Thursday, April 30, 2009

Slow days...

News from the Holy Land has been rather slow this week. Israeli PM Netanyahu is still said to be formulating his regional policy in preparation for his upcoming meeting with Barack Obama at the White House. Leaders of rival Palestinian factions Fateh and Hamas have temporarily suspended reconciliation talks in Egypt until mid-May to consider several proposals for an interim unity government.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is expected to announce a temporary caretaker government sometime next week. Hamas will refuse to recognize Abbas' appointments. Words will be exchanged between the factions and the status quo will be upheld.

We should see some developments in May, however, when Abbas and Netanyahu visit Obama in Washington and the Palestinians resume unity government talks. If the peace process remains stalled for much longer former president Jimmy Carter will probably write another book.

Perhaps no news is good news?

Monday, April 27, 2009

Weekend Rundown: U.S. signals shift, Abbas spurns Netanyahu

Negotiations are stalled. Obama and Clinton appear to be gearing up for a soundbite war with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas is refusing to entertain the new Israeli administration's demands. This and more in today's Weekend Rundown:

U.S. looking to incentivize Palestinian unity government
President Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton have signalled a shift on U.S policy regarding Hamas. Previously, Clinton had indicated that the United States would not recognize a Palestinian unity government that included Hamas if the Islamist militant organization's leaders did not agree to three basic principles: recognition of Israel's right to exist, renunciation of violence, and acceptance of past agreements between Palestine and Israel. However, in House testimony Clinton updated her earlier statements, saying that a Palestinian unity government (presumably including Hamas) would have to meet the three conditions in order to recieve recognition and aid from the United States, not Hamas itself.

Clinton's State Department identifies Hamas as a terrorist group, meaning no aid can go to the organization under U.S. law. However, nearly $900 million has been earmarked for rebuilding the Gaza Strip after Israel's three week offensive as part of $83 billion in emergency funding for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The aid currently is to be disbursed to the Palestinian Authority, but providing relief for wartorn Gaza will be immensely difficult as Hamas, rather than the PA hold authority in the Strip. Clinton's proposal elicited criticism from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, but the secretary defended the change by drawing attention to a similar arrangement through which the United States provides relief to the Lebanese government, despite the presence of 11 officials affiliated with Hezbollah - also on the State Department's terrorist list. Clinton remarked, "We don't want to...bind our hands in the event that such an agreement is reached, and the government that they are part of agrees to our principles," and argued for the need to slowly change Hamas' attitude, similar to the way the State Department did with militants in Northern Ireland.

Reconciliation talks are continuing between Fateh and Hamas, but have made little progress. Egypt is mediating the negotiations and the U.S. initiative may provide greater incentives for both sides to accept terms for a unity government.

Israel refuses to negotiate directly with Hamas, though it has communicated with the organization on issues such as the release of prisoners and a ceasefire through Egypt.

Soundbite sparring continues between U.S., Israel
The Netanyahu and Obama administrations continued to spar over restarting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and confronting Iran's nuclear program. Previously, Netanyahu aides had told the White House that Iran was Israel's top security priority and thus would not cooperate with the U.S. on peace with the Palestinians unless it saw a more coherent plan from the Obama administration to address Iran's progressing nuclear program. Clinton has responded, urging Israel to restart negotiations with the Palestinian Authority if it hopes to secure strong U.S. backing with respect to Iran. Clinton commented, "For Israel to get the kind of strong support it is looking for vis-a-vis Iran, it can't stay on the sidelines with respect to the Palestinians and the peace efforts. They go hand in hand."

This seems like a textbook game of "You first - No, you first!" Israel and the U.S. may soon work out a tacit agreement that addresses both U.S. desires to restart the peace process and Israeli security concerns regarding Iran's nuclear program. However, little headway may be seen until after June, as the U.S. appears to be waiting for Iranian presidential elections before formulating a concerted plan for dealing with the situation.

Abbas refuses Netanyahu, makes attempt at peace process humor
Last week, PM Netanyahu declared that it would be impossible to continue the peace process without the Palestinian Authority recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. Similar to his predecessor Yasser Arafat, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has declined to do so - arguing that it is not the role of the PA president or officials to comment on the nature of foreign states. "I do not accept it. It is not my job to give a description of the state. Name yourself the Hebrew Socialist Republic - it is none of my business," joked Abbas. In response the Israeli Foreign Ministry released a statement arguing, "The sooner the Palestinians internalize this basic and essential fact, peace between the two peoples wil progress and come to fruition."

Recognition of Israel by the PA as a Jewish state has far-reaching implications, possibly precluding the return to Israel of Palestinian refugees displaced by the 1948 and 1967 wars. Israel's Arab minority comprises about 20% of the country's population.

The Obama administration is opposed to Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state as a precondition to negotiations.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Last chance for Palestinian reconciliation?

Hamas has declared that Sunday's reconciliation talks between the Islamist militant group and the West Bank's ruling party Fateh are the last chance to set up either a unity government or an apparatus that will set up and monitor future Palestinian elections.

Ma'an has more.

This week's conversation on BitterLemons.org is devoted entirely to the prospects and politics of Palestinian reconciliation.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Lieberman: Iran biggest threat to Middle East peace

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman commented during a recent interview that the greatest threat to a comprehensive regional peace, "is not Israel, it is not the Palestinians. It's the Iranians."

This echoes Prime Minister Netanyahu's assertion that the Iranian threat is his administration's top priority, not Palestinian statehood. Netanyahu is expected to ask for U.S. help in preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons in exchange for Israeli cooperation on the peace process with the Palestinian Authority during his upcoming visit to the White House.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

OneVoice Poll: 74% of Palestinians, 78% of Israelis support two-state solution

The OneVoice Movement in the Holy Land has published polling figures regarding the peace process. Here is an op-ed in the Guardian from the movement's leader Darya Sheikh. The official poll results can be found here. (PDF)

This is indeed positive, but keep in mind the two-state solution means many things to many people.

More distractions from peace in the Holy Land

Former Israeli negotiator and lead drafter of the Geneva Initiative Daniel Levy has a great piece posted on his blog and also on Foreign Policy's website discussing the various ways both Netanyahu and Abbas are stalling for time instead of working on resuming negotiations.

In addition, Netanyahu has also indicated that his first priority is to deal with the Iranian threat, not with Palestinian statehood.

U.S will not negotiate with or recognize Palestinian government that includes Hamas

Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has announced that the United States will not include Hamas in negotiations or recognize a Palestinian government that includes the Islamist militant group unless the organization's leadership meets three demands: recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence, and acceptance of past obligations of the Palestinian Authority.

Here is a Washington Post interview with former Palestinian Prime Minister and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh published shortly after Hamas' victory in the 2006 Palestinian elections. Mr. Haniyeh responds to each of the three demands in the article, rejecting each of them.

Lieberman opposed to Arab Peace Initiative because of references to "right of return"

Israeli FM Avigdor Lieberman rejected the Arab Peace Initiative as unacceptable because of its call for a Palestinian right of return of refugees exiled by the 1947 and 1967 wars or just compensation for those not seeking to return to Israel. Defense Minister Ehud Barak is also opposed to the possible return of Palestinian refugees to Israel but not to the Arab Peace Initiative in full. President Obama supports parts of the plan and hopes to implement parts of it in piecemeal form in the context of a resolution to the conflict. Obama has not commented on the possibility of the return of Palestinian refugees.

More from Haaretz.

Update: Abbas' Visit to the White House

An aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has identified May 28 as the date for the president's meeting with Barack Obama. Abbas is expected to ask Obama to pressure the Israelis to resume final status negotiations and halt settlement construction. Israeli PM Benajamin Netanyahu is also expected to meet Obama in Washington in late May.

Update: Obama's Confidence-Building Measures

Earlier today I posted a news stub where Obama hinted at several "confidence-building measures" that would be carried out by Middle Eastern leaders in the coming months to help nudge along stalled negotiations in the Holy Land. Israeli newspaper Haaretz has more details on what they are calling the "gestures plan."

The gestures in question seem to be modeled loosely on the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative where Israel would abandon the areas occupied after the 1967 war - Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Syrian Golan Heights - in exchange for full recognition and normalization of relations with the entire Arab region. Haaretz has specified that the gestures Obama was referring to are a halt to settlement construction in the West Bank on the Israeli side and steps toward normalized relations (such as accepting meetings with senior Israeli officials and public support for the peace process) on the Arab side.

Referring to these gestures President Obama said, "At some point, steps have to be taken so that people can see progress on the ground. And that will be something that we will expect to take place in the coming months and we will help hopefully to drive a process where each side is willing to build confidence."

I am currently working on an analysis of the "gesture plan" and expect to have it posted soon.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Pope to visit refugee camp, drive past separation wall during visit to Bethlehem

Pope Benedict XVI is slated to drive by the separation barrier and visit families in the A'ydah Refugee Camp near Bethlehem in his May visit to the Holy Land.

Full story from Ma'an.

Sparring begins between Obama and Netanyahu

Several weeks ago President Barack Obama cautioned democratic representatives in Congress that disputes may arise in the near future between his administration and that of Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu. The sparring has already seemingly begun. Earlier this week, the Obama administration voiced its opposition to Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu's assertion that Palestinian negotiators recognize Israel as a Jewish state before negotiations resume. Israeli Defense Minister and Labor party leader Ehud Barak is also opposed to Netanyahu's precondition for talks.

Unlike former President George W. Bush, Obama has pledged to "deeply engage" in Middle East diplomacy, perhaps to the ire of some of Israel's rightist leaders. Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liebermen have had few kind words for the American president, with Liebermen even reminding Obama's envoy George Mitchell that previous peacemaking efforts have failed (as if Mitchell was unaware that his post existed for that very reason).

It will be interesting to see in the coming weeks if either Obama or Netanyahu confronts his counterpart directly over policy disagreements. Netanyahu has not voiced his intention to pursue final status negotiations that would lead to a Palestinian state alongside Israel, but has instead advocated for discussing only economic or security issues with the crippled Palestinian Authority. The Israeli PM campaigned promising to pursue "economic peace," a belief that increased economic development in the Palestinian territories will bring about a more peaceful situation. While not opposed to this notion, President Obama has advocated for more direct negotiations that do confront the issue of Palestinian statehood and a conclusion to the conflict. Palestinian leaders have been unequivocal in dismissing the concept of "economic peace" as Israeli unwillingness to accept a Palestinian state.

More from Reuters here.

Obama invites Egyptian, Israeli, and Palestinian leaders to Washington for separate talks on peace

Talks with Middle East leaders concerning the peace process are slated to occur over the next few weeks. The conversations at the White House will be separate and do not seem to be part of any planned negotiations.

"What we have to do is step back from the abyss," commented President Obama after meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah in Washington. The president also hinted at several "confidence-building measures" that he hoped would be undertaken by the region's major players in the coming months but refused to comment specifically on what these gestures may be. Obama did mention that these gestures should be planned in a way that brings about discernible progress on the ground. "I am a strong supporter of the two-state solution," the president announced once again.

Robert Gibbs (White House press secretary) - "With each of them the president will discuss ways the United States can strengthen and deepen our partnerships with them, as well as the steps all parties must take to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians and Israel and the Arab states."

Update: The invited leaders are Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, and the Palestinian Authority's President Mahmoud Abbas.

Read more from Haaretz here.