Trump Deserves Praise for Ending the Palestinian Veto

Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani Benjamin Netanyahu Donald Trump
Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, the foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, join Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and American president Donald Trump at the White House in Washington DC, September 15 (White House/Tia Dufour)

I haven’t been Donald Trump’s greatest fan, but for once he deserves praise: for facilitating the normalization of ties between Israel and two of its Arab neighbors.

In a treaty signed at the White House on Tuesday, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates entered into diplomatic relations with the Jewish state for the first time.

Only Egypt and Jordan had so far. Other Arab states do not accept Israeli passports and do not exchange embassies with Tel Aviv.

We don’t know how involved Trump was in the negotiations, and the agreements fall short of what he calls a “peace deal”. The countries weren’t at war.

But it’s a significant step and a welcome departure from previous presidents, who allowed the Palestinians a veto over Arab-Israeli relations. Read more “Trump Deserves Praise for Ending the Palestinian Veto”

The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Made Super

View of the old city of Jaffa from Tel Aviv, February 28, 2008
View of the old city of Jaffa from Tel Aviv, February 28, 2008 (Matas Petrikas)

And here we go again.

Especially in the United States, Palestinian-Israeli violence always sucks up the headlines, siphoning valuable media and filling it with tried-and-true journalistic narratives that play to the myriad of biases that always come to the fore when discussing the Holy Land.

Evangelical Christians get their dose of Biblical chaos, hoping beyond hope that this time, the Rapture will follow this latest spasm of violence. Conservatives and neoconservatives find yet more ammunition against Islam, Islamism or, to the brute racists lurking among them, merely Arabs in general to fill the Facebook comments of every article that covers the attacks. Liberals dredge up well-worn tirades against colonization, colonialism, Western power and Israeli abuse.

Rather than sit this one out, I’ve decided to delve into the very basics of the conflict at risk, of course, of revealing my own bias (spoiler: I don’t care).

So let’s make this very popular-to-recycle conflict super. Read more “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Made Super”

Why Israel Won’t Let the West Bank Go

Israeli soldiers patrol along the West Bank barrier near Hebron, June 17, 2014
Israeli soldiers patrol along the West Bank barrier near Hebron, June 17, 2014 (IDF)

Most of Israel’s critics argue that any Israeli claim to the moral high ground is compromised by the fact that the Israeli military has been dominating the West Bank since 1967, thereby denying the Palestinians the ability to ever form their own state. While of course there is truth to this argument, it nevertheless ignores a critical point: Israel believes it must control the West Bank, at least for now, in order to ensure its own continued safety over the long-term.

Even though religion is the key motivator for most of the Jews (and Christians) who have settled or support Jewish settlement within the West Bank, Israel’s desire to control the West Bank is not ultimately rooted in religion, but rather in physical geography and “strategic necessity.” Read more “Why Israel Won’t Let the West Bank Go”

Israel Retaliates After Gaza Strikes, Escalation Unlikely

Israeli tank
An Israeli army tank during an exercise, May 22, 2012 (IDF)

In November 2012, the last time the Israeli Defense Forces had to conduct a massive military operation in the Gaza Strip, the campaign against the militant group Hamas lasted eight long days. When all was said and done, over one hundred Palestinians were dead, Gaza’s already warscarred population was forced to again rebuild their lives while Israelis had been reminded that the horrors of indiscriminate terrorism were still lurking around the corner.

One and a half years later, Israel and Hamas are locked in another confrontation along the Gaza border, with hundreds of rockets flying out of the coastal enclave and hundreds of airstrikes conducted by the Israeli army in response. The shaky ceasefire that both sides signed in November 2012 has been shattered with a familiar cycle of rocket attacks and airstrikes that Israelis and Palestinians have grown to expect.

It is a pattern that has become all too familiar to citizens of Israel and Gaza who simply want to live their lives in a relative degree of peace. That is, an incident involving civilians from one side sparks a response from the other, only to escalate into a full-blown conflagration. After several days of intense fire, everyone involved begins to slow down, reassesses their assumptions and rethinks the direction they wish to go in, until finally exploring an end to hostilities. This is how Operation Cast Lead ended in 2009 and how Operation Pillar of Defense ended in 2012 — and it is how the latest flareup in violence is likely to stop. How long it will take to reach that point, however, is far from certain. Read more “Israel Retaliates After Gaza Strikes, Escalation Unlikely”

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.

Kerry Tries to Rescue Stalled Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks

Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the American Joint Chiefs of Staff, January 20, 2012 (DoD/D. Myles Cullen)

America’s secretary of state, John Kerry, has a lot on his plate, from the upcoming round of nuclear negotiations with Iran to the global effort in Syria to verify and destroy Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons. Yet on Wednesday, he added another item to his “to do” list — spending a full day traveling between Israel and the West Bank to resurrect a peace process that both parties believe is on the brink of collapsing.

After six months of persistent contact with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, Kerry achieved a breakthrough in the conflict that had eluded American officials the previous three years. That is, Israeli and Palestinian officials agreed to relaunch direct negotiations within a strict nine month timeframe. Given the enormous mistrust between Israel and the Palestinians over the core issues of the conflict, getting both men back to the negotiating table was a major obstacle. But by with sheer force of his personality, Kerry at least broke through that roadblock. Read more “Kerry Tries to Rescue Stalled Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks”

Kerry Persuades Israel, Palestinians to Enter Peace Talks

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas addresses a press conference in Whitehall, London, January 16, 2012
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas addresses a press conference in Whitehall, London, January 16, 2012 (Cabinet Office)

America’s secretary of state John Kerry concluded his meetings with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas on Friday with a last-minute commitment to return to peace talks with the Israelis. The agreement, which came after four days of intense shuttle diplomacy by Kerry, could lead to proper negotiations in Washington DC next week, the first in five years. Read more “Kerry Persuades Israel, Palestinians to Enter Peace Talks”

Reelected Hamas Leader Has Opportunity for Reconciliation

Last year, Khaled Mashal was considered a lame-duck figure to many in the Hamas movement. His power was challenged by hardliners based in the Gaza Strip. His refusal to support Syria’s Bashar al-Assad over the rebellion cost the Islamist group a vital lifeline of support. A reconciliation agreement with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas that was promoted by Mashal stalled immediately after it was signed.

Things got so bad that Mashal decided to announce his resignation as Hamas’ political bureau chief, ending what would have been a sixteen year reign.

Fast forward to today and Khaled Mashal has defied the expectations of many. After an internal election process that was drawn out for a year and kept compartmentalized from outsiders, members of Hamas’ ruling council once again elected him this month. Despite all the reported division within Hamas, Mashal emerged as the viable candidate that its different factions could accept. Read more “Reelected Hamas Leader Has Opportunity for Reconciliation”

Initiative to Restart Peace Talks Stalls over Israeli Objections

Solving the rift between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators is difficult enough when both are in the middle of a diplomatic session. But it is even harder when the two sides cannot agree on the terms of diplomacy to begin with.

This is what Secretary of State John Kerry is experiencing in the Holy Land only a few months on the job and despite three high level visits to Israel and the Palestinian territories.

No one assumed that getting the lagging peace process off the ground would be an easy task. Kerry, during his most recent visits to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, acknowledged as much when he told a news conference that everyone, even he, had a lot of homework to do before talks could resume.

It was a polite way of saying that Israel and the Palestinians are still far apart on the issues that have long divided them, including the final borders of a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees and Jewish settlements. Read more “Initiative to Restart Peace Talks Stalls over Israeli Objections”