Tuesday, Jun 11, 2024

Freeze Talks Dead – Peace Process Back to Square One

The formal collapse of the Obama administration's Middle East peace initiative last week went almost unnoticed among the headlines about the president's controversial compromise over tax cuts with congressional Republicans. The US freeze proposal's meltdown and the recognition that the US effort to revive direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks had failed was the inevitable result of Obama's initial strategic blunder. That was his demand, shortly after taking office, that Israel impose a moratorium on all new construction, not only in the West Bank, but also East Yerushalayim. By making that demand the cornerstone of its peacemaking policy, the Obama administration gave the Palestinians a ready made excuse for refusing to return to the negotiations they had broken off more than two years ago.

Even though it soon became clear that the administration could not force Israel to accept its demand for a total constructions freeze, the US kept up the pressure, even after Netanyahu went as far as he could by imposing a 10-month freeze in the West Bank. At the same time, the US continued to tolerate the Palestinian refusal to return to the peace talks, even when Obama put his own personal prestige on the line, by inviting both PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu to the White House in September to restart the talks under his personal supervision.


It was hopeless. After just three face-to-face negotiating sessions, the Palestinians walked out, using Israel’s refusal to renew Netanyahu’s voluntary freeze as their excuse once more. Even after the US seemed to be on the verge of getting Israel to agree to renew the previous freeze, the Palestinians moved the goal posts again, insisting that the new freeze apply to Yerushalayim as well.


While the US is still unwilling to say it, the Israelis recognized the Palestinian demand for extending the freeze to Yerushalayim for what it was, a poison pill designed to make the resumption of negotiations impossible. The maneuvering over the freeze during the previous year had made it clear that extending the demand for a freeze to Yerushalayim was a concession that no Israeli leader could make and hope to survive politically. It was even more unthinkable for Netanyahu, the head of a right wing coalition who had made maintaining the unity of Yerushalayim under Israeli control the signature issue of his political career.




Publicly, the main reason given by the US for dropping its efforts to reach an agreement with Israel on renewing the freeze was Israel’s insistence on putting into writing the verbal promises that Secretary of State Clinton had made to Netanyahu in sweetening the US offer. But it is more likely that the deal was killed by the Palestinian insistence on including Yerushalayim in the freeze. There was also the growing realization that it was highly unlikely that the 3-month duration of the proposed freeze extension would yield any significant progress toward a final status agreement.


In fact, the entire US peace initiative never had a chance at success, because Abbas has not been in any position to engage in meaningful negotiations with Israel since Hamas took over Gaza, effectively dividing the Palestinian leadership.


This explains why Abbas has consistently refused to budge from his original, maximal demands. Even after a year of direct negotiations with then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Abbas refused to heed US pleas that he sign some kind of document formalizing the agreements the two reached behind closed doors. Instead, when Obama took office, Abbas demanded that negotiations with Israel resume based upon the territorial concessions which Olmert was willing to make, while refusing to honor the concessions which he had reportedly offered in return. Then, when Obama started calling for a West Bank and Yerushalayim construction freeze, Abbas quickly added it to his own set of demands, and since then, he has steadfastly refused to back down from them.




This obsession with a construction freeze is a relatively new development in the peace process, and a demand that Israel has never formally accepted. The Oslo Accords and all the other signed agreements between Israel and the Palestinians make no mention of a construction freeze. Direct peace talks were held between Israeli and Palestinian leaders for 15 years, from 1993-2008, while construction continued.


The first time a blanket freeze, was proposed was in the 2001 report of a fact-finding commission headed by former Senator George Mitchell. He had been appointed by President Bill Clinton to find a solution to end the terrorist intifada begun by the Palestinians after Arafat rejected the generous peace proposals the US and Israel made at the failed 2000 Camp David summit.


Israel rejected Mitchell’s freeze demand, but it didn’t stop there. It resurfaced again in the Roadmap peace plan, which was drafted by the Quartet and endorsed by the US in 2003. Even though Israel again rejected it, the US demand that Israel accept the freeze in some form became a recurring theme in US-Israeli discussions.


After years of delicate negotiations, the US and Israel finally came to an understanding that Israel would restrict new construction in the West Bank to within the existing boundaries of settlements which Israel was expected to keep in any final peace agreement. Furthermore, Israel made it clear that it was not accepting any restrictions on construction in Yerushalayim.




However, when Obama, on his second day as president, appointed Mitchell to serve as his special Middle East envoy, many predicted that he would soon be pressing Israel again on the construction freeze issue.


That is, in fact, exactly what happened. Mitchell, along with a number of White House officials and liberal American Jews were confident that Obama could score a quick foreign policy victory by pressuring Netanyahu into agreeing to a freeze.


That was a total misreading of Netanyahu and the political situation in Israel. But what was even more surprising was Obama’s public repudiation of the detailed agreement on West Bank construction which the previous Israeli government had reached with the Bush administration. Under Obama, the US sought to deny that such an agreement ever existed. That stopped after Bush administration officials came forward to publicly refute the Obama administration’s claim.


Obama and Clinton then made another crucial mistake by publicly demanding that Netanyahu agree to halt all construction in the West Bank and East Yerushalayim. They believed that they could pressure him into submission, as then-President Bill Clinton did during Netanyahu’s first stint as prime minister.


But Netanyahu had learned from his previous mistakes. This time, he stood up to the pressure, and when he countered with his own prescription for reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians, Netanyahu had the full support of his coalition partners and the Israeli public. In the end, it was the Obama administration which had to back down from its freeze demand.




Even the Europeans understood that Obama’s attempt to pressure Israel into bowing to his freeze demand was a crucial mistake. One of the WikiLeak cables revealed a few weeks ago, dating back to July 2009, quotes Gerard Araud, a former French ambassador to Israel, and then the political director of the French Foreign Ministry, who warned the US against getting “into any prolonged negotiations with the Israelis on settlements; the core issue is negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. . . Nothing will be possible if the US, the EU, and the Arab states are not united in pressing both sides.” The current dead end of the US effort to renew direct negotiations proves that Araud was right.


“Trying to get a freeze . . . was always the wrong focus,” said Aaron David Miller, a US peace negotiator during the Clinton administration. “It forced the Obama team to either pummel the Israelis into one or bribe them. Neither worked. And now 20 months in [to the Obama presidency], we have no freeze, no direct talks, no process, and no prospect of a quick agreement. Plus, US credibility [in the region] is now much diminished and our options are bad.”




When Netanyahu agreed to institute a voluntary, 10-month freeze last November, he thought that it would allow Israel to prove its good will to the Obama administration, and put the Palestinians on the defensive. It seemed to work for a while. US-Israel relations improved, while the steadfast refusal of Abbas to renew direct negotiations frustrated US officials. Finally, realizing that he badly needed a diplomatic achievement to sidetrack the growing criticism of his domestic policies, Obama decided to go for broke again in a personal initiative to restart the Middle East peace talks.


But the underlying problems remained. After more than a year of failed administration peacemaking efforts in the region, the prospects for success were worse than ever. Mitchell’s strategy, which banked on the freeze jump starting the negotiations, was replaced by a more traditional negotiating approach designed by Dennis Ross, the veteran of US peacemaking efforts during the Clinton era.


It started, with a meeting between Abbas and Netanyahu at the White House on September 1. At that time Obama said that they had “a moment of opportunity that must be seized” and called for them to resolve their Israeli-Palestinian dispute within a year.


But the new round of talks quickly foundered over the same freeze issue. When the initial 10-month freeze expired on September 26, Abbas refused to return to the negotiations unless it was renewed, and extended to include Yerushalayim. To this day, the Obama administration remains unable to wind down the unrealistic Arab expectations that it had created last year by first raising the demand for a freeze of construction in Yerushalayim.




The collapse of the effort to restart direct talks means that the administration has nothing to show for the enormous political capital it invested in the effort over the past two years. It has disappointed hopes in the Arab world that the US would force Israel into making further concessions beyond the construction freeze. Instead, the Obama administration has spent all this time haggling with Israel over the freeze while failing to restart serious negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians over the core issues that divide them.


The failure of the Ross-led initiative has led to the return of Mitchell, who was reported to be on the verge of resigning from his post after Ross gained influence in the Obama administration. But there is little he can do now to keep the illusion of serious negotiations alive.


Mitchell met with Netanyahu Tuesday, after which the prime minister made a polite statement describing the session as “very good,” and that they “spoke about ways to advance the peace process, because that is Israel’s aim. Everyone needs peace, including the Palestinians, and I hope they will answer to that need.” In other words, nothing happened. Nobody held out any hope for anything different coming out of Mitchell’s scheduled meeting with Abbas later.


At this point, each side is dug into its position, and now that the US freeze offer has been taken off the table, there is nothing on the immediate horizon that could budge them.


US officials tried to soft-pedal the announcement of the failure of their initiative. They told reporters last Tuesday, on a “not for attribution” basis, that the US had withdrawn the package of political and security incentives it had offered to Israel in exchange for a 90-day extension of the freeze that had expired on September 26.


The offer had included an additional 20 F-35I next-generation jet fighters for the Israeli air force, worth $3 billion, a US commitment to block all anti-Israel resolutions in the UN Security Council and other international organizations, as well as a US promise not to ask for another extension after the new 90-day freeze expires.


But once it became apparent that the Palestinians were unwilling to budge, US officials gave up, realizing that even if they reached an agreement with Israel over a freeze, the effort would ultimately prove fruitless.




US officials tried to put the best face they could on the failure of their efforts. They claimed that “indirect” negotiations would continue this week with Israelis and Palestinians meeting separately with US officials, but everyone understood that the US claim that, “We are going to immediately engage with both sides on substantive negotiations,” was not really serious. The failure of the new round of talks, just three months after they were launched with such fanfare at the White House, was another black eye for the Obama administration.


A few days later, in her remarks to the prestigious Saban Forum on Middle East Policy in Washington, Secretary of State Clinton made it clear that the US still disapproves of Jewish settlement expansion in Palestinian areas.


She called the settlements “an issue that must be dealt with by the parties along with the other final status issues.” She noted that “like every American administration for decades, we do not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity.”


Clinton also pledged that the Obama administration would privately offer its own proposals to resolve the differences between the two sides.


“We will work to narrow the gaps, asking tough questions and expecting substantive answers,” Clinton said to the audience, which included senior Israeli and Palestinian leaders. “And, in the context of our private conversations with the parties, we will offer our own ideas and bridging proposals when appropriate.”


Clinton said that “by doing this, the parties can rebuild trust, demonstrate their seriousness, and hopefully find enough common ground on which to eventually relaunch direct negotiations and achieve a framework agreement.”




She called for an agreement “on a single line drawn on a map that divides Israel from Palestine.” She also declared that, “the Palestinian leaders must be able to show their people that the occupation will be over.” But her words flew in the face of the harsh reality that the Palestinians totally lack the seriousness and willingness to compromise needed to relaunch a process that would lead to such an outcome.


When Ehud Barak addressed the same audience, he talked about the need to reach agreement with the Palestinians over the division of Yerushalayim. He called for Israel to retain Western Yerushalayim and the Jewish suburbs, ceding the Arab-populated neighborhoods to the Palestinians, and reaching some kind of compromise arrangement with the Arabs over the Har Habayis and vicinity.


Barak’s remarks caused a storm of protest in Israel, requiring Netanyahu to say that Barak was speaking only as the chairman of the Labor Party, and not for the government.


With the collapse of the US freeze initiative, the Palestinians have been regressing. They are again talking about seeking formal recognition of Palestinian statehood in the UN and other international bodies


Brazil and Argentina announced this month that they would recognize a Palestinian state with pre-1967 borders, and Uruguay pledged to do the same next year.




The Palestinians are also once again pressing their demands for the so-called refugee right of return, which no Israeli leader has even been willing to seriously consider. Granting the Arabs the right of return would quickly result in the Jewish population of Israel being overwhelmed.


In an op-ed published in the British publication, The Guardian last week, PA Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat claimed that, “contrary to what Israeli political figures would like the world to believe, the issue of Palestinian refugees is not an academic matter, the solution of which is somehow rendered moot by the passage of time and by the creation of Israeli ‘facts on the ground.’” Erekat again blamed Israel for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem, when it was the Arab states who initiated the 1948 war. He also claimed that not only do those Arabs who left the country in 1948 have a right to return today, or to claim compensation, but that all of their descendants have the same rights.


His hard line stand on the refugee issue demonstrates how the Palestinians are attempting to make peace more difficult to achieve.


When US-Israel relations were on the mend a few months ago, Obama talked about Israel as a Jewish state. This seemed to be an implicit rejection of the Arab refugee right of return claim. But in her speech at the Saban Forum dinner, Clinton was much more vague in talking about the right of return claim, calling it “a difficult and emotional issue.”


Clinton still claims that the negotiations have to be pursued now, despite the fact that, no thanks to the negotiations to date, the situation on the ground in the West Bank today is now the best it has been since the intifada started.”I know that improvements in security and growing prosperity have convinced some that this conflict can be waited out or largely ignored,” she said. “This view is wrong and it is dangerous,” she said, making the leftist argument that demographic trends endanger Israel’s future as a “Jewish and democratic state” while the evolving “technology of war” mean that Israel’s population remain threatened by terrorist missile attacks.




Meanwhile, the Palestinians accused Israel of being responsible for the collapse of the US peacemaking effort. Erakat said that Netanyahu had “succeeded in torpedoing the peace talks. . . If you cannot have him stop settlements for a few months, what do you expect to get out of him on Yerushalayim or the 1967 borders?”


Erekat called the US decision to give up on its efforts to renew the direct talks a “major setback for stability in the region,” implying, along with other Palestinian officials, that the consequence could be a renewal of terrorist violence.




“We had hoped the American administration would hold Israel accountable,” Erekat said, voicing a widespread Palestinian criticism of the Obama administration, which they say misled them, and undermined US credibility in the region.


The Arabs had believed that after pressuring Israel to accept to a total construction freeze in the West Bank and Yerushalayim, Obama would then force Israel to accept all of the Palestinian demands. Their statements made it clear that they remain unwilling to make any concessions. They still insist that Israel must give up all the land it conquered in 1967, including the areas of the West Bank and Yerushalayim which are now home to half a million Jews.


Abbas’ advisor, Yasser Abed Rabbo, dismissed Clinton’s speech to the Saban Forum, as “a repeat of previous US positions.” He suggested that the US was being unfair by holding both Israel and the Palestinians equally responsible for the current stalemate, and that progress would not be made until the US endorsed all the Palestinian demands on Israel.


He said that the PA leadership would reject the US call to resume talks with Israel using Mitchell as the intermediary.


“We don’t want to return to indirect talks to once again discuss agendas for the negotiations because we will then waste another year,” he said.


He told a London-based Arabic newspaper that the end of Obama’s effort to restart the direct peace talks, “is the first time since the Vietnam War that the US has declared its failure.”


Some Palestinian officials are even talking about dissolving the Palestinian Authority and repudiating their responsibilities under the Oslo Accords, daring Israel to re-establish its control over the entire West Bank.




In the meantime, some analysts predict that the US will put its efforts to foster an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement on the back burner, maintaining indirect talks on a low level in an effort to keep a lid on the situation.


“Obama’s got bigger fish to fry and he doesn’t see movement on either side for now so he’s going to wait,” said Mark Heller, principal research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. “Ultimately his attention will be redirected to trying to resolve the Mideast conflict because that’s what always happens. Some kind of crisis is inevitable.”


Netanyahu’s spokesman, Mark Regev, also claims that the prime minister “remains determined to continue the efforts to achieve a historic peace agreement with the Palestinians. We believe that it is indeed possible to see the Palestinians achieve sovereignty while protecting Israel’s most vital national and security interests.”



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