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Palestinian threat to declare statehood seeks to put onus on Israel

Leslie SusserWorld
Published: 20 November 2009

JERUSALEM – Frustrated by a lack of progress toward statehood, the Palestinians are considering taking their case to the United Nations.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had hopes a more Muslim-friendly U.S. administration would press Israel into a peace deal on terms favorable to the Palestinians. When this failed to materialize, Abbas announced plans to resign.

Now he is following up with a threat to go to the U.N. Security Council to ask for recognition of a Palestinian state within the pre-1967 borders, with eastern Jerusalem as its capital.

Abbas’ thinking is that such a move would resolve the core border issue in a single stroke and confirm the illegality of Jewish settlements in the west bank. All that would be left to negotiate would be the terms of Israeli military and civilian withdrawal from territories already internationally recognized as Palestinian, and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their former homes in Israel.

By using the United Nations, the Palestinians are turning to the arena where they feel strongest. They are hoping to exploit their near-automatic U.N. majority to achieve statehood on their terms. They have enjoyed great successes in the United Nations: the passage of the “Zionism is racism” resolution in 1975 and, more recently, endorsement of the Goldstone report on last winter’s Gaza war, which accuses Israel, as well as Hamas, of war crimes.

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Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said European consuls reacted favorably to backing the Palestinian Authority’s idea about asking the U.N. Security Council to recognize a Palestinian state. Nati hohat/Flash90/JTA

The latest move appears to be a tactic to pressure Israel to come to the negotiating table with a much more favorable offer or face a very difficult international situation.

What Abbas wants are terms of reference for negotiations with the territorial outcome virtually guaranteed either by international fiat or through prior agreement with Israel. To avert Abbas’ U.N. gambit, Israel would have to agree to give up most of the west bank ahead of talks.

So far, the Netanyahu government is not willing to put such an offer on the table.

The Palestinian threat to take unilateral action, however, drew an unusually nuanced response this week from Prime Mi nister Benjamin Netanyahu. On the one hand, he warned that it would have dire consequences. On the other, he suggested that if the Palestinians would only enter negotiations with him, they would get a very good deal.

Speaking Sunday at a forum in Jerusalem sponsored by the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Netanyahu said that any unilateral moves by the Palestinians would “unravel the framework of agreements between us and bring unilateral steps from Israel.”

Close associates spelled out what this might mean: Freed of its commitments to the Palestinians in prior accords, Israel might see its way to annexing large settlement blocs in the west bank and suspending all economic cooperation with the Palestinians.

On the other hand, Netanyahu held up the prospect of boundless prosperity for both sides if they negotiated a peace deal, and he urged the Palestinian leadership to try him.

“If we start talks, we can surprise the world,” he said.

Netanyahu insists he is ready to come to the peace table in a spirit of generosity and that on his recent visit to Washington, he told President Obama just how serious he was about making peace.

The question is, did Netanyahu give Obama a commitment to go all the way with the Palestinians if they agree to a number of basic Israeli conditions? If not, will he do so now to give U.S. special Mideast envoy George Mitchell something to bring the Palestinians to the table and persuade them to drop their U.N. move?

For now, there is no sign that the Palestinians are ready to back off. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat summoned 27 European consuls to Ramallah on Monday to officially request their backing for the Security Council move. Afterward, Erekat claimed the initial response had been favorable. The Palestinians also say they already have the support of Russia and China.

Clearly, if and when it comes to a vote in the U.N. Security Council, the American position will be key.

Israeli leaders say they are convinced that any resolution unilaterally defining the contours of Palestinian statehood will encounter an American veto. Therefore, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday, there was little chance of such a resolution passing.

The Palestinians, however, suggest that the Americans have yet to decide one way or the other. They say that when they put their plan to U.S. officials last week, administration officials promised to consider it. Moreover, if the Palestinians have the support of all the permanent members of the Security Council except Washington, they still may proceed, despite an anticipated American veto, to embarrass Israel and the United States.

The ball is now is the U.S.-Israel court. To pre-empt what could be a dangerous Palestinian move with potentially destructive consequences, the Americans and Israelis may have to work together on an attractive peace package with clear goals and a clear time frame.

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

 
 

Palestinian gambit for statehood puts Israel against wall

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Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, seen here greeting Finnish President Tarja Halonenin in the west bank city of Ramallah on Oct. 14, may appeal to the international community for recognition of statehood. Issam Rimawi/Flash90/JTA

JERUSALEM – With talks at a stalemate and no agreement from the Israelis to reinstate a settlement freeze, the Palestinians are playing a new card: an end game to statehood through an appeal to the international community.

The card hasn’t actually been played, but the mere threat that the Palestinians would push for international recognition of a state from the United Nations has been enough to push the Israeli government to reconsider options to return to the negotiating table.

News Analysis

On Sunday, partly to pre-empt a Palestinian move toward statehood that would bypass negotiations with Israel, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he is working intensively with the Obama administration on a formula to restart the stalled peace process.

“We are in close contact with the American administration with the aim of restarting the peace process,” Netanyahu said at his weekly cabinet meeting. “Our aim is not only to renew the process, but to renew it in such a way that it won’t collapse in a few weeks or in two months, but that we will go into a full year of serious negotiations on the core issues in an effort to reach a framework agreement on the way to a peace deal.

“Any attempt by the Palestinians to circumvent this process by going to international organizations,” he said, “is not realistic, and will not in any way advance a genuine peace process.”

Israeli, Palestinian, and U.S. leaders all say publicly that a negotiated peace deal is much preferred to unilateral steps that could spark a sharp response from the other side. But the Palestinians warn that if the direct peace talks remain on hold, they will consider approaching international bodies for recognition of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders with eastern Jerusalem as its capital.

It isn’t clear whether this is merely a tactic to frighten Israel back to the peace table — talks that were renewed in early September broke down four weeks later over Israel’s refusal to extend a building freeze in the west bank — or part of a new strategy aimed at achieving a better deal for the Palestinians through the international community.

Either way, given Israel’s precarious position on the international stage and the lack of international support for its west bank settlement construction policy, the Palestinian threat carries weight and is being taken very seriously in Jerusalem.

Much depends on the American stand, which gives the Obama administration added leverage over Israel.

The new Palestinian thinking has been evolving over the past few years and is based on two key principles: winning enhanced international support for Palestinian goals and, in parallel, building the institutions of a functioning Palestinian state from the bottom up.

The idea is that if the American-mediated peace process with Israel proves fruitless, the Palestinians can invoke Plan B: Gaining the world’s approval for an already functioning Palestinian state, on conditions favorable to the Palestinians, at a time of their choosing.

With Palestinian confidence in the Israeli government on the wane and Israel’s international standing in decline, Plan B has emerged as a genuine threat to Israel.

Last week, the Palestinians made their first significant move for recognition as a state by approaching the International Criminal Court at The Hague to urge recognition of the Palestinian Authority as the equivalent of a full-fledged state government. That designation would enable the Palestinian Authority to press war crimes charges against Israel for its conduct in the 2008-09 Gaza war because only states have standing before the court.

Recognition of the Palestinian Authority by the international court not only would open a crack for the possible prosecution of Israeli civilian and military leaders, it also would hand the Palestinians a major PR victory in their quest for internationally recognized statehood. The Palestinians would be able to cite the court’s recognition as legal backing for their case for a state.

Last week the court’s prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo of Argentina, heard arguments from legal experts, backed up by nongovernmental organizations, from both sides. The Israeli side argued that the Palestinian Authority is not a state and therefore cannot claim standing before the court, and that in any event, the court is not empowered to prosecute a state like Israel, which has effective and credible legal mechanisms for dealing with suspected war crimes.

A decision is not expected for several weeks.

If the Palestinians do press ahead in earnest with Plan B, the United Nations will be the main battleground. Given the certain backing for a Palestinian state by the non-aligned and Muslim states, the Palestinians easily would be able to secure a majority in the General Assembly — the same body that granted Israel international recognition in November 1947 by a vote of 33 to 13.

But the Palestinians want more than mere recognition: They want a binding allocation of territory based on the 1967 borders. For that they will likely seek a resolution from the U.N. Security Council, whose votes are binding. Such an effort likely would be blocked by the United States, which has veto power in that body. Therefore, for such a gambit to work, it would need to have the backing of the Obama administration. That’s unlikely.

In the run-up to a crucial Arab League meeting in early November that will discuss the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, PA President Mahmoud Abbas has been canvassing Arab leaders on his U.N. strategy.

The Palestinians see an important convergence in early November of key events for the future of the peace process: the Arab League meeting and the U.S. midterm elections. They believe that after the midterm elections, President Obama will have a freer hand to deal with Israel and will press Israel to return to the negotiating table on the Palestinians’ terms to head off any U.N. strategy.

For Israel this constitutes a major headache. The Netanyahu government fears that many countries, including the Europeans, would go along with the Palestinians and recognize a Palestinian state based on the pre-1967 border between Israel and Jordan.

If Israel remains in control of large swaths of the west bank after a Palestinian state is declared and recognized, even if just in the General Assembly, it would further sink Israel’s international reputation and provide additional fodder for the campaign to delegitimize Israel. (See page 24.)

“The Palestinians will declare a state. Virtually the whole world will recognize it. And we will be left without security arrangements,” Israeli Trade and Industry Minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer said Monday.

Israel’s response to the challenge has been a combination of defiance and diplomacy.

“Like Ben-Gurion, Netanyahu will not allow the United Nations, or any other organization, to dictate our borders,” Israel’s U.S. ambassador, Michael Oren, said last Friday. “They will be determined through negotiations.”

Privately, some Israeli cabinet ministers have been proposing unilateral Israeli responses, such as Israeli annexation of a significant part of the west bank or redeploying inside the large settlement blocs to create a de facto border along Israeli terms.

Behind the scenes, Israeli diplomats have been warning their colleagues in Washington and Europe that if the Palestinians act on the U.N. strategy, the current peace process, and the Oslo process on which it is based, would be over.

For now, however, Israel is focusing its efforts on putting direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks back on track and undercutting the Palestinians’ U.N. strategy. Netanyahu’s special envoy, Yitzhak Molcho, is in Washington this week working with his American counterparts on the details.

“Peace will only be achieved through direct negotiations,” Netanyahu said Sunday, “and I hope we will return to this avenue in full force very soon.”

JTA

 
 

Do diaspora Jews have a role in making peace?

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Members of the Jewish People Policy Institute at its annual conference in Jerusalem on Oct. 21: Glen Lewy, left, a board member and past board chairman of the Anti-Defamation League; Dani Dayan, chairman of the Yesha Council; and Ami Ayalon, retired Israeli general and former government minister. Shamayim Productions

JERUSALEM – Cloistered away in a snug meeting room with stone-faced walls and arched doorways across from Jerusalem’s Old City, some of the most important Jewish communal leaders in the world came together recently to wrestle with a question: Is there a role for the diaspora in Israel’s decision-making on peace?

The answer: Yes and no.

The forum was part of the annual conference of the Jewish People Policy Institute, a think tank organized by the Jewish Agency for Israel that identifies and evaluates challenges facing Jewish communities around the world. The consensus of the participants was that while ultimately it is up to the Israeli government and the Israeli public to decide the outlines of a peace deal, input from the rest of the Jewish world should be considered. In particular, several participants said, the issue of whether or not to divide Jerusalem requires input from the diaspora.

Furthermore, most in the forum of about 25 people agreed that the creation of a Palestinian state is not only Israel’s best hope of one day emerging from the conflict, it would be a boon for diaspora communities as well.

“The achievement of a peace agreement would be tremendously liberating for the global Jewish people,” said Barry Rosenberg, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis.

“It would allow us to devote our energy to other major priorities facing the Jewish people and the liberation of resources would be quite powerful,” Rosenberg said. “It would also come with significant risks and potential trauma, like the withdrawing from some territory.”

The challenge remains for the JPPI to move away from being an A-list talk shop to affecting policy on the ground. To that end, one of recommendations that emerged from the two days of talks was for the creation of a small forum of diaspora figures to discuss final status issues with the Israeli government — a “go-to” team that the government could consult with, as the institute’s founding director, Avinoam Bar-Yosef, described it.

But Elliot Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and deputy national security adviser under President George W. Bush, pointed out the difficulties of forming such a group.

“Who do you call? Who represents the diaspora? Who represents even American Jews ideologically? Politically?” Abrams asked.

Rosenberg echoed that view: “The overwhelming feeling is that there is a role for the diaspora, but how?”

Indeed, consensus was often elusive among the 120 participants, who represented academia and Jewish organizational and Israeli political leadership. In addition, some of those attending criticized the absence of women and participants under the age of 50 at the conference — something organizers said they were working to improve.

The challenges are not dampening the ambitious vision of the JPPI’s chairman, Stuart Eizenstat, the former U.S. diplomat who assumed the post after Dennis Ross, a former U.S. Middle East peace envoy, stepped down in order to work for the Obama administration. Eizenstat said a key goal of his was for the think tank to have “more of a policy impact” on peace issues and other topics affecting the future of the Jewish people.

One move in that direction was the institute’s decision to summarize the various teams’ findings on several issues into pithy, action-minded policy position papers for use by both the Israeli government and Jewish organizations. Among the issues dealt with at the conference: peace efforts, the delegitimization of Israel, conversion, European Jewry, and Israel-diaspora relations.

“What’s important is the effort to come to grips with the potential impact of the peace process on diaspora Jewry,” said Daniel Kurtzer, who has served in the past as U.S. ambassador to both Israel and Egypt. “There was lots of talking, lots of discussion … and at some point it needs to be translated into something more concrete. Is there action? An agenda to bridge the gaps and find specific ideas?”

For example, during discussions about the future of Jewish settlements in the west bank, sharp divisions emerged, with Danny Dayan, chairman of the Yesha Council, the umbrella leadership of the settler movement, saying that it is a Jewish imperative to keep the settlements in place.

Others in the room suggested that Israel already has decided which settlements would stay and which would be relinquished in the event of a peace deal by virtue of having built the security barrier between Israel and the west bank. Most of the major settlement areas are on the Israeli side of the fence and, with the exception of Ariel, the smaller, more geographically remote ones are on the other side.

Institute officials said that the subject of Jerusalem has created two camps: those who say that Jerusalem should remain the undivided capital of Israel and those who suggest some sort of shared control or sovereignty over the eastern part of Jerusalem, where 28 Arab villages and refugee camps are also included inside the municipal lines.

“The people coming to the conference know how important Jerusalem is, but our discussion was how one differentiates between areas like the Temple Mount and [predominately Palestinian areas] like [the] Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood and Shuafat Refugee Camp,” Kurtzer said. “Once you start to draw distinctions, you can define things better. The group did not say give up ‘X’ or keep ‘Y,’ but were heading in that direction.”

Rami Tal, a fellow at JPPI, tried to put the institute’s work in context.

“Think tanks, by definition, first explore an issue in an intellectual way using all methodology available to define problems … and then get to some intelligently reasoned analysis,” Tal said. “Here is where the discussions and opinions are heard and then the institute does the work of making conclusions that can be passed on to the Israeli government, the Jewish Agency, and Jewish organizations.”

Abrams said there is value in the very act of talking about theses issues.

“The value of the JPPI is that nowhere else do you have these kinds of discussions,” he said.

The forum on the delegitimizaton of Israel garnered particular interest, especially regarding how Israeli policy and actions, especially military ones such as the recent Gaza flotilla incident, play out — both for Israel on the international stage and for diaspora Jews.

Noting the rise of anti-Israel sentiment in the world, Eizenstat spoke of the ripple effect a negative image of Israel can have on diaspora Jews, particularly the younger generation.

“Jewish identity is increasingly tied to Israel, and as Israel’s status improves, it will be easier for younger Jews to identify not only with Israel but Judaism,” Eizenstat said. “When its image is negative, it undercuts that.”

The gathering supported the notion that one of the best ways to fight delegitimization — described as a “battle of ideas” by Eizenstat — was for Israel and the diaspora to do a better job of promoting the Israeli narrative. (See page 24.)

To that end, conference leaders announced that Israeli President Shimon Peres, who was among the top-level speakers, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was considering a tour of several college campuses in the United States.

JTA

 
 

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