Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Reconciliation deadline postponed

Egyptian-mediated Palestinian reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fateh will continue through July in order to meet a newly established July 28 deadline. The sixth rounds of talks, which were intended to be the final chance for the two factions to sign a unity agreement with the blessing of Egypt ended today and a seventh round has been scheduled to begin July 25. Egypt initially indicated that it would cease mediating the negotiations if no agreement was reached by July 7 but has signaled that it will continue to sponsor talks aimed at meeting the new July 28 deadline.

Several sources have reported that progress has been made on the establishment of a joint security force to administer the Gaza Strip. Many issues remain unresolved, however, including prisoner swaps, the creation of a temporary unity government, and scheduling of elections.

Although earlier reports indicated that captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit would be released by Hamas to Gaza in the coming days, the postponing of the reconciliation deadline seems to indicate that no such imminent release will occur.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sixth and final round of Egyptian-sponsored Palestinian reconciliation talks begin today

The final round of negotiations between the two major Palestinian factions to resolve their differences and create a unity government will begin today. Egypt is mediating the talks and has set a deadline of July 7 for an agreement between the factions to be reached. The Egyptians have indicated that they will no longer lead efforts for Palestinian reconciliation if the current round (the sixth round) of talks fail.

In just this past week, Palestinian reconciliation has expanded from creating a unity government, scheduling elections, and administering the Gaza Strip to include the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, the opening of the Strip's borders with Israel and Egypt, and the restoration of Syrian-U.S. diplomatic ties.

Egypt has proposed several aspects of a solution to the bitter factional rivalry dominating the Palestinian political sphere. The first is a recommendation that a multi-factional committee be established to administer the Gaza Strip. This committee would be comprised of 12 members of Hamas, 10 from Fateh, and several others from the various other Palestinian factions (PPP, PFLP, DFLP, Islamic Jihad). Islamic Jihad has already rejected the proposal, which would in no way preclude such an administrative body from being created or successful. This committee would be subordinate to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas rather than his newly appointed Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Egypt has also proposed that Egyptian or other Arab security experts oversee a joint security force in the Gaza Strip. Finally, officials have recommended that Palestinian elections be held in January of 2010. Such elections would replace the proposed Gaza Administration Committee with elected representatives.

Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas's political leader in the Gaza Strip recently indicated that the organization would be willing to accept joint control of the crossing points into the Gaza Strip, a positive development for both Palesetinian reconciliaton and Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. However, earlier this week both Hamas and the Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak dismissed reports saying Gilad Shalit's release was imminent. Hamas stated that there were currently no serious talks on Shalit's release. Barak lambasted the reports as "incorrect and damaging."

Egyptian-mediated negotiations will begin today, June 28 and end (either with or without a solution) on Tuesday, July 7.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Palestinian reconciliation may begin with release of Shalit

Haaretz is reporting that captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit may be transferred to Egyptian custody within hours or days as part of the initial steps toward Palestinian factional reconciliation. Shalit was captured exactly three years ago on June 26, 2006 by Hamas militants operating just outside the Gaza Strip in an attack that killed two other Israeli soldiers. Hamas has denied the Red Cross access to Shalit, demanding Israel release 400 Palestinian prisoners and open the Strip's borders to humanitarian and economic goods.

Egyptian intelligence officials earlier indicated that Palestinian reconciliation was supposed to be completed by July 7, and Shalit's release may be the first stage in creating a unity government between Fateh and Hamas.

Haaretz has also reported that part of the reconciliation deal may include the establishment of a joint committee led by current Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to administer the Gaza Strip, which Hamas siezed control of two years ago.

Israeli officials have not confirmed these reports, which originated with European and Egyptian sources.

This report certainly sounds like a promising step toward Palestinian reconciliation and the resumption of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, but similar rumors have circulated before indicating Shalit's imminent release. Despite the inaccuracies of earlier reports, all sides may now believe the time is right for a prisoner swap and a meaningful reconciliation attempts.

Here is a quick breakdown of what each side stands to gain from a possible Shalit release/reconciliation:

Mahmoud Abbas (and Fateh)
The current Palestinian president is ruling by decree due to the Fateh/Hamas split in June of 2007. Abbas recently appointed a new government that was universally panned by Palestinian factions (including his own ruling Fateh party) and is desperately seeking legitimacy for his
presidency. Recent polls indicate that the popularity of Hamas is on the decline. He may view reconciliation as a clear chance to put the stamp of legitimacy on his government as it is unlikely he would be excluded from a Palestinian unity government (or even asked to step down as president). Abbas may believe that Hamas's decreased support will translate into a sweeping electoral victory for himself and his Fateh party whenever one is held.

What he's afraid of: If Hamas is able to secure the release of approximately 400 prisoners for Gilad Shalit, public opinion may swing toward Abbas's opponents. Look for Abbas to work with Israel to make significant gestures (such as removal of checkpoints/roadblocks, halting expansion of settlements onto Palestinian lands, or ending military activity in major Palestinian population centers) to reward Abbas to counter a percieved Hamas victory.

It's true, polls indicate Hamas's popularity is declining. The Gaza Strip is a nightmare of hunger, despair, and rubble. It is a humanitarian nightmare and it's not looking to get any better soon. Unless Hamas cuts a deal. The Palestinians could continue to blame Israel for their situation (and they would be justified to a certain extent), but they are certainly not beyond placing some of the blame at the feet of Hamas. Polls indicate this is indeed occurring. Hamas cannot simply shoulder the blame onto Israel anymore. It is certainly a possibility that their militant infrastructure (and administrative infrastructure) was heavily damaged during the Gaza War and they are having significant problems rebuilding their forces and maintaining control. An American president is finally seriously pressuring Israel, the international community is focusing again on Middle East peace, and Hamas is losing popularity. Hezbollah recently lost Lebanon's parliamentary elections and moderate Iranians are rioting in the street for reform to the country's Islamic regime. The rules have changed and Hamas feels they must adapt using the one real trick they still have: Gilad Shalit. They may view Shalit's release as a cunning way to quickly curry some favor and legitimacy with the Obama administration and other European regimes looking to join in the peacemaking efforts. As long as they are included in a substantial way in a Palestinian unity government, they'll be able to operate in the open even in the West Bank. Partnering with Abbas is certainly not their top priority, but they may view they have a reasonable chance to win a future election if they are able to bring tangible benefits to Palestinians by releasing Shalit.

What they're afraid of: The changing tides. Watch what Mesha'al has said about Obama in the past months. Palestinians respect Obama and have high hopes for what he might mean to their situation. Hamas cannot afford to actively oppose Obama as they did Bush, so a nuanced response (that means displaying a willingness to work with him) is required. Hamas is much better poised than the Iranian regime or even Hezbollah to shift make an effective shift into the political sphere and begin operating as a legitimate political party in Palestinian life. Secondly, Hamas is afraid of Israeli meddling in Palestinian affairs. If they sense at all that the Israelis and Abbas are working together to stab Hamas in the back during reconciliation efforts they'll storm out of the process immediately and resume a total rejectionist stance.

Benjamin Netanyahu
"What the hell do they want from me?" asked Israeli PM Netanyahu about the Obama administrations demands that Israel halt settlement activity and open Gaza's borders to aid. Netanyahu is feeling the heat. He realized Obama is not joking. Obama made demands, he spoke in Cairo. Netanyahu delivered an underwhelming speech in Tel Aviv and Obama brushed him off again. Netanyahu doesn't want a public quarrel with the popular Barack Obama and he knows securing Shalit's release will score him big points with the Israeli public. Releasing some prisoners and easing up restrictions on the Strip's borders in exchange for Shalit is perfect for him. He gets to placate Obama for just a bit (and perhaps get Obama to back down just a bit on settlements) and win a huge victory for his Likud party.

What he's afraid of: Looking weak. Israeli PM's don't do weak, especially those from Likud. Tough on security, tough on the Palestinians, hell, he just now endorsed the two-state solution (16 full years after it became official Israeli policy). Netanyahu is tough as nails, but Obama is testing him. He has to get Obama off his back without backing down and he needs to get Shalit back without Hamas peppering his southern towns with rocketfire. To continue to look tough (I always have to chuckle when I talk about the political toughness of a man nicknamed "Bibi") he needs clear assurances that Hamas will play ball and not fire rockets. He needs similar assurances that Obama will give him some leeway on a settlement halt. Without those, there's no way he'll approve the deal.

Reports have been wrong before, but the timing may be right. We'll see in the coming days...

Update: It's important to note that there have been several tremors that might indicate that something bigger (Shalit's release) may actually be in the works. Earlier this week Israel promised to remove tens of checkpoints from the West Bank and to cede greater security control over major population centers to Abbas's security forces. These moves may be small gestures to improve life for Palestinians under the Fateh regime and undermine a total victory for Hamas if they are indeed able to secure the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. Everyone has to come out of this looking like a winner if it is going to go through, and it seems there just might be enough goods to distribute between Hamas, Fateh, and the Israelis.

Update II: PM Netanyahu cancelled a meeting with George Mitchell and flew back to Israel from Europe before he was scheduled to do so. Perhaps he was needed to sign the final papers for Shalit's release?

Update III: All reports seem to indicate that the initial state of Shalit's release would have him transferred to Egyptian custody, where his parents could visit him. His final release back home to Israel would not occur until after the Israeli government had satisfied Hamas's demands for teh release of Palestinian prisoners. It seems odd that Israel would not be able to interdict his transfer to Egypt from the Gaza Strip, considering Israel has a strong presence on that border. The goal then might be to smuggle Shalit through tunnels into Egypt, but I have the sneaking suspicion that if he is alive he may already be in Egypt. Hamas could much more easily insure his safety and his power as a bargaining chip if he was squirreled away from Israeli intelligence in Egypt all this time. But is it even possible Egypt doesn't know Shalit is right under her nose?

Update IV: Haaretz is now reporting that Shalit's release is part of an American initiative employing Egyptian and Syrian pressure to goad Hamas into giving up Shalit. Egyptian and Palestinian sources have reportedly confirmed that such a deal is in the works. If this is true, the Obama administration is already knee-deep in the peace process and not wasting any time on Israeli-Palestinian stall tactics.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A bit of black humor...

I saw this posted on reddit today:

"In Jerusalem, a female journalist heard about an old Jew who had been going to the Western Wall to pray, twice a day, everyday, for a long, long time. So she went to check it out. She goes to the Western Wall and there he is! She watches him pray and after about 45 minutes, when he turns to leave, she approaches him for an interview. "I'm Rebecca Smith from CNN. Sir, how long have you been coming to the Western Wall and praying?""For about 50 years." "50 years! That's amazing! What do you pray for?""I pray for peace between the Jews and the Arabs. I pray for all the hatred to stop and I pray for our children to grow up in safety and friendship." "How do you feel after doing this for 50 years?""Like I'm talking to a wall."

The situation certainly seems to be getting worse rather than better...

The Obama team continues to press Israel

Obama's Israel-Palestine team (which includes special envoy George Mitchell and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) continued to press Israel over settlement construction and the heavy restrictions on imports into the ravaged Gaza Strip.

Mitchell, noting recent reports that the U.S. may be willing to compromise on settlement growth, continued to urge Israel to discontinue construction in settlements including those Israel claims are "natural growth." Mitchell indicated that these reports are "highly inaccurate" and that the American "position is clear. In 2003, Israel agreed to the Roadmap. It calls for a stop to settlements. We believe there should be a stop to settlements." Mitchell revealed that the U.S and Israel were "engaged in serious and intensive discussions" over the settlement issue.

In continued defiance of U.S officials, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (himself a settler) told Clinton that "we have no intention to change the demographic balance in Judea and Samaria [Israeli references to the West Bank]. Everywhere people are born, people die, and we cannot accept a vission of stopping completely the settlements. We have to keep the natural growth." Lieberman later indicated that Israel was "ready for direct negotiations with the Palestinians."

Clinton responded that a total settlement freeze was "important and essential" to finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Roughly 500,000 Jewish Israelis now live in settlements west of the 1967 Green Line in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

In a new development U.S. officials submitted a diplomatic note protesting Israel's closure of the Gaza Strip, demanding that Israel adopt a policy that allows the borders to be open more often to more goods to facilitate reconstruction after three weeks of fighting between Israeli soldiers and Hamas militants destroyed hundreds of homes, shops, and government buildings across the Strip. The American administration also indicated to Israel that it viewed linking the situation of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit (captured and being held by Hamas) and the opening of Gaza's borders as an obstacle to peace efforts.

The note, submitted three weeks ago, argued that strengthening the PA rather than Hamas would be achieved by relaxing restrictions on reconstruction efforts in the Gaza Strip. The Americans outlined four recommendations for Israeli policy toward Gaza:

1. Allow food and medicine into the territory. This process must be consistent and the types of food allowed into the territory known by all parties.

2. Allow Ramallah-based banks to transfer funds to Gaza banks.

3. Encourage economic growth by expanding the infrastructure for opening border crossings.

4. Relax restrictions on the import of cement and iron, materials badly needed for reconstruction.

The Obama administration, in return for the liberalization of Israel's Gaza policy, promised help in creating an international body to prevent building materials from being used by Hamas to build rockets or fortifications.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Word on the street: Netanyahu's speech

Here is a smattering of opinions concerning Netanyahu's "major policy speech":

Netanyahu's self-reflection on CBS: "I'm disappointed because I took a step, not an easy step. And I said, 'Here's what we are prepared to do for peace. We're prepared to have a Palestinian state next to a Jewish state.' I think this is an equitable formula for peace. It's one that enjoys enormous unity in the Israeli public and I think among Israel's friends and supporters abroad and the supporters of peace abroad. So yes, I suppose I'd like a better response [from the Arab world]. And maybe it'll sink in over time. But I think I've opened the door for peace. And I hope that the Palestinians and the Arab world responds to it."

Barack Obama: "There were a lot of conditions, and obviously working through the conditions on Israel's side for security, as well as the Palestinian's side for sovereignty and territorial integrity and the capacity to have a functioning, prosperous state, that's exactly what negotiations are supposed to be about. But what we're seeing is at least the possibility that we can restart serious talks."

Foreign Policy Watch: "I never thought – and I still don't think – that Benjamin Netanyahu is the right man to lead Israel out of the West Bank (not to mention bring peace for the region). Not because he is a radical - Sharon was considered much worse before he took power - but because he hasn't got the right character, nor the right ambitions. But he can still play a big role in this process, and if he does, this day will be remembered as his first step. It took Obama only two months to get him there. We should be optimistic." Noam breaks his analysis down further by the issues: negotiations, the "Jewish state" demand, Hamas, settlements, and borders/Jerusalem/refugees.

Haim Watzman @ South Jerusalem: "Bibi is seeking to suspend our disbelief and make us accept what is almost certainly a fiction - that he really intends to pursue a two-state solution to Israel's conflict with the Palestinians. He's concocted a complicated plan to stay friends with the U.S. while continuing to add housing units to settlements... Anything could go wrong. But, I have to admit, there's still a small chance that everything will go right."

Matthew Yglesias blogs about other "limited state" examples similar to those demanded by Netanyahu of a future Palestinian state. He concludes, "As far as Israel and Palestine, however, the more one thinks about it the more this all comes back around to the fact that what matters is deeds more than words. What America needed from Israel before the speech was to stop settlement growth... What's needed today is a stop to settlement growth."

Aliyana Traison @ Haaretz: "It will go down in history, along with the Oslo Accord and the Camp David treat, another historic speech of vague validations and vows to break... Netanyahu said just about nothing... " Traison offers a lucid analysis of preconditions and negotiations: "It is impossible to hold peace negotiations without preconditions. Such diplomacy is subversive procrastination... Israel and the Palestinian Authority both have preconditions; they need to lay them down and abide by them to get the peace process started again." She then offers a step-by-step how-to guide on restarting negotiations and achieving the goal of two states. It's an interesting read, though certainly opens many debatable points.

Avi Issacharoff @ Haaretz comments on the Palestinian response: "The Palestinian reaction... Sunday can be seen as an indication of panic or alternately as proof they are drunk with power." He continued, "Dubbing the Israeli Prime Minister a "conman" mere moments after he agreed to a two-state solution was not an appropriate reaction."

Akiva Eldar @ (again) Haaretz: "The prime minister's speech last night returned the Middle East to the days of George W. Bush's "axis of evil. Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a patriarchal, colonialist address in the best neoconservative tradition." She lambasted Bibi's tone toward the Palestinians: "The Palestinians can have a state, but only if those foreign invaders show us they know how to eat with a fork and knife. Actually, without a knife."

Bitter Lemons also has four well-written, contending essays on the PM's address (two Palestinian, two Israeli). They're well worth the few minutes it takes to read over them.

As for Holy Land Peace: I think the speech was more historical than historic - in that rather than breaking new ground, it simply transported us 16 years into the past.

Why the "Jewish state" demand?

via Zvi Bar'el @ Haaretz:

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak: "No one in Egypt or anywhere else can accept Netanyahu's demand to recognize Israel as the state of the Jews." (Egypt has enjoyed a stable peace with Israel for almost 30 years and has never recognized Israel as a Jewish state.)

Palestinian lead negotiator Saeb Erekat: "The peace process moved like a tortoise. Today Netanyahu flipped it on its back."

Netanyahu's "major policy speech" took a severe beating in the Arab street and Arab press, especially his demand for the Palestinians (and the rest of the Arab world it seems) to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said several times before that he does not believe it is the Palestinian Authority's role to comment on the internal ethno-religious character of foreign states.

Bar'el complains that, "no one in the Middle East was impressed that Netanyahu had uttered the words 'Palestinian State.'" Why would they be impressed? Acceptance of the two-state solution had been the Israeli government's public stance for the past 16 years. Spencer Ackerman joked that Netanyahu is "stepping boldly into 1993." Netanyahu's election and refusal to accept the two-state solution turned the clock back on the peace process. Now he reluctantly mutters that he accepts it - only if several unacceptable conditions are agreed to upfront, before anyone sits down. Again I ask why anyone should be impressed with Benjamin Netanyahu? Even Ariel Sharon (an Israeli politician who most Palestinians regarded with an almost dastardly evil reverence) accepted the necessity of a Palestinian state for the long-term security needs of Israel.

Netanyahu's "Jewish state" plays extraordinarilly well with his coalition and most Israelis, as well as with American Jews. It also plays well with people without a nuanced understanding of the conflict and peace process. "Of course Israel is a Jewish state!" they would exclaim. There's obviously far more to it.

Israeli PM Netanyahu went so far as to suggest that the underlying cause of the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the Arabs' refusal to give Israel recognition as a Jewish state. I find little credibility in this assertion. Egypt and Jordan have both enjoyed decades of stable peace with Israel without ever recognizing Israel as an explicitly Jewish state. The Egyptians and Jordanians did recognize Israel's right to exist (which used to be the condition for negotiations, but has since been replaced with the new Jewish state demand), as did the Palestinian Authority and the PLO.

The Arab world has many reason for not accepting Israel as a Jewish state and Israel should tread carefully with this demand because there may be consequences for international recognition of the character of other sovereign nations. First, it is of dire importance to note that Israel is no more than 75% Jewish. That's a majority, yes, but Israel loves to pride herself on being a liberal democracy and in liberal democracies even minority communities are equal before the law. Second, 20% of Israelis are Palestinian Israelis who have less than equal social and political rights in the country. The Palestinian Authority views itself not just as the government of Palestine (well, the West Bank really) but as a representative of Palestinian refugees in the diaspora (Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, etc...) and as Palestinians in Israel. Recognizing Israel as a Jewish state would thus force the PA to abandon the cause of equality for Palestinians living in Israel and of the right of return of refugees to Israel proper. The right of return may very well have to be axed if any solution is to be found, but not upfront as a precondition. If you're going to negotiate, let negotiations be the place to settle differences and abandon claims - with both sides coming to the table as equals. Third, insisting that foreign countries recognize Israel as a Jewish country (rather than a country of an overwhelming majority of Jews) has implications for Israel's claims to East Jerusalem and the Old City. If Israel is a Jewish nation, does that undermine her claims to the Muslim, Armenian, and Christian quarters of the Old City? Why should the Jewish country have full claim to East Jerusalem, populated by an overwhelming majority of Palestinians (both Muslims and Christians)? It only seems logical that the Jewish state should then relinquish control of East Jerusalem to the Palestinian Authority in order to be more Jewish.

Netanyahu's demands are not solely responsible for torpedoing any chances at resuming negotiations between Israel and the PA. The PA is busy negotiating with Hamas to regain control of the Gaza Strip and create a multi-factional unity government. Palestinian fragmentation is probably the biggest obstacle to overcome in resuming negotiations, but Netanyahu's entirely arbitrary "Jewish state" demand is not far behind. If negotiations between Israel and the PA were to start again and Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip experienced real improvements in their everyday lives - that were achieved due to good faith negotiations, Fateh and the PA would be strenghthened and Hamas would see its support undermined. This is quite hopeful though, as what usually happens is this all too familiar storyline: The PA and Israel negotiate. Hamas publicly opposes the talks and tells Palestinians it will be a waste of time because nothing will actually happen. Nothing actually happens - checkpoints aren't removed, settlements continue to expand, the Gaza siege remains. Hamas snickers, "we told you so." Mahmoud Abbas looks like an Israeli tool and once again comes back to the West Bank empty-handed, with only a pat on the back from the Americans for trying once again. Hamas gains popularity, Fateh's support dwindles.

Why can't we reverse this? If the Israelis really wanted to crush Hamas they'd do it by
rewarding factions that come to the table, ready to cut a deal, rather than continuously rewarding those that fire rockets at Israeli civilians. Israeli leaders need to realize how the incentives look to regular Palestinians and adjust their policies to help embattled Palestinian moderates.

In closing, Netanyahu did accept in theory the notion of the two-state solution. However, he wrapped it in enough arbitrary preconditions to make any negotiations impossible for moderate Palestinian leaders with little political capital to accept, insuring that he can talk the talk to look better before Obama, but never actually has to walk the walk with the Palestinians.

This blog isn't going anywhere soon. Peace is still miles away and nobody seems to be able to find the keys.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Updates from Iran

The Huffington Post's Nico Pitney has been liveblogging the developing situation in Iran. He updates almost constantly, and has been doing so for the last 48 hours. He has included a large number of videos and letters from Iranians on the ground.

"Not adequate" doesn't begin to describe Netanyahu's "policy speech"

Israeli PM just finished a 30 minute "policy speech" at Bar-Ilan University. No English transcript seems to be available yet but Haaretz has been liveblogging his comments. As I posted earlier, U.S. Envoy George Mitchell described an advance version of the speech as "not adequate" and I think that is really sugar-coating the speech he just gave. Netanyahu's speech (pitifully compared to Obama's earlier one in Cairo) was less of a policy speech and more of an affirmation to his ruling coalition that he'll toe the party line. Put simply, I have to say my initial impression is that the speech was a farce - and an abysmal attempt to try and curry favor with those that were hoping he'd come out strong for a Palestinian state in favor of the peace process.

As I said, I don't have a transcript (I'll post it as soon as I find one) but I do have some comments based on Haaretz's liveblogging of the speech. I imagined the speech would be underwhelming, with Bibi giving very little away, but I have to say - I am appalled by his statements. The speech started out relatively hopeful too, which makes the final product even more disappointing.

He began by extending his hand to the Arab world with, "Let's make peace, let's talk peace," and called for an immediate resumption of peace talks without preconditions - both positives. At this point, somewhere deep inside my cynical heart for the peace process, a new warmth began to spread. Rest assured, this did not last long.

Netanyahu then made the absurd assertion that the root of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the Palestinians' unwillingness to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. This seems odd, considering that both Jordan and Egypt enjoy a stable peace with Israel and have never formally recognized Israel this way. The whole recognition issue in the past dwelt on the Arab world's recognition of Israel's right to exist, not the ethno-religious character of the state itself.

As the speech begins to crash and burn, Netanyahu tells Bar-Ilan that the last time settlements were evacuated (in Gaza) Israel received nothing but rockets and bombings in return. Former Israeli negotiator Daniel Levy has a spectacular refutation of this resilient myth:

There is also some appalling misinformation being spread – one frequently hears the claim that Israel left Gaza in 2005 in order to build peace but all it received was terror. I appreciate the Gaza evacuation of 2005 and how difficult it was and I in no way condone the launching of rockets against civilian targets from Gaza but the unilateral nature of the Gaza withdrawal was a mistake (and I said it at the time) and I don't appreciate this rewriting of history. Israel at the time did not evacuate Gaza as part of the peace process. Then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon explicitly said that Israel "will stay in the territories that will remain." His most senior adviser who was in charge of the disengagement, Dov Weisglass, was even more explicit stating that the plan would freeze the peace process and "prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state…it supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians." This was brought out by the fact that, as mentioned, Gaza was immediately placed under closure – and those who blame the Gazans for not developing their economy post-occupation should be reminded of that.
Despite Netanyahu's earlier promise that he would sit with Palestinians without preconditions, he later demanded that the Palestinians give up the right of return and any claims on Jerusalem. He also made the strange comparison of Israel taking in refugees after the Holocaust to the current Palestinian refugee crisis - which bears little resemblance to the post-Holocaust immigration of Jewish refugees to Israel.

As Netanyahu winded down and his entire ruling coalition enjoyed a collective sigh of relief that he wasn't going to make any substantial concessions in peace talks with Palestinians, he also stated (not surprisingly) that any future Palestinian state would have to be demilitarized. It seems if you say you're willing to talk without preconditions but then stipulate several conditions for the future Palestinian state, you're being disingenuous somewhere along the line.

If you couldn't guess yet, he's not budging on Israel's illegal settlement enterprise either. Iranian elections, Netanyahu's abysmal speech - looks like a bad weekend for Obama.

Updates will follow when I find an English transcript...

Updated: It seems Netanyahu has said that Israel will not build any new settlements or expand existing ones, but that "natural growth" must be allowed to occur. We'll see what that means in practice, I guess. Israel has been generally less than effective at controlling the establishment of illegal outposts, even causing a Israeli Supreme Court justice to ask whether the government was actually committed to the rule of law in the West Bank.

Netanyahu also stated that, "Israel is committed to international agreements and expects all the other parties to fulfill their obligations as well." However, those international agreements include the 2003 Road Map which obligates Israel to halt all settlement expansion, including natural growth.

Update 2: Palestinian lead negotiator Saeb Erekat commented on Netanyahu's speech, "The peace process moved like a tortoise, today Netanyahu flipped it on its back."

Update 3: I finally have located an English transcript of the speech.

"Final" talks for Palestinian reconciliation scheduled

The final round of Palestinian unity talks in Cairo has been scheduled for early July in an attempt to meet a July 7 deadline by the Egyptian government. Both Hamas and Fateh agreed earlier to suspend political arrests of opposing factions' members. Previous high-level meetings in Cairo have resulted in abysmal failures as the factions were unable to come to agreement on any of the numerous issues in the way of Palestinian unity. Fateh and Hamas met today, on the two-year anniversary of Hamas' takeover of the Gaza Strip to begin making preparations for successful talks in Egypt.

Recent clashes between Palestinian Authority security forces and Hamas gunmen in the West Bank city of Qalqilya left nine dead and further soured relations between the two rival factions.

Netanyahu's policy speech

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will deliver a speech outlining his administration's policy concerning Iran and the Palestinians at 1:15 ET (8:15 local time). Sources close to the PM have indicated that he will announce several preconditions for restarting stalled negotiations with the Palestinian Authority but that the speech itself will primarily focus on Ahmadinejad's apparent reelection in Iran's recent disputed presidential elections.

Netanyahu is expected to endorse the two-state solution, provided that a future Palestinian state be demilitarized, have no control over its electromagnetic spectrum, and yield control of its airspace to Israel. He is also not expected to change his public stance on settlement construction, continuing his disagreement with the Obama administration. However, some sources have indicated that he will voice his support for the 2003 Road Map.

All said, my major fear is that respected Western media outlets will hail this as a major shift in Netanyahu's stance toward the peace process, which if his speech goes as has generally been hinted, will not signal any shift whatsoever. Netanyahu's current refusal to endorse a two-state solution is at odds with the previous 16 years of Israeli policy and his possible endorsement of the Road Map is puzzling, to say the least. The Road Map stipulates, in no uncertain terms, that Israel must halt all settlement construction (including natural growth) in phase 1 of the document. Israel initially accepted the Road Map "with reservations" before then PM Sharon rejected it over the settlement obligations. It should be noted that it is generally held that the Palestinians did not meet their phase 1 obligations either.

I'll attempt to post an English transcript as soon as one is available.

Update: U.S. Special Envoy George Mitchell, briefed earlier on the speech by Netanyahu, has described the PM's peace policy as "not adequate."

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Update: Mousavi claims Iranian election results rigged, violent demonstrations ensue

While the Iranian Interior Ministry reported that incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won a landslide electoral victory over reformist challenger Mir Hussein Mousavi by a total of 62%-35%, allegations have been voiced by Mousavi and several other prominent Iranian politicians that the election results were falsified. Violent demonstrations broke out earlier across the country as supporters of Mousavi clashed with riot police.

There are several reasons the Iranian government (it's unelected leaders - including Khomeini) would attempt to steal the elections. First, the Ayatollah has had disagreements with Mousavi for at least three decades and all but openly supported Ahmadinejad's reelection. Despite disagreements with Mousavi and support for the incumbent, Khomeini did approve Mousavi to run for office, perhaps severely underestimating the support he would attract from young, urban Iranians disillusioned with Ahmadinejad's leadership. Mousavi's supporters by and large sought greater political rights for women (and men too) and friendlier relations with Iran - two possibly unacceptable tenets for the Ayatollah. It may have been that Khomeini simply did not think Mousavi could win, or did not predict the outpouring of strong calls for reform - not just of presidential policy, but for reform of the very religious establishment that rules the country. Mousavi was approved by Khomeini, believing at best he'd be trounced by Ahmadinejad and at worst he'd win with dispassionate support of voters simply voting against the status quo. Instead, Mousavi exploded onto the scene with a message of change that rallied young Iranians much the way Obama's candidacy did in the States. Fearing for his own Islamic regime, Khomeini then could have rigged the results to nip the new "velvet revolution" in the bud before it gained too much momentum and influence. The outpouring of demonstrations and violence agains the regime and riot police indicate that Khomeini may have made another miscalculation if indeed he did order the election results rigged. He underestimated the support Mousavi's reform movement already had.

This is not to assert that Iranian elections were rigged. Western polls may have simply overstated Mousavi's support if the majority of their polls were based too heavily in Tehran and other easy-to-reach urban centers. Ahmadinejad's main support did come from rural, conservative elements of Iranian society and Western polls may not have accounted for this.

It also appears that Mousavi is being held under house arrest.

Here are some helpful links:

A summary of the election timeline, Mousavi's letter to his supporters, Matthew Yglesias comments, Juan Cole details why he believes the results were rigged ,Cenk Uyger (of the Young Turks) comments

The Times and Post are also running front page stories on their sites about the elections.

I'm also going to try and get our own Annie to write an analysis of the election and what this might mean for the future of Iran. Updates to follow.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Ahmadinejad ahead by wide margin in Iranian elections

Incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad leads by a wide margin over reformist challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi. With 61% of votes tallied, Ahmadinejad has received 66% of the vote to Mousavi's 31%. Updates to follow.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Israeli President Peres: Move forward with road map

Israeli President Shimon Peres has indicated that Israel must move forward with the 2003 U.S-drafted road map, calling for the establishment of provisional borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state. The provision for setting up temporary borders (intended to become more or less permanent in 2-3 months) is documented in phase two of the road map. Israel and the Palestinian Authority have not yet met their obligations under phase one of the document, which requires Israel to freeze settlement activity and the Palestinian Authority to fight terrorism.

U.S Envoy George Mitchell has also called for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians concerning final borders, believing the successful implementation of a provisional border may help the U.S-Israel disagreement over freezing settlement construction. Once temporary borders have been announced, Netanyahu's administration will have to expend far less political capital to evacuate settlements located in the future Palestinian state and may be able to petition Washington to allow construction to continue in settlements that will eventually be annexed to the Israel proper.

Netanyahu to accept two-state solution in upcoming speech

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to stipulate several conditions needed in order for his administration to endorse the two-state solution in an upcoming speech next week at Israel's Bar-Ilan University. Two of these conditions, among others, are that any future Palestinian state be demilitarized and that the Palestinian Authority recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Haaretz has reported that the speech will focus on the 2003 Road Map, Iranian nuclear ambitions, and the renewal of talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Despite pressure from the Obama administration to halt all settlement activity, Netanyahu is not expected to announce a settlement freeze. The Road Map stipulates that Israel halt all settlement activity as part of the first phase of the agreement and neither Palestinians nor Israelis satisfactorily completed their initial phase requirements.

Israel's Channel 2 news has indicated that Netanyahu has looked into several options for addressing the United States' insistence on a full halt to settlement construction (including natural growth), though the prime minister is not expected to announce any such freeze during the speech, held at what Haaretz describes as, "a bastion of Israel's national-religious movement."

Update: Netanyahu is set to deliver the speech on Sunday, June 14.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Iranians visit polls today to elect president

Iranian presidential elections will take place today, June 10, 2009, between incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi. The victory of the moderate March 14 coalition in Lebanon's recent elections may be an indicator of the declining popularity of extremist or hardline political groups in the Middle East. Ahmadinejad has been under fire for Iran's poor current economic situation, marked by high inflation. Updates to follow.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Hezbollah defeated in Lebanese elections

Initial reports from Lebanon are indicating that the March 14 Coalition, an alliance of pro-Western Sunni Muslim, Christian, and Druze political parties have maintained slim parliamentary lead over a rival coalition (the March 8 Coalition) including Hezbollah during Sunday's nationwide elections. Preliminary results showed that March 14 would be awarded approximately 70 of the 128 seats in Lebanon's parliament. Voter turnout was estimated at 55%. Despite Hezbollah's defeat, the political/militant organization will remain a powerful force in Lebanese politics and may be invited into a national unity government.

Netanyahu to deliver major speech on peace process next week

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu announced he is planning to deliver an address that will reiterate his government's attitude and policy toward the peace process. Haaretz has more.