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.

Qatari Emir Expands Regional Influence With Gaza Visit

Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and his wife arrive at the Qatar National Convention Center in Ar-Rayyān, April 22
Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and his wife arrive at the Qatar National Convention Center in Ar-Rayyān, April 22 (UNCTAD)

The emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, made history on Monday by becoming the first head of state to visit the Gaza Strip since Hamas took control of the coastal territory in 2007.

For the past five years, Gaza has been a virtual no man’s land in the eyes of much of the world, including some of the very same Arab states that consider the cause of Palestinian freedom a moral one of their own. The Qatari leader has broken that impasse to the delight of senior Hamas officials and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who are struggling to make do in any area with no natural resources and decrepit public infrastructure.

Before Sheikh Hamad was scheduled to enter the strip, officials in the Hamas movement made sure that the visit would be a memorable one. Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’ prime minister, personally greeted the emir as he crossed into Gaza from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The monarch received a red carpet welcome with an honor guard at his side. Qatari flags were slapped to road signs, electrical cables, telephone polls and along the territory’s major roads to show just how much the sheikh’s trip was appreciated among the Palestinian public.

The official purpose of Sheikh Hamad’s foray into Gaza was to inaugurate $400 million dollars worth of Qatari donations to improve the territory’s dismal economic situation. The money will reportedly be used to build a housing complex that will consist of some 1,000 apartments, improve upon two major highways that are riddled with potholes, break ground on a new medical facility and to refurbish schools that have been damaged.

The visit is also symptomatic of what Qatar, a small but wealthy country with rich natural resource potential, has become: a powerful and influential player in the diplomatic world.

From its sheer size, one would not be quick to consider Qatar a regional powerhouse. Before the country’s natural gas reserves were tapped in the 1990s, it was nothing but a blip on the map, overshadowed by its much larger and more powerful Iranian and Saudi neighbors. Yet as wealth started pouring in, and a television channel called Al Jazeera got off the ground, Doha transformed into a center of the Arab world’s most important financial transactions. Sheikh Hamad, who overthrew his father in 1996 to claim the thrown for himself, has opportunistically used that influence to increase Qatar’s geostrategic significance.

In just over a decade, Qatar has relished its role as a regional mediator, regardless of how hard the dispute is or where the conflict is occurring.

Doha played an integral role in trying to gain the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who was captured in 2006 and held by Hamas for years until he was released earlier this year.

In 2008, Qatari diplomats pushed Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh and rebels from the al-Houthi tribe to stop firing on each other. The truce broke down but cemented Qatar’s role as a peace broker. After leading a multiyear effort to secure a peace agreement in Darfur, Darfuri and Sudanese negotiators were finally able to sit down and sign an agreement in Doha that ended at least some of the conflict in the wartorn region.

Add to this Qatar’s integral role in arming and training Libyan rebels during their successful 2011 revolt against Muammar al-Gaddafi as well as its arming of the Free Syrian Army and what was once an insignificant nation in the heart of the Persian Gulf is a rising power in the Middle East, vast approaching the status of a Saudi Arabia or formerly Egypt.

Sheikh Hamad’s state visit to Gaza is the latest iteration of a Qatari foreign policy that consists of a hybrid of generosity, pragmatism and at times aggressive realism. Israel and the United States may not particularly care for the fact that Qatar’s leader is meeting face to face with an internationally-recognized terrorist group but those concerns are unlikely to effect the emir in any substantial way. In his worldview, it’s better to make friends with everyone than limit one’s options.

In Gaza, Hamas Finds Itself Aligned with Israel

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

In a major blow to Palestinian militant groups operating in the Gaza Strip, the Israeli air force launched a precision strike against two senior terrorist leaders in the area last weekend. The men were reportedly traveling on a motorcycle along a road in the north of Gaza when an Israeli drone locked in on their location and launched a missile in their direction.

The strike is a significant one for Israel. The men were not only involved in terrorist activities but were former leaders of two Salafi jihadist organizations that were dedicated to expanding the extremist ideology of the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

There is nothing uncommon about the Israel Defense Force directly engaging terrorist sanctuaries in Gaza. The seaside enclave is known to host a number of militant groups, apart from Hamas, that frequently plan and execute rocket attacks on Israeli communities close to the area. The rockets usually fall in open areas so casualties and physical damage are limited, if not nonexistent.

The Israeli government, however, sees these attacks as a serious threat to its citizens. Targeting rocket launching sites aimed at Israel and neutralizing small groups of suspected terrorists through the air has been its usual response to mortar strikes that hit Israeli communities. Read more “In Gaza, Hamas Finds Itself Aligned with Israel”

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”

Romney Offends Palestinians with “Culture” Remark

The multiday trip was designed to be a smooth and easy way for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, to burnish his foreign policy credentials.

Countless presidents have made a similar journey for a similar objective. In 2008, Barack Obama swept through Europe to demonstrate his popularity and competency to American voters in front of a foreign audience. Romney, a man who has not had to deal with foreign policy issues in past jobs, had the same thing in mind last week when he traveled to Britain, Israel and Poland, three strong American allies, to shake hands with dignitaries and shore up his support overseas.

That trip, however, has been anything but easy for Romney and his campaign. A series of off the cuff remarks got the former governor in trouble in London when he openly questioned whether the British government and its people were ready to host the summer Olympic Games. The comment sparked an array of complaints and denunciations from British parliamentarians and Prime Minister David Cameron himself. The British press was especially hard on Romney, equating his concerns to a cheap shot at the nation’s ability to appreciate its month in the limelight. Read more “Romney Offends Palestinians with “Culture” Remark”

Hamas Refused to Participate in Latest Gaza Violence

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)

In some of the most intense cross-border fighting since Israeli troops last entered the Gaza Strip en masse over three years ago, dozens of rockets were lobbed by Palestinian militants into Israel, with the Jewish state carrying out airstrikes on suspected terrorist facilities.

Over a span of four days, Israel hit rocket squads and weapon depots in the strip with near pinpoint accuracy. Small bands of militants retaliated with a torrent of rocket fire against communities in the south of Israel.

Remarkably, not a single Israeli civilian was killed even as one hundred and fifty crude missiles were launched from the coastal enclave.

Israel’s newly installed “Iron Dome” defense system intercepted many of the missiles before they hit the ground with a nearly 90 percent success rate. Only a few projectiles hit populated areas. One landed in a schoolyard that wasn’t not occupied at the time.

The fighting once again resembling a game of tit for tat that was only suspended as a result of Egyptian mediation. Although a ceasefire is now in place, the violence could easily resume if a single unauthorized mortar is launched by a small team.

The notable difference between this latest incident and similar rounds of skirmishes that have occurred since Israel undertook a crushing military offensive in Gaza over three years ago is that the former was carried out by minor Palestinian factions, including the Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees. Hamas, which controls the territory, largely stayed in the background, both to salvage its internal strength and for the practical reason of saving itself from massive Israeli retaliation.

If there was anything that could be gleaned from Israel’s 2008-2009 Caste Lead operation, it was the immutable assertion in the region and the broader international community that Hamas’ military infrastructure was severely degraded in just over a month of conflict.

Hamas seems to have gotten the message, knowing full well that any follow up operation by the Israel Defense Forces would be much longer in duration and stronger in intensity. The organization today is neither capable nor unified enough as a movement to confront Israel in the way it chose to confront it in the past — with persistent mortar fire, regardless of the consequences.

This development tends to be pushed aside whenever another round of violence hits the news but it is important to bring up, if only for the lone reason of demonstrating the group’s changing behavior over the past two to three years.

Yes, Hamas is still a dangerous organization in military terms and Israel still considers it to be one of its most serious security challenges. But in a matter of only a few short years, Hamas has evolved from a purely militant group to a hybrid and somewhat pragmatic organization, touring the region and trying to get on the good side of Arab leaders instead of just resorting to missile attacks.

Hamas’ leaders may technically remain opposed to any formal peace settlement with Israel but they also understand that confronting the Jewish state with force would be a losing proposition for its survival at a moment when they are trying desperately to increase their popular image in the Arab world and peel off Palestinian supporters from the mainstream Fatah movement.

Having one foot in politics and another in militancy is not as easy at it sounds, especially when militant activity could potentially weaken Hamas’ political credibility in the minds of world leaders.

Fatah, Hamas Agree to Hold Palestinian Elections

There is not much to celebrate in terms of Palestinian politics these days but one ray of sunshine has emerged over the past week that gives the Palestinians a semblance of hope: preliminary discussion of a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation bid.

Palestine’s two most powerful parties have been at each other’s throats since the Hamas leadership decided to expand their claws into Palestinian politics. Hamas’ first foray in elections proved to be an extremely successful one and a shock to policymakers in Israel and the United States. After a legislative vote that was deemed free and fair by the United Nations, Hamas candidates swept the elections against a Fatah party that Palestinians had grown sick and tired of after lost hopes and complaints of corruption.

Since, Fatah and Hamas have plotted behind the scenes to make life as difficult as possible for one another. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah colleagues remain suspicious of Hamas’ motives, who have yet to officially abandon their original platform of armed resistance against Israel. Read more “Fatah, Hamas Agree to Hold Palestinian Elections”

Palestinian UNESCO Bid Challenges US Engagement

It has been over a month since Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas stepped on to a podium in front of the General Assembly, held up his pledging document amid an echoing applause and submitted his request for full recognition of statehood to the United Nations.

Back in September, the statehood campaign was a bombshell. Recognition would not change daily life all that much for millions of Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Israeli soldiers would still control 40 percent of West Bank land and Israeli settlement construction would most likely proceed in villages claimed by Palestinians for a future state. But despite the practicalities, the measure, even if it is doomed to failed, could still be a win for the Palestinian Authority in the world of public opinion.

Abbas’ statehood document is now stuck in the Security Council. It still has to schedule a vote on the request. But the president’s diplomatic team is not sitting on their hands and waiting for a decision. Instead, Palestine has submitted similar requests to smaller UN associations. And from the looks of one overwhelming vote, it appears that the Palestinian strategy is working for the time being.

By a lopsided 107-14 tally, delegates of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization voted in favor of admitting Ramallah into its ranks on Monday.

For the United States and Israel, UNESCO’s decision could be seen from a mile away. Yet the mere fact that the international body approved the Palestinian referendum by such a wide margin must have gotten under their skin.

From a purely tactical point of view, Palestine’s admission to the UN’s cultural organization hardly affects Washington’s foreign policy goals in any meaningful way. On the contrary, an additional member to the UNESCO ranks only confirms how vital global educational and cultural exchanges between people are — objectives that the United States holds dear.

The problem, at least from a diplomatic perspective, is that Ramallah’s newfound home will add to the tension that the Obama Administration is already feeling with its partners in the UN on a number of issues, including Syria and the war in Afghanistan. Thanks to a law passed in the early 1990s mandating that the United States cut funding for any UN agency that admits the Palestinian Authority as a member state, President Barack Obama is faced with the uncomfortable decision of making good on that law. $80 million that would have otherwise gone to UNESCO this year has been put on hold, with tens of millions more in jeopardy if the original legislation is not amended.

The big worry now is that once the Palestinians officially join the UNESCO club, President Abbas will apply the same strategy to other UN agencies. The International Atomic Energy Agency, responsible for monitoring nuclear compliance around the world, could be the next stop for Abbas and his team. Or maybe the World Food Programme, the institution tirelessly trying to ameliorate the famine in the Horn of Africa and churning out food deliveries for millions of hungry families. If they do, the Americans run the risk of being compelled to disengage from these multilateral organization.

The State Department has already warned that there could be “considerable potential damage if this move is replicated in other UN organizations.” Especially as tension between Iran and Israel is mounting, Congress may not be prepared to change the law however to allow the United States to remain an active contributor to the international community.