Speculation about the Obama administration's preparations to launch its own Israel-Arab peace plan began on April 7 with an op-ed article by David Ignatius in the Washington Post and a similar New York Times web-post by Helene Cooper. Both articles cited discussions led by National Security Advisor James Jones with a gallery of his predecessors in which President Barack Obama himself recently participated. Those discussions appear to have taken as their point of departure the well-founded assessment that US peace efforts thus far have gotten nowhere and that renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, direct or indirect, are almost certain to fail.
Both articles were probably the result of calculated administration leaks destined to test the wind regarding the US peace plan idea. And test they should, because jumping from the current stalemate to the idea of dropping an American peace plan on the parties is a dangerous presumption. This fallacy was perhaps best expressed in a confident quote from the Ignatius article: "'Everyone knows the basic outlines of a peace deal,' said one of the senior officials, citing the agreement that was nearly reached at Camp David in 2000 and in subsequent negotiations."
In fact, no one knows the basic outlines of a peace deal concerning the refugee and Jerusalem Holy Basin issues. On these core or existential issues, Israelis and Palestinians remain as far apart as ever. The views expressed over the years on these issues by both Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are blatantly contradictory. Abortive final status negotiations undertaken on these issues in 2000 and 2008 merely highlighted the gaps. An attempt by an American plan to bridge these gaps would be artificial and would provoke angry rejection by both parties.
Further, an American peace plan, to be in any way effective, would have to encounter Israeli and Palestinian leaders strong enough politically not only to negotiate but to make deals. Neither Abbas nor Netanyahu meets this criterion.
Discussion of a last-resort American plan seemingly implies that all avenues for negotiated Middle East peace have been exhausted. In fact, this is not the case. Rather, the administration has wasted more than a year on a settlement freeze as a prelude to renewed (and almost certainly fruitless) Israel-PLO negotiations while ignoring or under-valuing parallel opportunities that could reinforce Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects. One of these is Israeli-Syrian negotiations. Another is the need to reassess failed strategies regarding Hamas in Gaza and look for better ways to stabilize the situation there--a sine qua non for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Then, too, there is the Fayyad plan for Palestinian state-building.
The Fayyad plan brings us full circle back to the question of a unilateral American diplomatic initiative. Clearly the Obama administration, like its predecessors, needs to be seen to be advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace, if only to maintain a degree of regional stability and advance US strategic agendas in AfPak, Iran and Iraq. This is the immediate political meaning of the recent Petraeus statement linking a failed Israeli-Palestinian peace process to American difficulties elsewhere in the region. And clearly, too, Israelis and Palestinians are not up to the task.
Palestinian Authority PM Salam Fayyad intends to complete his state-building initiative by August 2011 and present the international community with the fait accompli of a Palestinian state apparatus capable of delivering on security, law and order and economic development but devoid of control over sufficient territory to be viable. Assuming (a safe assumption under current circumstances) that Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have still made little or no progress, this will then--as it is today--be the only successful game in town. Note that a solution to the refugee and Holy Basin issues is not part of the Fayyad plan, which deals with the territorial and sovereignty questions.
If the Obama administration is going to take an initiative that has any chance of success, this would be the time and these would be the circumstances: sponsor UN Security Council recognition of this Palestinian achievement, anchor it in the 1967 borders (with appropriate land swaps) and invite Israel and the new Palestinian state, with the support of the Arab Peace Initiative, to negotiate the territorial modalities.
This notion of where the American contribution might lie is not divorced from current thinking in Washington. On April 15, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace that "the United States supports two tracks in the Middle East--negotiations between the parties aimed at reaching a two-state solution and also institution building that lays the necessary foundation for a future state." If Clinton can put the two tracks on a par, and in view of the obvious chasm separating Fayyad's success thus far from the abject failure of Mitchell-Netanyahu-Abbas, then the Palestinian state-building project is where an American initiative should plan to focus.- Published 19/4/2010 © bitterlemons.org
The failure of US efforts to bring Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table has prompted officials in Washington, the region as well as analysts everywhere to think of alternative approaches.
Among these, the idea of an American-designed solution recently surfaced again. The suggestion is that the US will either draw up the principles for a solution that would then be implemented after discussions between the parties on detail, or the US will propose its own detailed solution that the parties might find hard to reject.
The idea is similar to attempts by President Bill Clinton, after the Camp David negotiations in 2000, to suggest certain parameters for a solution in what later became known as the Clinton plan. His failure is among the arguments used by those trying to discourage the current US administration from repeating the approach.
Another deterrent for the Obama administration is the prompt and clear negative Israeli reaction to any such possibility. Israeli suspicions stem mainly from the widely publicized differences between Israel and the US over several aspects relating to the peace process.
The Palestinians have been less explicit in their reaction. Saeb Erekat, the chief negotiator, made a vague reference to the possibility in what was understood by analysts as positive.
But while there hasn't been a clear official position, there have been lively internal debates. Those who support the idea are encouraged by a few factors. The US appears genuinely enthusiastic about finding a solution and has shown this in part by attempting to discourage Israel's settlement expansion policy. Secondly, the US is unlikely to veer much, in drafting a solution, from the stipulations and requirements of international law. The resolutions of the UN Security Council, including the roadmap, should therefore be among the main guiding principles in any US-proposed solution.
Those opposed, however, are arguing against the idea mainly because Palestinians can neither afford a solution that is not based completely on international law--which explicitly calls for a complete end to the occupation of all territory occupied in 1967 and a rights-based solution to the refugee issue--nor can they afford to reject any American proposal. The latter is especially true in light of the relative weakness of the Palestinian leadership as a result of the domestic Palestinian division, as well as the dependence of the Palestinian Authority on the political and financial support of the international community in which the US administration is a decisive element.
One of the factors that will determine whether a US-drafted solution would stand a good chance of success is to what extent the US bases any such proposal on consultations with other international players who also have interests and influence in the Middle East. These include the members of the Quartet, not least the EU, which has shown for the first time a unified Middle East policy as presented in the statement of the European Council of Ministers in December last year.
The success of a US solution will also depend on the extent to which it reflects international consensus and international legality, because the only arguments against such a proposal by any of the parties would represent a clear deviation from those. The more the US coordinates with its international partners, the higher the likelihood of success.- Published 19/4/2010 © 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
It's not the plan but the process
by Yossi Beilin
The rumors concerning a US administration intention to present a new Middle East peace plan in the fall worry me. Not because this would be a bad plan. Quite the contrary, I think I know exactly what will be in it.
But an American peace plan is a substitute for, rather than a prelude to, a peace process. And what the parties need right now is a process.
Peace processes sponsored by the United States may not all have succeeded, but at least they were welcomed and used by the parties and in some cases generated real progress. In 1978, there was a framework agreement between Israel and Egypt that comprised talks on Palestinian self-government. Those talks were a bad joke; they dissolved against the backdrop of the First Lebanon War. Then there was the Madrid Conference that formulated a complex and interesting procedure for talks between Israel and its neighbors. Those talks led to the Oslo agreement and the Israel-Jordan peace, but Syria and Lebanon abandoned them and never returned.
The Shepherdstown negotiations ended in January 2000 without any dramatic announcement, and were only renewed with abortive Turkish mediation during the days of PM Ehud Olmert. Final status talks with the Palestinians ceased at Taba in 2001 with a promise to renew them after elections in Israel--a promise never redeemed, unless one counts Olmert's abortive talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) that fell somewhere between negotiations and non-binding discussions over a good lunch.
The hope that Barack Obama's election as president of the United States would bring about renewed talks between Israel and its neighbors has thus far not been realized. Nearly a year has been wasted on pathetic negotiations regarding modalities of a settlement freeze. This represents a failure for Senator George Mitchell, who lent his hand to an absurd formulation that did not lead to renewed talks but did grant indirect American legitimization to ongoing settlement.
The system has collapsed into genuine paralysis. Syria is ready only for indirect talks with Turkish mediation, and even this looks less and less practical now. Abbas cannot renew final status talks without a genuine settlement freeze, at least for three or four months, while Israel under PM Binyamin Netanyahu and FM Avigdor Lieberman won't even consider that possibility and continues to build in the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. And Lebanon is waiting for a green light from Syria, like in the good old days.
This situation will not be alleviated by a dramatic presidential speech, whether in the spring or the fall, that presents an Obama plan for the Middle East. Before taking such a step, the president should have a look at White House archives, where he'll find a speech by President Ronald Reagan from September 1, 1982:
The United States has thus far sought to play the role of mediator. We have avoided public comment on the key issues. We have always recognized and continue to recognize that only the voluntary agreement of those parties most directly involved in the conflict can provide an enduring solution. But it's become evident to me that some clearer sense of America's position on the key issues is necessary to encourage wider support for the peace process. . . . the immediate adoption of a settlement freeze by Israel, more than any other action, could create the confidence needed for wider participation in these talks. Further settlement activity is in no way necessary for the security of Israel.
The Reagan Plan was presented to the parties. Israel, led by PM Menachem Begin, rejected it outright, as did the Arab states. No effort was made to alter these positions. Reagan's dramatic address became a dead letter.
Even the parameters associated with President Bill Clinton, important as they are as a point of reference for a future solution, were proposed only after failed negotiations, were greeted by the parties with endless reservations, and did not advance the talks. And then there was the "Bush vision" that failed to change realities.
The history of recent decades proves that just because a peace plan is presidential, it does not have the necessary shock effect to cause the parties to alter their positions. In contrast, when an American president proposes a new procedure, the parties accept it and register progress within that framework. An Obama plan will not offer the parties anything revolutionary. It will postulate a border based on the green line with equal land swaps, the partition of East Jerusalem between Arab and Jewish neighborhoods, a financial and symbolic solution to the issue of the Palestinian refugees, security arrangements for Israel that comprise a multinational force on the West Bank, and realization of the Arab Peace Initiative. Both parties will find clever ways to reject it.
Why waste time? Everything is known; everything has been written. What we need is to make the link between the well-known peace plan and its implementation. Obama should replace his failed Middle East team, reconvene a framework similar to Madrid, establish the basis for talks in the agreed invitation to the conference, work out with the Arab states the gradual implementation of the Arab Peace Initiative--and not wait for the fall of 2010.
If Obama issues the invitation, the parties will have to come. But the substance should be left to them.- Published 19/4/2010 © bitterlemons.org
Yossi Beilin, a former minister of justice, currently chairs the Geneva initiative and is president of Beilink.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
End occupation then start negotiations
by Sam Bahour
US President Barack Obama is about to take a political leap on the Palestine/Israel issue. Many American presidents took similar leaps and each and every one of them fell flat on their faces. The leap is the launch of a new US peace initiative that promises, yet again, to bring the stubborn Palestinian-Israeli conflict to an end.
Obama would be well advised to learn from all the other infamous US initiatives as he frames his own. There is absolutely nothing news-breaking in the news of a fresh US peace initiative. Palestinians and Israelis have been on the receiving end of so many such plans that they can usually accurately predict the content before they receive them.
This time, however, expectations are not so clear. The way Obama has been dealing with this issue since taking office has been far from traditional. The hope is that the substance of his upcoming initiative will veer away from the traditional, given that the traditional also means failure and more bloodshed and suffering for both sides.
Why do folks here on the ground see Obama in a slightly different light than past US presidents? For starters, shortly after he took office, he delivered a historic speech in Cairo on June 4, 2009 where he stated:
...it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people--Muslims and Christians--have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than 60 years they have endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations--large and small--that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.
This is a significantly deeper reflection about the conflict from the US then can be remembered in recent history. Obama's linking of the dispossession of Palestinians when Israel was established with the continuation of the Israeli occupation has great meaning.
Secondly, Obama wasted no time in appointing Senator George Mitchell as his special envoy to the Middle East. This was a clear indication that Obama's administration was taking the issue seriously and was planning to deal with it from the outset and not at the end of his term like so many before him.
Thirdly, Obama challenged Israel on the issue of settlements--the key indicator that reflects the level of Israeli seriousness in not only resolving the conflict, but in reducing tension and creating a confidence-building environment to allow peace negotiations to restart. The response was the equivalent of Israel repeatedly slapping and spitting in the Obama administration's face.
Lastly, and most recently, US General David Petraeus, the military commander overseeing America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, explained while speaking to the Senate Armed Services Committee that, "enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the area of responsibility."
Petraeus' statement was read as a signal that the Obama administration would not allow the strategic interests of the US in the region to be trumped by Israeli intransigence. Indeed, prior to this public statement by one of the highest-ranking officials in the US military, it was a poorly kept secret that Israel was negatively affecting US strategic interests in the region. In 2006, for instance, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group report explicitly noted that for the US to make progress in Iraq and the region it must address the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Given all of this, Obama has the clear ability to steer the US to do the right thing at long last. The remaining question is if the US and its institutions will allow him to reframe US policy with an approach to peacemaking that gives him a chance for success.
The foundations of past peace plans have swung from generic macro plans that were proposed before direct negotiations even started between the parties (e.g., the 1982 Reagan Plan) to super micro incremental transition plans (e.g., the Oslo peace process). There was even a big bang approach when President George W. Bush promised to resolve the conflict before leaving office. It goes without saying that all of these failed, completely and violently. Each failure has cost Palestinian and Israeli lives and livelihoods.
What Obama can do differently is to take a concrete approach to resolving the conflict with two clear milestones. The first milestone is to end Israel's 43-year military occupation of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Then, and only then, can Palestinians be expected to negotiate in good faith toward the second milestone, which is a negotiated final status agreement that would end the conflict and launch a process of reconciliation. Holding Palestinian freedom hostage to an unachievable final status agreement is paramount to a war crime.
In his Cairo speech, Obama also said, "We cannot impose peace". I hope he has reached clarity that imposing peace is not what is needed to avert yet another catastrophe in Palestine. What is needed is for the US to respect international humanitarian law and numerous UN resolutions, and leverage US power to bring Israel in line with the will of the community of nations by forcing it to end its occupation. For the US to uphold international law would be a true expression of "shock and awe" that could well prove to be Obama's historical legacy: putting the US on the correct--as in just--side of history in this region.- Published 19/4/2010 © bitterlemons.org
Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American management consultant living in Ramallah.
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