Obama Talks Middle East Peace Amid Crimea Crisis

President Barack Obama welcomes Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas to the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, May 28, 2009
President Barack Obama welcomes Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas to the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, May 28, 2009 (White House/Pete Souza)

Washington’s attention may be focused on events in the Crimea but the rest of the world is not standing still. Indeed, on the very day Russian officials moved to formally annex the peninsula from Ukraine, President Barack Obama delved into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

On Monday, he hosted Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas in Washington DC. As was the case when Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the White House earlier this month, Abbas was treated to a red carpet welcome and both leaders exchanged platitudes in front of reporters about the need for peace, the importance of the diplomatic process and why the conflict needs to end after festering for so many years. As President Abbas said, “We don’t have any time to waste. Time is not on our side.”

As usual, President Obama was cautiously upbeat about the situation, despite the fact that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators remain far apart on the very issues that have ruined previous talks: settlements, borders, security arrangements and the status of Jerusalem.

“This is obviously an elusive goal and there’s a reason why it’s taken decades for us to even get to the point where we are now,” the president said. “But we remain convinced that there is an opportunity.” He added, “I believe that now is the time for not just the leaders of both sides but also the peoples of both sides to embrace this opportunity for peace.”

The question now, as it has always been, is whether Israel and the Palestinian Authority feel the same sense of urgency.

Judging from Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomatic efforts in recent months, it does not appear that either side is willing or able to come to the difficult political decisions that the Americans say are needed for diplomacy to succeed. Where Kerry was once optimistic about concluding a final peace agreement by April of next year, he has dialed those expectations down, pushing instead for a framework agreement that would stretch out the process further into the year. Despite the fact that the parameters of a peace agreement have been well known since the Clinton Parameters of 2000, Abbas and Netanyahu are constrained by multiple factors — some of which, like the holdout of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, are outside of their control.

Over the long-term, Obama’s discussions with Abbas are unlikely to produce more than his talks with Netanyahu; that is, without any progress on moving the process forward. At best, the administration, with Secretary Kerry in the lead, will keep Israeli-Palestinian talks going for the remainder of the year and hope that a framework will find enough common ground for Abbas and Netanyahu to latch onto.

The dispute is difficult and challenging, as Obama and Kerry have constantly said. But if there is one positive, it is that the Israelis and Palestinians continue to negotiate, if for the simple reason that neither side wants to be blamed for spoiling an effort that John Kerry has invested so much of his own credibility in.

Real Hardship Could Be After United Nations Palestine Vote

President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority addresses the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York, September 27
President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority addresses the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York, September 27 (Pan-African News Wire)

President Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority face one of the most pressure packed days on Thursday when their diplomats are expected to send in a draft statement to the United Nations General Assembly for enhanced status in the world body.

The draft resolution, which was introduced to the United Nations earlier this month and announced (PDF) in front of the General Assembly in September, calls for the international community to recognize an independent Palestinian state on lands that have been occupied by Israel since the 1967 war — East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. But perhaps the most important aspect of the draft is the possibility of great power for the Palestinian Authority at the United Nations, including participation in the International Criminal Court.

After months of back-channel talks by the United States and an overt Israeli campaign to pressure the European member states to vote against or abstain from the measure, Israel has come to the realization that the Palestinians will succeed in their effort. Israeli diplomats and spokesmen for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are now downplaying the impact of the vote, calling it a symbolic gesture that will do nothing to improve the chances of a two-state solution.

In a drastic shift from its previous statements, Israel has also suggested that a vote for higher Palestinian representation in the United Nations will not result in extreme punishment for the Palestinian Authority.

This is a new development, considering the fact that Israel’s foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman once threatened to collapse the Palestinian Authority if Abbas moved forward with the measure. With a number of powerful Western European nations supporting the Palestinian bid for nonmember observer status, Israel has likely concluded that strong countermeasures after the vote would would hurt its image among other United Nations members and cause tremendous frustration in European capitals.

In many respects, what comes after the vote will affect the future of the peace process far more than the vote itself. The result of the Palestinian effort is a forgone conclusion and it has been for months: there are no vetoes in the General Assembly and the body is filled with postcolonial states that are traditionally sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. The question rather is whether the Israelis and Palestinians will act in a responsible manner after the resolution has passed.

If Mahmoud Abbas decides to sue Israel for war crimes in the international court, the prospects of Israel retaliating in an equally strong way increases exponentially. Direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians would be further away then ever and Israeli settlement building in the West Bank would continue at a faster pace. The interests of the international community, with the Europeans and the United States in the lead, would be best met by drilling a simple message into Abbas’ head: try to prosecute Israel would do far more damage to the peaceful process than any symbolic benefit he can derive from it.

Abbas has said that he would be willing to direct peace negotiations with the Israelis immediately after the General Assembly votes. The United Nations, the United States and Palestinians’ allies in the Arab world all need to make sure that he keeps that promise.

Abbas Suggests No “Right of Return” for Palestinians

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas addresses a press conference in Whitehall, London, January 16
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas addresses a press conference in Whitehall, London, January 16 (Cabinet Office)

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas put himself in a pot of hot water last weekend when he seemed to suggest, live on Israeli television, that Palestinian refugees should forget about returning to their original homes in Israeli territory if they wanted to establish an independent, sovereign Palestinian state.

Abbas used his personal life to drill home the point, saying that he has accepted the fact he cannot permanently return to the childhood home from which he was expelled in Israel’s 1948 war of independence.

The right of return, in which refugees and their descendants, estimated at five to six million, can reclaim their homes in Israel proper, is seen by many Palestinians as the most sensitive aspect of their entire conflict with Israel. For decades, Palestinian negotiators have insisted that those who were driven out of their homes during the 1948 war be allowed to reclaim their property, despite the fact that those houses now reside in the internationally-recognized state of Israel. Many families still have keys to their homes: a symbolic touch that illustrates just how important the right of return is to the millions of Palestinians living in Gaza, the West Bank and neighboring Arab countries.

Israel, however, has never seriously considered the Palestinians’ demand for the right of return. The influx of millions of Palestinians into what is now Israel would compromise the Jewish character of the state. Thus, much like settlement building in the West Bank and the final status of Jerusalem, the right of return has been among the most complicated issues of the peace process.

Abbas’ realization that he cannot reclaim his former home has therefore been perceived by a number of Israeli and Palestinian commentators as a change of tact by the Palestinian president.

Is Mahmoud Abbas, a man who previously took the common Palestinian position, reversing his tone on the issue of the right of return? Serving and former Israeli officials, some of whom have been involved in the peace process for years, believe that this may well be the case. Former prime minister Ehud Olmert lauded Abbas’ televised comments as a demonstration of his peacemaking sincerity. President Shimon Peres hailed the Palestinian leader’s words as “courageous.”

Others, like incumbent prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have been more guarded. After the interview was broadcast, Netanyahu addressed his cabinet and said that the only way the Palestinians can be taken seriously is if they return to substantive talks and dropped their demands for preconditions.

Abbas’ opponents in Hamas are infuriated that he would concede one of the most vital issues in the peace process without demanding anything in return. Demonstrations were set up in the Gaza Strip where Hamas supporters burned posters of the Palestinian president and called him a traitor.

Whatever he wanted to convey in the interview, Abbas scored at least a tactical victory by thrusting Palestine back into Israel’s political discourse where the threat of a nuclear armed Iran has been the focus of foreign relations in recent years. With little of a peace process to speak of in the last four years, trying to attain a two-state solution has taken on a secondary, if not tertiary importance to many Israeli politicians. That order may have just been shuffled.

Abbas’ engagement on Israeli television, while controversial and potentially unsettling for his political fortunes, has jolted the Israeli-Palestinian question back onto the front pages of Israel’s newspapers, just as the country is preparing for parliamentary elections.

Palestinians’ United Nations Push Could Backfire

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has made it clear that he will formally push for an enhancement of Palestinian status at the United Nations sometime in November. What is also clear is that Abbas’ effort, unlike his attempt at the Security Council last year to gain full member state status, is almost certain to succeed. With the General Assembly traditionally dedicated to the Palestinian cause and with no American veto of the measure impossible, the resolution will pass by a simple majority vote.

What is less certain, however, is how Israel and United States will react in the event that the Palestinians achieve their goal. A successful vote in the General Assembly would give the Palestinians the right to join a number of multilateral organizations for the first time, including the International Criminal Court, where Palestinian representatives could plausibly charge Israel for war crimes. For a country that has long used the concept of national security to justify its occupation of the West Bank and its embargo of the Gaza Strip, Palestinian membership of the court would serve as a legal headache for the state of Israel.

All of this begs the question: what measures will Israel take to counter, or punish, Abbas’ United Nations campaign? The United States presumably would support Israel in any countermeasure that is deemed reasonable. Obama Administration officials have argued that a unilateral Palestinian move at the United Nations would hurt the chances for a negotiated, final status peace agreement.

Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies are already combing through a list of options that they can take once the Palestinians acquire their “nonmember state” upgrade.

One option under consideration, withholding tax revenue that is collected on behalf of Abbas’ Palestinian Authority, has been used by the Israelis in the past when disputes arose over the peace process. A large chunk of the Palestinian Authority’s revenue comes from the taxes and customs duties that the Israelis collect and transfer to Ramallah. A decision to withhold those transfers could lead to the worsening of a financial cash crisis that economists ay is the worst in the Palestinian Authority’s eighteen year history.

Another option being mulled by Israeli policymakers is a total boycott on talking, dealing with and communicating with Mahmoud Abbas as long as he remains president. The Israelis used a similar policy with respect to the late Yasser Arafat when they no longer believed that he was interested in formulating a lasting peace. This policy would pack a major punch but also be incredibly rash. Washington would be likely to oppose it, seeing Abbas as the best hope for dialogue that the Israelis have had in a long time.

The Obama Administration may also decide to make its displeasure known by ratcheting up its own pressure. As was hinted by American officials during Abbas’ Security Council plan last year, donations and funding to the Palestinians could be put in jeopardy. The United States are the single largest financial contributor to Abbas’ West Bank government. Washington provides (PDF) close to $500 million in aid this year alone.

That funding could be threatened thanks to American legislation already on the books which mandates Congress and the White House to cut off funding for the Palestinians if their government acquires “the same standing as member states or full membership as a state in the United Nations or any specialized agency […] outside an agreement negotiated between Israel and the Palestinians.”

Depending on how the law is interpreted, an attempt by the Palestinian Authority to increase its United Nations representation from an “observer entity” to a “nonmember state” could possibly meet the criteria of an American aid block.

So while Abbas will receive the support he needs to attain more prestige at the United Nations, he will confront some very uncomfortable, if not painful, reprisals after the vote ends. With his government facing a terrible fiscal crisis, the Palestinian leader may well have to justify to his people why a greater voice in New York is more important to their cause than an administration that can pay its bills.

Palestinians Hint at Possibility of Renewed Talks

Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, answers questions from reporters in Paris, France, July 6, 2012
Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, answers questions from reporters in Paris, France, July 6, 2012 (Elysée)

There are many reasons why serious, substantive peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians have been stalled for four years but one of the most difficult stumbling blocks between the two sides has been the settlements issue. As the settlement population has risen in the West Bank over the past few years, Palestinian officials have been reluctant to meet with Israeli diplomats, believing that the discussions will not result in anything concrete. The Israelis, on the other hand, have consistently argued that the growth of settlements should not be an impediment to successful talks. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pointed the finger at Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas as the man holding up the process.

The same man may now break the impasse. The Associated Press and The Jerusalem Post both report this week that Abbas may be rethinking his original position. After a meeting with European diplomats about Palestine’s effort to acclaim nonmember state status at the United Nations, Abbas seemed to suggest that he was willing to rejoin the peace effort after the United Nations has a vote on the bid, which is scheduled for November.

“Going to the UN does not mean canceling the peace negotiations,” said Abbas. This, presumably, means that the Palestinian Authority may finally be ready to sit back down with the Israelis, a state whose leaders have largely kicked the Palestinian issue down the road to focus on the Iranian nuclear threat.

But more important than what he said was what Abbas left out. In contrast to previous speeches and statements he has made on the peace process, the president made no mention of Israeli settlement construction. Whether or not this is, in fact, a change in his position remains to be seen but the omission is a positive nugget that Middle Eastern hands are taking an interest in.

Settlements are not the only issue that has frustrated the process. Border disputes, including those in Jerusalem, the participation of other Palestinian parties like Hamas and the future presence of Israeli security forces in the West Bank have to be resolved. But it’s the settlements that Abbas has consistently referenced as reason not to sit down with the Israelis.

The only reason for the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table in 2010 was Netanyahu’s temporary freeze in settlement construction. But the Palestinians waited too long and the talks collapsed after three weeks. Netanyahu refused to extend the settlement freeze, despite pleas from the international actors involved in the peace process.

The question now is how Israel will respond to Abbas’ comments. The Israelis have been adamant that talks must be unconditional, meaning that the continued building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank should not be used as an excuse for delay. Yet the Israelis have been equally opposed to the Palestinian Authority’s campaign at the United Nations to attain nonmember state status, something that could very well put a stain on the process before it resumes.

Abbas to Push Membership Case at General Assembly

President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority addresses the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York, September 27
President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority addresses the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York, September 27 (Pan-African News Wire)

For most countries, the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly is both a chance to represent their citizens on a global stage and an opportunity to hold discussions about some of the world’s most urgent international security issues. Speeches are made, applause is heard, delegates meet behind the scenes and documents are drawn up. But for the Palestinians, the General Assembly is the best chance they have in a year to press their case for enhanced membership in the organization.

Since an attempt to attain full state status in the Security Council failed last year, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas is reportedly lowering his sights on the General Assembly, where the Palestinians have overwhelming support for their position in their dispute with the Israelis.

For Abbas, whose government has been strapped for cash and is just now recuperating from a series of protests in the West Bank over high prices, a push to improve the Palestinians’ status in the United Nations to “nonmember observer state” is his way of staying relevant.

Will a successful Palestinian bid in the General Assembly do anything to alleviate the problems that have plagued the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for so long? For the most part, probably not.

The roughly 500,000 Israeli settlers who live beyond the pre-1967 borders will still call the West Bank home. Jerusalem will still be a hotly contested city. Israel will remain in control of the Palestinian Authority’s tax revenues. Freedom of movement between the West Bank and Gaza will continue to be restricted.

Yet the move to nonmember state status is not entirely without benefits, the least of which is a clear and majority endorsed statement from the international community in support of the Palestinian Authority’s quest for autonomy.

In ditching the Security Council and relying instead on the General Assembly, Abbas has calculated that he simply cannot count on the support of the United States which has a veto in the former.

Abbas, who has shown more frustration with the peace process as he has aged, was dealt a humiliating blow last year when Washington lobbied the other Security Council members to vote against or abstain from a resolution that would have granted the Palestinians full membership. The Palestinians later abandoned the bid, sensing that they could not attain the necessary votes.

This time around, there is very little that the United States can do to change Abbas’ calculations. There are no vetoes in the General Assembly, a fact that all but guarantees the Palestinians’ success. Absent a real threat to the Palestinian leadership’s pocket book from the Obama Administration, something that would only deepen the West Bank’s financial crisis as it struggles to pay its employees, Abbas will resurrect himself as the paramount statesmen of Palestinian politics.

A Ray of Hope for the Palestinians

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Paris, France, June 14, 2010
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Paris, France, June 14, 2010 (Olivier Pacteau)

This Friday, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas will submit a formal request at the United Nations for recognition of statehood along the lines of the pre-1967 borders. Read more