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Can Iran’s democracy clock outpace its nuclear clock?

WASHINGTON – Iran watchers keep two clocks: One counts down to a nuclear Iran, the other counts down to a democratic Iran.

Neither clock is guaranteed to keep ticking all the way down.

News Analysis

The international community hopes to thwart Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon. And despite the upheaval in Iran last summer, no one is sure that the autocratic regime in Tehran is on its way out — or whether it will be replaced by a true democracy.

Still, recent developments on the ground — the rise last June and subsequent repression of Iran’s democracy movement, and Tehran’s apparent nuclear gains — have altered assessments about the two countdowns and whether they are influencing each other.

Some hard-liners such as John Bolton, the Bush administration’s pugnacious U.N. ambassador, say getting tougher on Iran would empower its democracy movement. Others, like Shoshana Bryen, the senior director for security policy at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, counter that the democracy movement has essentially been snuffed out — providing another reason for the West to get tougher.

table class="caption">imageIran watchers in Washington and Israel wonder what will come first: an Iranian nuclear bomb or the turning out of the regime led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, shown addressing the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 23, 2009. UN Photo/Marco Castro

Bryen says the nuclear clock is ticking faster — earlier this month, Iran announced plans to build 10 new nuclear fuel plants — and the regime in Tehran has figured out how to gum up the democracy clock.

“I think we are now not able to wait for the overthrow,” Bryen said, arguing that mass imprisonments and executions have intimidated Iran’s opposition.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak delivered the same message last week in meetings with top U.S. officials, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Dennis Ross, the top White House official handling Iran.

“We see that the grip of the regime on its own people and even the cohesion of the leading group of ayatollahs are both being cracked and probably the countdown, historic countdown, toward the collapse has already started, but I don’t know of any serious observer who can tell us whether it will take two years, four years, six years, or 10,” Barak said in an address to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “And it’s clear to me that the clock toward the collapse of this regime works much slower than the clock which ticks toward Iran becoming a nuclear military power.”

A similar split is taking hold among those who oppose harsh sanctions. Many in this camp, spearheaded by the National Iranian American Council, say that the successes of the Iranian opposition movement bolster the argument for holding back on tough measures.

Others, however, heeding “realists” such as former George W. Bush administration officials Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, say sanctions are futile precisely because the Iranian government is here to stay, so it’s better to talk to the current regime.

The Obama administration appears to be shifting toward a dual track of investment in the democracy movement and tougher sanctions.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is accelerating talks with major powers toward a new sanctions package and said last month that Iran’s government is assuming the trappings of a junta.

A report last month by the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, for the first time cited as “credible” reports from Western intelligence agencies that say Iran is actively working toward a bomb. The report is helping the United States make the case for sanctions to holdouts in the U.N. Security Council.

P.J. Crowley, the spokesman for the U.S. State Department, said Feb. 22 that the Obama administration is still focused on outreach — specifically an offer to get Iran to give up its low-enriched uranium in exchange for uranium enriched to medical research levels. He said an international, multilateral sanctions regime was close — underscoring the Obama administration’s focus on pressing for U.N. sanctions targeting the regime’s leadership and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps that protect it.

Crowley also would not count out unilateral congressional sanctions targeting Iran’s energy sector — the approach being pushed by many pro-Israel groups.

Ori Nir, a spokesman for Americans for Peace Now — the only major pro-Israel group opposing the congressional sanctions described as “crippling” by their sponsors — says Iran needs active diplomatic engagement precisely because of the nuclear threat and the futility of sanctions, which he warned could backfire.

Nir says the prospect that the regime in Tehran would give way to democracy is too ephemeral right now to count on as policy.

A group of foreign policy realists for months has been advising the administration that investment in the Iranian opposition movement is futile.

In an opinion piece in The New York Times, Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett derided Obama’s outreach to Iran as half-hearted and said engagement with the real power — the Iranian regime — made better sense than staking anything on the democracy movement.

Not everyone is ready to count out the democracy movement.

David Cvach, until recently the second counselor at the French Embassy in Iran and now the Middle East specialist at the French Embassy in Washington, says he believes the fissures in Iran reach deep into the power structure.

“The system has lost its amazing capacity to bring everyone together,” he said of the regime in a Feb. 5 talk at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Cvach says the successes of the opposition coupled with the Obama administration’s attempts at outreach to Iran lay the groundwork for sanctions that would target the regime’s elites.

“We should now focus on pressure on the regime,” Cvach said. “We don’t need to know whether it has nuclear weapons or how deep the fissures are — what we know is enough to raise the pressure.”

Trita Parsi, who heads the National Iranian American Council, says that sanctions could be counterproductive unless they are narrowly targeted.

“Sanctions that truly target the Revolutionary Guards but spare the population will likely not damage the Green movement,” Parsi said. “But blind, indiscriminate sanctions that hurt the population have in the past and will likely in the future make the struggle for democracy more difficult.”

Meir Javendanfar, a respected Iranian-born Israeli analyst who believes the post-June unrest has wounded the Iranian regime, favors the sanctions targeting the Guard’s banking and business interests — for now.

Broader sanctions, he says, are risky, but the prospect of a nuclear theocracy is riskier.

“Not imposing sanctions will be the worst option,” he said. “It will send a signal to Khameini,” the supreme ruler of Iran, “that the West is weak.”

JTA

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White House charm offensive pays off:  Wiesel says tension ‘gone’

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President Barack Obama lunches with Elie Wiesel in the Oval Office’s private dining room on Tuesday. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

WASHINGTON – When Elie Wiesel says it’s all kosher, it’s good.

For now, anyway.

President Obama capped an intensive two weeks of administration make-nice with Israeli officials and the American Jewish community by hosting Wiesel, the Nobel peace laureate and Holocaust memoirist, for lunch at the White House.

News Analysis

“It was a good kosher lunch,” was the first thing Wiesel pronounced, emerging from the White House to a gaggle of reporters.

And not just the food.

“There were moments of tension,” Wiesel said. “But the tension I think is gone, which is good.”

That echoed Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, who a few days earlier told leaders of the American Jewish Committee that the “slight disagreements are behind us.”

The tension and the “slight” disagreements, of course, were between the United States and Israel — and by extension, the mainstream pro-Israel community — and started March 8, when Israel announced a major housing start in eastern Jerusalem during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden.

Biden rebuked Israel, but it didn’t stop there. Next came an extended phoned-in dressing down from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and claims by Clinton and other U.S. officials that Israel had “insulted” Biden.

Then, when Netanyahu arrived in Washington to address the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference, Obama all but snubbed the Israeli leader, agreeing to meet him only without photo ops.

The pro-Israel community was virtually unified in its reaction: Yes, Netanyahu had screwed up, but this was piling on.

As the recriminations grew more pronounced, so did concerns about the relationship: Did this portend a major shake-up? Was Obama distancing himself from Israel?

In private, Jewish organizational leaders reached out to White House friends and said, whatever you’re selling, you need to explain it before “tensions” become a full-fledged “crisis.”

There were signs of that, with messages — some blunt, some oblique — about the dangers of pressing Israel on Jerusalem. The author of one of the messages, in the form of a full-page New York Times ad, was Wiesel.

In response to such rumblings — around the time of Israel Independence Day, mid-to-late April — the Obama administration launched its love assault. If you were a Jewish organization, no matter how particularized, you would get administration face time from Clinton (the American Jewish Committee) through Attorney General Eric Holder (the Anti-Defamation League) down to Chuck Hagel, the co-chairman of Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board (American Friends of Hebrew University.)

Clearly there was a checklist for the speakers:

• Mention that there is “no gap — no gap” (and say it like that) between the United States and Israel when it comes to Israel’s security. (Jim Jones, the national security advisor, to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; his deputy, Daniel Shapiro, to the ADL.)

• Repeat, ad infinitum, the administration’s “commitment to preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons.” (Clinton to the AJC; Dennis Ross, the top White House official handling Iran policy, to the ADL and just about everyone else.

• Make it clear that while resolving the conflict would make it easier to address an array of other issues, the notion that Israel is responsible for the deaths of U.S. soldiers in the region is a calumny. (Robert Gates, the defense secretary, at a news conference with Barak: “No one in this department, in or out of uniform, believes that.” Shapiro to the ADL: “We do not believe this conflict endangers the lives of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq.”)

• Resolve to resolve differences “as allies” and don’t forget to criticize the Palestinians as well, for incitement and for recalcitrance in refusing to come to direct talks (proximity talks are resuming this week).

• And explain the fundaments of what is good about the relationship: defense cooperation.

The most pronounced evidence of this approach was in the ADL’s double whammy: The civil rights group got two speeches from two officials, Ross and Shapiro, who had not spoken publicly since taking their jobs in the administration. Each was in a position to go into detail about the details of the defense relationship, Ross handling the Iran perspective and Shapiro handling Israel and its neighbors.

“We have reinvigorated defense cooperation, including on missile defense, highlighted by the 1,000 U.S. service members who traveled to Israel to participate in the Juniper Cobra military exercises last fall,” Shapiro said. “We have intensive dialogues and exchanges with Israel — in political, military, and intelligence channels — on regional security issues and counterterrorism, from which we both benefit, and which enable us to coordinate our strategies whenever possible.

“We have redoubled our efforts to ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region, which has been publicly recognized and appreciated by numerous senior Israeli security officials. And we continue to support the development of Israeli missile defense systems, such as Arrow and David’s Sling, to upgrade Patriot missile defense systems first deployed during the Gulf War, and to work cooperatively with Israel on an advanced radar system to provide early warning of incoming missiles.”

Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, was impressed, saying this was more than just rhetoric.

“We’ve heard all kinds of phraseology in the last few weeks, but this is an inventory,” he said.

Tom Neumann, who heads the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, agreed that the defense relationship remains strong — but wondered whether the rhetoric did not portend more substantive changes.

“On a soldier-to-soldier basis it remains solid,” Neumann said. “But much of the defense relationship is ultimately dictated by the administration. Obama may yet put pressure on Israel through the transfer of arms through how to confront Iran.”

JTA

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President Barack Obama lunches with Elie Wiesel in the Oval Office’s private dining room on Tuesday. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
 
 

In response to vague talks, Jewish groups deliver vague message

WASHINGTON – Two weeks before their launch, the promised renewal of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks has already engendered a first: a joint statement of welcome by mainstream U.S. Jewish and Palestinian groups.

“We congratulate the Obama administration on succeeding in getting direct negotiations back on track,” said a statement issued jointly last Friday by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the American Task Force on Palestine. “Both parties must now show courage, flexibility, and persistence in order to move towards a negotiated end of conflict agreement.”

Other than its joint letterhead, the document was mostly unremarkable — as were many of the reactions to the announcement — in part, because Jewish leaders were endeavoring to make sense of the vague outline of the proposed talks. The terms of the talks, set to begin Sept. 2, have yet to be determined, including whether and how the sides will discuss final status issues, such as borders, Jerusalem, and refugees.

In an off-the-record conference call with top White House staff just before the Sabbath last Friday, Jewish leaders pressed for details: Is there a deadline? Will there be preconditions? In response, according to people on the call, they got little more than the vague back-and-forth that had characterized the announcement of the talks earlier in the day by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

How often would the lead parties to the talks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, meet, one participant asked — and how often would the teams meet?

“Periodically,” Dennis Ross, Obama’s top Iran policy official said, referring to the leaders. “Regularly,” he said of the negotiating teams.

Dan Shapiro, the top National Security Council staffer handling Israel and its neighbors, broke in to add that the talks would be “intensive.”

What about the yearlong time frame announced by Clinton and the top Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, another Jewish leader asked. Was that a deadline? A goal?

“Feasible,” said David Hale, Mitchell’s deputy. A year was the “objective.”

What about the U.S. role?

“Very active,” said Hale. But then: “We will need to play a role, but they still need direct talks.”

Much was made by the administration officials of the dinner that is to take place Sept. 1, bringing together President Obama, Netanyahu, Abbas, and the Jordanian and Egyptian leaders. “The dinner will help to restore trust,” Ross said.

Administration officials have suggested that the outlines will be clearer after Netanyahu, Abbas, and Clinton meet on Sept. 2.

P. J. Crowley, the State Department spokesman, told reporters Monday that extending Israel’s partial moratorium on settlement building would be on the agenda that day. Abbas has threatened to quit the talks without such an extension.

“The issue of settlements, the issue of the moratorium, will be — has been — a topic of discussion and will be a topic of discussion when the leaders meet with Secretary Clinton on Sept. 2,” he said.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, who has been closely tracking the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process, said he is confident that with months of indirect talks behind them, the leaders would be able to come up with a coherent outline for the direct negotiations.

“If there isn’t total clarity about the ground rules yet, there surely will be before Sept. 2,” Saperstein said. “They bring months and months of talks behind the scenes that will make a major contribution.”

Seymour Reich, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, wondered nonetheless if the sides were prepared for success. If the talks work out, he said, Netanyahu and Abbas would have to pitch major compromises to skeptical constituencies — Netanyahu to the hard-liners who support him in government, and Abbas to a Palestinian electorate he hopes to wean away from Hamas, the terrorist group that continues to seek his ouster.

“You sometimes get what you wish for,” Reich said, referring to Netanyahu’s vocal insistence for months on direct talks. “But then you’ve got to put up or face the consequences.”

Given the vagaries surrounding the proposed talks, it was no surprise that the response from organizations was as noncommittal as the Obama administration’s announcement, focusing principally on the benefits of face-time.

“Sitting together, face-to-face, leader-to-leader, in direct negotiations is the only path to achieving the ultimate goal of peace, reconciliation, and the end of all claims,” AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, noted in a statement.

That message was echoed by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations: “We welcome the beginning of direct, face-to-face negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that will address the complicated and difficult issues in the hope of bringing about an end to the long-standing conflict.”

There were subtle indications among the statements of how groups might act should the talks take off — or should they break down. AIPAC made clear whom it would blame if such a breakdown occurs: “For talks to succeed, the P.A. must match Israel’s commitment to conducting peace talks without preconditions or excuses, abandon its longstanding attempts to avoid making difficult choices at the negotiating table, and cease incitement against Israel at home and abroad.”

The joint statement by the American Task Force on Palestine and the consensus-driven Jewish Council for Public Affairs was more careful to balance responsibility between both sides. “Both sides must take concrete steps in the short term to instill greater mutual confidence in this process and to demonstrate resolve to stay at the negotiating table as long as it takes to achieve an agreement,” the statement said.

On background, Jewish organizational leaders said that the talks — at their launch, at least — were so vaguely defined that top pro-Israel officials would not even consider cutting short their pre-Labor Day vacations in order to meet with Netanyahu when his team arrives on Sept. 1.

JTA

 
 

Israeli-Palestinian preview

Who’s coming to dinner at the White House?

WASHINGTON – The White House dinner on Sept. 1, prior to the official launch of renewed Palestinian-Israeli talks, will be key to outlining the contours of the negotiations.

“The dinner will help to restore trust,” Dennis Ross, the Obama administration’s top Iran policy official, said in a conference call last Friday with Jewish organizational leaders.

Unless, that is, it turns into a food fight.

Until the dinner, the exact issues to be negotiated will remain unknown. What we do know is who will be there and where they’re coming from. Here’s a preview.

Benjamin Netanyahu – Israeli prime minister

The proposed talks will mark the second time that the 60-year-old Netanyahu has engaged in negotiations with a Palestinian partner under U.S. pressure. Last time, in 1997, while facing then-President Bill Clinton and the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Netanyahu ceded a degree of control around Hebron to the Palestinians. He has since suggested that he regrets the concession: He was recorded as telling a grieving settler family in 2001 that his agreement was little more than a ruse to keep a hostile administration at bay. Also, his revered father, Benzion Netanyahu, was known not to be happy with the concession.

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Israeli Prime Minister Bejamin Netanyau, right, seen here with U.S. special envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell in Jerusalem on Aug. 11, welcomed Mitchell’s announcement of new direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Moshe Milner/GPO

Having completed a slow climb back to the premiership after his plunge in popularity following his first term, from 1996 to 1999, Netanyahu reportedly sees himself in a much stronger position vis-à-vis Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and President Obama than he was with Arafat and Clinton.

Netanyahu wants to get security issues out of the way before he talks final-status issues like Jerusalem, borders, and refugees. Making sure that he has a plan to protect Israelis will be key in the effort to pitch concessions to an Israeli public still wary of the pounding Israel took after it withdrew unilaterally from Gaza in 2005.

The immediate question for Netanyahu is whether or not he’ll extend the self-imposed, partial, 10-month settlement construction freeze that is set to expire in late September. If he doesn’t, Abbas has said he’ll quit the talks.

Mahmoud Abbas – Palestinian Authority president

Abbas, 75, is a successor to Arafat who has been far less problematic for his Western allies but far less esteemed by the Palestinian people. His nadir came when Hamas militants drove the Palestinian Authority out of Gaza in a bloody coup in 2007. Since then, Abbas has endeavored to reestablish his Fatah party and the Palestinian Authority as the inevitable repository of Palestinian ambitions for statehood.

Negotiations are the only way for Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, to demonstrate to the Palestinian people that diplomacy trumps violence as a means to statehood. Abbas insists that Israel agree to a permanent settlement freeze, and he wants to make sure the talks get to the final-status issues as soon as possible so he can show his constituents that he is reaping the benefits of cooperation.

Barack Obama – president of the United States

It is tempting to cast the haste with which President Obama, 49, has organized these talks for early September as a sign of his panic at the prospect of November congressional elections that seem likely to result in losses for the Democratic party.

However, such an analysis would ignore the fact that Obama was pressing hard for talks months ago, when his approval ratings were much higher; it would also disregard America’s broader foreign policy strategy in the region. For the United States, having the talks now gives Netanyahu a reason to extend his settlement moratorium and thereby sustain Arab support for U.S. policies elsewhere in the Middle East. This support is seen as key while Obama attempts to juggle other crises in the region, including Iraq’s vexed attempts to set up a government and the simmering concern over Iran’s accelerating nuclear ambitions.

A peace treaty also would signal U.S. strength in the region; a Palestinian state would allow Arab governments some leeway in explaining to their populace why they are aligning with a U.S. effort to isolate the Iranian theocracy.

The U.S. posture has been to insist that these are direct talks, but Obama has not been shy about threatening direct intervention if there are stumbles.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordanian King Abdullah II

The United States sees both these figures as critical to making the talks — and, eventually, Palestinian statehood — work.

Egypt maintains some sway over Hamas, and controls access to a major entry into Gaza. Jordan has been deeply involved in helping to train the P.A. police force, and would be a natural outlet for a resurgent Palestinian economy. Both countries are Israel’s only neighbors officially at peace with the Jewish state.

Mubarak, 82, is known to be ill and eager to transfer power smoothly to his son, Gamal Mubarak; containing the Gaza problem and playing a role in birthing a Palestinian state would provide a much-needed boost to Mubarak rule.

Abdullah, 48, is also eager to contain Islamist extremism and has in recent years positioned his regime as a bridge between the West and the Muslim world. The emergence of a Palestinian state in the west bank would also help to quell the notion that Abdullah’s kingdom, where the majority of the population is Palestinian, should be the Palestinian state.

Hillary Clinton – U.S. Secretary of State

Clinton, 62, is set to play the role of the primary broker at the peace talks. Beginning Sept. 2, she will host the first substantive talks Israeli and Palestinian leaders will have had since 2000. That is a sign of Obama’s increasing confidence in his one-time bitter rival for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Clinton aides have leaked to the press their frustration with the perceived limits on her role, saying she has been kept out of the big games. That is changing, as evidenced not only by her newly central role in these talks, but also in her recent front-line exposure as she urged her former Senate colleagues to support new arms treaties with Russia. Israelis have been hoping for Clinton’s return, despite her role in March in dressing down Netanyahu over Israel’s announcement, during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden, of a large housing start in eastern Jerusalem. Clinton long has been seen as having strong emotional ties to Israel — ties that Israelis feel Obama lacks.

It probably doesn’t hurt that she spent part of her daughter Chelsea’s wedding this summer carried aloft in a chair during the dancing of the hora.

JTA

 
 

Can Netanyahu accept new settlement freeze? U.S. might have to sweeten the deal

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seen here at his weekly cabinet meeting on Oct. 4, reportedly is trying to convince cabinet members to agree to extend the west bank settlement freeze by 60 days. Kobi Gideon/Flash90/JTA

JERUSALEM – Following reports of an unprecedented U.S. offer of a host of assurances in return for a 60-day extension of the freeze on building in west bank settlements, some political analysts are wondering why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not grabbed the deal with both hands.

According to the reports, President Obama is offering Netanyahu pledges that the United States will:

News Analysis

• Not ask for additional extensions on the partial ban on settlement building, which expired Sept. 26;

• Commit to using the U.S. veto to prevent U.N. recognition of a unilaterally declared Palestinian state, if Israeli-Palestinian negotiations fail to bear fruit;

• “Accept the legitimacy” of Israel’s security needs as defined by the Netanyahu government — understood as referring to Netanyahu’s demand for a long-term Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley, in the eastern west bank;

• Broker talks with neighboring Arab states on a “regional security structure” — a nod to Netanyahu’s desire for cooperation on confronting Iran;

• Enhance Israel’s security through the sale of a second squadron of state-of-the-art stealth F-35 fighters and space cooperation, including access to U.S. satellite early warning systems.

The price: Israel must agree to extend for 60 days the recently expired west bank building freeze.

If Netanyahu spurns the offer, Israel not only would lose out on all the above, but the Americans would come out publicly in support of the 1967 borders as the basis for all future territorial negotiations with the Palestinians.

On its face, the deal would seem like a no-brainer for Netanyahu to take. So why hasn’t he?

For one thing, it’s not only up to Netanyahu. He needs the approval of a settlement freeze extension from his 29-member cabinet or at least his 15-member security cabinet, and he doesn’t have enough votes yet in those bodies. While by most accounts Netanyahu is inclined to take the deal and is pushing for cabinet members to approve it, the United States first might have to sweeten the pot.

The U.S. offer followed intensive negotiations in Washington between Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and an American team led by veteran Middle East adviser Dennis Ross. The idea was to affirm the U.S. commitments in a presidential letter to Netanyahu to persuade him and pro-settlement members of his government to go along with a new temporary freeze — and in so doing keep alive the direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks launched in early September. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has pledged to quit the talks if the freeze is not extended.

For now, the Israeli prime minister is being pressed by cabinet hard-liners not to accept the American package as is. They warn that it is all very general and that much of it will not stand up in practice.

The hard-liners are suspicious, too, of Barak’s motives. They believe Barak is behind the American offer because he fears that if the peace talks with the Palestinians break down, his Labor Party would be forced to withdraw from the government. Such a move would cost Barak the post of defense minister and, in all likelihood, his political future.

As things stand, Netanyahu does not have the votes for the deal.

In the full 29-member cabinet, 14 ministers are for extending the freeze and 15 are against. In the 15-member security cabinet the count is seven for and eight against, and in the unofficial forum of seven top advisers, three are for extending the freeze and four are against. In Netanyahu’s governing coalition, without the support of Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas, Torah Judaism, Habayit Hayehudi and Likud hard-liners, the prime minister would have the support of fewer than 40 members of the 120-member Knesset.

Netanyahu’s greatest political fear is of a repeat of 1999, when after making concessions to the Palestinians at Wye Plantation, he lost his right-wing political support base and was roundly defeated by Barak in the ensuing election. This time, the scenario that Netanyahu wants to avoid is accepting an American package, going ahead with the peacemaking, and then losing the next election to Kadima’s Tzipi Livni.

Even if Netanyahu could jettison the pro-settler parties from his coalition and bring in Kadima — changing the balance of power in the government and the Knesset in favor of pro-negotiation parties, and accepting the U.S. package — it could cost him the premiership.

Netanyahu therefore is being extra careful about making any moves that could lose him large swaths of what he sees as his natural constituency.

The Israeli prime minister also has a major strategic concern. According to confidants, he fears that as soon as any new 60-day freeze ends, the Americans will put a “take it or leave it peace plan” of their own on the table. With the U.S. midterm elections over, Obama might feel able to publicly present parameters for a peace deal that Netanyahu would find impossible to accept.

Israel might then find itself totally isolated and under intolerable international pressure. That is a scenario Netanyahu hopes the current negotiations with the Americans will help him avoid.

So far, Netanyahu has spoken of ongoing “delicate” negotiations with the Americans and implied that much of what has been reported in the press is inaccurate.

As so often in the past, Netanyahu is caught between the U.S. administration and his right-leaning coalition. If he chooses his coalition, he risks losing the support of the current administration; if he chooses America, he fears he could lose his coalition and, with it, the premiership.

What Labor and Likud moderates reportedly are telling him is that it is not 1999, and that now he can have his cake and eat it, too: If he goes with the Americans and the peace process, he will win the next election hands down.

JTA

 
 

Leaked maps show gaps in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations

WASHINGTON – This time there are maps — not that they necessarily will help.

After the collapse of the Camp David talks in 2000, the Israeli and Palestinian sides bickered about who had offered what, and the competing historical narratives were adopted by either side and around the world.

This time, the proposed territorial concessions that former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian negotiators discussed are visible in living color — in a set of leaked Palestinian Authority documents published by Al Jazeera (http://www.jta.org/?URL=http%3A%2F%2Fenglish.aljazeera.net%2Fpalestinepapers%2F2011%2F01%2F2011122114239940577.html).

The maps are significant because they show how close the two sides are on some issues — for example, which would control certain Jewish neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem. But they also show that the gaps on other issues remain far from resolution, particularly regarding Jewish settlements deep inside the west bank.

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The Washington Institute for Near East Policy published a proposed map for dividing the west bank, above, just before Al Jazeera published leaked map details from Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in 2008 and 2009. Washington Institute

Back in 2000, Dennis Ross, now the lead negotiator on the issue, talked President Clinton into not committing anything to paper because he said the controversy that would ensue from maps and percentage sheets outweighed the value of getting things down in writing. He especially distrusted the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Instead of squelching controversy, however, the absence of written proposals and maps stoked it.

Now the leaked maps will help keep the Palestinian and Israeli positions straight.

The map detailing Olmert’s alleged offer to the Palestinian side shows Israel giving 5.5 percent of territory in Israel proper in exchange for 6.8 percent of the west bank. The swaps that Ahmed Qureia, a former PA prime minister and a top negotiator, reportedly proposed in January 2008 to then-Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni were a 1:1 ratio and amounted to trading to Israel less than 2 percent of the west bank.

The Palestinian Authority accounts of meetings with Israeli and American interlocutors reveal many areas of agreement, most of which have been known widely for years. The Palestinians want recognition of the rights of Palestinian refugees and their descendants from Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, but they also acknowledge that the refugees ultimately will remain where they are living now.

“If the Arabs will be part of the solution, there will be no problem in this issue,” Qureia told Livni in 2008. “We have to engage countries that host the refugees.”

Such compromises appear contingent on the relationship between Palestinian and Israeli leaders. Ties between the Palestinian Authority and the Olmert government in 2008 were better than they are now between the Palestinian Authority and Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. In 2008, direct negotiations were a matter of course, not an aspiration.

How mutual suspicion affects talks is made evident in the leaked report of an October 2009 meeting between George Mitchell, the top U.S. envoy to the region, and Saeb Erekat, the lead PA negotiator. Erekat says that if Netanyahu insists on rejecting refugee rights at the outset, the “Palestinian leadership can only respond by insisting on full exercise of right of return.”

The same dynamic, in which friendlier talks lead to more expansive proposals, applies to territory. In May 2008, in another meeting with Livni, Qureia apparently outlined a deal that would allow Israel to retain a chunk of Gush Etzion, the bloc of Jewish settlements south of Jerusalem, near Bethlehem, as well as nearly all of the Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem. In the October 2009 meeting with Mitchell, Erekat says construction in some of those neighborhoods is inhibiting talks.

The most striking theme that recurs in the documents is how far apart the parties are when it comes to balancing Israel’s reluctance to relocate settlers with Palestinian demands for territorial contiguity in the west bank.

“In the end the whole matter isn’t merely the value of exchange but the reality of those Israelis and where they live,” Livni says in an exchange from the Jan. 27, 2008 meeting between Livni and Qureia in Jerusalem.

Qureia responds, referring to Maaleh Adumim and Givet Zeev, large west bank Jewish settlements that serve as bedroom communities for Jerusalem, “I can’t accept Maaaleh Adumim settlement as a reality because it divides the west bank, and the same goes for Givat Zeev settlement.”

If anything, the documents shatter the illusion that there is a bottom-line consensus about certain settlements being annexed to Israel in a final-status agreement. Many groups refer to these as the “everybody knows” settlements, such as Maaleh Adumim and Efrat, both near Jerusalem.

In fact, the gap is broader than expected, and helps explain why PA President Mahmoud Abbas turned down Olmert’s offer in mid-2008. Olmert refused to give Abbas the map, so Abbas scribbled it down on a paper, and it became known as a “napkin map,” which is what Al Jazeera published this week.

Another “everybody knows” myth shattered by the leaks is the notion that the Palestinians would accept as swaps Negev desert lands adjacent to the Gaza Strip. In the leaked documents, the Palestinians scoff at such swaps and want land equally as arable as the lands they would cede.

The Olmert map, in its attempt to maximize the amount of settlers Israel would retain, resembles a proposal advanced last week by David Makovksy, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a leading pro-Israel think tank in Washington. Makovsky, who is close to Ross, says he has presented the map to officials in the Israeli, Palestinian, and U.S. governments.

“The goal of ‘Imagining the Border’ is to present a menu of options for resolving the territorial component of the conflict, meeting Palestinian demands of minimal land swaps with a 1:1 ratio while allowing Israel to annex areas containing the majority of west bank settlers,” Makovsky says.

Makovsky manages to narrow the gap between Olmert’s 6.8 percent and Qureia’s 1.9 percent to 3.7 percent, but he retains the “fingers” Olmert’s map thrust into the west bank to capture large Israeli settlements. The Palestinians insist those are unacceptable.

Sticking points seem never-ending. The Palestinians regard Latrun, an area southwest of Jerusalem secured by Israel in one of the Independence War’s bloodiest battles, as “no man’s land” because of its designation as such on some maps. They regard its retention by Israel as a concession. Israel and the international community view it as Israeli territory.

Such nitpicking has a toll.

According to the documents, Livni starts the May 4, 2008 meeting at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem dryly: “Based on what I have heard in the trilateral meeting with Condoleeza Rice, I believe that your offer will not be exciting,” she tells Qureia, referring to the then-U.S. secretary of state.

The Palestinians are unrelenting in pleading with the Americans, in meeting after meeting, to press the Israelis to freeze settlement growth.

“Everyone is saying look at what they get from violence, etc.,” Qureia tells Rice in a July 16, 2008 meeting in Washington. “Please. We need your help on settlements” and on the removal of roadblocks and other Palestinians demands.

Settlements continue to dog the talks today.

The Palestinian posture now is not to return to direct talks until Israel reinstates a freeze on Jewish building in the west bank. Palestinian allies are circulating a resolution in the U.N. Security Council that blasts Israel for settlement-building and urges a return to talks. The Obama administration is opposed to the resolution but has not said whether or not it will veto it.

Occasionally, however, the leaked documents show a surprising concession emerges from talks that the sides thought were secret.

Livni, apparently warning the Palestinians not to make an issue of Israel’s Law of Return, tells Qureia and Erekat in January 2008 that “Israel was established to become a national home for Jews from all over the world. The Jew gets the citizenship as soon as he steps in Israel, and therefore don’t say anything about the nature of Israel, as I don’t wish to interfere in the nature of your state.”

That seems to undercut a policy that she introduced and that now haunts talks: That Palestinians need to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

In the same exchange, Erekat also tosses aside the Palestinian doctrine that all Jewish settlers need to leave the west bank.

“We don’t mind to have settlers live as Palestinian citizens who have all rights under the Palestinian law,” he says.

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Obama, Libya, and the Holocaust

 

Mixed legacy for Ross

Iran stands isolated, but Middle East peace still missing

Ron KampeasWorld
Published: 18 November 2011
(tags): dennis ross

WASHINGTON – Dennis Ross got back in the driver’s seat, yet three years later the peace is still missing.

Ross, a veteran of four failed presidential pushes for Middle East peace, announced Nov. 10 that he would be leaving his post as President Barack Obama’s top Middle East strategist by the end of the year and rejoining the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Ross leaves with a mixed record in the two areas in which he was most focused: Iran’s nuclear program and advancing Israeli-Arab peace. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is stalled, if not sliding backward with the Palestinian statehood campaign and the absence of negotiations. At the same time, the Obama administration has persuaded reluctant nations to sign on to enhanced Iran sanctions.

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Dennis Ross

Ross’ return to the Middle East fray, when candidate Obama tapped him to be a top campaign adviser in the summer of 2008, seemed extraordinary for a man whose comprehensive 2004 tome on his earlier efforts, “The Missing Peace,” focused mainly on his disappointments with a peace process beset by seemingly intractable challenges.

Yet by 2009, Ross was guiding not only the latest iteration of Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, he was helping to shape the Obama administration’s policy of building international support for isolating Iran.

Ross “has played a critical role in our efforts to apply unprecedented pressure on the Iranian government, support democratic transitions in the region, and deepen our security relationship with Israel while pursuing Israeli-Palestinian peace,” the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, said in a statement on Ross’ planned departure.

Both Ross and the White House cited his desire to spend more time with his family as the reason.

“When Dennis originally joined the administration, he made it clear that given commitments to his family, he would remain for only two years,” Carney said. “In light of the developments in the broader Middle East, the president appreciates his extending that by nearly a year and looks forward to being able to draw on his counsel periodically going forward.”

Mixed feelings

Ross in his own statement said his return to “private life” came with mixed feelings.

“Obviously, there is still work to do, but I promised my wife I would return to government for only two years and we both agreed it is time to act on my promise,” he said.

The twin challenges of Iran and Arab-Israeli peace finally took their toll, say those who know Ross, but the bromides about family appear to be true. Weeks before the announcement, acquaintances say, Ross was displaying an unusual curiosity about other people’s grandchildren as a pretext for describing the joys of his own recent assumption of the title “grandfather.”

“What you see is what you get,” said Aaron David Miller, a public policy scholar at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who for years worked alongside Ross as a Middle East negotiator. “After 2 1/2 years and an enormous amount of work with all kinds of family considerations to boot, Dennis probably reached the conclusion that enough is enough.”

Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director — who was at the luncheon at which Ross announced his departure — said that above all, Ross was tired. “It was wear and tear,” he said.

The likelihood that Ross, 62, quit simply because he was exhausted did not stop the cries of speculative vindication emerging from commentators on the left and the right.

The narrative on the right has been that Ross has served as Obama’s “beard,” making policies that conservatives have deemed hostile to Israel more palatable for the president’s Jewish supporters.

“Now that facade will be removed, or perhaps it is more accurate to say that Ross tired of that role and tired of defending a president whose feelings about Israel were as cold as Ross’ are warm,” Elliott Abrams, who served as a deputy national security adviser in the administration of George W. Bush, told a Washington Post blogger. “This is going to hurt the White House in the Jewish community because they have no substitute for Ross and no one with his credibility with most Jewish organizations.”

Defends Obama with vigor

In fact, Ross chafed at the notion that he was fronting for Obama and has been known to snap — publicly and privately — at anyone who suggested it. He has defended the president as genuinely committed to achieving a peace that guarantees Israel’s security and to containing Iran.

“For President Obama, our commitment to Israel’s security is not an empty slogan,” Ross told the ADL in May 2010. “It is real, it serves the cause of peace and stability in the region, and it is something that is unshakable.”

On the left, a common complaint has been that Ross, who was not shy about his pro-Israel proclivities while he was out of government, was a force who frustrated what might otherwise have been Obama’s even-handedness.

“From my own experiences in the west bank, talking to Palestinian leaders and negotiators, he has the trust of many in the Israeli leadership, but it’s the inverse with Palestinians, with Arabs, and with Middle East policy analysts in Washington,” said Matthew Duss, who directs the Middle East program at the Center for American Progress.

The notion that Ross pulled Obama toward Israel gets the relationship backwards, said Miller, explaining that presidents set policy and staffers carry it out. “The president is his own best or worst adviser,” he said.

Ross, who embraced observant Judaism in adulthood, has gravitated toward the pro-Israel community.

The Washington Institute, which he directed for some years, shares board members with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Ross notably announced his departure to a Washington meeting of board members of the Jewish People Policy Institute, a Jerusalem-based think tank launched by the Jewish Agency for Israel. Ross had served as the think tank’s chairman from its founding until he stepped down to join the Obama administration.

Rare praise

In a rare statement, AIPAC praised Ross’ service. “In his tireless pursuit of Middle East peace, Ambassador Ross has maintained a deep understanding of the strategic value of the U.S.-Israel relationship and has worked vigorously to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons,” the organization said.

Yet Ross also bucks the conventions of Washington’s pro-Israel community. He led a counterattack in 2008 on critics of Robert Malley, a former Clinton administration colleague who angered some pro-Israel activists by suggesting engagement with Hamas and arguing that Israel bore significant responsibility for the failure of the 2000 Camp David summit. Ross also caught flak from some Washington Institute board members in 2003 for hosting a delegation of Fatah officials as tensions unleashed by the second intifada continued to run high.

Ross’ relationship with Israel and its current prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, was complex. Throughout his career — launched as a midlevel negotiator in the Reagan administration — Ross has advised his superiors to be sensitive to Israel’s security anxieties and go the extra mile to assure its leaders of U.S. support. Ross, insiders say, was especially reluctant in recent years to criticize Israel for building in eastern Jerusalem, telling colleagues that pressure on the matter would scare Israelis away from making other concessions.

On the other hand, Ross never made any secret of his distaste for Netanyahu. “The Missing Peace” depicts Netanyahu, in his first term from 1996 to 1999, as an oafish, hubristic ditherer, and a prevaricator prone to offend a president, Bill Clinton, who otherwise was enamored of Israel.

In his book Ross describes the aftermath of Clinton storming out of a room after Netanyahu casually suggested to Yasser Arafat that he assassinate an inconvenient Palestinian associate. Netanyahu, Ross recalls, “was sitting alone, obviously stunned, and feeling he was the victim, asking me, ‘Why is Israel treated this way, why am I treated this way? What have I done to deserve this?’ (I was struck by his belief that he and Israel were one and the same, and that he was the innocent victim of mistreatment.)”

Furious with Bibi

And although Ross was at times perceived by some Obama administration colleagues to be protecting Netanyahu, he also could lash out. Insiders say Ross was furious at the Netanyahu government over an Israeli announcement of new building in eastern Jerusalem during an official visit by Vice President Joe Biden in May 2010. They say Ross’ anger over the embarrassment of the vice president helped fuel the Obama administration’s fiery backlash.

Ross’ frustration on such occasions was borne from his view that advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace would help build a coalition against Iran to force it to stand down from its suspected nuclear weapons program.

“One way that Iran exerts influence in the Middle East is by exploiting the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians,” he told the ADL in 2010.

While the Israeli-Palestinian peace process seems as moribund as when Ross last left it in 2000, Iran’s isolation might be counted as Ross’ success. International sanctions are tighter than ever, and the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, leaked a report early in November making its strongest case ever that Iran is likely building a nuclear weapons capability.

The White House’s effort to persuade IAEA member nations of Iran’s dangers, in part, was behind its shift in tone from previously cautious statements.

“[Ross’] legacy is going to be the unprecedented sanctions the United States imposed on Iran, which he worked tirelessly on,” Alan Solow, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and a prominent Obama backer, told JTA.

JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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