The recent tension between the US and Israel, which was described by some Israeli diplomats as the most serious in decades, has a direct effect on Palestinian-Israeli relations.
One reason is of course because the row was actually caused by Israel's positions on the peace process and behavior toward the Palestinians. But another reason is the dawning realization in Washington that previous uncritical American support for Israel has been a significant factor in the deterioration in Palestinian-Israeli relations over the last ten years.
The way, for example, the previous American administration under George W. Bush abandoned the peace process and the unprecedented level of bias it showed toward Israel contributed dramatically to the trends of radicalization on both sides and encouraged the negative Israeli belief that it could act with impunity regardless of the peace process and negotiations with the Palestinians.
The new administration seems to have concluded that due to the regional situation, US interests require progress in the peace process. This caused growing tension with the right-wing Israeli government led by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Israel evidently did not realize how serious the US was in its desire to push forward a process and that this desire grew out of considerations beyond the immediate context of Palestinian-Israeli relations.
These considerations center not least on the ramifications of a lack of progress in resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on the area between the Levant and Afghanistan in which over 200,000 US soldiers are now stationed. In this vast area, US interests require improving relations with the Arab and Islamic worlds generally, an intention that President Barack Obama has been keen to emphasize and that requires an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory and a solution to the conflict based on two states. The US administration appears to have decided that the continued Israeli occupation plays a role not only in anti-American feeling in the region but in radicalizing some Muslims.
Hence the US administration has been intent on communicating the message to Israel that the latter cannot continue to eat the cake and keep it. Washington wants Israel to know that being a close ally of the US is a two-way street in which Israel is also expected to take into consideration US national interests.
This is not problematic to the rest of the international community, including the EU and Russia, who, with the US, are members of the Quartet of Middle East mediators. These two important actors long ago reached the same conclusion and are prepared to take a tougher attitude toward Israel but have always been restrained by the American position. Nevertheless, the December 8 EU Council of Foreign Ministers' statement--which reminded Israel that its control over the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, is not legal and has not been recognized by Europe--while on the one hand a reflection of European frustration, on the other, could not have been issued without an implicit green light from Washington.
Probably the most accurate representation of the current American and international attitude to the conflict is embodied in the statement that came out of the last Quartet meeting in Moscow on Friday. This statement used language hitherto unheard from the Quartet, including unequivocal condemnation of Israeli settlement activity and a description of settlements not only (as the previous US administration used to call them) as obstacles to peace, but as illegal.
The current Israeli government is too deeply in thrall to its own ideology to be able to absorb these messages from Washington and the international community. This is less a problem in the medium to long term where the Israeli public, always pragmatic and sensitive to its relations with the West, will eventually adapt.
But public opinion does not shift quickly. In the short term there is an urgent need for immediate interference to prevent Israel from succeeding in its current attempt to drag Palestinians into another vicious cycle of violence. The Israeli calculation is likely to be that such violence will, at least temporarily, ease the crisis in relations with its best allies.
Another cycle of violence might also enable Israel to get rid of the current Palestinian leadership, which has successfully maintained both domestic public support for the strategy of building positive facts on the ground, such as the institutions of a future state, and at the same time rallied significant international support for their efforts.- Published 22/3/2010 © 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
Too many constraints on the administration
by Yossi Alpher
The Ramat Shlomo construction incident that spoiled the visit to Israel by US Vice President Joe Biden some ten days ago brought the Netanyahu government and the Obama administration to a brief but genuine crisis in their relationship. The crisis may be over for now, but it gave us a glimpse of what is simmering beneath the surface in Washington.
When he apologized to Biden for the timing of a routine bureaucratic announcement about a housing project in East Jerusalem, Netanyahu did not realize that the incident was crystallizing a kind of critical mass in the administration's frustration with Israel. That frustration appears to be playing itself out on several levels.
One is the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, or rather the absence thereof. The prime minister and his coalition believe they can refuse to contemplate any negotiating concessions whatsoever regarding the entirety of Jerusalem, ignore Israel High Court orders concerning East Jerusalem and West Bank issues, crack down on Israeli human rights monitoring groups active in the Arab sphere, and proceed with construction of Jewish housing across the 1967 green line--all while simultaneously entering into negotiations with the Palestinians and maintaining close relations with the administration.
Washington does not agree, and was looking for an opportunity to make its disapproval felt. The PLO, which had reluctantly accepted to enter into indirect talks with this Israeli government, was quick to follow suit. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas knew Netanyahu would keep building in East Jerusalem when he, backed by the Arab League, agreed to proximity talks. But his assent was so unwilling that he gladly latched onto the Ramat Shlomo incident to threaten to back out. Abbas, like Netanyahu, is constrained both by his own ideology and by more extreme parties, in this case Hamas and Fateh hardliners. He appears to believe that continued Palestinian intransigence will ultimately compel the administration to pressure Netanyahu into more concessions.
A second level of US frustration is the regional. Here Netanyahu should have been alerted by Biden's reported complaint behind closed doors in Jerusalem that "This is starting to get dangerous for us. . . .What you're doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That . . . endangers regional peace." It quickly emerged that the senior echelon of the US military in the Middle East was behind the contention that Israel's intransigence was endangering American troops by painting the administration as a Zionist lackey.
This argument is dangerous for Israel and its supporters, regardless of one's views on settlements. It is liable to link, in the eyes of the American public, the death of US forces in Afghanistan to any perceived Israeli hesitation on peace issues. It could drive a wedge between the Israeli and American military establishments, which have been working closely together for decades.
Its veracity is doubtful. The reliable Pew polls indicate that the Arab world is most concerned over the US war on terror and its occupation of Iraq. Certainly the argument is undermined by the refusal of moderate Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, to contribute to the Israeli-Palestinian process by offering Israel low-level diplomatic gestures.
Still, the new American contention about Israeli intransigence endangering US forces is potentially a far more powerful assertion than the old accusation that the absence of a Palestinian solution was responsible for everything else that's wrong in the Middle East.
Yet another dimension is Iran. Biden's visit to Israel was billed as one of many recent steps taken by the administration to ensure close coordination with Israel regarding Iran's nuclear program. As its Iran sanctions offensive seemingly flounders, Washington appears to believe that Israel, if sufficiently alarmed, could take unilateral military action. In this respect, the Iran factor may have become a constraint on the US response to Netanyahu's double-talk over a peace process with the Palestinians.
Finally, there is the domestic American dimension and the administration's overloaded Middle East agenda. A year ago, Obama appeared to believe he could handle escalation in Afghanistan, withdrawal from Iraq, engagement/confrontation with Iran and Israel-Arab issues all at once, while simultaneously pursuing health care and other reforms at home. Now, with midterm elections looming and the administration desperate to shore up its Democratic support base, it is clearly reluctant to push a confrontation with Netanyahu to the natural conclusion of such severe policy clashes in the past: serious US sanctions.
Netanyahu, who was surprised by Washington's harsh reaction to Ramat Shlomo, can now assume that because of both the Iran factor and domestic American issues, this crisis is ending--if only he doesn't light any more nasty fires. He hopes to return from his current Washington visit after a demonstration there of American support.
Obama surely should now recognize that a real "peace process" (at best reduced to the proximity talks format) has to be based on far more stable foundations than those offered by either Netanyahu or Abbas. Perhaps he already does; perhaps that is why he largely stayed out of direct involvement in this crisis, why the US protest was confined entirely to rhetoric, and why from now until the November 2010 midterm elections we may just be going through the motions.- Published 22/3/2010 © bitterlemons.org
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Crisis? What crisis!
by Diana Buttu
In the latest episode of the popular Palestinian comedy show Watan A Watar (Homeland on a Thread), the comedian Imad Farajin courts a young European woman, asking for her hand in marriage. Espousing the benefits of marrying a Palestinian, Farajin jokes, "we now have 'indirect talks' for four months and in just four months' time, we will have a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, no checkpoints and the refugees will all return. The Palestinian passport will be worth a lot." Farajin's words are greeted in the same way as the political statements and promises uttered by the Americans, the Quartet and other members of the international community--with laughter. The latest "row" between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu regime is no different to Palestinians.
Undoubtedly, Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai's announcement--during US Vice President Joseph Biden's visit--of plans to build 1,600 units in an East Jerusalem colony was meant to embarrass Netanyahu (for reasons of coalition politics) and, more importantly, send a message to the US that despite any "indirect talks" or otherwise with the PLO, Israel's colonization will continue. The announcement was met immediately with condemnation by Biden and pundits and mainstream media rushed to make much of the so-called "strain" in US-Israel relations with some, in Chicken Little fashion, proclaiming that the "sky is falling".
But, like in that fable, the sky is not falling. Rather, we are witnessing a repeat of history--and sadly, with the same outcome. As far back as the administration of the elder Bush, official US visits were almost always greeted with an Israeli announcement of colony expansion or creation, as James Baker once lamented. These announcements have continued through each successive US administration to this time. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that the announcement of the expansion of the Ramat Shlomo colony came during Biden's visit.
While the US "condemned" the announcement--in part in order to boost the position of "friendly" Arab regimes that pushed for "indirect talks" between the PLO and Israel--it has quickly become clear that that condemnation is aimed at the timing of the announcement rather than its substance. Indeed, the statement subsequently issued by Netanyahu's office offered a polite apology to Biden, indicating that the plans for the further colonization of East Jerusalem should not have been approved during the week of Biden's visit but ought to have come at a different time. To drive home the point, Netanyahu later made sure to proclaim that construction in East Jerusalem is no different than construction in Tel-Aviv and confirmed that, like all other Israeli prime ministers over the past 42 years, he would continue to colonize East Jerusalem.
With Netanyahu's position firmly stated, the Obama administration appears to have similarly followed the 42-year path of its predecessors: it backed down in the face of Israeli intransigence. President Obama is set to meet Netanyahu later this week in the White House, and with that meeting it is once again business as usual in US-Israel relations, phone calls and "harsh" statements aside. While pundits may continue to focus on the "strained" relations as demonstrated in the series of phone calls made to Netanyahu, Palestinians have long learned the lesson that actions speak louder than words. No amount of "strong" messages from the Obama administration will convince Palestinians that the US will put an end to Israel's decades-long violations of human rights. Only actions will. And if previous action is a predictor of future behavior, once again, and considering the "special bond" (backed by billions of dollars of US taxpayers' money to Israel), the US will show that it is either unwilling or unable to ensure that Israel ends its violations of international law.
Netanyahu may have pacified the US with his proclamation that the colony expansion announced will not take place for another two years, just in the same way that he pacified President Bill Clinton a decade ago when he announced the expansion of the colony of Har Homa. At that time, President Yasser Arafat and Palestinian negotiators threatened to end negotiations with Israel if the Har Homa decision was not reversed. American officials instead cajoled Arafat with the argument that, "You can't ask us to pressure Israel now. Final status negotiations are about to take place!" A few short months later, with the start of the intifada, Palestinians once again demanded a freeze in colony construction. The response? "You can't ask us to pressure Israel now that there is violence."
Sure enough, with a little pressure from the Clinton administration, the PLO resumed negotiations with Israel despite the continued colony expansion in the erroneous belief that Israel's colonization would magically be reversed with negotiations. Despite its statements to the contrary, the PLO will likely resume "indirect talks" with Israel this time as well following some additional pressure from the Obama administration (and largely because it has failed to develop any strategy other than negotiations).
Just like any fable, there is always a moral. This one appears to be that we can always hope that the past does not repeat itself. What we do know for sure, importantly for fans of Watan A Watar, is that we can be guaranteed plenty of political satire for years to come.- Published 22/3/2010 © bitterlemons.org
Diana Buttu is a human rights lawyer and a former legal advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team. She is a fan of Watan A Watar.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Obamacare could lead to Hamas control
by Amnon Lord
US President Barack Obama is an admirer of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil. Lula is pretty much a modern Trotskyite--at least, his close adviser admitted on an Israeli TV show to being one, and I doubt a non-Trotskyite would take a Trotskyite as an adviser. Lula, who seems to be quite a nice man, refused to lay a wreath on the grave of the father of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl. He was very happy to lay a wreath on Yasser Arafat's grave and wear a keffiyeh around his neck. I believe that Obama, were it not a terrible political risk for him, would have done the same: wear a keffiyeh, bow to Arafat's tomb, and the rest of the progressive gestalt.
In order to perceive the meaning of Obama's temper tantrum last week, one should look at his next ill-conceived move: a few days ago, Obama canceled an important visit to Australia. Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal described that decision as an embarrassment: the wheels seem to be falling off his bandwagon. But this was more than another regrettable decision on Obama's part. What should we make of his betrayal of Britain in the developing crisis surrounding the Falklands?
In other words, Obama is trying to carry out a revolutionary shift in American foreign policy similar to his efforts on the home front. Obama's America is opening up to Third World rising powers and seeking a complete change in its global position. If he continues to uphold American-Israeli friendship in the context of this radical change of American policy, it's only because of internal political constraints such as American public opinion, the Jewish vote and Jewish donors to Democratic candidates.
But in practical matters the Obama administration is hostile to Israel. The latest crisis will not benefit Palestinian-Israeli relations, the so-called peace process. Indeed, the entire past year has been wasted because of the president's intransigence. Yet the crisis will put a lot of wind in the sails of the ongoing Palestinian struggle against Israel.
It's still not clear where all this leads. As in the Carter days, it could lead to the brink of war. It's not a risky gamble to predict that the political paralysis will continue and that, by the end of summer, Obama will declare Israel responsible for the failure of proximity talks. Then he will impose his own peace plan--and the parties will be required to start negotiating directly from there. Or not even negotiate: just take it or leave it. Israel will suffer the consequences.
Obama's failure to do anything about Iran's nuclear project while rolling the international community onto Israel's head is very unwise and dangerous. Who would have believed that an American president would be the one to create a pogrom atmosphere around Israel?
In order to comprehend Obama's position as he encounters current international threats, one should imagine Charles Lindbergh or Joseph Kennedy as US president in 1940. In other words, someone who perceives the world upside-down; who sees the world as ripe for the Chavezes, the Ahmadinezhads and the Bashar Assads. One who sees an advantage to Arafat over Theodor Herzl. The "Obamacare" being applied to the region will only result in more tensions.
This American ideological shift requires that Israel search for new and different policy approaches in a world that will soon resemble the worst days of the Cold War. Back in the 1950s, it was Shimon Peres who coined the phrase "orientation on ourselves": self-reliance. The Obama process, while seeming to be in favor of the Palestinians, will surely explode at one point or another. Hence the Palestinians may for once see the advantage of distancing our region from American and European interference.
One can only hope that the Palestinians and Israelis will act in the same manner as Sadat and Begin in confronting a dangerous president in the White House. Carter's irresponsibility scared Sadat and he and Begin fell into each other's arms in order to avoid one more Egyptian-Israeli war. Will Netanyahu and Abbas also embrace each other under the threat of a callous American president? Let's hope they meet at Hizma roadblock, a mere 10 minutes drive for each.
But self-reliance from the Israeli perspective could also lead to a unilateral disengagement in the West Bank. We would continue the struggle from self-imposed borders and take the risk of opening another front--controlled eventually by Hamas.- Published 22/3/2010 © bitterlemons.org
Amnon Lord is a senior editor and columnist with Makor Rishon newspaper.
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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.