the proximity talks, the Palestinian side presented full and comprehensive written negotiating positions on the two issues the American mediator requested, borders and security. The Palestinians have also continued governing in accordance with all their obligations under the roadmap. Israel, however, refrained from engaging on the two issues and continued its provocative activities, including settlement expansion and violating Palestinian rights, especially in East Jerusalem.
In other words, while the Palestinian side was engaged in a serious process of state-building and institutional reform with the full support of the international community, and at the same time committed itself earnestly to the proximity talks, the other side showed no seriousness whatsoever.
The only question now is, what will the third party, whether the US or the Quartet, do about that?
Attempting to move things forward at the expense of the weaker party will only cause everyone to lose yet another opportunity. Time is against the Palestinian side, whether in terms of the extent to which the Palestinian leadership can afford more time or the extent to which the reality on the ground in the West Bank can bear it.
But the absence of progress toward a solution is not only wasting everyone's time, it is being used as a cover by the enemies of peace to ensure further radicalization in both societies and to create more facts on the ground--more settlements--of the kind that will render the concept of two states practically impossible and politically irrelevant.
The only way to move things forward is to empower the peace camp on both sides. This involves forcing each side to respect its obligations to the terms of reference of the peace process, including the roadmap, and to show seriousness in negotiations, regardless of their form.
Part of such seriousness should be a timeframe for negotiations and a promise to pursue other means to achieve the internationally accepted framework for peace should talks fail.- Published 12/7/2010 © 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.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
by Yossi Alpher
The Obama-Netanyahu meeting in Washington last week was an elegant exercise in short-term realpolitik. Very short-term.
US President Barack Obama needs urgently to project an image of tranquility, friendship and cooperation in his relationship with Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu. This helps his administration ensure the support of a variety of pro-Israel sectors of American society as mid-term congressional elections approach. It also seeks to correct the impression that Obama has simply mismanaged his relations with Netanyahu and Israel and fumbled the peace process from the start.
Netanyahu, after a series of problematic meetings with Obama and against the backdrop of prolonged failure in the peace process, needs to demonstrate to the Israeli public that he is maintaining a high level of traditional Israeli-American friendship and strategic cooperation. He knows from personal experience (the 1999 elections) that Israel's citizenry will punish any leader suspected of undermining US support. He also presumably understands that the specter of American pique with his government is bad for Israel's deterrence posture.
The two leaders confront two deadlines of immediate relevance. First comes September 27, when the current settlement-construction freeze ends. Washington wants to find a formula to make that deadline irrelevant by moving Israel and the PLO into direct final-status talks whose momentum overshadows whatever gestures Netanyahu must make to his right-wing coalition. This requires a series of confidence-building measures on Israel's part, involving territory and security in the West Bank--enough ostensibly to assuage fears on the part of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas lest he be maneuvered into pointless negotiations that he cannot defend against criticism from within his own Fateh party. Second is November 2, election day in the US, after which--whatever the results--Obama will regain greater freedom of maneuver regarding Israel.
An additional deadline of less urgent but more important relevance concerns Iran's possible emergence as a nuclear power. Netanyahu asked for and received from Obama assurances regarding Israel's military freedom of action and American support for Israel's independent nuclear status. He presumably "paid" in commitments to advance the peace process through confidence-building measures and the like. Only time will tell whether either side's commitments last beyond September and November.
Perhaps the most tell-tale indication of the problematic nature of the two leaders' relationship even after last week's meeting was the body language. As their White House press conference began, Netanyahu leaned far forward, elbows on knees, in what looked like a characteristic gesture of submission. Obama, for his part, leaned as far away from Netanyahu as possible, arms crossed, demonstrating both disdain and defensiveness. After a few minutes, both caught themselves and assumed more conventional poses. But the careful observer could not avoid the impression that their one-on-one conversation had in no way created a genuinely positive relationship--despite the words of praise and admiration they heaped on one another.
Then there was what went unsaid. In opting for direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks at an early date, Washington as much as admitted that proximity talks had failed. Publicly, settlements and the settlement freeze were never mentioned. Nor were the administration's abortive efforts to bring Israel into peace talks with Syria.
Just days later, Netanyahu confronts the suspicions of a majority of his hawkish "Cabinet of Seven" in seeking approval for a relaxation of Israel's security operations in the West Bank in favor of Palestinian Authority security forces. Obama must still convince Abbas to move to direct talks. Netanyahu has somehow to finesse an uneventful complete or partial end to the settlement freeze. Further afield, tension on Israel's border with Lebanon continues, as do attempts to send additional aid flotillas to Gaza. And the US is supposed to proceed with its withdrawal from Iraq next month despite the absence of a government there and the possible negative consequences for regional stability.
In short, the atmospherics in Washington were positive, but realities on the ground in the Middle East could make us forget this summit meeting very quickly.- Published 12/7/2010 © 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.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
A time for sticks
by Diana Buttu
Many critics are perfectly content to be proven right when their critique of current affairs meets their low expectations. For such critics, being right demonstrates that their criticism and knowledge of political events are sound and well placed. But, for Palestinian critics, there is little joy in being proven right because it means that the political situation is just as grim as predicted.
Such is the case with the much-hyped "row" between Israel and the United States back in March following the announcement of 1,600 new housing units in the Israeli colony of Ramat Shlomo. While much was made of US President Barack Obama's subsequent shunning of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the White House during their last meeting--including the unspeakable decision not to hold a joint press conference or even allow photographers to capture the meeting--critics properly noted that there was much ado about nothing. Alas, the critics were correct.
The latest, cordial, meeting between Netanyahu and Obama comes as little surprise. Palestinians have grown accustomed to seeing Israeli leaders warmly received in the White House, irrespective of the crimes perpetrated by Israel against Palestinians. Broad smiles have always greeted Israeli officials, even when Israel's insatiable appetite for Palestinian land flies in the face of international demands for a freeze on settlement activity. Indeed, the White House always reminds us of the "unshakeable bond" between Israel and the United States even as Palestinian homes continue to be demolished.
But what many had not expected was the over-the-top nature of the reception Obama afforded Netanyahu in the face of Israel's actions toward US citizens. Perhaps Obama forgot that just a month earlier, Israel carried out a brutal raid on a Gaza-bound humanitarian aid flotilla attempting to break the illegal Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. Perhaps he forgot that a young American citizen was killed, execution-style, on board the lead ship, with one bullet to the chest and four, at close range, to the head. Perhaps he missed that the next day another young American, Emily Henochowicz, had her eye shot out by an Israeli-fired tear gas canister as she peacefully protested the flotilla raid. Perhaps he also forgot that, days later, a Palestinian man married to an American woman was executed after what appears to have been a traffic accident at an Israeli checkpoint.
Obama did not demand accountability for these acts of violence. Instead, he greeted Netanyahu with the usual broad smile, strong handshake and warm words that every US president has offered every Israeli leader, irrespective of Israel's actions. The message: Israel will never be held accountable for its actions, whether toward Palestinians or toward any individual trying to protect Palestinians.
Some pundits may pontificate that this is merely a change in tactics on the part of Obama, that he is moving from the "stick" to the "carrot" in the hope that Israel will see the error of its ways, change course and become a law-abiding actor. But on this, the pundits and Obama should take some lessons from the Palestinian Authority, which has spent the last 17 years offering carrots to successive Israeli administrations (from changing the discourse to focus on Israeli security rather than Palestinian freedom to actually serving as Israel's security subcontractor) in the mistaken belief that somehow if we Palestinians offer enough carrots to Israel, its appetite for Palestinian land will be sated. For all these carrots, Palestinians have achieved nothing and instead a fatter, more emboldened "rabbit" has emerged demanding even more concessions from the Palestinian people.
The pundits will argue that the carrots are working and will point to Netanyahu's recent statements in which he indicated that he is willing to take "bold steps" for an undefined, conditional "peace" and even pressed for direct rather than indirect talks with the PLO. But the pundits will ignore reality: the peace process has only ever served to provide Israel with legitimacy while masking its ongoing violations of human rights. From 1993 to 2000, for example, as the world greeted the peace process with great fanfare and 34 countries established diplomatic ties with Israel, it carried out the largest expansion of the settlement enterprise in its history, including a doubling of its settler population as well as one of the largest revocations of residency rights of Palestinian Jerusalemites. In short, while the world focused on handshakes, Israel continued to carry out its policies of replacing one people with another. And on this path, Israel will continue.
Indeed, for all of his talk of "peace", Netanyahu has also indicated that he will not halt settlement activity and home demolitions will continue as planned. The blockade will continue and Palestinians will continue to be imprisoned in large Bantustans. In short, Israel continues to act as it always has, unless it sees a stick. And the time for sticks is now.
But the US is too afraid to use its annual three-billion-dollars-US-assistance-to-Israel stick. Instead, it will continue to turn a blind eye to Israel's colonization, while promising an increasingly compliant and complacent Palestinian leadership that, for domestic reasons, the Palestinians will have to wait until mid-term elections, or maybe second-term elections before the stick will be used against Israel.
All the while, Palestinian critics will continue to watch the handshakes and smiles, with that sickening feeling that we know we are right but wish we were wrong.- Published 12/7/2010 © bitterlemons.org
Diana Buttu is a human rights lawyer and a former legal advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Living on borrowed time
by Alon Pinkas
In romantic terms, the July 6 meeting in the White House between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was a combination of "it's not you, it's me" and "let's hug it out." Both phrases are understated versions of the more lurid and moist descriptions of the encounter in the Israeli media.
A meeting proclaimed, before it took place, to be "doomed to succeed" because of shared political interests, ostensibly lived up to the hype. But so did the previous meetings, almost all of which were declared to be pre-programmed to fail. They, too, lived up to their expectations and facilitated what some see as an unprecedented and wide divergence of interests and policy between the two allies.
But much like the application of those one-liners to the realm of love and relationships, the meeting was all about excuses, denial, winning time, respite and expediency. It does not seem as if the meeting was genuinely about substance. Time magazine's Massimo Calabresi savvily depicted the meeting as "false intimacy". Was it false? Not entirely. Was it real? Not really.
Reconciling these two answers involves a basic mutual misreading. Netanyahu has never understood that Obama wants to be a great president. Obama is not your vanilla American politician. He is not interested in being merely a good or adequate president, one of the (roughly) 39 ordinary presidents, but one of the (arguably) four great presidents of the 43 who preceded him. Obama wants to be remembered in the same historic breath as Washington, Lincoln, F.D. Roosevelt and Truman.
Getting an Israeli-Palestinian deal, Obama believes, will tick off a box on the application form for joining that prestigious club. Obama is the first president to define resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in terms of a US national security interest. The US will not only serve as intermediary or facilitator, but it has a vested interest in an agreement. The absence of an agreement, as General David Petraeus said in Senate testimony in March, creates challenges to US interests. Thus, Israel is not accommodating to the broader interests of its superpower benefactor.
Obama, for his part, has never really understood the toll that life in a permanent state of war in the Middle East exacts on Israelis. They are disillusioned, cynical, distrustful, bitter and apprehensive about their Palestinian neighbors. Cerebrally and viscerally, Israelis know Obama is right. But they feel more comfortable within the confines of Netanyahu's "they are all out to get us" attitude.
Yet this does not fully explain the discord between the two. In recent months, Netanyahu allegedly argued that Obama was inherently hostile toward him, unsympathetic toward Israel and in fact represented a major shift in US-Israel relations and was the embodiment of abuse of an ally. If Netanyahu was right, then his statement after this last visit that Obama is a great friend of Israel who understands Israel's security predicaments and concerns is disingenuous. Either you were wrong in interpreting and understanding the US for a year-and-a-half, or, conversely, you are grossly exaggerating the significance of last week's love-fest in the Oval Office.
The meeting was, with the limited perspective of less than a week, an exercise in practical political realism. Given the last 18 months of misperceptions, melodramatic statements, acrimony and the free exchange of insults, realism is quite an achievement. Given the quality of US-Israel relations over the last 30-40 years, that we actually have to devote articles to one meeting is a serious underachievement.
There are two distinct levels and aspects through which the meeting should be analyzed. The first is how it relates to the US-Israel relationship. The second level pertains to the consequences such a "positive, warm and cordial" meeting has on the immediate (weeks) and medium-range (months) future of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Israelis were pampered with 16 consecutive years of the Clinton and Bush administrations--with all due respect to the differences in historical and peace process context--showering them with weekly love letters. The unsentimental Obama brought to the forefront the core issue of whether Israel has turned from "asset" to "liability". To think that such a profound and fundamental shift is at all possible overnight and could be caused by one individual, even if he is the president of the United States, is both shallow and delusional. The issue deserves ample but separate attention. Suffice it to say that Israel was never the asset it thought it was and most certainly is not the liability some detractors portray it as becoming. The US and Israel have forged a very unique relationship, but the concepts of "asset" and "liability" are not intrinsic to it.
From an American policy point of view, cornering Netanyahu and exposing him as a non-partner was counterproductive, although the prime minister did his best--unintentionally perhaps--to vindicate those who didn't like him in Washington. Obama's idea last week was to press the restart button and treat Netanyahu as an ally in order to co-opt him into a serious peace process. If there are differences between us, goes the Obama logic, they are clearly substantive, not personal. If Netanyahu is incapable of or unwilling to engage, we'll take it from there.
The Obama grand strategy is to get Israelis and Palestinians to agree to a Clinton parameters-like framework. This would comprise a demilitarized Palestinian state on approximately 90-95 percent of the West Bank, with the three major settlement blocs incorporated into Israel in exchange for agreed-upon land swaps in compensation. Settlements situated east of the border will be dismantled gradually or be allowed to live under Palestinian sovereignty. Israel will maintain a military presence along the Jordan River for an agreed period of time. The "Right of Return" of Palestinian refugees will be fulfilled only in the newly-established Palestinian state. And Jerusalem will not be divided but most of Arab East Jerusalem will be Palestinian and a mechanism for joint sovereignty over parts of the Old City will be constructed.
The one potentially major outcome of the meeting is that if Obama finds out that Israel and/or the Palestinians are consistently intransigent, the Clinton parameters will soon become the "Obama vision". When that happens, no one will remember how great last week's meeting was.- Published 12/7/2010 © 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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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.