Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The "Peace Process" facade is crumbling, and it's probably a good thing

Today's top news story is not much of a shocker though I am sure it will make waves in the international press. Reuters is reporting that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will reject direct talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, citing the lack of progress in indirect talks as his reason for refusal.

Indeed, little to no progress has been made in indirect negotiations, which have been ongoing intermittently since Netanyahu first announced a partial slowing of settlement building in the West Bank in November 2009. The "freeze" is set to expire on September 25 and with many of the more conservative members of his government rallying against any extension of the moratorium, Netanyahu will be hard pressed to extend the freeze without noticeable progress toward direct negotiations with the Palestinians.

As Ethan Bronner pointed out several weeks ago, the settlement "freeze" has not had any noticeable effect on building, dozens of Israeli settlements are in violation of the freeze as they continue to build, and Mahmoud Abbas once again seems poised to gain nothing from joining the Israelis and Americans in futile negotiation - further damaging his credibility.

For its part, the Obama administration has warned Mr. Abbas that his failure to accept direct negotiations could lead to the U.S. abandoning it's already laughably tepid opposition to Israeli settlement building, demolitions of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, and the continued Egyptian/Israeli blockade of Gaza.

With midterm elections here in the United States just months away it is unlikely the Obama administration will have the stomach or courage to pressure Israel to extend the current freeze or expand it to include East Jerusalem. Benjamin Netanyahu has also been adamant that Israel will not accept Palestinian sovereignty over East Jerusalem, a major must-have for Palestinian negotiators. Without the possibility of establishing their capital in East Jerusalem, the Palestinians will never negotiate directly, unless there are very real benefits to be gained from the Americans. Those benefits are simply not available from an American administration that, quite frankly, has much bigger fish to fry, both at home and abroad.

Netanyahu has blamed the Palestinians for the current impasse, insisting that they have insisted on unacceptable preconditions: that the negotiations focus on the 1967 lines as a starting point for borders, the extension of the settlement freeze during the course of such negotiations, and that the division of Jerusalem be on the table.

The freeze will expire in just two months and the distance between the two sides is long, with a busy American administration unable to spend precious political capital to close the gap. Even if the Obama administration was able to become more involved to make sure direct negotiations happened it's highly unlikely it would have any measurable effect on the midterm elections. Netanyahu is a master politician, and do not believe for a second he did not at least recognize the timeframe for the settlement freeze expiration would coincide with a tough midterm election.

I am usually hesitant to make predictions on this blog, but I feel fairly confident on this one: No direct negotiations will happen and many Western governments will express their disappointment with the situation, though few will singularly blame Abbas as the Israeli government will hope. The Americans will insure at the very least that indirect negotiations continue even as the settlement freeze expires as a way to save face for both Abbas and Obama and to avoid the perception that the peace process has totally collapsed, which it already did almost 10 years ago. Everything since Camp David has been, sadly, mostly smoke and mirrors.

It's a sad, unavoidable fact that nearly a decade has been wasted.

Palestinians in greater numbers are likely to abandon the two-state solution and begin to advocate for a binational, one-state solution in Israel/Palestine. Only time will tell if that will be any more successful than the two-state peace process has been.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

If Hamas ever tries to sell you anything, it's probably ok to buy it

While Israel negotiates with Hamas behind closed doors in Egypt, the PA openly with Hamas in the Gulf, and the U.S. pretends the militant/political organization does not actually exist, the Better Business Bureau wants you to know that, rockets and past terrorism aside, it is a-OK  to buy that new toaster you've had your eye on from Hamas merchants. According to a short article at Mother Jones, Hamas received an A- rating from the BBB after the owner of a website created to expose the Better Business Bureau registered the militant group as a BBB-accredited business, "providing educational services to troubled youth."

Despite the positive BBB rating, as far as I can tell the Hamas website does not have an online store. I guess you'll just have to continue purchasing your major home appliances from other dubious retailers.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Avigdor Lieberman and I think alike (kind of)

A couple months ago I wrote an article here concerning the distinct possibility that, because of Israel's interest in maintaining control over the West Bank for settlement purposes and the increased desire of many Israelis to disengage from Gaza (for real this time), Hamas could potentially create a truly autonomous, sovereign Palestinian state long before Fateh achieves the same through negotiations with Israel.

Via a story by Ma'an News (via Yedioth Ahronoth), it seems Avigdor Lieberman has taken my article to heart and favors ending Israel's humanitarian responsibility for the Gaza Strip by fully disengaging from the coastal enclave. In closed meetings, Lieberman lamented that the international community has largely not accepted Israel's 2005 withdrawal of settlements and some military units from Gaza as a full disengagement and holds Israel partially responsible for the humanitarian condition of Gazans, due largely in part to the continued air, naval, and land blockade of the territory.

Seeking to legitimize Israel's disengagement, Lieberman indicated that he hopes to engage the de facto Hamas government in Gaza, lift the Israeli siege of the Strip, and seal off the land border between Israel and the enclave, allowing Hamas to autonomously govern the area as a sovereign entity. If this policy is carried out Hamas would create the first Palestinian state, while Fateh in the West Bank would continue to languish under continued Israeli occupation and settlement expansion.

From reading the article, it seems that Lieberman - while professing a desire to fully disengage from Gaza - refuses to end Israel's de facto control over the Gaza Strip. The West Bank settler turned Foreign Minister indicated that Israel would require ships to dock at Cyprus or Greece for inspection before proceeding on to Gaza.

Obviously, Avigdor Lieberman fails to understand that "fully independent" would imply that the governing authority in Gaza (Hamas) would have control over the airspace, territorial waters, and borders of the Gaza Strip. However, the far more insidious matter about this plan is that it is just one of many attempts to undermine the Palestinian national movement and fragment the Palestinian community. One of the worst aspects of the siege of Gaza is that it prevents Palestinians from Gaza from traveling to meet their families, friends, business partners, professors, and doctors in the West Bank or East Jerusalem. Lieberman, who denies that a Palestinian people even exist, refuses to acknowledge that the separation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank is an accident of history caused by the creation of Israel and subsequent expulsion of Palestinians from many areas coveted by Zionists for a future Israeli state.

Lieberman's plan to fully disengage from Gaza is not about creating conditions for peace or improving the situation for Gazans; it is about fracturing the Palestinian people by permanently separating Gaza from the West Bank in order to build more Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Lieberman knows the Palestinian Authority can be easily co-opted by Israel and the United States into endlessly negotiating (or proximity negotiating) while the settlements expand unabated, but his real concern is pressure caused by incidents such as the assault on the Turkish aid ship that left eight Turks and one Turkish-American dead that may mount on Israel to move honestly toward a two-state solution. Such a solution would undermine Lieberman's settler political base, hurt him personally (as he's heavily invested in the settlement enterprise), and force Israel to give up the option to settle the West Bank lands that he yearns for.

Regardless of if Israel actually puts Lieberman's plan into motion, Palestinians must be allowed to travel unimpeded among East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip in order to access medical care, visit with family members, pursue an education, and build a prosperous economic future. Lieberman's plan should serve as just one more warning to Fateh and Hamas that their current arguments are working toward Israel's advantage and that the longer reconciliation remains elusive, the greater chance Israel has to permanently break the Palestinian community and undermine the national movement. Hamas could actually beat Fateh to a Palestinian state if Israel pursues Lieberman's plan, but it would be disastrous for Palestinians, peace and justice in the region, and the Palestinian national movement.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Short and Sweet, NYT's Ethan Bronner just debunked the settlement freeze

Last time I talked about Ethan Bronner, a reporter covering Israel and Palestine (objectively) who also has a son in the IDF, I generally attempted to sully his name. He's not all bad it turns out:

New York Times Chief Jerusalem Correspondent Ethan Bronner, who is known more for his vague, apologetic language with regard to Israel's settlement enterprise, than his ruthless investigative reporting has a short but damning assessment of Israel's 10-month settlement "freeze," entitled "Despite Settlement Freeze, Buildings Rise."

Bronner does not mince words and calls out Netanyahu for describing the faux freeze as "exceptional." He confirms that in most of the West Bank (not to mention East Jerusalem, which the freeze never was extended to) building has continued as normal if not actually increased due to settler fears about the freeze.

Bronner mentions that 29 settlements are in violation of the freeze, according to the Israeli Defense Ministry. The Ministry, according to Bronner claims that it will increase demolition orders on illegally built structures but that is improbable, considering the Defense Ministry has rarely ever taken such a hard line (what a hard line to take, asking people to obey the laws) with the settlers. Recently, the Defense Ministry has even attempted to retroactively approve settlement outposts illegally built (according to Israeli law, they're all illegal according to international law) on private Palestinian land in the West Bank.

Ethan Bronner also points out that the freeze bizarrely didn't apply to 3000 housing units and that in one particular region (Shomron Regional Council), the planning committee had approved 10 times the amount of construction projects in anticipation of the freeze. These projects have continued unabated through the freeze.

Bronner puts the icing on the cake, goes rogue, and destroys an Israeli talking point by asserting that the pace of building since the freeze is not substantially different from the pace of the last three years (when the Israeli government was actively pursuing a policy of increased settlement activity).

Finally, he warns that unless Netanyahu extends the 10-month settlement "freeze," no actual decline in settlement building in the West Bank will occur. So much for Netanyahu's confidence building measure...

Thursday, July 8, 2010

New York Times and Haaretz do not trust Netanyahu on peace

Following Obama and Netanyahu's recent photo opportunity and meeting at the White House, both the New York Times and Haaretz published editorials indicating that while they viewed the fence-mending meeting as positive, they were hesitant to trust Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's commitment to a two-state solution with the Palestinian Authority. My personal feelings are the same.

The Times pointed out that at no time during Netanyahu's public remarks in Washington did he mention a Palestinian state or the two-state solution while Haaretz lamented that Netanyahu seemed unable to see the forest through the trees and spoke only about Israel's security concerns regarding withdrawal and his disapproval of Palestinian textbooks (as if that has any real bearing on the real issues at hand here). Both newspapers remarked on Obama's declaration of trust for Netanyahu but were unwilling to do the same. The Times, commenting on Netanyahu's public invitation for Obama to visit Israel (and hopefully Ramallah on that same trip), urged the President to go to Israel and attempt to convince Israelis that a two state solution with their Palestinian neighbors was in the long-term interest of Israel. Haaretz demanded that Netanyahu prove his commitment to peace through deeds rather than words.

The most effective way Mr. Netanyahu can prove his commitment to the peace process and usher in direct negotiations with the Palestinians is to extend and expand the current settlement moratorium. He should soon declare that the freeze will be extended to cover the predetermined length of direct negotiations and vow that as long as these direct negotiations are underway Israel will meet its obligations under the Road Map and freeze settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Expanding the freeze to East Jerusalem will prove that Netanyahu is willing to entertain the Palestinian demand to locate their capital in the city.

Secondly, Netanyahu should publicly announce that his administration is ready and eager to discuss all the core issues of the conflict (borders, water, security, refugees, settlements, and Jerusalem) in direct negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in negotiations mediated by the United States or Middle East Quartet. Such negotiations should have a predetermined start and end date to avoid open-ended talks that benefit Israelis while stalling Palestinian statehood. If Prime Minister Netanyahu is truly as dedicated to peace as he claims he is, he should have no problem taking these simple steps.

For his part, if Netanyahu accedes to these two steps, Abbas should make a public statement mirroring Netanyahu's, which conveys his willingness and dedication to enter into direct negotiations that cover all the core issues with no preconditions or caveats. If the Palestinian leadership becomes unwilling, Obama should not hesitate to pressure them to join direct talks.

There are good reasons why the Times and Haaretz are hesitant to trust Benjamin Netanyahu on peace, but obvious ways to assuage these hesitations exist for the Prime Minister. With the end of the freeze approaching in September, Netanyahu should be proactive and work to usher in direct negotiations prior to this date, just as he promised Obama.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Film screening in DC tomorrow

If you happen to, like me, live in the DC area and are passionate about the conflict in the Holy Land, you may be interested in attending a film screen of "Born in Gaza" at Busboys and Poets at 14th and V St. The screening is sponsored by Palestine Children's Relief Fund so there's sure to be a great crowd for discussion and networking. I'll be there and I hope to meet some of my DC readers as well.

The film is a documentary which chronicles one family's struggle to attain proper medical treatment for their infant son with a heart problem.

And if you're enjoying some food at Busboys, might I recommend the Reuben? It's a homerun. The film begins at 6:00 pm.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

New B'Tselem report condemns Israeli settlement building

Israeli human rights group B'Tselem published a report today which asserts that Israeli settlements and their accompanying infrastructure now sit on 42% of the West Bank. The group also believes that roughly 20% of the settlement areas sit on privately owned Palestinian land seized for the settlement enterprise.

There's some food for thought for Obama as he goes into his meeting with Netanyahu.

(via HuffPost)

Obama to meet Netanyahu in Washington this morning

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet in Washington today for their first meeting since their last cold encounter where Obama left Netanyahu waiting alone with his aides while the U.S. president enjoyed dinner and personal time with his family. The meeting took place just after Netanyahu embarrassed both Obama and Vice President Joe Biden when 1600 housing units were approved for construction in East Jerusalem during Biden's visit to Israel.

Both leaders now will convene again with very clear desires they hope to wrangle from the other. Netanyahu is looking first and foremost for Obama to pressure Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to enter direct negotiations with Israel. For his part, Obama is expected to persuade Netanyahu to extend the 10-month settlement "freeze" set to expire in September. Netanyahu will almost certainly claim that he can do no such thing unless he is able to begin negotiating directly with the Palestinian Authority. The Washington Post reports that Obama and Congressional Democrats are also looking for a media opportunity to characterize their candidates and president as sufficiently pro-Israel. Netanyahu is also taking heat at home for the recent rift between his administration and the Obama administration in Washington, and a photo op would certainly benefit him domestically as well.

While not amounting to the direct negotiations Israel seeks, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad recently met with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the first high-level meeting between the two administrations in nearly a year. During the meeting Fayyad requested that Israel allow Palestinian security forces greater police access to areas in the West Bank currently under full Israeli military control and for the suspension of the IDF's "hot pursuit" incursions into Palestinian cities and population centers, as Fayyad claims it undermines his government's authority and legitmacy with the Palestinian people in the West Bank.

Following the meeting, Barak asked Netanyahu to provide Obama a clear peace plan, detailing a proposed border and possible security arrangements between Israel and a future Palestinian state. Barak stated,

Israel must pull that bull by the horns [during the meeting with Obama] and present a clear initiative that discusses drawing a border in Israel in a way that settlement blocs along the border will remain in our hands and have a solid Jewish majority for generations, but in a way that will enable the establishment of an independent and demilitarized Palestinian state.

A press conference is expected to take place after the Obama-Netanyahu meeting. I will provide updates as to the outcomes of the meeting soon.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Tom Friedman definitely did not read my last response to him

Updated below

As a general rule I try to avoid Tom Friedman, especially when he writes about Palestinian politics. I vehemently criticized his last love affair with Appointed Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad nearly a year ago and have actually been doing a rather impressive job avoiding his anecdotal, simplistic, and at times bizarrely out of touch columns but his last one, "The Real Palestinian Revolution" did me in. The article created a stir and made ripples across the internet, and like a shark to blood, I was drawn to another messy disaster orchestrated by Mr. Friedman.

Before I begin my criticism in full, I do want to actually say that I agree with what he explicitly advocates here: that Israel should get out and stay out of Palestinian cities in the West Bank. However, my niceties end there.

As my previous Friedman-themed post chronicled, Friedman paints an extraordinarily sunny picture of economic life in the West Bank, of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's ability to build democratic and accountable institutions in the West Bank, and of the feasibility of overcoming Israeli occupation via institution building.

He makes his same old mistakes, using one anecdote of minor successes in the Palestinian Stock Exchange to assert that Fayyad is single-handedly fighting corruption in the Palestinian Authority, building accountable government institutions, and upholding democracy in the West Bank, an assertion that is laughably rosy at best and downright ignorant at worst. Despite the stock market success, a new report warns that poverty in Area C in the West Bank is actually worse than that in the Gaza Strip.

Just as he did a year ago, Friedman also still fervently believes that as long as the PA builds the institutions of a Palestinian state, Israel will no longer be able to continue the occupation and settlement expansion that defines its relationship with the West Bank, as if the lack of Palestinian democracy was what really motivated Israel to gobble up more Palestinian land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem for Jewish settlers. I am absolutely sure that Friedman has not seriously considered the prospects that this institution building would have on Israel relinquishing the West Bank and evacuating settlements because even a quick thought experiment would lead one to conclude that far greater issues would continue to prevent Palestinian statehood. Friedman mentions the settlers only in passing, but doesn't once mention anything about the fact that settlements have continue to be expanded, reinforced, and retroactively legalized by the Israeli government even during the settlement "freeze." Friedman strangely seems to imply that the failure of Palestinian institution-building is what has precluded peace in the Holy Land.

True to any good Friedman column, there are a couple of bizarrely ignorant statements. First, Friedman remarks how at home Fayyad is meeting with his constituents without mentioning that Fayyad's entire position is based on authoritarian "emergency decrees" issued by Palestinian Mahmoud Abbas. Fayyad barely won his Legislative Council seat in the most recent Palestinian elections so it's safe to say his true "constituents" are far and few between. According to a recent Palestinian poll, only 31% of Palestinians view Fayyad's government as legitimate.

I think what many observers have found rather apparent is that Salam Fayyad's plans to build institutions are laudable, but his commitment to democracy, reconciliation with Hamas, and ending the PA's culture of corruption are unproven. Less than a month ago his government abruptly canceled planned municipal elections in the West Bank, the PA police still arrest, torture, and murder Hamas affiliates in the Wild West Bank, and Fayyad himself briefly shut down Al-Jazeera in the West Bank following a less than flattering story on Abbas' Fateh party. Friedman just seems so captivated by Fayyad's personality that he's unable to see that his tenure is actually harming Palestinian democracy and civil society. Friedman of course never mentions the canceling of elections or dubious "professionalism" of the security forces.

I do feel as if I'm mostly repeating my previous criticisms of Friedman, but I do want to highlight a spectacular article by Matt Duss about many Western government's and observer's "cult of personality" surrounding Arab and Palestinian leaders. I propose that we redefine Friedman's terrible Fayyadism term to this:

Fayyadism: The tendency of Western governments and journalists to fixate on individual Arab leaders, regardless of their many faults, rather than democratic policies and institutions when discussing best practices for state-building.

Update: I just saw that Nathan Brown has just published an extraordinary article at the Middle East Channel eviscerating Friedman's love affair with Salam Fayyad. It's definitely a must read.

Just a few quotes:

"Fayyad is not building a state. He's holding down the fort until the next crisis."

"Fayyad may be a good person, but finding a good person is not a policy. If he is making mild administrative and fiscal improvements in some areas, this cannot obscure the deeper problem that most Palestinian political institutions are actually in deep trouble and the most important ones are in a state of advanced decay."

"Palestinian democracy has died, and Fayyad could not operate the way he does (and would probably not be prime minister at all) if it were still alive."

Friday Morning Links

So enough about Snoop Dogg. What does he know? Didn't he sing "Gangster's Paradise" or something? Whatever. Here are some links for your Friday morning:

President Barack Obama intends to press Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to extend the 10-month settlement "freeze" he imposed roughly eight months ago. U.S. mediators are continuing to pressure Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to accept direct negotiations with Netanyahu and are concerned that ending the "freeze" would dissuade Abbas from meeting Netanyahu in person. U.S. Special Envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell also recently expressed frustration with the Israeli delegations foot dragging during the ongoing indirect negotiations. The Israeli side has publicly voiced their desire for direct rather than indirect negotiations but have balked at including some of the biggest problem issues (such as Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, and final borders) on the agenda. Netanyahu and Obama will meet in Washington on Tuesday to discuss ongoing issues in the U.S.-mediated peace process.

Haaretz reports that Palestinian businessmen that own and operate tunnels used to smuggle consumer goods into Gaza under the Egyptian border have suspended operations in the tunnels to gauge whether or not the easing of the joint Israeli-Egyptian blockade of the Gaza Strip will lead to the availability of cheaper goods arriving legally through Israeli-controlled border crossings. Some tunnels are still operating to bring still-banned goods such as cement, fuel, and cigarettes into the Strip. The AP, in stark contrast to the New York Times actually took some time to interview Gazans and their comments in the article are very insightful.

Finally, because I love bringing human interest peace from the Holy Land: A Team of Palestinian students in Hebron have designed a solar car capable of blazing speeds of just under 20 miles per hour. The battery also holds enough charge to maintain the car's top speed for three to five hours (if your face can withstand the wind whipping by).

That's all the links for today, have a great Friday!

The Education of Snoop Dogg

Every so often the conflict lends itself to an absolutely hilarious "news" article. For your pleasure, I present to you The Education of Snoop Dogg. In actuality, it's a rather interesting human interest peace about a Palestinian American rapper in LA, with Snoop's great one-liner to sum up the occupation:

"Why they building a wall around y’alls people’s shit? That’s fucked up, cuz."