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Palestinian-Israeli peace talks in 2010?

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Update from AIJAC

January 19, 2010
Number 01/10 #05


This Update looks at the prospects for resuming and progressing Israeli-Palestinian talks -  which have been in limbo since 2008 -  in 2010.

First up, David Makovsky from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy previews US Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell’s visit to the region next week in a bid to restart talks. Makovsky notes that the Obama Administration’s demands for a total Israeli settlement freeze encouraged the Palestinian Authority to become intransigent, making restarting talks near impossible for Palestinians without losing face. In view of these inherent difficulties, the parties have been focusing upon areas of convergence and largely dealing with procedural matters, but Makovsky warns that issues of substance are another challenge altogether. To read his full analysis, CLICK HERE.

Next up, former deputy national security adviser to US President George W. Bush, Elliot Abrams, offers a partisan but knowledgeable view of the Obama Administration's Mideast efforts to date.  He argues that the best way forward is encouraging the idea of creating a Palestinian state from the ground up rather than through placing impossible burdens upon a failed peace process. Abrams writes that the biggest hurdle the Obama Administration needs to overcome is its inability to react fast enough to the changes in the region that have made the old way of doing things obsolete. To read this timely and important piece, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, Aluf Benn in Haaretz provides a good backgrounder on the current thinking of Israel’s political leadership as the impasse in peace talks continues.

Finally, noted Middle East analyst Barry Rubin explores  the implications of a call by a highly-influential Muslim cleric, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, for the death of PA President Mahmoud Abbas as a heretic.  He warns that the Palestinian reaction shows that the Palestinian Authority is apparently unable to counter extremist Islamist voices in Palestinian society that stir up hatred against a two-state resolution of the conflict. The same problem occurs in the wider region and Rubin laments how Arab leaders appear able to react to Islamist extremism only by trumpeting their own extremism. To read Rubin’s compelling discourse on an important source of dysfunction in that part of the world, CLICK HERE.

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Prospects for the Resumption of Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks

David Makovsky
Washington Institute for Near East Policy, January 15, 2010

U.S. Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell will return to the region next week in a bid to restart talks that have been stalled since the beginning of the Obama administration. In a television interview earlier this month, Mitchell declared that he would like to complete peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians within two years, if not sooner. Senior U.S. officials, including President Obama, have called for an unconditional return to the negotiating table. The official position of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas is that talks cannot resume until Israel extends its settlement moratorium to east Jerusalem. He also wants the pre-1967 boundaries to serve as the baseline for negotiations. At the same time, he has made a statement indicating that he regrets how he reached his current position, hinting that the current impasse does not serve the Palestinian people's interests. Is there more convergence between the two sides than is readily apparent?

Context of the Current Impasse

Peace talks have remained elusive since the first day of the Obama administration due in large part to the handling of the settlements issue. For much of 2009, the U.S. position was that Israel should not only avoid expanding settlement activity, but also freeze construction within existing settlements. Although the Obama administration insists that it never wanted a freeze to be a formal precondition for peace talks, its preferences became a de facto requirement from the Palestinian perspective. In short, Abbas felt boxed in when the administration stated its maximalist position but then sought to negotiate a ten-month, limited moratorium with Israel. He explained the problem in a little-noticed December 22, 2009, interview with the London-based pan-Arab daily al-Sharq al-Awsat, where he blamed Washington for putting forward the freeze idea and then asking him to compromise. He recalled telling U.S. officials during a September meeting at the UN, "You put me on top of a tree, and now you ask me for a solution, and to climb down." Abbas continued, "Obama laid down the condition of halting the settlements completely. What could I say to him? Should I say this is too much?"
Meanwhile, Israel has also backed off from several positions unfavorable to the resumption of talks. For example, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu originally held that there should be no further talks until the United States found a way to halt the Iranian nuclear program. He also opposed the creation of a Palestinian state. Over the past few months, however, he has adjusted his stance, endorsing statehood, abandoning the Iranian requirement, and insisting to Washington that no Israeli leader has supported a settlement moratorium to the extent he has.

Getting Back to the Table

Currently, Mitchell is exploring whether it is possible to return to the peace table after what might be called a lost year. So far, the two sides have quietly agreed to a text that could serve as a foundation for renewed talks. The subject of months of negotiations, the text was made public on November 25, immediately after Netanyahu's announcement of a settlement moratorium. Despite the text's release under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's name and her subsequent reiteration, it avoids staking out a new American policy position. Instead, it encapsulates Israeli and Palestinian aspirations, stating: "We believe that through good-faith negotiations the parties can mutually agree on an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements." In effect, the text allowed Washington to say that the goals of the two sides are reconcilable, without committing itself or Israel to the 1967 lines or to land swaps that would counterbalance settlement blocs.
Discussions with officials of both sides suggest that there are more convergences than divergences between Israelis and Palestinians. To enable the successful resumption of talks, all parties will need to recognize and pursue these convergences, many of which center on avoiding past pitfalls such as those described below.

No Letter of U.S. Assurances

Some European and Arab states would like the United States to go further than the Clinton declaration and issue a letter of assurance restating U.S. support for the 1967 borders with minor modifications. This idea has several problems, however, and was publicly rejected this week by Abbas as superfluous. First, with the exception of Egypt (which has sought to restart talks), the Arab states have done virtually nothing to realize Mitchell's hope that they would reciprocate an Israeli settlement moratorium even if it were less than the full freeze envisioned a year ago. Second, the process of drafting any letter of assurance would require its own arduous negotiations. Third, prominent Palestinians have said privately that a U.S. letter to Abbas would inevitably be matched by a similar letter to the Israelis. This letter would in turn be made public and could therefore be exploited by hardline Palestinian critics of the Abbas government.

No Annapolis II

Both Israeli and Palestinian publics tend to be jaded, having heard many speeches with meager results. Therefore, neither wants a repeat of the 2007 Annapolis peace conference, where peace talks were launched in the glare of klieg lights. Moreover, Annapolis represents an effort to resolve all the core issues dividing Israelis and Palestinians. There is too much risk of high expectations going unfulfilled, with potentially disastrous consequences. Such public peace talks could raise domestic issues for both parties, leading them to stake out positions that might lead to a breakdown.

A Discreet Channel

The past practice of holding regular executive-level meetings, such as those between Abbas and former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, does not seem to be a useful model at this stage. Currently, Abbas seems to enjoy earning political capital without making decisions. To this end, he is assisted by Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who echoes Abbas's indecision. In Washington, however, many are concerned that Erekat has misrepresented U.S. positions. For example, in a recent report to the Fatah Central Committee, he stated that Washington endorses the idea of picking up where the Abbas-Olmert talks left off, which is not the case. He has also long enjoyed being defiant toward Israel, apparently believing that it bolsters his domestic standing. Therefore, he does not fear that he will have to pay a political price for failing to establish any semblance of trust or working relations with Israel. In fact, he seems to believe that he is completely indispensable to Abbas due to his institutional memory of negotiations.
Erekat notwithstanding, there is more convergence than divergence among U.S., Israeli, and Palestinian officials, most of whom agree that peace talks need to be restarted because the current impasse serves no one except Hamas. To be sure, Israelis and Palestinians have different points of emphasis, but their respective formats for negotiations actually seem to go well together. Key Palestinians favor Mitchell engaging in proximity talks, believing that U.S. mediation in the substance of the discussions is crucial. Israelis, however, favor direct (though discreet) working-level negotiations. These approaches seem compatible: under the umbrella of Mitchell's occasional visits, Israelis and Palestinians can meet discreetly at the working level to discuss the issues. In fact, this discreet-and-direct channel has been the key to all agreements between the two sides since 1993.

Focus on Territory First

On the same day the Clinton statement was released, Mitchell publicly declared his wish to focus on a borders agreement. The Palestinians have indicated that they concur. Although the Israelis say they reject the idea of a standalone borders agreement per se, they increasingly acknowledge the logic in making the issue of territory first on a wider agenda.

Conclusion

These convergences may bring the parties to the table, but they cannot guarantee the success of any talks. Procedural success will be matched by divergences on the substance of the talks relating to territory, not to mention highly charged issues like Jerusalem and refugees. Mitchell will likely find that all these differences sorely test the notion that all outstanding issues will be wrapped up in two years.

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All Process, No Peace

Elliot Abrams, January 25, 2010, The Weekly Standard Vol. 15, No. 18

Peace in the Middle East has been on the Obama administration’s mind from the beginning. Two days after his inauguration the president traveled to the State Department to announce the appointment of George Mitchell as his Middle East peace negotiator. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the administration’s approach as “an intensive effort from day one.” Here was the plan: Israel would freeze construction in all the settlements and in Jerusalem; Arab states would reach out to Israel in tangible ways visible to their own publics and to Israelis; and the Palestinians would do better at building political institutions, ending incitement against Israel and fighting terror. With these achievements in hand the administration would lead the parties into peace negotiations to be concluded within the president’s first term. Nobel Prizes would be the frosting on the cake.

That’s not how it turned out, except for the Nobel Prize. As the Obama administration begins its second year in office, its Middle East peace efforts are widely regarded as a shambles. Its initial goals have all been missed. Israelis, Palestinians, and Arab governments have lost confidence in American leadership. The challenge for Year Two will be how to get out of this mess and on to a more positive track—but that will require some candor inside the administration in assessing what went wrong.

From the start the White House—led by the president himself and his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel—has pushed hardest for Israeli concessions, a reversal of the standard pattern where the legendary Arabists in the State Department’s Near Eastern Affairs bureau criticize Israel while top officials defend her. This time, those at the top—including Mitchell and Clinton—publicly and repeatedly demanded a total Israeli construction freeze. And this time, the experts in the Near Eastern Affairs bureau and in U.S. embassies throughout the Middle East were the voices of caution and realism, for whatever their biases they knew Obama’s approach wouldn’t work. The Arabs would not step forward. Israel’s coalition politics would not permit adoption of a total freeze. What’s more, once we demanded it as a precondition for new negotiations, Palestinians could demand no less. And unlike us, they would not be able to walk away from that demand when Israel predictably said no.


The great plan has collapsed, but the mystery of who exactly will be in charge of the policy in Year Two—and whether they understand what happened—is now the center of conversations all over the region. Visitors are asked “What’s U.S. policy? Where is it headed? Is there a strategy?” In Israel, there is deep suspicion of the Obama administration, both at official levels and among the population at large. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to impose a partial settlement freeze should not have been a surprise despite the months of friction with Washington; for any Israeli government, relations with the United States are a central strategic matter, while a (partial) moratorium in West Bank construction is not. It is fair to say that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is as much responsible for this freeze as Barack Obama, for in the coming year Israel may have to deal with the Iranian nuclear program—and therefore needs to avoid tension with Washington whenever possible. One official of a previous Israeli government put it this way to me: “Bibi agreed to this freeze to enable Israel to concentrate on Iran without the daily background noise about the settlements.”


Israel will always go far to keep relations with Washington on an even keel but that feeling is especially strong these days. The anti-Israel bias in the U.N.’s Goldstone Report—condemning Israel’s conduct during the Gaza war a year ago—astonished Israelis, but what hurt them more was the acceptance by the “international community” of Goldstone’s assault. His report, and the many recent efforts in Europe to have visiting Israeli officials arrested for “war crimes,” reminded Israelis how isolated they are in the world and how important American support remains. So the ten-month construction moratorium—to reduce tension with Obama, and to shift the blame for refusing new peace negotiations to the Palestinians—was approved 11-1 by Israel’s security cabinet.


But in Ramallah, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas—who heads the PLO and the Fatah party—now faces what one Palestinian observer described to me as “a double whammy.” First, the United States greeted Netanyahu’s compromise as a positive step and George Mitchell said it is “more than any Israeli government has done before and can help movement toward agreement between the parties,” but the Palestinians instantly and vehemently rejected it. So while American officials saw the Israeli move as the basis for commencing peace negotiations, the Palestinians did not—putting them at odds with Washington. “This conditional freeze does not give Abbas the ladder he needs to climb down and resume negotiations,” an associate of his said privately. Second, Israel continues to negotiate with Hamas via a German intermediary over the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured in June 2006 and held since then in Gaza. The price will be Israel’s release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, and if the deal goes through many Palestinians will notice that Hamas, not the Palestinian Authority, has the ability to spring people from Israeli jails.


Both developments—on settlements and prisoners—weaken President Abbas, who today seems less powerful and less close to Washington. It did not help that he reacted to the growing pressures by announcing he was tired of the frustrations of governing, wants to leave office, and will not run for reelection. Abbas’s office in the “Muqata” in Ramallah—an old British police station, later Arafat’s headquarters and now the site of his glassed-in mausoleum—seems increasingly the burying place of his generation’s Palestinian politics as well.


So the Obama administration’s Middle East adventures in 2009 came to a close with Netanyahu, whom the administration has never much liked or treated well, stronger politically; and Abbas, whom the administration wished to strengthen, weaker and talking of retirement. In Arab capitals the failure of the United States to stop Iran’s nuclear program is understood as American weakness in the struggle for dominance in the Middle East, making additional cooperation from Arab leaders on Israeli-Palestinian issues even less likely. A strongly pro-American former Israeli official shook his head as he evaluated the Obama record in 2009: “This is what happens when arrogance and clumsiness come together.”

But who will tell the president that his judgments have been wrong and his policy is failing? Does he recognize how much bad advice he was given last year? Who among the senior figures is likely to say to this president that George Mitchell is now associated with a policy disaster or that Rahm Emanuel’s read on Israeli politics proved 180 degrees off course? Presumably no one who wishes to continue to work in the White House after that.
What will Year Two bring? The evidence suggests that the administration, now in a hole, will keep digging: All our diplomatic activity remains dedicated to getting “peace negotiations” started. “We’re going to be even more committed this year, and we’re starting this new year with that level of commitment, and we’re going to follow through and hopefully we can see this as a positive year in this long process,” Secretary Clinton said in early January. George Mitchell, building on his dubious achievements of the past year, told Charlie Rose, “We think that the negotiation should last no more than two years. .  .  . Personally I think it can be done in a shorter period of time.” The media, here and in the Middle East, tell of “letters of guarantee” that President Obama may send Abbas and Netanyahu, promising the Palestinians an agreement on borders in nine months and a full peace treaty in two years if only they will sit down and negotiate.

Thus far the Palestinians are adamantly refusing to start negotiations and abandon their demand for a construction freeze including in Jerusalem, in exchange for such promises. But if they do, they will find the promised time limits to be illusory—as all previous ones have been. And no matter who sits at what table, there will be no serious negotiations: The Israelis and Palestinians are too far apart on the core issues to reach a deal now, and the Fatah and PLO leadership (having lost the last elections to Hamas and having lost Gaza to a Hamas coup) is too weak now to negotiate compromises and sell them to the Palestinian people. If there is any form of reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, moreover, as Saudi Arabia and other Arab states continue to promote, Israel will end the talks instantly.


For two decades the “peace process” has failed to end the conflict and produce a Palestinian state. Unilateral Israeli withdrawal has also been tried, in Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005, but in both cases the vacuum was filled by terrorism: Hezbollah took over South Lebanon and Hamas conquered Gaza. Yet there is a way forward, the one sensible option never really tried: to start at the beginning rather than the end, by creating a Palestinian state from the bottom up, institution by institution, and ending with Israeli withdrawal and negotiation of a state only when Palestinian political life is truly able to sustain self-government, maintain law and order, and prevent terrorism against Israel.
 
This may seem like a formula for endless delay but it is in fact the fastest way forward, and it is beginning. In the West Bank, Palestinian security forces are doing more to bring law and order and fight terrorism. Economic growth continues, and foreign visitors are often surprised by the amount of construction in Ramallah and commerce in Jenin and Jericho; far from looking like Somalia or Yemen, the West Bank is increasingly prosperous. The Palestinian Authority prime minister, Salam Fayyad, describes his goal this way: “We have decided to be proactive, to expedite the end of the occupation by working very hard to build positive facts on the ground, consistent with having our state emerge as a fact that cannot be ignored. This is our agenda, and we want to pursue it doggedly.”
 
Fayyad’s push for Palestinians to build their own state themselves has angered Israeli critics who call it “unilateral,” and Fayyad’s rhetoric often offends them, but what good alternatives are there? To watch yet another round of negotiations end in another failure?

The Obama administration gives lip service to Fayyad’s approach—no one is against building Palestinian institutions—but its own emphasis for Year Two remains entirely in the wrong places. U.S. diplomacy, like Arab and European diplomacy, is all about reviving Abbas and getting him into a room with Netanyahu—not about backing serious efforts to build a Palestinian state. Thus the only way to lay the foundation for successful peace talks is ignored, and what will predictably be unsuccessful peace talks are the obsessive goal of American foreign policy.



The Obama administration rarely demonstrated the ability to shift gears and change policy in its first year. Even in the face of historic events such as the continuing demonstrations against Iran’s regime, it stuck devotedly to prior plans. Can there be a learning curve? Will someone tell the president the policy isn’t working and big changes are needed? Or can change come from the top down, if the president himself comes to realize what underlings are reluctant to tell him? Middle Eastern officials aren’t the only people who still can’t figure out the workings of the Obama White House; the mixture of campaign stalwarts, career bureaucrats, old Chicago friends, and outside advisers remains opaque. Obama White House personnel like to say the Situation Room has no windows precisely so that people can’t see in. In fact it has three windows that look out at the Executive Office Building, but the error is telling: They want to preserve the sense of mystery. The problem is, the main mystery in the Middle East is whether they’ll cling to a policy that has already failed or open their minds to one that has a chance of bringing serious progress.

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Muslim Brotherhood Cleric Versus Palestinian "President": A Case Study of Islamism Versus Nationalism

By Barry Rubin, January 13, 2010.

Forget about the moderate mythology fed the Western public by its media. Forget the comforting nonsense about reasonable masses held back from being humanitarian democrats only by manipulative dictatorships. Here’s a glimpse of what the region is really like.

Yusuf al-Qaradawi is one of the world’s most prestigious Muslim clerics and certainly the most internationally popular Islamist cleric. Some in the West like to think of him as some kind of pragmatic, modernizing moderate. As such he was welcomed in visiting Britain. But Qaradawi is a very hardline fellow indeed.

Siding with Hamas, Qaradawi, an Egyptian who lives in Qatar, gave a sermon urging Muslims to stone—in other words kill as a heretic—Palestinian Authority (PA) leader (often referred to as "president") Mahmoud Abbas. Angered by this statement, PA officials ordered West Bank imams to denounce Qaradawi for this action. One of those who did so was Raed al-Mahdawi of Ramallah who took a traditional conservative Muslim position, asking Qaradawi to apologize to Abbas and adding, "Muslim scholars should not use the podiums at their disposal to incite against any ruler or offend the feelings of any people."

But those who followed PA instructions were interrupted and forced to stop by angry worshippers; congregations walked out or chased the clerics out of the mosques altogether. In response, PA police beat up and arrested those protesting.

Thus, the PA was helpless, faced with this Islamist challenge, to keep its own people in line. And so what was their second line of defense? The Fatah Central Committee claimed that Qaradawi was acting as an Israeli stooge, objectively an ally with the Zionists.

But such anger won't be quieted by asserting that Islamism itself is an American or Zionist plot. Rather, this incident shows the strength of Islamist appeals overriding nationalist impulses in contemporary Arab politics
Thus events once again demonstrate the horrifyingly powerful extremist impulses among the Arab, Muslim, Palestinian masses, just as one sees such sentiments in strong popular support for terrorism and rejection of compromises or of a permanent peace with Israel and two-state solution. This is the kind of attitude easily whipped up by rumors and ranters to produce anti-Christian pogroms in places like Pakistan, Iraq, and Egypt. .
 
Of course, many Palestinians do support Abbas, and some are genuinely moderate. Yet it is hard for such people to stand against the energetic ferocity of the radicals, their willingness to use violence, and their manipulation of religious sentiments. Incipient fanaticism, once harnessed, has a tidal wave power.

Arab regimes know this well. They don’t try to counter it with liberal reform but either with ferocious repression or try to harness this energy for their own causes. Regimes often endeavor to save themselves by diverting such forces against non-Muslims, meaning the West in general or often—as in the PA’s case here—against Israel.

It is easy to find parallels with this story in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and so on throughout most of the Arabic-speaking and Muslim majority areas. This is what the innocent and naïve West is up against but doesn’t want to face. Instead, while this has virtually never happened, much of the elite views its own majority citizenry as fanatics on the verge of being incited into Islamophobic mobs.

 

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