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    March 8, 2010 Edition 5                      Palestinian-Israeli crossfire
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Is Netanyahu serious about a peace process?
. Time for the international community to show its hand        by Ghassan Khatib
It is very difficult for Palestinians to be optimistic about the coming negotiations.
  . The wrong question        by Yossi Alpher
The question should be whether there are promising alternatives to what is certain to be a failed process.
. Netanyahu has never been a peacemaker        by Joharah Baker
The Israeli agenda involves the acquisition of the greatest amount of Palestinian land possible before final status talks begin.
  . Netanyahu wants peace        by Efraim Inbar
It is the Palestinians who insist on preconditions for resuming the talks.

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Time for the international community to show its hand
by Ghassan Khatib

With the PLO deciding to accept the American invitation to proximity talks, helped in no small measure by the Arab League's backing, the stage is set for another round of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians under US auspices.

The question remains, however, about the extent to which the Israeli government headed by Binyamin Netanyahu is ready and serious regarding this new phase and to what extent Israel's stated keenness to hold negotiations without conditions is merely a public relations exercise.

The Palestinian people and leadership have learned through many years of experience of Israeli governments not to listen to what is said but to look at what is done. And judging by the state of the domestic Israeli political scene, the composition of the Israeli coalition government and Israeli practices on the ground in occupied territory, it is very difficult for Palestinians to be optimistic about the coming negotiations.

Furthermore, the Israeli insistence on "no pre-conditions" for negotiations is understood on the Palestinian side to be an attempt to start negotiations without terms of reference, agenda or time limit. This will allow Israel to turn talks into photo opportunities while dragging out a process that will serve only to shield illegal Israeli activities in occupied territory, especially settlement expansion in Jerusalem, from growing international criticism, which has been isolating Israel to an unprecedented degree recently.

On the other hand, the international community has been frustrated by the absence of a peace process that might provide an opportunity for influential states with an interest in contributing to stability in the region through meaningful Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, to play a bigger role. The current American administration, which showed early interest and engagement, keeps arguing that it needs an active process in order to be able to contribute to moving things toward a peaceful agreement and the end of conflict.

The European Union, collectively, and many leading European states, individually, have recently expressed positions that indicate a clear commitment to international legality. The December 8 EU statement on Jerusalem and the Kouchner/Moratinos article regarding UN recognition of a Palestinian state are examples. Europeans argue that the international atmosphere might allow them to be active partners with the US in efforts to support an ongoing peace process. Moreover, the Europeans would like to move from being payers to being players.

The position of the Arab League, which enabled the PLO to approve the resumption of talks, meanwhile, was politically costly. In light of declared Israeli positions and practices, Palestinian public opinion and the majority of the political elite are convinced that the winner in resuming negotiations is Israel, simply because, once again, Israel will likely be allowed to eat its cake and keep it at the same time. This could backfire on Arab countries.

The real question therefore now is, will this American administration and the EU, as well as other interested and active members of the international community, really allow Israel to get away with it again? If yes, then there can be only one outcome of this process: further encouragement for the right-wing in Israel and the Hamas opposition in Palestine and further radicalization in both societies.- Published 8/3/2010 © 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.

The wrong question
by Yossi Alpher

I have no doubt that all the relevant leaders want peace. And all want a peace process. Who wouldn't?

But are they serious about the process? Well, what's the point in asking that question when, under present leadership circumstances, a peace process cannot succeed?

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu signaled he wants both peace and a peace process when, at some political risk, he accepted the two-state solution and then imposed a partial settlement-construction freeze. But is he serious about the process?

Many would argue that he has signaled he is not serious about a peace process through a series of acts and declarations. First, Netanyahu turned down a coalition with the moderate Kadima party, which might have rendered his government a more likely candidate for a peace process, and preferred instead a hard-line coalition that guarantees Israel will continue to lose international support. He has supported or tolerated controversial Jewish settlement projects in and around East Jerusalem. Most recently, by declaring the Hebron Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem Israeli heritage sites, he seemingly signaled that he is either not peace-oriented or, worse, wishes to sabotage any chance at all for a genuine dialogue.

Yet many of Netanyahu's predecessors negotiated peace in good faith while engaging in similar provocative activities and without bothering to freeze settlement construction. And while Netanyahu mainly couches his acceptance of a two-state solution in his demands from the Palestinians--demilitarization, recognition of Israel as a Jewish state--he has, in assorted statements and gestures, begun to sketch out his final-status vision.

Thus, he wants an ongoing Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley (though he has not spoken of annexation there). At Israel's tree-planting holiday a month ago, he planted saplings in the settlement blocs that are on or near the green line and stated they would remain part of Israel, but did nothing of the sort in settlements located in the West Bank heartland. And he has indicated unequivocally that peace with the Palestinians cannot include Jerusalem.

Leaving aside Jerusalem--an obvious deal-breaker--it is not outlandish or unprecedented for an Israeli prime minister to offer the Palestinians all of the West Bank except the settlement blocs and insist on maintaining an ongoing security presence in the Jordan Valley, for example by temporarily leasing Palestinian land there.

Moreover, in Netanyahu's strategic order of priorities Iran clearly comes before the Palestinian issue. He has told his own Likud party that the need to work with the United States against Iran will require concessions regarding Palestine. Thus, even though Netanyahu does not appear to subscribe to the demographic rationale for separating Israel from a Palestinian state, he does have an alternative strategic reason for conceivably doing so.

So, recognizing that Netanyahu's misguided ministerial appointments, coalition decisions and mindless provocations may not be much worse than those of his peace-minded predecessors, and bearing in mind that he has courageously opted for a two-state solution and that a Revisionist right-winger who can change his mind about that could also conceivably change regarding Jerusalem, is he serious?

Obviously, if he is, we can only know when, having commenced negotiations, he tries to reshuffle his coalition to bring in Kadima. Otherwise, it is inconceivable that his current coalition will support even 50 percent of the concessions he presumably knows he will have to make. Given that Netanyahu has persuaded Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Ehud Barak that he is serious, we should be careful about disqualifying him because of the friends he keeps or the nuances and body language that some claim to detect in his behavior.

Of course, Netanyahu may simply still be a political survivalist bereft of principles or a vision for peace. But the question at stake should not be whether Netanyahu is serious about a peace process. Rather, it should be whether there are promising alternatives to what is certain to be a failed process, if and when it begins, even if Netanyahu is completely serious.

Neither Netanyahu nor Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas signals readiness to make the painful concessions required for a two-state solution--Abbas, most recently, in rejecting Ehud Olmert's far-reaching offer of September 2008. Both are currently so constrained politically as to make significant concessions very unlikely. US President Barack Obama appears to be quietly backing out of energetic support for a dynamic process in view of his heavy obligations in Afghanistan, Iraq and regarding Iran--all during a US congressional election year. Thus we are apparently now about to witness four months of fruitless discussion of procedural issues leading almost to the deadline for Netanyahu's settlement freeze to end.

The alternatives are plain to see. One is more support for PM Salam Fayyad's state-building program in the West Bank--the only successful game in town. If Netanyahu (reportedly) can offer to withdraw from additional West Bank territories as a gesture to Abbas in return for joining negotiations, why not make this offer to reward Fayyad's security accomplishments and provide an incentive for more?

Another is recognizing the permanency of the Hamas regime in Gaza and the need to stabilize the situation there so Hamas can't or won't disrupt a peace process. This means radically revising the failed policies of the past three years adopted by Israel (though not by a Netanyahu government), the Quartet, Egypt and the PLO.

Finally there is the prospect of a renewed peace process with Syria. Netanyahu has negotiated with Damascus before. The primacy he attaches to the threat from Iran points to the possible benefits of peace with Syria.

If the US would get behind any or all of these alternatives more energetically, we might conceivably see positive, confidence-building results that could in future make an Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution more feasible than it is today.- Published 8/3/2010 © 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.

Netanyahu has never been a peacemaker

by Joharah Baker

The maxim "actions speak louder than words" may be a cliche but it is surely an accurate one when writing about Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's sincerity in reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians. Since his Bar Ilan speech last June, Netanyahu has been boasting of his "outstretched hand", his genuine intentions to make peace with his neighbors and his stoic patience in waiting for a Palestinian partner to finally grab this incredible opportunity.

Since that speech, it has been easy for Netanyahu to "talk the talk" because the Palestinians would have nothing to do with him. This of course, largely had to do with the fact that in all his "generosity", the only vision of peace Netanyahu could muster was a demilitarized Palestinian state with no prospect of a capital in Jerusalem alongside an Israel whose Jewishness the Palestinians would have to clearly recognize. Enticing as this might sound, the Palestinians--taking their cue from the United States--were adamant that settlement construction had to stop before they would consider sitting back down at the negotiating table.

Not much has happened that warrants optimism since. Netanyahu, apparently to keep up the flimsy facade of peacemaker for as long as possible, announced an even flimsier 10-month moratorium on West Bank settlement construction. Moratorium, in this case, must be used extremely loosely given that it does not include expansion of East Jerusalem settlements, construction already underway before the announcement or public buildings such as schools and synagogues. That leaves a whole lot of construction, which settlers were quick to initiate the moment the decision came out.

But unfortunate as it is, Palestinians have grown accustomed to the ever-expanding colonies on their land. Even under the Oslo accords and the roadmap, which stipulates a freeze to settlement construction, the red-roofed all-Jewish homes kept popping up at exponential rates. The real bomb, so to speak, was dropped just a few weeks ago, a bomb so laden with the potential to blow the last semblance of normalcy out of the water that even the United States felt obliged to call for constraint.

In a highly provocative move that was certain to call any promise of peace into question, the Israeli premier declared two West Bank holy sites part of a list of Israeli heritage sites. The Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, known to Jews as the Cave of the Patriarchs, and the Bilal Bin Rabah Mosque in Bethlehem, or Rachel's Tomb, have long been flashpoints of confrontation between Israeli settlers and troops and Palestinian worshippers. Needless to say, Netanyahu's announcement fanned these flames tenfold, with clashes occurring almost daily in Hebron near the mosque since.

The fact that Netanyahu made such a controversial move at such a crucial time speaks volumes about his intentions. He is well aware of the religious sensitivities of these two places in particular and would surely have predicted the Palestinian ire at yet another Israeli attempt to undermine their cultural and religious ties to their own land. Yet, in classic Netanyahu style, he just had to push the parameters of what is acceptable, even to Israel's most acquiescing ally, the US. In response to the declaration, the US called the move "provocative and unhelpful" in getting the two parties back to the negotiating table.

Nevertheless, since that February 25 announcement, one major development has occurred and the Palestinian leadership will enter into proximity talks with Israel at the behest of the Arab League. The Arabs and Palestinians will ostensibly give Israel a four-month window of opportunity at the negotiating table before taking the case to the UN Security Council, the International Court of Justice or some other international venue they believe might help them put Israel in its place.

So, the question now is whether such negotiations will actually bear fruit? The short answer is, probably not. Even if the parties return to direct negotiations, in all likelihood it won't matter. Palestinians and Israelis have been on and off the negotiating bandwagon since the early 1990s and to little avail. Even with the most "dovish" of Israel's leaders at the helm, Palestinian statehood was never realized. On the contrary: settlements not only remained in place but expanded while other damning facts on the ground, such as the separation wall and the draconian permit system for Palestinian movement, have proven that leaders like Netanyahu have a less than peaceful agenda in mind. The Israeli agenda involves the acquisition of the greatest amount of Palestinian land possible before final status talks begin, the guarantee of a highly militarized Jewish state with Jerusalem as its capital and a reservation-like solution for the Palestinians in a few patches of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Netanyahu may not detail each and every step of this plan, but he doesn't need to. It's right there, in Jerusalem, in Hebron, in Gaza and in Tel Aviv for all to see.- Published 8/3/2010 © bitterlemons.org

Joharah Baker is a writer for the Media and Information Department at MIFTAH and a former editor of Palestine Report Online.

Netanyahu wants peace

by Efraim Inbar

Israel's prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, wants peace and is interested in negotiations with the Palestinians. The Netanyahu government enjoys large popular support because a large majority of Israelis agrees with this view. Israelis deeply desire peace and this issue influences their voting behavior. Indeed, every Israeli government must demonstrate to the electorate its seriousness in pursuing peace in order to be reelected.

True, what is required to convince Israelis about their government's determination to pursue peace is not always enough to impress the outside world. This gap is the source of much of the criticism leveled against Israel. But the critical and/or hostile circles, which are heavily influenced by misguided notions propagated by the discredited Israeli left and Palestinian propaganda, are not in sync with regional realities and entertain unrealistic expectations.

In his June 2009 speech at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, Netanyahu successfully redefined the Israeli consensus and became a mainstream political leader. Despite the Jews' ancient claim to their historic homeland, the Land of Israel, Netanyahu expressed a willingness to reach territorial compromise--a two-state solution--in order to satisfy the national needs of the Palestinians. Netanyahu's acceptance of a Palestinian state is conditional, however. His insistence on a demilitarized state reflects ingrained Israeli fears of dangerous neighbors. Netanyahu also demanded the long overdue recognition of Israel as the Jewish nation-state. In line with Israeli consensus, he insisted on Jerusalem remaining the undivided capital of the Jewish state.

Over 70 percent of Israelis agreed with Netanyahu's address--quite an achievement for any Israeli prime minister. The Israeli consensus revolves around the willingness to repartition the Land of Israel. There is enormous skepticism about the Palestinians' ability to reach an historic compromise with the Zionist movement and subsequently implement the agreement. Israelis are most concerned about Palestinian compliance with Israel's security requirements. Israelis want defensible borders, understanding that the peace process is predicated upon a strong Israel.

The hawkish faction within Netanyahu's Likud party feels comfortable with Netanyahu's positions. This faction even supported the ten-month partial freeze on new housing construction in Judea and Samaria that was announced on November 25, 2009--an unprecedented Israeli concession. Netanyahu's government is strongly enforcing the moratorium.

Netanyahu believes that progress on the road to peace can only be achieved by a slow process of institution-building and economic growth beginning from the bottom-up. Indeed, his government has done its best to facilitate economic growth in the PA by removing dozens of roadblocks in the West Bank, thereby putting the lives of Jews at risk, and by supporting international and Palestinian economic activity. Moreover, the Israeli prime minister declares at every opportunity his willingness to enter into unconditional talks with the PA. He has even accepted proximity talks despite Israel's traditional insistence on direct talks.

So far, those advocating great Israeli territorial concessions to the Palestinians in order to bring peace have been proven wrong. Two Israeli prime ministers offered to cede virtually all of the disputed territories. The offers of Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert were respectively rejected by Yasser Arafat in 2000 and ignored by his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, in 2008. Moreover, in 2000 the Palestinians launched a campaign of terror and recently they have threatened to renew it. Similarly, after the Sharon government unilaterally withdrew from Gaza and dismantled all settlements in 2005, the Gaza Strip was converted into a launching pad for intensified missile attacks.

The Palestinians seem to have a great territorial appetite and historically have displayed a lack of political pragmatism that is a prerequisite for reaching a compromise. Unfortunately, the Palestinians have no Ben-Gurion-type leaders capable of making difficult decisions. The contrast to Israeli leadership is striking, particularly when history shows that Ben-Gurion was ready to accept the convoluted 1947 partition borders and a Jewish state without Jerusalem.

Blaming Netanyahu for the current impasse assumes that the insatiable Palestinians must be placated at the expense of vital Israeli security interests, such as demilitarization of the West Bank and maintaining Israeli control over the Jordan Valley and Greater Jerusalem. Ascribing responsibility to Netanyahu for the impasse with the Palestinians also wrongly assumes that the Palestinians have displayed flexibility in their approach to Israel. Yet it is the Palestinians who insist on preconditions for resuming the talks. Even Netanyahu's decision for the ten-month freeze on building in the settlements was rejected by the PLO.

As a matter of fact, it is the Palestinians that are dragging their feet in the peace negotiations. Mahmoud Abbas in his May 2009 Washington Post interview emphasized that he is in no hurry to negotiate with Israel and that he expects the Americans to force Israel to accept the Palestinian conditions. His prime minister, Salam Fayyad, announced a plan to unilaterally establish a Palestinian state in two years instead of a state emerging from negotiations with Israel. Both "moderate" leaders honor suicide bombers as martyrs and provide their families with state pensions. They allow the PA-controlled media, education system and mosques to continue to promote rabid anti-Semitism. Both reject recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Unfortunately, Palestinian society in Gaza and in the West Bank is under the spell of Hamas, which has not accepted Israel's right to exist. Consequently, the Palestinians are not moving in the direction of compromise and reconciliation.

Netanyahu's government probably has no illusions about the ability of the Palestinians to reach an agreement with Israel and implement it in the near future, but Netanyahu keeps the option of negotiations open. In contrast, the Palestinians' goal is to extract Israeli concessions without negotiations, hoping that Washington and/or the international community will pressure Israel into accepting Palestinian demands.- Published 8/3/2010 © bitterlemons.org

Efraim Inbar is professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University and director of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies.

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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.