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The peace talks — and their obstacles

Ron KampeasWorld
Published: 10 September 2010
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President Obama holds a working dinner at the White House Sept. 1 with, clockwise from left, King Abdullah II of Jordan, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Quartet envoy Tony Blair, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. White House/Pete Souza

WASHINGTON – Peace in a year? Try getting past Sept. 26. Or is it 30?

Direct talks between Palestinians and Israelis have barely begun and already the sides are facing their first major hurdle — the end of Israel’s partial moratorium on settlement-building.

Several issues might beset the sides as they aim to meet the yearlong deadline suggested by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and endorsed (with considerable enthusiasm) by President Obama and (with less enthusiasm) by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

News Analysis

The hard questions — the status of Palestinian refugees and the sharing of Jerusalem — promise to vex the negotiators, as they have for years. Even before that point, however, a number of issues already are creating anxieties among negotiators in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Washington.

That moratorium: Netanyahu placed a partial moratorium on settlement-building to entice Abbas to the negotiating table. It lapses Sept. 26 — although not effectively until Sept. 30 because of the Sukkot holiday — and Netanyahu has said he will not renew it. Abbas says he will not be able to continue talks without it.

U.S. officials are pressing the sides to come up with a way out before the next meeting of the leaders, on Sept. 14 in Egypt. Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, has spoken of “incentivizing” the Palestinians with other gestures.

Oren did not elaborate, but Netanyahu has made a point of talking up economic incentives for the Palestinians, including increased commerce by reducing regulations and pulling away roadblocks.

Another way out would be for both sides to avoid questions about the deadline as it approaches and for the moratorium to continue, unofficially, without comment from either the Israelis or Palestinians. Most Israelis living within Israel’s pre-1967 borders — the area known as the Green Line — wouldn’t notice whether or not building was continuing in settlements, but the impact would be immediately noticeable to Palestinians.

Supporters of the settlement movement, however, say the current restrictions create burdens for the 300,000 Israeli Jews living in the west bank. The settler community has vowed to protest unless settlement building returns to 2008 levels.

That deadline: Netanyahu wants an agreement within a year, and before that an interim agreement outlining the parameters of a final status deal. He has made clear, however, in private conversations with U.S. officials that the agreement will be on paper until the Israeli leader is sure that he can secure his country’s borders — in other words, Israelis are saying nothing goes into effect for five, perhaps 10 years.

The Israeli expectation is that Abbas will be able to sell the Palestinian public a peace deal based on clearly detailed outlines of what they will get down the line — sort of like showing 10-year-old Junior the catalogue photo of the BB rifle he’ll get for his 15th birthday.

Abbas wants more tangible results, and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, has suggested that a state could be in place by 2011. Fayyad later qualified this to say that he was referring to the infrastructure of a state, much the way that the Zionist movement had the instruments of statehood ready to go for years before Israel’s founding in 1948.

Abbas and the Palestinian Authority are seeking a patina of inevitability to fend off a challenge to their legitimacy by the Hamas terrorist group, which routed them from the Gaza Strip in 2007 and poses a challenge to them in the west bank. What remains to be seen is whether state institutions — short of statehood — grants them that inevitability.

That border: Netanyahu wants a demilitarized Palestinian state, which the Palestinians effectively conceded in the 1990s. But like his predecessors, he also wants a long-term, if not permanent, presence in the Jordan Valley, along the border with Jordan, to contain the threat from the east that for generations has exercised Israelis.

The Palestinians (and the Jordanians) counter, what threat from the east? The prospect of having to secure Israel’s longest border once may have been a concern, in terms of its drain on Israel’s military, but there is a peace treaty with Jordan and the United States has neutralized Iraq. And for the Palestinians, the point of the peace is to rid themselves of any continued notion of Israeli military occupation.

Iraq may be neutralized for now, the Israelis counter, but the region is inherently unstable and Iran is sinking its claws into Iraq.

That territory: So within a year there is peace with the Palestinian Authority and mutual recognition, an end to all claims.

Well, except for Gaza, which is ruled by Hamas, which does not recognize Israel or any prospects for peace — and barely recognizes Abbas.

What does peace mean without the territory Israel referred to between 1949 and 1967 as a “dagger aimed at Tel Aviv” and the acquiescence of its 1.3 million Palestinians?

Just pretend and hope, Oren says.

“We are negotiating, we, the United States, and the Palestinians are all three of us negotiating — throw the Egyptians and the Jordanians in there for good measure, too — as if the west bank and Gaza are together when in fact we know they’re not,” the envoy said recently. “The assumption is, if we cut a deal with the PA, and someday the people of Gaza throw off the Hamas yoke, they’ll join the peace arrangement.”

That word: Netanyahu has made clear he wants the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and in this he has the Obama administration’s backing. The Israeli prime minister did not invent this formulation — Tzipi Livni introduced it in 2006 when she was foreign minister.

The rationale was that the PLO’s absolute recognition of Israel — extracted in excruciating negotiations by Netanyahu during his previous prime ministry, in 1998 — added up to not much. In the 2000 Camp David talks, the Palestinians insisted on a Palestinian right of return, which Israel believed added up to a peaceful plan for removing the Jewish state. The Palestinians also denied any Jewish claim to Jerusalem.

That was followed by the bloodshed of the second intifada, and for Israelis the failure to accept the Jews as a natural presence in the region became inextricably linked to the trauma of those years. The algebra was simple: Failure to recognize the Jewish claim equals anti-Jewish incitement equals violence.

Netanyahu has said that demilitarization and recognition of the Jewish claim are the keys to reaching a true peace deal.

The Palestinian Authority rejects this analysis. Its reasons for avoiding the Jewish claim is the responsibility that the Palestinian leadership feels for the 20 percent of Israelis who are Arab — it does not want to cut them out of their rights, although Netanyahu has said they will always be upheld.

There is also the sense among Palestinians that they have ceded enough by settling for “only” the west bank and Gaza, 22 percent of British Mandate Palestine.

Nonetheless, there have been signs in recent months of movement here: In a meeting with U.S. Jewish leaders in June, Abbas recognized the ancient Jewish history in the area.

When Palestinian diaspora intellectuals challenged this as capitulation last month, the PA mission in Washington pushed back not by parsing Abbas’ statement, but by repeating it and saying that it did not undermine the Palestinian claim.

JTA

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President Obama holds a working dinner at the White House Sept. 1 with, clockwise from left, King Abdullah II of Jordan, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Quartet envoy Tony Blair, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. White House/Pete Souza
 
 

The year in which everything changes?

Josh LipowskyEditorial
Published: 13 September 2010
 
 

Ahead of Palestinian U.N. gambit, Europe is in play

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French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe visits the Holocaust museum Yad Vashem in Jerusalem on June 2 during his visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority territories. Isaac Harari/FLASH90/JTA

JERUSALEM – It was a sign that ties between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations remain strong despite the apparent tensions two weeks ago when the two leaders met at the White House.

On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton shot down a French proposal for renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that had put the Israeli leader in a quandary.

If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had accepted the French proposal, which included a settlement freeze, his right-leaning coalition partners might have bolted the government. If he refused, it would have made it seem as if he were the intransigent party in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations — a perilous position as France and other leading European states consider voting for Palestinian statehood at the United Nations in September.

During a visit to Israel and the west bank in early June, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe outlined his plan for restarting the stalled peace process: The goal would be to establish two states for two peoples on the basis of the 1967 lines with land swaps; borders and security would be discussed first, Jerusalem and refugees later. That part of the proposal mirrored Obama’s call two weeks ago for renewed Israeli-Palestinian talks.

But the French proposal also envisaged achieving a full-fledged permanent peace deal within a year and a freeze of any unilateral steps in the interim. For the Palestinians, that would mean not petitioning the United Nations for statehood in September. For Israel, it would mean halting settlement construction in the west bank.

Juppe invited Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas to an international conference in Paris in July to kick-start the process. Abbas quickly replied in the affirmative. Netanyahu said he would first consult with the Americans.

The package was attractive to the Palestinians because of its clear focus on the 1967 lines and its relatively short timetable. The sweetener for Israel was the explicit reference to “two states for two peoples,” implying that Israel would be, as Netanyahu insists, recognized as the state of the Jewish people.

Nevertheless, Netanyahu found himself in a bind. He already had said no to negotiations structured that way when Obama raised the issue. Netanyahu insists the Palestinians first recognize Israel as a Jewish state as a sign of readiness to end the conflict. In addition, Hamas, the terrorist organization that is now part of the Palestinian leadership following the recent reconciliation with Fatah, must recognize Israel’s right to exist, renounce violence, and accept all previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements before a credible peace process can be contemplated.

But perhaps even more important, Netanyahu has serious issues with the 1967 lines plus land swaps formula. He insists on maintaining an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley and, besides the large settlement blocs, he wants to retain security areas along the Samarian mountain ridge, as well as sites of historic importance such as Hebron.

This goes well beyond anything that could be construed as being “based on the 1967 lines.”

Were Netanyahu to accept the French proposal, coalition partners like Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party might quit the government, and Likud hard-liners like Benny Begin and Moshe Yaalon might challenge Netanyahu’s authority.

Still, despite these very serious obstacles, the prize for taking up the French offer was tempting: Palestinian deferment of plans to seek U.N. membership this year. There was also a big stick: If Netanyahu rejected the French offer, Juppe intimated that France and several of its European allies would vote for U.N. recognition of Palestine.

With Clinton’s nix, Netanyahu is off the hook.

Meanwhile, the Israeli Foreign Ministry has quit trying to prevent the Palestinians from obtaining the two-thirds majority they need for recognition in the 192-member U.N. General Assembly. Unlike in the U.N. Security Council, where Obama has promised that the United States will veto any unilateral vote on Palestinian statehood, General Assembly votes do not carry the force of international law.

Yet even in the General Assembly, Israel hopes to obtain as many “No” votes as possible from democratic countries. This, Israeli officials argue, would carry enormous moral weight.

Thus the European Union, with its 27 democracies, is crucial. Over the past two months, Netanyahu has traveled to Berlin, London, and Paris in an effort to convince key European leaders not to back Palestinian U.N. membership. Had he been the one to reject the French offer, his European strategy could collapse.

Netanyahu’s critics say that even if Israel wins this battle, a General Assembly vote favoring statehood will deliver the Palestinians a major diplomatic triumph and possibly trigger a new wave of Arab Spring-style protests in the west bank.

The Israeli government’s failure to take serious action to pre-empt the Palestinian U.N. move and its consequences has drawn strong domestic criticism in Israel.

The most powerful voice in recent days has been from Meir Dagan, who recently retired from his post at the helm of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency.

Dagan says that Israel should have responded positively to the 2002 Arab peace initiative, come up with an initiative of its own, and pressed for a negotiated solution with the Palestinians. He also has expressed deep discomfort with the judgment of Israel’s current political leaders, hinting darkly that they might even contemplate attacking Iran’s nuclear weapons program to divert attention from the United Nations in September.

For now, a Palestinian U.N. move in September is still not a foregone conclusion.

By quashing the French plan, Clinton kept the initiative firmly in Washington, where the Americans are talking to both the Israelis and Palestinians in an attempt to create conditions for a renewal of peace talks that would render the Palestinian U.N. gambit superfluous.

In the next few weeks, in what could be the defining moment of his premiership, Netanyahu will have to decide whether to embrace a last-chance initiative to avert the U.N. imbroglio in September or to stay put and risk the potential diplomatic fallout while keeping his coalition intact.

JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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