Monday, August 31, 2009

Hamas jumps on the Holocaust denial bandwagon

via Matt Yglesias.

Hamas is not exactly making a very good case for persuading Western governments to engage them in the peace process. If I was leading the rival Fateh faction, I'd advocate that the Palestinian Authority introduce a unit on the Holocaust into West Bank schools. The worst PR move one can make in the Middle East is to follow Ahmadinejad's lead and publicly deny the atrocities of the Holocaust. Regardless of your opinion on the effect of the Holocaust on Zionism and the founding of Israel, denial of a basic historical fact is certainly not the way to win an argument or attract supporters.

New joint Israeli-Palestinian poll yields troubling results

The Palestinian Center for Policy Survey and Research has combined forces with the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to gauge Israeli and Palestinian attitudes regarding the peace process and domestic policy. The results do not bode well for peacemakers. In general, both Israeli and Palestinian support for a solution along the lines of the Geneva Initiative (seen largely as the best hope for a just and lasting solution to the conflict) has consistently declined. The full joint press release for the survey can be found here. I have outlined some highlights from the report below:

American involvement:

Both Israelis and Palestinians are skeptical of President Obama’s intentions, however, positive attitudes toward the president are increasing among Palestinians and decreasing among Israelis – due in large part to the administration’s request that Israel halt settlement expansion in the West Bank. 49% of the Israeli public wants Obama the United States to play a more active role in the peace process, while 61% of Palestinians seek the same.

The Peace process:

Surprisingly, and perhaps most depressing for those interested in peacebuilding efforts, a majority of 59% of Israelis do not currently believe Israel has a partner for peace negotiations. Only 27% believe such a partner does exist. Because the actual poll questions were not included in the report it is impossible to ascertain whether this attitude refers to the lack of a unified Palestinian government or opposition to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The poll indicates that support for the Saudi Peace Plan is increasing with 64% of Palestinians now supporting a process along the lines of that agreed to by the Arab League. Despite the increase in support, only 40% of Israelis indicated they could support the Saudi plan.

The Geneva Plan, long regarded as the most pragmatic, realistic, and workable solution to the decades-long conflict, is slowly losing support among both the Israeli and Palestinian populations. Only 38% of Palestinians support a plan similar to that posed by President Clinton. A larger percentage (46%) of Israelis support the Geneva Plan than Palestinians, but that percentage does not constitute a majority and is slowly declining.

The survey polled both Israelis and Palestinians on individual issues related to the peace process and found disturbing results, indicating that both populations were less than ready for a settlement based on what many mediators believe is the only workable solution.

Both Israelis and Palestinians are evenly split in their support for a solution which includes an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank with the exception of some settlement areas that make up less than 3% of the area that would be swapped with equal amount of land given to the Palestinian Authority adjacent to the Gaza Strip.

Neither population supports a limited right of return or compensation for Palestinian refugees. Just over one-third of Israelis and Palestinians support a refugee solution along these lines. The same percentage supports dividing Jerusalem as the capital of both states.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently asserted that he would support the creation of only a demilitarized Palestinian state. While 56% of Israelis support the establishment of a Palestinian state under this condition, only 24% of Palestinians support this type of limit on full sovereignty.

Despite several unsettling revelations, two questions (asked only to Israelis) yielded very interesting results and allow some small degree of hope. 52% of Israelis support including Hamas in the peace process if it is needed to reach a compromise. Furthermore, a majority of 66% of the Israeli public support talks with a Palestinian national unity government that includes Hamas. Interestingly, more Israelis are willing to talk with Hamas than are willing to halt settlement activity.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Juan Cole comments on the Fayyad Plan

Juan Cole at his Informed Comment blog has shared his initial reaction to the announcement of Fayyad's unilateral plan for Palestinian statehood. Cole's comments are short and less than cohesive (he seems to just list the major challenges that will complicate Fayyad's goals), but he does provide a good quote:

"If there is going to be a two-state solution, as Obama insists and toward which the Fatah government in the West Bank is now moving quickly, it will depend on level-headed Israelis who recognize that the occupation of the Palestinians is actually a threat to Israel."

Cole, like myself, is skeptical that such a plan is even possible without major Israeli assistance (or at least a pledge not to torpedo it at the first possible opportunity. The rightist Likud party in Israel is in charge now and is openly against any such plan that allows the Palestinians to have even marginal control over their own political or economic development.

I like Juan Cole; he doesn't mince words. Maybe it is time more pro-peace commentators strongly voiced their opposition to the Netanyahu government on the grounds that it is simply not interested in a real, comprehensive solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and openly wished for the collapse of the Likud-led administration.

As the sole voice of this blog, I am not at this point ready to take the same stance as Cole. I am not convinced that the Israeli leftist pro-peace camp even has enough support to play a major role in any government or that the centrist Kadima party will pursue good-faith negotiations any more than Likud. The Israeli left (and the pro-peace camp that is the backbone of the movement) seems to be in semi-permanent hibernation at the moment and I refuse to wish in vain for the impossible. Obama pressuring an unfriendly Netanyahu regime may actually be better for the peace process than a friendly relationship between Obama and Kadima - which will lead to nothing. There's probably no real support for pressuring Tzipi Livni or Ehud Barak, kinder, gentler Israeli politicians. Support does exist to lean hard on Netanyahu, whose character was summed up perfectly in the immortal lyrics of Dr. Seuss:

You really are a heel.
You're as cuddly as a cactus,
You're as charming as an eel.

Your heart's an empty hole.
Your brain is full of spiders,
You've got garlic in your soul.

You have termites in your smile.
You have all the tender sweetness
Of a seasick crocodile.

Given the choice between the two of you
I'd take the seasick crocodile.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Palestinian negotiator Erekat: "I am a fact on the ground."

Palestinian lead negotiator Saeb Erekat recently took several questions concerning the peace process from readers of Israeli daily Haaretz. The transcript is in somewhat broken English (it's difficult to determine whether the errors are poor translation from the original English or Erekat's limited English abilities), but certainly readable - and very telling of the general Palestinian position on several major issues.

Here are a few informative, intriguing, or flat out hilarious quotes from Erekat:

On Israeli settlements:

"Negotiation is about giving and taking, but those Israelis who want to advocate the settlements, they are making peace with themselves and not with me."

On religion in the conflict:

"If you read Judaism, Islam and Christianity very carefully, you will find that the three religions advocate peace, saving lives, healing, forgiveness ... Why is it that the most vicious calls to conflict come from mosques and synagogues?"

On American mediation and the Obama administration:

"Obama will make not peace for us, it is Palestinians and Israelis that will have to make the decisions. Americans will help, but Palestinians should not make a mistake. If peace is to be made, no one will impose a decision upon us."

On democracy in the Arab world:

"The bigger picture in the region is how we go - do we go in the vehicles of [Osama] bin Laden or the vehicles of democracy?"

"Two things will determine the future: Peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and democracy in the Arab world. Anyone who says Arabs are not ready for democracy is a racist."

(Edward Said would certainly agree with Erekat's frank comment that the Western belief that the Arab world is not ready for democracy is more an example of the West's Orientalist beliefs than any anti-democratic Arab culture.)

On Hamas:

"That's what we are challenging Hamas with - we want to go to the ballot, not the bullet. And that's why we need an end game with Israel. If I have an end game agreement showing the two-state solution, Hamas will disappear, if I don't, I will disappear. That's the fight. It's about me saying it's doable, through peace."

(The Israeli government and the Obama administration should recognize this reality immediately. The longer Palestinians sit in occupation, the stronger Hamas will become and the Israelis will then truly not have a negotiating partner.)

On recognizing Israel as a Jewish state:

"I'm not going to call the shots for you. I'm not going to stop you from circumcising your boys, I'm not going to stop you from going to synagogues. You can call yourself whatever you want. If you want to call yourself the biblical, united, eternal, holy, milk and honey land of Jewish Israel, submit your name to the UN. Your name is the State of Israel."

(For clarification, Erekat is here referencing that Israel has generally had trouble defining itself between religious and secular principles. He finds it unbelievable that Palestinians would be asked to characterize Israel when Israelis have largely been unable to do the same.)

Erekat's best line:

"By the way, I am a fact on the ground, I don't intend to disappear. Many people thought I would disappear. Wake up. I am here and here to stay. My generation is extending its arms to you, saying let's be good neighbors. You are eating up the same territory that I am supposed to build my state on."

Based on personal experience and readily available Palestinian opinion polls, I believe it is pretty clear that Erekat's statements reflect the sensitivities of the Palestinian public. Israelis and Obama take note.

Unilateralism reigns when confidence is in short supply

Updated Below

With confidence in the peace process at a near-historic low (despite President Obama's involvement) the Israeli and Palestinian regimes have increased their reliance on unilateral moves in order to achieve their territorial and political aspirations. The most recent example of this trend is the 65-page development plan put forth by appointed Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. The document outlines unilateral steps the Palestinian Authority should take in order to create a de facto state in the West Bank by 2011 and as Fayyad explained to, "end the occupation, despite the occupation."

Fayyad continued, "We have decided to be proactive, to expedite the end of the occupation by working very hard to build positive facts on the ground, consistent with having our state emerge as a fact that cannot be ignored. This is our agenda, and we want to pursue it doggedly."

The Fayyad plan focuses on both political and economic development in the West Bank in order to build state institutions and increase foreign investment opportunities with the obvious overarching goal of ushering in an indisputable, undeniable de facto Palestinian independent state.

Of course if one remembers (and few still do), the Palestinian Liberation Organization unilaterally declared independence from Israeli occupation in 1988, a move that was recognized by roughly 100 countries. It is unlikely, even if Fayyad was to be able to build a state within a state under occupation, that one could ever consider the PA a "de facto" state without control of its own borders or full sovereignty over its actual territory. Building democratic institutions is certainly a laudable goal worth pursuing, even under occupation, for the Palestinians but gaining independence and ending the 42-year occupation of the Palestinian Territories is almost exclusively based on Israeli goodwill to allow a Palestinian state to exist in the first place.

The most ambitious goals of the Fayyad plan - rail lines to neighboring Arab states to increase trade and an airport in the Jordan Valley (which Israel exercises full military control over) - would need Israeli approval. Even the unilateral steps of political and economic development Fayyad seeks can never really be unilateral while the Territories remain under Israeli occupation.

Fayyad's words can be taken in a very positive way - that the PA is truly ready for democratic political development and self-sustained economic growth (despite the challenges to both of occupation) - or in a very negative way; one could easily interpret the reliance on unilateralism as a serious lack of even basic confidence in the peace process. If President Obama hopes to achieve anything in the Holy Land, he needs to act quickly to restore confidence among moderate, Western-friendly Palestinian leaders like Fayyad. If Obama does not even have Fayyad behind him, reconciling Netanyahu and Abbas are years in the distance.


The New York Times surprisingly picked up this story and included a couple of Israeli responses to the Fayyad plan.

Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz:
“This is contrary to all the agreements signed between the sides. There is no place for unilateralism, no place for threats, and of course, there will be no Palestinian state at all, if any, without ensuring the state of Israel’s security.

Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon: “Artificial dates and arbitrary deadlines never worked in the past, but caused only damage and would not work now. If the Palestinians want a state they should stop terrorism, incitement and declare an end of the conflict and of all claims.

Steinitz seems to be suffering from hypocritical selective memory syndrome when it comes to past agreements signed between the sides, as his Israeli government refused to answer to 2003 Road Map commitments such as halting settlement expansion or clearing illegal outposts in the West Bank. His own government has been no stranger to unilateral moves, as the entire point of this post was to show how lack of confidence in the peace process breeds unilateralism. Israel has never really had confidence in the process, and their long history of unilateral moves is clear proof of that. The Fayyad plan illustrates that the Palestinians now have just as little confidence.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

...and We're back!

After a week exploring the sprawling, gargantuan, carbon dioxide-spewing, yet all too beautiful masterpiece of human society that is New York City with this blog's biggest fan (based solely on site views as diligently reported to me by Google Analytics) Holy Land Peace is back and ready to continue providing my loyal readership with hard-hitting, timely news and analysis of all things peace-related in that sun-parched, ethno-religious melting pot (if the pot was filled only with maple syrup, food coloring and vegetable oil; you can mix them all up but what's the use, they'll all end up separating in the end out of mistrust of the other) I like to call Greater Israel/Historic Palestine/the Holy Land.

Full disclosure: NYC provided a beautiful distraction from the perpetual frustration and soul-crushing disappointment of following Middle East politics and I must admit that I did little to keep up with Holy Land happenings. However, several events are worth briefly noting - though none carry any real, pressing cause for concern. Here is a quick rundown of the week's events:

Al-Qaeda is in the Gaza Strip!?
No, they are not, yet almost every media outlet that covered the bloody firefight between Hamas de facto government forces and the unknown extremist militant Islamic group Jund Ansar Allah alleged or insinuated that the group's very existence indicated that Al-Qaeda had infiltrated the Gaza Strip. The organization has no actual links to Al-Qaeda and appears to be little more than another small, hastily organized group with little influence on Palestinian politics. These groups - of which Palestinian Islamic Jihad is another such one - have been largely kept in check by Hamas, especially since the end of the the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip. The groups are somewhat inspired by other Islamic militant groups such as Al-Qaeda, holding similar ideology, and are disillusioned by what they view as Hamas' caving to Israeli and American pressure to become more moderate. The group's membership (including it's leadership) was all but wiped out during the Hamas attack on a mosque held by Jund Ansar Allah, an attack which claimed the lives of 28 Palestinians and wounded an additional 120. The real danger here is in spreading the myth that Al-Qaeda groups or foreign fighters have infiltrated the Gaza Strip, an allegation that I am certain will be propagated by those not interested in a real peace process, but instead looking to make permanent the Israeli occupation over the Palestinian territories. Hamas seems to be easily capable of controlling, through violence if necessary, competing Islamist organizations in the Strip and it is important for Western analysts to see a reformed and politicized Hamas as a viable conservative alternative to fundamentalist groups such as Islamic Jihad or Jund Ansar Allah. Consolidating political power and legitimizing its own rule in the Gaza Strip seem to be the current primary goals of Hamas and the Obama administration, Israel, and Fateh should act accordingly and begin attempting to engage Hamas in limited ways to gauge the possibility of including the group in attempts to revive the peace process or rebuild a Palestinian unity government.

Huckabee Holds Extremist Views on the Holy Land
Apparently former Republican presidential hopeful and fundamentalist Christian Mike Huckabee asserted his belief in Greater Israel (meaning Israel from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River - de facto annexation of the Palestinian Territories and their people to Israel). Why this was surprising to so many commentators escapes me. Mike Huckabee's views on Israel are informed almost exclusively by the Bible and his opinions toward the peace process are based on his literal interpretation that the Jewish people must reoccupy the entire Holy Land in order to usher in the second coming of Christ. Huckabee is a fundamentalist and hardly a viable Republican candidate. He does not believe in the two-state solution and never will, his religious belief precludes this. His views are the same as extremist Israeli settlers and Hamas militants: the Holy Land must be either all Jewish or all Muslim, coexistence is heresy. It's best just to write Huckabee's statements off as the ranting of a non-influential anti-peace blowhard. I'm not even going to tag Huckabee in this post.

Shhhhh... September Will Come with a Surprise!
I have little concrete information on this aside from rumors reported by several major media outlets and thus little analysis to share, but it seems the Obama administration is planning to release its preliminary plan and timeline for a new Middle East peace process sometime in September. Haaretz has reported that Palestinian President Abbas and Israeli PM Netanyahu will be meeting Obama in Washington for trilateral talks. More updates as events warrant.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Get ready for the long haul

Issues festering below the surface of the conflict mean negotiations will need to focus on more than just two states for two peoples:

New links added

I have added a few new links to relevant blogs about U.S. foreign policy and Middle East current events. Enjoy them at your leisure!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Friedman's Fayyad Folly

If I was a superhero New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman would be my arch nemesis. He would mischievously zoom around a fictitious brown and grey, run-down city spreading vague generalizations, misinformation, overly simplistic explanations for complex phenomena, and wandering metaphors among the unsuspecting, innocent populace. His nefarious goal: to convince every last one of our metaphorical city’s inhabitants that he is a brilliant expert on all internationally concerned things – global warming, Middle East politics, globalization – you name it, Tom Friedman wants to be everybody’s go-to guy for it. Our hero (yours truly, of course) would swoop in and start an epic battle of words with Friedman, attempting to convince the public that his op-ed articles are nothing but shallow generalizations and ideas spawned from our villain’s Bushian habit of thinking with his gut while on assignment in exotic locales. This would be a tragedy rather than a comedy of course. The hero would talk and talk and no one would listen. Friedman would be offered a prominent position at the New York Times and I would wade in obscurity on a little-known blog – doomed to live as an internet hermit in a virtual cave overlooking the once proud city.

If you have made it this far, congratulations, because what I have attempted to produce is a Friedmanian wandering metaphor. I am proud of its accuracy in portraying his style.

Metaphors aside, Thomas Friedman’s most recent crime against the American intellect was a two-part declaration of his unending love and respect for appointed Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. In the first part of his op-ed, entitled “Green Shoots in Palestine,” Friedman praises the efforts of Fayyad to build strong democratic state institutions characterized by transparency, accountability, respect for the rule of law, and independent judiciary, and checks on executive power. He coins the term “Fayyadism,” which, “is based on the simple but all-too-rare notion that an Arab leader’s legitimacy should be based not on slogans or rejectionism or personality cults or security services, but on delivering transparent, accountable administration and services.” He also asserts that Fayyadism calls for the building of state institutions before securing Palestinian independence. Friedman calls this concept, “the most exciting new idea in Arab governance ever.”

There are many problems I (and Marc Lynch) have with Friedman’s article, but first I want to clarify who Salam Fayyad is to allow me to explain everything he is not in refutation of Friedman’s assertions. Salam Fayyad is an American-educated, Western-supported, highly-respected economist who held several positions at the International Monetary Fund before jumping into Palestinian politics. His name has generally been held in Western circles as synonymous with efforts to end corruption and reform the political institutions of the PA. He served as Finance Minister from June 2002 until November 2006, was elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council as a member of his Third Way party (which he helped co-found with Hanan Ashrawi and Yasser Abd Rabbo). Third Way won just 2.4% of the nearly one million votes cast, clearing the minimum threshold by only 4000 votes and eking out two of the 132 seats in the legislature. After winning election, Fayyad served as Finance Minister in the Hamas-Fateh unity government until Hamas seized control over the Gaza Strip and President Mahmoud Abbas dismissed Hamas ministers from the government. Abbas then tapped Fayyad as Prime Minister in violation of Palestinian law, justifying the appointment due to “national emergency.”

My problem is not with Salam Fayyad, but with Friedman’s reading of what is going on in Palestinian politics. I do not doubt Fayyad’s intentions to curb corruption and build strong democratic institutions in the Palestinian Authority. He represents a fresh face in Palestinian politics and seems to be a very promising politician, one that could potentially encourage the development of democratic principles in Palestine. His Third Way party ran on a platform of ending corruption and fighting for democracy, and I believe it (along with Mustafa Barghouti’s Al-Mubadara) represents the very best that the Palestinian political system has produced. The problem is that Friedman misreads Fayyad’s autonomy in the caretaker government and his support among the Palestinian population. Salam Fayyad is just not the prominent, charismatic politician ready to crush corruption and authoritarianism in the PA that Friedman lets on.

His “Fayyadism” is a laughably ill-conceived concept that is poorly named and even more poorly defined. Friedman’s assertion that providing civil services and transparent administration in exchange for votes and support is a radically new concept in the Arab world, or that Salam Fayyad represents the leading edge of such a movement is demonstrably false given recent Middle East history. Two groups are revered and respected in much of the region for their development of social services in low-income areas and corruption-free administrations: Hamas and Hezbollah. Both organizations (which employ violent militant wings as well) beat Fayyad to the punch and were the first to push back against the unaccountable, authoritarian secular nationalist regimes in Palestine and Lebanon. If anything, “Fayyadism” should be more appropriately named, “Social Islamism.” Hamas won the 2006 PLC elections on a platform of ending the rampant corruption of Abbas’ Fateh party and by demonstrating that they could provide needed, accountable social services to the population. Hezbollah’s popularity (which has translated into electoral success in Lebanon) is largely based on their provision of social services such as hospitals and educational programs that the Lebanese government has continually failed to provide. The UN believes that Hezbollah provides hundreds of millions of dollars of social programs every year. Admitting that this concept actually originated with groups most of the Western world consider terrorist organizations is understandably inconvenient for Friedman, so he apparently just names it after a Western-backed Arab politician, historical facts be damned.

Aside from the inconvenient truth that “Fayyadism” actually originated with local Islamist groups, Friedman ignores that his hero Fayyad has accomplished very little democratic political development during his time in Palestinian politics (and has pursued or acquiesced to some very undemocratic policies). A few weeks ago I commented on the reporting ban placed on Al-Jazeera by the PA for reporting negative comments about late Fateh leader Yasser Arafat by a prominent Fateh official. Fayyad was largely implicated as the driving force behind the ban, ordering the Attorney General to pursue charges against the popular news network. Under pressure, Fayyad relented, but it’s hard to imagine how muzzling the press is good for democracy. More recently, Fayyad said nothing about the undemocratic reelection of Abbas as head of Fateh. The entire spectacle brought back all too many bad memories of Arafat’s authoritarian, unaccountable rule over Palestine. Abbas ran unopposed and 700 unknown Fateh delegates were bussed into the conference just before the vote to insure that Abbas received enough votes – moves ripped right out of Arafat’s playbook.

Fayyad is just not the prominent, popular politician that Friedman insists he is. As I stated earlier, he barely won his seat in the PLC – despite running on centrist platform to crush corruption and institute greater democratic policies. The other relatively unknown independent party Al-Mubadara even won more votes than Third Way, mainly because it was doing exactly what Hamas and Hezbollah do: providing medical and social services where the PA had failed. The most recent PCPSR survey (which I have cited in several prior posts) sheds some light on Fayyad’s support among Palestinians. A solid 48% oppose the Fayyad caretaker government as opposed to 42% who support it. An abysmal 32% regard the performance of his government as good or very good. Ismail Haniyeh’s Hamas-led de facto regime in the Gaza Strip beat Fayyad, with 41% rating it as good or very good. Here is perhaps the most telling statistic that refutes Friedman’s claim that Fayyad is actually fighting corruption: 70% of Palestinians believe corruption continues in PA institutions, with only 27% believing it will decrease. The fact is, Fayyad has just not been able (or willing) to combat corruption and institute democratic principles. Only 42% rank the status of democracy and human rights in the PA as good or very good. Finally, only 26% view the Abbas/Fayyad government as legitimate, 4% less than those who see Hamas as the legitimate regime.

Though Friedman does not let this on, I worry that Fayyad is being used as window dressing on Abbas’ presidency to give his government and his policies greater legitimacy, to curry favor with the West, and to give the appearance that corruption is being curbed. Salam Fayyad has precious little autonomy within the caretaker government and is rarely allowed to pursue his own policies.

Friedman seems to think that the trend toward accountable government in Palestine (which I believe is nothing more than a figment of his imagination, accountability has plummeted in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip since the violent fall of the unity government) will spill over into neighboring Arab regimes, causing a domino effect of blossoming democratic principles. Please do not hold your breath that the monarchies in the Gulf and Jordan or the secular dictatorial regimes in Egypt or Syria will reform because of Palestinian examples. There’s no such thing as the Iraq domino effect, and Palestine certainly won’t be the catalyst for democratic political development either – especially given the undemocratic nature of Palestinian politics right now.

I cannot say in stronger words how wrong Friedman is about Palestinian political development. Democratic principles have been severely and continuously repressed by both Hamas and the Fateh-led Palestinian Authority since Hamas’ takeover of Gaza in 2007. Fayyad’s stint as Prime Minister has done nothing to end corruption or provide accountable government. Abbas continues to hunt down, imprison, and torture Hamas affiliates, regardless of if they have committed any actual crimes. The “national emergency” has simply provided the justification for both regimes to stifle dissent, make arbitrary arrests, and consolidate the power of the state in the hands of a few leaders. Palestine is not becoming more democratic as Friedman would have his readers believe, but less and Fayyad has been unable to do very little to reverse this trend.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Update: Officials claim Americans WILL pursue border negotiations first

Yesterday I posted a short commentary on the U.S. pursuit for a one-year settlement freeze from the Israeli government. I advocated that the duration of the freeze is not all that important as long as the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations begin with final borders, one of the most challenging and important issues of the conflict. With Washington soon to propose a comprehensive Middle East peace plan with a year and a half timeline for negotiations, Haaretz is reporting that the Obama administration is strongly considering recommending that the parties address borders first.

This is a refreshing break from past American proposals which have generally focused first on small issues as a way to build trust before they attempted to solve the major issues of borders, refugees and the status of Jerusalem. I outlined the benefits of addressing the large problems first yesterday, but feel that in light of finding that the Obama administration and I share similar views on where to start negotiations I would elaborate further on why focusing on the larger issues first is the more prudent policy.

Past peace initiatives such as the 2008 Annapolis Conference, 2003 Road Map, and 2001 Camp David process have focused first on very small issues that do not result in any tangible benefits for the Palestinian or Israeli people. As negotiations go on, both sides tend to play along but remain disturbingly skeptical about a final agreement. Small issues may get resolved but this does not result in a more trusting atmosphere for negotiations. Both parties stay cynical that the other will not compromise enough on the large issues: the Israelis worry the Palestinians will not accept a refusal to accept enough refugees; the Palestinians harbor concerns that the Israelis will not agree to acceptable borders or to divide Jerusalem. By the time talks on the most important issues begin public support for negotiations has already dwindled because the people see little tangible benefits from the talks and officials have little patience left, believing they've already given too much on the small issues. It then become easy for one or both sides to torpedo negotiations over irreconcilable differences on one of the big issues.

Starting on borders after obtaining a freeze from the Israelis forgoes initial successes on small issues in order to achieve an agreement that provides real benefits on the ground for the Israeli and Palestinian people, hopefully increasing their support for continued negotiations. Successful talks on borders would also create real trust for tackling the other challenging issues as well, without providing cover for either side to discontinue negotiations. Once borders have been solved in a way that is satisfactory to both sides, storming out of talks over a minor issue like flyover rights will require the spending of far too much political capital with American mediators.

Solving borders first also eliminates the cause of the current awkwardness between the Netanyahu and Obama administrations as it renders a settlement freeze unneeded. Israelis will be able to develop wherever they desire on their side of the border, as will Palestinians. If Palestinians in the West Bank (where the border negotiations are concerned) are allowed to build freely on their side of the border without interference from settlers, the separation barrier, or IDF patrols that protect the settlements the Palestinian Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas will achieve a rare victory over its rival Hamas. Focusing first on borders after obtaining an Israeli settlement freeze is a win-win situation for all parties involved: the Palestinian people, Israelis, the PA, and the Obama administration.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

U.S. seeking year-long settlement freeze

Haaretz has reported that the Obama administration has requested that the Israeli government agree to a one-year settlement freeze in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The U.S. team has referred to a possible freeze as a "deposit" on the peace process in return for gestures from the Palestinians and other Arab states. Israel has indicated it would be willing to halt construction in specific areas for no longer than six months, and has argued that projects already underway must be allowed to be completed. Special envoy George Mitchell and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu are to meet later this month to finalize details on the freeze.

Pushing for and achieving even a temporary settlement freeze is the right policy for the Obama administration to pursue. The move builds Obama's credibility among the Arab states and allows the constructing of "facts on the ground" (Israeli settlements in areas sought by the Palestinians and the UN for the future Palestinian state) to be halted. Settlement expansion greatly undermines good-faith negotiations between the two parties, however the duration of such a freeze is unimportant if final status talks on the border between Israel and Palestine and the future status of Jerusalem are immediately pursued following the settlement moratorium. Past peace initiatives have generally delayed negotiations on such major issues until the very end, hoping that agreements can be made on smaller issues that will build trust and allow for a favorable atmosphere for the more challenging issues such as borders, refugees, and Jerusalem. If an agreement can be reached, however, on borders at the beginning of such talks, concrete improvements would be available for both Israelis and Palestinians. An internationally recognized and supported agreement on borders would allow Israel to build freely and without scrutiny on their side of the border. The Palestinians would benefit from increased freedom of movement and an end to settlement expansion that causes land confiscation, travel delays, the separation wall, and general economic and social uncertainty.

A prudent idea may be to convince the Israelis to agree to an initial three-month settlement freeze in exchange for a reciprocal gesture from the Palestinians or Arab states (temporary commercial flyover rights perhaps). During the freeze, negotiations over borders and Jerusalem - and only these issues - would take place with the hope of reaching an agreement that would make extending the freeze unnecessary. Once the agreement is in place, both sides would take steps to recognize the new borders and begin to make preparations to finalize these borders as the internationally supported demarcation between two sovereign states.

If an agreement cannot be reached before the temporary freeze in construction, the U.S. should pressure both sides to extend their temporary gestures until the border issue can be resolved.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Maybe we need two Clintons on Obama's ME team...

Clinton was not able to gain too much during his first try at Middle East peace, but perhaps after some success in North Korea, he's ready for a second chance:

Monday, August 3, 2009

Obama to launch Middle East peace PR campaign

If there was ever a more telling reminder of just how far off Middle East peace really is, I'm not currently aware of it: President Barack Obama has decided that his Israel-Palestine team will launch a determined public relations campaign to persuade Israelis and Arabs to support his comprehensive plan for Middle East peace. Yes, a PR campaign for peace - what a world indeed. When you find the need to convince people that peace rather than perpetual war is ultimately in their best interests, you might consider rethinking your decision to expend precious political capital on the Middle East.

The Obama administration announced that his team will grant interviews to several Arab and Israeli media outlets to explain the American position on the peace process, gaining public support and bolstering his credibility with all parties in the process.

For the past several weeks dozens of political pundits, policy wonks, and media outlets have been advocating that Obama engage the Israeli public with the same kind of dialogue that he did the Arab world with the much-heralded Cairo speech. The New York Times editorial board strongly urged the president to talk directly to Israelis in an attempt to convince them to pressure their own government (led by rightist PM Benjamin Netanyahu) to accept a temporary settlement freeze in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Many Middle East analysts have declared that the public pressure placed on Israel by the White House is leading to an impasse of the peace process and that Obama either needs to back down on his demand that Israel halt settlement expansion or talk directly to the Israeli people to address their concerns.

Many of the same talking heads who advocate an American PR campaign in Israel have criticized the administration for levying pressure on Israel to halt settlement construction while asking nothing of the Palestinians or Arab regimes. Special Envoy George Mitchell (who appears to be running point on the American diplomatic team) gave a rare interview in which he attempted to clarify erroneous reports by asserting that rather than demanding gestures only from Israel, "we are asking everybody to do things."

Aluf Benn, an editor at large of the Israeli popular leftist newspaper Haaretz recently penned an opinion piece advocating an Obama PR push that was featured prominently in the New York Times. The Times then only two days afterward published an op-ed from their editorial board which was basically a reprint of Benn's, urging Obama to directly engage the Israeli public in order to convince Israeli PM Netanyahu to accept a settlement freeze. Benn argued that, "the Arabs got Cairo; we got nothing," and made the assertion that Obama had pursued a fresh dialogue with nearly every country on the map except for Israel. The Cairo speech, while directed primarily at Arab audiences was also intended for Israeli ears and included declarations of support for the continued alliance between the U.S. and Israel and urged Arab and Israelis to work together with the United States to find a peaceful solution to the conflict. Obama has spoken to Israelis, Arabs, and the entirety of the Middle East on numerous occasions. The problem is, rarely does the bully pulpit (which Benn advocates when he's not telling Obama to drop his demand for a settlement freeze) work across borders. Levying real pressure on foreign leaders rather, is a proven strategy.

Talking to Israel (as many highly qualified and well respected experts advocate) is in no way an inherently bad thing, but I believe the policy has several serious drawbacks that have not been adequately examined.

First (and most importantly), direct media dialogue with the Israeli people will be seen by Netanyahu, his rightist coalition, and his many Israeli and American supporters as a direct confrontation and unwanted meddling in the intimate affairs of another foreign state. If Netanyahu feels like Obama is attempting to circumvent his authority and appeal directly to the Israeli public it will only strengthen his and his supporters' will to defy Obama's demands as a assertion of sovereignty. Furthermore, Obama does not only risk further distancing himself from Netanyahu and deepening the impasse, the possible gain from such a policy is inconsequential. The Israeli public is evenly split on its support for even a temporary settlement freeze and half of the population firmly believes Obama is siding with the Palestinians. Aluf Benn asserts that Obama needs to serve as the catalyst to start an honest, vigorous debate over settlements in Israel. This is simply ludicrous. The pages of Benn's own paper are daily filled with articles from leftists and moderates alike backing a settlement freeze and urging the government to pursue one. The problem is not that no debate is taking place in Israel, the problem is that Israeli society is obsessed with "security." A settlement freeze is largely seen as compromising on what matters most: Jewish safety in Greater Israel. The debate has already taken place and Israelis have decided for 40 years that despite their relative discomfort with the continued occupation of the Palestinians, Jewish settlements must be allowed to thrive in the West Bank for the security of the state. Barack Obama has no chance to cause a serious introspective ephiphany on the settlement enterprise in Israel. A precious few Israeli voices do cry out in the wind (none of them those of major political figures) that the settlements are unsustainable, harmful to Israel's long-term security needs, and a major obstacle to a political solution with the Palestinians, but these are far from enough to change the opinion of the society as a whole. Adding Barack Hussein (the Israeli right is keen on using his middle name to remind the public of his Muslim sympathies) Obama's words to those whispers will not change the situation. Benn urges Obama to convince Israelis to support his policies, but Benn himself rejects the call for a settlement freeze in the same article. The risks to launching a time-consuming PR campaign to directly engage the Israeli public and circumvent Netanyahu far outweighs the benefit of persuading a marginal amount of the Israeli public to pressure the prime minister to follow Obama. There exists no real chance for direct appeals to shake Netanyahu's rightist coalition either. As it stands now, the PM is popular and not suffering in any significant way by defying the Obama administration. Obama risks reaching a "point of no return" in his relationship with Netanyahu by embarking on a PR campaign directed at the Israeli public. Netanyahu may simply close down and play hardball with Obama, refusing to work with him at all and asserting that the American president in meddling in the intimate affairs of another sovereign state.

I believe those that advocate a PR campaign greatly overestimate Obama's influence. Yes, the Cairo speech received favorable press in the Arab world, but its leaders are not clamoring to fulfill Obama's demands that they make their own goodwill gestures to Israel. His fine words may have given him more credibility on the Arab street than any U.S. president in the last 30 years, but it did not translate to concrete actions by Arab regimes. Put simply, the state of democracy in the Middle East is abysmal and Arab leaders have no real reason to listen to their own people, even if they would cry out for their governments to work with the Israelis. (That was actually hard to type and keep a straight face.) Even the Palestinians, who have more of a functioning democracy than most of the Arab world, do not have much control over the actions of their leaders. Both Fateh and Hamas are now basically ruling by decree in the West Bank and Gaza respectively and refusing to listen to the desires of their own people. Palestinians have been strongly urging the factions to reconcile and form a unity government for over a year now, but this popular urging has not translated into any real pressure for the parties to reconcile. Only when Egypt became involved did Fateh and Hamas take any real steps toward reestablishing a central Palestinian government. Because of the lack of real democracy in the Arab world, Obama's PR campaign directed at the Arab and Israeli street will not work. The street (especially in states like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, and the Palestinian territories) does not have the means to pressure the political elites to follow Obama.

So what are the other options?

Quite frankly, Obama's team needs to double their efforts to coax real confidence-building gestures from the various parties: a settlement freeze, easing of the Gaza siege, and allowing freedom of movement in the West Bank from the Israelis; reconciliation, political reform and institution building, and an honest effort to curb militants from the Palestinians; and normalization gestures such as allowing Israeli commercial flights to transit Arab airspace from regimes like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other Arab regimes.

Obama's efforts to convince the parties to make gestures should include ending settlement expansion, Palestinian reconciliation, the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, the opening of Gaza's borders for humanitarian aid, easing restrictions on movement in the West Bank, and normalization from Arab regimes toward Israel. The Obama team must provide each party with an obligation they must fulfill and an incentive they will receive upon completion. Once real confidence-building gestures are traded, good-faith peace negotiations aimed at finally ending the conflict can begin and should start by confronting the major issues of Jerusalem, borders, settlements, security, and refugees.

With the amount of carrots the U.S. provides to the major players in this conflict in the form of weapons and military aid, such a process should not be difficult. The Obama administration should signal its intent to base various forms of aid on concrete contributions that further the peace process. This is how non-essential aid should work. Countries that support American policies such as regional stability and peacebuilding should receive the lion's share of our non-essential aid budget.

The Obama administration does not need to worry about the Israeli or Arab public. It only needs to focus on providing the leaders of these countries the incentives necessary to persuade them to pursue a good-faith, honest peace effort.