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    April 27, 2009 Edition 16                      Palestinian-Israeli crossfire
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  The emerging US role and Israeli/Palestinian domestic factors
  . "Those are the Jews I have"        by Yossi Alpher
It is hard to view the Netanyahu government as a serious candidate for a viable process with the Palestinians.
. Change meets challenge        by Ghassan Khatib
There is no credibility in talking about two states as long as Israel continues to undermine that very possibility by expanding settlements.
  . The ball is in Obama's court        by Yossi Beilin
The coming weeks will be critical.
. US-Israel showdown?        by George Giacaman
The degree to which Obama can make progress is contingent upon his administration's ability to neutralize the pressure of the Israel lobby.

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"Those are the Jews I have"
by Yossi Alpher

The more energetically the new Obama administration enters into Israel-Arab peace process issues, the more fragmented appear the leaderships on both the Israeli and the Palestinian side. The inevitable conclusion is that even a massive American effort to advance a Palestinian solution will have to factor in the divisiveness within both camps and suffice with a gradual and partial peace process.

The composition of the Netanyahu government in Jerusalem presents three distinct approaches to Israeli-Palestinian peace. PM Binyamin Netanyahu claims he does not believe a viable process is in the offing, hence wants to begin "from the bottom up" with an "economic peace" that strengthens the Palestinian Authority and West Bank society in general. In so doing, he ignores the abject failure of economic initiatives, whether incentives to development or sanctions as in the Gaza Strip over the past two years, which have been directed at the Palestinians for the past 42 years. To argue that the key to a solution for this political conflict is economic is to ignore all the lessons we have learned.

Moreover, Netanyahu has no workable plan for a territorial solution in the West Bank. His claim that he is free to expand settlements gives away the game: he really has little to offer even the most moderate Palestinians. Yet experience has taught him that he must find a way to accommodate President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and their emissary, George Mitchell, if he wants to survive politically in Israel.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak argues for "rebranding" the Israel-Arab peace process within some sort of "regional initiative". This ostensibly reflects a correct understanding of both President Barack Obama's integrative regional approach and of the links binding the Iran, Iraq, Syria-Lebanon and Israel-Arab issues. But assuming the idea is to respond in kind to the Arab Peace Initiative, Barak chooses to ignore the most fundamental reality of the API and of the emerging Obama-Clinton approach: regional cooperation has to be primed by decisive progress toward bilateral Israel-Arab peace agreements.

Finally, FM Avigdor Lieberman is busy firing off newspaper interviews in which he casts doubt on American determination, seeks to reorient Israel's foreign policy in the direction of Russia, rejects the principle of Israeli concessions and lays down impossible terms for a process with Syria. Yet in his own idiosyncratic and insulting style, Lieberman seemingly leaves open the door for a roadmap-based Israeli-Palestinian process.

In view of this disturbing lack of coherence and logic in the Netanyahu government's peace policies, it is hard to view it as a serious candidate for a viable process with the Palestinians.

On the Palestinian side, the West Bank and Gaza Strip remain divided politically between Fateh and Hamas. Egypt's recent attempts to bring the two movements back into a unity government appear to have failed. Yet even this division is not stable: opinion polls show that Fateh is more popular than Hamas in Gaza and Hamas more popular in the West Bank, thereby rendering highly problematic any near-term attempt to hold elections in either of these territories. Nor should we soon expect an Israel-Hamas prisoner exchange that would release Marwan Barghouthi and thereby perhaps inject new life into West Bank politics.

Way back in Zionist history, before the state of Israel was established, a delegation came to Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann and complained about the incompetent and primitive level of his emissaries and representatives. "Those are the Jews I have," the future first president of Israel replied. To borrow from history, Obama and his administration have to recognize that these are the sorry Israeli and Palestinian leaders we have to offer. The nature of the process under Obama has to be adapted to them, and not vice-versa.

For starters, the Obama team should reevaluate the failed policy toward Hamas adopted by Israel and the Quartet two years ago and acknowledge, as a prelude to examining new policy options, that both economic warfare and military warfare have failed. In the West Bank it must also reevaluate failed American policies and make zero-settlement construction, together with the dismantling of "illegal" outposts, its first and most basic demand of Israel. And it should seek to genuinely expand full Palestinian self-rule throughout the northern West Bank where a revived US-sponsored Palestinian security scheme has succeeded and should be reinforced. That means dismantling checkpoints and eventually removing settlements there as well. All these steps can be paralleled by peace negotiations and economic benefits, but without illusions that in the short term this is anything more than a means of improving life and providing future hope. I believe the Netanyahu government could survive this set of demands politically.

Secondly, the Obama administration should upgrade the Israel-Syria track to primacy in its efforts to achieve quick progress toward real Arab-Israel peace. Syrian President Bashar Assad's repeated calls to renew negotiations should be put to the test against the requirement that he distance himself from Iran and other Islamist radicals as part of the payoff for Israel withdrawing from the Golan. Netanyahu and Barak, if not Lieberman, should be more willing to invest their political capital in this peace route than in doubtful all-out negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. And there is a sizeable and more immediate regional reward here for the US, Israel and the moderate Arab states.

Israel's war in Gaza last January forced the Israeli-Palestinian issue upon the nascent Obama administration even as its heavier Middle East priorities lay in AfPak, Iran and Iraq. The clock cannot be turned back, and Israel has to do all in its power to facilitate the Obama/Clinton/Mitchell efforts in the Israel-Arab sphere. But given the composition of the Israeli government and the schism within the Palestinian polity, that power is limited.- Published 27/4/2009 © 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.

Change meets challenge
by Ghassan Khatib

At a time when neither Palestinian nor Israeli domestic political conditions are conducive to progress on peacemaking, the region is looking to the new US administration as the only source of hope.

It is evident that the strategies and approaches of the previous American administration contributed, at least in part, to an unprecedented deterioration in the region, including for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The lack of any prospect for a peaceful negotiated solution to the conflict contributed to a shift in the balance of power among Palestinians in favor of radical Islamic groups on the basis of their opposition to a failed peace process. By the same token, among Israelis the absence of a serious driving force for peace based on respect for international law encouraged the supporters of "Greater Israel" and continued occupation and settlement expansion.

Meanwhile, the failure of US strategy on other Middle East issues, including Iraq and Iran, as well as the democratization drive, affected the credibility and influence of the US in the region and led to Arab divisions while increasing the influence of Iran and its allies.

However, since the election of Barack Obama, the region has seen hope for change in the American approach that might affect Palestinian-Israeli relations. The appointment of George Mitchell as Middle East peace envoy increased expectations that President Obama not only holds a different position from the previous president but is also serious in trying to effect change.

In parallel, the administration has been changing US rhetoric on other Middle East issues, all of which are interrelated. The intention to withdraw from Iraq together with the inclusive approach toward Iran and the rest of the Muslim world beyond the traditional "moderate" camp--which did not prove particularly efficient--have engendered hope and encouraged the public to give the new administration a chance.

The main challenge to Obama is to achieve a renewal of a political process between Palestinians and Israelis and ensure a cessation of Israeli settlement expansion. More and more experts and diplomats in Washington seem to have begun to perceive the Israeli settlement policy as the main barometer of Israeli intentions.

The Obama administration needs to set itself apart from the previous one by moving from rhetoric such as the "two-state vision" to practical changes that allow such a vision to materialize. There is no credibility in talking about two states as long as Israel continues to undermine the very possibility of two states by expanding settlements. Hence, the Palestinians and the Arabs, together with the peace camp in Israel and the rest of the international community that has an interest in peace in the Middle East, will judge the Obama administration on its ability to convince or pressure Israel to stop the expansion of settlements, as a first step toward reversing the settlement process and indeed the Israeli occupation of territories occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem.

Obama also needs to encourage Palestinian unity while restoring some credibility to the Palestinian leadership. That credibility has been gradually and steadily eroded by having to play a security role in preventing resistance to the Israeli occupation even as this occupation has been actively colonizing more and more occupied territory.

Three developments are strongly inter-related: the consolidation of the occupation, the failure of the peace process and the weakening of the peace camp in Palestine. Hence, these three trends can also be reversed together. Doing so will depend on a new understanding and approach by the Obama administration to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict within its larger Middle East political context.- Published 27/4/2009 © 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. He holds a PhD in Middle East politics from the University of Durham.

The ball is in Obama's court

by Yossi Beilin

The new government in Israel does not give priority to Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian peace agreements. From its standpoint, the economic crisis requires more intensive care, the Iranian threat is real and immediate and is linked to Israel-hatred rather than to the Middle East conflict, and the price of peace is too high. In PM Binyamin Netanyahu's eyes, full descent from the Golan Heights will endanger Israel while giving up the West Bank is no less dangerous. Hence it is preferable to play for time until the world accepts that these territories remain in our hands.

Since Netanyahu lives in the same world as the rest of us and understands that it wants to witness political progress, he talks about the need for peace, dreams of an economic peace and would be pleased to meet with Jordanian, Egyptian and Palestinian leaders.

The two additional central office-holders in the new government, Avigdor Lieberman in the delusional appointment of foreign minister and Ehud Barak as minister of defense, will not push Netanyahu into any new diplomatic move. Lieberman opposes concessions on the Golan and talks with the PLO, while Barak believes that if he couldn't succeed to make peace with Syria and the PLO then no one can.

The tragedy that has visited the Palestinians in recent years generated an increasingly crystallizing reality of two hostile entities. The Gaza Strip is completely ruled by Hamas while the West Bank is ruled partially by the PLO. The Palestinian leadership's weakness since the death of Arafat and its inability to speak for all Palestinians confines any agreement with it to the West Bank, at least in the near term.

The Syrian leadership wants to reach an agreement. But President Bashar Assad will not sign a pact that his late father would not have signed. He tried to reach such an agreement with Ehud Olmert and will try with Netanyahu--if the new Israeli prime minister is at all interested in returning to the negotiating table to discuss Israel's northern border.

Were we discussing these three Middle East leaderships vis-a-vis US President George W. Bush, who completed his term of office last January, we would continue to go nowhere and risk the kind of violent outbreak that always emerges when the diplomatic scene is frozen. But the election of President Barack Obama seemingly creates a new situation and raises the hope of change.

Unlike many of his predecessors, Obama did not reach power in order to reinvent the wheel. Rather, he wants to keep the wheel spinning and does not hesitate to use tools created by his predecessors. The Oslo agreements, the Clinton parameters, the roadmap and the Annapolis declaration all form the foundation of a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In parallel, the understandings reached in January 2000 at Shepherdstown between Clinton, Barak and Syrian FM Farouq al-Sharaa are in Obama's eyes the basis of peace between Israel and Syria. And the Arab Peace Initiative is understood by the new American president as a framework of the highest importance for generating strategic change in the region.

Obama believes and speaks like members of the peace camp in the US and the Middle East: the only question is, how determined is he to realize this vision; how high up is it in his order of priorities? Until now we have no answer--only rumors, assessments and hopes.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and his followers expect Obama to be determined. Their strength derives from the prospect of a diplomatic settlement; to the extent that prospect recedes they are weakened and Hamas gains strength. Netanyahu and Lieberman viewed Obama's election as a political blow; their primary hope is that alternative issues such as Iran and the Afghanistan-Pakistan complex will distract him from a diplomatic solution. Bashar Assad dearly needs improved relations with the US and understands that they can be generated by peace with Israel.

The coming weeks will be critical, for in their course Obama will meet with central leaders from the region and will then follow up with a visit. If he "buys" Netanyahu's economic peace or other spurious ideas offered up as alternatives to an intensive diplomatic campaign, then his declarations will become meaningless. If, on the other hand, he demands concrete proposals from his counterparts in the Middle East, if he presents them with a well-formulated concept (such as a return to parallel talks between Israel and Syria, the Palestinians and Lebanon in the spirit of those held after the Madrid conference), then he may well accomplish in the Middle East what his predecessors failed to do.

With all due respect to domestic considerations in the countries of our region, the moment an American president speaks out regarding US interests here the Middle East leaders will have to choose between a crisis with the world's only superpower and acknowledging American demands. Under these circumstances, the ultimate decision appears obvious from the start.- Published 27/4/2009 © bitterlemons.org

Yossi Beilin, a former minister of justice, currently chairs the Geneva initiative and is president of Beilink.

US-Israel showdown?

by George Giacaman

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is no political rookie. Nor is US President Barack Obama bereft of a battery of advisers with experience on how to deal with Israel. One expects that both will try to avoid a showdown as much as possible even if for different reasons.

Netanyahu is due to visit the US in May and the outlines of his approach are not yet clear. But according to Israeli press reports he will offer a multi-tier set of conditions for "progress" on the political track with the Palestinians. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reported recently before the US Congress that progress is a condition equally placed by Arab governments for cooperation on the Iranian "nuclear threat", a message that was also meant for the new Israel government.

One can therefore expect Netanyahu's approach to be "yes, but". Several conditions will be placed, including linking Iran to Palestine. Progress on one front will have to precede progress on the other front. This will be the first spanner thrown in the path of political progress.

There are two other Israeli conditions one can foresee: a gradual normalization with Arab countries, thus inverting the Arab initiative that tied normalization to the resolution of the conflict; and "economic" negotiations with Palestinians to "prepare" the ground for political progress. Progress on the political front is therefore the last stage in a long drawn-out process that is not likely to see the light of day.

It should be obvious that such conditions will not be acceptable to Arab governments and the Palestinian Authority. But will they be acceptable to the Obama administration? The issue here obviously is not one of preference but rather one contingent upon the relative strengths of each side. Netanyahu is banking on two sources of strength: internally, the attempt to set conditions that resonate with a majority of Israelis; externally, what the pro-Israel lobby in the US can successfully advocate.

In Washington, Netanyahu's focus is obviously on the US Congress--which Newt Gingrich famously described as Israeli-occupied territory--and what Congress can do, especially the Republicans who in any case are in the opposition and have already begun attacking the Obama administration for domestic reasons even before his first 100 days are over. "Israel's security"--now an ultimate justification for policies that requires no argumentation, rationalization or discussion beyond what the Israel lobby says--is another "trump card" that Netanyahu will seek to provide a majority in Congress with.

The question then becomes to what degree the Obama administration can overcome such obstacles. This is contingent upon its ability to neutralize the pressure of the Israel lobby and that of Congress and generate support in influential circles in the US for US national interests as against those of the special interests of Netanyahu's right-wing government.

It has been argued that the internal Palestinian division between Ramallah and Gaza is an impediment to a political settlement. This is actually a false argument for two reasons. First, Hamas leaders have said on more than one occasion that they will accept a two-state solution predicated on a 20 or even 30-year truce. Effectively, the PA's political program is no different from that of Hamas, given what a "thirty-year truce" means in the regional and international context. It should be obvious that a fait accompli could be established that is unlikely to be reversed.

Second, the political "weakness" of the PA is the result of a lack of accomplishments in progress toward the two-state solution. The PA's strength vis-a-vis Hamas, and the balance of power between the two, hinges on such accomplishments. If the PA succeeds in its endeavor and reaches an agreement that establishes a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza along lines accepted by a majority of Palestinians, it will regain the upper hand over Hamas and can put such an agreement to a plebiscite. With Arab and international support for such an agreement, Palestinians will most likely be supportive.

The problem is that the PA has not been an effective political actor so far. Nor have Arab governments. Therefore, we have to watch the drama that is beginning to unfold in the test of wills between the new Israeli cabinet and the Obama administration. Bets are open.- Published 27/4/2009 © bitterlemons.org

George Giacaman is a professor at Birzeit University and contributes political analysis to Arab and international media. A collection of his writings from the second intifada will appear in 2009.

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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.