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Abbas’ threat to resign sparks fears

Leslie SusserWorld
Published: 13 November 2009

JERUSALEM – Just as he hoped it would, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ threat to resign has concentrated the minds.

Both Israel’s prime minister and the U.S. president are considering new ways to kick-start the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process in a bid to keep the two-state vision alive. Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama both fear that Abbas’ departure could lead to instability, chaos, and even violence in the Palestinian-populated territories.

With the process deadlocked ever since Israel went into a new election cycle more than a year ago, an element of desperate brinkmanship is in the air. Abbas’ threat to resign is aimed at pressuring the United States and Israel to come back with a serious offer.

News Analysis

Abbas, 74, announced last week that he would not seek re-election in a ballot scheduled for January. One of the main reasons he gave was a profound sense of betrayal by the U.S. administration after Obama dialed back the pressure on Israel for a full settlement freeze.

“We had high hopes in President Obama — they had a very clear attitude on settlements — but it turned out that the American administration favored Israel,” Abbas declared.

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Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, shown speaking in Ramallah on Oct. 24, is insisting that his decision to resign is not a tactical ploy. Issam Rimawi/Flash 90/JTA

Abbas had understood from Obama that he would force Israel to stop all settlement construction and then launch peace talks. The Palestinian leader believed the policy would push Netanyahu into a corner and possibly even topple his Likud-led government for one more likely to cut a deal with the Palestinians.

Taking his cue from Obama, Abbas made a full freeze of settlement construction a precondition for talks.

But when the Americans backed down several months later after Netanyahu offered a slowdown but not a freeze, Abbas was left high and dry. He held to a condition he could not abandon without losing face among his people, but he could not approach the negotiating table so long as he stuck to it.

The last straw was U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s statement early last week aligning herself with the Israeli view of the settlement issue. Clinton backed Israel’s claim that the Palestinians had never before made a settlement freeze a condition for talks, and she praised Netanyahu’s agreement to restrictions on settlement building in the west bank as “unprecedented.”

Clinton’s forthright language stunned the Palestinians. For Abbas it meant his gamble on a settlement freeze had failed. A few days later he announced his intention to step down.

While insisting that his decision was not a tactical ploy, he raised the specter of the two-state solution for which he had worked so hard slipping away.

Abbas also finds himself in a no-win situation with regard to Hamas. If he backs down on settlements, the fundamentalists will accuse him of being an Israeli-American lackey. If he resigns, they will say his resignation is proof of their thesis that negotiations with the Zionist enemy can only lead to grief.

Abbas had hoped through Egyptian mediation to reach a national reconciliation deal with Hamas. That would have been the basis for truly representative national elections in the west bank and Hamas-controlled Gaza. But now Hamas says it will not contest elections in the west bank and will prevent balloting in Gaza.

For Abbas, who had hoped to regain legitimacy as leader of all the Palestinian people through the ballot box, this is another source of deep frustration.

A third source of frustration is Netanyahu’s refusal to recognize the progress Abbas made with the previous Israeli government under Ehud Olmert. Abbas says he was very close to an agreement with Olmert: On borders, he says, they were already reviewing detailed maps, and on the thorny question of the right of return to Israel for Palestinian refugees, Abbas says the differences were only over numbers.

Abbas would like to continue negotiations from the point Olmert left off. But by insisting on “no preconditions,” Netanyahu seems to be indicating that he wants to start from scratch.

To break the impasse, P.A. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is considering declaring independence unilaterally if the United States agrees to back a self-declared Palestinian state along the 1967 borders. But other voices in the Palestinian camp are talking about a return to armed struggle and a new intifada.

What makes the situation even more volatile is the lack of an obvious successor to Abbas if he goes through with his threat to stand down. The front-runner is the jailed former leader of the young Fatah military cadres, Marwan Barghouti, who would likely take a more militant line toward Israel — if he’s even able to compete.

Abbas’ move has forced early-decision time on the main players: Obama must decide whether to work with Netanyahu to appease Abbas — for example, by getting the Israelis to release Fatah prisoners and make a serious peace offer — to disengage altogether until both parties are ready to talk business, or to shake things up by putting a detailed American peace plan on the table.

Netanyahu must decide whether to seize the moment to launch a major peace initiative or face the consequences of a resignation by Abbas that could spark chaos on the Palestinian side. If he really wants to persuade Abbas to stay, he will have to make a far-reaching offer on settlements or on substance.

Although there has been no hard evidence yet, confidants say he is ready to go much further than most people expect.

The next few weeks could be crucial.

JTA

 
 

The EU throws a monkey wrench in Mideast peacemaking

 

U.S.-Israel search for Middle East peace: Beyond Ramat Shlomo

 

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’.

 
 

Obama spreads the love, keeping Jewish leaders happy — for now

WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is projecting a new attitude when it comes to Israel, and is selling it hard: unbreakable, unshakeable bond going forward, whatever happens.

Jewish leaders have kicked the tires and they’re buying — although anxious still at what happens when the rubber hits the road.

News Analysis

“It’s a positive development,” Alan Solow, the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said of the recent Jewish outreach blitz by the administration. “There are two questions, though, that will only be answered over time: Will the outreach be sustained, and will the policy be consistent with the positions being expressed in the outreach?”

Tensions between the administration and Israel were sparked in the first week of March, when Israel announced a major new building initiative in eastern Jerusalem during what was meant to be a fence-mending visit by Vice President Joe Biden. Biden’s rebuke of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the trip was followed by a 45-minute phone berating by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and then statements by senior administration officials that the announcement had been an affront.

That in turn spurred howls of protest by top Jewish figures saying that while Netanyahu indeed had blown it, the backlash should have ended with Biden’s rebuke. Worse, opinion-makers in Washington had seized on a paragraph in 56 pages of Senate testimony last month by Gen. David Petraeus in which the Central Command chief said that one of many elements frustrating his mission in the Middle East was the Arab-Israeli peace freeze.

The turning point, Solow said, was the letter he received April 20 from President Obama.

“Let me be very clear: We have a special relationship with Israel that will not be changed,” Obama wrote. “Our countries are bound together by shared values, deep and interwoven connections, and mutual interests. Many of the same forces that threaten Israel also threaten the United States and our efforts to secure peace and stability in the Middle East. Our alliance with Israel serves our national security interests.”

Obama suggested that the letter was prompted by the “concerns” Solow had expressed to White House staff. Solow said the letter was a surprise.

Whatever the case, the letter was only one element in a blast of Israel love from the administration, including speeches by David Axelrod, Obama’s chief political adviser, at the Israeli Embassy’s Independence Day festivities, and to the National Jewish Democratic Council; Clinton to the Center for Middle East Peace last week and to the American Jewish Committee this week; Petraeus, keynoting last week’s U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s commemoration at the U.S. Capitol; Rahm Emanuel, the White House Chief of Staff, meeting recently with a group of 20 rabbis; Jim Jones, the national security adviser, last week at the pro-Israel think tank the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; and Jones’ deputy, Daniel Shapiro, addressing the Anti-Defamation League next month.

The main theme of the remarks is, as Jones put it, “no space — no space — between the United States and Israel when it comes to Israel’s security.”

Petraeus especially seems to have developed a second career keynoting Jewish events. He also spoke recently at the 92nd Street Y in New York and is addressing a Commentary magazine dinner in June.

Much of his Holocaust address, naturally, concerned itself with events of 65 years ago, but he couldn’t help wrenching the speech back into the present tense to heap praise on Israel.

Speaking of the survivors, he said, “They have, of course, helped build a nation that stands as one of our great allies.”

The blitz also has assumed at times the shape of a call and response. After the initial “crisis,” a number of Jewish groups wondered why the administration was making an issue of Israeli settlement and not of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ refusal to renew talks until Israel completely froze settlement-building and of continued incitement under Abbas’ watch.

In fact, the administration repeatedly warns against any preconditions and has made a consistent issue of Palestinian incitement, but Clinton appeared to get the message that the message hasn’t been forceful enough.

“We strongly urge President Abbas and his government to join negotiations with Israel now,” she told the Center for Middle East Peace on April 15. She also called on the Palestinian Authority to “redouble its efforts to put an end to incitement and violence, crack down on corruption, and ingrain a culture of peace and tolerance among Palestinians.”

Jewish leaders also were wounded by what they saw as a dismissive attitude to Israel’s contributions to the alliance.

“It is Israel which serves on the front lines as an outpost of American interests in a dangerous part of the world,” Lee Rosenberg, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee president, said April 14 at Israel’s Independence Day celebrations. “Israel’s military expertise and the intelligence they share with us help the United States remain on the offense against those who seek America’s destruction in some of the darkest and most difficult places on the planet.”

Cue Jim Jones, addressing the Washington Institute exactly a week later.

“I can also say from long experience that our security relationship with Israel is important for America,” Jones said. “Our military benefits from Israeli innovations in technology, from shared intelligence, from exercises that help our readiness and joint training that enhances our capabilities, and from lessons learned in Israel’s own battles against terrorism and asymmetric threats.”

The feel-the-love show extends to Israelis as well, a marked change from the no-photos snub Netanyahu received when he met at the White House with Obama in late March.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates rolled out the red carpet for his Israeli counterpart, Ehud Barak, on Tuesday, a signal that the sides are coordinating closely on Iran containment policy. And when the Israeli defense minister met at the White House with Jones, Obama dropped by Jones’ office to chat informally — a signal that presidents have traditionally used to underscore the closeness of a relationship.

Furthermore, the administration is not limiting its message to Jewish audiences. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, spoke last week to the Arab American Institute and made points that essentially were the same as Clinton’s when she addressed the Center for Middle East Peace.

“Our position remains clear: We do not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity,” Rice told the Arab American group. “Israel should also halt evictions and demolitions of Palestinian homes. At the same time, the Palestinian Authority should continue to make every effort to ensure security, to reform its institutions of governance, and to take strong, consistent action to end all forms of incitement.”

Differences remain — like Rice, Clinton has emphasized that the Obama administration is not about to let the settlements issue go. More subtly, Obama is not going to concede in his overarching thesis of a “linkage” that has been repudiated by Israel and its defenders here: that Arab-Israeli peace will make it much easier to secure U.S. interests in the region.

“For over 60 years, American presidents have believed that pursuing peace between Arabs and Israelis is in the national security interests of the United States,” Obama said.

That’s essentially true — Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, made the same point multiple times, but not with the doggedness and emphasis of Obama.

Jewish leaders said they would closely watch the aftermath of next month’s visit to Washington by Abbas, when the sides are expected to announce the resumption of talks. The nitty-gritty of the talks may yet derail the new good feelings; how that works depends on communications, said William Daroff, who heads the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America.

“This charm offensive is part of a prefatory way of setting up the communications so that when we get to proximity talks we will all move forward instead,” he said.

Critical to that success was listening, said Nathan Diament, who heads the Orthodox Union’s Washington office.

“Too many of the tensions of the past months have been generated by a lack of communication,” Diament said. “But just as important is for the administration to talk with, not just at, the community. The president benefits from having more input inform his policy choices.”

JTA

 
 

Palestinian hate, U.S. silence

 

Do indirect peace talks have a shot?

JERUSALEM – Although Israeli and Palestinian leaders are pessimistic about the chances of a breakthrough in the U.S.-mediated proximity talks that begin this week, the Americans hope the process itself will generate a new peacemaking dynamic.

Whether or not the parties make headway, Israeli analysts anticipate a major U.S. peace push this fall.

Over the past few months, U.S. officials have made it clear that the Obama administration sees Israeli-Palestinian peace as a major U.S. interest. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made the point in a Washington speech last month. Not only does the lack of peace threaten Israel’s future and hold back the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people, it “destabilizes the region and beyond,” she said.

That position has translated into tough messages to both sides from the Obama administration’s special envoy for Middle East peace, George Mitchell, who got the two sides to agree to launch the indirect talks and is now set to mediate between them.

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Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak talks with the Obama administration’s special Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, at Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv before their April 25 flight to New York. Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry

Mitchell has made clear that he has no intention of merely shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah carrying messages, but that he intends to put forward American bridging proposals wherever they might be helpful. He also has indicated to both sides that if the talks falter, the Obama administration will not be slow to blame the party it holds responsible. Indeed, Palestinian officials say Mitchell told them that the United States would take significant diplomatic steps against any side it believed was holding back progress.

The Americans see the proximity talks as a four-month preparatory corridor leading to direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The strategy seems to be to get the process moving quickly and with as much intensity as possible until next September, when the Israeli moratorium on building in west bank settlements is due to expire.

Then, Israeli analysts say, President Obama will reconsider his options: If the talks are progressing well, Washington will try to persuade the Israelis to extend the building freeze and the Palestinians to agree to direct negotiations. But if the talks are foundering, Obama may consider putting an American peace plan on the table and calling an international peace conference to pressure the parties to move forward, according to a recent report by David Ignatius in the Washington Post, which quoted senior administration officials.

Israeli media also have reported that Obama told several key European leaders that if the talks stall, he will convene an international peace conference in the fall.

The Israeli aim is first and foremost not to lose the blame game.

The Netanyahu administration in Jerusalem sees in the proximity talks as a means of managing the conflict and keeping the international community at bay as long as it is seen to be giving peacemaking a chance. Israeli officials have little faith in the Palestinians’ negotiating intentions and suspect them of planning to use the talks to generate further U.S. pressure on Israel.

Thus, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has gone out of his way to convince the Americans of his good faith. Contrary to his previous position — that core issues like borders, Jerusalem, refugees, security and water could be discussed only in direct talks —Netanyahu has agreed to have everything on the table in the proximity phase.

More important, he pressed for a vote in his Likud Party last week deferring internal party elections for two years, defeating inveterate party hawks, and giving himself new wiggle room to maneuver in the peacemaking arena.

In the proximity talks, Netanyahu wants to discuss security and water issues first. He has ordered his staff to work on an eight-point brief on security prepared by the previous Israeli government under Ehud Olmert. Before Israel makes any commitments on permanent borders, Netanyahu wants to clarify the precise details of Palestinian demilitarization, Israeli rights in Palestinian air space, the functioning of border crossing points, and the deployment of Israeli forces along the Palestinians’ eastern border with Jordan to prevent arms smuggling.

At one point Netanyahu considered offering the Palestinians an interim mini-state with temporary borders, according to Israeli media, who reported that President Shimon Peres and Defense Minster Ehud Barak, both apparently with Netanayu’s approval, tried to persuade Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to accept an interim state on about 60 percent of the west bank.

This would have removed any lingering doubts about Israel’s commitment to the two-state solution without entailing a major Israeli withdrawal from the west bank.

But Abbas, fearful that the temporary measure could become permanent, quickly shot down the idea. A spokesman for Netanyahu told JTA that the interim plan “was out there” and that Abbas had rejected it.

Instead, Netanyahu may be ready to hand over more west bank land to Palestinian political and security control in a goodwill gesture designed to show Israel’s ultimate readiness to roll back its occupation of the west bank.

Like Israel, the Palestinians’ primary goal is not to lose the blame game.

Abbas is convinced that a deal with Netanyahu’s hawkish government is not possible. Leading Palestinians for months have been saying that talks with the Netanyahu government would be futile.

In a speech to his Fatah Party in late April, Abbas called on Obama to “impose” a solution that would lead to an independent Palestinian state.

“Mr. President,” he said, “since you believe in this, it is your duty to take steps toward a solution and to impose a solution.”

Israeli intelligence has been warning that Abbas’ aim is to get the international community, led by the United States, to impose a settlement on Israel. The Palestinian leader also wants Washington in his corner should he decide to go to the United Nations for a binding resolution recognizing a Palestinian state and delineating its borders.

Given the current lack of trust between Israel and the Palestinians, American thinking along similar lines is starting to take shape.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former U.S. national security adviser, is proposing that Obama put a new set of peace parameters on the table and urge the parties to negotiate a final peace deal within the U.S.-initiated framework. Should either side refuse, Brzezinski says the United States should get U.N. endorsement of the plan, putting unbearable international pressure on the recalcitrant party.

Brzezinski reportedly outlined this position to Obama in a meeting of former national security advisers convened in late March by Gen. James Jones, the current incumbent.

This is precisely the type of scenario Israeli analysts are predicting for September, especially if the proximity talks fail to make progress: binding American peace parameters serving as new terms of reference for an international peace conference and subsequent Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

According to senior Israeli officials, the conference would be held under the auspices of the international Quartet — the grouping of the United States, European Union, United Nations, and Russia — with the aim of forging a wide international consensus for the creation of a Palestinian state.

JTA

 
 

Responding to the top 10 anti-Israel lies

 

Only Israel is making the effort toward peace

 

Settlement freeze, Iran, peace talks to headline vital Obama-Bibi meeting

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, rear left, and President Obama, flanked by Israeli and U.S. officials, are pictured at a Sept. 22, 2009 meeting in New York. The pair are scheduled to meet on July 6. Avi Ohayon /GPO/Flash 90/JTA

Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, told reporters this week that he was misheard when he was quoted as telling Israeli diplomats that a “tectonic rift” was emerging between Israel and the United States. The Israelis didn’t get it, said the U.S.-born Oren: He meant there was a “tectonic shift.”

Whether there is a difference, and whether it’s meaningful, no one was going to say. The point was to get it right this time when the U.S. president and Israeli prime minister meet at the White House on July 6 or face a worsening of U.S.-Israel ties.

“The Americans and Israelis with whom we’ve met all seem quite optimistic that both sides are intent on having a positive meeting,” said the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, David Harris, who is in Israel this week. “Both sides understand that there’s a lot at stake in having a positive outcome.”

As opposed to the last two — or almost two — times.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s last visit to Washington, in late March, was marred by the aftermath of the tensions that followed Israel’s announcement about two weeks earlier of new building in eastern Jerusalem just as Vice President Joe Biden was in Israel for a visit. Top U.S. officials called the announcement an insult, and when Netanyahu and President Obama met they kept their deliberations behind closed doors, failing even to issue a summary statement.

Both sides spent subsequent weeks making up, with Obama administration officials emphasizing practical U.S. defense support for Israel and Netanyahu pressing hard for direct talks with the Palestinians. By the end of May, things looked good for a June 1 meeting at the White House.

But then came Israel’s deadly May 31 raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla. Netanyahu, already in North America, canceled his White House meeting and rushed back to Israel.

The Obama administration ostensibly supported Israel during the widespread outrage that followed, but the administration also pressed Netanyahu to set up an investigatory commission and flip its Gaza sanctions policy: Instead of a “white list” of permissible products to be allowed into Gaza, Israel created a blacklist of products it would bar from import to Gaza. That allowed a much broader array of goods into Gaza and marked a diplomatic loss for the Israeli government.

The sides are likely to come to the July 6 meeting with two items unresolved: What Israel plans to do once its 10-month partial freeze on west bank settlement building lapses in September, and how the sides plan to confront Iran.

The first issue is likely to be the most contentious: The Obama administration wants to keep the Palestinian Authority in the process, having finally lured it into proximity talks. But if Netanyahu doesn’t have direct talks to show for his efforts, it will be a hard sell to keep his right-leaning cabinet on board.

As an extra burr, Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat — who has national ambitions — is pressing ahead with plans to build in Arab neighborhoods of eastern Jerusalem.

On Iran, the difference may be more fundamental. Ostensibly the news for Netanyahu is good: The U.N. Security Council passed expanded sanctions this month against Iran in light of its recalcitrance on making its nuclear program transparent. The sanctions themselves lacked serious bite, but they set the stage for much tougher sanctions — one set approved by the European Union and another passed by the U.S. Congress.

The congressional sanctions are the toughest ever, targeting third parties that deal with Iran’s energy and financial sectors. They have been welcomed by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, signaling the likelihood that Obama will adopt at least some of them. Already the Treasury Department has expanded sanctions targeting Iran’s shipping and banking sectors based on existing law.

The problem is, Israel’s establishment no longer believes sanctions will be effective and is eager to hear what, if anything, the Obama administration has planned for the military front. Obama thus far has laid back on such plans, or even on whether he would consider drawing up such plans for such a contingency.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak toured the United States last week, and in his meetings with Clinton, national security adviser James Jones, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Barak outlined what is shaping up as his proposal to synthesize the two emerging crises: Barak wants Netanyahu to announce a bold peace initiative with the Palestinians as a means of freeing Israel diplomatically to operate in the military sphere should the need arise with Iran.

It’s not clear what his American interlocutors thought of the plan or whether it has resonance in Israel. A key element involves bringing into the government the centrist opposition party, Kadima, whose leader, Tzipi Livni, in recent weeks has indicated receptiveness to such overtures.

An Israeli initiative is necessary “to prevent our descent into isolation,” Barak told reporters after his meetings. “It is the only way to achieve real freedom to act when there are security events.”

JTA

 
 
 
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