The Prospects of the Sept. 2 Israeli-Palestinian Summit

Aug 26, 2010

Update from AIJAC

August 26, 2010
Number 08/10 #07

As readers will be aware, following a statement by the Quartet (the US, UN, EU and Russia), which you can read here, the Israelis and Palestinian leaders have agreed to a Sept. 2 Summit in Washington to launch much-delayed direct talks. This Update analyses the prospects of the Summit and subsequent talks.

Putting the more optimistic view of these prospects is Washington Institute scholar David Makovsky. He points out the surge in cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in recent years, as well as the positive reforms in the West Bank from Palestinian PM Salam Fayad. He admits there are significant gaps between the sides on refugees and Jerusalem, but points to the possibility of progress on borders and security, as well as the costs of inaction. For Makovsky’s full view, CLICK HERE.

Next up is  an editorial from the Jerusalem Post offering a more pessimistic look at the difficulty of getting the Palestinian side to the table and the implications of the Palestinian ultimatum that a moratorium on construction in settlements must be not only extended but expanded to East Jerusalem or they will walk out of the talks. The paper points out that Abbas says he is ready for territorial swaps to allow Israel to keep some settlement blocs, yet demands that Israel act as if if were prepared to evacuate all the way to the 1949 armistice lines. In the end, it accuses Abbas of wasting the nine-months of Israel’s 10-month settlement moratorium, and says his stances are hardly harbingers of hope for progress. For the rest of the paper’s argument, CLICK HERE. More on the controversy on the continuation of the settlement freeze is here, more on what Abbas’ dithering may portend comes from Kenneth Bandler,  while Barry Rubin notes that the US response to the latest Palestinian demands has been sensible and helpful.

Finally, renowned American law professor Alan Dershowitz looks at a key obstacle to achieving peace progress – namely the Palestinian and Arab belief that time is on their side because the UN and the international community will only increase the pressure on Israel. He also argues that for both West Bank Palestinians and Israelis, the status quo is actually reasonably tolerable, thus decreasing the urgency to take risks for peace. He urges action on the Iranian nuclear threat as one key element to create a greater willingness to make risky compromises. For Dershowitz’s complete article, CLICK HERE. Dershowitz also had a recent interesting review of a book about the Arab Lobby in the US. More on positives in the Palestinian economy is here.

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Mideast peace talks to look forward to?

By David Makovsky

Washington Post, Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The announcement Friday that Middle East peace talks would be launched Sept. 2 was not exactly met with an outpouring of enthusiasm. Yet progress on security and other issues suggests there is reason to believe peace talks can produce results.

There has been a surge in cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) ever since Hamas ousted security officials and the mainstream Fatah Party from Gaza more than three years ago. I recently spent five weeks in the region, where I met with more than four dozen Israeli and Palestinian officials, including President Mahmoud Abbas. Cooperation is increasingly evident in several areas.

Security cooperation between the PA and Israel has substantially improved. In 2002, 410 Israelis were killed by suicide bombings and other attacks emanating from the West Bank; in the past three years, Israel has suffered one fatality from one such attack. Speaking in Washington this year, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the situation on the ground “is better than any time in the past.” Israeli charges that the Palestinians have a “revolving door” approach of releasing terrorists after quick arrests — rampant during the Arafat era — are no longer heard. A Palestinian nonviolent protest movement has been born.

For its part, the PA no longer attempts to hide its daily security cooperation with Israel. In recent months, the PA even hosted Israeli senior security officials in Jenin, Tulkaram and Jericho. During the Gaza conflict of 2008-09, the PA kept the West Bank calm. Because of the improved security, Israel has reduced the number of major manned checkpoints in the West Bank from 42 in 2008 to 14. The checkpoints that remain include more passage lanes, resulting in substantially reduced wait times. And the improved security and other efforts by reformist Prime Minister Salam Fayyad have resulted in a West Bank economic growth rate of 8.5 percent.

Religious and education reforms have started, including a major effort to identify those imams who agitate for suicide bombings. PA Religion Minister Mahmoud Habbash told me, and Israeli security officials confirm, that such imams have been removed from all Palestinian mosques under PA jurisdiction. “Hamas has been running our mosques for 30 years, and we are trying to take the mosques back so they are used only for prayer,” Habbash told me.

The PA has begun reshaping the curriculum of Palestinian institutions that accredit imams, and screening is also being conducted to weed out schoolteachers who support Hamas radicalism. PA security officials say 1,100 of the 28,000 Palestinian teachers in the West Bank have been replaced. Incitement would be further reduced if, among other things, the practice of naming town squares and camps after the killers of yesteryear ended.

The Israelis have also demonstrated change. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu publicly endorsed a two-state solution last summer, and his 10-month moratorium on settlement activity in the West Bank has demonstrated more restraint than any of his predecessors. It is unclear whether the moratorium, scheduled to expire next month, will be extended — a question that could derail the nascent effort. And whereas former prime minister Ariel Sharon sought to retain control over large chunks of the West Bank, to prevent attacks from the east, Israeli officials suggest that Netanyahu is far more concerned with effective security measures around the West Bank border, to prevent the sort of smuggling that exists from Egypt to Gaza, than with annexing land.

Negotiators want to begin peace talks with the issues of security and borders, as each side knows well what the other side wants. Even differences over territory are unlikely to be insurmountable. The last time the parties tried to hold quiet talks, in 2008, they differed over just 4 percent of the West Bank. Abbas has said he knows that Israel will keep West Bank settlements adjacent to Israeli cities, and Israel is likely to provide the Palestinians an offsetting amount of land within the Israeli border.

There are two issues that are not about quiet policy shifts but will require conditioning of the populations: Jerusalem and refugees — the narrative issues of the conflict that cut to the self-definition of the parties. The difficulties surrounding these issues have led some to question Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s call to complete the talks in one year. But the hope is that progress on security and borders will facilitate political traction on these thornier topics.

If, however, that does not happen, the parties need to find ways to grapple with these final issues in a manner that does not cause other progress to unravel.

Are there risks to talks? Of course. Abbas told me that Iran gives Hamas $500 million a year, and it is likely that Tehran will try to upend negotiations.

Yet inaction also poses risks. Fayyad’s efforts at Palestinian institution-building and security cooperation are succeeding because they are packaged as part of the effort to build a state. A bottom-up push focused on security and economic institutions will not be sustainable unless it is joined by a top-down effort.

David Makovsky is a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he directs the Project on the Middle East Peace Process. He co-authored, with Dennis Ross, “Myths, Illusions, and Peace.”

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Frittering away the freeze


Abbas is already threatening to stop talks.
Talks between Israel and the Palestinians have not yet begun, and already Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is threatening to stop them.

In a letter sent Sunday to the Quartet – the US, the EU, the UN and Russia – Abbas warned that if construction continues anywhere beyond the Green Line, he will pull out of negotiations. “Settlements and peace are parallels that don’t meet,” Abbas wrote. “If Israel continues with settlement construction, we will withdraw from talks.”

The PA president’s letter is clearly a response to the severe criticism directed at him by Palestinian political and organizational figures for agreeing to return to direct talks without preconditions. But it also highlights a major political dilemma that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will be forced to face very soon.

It would be political suicide for Netanyahu to agree to maintain the “once-only” 10-month new-construction freeze he instituted throughout Judea and Samaria last November, not to mention extending it to Jewish neighborhoods in parts of east Jerusalem annexed after the Six Day War, as the Palestinians demand. It would also send out the false message that Israel might be ready to evacuate all Jewish settlements beyond the 1949 Armistice lines.

Deputy Premier Dan Meridor’s suggestion to limit the freeze to areas located outside Jerusalem and outside the major settlement blocs Israel intends to retain via land swaps under a permanent accord – Ariel, Ma’aleh Adumim and the Etzion settlements – has a much better chance of receiving broad support, and is much more realistic.

Except Abbas has now made clear that it won’t be sufficient.

THE PRESENT building freeze has hit settlers hard. Most of the 492 housing unit “violations” of the freeze, as documented by Peace Now, were in consensus cities such as the haredi Modi’in Illit, which had 180 such violations. This town of 45,000, which has the highest fertility rate in the country, is located just across the Green Line.

Additional violations were in the Jerusalem suburb of Givat Ze’ev (40), and in Ariel (22), Ma’aleh Adumim (21) and Kfar Etzion (20), which are all expected to be annexed under any future two-state solution.

These exceptions have done little to alleviate the major “natural growth” housing shortage at many settlements.

At the beginning of the year 301,200 Jews lived in Judea and Samaria, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, about two-thirds of them in the large settlement blocs.

And population growth there is running at a brisk annual rate of 5 percent, over double Israel’s general population growth rate of 1.8%.

Young families living in cramped conditions are anxiously waiting for the freeze to end so they can build homes, while veteran settlers want to expand existing homes to accommodate their growing families. And this is happening at a time when Israel proper, within the Green Line, is experiencing a major housing shortage of its own.

Ruling throughout the West Bank, which is populated by well over two million Palestinians, is not an Israeli interest. The demographic threat to a Jewish majority is obvious. And Israel has no desire to police a population that bitterly views itself as occupied.

Over four decades have transpired since Israel, pre-empting an attack by the combined armies of the Arab world in the Six Day War, ended up controlling territory, previously held by Jordan, that had enormous Jewish historical significance.

During this time, certain “facts on the ground” have been created in Jerusalem and the large settlement blocs, while the Palestinian strategic response to Israel’s presence has ranged from stubborn intransigence to murderous resistance.

Now, after 18 months of energetic US diplomacy, the Palestinian leader who claimed prime minister Ehud Olmert’s generous peace offer left gaps that were “too wide,” is finally being dragged back to talks aimed at the ostensibly shared goal of a peaceful two-state solution.

ABBAS PURPORTS to be ready for the kind of territorial swaps that would help facilitate an accord by formalizing the integration of the settlement blocs into Israel, along with the Jewish east Jerusalem neighborhoods where Israel already claims sovereignty. Yet the PA president’s demand for a blanket building moratorium that makes no distinctions between such territories and other, isolated settlements indicates ongoing intransigence.

Abbas has already frittered away nine months of the building freeze – an unprecedentedly encouraging context for a genuine attempt at peacemaking. Now he is vowing to walk away if the freeze is not merely maintained, but expanded – to the very areas Israel reasonably insists on retaining.

It’s hardly an optimistic harbinger for the talks ahead.

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What’s Stopping the Peace?

Alan M. Dershowitz

FrontPage, Aug 19th, 2010

Despite earnest efforts by American President Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian President Abbas, it will be extremely difficult for a final peaceful resolution to be achieved between Israel and the Palestinians in the near future.  The major obstacle to peace is the international community led by the United Nations. The international community has emboldened Arab leaders into believing that Israel can be delegitimated and weakened through international pressure, and that if the Palestinians hold out long enough, they can achieve their ultimate goal:  Namely to end Israel’s existence as a Jewish state accepted by the international community.

This was made plain by a statement issued this week from Damascus and signed not only by Hamas but by several secular Palestinian groups that had previously favored direct talks.  The current position of these groups is to oppose negotiations and wait for Israel to be isolated even further.  Here is the way the statement put it:  “Insisting on direct talks throws a lifeline to Israel as its isolation deepens… A return to direct talks serves the US and Zionist aim to liquidate the national rights of the Palestinian people.”  By “the national rights of the Palestinian people,” the groups that signed the statement mean the right of Palestinians to “return” to what is now Israel and to turn it into yet another Muslim-Arab state.  Hamas leader Khaled Meshall praised the meeting that produced this negative statement as “exceptional,” because it united eleven disparate groups, some religious, others secular, that he claims represent a majority of the Palestinians.

Why negotiate from a position of relative weakness, the signers of the statement ask rhetorically, when the international community is strengthening the position of the Palestinians, while weakening Israel?  Delay, it is believed, will help the Palestinians get a better deal, perhaps even preserving their so-called right of return–a “right” no Israeli government could ever accept.

Even the more moderate Palestinian Authority, led by Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, is escalating its demands from what it sees as an increasingly isolated Israel.  It is now demanding more than what it was offered by President Clinton and then Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 2000-2001.  And it is offering considerably less in return.  Back then, the Palestinian Authority could have offered Israel real peace on all of its borders.  Today it can offer peace only on Israel’s eastern border with the West Bank.  Peace with the Palestinian Authority will not bring peace with Hamas on Israel’s southwestern border with Gaza.  Nor will it bring peace on its northern border with Lebanon, which is now controlled by Hezbollah, a proxy for Iran.  And speaking of Iran, the virulently anti-Israel regime which now controls that country is the 800 lb gorilla in the room.

On a recent month long visit to Israel, I met with every Israeli political and military leader.  During the course of our many hours of discussion, the issue of the Palestinians was clearly secondary to the threat posed by a nuclear armed Iran.  Unless that threat is eliminated, or considerably delayed, many Israelis believe that they have little to gain from a partial peace with the group that threatens them least, namely the Palestinian Authority.  And they have something to lose, because peace with the Palestinian Authority will require the dismantling of most West Bank settlements.  This will not be easy for Israel to bring about, because there will be hostile resistance from at least some of the settlers.  The vast majority of Israelis support the dismantling of the settlements, even if it requires civil turmoil, but only if they get real peace in return.

The Israeli government is now more conservative than it was in 2000-2001.  Yassir Arafat was warned by then President Clinton, as well as by Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia, that the Palestinians would never get a better deal.  Nonetheless he rejected that generous offer and started the second intifada which caused the death of thousands of people including nearly 1,000 Israeli civilians.  How then can the Palestinians expect to get more for less after rejecting a generous offer and starting a mini-war?  That is the question many Israelis are asking.  The answer has not been forthcoming.

A related reason why peace will be difficult to achieve in the short run, is that life is pretty good both for most Israelis and for most West Bank Palestinians.  The Israeli economy is thriving, there has been little terrorism, and recent polls suggest that Israelis are among the happiest and most contended people in the world.  I am aware of no polls regarding West Bank Palestinians, but I recently visited Ramallah to meet with Palestinian Prime Minister Fayyad, and what I saw was a thriving city with fancy cars, high tech shops, bustling restaurants and many other indications that life is also good in Ramallah, which is the functioning capital of the Palestinian Authority.

When times are good for both sides, neither side may be willing to make significant concessions.  For Palestinians, such concessions include giving up any right of return, a demilitarized status and a willingness to accept some Israeli communities on the outskirts of Jerusalem on land captured by Israel during the Six Day War.  For Israelis, such concessions, in addition to dismantling the settlements, include a strengthened Palestinian military and some loss of control over the borders of a Palestinian state.

Were the Obama administration able to assure the Netanyahu government that Iran will not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons–even if that required a military strike as a last resort–then Israelis would be more willing to take risks in order to achieve peace with the Palestinian Authority.  In the absence of such an assurance, the attention of the Netanyahu government will remain focused on the only existential threat Israel faces:  namely, a nuclear Iran.

There are those who theorize that if Israel were to strike a deal with the Palestinians, that would make it easier for the Obama Administration to prevent a nuclear Iran.  Whether that is true or not, the Israelis with whom I spoke want more than theorizing.  They want an assurance that they can achieve real peace and safety, not only in relation to the Palestinians but also in relation to Iran, if they are to surrender control over territories they won in a defensive war.

To say that peace will be difficult to achieve is not to suggest that the parties stop trying.  But in order to succeed, they must take into consideration the risks and realties on all sides.

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