There can be little doubt that Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu won the first round of Israeli-Palestinian engagement with the Obama administration--and that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas lost. Netanyahu executed a partial and problematic settlement construction freeze "balanced" by settlement provocations in Jerusalem and elsewhere. He was rewarded with US support for his readiness to open negotiations while his right-wing coalition stood behind him. Abbas misread American promises and assurances regarding the freeze and the Goldstone report. He ended up not only under American pressure to renew talks with Israel but also isolated politically.
Paradoxically, Netanyahu's meetings with US President Barack Obama have been universally described as tense and unpleasant, while Obama's relationship with Abbas seems convivial by comparison. The issue is clearly not one of personal chemistry. Rather, it appears to be institutional. Indeed, Israel's superior capacity to maneuver concerning Washington's approach to the conflict is not new and goes back decades.
The tools Israel musters in its relations with Washington are well known: an extremely effective lobby that is backed by a wealthy and influential American Jewish community and that works hard to establish influence with each new Congress and administration; close military-security-intelligence relations based on a communality of interests and shared regional threat assessments--once regarding the Soviets, now the Iranians and militant Islam; the perception of common value-systems; and currently, though not always, a prime minister who knows the American system well.
None of these components exists in the US-Palestine relationship. For the most part, there is little a Palestinian leader can do to compensate for these particular lacunae. Nevertheless, the Palestinian failure to understand how Washington works cannot be fully explained merely by the absence of a powerful diaspora or a shared Old Testament heritage.
Perhaps the most striking illustration of the poor Palestinian grasp of Washington was provided last May by Abbas in an interview to the Washington Post a day before his first meeting with Obama. Having bought fully into the Obama demand for a settlement freeze, Abbas assumed there was nothing for him to do but wait a year or two until Washington delivered the goods. "The Americans are the leaders of the world," he stated. "They can use their weight with anyone around the world. . . . Now they should tell the Israelis, 'You have to comply with the conditions.'" Abbas went on to relate confidently how he had turned down PM Ehud Olmert's far-reaching offer for a final status settlement: "The gaps were wide."
How many senators did Abbas brief and consult with during that visit regarding this bombastic approach? Where did he get it into his head that revealing the (hitherto secret) details of Olmert's offer would endear him to the American public rather than paint him as a hardliner? What sort of Palestinian diplomatic and public diplomacy staff was in place in Washington to prepare and follow-up on his visit? Indeed, to what extent do Abbas and his advisers even begin to understand the American power structure with its checks, balances and nuances?
The rhetorical nature of these questions points to the prolonged lack of a serious effort on the part of the PLO to generate the tools needed for dealing effectively with the world's superpower and the only potentially effective mediator between Israelis and Palestinians. Here we also encounter an historic reliance on Europe (as opposed to America) that contradicts everything the Palestinians should have learned by now about the European Union's difficulties in dealing diplomatically with the Middle East. From the standpoint of the real welfare of the Palestinian people, its leaders' neglect of Washington and its workings is positively criminal, on a par with their insistence on the right of return and their repeated (since 1936) rejection of territorial compromise offers.
Abbas' complacency in coming to Washington last May and, subsequently, placing his confidence in unsustainable US administration positions regarding settlements and Goldstone may well have been affected by what Palestinians presumably identify as a positive trend in American opinion that informs not only the Obama approach. American support for Israel is indeed eroding, particularly in academia and other influential institutions. American Jewish support may be evolving into a more evenhanded approach, as illustrated by the emergence of a new Jewish lobby, J Street. And in the Obama age of "engagement", American-Israeli relations could conceivably be affected by growing anti-Israel and pro-Palestine sentiments in Europe and elsewhere.
So could Abbas be right that all he has to do is wait? I doubt it. Apparently, so does he, judging by his repeated threats to resign in view of his own failings. Finally, would a more effective Palestinian presence in Washington be a bad thing for Israel? Not necessarily, insofar as to be persuasive the policies advanced by that lobby would have to be more realistic. And not if you believe that ultimately only a realistic Israeli-Palestinian dialogue will produce peace.- Published 21/12/2009 © bitterlemons.org
For good but different reasons, their respective relations with the United States are of central and utmost importance to both Palestinians and Israelis.
As the US is the world's leading power, it is the most influential potential mediator between them. Israel is completely dependent for its overwhelming superiority on the near unquestioned military, economic and diplomatic support it receives from the US. The Palestinian Authority, meanwhile, is dependent on international support and international diplomacy, both shaped by the US.
Moreover, since the beginning of the peace process in 1991, the US has always played the leading mediating role, albeit to mixed reactions. On the one hand, both sides hold the US responsible for the shortcomings of that peace process, each for its own reasons. On the other hand, they also feel that the process could not move forward without serious US involvement.
There are of course fundamental differences in the relations between the two sides and the US. America makes no secret of its support for and bias toward Israel. This has caused the Palestinians to seek a greater role for other international actors in mediating the conflict as a way to mitigate this imbalance. The last round of negotiations, the Annapolis process, for instance, is an example of a process undertaken purely for American and Israeli interests. Israel needed to create an impression that it was involved in a serious process primarily for the domestic purposes of the then Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert. The US administration, meanwhile, had been heavily criticized for not paying the conflict any attention and wanted to provide it some lip service at the last moment.
By contrast, when the current American administration under President Barack Obama took over, Washington initially showed a keen interest in pursuing a more serious and extensive engagement. This was signaled from the outset with the appointment of George Mitchell as special envoy. As a result, the two sides become even more focused and sensitive about their respective relations with Washington.
The Palestinians became a little more hopeful for the same reason that the Israelis felt a little more tense: a serious process would of necessity have to be based on international legality. This in turn would expose the contradiction between the requirements of international legality and the position of the right-wing Israeli coalition government under Binyamin Netanyahu, which is based on continued control over the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and continued expansion of Jewish settlements there.
Israel dealt with the situation in two ways, through public relations and by playing domestic US politics. First, the Israeli government engaged in a public relations campaign to head off any potential US pressure without at the same time having to make fundamental changes to government policy. Thus Netanyahu announced a settlement construction "freeze" that is so only in name. Before that he had announced an "acceptance" of the two-state solution so qualified that it similarly meant no such thing.
In both cases, Netanyahu overcame the potential contradiction between his position and that of the US with a public relations strategy that provided Israel with a pro-active and well-intentioned demeanor belying its actual intransigence. Meanwhile, Israel utilized its supporters in the US to exploit the president's tussle with the US Congress over other issues. At this point in time it appears to have worked, and the US administration has backed down from its earlier enthusiasm for tackling the conflict.
Nevertheless, if for different reasons, the relations of both sides with the US are crucial to hopes for peace. The current administration has the potential to make a major difference. It is the only member of the international community that could successfully lead efforts to resolve the conflict. However, the US needs to act in concert with other members of the international community, especially Europe, otherwise all the potential of the Obama administration will be jeopardized.- Published 21/12/2009 © 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.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Playing with fire
by Chuck Freilich
The triangular American-Israeli-Palestinian relationship is fundamentally asymmetrical. Israel is a close ally and enjoys a "special relationship" with the US based on shared values, a strong domestic constituency and an historic American commitment to her security and well-being. Over the decades, Israel has enjoyed broad bipartisan support; small fluctuations notwithstanding, some 60 percent of Americans have consistently been pro-Israel, while only some five percent favor the Palestinians (the remainder have no opinion).
Nevertheless, we are at a turning point in US-Israel relations. The cool wind blowing from Washington since President Barack Obama entered office is not an aberration, a fleeting period of an unfriendly president, but a possible sign of things to come. While overall support for Israel remains robust, Israel has largely lost the support of liberal America and more and more people simply no longer understand or sympathize with her. A "Europeanization" of American opinion is taking place wherein Israel is increasingly viewed as the aggressor and obstacle to peace. For this reason alone, the "special relationship" is under significant strain.
It is further undermined by long-term trends in American society. Although the alienation of the liberal community and assimilation among Jews have been underway for decades, these processes have peaked. Israel-bashing is now the cause celebre among the young and liberal and is making inroads among conservatives as well. One can dirty the waters of a well for just so long and we are at that point now. Future administrations may be friendlier than the current one and Obama himself is not anti-Israel, but we can no longer count on this: the US-Israel relationship appears to have peaked.
Some have concluded that PM Binyamin Netanyahu "got the better" of Obama in recent months, circumventing his demands for concessions and in effect "teaching him a lesson". In the short term he did, indeed, deflect Obama's demands and the administration appears to have gained a more realistic understanding of what can be achieved, based on its experience both with Netanyahu and the Palestinians.
Nothing, however, would be more dangerous than the belief that Netanyahu "won". American presidents do not like to be "taught lessons", certainly not by almost totally dependent client states. Sooner or later, Obama will show who is truly in charge. Although Netanyahu is said to think "American"--he certainly has the accent--his actions threaten to undermine relations with the United States, one of the fundamental pillars of Israel's national security. His grudging concessions to the US (recognition of the two-state solution and temporary settlement freeze) have prevented a crisis so far, but a showdown is likely. At that time, Israel's dependence on the US will manifest itself, especially in light of the Iranian issue.
For the Palestinians, the US is the great "balancer" in the fundamental asymmetry between them and Israel. They are fully cognizant of the nature of the US-Israel relationship. Yet the American role in the peace process and support for at least some Palestinian positions greatly offset Israel's otherwise overwhelming strength. The Palestinians may be closer in outlook to Europe and enjoy widespread international support, but only the US can "deliver Israel" and provide what they seek, an independent state.
Most Americans do not have an instinctive sense of identification with the Palestinians and are repelled by their terrorism, radicalism, corruption and dysfunctionality. Nevertheless, the Palestinian narrative of the origins of the conflict and the means of resolving it is capturing American public opinion. If only Israel would end settlements and the occupation and agree to a Palestinian state, Americans increasingly believe, all would be right.
The Palestinians, however, also risk the dangers of complacency in their relations with the US. The Obama administration will presumably continue its efforts to promote the peace process for the foreseeable future, but ongoing Palestinian intransigence and dysfunctionality may lead the administration to a Bush-style conclusion that the traction simply is not there for significant American involvement. Indeed, US involvement has already lost steam--witness the demise of the Mitchell mission. The ongoing separation between the West Bank and Hamas-ruled Gaza coupled with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' combination of rejectionism (Olmert's generous offer) and tenuous leadership are taking their toll as well.
Both Israel and the Palestinians constantly vie for US support and are willing at times to make concessions to it that they are unwilling to make to each other. Under presidents Clinton and Bush, US-Israeli coordination on the peace process was great and carefully nurtured by both sides. Under the Obama administration, neither Israel nor the Palestinians appear well coordinated with Washington. In risking American ire, both Netanyahu and the Palestinians are "playing with fire".- Published 21/12/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel and now a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, recently completed a book on Israeli national security decision-making processes.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
An adversarial relationship that inspires little hope
an interview with George Giacaman
bitterlemons: How important is the triangular relationship among the Palestinians, Israelis and Americans?
Giacaman: So far it has been an adversarial relationship, given the fact that Israel is occupying Palestinian territory and the almost total and blind American support for the Israeli position. In this sense, the US administration has never been an objective and fair intermediary between the two, quite the opposite.
bitterlemons: But is the US the only viable mediator?
Giacaman: So far, yes. That's why the initial position of the Obama administration gave Palestinians, and Arabs generally, some hope. However, it has become clear that there is either a lack of political will on the part of the administration or there are simply limitations on what an American administration can do, given the various forces that blindly support the position of any Israeli government, especially in the US Congress, which is dominated by the pro-Israel lobby.
bitterlemons: It is said that Israel is not a foreign policy issue in the US, but a domestic policy one. Is that a fair characterization?
Giacaman: It is fair, but the reason is often not given. The reason is the power of the pro-Israel lobby, especially in Congress but also in the media and elsewhere. This is the main reason. It has nothing to do with any "strategic" relationship. In fact, the strategic angle is highly exaggerated in order to avoid the real reason for US support for Israel. I am not denying that there are common interests, but that is all.
Let me give you an example. In all major Middle East wars in which the US was involved, the US had to fight without Israeli help. This includes the first Gulf war, where the US begged and bribed Israel not to respond to Iraqi rocket fire in order to avoid a linkage. Hence, at that time Israel was a strategic liability to the US. Now Israel is pushing the US to attack Iran. Israel needs US permission to do so itself, and if it did so it would be an incomplete job. In short, Israel has a strategic interest with its US relations, but not the other way around.
bitterlemons: How would you characterize Palestinian-US relations? How effective are the Palestinians in similarly lobbying US decision-makers?
Giacaman: They are not. Palestinians and Arab governments have failed to establish any kind of influence inside the US. Palestinians have not paid this enough attention, but also the major interest of the US has to do with Arab countries and since Arab regimes prioritize self-preservation, other issues are less important. In fact, self-preservation, meaning the survival of the regime, in some countries depends on the good will of the US. Theoretically, Arab countries have the power to influence US policy, but since some are dependent on US protection for regime survival there are limits to what they can or will do. That is the problem of authoritarian Arab regimes.
bitterlemons: If these are the relations among the three parties, can there be much hope for a peace process mediated by the US unless something changes?
Giacaman: The Palestinian Authority still has some hope that new initiatives may be proposed, even if that hope is fading. The PA does have one strength though, which is its weakness. Since Israel, the US, European and Arab countries have an interest in the continued existence of the PA, it could threaten to "commit suicide". This might happen anyway if there is no political progress, since there will be a gradual dismantlement of the PA.
This is the only thing that might impel serious movement, because Israel is not interested in re-occupying the West Bank and administering the population there directly again. It wants a proxy administration to deal with the population and ensure its own security. It should be obvious that this cannot work without a credible political process leading to a Palestinian state.
bitterlemons: Do you have any hope that the Obama administration, which started with so much vigor, will come up with something new?
Giacaman: All indications are that the American position is weak. The Obama administration does not have the sufficient political muscle to bring pressure to bear on the present Israeli government, due largely to domestic constraints.
There are reports that the US is working on a new initiative for which details are sketchy. But it is suggested that one Palestinian request will be accommodated, which is that negotiations won't start from zero but will have their point of reference in previous negotiations and in various UN Security Council resolutions. If this turns out to be acceptable to both sides we might see new negotiations, especially if there is a deadline as to when talks should finish.- Published 21/12/2009 © bitterlemons.org
George Giacaman is a professor at Birzeit University and contributes on a regular basis political analysis for Arab and international media.
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