The Latest US-Israel spat over building in east Jerusalem/ UNRWA and the refugees

Nov 12, 2010

Update from AIJAC

November 12, 2010
Number 11/10 #03

Today’s Update contains some comments on the latest exchange of complaints between Washington and Jerusalem regarding an Israeli approval of one stage of plans to build new apartments in Jewish neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem.

First up is former US official Dov Zakheim, who argues that the US should stop focussing on such building in East Jerusalem as it complicates peace efforts. He points out that we are talking about overwhelmingly Jewish neighbourhoods which no Israeli government has ever considered relinquishing, but that Obama’s  focus on the issue forces the Palestinians to do so as well. He says this forces an impasse and Obama needs to step backward on this issue to make any progress. For his full argument, CLICK HERE. Some more thoughts on the disagreements from Israeli journalist and blogger Shmuel Rosner.

Next up analysing the current impasse is former Middle East mediator Aaron David Miller in a interview with Marc Tracy of the Tablet. Miller makes some similar points to Zakheim, argues that some fault lies on either side, but points out that for Israel “Building in Jerusalem is as natural as breathing.” Miller urges Obama to avoid confrontation and save his “powder” for use on an issue that will actually advance the peace process. For rest of what he has to say, CLICK HERE. Perhaps the US government is taking Miller’s advice to heart, because Binyamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton apparently held pretty good extended talks yesterday.

Finally, Middle East specialists Alexander Joffe and Asaf Romirowsky discuss the significance of a recent incident where Andrew Whiteley, a senior spokesman for UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees, was forced to write a grovelling apology, and also effectively sacked. This as because he dared to suggest, in very diplomatic terms, that, as a practical matter, it did not appear likely that large numbers of refugees would be allowed to their ancestral homes in what is now Israel. Joffe and Romirowsky note there is a historical pattern of UNRWA effectively silencing any who break ranks and fail to support a Palestinian “right of return” to Israel, and cite in particular the peculiar case of Lt.-Gen. Sir Alexander Galloway, former UNRWA head in Jordan. They argue that the West must find a way to both tell the truth to Palestinians about the claimed “right of return” and control UNRWA to facilitate peace. For their complete discussion, CLICK HERE. More on Joffe’s and Romirowsky’s research on Galloway is here. More on how UNRWA is a barrier to peace comes from Australian graduate student Raffe Gold.

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Obama should give up on East Jerusalem

By Dov Zakheim 

Foreign Policy, Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The to-ing and fro-ing between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government continues unabated, with each new verbal clash further dimming any chances for an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. On Friday the Israeli government moved another step closer to lifting its construction freeze by publishing in the Israeli press its plans to build 1,345 new housing units in mostly Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. Two days later Prime Minister Netanyahu met with Vice President Joe Biden in New Orleans, where the impasse between Jerusalem and Washington remained as firm as ever. 

Two days after that, President Obama, responding to a question at his Jakarta news conference about Israeli construction, first stated that he had not received “a full briefing on Israel’s intentions,” but then went on to say that such activity was “unhelpful.” Naturally, the world press focused on the latter part of Obama’s remarks, with breathless headlines proclaiming, in tabloid fashion, “Obama Rips Israel.” Not to be outdone, Netanyahu responded to Obama’s remarks by pointing out that Jerusalem was “not a settlement,” and that the new housing units would not affect the outcome of peace talks. In effect the Israeli Prime Minister dismissed the entire flap as much ado about nothing (his actual term was “overblown”). At which point the State Department issued its own retort, arguing that there was indeed a linkage between construction and the peace process.

President Obama has clearly determined that construction in East Jerusalem is a “red line” that the Israeli government should not cross. The problem is that “East Jerusalem” does not merely consist of Arab neighborhoods in the Old City or even outside its walls. Many districts of what is East Jerusalem have been home to tens of thousands of Israelis for years, even decades. Construction in these neighborhoods never was an obstacle to peace talks until the Obama administration put the Palestinians in an impossible position by insisting that construction should stop. 

Given Washington’s position, the Palestinian Authority has had no alternative but to focus on the construction issue. It clearly cannot not take a softer line on construction than Obama has done. Meanwhile, Israelis of all political stripes, including many who otherwise have no truck with Netanyahu, are puzzled and angered by Washington’s stance. Many suspect that he is simply trying to curry favor with the Muslim world at Israel’s expense. His performance at the Jakarta press conference does nothing to allay that suspicion. After all, having said he needed to study the issue, he need not have gone any further. But he did, and Netanyahu responded in turn and in kind.

Why does the president continue to harp on settlements in East Jerusalem, as opposed to expansion of West Bank settlements that would be dismantled under the terms of any peace agreement between the parties? Obama may feel that he has crossed a Rubicon and must push forward. Or he may feel that he must put Netanyahu in his place; there is no love lost between the two men, and the Israeli reportedly feels that the recent Congressional elections have strengthened his position. Obama may want to show the Israeli that his grasp of the balance of power in Washington is not as strong as he thinks it is. (Which of the two men is right is another matter, and in any event will not be determined for some time.)

There is, however, another possibility: the president may simply not realize that while Israel might give up parts of Jerusalem, as both Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert were willing to do, even they were not ready to cede major Jewish neighborhoods in what every prime minister since 1967, of whatever party, considers to be Israel’s capital.

Whatever the reason, Obama’s behavior in Indonesia, and his constant harping on the construction issue, has complicated his avowed search for an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. Israel will not give in to his demands, and the Palestinians will not proceed unless the Israelis do so. The peace process is stalemated, and it is up to the president, who has, perhaps unwittingly, brought on this latest dead end on the long-standing saga of Israeli-Palestinian misery, to come up with a way that lets both sides move forward, even if it means that he personally has to take several steps back in order to do so.

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Settlement Kerfuffle Follows the Script

Building announcement leads to U.S.-Israeli friction

By Marc Tracy

The Tablet,  Nov 10, 2010 10:00 AM

On Sunday, Vice President Biden traveled to the General Assembly in New Orleans to reassure [1] attendees that America had Israel’s back security-wise. On Monday, Israel provocatively announced [2] significant (though not deal-breaking) new construction in East Jerusalem. Yesterday, the top State Department spokesperson linked [3] the announcement to the peace process, and President Obama himself argued [4], “This kind of activity is never helpful when it comes to peace negotiations. I’m concerned that we’re not seeing each side make the extra effort.” The whole thing is playing out exactly as it did in March: Biden visit; housing announcement; U.S. pushback [5]. In March, Prime Minister Netanyahu retorted with the defiant declaration [6]: “Jerusalem is not a settlement”; yesterday, Prime Minister Netanyahu retorted with the defiant declaration: … I’ll just let you guess [7].

The latest to-do, Aaron David Miller told me this morning, “reflects a much-diminished administration that got off on the wrong foot from the beginning.” Prior history as well as the prospects of continued Israeli-Palestinian negotiations give Netanyahu greater leverage, according to the former negotiator [8]. The prime minister “knows that the administration believes the only way this Israeli-Palestinian problem is going to be resolved is negotiations, and so he’s convinced himself that they need him more than he needs them,” Miller said. “I don’t think he’s looking for a confrontation, but he’s willing to stand his ground.” Especially, Miller added, since we are talking about Jerusalem here: “Building in Jerusalem is as natural as breathing.”

To be fair to Obama: The timing of the announcement again seemed calculated to provoke and to assert Netanyahu’s (new [9]?) upper hand; East Jerusalem lies on the far side of the 1967 Green Line; and Israel also just announced [10] the construction of more than 1000 homes in Ariel, an unequivocal West Bank settlement.

But to be fair to Netanyahu: It is nigh impossible to imagine a final deal that does not include some sort of Israeli sovereignty in all of Jerusalem; East Jerusalem was never included in any freeze deal; and even the freeze deal that was reached a year ago has since expired. “Building in Jerusalem was never considered off-limits by either the government of Israel or frankly—with respect to the Obama administration, they basically acquiesed in it,” Miller noted. He also pointed out that the neighborhood the announcement concerns is one that Netanyahu himself made a move on when he was prime minister in the late 1990s.

(Miller opined that the recent Republican surge is the least important factor here, though it does mean that Obama will have enough to worry about over the next two years without also pushing the Israelis on East Jerusalem as well. Certainly this is, as Ben Smith noted [11], the first post-midterms test of Obama’s stomach for foreign confrontation.)

To put it another way: Neither opposition leader Tzipi Livni, of Kadima, whose GA speech [12] yesterday was fairly well received [13] by the left, nor any other plausible leader of Israel is going to be any more willing to cede Israeli claims to all of Jerusalem.

On top of all that, some others have complained [14] that Obama made his remarks while drumming [15] up support in Indonesia—the world’s largest Muslim country, which does not permit Israelis to enter.

So, where are we now? A crucial thing to watch is Netanyahu’s meeting Thursday in Washington, D.C., with Secretary of State Clinton. Her bona fides as a friend to Israel are pretty much impeccable. But she was the one who, in March, famously upbraided [16] Netanyahu on the phone for 43 to 45 minutes (depending on your source) for that prior settlement announcement. “If it’s a reprise of what happened in March,” explained Miller of the Clinton-Netanyahu get-together, “we’re not prepared to back it up. We just look weak—we look pathetic, frankly, it’s beyond weak.” How she and the administration handles this situation, I think, will be the most telling hint over the direction the circus will travel over the next few months. Miller’s advice? “Save your powder for an effort that could actually advance the negotiations.”

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UNRWA and the code of silence


Jerusalem Post,
11/07/2010 23:35

Never, ever tell Palestinians the truth that they’re not going back to their ancestors’ homes.

 One of the first rules of being an UNRWA official is omerta. Above all the code of silence means refusing to tell two truths. First is the truth about UNRWA. It is a key mechanism that keeps Palestinians “refugees” over 60 years after their ancestors’ flight during the Arab war against the creation of the State of Israel. It is internationally funded, to the tune of $1.23 billion for 2010-2011, but since it is run by Palestinians, it is a tool for reproducing their sense of grievance against Israel and the West, and a unique culture of dependence and entitlement with respect to the world.

The second thing UNRWA officials need to learn is to never, ever tell Palestinians the truth that they are not going back to their ancestors’ homes in what is now Israel. That pipe dream underlies the entire Palestinian sense of grievance and perhaps of self.

Recently, for perhaps only the third time in UNRWA history, a high official let the truth slip. In a speech to an Arab-American group, Andrew Whitley, outgoing head of UNRWA’s New York office, stated the obvious, “We recognize, as I think most do, although it’s not a position that we publicly articulate, that the right of return is unlikely to be exercised to the territory of Israel to any significant or meaningful extent… It’s not a politically palatable issue, it’s not one that UNRWA publicly advocates, but nevertheless it’s a known contour to the issue.”

UNRWA’s reaction was swift, saying “UNRWA unequivocally distances itself from the statements made by the director of its office in New York, Andrew Whitley, at the National Council on US-Arab Relations in Washington on October 22, 2010. These statements in no way reflect the policies or positions of the agency and are the personal views of Mr. Whitley.”

Unfortunately, Whitley came under such pressure from his former employer as a result of his comments that he publicly apologized for the error of his ways, stating that his comments were “inappropriate and wrong.”

To allay all doubt, he added that he “wish[ed] to put this letter on the public record out of concern that what I said in Washington could be interpreted in ways that negatively affect the reputation and work of UNRWA.”

So dedicated is UNRWA to lying to the Palestinians, perhaps as a function of maintaining its own role as their permanent caretaker, that it is willing to slap one of its own officials in public and even make him retract. The same thing happened in 2009 when James Lindsay, UNRWA’s former general counsel, wrote a critical report on the organization for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Among other things Lindsay criticized UNRWA’s continued employment of known terrorists and continuing politicization of the “refugee” issue.

Ironically, it was Whitley who then had the task of slapping down Lindsay, saying: “The agency is disappointed by the findings of the study, found it to be tendentious and partial and regrets in particular the narrow range of sources used… The study ignores the context in which UNRWA operates and the tight line the agency walks due to various pressures.”

Whitley also insisted that that “someone reading this paper with no background would assume that the Israeli government was a benign actor. No mention is made of the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.”

This conveniently forgets that Israel evacuated all of Gaza in 2005.

SOMETIMES UNRWA will simply deny its internal critics even existed. In 1952 Lt.-Gen. Sir Alexander Galloway, a noted British soldier-diplomat who was then UNRWA director in Jordan, made what was to become a famous statement to a group of visiting American church leaders: “It is perfectly clear than the Arab nations do not want to solve the Arab refugee problem. They want to keep it as an open sore, as an affront against the United Nations and as a weapon against Israel. Arab leaders don’t give a damn whether the refugees live or die.”

Galloway’s solution was straightforward: “Give each of the Arab nations where the refugees are to be found an agreed-upon sum of money for their care and resettlement and then let them handle it. If… the United Nations had done this immediately after the conflict – explaining to the Arab states, ‘We are sorry it happened, but here is a sum of money for you to take care of the refugees’ – the problem might have been solved long ago.”

In an op-ed in the same year Galloway was even more blunt about UNRWA: “Staff begets more staff. Plan follows plan. Typewriters click. Brochures and statistics pour out. The refugees remain and eat, and complain and breed; while a game of political ‘last touch’ goes on between the local governments and the director, UNRWA.”

He went on to say: “There is need to distinguish between a tempting political maneuver and the hard, unpalatable fact that the refugees cannot in the foreseeable future return to their homes in Palestine. To get this acceptance is a matter of politics: It is beyond the function of UNRWA. Second, a determined effort should be made to get the ‘host’ countries to take over relief from the agency, thus freeing it to get on with the much more important task of resettlement.”

For his honesty, Galloway was fired at the demand of the Jordanian government, which wanted UNRWA to hire local citizens instead of foreign nationals. Indeed, since that time UNRWA has done the precise opposite of what Galloway recommended, opting for the “tempting political maneuver” of lying to Palestinians about the future, never demanding that host countries resettle Palestinians and instead becoming the Palestinian ministries of health, welfare, education and, to an astonishing degree, foreign affairs.

Through a strange series of events historians and journalists transformed Lt.-Gen. Sir Alexander Galloway into “Ralph Galloway,” which has permitted UNRWA officials to this day to deny that any such person ever existed.

But the problems he found in 1951 and 1952 remain, only vastly larger, more entrenched and more expensive.

The solutions he recommended may be equally valid today.

UNRWA’s raison d’etre is the existence of Palestinian “refugees” and it has in turn created dependency within Palestinian society on its services. Galloway may have been forgotten, but Lindsay and Whitley are harder to ignore in today’s information age. If there is any chance for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, Western leaders need to find the political will to tell the truth to the Palestinians and exercise control over UNRWA, otherwise the organization will continue to lie, spend money and demand omerta from its officials.

Alexander H. Joffe and Asaf Romirowsky are the authors of “A Tale of Two Galloways: Notes on the Early History of UNRWA and Zionist Historiography,” published in the journal Middle Eastern Studies.

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