The Latest Crisis and the Obama Administration’s approach to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking
Mar 19, 2010 | AIJAC staff
March 19, 2010
Number 03/10 #04
First up, we have noted Israeli writer Yossi Klein Halevi, arguing that the US Administration’s very highly strung response to a fairly routine Jerusalem planning announcement, of the sort that occurs all the time without controversy, constitutes a repeat of the tactical mistake made at the beginning of the Administration over settlements. He asks why the US wants to make an issue out of Israel building in Jerusalem that will guarantee that, as in the previous disagreement over settlements, the Palestinians will refuse to return to the negotiations, when this is ostensibly the very goal of their policies? He argues that the tactical mistake is embedded in a larger strategic error – the belief that the Palestinians are in a position to make a final peace in the near future. To read all of this valuable analysis, CLICK HERE. Halevi’s New Republic colleague and publisher Marty Peretz has his own take on what is driving Obama’s escalation of this issue here. Earlier, he commented on the Obama Administration’s relatively weak response to Palestinian provocations, including the violence over the Hurva Synagogue (see below), as well as the nature of the Israeli consensus on building in Jerusalem.
Readers may also be interested in:
- More details on the violent clashes in Jerusalem over the rebuilt Hurva Synagogue, encouraged by both Hamas and Fatah. Jeffrey Goldberg comments on the absurdity of the claims about the synagogue.
- An interesting piece on the power of rhetoric and the limited nature of what really is at stake in Ramat Shlomo from Israeli columnist Daniel Laufer. Harvard Professor Ruth Wisse agrees, and compares Israeli home-building to Arab home-building activities across the region.
- Recent visitor to Australia and former New York Times journalist Clifford May examines the disparity between the Obama Administration’s reaction to Israeli housing in Jerusalem compared to Palestinian celebrations for a terrorist leader who killed 38 civilians including 13 children.
- This Jerusalem Post editorial suggests ways Israel can meet US demands without sacrificing essential interests. More on Netanyahu’s dilemmas in the current situation comes from BICOM.
- Foreign policy expert Robert Kagan puts recent American actions in the context of an overall Obama administration approach toward allies and adversaries. Former US UN Ambassador John Bolton goes further and argues that Israeli efforts to please and maintain good relations with the Obama Administration will be fruitless, given its views, and should be rethought.
- Israeli Ambassador in Washington Michael Oren has an op-ed in which he explores the US-Israel disagreement and says he was misquoted in reports claiming that he said that this was the worst Jerusalem-Washington crisis since 1975. US President Barack Obama has now reassured Israel that there is no crisis in the two countries’ ties.
- Reports say that Washington and Jerusalem may have come to some agreements to bury the hatchet after the recent disgreements.
- David Rothkopf says this is a “fake crisis”, and the Obama Administration’s handling of it will increase regional perceptions of American weakness, rather than the reverse.
- Recent visitor to Australia and expert on Europe and Iran Emanuele Ottolenghi has some advice on the Middle East for new EU Foreign Minister Baroness Ashton. He also dissected Baroness Ashton’s Cairo speech last week.
- US Foreign Policy expert Max Boot (here and here) debunks the claim appearing in some international news stories and, originating from former adviser to Yasser Arafat Mark Perry, that the US military helped create the new American hostility to Israeli policies by saying its stance was killing American soldiers.
- An Israeli columnist points out that, despite the angst over the supposed “siege of Gaza”, Gazans are getting more international aid than Haitians are in the wake of the devastating earthquake there.
- Former Israeli Defence Minister and Ambassador to Washington Moshe Arens muses on the Israeli missile defence program.
- Bar Ilan University academic Ephraim Inbar defends Netanyahu’s record as a peacemaker.
- For those who didn’t see it here yesterday, Greg Sheridan discoursed in The Australian on the need for closer Australian-Israeli ties.
- Ely Karmon, a senior research scholar at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism (part of the Interdisciplinary Centre, Herzliya) writes about the recent visit to Israel by Brazil’s president, and wonders if Brazil will be playing a greater role in the region.
- AIJAC’s Dr. Colin Rubenstein in the Canberra Times on the real reasons Palestinians do not yet have their own state.
Was Obama’s confrontation with Israel premeditated?
The New Republic, March 16, 2010
JERUSALEM—Suddenly, my city feels again like a war zone. Since the suicide bombings ended in 2005, life in Jerusalem has been for the most part relatively calm. The worst disruptions have been the traffic jams resulting from construction of a light rail, just like in a normal city. But now, again, there are clusters of helmeted border police near the gates of the Old City, black smoke from burning tires in the Arab village across from my porch, young men marching with green Islamist flags toward my neighborhood, ambulances parked at strategic places ready for this city’s ultimate nightmare.
The return of menace to Jerusalem is not because a mid-level bureaucrat announced stage four of a seven-stage process in the eventual construction of 1,600 apartments in Ramat Shlomo, a Jewish neighborhood in northeast Jerusalem. Such announcements and building projects have become so routine over the years that Palestinians have scarcely responded, let alone violently. In negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis, the permanence of Ramat Shlomo, and other Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, has been a given. Ramat Shlomo, located between the Jewish neighborhoods of French Hill and Ramot, will remain within the boundaries of Israeli Jerusalem according to every peace plan. Unlike the small Jewish enclaves inserted into Arab neighborhoods, on which Israelis are strongly divided, building in the established Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem defines the national consensus.
Why, then, the outbreak of violence now? Why Hamas’s “day of rage” over Jerusalem and the Palestinian Authority’s call to gather on the Temple Mount to “save” the Dome of the Rock from non-existent plans to build the Third Temple? Why the sudden outrage over rebuilding a synagogue, destroyed by the Jordanians in 1948, in the Old City’s Jewish Quarter, when dozens of synagogues and yeshivas have been built in the quarter without incident?
The answer lies not in Jerusalem but in Washington. By placing the issue of building in Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem at the center of the peace process, President Obama has inadvertently challenged the Palestinians to do no less.
Astonishingly, Obama is repeating the key tactical mistake of his failed efforts to restart Middle East peace talks over the last year. Though Obama’s insistence on a settlement freeze to help restart negotiations was legitimate, he went a step too far by including building in East Jerusalem. Every Israeli government over the last four decades has built in the Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem; no government, let alone one headed by the Likud, could possibly agree to a freeze there. Obama made resumption of negotiations hostage to a demand that could not be met. The result was that Palestinian leaders were forced to adjust their demands accordingly.
Obama is directly responsible for one of the most absurd turns in the history of Middle East negotiations. Though Palestinian leaders negotiated with Israeli governments that built extensively in the West Bank, they now refused to sit down with the first Israeli government to actually agree to a suspension of building. Obama’s demand for a building freeze in Jerusalem led to a freeze in negotiations.
Finally, after intensive efforts, the administration produced the pathetic achievement of “proximity talks”—setting Palestinian-Israeli negotiations back a generation, to the time when Palestinian leaders refused to sit at the same table with Israelis.
That Obama could be guilty of such amateurishness was perhaps forgivable because he was, after all, an amateur. But he has now taken his failed policy and intensified it. By demanding that Israel stop building in Ramat Shlomo and elsewhere in East Jerusalem—and placing that demand at the center of American-Israeli relations—he’s ensured that the Palestinians won’t show up even to proximity talks. This is no longer amateurishness; it is pique disguised as policy.
But not even the opposition accused Netanyahu of a deliberate provocation. These are not the days of Yitzhak Shamir, the former Israeli prime minister who used to greet a visit from Secretary of State James Baker with an announcement of the creation of another West Bank settlement. Netanyahu has placed the need for strategic cooperation with the U.S. on the Iranian threat ahead of the right-wing political agenda. That’s why he included the Labor Party into his coalition, and why he accepted a two-state solution—an historic achievement that set the Likud, however reluctantly, within the mainstream consensus supporting Palestinian statehood. The last thing Netanyahu wanted was to embarrass Biden during his goodwill visit and trigger a clash with Obama over an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood.
Nor is it likely that there was a deliberate provocation from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which runs the interior ministry that oversees building procedures. Shas, which supports peace talks and territorial compromise, is not a nationalist party. Its interest is providing housing for its constituents, like the future residents of Ramat Shlomo; provoking international incidents is not its style.
Finally, the very ordinariness of the building procedure—the fact that construction in Jewish East Jerusalem is considered by Israelis routine—is perhaps the best proof that there was no intentional ambush of Biden. Apparently no one in the interior ministry could imagine that a long-term plan over Ramat Shlomo would sabotage a state visit.
In turning an incident into a crisis, Obama has convinced many Israelis that he was merely seeking a pretext to pick a fight with Israel. Netanyahu was inadvertently shabby; Obama, deliberately so.
According to a banner headline in the newspaper Ma’ariv, senior Likud officials believe that Obama’s goal is to topple the Netanyahu government, by encouraging those in the Labor Party who want to quit the coalition.
The popular assumption is that Obama is seeking to prove his resolve as a leader by getting tough with Israel. Given his ineffectiveness against Iran and his tendency to violate his own self-imposed deadlines for sanctions, the Israeli public is not likely to be impressed. Indeed, Israelis’ initial anger at Netanyahu has turned to anger against Obama. According to an Israel Radio poll on March 16, 62 percent of Israelis blame the Obama administration for the crisis, while 20 percent blame Netanyahu. (Another 17 percent blame Shas leader Eli Yishai.)
In the last year, the administration has not once publicly condemned the Palestinians for lack of good faith—even though the Palestinian Authority media has, for example, been waging a months-long campaign denying the Jews’ historic roots in Jerusalem. Just after Biden left Ramallah, Palestinian officials held a ceremony naming a square in the city after a terrorist responsible for the massacre of 38 Israeli civilians. (To its credit, yesterday, the administration did condemn the Palestinian Authority for inciting violence in Jerusalem.)
Obama’s one-sided public pressure against Israel could intensify the atmosphere of “open season” against Israel internationally. Indeed, the European Union has reaffirmed it is linking improved economic relations with Israel to the resumption of the peace process—as if it’s Israel rather than the Palestinians that has refused to come to the table.
If the administration’s main tactical error in Middle East negotiating was emphasizing building in Jerusalem, its main strategic error was assuming that a two-state solution was within easy reach. Shortly after Obama took office, Rahm Emanuel was quoted in the Israeli press insisting that a Palestinian state would be created within Obama’s first term. Instead, a year later, we are in the era of suspended proximity talks. Now the administration is demanding that Israel negotiate over final status issues in proximity talks as a way of convincing the Palestinians to agree to those talks–as if Israelis would agree to discuss the future of Jerusalem when Palestinian leaders refuse to even sit with them.
Initially, when the announcement about building in Ramat Shlomo was made, Israelis shared Vice President Biden’s humiliation and were outraged at their government’s incompetence. The widespread sense here was that Netanyahu deserved the administration’s condemnation, not because of what he did but because of what he didn’t do: He failed to convey to all parts of his government the need for caution during Biden’s visit, symptomatic of his chaotic style of governing generally.
The reason for Palestinian rejection of a two-state solution is because a deal would require Palestinians to confine the return of the descendants of the 1948 refugees to Palestine rather than to Israel. That would prevent a two-state solution from devolving into a bi-national, one-state solution. Israel’s insistence on survival remains the obstacle to peace.
To achieve eventual peace, the international community needs to pressure Palestinian leaders to forgo their claim to Haifa and Jaffa and confine their people’s right of return to a future Palestinian state-just as the Jews will need to forgo their claim to Hebron and Bethlehem and confine their people’s right of return to the state of Israel. That is the only possible deal: conceding my right of return to Greater Israel in exchange for your right of return to Greater Palestine. A majority of Israelis-along with the political system-has accepted that principle. On the Palestinian side, the political system has rejected it.
In the absence of Palestinian willingness to compromise on the right of return, negotiations should not focus on a two-state solution but on more limited goals.
There have been positive signs of change on the Palestinian side in the last few years. The rise of Hamas has created panic within Fatah, and the result is, for the first time, genuine security cooperation with Israel. Also, the emergence of Salam Fayyad as Palestinian prime minister marks a shift from ideological to pragmatic leadership (though Fayyad still lacks a power base). Finally, the West Bank economy is growing, thanks in part to Israel’s removal of dozens of roadblocks. The goal of negotiations at this point in the conflict should be to encourage those trends.
But by focusing on building in Jerusalem, Obama has undermined that possibility too. To the fictitious notion of a peace process, Obama has now added the fiction of an intransigent Israel blocking the peace process.
The administration, according to a report in the Israeli newspaper Yedito Aharonot, is making an even more insidious accusation against Israel. During his visit, wrote Yediot Aharanot, Biden told Israeli leaders that their policies are endangering American lives in Afghanistan and Iraq. The report has been denied in the White House. Whether or not the remark was made, what is clear today in Jerusalem is that Obama’s recklessness is endangering Israeli–and Palestinian–lives. As I listen to police sirens outside my window, Obama’s political intifada against Netanyahu seems to be turning into a third intifada over Jerusalem.
Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, and a contributing editor of The New Republic.
Isi Leibler, Jerusalem Post, March 16
Recent hostile outbursts by the US gov’t must be viewed in the context that the US-Israel relationship has been on a downward spiral since Obama.
The bureaucratic fashla [blunder] of our dysfunctional government to forestall the announcement of a new housing project in Jerusalem during the visit of US Vice President Joe Biden provided a pretext for the Obama administration to launch one of the harshest condemnations ever leveled against us by a US government. But while the timing of the announcement was appalling, it involved no breach of undertaking.
In fact, the Obama administration had previously publicly praised the Israeli government for making a “major concession” by imposing a settlement freeze which explicitly excluded Jerusalem.
The campaign was personally orchestrated by President Barack Obama. His Vice President Biden accused us of “endangering US lives in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Despite Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s abject apology, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused him of “insulting” the US. Obama’s chief political adviser David Axelrod even claimed that the Israeli government was deliberately undermining peace talks.
These hostile outbursts must be viewed in the context of the fact that despite strong ongoing support for Israel by the American people, the US-Israel relationship has been on a downward spiral since the election of the new administration. Former Mossad head Ephraim Halevy attributes this to Obama’s determination to rehabilitate Islam’s global tarnished image.
Yet his strategy of “engaging” Islamic rogue states has been disastrous. The effort to prevent the nuclearization of Iran by appeasing the Iranian tyrants backfired with the ayatollahs literally mocking the US. The response of Syrian President Bashar Assad to US groveling and the appointment of an ambassador to Damascus, was to host a summit with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hizbullah terrorist leader Hassan Nasrallah and ridicule the US demand that he curtail his relationship with Iran. President Obama did not consider this “insulting,” prompting the editor of the Lebanese The Daily Star to say that “the Obama administration these days provokes little confidence in its allies and even less fear in its adversaries.”
The Arab League refuses to modify its hard-line against Israel. It insists that Israel unconditionally accept the Saudi peace plan, a full retreat to the ’67 borders and the implementation of the Arab right of return which would signal an end to Jewish sovereignty in the region.
THERE ARE now ominous signals that to obviate their failures, White House strategists are cynically distancing themselves from us in order to curry popularity by capitalizing on the anti-Israeli hatred which has engulfed the world.
Despite continuously incanting the mantra that it remains committed to the alliance with Israel, the White House is not behaving in an even-handed manner. Obama does not disguise his animosity and repeatedly humiliates our prime minister. The administration “condemns” us for building homes, not in densely Arab populated areas of Jerusalem but in Jewish suburbs like Gilo and most recently Ramat Shlomo which most of us regard as Israel no less than Tel Aviv.
Instead of condemning the brutal Palestinian murderer of an Israeli civilian in December, the US requested “clarification” after Israel apprehended the killers who the PA extolled as heroes. They failed to block a UN Security Council resolution criticizing Israeli police for protecting worshippers at the Temple Mount from Arabs hurling stones at them. They even condemned us for authorizing repairs on Jewish heritage sites over the Green Line.
In stark contrast, the US has not publicly reprimanded the PA on a single issue over the past twelve months. It is unconscionable that neither the White House nor the State Department conveyed a word of protest concerning the ongoing incitement and spate of ceremonies sanctifying the memory of the most degenerate suicide killers and mass murderers. Not even when our peace partners President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad personally partook in these ghoulish ceremonies. In fact, during Biden’s visit, the PA announced that they would postpone a ceremony to name a public square in Ramallah to honor Dalal Mughrabi, the female monster responsible for the abominable 1978 massacre in which 37 Israelis including 13 children were butchered. Nevertheless the ceremony took place and the PA TV interviewed Mughrabi’s sister who stated: “This is a day of glory and pride for the Palestinian people. We must unite, and our rifles must unite, against the enemy who steals our land.” The US failed to register a protest.
NETANYAHU HAS extended more concessions than any other Israeli leader. His government immediately agreed to negotiations with the Palestinians. In contrast, Abbas told The Washington Post that being confident that the US would ensure that the Palestinians obtained whatever they sought, he saw no benefit in negotiating with the Israelis. This scenario is now being realized.
Netanyahu also overcame Likud resistance to a two-state solution and acceded to a temporary settlement freeze which no previous Israeli government was willing to consider. He authorized the release of prisoners and reduced checkpoints, even compromising the security of Israeli civilians.
Yet, far from acting as an honest broker, the US effectively endorsed most of the Palestinian positions and is poised to pressure Israel into making further unilateral concessions.
In a recent chilling document, reiterated by Biden in the course of his condemnation of construction in Jerusalem, the US assured the PA that the principal objective of the “indirect” negotiations was not peace, but the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and that parties who adopted negative positions would be dealt with “in order to overcome that obstacle.”
Our relations with the US will now be further tested.
Obama is surely aware that recent statements by his administration will only embolden the Palestinians and Jihadists to be more extreme in their demands, making it inevitable that the talks will almost certainly fail. Some may infer that this is precisely his intention. We will then be blamed for the breakdown and the US, with the backing of the Quartet and others, will then seek to impose a solution upon us.
There are certain red lines which no government of Israel may cross. Netanyahu, on this occasion, must stand firm. The current crisis transcends political or ideological differences between Likud, Labor and Kadima. All mainstream parties should unite and convey to President Obama that Israel is a sovereign state and will not automatically bow to diktats of the US administration. They need to make the US administration and public understand that no government of Israel will agree to freeze construction in Jerusalem, the heart and soul of the Jewish people.
We may not be a superpower but the Obama administration will hesitate to pursue a path which rejects the consensus of the nation. A demonstration of unity against the unprecedented attacks on Israel’s sovereignty by the Obama administration will also encourage the American people and Congress to publicly support and assist us to reaffirm the traditional alliance and bonds of friendship between our two nations.
It will hopefully also encourage the Obama administration to relate to us with at least the same level of courtesy and respect it extends to rogue states.
I once got an angry letter from Baruch Goldstein’s father. Goldstein, remember, was an Israeli settler who in 1994 entered the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and gunned down 29 Muslim worshippers. A decade later, I wrote a column for the Jerusalem Post in which I described Goldstein as personifying Israel’s lunatic extreme. The father insisted that his son deserved to be celebrated as a hero. Indeed, his grave site was transformed into a shrine until the Israeli army eventually tore it down.
It’s easy to dislike Israel’s settlements, and still easier to dislike many of the settlers. Whatever your view about the legality or justice of the enterprise, it takes a certain cast of mind to move your children to places where they are more likely to be in harm’s way. In the current issue of the American Interest, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer persuasively spells out the many ways in which the settlement movement has undermined Israel’s own rule of law, and hence its democracy. And as last week’s diplomatic eruption over the prospective construction of 1,600 housing units in municipal Jerusalem shows, the settlements are a constant irritant to the United States, one friend Israel can’t afford to lose.
So it would be a splendid thing for Israel to tear down its settlements, put the settlers behind its pre-1967 borders and finally reach the peace deal with the Palestinians that has been so elusive for so long.
Except for one problem: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn’t territorial. It’s existential.
Israelis are now broadly prepared to live with a Palestinian state along their borders. Palestinians are not yet willing to live with a Jewish state along theirs.
That should help explain why it is that in the past decade, two Israeli prime ministers-Ehud Barak in 2000 and Ehud Olmert in 2008-have put forward comprehensive peace offers to the Palestinians, and have twice been rebuffed. In both cases, the offers included the division of Jerusalem; in the latter case, it also included international jurisdiction over Jerusalem’s holy places and concessions on the subject of Palestinian refugees. Current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also offered direct peace talks. The Palestinians have countered by withdrawing to “proximity talks” mediated by the U.S.
It also helps explain other aspects of Palestinian behavior. For Hamas, Tel Aviv is no less a “settlement” than the most makeshift Jewish outpost on the West Bank. The supposedly moderate Fatah party has joined that bandwagon, too: Last year, Mohammed Dahlan, one of Fatah’s key leaders, said the party was “not bound” by the 1993 Oslo Accords through which the PLO recognized Israel.
Then there is the test case of Gaza. When Israel withdrew all of its settlements from the Strip in 2005, it was supposed to be an opportunity for Palestinians to demonstrate what they would do with a state if they got one. Instead, they quickly turned it into an Iranian-backed Hamas enclave that for nearly three years launched nonstop rocket and mortar barrages against Israeli civilians. Israel was ultimately able to contain that violence, but only at the price of a military campaign that was vehemently denounced by the very people who had urged Israel to withdraw in the first place.
As it happens, I supported Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, bloody-minded neocon though I am. On balance, I still think it was the right thing to do. By 2005, Israel’s settlements in the Strip had become military and political liabilities. But there is a duty to take account of subsequent developments. And the sad fact is that the most important thing Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza accomplished was to expose the fanatical irredentism that still lies at the heart of the Palestinian movement.
The withdrawal exposed other things too. For years, Israel’s soi-disant friends, particularly in Europe, had piously insisted that they supported Israel’s right to self-defense against attacks on Israel proper. But none of them lifted a finger to object to the rocket attacks from Gaza, while they were outspoken in denouncing Israel’s “disproportionate” use of retaliatory force.
Similarly, Israel withdrew from Gaza with assurances from the Bush administration that the U.S. would not insist on a return to the 1967 borders in brokering any future deal with the Palestinians. But Hillary Clinton reneged on that commitment last year, and now the administration is going out of its way to provoke a diplomatic crisis with Israel over a construction project that-assuming it ever gets off the ground-is plainly in keeping with past U.S. undertakings.
In the past decade, Israelis have learned that neither Palestinians nor Europeans can be taken at their word. That’s a lesson they may soon begin to draw about the U.S. as well. Which is a pity for many reasons-not least because it gives the settler movement every excuse it needs to keep rolling right along.