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.

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