Obama’s New Deal To Israel

In a last-ditch effort by the United States to salvage the direct peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent eight full hours with Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday morning.  The result was nothing short of remarkable from Clinton’s standpoint; the Israeli prime minister agreed that a resumption of negotiations would be a good idea. As Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East peace diplomat says in Foreign Policy, “any advance in the excruciatingly painful world of Arab-Israeli negotiations is significant.”

The downside is that the United States were forced to give up a lot of concessions just to convince the Israelis to take some positive steps forward. Essentially, the Obama Administration bribed Israel into accepting its position for the short term.

For a measly three-month extension of the settlement moratorium that originally expired in late September, Washington asked Congress to sell $3 billion worth of American military aircraft to the Israel Defense Forces, on top of the billion dollar aid package Tel Aviv receives on an annual basis. Perhaps more important for Netanyahu, the United States promised to veto any resolution at the UN Security Council that would embarrass Israel or condemn the occupation of Palestinian land.

The third assurance from Obama and Clinton is that East Jerusalem would be exempted from any additional freeze in Jewish settlements; a concession that the Palestinians have already stated as unacceptable. And the most consequential of all is a written American promise that this will be the last time President Obama asks the Israelis to halt settlement construction through official channels.

Netanyahu must be smiling, but all for the wrong reasons. Once again, his government was able to sidestep American demands, as well as pressure from the Israeli right. By acquring a tremendous amount of aid from Washington, Netanyahu can portray his recent trip to America as a victorious one. This may provide him with the necessary support to pass the new deal through the Israeli security cabinet; some hardliners have already indicated that they will abstain from the vote, thus virtually assuring that the proposal will be signed.

But the three month deadline is quite troubling. Even if Netanyahu successfully implements the new agreement, his negotiators will be coerced into hammering out a deal with the Palestinians on borders within an extremely short period of time (an issue that has eluded the Israeli-Palestinian peace process for close to twenty years).

The logic is simple: if borders are established, Israel can build on whatever territory is inside the Israeli line of control.

But if that deal cannot be reached within the three month timeframe (and that is unfortunately a possible scenario), then the entire enterprise is basically dead as long as Netanyahu is in the top job. Construction will continue on the West Bank, as is already happening in East Jerusalem, further eluding the possibility of a two-state solution. And Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, will respond by withdrawing from the process all together.

This may be Obama’s last chance to make some headway, at least during his first term in office. Otherwise, American diplomats might as well wait until a new Israeli government is seated.

Clinton, Netanyahu Discuss Peace Talks

After Vice President Joe Biden brokered a twenty four hour long rapprochement in American-Israeli relations this week, it is Hillary Clinton’s turn to try to revitalize the peace talks which the United States initiated in September.

The American secretary of state met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York on Thursday. In a joint statement released by the US State Department and Netanyahu’s office yesterday, Clinton expresses support for the creation of a Palestinian state, “based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps.” The document doesn’t say how the Israelis feel about such “swaps” however.

Although Israeli settlement construction remains a much-contested issue in the negotiations, the statement made no mention of Israel’s position. Yet its refusal to extend a moratorium on settlement construction prompted the Palestinians to walk out on the peace talks last month. This week, Netanyahu’s government announced another expansion of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem. President Barack Obama even weighed in on this decision from Jakarta, Indonesia, saying that the move was “unhelpful”. In a bold pronouncement, Netanyahu lashed back, attesting that Jerusalem will forever be the Israeli capital.

At a press conference Wednesday, Clinton similarly expressed disappointment with the planning of settlement construction in East Jerusalem. “This announcement was counterproductive to our efforts to resume negotiations between the parties,” she said. “We have long urged both parties to avoid actions which could undermine trust, including in Jerusalem.”

She praised the Palestinian authorities instead for “reversing a history of corruption and producing results that actually matter and improve the lives of Palestinians.” Washington will therefore donate an additional $150 million in direct assistance to the Palestinian Authority, Clinton announced. “This brings our direct budget assistance to a total of $225 million for the year and our overall support and investment to nearly $600 million this year,” she added.

A Twenty-Four Hour Long Rapprochement

At a time when President Barack Obama is busy meeting with foreign leaders on the Indian subcontinent and in Southeast Asia, Vice President Joseph Biden has taken the initiative in meetings with other world leaders of great consequence to the United States. First and foremost is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who just wrapped up an address in New Orleans to the Jewish Federation of North America.

That address occurred on Monday, which was why Netanyahu traveled to the United States in the first place. But on the preceding Sunday, the prime minister briefly held a face-to-face meeting with Biden on issues that we can only assume were related to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Read more “A Twenty-Four Hour Long Rapprochement”

Window of Opportunity for Peace?

One again an American president is flying in the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian people to try to reach some more satisfactory solution to the decade-old feud between the two nations. Barack Obama is having another try at the Middle Eastern peace process, inviting both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to Washington DC this week. According to his special envoy to the region, there is a real “window of opportunity” for an accord this time.

With many analysts expecting failure, the administration has insisted that getting the two parties to attend the first direct talks in more than eighteen months is something of a victory in its own right. The parameters of the negotiations are, deliberately, undefined. “What we’ve tried to do is to avoid a slavish adherence to the past while trying to learn what might have been improved in the past, what worked, what didn’t work,” said Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George Mitchell on Tuesday. “And so we have avoided deliberately any specific label or identification that this is a continuation of process A or B or C.”

The openendedness of the talks is part of the reason why they’re unlikely to succeed however. As Professor Stephen Walt explains at Foreign Policy, “the Obama Administration is about to repeat the same mistakes that doomed the Clinton Administration’s own Middle East peacemaking efforts and the Bush Administration’s even more halfhearted attempts.” The goal of the direct talks is rumored to be the signing of a “framework agreement” between the two sides which could be implemented over a period of up to ten years. According to Walt, we have seen this movie before.

This idea sounds a lot like the Oslo Accords, which also laid out a “framework” for peace, but deferred the hard issues to the end and repeatedly missed key deadlines. Or maybe it’s another version of the Road Map/Annapolis summit, which offered deadlines and bold talk and led precisely nowhere. Or perhaps what they have in mind is a “shelf agreement” — a piece of paper that sits “on the shelf” until conditions are right (i.e., forever).

Unless the new “framework” is very specific about the issues that really matter — borders, refugees, the status of East Jerusalem — Walt fears that “we will once again have a situation where spoilers on both sides have both an incentive and the opportunity to do whatever they can to disrupt the process.”

The great paradox of the negotiations is that United States is clearly willing and able to put great pressure on both Fatah and Hamas (albeit in different ways), even though that is like squeezing a dry lemon by now. Fatah has already recognized Israel’s existence and has surrendered any claims to 78 percent of original Mandate Palestine; all they are bargaining over now is the share they will get of the remaining 22 percent. Moreover, that 22 percent is already dotted with Israeli settlements (containing about 500,000 people), and carved up by settler-only bypass roads, checkpoints, fences, and walls. And even if they were to get an independent state on all of that remaining 22 percent (which isn’t likely) they will probably have to agree to some significant constraints on Palestinian sovereignty and they are going to have to compromise in some fashion on the issue of the “right of return.” The obvious point is that when you’ve got next to nothing, you’ve got very little left to give up, no matter how hard Uncle Sam twists your arm.

Little wonder The Jerusalem Post is skeptical, comparing the peace talks with an arranged marriage where neither the bridge nor the groom is in love. “Both reluctantly agree to stand under the huppa only because their parents — upon whom they are both still very much dependent — demand it,” writes the newspaper’s Herb Keinon. The parents being the president and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, in this case.

According to Keinon, both sides have indicated that they don’t really think it’ll work out. Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the radical Yisrael Beiteinu party, has been lowering expectations in particular, though considering his nationalistic political background, this shouldn’t be all too surprising. Still, it does seem as though the only ones bearing a semblance of optimism are Western negotiators, including George Mitchell and former British prime minister Tony Blair who has been the West’s permanent representative in the conflict area since leaving office in 2007.

Abbas and Netanyahu are scheduled to meet with President Obama today. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah II of Jordan will also attend the ceremony — “in view of their critical role in this effort,” said Clinton last week. All statesmen, Tony Blair included, will dine at the White House on September 1. The next day, Abbas and Netanyahu will head down to the State Department for trilateral meetings presided by Hillary Clinton.

The fact that Secretary Clinton, not the president, is spearheading the negotiations is no accident, according to Ben Smith of Politico. Early in his presidency, Obama attempted to reinvigorate the peace process by demanding a settlement freeze from the Israelis. Netanyahu offered a compromise: a ten month freeze (which will end this month), exempting Jerusalem as well as the construction of schools, synagogues and 3,000 homes that were already under construction. The administration rejected the deal and in doing so, strengthened the Palestinians in their resolve. Obama admitted his mistake last January and apparently chose to let things run their course for a while after that.

But, notes Smith, Obama is a man who thinks president should do big things and hasn’t given up yet. “Why should Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton be the only ones to get those great handshake pictures?” So, this time around, he will let Hillary Clinton test the waters. “If this thing actually gets rolling, Air Force One is all gassed up and ready to sweep into the region to close the deal.”

Netanyahu Rejects Criticism of Flotilla Raid

Speaking defiantly in the face of mounting international pressure, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended Israel’s attack on a flotilla of blockade runners on Wednesday. “Once again Israel faces hypocrisy and a biased rush to judgment,” he said.

The flotilla, carrying activists and humanitarian aid, was en route for the Gaza Strip on Monday when it was intercepted by the Israeli Navy. When several of the activists attacked Israeli commandos boarding the main ship, the soldiers reacted with force and killed at least nine people. The international community widely condemned the incident, Turkey especially, which described the raid as “a dark stain on the history of humanity” and called for a United Nations Security Council resolution.

Netanyahu appeared on Israeli television on Wednesday to defend the action. He reminded viewers that Hamas, which controls Gaza, is “smuggling thousands of Iranian rockets, missiles and other weaponry” into the area in order to fire on Israeli cities and settlements. “Israel has every right to interdict this weaponry and to inspect the ships that might be transporting them,” he added.

This is not a theoretical challenge or a theoretical threat. We’ve already interdicted vessels bound for Hezbollah and for Hamas from Iran containing hundreds of tons of weapons.

The prime minister said that Israeli forces “were met with a vicious mob” when they boarded the ships: “they were stabbed, they were clubbed, they were fired upon. They had to act in self-defense.” He described those activists as “members of an extremist group” which supports Hamas and “chanted battle cries against the Jews.”

Since it is crystal clear, according to Netanyahu, that the lives of Israeli seamen were in peril, he regretted the premature response of many countries in the wake of the incident. “Once again Israel is told that it has a right to defend itself but it is condemned every time it exercises that right,” he said. “Israel regrets the loss of life, but we will never apologize for defending ourselves.”

The humanitarian aid carried by the flotilla has since been transferred to trucks to be delivered to Gaza. Most of the activists held in detention have been released. Haartez reports that Hamas will not allow the goods to get into Gaza however until all activists are freed and unless the entire cargo is admitted.

Netanyahu Reaches Out to Russia

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia this Monday. The two discussed Middle Eastern peace, the Iranian nuclear threat and Holocaust denial.

With the European Union, the United Nations and the United States, Russia forms a Middle East Quartet dedicated to promoting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Netanyahu declared that his country was prepared to resume peace talks “in the coming weeks.” Russia is expected to host the Quartet’s ministerial meeting later this month.

Iran’s nuclear enrichment was undoubtedly high on the agenda. Last Sunday, the Israeli prime minister called upon the world to impose “crippling” sanctions against Iran. Relations with the United States have been strained since President Barack Obama demanded that Israel freeze settlement construction. Netanyahu appears to be reaching out to Russia now in order to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Russia however has been supplying Iran with military equipment. Before Netanyahu landed in Moscow, the Kremlin asserted that there are no sanctions against its selling of advanced anti-aircraft missiles to Iran because they are defensive weapons only. Israel for long attempted to prevent the deal from going through.

Netanyahu now asks Russia to support “sanctions with teeth” against Iran’s energy sector. “What is needed now is very tough sanctions that can influence this regime and severe sanctions that will considerably and convincingly harm the import and export of oil,” he told reporters. “Diluted sanctions don’t work.”

Until recently, Russia refused to support tougher sanctions against Iran. In recent days however, officials have indicated that Moscow is willing to adopt a more assertive stance.

President Medvedev emphasized that Israel is no ordinary partner. He spoke about the countries’ historical relations and stressed that the memory of World War II must be preserved in obvious reference to Holocaust deniers. Netanyahu was more explicit and stated that those who challenge or deny the Nazi genocide of the Jewish people must be fought and defeated.

Israel Threatens Force Against Settlers

Although the Israeli Goverment of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to freeze the construction of settlements in the West Bank altogether, it is imposing a moratorium on the building of new homes in the occupied territories — and it is willing to use force against Israeli settlers who refuse to abide by it.

Some Jewish colonists were so enraged by the government’s announced settlement freeze that Defense Minister Ehud Barak felt compelled to warn them that military force might be used if they continue to flout the ten-month agreement. Settlers have repeatedly blocked inspectors and security personnel from entering their communities with resistance growing increasingly hostile.

According to a memo leaked to Israeli media, the Defense Department is preparing to deploy unmanned drones to photograph illegal settlement construction. The document goes on to specify that military police, special forces and communication specialists to jam cell phone frequences could all be called upon to enforce order.

The plan was probably leaked by settler sympathizers although there are skeptics who suggest that the authorities themselves were responsible as it could help the government portray itself as willing to confront domestic opposition for the sake of attaining peace.

Peace, however, is hardly to become a reality any time soon. With about 300,000 Israelis currently living in the West Bank, the Palestinian Authorities rejected the Netanyahu Goverment’s compromise to slowdown settlements construction with the exception of East Jerusalem and 3,000 homes currently under construction in the West Bank. Seeing as how the United States also insist that Israel shut down settlement construction in its entirety, there is little reason to assume that any sort of negotiations will be resumed in the near future.