There are plenty of reasons why the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has not yet been restarted through American mediation. Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu's manipulations and his coalition are one; the weakness of the Palestinian Authority and PLO under Mahmoud Abbas are another. The moderate Arab states have done precious little to help. But right now US President Barack Obama's mistakes are the most glaring.
Obama's scheme to jump-start the process with a genuine Israeli settlement freeze and low-level Arab diplomatic gestures to Israel seemed initially like a good idea. With the Palestinian Authority having demonstrated real achievements with regard to security and institution-building, it made sense to demand of the other parties that they seriously fulfill their roadmap obligations (the Arab gestures are a roadmap phase II requirement). Besides, settlement expansion is antithetical to Netanyahu's commitment to a "Jewish state". Netanyahu's government would not have collapsed over a settlement freeze, given that its new ministers and members of Knesset had a vested interest in protecting their seats and avoiding governmental crisis.
But Obama seemed to think that he could do the job merely through "engagement", without pressure. This corresponds with his general approach to international politics, although it must be noted that nowhere has he "engaged" Israel at the personal and emotional level as he has the Arab and Muslim worlds. Not surprisingly, neither Netanyahu nor the moderate Arabs, under Riyadh's lead, complied with Obama's requests. Meanwhile the weakest player, Abbas, bought into the settlement-freeze demand enthusiastically. The Obama administration was able to adjust to Netanyahu's stonewalling and "spin" its abandonment of the settlement freeze; this is harder for Abbas to do.
More administration mistakes have followed. Obama and Mitchell woke up late to the almost certain negative ramifications of possible Egyptian success in brokering a Fateh-Hamas unity deal for their plan to renew Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. If Cairo succeeds, Hamas will gain new leverage over policy-making in Ramallah, while the prospect of Palestinian elections involving Hamas could postpone any serious negotiations. Rather than wasting time in pressuring the Saudis to allow some low-level Arab diplomatic gestures to Israel, the administration should have been concentrating its energies on Cairo.
True, the administration could not have prevented the negative effects of the recent Goldstone report on war crimes allegedly committed in Gaza last January. But its attempt to persuade Abbas to bypass the report ultimately proved both abortive and detrimental to the Palestinian leader's already weak standing.
Then there is Obama's acceptance of the Nobel peace prize. The Middle East is the region where the Obama vision is being most energetically applied. Thus far Obama's accomplishments here are limited: talking to Iran and beginning the withdrawal from Iraq, but getting nowhere with the Arabs and Israelis. By setting an even higher standard of success, the Nobel is liable to prove more a curse than a blessing for Obama in the Israel-Arab sphere. He could have asked to postpone the prize for a few years and gained respect in this part of the world.
Still, let us suppose that, despite these mistakes and setbacks, the administration does soon succeed in convening the Abbas and Netanyahu peace teams. It begs credibility that Obama and Mitchell don't know what they'll be up against. Even if Netanyahu himself is honestly prepared to seek a genuine two-state solution--and at this point this is merely an unproven supposition--his coalition is not. This means a government crisis and possible elections in Israel, especially since Netanyahu is doing nothing to cultivate Kadima's Tzipi Livni as an alternative coalition partner. As for Abbas, whether the issue is pressure from Hamas or the PLO leader's own refusal--as demonstrated last year to Ehud Olmert--to compromise on the core issues, he is apparently at best a partner for a deal on borders, not Jerusalem or refugees. But first he has to be persuaded to shoot for a partial agreement.
This brings us full circle back to the Obama administration's resolve to tackle the Palestinian issue first and most energetically, rather than negotiations between Israel and Syria. True, Damascus has proven less than fully forthcoming in complying with administration preliminary requests and "tests" regarding Iraq and other issues; here again Obama seems to be relying on "engagement" without teeth. But unlike Abbas in Ramallah, the Bashar Assad regime is fully in charge in Damascus, and it has indicated that it knows the price it will have to pay for the Golan.
In the near term, a Syria-Israel deal is a better bet for Washington, with better chances of success and a far bigger regional (Iran-related) payoff, than a Palestine-Israel deal. This could ultimately prove very beneficial for moderate Palestinians, too. But only if Obama is tough--and more focused.- Published 19/10/2009 © bitterlemons.org
The most recent public opinion poll conducted in the Palestinian territories by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center has shown a dramatic decline in the Palestinian public's evaluation of the Obama administration's role in promoting peace in the Middle East.
Up until this poll, Barack Obama had enjoyed an unusually high approval rating for an American president in the region and among Palestinians. This was a consequence of his positive and inclusive rhetoric as well as his early engagement with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and other Middle East issues that marked a clear departure from the previous administration, which was perceived by Arabs and Palestinians as the worst American administration in history.
One of the positive signs was the early appointment of a dedicated peace envoy, George Mitchell. Among Palestinians, Mitchell was known for the report that carried his name and is incorporated in the roadmap. Palestinians have mostly fastened on Mitchell's insistence, in that initial report and since, that there has to be an end to Israeli settlement construction in occupied territory in order to lay a solid foundation for potentially fruitful negotiations.
During the course of his mission, Mitchell seemed to be following the logic and the sequence of the roadmap in trying to pave the way for successful negotiations, partly by ensuring a settlement construction freeze. He thus acknowledged the detrimental effect on previous peace efforts that continuing Israeli settlement expansion has had. Indeed, the two processes are logically incompatible. One is about ending the occupation; the other is about consolidating it.
The main challenge facing Mitchell has been the attitude of the right-wing Israeli government led by Binyamin Netanyahu. The Israeli government has, apparently, relied on domestic US factors as well as the limitations on any administration's attempts to put pressure on Israel in order to weather Washington's attempt to convince Israel to freeze settlement construction. The US administration, like all administrations, needs substantial achievements to maintain its public approval ratings in anticipation of congressional elections and, further down the line, new presidential elections. The pro-Israel lobby in America has shown itself capable of withstanding the administration's pressure on Israel to stop settlement construction and this appears to have left Mitchell squeezed between the logical requirements of a meaningful political process and the domestic political realities of the administration.
Washington now appears to be turning to the conventional route of pressuring the Palestinian side rather than the Israeli side in order to launch a political process. The Palestinian leadership already paid a substantial price for this policy u-turn when it was "persuaded" to meet Netanyahu in New York and pressured into supporting deferral of the vote in the UN on the Goldstone report on war crimes in Gaza.
This price could have been fatal had it not been for the Palestinian leadership's own swift u-turn in bringing the Goldstone report to a vote in the UN's Human Rights Council and its insistence that while indirect negotiations with Israel through Mitchell are acceptable, there can be no direct negotiations for as long as settlement construction continues.
Overcoming the challenges facing Mitchell's mission at the expense of the Palestinian leadership may save face for the US administration, which has clearly lost the first round to Netanyahu. Ultimately, however, it will lead us nowhere near real peace. Rather, it will simply serve to reinforce the trends of radicalization among Palestinians while marginalizing a Palestinian leadership that needs to be empowered in order to deliver any future agreement.- Published 19/10/2009 © 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
Mitchell's mission impossible
by Efraim Inbar
The appointment of Senator George Mitchell as special envoy to the Middle East in January 2009 elicited great expectations for progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track, particularly since the new American president, Barack Obama, eloquently communicated his intent to renew peace negotiations and end them successfully within his first term in office. After nine months and many trips to the Middle East, a plethora of meetings with the leaders in the region and even an Obama-Netanyahu-Abbas summit in New York last month, Senator Mitchell seems unable to report success to his boss.
There are several reasons for this outcome, some conjectural and some structural. First, Obama's behavior has not been helpful. He has insisted on a comprehensive settlement freeze, which the Palestinians turned into a precondition for sitting at the negotiating table. So far it has backfired, indicating Washington's limitations in imposing its will on Jerusalem, as well as the diplomatic acumen of Netanyahu's government. Moreover, the arm-twisting to persuade Abbas to come to the New York summit further undermined the position of the weak Palestinian leader. On top of this, Washington rightly demanded that the Palestinian Authority defer the presentation of the infamous Goldstone report to UN forums. Yet Abbas' acquiescence in the American demand exposed him to the criticism of Hamas, the main competitor in Palestinian politics. All this hampered the PA's flexibility toward Israel and hindered the return to negotiations.
Second, in Israel, the Netanyahu government advocated a return to negotiations without preconditions--prima facie, a very reasonable position. Moreover, following Netanyahu's May 2009 diplomatic address at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, over 70 percent of Israelis, a very high figure, endorsed his policies on the Palestinian issue. This political feat made Israel less vulnerable to outside pressure. Furthermore, Israel gained American promises to secure Arab gestures as a quid pro quo for its concessions. Washington was unable to deliver, indicating again the limits of American clout in the region.
Poor Mitchell was sent into diplomatic battle when most of the region was quite impressed with Obama's rhetoric but was not convinced that words would be followed by deeds. Unfortunately, the heyday of American power and influence in the Middle East is over. When American diplomacy is not backed by "hard" power, the "soft" power extolled nowadays by Washington carries only little weight with the realpolitik-oriented Middle Eastern elites. Most capitals of the region regard Obama as weak. This does not augur well for Mitchell, as even the weak Palestinians are able to say "no".
The truth is that even a much stronger America cannot impose peace agreements. In 1991, the tough Secretary of State James Baker was successful in convening the Madrid conference, but the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian Oslo agreement and the 1994 Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty were the result of bilateral interactions with no American input. Similarly, Anwar Sadat decided to go to Jerusalem in 1977 when President Carter wanted him to fly to Geneva instead for an international peace conference. Outsiders have limited ability to induce change in how Middle Easterners conduct their business, as recent American experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan indicate.
American diplomacy can hardly make a dent in the schism within Palestinian society that is the main stumbling block for progress in peace-making. As long as Islamist Hamas has a powerful grip on the Palestinian ethos and Palestinian aspirations, and as long as its ruthless rule over Gaza continues, Palestinian politics are hostage to the extremists and are unable to move toward an historic compromise with the Jewish-Zionist national movement. Mitchell cannot even prevent a draft of a Hamas-Fateh reconciliation document that does not conform to Quartet demands (renounce violence, recognize Israel and respect past agreements).
The final obstacle for Mitchell is the nature of his mandate--the pursuit of an outdated paradigm, the two-state solution. Unfortunately, the desired outcome of the Oslo process, partition of the Land of Israel into two states--Jewish and Palestinian--was not achieved and this predicament is unlikely to change any time soon. The Palestinians failed the main test of statehood: monopoly over the use of force. They allowed armed militias to erode law and order in the areas under their control. This culminated in the bloody Hamas takeover of Gaza. Even Hamas in Gaza failed to acquire a monopoly over the use of force: witness the existence of the armed groups Islamic Jihad, elements of al-Qaeda and certain clans. As noted, Palestinian society, be it in the West Bank or Gaza, is not entertaining reconciliation with the Jews. The "shaheed" (martyr) is still the role model in the Palestinian media and education system.
Mitchell, and with him a large part of the international community, fail to understand that the ethnic conflict being waged in the Holy Land will end only when the parties tire. So far, Israelis and Palestinians still have energy to fight for what is important to them.
Therefore, what is needed is a new policy paradigm. It is high-time to consider a return to the status quo ante of pre-1967. Jordan and Egypt are responsible states at peace with Israel that successfully ruled over the Palestinians. They should be induced to share responsibility for regional stability. The Palestinian potential for regional mischief is not only Israel's problem.- Published 19/10/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Efraim Inbar is professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University and director of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
This is not Northern Ireland
by Mustafa Abu Sway
As US special envoy to Northern Ireland, George Mitchell, the former US senator, was successful in closing the chapter on sectarian violence. The Good Friday peace treaty, as it became known, still holds after more than ten years. Mitchell's obvious skills should have been more than enough to mediate a similar conflict and were the reason he was sent here. But it is not at all clear that the Israeli occupation resembles any other colonial project in modern human history.
This is not about Mitchell's credentials or goodwill. This is about international and regional power structures that continue to permit Israel to function mostly outside international law, dragging everyone into a political black hole.
Mitchell is no stranger to the Middle East. Toward the end of President Bill Clinton's term in office, Mitchell led an American fact-finding commission to recommend solutions to what is usually described as the Arab-Israel conflict (equating occupier and occupied). One of Mitchell's recommendations was a total freeze on settlement activities, including settlement expansion to accommodate "natural growth" among Jewish settlers.
When President Barack Obama appointed Mitchell as a special envoy to the Middle East, he adopted Mitchell's recommendation and asked Israel to commit itself to a one-year freeze. Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, at first talked about nine months. Then he exempted settlement construction to accommodate "natural growth". Then he exempted plans to expand settlements that were signed before he committed himself to any "freeze".
After focusing intensely for a few months on the settlements issue, Obama has now dropped his demand for a "freeze" and the new policy is now about there being no preconditions. This sudden change of direction was accompanied by an invitation to a trilateral meeting in New York. For Netanyahu that was a win-win situation. For Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas it created a serious problem, because he had unequivocally insisted that there could be no re-launching of negotiations or meetings with Israelis without a total freeze on settlement activities. Yet in order to accommodate Obama, Abbas also dropped his demand for a "freeze", at least temporarily. To explain the new position, the Palestinian Authority said that talking about the framework for a peace-process was not negotiating (i.e., it is ok to meet with Netanyahu).
Netanyahu's government coalition, which includes the fascist ultra-right-wing party Yisrael Beitenu, would have collapsed had he accepted the suggested "freeze". For the same reason, Netanyahu will not engage in serious final status negotiations. The Goldstone report, which accuses Israel of committing war crimes during its atrocious war on the Gaza Strip, provided Netanyahu with an opportunity to evade final status issues by threatening to derail the entire peace process if the report was discussed in the appropriate UN bodies.
Mitchell is in a precarious position. He knows that his boss, President Obama, will not put enough pressure on Israel, that Netanyahu will run the show as a public relations campaign without committing himself to real peace with the Palestinians and that Abbas, who faces a geographically and politically divided Palestinian scene, cannot move forward without internal Palestinian reconciliation, which is ultimately in the best interests of all parties.
Mitchell is known for his mantra about resolving conflicts: "I believe there's no such thing as a conflict that can't be ended. They're created and sustained by human beings. They can be ended by human beings. No matter how ancient the conflict, no matter how hateful, no matter how hurtful, peace can prevail."
This mantra is true. But, unfortunately, this does not necessarily mean that solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will or can happen now. As a colonial occupying power, Israel will go on appropriating Palestinian land and expanding settlements ad nauseum. Without adequate international pressure, Israel will continue to be permitted to pull the strings for another thousand and one nights of farcical diplomacy.- Published 19/10/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Dr. Mustafa Abusway teaches at al-Quds University.
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