President Obama’s recent statements on Israeli-Palestinian peace/ After Abbas
Jun 5, 2015
Update from AIJAC
June 5, 2015
Number 06/15 #01
US President Barack Obama has been talking quite a lot in recent weeks about his relationship with Israel and his aspirations for Israeli-Palestinian peace. This includes an interview with American journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, an address to a Washington-area synagogue, and most recently, an interview with Israel’s Channel 2, the country’s leading TV station. This Update deals with some reactions to his statements on Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects in particular.
First up is American Jewish Committee executive director David Harris, who takes on something Obama devoted only eight words to in his speech at the the Synagogue – namely, the Palestinian side of the peace-making equation. Harris says that while he agrees with the bulk of what Obama had to say, what was hidden in his 8 words – “The Palestinians are not the easiest of partners” – masks the key barrier to peace, namely what the Palestinian want and intend. Harris explains how the Palestinians could have been “a free people in their own land” on multiple occasions, as Obama urged, but refused to take the opportunities to do so, raising questions about whether Israel has a partner who genuinely shares the goal of an end to the conflict, the key prerequisite for peace. For this characteristically lucid piece from Harris, CLICK HERE. Another top-flight recent piece from Harris discusses the inadequate response to the recent rise in global antisemitism.
Next up, offering an Israeli perspective, is Times of Israel editor David Horovitz, who takes on President Obama’s claim in the Channel 2 interview that he understands the concerns and fears of Israelis. Horovitz argues that Obama’s statements of late have shown this is not really true – that Obama’s call for Israelis to turn away from the “politics of fear” and toward the “politics of hope” ignores the fact that for most mainstream Israelis “the evidence of danger outweighed the evidence upon which to build hope.” He calls upon Obama to provide the evidence to build hope upon, first and foremost by putting some of the pressure he is exerting on Israeli also on the Palestinians to provide evidence for hopefulness about future coexistence. For all of his comments, CLICK HERE. More on the difference between Obama’s and mainstream Israelis’ points of view comes from Israeli General Yossi Kupperwasser.
Finally, Ghaith al-Omari and Neri Zilber, both scholars at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, discuss another key obstacle to moving Israeli-Palestinian peace forward, the fact that 80-year-old Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas has no designated successor, and the path to even pick one is far from clear. They note that the constitutional process to pick a successor is definitely not going to work, because that names the Hamas speaker of the legislative council elected in 2006, Aziz Duwaik, the successor should Abbas die or be incapacitated, and not only is Duwaik in an Israeli prison, but the Fatah leadership of the West Bank would never permit a Hamas takeover. Meanwhile, the Fatah bodies that would choose a successor are weak, and the pool of candidates large and shallow. For their further explanation of these Palestinian realities and why they threaten any peace hopes, CLICK HERE. Plus, veteran Israeli columnist Evelyn Gordon warns that a Palestinian civil war looks like a real possibility if Israel were to end its West Bank presence, as so many urge.
Readers may also be interested in:
- More on the Obama Administration’s changing messages on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking – including an apparent acknowledgement that a final peace is not achievable in the near future – from Israeli academic Zaki Shalom.
- Historian Jeffrey Herf discusses President Obama’s recent comments on Iranian antisemitism made in his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg – these comments were also the subject of some discussion in the last Update.
- Israeli academic Prof. Efraim Inbar argues that European attempts to restart peace talks won’t work because conditions simply aren’t right.
- The Palestinian Authority (PA) gives an award to a terrorist who tried to blow up a cinema. Plus, details about religious teachings specifically against Jews, not Israelis or Zionists, in official PA media.
- More on the Palestinian culture of hatred, from historian Gil Troy.
- Palestinian affairs experts Jonathan Schanzer and Grant Rumley warn Hamas may provoke another conflict with Israel as early as this year. More on Hamas’ latest political manoeuvrings from Israeli experts Gilead Sher and Liran Ofek.
- An interesting piece by American columnist William Galston on Israel’s need to reform its bureaucracy.
- Top Israeli journalist and Middle East analyst Ehud Yaari says the Assad regime in Syria appears to be on its last legs. Plus, a report a Palestinian group, termed the “Gallilee force”, is fighting in the Syrian civil war for the Assad regime.
- Isi Leibler writes about the need to reform Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Ahron Shapiro on what a new IMF reports says about Gaza realities and the problems of the Palestinian governance.
- Glen Falkenstein, in an article published on Online Opinion, on myths and realities about the problems of Gaza reconstruction.
Eight Words from President Obama
By David Harris
Huffington Post, May 24, 2015
President Barack Obama delivered a compelling and heartfelt speech on May 22 at a Washington synagogue.
He spoke directly to the concerns and aspirations of the Jewish people, identifying himself squarely with Jewish ethical values and the Jewish historical journey as a metaphor for the universal quest for peace and justice.
While not intended as a full-blown policy address, he did touch on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, asserting:
“Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people on their land, as well. Now, I want to emphasize that’s not easy. The Palestinians are not the easiest of partners.”
For starters, like a clear majority of Israelis, I have long believed that the Palestinians have such a right. It would serve not only Palestinian interests but Israeli interests as well, allowing the Jewish state to end an unsought occupation, dating back to 1967, and also shift significantly the demographic balance within its own borders.
But there is just one problem, and it is contained in eight words the president expressed: “The Palestinians are not the easiest of partners.”
The audience’s reaction was to laugh right after this sentence. But, of course, it’s no laughing matter. Indeed, it’s the heart of the issue, and has been for decades.
I don’t say this as a debating point. I’m not trying to win an argument. I have only one obsessive goal: witnessing the day when Israel can live in peace, true and enduring peace, with its neighbors.
Nor do I say this to suggest that Israeli leaders, by their words and actions, have always conducted themselves in exemplary fashion.
Like politicians everywhere in democratic societies, they are human and, therefore, fallible; they are subject to the demands of the electorate and, in the case of Israel, the rough-and-tumble of coalition building, and they may have 20-20 hindsight but, alas, not 20-20 foresight.
Yet, at the end of the day, the intentions of Palestinian leaders are anything but obvious. Others, from Washington to Brussels, may seek to interpret Palestinian goals. But, in the quest to hasten a solution, they too often ignore, downplay, or rationalize those fundamental elements that would otherwise challenge their assertions.
Frankly speaking, the Palestinians could have had a state and become “a free people in their own land” on multiple occasions, yet, for reasons perhaps best known to their leaders, they chose not to do so.
To many, this sounds totally counterintuitive. After all, if the Palestinians have been clamoring for a state of their own and have been offered most of what they allege they want, how could it be that they remain without a nation?
And this is where it gets problematic.
Palestinian spokesmen and their enablers find every possible means to divert attention from their own substantial responsibility for the current state of affairs. And too often they find receptive audiences, all too ready to believe the facts be damned! that Israel, the convenient whipping boy, is the sole culprit here.
But then how to explain the turndown of the UN recommendation for two states, Jewish and Arab, in Mandatory Palestine in 1947?
Or the categorical refusal to engage with Israel after the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel proposed a land-for-peace deal?
Or the Palestinian unwillingness to learn from the examples of Egypt and Jordan, both of which achieved peace on favorable terms with Israel by acknowledging Israel’s right to live in the region?
Or the flat-out rejection of Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s offers, fully supported by President Bill Clinton, in 2000 and again in 2001, for a two-state accord, instead triggering a bloody “second intifada” against Israel?
Or the failure to accept, or even to make a counteroffer, to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s two-state plan in 2008?
Or the current Palestinian violations of the 1993 Oslo Accords, by acting unilaterally, circumventing Israel and the bargaining table, and going to UN bodies where the votes are there for the asking?
Or the frequent Palestinian resort to incitement, incendiary language such as “genocide,” and deification of terrorists with the blood of Israeli civilians on their hands?
Or the inescapable fact that a two-state agreement today is, in any case, rendered virtually impossible because Gaza is in the hands of Hamas, an Iranian-backed terrorist group whose charter calls for the obliteration of Israel, and Mahmoud Abbas’ security in the West Bank is anything but assured (even less so without the unheralded help of Israeli security forces)?
As a Jew, I understand that seeking peace is at the core of our identity. The words of the prophet Isaiah “And nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war anymore” define our DNA.
But that can’t be the start and finish of the discussion. There is a second reality. I wish there weren’t, but, alas, it stares us in the face. Invoking the nobility of Jewish values doesn’t make it somehow go away.
Peace requires a partner who genuinely shares the goal of an end to the conflict, who is also ready to compromise for that aim, and who offers reason to believe the future can provide a promising break from the past.
Does Israel today have such a partner? The jury or is it Jewry? is still out. But when Israel does, then peace will become not only possible, but, I dare say, inevitable
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No, Mr. President, you don’t fully understand our fears
Op-Ed: Dont just blame Israelis for seeing danger where you see possibility, as you did in your latest TV interview. Work to give us a tangible basis upon which to rebuild our hopes for a peaceful future
But here’s the thing, Mr. President: You don’t. And your interview made that so unfortunately plain. You dont fully understand our concerns and our fears not as regards the ideologically and territorially rapacious regime in Tehran, driven by a perverted sense of religious imperative, and not as regards the Palestinian conflict.
This is not to dismiss those passionate, fervent entreaties you delivered to us in the interview, about the obligation for Israel to live up to our core values, our foundational values the necessity for us to protect the essential values enshrined in our Declaration of Independence, to protect our democracy, and insist upon our morality, and ensure hope of a better future for ourselves and our neighbors, especially our Palestinian neighbors.
Please hear me out. This is not some closed-minded Obama-bashing critique from an Israeli for whom you can do nothing right. Those of us in the complicated middle ground of Israeli politics, which is most of us, endorse every word you had to say about the necessity to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians in order to maintain Israel as a Jewish democracy. We share your worries about what becomes of that Palestinian youth in Ramallah who you referenced, embittered and frustrated by the status quo. We share your desire to bolster the hope that you so poignantly recalled seeing, when you visited two years ago, in the faces of Israeli children in the faces of Palestinian children.
But if you think about it, Mr. President, you know full well where our hearts are.
You know full well that the Jewish state and its people want nothing more than to live in peace and tranquility alongside their neighbors. After all, as you yourself highlighted in the interview, the biggest applause you got when you spoke to Israeli students in Jerusalem came when you declared, I know that the people of Israel care about those Palestinian children.
What you so evidently havent fully internalized, however, is the extent to which we Israelis in the middle ground the non-zealots, the ones who don’t want to annex the West Bank and subvert our democracy, and who don’t want a single binational entity between the river and the sea that puts an end to Jewish statehood - have been battered by recent history, and continue to be battered by the events unfolding all around us.
You seek to assure us that this deal with Iran is in our own best interests when we know that Iran - which almost daily calls for our destruction - will paint any agreement as a victory and a vindication, and will utilize that ostensible victory to step up its efforts to harm us, via terrorism and via its proxy armies in Lebanon and Gaza, while also continuing to do its utmost to cheat and bully its way to the bomb. We know that the deal will cement this bleakest of regimes in power in Tehran, and that it was your negotiators who blinked, who never forced the regime to choose between survival and its nuclear program, when the financial leverage was available to impose that choice.
You implore us, again and again, to give more thought to the plight of the Palestinians, to turn away from leadership - in the seemingly ever-present shape of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - that peddles the politics of fear, and instead to choose the path of optimism and opportunity. But Israel just elected Netanyahu again, ignoring your entreaties, because the evidence of danger outweighed the evidence upon which to build hope. And here’s the irony, Mr. President: Your policies and your rhetoric haven’t helped.
You complained in the interview that there are lots of filters between you and the Israeli people, who therefore are not getting your message directly. (This, amusingly, in an interview conveyed verbatim into the living rooms of the people of Israel, in prime time, on our most-watched television channel; the full interview is also online here.) Believe me, Mr. President, the problem is not with the messenger. The problem is with the message, and the actions.
You claimed that you are always trying to balance a politics of hope and a politics of fear. You acknowledged that the Arab Spring has turned into the disaster of Syria; you lamented the anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment in the Arab world; you mentioned the threats from Gaza and from south Lebanon. And you said that you have never suggested it was inappropriate for Israel to insist that any two-state solution take into account the risk that what appears to be a peaceful Palestinian Authority today could turn hostile.
You said all that, but have you truly advised and chivied and acted on that basis?
Have you truly internalized the fact that five years ago, Israel was contemplating relinquishing the Golan Heights, the high strategic ground, for a peace deal with Bashar Assad. Where would that have left us now? Utterly vulnerable to the brutal spillover of anarchic violence across that border.
Have you really, truly internalized that Israel left southern Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005, to the applause and reassurance of the international community, only to see the vicious terrorist armies of Hezbollah and Hamas fill the respective vacuums? Have you really, honestly, utterly internalized that Hamas booted out the forces of the relatively moderate Mahmoud Abbas from Gaza in a matter of hours in 2007, and that there is every reason to believe that Hamas would seek to do the same in the West Bank were Israel to do as you wish, and pull out? And Hamas in the West Bank would entirely paralyze this country. A single Hamas rocket that landed a mile from the airport last summer prompted two-thirds of foreign airlines to stop flying to Israel for a day and a half including all the major US airlines. A single rocket. Hamas rule in the West Bank would close down our entire country.
In all candor, Mr. President, I don’t know which of the security arrangements that your top military advisers were formulating could credibly have defended us against the all-too plausible scenario of a West Bank takeover by Hamas. You insisted that you were not expecting Israel to be naive and assume the best. But barely a decade ago, we were murdered in our hundreds by a strategic onslaught of suicide bombers dispatched from the cities of the West Bank where we had relinquished day-to-day control. To this day, that relatively moderate Mahmoud Abbas uses his television stations to incite relentlessly against Israel, deriding our millennia of history in this land; his Fatah loyalists use their Facebook pages to encourage terrorism against us. Make no mistake, Mr. President: the PA is carefully fostering a climate of profound hostility to Israel, not one of reconciliation.
When Netanyahu last froze settlement expansion, in 2009-2010, Abbas still stayed away from the peace table for nine months of the 10-month freeze. As his price for joining Secretary Kerry’s peace efforts in 2013, Abbas demanded that Israel release dozens of the most dangerous orchestrators of terrorism - and Netanyahu complied. At the negotiating table, Abbas insisted that millions of the third- and fourth-generation descendants of Palestinians who used to live in today’s Israel be given the right of return as part of any deal establishing Palestine - seeking, that is, a very different two-state solution than the one we want: His stance spells a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza alongside an Israel turned demographically into Palestine as well. The relatively moderate Abbas remains locked into a despicable reconciliation government with Hamas, the terrorist government of Gaza that avowedly seeks our elimination.
It is these bleak realities that, to our own great sorrow Mr. President, overwhelm the hopes we have for peace, a better future and the opportunity we desperately seek to guarantee that our country ensure its Jewish-democratic essence. Believe me, Mr. President, no Israeli family that sends its children off to fight in Gaza, no Israeli family that watches Hamas expand its rocket range and fire ever deeper into Israel - in short, no Israeli family - wants anything other than peace and tranquility here. And most Israelis will endorse the most far-reaching territorial compromises in return for a credible guarantee of sustainable tranquility. And well throw out any government that fails to seize a realistic opportunity to pursue these goals.
But here’s where, with the greatest respect, you’ve failed us thus far, Mr. President. You got the settlement freeze six years ago, you got the prisoner releases in 2013, but what did you wrest from Abbas? Did he stop the incitement against Israel? Did he moderate his positions on the right of return? You fault Netanyahu for his bleak wordview, but did you castigate Abbas for entering a governing partnership which gives Hamas veto power over his ministers? Did you tell him, sorry, that’s not going to work for us? No. You said you’d keep right on dealing with him.
You berate Netanyahu for ruling out Palestinian statehood on election eve, dismiss his subsequent re-endorsement of a two-state solution as full of so many caveats as to be unrealistic, and warn that Israel is consequently losing international credibility, and that this makes it harder for you to defend us internationally. But love or loathe Netanyahu, his concerns, Mr. President, are compelling. Hamas did anticipate reducing Israel to rubble last summer, and only the extraordinary performance of Iron Dome prevented this. Hamas would try to take over the West Bank if we pulled out – and then to tunnel under and fire rockets over our borders.
Abbas has not encouraged his people to internalize Jewish sovereign legitimacy in this part of the world. And along with that hope you espied for a better future there is hatred, too, in so many young Palestinian faces. Think of the toxin that must have been absorbed by the 16-year-old Palestinian who stabbed to death an 18-year-old Israeli soldier, Eden Atias, asleep next to him on a bus in Afula, northern Israel, in November 2013. Think of your daughters, of around that age, as I think of my children, and recognize how remote from their most basic, decent, humane instincts is an act such as that, and how systematic and relentless the climate of anti-Israel hostility must be in the Abbas-controlled West Bank to have produced that killer and others like him. The expansion of settlements discredits moderates, and makes it easier for terrorist groups to recruit, but thats not the root of the hatred, the root of the conflict. At its heart, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict marches bloodily on because the Palestinian leadership refuses to acknowledge that the Jewish nation has any legitimacy here.
And you, Mr. President, so ready to fault us for failures, ready even in your interview to cite American failures and mistakes and lost values, have failed to insist on a similar self-reflection, and morality, and assertion of humane values from the Palestinians and their leadership.
Yes, we are mighty Israel, a military force to be reckoned with, an economic powerhouse, and they are the poor Palestinians, ostensibly only seeking statehood. But take a step back and we are a tiny sliver of land, nine miles wide at our narrowest point, on the western edge of a vast landmass filled with hundreds of millions of people largely hostile to the very fact of our existence. If our enemies were to lay down their weapons right now, Mr. President, there would be peace. If we were to lay down our weapons, our country would be destroyed. And therefore, Mr. President, we will need a great deal more reassurance before we dare to hope.
You can still help with that. Really, you can. Start by demanding an end to incitement against Israel in Palestinian schools, in Palestinian media and by Palestinian spiritual leaders. Incidentally, demand similar efforts on the Israeli side, by all means. Tell Abbas that a governing partnership with Hamas is unacceptable. Tell him to stop battering Israel in every international forum, denouncing us for genocide at the UN, seeking our isolation and economic devastation. Again, make demands of Israel too, by all means. Urge Netanyahu to stop building at settlements in areas even he does not envisage retaining under a permanent accord. Ensure we do ease movement for Palestinians in the West Bank, when its safe to do so. Encourage the prime minister in his recent minor shift toward a more positive take on the Arab Peace Initiative as a basis for a regional peace effort.
Chivy, mediate, encourage. But don’t embolden our enemies by publicly placing so disproportionate a level of blame on us for the failure of your peace efforts. Don’t indicate that you might reduce your support for us at the UN. Don’t further bolster the growing Palestinian confidence that the international community will impose Palestinian statehood upon us without the necessity to negotiate modalities that ensure our long-term well-being. Press the Palestinians toward compromise; dont indulge and endorse their obduracy. Work toward a Palestinian state truly at peace with Israel. Help give us more reasons to do what you want us to do, what you believe it is in our interests to do, which is to favor hope over fear.
We can’t just be driven by this sense that theres only danger; there’s also possibility, you said in your interview. Well then, act to reduce our sense of danger, Mr. President, and you will find us determined to advance every possibility for a better future.
You want us to be the very best Israel that we can be? So do we, Mr. President. So do we.
You said you see your job as to feed hope and not just feed fear. Well, I implore you Mr. President, don’t settle for blaming us for giving in to our concerns and our fears. Help reduce them. Help alleviate them. Give us the evidence upon which to rebuild our hope.
David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011).
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AFTER ABBAS, AN ABYSS
By Ghaith al-Omari and Neri Zilber
Foreign Affairs, May 20, 2015
President Abbas has long ensured that no new leaders would come to the fore as realistic successors, but while this may have helped him consolidate control over a fractious polity, it is potentially ruinous as a national strategy.
On a quiet Friday afternoon last December, a rumor that began as a whisper quickly became a shout. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the story went, was rushed to the hospital with an undisclosed ailment. Abbas’ supposed health scare set off a worldwide frenzy of speculation on social media until he finally appeared in a Ramallah grocery store later in the day, shaking hands and pinching babies. This rushed public appearance among the people — a rare occurrence for Abbas — was broadcast live on Palestinian television. The message was made clear: Abbas is fine, and still in command. The question that needs to be asked, however, is what happens when this is no longer true.
Abbas recently turned 80 and is known to be an industrious smoker. His successor by law is the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Hamas official Aziz Duwaik. Duwaik is currently imprisoned in Israel, but even if he were free, there would be no chance of a parliamentary speaker from Hamas taking the reins of power in the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian parliament has not met in over seven years, and Abbas himself is now a decade into a four-year presidential term that began in 2005. Laws regulating transitions of political power are thus irrelevant: Abbas rules by presidential decree in the West Bank; Hamas rules by the gun in the Gaza Strip. Presidential and legislative elections have been suggested for some time, yet neither Hamas nor Fatah likely want them to take place in the near future.
Legalities aside, the clear assumption is that the next president after Abbas will hail from Fatah, which continues to dominate Palestinian political life. No clear successor has come to the forefront, however, let alone one that has been officially designated by the party. Fatah’s Central Committee, the movement’s top decision-making body, remains weak; the pool of potential candidates is both too large and too shallow. As one well-connected official in Ramallah stated pithily last year, “The next president will be a Palestinian and a patriot.”
The party’s internal disarray was supposed to be remedied during the seventh Fatah General Conference, which was originally scheduled for August 2014. This would have been the most recent meeting of its kind since 2009, but it was pushed back due to the conflict in Gaza between Israel and Hamas. A rescheduled January date came and went, and local elections for delegates to the conference are still ongoing. The Fatah General Congress agenda was rumored to include the creation of a vice-presidential post, although this is now on hold alongside the conference. Without a conference, it is impossible to accurately assess who holds power within Fatah’s leadership and, perhaps more importantly, to effectively reenergize the movement.
Palestine’s crumbling political institutions stand in sharp contrast to how Abbas himself became president, in the last — and only — instance of Palestinian leadership succession in late 2004, following Yasser Arafat’s death. The Palestinian Liberation Organization and Fatah hierarchy moved within hours to resolve the issue of succession, and Abbas’ only other competitor, Ahmed Qurei, conceded gracefully. Once selected, Abbas’ election in the 2005 presidential election was all but guaranteed. It is indicative of Palestine’s political processes that Abbas or Qurei were implicit heirs to power after Arafat’s death. Both were members of the Palestinian national movement’s founding generation, making their ascension to power inevitable. Today, however, there are no such identifiable candidates from within Fatah, with either the longevity or political stature.
Abbas has been leading the Palestinian Authority for a decade now, nearly equal in time to Arafat. In this period, Abbas has ensured that no new leaders would come to the fore as realistic successors. This might have made for good politics locally, allowing him to consolidate control over a potentially fractious polity. But as a national strategy, it could be ruinous for Palestinians as a whole. The Palestinian Authority cannot afford a leadership crisis if Abbas were to leave office; it already finds itself divided between Gaza and the West Bank, hamstrung by a moribund peace process, and facing growing discontent in the streets and refugee camps.
A Palestinian state requires many things in order to be viable: economic opportunity, territorial contiguity, natural resources, and working institutions. For a people intent on attaining self-determination, it behooves the Palestinians, as well as the international community, to ensure a smooth transition process after Abbas.
Ghaith al-Omari is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute. Neri Zilber is a visiting scholar at the Institute.