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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

 
 

Uphill battle for renewed Mideast peace talks

 

WikiLeaks reveals secrets — and cluelessness

WASHINGTON – A careful reading of the WikiLeaks trove of State Department cables — which is laying bare some 250,000 secret dispatches detailing private conversations, assessments, and dealmaking of U.S. diplomats — reveals a notable if perhaps surprising pattern: how often they get things wrong.

Again and again the cables show diplomats, lawmakers, and heads of state predicting outcomes that never come to pass.

A year ago, top Israeli defense officials, in a meeting with their U.S. counterparts, set 2010 as the absolute deadline to squeeze Iran on its nuclear program. Now Israeli officials say the date is 2012.

In a 2005 assessment, the same Israeli cadre told U.S. interlocutors that the point of no return would be Iran’s ability to enrich uranium without assistance. Iran has had that capacity for years.

In January 2008, Egypt’s intelligence chief said Hamas was isolated and would not stand in the way of a peace agreement. Hamas’ continuing control of Gaza, even following the war that broke out 11 months after the Egyptian assessment, still undercuts Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

In 2007, U.S. diplomats called Tzipi Livni an up-and-comer. Though now the leader of the Israeli opposition as head of the Kadima Party, Livni twice failed in bids to become Israel’s prime minister.

The same State Department cable said the Israeli military and government don’t get along — “never the twain shall meet!” But they do get along, mostly, and meet often; the lack of cooperation in 2007 was the result of the short-lived term of Amir Peretz as Israeli defense minister.

The disparities between predictions and reality reflect the on-the-fly nature of the discussions detailed in the newly revealed cables.

Ed Abington, a former U.S. consul in Jerusalem who has consulted for the Palestinian Authority, said the authors of such cables work under pressure to come up with “added value” in analysis and fill in the vacuum with chatter that might not have any basis in reality.

“You’re looking for what you can add that makes it relevant to policymakers in Washington and elsewhere — analysis, insight,” Abington told JTA. “A lot of the reporting, in hindsight, is irrelevant.”

David Makovsky, a senior analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said facts on the ground also change rapidly — a factor that helps explain how dire Israeli predictions about Iran’s imminent weapons program have dissipated, at least for now.

Part of that may be attributable to efforts by the West to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program. Makovsky cited the recent success of the Stuxnet computer worm, which apparently disrupted Iranian centrifuges necessary to enrich uranium to bomb-making capacity.

Much of the material in the leaked cables offers frank U.S. assessments of everything from the temperament of foreign leaders to the shipment of arms between foes of the United States.

In late 2009, U.S. officials told their Russian counterparts that they believed North Korea had shipped missiles to Iran capable of hitting capitals in western Europe. The Russians were skeptical, but agreed that there was evidence of increased cooperation between the two rogue nations and it posed new dangers.

The cables also track increasing concern among the United States, Israel, and Western nations that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is leading Turkey along a path to Islamism — and beyond the point of no return of accommodation with the West.

In Cairo, U.S. diplomats told Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that in meetings with Egyptian leaders, she should defer to Egyptian self-regard as the indispensable Arab state while acknowledging that the perception is long past its due date.

Tracking the cables that straddle the Bush and Obama administrations also demonstrates that on some matters policies have changed little, if at all.

Stuart Levey, the treasury undersecretary charged with enforcing Iran sanctions, reassured Israeli Mossad chief Meir Dagan in December 2008 that President Obama was as determined as George W. Bush to isolate Iran through sanctions. Within a few weeks, Obama would confirm the point by reappointing Levey to the job, ensuring consistency.

The leaks also show Iranian and Syrian duplicity. A 2008 memo, apparently from an Iranian source, details how Iran used the cover of the Iranian Red Crescent to smuggle officers into Lebanon in 2006 to assist in Hezbollah’s war against Israel. Syria apparently provided sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah within weeks of pledging to U.S. officials that it would not do so.

Some of those named in the leaks worried that their publication could inhibit frank dialogue.

U.S. Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) was outraged that her private exchange with Netanyahu on Iran and Palestinian issues in a 2009 meeting became public knowledge.

“If Congress has no ability to have candid conversations with foreign leaders, we won’t have some of the critical information we need to make the judgments we need to make about countries like Iran,” she told The Daily Beast.

In condemning the leaks, Clinton said Monday that they represent policymaking only in its most nascent stages. Once the heavy hitters become involved, the policy is changed. So the content of the leaked cables is not of vital importance, she argued.

“I want to make clear that our official foreign policy is not set through these messages but here in Washington,” Clinton said. “Our policy is a matter of public record, as reflected in our statements and our actions around the world.”

But the cables reveal policy discussions in blunter terms and show the inner workings of intergovernmental relationships that the parties would rather have kept private.

Saudi Arabia, for example, is shown in the cables to be beating the war drum for a U.S. attack against Iran — a stance quite different from its public posture.

In a 2008 meeting, the Saudi ambassador to United States reminds U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, about the multiple times Saudi King Abdullah called on the United States to “cut off the head of the snake” — attack Iran to stop its nuclear program.

But the message is not consistent. Other cables describe meetings in the Persian Gulf with Arab officials, including Saudis, who counsel against a strike, saying that the backlash would be incalculable.

The cables least prone to such disparity may be those that describe meetings with Israeli officials. Successive Israeli prime ministers and defense ministers all say the same things — and in the same ways that they do in briefings with reporters.

Meeting this week with Israeli reporters after WikiLeaks began publishing the cables, Netanyahu said the Israeli government takes pains to make sure the most sensitive discussions are kept private.

“It influences our work, what we do in meetings, who we bring into meetings, what we say in them, and when we narrow the meeting to two people,” he was quoted as saying by the Jerusalem Post.

The most important exchanges between the U.S. and Israeli governments are not detailed in the cables because top U.S. and Israeli political leaders speak directly to each other.

The cables leaked by WikiLeaks, about 1 percent of which have been published so far, have low secrecy classifications and were written by relatively low-level diplomats. They were stored in a computer system that more than 2 million people had clearance to access.

Newspapers reported this week that a U.S. soldier, Bradley Manning, is allegedly behind the leaks to WikiLeaks. Manning, a private, is facing trial in another leaks case.

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Palestinians gain ground in PR, diplomatic war

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Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, center, hosting a luncheon for Israelis in the west bank city of Ramallah, on Dec. 19. Issam Rimawi/FLASH90/JTA

In the long-running Palestinian-Israeli conflict, score some recent victories for the Palestinians.

It’s not that Israel has given an inch in the territorial dispute over the west bank, or that the Palestinians in Gaza have achieved new military victories against the Israelis, despite increased rocket and mortar fire from the coastal strip in recent weeks.

Rather, the Palestinians have scored a series of diplomatic and public-relations successes against a Jewish state weakened by fraying relationships and a declining reputation internationally.

On the diplomatic front, Palestinian leaders announced this week that 10 European Union countries were upgrading their ties with the PLO. Earlier this month, three Latin American countries — Brazil, Argentina, and Bolivia — issued formal recognitions of the state of Palestine.

On Sunday was the much-publicized lunch hosted by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for Israeli politicians and activists in Ramallah. Numerous Op-Eds followed in the Israeli media and overseas, saying that there is a Palestinian partner for peace even if there isn’t an Israeli one.

Then there was the early December decision by the Obama administration to drop its effort to persuade Israel to agree to an additional 90-day freeze of Jewish settlement construction in the west bank. Commentators cited Israeli intransigence as the primary reason.

“Israel,” columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in a Dec. 11 Op-Ed in The New York Times, “when America, a country that has lavished billions on you over the last 50 years and taken up your defense in countless international forums, asks you to halt settlements for three months to get peace talks going, there is only one right answer, and it is not ‘How much?’ It is: ‘Yes, whatever you want, because you’re our only true friend in the world.’”

Over the last few months, Israel’s declining international reputation has given the Palestinians and their allies an opening they have exploited by effectively casting Israel as the bully and the unyielding party in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

It is a message that is promoted relentlessly by the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which seeks to make Israel an international pariah, and it is reinforced by negative assessments of Israeli actions such as the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza two years ago, the deadly Turkish flotilla incident of May 31, and Israel’s daily treatment of west bank Palestinians.

If the goal is to increase pressure on Israel to accede to the creation of a Palestinian state, a strategy that focuses on diplomacy and PR appears to have a greater chance of success right now than the Palestinians’ decades-long strategy of terrorism and war.

That strategy — call it the violent one — was snuffed out in recent years by Israeli military operations, Israel’s erection of the west bank security fence, and a recognition by leading Palestinian figures that the violence was doing more harm to the Palestinian national cause than good.

“We tried the intifada, and it caused us a lot of damage,” Abbas told an interviewer with the London-based Arabic daily Al Hayat in September.

Abbas said the Palestinian Authority would not revert to violent uprising even if peace talks collapsed.

With relative moderates like Abbas in charge of the Palestinian Authority in the west bank — the primary public face of the Palestinians — there is a greater understanding that to achieve statehood the Palestinians must win the world to their side. That, after all, paved the way for the creation of the State of Israel, after the United Nations voted in November 1947 to recognize a Jewish state in Palestine.

Now the Palestinians are setting their sights on a similar goal.

U.N. recognition would shift the conflict from one over “occupied Palestinian territories” to a conflict over an “occupied state with defined borders,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said. “We urge the international community to salvage the two-state solution by recognizing a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders.”

While U.N. recognition of Palestine might make a diplomatic end run around Israel, it hardly would result in an immediate Palestinian state. The United Nations would have no way of enforcing its decision, and Israeli troops and settlers would remain in the west bank.

What it would do, however, is significantly ratchet up the pressure on Israel to deal with the Palestinians.

“Widespread international recognition of Palestine’s legitimacy and existence has very significant consequences,” Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, wrote on his blog earlier this month.

That pressure isn’t just coming from outside Israel.

“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 warned in October.

There is pressure even from inside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s own Likud Party. Likud veteran and cabinet minister Michael Eitan has proposed moving settlers willing to accept compensation and relocation out of the west bank and into Israel proper to signal to the world that Israel is serious about wanting peace with the Palestinians.

This week, Haaretz columnist Akiva Eldar wrote that Israel needs to be saved from itself.

“Almost no day goes by without some other country recognizing a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders,” Eldar wrote. “According to the WikiLeaks documents, even the Germans, Israel’s steadfast supporters in Europe, have lost their faith in the peaceful intentions of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.”

Whatever criticism there is inside Israel about the Israeli government’s approach toward the Palestinians, the criticism outside Israel is sharper.

The main holdout is the United States, where recent polls show that the American people overwhelmingly favor Israel over the Palestinians, and Congress remains steadfastly pro-Israel.

The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement is aiming to change that. Using everything from campus activism to boycotts of stores that sell Israeli food products to bus ads promoting pro-Palestinian messages, the movement is hoping to sway public opinion.

Starting Dec. 27, the two-year anniversary of the Gaza war between Israel and Hamas, a group called the Seattle Midwest Awareness Campaign will be running ads on the sides of Seattle buses featuring photos of children looking at a demolished building under the heading “Israeli War Crimes: Your tax dollars at work.”

At Princeton University in New Jersey, DePaul University in Chicago, and on the streets of Philadelphia, pro-Palestinian activists have campaigned to have Israeli brands of hummus removed from campus cafeterias or store shelves. In New York, boycott supporters demonstrated outside a store belonging to the Israeli chocolatier Max Brenner.

“The relics of the past boycotts — from Nuremberg to Damascus — are back,” Ethan Felson, vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, wrote in a JTA Op-Ed. “Its proponents seek to bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into every sphere of American life.”

In the zero-sum game that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that’s good news for the Palestinians.

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Gaza-Israel border heats up as Hamas acquires new weapons

Leslie SusserWorld
Published: 31 December 2010

JERUSALEM – After two years of relative quiet since the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, Israel’s southern border with Gaza is again becoming volatile.

Last week, Gazans fired a rocket into Israel that landed close to a kindergarten in a kibbutz near Ashkelon just as parents were dropping off their children. Although no one was hurt, nothing like that had happened since the war.

News Analysis

Militants fired more than 200 Grad missiles, Kassam rockets, and mortar shells into Israeli territory in 2010, according to the Israel Defense Forces, compared to 160 in 2009. Both years pale in comparison to prewar levels in 2008, when militants in Gaza launched some 4,000 projectiles into Israel.

Nevertheless, despite the relative quiet for most of this year, the IDF is concerned that the recent escalation, if unchecked, could lead to a new round of serious fighting.

After last week’s attack in Ashkelon, the Israel Air Force bombed a staffed Hamas militia base, the first time it had taken such action in two years. Until then, the IDF had restricted its retaliatory and preemptive raids to targeting weapons caches, so-called workshops, smuggling tunnels and Hamas militants in the act of launching attacks. The IDF attacked the Hamas base to signal that Israel will hold the Hamas government responsible for what goes on in Gaza and that in allowing a bombing so close to a kindergarten, Hamas had crossed a dangerous red line.

But that didn’t quiet things down.

Last week, Gaza militants fired 24 mortar shells and three Kassam rockets at Israel, and Israel responded with air strikes that killed at least five militants.

Over the past few weeks, the militants also have stepped up ground attacks on Israeli border patrols. The most serious incident for Israel came in early December, when Gaza militants fired a state-of-the-art Kornet missile at an IDF Merkava tank. The Kornet, a lethally accurate and potentially game-changing anti-tank weapon that Hamas added to its arsenal only very recently, penetrated the Israeli tank’s armor but did not explode.

Hamas’ acquisition of Kornet weapons means that Israel will have to rethink its tactics if it launches another major ground incursion into Gaza. For now, tanks patrolling the border have been reinforced with the Israeli-developed “trophy” active protection system, which has the capacity to destroy incoming missiles.

The Hamas position on the escalation is ambivalent. The organization’s political wing says it has no interest in a major clash with Israel right now, but the military wing says it’s poised to resume large-scale rocket attacks.

At a rally in the Gaza city of Khan Yunis to mark the 23rd anniversary of the founding of Hamas — an event that coincided with the second anniversary of the Israel-Hamas war, called Operation Cast Lead — Mahmoud a-Zahar, one of the leaders of Hamas’ political wing, insisted that Hamas was committed to the ceasefire reached in the wake of Cast Lead.

But a day later, at a news conference called by Hamas, masked men from the Izz a-Din al-Qassam Brigades claimed to have new weapons that would surprise the IDF. They warned that they would respond harshly “to any acts of aggression by the occupying Zionist forces against its fighters or against the civilian population of Gaza.”

They also claimed responsibility for some past acts of terror, including the June 2008 attack on the Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav seminary in Jerusalem, in which eight yeshiva students were shot dead by a rampaging gunman. In a separate statement, Ahmed Ja’abari, deputy commander of Hamas’ military wing, declared that Israelis had two choices: death or expulsion.

Israeli analysts attribute the bellicose tone to competition between Hamas and other militias claiming to be doing more in the struggle against Israel. The tough talk is a way of saying that they, too, are fighting “the occupation.” On the other hand, the analysts say, Hamas’ political wing does not want to provoke another war, with all the hardship it would cause the population of Gaza and the threat it would pose to Hamas’ rearmament plans.

The upshot is that the Hamas government has been allowing its military and other smaller militias a slightly freer rein to test how much they can snipe at Israel without provoking a major military response.

Two years on, it seems that the record of the three-week war that began in Gaza on Dec. 27, 2008 achieved mixed results. The main aims of the operation were to restore deterrence, destroy as much of the Hamas terrorist infrastructure as possible, and prevent a renewal of weapons shipments into Gaza.

To a large extent, the operation achieved the first two goals, but the flow of weapons and war materiel into Gaza has continued unabated, perhaps even at an accelerated pace. The failure to stop the arms flow has threatened to undermine the operation’s other achievements. With new weapons and war materiel at its disposal, Hamas has been able to rebuild its military infrastructure and, now, the deterrent effects of Cast Lead appear to be beginning to wear off.

Hamas’ rearmament since the war has been impressive. The IDF believes that aside from the Kornet anti-tank missiles the terrorist group now has, Hamas also has anti-aircraft missiles. In addition, Hamas has more accurate and longer-range rockets — for example, the Iranian Fajr-5, which puts Tel Aviv in range.

Hamas fighters and other militiamen have received training in Iran, Syria, and Lebanon, and from Iranian and Syrian instructors in Gaza. They have also been building Hezbollah-style underground bunkers in Gaza.

The IDF sees two aspects to these developments: On the one hand, Hamas will not want to put all this at risk by provoking Israeli prematurely. The IDF assessment is that Hamas is still very much in the throes of the rearming and rebuilding process. But a future showdown, when Hamas feels it is strong enough, cannot be ruled out.

“Two years after Operation Cast Lead, the situation in the Gaza Strip is different and calmer,” IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi said at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on Sunday. But the situation is still potentially explosive, he said. He warned that Israel would not tolerate the continuation of the kind of rocket and mortar fire its civilians have witnessed over the last few weeks. But he gave no indication that the IDF would go beyond the limited, carefully controlled responses it has made so far.

Clearly, both sides are wary of sparking a major conflagration right now. But things could escalate very rapidly if a Gaza rocket inflicts Israeli casualties, or if an Israeli counterattack were to take a heavy Palestinian toll.

“The IDF,” Ashkenazi said, “is preparing for any scenario.” JTA Wire Service

 
 

Israel missing historic opportunity to support Arab freedom

 

‘The Spider-man syndrome’  (turn off the dark)

 
 
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