Tuesday, May 28, 2024

New Israel – PA Talks

Palestinian and Israeli negotiators met for the first time in more than a year on Tuesday, but neither side had serious negotiations in mind. The true aim of the meeting in Amman was to position both sides for a return to the United Nations, where the Palestinians hope to pursue their efforts to achieve recognition of statehood without reaching a peace agreement with Israel. The Israelis, by agreeing to meet without pre-conditions as the Quartet called for., hoped to demonstrate that there is no need for the Palestinians to abandon peace negotiations, and that it is still possible for them to achieve statehood and recognition if they are sincere in seeking a peaceful two-state solution and an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Quartet, composed of the US, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations, has been pressing for a return by both sides to the negotiating table. Yet, for the first time since the Oslo peace process began more than 18 years ago, the United States has not take a central role in this attempt to arrange a resumption of the peace negotiations.

 This is due to the total failure of Obama’s peace policies over the past three years, which are now in shambles because of his administration’s clumsy efforts to publicly force Israel into unilateral concessions.


Instead of encouraging the two sides to return to the negotiating table in a spirit of compromise, Obama’s demands persuaded the Arabs that compromise was unnecessary. That is why they have refused to negotiate, in the belief that Obama would force Israel into accepting their demands without the need for any concessions on their part.




Over the past three years, Obama’s repeated public calls for concessions from Israel have immediately been added to the unconditional demands of the Palestinians, setting back efforts to restart negotiations rather than promoting them. It began with Obama’s call in 2009 for a total freeze on construction in the West Bank and Yerushalayim. Obama insisted on it, even though it violated a prior agreement between the US and Israeli governments.


Obama also blundered in his speech to the UN General Assembly in September 2010, when he suggested that a Palestinian state should become a reality and gain admission to the UN within a year. This encouraged Abbas to abandon negotiations and seek recognition without an Israeli peace agreement, in the belief that the move would have US support.


Obama’s attempt to bring together Abbas and Netanyahu in October 2010 to resume direct negotiations was also doomed to failure. Obama’s critical mistake was allowing Abbas to use the expiration of Netanyahu’s 10-month voluntary construction freeze as an excuse for refusing to resume the peace talks which he had walked away from two years earlier.


Finally, in May, 2011, when Obama publicly called for Israel to return to its pre-67 boundaries, he virtually forced Netanyahu to reject the idea, putting a renewal of peace talks in such a framework completely out of reach.


Through these blunders, Obama squandered the trust of both sides, and destroying US credibility as an honest broker between them. As a result, the two sides are now so far apart that Tuesday’s meeting Amman never had a chance to succeed.




The talks took place between PA negotiator Saeb Erekat and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s envoy Yitzchok Molcho, and were hosted by Jordan’s King Abdullah. He called them in an effort to meet the 90-day deadline set by the Quartet on September 23 for the Israelis and the Palestinians to deliver “comprehensive proposals on territory and security” to serve as a basis for restarting direct peace negotiations to be concluded by the end of 2012. A follow-up meeting to review the proposals is supposed to take place between the Israeli and Palestinian envoys and Quartet representatives. The deadline for delivering the “comprehensive proposals” expires on January 14.


The Quartet initiative was supposed to be a substitute for the failed Palestinian initiative to achieve unilateral recognition at the UN. The effort was doomed by a US commitment to kill it in the Security Council with the US veto, if that proved necessary. But the PA’s application never got to a Security Council vote. It was disqualified by UN technical experts because the PA simply does not meet the minimum requirements for recognition as a state.


Not even peace process advocates like Israeli president Shimon Peres, held out any real hope for the success of the Quartet initiative. Peres said that before that initiative was launched, he had been meeting privately with Abbas, with Netanyahu’s knowledge, in Amman and London, and expected to resume those talks once the Quartet effort was officially declared a failure.




Furthermore, by agreeing to the Egyptian brokered deal to unify the PA with Hamas and other terrorist groups, Abbas has turned his back on making peace with Israel. As a practical matter, the new PA alliance with Hamas makes it impossible for Israel and the Palestinians, to return to the negotiating table under the Oslo accords framework. The PA’s alliance with Hamas and other terrorist groups which refuse to make peace with Israel, represents a fundamental rejection of the goal and spirit of the Oslo accords as well as their explicit provisions.


Abbas’ flat refusal to recognize the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state means that regardless of all US and European hopes to the contrary, the concept of a two-state solution is now really dead.




The end of the peace process is a byproduct of the upheaval which has rocked the Middle East over the past year. What began hopefully as the Arab Spring has now become a nightmarish uprising of Islamic fundamentalists across the region and the Palestinians are no exception.


These developments have also destroyed the carefully nurtured, but naive illusion of the supporters of the Oslo peace process that an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement could lead to the resolution of the entire region’s problems.


The despotic Arab rulers who artificially maintained the false issue of Palestinian refugees as a useful diversion for more than 60 years are now being swept away. The old diplomatic alliances and power equations no longer apply. All of the prior relationships, including the 30 year old Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement are now in play once again, and may not survive the regionwide upheaval.


In other words, many of the basic assumptions underlying Israel’s strategic decision to negotiate a peace agreement with the Palestinians are no longer valid. That is why Netanyahu said last week that “If Hamas joins the Palestinian government we will not hold negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. The peace process can only advance while maintaining security arrangements, which is becoming more difficult in light of the current situation in the region.”




Another element in Israeli security calculation is the effective withdrawal of US influence in the region. Obama has ceded the traditional lead role of the US in stabilizing the region. This has left a power vacuum to be filled by countries like Iran, Great Britain, France and Russia which are not afraid to assert their national interests, while Obama seems paralyzed to act without UN backing and a regional consensus, and even then shuns the leadership role.


US power and influence in the region has been diminished not just because of the failure of Obama’s effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, but because of a long series of serious mistakes and missed opportunities in the region for which Obama was responsible. These include Obama’s abandonment of the Iranian pro-democracy movement in May, 2009, his apologetic June 2009 speech to the Islamic community at Cairo University, and his repeated failure to support US friends and oppose US enemies throughout the year of the Arab Spring.


Because he is now fully engaged in a tough re-election campaign in which he will need the support of American Jews, Obama is unlikely to come up with any fresh pro-Palestinian initiatives before November. However, if Obama wins re-election, Israel can expect him to apply even more pressure for concessions during his second term. The bad blood and gulf of mistrust between Obama and Netanyahu runs deep, and as long as they both remain in power, the US-Israeli partnership in the region will continue to be a difficult one.




According to former US Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller, the major difference between the negative view of Israel held by Obama and the more positive outlook of his predecessors, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, is that Obama never had any emotional attachment or allegiance to Israel. For Clinton, that attachment came from his personal admiration for Israel’s leaders, such as Yitzchak Rabin, and for Bush, from his identification with Israel’s war against terrorism. Clinton and Bush were also sympathetic to Israel because of their evangelical Christian beliefs, whereas Obama’s religious mentor, Reverend James Wright, was an outspoken enemy of Israel.


Publicly, especially during campaign season, Obama likes to pretend as if he is Israel’s best friend, but his hostile actions towards Israel and its leader during his first term have belied those politically motivated claims.


In fact, Obama tends to see Israel more as a foreign relations problem than as a reliable American ally, and his clear personal animosity towards Netanyahu has only made matters worse.




Writing in the op-ed page of the Los Angeles Times, Miller says that “Obama doesn’t like him, doesn’t trust him and views him as a con man.” In addition, Obama still resents the humiliation from the time when he pressed him for a settlement freeze, and “Netanyahu called his bluff and Obama backed down.” Obama has taken his revenge.


His administration has publicly insulted the prime minister and treated him disrespectfully on several occasions, even as Netanyahu gamely stood his ground and resisted Obama’s demands face to face for further Israeli concessions. While the two remain publicly civil to one another, Obama’s personal dislike for Netanyahu was vividly expressed in his open mike comments in November, agreeing with French President Nicolas Sarkozy when he called Bibi a liar. As a result, the two can no longer work constructively together because, as Miller puts it, “the trust and capacity to give each of the benefit of the doubt has long ago evaporated.”


At this point, Obama is incapable of inspiring the trust required from Israel to take more chances for achieving peace with the Palestinians, and without that, there was never any hope of Tuesday’s negotiating session succeeding.


Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did issue a statement praising Jordan for arranging the talks and restating US support for resuming negotiations using the now stale and discredited rhetoric of Oslo peace advocates. She talked about the need to move forward because, “the status quo is not sustainable and the parties must act boldly to advance the cause of peace.” The fact that Clinton could even use the phrase ‘status quo” to describe the current situation in the Middle East, shows just how out of touch the US outlook has become.




Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat has repeated the familiar demands that Israel halt construction in the West Bank and Yerushalayim and accept the pre-1967 lines as a starting point for border negotiations as preconditions for peace negotiations to resume, which Israel continues to reject, citing the Quartet’s call for a resumption of peace negotiations without any preconditions.


To the usual preconditions, Erekat has added a new demand, the release of the remaining Palestinian terrorists held in Israeli prisons, no doubt as an effort by Fatah and the PA to match the achievements of Hamas in securing the release of more than 1000 prisoners for the safe return of Gilad Schalit.


Erekat denied that the PA leadership was considering dismantling the Oslo agreements, and completely abandoning the peace process, despite several recent statements to that effect by various PA leaders. That is because the PA is still heavily dependent on financial aid from the US and its European allies which is conditioned on keeping alive hope for a negotiated peace agreement.


However, Erekat did warn that the failure of the Amman talks would prompt the Palestinians to reapply for UN recognition. “The Jordanian efforts are the last minute efforts to salvage the situation,” Erekat said.


Hamas called on the PA not to participate in the Amman meeting, arguing that re-engaging in peace talks would only help Israel to improve its image in the diplomatic community.


The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine also condemned the PA involvement in the Amman talks as a “grave mistake that would encourage the Israeli occupation to pursue its practices” against Palestinians.


Islamic Jihad organization called the meeting a waste of time that would allow Israel to continue creating new facts on the ground.


Not surprisingly, many Israelis would privately agree with Islamic Jihad that the Amman talks are a waste of time, in terms of any hope that they would lead to real progress toward peace. Israel’s participation in them is only necessary to convince the members of the Quartet of Israel’s willingness to go the extra mile in the search for peace, even though it currently has no reliable peace partner to negotiate with.




Defense Minister Ehud Barak, in testimony before the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee this week, presented his view of the new strategic challenges which Israel confronts in the region today.


He said that the magnitude of the recent chain of events in the region comprises a “strategic warning that demands a different type of response from Israel.” He added that, “the Middle East is in a transition phase” and that the “dominant and central characteristics of the Arab Spring and instability. . . The old order in the region has been seriously undermined and a new order must take its place.”


He predicted that the turmoil and protests throughout the region will continue, and that their main characteristics are the domination of the mob, a general rise in hostility towards Israel as a broad unifying theme, and the growing political power of radical Islamic groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist in Egypt.




That danger was highlighted this week in a statement by Dr. Rashad Bayoumi, one of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was the overwhelming winner in the first round of elections for the Egyptian Parliament. He declared that the Brotherhood, “will not recognize Israel under any circumstances. It is an occupation entity and a criminal enemy,” and that neither he nor any other member of the Brotherhood leadership would agree to meet with Israeli officials..


“There is no condition that obligates the Brotherhood to recognize Israel,” Bayoumi told the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper. He also warned that while Egypt will continue to uphold all prior international agreements during the “interim” period, once a new Egyptian government is in place, the peace treaty with Israel would be reopened and its continuation made subject to a referendum by the Egyptian people.


It was not clear whether Bayoumi was expressing his personal opinion or speaking for the leadership of Brotherhood.


The Brotherhood won the first stage of the parliamentary voting in Egypt, and Tuesday, when the last staged of the voting commenced, appeared certain to emerge as Egypt’s most powerful political party. As a result, some Egyptian commentators suggested that the Brotherhood might not wish to endanger its legitimacy in the eyes of the United States and other Western countries by immediately canceling the peace treaty with Israel. It may therefore be using talking about holding a public referendum on the future of the treaty as a diplomatic trial balloon.




Barak told the Knesset committee that he believes that it is “still too early to determine whether the ‘Arab Spring’ will turn into an ‘Islamic Winter,’ but that from a historical point of view, there are strong indications that Israel needs to stay alert to that danger.


Barak also warned that in the current environment, Israel faces new security challenges along its border. “In the South, the Sinai desert could turn into a greenhouse for the flourishing of terrorist groups, and in the North, Assad’s loss of control in Syria could lead to ramifications in the Golan Heights and elsewhere. All of this demands greater Israeli defense preparedness and alertness,” Barak said, along with the “responsibility of the Israel defense establishment to formulate a response and be prepared for any development or geopolitical shift.” He also predicted that it will likely take years before the new strategic situation in the region stabilizes and becomes clear.


At the same time, Barak noted that the West is dealing with a lingering economic crisis which has distracted the attention of many leaders, leaving the “burning” global strategic issues to be dealt with through crisis management. This is also true of the United States, whose ability and readiness to project power under Obama is now an open question. Nevertheless, in Barak’s opinion, Israel has no choice but to continue to rely on its friendship with the US as the only remaining superpower.



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