Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

The Settlements, the Moratorium, and the Peace Talks

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Update from AIJAC

September 29, 2010
Number 09/10 #06

As readers are probably aware, Israel's 10-month moratorium on new housing construction in West Bank settlements came to an end on Sunday night. It still remains unclear whether Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will follow through on repeated threats to pull out of peace talks in response, with an Arab League meeting called on Monday to discuss the subject. This Update looks at the current situation.

First up is an editorial from Washington Post, which does a good job of calling attention to the most important elements of the current apparent impasse. Firstly, the Obama Administration made a mistake in making the settlement issue the major focus of their early diplomatic efforts while the actual building going on - largely in settlements Israel is likely to keep in any peace deal - does not jeopardise a future Palestinian state - as even Palestinian PM Salam Fayyad has pointed out. And secondly, the Palestinians have by far the most to lose by refusing to talk, and should instead be concentrating on getting Israel's Netanyahu government to spell out its terms for a two-state resolution. For this perceptive look at what is really important in trying to advance peace, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, foreign policy commentator  Blake Hounshell predicts the talks will be continued in the end. Another good, but less optimistic, look at the issues for each of Israel, the PA, and Washington comes from noted Israeli commentator Nahum Barnea.   

Next up, Washington Institute scholar Michael Singh has a look at what US policy should be in terms of the current impasse. He also stresses that the Obama Administration erred in its approach to the settlement issue - and says the statements of the parties actually appear less rigid than those coming from the US Administration. His recommendation is for Washington to concentrate on quiet diplomacy and behind-the-scenes efforts facilitating the apparent interest of both parties to find a way to keep the talks going. For the rest of what he has to say, CLICK HERE. And here is ore comment on American mistakes from Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen.

Finally, on a separate, albeit related, issue, German editor and commentator Josef Joffe takes on the all too common illusion that the Israeli-Palestinian issue is the key to all other Middle Eastern problems and conflicts. He starts out with a claim from Jordan's King Abdullah that solving the Israeli-Palestinian question would stop the Iranian nuclear program, shows it to be pretty absurd, and then proceeds to point out the same for a whole series of other regional challenges some try to link to Israel and the Palestinians. He favours a Palestinian state, but says "Shoddy myths make for faulty policy" with respect to what it will achieve more broadly. For Joffe's detailed argument, CLICK HERE.

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Palestinian President Abbas has the most to lose   

Washington Post, Saturday, September 25, 2010


PRESIDENT OBAMA'S Middle East peace diplomacy has made some progress, but an early error still haunts it. The president's ill-advised attempt to force a freeze of Israeli housing construction in Jerusalem and the West Bank could cause the breakdown this weekend of direct talks on a final settlement, only a month after they began.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to walk out of the negotiations if Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu does not extend a nine-month moratorium on construction in Jewish settlements. Mr. Netanyahu contends that his Cabinet will not support an extension.

A diplomatic rift over this issue would be senseless, for the same reasons that Mr. Obama was unwise to emphasize it in the first place. Most Israeli construction now takes place in areas close to Israel that both sides acknowledge it will annex in any final deal. As Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad remarked Wednesday, any building that begins in the next year -- the time frame set for the negotiations -- will be immaterial to their outcome.

Mr. Fayyad's comment at a dinner sponsored by the American Task Force on Palestine was one of several welcome indications that both sides are looking for a way out of the impasse. The prime minister suggested that a several-months extension of the moratorium could be linked to a deadline for agreement on the borders of a Palestinian state -- which would end the debate over settlements. Members of Mr. Netanyahu's government have floated the idea of a limit on housing construction to those areas Israel will probably annex. Stuck in the middle, the Obama administration is simultaneously pressing Mr. Netanyahu for an extension and urging Mr. Abbas not to end the talks even if it does not happen.

Mr. Netanyahu risks looking like a spoiler if he fails to offer Mr. Abbas at least a partial concession -- perhaps a private assurance that no building permits will be given to settlements in East Jerusalem or beyond Israel's West Bank fence. But in the end the Palestinian president would be foolish to end the talks. In so doing, he would leave Israel free to proceed with unchecked settlement construction while postponing Palestinian statehood indefinitely. He would also place himself at greater domestic political risk, since the end of negotiations would empower Palestinian militants.

If he stays in the talks, Mr. Abbas can oblige Mr. Netanyahu to spell out his specific terms for Palestinian statehood, something he has yet to do. If they resemble those offered by previous Israeli governments, it might be possible to move relatively quickly toward an accord on borders and security. If the Israeli offer is unreasonable, the pressure will shift to Mr. Netanyahu.

Mr. Obama and Mr. Abbas all along have sought to put the Israeli leader on the spot. But they must do so on the right issue -- not settlements, but the terms for Palestinian statehood.

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Washington: Let Them Talk It Out

By Michael Singh

ForeignPolicy.com, September 25, 2010

Sunday's expiration of Israel's settlement construction moratorium is looming ever larger, and was put back on the front pages by President Barack Obama's unequivocal statement on Thursday, in his U.N. General Assembly speech dominated by the Israeli-Palestinian issue, in which he stated he "believe(s) the moratorium should be extended."

In returning forcefully to this issue in a high-profile venue, Obama risks repeating his administration's past diplomatic errors. Recall that it was Washington's -- not the Palestinians' -- early preoccupation with settlements that metastasized into a precondition delaying peace talks in 2009 and early 2010. The American (re)emphasis on it now decreases the chance of a compromise which will allow the talks to continue unimpeded.

Commenting on the settlements impasse, a State Department spokesman said on Thursday that, "You have stated positions on both sides that are incompatible." But an inspection of Israeli and Palestinian leaders' recent statements suggests that this is not necessarily the case. A senior Israeli official told AFP that "Israel is prepared to reach a compromise acceptable to all parties to consider extending the freeze on construction, provided that the freeze will not be total," echoing similar comments made Israeli PM Netanyahu which suggested an openness to compromise. PA President Abbas also hinted at flexibility recently, stating "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 (settlement) activity in the West Bank and Jerusalem."

In light of these statements, it is the U.S. public insistence on an extension of a freeze that seems overly rigid, rather than the parties' own stances. One could argue that the president's position is just rhetorical, and that in fact U.S. negotiators are working behind the scenes to broker a compromise (which it seems they are). Be this as it may, unequivocal and ultimately unnecessary public proclamations -- especially when uttered by top U.S. officials -- make those private efforts more difficult. For Netanyahu, any compromise will now seem to be the result of U.S. and international pressure, which will add fuel to the inevitable political attacks he will face from his right. For Abbas, openness to compromise makes him appear less committed on this sensitive issue than even the United States, reducing his room to maneuver.

The smartest approach for the United States to adopt now is quiet diplomacy. Past settlements compromises have bought room for negotiations, and there are various formulas available to the parties now for a workable outcome. With both the Israelis and Palestinians apparently interested in continuing with the talks for now, behind-the-scenes efforts may pay off if Washington plays its cards right and defers its public statements. Success, if it comes, will speak for itself.

Michael Singh is a visiting fellow at The Washington Institute and former senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council.

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Overstated

Why Palestine won’t remake the Middle East.

Josef Joffe

The New Republic, September 20, 2010 | 12:00 am

The most durable myth in the Middle East is: "It's Palestine, stupid." It lies at the heart of Barack Obama's Middle East diplomacy, which is why the president has been pummeling the Israelis and pushing the Palestinians to resume talks. According to this myth, the most urgent problem is not the Iranian bomb or Syrian ambitions. It is not Egypt, once an anchor of stability and now slipping into precarious irrelevance. It is not Iraq, which is tottering between occupation and anarchy. It is not Al Qaeda in Yemen, the return of the Taliban, or the ticking time bomb that is Pakistan. Nor is it despotism, illiteracy, and misery, or the oppression of women, sects, and creeds.

No, the problem is three slivers of land known as Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank, and this on a geostrategic stage that extends from Ankara to Afghanistan. Defuse that issue, and everything will fall into place. A paradigmatic example of this thinking came in a CNN interview with Jordan’s King Abdullah earlier this year. For him, “all the conflicts lead to Jerusalem.” Iran’s bomb project? Never mind, for “if we solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem, why would Iranians want to spend so much money on a military program? It makes no sense.”

Solve the Palestinian problem, the king opined, and then we can “start to unwind all the other pressure points inside of the Middle East.” So let’s start with Iran. The nuclear program goes back to the Shah. Iran was then Israel’s closest ally in the Middle East, and the last item on Reza Pahlavi’s far-flung agenda, if it was there at all, must have been Palestine. Today, Tehran is reaching for the bomb for the usual reasons: as deterrent, as badge of great-power status, as keystone of regional supremacy. Will the Khomeinists really ditch their nuclear venture once the Israeli oppressors have been driven from the Temple Mount, with its Al Aqsa Mosque? Of course not.

As for the region’s other conflicts: If Palestinians had a state, would Hamas and Fatah stop killing each other? They kill for power, not for Palestine. And if they have Hebron, what about Haifa? The Palestinians do deserve their own state, but it would be a revisionist one from the get-go, not a pillar of stability.

How about Syria? Once the Palestinian flag flies over Jerusalem, would Assad Junior call for free elections at home and take his heavy hand off Lebanon? Think again. Assad rules as head of the tiny Alawite minority; free elections would be his end. Also, Damascus has been claiming Lebanon as part of “Greater Syria” ever since France and Britain drew the borders after World War I - long before Israel was founded in 1948.

What about Egypt? Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel at Camp David not to liberate Palestine, but to regain the Sinai. Interestingly, that peace has held, cold as it is, for 30 years—never mind the occupation or Israel’s bloody foray into Gaza at the end of 2008. Again, let’s go back in history. Egypt’s dictator Nasser spent the ’50s and ’60s reaching for hegemony over the region—for the benefit of Egypt, not of Palestine.

Saddam Hussein fought the longest and bloodiest war in recent Middle Eastern history against Iran in order to diminish Iraq’s ancient rival and seize the oil fields of Khuzestan. Once in possession of the oil, Saddam did not intend to turn around and liberate Palestine. Nor did he grab Kuwait in 1990 as a way station on the road to Jerusalem. The game was regional supremacy.

And what about the Hashemites? In 1970, during “Black September,” Abdullah’s father, Hussein, killed more Palestinians—up to 25,000, they claimed—than Israel did in two intifadas (1987-1993, 2000-2005). If Palestine ever comes into being, Jordan will be the first to establish military oversight of the young state, which is not a pleasant prospect for amicability.

This does not end the tally of conflicts that have nothing to do with Palestine. Farther afield, think about civil war in Algeria, which claimed about 150,000 lives. Think about ethnic cleansing in Sudan; Libya’s belligerence and its nuclear program until 2003; Egypt’s war in Yemen in the ’60s, followed by civil war there in the ’90s. Even the most florid imagination fails to relate all this mayhem to Palestine.

Now shift to the domestic pathologies of the region. An independent Palestine will heal none of them. It will not end illiteracy, the second-class status of women, the mass unemployment of the young, the “state socialism” that asphyxiates economies. Nor will it end the rule of the few, be they king or colonel. It will not spawn research universities, independent media, or free institutions in general. Arab authoritarianism, not the situation of Palestine, is what stifles development and growth, while enshrining isolation from the rest of the world.

Despotism, of course, needs the enemy at the gate to distract peoples from their own lack of freedom. This, in the end, is where Palestine does play a role—but not in the sense that King Abdullah and others believe. It is a most convenient diversion that allows regimes to mobilize hatred against the Other that is Israel. Let the people imbibe this heady brew, and they will forget what really ails them—from poverty to repression. “Busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels,” Shakespeare’s Henry IV advises his son and successor. The point here is that the real sources of conflict lie at home.

Some argue that the resolution of the Palestine issue will soothe the souls of the masses and so at last allow the regimes to cast their lot with the United States. This assumes that despots are captives of their peoples; it is the other way around. It also assumes that Palestine overwhelms all other interests in the Arab calculus—that Arab leaders truly cherish America, but dare not commit as long as Washington keeps Israel on a long leash. Yet it is impossible to envision peace in Palestine turning Damascus or Tehran into U.S. allies, or causing Saudi Arabia to leap off the fence and join an American-led alliance against Iran. Nor will it stop Al Qaeda, which launched its crusade not for the sake of Palestine, but against the despoiler of sacred Islamic soil that is the United States. By all means, let’s have a Palestinian state. But let’s also dispatch the myth that such a state will “start to unwind all the other pressure points.” Shoddy myths make for faulty policy.

Josef Joffe is editor of Die Zeit and a senior fellow of the Institute for International Studies, and an Abramowitz Fellow at the Hoover Institution, at Stanford. This article ran in the September 23, 2010 issue of the magazine.

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