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    November 16, 2009 Edition 42                      Palestinian-Israeli crossfire
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  Obama's options
  . Reverse your approach        by Yossi Alpher
Some Palestinian unilateral ideas constitute a departure from traditional demands and are worthy of Obama's attention.
. Recognize Palestinian statehood now        by Ghassan Khatib
A unilateral Palestinian declaration of statehood, recognized and encouraged by the international community, could promote stability.
  . Obama's impossible vision        by Yisrael Harel
It is Palestinian time that is running out.
. Peace or process?        by Akram Baker
It is now time to finally abandon "process" and make a drive for peace.

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Reverse your approach
by Yossi Alpher

US President Barack Obama learned too late that if you pressure a right-wing Israeli prime minister--for example, as we saw last Monday, merely by refusing to see him until the last minute and then preventing media coverage of the meeting--he'll arrive in a heavy sweat, then fall over himself making peace commitments. Had a few of these traditional forms of pressure been invoked by Obama half a year ago, when Netanyahu's coalition was just forming and none of its members would have risked their perks and pensions because of a few settlements, Obama might have gotten a real settlement construction freeze that ushered in a real peace process.

Now it's too late. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already pronounced Netanyahu's relatively minor gestures "unprecedented" and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) has embarrassed himself several times over by bending to Obama's promises. Factor in the on-again-off-again possibility of Palestinian elections and of Abu Mazen not running in them, as well as Hamas' cagey attitude toward a new unity framework and agreed election date, and we not only do not have an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, we don't even know when one will begin.

Obama is not the only or even the main player at fault. Blame should start with Netanyahu, Abu Mazen and the moderate Arab states, all of whom have made the freshman US president's Middle East life pretty exasperating. Nevertheless, Obama's original pledge to engage in depth appears still to be valid. Hence the media, along with politicians on both sides, have presented him with a broad selection of options for his next move--the kind that emerge like mushrooms after a rain when the process appears to be stuck.

One is to "pull a Jim Baker", freeze American involvement and tell Israelis and Palestinians to get in touch when they're finally serious. As I recall, that tactic didn't last long even with Baker in his day.

Another is to double the pressure on both sides, but particularly on Netanyahu, until Abu Mazen can "save face" and sit down together with Netanyahu. That may well have been the tenor of the Obama-Netanyahu discussion last week. The problem here is that even when they do sit down, it appears doubtful--in view of their known positions and despite Netanyahu's well-known protestations to the contrary--that any significant peace process will get started. Here Obama might want to listen to the many friendly Israelis who have urged him to come to Israel and address the public directly--not through Netanyahu or the American Jewish community--in order to galvanize support for the concessions he is calling for.

Then there are the diverse Palestinian unilateral ideas that have emerged in the recent months of stalemate. They are problematic. But insofar as they constitute a departure from traditional Palestinian "all or nothing" demands, they are worthy of Obama's attention.

Thus, PM Salam Fayyad has launched a two-year process of unilateral state-building that in some ways dovetails with Netanyahu's "economic peace" and Tony Blair's efforts on behalf of the Quartet. But there is no clearly-defined territorial framework or political deadline in sight. Most recently, Fateh leaders have been talking of a unilateral declaration of independence in the entire West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem to be ratified by the United Nations. But they have no control over Gaza, East Jerusalem or most of the West Bank and they declared independence already 21 years ago.

At the global level, there are reports of a joint US-Russian initiative to convene a multilateral peace conference in Moscow and internationalize the solution. That boomeranged at Geneva in 1977, thankfully bringing Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem, and launched a peace process at Madrid in 1991.

In Israel, the flavor of the week is Shaul Mofaz's "sixty percent" plan to withdraw from additional parts of the West Bank and allow the emergence of a provisional Palestinian state there, with international guarantees regarding everything to follow. Mofaz, a former IDF chief of staff and defense minister who is challenging Tzipi Livni's leadership of the Kadima party, appears to have consulted with a lot of Israelis but no Palestinians about his plan. Particularly pathetic is his offer to talk to Hamas: on condition that they first accept his plan, or alternatively that they accept the Quartet's conditions--apparently it's not quite clear even to Mofaz.

Once Obama has sifted through all these ideas, he might consider this synthesis of their implications. On the Israeli-Palestinian front, the two sides are not ripe for a comprehensive solution to all their claims. Hence some sort of limited or partial process is worth looking into; it could conceivably be linked to international recognition of a Palestinian state without final borders in accordance with roadmap phase II.

But this would be a gradual process. Meanwhile, the regional situation is pressing and Obama needs results. Hence an Israeli-Syrian peace process beckons. The regional payoff yielded by a successful process, in the form of a weakening of the Syrian-Iranian relationship and of Syria's support for Hamas and Hizballah, would be immediate. It would help the US in Iraq and with Iran and would also support Palestinian-Israeli peace by weakening Hamas. Syrian President Bashar Assad appears to be interested and to know the price demanded of him in terms of regional and ideological orientation. Netanyahu might find it easier politically to make territorial concessions designed to weaken Iran.

All this requires of Obama that he reverse the approach regarding Israel-Palestine that got him into this impasse, drop his preconditions regarding Syria and elevate Syria-Israel to top priority.- Published 16/11/2009 © 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.

Recognize Palestinian statehood now
by Ghassan Khatib

The failure of the Obama administration to launch a serious negotiating process between the PLO and Israel has led to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, announcing that he will not seek re-election. He cited Washington's inability to ensure an Israeli settlement construction freeze as well as American bias toward Israel as the main reasons.

This has created a serious crisis not only for the peace process, but for US Middle East policy in general. It is a crisis that will be magnified because of the interrelation between the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and other Middle East conflicts, in addition to the fact that no vacuum is possible in this region: when there is no move toward peace, it only provides room for war and violence.

At the same time, the crisis should give pause for reflection, especially for the US administration. Theoretically, we can go in one of two possible directions from here. The crisis can either lead us back to violent confrontations and the unmasked reality of military occupation, or it can move us forward toward ending the occupation, Palestinian statehood and a two-state solution.

A two-state solution still appears to be the preferred goal of the international community. However, the international community is laboring under a problematic concept: that the only way to get there is through agreement between the two parties. This needs to be reconsidered. The concept presupposes Israeli consent. However, Israel has proven reluctant to embrace a two-state solution, certainly a reasonably just one, and has instead used the imbalance of power to prevent any agreement from emerging. For as long as Israel can do this, it has no incentive to end the occupation.

There is an alternative, however, but it would require that the international community take over the responsibility for ending the occupation from Israel, the occupying power. This can be done through the United Nations. Israel, for example, was not established through agreement. Israel was established because of two factors, Israeli readiness for statehood and international recognition, both coming after a UN resolution calling for the establishment of two states.

Since one of the two states already exists, since the Palestinian side is ready for statehood and in the light of more than one Security Council resolution legitimizing two states, one way out of the current impasse is by encouraging the Palestinian side to declare a state on the 1967 borders of and on the basis of international legality and relevant Security Council resolutions, while ensuring international recognition for this state in the UN and encouraging the different members of the international community to begin to deal with Palestinians and Israelis on the basis of this new political and legal reality.

A unilateral Palestinian declaration of statehood, recognized and encouraged by the international community, could promote stability, end hostility and create a better atmosphere for these two states to negotiate the remaining aspects of their relations, such as solving the refugee issue and sorting out security arrangements and other aspects of bilateral relations. This would include the presence of Jewish settlers in the Palestinian state and their illegal use of sovereign Palestinian resources, such as land and water.

The move would primarily clarify the situation and should enable the international community to act more decisively. Israel, under the new set of circumstances, would be occupying the sovereign territory of a neighboring country, thus determining its relations with the international community.

Of course, the US is crucial to the success or otherwise of this scenario. However, the two-state solution is part of the American vision for this region. Since it is Israeli intransigence that is preventing the two-state solution from emerging, the above alternative offers one viable path for the Obama administration to see the two-state vision come to fruition. Published 16/11/2009 © 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.

Obama's impossible vision

by Yisrael Harel

There is no place outside the United States (where, in view of the likelihood of Senate approval of health reform, the situation is a bit different) where people are not disappointed in President Barack Obama. This is not an entirely justified disappointment: anyone with eyes in their head, particularly here in the Middle East, should have known at some point that his commitments and style could not produce the results he promised. True, the man has vision, charisma and natural leadership qualities, but the trees he has climbed are too high.

If Abu Mazen (Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas), for example, truly believed that Obama would succeed in completely ceasing settlement construction and then bring about the dismantling of the settlements and an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines, he provided Israelis and Arabs yet further proof that he is not a statesman. And the Israelis quaking with fear, especially after Obama's Cairo speech, lest he abandon Israel on the altar of reconciliation with the Muslim world, did not understand the strategic and psychological constraints that would prevent him, even if he wanted to (and he doesn't), from sacrificing Israel.

In most of the foreign policy arenas where Obama is unsuccessful in implementing his plans (except Iran) the main reason is that it's impossible to do so, unless he changes the rules of the game completely, particularly regarding the deployment of military forces several times larger than those currently in the region. Yet this contradicts both his ideology and his mandate. Besides, Congress would never approve, nor would the other powers, led by China and Russia.

In the Middle East, outside of Iran, there is no need for the American army. Diplomatic pressure will do, though even here Obama is beginning to realize that his vision enjoys no real support--aside from the rhetoric of a few so-called leaders--among the Israeli and Palestinian publics he is trying to serve. The vision, ostensibly so noble, has collided with reality.

Obama's vision, first formulated by the Israeli left years ago, is two states for two peoples. Had the president of the United States done his homework and not relied on an ideology without foundations or bowed to the pressures of his closest aides (themselves influenced by far-left Israelis trying to weaken their government through their access to the White House and other centers of power), he would have discovered that his vision is a non-starter. Those in the Arab world with the real influence and power--not just Hamas--oppose it forthrightly. Even the Israelis who pay lip service to the two-state vision, like PM Binyamin Netanyahu in his Bar Ilan speech, in fact reject it. Indeed, even the moderate Zionist left that used to believe in this solution now has its reservations--not because it opposes giving up territory, but because it has lost faith in the sincerity of the Palestinian offer to make peace with a Jewish state on the basis of two states for two peoples.

Accordingly, some of the proposals voiced in the media--and, lo and behold, taken seriously by the White House and State Department--to "deal head-to-head" with this or that leader (read: Netanyahu) are not serious, even childish. Like Obama himself, Netanyahu, even if pressed to the wall, cannot bend beyond his own capacity for political survival. Hence he withstood the pressure of an impossible American diktat to freeze all settlement construction, including in Jerusalem.

With Abu Mazen the situation is far worse. First, Obama's rhetoric thwarted him: it raised his expectations to the sky and led him to make commitments, such as not meeting with Netanyahu until a freeze is in place, that he cannot keep if he wants to see any movement at all. In any case, his own status among his public is at best symbolic: even without binding himself with rhetoric, he can't really make significant commitments in the name of Palestinians. When he has committed, for example regarding an end to terrorism, his opponents have proven with Qassam rockets and suicide bombers that the president of Palestine has no authority.

So what should Obama do? If he applies pressure, it will only generate more terrorism by Hamas and other Palestinian opposition groups, and this is the opposite of what he wants to achieve. Nor is toppling Netanyahu an option. That won't bring the Israeli left to power, but even if it did, there is today no leader there who can unite the public around a withdrawal to the 1967 lines and the dismantling of settlements--the American "vision". In a way, Netanyahu is the only leader who can move, within limits, in coordination with the Americans and hope to survive. The "only the Likud can" slogan is spot on when it comes to making territorial concessions, as Menachem Begin did in Sinai and Ariel Sharon in Gaza. A left-wing government could not have done it; the right would have flooded the streets with tens of thousands of demonstrators to prevent the dismantling of settlements.

So is there a way out? Not for the moment. In the longer run, if there emerges a Palestinian leadership capable of committing all factions to its decisions and if the decision is to go for a two-state solution, I believe the Israeli public will offer its support, subject to the following minimal conditions. First, the Palestinians forego the right of return. Second, the settlements remain in place. And third, Palestinians do not receive land inside Israel as "swaps" for the "settlement blocs".

After the trauma of the Qatif bloc in which "only" some 10,000 settlers were removed, I doubt any Israeli government could remove all or even most of the settlers in Judea and Samaria in accordance with the Palestinians' (and Americans') minimal demand. Both the Palestinians and the Obama administration must recognize that the talk of "time is in the Arabs' favor" is in fact wrong. When Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo accords there were around 150,000 Jewish settlers. Today, despite the (incomplete) settlement construction freeze, nearly 300,000 Jews live in the territories. They are determined soon to reach half a million--and they will.

Thus it is Palestinian time that is running out.- Published 16/11/2009 © bitterlemons.org

Yisrael Harel heads the Institute for Zionist Strategy in Jerusalem and writes a weekly political column in Haaretz. He founded the Yesha Council (Council of Jewish Settlements in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza District) and headed it for 15 years.

Peace or process?

by Akram Baker

I am deeply hesitant to use the oft-unjustified phrase "a moment of truth" when referring to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But I have the nagging sensation that we have finally arrived there nonetheless. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' threat to resign and not seek another term in office, US President Barack Obama's seemingly complete failure to convince Israel to halt its illegal settlement activity and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's complete yet strangely-honest disregard for anything resembling peace has shed the hated "peace-process" of any and all pretentions. These factors, in addition to other broader issues (such as the European Union's lethargy, the Taliban's resurgence and the complete breakdown of intra-Palestinian dialogue) have led us by the nose to the edge of the abyss. It is now time to finally abandon "process" and make a drive for peace.

It is said that great events make great men, but the truth is often less appealing. If Barack Obama is to emerge as a great leader (as opposed to a successful politician), he needs to recognize and confront a few facts. The first is that there are no leaders among the group of politicians currently in power in the Middle East. Abbas has been the caretaker of a non-entity since the death of Yasser Arafat five years ago, destined to pathos from the outset. Paradoxically, his threat of resignation is probably the first decision he has made in half a decade that may have real consequences. By removing the fig leaf that is the Palestinian Authority, Israel's nakedness also comes into full view. As for Netanyahu, he has never been anything more than a vainglorious wannabe, hell bent on ending any hope of a just resolution. The one thing in his favor is that he has never changed his stripes and Obama would be wise to recognize this.

The second fact is that there will never be Israeli security without Palestinian security: i.e., the end of the Israeli occupation of lands conquered during the June 1967 war. The heralded two-state solution based on international law and legitimacy is more distant today than ever before, buried under the rubble heaped high by Israeli bulldozers. There is simply not enough land left in occupied territory that isn't pockmarked with Jewish settlements. Ever since the launch of the current peace process 18 years ago, the failure of consecutive American administrations (not to mention the toothless Europeans) to rein in their client state has been breathtaking. President Bill Clinton, after meeting Netanyahu during the latter's first term as prime minister, is said to have remarked to one of his aides, "Who the hell does this guy think is the superpower here?" It seems that President Obama may be asking the same question today. A large part of the future of the Middle East depends on the answer.

Third is the fact that elections do not make democracy. Voting in a secure environment as part of a state governed by the rule of law, that is democracy. The Palestinians have neither a state nor law, so elections are not only useless but counterproductive, especially so when the liberal western democracies rejected the last election when they didn't like the outcome. Abbas' imminent resignation and/or the dissolution of the Palestinian non-Authority will not kill the peace process; that has been dead a long time. What it will do is expose the myth of the process itself. When Israel complains that it has no real partner, it is right. There hasn't been one in almost 20 years and Israel has done a wonderful job in keeping it that way. By bidding "adios", Abbas is doing his people, Obama and even the Israeli people a favor.

There are only two possible outcomes to this drama: the end of the Israeli occupation of Palestine as enshrined in UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, with Jerusalem as the capital of two states, or the gradual absorption of the Palestinians within the state of Israel itself. Despite the woeful shortcomings of the original Oslo accords, there was a slim chance to make real progress during the Rabin government. After his assassination, however, not one Israeli or American administration was serious about bringing an end to the conflict. Being serious means paying the price in real terms for political boldness. Barack Obama now stands at this crossroads.

He can follow his predecessors' game plan and waste more years, lives and treasure trying to tiptoe between the raindrops. At some point however (and probably soon), the forces of desperation will take hold and will find a long line of hopeless people waiting to throw restraint (and bombs) to the wind. Or Obama can throw caution to the wind and make an all out push to implement the settlement that everyone knows is the only option. Hold Israel accountable for its actions, demand that it fulfill its obligations, or withdraw US financial and political support for the occupation. It can and should be gradual, but the pressure must be clear. Demand and hold the Arabs accountable for their actions, just the same, or withdraw political and financial support for their regimes.

I know that there is a real struggle going on in the heart of the US administration about how to go forward. But with Abbas' resignation, it is clear that the game is up. If Barack Obama wants to succeed where every other US president has failed over the past 30 years, he will have to move with the strength, boldness and hope that he so poignantly envisioned during his campaign and his Cairo speech. After 18 years of a fruitless peace process, it is time to take the steps necessary to end this conflict once and for all. The US has the power, methods and means to pull this off. I am sure that Europe will fully support his efforts. I am even sure that the majority of Arabs and Israelis will be thankful and support him in the long run. He would be risking a major backlash from occupation apologizers, but great things never happened because an opinion poll said so. To paraphrase the motto of the NAACP, a chance for peace is a terrible thing to waste.- Published 16/11/2009 © bitterlemons.org

Akram Baker is an independent political analyst.

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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.