Obama Talks Middle East Peace Amid Crimea Crisis

American president Barack Obama welcomes his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, to the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, May 28, 2009
American president Barack Obama welcomes his Palestinian counterpart, 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 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. Read more “Real Hardship Could Be After United Nations Palestine Vote”

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

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. Read more “Palestinians Hint at Possibility of Renewed Talks”

Abbas to Push Membership Case at General Assembly

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. Read more “Abbas to Push Membership Case at General Assembly”

A Ray of Hope for the Palestinians

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.

The Palestinians lost faith in direct negotiations with Israel a long time ago. After President Barack Obama’s one year time frame for a peace settlement collapsed this time last year, Abbas appears to have come to the realization that the only way for his people to edge closer to statehood is by drawing the entire international community into the process. Call it a unilateral move or a callous breach of the Oslo Accords — arguments that the Israelis have been peddling for the past couple of months — what the UN drive cannot be called is a strategic mistake. If anything, it will isolate the Israelis and the United States with most of the world endorsing Abbas’ proposal.

After hinting in press conferences and briefings that the United States would veto a Palestinian request for statehood at the Security Council, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland finally stated unequivocally last week that Washington’s power in the council will be used to block the effort. “It should not come as a shock to anyone that the United States oppose a move in New York by the Palestinians to try to establish a state that can only be achieved through negotiations,” she said. “So, yes, if something comes to a vote in the UN Security Council, the United States will veto.” Read more “A Ray of Hope for the Palestinians”

Hamas, Fatah Working Together

Palestinian politics has long been divided. Issues as diverse as economic development and institution building are rarely tackled by the major parties along the same lines. Palestine’s most significant political groupings, Hamas and Fatah, have contrary strategic interests in “high politics” as well, with the former distrustful of the West and the latter owing its very survival to foreign donors. But the most complicated issue within the Palestinian political sphere is how to go about dealing with Israel, a country that the Fatah party has long tried to negotiate with.

The impasse between Hamas and Fatah started long before the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections but most Middle East observers consider that contest to be the jump off point for what has essentially become a fragmented Palestinian government. Read more “Hamas, Fatah Working Together”

The Peace Abbas Rejected

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz has revealed the peace plan that former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in September of last year. “Abbas did not respond, and negotiations ended,” according to Haaretz.

The peace plan encompassed an exchange of land, with Israel gaining Jerusalem and a little over 6 percent of the West Bank — parts that are home to 75 percent of the settlement population living in the occupied territory. Dozens of other settlements in the Jordan Valley, in the eastern Samarian hills and in the Hebron region were to have been dismantled.

The Palestinians were to have been compensated for the loss of territory with strips of land north and south of the West Bank and additional ground east of the Gaza Strip. To provide safe passage between the two parts of Palestine, Olmert offered to secure a highway that would remain Israeli territory but lack any Israeli presence.

Haaretz notes that in a formal reply, the former prime minister’s office claimed that their map contains a “number of inaccuracies that are not consistent with the map that was ultimately presented” but based as it is on different official sources, it ought to provide a rough idea of what was offered to the Palestinians nonetheless.

Although the Olmert Plan was less generous than what Ehud Barak offered as prime minister at the 2000 Camp David Summit, it is still difficult to understand why Abbas refused to consider it. He could have provided his people with a sovereign state and end the conflict once and for all but apparently, it wasn’t enough.

Now, due to some clumsy diplomacy on the part of the Obama Administration, Abbas is refusing to so much as sit down with the Israelis in spite of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s offer to largely freeze the construction of settlements in the West Bank. One wonders what more the Palestinians are honestly expecting to get.