Here we go again. Assuming Israel and the US can overcome last-minute obstacles, two weak and problematic leaders from Jerusalem and Ramallah will soon be ushered into yet another renewed peace process by the United States.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu brings with him his own conflicted ideological baggage as well as a hard-line political coalition that will not tolerate significant concessions on his part. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has a stronger grip on the West Bank than he did even a few months ago but does not speak for Gaza. That territory is ruled by a Hamas leadership that, backed by Iran, could use force to torpedo the process at any time. Moreover, last November Abbas turned down a generous peace offer from Ehud Olmert that Netanyahu either cannot or will not match.
So Netanyahu is less attuned to the requirements of peace than Olmert and is theoretically less able to deliver, while Abbas is the same unyielding Abbas, only stronger politically in the West Bank. Plus ca change. . . . The real difference between this emerging process and its precursors is the Obama administration, which is doing two things differently from its predecessors. First, it is focusing on the entire Middle East and taking a uniquely integrative approach to the interaction among its crisis points: Iran, Iraq, Syria-Lebanon, Israel-Arab. And second, it has fastened upon a settlement freeze as a means of leveraging movement more or less simultaneously on a number of fronts, including Israeli-Palestinian talks and Arab confidence-building gestures drawn from the Arab Peace Initiative.
Thus far, progress registered by both of these administration departures is mixed. Iran-US talks may begin in parallel with Israeli-Palestinian talks but seem to enjoy as little prospect of success. The withdrawal from Iraq is problematic and the situation there far from stable. Syria has apparently still not fulfilled enough US requirements to warrant being brought into the process. And the settlement freeze, after draining administration attentions for half a year, is far from comprehensive or satisfying as a starting point for the process, reflecting both Netanyahu's political limitations and President Barack Obama's hesitations about pressuring Israel too hard.
Still, barring unforeseen disasters, this process will indeed resume, and soon. The most Netanyahu and Abbas seem in any way capable of achieving in the near term is a partial Israeli withdrawal or an agreement on borders, meaning a new kind of armistice line between Israel and the West Bank that determines the fate of the settlements on both sides and allows a Palestinian state to emerge. Even that would require Netanyahu to reorganize his coalition or initiate new elections and Abbas to effectively ignore Hamas in Gaza. On the other hand, the harder these negotiations become, the more tempting the Syrian track--with its potential regional payoff concerning Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and the militant Islamist movements--will look to both Netanyahu and Obama.
Finally, Obama's current demands from the moderate Arab states represent a significant American gamble with the huge potential represented by the Arab Peace Initiative. Obama wants the Arabs to begin "delivering" on their promise of eventual comprehensive normalization by offering small gestures before there is any movement at all toward peace. Obama is risking his and America's newly-established prestige in the Arab and Muslim worlds in return for an Arab down-payment on normalization as against a murky and obviously incomplete Israeli settlement freeze. Israel will continue building "only" 3,000 settlement units while Qatar, Oman, Morocco and Tunisia exchange low-level diplomatic interest sections with Jerusalem and Abbas comes grudgingly to the table.
If indeed this trade-off takes place, Netanyahu will have gotten the better of the deal. Yet we shouldn't begrudge him: if this encourages his right-wing supporters to contemplate genuine concessions for peace with the Palestinians while galvanizing the Arab world behind Obama's confrontation with Iran and his needs in Iraq, then the gambit will have succeeded. Certainly, Obama is correct in demanding more flexibility from the Arabs in living up to the promise of the API. But if Netanyahu now digs in and adopts intransigent positions toward the Palestinians, and/or if Arab support for Obama weakens, reflecting the pervading weakness of the entire Arab system, then valuable American and Arab capital will have been wasted and the API will have sustained a serious setback.
Almost everything depends on the Obama administration's capacity to move this integrated process forward in a forceful and synchronized manner. To that end, Obama has launched successful openings with the Arab and Muslim worlds that have improved relations markedly. Now he has to do the same with Israelis: he has to address us directly, reassure us that he supports our drive for a secure, democratic Jewish state at peace with its neighbors, and then--but only then--tell our government forcefully what he believes its part in the give-and-take of concessions has to be.- Published 14/9/2009 © bitterlemons.org
In the run-up to the meetings of the United Nations General Assembly and the Quartet later this month in New York, the region is witnessing feverish diplomatic activity.
George Mitchell, the US Middle East envoy, is holding meetings with Palestinian and Israeli leaders. Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, popped down to Cairo for talks with Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, has just concluded a tour of several Arab countries.
In parallel, Israeli officials have been eager to convince the Israeli media that a breakthrough is at hand, that a deal between Israel and the US on a settlement construction freeze is imminent, and that talks between Palestinians and Israelis can therefore begin.
That is the opposite of the impression one gets on the Palestinian side. There, it seems, there are still wide gaps between the positions of the various players, especially on the issue of a settlement construction freeze, and little progress is being made.
The US does appear to be using the media, especially as a means to affect public opinion in Israel and in that way influence government thinking. Certainly, Mitchell has been consistent in rejecting, clearly and publicly, any suggestion that Israel and the US have reached agreement over a settlement construction freeze. Washington will be aware that the Israeli public is pragmatic and very sensitive to US-Israel relations.
The Israeli government, however, is also using the media to influence public opinion. That would certainly explain the repeated reports of impending US-Israel agreement over settlement construction. Such reports had been heard again and again over the past three months. Yet no agreement has emerged.
On Sunday, when Mitchell and Netanyahu met, both acknowledged that no agreement had been reached. But in a briefing to an Israeli parliamentary committee on Monday, Netanyahu said that the only outstanding issue to be resolved between Washington and Tel Aviv was over the length of any settlement freeze, which he implied the US had agreed would not be total.
There has also been a lot of speculation about a possible American initiative once talks get back underway. But that speculation has had an unmistakable Israeli tint in that it is suggested talks would focus solely on borders, leaving issues such as Jerusalem and refugees for later. If that were the case, it would mark a departure from the relevant UN resolutions that have traditionally been the terms of reference for talks.
There is, undeniably, an urgent need to resume peace talks. But the foundation for such talks must be laid carefully. There is great danger in entering into premature talks just in order to get a process going. Another dead-end process will simply remind Palestinians of Annapolis and the public will no longer tolerate talks for the sake of talks. Such a process will only backfire and damage any renewed credibility for the Palestinian leadership.
President Abbas and Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, have worked hard to improve their public positions and have had some success recently. There are several reasons for this, including the Fateh conference and government successes in improving the economy and enhancing law and order. But one of the main reasons for that success is the consistent and clear position both have taken in rejecting resuming peace negotiations while Israel is allowed to continue settlement construction.
Should the Palestinian leadership be pressured into a peace process that is not preceded by a complete cessation of Israeli settlement construction in all occupied territory, this will undermine that leadership in the eyes of the Palestinian public and provide more ammunition to those opposed to peaceful negotiations as the means to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.- Published 14/9/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Centre. This article represents his personal views.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
by Nimrod Novik
When it comes to Arab-Israel matters, the Obama administration seems to be shooting too high. Much like the initial insistence on a "complete and absolute" settlement freeze, so the targeting of a permanent status agreement in one fell swoop turns the best into the enemy of the good.
Prolonging the stalemate and undermining the broad pro-freeze coalition in the US have been part of the high price paid by the administration for its recently aborted pursuit of an unqualified settlement freeze. Having designated the freeze as the trigger for a remarkably ambitious regional agenda, the president has spent too much of his first year in office on this matter alone, while the challenges ahead are far more demanding. Worse yet the administration, forced to compromise in the face of Israeli resistance, has already lost not only momentum but hard-to-restore credibility.
The prolonged negotiations--reportedly resulting in a mixture of a declared freeze that is limited in time and scope and undeclared undertakings regarding its applicability to Jerusalem and the terms for its extension--have left the two sides slightly bruised but with a better appreciation of each other's potency, vulnerabilities and constraints. Whether the agreed freeze ends settlement expansion into Palestinian territory remains to be seen. It seems likely though to serve as an important test case for Israeli compliance and American monitoring and enforcement in the Obama-Netanyahu era.
It appears that Washington has yet to apply the lessons of the freeze exercise to the broader agenda. If President Obama targets a permanent status agreement (PSA) in two years, he will again set an unattainable objective, waste valuable time in its futile pursuit and sentence his policy to either failure or the costly belated embrace of a lesser objective.
Of the many obstacles to a PSA, one looms largest in ruling out an agreement on this side of the horizon: Hamas veto power. Hamas is cognizant of the potency of such an agreement, when presented by President Mahmoud Abbas for a referendum or serving as his election platform, in undoing its electoral victory. Hence Hamas will act to prevent it--certainly as long as Hamas is excluded from the decision-making process.
Hamas' veto power may take the violent form of renewed rocket attacks on the Israeli civilian population, thus provoking Israel to reoccupy Gaza and making it impossible for Abbas to continue, let alone conclude, the negotiations. It may rely on legislative means that will again become relevant once Hamas' parliamentary majority is restored with the Israeli release of detained members of the Palestinian parliament as part of a Gilad Shalit/prisoner-exchange deal. And it may be imposed through intra-Palestinian violence.
While Palestinian reconciliation may resolve this issue, there are no signs that either side is prepared for the needed compromise or that third parties--first and foremost Syria--are willing and able to help. Moreover, even if reconciliation is achieved, the resulting joint negotiating platform is likely to fall far short of accommodating a PSA either. In any event, excluding Hamas from the process and hoping for the best is hardly a prescription for success.
A more gradual approach that takes account of this and other features of the regional setting may offer greater prospects for progress toward the administration's target of January 2011 as a reality-changing benchmark in the context of a regional realignment.
While a PSA should always remain the exclusive ultimate objective and the Arab Peace Initiative should be reinforced as the overall umbrella for the process, it appears that the road leading to a Palestinian-Israeli agreement may have to transit three corridors.
First, US-led Israeli-Palestinian negotiations should focus on the long forgotten Israeli commitment to implement a third further redeployment (FRD) from West Bank territory. Whether under a new title (to finesse the Oslo context) or not, this could involve the transfer of an additional 40 percent of the West Bank without removing a single settlement. It would affect the lives of many settlers who would not take it lightly. Yet mobilizing potent opposition would be a far greater challenge when the issue is convenience rather than a massive relocation. Such a move should strengthen the PA; would be difficult for Hamas to oppose; would improve life on the West Bank and offer construction opportunities on a large scale; and would facilitate the Fayyad Plan and send a potent signal of Israel's ultimate intentions. It offers the Obama administration a meaningful and deliverable achievement come January 2011.
Second, US leadership should prep the Syrian track, making it the focal point once the third FRD is agreed upon and implemented. Netanyahu seems ripe to pick up on Syria where he left off at the end of his previous term when his envoy, Ronald Lauder, presented Syria with a written offer for full withdrawal from the Golan in return for security arrangements and normalization of relations.
While Netanyahu will delay playing this card until the pressure to choose between Syria and a PSA with the Palestinians is effective, in accepting a two-state solution and a settlement freeze Netanyahu demonstrated that his "no" to Washington is often little more than an interim position.
Third, the impact on Hamas, Hizballah and Iran of a Syria deal would make intra-Palestinian reconciliation more likely and a return to Palestinian-Israeli negotiations a more reasonable proposition to Israelis and Palestinians alike. Moreover, in the context of a freeze, a third FRD and a deal with Syria, the Arab world could be expected to be more forthcoming on normalization with Israel--thus helping market the process to Israelis--and ready to chaperone Palestinian negotiators, thus enhancing prospects for success.- Published 14/9/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Dr. Nimrod Novik led the Israeli teams in several Arab-Israeli joint ventures including the $1.3 billion MIDOR refinery and the $550 million EMG gas pipeline. He chairs ECF, the NGO that launched the Oslo process. He served as senior policy advisor to the prime minister of Israel.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Last chance for a two-state solution
an interview with George Giacaman
bitterlemons: If Palestinian-Israeli negotiations resume soon, as widely reported, is it likely to be a serious process?
Giacaman: It depends. Reports that a declaration of Palestinian statehood, with US and European support, will be made in the next two years are one way of getting the parties to talk. The problem, of course, is that there is no guarantee that the first item on the list of things to be to discussed, namely borders, will result in clear agreement. And then we have the issues of Jerusalem and refugees.
Just as importantly, how will these negotiations proceed? We've seen several rounds of negotiations, starting with the Madrid talks 18 years ago, through the Camp David negotiations, the Taba talks and right up to the Annapolis process. If Palestinians and Israelis are left to negotiate on their own, the balance of power is such that, in my opinion, new talks will fail. Therefore, the role of the third parties will be crucial, particularly of the Obama administration but also of the Europeans. That will be key.
bitterlemons: According to recent reports, the issue of Jerusalem will not be on the table from the outset. In that context, surely a settlement construction freeze will also be a crucial issue?
Giacaman: Presently, as I understand it, the US and Israel are haggling over whether a settlement freeze should last nine months or a year. Meanwhile, the Israeli government has already said that it will continue construction in settlements in Jerusalem. So there are already many obstacles in the way. That is why a vigorous third-party role is needed.
bitterlemons: In the last round of negotiations, the Annapolis process, Ehud Olmert presented a final status offer that was rejected by the Palestinian side as not good enough. Palestinians are now negotiating with a far more right-wing Israeli government. What are the chances that this government will come anywhere close to Olmert's offer, let alone better it?
Giacaman: It will not, unless under serious pressure from the outside, or a new coalition government is formed. Again, without outside pressure most likely the talks will fail. This has been the experience of the past 18 years.
bitterlemons: Do you think the current US administration is prepared to take as active a role as you are advocating?
Giacaman: This is the crucial question. It remains to be seen to what extent it is able. Much depends on the political conditions inside the US, and how much political capital is available to Barack Obama. An improving economy will strengthen Obama domestically and help him to face down any possible opposition, which should be expected from the pro-Israel lobby and its allies in the US Congress. Domestic political conditions in the US will be an important factor.
This is a huge responsibility to place on the Obama administration and it is very dangerous on the wider stage. This is the last chance for a two-state solution. Should new talks fail, the political vacuum created will eventually simply be replaced by renewed and continued conflict. This, of course, will affect the entire region.
bitterlemons: Why do you think this is the last chance for a two-state solution?
Giacaman: I don't think we can expect, after 18 years of negotiations, another 18 years of negotiations. The Palestinian leadership, even during the Annapolis process, insisted on going straight to final status negotiations. This is the conclusion Palestinian leaders have drawn from the Oslo process. It is no good to leave all the outstanding issues to the end and never get there. I think everyone understands that they don't have an additional 10 or 15 years for negotiations. This is it.
bitterlemons: How might a resumption of negotiations affect the internal Palestinian division?
Giacaman: I don't accept the argument put forward by some that the internal Palestinian division weakens the position of the Palestinian side in negotiations. The reason is simple. If there is credible progress toward a two-state solution, then Mahmoud Abbas is strengthened and should a final agreement be drafted he can tell Hamas that he wants a referendum, something the movement has already agreed to. If a Palestinian state is established, I think it will be possible to have rapprochement between Fateh and Hamas, because unity negotiations will be over power-sharing.
If talks fail, then it will also be possible to have rapprochement, because Palestinians will have no choice but to go back to some form of resistance. That will also be a basis for some form of unified action with Hamas.
bitterlemons: But you don't expect a resumption of peace negotiations will affect unity negotiations one way or the other?
Giacaman: I think everybody is waiting to see what will happen. Either the talks will strengthen the Palestinian Authority or they will weaken it, in which case there will be questions over the future role of the Palestinian Authority. Palestinians never wanted the Palestinian Authority simply to operate as a large local authority or municipality to handle their day-to-day affairs.
bitterlemons: So you don't expect, even if negotiations last for a projected two years, that there will be a unity agreement in the meantime?
Giacaman: No, and I don't expect there to be elections either, simply because they are in neither party's interest at the moment .- Published 14/9/2009 © bitterlemons.org
George Giacaman is a professor at Birzeit University and contributes political analysis to Arab and international media. A collection of his writings from the second intifada will appear in 2009.
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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.