Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu visited the White House last week. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visits later this week. Where does the Palestinian issue stand with President Obama in the interim? What has he learned from Netanyahu and what can he ask of Abbas?
The Obama administration's overall Middle East policy is still clearly in formation. We are reliably informed that even in the president's upcoming June 4 speech in Cairo he will not yet be ready to lay out detailed policy ideas for an integrated approach to the region's conflicts. One admirable characteristic of his thinking that he has already clearly displayed is a readiness to hear all points of view before making up his mind.
Judging by their public comments after their meeting, Obama and Netanyahu have relatively little interest at this juncture in highlighting disagreements over the nature of a Palestinian-Israeli final status deal. Even if Netanyahu cannot bring himself to mouth the words "two-state solution" because of his own ideological inclinations as well as coalition considerations, his thoughts on final status are apparently close enough to those of the Israeli mainstream--and a genuine final status agreement far enough away--to render this a moot point with Obama.
Rather, the obvious and most urgent area of disagreement between the two is settlements: a settlement freeze, including in and around Jerusalem, and the removal of outposts. Indeed, Washington's complaint is not just with Netanyahu but also with Minister of Defense Ehud Barak, who has been dragging his feet on the removal of outposts for years. Obama made this plain in the public remarks he made alongside Netanyahu: "Settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward." The next day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton clarified: "We want to see a stop to settlement construction, additions, natural growth--any kind of settlement activity. That is what the president has called for."
Judging by what has happened since then, Netanyahu and Barak did not get the message. Barak talked tough with the settlers about the outposts but sufficed with sending the IDF to dismantle the tiny hilltop outpost of "Maoz Esther" that had already been removed twice. As in the past, the settlers rebuilt it immediately. He also intends to "negotiate" with five other outposts. The impression this leaves is pathetic.
As for Netanyahu, he has forcefully declared that Jerusalem would never again be divided and that "[East] Jerusalem is not a settlement and we'll continue to build there." His minister for strategic affairs, Moshe Yaalon, declared that settlement expansion would continue and admonished the Obama team that they didn't really understand the Middle East. The heads of two additional coalition parties spoke out against removing outposts and freezing settlement construction. The Netanyahu coalition might just as well have shown the new American president a red flag.
Yet Obama's task with Abbas will be no easier. The Palestinian leader arrives in Washington at a time when leaders of his own party, Fateh, are at loggerheads over the reconstituted PA government of PM Salam Fayyad and Abbas' lamentable attempt to convene the first Fatah congress in more than 20 years. Abbas cannot "deliver" Gaza and has no realistic plan for reintegrating Hamas into a unity government that could support a new peace process with Israel, which he in any case opposes until there is progress on the settlements issue.
Obama's efforts thus confront a significant dissymmetry. His problems with Israel primarily concern interim confidence-building issues like the settlements. There, he needs to show the Arab world he can produce genuine progress if he plans to ask for Arab confidence-building gestures toward Israel, such as low-level relations, as a means of priming the peace process and inducing cooperation regarding Iran. With the Palestinians, on the other hand, Obama has fewer interim issues: thanks to American and European help, the Palestinians' security performance in the West Bank has improved remarkably in recent months, thereby at least partially fulfilling the PLO's roadmap phase I obligations. But with the Palestinians, Obama currently has no hope of creating favorable conditions for a realistic two-state final status agreement.
For the time being, the Obama administration remains enthusiastic about generating a dynamic Israeli-Palestinian process. In contrast, it has put a Syrian-Israeli process on the back burner until Damascus begins to adhere to US demands regarding its involvement in Iraq and Lebanon. But as Obama learns just how frustrating the Israelis and Palestinians can be and--against the backdrop of Washington's many heavier tasks further to the east--weighs the wages of committing himself to another potentially abortive Israeli-Palestinian peace process, this order of priorities could change.- Published 25/5/2009 © bitterlemons.org
The Middle East arena has recently seen some unusually active diplomacy involving many of the prominent Arab and Israeli leaders as well as the US.
The most recent and significant such activity was the meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama. Netanyahu's election marked a shift from previous Israeli positions on the fundamental issue of two states, the international vision for a permanent peace in the region. At the same time, Obama's election marked an important stage in moving US policy toward a more inclusive approach to regional diplomacy. This approach has created the kind of tension between Israel and the US not witnessed since the early 1990s, when President George H. W. Bush imposed financial sanctions on Israel to convince the country to stop its expansion of settlements.
Obama and Netanyahu have so far been unable to hide their differences. Netanyahu refers to Palestinian autonomy, while Obama has time and again reiterated his commitment to a Palestinian state. And in unequivocal terms, Obama has emphasized Israeli commitments under the American-brokered roadmap to stop building and expanding settlements. That elicited an angry reaction from the Israeli minister of strategic affairs, Moshe Yaalon, who said Israel would not be threatened by America and would continue building in settlements.
The reason behind the shift in US policy goes beyond the immediate Palestinian-Israeli conflict and is related to the growing realization in Washington that the failure of the peace process is a main factor behind the radicalization in Palestinian and Arab society. In Palestine, this culminated in the election of Hamas in 2006.
Indeed, Palestinians and Arabs in general cannot get behind a process that promises an end to occupation but is unable to stop Israeli settlement expansion, which aims at consolidating that occupation. Consequently the failure of the peace process, which was ultimately geared toward ending the injustice against Palestinians, proved an important factor in the deteriorating image of the US in the Arab and Islamic world, thus harming broader American strategic interests in the region.
Regionally, Arab leaders and governments, particularly the friends and allies of the US, are losing ground against their Islamic political oppositions. Unquestioned American support for the illegal Israeli occupation and Israeli practices in occupied territory including settlement expansion have embarrassed those who have nothing to offer their people except the promise of peace and the prosperity that is supposed to come with it. The status of the Fateh-Hamas dialogue under Egyptian sponsorship is a good example, where Israeli positions and practices strip Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of any kind of leverage.
Abbas is seen as a leader who promises to achieve legitimate Palestinian aspirations of ending the occupation by peaceful and negotiated means. Hamas, on the other hand, represents the position that Israel understands only the language of force. The failure of the peace process and the Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon are oft-cited examples that are used to illustrate this position.
Continued political stagnation together with the creation of more and more Israeli facts on the ground will only contribute to further shifting the balance of power in the region in favor of the Islamists. Israel's anti-peace measures, such as the announcement, only one day before the Israel-US summit in Washington, of a bid to build new housing units in a Jordan Valley settlement, will only further undermine US credibility.
The other reason for the shift in the American approach to the conflict is that the current administration better understands the linkage between the different Middle East conflicts and issues. This is particularly true of Iran and its nuclear program, but also of Iraq, Syria, Hizballah and Hamas.
Abbas seems to have noticed an opportunity in the shift in both the American and Israeli positions and is preparing to project a unified Arab position in his forthcoming visit to Washington. Thus, in addition to forming a new government that included members of most of the PLO factions, he has been touring Arab capitals including Damascus, Doha, Amman and Cairo in order to strengthen his position.
This is an important effort. There have been several Israeli attempts to create confusion regarding the Arab position by airing proposals to test if Arab countries would agree for example to accept changes to the Arab peace initiative or a gradual implementation of that plan.
Obama, meanwhile, has created constructive momentum in the region and sparked a healthy debate, particularly on a settlement freeze among both Israelis and American supporters of Israel. This debate is exposing Israeli violations of the roadmap and other terms of reference for the peace process to growing criticism. That has the very useful effect of reversing the negative trends in Israeli public opinion and potentially paving the way for a political environment more conducive to successful political initiatives.
The Obama administration is also invited to provide the Egyptian government with the necessary support in its efforts to secure Palestinian reconciliation. Providing the parties of that dialogue with the necessary incentives can make a big difference, especially since Palestinian reconciliation--reuniting Gaza and the West Bank and the rival Fateh and Hamas factions--is another prerequisite for a healthy peace process.- Published 25/5/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president for community outreach at Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Obama seeks Arab approval
by Akiva Eldar
While it is still early to assess the effect of US President Barack Obama's policy innovations in the Middle East, it is already clear that his preliminary steps reflect a substantive change in the triangular relationship involving the US, Israel and the Palestinians. Obama's decision to phone Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas prior to contacting then PM Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem constituted the first signal to Israel that the new president had a different take on the Israeli-American "special relationship". Similarly, the choice of al-Arabiya satellite TV station as the first venue for presenting his policies toward the Arab and Muslim worlds was a clear sign that Obama wants to change their image of the White House as a "Jewish house" (which also happens to be the name of a right-wing religious party in the Netanyahu coalition).
To further remove any doubt in the hearts of Muslims and demonstrate that the new president is not a prisoner of the pro-Israel lobby, Obama invited King Abdullah of Jordan to be the first Middle East leader to visit his White House. On June 4, the American president will visit Cairo without stopping in Jerusalem. Behind these gestures stands an administration that misses no opportunity to clarify that it is US interests and not pressures from Israel and its lobbyists that will determine its Middle East policy. Whether regarding solutions for the Israel-Arab conflict or for the nuclear crisis with Iran, Obama makes no attempt to paper over his disagreement with Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu.
Since the October 1991 Madrid conference, America's "special relationship" with Israel has undermined Arab confidence in US neutrality. The traditional public commitment of American administrations to maintain Israel's qualitative edge has rendered the Stars and Stripes a constant companion of the Israeli flag in the bonfires lit by the rivals of moderate Arab regimes.
Obama's concentrated effort to win the Muslim world's confidence in his ability to function as an honest broker between it and Israel is in its early stages. Obtaining that trust is a necessary first step in advancing the peace plan that is taking shape in the White House (apparently in the spirit of the Clinton parameters of December 2000 and the Arab Peace Initiative of March 2002). The implementation of any such plan will require significant concessions not only from Israel; the Palestinians will have to abandon the right of return of the 1948 refugees and the demand for full sovereignty in the Old City of Jerusalem. They'll have to agree to demilitarization of their state and the deployment of international forces there for a trial period. The Arab countries will have to make good on their peace initiative and replace the demonization of Israel with true "normal relations", including the opening of their borders to Israelis.
Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories is only one component--and not even the most important one--in the package of incentives for the Arabs to follow through on this revolution. The Arab regimes' primary interest and their true compensation for formally welcoming Israel to the regional family of nations is "normal relations" with the West, and particularly the US.
As he builds a new relationship with the Muslim world, Obama must take care to avoid creating the mistaken impression that the US is prepared to abandon its cooperation and strategic coordination with Israel. This special relationship between the world's strongest power and the state of Israel constituted a central motivation for states like Egypt and Jordan to come to terms with Israel's existence and enter into peace agreements. Once Obama has persuaded the Arabs that the special relationship is not synonymous with automatic American support for Israel and acquiescence in its violation of commitments, it will also have to clarify that its overt disagreements with Israel and the smiles it offers the Arabs do not constitute an aperitif that ushers in a free meal in which Israel's interests are the main course.
If Obama does not maintain a high degree of fine tuning in his new policy, he is liable to render the Israeli public easy pickings for a right-wing leader--one who does not hesitate to gamble the country's special relationship with its most important strategic asset, the United States.- Published 25/5/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Akiva Eldar is a columnist and editorial board member at Haaretz, and coauthor of "Lords of the Land" (2007), about the settlers.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Walking on hot coal
by Mkhaimar Abusada
Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu's visit to the White House, the first such visit since US President Barack Obama came to power, revealed major differences between the two leaders.
Most importantly, Netanyahu could not say the magic words, "two states for two peoples". He did concede that both Palestinians and Israelis will have to live and coexist side-by-side and that he supported self-rule for Palestinians. But he made no mention of a state and thus failed to endorse the cornerstone of Washington's Middle East policy, underscoring a rare rift in US-Israel relations.
No one can deny, therefore, that Israel is under growing political pressure from Obama. The latter reminded Netanyahu of Israel's commitments under the US-brokered roadmap peace plan to cease settlement activity in the West Bank, remove illegal outposts and restart serious negotiations on the final status issues of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
In one notable reaction, Moshe Yaalon, Israel's strategic affairs minister, explicitly rejected US demands to stop settlement expansion in the West Bank and instead vowed to continue settlement construction. Generally, Israeli officials are trying to smooth over differences with Washington. But they know that US-Israel relations are now entering a different stage than the one they enjoyed under the Bush administration, one that raises questions about the special relationship between the United States and Israel.
Netanyahu is not a newcomer to politics. He dealt with the Clinton administration from 1996 to1999. He knows better than anyone that he has to accept Obama's peace principles, but is seeking to do so without endangering his coalition government.
It seems that Netanyahu has learned lessons from his prior term in power and won't fall into the same trap in which, having agreed to the Wye River memorandum in October1998, he returned home and was immediately toppled by the parties of the right. He doesn't want to see a repeat at the beginning of this term. One option for Netanyahu is to mobilize the Jewish lobby and US Congress against Obama and his administration, which proved successful with Clinton. Another is to reorganize his coalition and bring Kadima into the government.
Unlike Netanyahu, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, is visiting Washington this week in complete agreement with Obama. Yet, although Abbas has reaffirmed his commitment to the two-state solution and the roadmap as well as the Annapolis understandings, his dilemma stems from the inability of Palestinians to unite politically and the failure of repeated opportunities to reconcile with Hamas.
Although Hamas rejects the roadmap and the Annapolis peace commitments, it has accepted the idea of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders along with a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem based on UN resolution 194. This position was affirmed by Khaled Mishaal in his address to members of the British House of Commons and in his last interview with the New York Times. Nevertheless, Hamas continues to refuse to recognize Israel. Palestinians will have to act quickly to get their house in order, otherwise Obama may loose some of his enthusiasm for a two-state solution.
Obama's vision for peace in the Middle East is slated to be outlined on June 4, not at the White House or even at a joint session of Congress, but in Cairo. Obama sees engagement in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking as crucial in repairing the damaged image of the US in the Arab and Muslim worlds and convincing moderate Arab states to join a united front against Iran.
American pressure will also be exerted on the Palestinians and Arabs to follow Obama's vision for peace. No Arab leader, political or religious, has yet agreed to give up the right of return of Palestinian refugees, which is reportedly a central pillar of the Obama vision. Obama will have to exert enormous diplomatic pressure on Palestinian and Arab leaders to convince them that this is an historic chance.
Also, the idea to internationalize the Old City of Jerusalem and its governance through the United Nations is a complicated one. It is a sacred place to both Jews and Muslims, who are deeply and passionately convinced of their right to govern there with complete sovereignty. It is this issue that led to the failure of the Camp David summit in 2000. Obama is stepping on hot coals; he may not know how to walk across.
Some say that the Middle East peace process, the most infuriating such process in the world, is at stake. If the Israeli and Palestinian positions do not change, it will certainly be no surprise if the Obama administration in the end decides to devote its energies to other, more promising pursuits.- Published 25/5/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Mkhaimar Abusada is a professor of political science at al-Azhar University in Gaza.
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