Tuesday, Apr 23, 2024

Peace Process Peters Out

In the wake of the collapse of the US freeze proposal, dooming any chance for a resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in the immediate future, both sides are re-evaluating their options. Each side is trying to win US and international support for their positions, while blaming the other for the diplomatic breakdown. The Palestinians warn that the breakdown will lead to a unilateral declaration of statehood, or a new outbreak of violence, or both. However, the Israeli government is taking a wait-and-see approach. Israel's ambassador to the United States Michael Oren told Bloomberg News last week that Israel is not waiving its insistence on security guarantees as the underpinnings for any possible further agreement on borders for a future Palestinian state or a renewal of the construction freeze in the West Bank.

Oren emphasized an old Israeli negotiating principle, “the deeper our sense of security, the more flexibility we can show. Keep in mind that we are looking at a Palestinian state that is going to be right opposite our major cities, right opposite Tel Aviv, right opposite our major airport. We’re taking some immense risks here.”

Oren also confirmed speculation that the real reason why the freeze deal with the US fell apart was because the Palestinians insisted that any new freeze must include Yerushalayim. The initial media cover story was that the refusal of the US to put in writing its offer to Israel of 20 additional F-35I Joint Strike Fighters, along with other diplomatic and security benefits in exchange for the freeze. In reality, the US was attempting to hide the fact that the peace process is still being hobbled by Obama’s initial blunder by publicly insisting soon after entering office that Israel accept a freeze that includes Yerushalayim.


The US said that in abandoning direct talks for now, it would try to reinstate indirect talks, or shuttle diplomacy, with Obama’s special envoy George Mitchell, to serve as the intermediary. That is a giant step backwards, in light of the fact that Mitchell had been struggling for months earlier this year to make the indirect talks worthwhile, to no avail. That is why Obama felt obliged to break the ice with a personal invitation to PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu to come to the White House to inaugurate direct talks in September. Now that those talks have failed, there is nothing to go back to. Mitchell is only going through the motions of holding negotiations. At this point, the negotiating atmosphere has become so embittered that it is hard to even imagine a way forward under the current circumstances, while both sides harden their positions.




In his Bloomberg interview, Oren drew the Israeli position very clearly. Security guarantees must be agreed upon before there is any deal for land. According to Israel, Oren explained, “settlements are a subcategory of territory; and territory is a subcategory of security.” While the Israeli government accepts the concept of “two states for two people,” Oren explained that it is not willing to accept the Palestinian demand that Israel return to the pre-67 borders and cede the rest of the West Bank and Yerushalayim, “because those were not defensible borders.”


Oren said that Israel still fears a “nightmare scenario” under which hostile Arab armies seek to invade it from the East, over a porous border between a future Palestinian state and Jordan. That is why Israel is demanding “a continued Israeli Army presence along that border. It could be phased. It could be reviewed every couple of years to see how things are going,” Oren said, but as long as an Arab invasion from the East remains possible, Israeli soldiers must be stationed along the Jordan river to repel it.


Oren also said that the return of Palestinians who claim refugee status, including millions of first, second and third generation descendants of the original Palestinian refugees of 1948, is also a dire security threat. “Their return would turn Israel into a de facto Palestinian state,” he explained.


With regard to the repeated threats that the Palestinian Authority would pursue a bid for recognition of statehood at the United Nations Security Council, Oren called that scenario, “a disaster. It’s not going to bring about security for anybody.”


Oren added that the Palestinians have once again proved themselves to be “great experts at getting to ‘no’ ” in peace talks. For that to change, “someone will have to go down in Palestinian history as the person who made peace with the Jews,” and he hopes that person is Mahmoud Abbas.




Meanwhile, Netanyahu rejected accusations that recent moves by the Arabs and their allies to delegitimize Israel are the direct result of the failure of the effort to revive direct peace talks. Speaking before an audience of Jewish leaders and senior officials in various government ministries, he said that the goal of such efforts is the same that it has always been, the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state.


“Even if we succeed in achieving peace, the attacks on Israel’s legitimacy will continue. This is because their origin isn’t based on the events of 1967 or 1948,” Netanyahu said. “The attacks oppose the existence of the Jewish state. We can see throughout history that the attacks have increased particularly when Israel has used its right to defend itself.”


Netanyahu said that Israel must respond by showing the international community how much Israel has contributed, and also “delegitimize those who delegitimize us.”


The prime minister, however, acknowledged the need for Israel to reach a peace deal with its neighbors. “The search for peace is important and my government will continue to act toward it. We want peace, because we do not want war.”


Meanwhile, two lower level representatives of the Obama administration came to the region last week to continue talking with Israeli and Palestinian officials, if only to make it clear that it is not cutting its contacts with the two sides. But despite brave words to the contrary, nobody is expecting any significant progress in bridging the steadily widening gap between the Israeli and Palestinian positions on what a peace agreement between them should look like.




The region is bracing for the inevitable consequences of the failure of Obama’s direct peace talks initiative. The situation is reminiscent of the explosive situation which followed the collapse of President Bill Clinton’s Camp David summit in the summer of 2000. Expectations for reaching a peace agreement then were much higher than they were this September when Obama called Abbas and Netanyahu to the White House to force them to sit down and talk across the table.


The failure of the latest peacemaking effort poses a far greater challenge for Abbas than for Netanyahu. Ever since the Obama administration began calling publicly for Israel to accept a West Bank and Yerushalayim construction freeze, Abbas has benefitted from the expectation that the US would exert pressure on Israel for concessions, and for a while, it actually did that, but the effort failed.


A sure sign that Abbas has now given up on reviving the peace talks is what he said to a group of left wing Israeli politicians who visited his office in Ramallah last week. He reminisced about how close he came two years ago to reaching a peace agreement with then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, even though at the time, he refused to put any of those agreements in writing so that they would be binding on the next Israeli government. When a leader tells you that an agreement he once rejected now looks better to him than the deal he is being offered now, you know that he is no longer serious, and is looking past his current negotiating partner.


PA negotiator Nabil Shaath told journalists, “I don’t think we are going to resume the negotiations soon. The peace process is in a deep coma…. I don’t think anyone wants to continue this negotiation. . . This is an exercise in futility, ridiculous…”




It is not clear whether the collapse of the Obama initiative will result in a renewal of West Bank terrorism. The Palestinian Authority, at this point, has a large political stake in maintaining the current calm, and subsequent economic progress, across the West Bank. It has a real self-interest in maintaining its current high level of security cooperation with Israeli forces. A fatal stabbing attack last week on two young women who were hiking in a wooded area near Beit Shemesh was initially characterized as a terrorist incident, but the circumstances of the attack remain unclear, and no terrorist group has come forward yet to claim responsibility.


However, the Israeli government seems unconcerned by the breakdown in the US initiative. It believes that it has succeeded by turning back renewed pressure to extend the West Bank construction freeze to Yerushalayim, while demonstrating flexibility by negotiating, in good faith, a limited renewal of the West Bank freeze. The fact that the Palestinians have refused to return to the negotiating table puts the onus for the breakdown on them, and the result is that construction in the West Bank and Yerushalayim can now continue, relatively unencumbered.




Netanyahu surprised many by standing up to the White House pressure, and forcing the US to back down again. He succeeded in getting Obama to drop the demand which Netanyahu could never accept without destroying his political career, agreeing to a Yerushalayim construction freeze. But while Obama could afford to back away from that demand, Abbas either could not, or would not, and the difference doesn’t matter. Abbas has long been viewed by his own people as a weak leader, and under the thumb of the US and its Western allies. As a result, Abbas is in no position to compromise on any of the demands that he has put forward, from a full Israeli withdrawal to the pre-‘67 borders to the right of Palestinian refugee return, and now for a complete end to settlement construction and Israeli housing projects in Yerushalayim. He dares not show any sign of weakness, for fear of losing even more political ground and credibility to Hamas.


Abbas’ standing will also be hurt by a State Department diplomatic cable revealed by WikiLeaks It quotes Yuval Diskin, the head of the Shin Bet, as saying that the Palestinian Authority asked Israel to attack Hamas in June, 2007, as Hamas was battling PA security forces from Gaza.


Diskin called the PA forces in Gaza “desperate, disorganized and demoralized,” and called the situation unprecedented. He also said that the PA security apparatus shares “almost all the intelligence that it collects,”with Israel, because, “they understand that Israel’s security is central to their survival in the struggle with Hamas in the West Bank.”


Diskin’s statements would seem to validate Hamas accusations that Abbas has been working with Israel against its interests.


With the collapse of the Obama peace initiative, it will become more difficult for Abbas to deliver more improvements in the quality of life for Arabs in the West Bank through further expansion of power sharing arrangements with Israel. This will give Hamas an opportunity to re-reassert its influence in the West Bank.




Hamas leaders see the failure of the Obama peace initiative as further vindication of their approach which preaches rejection of any formal peace agreement, past, present or future, with Israel. It also argues that continued armed resistance is the only way that the Palestinians will achieve their ultimate goal, which is not the creation of a Palestinian state, but rather the destruction of Israel.


Israeli opponents of the peace process have long argued that in fact, Abbas and Hamas only differ on the most effective means, but share the same ultimate goal. Certainly, the goal of Abbas, and Arafat before him, was not the creation of a Palestinian state for its own sake. Either leader could have had that with the blessing of the US, its western allies, and even some Israeli governments over the past decade, any time they wanted. A Palestinian state with interim borders and a viable agreement to cooperate with Israel, has been there for the taking, only that is not what they wanted. Arafat and now Abbas were always interested in getting Israel to agree to more concessions rather than ending the suffering and exile of the Palestinian people. Abbas and his Fatah and PA cronies steadfastly refuse, to this day, to accept Israel’s legitimacy to exist and live in peace permanently in the region as long as it defines itself as a historic homeland and safe haven for Jews.




One of Netanyahu’s most important accomplishments as prime minister has been to expose the true goals of the Palestinian leadership, while persistently asserting Israel’s basic demands for recognition, acceptance and security in the region as its paramount objectives in any peace negotiation.


The tactic has forced the hand of the Arabs, and resulted in their renewed efforts to try to delegitimize Israel’s existence in every possible international forum. One can interpret, if you wish, the Arab obsession with that goal as exposing the historic truth of “Esav sonay es Yaakov,” or in terms of Muslim intolerance or racial hatred, or classic anti-Semitism. Take your pick. The bottom line is plain enough. As far as Israel is concerned, the normal rules of international conduct, diplomacy and fair play do not apply. A double standard is ruthlessly and illogically applied, and it infects and subverts the moral authority of every forum in which it is allowed to raise its ugly head.




For now, that diplomatic process seems to have run its course. The important point for Israel is that it cannot be held entirely to blame for the failure of the Obama initiative. Netanyahu’s willingness to negotiate a freeze deal showed enough good faith to prevent Obama from engaging in outright retaliation against Israel, even if the White House still refuses to accept Israel’s claim to Yerushalayim, over which the freeze deal ultimately foundered.


Obama knows that he is in no position to press the point. He already has his hands full trying to figure out how to govern effectively over the next two years without going to war with Israel’s friends on both sides of the political aisle in Washington over this issue.


For now, Obama’s goal of negotiating an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, with the current cast of characters, has been put on the back burner. It is apparent that the White House still does not accept its responsibility for further destabilizing the diplomatic situation by recklessly putting the goal of imposing a freeze on Israel above the practical considerations of actually promoting a durable peace. In that respect, Netanyahu deserves far more credit than Obama does. Despite the hostile rhetoric from Palestinian leaders, and deteriorating military conditions along Israel’s borders with Gaza, Lebanon and Syria, Netanyahu has not allowed himself to be provoked either by missiles and artillery shells lobbed across the border with Gaza, or the continued Hezbollah missile buildup, or Syrian trouble-making, in cahoots with Iran.




As far as the Iranian nuclear threat is concerned, the fact that it is now mostly out of the headlines is not a good sign. Rather, it is an indication that all sides have given up on a peaceful settlement, and instead are preparing for an inevitable confrontation. One can only hope and pray that it will not lead to a nuclear conflict, but it would be foolhardy to assume that the Iranians would start listening to reason at this late date.


The Iranians are very confident at this point. They have outmaneuvered US attempts to isolate them diplomatically, and their influence has been increasing throughout the region. They think they are winning, and see no reason to back down from their ambitions, which include the destruction of Israel.


It should be clear at this point that neither the Iranians nor the Israelis are bluffing. Things have gone much too far for that. The clock is ticking down, but it is impossible to predict with any certainty when it will reach zero-hour, or exactly what will happen when it does.




One of the crucial questions is, when the explosion comes, what will set it off, and where? A few years ago, Israel’s northern border with Lebanon would have been a likely candidate. That is less so today. Hezbollah is no less dangerous today than it was then. On the contrary. Hezbollah’s missile arsenal is larger and more deadly than ever. But Hezbollah cannot afford to drag Lebanon into another war with Israel, because this time, the Lebanese people are more likely to hold Hezbollah responsible for the resulting disaster.


Hezbollah leaders also fear being accused of complicity in the February, 2005 murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. At the time of his assassination by a car bomb, Hariri was the leader of the growing movement by Lebanese political figures to assert the country’s independence from Syria.


It had been widely assumed at the time that Syria was behind Hariri’s assassination, which sparked widespread street protests and a patriotic resurgence among many Lebanese citizens. A subsequent UN-sponsored international investigation uncovered evidence that Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah also played a role in the assassination, validating accusations by Hezbollah’s Lebanese opponents that it is, in fact, an agent of Iran and the Syrian government, rather than a legitimate Lebanese movement.


The issue is now coming to a head because an special tribunal, set up by the UN and based in The Hague, Netherlands, is about to hand down criminal indictments against those responsible for the murder, and it is expected that Hezbollah figures will be among those charged.


That leaves Gaza. On this front, despite Israeli efforts to ease the blockade which has been in force since Hamas kicked out Abbas and Fatah in 2007, the leadership of Hamas has taken a much more confrontational turn.




The picture on the ground in Gaza today is deceptive. Because of the partial lifting of the Israeli embargo, as well as the continued flow of contraband through the tunnels into Rafiach, the stores in Gaza are full of Israeli food and clothes, and a broad selection of Western goods, but most people in Gaza can’t afford to buy more than the bare essentials.


Because of the easing of Israeli embargo, a number of construction projects, including sewage treatment plants and schools are getting under way, but hardly enough to begin to make up for all the destruction and time lost due to the years of conflict and neglect. The Gaza border with Egypt, which had been sealed for 3 years, is now open, but few people cross because security clearances are so hard to get.


The change in the embargo policy was prompted by the crisis with Turkey this summer after the incident in which 9 Turkish terrorists were killed by Israeli commandos while trying to run the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza. Israeli authorities were forced to admit that the embargo policy had failed to achieve its goal of loosening Hamas’ rule, while imposing too high a diplomatic price.




Slowly, the embargo was loosened. According to the Israeli Defense Ministry, imports for the construction of 78 civilian projects in Gaza have now been approved, including hospitals, schools and housing. All those projects are sponsored by international aid groups with no direct connection with Hamas.


In addition, the Israeli cabinet has decided to permit a broader range of goods made in Gaza to be exported across the Israeli border, including agricultural products and wooden furniture.


The change in policy has enabled a wider variety of consumer goods to enter Gaza from Israel. The volume of freight being imported from Israel is in the process of quadrupling over what it was two years ago.


However, the residents of Gaza and Israel’s international critics are still not satisfied. They want Israel to open its borders further so that many of the unemployed Arab laborers living in Gaza can return to the jobs they once held in Israel.


Even though the relaxation in the Israeli embargo has allowed some reconstruction of the damage done during the war two years ago to begin, imports of construction materials such as cement, gravel and steel, are still being strictly controlled to prevent their diversion to Hamas, which could use them to rebuild Gaza military installations.




Most disturbingly, the sporadic rocket attacks which had struck fear into Israeli towns within a few miles of the Gaza border over much of the past decade have resumed. Two years after the Israeli military swooped in for a three-week war intended to end the rocket bombardment, the missiles and mortar shells are flying at the rate of 20-30 a month. Israeli troops are again retaliating, by conducting brief raids.


So far, the rockets have not caused much damage, but on Tuesday, a rocket landed next to a kindergarten in a kibbutz near Ashkelon, injuring a 14-year-old girl. If the missile bombardment continues, it is only a matter of time until a random shot does more serious damage, forcing a much harsher Israeli response, and a rapid escalation to full scale war.


The Gaza problem has both short term and long term ramifications. One of the more depressing conclusions that must be drawn from the situation is that there is no real prospect of ousting Hamas from control over Gaza in the foreseeable future. The three year embargo Israel  imposed on imports into Gaza was effectively circumvented by the huge network of smuggling tunnels, which only strengthened Hamas’ economic control over Gaza. The war two years ago in which Israel killed hundreds of Hamas fighters and decimated whole neighborhoods in Gaza, did not result in the collapse of Hamas rule.




With help from Iran and the worldwide Islamic terrorist network, Hamas has re-armed, rebuilt its defenses, re-trained its fighters, and poses a greater security threat to the Israeli towns adjacent to Gaza than ever before.


Hamas has also been emboldened to step up its challenge to the Palestinian Authority for the right to claim the leadership of the Palestinian people. Fatah activists in Gaza report that they have been subject to more harassment. They have been called in for interrogations, had their computers and passports confiscated, and are more reluctant to express their dissent. While the Palestinian Authority still claims to speak for the residents of Gaza, in fact, its influence in Gaza today is almost non-existent. If this trend continues, it could undermine the whole concept of the two-state solution.


In fact, today, there are three de facto authorities on the ground in various parts of the region, the Israeli government, the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas. There is no immediate prospect that this situation will change. The harsh reality is that an agreement between only two of the three will not suffice to create a stable peace, but the proponents of the two-state solution don’t want to hear that..


Furthermore, the security situation between Gaza and Israel is anything but stable. “Everyone in the Israeli government knows this situation cannot go on forever,” a top Israeli official recently told a New York Times reporter. “It is an illusion to think that there can ever be peace here with Hamas in power.”




As with the situation with regard to Iran, the Israeli military knows that another confrontation with Hamas fighters in Gaza is just a matter of time.


Now that the rocket bombardment from Gaza has resumed, the war clock is ticking down on this front as well. The Israeli military must respond to the rockets, which will inevitably lead to an escalation of the bombardment, and eventually, all out war.


When it comes, both sides will apply the lessons learned from the other side’s tactics during Operation Cast Lead. The Israeli army is well aware that Hamas fighters are now better armed and better trained than they were two years ago. No doubt, the Israeli military has prepared new tactics to meet those challenges.


As often happens, even though Israel won Operation Cast Lead on the battlefield, two years ago, it lost it in the war for hearts and minds in the international community. If there is another round of fighting in Gaza, the most serious challenge for Israel might be how it will deal with the diplomatic fallout, and whether it can also win the peace after the shooting stops.



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