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Update from AIJAC

October 2, 2009
Number 10/09 #01


Today’s Update looks at the lay of the land in US, Israel and the Palestinian Authority relations following last week’s photo op between US President Barack Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.

As readers are likely aware, later on Obama delivered a speech at the UN recapitulating the main pillars of his foreign policy agenda. Of the Arab-Israeli conflict he restated elements from his Cairo speech of June 4 including support for a two-state solution that included the Jewish state of Israel but also repeated his insistence that settlements are an obstacle to peace. However, since the Cairo speech, headway has been made between Obama’s insistence on a total settlements freeze and the reality on the ground of how to implement it when hundreds of thousands of people’s everyday lives – Israeli and Palestinian – are involved.

First up, Washington Institute doyen Robert Satloff describes Obama’s Middle East peace process diplomacy as moving from a desire to differentiate his administration from his predecessor’s approach to a more realistic posture of talks without preconditions.

Satloff is particularly critical of the administration’s inclination to set the settlements freeze bar so high that it gave the Palestinians and Arabs no incentive to participate in a peace process and thereby effectively caused a “diplomatic train wreck”. To read this succinct summation of the evolution of the Obama Administration’s Middle East peace process strategy, CLICK HERE.

Next up, Middle East Forum Director Daniel Pipes describes the shift back to reality by the Obama Administration as a substantive victory for Netanyahu. Pipes writes that Obama's policy change represents a victory of the centre-left faction in his administration - which supports working with Israel - over the far-left group which wants Obama to squeeze the Jewish state.For Pipes’ analysis of the changing dynamics in the Obama Administration, CLICK HERE.

Finally, we recommend an electric piece by Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh in which he writes that the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) recent public pronouncements and actions suggests “hypocrisy” has become a central feature of its official policy.

Abu Toameh contends that “during the day” the PA behaves as if it has never signed a peace treaty with Israel but at night Israel is a “friend”. He notes how the PA eagerly provided Israel with intelligence on Hamas’ Gazan assets and personnel during the Gaza war but now wants to see Israeli officials indicted for war crimes.  Abu Toameh explains last Sunday’s violence by Palestinians near Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque as a direct result of incitement by PA officials following President Abbas’ trip to the US. To read about this behaviour by the PA which receives scant attention in the mainstream Western media, CLICK HERE.

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The End of the Beginning

By Robert Satloff

September 28, 2009.

With apologies to Winston Churchill, President Obama may not have presided over the beginning of the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict last week in New York, but he seems finally to have marked the end of an embarrassing beginning to his Middle East diplomacy.

The president and his senior advisors came to office nine months ago eager to say and do what George W. Bush didn’t. In place of regime change, Islamo-fascism, and "you’re either with us or against us," Obama focused instead on behavior change, engagement, and an emphasis on "mutual interests and mutual respect."

Early on, one of the biggest policy shifts came on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Obama said he wanted action from day one, in contrast to the perception—however erroneous--that Bush waited until the Annapolis conference, seven years into his presidency, to throw himself into the hard work of peacemaking. The result was Obama’s appointment, on the first day of his administration, of former senator George Mitchell as Middle East envoy and his own personal commitment to push the process forward.

Mitchell was a sound choice and the president’s sense of urgency was itself inspiring. However, the strategy that he, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Mitchell’s team together adopted to jumpstart a diplomacy with a weak Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and the old-new Likud prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, was anything but.

Under both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, the recipe for peacemaking began with a heavy dose of U.S.-Israel partnership. Because the peace process is, at its core, about asking Israelis to give up the tangible asset of land for the intangible and inherently revocable promise of peace, building Israel’s confidence in the strategic alliance with Washington has long been considered elemental.

The Obama team adopted a different approach. The process itself had gone stale, they surmised, and was in need of new energy. The jolt would come from securing  two huge concessions. First, the White House would win from Israel a public commitment on a total freeze in construction in the "occupied territories"; then, the Administration would leverage that concession to win from Saudi Arabia, arch-guardian of Muslim sensibilities, an agreement to take unprecedented steps toward normalization with Israel.

There was a certain logic to this approach. Bringing Arab states into the process was a wise move; the divided Palestinians almost surely would never make the necessary movements to achieve peace without wider Arab backing. And targeting Jewish settlement activity was certainly meaningful to many Arabs, who saw rising numbers of Israelis in the West Bank as the antithesis of what a peace deal was supposed to promise.
But, remarkably, before the president went to Cairo and declared that "it is time for these settlements to stop" and before the Secretary of State characterized a freeze as "essential," no one in either the White House or Foggy Bottom seems to have asked some obvious questions. What does a freeze actually mean--no expropriation of land? no new settlements? no building in existing settlements? Would such a freeze apply equally to building in Jerusalem, the capital city that Washington does not recognize as such, as in some remote hilltop outpost? And would the eventual expiration of an agreed-upon period of freeze imply Washington’s tacit approval to start building again?

On the political level, the failure to think through the freeze idea was even more damning. Was the freeze really necessary to re-start negotiations, given that Palestinians--from Yasser Arafat on down--have had no compunction negotiating with Israel for the last sixteen years without one? Once Washington went out on a limb and articulated its demand for a total freeze--including, as Clinton said, no "natural growth exceptions"--could the Arabs accept anything less? And wouldn’t Washington’s direct bargaining with Israel over a freeze relieve the Arab side from having to contribute anything to this process?

The result was a diplomatic train-wreck. In June, after Obama and Clinton publicly demanded a freeze--but before the Americans reached a deal with the Israelis – the president flew to Riyadh to ask Saudi King Abdullah to ante up in terms of incremental normalization with Israel. The king reportedly sent the president packing. As the former Saudi ambassador to Washington wrote recently in The New York Times, "For Saudis to take steps toward diplomatic normalization before this land is returned to its rightful owners would undermine international law and turn a blind eye to immorality." Translation: "We aren’t going to pay anything to help you Americans achieve a settlement freeze. You are on your own."

Washington’s fixation on stopping settlement activity did have a powerful echo in at least one Middle East country: Israel. America’s freeze-mania managed to transform Israel’s deep national ambivalence about the wisdom of expanding West Bank settlements into patriotic support for the right of Jews to live in their ancient capital. By giving off vibes that it wanted a freeze even more than the Arabs themselves, and that it wanted to halt building even in Israel’s capital, the administration succeeded in making Netanyahu more popular than when he came to office in March. Obama’s own approval ratings among Israeli voters fell to single digits--and this is before he had shown whether he had the mettle to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the region’s real strategic threat. Getting into a fight with Israel without having anything to show for it from the Arabs was not what the president bargained for.

In New York last week, Obama finally changed course. To the consternation of Abbas, who had been happy to watch the Americans negotiate on his behalf for the past few months, the president announced that restarting peace talks would no longer be contingent on reaching agreement with Israel on a settlement freeze. America wanted the parties to begin negotiations, without preconditions, as soon as possible, he said. And in a move replete with irony, he specifically asked Hillary Clinton--who had articulated the Administration’s most hardline stance on settlements in June--to report back to him in mid-October on progress toward resuming peace talks. Speaking in the Waldorf-Astoria, the President’s words applied as much to him as to the Israeli and Palestinian leaders sitting nearby: "It is time to show the flexibility and common sense and sense of compromise that's necessary to achieve our goals."

This nod to realism is a positive sign. Obama was not the first president to come into office with a policy rooted more in ideological attachment than dispassionate analysis, but, on this topic at least, he shifted gears more quickly than most. Indeed, another line from his Waldorf remarks suggests that he may now be on the right track in terms of the peace process. "I'm committed to pressing ahead in the weeks and months and years to come," he said. Yes, Mr. President, even with the best of intentions, forging peace in the Holy Land is indeed the work of years.

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Netanyahu's Quiet Success

by Daniel Pipes

The Jerusalem Post, September 30, 2009.

Almost unnoticed, Binyamin Netanyahu won a major victory last week when Barack Obama backed down on a signature policy initiative. This about-face suggests that U.S.-Israel relations are no longer headed for the disaster I have been fearing.

Four months ago, the new U.S. administration unveiled a policy that suddenly placed great emphasis on stopping the growth in Israeli "settlements." (A term I dislike but use here for brevity's sake.) Surprisingly, American officials wanted to stop not just residential building for Israelis in the West Bank but also in eastern Jerusalem, a territory legally part of Israel for nearly thirty years.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched the initiative on May 27, announcing that the president of the United States "wants to see a stop to settlements – not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions," adding for good measure, "And we intend to press that point." On June 4, Obama weighed in: "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. … It is time for these settlements to stop." A day later, he reiterated that "settlements are an impediment to peace." On June 17, Clinton repeated: "We want to see a stop to the settlements." And so on, in a relentless beat.

Focusing on settlements had the inadvertent but predictable effect of instantly impeding diplomatic progress. A delighted Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority responded to U.S. demands on Israel by sitting back and declaring that "The Americans are the leaders of the world. … I will wait for Israel to freeze settlements." Never mind that Abbas personally had negotiated with six Israeli prime ministers since 1992, each time without an offer to stop building settlements: why should he now demand less than Obama?

In Israel, Obama's diktat prompted a massive popular swing away from him and toward Netanyahu. Further, Netanyahu's offer of even temporary limitations on settlement growth in the West Bank prompted a rebellion within his Likud Party, led by the up-and-coming Danny Danon.

The geniuses of the Obama administration eventually discerned that this double hardening of positions was dooming their naïve, hubristic plan to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict within two years. The One's reconciliation with reality became public on Sept. 22 at a "summit" he sponsored with Abbas and Netanyahu (really, a glorified photo opportunity). Obama threw in the towel there, boasting that "we have made progress" toward settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and offering as one indication that Israelis "have discussed important steps to restrain settlement activity."

Those eight words of muted praise for Netanyahu's minimal concessions have major implications:

    * Settlements no longer dominate U.S.-Israel relations but have reverted back to their usual irritating but secondary role.
    * Abbas, who keeps insisting on a settlement freeze as though nothing has changed, suddenly finds himself the odd man out in the triangle.
    * The center-left faction of the Obama administration (which argues for working with Jerusalem), as my colleague Steven J. Rosen notes, has defeated the far-left faction (which wants to squeeze the Jewish state).

Ironically, Obama supporters have generally recognized his failure while critics have tended to miss it. A Washington Post editorial referred to the Obama administration's "miscalculations" and Jonathan Freedland, a Guardian columnist, noted that "Obama's friends worry that he has lost face in a region where face matters."

In contrast, Obama critics focused on his announcing, just one day after the mock summit, that "America does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements" – a formulaic reiteration of long-established policy that in no way undoes the concession on settlements. Some of those I admire most missed the good news: John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, stated that Obama "put Israel on the chopping block," while critics within the Likud Party accused Netanyahu of having "prematurely celebrated" an American policy shift. Not so. Policy winds can always change, but last week's capitulation to reality has the hallmarks of a lasting course correction.

I have repeatedly expressed deep worries about Obama's policy versus Israel, so when good news does occur (and this is the second time of late), it deserves recognition and celebration. Hats off to Bibi – may he have further successes in nudging U.S. policy onto the right track.

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PA's conflicting approaches as different as night and day

By Khaled Abu Toameh

The Jerusalem Post, Oct. 2, 2009.

The Palestinian Authority's actions and rhetoric, especially in the past few weeks and months, show that hypocrisy has become a major component of its official policy.

One sometimes wonders whether the PA that speaks and acts during the day is the same PA that speaks and functions during the night.

During the day, the Palestinian Authority acts and speaks as if its leaders had never signed a peace treaty with Israel. During the day, Israel is the enemy that continues to deny the Palestinians their rights, seize their lands, arrest and kill their innocents, and expand existing settlements.

But during the night, the Palestinian Authority changes its colors and speaks and acts in a completely different manner. During the night, the Israeli enemy becomes a friend and peace partner with whom it's legitimate to conduct security coordination and eat in fancy restaurants.

During Operation Cast Lead, Palestinian security officers in the West Bank provided Israel with valuable intelligence that contributed to the elimination of many Hamas operatives and "military targets." Moreover, the PA even pressured Israel not to stop the war unless Hamas was removed from power. In other words, the Palestinian Authority was telling Israel that it should continue bombing the Gaza Strip until Hamas surrendered.

Palestinian officials, including some of Mahmoud Abbas's top aides, did not hide their disappointment when the war ended without the removal or collapse of Hamas.

As soon as the war ended, the same Palestinian Authority that had urged Israel to "finish off the job," and that had provided Israel with vital information about Hamas figures and installations in the Gaza Strip, started accusing Israel of committing "war crimes." The PA even appealed to The Hague court to launch an investigation into the alleged war crimes.

The Palestinian Minister of Justice, Ali Khashan, was dispatched to The Hague to follow up on the issue with the court's chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo.

Now the PA, which is holding some 1,000 Hamas "supporters" in its prisons without trial, is urging the UN Human Rights Council to adopt the Goldstone Commission Report in full and to pass it on to the General Assembly for action.

The PA's "generals" and "colonels" hold daily meetings with their Israeli counterparts to discuss security-related issues. Unlike ordinary Palestinians, senior Palestinian officials can travel to Israel and anywhere they want thanks to VIP cards and other privileges they receive from the Israeli Defense Ministry.

During the night, Palestinian security officials hold secret meetings with their Israeli counterparts. But during the day, the Palestinian Authority is demanding that the same Israeli officials be tried as war criminals. Some of these "war criminals," by the way, are responsible for the fact that the senior PA leaders and their families are able to receive free medical treatment in Israel - a privilege that most Palestinians can only dream about.

This hypocrisy is also evident in the PA's approach toward normalization with Israel and the status of the Aksa Mosque in Jerusalem.

On the one hand, the Palestinian Authority is publicly combating normalization, exactly as Israel's two other Arab peace partners, Egypt and Jordan, are doing. However, this anti-normalization drive obviously does not apply to the leaders of the PA and their sons, who continue to do business with Israel both openly and secretly. This, in addition to regular meetings that take place - away from the spotlight - between Palestinian government officials, businessmen, journalists and physicians and their Israeli counterparts.

These days the PA is leading a fierce campaign against what it calls Israel's efforts to destroy the Aksa Mosque. This campaign intensified immediately after the failed tripartite summit in New York on September 22 that brought Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas together with US President Barack Obama.

Abbas went to the meeting against his will and after he had spent the last few months promising the Palestinians that he would not meet with Netanyahu or resume the peace talks until Israel halted construction in the settlements. Abbas was dragged to the summit under immense pressure from the Obama administration.

Now that his pride has been hurt and his credibility shattered in the eyes of his constituents, Abbas has stepped up the verbal assault on Israel. Palestinian spokesmen and Abbas advisers have been exploiting every available platform to tell millions of Arabs and Muslims that the Jews are destroying Islam's third holiest site. Earlier this week, this campaign resulted in an outburst of violence in Jerusalem - the worst in years.

Israeli government officials have been working hard to explain to their Palestinian counterparts that there is no such thing as an Israeli "conspiracy" to destroy the mosque. Although many Palestinian officials and spokesmen have privately and quietly accepted the Israeli version, they nevertheless continue to shout that the mosque is on the verge of collapse.

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