Middle East Roundtable
Edition 27 Volume 7 - July 16, 2009
US-Israel relations and the settlements
• No decisive shift in US policy - Ali Abunimah
On the outside Israelis may be crying about US "pressure" but on the inside they must be quietly smiling.
• Obama means what he says - Debra DeLee
What the Arabs do or not do doesn't change what Israel should do.
• Is a US-Israel clash inevitable under Netanyahu? - George Giacaman
Does the Obama administration have the political muscle and the political will?
• Obama's calculations were wrong - Amnon Lord
The way Obama fixed upon Israel as an ugly vehicle for rapprochement with the Muslim world was simply too transparent.
No decisive shift in US policy
On July 13, President Barack Obama received 16 leaders of the most prominent pro-Israel organizations at the White House. The gathering was an effort to assuage American Jewish concerns about US pressure on Israel over a settlement freeze in the occupied West Bank.
One participant argued that in the past any progress toward peace had only been made when there was "no light" between American and Israeli positions. "I disagree," the president responded according to one witness, and pointed out that during eight years of the Bush administration, "there was no light between the United States and Israel, and nothing got accomplished."
Obama reaffirmed his commitment to achieving a settlement of the Arab-Israel conflict and emphasized the short window and special opportunity that he had to produce one, given his outreach efforts to Arabs and Muslims.
All of this will reinforce the faith of those convinced that Obama's policies mark a decisive shift from his predecessors, a rupture in the Israeli-American relationship, and can produce what has eluded all others: a workable and agreed two-state solution.
Obama has consistently stressed his belief in the "unbreakable" US-Israeli relationship. Considering his actions and words so far, there is little reason to doubt him. But unless he is prepared to go much further than anyone has publicly contemplated in pressuring Israel, his peace initiative has negligible chances of success.
For months, the focus has been on Obama's demand that Israel agree to a complete cessation of settlement construction, including the subterfuge called "natural growth". It was during a similar "freeze" in the early 1990s that Israel built thousands of settler housing units on occupied land. Arab optimism and Israeli anxiety were amplified as Obama and his Middle East envoy George Mitchell said repeatedly that this time they wanted a total halt.
Yet the firmness shows signs of erosion. Israeli press reports speak of a "compromise" taking shape in which Israel would be allowed to complete thousands of already planned housing units. Although those reports were denied by the United States, several participants in the White House meeting said Obama alluded to an unspecified compromise in the works.
Anything short of a complete cessation of settlement construction will mark an achievement for Israel; what is important is not the number of units the United States may approve but the principle that this administration, like its predecessors, will license Israel's illegal colonization. Once that principle is established, Israel may present more faits accomplis and build at will.
And even if Israel does agree to a verifiable cessation, the US has structured the matter as a quid pro quo in which Israel is not required to do anything without receiving a reward. The president has appealed to Arab states to normalize ties with Israel if it freezes settlements, including opening diplomatic missions and permitting overflights by El Al aircraft (recall that when en route to bomb Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981, Israeli warplanes reportedly falsely identified themselves as commercial aviation). Given how little leverage the Arab side has, it would be totally disarmed if it conceded any such gestures in exchange for so little.
Israel's settlements violate numerous UN Security Council resolutions and the Fourth Geneva Convention. It should no more be rewarded for ending settlement construction than Iraq should have been rewarded for withdrawing from Kuwait. While occupied, war-torn Iraq is still paying Kuwait billions of dollars annually in compensation for a seven-month long occupation that ended almost two decades ago. The US is offering Israel prizes, not for ending a 42-year-old occupation, but merely for ceasing to commit some crimes.
This can hardly be described as anything other than a net gain for Israel, especially since the settlement project is reaching its natural conclusion. There are already 500,000 settlers in the West Bank, who with their infrastructure consume more than 42 percent of the land. Nothing Obama has ever said indicates he will deviate from his predecessors' policy of recognizing these facts and demanding that Palestinians agree to let Israel keep settlements already built.
While all the attention is focused on the freeze, Israel maintains its siege of Gaza--despite Obama's calls to loosen it--and continues to build the West Bank wall five years after the International Court of Justice ordered it torn down. The United States itself continues to undermine chances for intra-Palestinian reconciliation, and therefore credible negotiations, by fueling the smoldering civil war between US-backed militias on the one hand and resistance factions led by Hamas on the other.
On the outside Israelis may be crying about US "pressure" but on the inside they must be quietly smiling.- Published 16/7/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of "One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse".
Obama means what he says
Israeli leaders say they're bewildered by the Obama administration's "obsession" with West Bank settlement growth. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was recently quoted asking/grumbling "what do they want from me?" His aides told reporters and American Jewish leaders that Washington's position on settlements is "childish", "stupid" and "delusional" and that the Obama team should "come to its senses."
I don't think that Netanyahu and his aides are genuinely perplexed or mystified by the administration's demand that Israel stop all settlement construction in the West Bank. They know why settlements are an obstruction to earnestly negotiating a peace deal with the Palestinians. They know that settlements are an obstacle to the implementation of a two-state solution and therefore an impediment to America's policy in the region. They also know that Israel is committed to the roadmap peace plan, which calls for freezing all settlement activity including "natural growth".
What they apparently refuse to understand is that this president, unlike his predecessors in the White House, really means it. He genuinely means it when he says he intends to push vigorously for a comprehensive Middle East peace deal that includes the creation of a Palestinian state. This president means what he says and says what he thinks. President Barack Obama promised Americans to always tell them the truth. He is doing the same with his interlocutors overseas.
Israelis who know about my experience with the Democratic Party and with Chicago politics often ask me what Barack Obama is really trying to achieve in the Middle East and why he insists on an Israeli settlement freeze. What is really behind it, they ask. I tell my Israeli friends that they don't need my expertise. The answer is simple. There is no hidden agenda. There is no need to guess or read the tea leaves. Obama's public policy is his real policy. What you see is what you get. Straight and simple.
Furthermore, Obama resents the politics of winks-and-nods. He resents the years of saying one thing and doing another that characterized Israel-US relations, particularly with regard to the construction of West Bank settlements. He says it. "Part of being a good friend is being honest," Obama recently told National Public Radio. "And I think there have been times where we are not as honest as we should be about the fact that the current direction, the current trajectory in the region is profoundly negative, not only for Israeli interests but also US interests." Settlements, he said, are a part of that.
In a recent interview with the New York Times' Thomas Friedman, Obama correctly pointed out that "there is a Kabuki dance going on constantly" with regard to Middle East peace efforts. He boldly added: "That is what I would like to see broken down. I am going to be holding up a mirror and saying: 'Here is the situation, and the US is prepared to work with all of you to deal with these problems.'" He then said: "Leaders have to lead, and, hopefully, they will get supported by their people."
Obama is leading. He is doing so boldly and transparently, with the kind of credibility and charisma--both domestically and internationally--that many of his predecessors lacked. I believe that if regional and international leaders rise to the challenge and the promise of President Obama, they may find in him the one who will finally broker lasting peace between Jews and Arabs.
If Netanyahu and his team seriously consider the president's agenda, they may realize--as well they should--that it constitutes a rare opportunity for ending, once and for all, the Arab-Israel conflict, including Israel's conflict with the Palestinians. President Obama clearly stated why a freeze on settlements is imperative. He is seeking meaningful negotiations toward a final resolution of the conflict. For such negotiations to be held in earnest, Israel cannot take measures that prejudge their outcome and should not engage in actions that Palestinians and their Arab brethren throughout the Middle East view as provocative and aggressive.
Obviously, the Palestinians should take steps to show that they are serious about peace negotiations and Arab governments should do their part to support peace efforts, and the president is pushing on these fronts. But what the Arabs do or not do doesn't change what Israel should do.
We at Americans for Peace Now, and our friends at Israel's Peace Now movement, believe that for the sake of its security, stability and long-term wellbeing, Israel should immediately reverse the settlement enterprise. And now, particularly now, instead of seeking "shticks and tricks" to evade a settlement freeze--in the words of New York Congressman Gary Ackerman, a staunch friend of Israel--Netanyahu should do whatever it takes to take advantage of the opportunity that Obama proposes.
As we see it, no Israeli leader can afford to turn his or her back at such an opportunity. Generations of Israelis will demand explanations from leaders who missed opportunities for peace because they insisted, instead, on entrenching Israel's devastating occupation of the West Bank.- Published 16/7/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Debra DeLee, formerly chair of the Democratic National Committee, is the president and CEO of Americans for Peace Now.
Is a US-Israel clash inevitable under Netanyahu?
It was not surprising that the Netanyahu government decided to take a confrontational approach with the US on the question of stopping all building in the settlements. Three reasons account for this: first, there was no actual pressure on the government of Israel other than verbal requests, even if public and seemingly firm. Second, there may be room for "bargaining" to keep at least "natural growth" possible, however it is defined, especially if defined in a way that may keep the present governing coalition intact, a process that is underway. Third, support among pro-Israel lobbies in the US for the present government of Israel has by no means disappeared.
The Obama administration has so far succeeded in isolating the question of the settlements from general support for Israel, as Netanyahu discovered while meeting with members of the US Congress during his first trip to the US after he became prime minister. Even ardent supporters of Israel in Congress were not sympathetic on this issue. But it remains to be seen if Congress will remain silent if actual and tangible pressure is exercised, a red line that most US presidents were not willing to cross in the past.
Only George Bush senior dared cross this line, threatening to withdraw loan guarantees for the state of Israel during the Shamir government just before the Madrid conference of October 1991. Some believe that this was one reason why he lost his bid for a second term.
In the next few months, we will witness a process of maneuvering and an attempt to dilute all the requests of the Obama administration, a process that may well continue into next year. This was evident in all the conditions placed by Netanyahu in his speech in mid-June that have to attend before mentioning the word "state" in relation to Palestinians. It was obvious to all and sundry that what he had in mind was something like the present situation, a form of "self government" for the Palestinian Authority, shorn of sovereignty but nevertheless to be called a state if Palestinians so prefer.
This is the basic challenge facing the Obama administration as well as Palestinians and Arabs, who will also be asked to begin a process of normalization with Israel in conjunction with any progress achieved in the political process if it takes off at all. It is a challenge, but also a responsibility because any possible settlement that does not carry credibility among Palestinians as well as the Arab public will simply ensure that the seeds of conflict remain in place to be re-ignited in the not too distant future.
Freezing all settlement construction is the first test of the credibility and resolve of the Obama administration. In principle, Arab states can also help since several are needed by the US administration given its problems in the region and the economic crisis. The key question is: do they have the political will? Some Arab leaders tried to impress upon the new US administration the need for a determined effort to resolve the conflict. But these efforts, while necessary, are not enough given that states' policies are determined by the balance of concrete interests and not merely by advice, no matter how pressing or sound.
For the PA, this is a critical watershed, possibly the last stage in its life given that Palestinians never entertained the idea that the final outcome of the "peace process" was for the PA to function merely as a large municipality to administer the affairs of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. And after nearly 18 years of "negotiations" since the Madrid conference, the PA cannot endure an additional endless process without result. Its credibility is at stake as is the legitimacy of its continued existence. At various junctures in the past few years following the failure of negotiations, there were public calls for the dissolution of the PA. Such calls will no doubt come back with any future failure.
With the Netanyahu government prospects are not propitious to say the least. And it pains one to contemplate the price of failure: an open-ended conflict that will keep the region boiling. Such is the responsibility that the Obama administration carries. The question is: does it have the political muscle and the political will?- Published 16/7/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
George Giacaman teaches at Birzeit University and contributes political analysis to Arab and international media.
Obama's calculations were wrong
I admit I was mistaken about the direction the relationship between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government would take. From the pragmatic point of view, it seemed consensual that the two-state solution was on its way to the freezer with a tag attached: see under "solutionism". This would have placed the differences between President Barack Obama and PM Binyamin Netanyahu on the level of principle. In view of realities on the ground, Obama would avoid confrontation with Israel and work with Netanyahu to accelerate economic cooperation between Palestinians and Israelis.
Instead, Obama chose to embark on a collision course between the two new administrations in Israel and the US. Among Netanyahu's advisers there are some who believe that those who set Obama on this course of confrontation are close advisers like Rahm Emmanuel who think they understand Israeli society and politics and who detest Netanyahu from the time they served in the Clinton administration. This confrontation apparently started from day one of Netanyahu's tenure; when he visited the White House for the first time a month and a half after taking office he already encountered a chilly reception.
This is unprecedented. Even during the presidency of Jimmy Carter, whom many compare to Obama, the first visits by prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and later Menachem Begin were warm and friendly, at least on the surface, despite grave disagreements on central issues.
This strategy of confrontation from the outset was a mistake; Obama was misled by his advisers. People like Emmanuel and David Axelrod saw Israel in the context of a problematic domestic policy that is designed to suppress the American Jewish community and silence the so-called Jewish lobby. They had two goals in mind: to contain Israel and deter it from taking any initiative, especially against Iran, and to change Netanyahu's order of priority from Iran first to "peace in our time" in Palestine.
Obama and his people thought that concentrated pressure on the settlements issue would do the trick. It would split the Israeli political system and Israeli society wide open and plunge the country into socio-political crisis. Toward that goal they had access to a vehicle that no ordinary ruler has in a conflict, whether with an adversary or an ally: some of the leading voices and commentators in Israel who harbor pathological hatred toward Netanyahu were willing to collaborate in psychological warfare against the Israeli government. Because the settlements are not a consensus issue either in Israeli society or among Israel's friends in America, the Obama people thought they could create a rift between Israel and American Jewry.
Obama's calculations were wrong. Although the Israeli public is far from unified on the settlements and many would dismantle them if this was needed for a final peace agreement, there is broad agreement with three current Netanyahu positions. First, the nuclearization of Iran is of the utmost urgency and may require military action. Second, the Palestinians have thus far proven incapable of establishing their own state based on the requisite security regime and implementation of the rule of law, meaning that any territory ceded to them will turn into a terrorist base and eventually fall to Hamas. And third, any Palestinian state that is ultimately created must not pose a threat to Israel.
By endorsing Palestinian statehood with all the preconditions, Netanyahu in his Bar Ilan speech closed the last gap that separated him from most of the Israeli public. The public, which is not infatuated with Netanyahu, nevertheless rallied to his support because it perceived as absurd the unique and disproportional pressure directed at Israel at this juncture in its history, which reeks of appeasement. The way Obama fixed upon Israel as an ugly vehicle for rapprochement with the Muslim world was simply too transparent.
Thus President Obama, who initially was much loved and admired by many in Israel, failed in his attempt to create a political crisis here and instead reaped a harvest of hatred. These days he is despised in Israel, with his lack of moral fiber regarding Iran and the elections putsch there adding fuel to the fire. Both his policy toward Iran and that regarding Israel have exposed US weakness.
One outcome that is now emerging is a rapprochement between Israel and Egypt. Both countries are concerned about sharing a border with an Islamist fundamentalist regime in Gaza; both feel threatened by Iran; and both are most disturbed by the destabilizing effect of President Obama's initiatives in the region and elsewhere. Thus one positive outcome of the developments of the last couple of months is Egypt and Israel hugging each other tightly in the dark.- Published 16/7/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Amnon Lord is a senior editor and columnist at Makor Rishon newspaper.
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