September 26, 2011 Edition 29 Palestinian-Israeli Crossfire
The conflict at the UN
Price to be paid  - Ghassan Khatib
The polarization of positions between the two parties was starker than ever before.

Three speeches, no progress  - Yossi Alpher
Abbas will not have created a real Palestinian state; neither will the UN. Netanyahu will not have prevented a Palestinian state.

The new Abbas and the old Netanyahu  - Hani al-Masri
President Mahmoud Abbas appears to be a new man.

Abu Mazen at the UN  - Amnon Lord
Abu Mazen caused an international train wreck.

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Price to be paid
 Ghassan Khatib
This past week witnessed the culmination of the Palestinian political move to the United Nations. We have seen key speeches by US President Barack Obama, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, in addition to the submission of the Palestinian application for state membership to the United Nations and, finally, a statement by the Middle East Quartet.

These speeches and positions have clarified the marked differences in positions between these parties. On one hand, President Abbas was adamant that the blockage in bilateral negotiations, stalled by Israel for the purpose of expanding illegal Israeli settlements in the territories, is no longer acceptable. In this next phase, he asked for two things: first, international engagement and supervision for any future negotiations and second, a resumption of peace talks without settlement activity and with agreed-on terms of reference that include adherence to the borders of 1967, with accepted modifications. On the other hand, Netanyahu insisted on resuming negotiations with settlement construction ongoing and with no commitment to any terms of reference, i.e., business as usual.

The polarization of positions between the two parties was starker than ever before because both focused on their different narratives. President Abbas put the current conflict in perspective by referring to the uprooting of the Palestinian people from their homeland in 1948 and 1967 and said that the two-state solution that he is demanding is a compromise. In contrast, Netanyahu emphasized the historic and religious rights of the Jews to this land.

Objectively, Abbas' speech was more convincing simply because it was based on international legality and the world consensus advocating two states along the 1967 borders. Netanyahu, on the other hand, seemed to be out of convincing arguments, to the extent that he resorted to some that made no sense. The one that attracted the most attention was his argument that Israel cannot leave the West Bank because Israel is geographically very narrow. He said that, while crossing the US by plane takes six hours, crossing Israel takes three minutes. The obvious problem here is that adding the West Bank to the width of Israel would add about a minute to travel time, which in today's terms is completely insignificant.

These differences, however, were quite expected. What came as a striking surprise to listeners, however, was the speech of President Obama, who seemed to have swallowed the Israeli narrative completely. Obama abandoned basic aspects of the conflict by avoiding any reference to Israeli illegal settlement activities and any reference to the borders, two issues that he once had clear positions about.

The United Nations was the stage for international efforts, especially by Europe and the United States, to convince the Palestinian leadership not to submit an application for membership to the Security Council. The Americans were promising to veto the move, which would embarrass some countries in Europe that wanted Palestinians to have an achievement in the UN but didn't want to openly break with US policy. These countries were trying to convince the Palestinian leadership that, since there was no chance for any achievement in the Security Council, a move to the General Assembly would allow for a stronger alliance without embarrassment.

It seems that the price the Palestinians have been made to pay by neglecting this advice and going to the Security Council was the Quartet statement made on Friday, which calls for a resumption of negotiations with no reference to borders, settlement activity or Israel's demand that Palestinians accept the "Jewishness" of Israel. That puts the Palestinian leadership before a serious test: accepting this Quartet invitation will contradict the very clear and popular positions PLO leaders have been taking. Rejecting it, however, will put the Palestinian side at odds with the positions not only of Israel and the United States, but rather with Quartet allies, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.-Published 26/9/2011 ©

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views.

Three speeches, no progress
 Yossi Alpher
Last week, we heard three dramatic speeches at the United Nations General Assembly that were ostensibly intended to offer new ideas for dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian issue. They did not.

United States President Barack Obama made an unusually pro-Israel speech that was obviously motivated by domestic American political considerations. Obama made clear that he was abdicating a leadership role regarding Israel-Palestine for the coming US election year. It's doubtful the rest of the Quartet, meaning essentially Europe, can fill the gap.

Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Mahmoud Abbas presented a very one-sided defense of his appeal for UN recognition of Palestinian statehood that devoted long minutes to the de-legitimization of another state, Israel. Anyone who can describe the holy land as the land of the prophets Jesus and Mohammad alone, in a willful denial of the Jewish people's roots, is not a candidate to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Abbas, who totally ignored the American role in his speech and whose spokesmen had earlier indicated they would no longer accept American mediation--apparently because they were upset at Obama's unequivocal condemnation of their appeal to the UN--signaled once again that the Palestinian leadership does not know how to read Washington. Yet, Abbas probably registered enough leadership points with Palestinians back home in the West Bank and with Arabs everywhere to maintain control over events to come.

And Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu made a good case for Israel's security concerns, but sorely distorted the options for dealing with them. He ignored the damning effect of the occupation on Israel and offered the Palestinians no new terms for a breakthrough toward peace. He shored up his support base in both Israel and the US but left Israel as isolated as before.

We are now apparently going to enter upon two interlocking processes that go nowhere. The Security Council will delay the Palestinian bid for state recognition; at some point, the process may metamorphose into General Assembly approval for observer-state status. In parallel, and with the objective of delaying that process, the Quartet is trying to persuade Israel and the PLO to renew final-status negotiations. In the unlikely event both sides can be brought to agree, those negotiations will go nowhere, because the Israeli and the Palestinian leaderships are too far apart on virtually all likely agenda items.

In the best case--meaning violence is somehow averted--in a few months or even a year we'll be right back where we were last week. Abbas will not have created a real Palestinian state; neither will the UN. Netanyahu will not have prevented a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem--his and his coalition colleagues' real objective. The US will have done nothing, and without it, the rest of the Quartet will have exercised precious little influence.

Yet, despite all these failures, there remains a very important message of substance in Abbas' decision to take his case to the UN. The Oslo accords have run their course and we need a new, state-to-state paradigm for dealing with those final-status issues--territory, security--that are directly linked to Palestinian statehood and appear to be negotiable. On the other hand, we have to use the state-to-state paradigm to postpone the "existential" or "narrative" issues--refugees, holy places--that have repeatedly thwarted Oslo-based final status negotiations, as Abbas demonstrated so deplorably in his General Assembly speech.

We have to recognize that there may be better ways to solve some of the Israeli-Palestinian final status issues, but we'll also have to suffice for the near term with merely managing the remainder. Sadly, that message was absent from all three speeches and, presumably, from the understanding of all three principals.-Published 26/9/2011 ©

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

The new Abbas and the old Netanyahu
 Hani al-Masri
President Mahmoud Abbas appears to be a new man. What led to this change? Since taking office, he has always said that only negotiations can lead to the establishment of the state. When the talks faltered or faced an obstacle, he often said, "The alternative to negotiations is the negotiations." When President Abbas set conditions for the resumption of negotiations, these quickly became mere demands. Even in recent days, he repeated that negotiations were his first, second, and third choice.

When Abbas announced his intention to go to the United Nations, the strong US opposition meant that even some of his supporters did not believe that he would follow through. His speech at the UN resolved their doubts, however, and raised the ceiling of the Palestinian position.

Abbas' speech derived strength from the justice of the Palestinian cause and determination to proceed with the application for full membership of the state of Palestine to the Security Council, despite Israeli and US pressure and threats as well as "suggestions" from Palestinian, Arab and international friends. The president refused to compromise by making a request for non-member status at the UN General Assembly, either within the package presented by French President Nicholas Sarkozy or as a first step followed by the submission of the application to the Security Council.

The "old" Abu Mazen would have agreed to resume negotiations on the basis of the European initiative, but he preferred the challenge, despite the risks. What lion has grown in the heart of Abbas to turn him into a new person? What made him stick to his terms for the resumption of negotiations?

There are a number of factors and causes that transformed the president into a new national leader, militant in his demands and willing to risk losing the patronage of the US president. They begin with the fact that the path of negotiations has reached an impasse because of the rock-hard intransigence of the Israeli government led by Binyamin Netanyahu, which appears impenetrable for the foreseeable future. Most indicators and surveys in Israel suggest that the current Israeli government will live out its term and that even new elections (early or on time) will produce a government at least as radical as the current one.

To make matters worse, the US administration reneged on its promises and US President Barack Obama now seems more favorable to Israel than any previous president. Estimates are that amid the increasingly feverish competition for the presidency, the US--where electoral candidates are competing over who offers more support for Israel--cannot be expected to exercise any serious pressure on the government of Israel until after the US presidential elections. Without this pressure, there will be no resumption in talks and no reaching of a peace agreement.

Abu Mazen has concluded that the next two years, at least, will see no progress in the peace process. This period will be sufficient for the Israeli government to create a fait accompli, destroy the Palestinian dream of statehood and undermine the Palestinian Authority until its collapse.

But the "Arab spring" is the most determinant factor in the change in Abbas. It has removed the weight of the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from his chest and opened up the possibility for Palestinians to think of new options and alternatives. Affirming the Arab people's quest for democracy, and considering regional and international changes (especially the deterioration in the Egyptian-Israeli and Turkish-Israeli relationships), Abu Mazen's clock sensed it was time for the Palestinian spring and independence.

Still, the solution is not at the door or even a stone's throw away. We must work hard and make one last attempt to end the stalemate in the peace process by changing the rules of the negotiations, a matter that needs a real change in the balance of power on the ground. It is no longer possible to address the blockage in the horizon of the talks with the means tried and failed over the years.

Abu Mazen dreams of achieving the goal of statehood, and when he began to see that dream slip away, increasingly unlikely under his leadership, he sought to leave the scene as a hero and a stubborn defender of Palestinian rights. He wanted to refute the charges of weakness and caving in that have dogged him, particularly after his decision to postpone the UN Goldstone report that charged Israel with war crimes in Gaza.

One cannot explain Abu Mazen's position without this personal dimension. He does not want to carry a gun and die a martyr, like his predecessor Yasser Arafat, but he has chosen to stand fast and use popular resistance to try to achieve a settlement on the basis of clear inalienable benchmarks. Either that, or he will develop a new strategy inspired by the spirit of spring in the region, one that will unite Palestinians and open the window of hope that they will achieve their goals of freedom, return and independence.

As such, Abu Mazen's speech expressed the historical suffering, hope and aspirations of the Palestinian people and was answered with warm applause and numerous standing ovations.

In comparison, Netanyahu's speech was weak and worn-out, arguing lawyerishly about unfairness--to the extent that the hall became dark and sober. He then moved from attack to defense, wearing the clothes of an innocent. He said, on one hand, that he is keen on peace and called for the resumption of negotiations. Then he said that Palestine was "the land of Israel" and that Palestinians have foiled all peace initiatives because they refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and the owners of this land.

Netanyahu repeated the broken Israeli record about willingness for a permanent peace and the generous gestures it has extended, only to be met by terrorism and Palestinian inertia. Israel is a small state surrounded by enemies who want to destroy it, he said, insisting on the primacy of security. He then claimed that Israel seeks the establishment of the state (as if it has not eliminated all chances for Palestine through Israel's settlement expansion, apartheid wall, the separation and isolation of Jerusalem, and the siege and aggression against Gaza).

Netanyahu said that the concept of security means that a demilitarized Palestinian state should include long-term security arrangements, including the continued presence of Israeli forces and control of borders, air and water so that the area cannot be used as a base for launching rockets at towns and sensitive sites in Israel.

Has Netanyahu forgotten that the achievement of peace is the best, fastest and cheapest way to achieve security? Israel can continue its occupation, relying on force and military security and the lack of Arab and international development as deterrence. But for how long? Israel often says that it cannot afford to lose a single war, but its ability to win wars is decreasing. It is no longer able to achieve lightning-quick victory far from the home front. Given the new variables in the Arab and international sphere, will Israel not regret making peace once adverse conditions are forced upon her?

The new Abu Mazen has become even more removed from the old Netanyahu, so that the gap between the Palestinian and Israeli attitudes has become wider. We cannot now turn back the clock and return to sterile negotiations.

What is needed is to allow the new factors and rules to change the balance of power, then for a reference and framework to be set for the peace process. Statements are not enough--they are quickly overcome or emptied of content. There can be no achievements at the negotiating table until action is imposed on the land of the conflict.-Published 26/9/2011 ©

Hani al-Masri is a columnist for several Palestinian newspapers.

Abu Mazen at the UN
 Amnon Lord
Here is a typical headline for a commentary article in the Israeli press: "Abu Mazen is a peace rejectionist." Since Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) has never pursued peace, this kind of discovery is laughable. Abbas is the head of a liberation organization, the follower of his predecessor Yasser Arafat, as he made clear in his United Nations speech last week. As a revolutionary leader, he is not in the business of peace but rather of doing whatever advances the interests of the Palestinian revolution.

He is not a leader of armed struggle; for many years his expertise has been political warfare within the framework of a broad popular struggle. More than anyone in the Palestinian leadership, he spent quite a few years in the Soviet Union, where he learned his trade and also wrote a PhD that casts doubt on the extent of the Holocaust. His great political talent is expressed in his success in mobilizing one of Israel's greatest Holocaust scholars, Professor Yehuda Bauer, as a collaborator in his political move against Israel at the UN. This unilateral move should be understood in the wider context of his campaign of de-legitimization cum dehumanization of Israel and Israelis--the central theme of his rhetoric in the General Assembly.

Yet it seems that Abbas miscalculated in his UN bid. When he started the initiative, he probably thought that he had US President Barack Obama on his side. He calculated that Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu would cave in under pressure and accept his and Obama's preconditions for direct negotiations. He probably calculated that either way, Israel would not put up a real fight at the UN. He thought he had legitimacy for his unilateral move based on Obama's speech at the UN last year, which asserted that by this September there would be a new member of the UN: a Palestinian state.

Obama of this year is different. Possibly, had he delivered this year's UN speech two years ago, the Israelis would be forthcoming and the Palestinians not yet entrenched in their ultimatums. The American president's speech was music to Israeli ears. He is closing every gap between the US and Israel to the point where there is no daylight between him and Netanyahu.

Any commentator on the US-Israel-Palestinian triangle is best advised to follow what former State Department official Aaron David Miller says. In the course of the past year, Miller "predicted" that, regardless of the nature of the personal relationship between Netanyahu and Obama, Israel and the US would become closer and eventually attain close cooperation in political and strategic matters. This became increasingly clear as Middle East regional instability grew. Israel put up a fight, led by Netanyahu in his momentous speech in Congress last May, which was not to Obama's liking. Ultimately, Netanyahu secured a US veto and most likely even a blocking vote in the Security Council that will topple the Palestinian request for membership.

Regardless of the procedural means by which the request is rejected, the collective memory of the leading countries will remain this: Abu Mazen caused an international train wreck--another prediction by Miller many months ago--and the Palestinians can be very destructive, spearheading a chaotic Muslim world.

In general, the Palestinians wanted to get back to the top of the international agenda. In this sense, their UN bid is a relative success. Yet the question remains: in which direction will Abbas move once the carnival is over. He could take the path of political warfare through "lawfare" and the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign. But until that gains steam, he is likely to lose legitimacy abroad and especially at home--where he doesn't have much public support anyway. The UN unilateral bid will be exposed as an empty declarative resolution and the Palestinian public may react against Abbas: people might remember that his presidency lost legal electoral validity more than two years ago. He would be in line with the rest of the Arab dictators.

This, then, opens the possibility that Abbas will give a couple of inches and enter into serious direct negotiations with the Netanyahu government. Netanyahu is certain to respond favorably; he needs negotiations to strengthen his leadership in Israeli society. And this will certainly boost Obama's reelection efforts next year.

Yet the overall atmosphere in the Middle East does not favor the US and definitely does not favor Israel. So, are negotiations with Israel in Abbas' survival interest? Only with the solid support of Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Can Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan extinguish the murder in his eyes? Such a development would do miracles for the atmosphere in the region.

A comprehensive peace deal is unlikely, but there are two factors that might push Abbas in the direction of negotiations. First, Netanyahu is the only leader who can deliver on an agreement, if only an interim one. And second, the political channel is Abbas' only raison-d'etre as a national leader.-Published 26/9/2011 ©

Amnon Lord is a senior editor with Makor Rishon daily newspaper.