Today’s Israeli-Palestinian Summit in Washington

Sep 2, 2010

Update from AIJAC

September 2, 2010
Number 09/10 #01

As readers are doubtless aware, Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu is meeting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas today in Washington in a summit designed to formally re-launch direct Israeli Palestinian peace talks (some of the details of the pre-Summit meetings hosted by US President Barack Obama on Wednesday are here.). This Update offers background on the situation and participants and differing analysis about the prospects of success of the talks scheduled to follow.

First up is a primer on the summit participants and their political situations and motivations. These include not only Netanyahu and Abbas, but also  Obama, who is hosting the summit, the increasingly involved US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah, there to provide political support. For this look at what all of them are doing there, and the constraints on them,
CLICK HERE. More analysis specifically on the domestic constraints of both Netanyahu and Abbas comes from BICOM.

Next up, putting the case for peace process optimism is veteran Israeli columnist and political analyst Aluf Benn of Haaretz. Benn looks particularly at the situation of the Israeli PM, and surprisingly, given his own history of strong criticism of Netanyahu, concludes that he not only is operating from a position of political strength internally, but in terms of actual policies implemented, “the current Israeli government is the most dovish since Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination 15 years ago.” He also urges the negotiators to avoid an all-or-nothing approach, and concentrate on those areas, like borders and security, where agreement looks possible, while putting off the hard “narrative issues” such as refugees and Jerusalem, until later. For the rest of his arguments, CLICK HERE. Some more cases for optimism in the talks come from Martin Indyk , the Australian-born former US Ambassador to Israel, as well as Kenneth Bandler of the American Jewish Committee, historian and Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren, and veteran Israeli political scientist and former diplomat Shlomo Avineri. 

Finally, an argument for pessimism stemming from an analysis of Abbas’ behaviour is provided by David Horovitz, the editor of the Jerusalem Post. He looks at Abbas’ refusal to negotiate during the past nine months of Israel’s settlement construction moratorium, his current threat to walk out of the resumed talks, and his rejecton of Ehud Olmert’s far-reaching peace offer in 2008, as well as the arguments of those who assert that Abbas really does want an agreement. After debunking most of the explanations offered for Abbas’ behaviour, Horovitz concludes that if Abbas does want a peace agreement, he’s certainly “following a curious path toward getting one.” For his important and detailed argument, CLICK HERE. A good comprehensive statement of the case for pessimism comes from American academic Donald Horowitz.  Other shorter such arguments come from Israeli journalist and blogger Shmuel Rosner, academic Gerald Steinberg, and American columnist George Will.

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Israeli-Palestinian preview: Who’s coming to dinner at the White House?

By Ron Kampeas ·

JTA, August 26, 2010

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The White House dinner on Sept. 1, prior to the official launch of renewed Palestinian-Israeli talks, will be key to outlining the contours of the negotiations.

“The dinner will help to restore trust,” Dennis Ross, the Obama administration’s top Iran policy official, said in a conference call last Friday with Jewish organizational leaders.

Unless, that is, it turns into a food fight.

Until the dinner, the exact issues to be negotiated will remain unknown. What we do know is who will be there and where they’re coming from. Here’s a preview.

Benjamin Netanyahu – Israeli prime minister

The proposed talks will mark the second time that the 60-year-old Netanyahu has engaged in negotiations with a Palestinian partner under U.S. pressure.

Last time, in 1997, while facing then-President Bill Clinton and the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Netanyahu ceded a degree of control around Hebron to the Palestinians. He has since suggested that he regrets the concession: He was recorded as telling a grieving settler family in 2001 that his agreement was little more than a ruse to keep a hostile administration at bay. Also, his revered father, Benzion Netanyahu, was known not to be happy with the concession.

Having completed a slow climb back to the premiership after his plunge in popularity following his first term, from 1996 to 1999, Netanyahu reportedly sees himself in a much stronger position vis-a-vis Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and President Obama than he was with Arafat and Clinton.

Netanyahu wants to get security issues out of the way before he talks final-status issues like Jerusalem, borders and refugees. Making sure that he has a plan to protect Israelis will be key in the effort to pitch concessions to an Israeli public still wary of the pounding Israel took after it withdrew unilaterally from Gaza in 2005.

The immediate question for Netanyahu is whether or not he’ll extend the self-imposed, partial, 10-month settlement construction freeze that is set to expire in late September. If he doesn’t, Abbas has said he’ll quit the talks.

Mahmoud Abbas – Palestinian Authority president

Mahmoud Abbas, 75, is a successor to Arafat who has been far less problematic for his Western allies but far less esteemed by the Palestinian people. His nadir came when Hamas militants drove the Palestinian Authority out of Gaza in a bloody coup in 2007. Since then, Abbas has endeavored to reestablish his Fatah party and the Palestinian Authority as the inevitable repository of Palestinian ambitions for statehood.

Negotiations are the only way for Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, to demonstrate to the Palestinian people that diplomacy trumps violence as a means to statehood. Abbas insists that Israel agree to a permanent settlement freeze, and he wants to make sure the talks get to the final-status issues as soon as possible so he can show his constituents that he is reaping the benefits of cooperation.

Barack Obama – president of the United States

It is tempting to cast the haste with which President Obama, 49, has organized these talks for early September as a sign of his panic at the prospect of November congressional elections that seem likely to result in losses for the Democratic party.

However, such an analysis would ignore the fact that Obama was pressing hard for talks months ago, when his approval ratings were much higher; it would also disregard America’s broader foreign policy strategy in the region. For the United States, having the talks now gives Netanyahu a reason to extend his settlement moratorium and thereby sustain Arab support for U.S. policies elsewhere in the Middle East. This support is seen as key while Obama attempts to juggle other crises in the region, including Iraq’s vexed attempts to set up a government and the simmering concern over Iran’s accelerating nuclear ambitions.

A peace treaty also would signal U.S. strength in the region; a Palestinian state would allow Arab governments some leeway in explaining to their populace why they are aligning with a U.S. effort to isolate the Iranian theocracy.

The U.S. posture has been to insist that these are direct talks, but Obama has not been shy about threatening direct intervention if there are stumbles.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordanian King Abdullah II

The United States sees both these figures as critical to making the talks – and, eventually, Palestinian statehood — work.

Egypt maintains some sway over Hamas, and controls access to a major entry into Gaza. Jordan has been deeply involved in helping to train the P.A. police force, and would be a natural outlet for a resurgent Palestinian economy. Both countries are Israel’s only neighbors officially at peace with the Jewish state.

Mubarak, 82, is known to be ill and eager to transfer power smoothly to his son, Gamal Mubarak; containing the Gaza problem and playing a role in birthing a Palestinian state would provide a much-needed boost to Mubarak rule.

Abdullah, 48, is also eager to contain Islamist extremism and has in recent years positioned his regime as a bridge between the West and the Muslim world. The emergence of a Palestinian state in the West Bank would also help to quell the notion that Abdullah’s kingdom, where the majority of the population is Palestinian, should be the Palestinian state.

Hillary Clinton – U.S. Secretary of State

Clinton, 62, is set to play the role of the primary broker at the peace talks. Beginning Sept. 2, she will host the first substantive talks Israeli and Palestinian leaders will have had since 2000. That is a sign of Obama’s increasing confidence in his one-time bitter rival for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Clinton aides have leaked to the press their frustration with the perceived limits on her role, saying she has been kept out of the big games. That is changing, as evidenced not only by her newly central role in these talks, but also in her recent front-line exposure as she urged her former Senate colleagues to support new arms treaties with Russia.

Israelis have been hoping for Clinton’s return, despite her role in March in dressing down Netanyahu over Israel’s announcement, during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden, of a large housing start in eastern Jerusalem. Clinton long has been seen as having strong emotional ties to Israel  — ties that Israelis feel Obama lacks.

It probably doesn’t hurt that she spent part of her daughter Chelsea’s wedding this summer carried aloft in a chair during the dancing of the hora.

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It’s too early to write off direct Israeli-Palestinian talks

Aluf Benn

Low expectations have their virtues: They serve as a cushion protecting negotiators from performance anxiety

Saturday Globe and Mail, August 27, 2010

The announcement of the resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian talks has been greeted by an indifferent Israeli public. Politicians and pundits lamented the effort as yet another futile exercise in diplomacy, the product of hopeless American naiveté. “Nothing will come out of it,” has been the common reaction, based on countless examples of past negotiations that began in high-profile ceremonies only to end in despair, if not in another round of hostilities.

I beg to differ. Changes in the political environment give peace a better chance. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, herded by their U.S. custodian, President Barack Obama, can reach a deal on the establishment of a Palestinian state within the next year. It requires patience and creativity, but it’s possible. Low expectations have their virtues, too: They serve as a cushion protecting negotiators from performance anxiety, reducing the risk of disappointment-driven blow-ups.

In his second term, Mr. Netanyahu is strong inside and weak outside. Facing no serious challengers, he enjoys political strength like no predecessor in the past generation. Improved security and an excellent economy support a quiet home front. Looking out the window, however, Mr. Netanyahu sees dark clouds surrounding Israel. The country is increasingly isolated, facing a global fatigue over its endless conflict with its neighbours, and a consensus against occupation, settlement expansion and excessive use of military force. And on the horizon, Iran’s nuclear project is looming.

Mr. Netanyahu returned to power chiefly to save Israel from the “existential threat” posed by Iran. In this environment, he must rely on the United States, Israel’s closest ally and strongest protector. Only Mr. Obama can save Israel from the wrath of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But this protection comes with a price: a Natanz-for-settlements tradeoff.

Mr. Netanyahu understands that. Whatever ideological and policy differences he has with Mr. Obama, whenever faced with a U.S. dictate, Mr. Netanyahu obeyed. Thus he accepted the “two-state solution” despite having fought against the idea throughout his career; declared a 10-month moratorium on West Bank settlement expansion; slowed down controversial construction in east Jerusalem; and eased the siege of Gaza after the botched Turkish flotilla incident.

The international media portray Mr. Netanyahu’s government as “hard line,” but examining its actions shows a different picture. The current Israeli government is the most dovish since Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination 15 years ago. Mr. Netanyahu has been reluctant to use military force, and has slowed settlement growth. Security and economic co-operation with Mr. Abbas’s Palestinian Authority is as strong as ever, while Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is making progress in his bottom-up state-building progress.

Sponsoring the resumed peace process has been a key Obama administration goal and, despite a bumpy start, Mr. Obama succeeded in bringing Mr. Abbas and Mr. Netanyahu to the table – starting next week in Washington.

The politically weak Mr. Abbas has been reluctant to join the process, insisting on indirect talks. But Mr. Netanyahu outmanoeuvred him to sit face to face, and now offers him biweekly meetings to discuss the “core issues” of a final deal. To this day, the Palestinian side rejected all Israeli peace offers as not good enough. But Mr. Abbas may run out of excuses to say “no” when a friendly president such as Mr. Obama sits in the White House.

These positive indicators notwithstanding, there are serious obstacles at play. Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas mistrust each other, their opening positions are wide apart, and both are facing strong anti-compromise constituencies at home. Mr. Obama is committed to Mideast peacemaking, but re-election is higher on his agenda. Moreover, Israelis doubt his support for the Jewish state and his willingness and ability to confront Iran.

To reach an agreement, negotiators must break away from dead-end paths and seek a different approach. Rather than deploying an “all or nothing” strategy, they should slice the deal’s components into smaller, more politically digestible pieces. This can be achieved, for instance, through separating practical issues such as borders and security from “narrative issues” such as the Palestinian refugees and recognition of Israel as “the state of the Jewish people,” as Mr. Netanyahu demands.

Within a month, the nascent peace process will face its first challenges, as the Israeli settlement moratorium expires. Mr. Netanyahu seeks a compromise that would keep his coalition together and Mr. Abbas at the table. If this milestone is passed, talks can proceed quietly into next summer’s deadline – which coincides with the U.S. intelligence assessment of Iran’s timetable to its first nuclear device. Next August, then, will be a time of decisions in the Middle East – over Iran’s nukes and an independent Palestine.

Aluf Benn is editor-at-large of the Israeli daily Haaretz.

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Editor’s Notes: Does Abbas want a deal?


Jerusalem Post, 27/08/2010    

If so, why was he so reluctant to enter direct talks, and why is he already so keen to leave them?

The assessment within Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s circle is unanimous: He doesn’t want to do it, he shouldn’t need to do it and he won’t do it.

Netanyahu can’t, after vowing last November that the 10- month freeze on housing starts at West Bank settlements was a “one-time, temporary” moratorium, now come out and say, “Well, actually, it’s not quite a one-time, temporary thing, after all. It’s more of a twotime, or maybe even a three- or four-time, semi-permanent kind of thing.”

Forget it, those close to the prime minister indicate. It’s not going to happen. All manner of informal arrangements might be possible, but formally extending the freeze would destroy any last vestiges of trust Netanyahu still enjoys on the pro-settlement Right. And it would make him a bit of laughing stock all the way across the spectrum. The prime minister whose words are worthless.

The prime minister of capitulation.

The Americans aren’t so sure.

Netanyahu was so anxious to get talking with the Palestinian Authority, they reason, that he won’t easily let PA President Mahmoud Abbas leave the negotiating table. They’re certainly going to urge him to extend the freeze, especially given that he has Kadima to call on for support if he loses some of the Right in the process. The Americans might even succeed – if, that is, Netanyahu proves susceptible to another bout of White House pressure. Or if (less probably) he has undergone a far more radical political shift than suggested even by his relentless public assertions of a profound desire for a deal. He did act decisively early last month to block legislation that would have given the Knesset authority over future freezes.

But the Palestinians, often much better at reading Israel’s politics than the Americans, are betting against it. They’re betting that, come September 26, the freeze will melt, and the pressure – the pressure, that is, for progress at the direct peace talks they are so reluctantly about to enter with Israel – will be off them.

They’ve only got to stall for another few weeks, and Israel will be in the dock again.

UNTIL THIS week, for Abbas, it had been a breeze. For almost nine months, he’d wriggled easily out of the Israeli, American and international direct-talks embraces. At first, he didn’t really need to do anything.

He was able to relax as the months went by and the US and Israel simmered in bitter acrimony.

Washington and Jerusalem went head-to-head over housing: The Obama administration bristled at Netanyahu’s refusal to halt all construction over the Green Line in east Jerusalem, and in March tried to use routine new Ramat Shlomo construction plans as leverage, going so far as to publicly question Israel’s commitment to its strategic alliance with the US. Netanyahu, conscious of the support of the Israeli mainstream for building in east Jerusalem’s Jewish neighborhoods, refused to budge. And Abbas sat back contentedly.

After the American president and the Israeli prime minister belatedly began patching up their differences last month, it got a little trickier for Abbas to stay away from the face-to-face talks. Netanyahu was honoring the freeze – which has formally halted construction in the West Bank and informally impacted on building in Jewish areas of east Jerusalem, too.

And the West Bank economy was demonstrably improving, in part because of Israel’s eased restrictions.

Still, Abbas managed to stave off the unwanted direct contact for a few more weeks.

Netanyahu pledged a readiness for negotiations anywhere, right away, with no preconditions.

Netanyahu hinted at possible flexibility down the road regarding security arrangements in the Jordan Valley. Netanyahu admitted a tentative readiness to reconsider the status of Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem. But Abbas would not be moved.

Among his preconditions for looking Netanyahu in the eye across the negotiating table, Abbas variously insisted on an ongoing and expanded settlement freeze, advance word on Netanyahu’s stance relating to border and security issues, and a commitment that any territorial adjustments would be made on the basis of the pre- 1967 lines. The Americans ratcheted up the pressure, but Abbas was unfazed.

Last weekend, though, the US pulled the rug out from under him. To his considerable dismay, according to Abbas officials who spoke to our Palestinian Affairs correspondent Khaled Abu Toameh this week, he learned that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was about to issue invitations for a ceremonial opening of direct talks without so much as informing him in advance. He contemplated rejecting the invitation, but evidently concluded that picking so public a fight with the Obama administration would backfire. So he grudgingly accepted, secure in the assessment that Netanyahu will get him off the hook by ending the freeze next month.

“If Israel continues with the settlement construction, we will withdraw from the talks,” he made clear in a letter dashed off to the Quartet.

ABBAS HAS worked hard in recent months to try to correct the damaging impression he had previously given the watching world, notably in a Washington Post interview in May of last year, that he isn’t in much of a hurry for a permanent peace accord with Israel.

In that interview, he had declared that “the gaps” between former prime minister Ehud Olmert’s proposals and his own positions were “too wide,” and indicated that he felt time was on the side of the Palestinians.

Since then, in meetings in the US, including with Jewish leaders, and in Israeli media contacts, Abbas has declared a firm desire for an accord based on two states living side by side in peace. He has acknowledged the Jews’ “history” in Palestine.

And those around him, along with those sympathetic to him on the Israeli side, have claimed that he didn’t really pass up Olmert’s peace offer because there was no genuine, properly formulated offer – just hurriedly presented proposals from a prime minister who was about to step down.

Which begs the central question now: Since the PA leadership is being wooed by an Israeli prime minister with a strong coalition, a high degree of popularity, a credible capacity to deliver on any deal and a declared commitment to an independent Palestinian state, why has Abbas had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the direct talks framework? Is it because he mistrusts Netanyahu’s intentions? Well, few Israelis can credibly claim to know where exactly the prime minister is headed. But Netanyahu said again this week that he was determined to “surprise all the critics and the skeptics.” Surely the best way to put him to the test is at the negotiating table.

Is it because he is cowed by the hostility to Israel among his own people? Well, that’s a phenomenon he could have sought to confront if he’d wanted to, by energetically advancing the cause of reconciliation – for starters by stopping his own PA’s glorification of Palestinian “martyrs” and by tackling the demonization of Israel in the PA’s own media.

Is it truly because Netanyahu won’t pledge to maintain the settlement moratorium? That doesn’t square with Abbas’s behavior since last November.

For if the PA chief had really wanted talks, he wouldn’t have spent the last nine months, when the freeze was biting, avoiding them. Even now, he knows that Netanyahu could be prevailed upon to informally maintain at least a partial moratorium – limiting building to settlements in areas Israel would anticipate retaining under a permanent accord.

And a renewal of building solely in the blocs should not be a disaster for an Abbas who genuinely seeks peace. It does not contradict his stated willingness for an accord that provides for territorial swaps. And his consent to such an arrangement would bolster the credibility of the negotiating process among skeptical Israelis, thereby raising the prospects of a deal.

A slightly more plausible explanation for Abbas’s disinclination to go into the talks and for his evident desire to quickly find a way to back out of them might be that he anticipates Barack Obama – whether staring at a bleak future after humiliation in the November midterm elections, or reinvigorated by an unexpectedly strong Democratic showing – seeking to impose a more favorable deal, with widespread international support, sometime around year three of his presidency.

But if that were Abbas’s thinking, he would probably be mistaken. The notion of the Obama presidency trying to impose a deal if negotiations can’t make progress is not at all far-fetched. The idea that it would be particularly dissimilar to the Clinton parameters is more improbable. And the notion that the Israeli public would sign on for an imposed deal of that nature is remote.

Maybe, just maybe, with an American president it really trusted, and a Palestinian leadership it had come to regard as genuinely committed to long-term peace, the Israeli mainstream would contemplate the idea of relinquishing almost all of Judea and Samaria and, still more dramatically, the division of Jerusalem, including the Old City, into areas of Israeli and Palestinian control. Maybe, just maybe, the Israeli mainstream would have gone along with the idea 10 years ago, before the second intifada had demonstrated the vicious extent of Yasser Arafat’s duplicity, and before the Hamas takeover of Gaza had demonstrated what can happen when territory is relinquished in the absence of a genuine accord. Maybe, just maybe, a few years from now, amid a continuation of the relatively benign current security environment, and at the end of demonstrably good faith negotiations.

But a Clinton-style deal under an Obama presidency regarded with wariness, to put it mildly, by Israel? And with a Palestinian leadership still allowing its media to incite relentlessly against Israel, a leadership balking at the very idea of negotiating in the same room as the Israeli government? That’s almost out of the question, however much mainstream Israel mistrusts the status quo and believes that time is working against us.

All of which, again, the Palestinians, with their savvy understanding of the Israeli mind-set, doubtless fully understand.

BUT IF Abbas’s absent enthusiasm for direct talks isn’t a function of his mistrust of Netanyahu, or of the ongoing hostility to Israel he has allowed to fester among his people, or of the settlement freeze’s imminent expiration, or of an assessment that the US might be able to impose a more favorable deal down the line, then why did he stay away for so long, and why is he so keen to get away again now?

Could it be, as the Israeli pessimists say – pessimists not only on the traditional Israeli Right, but deep into the mainstream, too – that Abbas, though he may be better intentioned than the duplicitous Arafat, is too weak-willed to have confronted Arafat’s malevolent legacy, and is terrified of a vicious domestic backlash, led by Hamas but including Fatah loyalists, too, for the crime of negotiating a viable deal? Is it also that he’s betting on Palestinian fertility, unreconstructed regional opposition to the very fact of Israel’s existence, and growing international delegitimation of Israel, ultimately sparing the Palestinians the need for significant concessions? And does he believe that the international community will eventually legitimize the state of Palestine that his Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad is steadily constructing, without the need for a negotiated settlement that, unpalatably, recognizes Israel – without the need for reconciliation and a formal end to our decades of conflict?

Not at all, his defenders would doubtless chorus.

He really, truly, genuinely, honestly wants an accord.

If so, he’s following a curious path toward getting one.

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