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Fatah parley raises questions about Palestinian intentions, Obama’s strategy

WASHINGTON – The fiery rhetoric at last week’s Fatah meeting in Bethlehem has renewed concerns that the Obama administration is not doing enough to pressure the Palestinians.

At the first Fatah General Assembly in 20 years, participants refused to renounce violence and passed confrontational resolutions, like one blaming Yasser Arafat’s death on Israel.

Even as Jewish organizational leaders condemned the assembly, many of them acknowledged that Fatah leaders would remain Israel’s chief Palestinian interlocutors for peace talks. But they urged the Obama administration to issue a condemnation of the harsh talk at the west bank parley.

“We would like to see this administration express some disappointment on some of the rhetoric coming out” of the conference, said Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman. “It’s not in line with the American initiative to bring the parties closer together.”

But other Middle East observers, including some who have supported the Obama administration’s calls for an Israeli settlement freeze, cautioned against such an approach. While some of the language used at the Fatah meeting may have been troubling, they said, the White House might be better off if it stayed focused on the broader picture and not necessarily respond to specific rhetoric.

Thus far, the Obama administration has said nothing, with the State Department passing up a chance to make a statement. State Department spokesman Robert Wood was asked at Monday’s media briefing about the party platform Fatah adopted at the assembly, including the position that the group “maintains the right of resistance by all means possible.”

“I haven’t seen the plan” Wood said, and simply reiterated “the importance of both parties” implementing “the ‘road map’ obligations, not taking any steps that in any way prejudge the outcome of future negotiations.”

Some corners are viewing the administration’s lack of response to the conference rhetoric as another example of what some Jewish leaders have charged is an imbalance in the pressure being applied by the administration on Israel compared to the Palestinians and Arab states.

President Obama has told Jewish leaders that pressure is being placed as well on the Palestinians and Arab governments, and suggested that perceptions of an imbalance are largely created by the media. But while the administration has made repeated public demands on Israel for a settlement freeze, it has said little publicly about the necessary steps that the other side must take, though Obama has issued general calls on Palestinians to stop incitement.

Several Middle East observers said they had read only media accounts of the Fatah party platform and had not seen the full document. According to the reports, the platform reportedly reiterates “the Palestinian people’s right to resistance to occupation in all its forms in line with international law.” Fatah leaders asserted in statements that they reserved the right to “armed struggle.”

In his speech to the conference, though, newly re-elected Fatah chairman and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas did stress that the Palestinians would focus on “nonviolent” resistance.

Some Israeli officials and officials at U.S. Jewish groups also criticized what they viewed as unreasonable demands made by Fatah at the assembly, such as proclaiming it would not negotiate with Israel until the Palestinians were given all of Jerusalem. Others downplayed such positions, saying that both sides usually posture by making maximalist demands before a negotiation begins.

Another complaint: Some who have engaged in violence and terrorism were honored and spoke at the parley.

Israeli government officials have been weighing in on the congress. Before the weekly cabinet meeting Sunday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said, “The rhetoric coming from Fatah and the positions being expressed are grave and unacceptable to us.” The next day, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told a group of visiting Democratic U.S. Congress members that the Fatah platform, along with unrest in the west bank and Gaza Strip, “has buried any chance of coming to an agreement with the Palestinians in the next few years.”

The American Jewish Committee called the assembly “a slap in the face” to those interested in peace. Jason Isaacson, the group’s director of government and international affairs, specifically pointed to the resolution charging Israel with the death of Arafat as “a signal of the lack of seriousness” of Fatah.

“How is that acceptable in a political movement trying to operate on the world stage?” he asked, also criticizing the “wink and nod about the return to armed struggle.”

“We naturally hope the administration” would view the conference “with the same sense of concern that we have expressed in our statements, unless the bar of expectations is set so low that a disappointing conference isn’t worth commenting on,” he said.

One Middle East insider who declined to be identified was more blunt about the administration’s need to respond.

“This silence is what creates the impression of the imbalance,” the insider said. “Where is the condemnation for this kind of behavior?”

“This rhetoric impacts the street,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “We’ve learned you can’t dismiss the issue of incitement.”

But other observers suggested that the administration should be more cautious about condemnation.

Nathan Brown, a political science and international affairs professor at George Washington University and an expert in Palestinian reform, had not seen the full Fatah platform. Still, he said, it should be viewed as akin to a U.S. political party platform that might contain some “red meat language” to satisfy the political factions in a “large and diverse movement” like Fatah but isn’t necessarily followed by the party leaders.

Brown said what was more important was whether the Fatah leaders elected at the assembly would form a “coherent” organization dedicated to a diplomatic solution and whether they continue to “do what the Israelis want them to be doing” on security and other issues, something that won’t be known for a few months.

Americans for Peace Now spokesman Ori Nir, whose organization has been supportive of Obama’s approach, said that while some of the “hyperbole” from the Fatah congress was “troubling,” he didn’t think “micromanagement” of inflammatory statements by Palestinians or Israelis would be helpful to peace efforts. Nir also put a positive spin on the excerpts of the party platform he had read, noting that while they were still holding out violence as an option, the platform “adheres to the peace option.”

No matter their interpretation of the Fatah assembly, there was general consensus that Fatah is still the only game in town when it comes to a peace partner for Israel — which is why the group’s actions should be taken seriously.

Not everyone agreed with that assessment, though.

“This conference made it crystal clear,” said Zionist Organization of America President Morton Klein, that “peace is not possible with Hamas or Fatah.”

JTA

 
 

At AIPAC, Clinton gets friendship, Bibi gets love

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U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks to thousands of pro-Israel activists in Washington at the annual AIPAC policy conference on Monday. AIPAC

WASHINGTON – Hillary Rodham Clinton to AIPAC: We’ll keep complaining about building in Jerusalem.

Benjamin Netanyahu to same: And we’ll keep building.

Guess which speech got the bigger cheers.

To be sure, in speeches this week at the annual AIPAC policy conference, all sides repeatedly stressed complete confidence in the durability and necessity of a strong U.S.-Israeli relationship, and highlighted areas of agreement, first and foremost the need for tough action to block Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Several key differences were on display, however, as the Israeli prime minister, the U.S. secretary of state, and the leaders of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee did not back down from their bottom lines.

AIPAC officials insisted that disagreements between Jerusalem and Washington take place behind closed doors. Clinton said the Obama administration will make its unhappiness clear and public when it regards an Israeli action as undermining the peace process.

For Netanyahu and AIPAC, Jerusalem is off the table; for Clinton it’s very much part of the discussion.

Clinton went out of her way to praise the Palestinian Authority; Netanyahu went of his way to criticize it.

The two speeches Monday — Clinton for breakfast and Netanyahu for dinner — culminated two weeks of tensions sparked when Israel announced a major housing start in eastern Jerusalem during a visit to Israel by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden that had been aimed at underscoring the close U.S.-Israel friendship and restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

“It is our devotion to this outcome — two states for two peoples, secure and at peace — that led us to condemn the announcement of plans for new construction in East Jerusalem,” Clinton said. “This was not about wounded pride. Nor is it a judgment on the final status of Jerusalem, which is an issue to be settled at the negotiating table. This is about getting to the table, creating and protecting an atmosphere of trust around it, and staying there until the job is finally done.”

Clinton’s mild rebuke brought surprising, if light, applause. It was a mark of the success of repeated pleas from AIPAC’s leadership to more than 7,500 activists in attendance to keep things civil. Clinton earned standing ovations coming in and out, and there was no audible booing.

Netanyahu’s Jerusalem encomium, by contrast, brought the house down — delivering perhaps the biggest cheers during this year’s conference.

“The Jewish people were building Jerusalem 3,000 years ago and the Jewish people are building Jerusalem today,” he said. “Jerusalem is not a settlement. It is our capital.”

Netanyahu’s message in meetings with U.S. leaders, his spokesmen said, was that the dispute over Jerusalem could delay peace talks by a year.

AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr and President Lee Rosenberg were equally as determined to make Israel’s point, almost to the word.

“Jerusalem is not a settlement,” Kohr said in the line of the morning that brought the greatest cheering. “Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.”

Kohr also made the case for keeping such disputes out of public view.

“When disagreements inevitably arise, they must be resolved privately as is befitting close allies,” he said.

That’s been the mantra of AIPAC, along with the center and right in the pro-Israel community — and Clinton turned it around.

The announcement of new construction in the west bank and eastern Jerusalem, she said, “exposes daylight between Israel and the United States that others in the region hope to exploit. And it undermines America’s unique ability to play a role — an essential role, I might add — in the peace process. Our credibility in this process depends in part on our willingness to praise both sides when they are courageous, and when we don’t agree to say so, and say so unequivocally.”

It was clear, though, that Clinton was sensitive to Israeli and pro-Israel complaints that the opprobrium she had heaped onto Israel — she called the building announcement an “insult” — was one-sided and that she had ignored Palestinian violations.

In fact, her spokesmen have condemned Palestinian incitement. And Monday, Clinton picked up the two signal issues that have exercised Israel’s advocates: the naming of a public square in Ramallah for a terrorist who led a deadly 1978 attack, and Palestinian rioting greeting the rededication of an Old City synagogue destroyed during the 1948 Independence War.

“These provocations are wrong and must be condemned for needlessly inflaming tensions and imperiling prospects for a comprehensive peace,” Clinton said to applause.

Clinton leavened her calls for an end to incitement by attempting to shift blame for the naming of the square from the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority to Hamas. And she had praise for the PA leadership.

“We commend the government of President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad for the reforms they’ve undertaken to strengthen law and order, and the progress that they’ve made in improving the quality of life in the west bank,” she said.

Netanyahu had only criticism.

“What has the Palestinian Authority done for peace?” he asked. “They have placed preconditions on peace talks, waged a relentless international campaign to undermine Israel’s legitimacy, and promoted the notorious Goldstone report that falsely accuses Israel of war crimes.”

AIPAC, Israel, and the Obama administration have differences on Iran as well. AIPAC activists pushed hard for enhanced Iran sanctions when they lobbied Tuesday afternoon on Capitol Hill, while the administration wants time to exhaust the prospect of multilateral sanctions.

Here, though, Clinton was able to throw the crowd some meat, saying that whatever sanctions emerged, they would not be glancing.

“Our aim is not incremental sanctions but sanctions that will bite,” she said. “It is taking time to produce these sanctions, and we believe that time is a worthwhile investment for winning the broadest possible support for our efforts. But we will not compromise our commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring these nuclear weapons.”

Rosenberg, just inaugurated as AIPAC’s president and a key fund-raiser in candidate Barack Obama’s presidential run, also made sure to hit affectionate notes, noting Clinton’s pronounced pro-Israel record in her eight years as a U.S. senator from New York. Among other things, she led the successful effort to force the International Committee of the Red Cross to recognize Israel’s Magen David Adom.

Netanyahu made sure to praise Obama for increasing security cooperation.

“From one president to the next, from one Congress to the next, America’s commitment to Israel’s security has been unwavering,” he said. “In the last year, President Obama and the U.S. Congress have given meaning to that commitment by providing Israel with military assistance, by enabling joint military exercises, and by working on joint missile defense.”

Kohr, the longtime AIPAC director, used the policy conference to outline the group’s priorities. He focused on gaining Israel its deserved entry into the international community through membership in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which coordinates economic policy in the developed world; getting Israel a seat on the U.N. Security Council; and forging a closer relationship between Israel and NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

All have been Israeli priorities for years, but throughout the Bush administration and the prevalence of neoconservatism in its foreign policy, AIPAC’s embrace of these issues was low-grade. In fact, in making the case for advancing Israel in the United Nations, Kohr even asked: “Now, some of you may be asking, why does it matter?”

He ran through an explanation of the U.N. Security Council’s powers, but left unsaid why else it matters: The Obama administration’s emphasis on multilateralism and on working out differences in international forums. Kohr was telling his activists that this was the new Obama order.

News Analysis

Perhaps most telling was where Clinton ad-libbed away from her prepared remarks and revealed a soft affection for Israel and its friends.

She delivered a prepared line about “pioneers who found a desert and made it bloom,” then paused and said, “There were people who were thinking, how could that ever happen? Ahh, but it did.”

She amended a line about warriors offering peace to describe them as “so gallant in battle.” Clinton asked the crowd if they thought she thought it necessary to speak “because AIPAC can get 7,500 people in a convention center? I don’t think so.”

In her lengthiest unscripted passage, Clinton recalled traveling the world during the 1990s, the heyday of Arab-Israeli peace talks, and never hearing anyone mention the conflict outside the confines of the Middle East. These days, she said, its periodic explosions into war is often the first item, however far-flung her travels.

It was a gentle unsettling of the belief that the Israel-U.S. relationship exists in a bubble unaffected by outside realities.

“We cannot escape the impact of mass communications,” Clinton said. “We can only change the facts on the ground.”

JTA

For a first person account of the AIPAC conference, go to ‘We prayed with our feet’.

 
 

The U.S. should not give Palestinians a free pass

 

Condemn report, welcome Goldstone

 

Palestinian leaders must foster hope, not hate

 

Uphill battle for renewed Mideast peace talks

 

Israelis troubled about Palestinian response to Itamar

JERUSALEM – The Palestinian reaction to the grisly killings of five Israeli family members in the Jewish settlement of Itamar, on the west bank, has prompted many Israelis to ask the same question of the Palestinians that the world often asks of the Israeli government: Are they really serious about peace?

On the one hand, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas went on Israel Radio on Monday to condemn the March 11 killings of the Fogel family members, including a 4-year-old boy and a 3-month-old girl, as “despicable, inhuman, and immoral.”

On the other hand, a day after the attack, members of Abbas’ Fatah faction participated in an official dedication ceremony in the west bank town of Al-Bireh for a town square dedicated to the memory of Dalal Mughrabi, a terrorist involved in killing 37 Israelis in a 1978 bus hijacking on Israel’s coastal road. No PA government officials attended the ceremony, Reuters reported.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu derided the Palestinian Authority’s reaction on Sunday to the Itamar killings as full of “weak and mumbled” statements and accused the Palestinians of continuing to incite against Israel in their mosques and schools. Meanwhile, in Gaza, Hamas members reportedly handed out candy in celebration of the attack.

The Palestinian leadership must “stop the incitement that is conducted on a daily basis in their schools, mosques, and the media under their control,” Netanyahu said. “The time has come to stop this double-talk in which the Palestinian Authority outwardly talks peace and allows — and sometimes leads — incitement at home.”

The brutal murders of the Fogel parents, Udi, 36, and Ruth, 35, and three of their six children — Yoav, 11, along with Elad, 4, and Hadas, 3 months — shocked and angered a nation that had seen terrorist attacks dwindle in recent years. The circulation of photos of some of the stabbed children — apparently distributed to news media by relatives of the victims — offered gruesome pictures of the blood-soaked scene.

A group called the Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigades of Imad Mughniyeh claimed responsibility for the attack. Israeli forces combed the area after the attack, and the Palestinian Authority agreed to participate in a joint investigation to find the killer or killers.

The attack sparked angry demonstrations throughout Israel and the west bank in support of the settlers, with demonstrators holding signs reading “We are all settlers” and “Peace isn’t signed with blood.” One of the largest rallies took place in Tel Aviv near the army’s national headquarters.

After a funeral in Jerusalem for the Fogels drew an estimated 20,000 people, some settlers went to Palestinian villages to carry out revenge attacks, throwing stones and destroying property.

For its part, the Israeli government on Sunday announced the approval of some 500 new housing units in the west bank, in the settlements of Gush Etzion, Ma’ale Adumim, Ariel, and Kiryat Sefer.

In the attack, which took place late last Friday night, two sons, aged 8 and 2, were spared, apparently because they were sleeping in a side room that escaped attention. A daughter, Tamar, 12, returned home late at night from a Bnei Akiva youth program to discover the door to the house was locked. Alarmed, she contacted a neighbor, and they entered the home together and encountered the gory scene.

Volunteers for ZAKA, the Orthodox-run search-and-rescue organization, described the scene shortly after the terror attack as “absolutely horrific.”

“We saw toys lying next to pools of blood, Shabbat clothes covered in blood, and everywhere the smell of death mixing with the aroma of the Shabbat meal,” one volunteer said.

The Fogel family had relocated to Itamar following their removal from the Gush Katif settlement in Gaza, which was part of Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. They had lived for a while in the Jewish west bank city of Ariel before moving to Itamar, which is near the Palestinian city of Nablus.

Danny Dayan, chairman of the Yesha Council settler umbrella group, called the approval of new housing in response to the attack “a small step in the right direction.” He said it was “deeply troubling that it requires the murder of children in the arms of their parents to achieve such an objective.”

At the emotional funerals, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin said the Fogel parents personified devotion to the Zionist vision and were pioneers.

JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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