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In response to vague talks, Jewish groups deliver vague message

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about the U.S. role?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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.

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.



Will talks be about appearance or substance?

WASHINGTON – It’s a peace conference where nothing is off the table — or on it, for that matter.

The Obama administration’s invitation to Palestinian and Israeli leaders to launch direct talks on Sept. 2 attempts to reconcile Israeli demands for no preconditions with Palestinian demands that the talks address all the core issues: final borders, the fate of Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

News Analysis

The administration does this by calling on the sides to “resolve final-status issues” without saying when and how these issues should come up, if at all.

The vagueness of the invitation issued last Friday underscored the distance between the two sides, as well as the immediate political and regional pressures that have lit a fire under U.S. efforts to restart the peace process. Whether or not the peace talks will be able to move from vague outlines to concrete resolutions remains to be seen. For now, merely having direct talks is an achievement, particularly for the United States and Israel.

For the United States, having the talks gives Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a reason to continue a partial settlement moratorium, thereby sustaining Arab support for U.S. policies. This support is seen as important as Washington attempts to juggle emerging crises in the region, including Iraq’s vexed attempts to set up a government and Iran’s accelerating nuclear ambitions. President Obama also wants a process under way before November, when his Democratic Party is likely to face a tough battle at the ballot boxes during midterm congressional elections.

For Netanyahu, the talks are a way to demonstrate that his government is interested in pursuing peace with the Palestinians.

Among the Palestinian leadership, however, there are deep concerns that Washington and Jerusalem are more interested in the appearance of talks than in getting down to the nitty-gritty of the final-status issues. Israel has resisted Palestinian demands to discuss final-status issues and opposes any deadline for a resolution.

The discrepancies between the two sides were evident in the delicate way U.S. officials tried to treat the issue of preconditions to the talks.

“Only the parties can determine terms of reference and basis for negotiations, and they will do so when they meet and discuss these matters,” George Mitchell, the top U.S. envoy to the region, said in the news conference announcing the invitations. “As you know, both we and the Quartet have previously said that the negotiations should be without preconditions.” The Quartet is the grouping that guides the Middle East peace process: the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations.

Yet in launching the news conference, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seemed to say that both of the elements Israel is resisting indeed would be on the table: Final-status issues and a deadline.

“On behalf of the United States government, I’ve invited Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Abbas to meet on Sept. 2 in Washington, D.C. to re-launch direct negotiations to resolve all final-status issues, which we believe can be completed within one year,” Clinton said.

Was that a deadline, a reporter asked Mitchell? Not quite, he said, adding. “We believe it can be done within a year and that is our objective.”

Then there is the matter of U.S. involvement. Mitchell insisted that the talks would be bilateral, ostensibly diminishing the U.S. role. He said the United States was ready to offer “bridging proposals” — the formulations that negotiating sides request from a moderator when talks hit a snag. But the way he put it suggested that the United States might offer such proposals even if the sides do not request them.

“This is a direct bilateral negotiation with the active and sustained support of the United States,” he said. “And we will make bridging proposals at such time as we deem necessary and appropriate.” The determined, active voice he used was not unintentional: Mitchell later repeated the phrase.

The Palestinians have been pressing for a more active U.S. role, saying that it would help balance Israel’s stronger hand as an established state with a powerful military. Israel would rather deal directly with the Palestinians, preferring not to countenance an active U.S. role that conceivably could exacerbate already delicate Israeli relations with the United States.

Not surprisingly, then, the statement from Netanyahu’s office welcoming the renewed talks — which came immediately after the announcement — did not mention final-status issues, deadlines, or U.S. intervention.

“The prime minister has been calling for direct negotiations for the past year and a half,” the statement said. “He was pleased with the American clarification that the talks would be without preconditions.”

The Palestinian Authority’s response to the announcement of the talks was less than enthusiastic. It took till the end of last Friday for them to welcome the invitation to talks, and Palestinian leaders later warned that if Israel’s 10-month settlement freeze is allowed to expire in late September, the talks are off.

Netanyahu’s statement did not say what he intends to do about the freeze. Israeli officials reportedly have told their U.S. counterparts that Netanyahu would not be able to sustain the moratorium on settlement-building without the cover of peace talks. Similarly, the Arab League, which this summer provided much needed cover to Mahmoud Abbas in approving the peace talks, needs the negotiations as cover to maintain its support of the United States.

Both Mitchell and the Quartet made it clear that they expected the settlement moratorium to be extended.

“Our position on settlements is well-known and remains unchanged,” Mitchell said. “We’ve always made clear that the parties should promote an environment that is conducive to negotiations.”



U.S. backs biweekly Mideast summits

WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is backing a proposal by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meet every two weeks during peace talks.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu has stated privately and publicly that he hopes to meet with President Abbas every two weeks,” George Mitchell, the senior administration official brokering talks, said in a briefing Tuesday, two days before the formal start of direct talks. “We think that is a sensible approach.”

Abbas has not yet said whether he will commit to such intensive talks. Netanyahu and Abbas were scheduled to meet on Thursday for their first direct meeting brokered by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, which is set to last three hours.

The sides have yet to set the parameters for talks; U.S. officials were in intensive efforts Tuesday to peg them down by Thursday.

“We want to see not just a successful process going forward but an understanding that we will be going forward,” P.J. Crowley, the State Department spokesman, said in a separate briefing.

Mitchell said the United States planned to be “actively involved” in the process but would not be present at every meeting.

“The United States will play an active and sustained role in the process,” he said. “That does not mean that the United States must be physically represented in every single meeting.”

U.S. officials said they would insist that Netanyahu address settlements during the meetings and consider extending the 10-month partial moratorium he imposed on settlement expansion that lapses Sept. 26.

Abbas has said he will walk out if Netanyahu does not sustain the moratorium. Netanyahu is under pressure from hard-liners in his cabinet to restart building.

In his briefing, Mitchell held out the possibility that Hamas, the terrorist group that controls the Gaza Strip and sees Abbas’ government as illegitimate, might yet join the talks.

“We do not expect Hamas to play a role in this immediate process, but as Secretary of State Clinton and I have said publicly many times in the Middle East and the United States, we welcome the full participation by Hamas and all relevant parties once they comply with the basic requirements of democracy and nonviolence that are a prerequisite,” he said.

Mitchell, who successfully steered Northern Ireland talks in the 1990s, noted that talks were under way for 15 months before Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army’s political arm, reversed policy and agreed to similar terms.

A Hamas leader, however, insisted that violence was the only path forward for the Palestinians.

“As a Palestinian leader, I tell my people that the Palestinian state and Palestinian rights will not be accomplished through this peace process,” Khaled Meshaal, who is based in Damascus, told a Huffington Post blogger in an interview. “But it will be accomplished by force, and it will be accomplished by resistance.”

Meshaal confirmed that his officials have been in indirect talks with American officials.

“We know very well that some non-U.S. officials we meet with report to the administration,” he said. “We are interested in meeting with the Americans and the West, but we do not beg for these meetings and we are not in a hurry.”



The peace talks — and their obstacles

Ron KampeasWorld
Published: 10 September 2010
President Obama holds a working dinner at the White House Sept. 1 with, clockwise from left, King Abdullah II of Jordan, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Quartet envoy Tony Blair, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. White House/Pete Souza

WASHINGTON – Peace in a year? Try getting past Sept. 26. Or is it 30?

Direct talks between Palestinians and Israelis have barely begun and already the sides are facing their first major hurdle — the end of Israel’s partial moratorium on settlement-building.

Several issues might beset the sides as they aim to meet the yearlong deadline suggested by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and endorsed (with considerable enthusiasm) by President Obama and (with less enthusiasm) by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

News Analysis

The hard questions — the status of Palestinian refugees and the sharing of Jerusalem — promise to vex the negotiators, as they have for years. Even before that point, however, a number of issues already are creating anxieties among negotiators in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Washington.

That moratorium: Netanyahu placed a partial moratorium on settlement-building to entice Abbas to the negotiating table. It lapses Sept. 26 — although not effectively until Sept. 30 because of the Sukkot holiday — and Netanyahu has said he will not renew it. Abbas says he will not be able to continue talks without it.

U.S. officials are pressing the sides to come up with a way out before the next meeting of the leaders, on Sept. 14 in Egypt. Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, has spoken of “incentivizing” the Palestinians with other gestures.

Oren did not elaborate, but Netanyahu has made a point of talking up economic incentives for the Palestinians, including increased commerce by reducing regulations and pulling away roadblocks.

Another way out would be for both sides to avoid questions about the deadline as it approaches and for the moratorium to continue, unofficially, without comment from either the Israelis or Palestinians. Most Israelis living within Israel’s pre-1967 borders — the area known as the Green Line — wouldn’t notice whether or not building was continuing in settlements, but the impact would be immediately noticeable to Palestinians.

Supporters of the settlement movement, however, say the current restrictions create burdens for the 300,000 Israeli Jews living in the west bank. The settler community has vowed to protest unless settlement building returns to 2008 levels.

That deadline: Netanyahu wants an agreement within a year, and before that an interim agreement outlining the parameters of a final status deal. He has made clear, however, in private conversations with U.S. officials that the agreement will be on paper until the Israeli leader is sure that he can secure his country’s borders — in other words, Israelis are saying nothing goes into effect for five, perhaps 10 years.

The Israeli expectation is that Abbas will be able to sell the Palestinian public a peace deal based on clearly detailed outlines of what they will get down the line — sort of like showing 10-year-old Junior the catalogue photo of the BB rifle he’ll get for his 15th birthday.

Abbas wants more tangible results, and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, has suggested that a state could be in place by 2011. Fayyad later qualified this to say that he was referring to the infrastructure of a state, much the way that the Zionist movement had the instruments of statehood ready to go for years before Israel’s founding in 1948.

Abbas and the Palestinian Authority are seeking a patina of inevitability to fend off a challenge to their legitimacy by the Hamas terrorist group, which routed them from the Gaza Strip in 2007 and poses a challenge to them in the west bank. What remains to be seen is whether state institutions — short of statehood — grants them that inevitability.

That border: Netanyahu wants a demilitarized Palestinian state, which the Palestinians effectively conceded in the 1990s. But like his predecessors, he also wants a long-term, if not permanent, presence in the Jordan Valley, along the border with Jordan, to contain the threat from the east that for generations has exercised Israelis.

The Palestinians (and the Jordanians) counter, what threat from the east? The prospect of having to secure Israel’s longest border once may have been a concern, in terms of its drain on Israel’s military, but there is a peace treaty with Jordan and the United States has neutralized Iraq. And for the Palestinians, the point of the peace is to rid themselves of any continued notion of Israeli military occupation.

Iraq may be neutralized for now, the Israelis counter, but the region is inherently unstable and Iran is sinking its claws into Iraq.

That territory: So within a year there is peace with the Palestinian Authority and mutual recognition, an end to all claims.

Well, except for Gaza, which is ruled by Hamas, which does not recognize Israel or any prospects for peace — and barely recognizes Abbas.

What does peace mean without the territory Israel referred to between 1949 and 1967 as a “dagger aimed at Tel Aviv” and the acquiescence of its 1.3 million Palestinians?

Just pretend and hope, Oren says.

“We are negotiating, we, the United States, and the Palestinians are all three of us negotiating — throw the Egyptians and the Jordanians in there for good measure, too — as if the west bank and Gaza are together when in fact we know they’re not,” the envoy said recently. “The assumption is, if we cut a deal with the PA, and someday the people of Gaza throw off the Hamas yoke, they’ll join the peace arrangement.”

That word: Netanyahu has made clear he wants the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and in this he has the Obama administration’s backing. The Israeli prime minister did not invent this formulation — Tzipi Livni introduced it in 2006 when she was foreign minister.

The rationale was that the PLO’s absolute recognition of Israel — extracted in excruciating negotiations by Netanyahu during his previous prime ministry, in 1998 — added up to not much. In the 2000 Camp David talks, the Palestinians insisted on a Palestinian right of return, which Israel believed added up to a peaceful plan for removing the Jewish state. The Palestinians also denied any Jewish claim to Jerusalem.

That was followed by the bloodshed of the second intifada, and for Israelis the failure to accept the Jews as a natural presence in the region became inextricably linked to the trauma of those years. The algebra was simple: Failure to recognize the Jewish claim equals anti-Jewish incitement equals violence.

Netanyahu has said that demilitarization and recognition of the Jewish claim are the keys to reaching a true peace deal.

The Palestinian Authority rejects this analysis. Its reasons for avoiding the Jewish claim is the responsibility that the Palestinian leadership feels for the 20 percent of Israelis who are Arab — it does not want to cut them out of their rights, although Netanyahu has said they will always be upheld.

There is also the sense among Palestinians that they have ceded enough by settling for “only” the west bank and Gaza, 22 percent of British Mandate Palestine.

Nonetheless, there have been signs in recent months of movement here: In a meeting with U.S. Jewish leaders in June, Abbas recognized the ancient Jewish history in the area.

When Palestinian diaspora intellectuals challenged this as capitulation last month, the PA mission in Washington pushed back not by parsing Abbas’ statement, but by repeating it and saying that it did not undermine the Palestinian claim.


President Obama holds a working dinner at the White House Sept. 1 with, clockwise from left, King Abdullah II of Jordan, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Quartet envoy Tony Blair, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. White House/Pete Souza

Meeting again with Jewish leaders, Abbas broaches substance

WASHINGTON – For Mahmoud Abbas and U.S. Jewish leaders, their second date featured a little more substance and a little less flirtation. And this time the Palestinian Authority president brought a wing man.

Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, met separately Tuesday evening with Jewish leaders in New York — a sign of understanding on the Palestinian side of the importance of Jewish sensibilities, in Israel and the diaspora, to advancing the peace process.

News Analysis

At the meeting, Abbas seemed ready to move forward on some substantive issues, which took place during the launch of the U.N. General Assembly session.

In the first meeting, in June, Abbas frustrated Jewish leaders by dodging issues of substance — returning to direct talks and incitement — but set a tone unprecedented in Palestinian-Jewish relations by recognizing a Jewish historical presence in the land of Israel.

When a group of Palestinian intellectuals challenged Abbas on the issue a month later, instead of backtracking — typical of the one step forward, two steps back peace process tradition — his envoy in Washington, Ma’en Areikat, repeated and reaffirmed the comments.

In the interim, direct talks have been launched.

“I would like for us to engage in a dialogue where we listen to each other and where I can respond to your questions because I trust we have one mutual objective — to achieve peace,” Abbas said at Tuesday’s meeting, according to notes provided by the Center for Middle East Peace.

The center, a dovish group founded by diet magnate Daniel Abraham, sponsored the Abbas meeting, as it did in June. The Fayyad meeting was sponsored by The Israel Project, which tracks support for Israel in the United States and throughout the world.

Making his clearest statement to date on the matter, Abbas said he would not walk away from negotiations should Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fail to extend a partial 10-month moratorium on settlement building set to lapse next week. The PA leader suggested that a way out might be if Netanyahu does not make a public issue of the end of the moratorium.

“I cannot say I will leave the negotiations, but it’s very difficult for me to resume talks if Prime Minister Netanyahu declares that he will continue his activity in the west bank and Jerusalem,” Abbas said.

Netanyahu is under pressure from the settlement movement not only to end the moratorium, but to resume building at levels unprecedented in his prime ministership. The Israeli leader also is heedful, however, of Obama administration demands that the parties not go out of their way to outrage each other.

Among the Jewish leaders at the Abbas meeting were Malcolm Hoenlein and Alan Solow, the executive vice chairman and chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director; and leaders of umbrella groups such as the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Jewish Federations of North America.

Also on hand were Clinton administration foreign policy mavens such as Sandy Berger, Madeleine Albright, and Daniel Kurtzer, who maintain close ties with Obama’s foreign policy team.

Abbas also showed that he was attempting to bridge a gap on what until now seemed an intractable issue.

The Palestinians have long accepted the inevitability of a demilitarized state, but they reject a continued Israeli military presence. Netanyahu told Jewish leaders in a conference call Monday that he would trust no one but Israeli troops to preserve Israel’s security on the west bank’s eastern border. At the meeting, Abbas floated the idea of a non-Israeli force that would include Jewish soldiers.

On other issues, Abbas was less prepared to come forward.

Israel wants a clear commitment from the Palestinians that any discussion of the refugee issue would preclude a flooding of Israel with descendants of refugees of the 1948 war, which Israelis say is a recipe for the peaceful eradication of Israel. Behind closed doors, the Palestinians have said they are ready to provide Israel the assurances it needs, but Abbas said at the meeting only that it is a final-status issue.

Another issue could yet scuttle the talks now that the parties seem ready to put the settlement moratorium behind them.

Netanyahu, having extracted what seems to be an irreversible Palestinian recognition of Israel during his previous turn in the job, in 1998, now wants the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state — a result of the emergence of movements that seek to strip Israel of its Jewish character.

Abbas has resisted, in part because he sees such recognition as cutting off the 20 percent of Israel that is Arab, but also because he seems baffled by the demand. He argues that states are free to define themselves and should not need the approbation of others.

“If the Israeli people want to name themselves whatever they want, they are free to do so,” the PA president said.

In a sign that he also was seeking conciliation on the matter, Abbas said at the meeting that he would accept the designation if it were approved by the Knesset. He repeated his recognition of Israel’s Jewish roots and decried Holocaust denial.

It was not far enough for some of his interlocutors.

Stephen Savitzky, the president of the Orthodox Union, wanted Abbas to recognize not only Jewish ties to the land but with the Temple Mount, the site of the third holiest mosque in Islam.

“President Abbas missed an opportunity this evening to make a key statement that would have created good will in the Jewish community,” Savitzky said in a statement.

Fayyad, less charismatic but deemed more trustworthy than Abbas by the pro-Israel intelligentsia, appeared to fare well in the dinner hosted by The Israel Project, which hews to the centrist-right pro-Israel line of much of the U.S. Jewish establishment. He scored points for admitting that the Palestinian Authority had not done enough to combat incitement.

“Prime Minister Fayyad’s spirit of hope was extremely welcome,” said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, a founder of The Israel Project.

“We know that some people will criticize us for falling for a Palestinian ‘charm offensive.’ However, there is nothing offensive about charm. More Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians, should sit together over dinner and exchange ideas — especially when it can help lead to security and peace.”



Israel, a fall guy unto the nations?


Republican challenger questions Pascrell’s support of Israel

Josh LipowskyLocal | World
Published: 01 October 2010

Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. has not been a real friend to Israel, said Roland Straten, the Republican challenging Pascrell in the eighth district.

“Israel is one of our few friends in the Middle East and we need to support Israel 100 percent, and I don’t think we are supporting Israel 100 percent,” Straten said.

This is the second run for Pascrell’s seat for Straten, a retired businessman from Montclair, who lost to the seven-time representative in 2008.

Straten directed The Jewish Standard to his foreign policy adviser, West Orange resident Mark Meyerowitz, who blasted Pascrell for signing a letter earlier this year with 53 other Democratic members of the House urging Israel to loosen its blockade of Gaza.

Eighth district Republican challenger Roland Straten is attacking Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr.’s record on Israel.

“Pascrell knows that Hamas is a terrorist group,” Meyerowitz said. “He should know that. Those 53 other Democrats should know Hamas is a terrorist group, so if they’re going to condemn anybody it should be these people using Gazans as human shields.”

Meyerowitz pointed to a 2004 appearance at a community brunch sponsored by 11 Muslim organizations, including, reportedly, a mosque with connections to Hamas, and to a 2007 report by The Washington Times that Pascrell reserved a Capitol conference room for the Council on American Islamic Relations, an organization that has come under fire for ties to extremist groups.

Pascrell, Meyerowitz said, has taken the Jewish vote for granted.

“When he speaks to Jewish groups he’s very, very pro-Israel,” Meyerowitz said, “but when he gets back to the northern part of the district, to the Paterson part of the district, it’s an a different story. He’s been playing both sides against the middle.”

Reached on his way to Washington on Tuesday, Pascrell defended his voting record on Israel, saying that he has never missed a vote involving the country or “backed off my obligation.”

Pascrell was one of 338 members of Congress who signed a letter to President Obama in June supporting Israel’s actions in the flotilla incident, when a Turkish convoy attempted to break the Gaza blockade. Nine activists were killed after they attacked Israeli soldiers boarding the ship.

“I asked for a fair, objective analysis of what happened,” Pascrell said. “I said in the letter to the president that Israel has every, every right to defend itself. Those folks who were with the flotilla were up to no good.”

Noting that he has strong friendships in the Jewish and Arab communities, Pascrell rejected accusations that he has one position on Israel for Jewish audiences and another for Arab audiences.

“I supported the ability of Israel to defend itself against the terrorists of Hamas and any other organization,” he said. “To use race or ethnicity, and to use religion in a campaign is the most despicable act I can think of.”


Congressional letter to President Obama on Jonathan Pollard

Josh LipowskyLocal | World
Published: 01 October 2010

September 22, 2010

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, D.C. 20500

Dear Mr. President,

We write to urge you to use your constitutional power to extend clemency to Jonathan Pollard, thereby releasing him from prison after the time he has already served. As you know, such an exercise of the clemency power does not in any way imply doubt about his guilt, nor cast any aspersions on the process by which he was convicted. Those who have such views are of course entitled to continue to have them, but the clemency grant has nothing to do with that.

We believe that there has been a great disparity from the standpoint of justice between the amount of time Mr. Pollard has served and the time that has been served – or not served at all – by many others who were found guilty of similar activity on behalf of nations adversarial to us, unlike Israel.

Recently, we allowed a large number of Russians, who had been spying on us for the country that had long been our major adversary, to leave with no punishment whatsoever. This makes it very hard for many to understand why Mr. Pollard should continue to serve beyond the nearly twenty-five years he has already been in prison. We agree that it is important that we establish the principle that espionage of any sort is impermissible, but it is indisputable in our view that the nearly twenty-five years that Mr. Pollard has served stands as a sufficient time from the standpoint of either punishment or deterrence.

We further believe that at a time when Israel, our democratic ally, is being faced with difficult decisions, a decision by you to grant clemency would not only be a humane act regarding Mr. Pollard, but it would also be taken in Israel as a further affirmation of the strong commitment the U.S. has to the ties between us, and we believe that such an affirmation could be especially useful at a time when those decisions are being made.

In summary, we see clemency for Mr. Pollard as an act of compassion justified by the way others have been treated by our justice system; as an act that will do nothing whatsoever to lessen our defenses against espionage; and a step that far from hurting the national security, could advance it by the impact it would have within Israel. We urge you to use the clemency power in this case.

Barney Frank
Member of Congress

Bill Pascrell, Jr.
Member of Congress

Edolphus Towns
Member of Congress

Anthony D. Weiner
Member of Congress


Week for mockeries at the United Nations

An effigy of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad occupies center stage at a protest outside the United Nations on Sept. 23. Courtesy Iran180

NEW YORK – During last week’s gathering of world leaders for the annual opening of the U.N. General Assembly, some of the proceedings inside were nearly as farcical as the proceedings outside.

In one Jewish-organized protest on the street near the United Nations, activists wearing rainbow-colored wigs, mini-skirts, and pom-poms danced around a man wearing a massive effigy of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s head and clad in a nuclear suit and chains. Behind him stood an activist in a Hawaiian shirt wearing an Obama mask on his head, a rubber octopus on his hand, and carrying a sign that read, “No Nukes for Iran.”

It was all part of a mock trial of the Iranian leader organized by a group called Iran180.

Inside the U.N. plenum, Ahmadinejad by many accounts was making a mockery of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The United States arranged the 9/11 attacks “to save the Zionist regime,” Ahmadinejad declared in his Sept. 23 address. Suggesting that U.S. officials at the highest levels were complicit in the attacks, he called on the United Nations to establish “an independent fact-finding group” to investigate.

The U.S. delegation walked out of Ahmadinejad’s speech, as did all 27 European Union delegations, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Costa Rica.

As is his custom, the Iranian president also used his annual speech at the General Assembly to lash out against Israel.

“This regime,” he said of Israel, “which enjoys the absolute support of some Western countries, regularly threatens the countries in the region and continues publicly announced assassinations of Palestinian figures and others, while Palestinian defenders are labeled as terrorists and anti-Semites. All values, even the freedom of expression in Europe and the United States, are being sacrificed at the altar of Zionism.”

It wasn’t the only attack Israel faced last week at the United Nations.

A day earlier, the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council issued its report on the May 31 flotilla incident in which Israeli soldiers killed nine Turkish activists in a confrontation aboard a Gaza-bound flotilla.

The report called the actions by Israeli naval commandos “disproportionate and brutal,” saying they “demonstrated levels of totally unnecessary and incredible violence” and calling for “prosecution against Israel for willful killing and torture.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the report “biased and distorted.” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called it “extremely fair and based on solid evidence. We appreciate that. It meets our expectations.”

A separate inquiry by the United Nations commissioned by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is ongoing.

At U.N. headquarters in New York, Israeli representatives did not respond to Ahmadinejad’s tirade because the speech took place on the Sukkot holiday and Israel’s U.N. delegation was absent.

President Obama made the case for Israel in his own speech to the U.N. General Assembly, which preceded Ahmadinejad’s.

“After 60 years in the community of nations, Israel’s existence must not be a subject for debate,” Obama said. “Israel is a sovereign state and the historic homeland of the Jewish people. It should be clear to all that efforts to chip away at Israel’s legitimacy will only be met by the unshakable opposition of the United States.”

The U.S. president also called on the world community to back Israeli-Palestinian peace with deeds and not just words.

“Those who long to see an independent Palestine rise must stop trying to tear Israel down,” Obama said.

“Many in this hall count themselves as friends of the Palestinians, but these pledges must now be supported by deeds,” he said.

“Those who have signed on to the Arab peace initiative should seize this opportunity to make it real by taking tangible steps toward the normalization that it promises Israel,” he said, referring to the 2003 Saudi-sponsored plan that offered Israel comprehensive peace in return for its withdrawal to pre-1967 borders.

Following Ahmadinejad’s remarks several hours later, the U.S. mission to the United Nations issued a statement that “Rather than representing the aspirations and good will of the Iranian people, Mr. Ahmadinejad has yet again chosen to spout vile conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic slurs that are as abhorrent and delusional as they are predictable.”


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