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November 25, 2009

Netanyahu’s Stubbornness on Settlements Produces American Call for 1967 Borders

Israeli Settlement

This piece also appears in The Huffington Post

Israeli PM Netanyahu announced today his cabinet’s decision, “To suspend new construction in Judea and Samaria.” (Yes, they still call it Judea and Samaria). The Obama Administration responded within hours with a statement released by Secretary Clinton followed by a press briefing from Special Envoy George Mitchell. 

On the face of it, this was a step forward by the Israeli government, acknowledged and welcomed (though not blessed) by the US government, and a move that one hopes will facilitate Palestinian agreement to resume negotiations.  But if one digs just a little bit deeper, it becomes very evident that it was nothing of the sort. Rather, today’s events closed the first chapter in a game of dare being played out between the new leaderships in Washington and Jerusalem.

Today’s statements appeared to be part of an elaborate and ongoing dance of suspicion between the two supposed allies. During his first term as prime minister in the late 90’s, Benjamin Netanyahu made an enemy of then US President Clinton and played the Republican congress against the Democrat president. This directly led to the collapse of Netanyahu’s government and his fall from office. Judging by today, Netanyahu is keen for a repeat performance albeit under circumstances even less propitious for him politically. The response of the Obama team might be an interesting pointer as to where things might be headed on the peace front.

The Obama administration has been calling on Israel to make good on a settlement freeze commitment dating to the 2003 Bush-era Road Map (and, questionably to the 1993 Oslo DoP).  Netanyahu has been unwilling to do anything of the sort. He sought to codify a set of exemptions to a settlement freeze or in plainer English, guidelines for ongoing settlement expansion, and to have those blessed by Washington. The Obama team refused to become the first ever American government to formally authorize settlement expansion. That is the situation we have reached with today’s announcement.

Netanyahu’s cabinet clarified its so-called “settlement restraint” policy with today’s decision (some have called it a “moratorium” or a “freeze” but as you will see shortly, it is nothing of the sort, and those words are an inappropriate description). 

The only apparent restraint in the Israeli cabinet decision was to suspend issuing of new permits or beginning new construction in the West Bank for ten months. The less restrained side of the equation is this: 3000 units already under construction will continue; all public buildings and security infrastructure will continue to be built; no restrictions would apply to occupied East Jerusalem; and construction would resume after ten months.

Netanyahu also repeated the totally (meaningless)commitment of no new settlements or land confiscations (meaningless because since 1993, the official policy is no new settlements yet via expansion, new neighborhoods and outposts, the West Bank settler population has grown from 111,000 then to over 300,000 today, and because although the built-up area of settlements constitutes only 2% of West Bank land, double that amount is slated for growth, and a total of 40% comes under the Settlement Regional Councils, therefore land confiscation issue is a red herring).

While it is technically true that this “restraint” is a new Israeli commitment, its practical relevance is of very limited significance – building 3000 units in ten months neatly dovetails the regular annual settlement construction rates. Moreover, Netanyahu made sure to assertively mention all these caveats in today’s announcement – in effect, poking the Obama administration, the international community, and the Palestinians in the eye.

While some claim this was a politically courageous act by Netanyahu, the real litmus test is easy to apply: Has this led to any shakiness, any crisis, any resignations in the most right wing coalition ever in Israel’s history? The answer: absolutely not, and resignations in Israeli politics are about as rare as Turkeys on Thanksgiving. Netanyahu’s so-called “restraint package” was so minimalist that it kept his coalition happy while doing nothing to advance a genuine peace effort (Yes, there is some criticism from the far-right, and Netanyahu’s supporters will point to it as proof of his bravery, but as I say, the real test is in his coalition – and there: not so much as a wobble).

The interesting development today, indeed the unprecedented development, was in the US response. Yes, Senator Mitchell did pro-forma explain why this is new, why this was progress from the Israeli government. But the real American response came elsewhere, in Secretary Clinton and Envoy Mitchell’s statements. They did not bless the Israeli non-freeze, explaining it fell short and that they expected more, and that “America does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements”. (Admittedly they could have explicitly said that after ten months and the 3000 units, their expectation was for not a single new home to be built, they didn’t).

But the new language came in Secretary Clinton’s description of what American expects the outcome of negotiations to be – for an “independent and viable [Palestinian] state based on the 1967 lines”. Senator Mitchell quoted Clinton in repeating the call for a Palestinian state “based on the 67 lines.”

Every conflict and every situation has its own lingua franca. In the Israeli-Palestinian context, a state based on the 67 lines is the dog-whistle for what constitutes a real, no-B.S. two-state outcome. It is also language that the US has conspicuously avoided using – avoided that is until today.

Previous administrations would speak of UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 (but those are interpreted differently by the Israelis and Palestinians); the Clinton Parameters of December 2000 suggested percentages on territory, but never mentioned the 67 lines; in June 2002, President Bush used the phrase, ending the “occupation that began in 1967.” That language was adopted in the 2003 Road Map and used verbatim by President Obama in his September United Nations General Assembly speech. It is language very much open to interpretation. The “1967 lines” language add a far greater degree of clarity – and, as such,  is an anathema to the Greater Land of Israel, anti-peace forces (many of whom are represented in today’s Israeli government).

Interestingly, Secretary Clinton had begun to play with this language during her recent Middle East trip but had never been so explicit – until today. It is true that this adoption of new language comes late (perhaps too late) in the process and will need to be backed up by more concrete steps. It is though progress.

So the subtext of what went on today – the Obama administration is beginning to up the ante, at least declaratively, in the signals it is sending in response to Netanyahu’s stubbornness on settlements, and in setting the table for the next phase of its peace efforts.

The question of course is – what next? Senator Mitchell gave some hints about that also. He suggested that the US was still pursuing a comprehensive peace effort and notably discussed Syria at some length. He briefly mentioned the option of resuming regional multilateral talks with Israel and various Arab states on issues such as water and energy at an appropriate time. Most interesting perhaps, Senator Mitchell explained that negations, “will proceed on a variety of tracks,” and while he continued to push for the resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian talks, he also spoke of parallel talks that the US would conduct with each of the parties.

This combination of back-to-back negotiations – US-Israel and US-Palestinians – combined with the reference to the 1967 lines may signpost the way out of the peace impasse. The US will need to elaborate and put flesh on the bones of its “based on the 1967 lines” parameter and then pursue a conversation, mostly with the Israeli side, on how to implement that, and if necessary go public with a plan and  tie incentives/disincentives to its acceptance/rejection.

 

November 20, 2009

Not serious - this time

This piece also appears in Haaretz

 Salam Fayyad

Is the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leadership, which is currently proposing to seek United Nations recognition of a Palestinian state along the pre-1967 border, about to shake up the Israeli-Palestinian paralysis in a game-changing way? The answer for now would appear to be "no." Both U.S. and EU officials were quick to distance themselves from the idea and label it premature. For their part, the Israelis took umbrage at this hint of Palestinian unilateralism. In case anyone failed to notice how much irony was dripping from this indignation, days later Israel indulged in yet another unilateral act of its own: advancing plans for the expansion of Gilo in East Jerusalem.

By mid-week, some Palestinian leaders were busy retreating to a more minimalist version of the "statehood now" plan. The option of a unilateral declaration of independence was more a reflection of frustration and desperation than it was a profound development in Palestinian strategic planning capacity or political smarts. It seems that talk of the move was both tentative and ill-conceived.

No plan was revealed that would address the obvious questions arising from such a strategy. Would the Palestinians maintain the Palestinian Authority in this scenario, given its overwhelming dependence on Israel? What would be the status of the mission of U.S. General Keith Dayton to train the Palestinian security forces in this new context? What would happen with taxes and border crossings, and how would the PLO advance its struggle internationally?

 
 

The list of questions goes on, but the paucity of answers from the PLO leadership suggests that it has yet to seriously consider a strategic alternative to its 16-year dependence on negotiations with Israel. In fact, the entire episode looked like another example of the PLO trying to leverage its weakness rather than rediscover or create new strengths.

Despite all this, the Palestinian flirtation with a new approach does have some significance. It is part of a new fluidity and questioning of assumptions that have entered the Israeli-Palestinian arena. Palestinian civil society, for instance, has long ceased to rely on its leadership's strategies for achieving de-occupation. Inside the territories, nonviolent resistance, notably to the separation barrier, continues to gather adherents and momentum. Outside, the campaigns for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel are growing to dimensions that should make Israel's leaders sit up and take notice.

Hamas leaders are stepping up efforts to break their international isolation and slowly absorbing the implication for their future actions of the Goldstone Report's accusation against them of war crimes. Overall, there is an increasingly pervasive new sense of uncertainty in the region. Opposite this, Israel's leadership demonstrates an impressive capacity for tactical maneuvering, but is as bereft as the PLO of a strategic outlook.

At this stage, it is unclear whether any new strategic direction will come from the Obama administration; so far it has kept both sides guessing. The sharpness of U.S. criticism of President Mahmoud Abbas for not returning to negotiations was unexpected, given American investment in his leadership. The White House's admonition of Israel for advancing the approval process of a new neighborhood in Gilo was highly unusual, too.

Prime Minister Netanyahu's seeming addiction to poking American presidents in the eye seems to be souring relations with the Obama administration even more quickly than happened with President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s (an unwise predeliction that directly triggered Netanyahu's fall from political power at the time).

So it is still Washington rather than Ramallah that is likely to shape the next phase of any peace effort. After 10 months of the Obama team's efforts to pursue essentially the same old peace process (albeit with greater vigor), the collapse of that edifice is increasingly visible. A half-baked declaration from Ramallah is unlikely to chart a fresh path forward. Instead, Washington should be reviewing the reasons why that worn-out peace process architecture cannot deliver, and embracing a course correction.

For all the talk of resuming direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, no one really expects them to bring about a breakthrough. If the aim is to resolve the 1967 issues (borders - including those of Jerusalem; settlements, two states and security), then the focus needs to be on an agreement between the international community and Israel on the details and conditions for de-occupation, and between the international community and the Palestinians on the transition to Palestinian assumption of sovereign responsibilities (international oversight of security, for instance). If the aim is to resolve the 1948 issues (Israel's creation, the refugee narrative, and ending all other outstanding claims), then American or Quartet mediators will need to pursue a far broader, bolder and more inclusive conversation than the technical fix approach that has previously held sway.

Either way, U.S. or Quartet-led back-to-back negotiations with the Israelis, on the one hand, and Palestinians, on the other, are more likely to produce results than putting the current Israeli and Palestinian leaderships in a room together. But absent such American initiative, we should not be too flabbergasted if next time around, a Palestinian declaration of political reorientation is actually matched by a strategy and a plan, or if it reshapes the conversation.

 

November 10, 2009

On U.S Middle East Policy and Amateurism

This piece also appears in The Washington Note

This was not a good week for the Obama administration's Middle East peace efforts. Speaking alongside Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in Jerusalem last Saturday, Secretary Clinton seemed to be praising the distinctively partial limitations that Israel was willing to implement on settlement non-expansion. During the following days in Morocco and Cairo, she walked those remarks back, but the damage had been done.

By Thursday, the American-sponsored Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was sufficiently exasperated to announce that he will not be standing for re-election, and all week the media and political commentary on the U.S. approach was scathing about America's efforts--even by Middle East standards.

Speaking to the Washington Post, I described the U.S. approach of the past days as amateurish--a perhaps harsh, but unfortunately apt, label. On the positive side, I think the administration folks are themselves aware that this is not going swimmingly. The overall administration scorecard on Middle East peace is slipping into the red.

But first, let's be fair about that record.

The Obama administration merits significant credit for having acknowledged from the get-go that advancing a solution on Israel-Palestine, or at least reaching a post-occupation equilibrium, is a key American national interest--a realization that was belatedly groped at by the Bush administration and was set forth from day one by its successor. That displays a keen understanding of the centrality of how the Israeli-Palestinian issue impacts America's standing and ability to advance its goals, including the push back against extremism in the region and beyond. National Security adviser General Jones repeated the assertion last week at the J Street conference. Credit, too, for the administration for acting on this. A senior envoy, Senator Mitchell, was appointed on day two, and deployed shuttling back and forth to the region. The President delivered a ground-breaking speech in Cairo, the Arab world was deeply engaged (unlike the past), and a marker was set down on settlements. It was on this latter issue of settlements, however, where things began to unravel.

The Obama team's call for a comprehensive settlement freeze was consistent with past U.S. policy (notably Bush's Roadmap of 2003), although it was perhaps treated with more seriousness coming from the new 'hope and change' President. The Israel Prime Minister's answer came in June, and it was a rejectionist one: no full freeze, and no limitations whatsoever on settlements in East Jerusalem. That is when the malaise set in.

The administration had three possible options in responding:

1) Stick to its guns and calibrate a set of escalating consequences in response to possible ongoing Israeli recalcitrance.

2) Make a smart pivot by declaring, for instance, that if Israel could not for its own reasons freeze settlements, then this would make all the more urgent the need to quickly define and agree a border for an Israel-Palestine two-state solution. And the U.S. could reasonably have adopted a formula regarding that border (such as based on the 1967 lines, minor mutual modifications to accommodate settlements close to the Green Line in a one-to-one land swap). The U.S. could have explained to its Israeli friends that absent a defined border, the settlement freeze would have to be comprehensive, but in the discussion on borders, there could be more flexibility given the one-to-one land swaps.

3) Dig themselves into a hole. Insisting on a freeze, heightening expectations, without a plan for achieving that end, and by then acceding to talks with the Israeli government over koshering aspects of settlements expansion.

It is certainly legitimate for the administration to have not chosen option one, and to have decided that this was the wrong issue and/or wrong timing to escalate with the Netanyahu government. My own preference would have been for option two, and indeed, the administration could reasonably be perceived to have laid the ground deftly for such a pivot. Unfortunately, they went for option three, and it all came crashing down around their feet this week.

The Secretary's last minute stop in Cairo to round off the trip said it all. The Mubarak regime tried to help salvage some American pride, lining up behind the Secretary's efforts. Except that it is precisely the Mubarak government whose credibility is so severely questioned in the region, it is the largest Arab recipient of American financial assistance, and is obsessed with leadership succession--in short, getting a smile out of the Egyptian leader doesn't even register on the congratulatory charts.

There is nonetheless potentially good news in all of this. Those who are writing off the administration's peace efforts, friend and foe alike, are being premature in the extreme. This is a benefit of starting on day one--you can acknowledge the need for a course correction in month ten. In fact, it is not the new approach of the Obama administration that has failed, but rather, this is a moment of clarity regarding the bankruptcy of the old approach that has guided policy for over a decade and that the Obama team had inherited and embraced.

As Rob Malley and others have argued, what is needed now is a review (as has been conducted in other foreign policy areas) and a testing and likely abandonment of many of the prevailing policy assumptions. These might include the notion that one can incrementally build confidence between the sides when the prevailing reality is one of occupation, that bilateral negotiations between representatives of an occupied people and the occupying party can deliver de-occupation, that Palestinian political division should be encouraged (not overcome), or that proven self governance capacity under occupation is a precondition for freedom and independence.

If the goal still is Israel's security, recognition, and a guaranteed future as a democracy and a Jewish national home, alongside a secure, viable, and post-occupation Palestine and advancing America's national interest, and this should be the goal, then a new path is needed for reaching that destination. It will certainly require more international and U.S. lifting.

The Obama team is perfectly capable of charting a course from a bad week to a game-changing success, but more of the same won't get them there.

 

November 3, 2009

Unsettling Questions

 This piece appears at Foreign Policy online

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stepped from the frying pan into the fire this weekend, when she sparked a controversy regarding U.S. policy toward Israeli settlements right after some tough days of public and private diplomacy in Pakistan. But was the controversy as serious as it seemed? And what does it means for the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts? Here, a fact check on some settlement myths and misconceptions.  

1. What is the significance of Clinton's linguistic acrobatics? 

Standing next to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday night in Jerusalem, the secretary seemed unequivocally to line up with the Israeli leader in relation to the ongoing dispute over the settlements. Clinton described Israel's offer of a policy of settlement "restraint" (i.e., not freeze) as "unprecedented." Prime Minister Netanyahu looked pleased as punch as Clinton placed the dead cat firmly at the Palestinians' door.

Monday, Clinton rushed to correct the impression of a policy shift, delivering remarks with the Moroccan foreign minister at her side in which she described Israel's restraint policy as falling "far short" of America's position or preference. She also reiterated America's 40-year opposition to Israeli settlement policy and rejection of "the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements" -- all things that she had failed to mention at the presser in Jerusalem. The Obama team's image of credibility and competence had taken a serious hit.  The Arab League's Secretary General, Amr Moussa, went on record to say "failure is in the atmosphere ... all of us are deeply disappointed" and that "we're not impressed".

In a sense, Clinton's prevarications aren't hard to understand. Since September's U.N. General Assembly tri-lateral meeting, the administration has been trying to extricate itself from Netanyahu's blunt refusal to meet the U.S. demand for a settlement freeze.  The Obama team chose not to escalate in the face of this rejectionism from its ally in Jerusalem. The U.S. message to both sides became: "Good Israeli progress on the settlements -- we expect more, but in the meantime, let's re-launch negotiations." Clinton was in effect reiterating that message with greater force during this trip -- and perhaps venting frustration at the Palestinians' lack of enthusiasm for this formula. However, that does not change the bottom line: The United States created an expectation for a settlement freeze, did not meet it, and is now paying a price of diminished standing in the region. 

2. Was Clinton right in describing the Israeli concessions as "unprecedented"? 

One of the more criticized aspects of Clinton's remarks was her repetition of Israel's policy of "restraint" toward settlement growth as "unprecedented" -- suggesting that the U.S. condoned that policy. Technically, yes, the policy is unprecedented -- Israel has not before publicly delineated a limited number of specific housing units (only those already under construction) beyond which it would not build in the West Bank. 

In terms of substantive impact, use of the term "unprecedented" is on flimsier ground. The approximately 3,000 housing units that Israel will continue to build is par for the course for its annual settlement expansion. And of course, the exclusion of East Jerusalem renders the arrangement a nonstarter to the Palestinian and Arab side, since no two-state solution can be envisaged without a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. 

The arrangement could, however, become genuinely unprecedented if the 3,000 units already under construction were explicitly acknowledged as the final settlement expansion of any kind, full stop. That may be the logic of the U.S. effort, but it has not yet been unequivocally articulated.

3. Should a settlement freeze be a precondition for negotiations?

The Palestinian leadership has been arguing that absent a settlement freeze, there is little point in resuming negotiations on a two-state solution. The original Oslo Agreement states that "Neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip pending the outcome of the permanent status negotiations." This is a clause that the Palestinians have consistently referred to in claiming that settlement building is a violation of past signed agreements. Yet the Palestinians never before made such a stand on the issue. In Jerusalem on Saturday night, Netanyahu reiterated that, in the 16 years of previous negotiations since Oslo, a settlement freeze has never been an explicit precondition for talks -- and he was backed up by Clinton, who confirmed that "what the prime minister is saying is historically accurate." Netanyahu and Clinton were both right.

It is also worth noting that, contrary to much reporting, the Obama administration never made negotiations conditional on a settlement freeze. Rather, they argued that the freeze would be part of the actions needed to create an environment conducive to successful talks.

Nevertheless, the United States should view the current Palestinian insistence on a settlement freeze as a long overdue course correction. Had a settlement freeze been insisted upon when talks began in 1993, an agreement today would be dramatically more attainable. Back then, 111,000 Israelis resided in the West Bank alone, while today that number has surpassed 300,000. For most Palestinians, this belated insistence from their leadership is better late than never and perhaps the only way to revive any faith in the efficacy of a negotiated path to Palestinian freedom. For the PLO leadership, negotiating over an ever-shrinking territory has been an exercise in political self-emaciation. It is an exercise they can ill afford to continue, especially given the internal political challenge they now face from Hamas.

4. Do settlements really matter?

Yes, and then some. No single development during the peace process has done more to undermine Palestinian confidence in the possibility of the two-state solution. Likewise, nothing is as politically foreboding for an Israeli prime minister who is actually ready for a viable two-state deal than the awaiting confrontation with the settlers and their supporters.

Clinton seemed to be commending Netanyahu on a restraint policy that includes a commitment to "build no new settlements, expropriate no land." While this sounds like an impressive concession, the actual impact of this policy on the ground will be very limited.

Since Oslo began, Israel has considered it diplomatically impolite to officially create new settlements. Successive Israeli governments found convenient alternatives -- expanding existing communities, creating new suburbs of existing settlements (sometimes several kilometers from the original site), and most notably facilitating the establishment of over 100 new "outposts." The outposts are not formally authorized but they normally have the necessary infrastructure, water, electricity, and security needs provided by Israel's governing authorities and they are not removed -- settlements by another name.

Over 40 percent of the land of the West Bank is already within the municipal jurisdiction of the settlements, even though only about 2 percent is currently built up. So "no new land confiscation" is an empty and irrelevant gesture. For a full settlement freeze to really be meaningful, it would have to include a prohibition on advancing permits for planning and zoning of new settlements, and it would have to deal with the entirety of the settlement infrastructure. Netanyahu's jargon regarding the settlements needs translation -- and the translation is that such commitments are meaningless. 

5. So, what's next?

The Obama administration still seems to be pushing the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as the key goal. Under current circumstances, that would be a hard pill to swallow for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, especially if Palestinian elections are on the horizon. But even if talks were restarted, many in the Middle East are struggling to see the point of yet more negotiations after all these years.  The issues and their solutions are largely known, but the expectations that negotiations would deliver anything meaningful are nearly nonexistent. Another option for the U.S. would be to initiate back-to-back talks with the respective parties -- this approach may actually be more productive than bilateral talks between two parties who have proven that they cannot resolve this conflict on their own.

After all of my questions, it is worth recognizing the question that is actually being asked of America from the citizens of the Middle East themselves: When will there be a serious American implementation plan for a two-state solution that recognizes the asymmetries of power and vital needs of each party and that is determinedly pursued by an administration which has, from day one, made Israeli-Palestinian peace a strategic American priority? On this question, we are all still waiting for an answer.