Talking of Peace in the Middle East

While both the Israeli prime minister and the President of the Palestinian Authority are in Washington DC this week to lay down a framework agreement for a peace accord, former British prime minister Tony Blair, currently the West’s permanent envoy to the region, appeared on ABC’s This Week to talk about the challenges ahead.

Contrary to the difficult peace process in Northern Ireland, which Blair was an integral part of in the late 1990s, in the Middle East, both sides agree that there can be only one outcome: the two-state solution. This makes it, at least somewhat, “easier,” said Blair, to work out an agreement. What is needed from the Palestinian Authority is that it starts building the necessary institutions for statehood, particularly in the realm of security, so that Israel can “respond to that by giving the Palestinians greater run and greater freedom over their territory.”

The foremost demand from the Palestinian side — that Israel halt its construction of settlements in the West Bank — didn’t seem to bother Blair particularly. As he explained, when a final agreement on the borders of the Palestinian state is reached, settlement activity should no longer present a legal problem. Israel has, in the past, shown a willingness to dismantle settlements and even, last year, threatened to use force against Jewish colonists who refused to abide by a moratorium on settlement activity that is due to expire this month.

Asked whether the Palestinians can guarantee security within their own borders — Israel’s nonnegotiable priority for any peace accord — Blair attested that “they’ve gone a long way.” Indeed, he said, “the Israelis accept that. And as a result of that, incidentally, we now have many of the main checkpoints open [and] the Palestinian economy is very strong.” With imports and exports moving again, economic peace for Palestine may soon become a reality. With Israel understandably concerned over Hamas’ position in Gaza, at least for the West Bank, a closer integration of the Israeli and Palestinian economies should mean a step forward.

The Gaza Strip, stressed Blair, must not be separated from Palestine proper and have Hamas in permanent control. The former prime minister gave the terrorist group two choices: either continue down the path of violence and eventually lose support from the Palestinian people or “become part of this process.” Other Middle Eastern governments have tried to negotiate with Hamas, he added, to no avail.

A recent bombing in Gaza which occurred on the eve of the talks currently taking place in Washington, powerfully demonstrated Hamas’ persistent unwillingness to sit down and compromise. “The only way ultimately of defeating Hamas,” therefore, “is with a better political argument and the genuine prospect of a Palestinian state.”

Window of Opportunity for Peace?

One again an American president is flying in the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian people to try to reach some more satisfactory solution to the decade-old feud between the two nations. Barack Obama is having another try at the Middle Eastern peace process, inviting both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to Washington DC this week. According to his special envoy to the region, there is a real “window of opportunity” for an accord this time.

With many analysts expecting failure, the administration has insisted that getting the two parties to attend the first direct talks in more than eighteen months is something of a victory in its own right. The parameters of the negotiations are, deliberately, undefined. “What we’ve tried to do is to avoid a slavish adherence to the past while trying to learn what might have been improved in the past, what worked, what didn’t work,” said Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George Mitchell on Tuesday. “And so we have avoided deliberately any specific label or identification that this is a continuation of process A or B or C.”

The openendedness of the talks is part of the reason why they’re unlikely to succeed however. As Professor Stephen Walt explains at Foreign Policy, “the Obama Administration is about to repeat the same mistakes that doomed the Clinton Administration’s own Middle East peacemaking efforts and the Bush Administration’s even more halfhearted attempts.” The goal of the direct talks is rumored to be the signing of a “framework agreement” between the two sides which could be implemented over a period of up to ten years. According to Walt, we have seen this movie before.

This idea sounds a lot like the Oslo Accords, which also laid out a “framework” for peace, but deferred the hard issues to the end and repeatedly missed key deadlines. Or maybe it’s another version of the Road Map/Annapolis summit, which offered deadlines and bold talk and led precisely nowhere. Or perhaps what they have in mind is a “shelf agreement” — a piece of paper that sits “on the shelf” until conditions are right (i.e., forever).

Unless the new “framework” is very specific about the issues that really matter — borders, refugees, the status of East Jerusalem — Walt fears that “we will once again have a situation where spoilers on both sides have both an incentive and the opportunity to do whatever they can to disrupt the process.”

The great paradox of the negotiations is that United States is clearly willing and able to put great pressure on both Fatah and Hamas (albeit in different ways), even though that is like squeezing a dry lemon by now. Fatah has already recognized Israel’s existence and has surrendered any claims to 78 percent of original Mandate Palestine; all they are bargaining over now is the share they will get of the remaining 22 percent. Moreover, that 22 percent is already dotted with Israeli settlements (containing about 500,000 people), and carved up by settler-only bypass roads, checkpoints, fences, and walls. And even if they were to get an independent state on all of that remaining 22 percent (which isn’t likely) they will probably have to agree to some significant constraints on Palestinian sovereignty and they are going to have to compromise in some fashion on the issue of the “right of return.” The obvious point is that when you’ve got next to nothing, you’ve got very little left to give up, no matter how hard Uncle Sam twists your arm.

Little wonder The Jerusalem Post is skeptical, comparing the peace talks with an arranged marriage where neither the bridge nor the groom is in love. “Both reluctantly agree to stand under the huppa only because their parents — upon whom they are both still very much dependent — demand it,” writes the newspaper’s Herb Keinon. The parents being the president and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, in this case.

According to Keinon, both sides have indicated that they don’t really think it’ll work out. Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the radical Yisrael Beiteinu party, has been lowering expectations in particular, though considering his nationalistic political background, this shouldn’t be all too surprising. Still, it does seem as though the only ones bearing a semblance of optimism are Western negotiators, including George Mitchell and former British prime minister Tony Blair who has been the West’s permanent representative in the conflict area since leaving office in 2007.

Abbas and Netanyahu are scheduled to meet with President Obama today. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah II of Jordan will also attend the ceremony — “in view of their critical role in this effort,” said Clinton last week. All statesmen, Tony Blair included, will dine at the White House on September 1. The next day, Abbas and Netanyahu will head down to the State Department for trilateral meetings presided by Hillary Clinton.

The fact that Secretary Clinton, not the president, is spearheading the negotiations is no accident, according to Ben Smith of Politico. Early in his presidency, Obama attempted to reinvigorate the peace process by demanding a settlement freeze from the Israelis. Netanyahu offered a compromise: a ten month freeze (which will end this month), exempting Jerusalem as well as the construction of schools, synagogues and 3,000 homes that were already under construction. The administration rejected the deal and in doing so, strengthened the Palestinians in their resolve. Obama admitted his mistake last January and apparently chose to let things run their course for a while after that.

But, notes Smith, Obama is a man who thinks president should do big things and hasn’t given up yet. “Why should Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton be the only ones to get those great handshake pictures?” So, this time around, he will let Hillary Clinton test the waters. “If this thing actually gets rolling, Air Force One is all gassed up and ready to sweep into the region to close the deal.”

Time for Realpolitik in the Near East

Presidents Barack Obama and Mahmoud Abbas of the United States and the Palestinian Authority talk at the White House in Washington DC, June 9
Presidents Barack Obama and Mahmoud Abbas of the United States and the Palestinian Authority talk at the White House in Washington DC, June 9

The Obama Administration’s Middle East policy appears to have swung from the slightly idealistic to the definitively realistic in recent weeks, with the opposition continuing to denounce the supposed naiveté of the president’s intentions.

Barack Obama began his offensive in Cairo, Egypt last year where he called upon the Muslim world to end “the cycle of suspicion and discord” that nonetheless still frustrates American efforts in the region. He appointed special envoys for Israel-Palestine and Afghanistan-Pakistan, signaling both his commitment to revive the peace process as well as his recognition that the war in Afghanistan is intrinsically linked with the forces at play within the borders of its eastern neighboring state.

Since, little progress has been made while the threat of a nuclear Iran became all the more alarming. His outreach does allow Obama to garner support from many countries to impose sanctions on Tehran but this modest success is overshadowed by recent hiccups in Israel and, so far, no astounding results from Pakistan. The unrelenting attitude of the White House toward the former led The New York Times to declare in November of last year already that the president’s influence with what is traditionally the country’s staunchest of allies in the region had diminished, and that was before this month’s, properly covered up, feud with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Where to go from here? The Times‘ Peter Baker notes that the past year was spent mostly on showing the world that Obama was not George W. Bush. The world got the message. “If there is an Obama doctrine emerging,” he writes, “it is one much more realpolitik than his predecessor’s, focused on relations with traditional great powers and relegating issues like human rights and democracy to second-tier concerns.” Take out the “traditional” from “great powers” and that seems to sum things up rather nicely.

Neoconservatives, unsurprisingly, are lambasting the president for neglecting what they believe should be the cornerstone of American foreign policy: exporting American values of freedom and democracy. Obama, however, is a Jeffersonian. He believes that the best way to encourage westernization is to provide a good example. He said so much in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech when he declared that United States should be the “standard-bearer” of civilization.

What this means in more practical terms is that under President Obama, the United States will pursue a foreign policy designed to protect and promote America’s position in the world. This can take the form of economic protectionism at times but typically, it should be one of pursuing America’s rational self-interest.

When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for instance, the president echoed General David Petraeus’ warning of last month that violence there has a direct effect on the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq — and thus, on the safety of American forces stationed in those places. Vice President Joe Biden was more blunt: he told Netanyahu at the time that Israel’s settlement activity “undermines the security of our troops” and that it “endangers regional peace.”

According to the president himself, “It is a vital national-security interest of the United States to reduce these conflicts,” because, “one way or another, we get pulled into them. And that ends up costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure.”

The first push of this renewed commitment is apparently coming though the United Nations. Alejandro Wolff, the Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN issued a forceful statement at the Security Council on Wednesday in which he called upon all parties — “both inside and outside this Council” — to help revive the peace process. The status quo, said Wolff, “has neither produced long-term security nor served the interests of the parties” and is “not sustainable.”

The ambassador was surprisingly specific, claiming that the “two-state solution is the best way forward” while outlining concrete steps to end the conflict: the establishing of a Palestinian state within its 1967 borders; land swaps and “secure and recognized borders” for Israel “that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements.” Wolff condemned Israel’s settlement activity as well as the “glorification of terrorists” by the Palestinians, “either through official statements or by the dedication of public places,” once again signaling a break in American rhetoric which previously oftentimes refrained from criticizing Israel explicitly.

Economic Peace for Palestine

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is typically discussed within political and military terms and on these fronts, peace looms only far beyond the intrinsic geopolitical realities of the Middle East. The economic factor is often overlooked yet, according to Bernard Avishai, it is the most decisive.

Writing for Foreign Policy, Avishai complains that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s talk of “economic peace” currently entails little more than granting Palestinians workers more jobs in Israeli agriculture and construction “What Palestinians need,” he writes, “are entrepreneurs, managers, and professionals with the freedom to build a growing node in an urban and global network.” Palestine’s chance at economic prosperity is more frustrated by the occupation than many foreign observers realize.

A telling fact of Palestine’s economic situation is the mean age in the territories: 19 years old. With the disparities between Israel and the Palestinians so great and the specter of continued economic stagnation fostering radicalization with Palestine’s youth, this simple statistic also breeds hope for a future of growth however. The Palestinian private sector, notes Avishai, “though small, is prepared for a take-off.”

There is a tight-knit, highly competent Palestinian business class already running enterprises from pharmaceuticals to supermarkets, telecommunications to software solutions.

Palestine’s billion dollar sovereign wealth fund has been investing wisely in construction and wireless telecommunications and is transparently run by a former World Bank official. The Palestinian stock market lists companies worth only about $2.5 billion, but it has been growing annually at over 20 percent. Palestinian universities meanwhile produce about 1,200 computer scientist graduates every year.

Yet there are reasons to be pessimistic. “Part of what has stifled entrepreneurship,” writes Avishai, “is old Fatah cadres running monopolies from cement to petroleum.” What’s more, Palestinian banks have been unable to lend more than $1.5 billion to credit-worthy business plans. All the things that business elsewhere can take for granted — “mobility, access to markets, talent, suppliers and financial services” — are hampered by the Israeli occupation.

Over 60 percent of the West Bank is occupied by the Israeli military which throws up roadblocks throughout the territory, requiring permits and causing delays. Palestinian banks cannot park their cash reserves in Israeli banks, losing tens of millions of dollars in interest. And it is excruciatingly difficult for Palestinians born abroad to acquire residency permits which would allow them to use the education and the experience which they gained by working in the West to bolster the Palestinian economy.

There are many concrete measures which Israel can take to free the territories from economic restraint without imperiling its security or even its settlements activity. Avishai lists the following:

  • Inviting, not prohibiting, Palestinian entrepreneurs to come to the West Bank and invest;
  • Expanding the number of permits for businesspeople to come to Jerusalem;
  • Allowing banks to operate in Jerusalem to put to the city’s brain drain to a halt;
  • Assigning security forces to with the Palestinian authorities to expedite supply chains;
  • Authorizing the development of a secure, north-south transportation corridor linking Palestinian cities;
  • Releasing more bandwidth for Palestinian telecom, and restricting Israeli competition in occupied territories.

By allowing the Palestinian economy to develop, Israel would in fact advance the peace process, for both nations are invariably linked to one another.

Today, more than 80 percent of Palestine’s trade is with Israel. Promoting economic growth in the territories would create “a business ecosystem extending to Jordan” that shares “everything from water to currency, tourists to bandwidth.” Under such circumstances, the incentive to go to war would be reduced to an unprecedented minimum.

Israel Is Not an Isolated Problem

In the wake of Vice President Joe Biden’s embarrassing trip to Israel, a more important story has been sadly overlooked. Mark Perry writes about it in Foreign Policy though: General David Petraeus’ request that the Palestinian territories be placed under his Central Command.

Petraeus assumed command of USCENTCOM in October 2008, the Unified Combatant Command responsible for the Middle East and parts of Central Asia. Israel, Gaza and the West Bank all fall under the European Command which formerly, from a Mediterranean perspective, made some sense. Now that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become so interwoven with Middle Eastern strategy however, it would be far more practical to consider it part of the same theater not only politically, but militarily as well. Read more “Israel Is Not an Isolated Problem”

Obama on the Middle East: “Really Hard”

After President Obama delivered a much praised speech in Cairo, Egypt last year in which he called upon the Muslim world to end “the cycle of suspicion and discord,” his administration made little progress in the Middle Eastern peace progress. The president’s credibility with both Israelis and Palestinians “diminished” as his demand that Israel freeze settlement construction failed to bring about the desired result. Special envoy to the region George Mitchell promised to deliver peace in two years but doesn’t appear to have achieved anything concrete yet.

In an interview with Joe Klein of The New York Times, the president admitted that the “process has not moved forward” while Mitchell, he claimed, “got blinded” by the progress he saw from the Israelis, not realizing that it wasn’t enough for the Palestinian leadership.

“Even for a guy like George Mitchell who helped bring about the peace in Northern Ireland,” the Middle Eastern conflict “is just really hard,” according to Obama. The political situation in both Israel and the Palestinian territories made it “very hard for them to start engaging in a meaningful conversation.” Read more “Obama on the Middle East: “Really Hard””

Mitchell: Peace in Two Years

Where last month the European Council decreed that there can only be a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with Jerusalem as capital of both nations, American envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell is more nuanced, stating that Israel “annexed” East Jerusalem so that “for the Israelis, what they’re building in, is in part of Israel.”

Previously the United States demanded that Israel halt settlement construction altogether before any negotiations could resume. This was an unfortunate foreign policy failure on the part of the Obama Administration for it strengthened the Palestinians in their resolve in spite of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s compromise to stop construction except of settlements already being built and homes being erected in Jerusalem.

The administration was not discouraged however and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went on to meet with Tony Blair who still represents the Western world in regards to the Middle Eastern conflict. “It’s a difficult moment right now,” said Blair at the time, “but then it always is.” As we noted previously, “it is not unthinkable that Clinton […] will take on [the challenge of bringing peace to the Middle East] herself, shunting the [envoy] aside.”

Especially Jerusalem is a “very complicated, difficult [and] emotional” matter “on all sides,” acknowledged Mitchell.

Our view is, let’s get into negotiations, let’s deal with the issues and come up with a solution to all of them including Jerusalem which will be exceedingly difficult, but in my judgment, possible.

Indeed, Mitchell thinks he doesn’t need more than two years to finish the job. “Personally I think it can be done in a shorter period of time.” On top of that, the former senator noted that negotiations between Israel and Syria could operate in conjunction with any Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. As with any issue, the Obama Administration certainly doesn’t lack ambition when it comes to the Middle East though it’s not difficult to be skeptical considering that the conflict had raged for more than half a century already.

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.

Jerusalem Capital of Two States?

After conferring for two days in Brussels the foreign ministers of the European Union called for “the urgent resumption of negotiations that will lead […] to a two-state solution with the State of Israel and an independent, democratic, contiguous and viable State of Palestine, living side by side in peace and security.” With a soon-to-be-appointed joint foreign minister and the Americans once again committed to bring about peace in the Middle East, Europe too appears determined to finally achieve some result.

The two-state solution is something most European countries have supported for a long time, so what’s new? Well, for one thing, the Council decrees that it “will not recognise any changes to the pre-1967 borders including with regard to Jerusalem,” unless both Israel and the Palestinians agree otherwise. A way must be found for Jerusalem itself to become the capital of both Israel and a Palestinian state — “through negotiations.” Read more “Jerusalem Capital of Two States?”

Is Obama Failing in the Middle East?

The Obama Administration got off to a promising start in the Middle East. It announced to refocus on the war in Afghanistan; the president himself delivered a fine speech in Cairo, Egypt, in which he called upon the Muslim world to end “the cycle of suspicion and discord” and special envoys were appointed for Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as Israel and Palestine.

Now, almost a year later, the new strategy doesn’t seem to have amounted to much yet. Even The New York Times, typically supportive of the Democratic administration, has to admit that Barack Obama’s credibility in the region has “diminished”. The awkward strategy of publicly demanding a settlement freeze from the Israelis and getting none has deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. The administration, writes the paper, “apparently had no plan for what they would do if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said no.”

Netanyahu offered a compromise — a ten month freeze, exempting Jerusalem and the construction of schools, synagogues and 3,000 homes that were already being built. Although this went far beyond anything Israel had promised so far in relation to the settlements, the president insisted on more and in doing so, he strengthened the Palestinians in their resolve. They rejected the offer. Read more “Is Obama Failing in the Middle East?”