b i t t e r l e m o n s. o r g
    October 12, 2009 Edition 37                      Palestinian-Israeli crossfire
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Goldstone, Jerusalem and the future of negotiations
. The Goldstone report and its ramifications for Palestinian politics        by Ghassan Khatib
The peace camps in Israel and Palestine had different expectations from this American administration.
  . Damage survey        by Yossi Alpher
All in all, the task of US peace emissary George Mitchell became harder in recent weeks.
. Of tunnels, Goldstone and the "peace process"        by George Giacaman
Two separate factors may lead to an uprising against both the PA and Israel.
  . Bibi's rival        by Aluf Benn
Even when negotiations resume, they risk becoming a blame game rather than a vehicle for mutual trust.

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The Goldstone report and its ramifications for Palestinian politics
by Ghassan Khatib

The findings and recommendations of the Goldstone report were shocking to Israelis. They were furious at the warrant for Ehud Barak's arrest in London as a result of a court case brought by the families of the many victims of Israel's Gaza offensive. But the decision to support the deferral of a vote on the report in the UN's Human Rights Council has caused an earthquake in Palestinian politics.

Palestinians feel that a historic opportunity was missed to make Israel answer for its atrocities against them. This is especially important because throughout the history of the conflict, Palestinians have always failed to ensure that Israel be held accountable by the international community.

The Goldstone committee was appointed by the United Nations to investigate allegations of war crimes during Israel's offensive on Gaza earlier this year. It found that Israel and Hamas militants had committed war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity. It recommended that both sides investigate and punish those responsible. If that did not happen, the Goldstone commission's recommendations should be put to a vote in the Human Rights Council and then the Security Council. In case the latter could not agree to implement the report's recommendations, it would then be referred to the General Assembly, where a majority could send the case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

The decision of the Palestinian leadership to agree to a six-month deferral of the vote at the first stage of this process sparked an unprecedented wave of criticism from the public and political factions. This has weakened the public standing of the leadership. Indeed, it might be argued that the only reason the leadership has survived is the absence of any system of accountability, particularly the absence of a functioning legislative council.

This development came only a week after American pressure on President Mahmoud Abbas had pushed him to meet Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, in New York, without the latter agreeing to freeze Israeli settlement construction in occupied territory.

In both cases, the Palestinian leadership was put under pressure by Israel and the United States. In both cases, this has damaged the domestic standing of the leadership and offset any hard-won improvement in that standing, following the Fateh conference, the convening of the PLO's National Council and improvements to the economy and in the field of law and order achieved by the government.

While it is easy to understand the motives of Israel, whose right-wing leadership finds it more convenient to deal with Hamas rather than a moderate leadership, it is difficult to understand American motives. But whatever they are, the net outcome of this American approach has been to encourage the anti-peace leadership of Israel and the Hamas-led opposition in Palestine.

Resuming a new phase of the peace process without proper preparation and adherence to specific terms of reference such as the roadmap, will only result in a repetition of the Annapolis process and its outcome, failure. The peace camps in Israel and Palestine had different expectations from this American administration.- Published 12/10/2009 © 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.

Damage survey
by Yossi Alpher

In the course of the past two weeks, we have witnessed three key developments in Palestinian-Israeli relations.

One is, at least initially, an internal Palestinian and Arab issue: apparent progress in Egypt's efforts to bring about Fateh-Hamas rapprochement, create some form of unity government and set a date for Palestinian elections. If this prolonged initiative finally reaches fruition in the days ahead, it could have far-reaching ramifications for efforts to launch a new peace process between Israelis and Palestinians and for Israeli-Palestinian relations in general. One way or another, this dynamic will have to be revisited in the weeks ahead.

The other two developments are of more immediate and intense interest. One is the rioting and disturbances on and around the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif and elsewhere in the Jerusalem area. The other is the internal Palestinian controversy over President Mahmoud Abbas' decision--now reversed following heavy protests--to postpone Palestinian action in the United Nations over the Goldstone report. Taken together, both of these dynamics have weakened Abbas and harmed the momentum toward renewal of peace negotiations, to the delight of most of PM Binyamin Netanyahu's right-wing coalition and possibly of Netanyahu himself.

Interestingly, the two dynamics are quite different in nature. The disturbances in Jerusalem have reflected mainly Palestinian and broader Arab anger over the creeping expansion of Jewish settlement and archaeological excavation in East Jerusalem. The Sukkot holiday, a time of traditional Jewish pilgrimage to Jerusalem, generated right-wing Jewish incitement regarding the Temple Mount. This triggered an exaggerated Palestinian reaction that reflected underlying mistrust in the capacity and intentions of the Israeli authorities to protect Muslim interests in the Holy City. Israel's own militant Islamist movement, which has staked out a claim to protect Muslim interests in Jerusalem and whose campaign is intimately linked to internal Israeli Arab politics, happily jumped into the fray and fanned the flames.

There are many issues at play here. On the positive side, the Israel Police appear to have handled the disturbances skillfully and a long-predicted "third intifada" has not emerged. The Palestinian side clearly over-reacted. But the Palestinian Authority leadership was weakened.

What should concern us the most is the highly detrimental effect of Israel's expansionist policies in East Jerusalem as it was reflected in these disturbances. While the problem did not begin with Netanyahu, his defiant insistence on not implementing any sort of construction freeze in East Jerusalem and his resolve not to offer territorial or political concessions there appear to many Palestinians to leave them little alternative but to demonstrate.

True, the disturbances played right into Netanyahu's hands by seemingly "proving" that only Israel can maintain order in the city. Yet, the only people impressed by this logic are Netanyahu himself and his smug political allies.

Still another casualty of these events is Israeli-Jordanian relations. The Hashemite Kingdom, lest we forget, has specific responsibility for Jerusalem under the two countries' peace treaty. Turning to the latest twist in the Goldstone controversy, the report itself is bad for negotiations. It is liable to constrain Israel's capacity in future to combat attacks by militant Islamist Hamas. This can only strengthen Hamas and weaken Fateh/PLO, Israel's negotiating partner. Israel may also be less flexible about territorial concessions in future negotiations if it fears it will not be able to respond freely to aggression.

Lest we forget, Fateh silently applauded Israel's January offensive in Gaza and brutally repressed protests in the West Bank at the time. It's not clear exactly what combination of Israeli incentives and admonitions led Abbas to decide to postpone action on the report. But he made a wise decision, and the ensuing Palestinian protest that caused him to back down is bad news. All in all, the task of US peace emissary George Mitchell became harder in recent weeks.- Published 12/10/2009 © bitterlemons.org

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

Of tunnels, Goldstone and the "peace process"

by George Giacaman

In late September 1996, a tunnel was dug under the Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. Protests in Jerusalem and the West Bank almost immediately flared once the news was out. A mini-intifada ensued. The demonstrators accused the Israeli government of attempting to undermine the foundations of the mosque, threatening its collapse. The Israeli prime minister then was Binyamin Netanyahu.

In early September 2009, Palestinians discovered that a new and wider tunnel is being dug under the Aqsa Mosque. Then, in the first week of October, Israeli right-wing groups called on supporters to go and "visit" the mosque. The Israeli police let them in and several days of protests by Palestinians ensued. Even the government of Jordan felt impelled to intervene lest things get out of hand. These incidents also happened on Netanyahu's watch, now prime minister again.

The US administration also intervened, asking the Israeli government to calm things down for fear that this might provoke wider protests, even a third intifada, possibly already waiting to happen. But by then, demonstrations were taking place against the Palestinian Authority and Mahmoud Abbas personally for asking the PLO delegate in Geneva to support postponement of a vote on the Goldstone report by the UN's Human Rights Council, when, according to several close observers of council meetings, a clear majority was ready to approve the report. Abbas was vilified personally and calls for his resignation were made.

These are two separate factors that may lead to an uprising against both the PA and Israel.

The US administration's concern is clearly any possible "peace process" that it is laboring to resume. So far, George Mitchell, the US envoy in charge of renewing Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, has visited the region seven times. No major results have been achieved and on the question of freezing settlement construction, it seems that Netanyahu has won out. Reports suggest that the US administration is now dropping the whole issue in favor of going directly to negotiations.

The Palestinian side fears a repeat performance of previous failures, including the Annapolis process that ended with no result toward the end of 2008. It is therefore insisting on agreement first on the starting point of any talks, such as that negotiations are premised on agreement that the 1967 borders are the reference point, rather than from point zero, which the Netanyahu government wants.

The performance of the Obama administration has so far been weak while results have been miniscule. Barack Obama's Nobel prize was clearly not for results, but for his declared intentions, to bolster his efforts and in the hope that he might achieve something substantial, including a stable and just settlement to the conflict in Palestine.

These hopes are diminishing, at least as far as the conflict in Palestine is concerned, but have not completely vanished, certainly not on the part of the PA--even in the face of Israeli intransigence and the continued theft of Palestinian land. The very existence of the PA depends on the continuation of the "peace process". That is partly the reason why it accepted to postpone voting on the Goldstone report. After all, Netanyahu had threatened publicly that there would be no such process if the report was voted on and accepted.

But time is running out, and Obama has already declared a two-year deadline to achieve a settlement or agreement for a settlement. His reputation is also at stake and maybe his second term chances, even if domestic achievement in the US is more important to US voters. But this is not the perspective of the Nobel prize grantees, nor is it the perspective of the peoples of the world who cling to the hope that Obama seemed to promise.

It will be tragic indeed if he fails. It will be even more tragic if self-serving Israeli politicians make him fail in the Middle East.- Published 12/10/2009 © bitterlemons.org

George Giacaman is a professor at Birzeit University and contributes on a regular basis political analysis for Arab and international media.

Bibi's rival

by Aluf Benn

Israel's relations with the Palestinian Authority combine security cooperation with diplomatic warfare. While the West Bank is relatively calm and its economy is growing, bitter rivalry prevails at the political level. The mutual dislike and mistrust between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was clearly visible in the failed New York summit imposed upon them by American President Barack Obama last month.

Netanyahu's predecessors, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, portrayed Abbas as the "good Palestinian", a moderate leader who rejects violence and a more convenient interlocutor than the bad guys, Yasser Arafat and Hamas. During Olmert's reign, Abbas was the most frequent foreign visitor to the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem. All this ended when Netanyahu took office six months ago. Bibi views Abbas not as a peace partner but as a diehard adversary of the state of Israel.

A senior Israeli official told me that Abbas is responsible for the anti-Israel campaign abroad and called the Palestinian president "a certified Holocaust denier"--referring to Abbas' 1982 PhD dissertation in which he doubted the number of Jews murdered by the Nazis. While the story is well known, it is no coincidence that it was raised from the ashes at a time when at the top of Netanyahu's PR agenda is the fight against Holocaust denial. It undermines Abbas' legitimacy, equating him with Israel's arch-rival, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinezhad.

Politically, Netanyahu and Abbas promote opposing agendas. Abbas demands a deal on all outstanding issues based on the 1967 borders, while Netanyahu wants to preserve the territorial status quo under the guise of "economic peace", a "bottom-up process" or a "demilitarized Palestinian state" within unspecified borders.

From an Israeli perspective, Abbas has committed two mistakes: rejecting Olmert's September 2008 proposal, which went further than any previous Israeli final-status blueprint; and giving an arrogant interview last May to Jackson Diehl of The Washington Post in which Abbas pledged to sit tight until Obama pushes Netanyahu out of office. This was a boon for Netanyahu--the ultimate evidence that Abbas is a hopeless rejectionist committed to the "right of return" who will never compromise. Israeli public opinion, when it bothers to think of Abbas at all, views him as a figurehead who is kept in his powerless Ramallah office by Israeli bayonets. Netanyahu pays no domestic political price for shrugging him off.

Netanyahu played the same trick as Sharon did in 2001. Both opposed a final-status deal that would strip Israel of its control over the West Bank and East Jerusalem, yet were able to portray the Palestinian leaders--Arafat at Camp David, Abbas in his negotiations with Olmert--as naysayers. This "no partner" policy generates priceless domestic fruits as it facilitates a virtual consensus behind the right-wing prime minister's position and quells the left-wing opposition.

The Palestinians exploit their advantage in the arena of UN and global public opinion as a balancing act against Israel's military superiority and alliance with America. Previous Israeli governments accepted as a fact of life the duality of talking peace and security cooperation while sparring diplomatically. Netanyahu, who began his career as Israel's UN ambassador and top TV propagandist abroad, does not. Along with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu has launched a policy of "diplomatic activism" aimed at counterattacking the Palestinians in their home base: the media and multilateral forums.

The first test for the new policy was the Goldstone report on Israel's "Operation Cast Lead" last January in Gaza, which chided Israel for alleged war crimes. The report, commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council, was a public relations disaster for Israel, portraying it as a brutal police state led by war criminals and committing grave crimes against humanity. Netanyahu decided to fight back, targeting Abbas. Israel accused the Palestinian leader of doublespeak: even as he is kept in power by Israel's security organs, he asks the UN to indict his protectors as war criminals.

Backed by a combination of direct threats and American-supported diplomatic maneuvers, Israel demanded that Abbas hold off on initiating UN follow-up proceedings to the Goldstone report. This succeeded beyond expectations: Abbas backed off from the UN discussion, in effect deferring the Goldstone follow-up. But then Abbas became the target of a backlash, as Hamas and other political opponents accused him of bowing to Israel's will.

The response came several days later, when the PA led a diplomatic counteroffensive over Jerusalem. Citing plans of right-wing Jewish extremists to visit the Temple Mount during Sukkot, the PA prompted Washington and Amman to pressure Netanyahu to forgo a visit to Silwan and to keep Jewish visitors away from the Muslim holy shrines. The feared explosion of violence was prevented, at least for now.

But the diplomatic fighting goes on. Israel now demands that during peace negotiations, Abbas refrain from acting against it in multilateral bodies and international courts. For Netanyahu, this represents a proper "code of conduct". The Palestinians, naturally, refuse to forego this trump card vis-a-vis Israel. In addition, Netanyahu plans to counterattack the global network of pro-Palestinian NGOs that is leading the campaign to delegitimize and boycott Israel. By holding Abbas responsible for their actions, even if indirectly, Netanyahu would use Israel's considerable leverage over the PA to restrain these anti-Israel activists.

While obviously preferable to violence and bloodshed, this diplomatic cat and mouse maneuver ensures that even when negotiations resume, they risk becoming a blame game rather than a vehicle for mutual trust and understanding.- Published 12/10/2009 © bitterlemons.org

Aluf Benn is the editor-at-large of Haaretz.

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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.