Kerry Could Revive 2002 Israeli-Palestinian Peace Plan

Much like President Barack Obama’s trip to the Middle East last month, the White House played down a weekend visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories by Secretary of State John Kerry who talked with officials from both sides in what is dubbed a “quiet” effort on the part of the United States to revive the peace process.

Kerry spoke with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas at his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah as well as Israeli president Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Other than words that peace is desirable, possible and in the interest of all parties involved, nothing exciting was produced from all of Kerry’s meetings. Both the Israelis and the Palestinians are, after all, widely divided on the core issues, let alone what a final settlement should look like. And despite talk of wanting to move the peace process forward, the mistrust between Jerusalem and Ramallah is at such a height that ordinary Palestinians are no longer sure that a two-state solution is possible anymore.

Yet with John Kerry, the United States have an intensely focused diplomat with decades of experience in containing conflicts and finding ways to resolve them. Those who know the former Democratic senator well acknowledge that he has long taken a special interest in solving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Kerry’s three trips to the Middle East in under a month is a testament to that desire and while recent diplomacy is certainly not on par with the Henry Kissinger and James Baker tours of previous decades, it is a strong signal that the Obama Administration wants to be more proactive than less. Read more “Kerry Could Revive 2002 Israeli-Palestinian Peace Plan”

Despite Lacking Substance, Obama’s Israel Visit Impressed

President Barack Obama wrapped up his Middle East trip this weekend defying the expectations of many, impressing millions of Israelis with his comments and emphasizing how important it is for Israelis, Palestinians and Arabs alike to give the peace process another chance.

From a substantive point of view, the American president’s trip was lacking in detail. No new peace initiative was given to the Israelis or Palestinians. Unlike in previous encounters with both sides, Obama made it a policy on this trip to stick with talking about the prospects for peace rather than diving into it. Thrusting himself in the middle of another attempt at Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, particularly when the trust deficit is so high between the parties, was the last thing that he wanted to do.

Yet a lack of substance does not mean that the visit was purely ceremonial, nor does it mean that Obama’s discussions with political leaders in Jerusalem and Ramallah were a waste of time. Read more “Despite Lacking Substance, Obama’s Israel Visit Impressed”

Little Chance of Israeli-Palestinian Peace Deal

If there was ever a year when the international community needed to find a way out of the Israeli-Palestinian impasse, 2013 might be it. Indeed, if the world lacks the will or capacity to push both sides to the table in a tough but fair minded way, the two-state solution may no longer be a viable option.

2012 turned out to be a rough period for the Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas. Peace negotiations were stalled for the entire year, due in part to Abbas’ unwillingness to talk without preconditions. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, just last month, infuriated the Palestinians by increasing Jewish settlements by more than 10,000 units; a number that is almost as high as that the previous ten years combined.

The only success that Abbas has had in the last year was the upgraded status he achieved for the Palestinians in the United Nations. Even that victory was marred with consequences, however. In retaliation, the Israeli government kept hundreds of billions of dollars in tax revenue that would otherwise have gone to the Palestinians. Read more “Little Chance of Israeli-Palestinian Peace Deal”

Israel Hits Back at Palestinians After United Nations Vote

Six days after Israel suffered a resounding defeat at the United Nations over the status of Palestine, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition government have come out swinging. Calling Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’ push for nonmember state status in the body irresponsible to the establishment of a two-state solution, Netanyahu issued his own unilateral move in retaliation.

The Israeli government decided to withhold approximately $100 million in taxes and customs duties that it collects for the Palestinian Authority as punishment for Abbas’ campaign. The money, which would normally be transferred to the Palestinians’ coffers, will reportedly be diverted to Israel’s Electrical Corporation where the Palestinians have accumulated a debt of $200 million. Delaying the transfer of tax revenues to the Palestinian Authority has been a quick and effective way for Netanyahu to register his dissatisfaction whenever Mahmoud Abbas does something that Israel views as unproductive.

On the face of it, refusing to provide a financially distressed Palestinian Authority with the cash that it needs to pay its employees and run services seems to be an especially strong reaction to last week’s United Nations vote. But it is nothing when compared to an announcement from Israel that it is speeding up plans to build apartment units on a plot of land that has long been considered off limits by the international community. Read more “Israel Hits Back at Palestinians After United Nations Vote”

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”

Hamas, Israel Back to Square One in Gaza

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

Eight days of cross-border conflict and hundreds of casualties later, representatives from Hamas and Israel were able to reach an agreement to stop the latest round of violence on Wednesday. The truce, which was pushed forcefully by Egypt, the United Nations and the United States, is remarkably similar to the ceasefire that occurred after Operation Cast Lead four years ago. Both sides have agreed to reach a period of quiet in the hope that the shooting of missiles toward Israel and the bombing of buildings in Gaza fades away for the foreseeable future.

On its face, the ceasefire agreement is hardly an innovative pact. Israel will agree to stop all hostilities in the Gaza Strip in the event that Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups stop firing missiles and rockets on Israeli cities.

The truce is designed to terminate the fighting in the short term; the roots of the conflict that have lingered between Hamas and Israel for so long are not addressed, although the accord makes mention of loosening border and travel restrictions for Gazans. Nor is the mechanism used to monitor the deal very strong. Indeed, the possibility of a renewed and more deadly conflict is the only thing keeping Hamas and Israel from violating the ceasefire.

What is more interesting is how the ceasefire is being portrayed. Both parties are claiming success in the overall operation, all the while spinning the truce as a vindication of their strength. Read more “Hamas, Israel Back to Square One in Gaza”

Did Hamas Provoke Israeli Offensive for Political Gain?

Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system in operation, August 21, 2011
Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system in operation, August 21, 2011 (IDF/Shay Vaknin)

Recent months have seen a dramatic increase in Palestinian rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip against southern Israel, prompting last week’s escalation in Israeli countermeasures and an expected ground offensive against militants in the territory. The situation is reminiscent of the 2008-2009 Gaza war which devastated the civilian and military infrastructure of the coastal enclave and claimed the lives of hundreds of Palestinians. Given Israel’s military superiority and proven willingness to deploy force to suppress Palestinian militant activity, whatever the international response, why did Hamas, the terrorist group that has governed Gaza since 2007, provoke the latest Israeli offensive with a missile barrage?

Daniel R. DePetris observed at the Atlantic Sentinel in October that Hamas’ authority in the Gaza Strip was challenged by smaller and more hardline Islamist groups, including Tawhid and Jihad, two of whose former leaders were killed in an Israeli drone strike that month. The group is supposed to be part of an umbrella organization that calls itself the Mujahedeen Shura Council, “an indication that Salafi groups in Gaza are increasing their numbers and trying to coordinate their activities,” according to DePetris. Some disgruntled Hamas members had even joined the movement.

What concerns Hamas, of course, is not that these small organizations have a disdain for Israel but that its own authority is challenged.

One of the explanations for Hamas’ recent actions offered by Wikistrat’s Steven Aiello at the geostrategic consultancy’s blog on Sunday suggests a similar rationale but takes into account the upcoming Israeli elections which weren’t yet scheduled in October.

Aiello notes that attacks on Israel tend to shift public opinion in favor of conservative and nationalist parties which are currently in government. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition can expect to do well in January’s vote if its reaction to the violence from Gaza is perceived as decisive.

As such, a logical conclusion is that Hamas leadership may prefer to have an Israeli right-wing bloc in power, a not unsurprising conclusion given that this advances Hamas interests by promoting the belief that Fatah is unequipped to represent Palestinians and the more militant nationalist party of Hamas is better poised to address a situation of political intransigence.

The logic may apply not just to President Mahmoud Abbas’ more moderate Fatah movement, which controls Palestinian territory in the West Bank and competes with Hamas for political leadership of the Palestinians, but opposition groups in Gaza as well. Just as Israelis rally ’round the incumbent prime minister and his party, Gaza militants and residents may be less inclined to throw in their lot with smaller parties now the area is under threat of invasion.

Israel Expands Gaza Operations, Fear of New War

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

The latest flareup of violence between Israel and Islamist militants in the Gaza Strip escalated on Thursday when the Israeli Air Force pounded Hamas facilities with missiles and Palestinian militants launched rockets into Israel, reaching as far as Tel Aviv.

The conflict has all the makings of a renewed confrontation similar to the three week Israeli operation in Gaza four years ago, when some 1,400 Palestinians and thirteen Israelis were killed before a ceasefire could be reached.

Thus far, the Israeli operation, code named Operation Pillar of Defense, has not reached the level of intensity that defined the last war with Hamas. But it should be noted that the operation is only in its third day and casualties will likely go up on both sides of the border. Read more “Israel Expands Gaza Operations, Fear of New War”

Israel Expands Airstrikes Against Gaza Militants

Israeli F-16 fighter jets
Israeli and Italian F-16 fighter jets in Sardinia, November 18, 2010 (IDF)

Israeli Defense Forces on Wednesday launched the most extensive aerial bombardment against suspected militant facilities in the Gaza Strip in four years’ time before heavy rocket fire from the Palestinian territory killed three Israelis on Thursday.

The Israeli-Gaza border has seen this kind of violence before. Hardly a month goes by without a rocket being fired from the coastal strip into a southern Israeli community. When such an attack occurs, the Israeli air force tends to respond immediately with a precision airstrike on a rocket launching post or ammunitions facility used by Palestinian terrorist groups. This has strategy has served Israel well in recent years — military infrastructure was destroyed and rocket fire would usually decrease for a while.

But the routine has become increasingly untenable. Rather than the rocket fire dying down, militant groups based in Gaza have begun to increase their operations after Israel hit their positions in the territory. Read more “Israel Expands Airstrikes Against Gaza Militants”

Israel Seen Preparing for Military Action in Gaza

Israeli and Italian F-16 fighter jets in Sardinia, November 18, 2010
Israeli and Italian F-16 fighter jets in Sardinia, November 18, 2010 (IDF)

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought international support on Monday for an expansion of military operations in Gaza to quell ongoing rocket fire from the Palestinian territory.

“We will not sit idly in front of recurrent attacks that occur almost daily, against our citizens and our children,” he told a conference of foreign diplomats gathered in the city of Ashkelon.

Despite Egyptian claims of having brokered a ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian militant groups in Gaza, notably Hamas and Islamic Jihad, rocket fire continued for a third day Monday. Some one hundred fifty rockets and mortar shells were reported to have hit Israel from the strip since Saturday. Twenty-six people were treated for shock after a direct hit on a home in the southern Israeli city of Netivot on Monday morning.

Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak made clear on Sunday that the army was prepared to reenter Gaza after it most recently launched a similar operation in late 2008. “If we are forced to go back into Gaza in order to deal Hamas a blow and restore security for all of Israel’s citizens, then we will not hesitate to do so.” He warned, “It is Hamas that will pay the price.”

The group that is considered a terrorist organization by Western countries has been in political control of the coastal strip since 2007.

Overnight, Israeli Air Force jets struck three targets in Gaza. According to the military, they hit a terrorist tunnel, a weapons storage site in the north of the territory and a rocket launching site in the south.

The unrest in Gaza coincides with skirmishes along the Israeli-Syrian border in the Golan Heights where Israel reported to have fired a warning shot into Syria after army units there fired into Israeli territory in an attempt to hit rebel fighters. An Israeli offensive in Gaza could give Islamic militant groups in the north, including Hezbollah in Lebanon which is linked with the Syrian regime, an opportunity to expand their own operations, facing Israel with the prospect of a war on two fronts.

With parliamentary elections scheduled for January, Netanyahu’s government will be reluctant to escalate tensions which would almost certainly draw the ire of human rights groups which fiercely criticized its 2008-2009 operation in Gaza. But the premier cannot at the same time politically afford to be perceived as weak on national security for that is the core of his platform.

Members of others parties, including the liberal Kadima and the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu, have already voiced support for another offensive in the Gaza Strip. Even Labor has recommended “military and diplomatic pressure.”