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March 17, 2010

Biden visit exposed Israeli settler truths

This article was first published at the Guardian Online

There was a moment of rare clarity this week for America's efforts to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace. The US vice-president Joe Biden was on a visit, ostensibly a charm offensive to an Israel that has been heretofore neglected by the Obama administration's most senior echelons, and an opportunity to discuss broad regional issues, notably Iran. By coincidence, Biden's trip coincided with special Middle East envoy George Mitchell's launching of indirect, or proximity, talks, between the Israelis and Palestinians. Perhaps less coincidental, Biden's presence was greeted by announcements of dramatic new plans for Israeli settlement expansion in East Jerusalem. A crisis in the relaunched Israeli-Palestinian peace talks had apparently arrived a little earlier than expected – day zero to be precise. Not that those resumed negotiations were being greeted by much more than scepticism anyway. For most observers and even participants, the customary and polite suspension of disbelief that normally accompanies a new round of peace talks was barely on display.

Both sides seemed ready to settle down to a predictable and protracted game of placing blame for failure at the other's door. Then, on the day of Biden's arrival, Israel announced plans to market 112 new housing units in the West Bank and bettered that 24 hours later (shortly after the Biden-Netanyahu confab) when a district committee gave planning authorisation to 1,600 new units in East Jerusalem.

What provided this episode with refreshing clarity was the way in which it exposed the deeper dynamics that are driving contemporary Israeli realities.

Netanyahu seems to have been genuinely blindsided by this development. Israel's settlement addiction proved stronger even than the prime minister's desire to spend a few days going settlement cold turkey. Israel's leadership scrambled to summon their best explanations and apologies – the decision was insensitive, ill-timed, a local initiative, and a mere technical planning detail. If only the decision had been taken two days or two weeks earlier or later everything would have been OK. And so in one fell swoop the naked Israeli settler reality was exposed in all of its absurdity.

For the rest of the world, East Jerusalem, just like the West Bank, is occupied territory; all settlements over the Green Line are illegal (even if not everyone always uses that word). For Israel's leaders, the timing may have been unfortunate, but the impulse to settle Palestinian land is fundamentally sound. Palestinian land is claimed as state land or confiscated, plans are authorised, tenders are issued, construction begins, and settlers move in. After more than 40 years, and endless seemingly trivial and mundane bureaucratic decisions, over 500,000 Israelis now reside beyond the Green Line (for a detailed analysis of this process, read East Jerusalem settlement experts Daniel Seidemann and Lara Friedman here). The settlers and their sympathisers are entrenched in every relevant nook and cranny of Israel's bureaucracy and security establishment. The momentum that they can now generate (especially but not only when their sympathisers hold senior government office), is stronger than Israel's demographic concerns, is stronger than fear of Israel acquiring an international pariah status, and as was proven this week, is stronger than the needs of the US-Israel relationship. America's vice-president has just seen this dynamic first hand and up close.

Mainstream Israeli commentators were apparently shocked to discover the power of the settler momentum. Pundits such as Ari Shavit, known for their staunch nationalism and vilification of human rights groups working in the territories, had a rude awakening. In Ha'aretz he described "the settlements in the West Bank that serve the centrifuges in Natanz [Iran]. If sane Israel does not wake up, it will be defeated by the metastasising of the occupation and the lack of the central government's ability to stop it."

And that, in a nutshell, is why Benjamin Netanyahu may be our last, best chance for a two-state peace deal.

The extremism and excesses of his government may finally open enough eyes and lead to enough local and international action to roll back this settler behemoth. More moderate Israeli governments, even those perhaps sincerely committed to a variation on the de-occupation, two-state solution theme, have definitively failed to halt the settlements march. When Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert were negotiating on paper potential Israeli withdrawals, the settlements and the occupation were being expanded and entrenched on the ground. Even when Ariel Sharon was removing 7,500 settlers from Gaza, he was adding a greater number to the West Bank and East Jerusalem. But under Netanyahu, what you see is what you get.

And perhaps this clarity and this exaggeration is exactly what is needed. Everything else, all the relevant actors, were stuck in an ugly paralysis. The Palestinians remain divided and devoid of strategy. For 20 years the Fatah-led PLO had been waiting for the US to deliver Israel for an equitable two-state outcome. The only alternative to negotiations to gain any traction had been indiscriminate and unjustifiable violence. The Arab states had produced a breakthrough peace initiative in 2002 but it never translated into a programme for public diplomacy or even pressure to be brought to bear on Israel, America, or the Quartet. The US and EU continue to place their faith in confidence-building measures and unmediated negotiations between the parties, hoping against hope that a formula which had failed for over a decade would produce a breakthrough and that rational argument might prevail.

Not surprisingly, none of this was going anywhere. It has taken a Netanyahu-led extreme right, religious government in Israel (the defunct Labor party of Ehud Barak can be justly ignored as window dressing) to send a signal strong enough to perhaps pierce this paralysis. Israelis and Palestinians, it is clear, are in an adversarial relationship, talk of partnership is premature, talk of confidence-building is naive. Transparently run Palestinian institutions and well-groomed Palestinian security forces will not remove the settler-occupation complex. And neither will gentle persuasion. The naked extremity of the Netanyahu government is producing new international initiatives and new coalitions.

In Jewish diaspora communities, there is a determination to reclaim a more moderate and progressive vision of what it means to be pro-Israel and to apply Jewish ethics and Jewish values, that helped guide civil rights struggles in the past, to contemporary Israeli reality. Such efforts are gaining ground – notably the emergence of J Street in America. Inside Israel, a new progressive discourse, still lacking real parliamentary representation, is struggling to make its voice heard in civil society—notably in weekly demonstrations at Sheikh Jarrah. On the Palestinian side, alternative strategies to the negotiation dependency or violence that dominated the past are gaining ground – especially in non-violent resistance to land confiscations and the separation barrier. Prime Minister Fayyad's plan for statehood by mid-2011 could become a significant hook if it develops some teeth.

European actors have been toying with initiatives of their own in adapting to this new reality. All 27 member states achieved a remarkable consensus in endorsing the most powerful and comprehensive statement of EU policy last December. Lady Ashton, at least declaratively, has gotten off to an impressive start and will be visiting the region next week, and crucially Gaza will be on her itinerary. Britain is taking the lead in imposing labelling on settlement products, and the French and Spanish governments are exploring options for advancing Palestinian statehood even in the face of peace process stalemate.

None of this would likely have happened if the government in Israel was nice-sounding and well-intentioned, but ultimately hapless in the face of the settler-occupation complex. Nothing is also likely to really come to fruition without the US assuming leadership. These new developments may serve to create an environment in which there is more political space for the US to operate in.

US administrations have helped generate moments of decision for Israel in the past and not only in the Egyptian peace deal and full evacuation of the Sinai brokered by President Carter. President Bush confronted Yitzhak Shamir with the withholding of loan guarantee monies, leading to the election of Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 in a campaign in which settlements and opposition to them featured prominently. Benjamin Netanyahu's first term in office ended abruptly when President Clinton challenged him to sign, and then implement, the Wye River Memorandum of 1998, something his coalition could not sustain and which led to the election of Ehud Barak, ushering in at the time a moment of great hope.

The realities today are no longer the same. The Israeli inability to confront its own settler-occupation demon is more deeply entrenched. Israel will have to be presented with clear choices, clear answers to its legitimate security and other concerns, and clear consequences for nay-saying. A successful effort will also have to be more comprehensive and more regional in its scope, almost certainly involving Syria and bringing Hamas into the equation. No one should expect this to be easy. But if one person can generate American will to lead such an effort and an international alliance to see it through, then surely that person is the Israeli leader who we saw on display in all his glorious stubbornness this week.

Biden, Netanyahu, and papering over the Grand Canyon

 This piece was first posted on ForeignPolicy.com - The Mideast Channel.

It took a little over 24 hours, but in the end a version of events was agreed on that allowed for the resumption of something resembling business as usual in Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu had not known about the planning approval of 1600 housing units in Occupied East Jerusalem - this was all terribly embarrassing, Israel was sincerely sorry for the unpleasantness caused, and the minister directly responsible displayed appropriate contrition. You see, the relevant district planning committee in Jerusalem had its timing wrong, completing the approval process would anyway take several more months, and actual building on the ground would only happen some time in the distant future.

A technical solution was even invented for preventing such shenanigans from happening again - from now on, the Israeli prime minister himself would oversee sensitive planning and building authorizations and announcements. It's just the kind of pragmatic and sensible solution that America could expect from that reasonable oasis of democracy in the region, Israel. Phew. The deepening chasm that separates the interests of Israel and America's governments could be papered over once again.

The Middle East, like anywhere, loves a good conspiracy theory - and conspiracies there often contain a degree of veracity lacking in the American truther/birther variation. There were at least four competing conspiratorial versions of the events that unfolded in the last 48 hours: (1) This was all about domestic Israeli political turf battles - one-upmanship within the leadership of the orthodox Shas party, between Shas and other parties, and the ubiquitous settler presence in bureaucracy setting down another marker. (2) Look broader to the regional big picture - this has everything to do with Iran and setting priorities. Israel has created an equation whereby the U.S. is so concerned about Israel going rogue on Iran in irresponsible ways that the U.S. would not open a second serious front of confrontation with Netanyahu's government over settlements - hence the administration's climb-down from its call for a comprehensive settlement freeze last year and the acceptance of a weak compromise, especially on east Jerusalem which paved the way for this week's debacle.

(3) We were witnessing American domestic politics being played out in Jerusalem. The links between Likud/settler Israel and the American right have become particularly tight over the last decade or more. This episode therefore was an attempt by some within the pro-GOP wing of Israeli officialdom to embarrass the VP and Obama administration. After all, there has been a concerted and often coordinated anti-Obama campaign inside Israel and within the American Jewish community from day one.  (4) Finally, perhaps this has everything to do with Benjamin Netanyahu's personal history with U.S. presidents. During his first term of office in the late 1990's, Netanyahu lost his coalition and his job after clashing with then President Clinton and being cornered into signing the Wye River Memorandum in late 1998. Understandably, Netanyahu is keen to avoid a repeat performance. One option would be to make nice with President Obama by demonstrating real flexibility on the peace front, but that is both tricky in domestic coalition terms and perhaps not in Netanyahu's own political DNA. So the other alternative is to ensure that the Obama administration never has sufficient trust or traction within Israel to speak over the prime minister's head directly to his public (after all, Obama is a new and unknown quantity and his middle name is Hussein, while Bill Clinton already had great credibility and ratings with Israelis by the time Netanyahu entered office in 1996). The goal in this context would be to turn Biden's visit from a love-fest into a pissing match, neutralizing Administration efforts to start afresh with Israel's public.

Any or all of the above could have a plausible connection to this week's developments, but the official explanation that ultimately carried the day-the unfortunate bureaucratic hiccup one-is probably closest to the truth. It may be less sexy than what the conspiratorial menu had to offer, but this explanation is almost certainly the most damning of all in its implications for U.S.-Israeli relations and policies.

America and Israel are largely talking past each other, and either the U.S. just doesn't get it and fails to understand the dynamics at work in Israel or it has convinced itself that for its own political reasons it is unable to act in anything approaching a decisive manner. Both may be correct. Neither bode well for the future.

Biden's decision to stick to the existing charm offensive script in his Tel Aviv speech while adding a small dose of home truths about the need for peace was probably a wise choice on this occasion. His rhetorical criticism of the settlement announcement was not significantly different from statements by the many senior U.S. officials embarrassed during Israel visits by settlement misbehavior in the past. The last time an American president declared settlements illegal was under President Carter, and the last time consequences were created for settlement misdemeanors was under President George H.W. Bush. Those happened about thirty and twenty years ago, respectively.

Understanding the Israeli reality is crucial to charting a smart policy as Sen. Mitchell seeks to advance peace negotiations. The Obama administration would hardly be alone in failing to appreciate the deep and structural dynamics that are in play in Israel. Many very smart Israeli analysts, commentators, and practitioners are in denial themselves (for example, Amos Harel here, putting this latest spat down to incompetence). It is all too easy to blame the Shas minister directly responsible, Eli Yishai, or Netanyahu's poor management, or coalition intrigues.

Of all the words Israeli officials have uttered in walking back this episode, one has been conspicuously missing - that it was "wrong".  Netanyahu is reported to have said the following in yesterday's cabinet meeting, "Approving that plan when the vice president of the United States is visiting here is first-rate insensitivity... We will continue to build in Jerusalem." Aye, there's the rub.

Today's Israeli press is full of stories of future settlement expansion in East Jerusalem - 7000 units according to Yedioth, 50,000 if the (probably exaggerated) Ha'aretz numbers are to be believed. Israel does not view East Jerusalem as occupied or any different from Tel Aviv, and it does not view West Bank settlements as illegal or illegitimate (the Obama administration has used the latter word, and in line with all previous administrations since '67 and in line with the rest of the world does not recognize Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem).

Under the U.N. partition plan of 1947, a Jewish national home was to be accorded 55% of Mandatory Palestine. After its war of independence, Israel was in possession of 78% of that territory. Many in Israel apparently see no reason why 78% cannot become 80% or 85% or 100%. The pragmatic, state-building and solidifying variety of Zionism is now in a life or death struggle with its maximalist, expansionist and sometimes messianic twin brother, and the latter is winning almost without breaking sweat.

After nearly 40 years of occupation and settlements beyond the green line, settler Zionism and its sympathizers are deeply embedded across all the relevant bureaucracies of the government and security establishments. That is what's made the existence of 500,000 Israelis living over the '67 lines possible and that's what was behind this new episode. If the U.S. looks at this week's events and sees an essentially rational ship of state having indulged in a little ill-timed irrational exuberance - sloppy management, understandable coalition politics - then it is fundamentally misreading the situation. There is a powerful, structural logic to what happened this week and one that will not be reversed until the 1967 occupation has ended by creating a Palestinian state and an Israeli-Palestinian border demarcation whereby pragmatic Zionism finally confronts settler Zionism.

Some would argue that Ariel Sharon's disengagement from Gaza in the summer of 2005 proves the opposite - that pragmatic Zionism has the upper hand and that left to its own devices, rational Israel can still make the right choice. But even when they were at loggerheads, Sharon allowed the settler movement to further entrench itself in the West Bank, and in the five years that have elapsed since disengagement, the overriding lesson seems to be that there will be no repeat of Gaza in Judea and Samaria. It was too costly, the results unedifying (perhaps by design), settlements proceed apace and even the separation barrier has failed to create a new de-occupation momentum.

Perhaps the Obama administration does get it. Biden did say in his Tel Aviv speech today, "...quite frankly, folks, sometimes only a friend can deliver the hardest truth."

Perhaps America will present Israel with a real choice and with consequences for recalcitrance. Thus far, that has not been the case. The U.S. backed down (again) over settlements last year and the suspicion of course exists that domestic political considerations continue to constrain an American president's freedom of action when it comes to securing an Israeli-Palestinian deal.

Israel is unlikely to make a choice until the U.S. makes its own choice, and this week demonstrated that papering over the chasm now existing between U.S. and Israeli positions is an ever-more transparently flawed exercise. America may only be paying attention when the vice president is in town, but the Arab and Muslim world views America as the enabler-in-chief of Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and of the indignities being visited on Gaza's civilian population, every single day.

In the absence of decisive American leadership, Israel is likely to dig itself deeper into a hole, burying the last vestiges of hope for pragmatic Zionism. And America too will not emerge unscathed. The president can give any number of Cairo speeches and appoint Sen. Mitchell as special peace envoy, Sec. Clinton can appoint Farah Pandit as representative to Muslim communities and Rashad Hussain as envoy to the O.I.C., but these officials had all better be given the cellphone number of the Israeli interior ministry, Jerusalem district planning and building department, because that office and others in Israel's bureaucracy still have the deciding vote in framing America's image in the region.

March 4, 2010

Arab/Palestinian leaders okay indirect peace talks with Israel

 This piece was first posted at TPM Cafe.


The Arab Foreign Ministers meeting today in Cairo gave a begrudging nod to the Palestinians to resume indirect peace negotiations with Israel, suggesting that they were willing to give US efforts another chance but that the talks should initially be limited to four months.


PLO Leader Abbas has been calling for clear steps to be taken in advance of resumed talks in order to avoid the pitfalls of the past, including a comprehensive settlement freeze, clear terms of reference for the talks, and a timeline for their completion. Having been rebuffed on these points, the Arab Foreign Ministers’ decision offered a way of providing political cover for PLO Leader Abbas to say ‘yes’ to the US-proposal of beginning indirect talks.


The Fatah/PLO leadership will undoubtedly though face further domestic political fallout for resuming any kinds of talks under these conditions, especially in light of recent Israeli government announcements regarding religious sites in Hebron and Bethlehem, and building expansion in East Jerusalem. Hamas has already seized on this latest PR gift.


Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has been expressing his support for resuming negotiations without any conditions for several months. He has though in parallel seemed to shrink the potential, substantive content of those negotiations through a number of policy statements, including by declaring Israel would retain the Jordan Valley area of the West Bank, by ruling out any Palestinian political status in East Jerusalem (which has been a mainstay of all official and unofficial peace plans), and by insisting on continued settlement expansion.


Although the original US aim was to convene direct Israeli-Palestinian talks, the indirect or proximity format is worth embracing as a blessing in disguise. It makes the talks less susceptible to daily Palestinian-Israeli tensions as it will be the US that is sitting with the respective parties and that will have a far greater role in guiding and defining the contours of those talks as they take shape.


In any case, progress will likely be a product of the influence America and other third parties can bring to bear on the Israelis and Palestinians respectively rather than any direct Israeli-Palestinian meeting of minds.


If the talks don’t immediately go down in flames, then the challenge for Special Envoy Mitchell and the Obama administration will be how to advance the substance of the negotiations as and when they encounter entrenched positions (notably Israel’s addiction to settlements and its continued presence in the Palestinian territories), whether the US advances its own bridging proposals, the quality of those proposals, and how it responds to anticipated foot-dragging or nay-saying by either party.


In addition, the US will need to take a new look at how it related to Gaza, Palestinian divisions, and broader regional tensions, as my colleague Amjad Atallah and myself explain in this American Prospect piece.


When the US called for a full settlement freeze, including East Jerusalem, and was met with an Israeli ‘no,’ there was no indication of having gamed out what to do next. As talks resume, the Mitchell team will this time have to be planning several steps ahead.