Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

After Hillary Clinton's Middle East visit/ Abbas threatens to step down

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Update from AIJAC

November 6, 2009
Number 11/09 #02


This Update features two pieces on the state of the Middle East peace process in the wake of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to the region - where she praised Israel's offer to suspend all new building in West Bank settlements for a year as "unprecedented", but was subsequently criticised by Arab leaders.

First up is an analysis piece from Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post, who says the visit does appear to represent an admission by the US Administration that its approach to Israeli-Palestinian peace-making was not really working and required new tactics. He then cites a number of experts who say that the Administration's own mistakes have contributed to the current impasse - particularly the demand for an unequivocal total Israeli freeze on all building in settlements and East Jerusalem. For this look at what various experts and participants are saying about where US peacemaking efforts are at the moment, CLICK HERE. Another report of American officials saying that it appears American peacemaking efforts have reached an "impasse" for now is here. Some additional analysis of where things stand between the Americans, Israelis and Palestinians comes from popular Israeli columnist Yoel Marcus and American editor and commentator Jonathan Tobin

Next up, the always insightful Barry Rubin offers his opinion on the mistakes he believes the American Administration made - principally in its fundamental understanding of the ways things work in the Middle East. He points out that in essence, the Americans got something out of the Israelis, an almost complete settlement building freeze, for nothing from the other side, but are still getting pilloried for not getting even more. He says that "the Arab dictatorships that need the conflict to stay in power; the Palestinian leadership that still believes in total victory; the Islamist oppositions that want to use the conflict to prove their enemies to be Western puppets and to use the Palestinian issue to seize state power" will now blame the US President for selling them out, and this should be a lesson in how the real Middle East works. For his full argument, CLICK HERE. Rubin has two other posts on the Clinton visit - one on her pronoucements while in Israel and a second dealing with an Egyptian attempt to seize on and distort one of her statements. In the article below,  Rubin mentions pieces in an official PA newspaper accusing Hillary Clinton of being a "liar" in the pay of "Zionists" - more on this is here and here.

Finally, Jerusalem Post Arab Affairs reporter Khaled Abu Toameh reports on the announcement in a speech yesterday by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that he has "no desire" to run for the presidency again in the election scheduled for January. Abu Toameh reports that Palestinian officials have made it clear that the threat is not final and is intended to be a protest over the failure of the US to force Israel to agree to a total and complete settlement freeze. He also explored the reactions within Fatah, by Hamas, by Israel and the US. For this full report, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, Zvi Barel of Haaretz recalls that similar threats to resign are hardly anything new, either in Arab politics in general, or by Abbas himself. Also, Ali Waked of Yediot Ahronot, while also sceptical of Abbas's pronouncement that he will not run, looks at the alternatives for Fatah if he does not.

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Administration missteps hamper Mideast efforts

By Glenn Kessler

Washington Post, Thursday, November 5, 2009

President Obama came into office insisting that his administration would press hard and fast to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But after nine months, analysts and diplomats say, the administration's efforts have faltered in part because of its own missteps.

As Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made clear during her Middle East trip, which ended Wednesday, U.S. officials are now promoting new tactics -- what they called the "baby steps" of lower-level talks -- to bring the Israeli and Palestinian leaders together for direct talks.

But the dynamics have changed since Obama named a special envoy to the region on his second day in office and tried to make a fresh start. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, whom the administration once would have been happy to see undermined, has been strengthened -- while Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whom the administration had hoped to bolster, has been weakened.

"There was an excess of zeal at first," said Edward S. Walker Jr., who was assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs in the Clinton administration. "It is a noble endeavor to try to hammer out peace. But you have to look at the relationships. You have to read the players. They got out in front of studying the problem and were anxious to show progress."

Daniel Levy, a veteran Israeli peace negotiator now at the Century Foundation in Washington, summed up the administration's efforts in recent days as "amateur night at the Apollo Theater." He said the administration did not game out the consequences of its demands on the parties -- and then flinched. "They just dug deeper and deeper their own grave," he said. "All of this talk of negotiations doesn't cut the mustard in the region."

To be sure, Mideast diplomacy is always difficult; it is especially so when the Israeli government leans to the right and the Palestinian government is deeply split between a secular party in the West Bank and an Islamist movement in the Gaza Strip. A solution to end the conflict has eluded U.S. administrations for decades -- and President George W. Bush was heavily criticized for largely ignoring the problem until his final months in office.

Ghaith al-Omari, a former Abbas aide who is advocacy director for the American Task Force on Palestine, said, "The situation is so complicated that no matter what approach the administration would have taken would have led to difficulties." He said that things have improved in the past nine months, including getting a reluctant Israeli government to embrace the idea of talks. Negotiations will begin eventually, he said, because the Obama administration has signaled that it will not waver in pursuit of direct talks.

U.S. officials also insist that much progress has been made behind the scenes and that the administration remains undaunted in the face of current obstacles.

"I am not someone who is in any way affected by difficulty, who is living in a world apart from the real world in which we inhabit, where it takes just an enormous amount of effort to get to where we are headed," Clinton said in Cairo. "The two-state solution is one of the most difficult."

The administration's key error, many analysts say, was to insist that Israel immediately freeze all settlement growth in Palestinian-occupied territories. The United States has never accepted the legitimacy of Israeli settlements, but the Obama administration took an unusually tough stance. It refused to acknowledge an unwritten agreement between Israel and Bush to limit growth in settlements, with Clinton leading the charge to demand a full settlement freeze.

U.S. officials say that in the wake of the war in the Gaza Strip in the winter, they wanted to send a signal of toughness and push both sides to take positive steps to build an atmosphere for talks. By that measure, there has been some progress: Israelis and Palestinians have been deep in conversations trying to set the parameters for negotiations.

But Abbas, emboldened by the U.S. rhetoric, announced that he would not begin negotiations until settlements were frozen. Facing Israeli opposition, the administration appeared to back off the demand for a full settlement freeze, first exempting East Jerusalem and then signaling approval of an Israeli plan to exempt nearly 3,000 housing units on the West Bank.

Meanwhile, Abbas got into political trouble at home when he succumbed to U.S. pressure to delay U.N. consideration of a report accusing Israel of war crimes in Gaza; he later reversed himself. When Clinton met him Saturday and pressed him to accept the limited Israeli settlement plan as a basis for talks, he refused.

Hours later, Clinton met with Netanyahu in Jerusalem and pronounced the Israeli offer "unprecedented" -- sparking Arab outrage, which she spent the next several days trying to dampen. She extended her trip to include a stop in Cairo to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to explain the U.S. position.

"Our policy on settlements has not changed," Clinton insisted Wednesday. The Israeli proposal "is not what we prefer," she said, "because we would like to see everything ended forever. But it is something that shows at least a positive movement."

Elliott Abrams, a former White House aide who helped negotiate the unwritten agreement on settlements in the Bush years, said there is little difference between that agreement and what Clinton claimed as unprecedented. "It really is the same deal that presumably could have been had on January 20," he said.

Instead of demanding an unrealistic freeze, Abrams said, the administration could have made the Bush deal public, noted that Israel had not consistently lived up to it and declared that it would now be enforced. "Instead, we had nine months of nonsense," he said. "Palestinians and Israelis are not sure what the United States stands for."

Administration officials dispute that critique, saying the Israeli offer actually holds the key to a real settlement freeze. If negotiations progress, Israel would come under fierce pressure not to lift the moratorium after it ends in nine to 12 months. So, once the grandfathered units have been completed, officials said, construction would end -- and a real settlement freeze would be in place.

Such nuances are lost now in the sands of Middle East rhetoric. Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, mused Wednesday about the end of the dream of a Palestinian state and scoffed at the Obama administration's notion of baby steps to talks. "As to the baby steps, we begun taking them in 1990-1991, and we have been crawling for 19 years," he said. "We need youthful steps to end the occupation and establish a Palestinian state."

Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Cairo and correspondent Samuel Sockol in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.


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The Middle East: Can You Handle the Truth?

By Barry Rubin

Rubin Report, Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Obama Administration has no idea of what is about to happen. After all, it has won hasn't it and done something positive for the Palestinians, right? It demanded that Israel freeze all construction on West Bank settlements. Israel agreed, save only that it finish the approximately 3000 units already begun. So the U.S. government can deem itself successful, having delivered something along the lines of what it promised originally to give the Palestinians.

Moreover, this agreement was ultimately gained without any corresponding Palestinian or Arab concessions. It will be remembered that for some months the United States tried to get the Arab side to give something. It failed. Nor did the U.S. government give anything to Israel in exchange for the freeze.

So objectively, what’s happened? Israel made a big concession; Israel got nothing; the Arab side gave nothing. Isn’t this a sort of Palestinian or Arab victory; proof of President Barack Obama’s leverage with Israel; an example of Israeli flexibility?

And, after all, when the current apartments being constructed are finished there will be a construction freeze. So all that’s necessary is to wait a few months, right?

Take a step back, clear your mind, look at it. Of course that’s what has happened. The Palestinians and the Arab states “should” be happy.

But this is the Middle East, a place where even if all Arab or Iranian demands are met, this only triggers anger, blame, complaint, and still more demands.

And you can’t solve the problem using Western rules. Hilary Clinton, stung by Arab criticism that she praised Israel’s plan too highly, does a bit of a turnaround two days after proclaiming Israel’s concession to be amazing:

“This offer falls far short of what we would characterize as our position or what our preference would be. But if it is acted upon, it will be an unprecedented restriction on settlements and would have a significant and meaningful effect on restraining their growth."

Nope, that won’t do it. You are saying a nice, rational, carefully callibrated Western-style statement: we want more but it’s a step in the right direction so it should be praised and it is a good thing. That isn’t how things work here. In the eyes of the Palestinian and Arab leadership Israel cannot ever do anything good. You can praise Palestinians, Muslims, and Arabs every day of the week but you aren't allowed to ever say anything positive about Israel or do anything for that country.

As for Clinton saying it is a step in the right direction, this is also unacceptable. Israel can give endless concessions and show infinite flexibility but this can never be accepted as much. Each step is portrayed as a tri since not everything is surrendered at once. Every concession is just a reminder that not everything has been handed over.

And what, by this behavior of Hilary Clinton's, is the U.S. government communicating to Israel. When Israel makes a big concession and reaches agreement with the United States, if the PA or Arab states complain about the terms of the deal the U.S. government will then criticise their own deal! So how can Jerusalem trust Washington?

As if in proof, Al-Hayat al-Jadida, the closest thing to an official PA newspaper, attacked Clinton with these words: “Why, Mrs. Hillary? How much did the Zionists pay you as a bribe?” The editorial went on to say that the secretary of state was wallowing in a swamp of lies and ran a cartoon showing Uncle Sam looking into a mirror to see a big-nosed Orthodox Jew wearing a hat with a Star of David on his hat, as nasty a cartoon as ever graced the pages of a Nazi newspaper in the 1930s.

Indeed, also on the hat is a globe surrounded by barbed wire, indicated that the international Jewish conspiracy holds the entire earth in its evil hands. And this is Fatah, the PA, the people who get all that U.S. aid, military training, and diplomatic support.

And this is not the Bush Administration they’re talking about either but the Obama Administration. You just can’t please some people. And that’s precisely the point.

If you want to understand how things work in the Middle East consider this story. Suppose someone says that they want to sell you a house. They demand $500,000. You offer $400,000. They say, “No.”

You offer $450,000, saying that if both sides give some that a mutually beneficial deal can be reached. Again they say, “No.”

Finally you offer $500,000, smug in the belief that you’ve made a purchase. And then they say once again: “No! How dare you! What a cheat! How about changing the financing to my benefit, putting the full amount down in cash, and buying me another house?”

You are incredulous. How could your reasonable, apologetic, empathetic, confidence-building, willing to give concessions strategy have failed?

Answer: They never intended to sell. For them, Palestine is Arab or Muslim or both forever. It’s not for sale at any price. Anyone who indicates a real interest in selling will be disgraced, or fired, or even killed. To sell your land is to be a sell-out.

And the fact that their title is questionable and they never actually had national ownership, that someone else who has a previous claim has long ago returned and built it up with all sorts of additions and improvements is irrelevant to this thinking.

So instead they prefer to wait. What matters the suffering? What matter the years? The deepest principle of blood, and honor, and religion, and right is at stake. So they wait. They wait for the other side, Israel, to collapse. Or for the West to throw Israel to the wolves, persuading themselves that this is happening. Or they wait for all Arabs—more recently the favored formulation is all Muslims—to unite and wipe out the evil usurper. Or perhaps when Iran gets the bomb or the Mahdi, the Islamic messiah, comes, or something will happen and then total victory will be theirs?

And if passers-by shout out: “Yes, you are in the right! Your suffering is intolerable and we want to help you!” that doesn’t erode but only reinforces their determination to remain steadfast. Obama’s speeches, UN votes, Goldstone report, leftist chants, growing Muslim migration to the West, Iran defiant and going nuclear, and Western concessions, do not inspire eagerness to compromise but an enthusiasm for fighting on.

Sound strange to you? Well it sounds normal for many millions in the Middle East. And even if part of their brains say something different--Israel is strong, Israel won’t go away, Arabs and Muslims always bicker among themselves, why continuing following a strategy that always fails, wouldn’t it be nicer to have higher living standards—the siren song of militancy overrides it.

At least that’s true in public, no matter how much privately many deride all these notions as pure foolishness, and even no matter how much publicly a few brave souls reject the whole mess and point out how it has in the past and will in future lead the Arabs to disaster.

But now Palestinians and Arabs need someone to blame. Of course, that someone is Israel. Yet also of course, as always, that someone will be the United States.

In this view, Obama has sold them out. He’s like all the others. He didn’t give them everything they wanted; everything they said they wanted and more; everything at no price whatsoever to themselves. He is, they say and will say more in the days to come, is just like all the other presidents who came before.

For they—the Arab dictatorships that need the conflict to stay in power; the Palestinian leadership that still believes in total victory; the Islamist oppositions that want to use the conflict to prove their enemies to be Western puppets and to use the Palestinian issue to seize state power—can never blame themselves.

To blame yourself a bit is the first step to fixing one’s world view and policy. Unfortunately, this possibility is rejected and there is no glimmer of hope that it will change over the next few years, dare I say decade or decades?

Indeed, $2 billion in annual U.S. aid to Egypt buys no leverage. Knowing that they tremble in fear of a nuclear Iran buys no leverage either. Liberating Kuwait from the hands of Iraq and Iraq from the fists of Saddam Hussein doesn’t solve the problem either. Remember the sanctions on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq? The elite didn’t reduce its truffle consumption and just told the masses that they were suffering due to America. Ditto for Hamas in the Gaza Strip. And the Western left will agree with them.

Equally, no matter how many apologies, how many statements made about the glories of Islam and the sufferings of the Palestinians that Barack Hussein Obama makes, it will not matter. Now he is the enemy.
Does that sound bleak? Well, sorry, reality is bleak, bleakest of all for the Arabs themselves—and pity for the victims of this system—who follow that path. Why do you think there is so much hatred, violence, miscomprehension, tyranny, and pure stagnation in this region?

Meanwhile, Israel goes on developing its society, pioneering in technology and science, maintaining democracy, showing flexibility, and surviving the hatred and slander that’s all-too-common in today’s world both inside and outside the area.

Mr. President, welcome to the real Middle East.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan).


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Abbas withdraws from presidential race

Khaled Abu Toameh

THE JERUSALEM POST, Nov. 5, 2009

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced on Thursday that he has "no desire" to run in the presidential election in the PA territories, slated for January 24.

In a televised speech from Ramallah, Abbas said he informed Fatah and PLO officials of his decision late on Wednesday night. He said that he was planning to take other steps in the future, but did not elaborate.

PA officials said that Abbas's decision came in protest of the US administration's failure to exert pressure on Israel to stop construction work in the West Bank settlements.

They did not rule out the possibility that Abbas would change his mind, noting that his decision was not final. They also said it was too early to discuss who would replace Abbas as a candidate in the elections.

Abbas said in his speech that his decision not to seek reelection was not intended as a manipulation or maneuver.

The two-state solution was facing "many dangers," he said.

Addressing the Israeli public, he said: "Peace is more important than any achievement for a political party. Peace is more important than any government coalition. For many years, my opinion and vision have been that peace was still possible and I have sincerely worked to achieve this goal."

Abbas said that he still believes in the two-state solution despite the "many dangers" facing this option.

The PA president outlined eight main principles for achieving peace in the region: the implementation of all UN resolutions pertaining to the Israeli-Arab conflict, an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders, making east Jerusalem the capital of the Palestinian state, solving the problem of the Palestinian refugees on the basis of the Arab Peace Initiative, removal of "illegal" Jewish settlements, reaching security arrangements along the border between the Palestinian state and Israel, the release of all Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails and solving the problem of water in accordance with international laws.

Abbas criticized Israel for its policy of settlement construction and demolition of illegal houses. He also criticized the US for endorsing a more conciliatory approach toward the issue of settlement construction. In addition, Abbas accused Hamas of playing into the hands of Israel by refusing to sign a "reconciliation" accord with Fatah in Cairo last month.

Abbas's close aides explained that he did not close the door completely to the possibility of reconsidering his decision. One aide noted that Abbas did not state in his speech that his decision was final.

"The president only said that he has 'no desire' to run in the election," the aide told The Jerusalem Post. "This means that he hasn't made a final decision and was leaving the door open for all options."

Muhammad Shtayeh, a member of the Fatah Central Committee, said that he too did not rule out that Abbas would eventually change his mind.

"If there's a real change in the peace process, I believe that President Abbas will reconsider his position not to seek reelection," Shtayeh said. He added that several Arab leaders, including Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, had phoned Abbas in the past few days urging him to run as head of Fatah in the presidential election.

Shtayeh said that the PA leadership does not want the Arab and world leaders to call Abbas to ask him to seek reelection. "We want them to put pressure on Israel if they want stability in the Middle East," he said. "Abbas represents the two-state peace strategy and his absence from the scene would be regarded a severe blow to this vision."

Shtayeh attributed Abbas's decision to three factors: the change in the US administration's policy vis-a-vis the settlements, failure of the Arab leaders to back the PA leadership in its confrontation with Israel and the US, and strong criticism of Abbas following his decision to withdraw a motion that was presented to the UN Human Rights Council regarding the Goldstone Report into Operation Cast Lead.

Another senior Fatah official, Nabil Sha'ath, attributed Abbas's decision to his "deep disappointment with the international community, including the Arab world."

Sha'ath said that Abbas was particularly disappointed because he did not achieve anything through negotiations with Israel despite his commitment to the road map plan for peace in the Middle East.

"President Abbas repeatedly declared his willingness not to run in the upcoming elections, because of his deep disappointment with the US policy toward the peace process," he said. "This is a clear message to the Israelis and Americans."

Fatah legislator Husam Khader said that Abbas's speech shows that the Palestinians have other options, such as armed struggle against Israel or dissolving the PA. He said that Abbas could be the last Palestinian leader willing to talk to Israel.

Hamas said that Abbas's speech was mainly directed toward his "friends in the US and Israel."

Osama Hamdan, a senior Hamas official, said he did not rule out that the speech was part of a show orchestrated by Abbas's advisers. He said that the Palestinians were hoping that Abbas would declare the failure of the Oslo process instead of focusing on his personal decision not to run in the election.

Abbas's decision is meant to "warn his American and Zionist friends," another Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, said on Thursday.

"He wants to let them know he's not happy with them," Zuhri said.

The Hamas spokesman went on to urge Abbas to "face the Palestinians, and tell them honestly that negotiations have failed."

He said that the PA president should bring all talks with "the occupation" to a halt, and take "practical steps toward reconciliation."

Defense Minister Ehud Barak expressed hope that despite Abbas's announcement, efforts to renew negotiations and achieve a regional peace deal would not be undermined. Barak said that he believes it is important that both sides still believe in the two-state solution. At the same time, he said, while Israel will make every effort to achieve peace it will do so while ensuring the security and safety of its citizens.

The White House praised Abbas. "Whatever he decides, we look forward to continuing to work with him and to continue in that collaboration to make the lives of Palestinians better," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters on Thursday.

"We have tremendous respect for President Abbas. He has been an important and historic leader for the Palestinian people and a true partner for the United States," Gibbs said.

Yaakov Katz, Tovah Lazaroff and Hilary Leila Krieger contributed to this report.

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