America’s attempted Quartet sophistry

 

This piece was originally published at the Middle East Channel. 

As more information seeps out from the Quartet principals meeting held in Washington on July 11, it becomes harder not to reach the conclusion that American policy on Israel-Palestine is now being driven almost exclusively by a desire to prevent any possible U.N. vote on the matter in the Autumn. Reading the draft text proposed as a Quartet statement by the U.S. (the text is not yet public, but the authenticity of the draft described here has been reliably confirmed) and rejected by the EU, Russia, and the U.N. Secretary General entrenches that conclusion — and worse, that the U.S. was attempting to pull something of a diplomatic fast one on the senior Quartet officials assembled. But more on that later.

First, a veritable minefield of myths that have sprung up around a possible Palestine vote at the U.N. should be debunked.

No a U.N. vote will not in practical terms deliver a sovereign Palestinian state and Israeli withdrawal and de-occupation. Nor will Israelis instantly be hauled in front of various international legal bodies as a consequence of a U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) resolution. Several other steps would have to take place subsequent to a U.N. vote for either of those things to happen and those do not flow seamlessly, one from the other.

No the U.N. Security Council or General Assembly is not an inappropriate venue for discussing or passing resolutions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nor does doing so contravene previous agreements signed between the parties. It is hard to imagine a more relevant or obvious matter for the U.N. to act on. One does not have to get very far in reading the charter of the U.N. to understand that U.N. member states who are signatories to that charter would be derelict in their duties if they refused to act on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Article 1 of that charter is about maintaining international peace and security; Article 2 is about the right of peoples to self-determination; and the list goes on. More specifically, when it comes to Israel-Palestine, the idea of partition to two states is a product of the U.N. (more specifically Ad Hoc Committee on the Palestinian Question), enshrined in UNGA Resolution 181, and it was U.N. recognition that crucially established the legitimacy of the State of Israel. The existing panoply of Israeli-Palestinian agreements from the past two decades say nothing about barring any action at the U.N. and do not even explicitly refer to Palestinian statehood, so that any recognition of a Palestinian state at the U.N. cannot be in contravention of those agreements.

While Netanyahu’s amen corner may point to a clause in the Oslo agreements setting out that “neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank or the Gaza Strip pending the outcome of permanent status negotiations,” they tend to conveniently forget about this when it comes, for instance, to the daily Israeli acts contravening this same clause, notably relentless settlement expansion. So the idea that a U.N. resolution — even one recognizing Palestine — is inadmissible given existing signed commitments, is no more than an Israeli diplomatic sleight of hand parroted by American officials and assorted hangers on. Thankfully, there are still international actors with a somewhat more grounded understanding of the Oslo process and international legality. In fact, none other than the initiators of the Oslo process, the Norwegians themselves. Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre included the following in a statement issued earlier this week, subsequent to his meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas:

            “It is Norway’s view, however, that it is legitimate and not in contradiction with a process of negotiation, to turn to the U.N. to promote a common approach on the part of the international community and respect for the international rule of law. In light of the continuing deadlock in the negotiations, the Palestinians cannot be denied the right           to approach the U.N.”

No the Palestinians cannot realistically circumvent an American veto and become a member state of the U.N. — and they know this. The theoretical option of pursuing a two-thirds majority at the General Assembly and then using the “Uniting for Peace” framework to get around the Security Council, and therefore the American veto, is not something the Palestinians will pursue. At most, they will pursue a membership application in order to set down a marker for the future, maintain a degree of drama and attention surrounding the vote, and to heighten American discomfort at its inability to pursue a coherent or credible Israel-Palestine policy.

Finally, the subtext of going to the U.N. is not about creating conditions for a new round of violence and a third intifada — something the current Palestinian leadership has no interest in and are themselves threatened by. The likelihood or otherwise of violent instability in the Occupied Territories is influenced by a number of variables, among them economic conditions and Israel’s possible withholding of Palestinian tax revenues, Palestinian ability to sustain non-violent approaches to mobilization, the intensity of Israeli provocations, and the extent of Palestinian frustration. The latter could be more fueled by a Palestinian retreat from U.N. action and a return to meaningless negotiations or by a failure at the U.N. to overwhelmingly endorse Palestinian rights than by a successful, symbolic win at the U.N., even if that does not translate the morning after into new freedoms on the ground.

Having said all of this, there are ways in which a U.N. resolution could be constructive and help achieve progress toward a better future for both Palestinians and Israelis (of course these prospects will partly depend on the exact wording and nature of any specific resolution). For instance, a U.N. resolution clarifying that a two-state solution would be on the 1967 lines (allowing for modifications to that line only on the basis of agreed, equal, and minor land exchanges) with Jerusalem serving as the capital of both states, could help ground any future negotiations in more realistic terms, establishing that the contours of a two-state arrangement cannot be endlessly flexible while also undermining the time-wasting and obfuscatory special pleading that tends to characterize Israeli negotiation tactics.

At the same time, such a resolution would powerfully entrench the two-state solution, guaranteeing a future for both Israel and a Palestinian state. That is the main reason that those preferring a one-state outcome — from both the more absolutist Palestinian rights camp and from the Greater Israel settler camp — are opposed to this U.N. move. This should provide a reason for the pro-democracy wing of the pro-Israel camp to attempt to work constructively in this U.N. space. Yet most of the American Jewish establishment groups who by self-definition claim to support a democratic Israel seem more busy taking a victory lap every time another Eastern European or Pacific Island state declares itself against the U.N. vote.

In Israeli domestic political terms a strongly endorsed U.N. resolution would administer a kick to the groin of the peace rejectionist policies pursued by the current Netanyahu-Lieberman government. It is hard to see how peace is advanced by rewarding those rejectionist policies, whether at the U.N. or in the constructing of Quartet statement language. For the Palestinians, a U.N. resolution that upgrades their U.N. status to non-member state (similar to the Vatican status), would pave the way to membership in additional institutions including very likely the ability to take cases to the International Criminal Court (ICC). While the asymmetry of Israeli-Palestinian realities and therefore the logic of the Palestinians gaining leverage by utilizing non-violent diplomatic tools of this nature is a powerful one, this is not something that the Palestinian leadership is claiming it will pursue subsequent to any U.N. vote.

Given both the legitimacy of the U.N. as a venue for advancing Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution and this non-exhaustive list of potential benefits that could be derived from such a move, why is it that the U.S. (and in many ways Europe) are so uncomfortable about a U.N. vote and working so hard to prevent it from occurring?

The respective reasons for American and European opposition are not exactly the same. Both share a preference to be on the same page when it comes to this issue and it is unlikely that would happen should it come to a U.N. vote. When the Security Council voted on a settlements resolution in February, the EU states supported the resolution while the U.S. was alone in opposing and vetoing it. The U.S. and Europe also share a concern that the U.N. route would signal the beginning of them losing control of this issue (a worry that is more acute for the U.S.). And even if the Palestinians are not planning to go to the ICC or to try to sanction Israel in various ways subsequent to a U.N. vote, that might be the future trajectory for this conflict and a U.N. vote might ultimately encourage that, which is likely to present a series of difficult decisions down the road (in this case especially for the Europeans).

The main explanation for U.S. opposition to any U.N. consideration of a Palestine resolution would appear to be rooted in the domestic politics of this issue. With re-election coming up (isn’t it always) the president would be unenthusiastic about having to deal with the background noise criticism that many of the so-called pro-Israel lobbying groups would undoubtedly generate in the wake of any U.N. vote. Even a U.S. veto in the Security Council or “no” vote in the General Assembly would not shield the president from being attacked. He will be blamed for encouraging the Palestinians to try this path by stating in his speech last year to the UNGA that “when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations — an independent, sovereign state of Palestine.” The president is also likely to be held accountable for failing to sufficiently persuade or pressure any state with whom American maintains bilateral relations and that votes with the Palestinians. Yes, it is ridiculous.

Republican congressional leaders have threatened to withhold America’s UN payments if such a vote goes ahead, giving the president another horse-trading headache in the already difficult act of managing congressional relations. What’s more, members of Congress from both parties arethreatening to de-fund all U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority if the Palestinians push a U.N. vote. This matters because administration officials understand that de-funding might not only encourage escalation on the ground, but it also removes an important lever of U.S. influence with the Palestinians for managing the conflict in ways that are convenient to Israel. A classically ironic own goal for the pro-Israel community, this one. There is also the small matter of America’s own national interests and credibility at the U.N., in the Middle East, and in the broader global community. If there is a U.N. vote and domestic politics dictates a US “no” vote, then while no direct causal line can be drawn between that vote and increased extremist recruitment, terror, and threats against the U.S.,  the relationship between those factors is nonetheless one that American leaders and especially military leaders are all too aware of.

The distinctly European reasons for also preferring that a U.N. move be avoided mainly revolve around the difficulty that exists in producing a common European position and in the absence of such a position the inability to bring leverage to bear and the exposing of divisions within Europe.

Given the shared point of departure on the desirability of producing an alternative to the Palestinian push at the UN it might seem somewhat surprising that the U.S., Europe, and the rest of the Quartet failed to produce a common statement at last week’s high level meeting. Surprising, that is, until one considers what was on offer from the U.S. — which is where the American sophistry comes in. The U.S. presented to its Quartet “partners” a suggested one page text that looked rather like an exercise in cherry picking Obama’s recent speeches by the Israeli Prime Minister’s office (given the recent traffic between Jerusalem and Washington and the end product it is reasonable to speculate that that is precisely what happened). The American pitch went something like the following: the proposed text is a reflection of the President’s speech, the Quartet had encouraged the President to give such a speech, the President had taken some political heat for the speech, the Quartet had even endorsed the speech (which it did in a May 19 State Department speech of the president — but rather a hodgepodge of language from that speech, from the May 22 speech at the AIPAC conference, and of elements never before endorsed by the Quartet and even contradicting the existing positions of the EU and others. Hence the stalemate — and not altogether a shock given Jerusalem’s apparent co-authorship of the text.

So here are the details. To recap: President Obama’s May 19 speech spent 1,040 words addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Obama described the conflict, touched on Israeli and Palestinian aspirations, and made a case for a solution being more urgent than ever in the context of the Arab awakening. The President then made news when, in calling for a resumption of negotiations, he stated that “the basis of those negotiations is clear,” and then spent 170 words providing the parameters of a borders and security first approach to achieving two-states (his reference of the 1967 lines in particular drew attention). He closed out this part of the speech by saying “these principles provide a foundation for negotiations.” The U.S. draft proposal presented to the Quartet did include the President’s language from the May 19 speech, but it also included a whole lot more, all of it skewing, extremely uni-directionally, in Israel’s favor. To the simple May 19 border language of “based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps,” the U.S. added the following from the May 22 speech:

            “The parties themselves will negotiate a border between Israel and Palestine that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967, to take account of changes that have taken place over the last 44 years, including the new demographic realities on the ground and the needs of both sides.”

This is essentially America asking the Quartet to endorse illegal Israeli settlement activity that has taken place since 1967 (and in phrasing this as “the parties themselves will negotiate a border…” the U.S. is deviating from its own previous policy of not dictating to the parties). Compare that to the official position of the European Union: “The European Union will not recognize any changes to the pre-1967 borders including with regard to Jerusalem, other than those agreed by the parties.”

Remember, the Quartet issued a statement endorsing the president’s May 19 speech; it has never endorsed the May 22 speech.

The U.S. text also included language about Israel that was spoken on both May 19 and May 22 but was not part of the principles or foundations for negotiations set out on May 19 (and it is these principles that the Quartet endorsed). As follows:

“A lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland of the Jewish people.”

Again, this is terminology that neither the EU nor the Quartet has endorsed in the past. While it may be derived from previous U.N. resolutions (UNGA 181) it is problematic in several respects. It comes at a time when the nationalist chauvinism of the Netanyahu-Lieberman government is creating in practice an ever less democratic rendition of Jewish statehood. And America’s text actually fails to even mention the need for Israel to be a democracy or to respect the equal rights of all citizens (maybe the American drafters did understand more than appears at first glance). It is being claimed by Israel, and for understandable reasons, to be a definitive position on the Palestinian refugee issue, and it meets a key Netanyahu demand without anything even resembling a reciprocal nod to Palestinian rights.

The U.S. wanted the Quartet to agree that:

            “[N]or can the two-state solution be achieved through action in the United Nations.”

Again, this was not in the principles of negotiations May 19 language and is closer to the May 22 text and is an Israeli position…and a bit of a stretch to ask everyone else, including the UN Secretary General, to join America in de-legitimizing the idea of acting through the United Nations.

Another proposed sentence would have the Quartet saying:

            “No country can be expected to negotiate with a terrorist organization   sworn to its destruction.”

Taken from the AIPAC speech, and while ostensibly reasonable, this is not something that has been applied in other conflict situations or that does anything other than curry favor with Jerusalem. It was America’s way of coming out firmly against Palestinian national reconciliation and conceding to Israel’s argument that even if the Palestinians accept these principles for negotiations, Israel would still not be expected to enter talks until the unity deal was undone. One Quartet member, Russia, actually hosted a joint Hamas, Fatah, and other factions delegation in Moscow to encourage the reconciliation deal, while the EU position is to call “on all Palestinians to promote reconciliation behind President Mahmoud Abbas.”

To top it all off, nowhere in the proposed statement was there a mention of settlement activity and the need for it to be stopped (other than retroactively legitimizing it as mentioned above). Europe’s position on settlements is clear:

            “[They are] illegal under international law…and threaten to make a two-state solution impossible. The [European] Council urges the government of Israel to immediately end all settlement activities, in East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank and including natural growth, and to dismantle all outposts erected since March 2001.”

Finally, the U.S. attempted to introduce a new procedural construct with the following sentence:

            “The Quartet calls on the parties to return to direct negotiations, beginning with preparatory work to maximize their chances of success.”

It reads like an attempt to ensure that September could be navigated safely by not even starting the negotiations before then — instead focusing on this new “preparatory work”. Under the conditions embodied in the U.S. text, the only preparatory work that one can imagine might lead to success would be a Hogwart’s crash course in Wizardry (although American officials no doubt have different ideas and are proposing the kind of minimalist Israeli confidence-building measures that have made such a massive contribution to peace in the last decade!).

With the American text having been rejected, what next? What are the scenarios for between now and September?

There are three basic options for the U.S. and the Quartet, acting in tandem or separately. First, the U.S. might yet convince the other Quartet members to accept their proposed text or something close enough to it to still have Netanyahu chortling and Abbas turning out the lights at the Muqata. This is the thrust of current U.S. diplomatic efforts. If that succeeds, and the premise is correct that faced with a unified Quartet position the Palestinians will fold and abandon any U.N. efforts, then of course September is successfully avoided — but at what cost. Negotiations, even if they begin, are unlikely to last, let alone be fruitful, and the current Palestinian leadership and the entire negotiations approach will be even further emaciated and exposed as a folly. Paradoxically, the Palestinian embrace of a new more assertive and proactive strategy that America so fears may even be accelerated if the Quartet ploy carries the day.

A second possibility is that the Europeans lead an effort to craft a Security Council product at the U.N. This could be done with Palestinian assent, as a way of establishing meaningful parameters of a two-state solution, it might avoid messy textual negotiations at the UNGA, and maintain a unified European position. The only problem with this option is that the U.S. will almost certainly veto anything deemed unacceptable by Jerusalem — and Jerusalem’s bar for acceptability has all the moderation of a Voldemort.

The third scenario is for a General Assembly resolution, which the U.S. can oppose but not of course veto. For the Palestinians the focus for such a resolution would likely be the upgrading of their current status to what was described earlier as something similar to that of the Vatican: an observer or non-member state. The battleground in this context would be the exact language of the resolution and the votes of European and some other states.

Neither Israel nor America will be excluded from, or be bystanders to, developments over the coming weeks. Nevertheless, the degree of Israeli intransigence (and refusal to play even make believe peaceniks) and the severity of America’s allergy to action at the U.N. will greatly restrict and marginalize both, if and when a September move draws closer. That will place a premium on whether the Palestinians can come up with something approaching an effective strategy and whether Europe can intervene in a consensual and meaningful fashion.

With the prospects for any improvement on the Israel-Palestine situation so dire, and with American stewardship of the peace process so thoroughly compromised, that represents a slim yet worthwhile gamble. Once the American election dust settles, the realization in the meantime of some Palestinian and European punctuation points of progress might even generate more conducive conditions in the future for America to re-engage in a constructive way. Not that holding one’s breath while waiting for that eventuality is recommended.  

 

 

J Street Conference 2011: Reflections on the US-Israel Relationship

The J Street’s second annual policy conference included a keynote address from Ambassador Dennis Ross, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for the Central Region. After Ross’s remarks on The American Role in the Middle East, J Street hosted a panel discussion focusing on the Obama administration’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its policy in the broader Middle East, featuring:

Bernard Avishai, Hebrew University

Roger Cohen, The New York Times

Daniel Levy, The New America Foundation

Click here to watch.

Dennis Ross addresses J Street’s Conference, Followed by Panel Reaction from J Street Education Fund on Vimeo.

After Mubarak – What Does Israel Do?

After almost thirty years President Hosni Mubarak is gone. For the people of Egypt and especially those with the courage to have taken to the streets it is no doubt a day that is impossible to put into words. For the rest of us, a day of awe, celebration and inspiration.

Some however have probably not summoned up too broad a smile today — the other non-democratic regimes of the Middle East for instance. Interestingly, Israel too belongs on that list of the “not-exactly-thrilled”.

Israel has long made much of its claim to being the only democracy in the Middle East, it now seems that the claim was more an aspiration rather than a lamentation. Israel has been clinging dearly to the Mubarak regime, and encouraging others (notably the U.S.) to do likewise.

Despite claims to the contrary, Mubarak’s Egypt was far from being a regional linchpin for security and stability, for moderate governance, or even for economic success. The country’s harsh security regime produced terrorists and a rallying cry for extremists. Its authoritarianism made a mockery of the tag “moderate,” and its economy is today a quarter the size of Turkey’s (though both countries have populations of similar size). In fact America’s previous role as a guarantor of the Mubarak regime should be considered counterproductive to American interests, certainly once the Cold War was over.

But Mubarak’s Egypt was a linchpin for something else — namely Israel’s ability to pursue a hard-line regional policy with near impunity. When Benjamin Netanyahu (or his predecessors) needed to revive his ‘man of peace’ credentials he could always pop over to Sharm el-Sheikh for a hug-in with his friend Hosni, and when Israel needed the Arab world to turn a blind eye to entrenched occupation and settlements or harsh military adventurism then it would be Hosni running cover and diluting any Arab response. For years that strategy paid off for the now-deposed Egyptian leader — it made Mubarak relevant, even indispensable for successive U.S. governments desperately trying to balance their indulgence for outlandish Israeli behavior with a desire to retain some semblance of credibility in the Arab world. The latter of course never happened, but the America was too busy listening to the unelected leaders rather than to their publics.

Trying to keep this equation in play is what brings many Israeli officials (and others in the region, the U.S. and beyond) to now push for continued military, as opposed to civilian control.

As of today, the new equation is simple and it is this — those governing Egypt will henceforth have to be more responsive to the public will.

Some have suggested that Israeli concern is focused on avoiding a revocation of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. It is not. Insisting on Egyptian adherence to the peace treaty with Israel is a legitimate position, has international support, and also accords with both Israeli and Egyptian interests. The treaty has saved lives on both sides, neither of which relishes the prospect of renewed military conflagration. The treaty can be sustained.

Israel’s real concerns lie elsewhere.

There were a set of regional policies pursued by the Mubarak regime which lacked popular legitimacy. These included the closure imposed on Gaza, support for the Iraq war and for heightened bellicosity toward Iran, and playing ceremonial chaperone to an Israeli-Palestinian peace process that became farcical and discredited. Arguably these policies were also misguided for Israel. For an Egypt reflecting the popular will they make absolutely no sense and are therefore likely to be discontinued.

Yes, the January 25 democracy protests were about economic conditions, domestic governance issues and freedom, but a part of the democracy deficit in Egypt was also a dignity deficit, and these Israeli designed policies for the region appeared undignified and anti-Arab to the Egyptian public.

When Egypt first made peace with Israel it was criticized at home and in the region for going it alone, for abandoning the Palestinian and broader Arab cause. Had the Israeli-Egyptian peace been followed by a regional peace then this narrative would likely have disappeared, but in the absence of comprehensive peace it was a critique that seemed to be vindicated.

To the 1978 Camp David Accords was attached an annex entitled “A Framework for Peace in the Middle East,” which included a commitment to Israeli withdrawal from the Palestinian territories and to negotiating final status within five years. That of course never happened. What did happen is that the 10,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank when that accord was signed have become over 300,000 today.

Indeed, whether by design or not, the peace treaty with Egypt ushered in the era of the Israeli “free hand” in the region. Even though it has not delivered real security for Israel and has encouraged an Israeli hubris that can be both dangerous and self-destructive, that era of hegemony is something that Israelis are instinctively uncomfortable about losing.

A popular Israeli refrain is that the peace with Egypt has neutralized any serious Arab military option vis-a-vis Israel. That the same cannot be said in reverse understandably irks the Arab street. Since signing the accord with Egypt, Israel has conducted several large-scale military campaigns against Lebanon and against the Palestinians, launched bombing raids against Syria and Iraq, and conducted high-profile assassinations in Jordan and the UAE — and that is only a partial list.

This deep regional disequilibrium, one that became more rooted under Mubarak’s Egypt, is, understandably, both unpopular and unacceptable to a majority of Arab public opinion.

Maintaining the peace treaty with Egypt has morphed over time and under Mubarak into maintaining a peace process that has ultimately entrenched occupation and settlements and made a mockery of its Arab participants. Post-transition Egypt is unlikely to continue playing this game. And without Mubarak’s enthusiastic endorsement, the process itself is likely to further unravel. It is hard to imagine other Arab states leaping into this breach, or the Palestinians accepting 20 more years of peace-process humiliation, or indeed Syria adopting the Egyptian model and signing a stand-alone peace agreement with Israel. Israel’s strategic environment is about to change.

Israel’s options would appear to be narrowing. Thus far Israeli establishment voices have discussed two options. One has been to dig in, to fear-monger, to convince the West that Israel is its outpost of stability in a sea of hostility, and to hope the military stays in power and democracy is tamed. In the words of Prime Minister Netanyahu, “might” is the answer. The second approach advocates an urgent return to the peace process. Neither will work. The first will exacerbate Israel’s predicament, and the second is too little too late.

Israel has a third option, albeit one that is dramatic and out of synch with today’s zeitgeist. It would be perhaps Israel’s best and last chance for a two-state solution. While it would involve cutting Israel’s losses, it would also have the potential of unleashing huge benefits — economic, security and more, for an Israel accepted as part of the tapestry of a democratic Middle East.

Broadly speaking, this option has three components. First, an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 armistice lines almost without preconditions or exceptions (minor, equitable and agreed-upon land swaps and international security guarantees could fall into the latter category ). Second, Israel should undertake an act of genuine acknowledgment of the dispossession and displacement visited on the Palestinian people, including compensating refugees where appropriate, and thus set in motion the possibility of reconciliation. Third, there needs to be a clear Israeli commitment to full equality for all of its citizens, notably including removal of the structural barriers to full civil rights for the Palestinian Arab minority.

Admittedly, this is a path less traveled and one likely to remain so, and while the alternatives to this path may well include democracy in the region, they could preclude a future for the State of Israel.

While Israeli-Egyptian peace has often been described as a cold peace, it could perhaps be more accurately framed as a pyramid peace — in which only the very tips of the respective societies met and forged narrow common interests. It is high time to reverse that equation and build a democratic peace between the bases of those pyramids. In truth, the onus is on Israel to make this happen, and one key will be to take a more honest and dignified approach to Israel’s Palestinian neighbors and co-citizens and to belatedly implement that regional peace annex from Camp David.

Complicating the transition in US-Egyptian relations

 This piece was originally published at the Middle East Channel

Beyond the immediate dilemmas – how and how hard to push Mubarak to stand down, what to say in public versus in private, and how best to pressure the US-backed Egyptian security forces – the transition period that lies ahead for Egypt will hold its own complicating factors for Washington policymakers.

First, it needs to be remembered that this is not primarily about the US (nor should it be), this is about Egyptians empowering themselves. Nevertheless, the US and other international actors will have a role to play and will have to chart a new policy course for relations with Egypt, and this will in no small measure set a trend for the region as a whole.

One minor luxury that the administration should have is that there are not significant or obviously apparent domestic political pressures being brought to bear on this issue. Both parties, Democrat and Republican, have made nice with dictators in the Arab world while paying limited lip service to democracy. There is no victory lap, freedom coupon to clip as was the case in the former Soviet bloc, there is no Arab democracy political lobby, even if the Arab American community will be largely thrilled by what is happening in the region. The one exception to this is the role that some traditional pro-Israel groups may play in urging a go-slow conservatism to a US embrace of change in the Middle East.

The lack of enthusiasm on the part of some of the pro-Israel community is an understandable if regrettable phenomenon. Israel is a strong status quo power in the region and Israel’s establishment considers the rule of Western-oriented dictators (especially those with strong ties to U.S. aid and the U.S. military) to have served Israel’s interests. President Mubarak has been a key facilitator of Israel’s agenda in the region – partly due to his support for the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty but primarily centered around his maintenance of a  “go-nowhere” peace process which helps shield Israel from international criticism while giving Egypt the appearance of being a useful ally to the U.S..

In recent years, this alliance has extended beyond preventing pressure on Israel and grown to include support for Israel’s closure of Gaza (Egypt followed suit on its own border with Gaza), helping besiege Hamas, and playing host to the occasional peace gala in order to maintain the fiction that all of this “peace processing” might lead somewhere.

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A Requiem for Israel’s Labor Party

Barak

The parliamentary faction representing the party that founded and built the state of Israel and that dominated its governments for decades was today reduced to mere single digits — Israel’s Labor Party now has eight members in the Knesset. This latest dilution resulted from a move that took everyone by surprise, enacted by its now-erstwhile leader, still the country’s defense minister, Ehud Barak.

To make any sense of the shock that has just convulsed Israeli politics, a very brief primer is in order. Israel is a parliamentary democracy in which the country is a single electoral district and members of the parliament, the Knesset, are elected on party lists according to a pure system of proportional representation (with a threshold of two percent for entering parliament). The system has always made for a proliferation of parties being represented in the Knesset, for government by coalition, with various rules being introduced over the years to prevent too much horse-trading, including one stipulating that for a new faction to split away from an existing party and be recognized with full rights in parliament, the breakaway faction must constitute at least one-third of the members of the mother party.

Ehud Barak took four fellow members of Labor’s Knesset grouping with him to form the Atzmaut or Independence faction, thereby meeting that one-third bar (Labor had a total of 13 seats, the Knesset is a 120 seat parliament). The relevant Knesset committee has already approved the split and recognized Barak’s new faction.  The five-member Atzmaut will continue to serve in Netanyahu’s coalition government and Barak will remain minister of defense. The rump Labor faction, with eight MKs, has announced its intention to quit the coalition, and the three ministers belonging to this faction all tended their resignations in the course of today (Benjamin ‘Fuad’ Ben-Eliezer, Trade and Industry; Yizhak ‘Buji’ Herzog, Welfare; and Avishai Braverman, minister for Minorities).

The most popular metaphor for now in the Israeli press harkens back to Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu’s days in the Israeli army elite unit, the Sayeret Matkal – that this political move was a precision-planned, lightning and secret strike that took the enemy (in this case, the Labor Party that Barak himself was leader of while planning the mission as well as the opposition Kadima Party) by surprise.

Click here to continue reading

Obstructing a Middle East Rescue Effort

Published in The Forward, issue of December 24, 2010.prospectsforpeace

Special Middle East envoy George Mitchell is back in the region conducting his shuttle diplomacy, settlement construction continues apace and the much-anticipated speech of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton managed to avoid hard choices. It’s business as usual, so presumably we can all relax — Israel has dodged another peace bullet.

No so fast. I would suggest that recent events should have sent the gevalt-o-meter into the red zone for anyone concerned about Israel’s future or shared American-Israeli interests.

Without a decisive move to end the occupation, Israel will continue to dig itself deeper into a hole. Yet the Obama administration’s latest pronouncements on America’s peace efforts mark a tweak in strategy, not the clean break that is needed. The tweak is that American officials will now use indirect or back-to-back talks with the parties to probe on substantive issues, rather than manage mere talks about talks. That is an important and worthwhile shift, but it’s not enough.

A breakthrough will require much more — publicly stated American terms of reference for delineating a border (based on the 1967 lines and allowing for minor one-to-one land swaps), a realist-based approach to the region (go comprehensive, include Syria, bring Hamas into the equation, even if indirectly) and a willingness to deploy a bit of American leverage.

A bold American-led approach represents the precision cutting instrument that could extract Israel from its hole — largely intact and without unnecessary pain. Absent that, only blunt instruments are available — international demarches, pressure, sanctions — and their bluntness leaves the outcome for Israel unknown: two states, one state or perhaps years of purgatory.

Why is Israel deep in a hole? More than 500,000 Israelis live beyond the Green Line, and while not all of them are ideologues, the settlers are a politically powerful lobby. Israel’s dysfunctional politics trend against taking tough decisions. Israel has grown used to controlling the people and resources of the territories. Most worrying is an ever-strengthening narrative of a brand of Jewish nationalism that is exclusionary, anti-democratic and antithetical to acknowledging rights and freedoms for Palestinians.

It’s true that some don’t see this as a hole. Israel was granted 55% of the land by the United Nations in 1947, and we have since been recognized as legitimate on 78% of the land, so perhaps in due time the world will come to terms with an Israel on all of the land. As for the Palestinians, they have been expelled or denied their rights before — why not again? The United States will always have our back; we can find allies among Islamophobes and religious fanatics elsewhere and accuse naysayers of anti-Semitism.

Others may recognize the hole but have grown comfortable there and see no urgency in extraction. We can always blame the Palestinians, create new preconditions on refugees or recognizing the Jewish state, alleviate the occupation with economic sweeteners and play for time.

Both views are wrong. The blunt instruments are just around the corner, and they are mainly being held in check by a willingness of the Palestinian and Arab leaderships to continue to play the peace process game, which is in turn largely a product of their narrow self-interest and lack of democratic accountability. Any of this could snap at short notice.

Just in the time that elapsed since the collapse of efforts to restart direct negotiations, respected New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman effectively recommended conditioning American aid to Israel on its cooperation with peace efforts, while Andrew Sullivan — arguably America’s leading political blogger — called for an end to such aid entirely. Israel’s own actions, far more than those of its detractors, are hastening this moment. (Think about the recent decree by dozens of municipal rabbis prohibiting renting property to non-Jews, the proposed loyalty oath or the measures taken against Palestinian leaders engaged in nonviolent struggle.)

In fact, this is the real urgency — less what others say and do, but rather how we look at ourselves in the mirror. Ever since 1967, wise heads have counseled against the morally corrosive effects of occupying another people. Well, that corrosion is now on show with a clarity that is at once both stunning and deeply distressing. Israel can now only be free if the Palestinians are genuinely free of its occupation — with no ifs, buts, excuses or preconditions.

Now, it seems that the only way to free Israel — that American-led precision-cutting instrument — is still in storage. And incredibly, it is many of Israel’s own supposed supporters who are most insistent on keeping it there.

The Palestinians Won This Round: But they’re not ready to clip the coupon.

Published at The National Interest.

The leaders of the Israeli right and of the settler movement have been wearing their Cheshire Cat grins since the United States announced its pullback from negotiations to extend a limited Israeli moratorium on settlement construction. Israel’s right have taken to vilifying America’s current president with a birther-like enthusiasm and are celebrating what they consider to be another victory against U.S. peace efforts. Settlement construction itself is booming, with over 1600 units having been started in the ten weeks since the partial moratorium expired on September 26 (in truth, the construction never stopped anyway).

The official Israeli government line is more measured, insisting that Israeli-U.S. close coordination and mutual appreciation is just hunky dory. That interpretation is one which U.S. officials have been eager to echo, at least in part one imagines for political reasons. As a depiction of reality, it is something of a stretch.

If anything, these past weeks have been more reminiscent of the prickly times which characterized long periods during Netanyahu’s first term in the late nineties opposing the Clinton administration and working closely with the then Republican-controlled Congress or even the Shamir-Bush senior standoff at the beginning of that decade. In recent weeks Prime Minister Netanyahu publicly set out terms for a U.S. letter of guarantees to Israel, which seemed designed to embarrass the Obama administration. Thus far at least, President Obama and his team have given the Israeli prime minister little cause for considering that there might be a cost for such mischief-making (unlike then President Clinton who effectively cornered Netanyahu in 1998–99).

Nevertheless, this latest round of peace failure should probably be looked at not as a setback, but as a potentially useful, clarifying moment. To be fair the Obama administration did not invent this peace process merry-go-round, it has adhered rather rigidly to the same script that has been failing for over a decade and a half, with only minor changes in nuance. The noteworthy difference this time was in the inability of the diplomatic seamstresses to piece together a face-saving shmata that might have covered up the peace process’s naked redundancy.

Contrary to appearances, the collapse of this latest effort actually strengthens the ability of the Palestinians to shape the next moves and to stamp their imprint on where this now goes. There are still three potential game-changers in the mix: Israel, the United States and the Palestinians. Israel, though, seems ever more intent on postponing and avoiding a moment of choice, and its officials now act in a way that make their own policies the single most proximate cause of their country’s increasing (self)delegitimization.

Netanyahu constantly reminds his American and other interlocutors that his domestic politics on peace, territory and settlements are terribly tricky and that he should not be expected to squander political capital until the real moment of truth arrives. Yet he does everything to make sure that moment will never come, and it appears now to be structurally endemic to the Israeli system that procrastination will invariably prevail and that Israel will not end the occupation of its own volition. Nothing Netanyahu has done in his second term as prime minister suggests otherwise.

The only steps Netanyahu seems willing or able to deliver are in areas decidedly tangential to what it will take to get a two-state solution. Palestinian economic development or improved local governance (areas which he encourages) are as relevant to a one-state outcome or a maintenance of limited Palestinian autonomy as they are to a post-occupation two-state deal.

Netanyahu’s rhetorical embrace of the two-state mantra in a speech at Bar Ilan University last June has not been matched by his actions nor was he challenged to translate this into a formal and binding decision of his Likud movement. We well remember that when the PLO declared it was abandoning terror and recognizing Israel, the demand was made that in order for these steps to be taken seriously they would have to be formally voted on in the institutions of the PLO and its charter would have to be amended (which indeed happened, twice). Not surprisingly but tellingly, no American official (or other official I am aware of) has suggested or requested, let alone demanded, that Netanyahu’s Likud or his cabinet formally endorse the Bar Ilan statement (the formal position of the Likud, last voted on in 2002, remains opposed to a Palestinian state).

What about the United States still producing that game-changing move? This administration prioritized resolving Israel-Palestine and made clear its understanding of the centrality the issue has to American strategic interests and security (a position echoed by the uniformed military, and notably by General Petraeus). However, the approach pursued in the last two years was hardly transformational. They made some very minor tweaks to the flawed process which they had inherited, continuing with essentially the same ingredients—get the parties to negotiate bilaterally, attempt to build confidence while core issues remain unresolved, indulge misbehavior, etc.

To have a realistic chance of success, any U.S, leader would simply have to throw that playbook onto the scrap heap. The United States would have to be willing to present its own formula for a breakthrough, front-loading the territorial and border issue (it’s the occupation, stupid), offer inducements and incentives for progress but make them conditional and not rollover in the face of rejection by either side. America would also need to take a pragmatically inclusive approach to regional and Palestinian realities (Syria and Hamas will need to be part of the equation, even if the latter is via indirect mediation). This not only can, but must be wrapped up together with a package of new security guarantees for Israel and as part of a narrative that articulates why it is not just an Israeli interest but an Israeli necessity. America cannot impose a solution on Israel, but it can dramatically reconfigure the Israeli public and political conversation about the conflict and be the key to unlocking an Israeli political ‘yes.’

If one is looking for an Israeli user-friendly way of getting a breakthrough, it can only be via these options, American or Israeli-driven. But this week’s latest twist seems to make either of these eventualities less likely. The center of gravity is clearly shifting in the direction of a Palestinian game-changing move to break the impasse. That gravitational shift will continue as long as America and Israel pursue more of the same.

Beyond the fleeting headlines and settler glee, the deeper dynamic in play is that the Palestinians won this round even if their current leadership is not quite able or ready to clip that coupon.

Israeli expert on Jewish history Daniel Gavron spelled it out in a Newsweek article in which he described the PA leadership as “the last Zionists”—noting their insistence on the two-state option (even as it vanishes on the ground)—and continuing to play along with fruitless negotiations and to build institutions of statehood where there is no state and no freedom, but only occupation.

Rhetorically, the Palestinian leadership already seems to understand that the momentum and the ability to change the conversation is in their own hands. In recent days President Abbas has spoken of dissolving the PA and of getting UN recognition for a state on the 1967 lines, Prime Minister Fayyad advances an August 2011 deadline for preparing for statehood (and by implication Israeli withdrawal), while other leaders flirt with either the threat or the alternative of pursuing one democratic state with equal rights in all of mandatory Palestine. But they have not yet crossed the Rubicon—for that would entail, among other things, abandoning their deference to American and donor political demands and the daily conveniences and perks of not overtly challenging Israel in the diplomatic-political arena (such as not being imprisoned, prevented from traveling, or not having to go back into exile and also maintaining their PA patronage network—not easy things to kiss goodbye).

That is why, even when Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay recognize a Palestinian state on the 1967 lines—as they did this week at the PLO’s request—it was a largely meaningless act. The recognition did not carry with it actionable items or consequences for Israel, the PLO made no such ask, as they are still playing within the existing peace game rather than strategically shifting the rules of that game.

By contrast, Palestinian civil-society leaders and non-officials have already made that break and are pursuing a popular strategy which puts Palestinian freedom first (whether in a truly independent sovereign state of their own or in one shared state), that pushes for sanctions against Israel for its continued denial of their freedom, and pursues nonviolent struggle and protests in villages across the West Bank.

Making that transition will not be easy for those who the West recognizes as the official Palestinian address and interlocutor. That transition will not happen tomorrow, but it is fast becoming the most-likely game-changer in the foreseeable future. This trend was given a significant shot in the arm by the latest debacle of the rejected moratorium incentives deal and the way it exposed the naked lack of credibility of the existing peace process industry.

While a Palestinian strategic shift may be more likely, it will also be distinctly uncomfortable for Israel and would carry with it unwanted challenges and complications for the United States. It was Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, who said earlier this year that if we don’t get two states then we get apartheid. If the Palestinians were to make that call, then could the United States afford to still stand four-square behind Israel and could it afford not to? Either option will be painful, and for any president it creates a predicament of damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

It is still hard to understand why so many in the so-called pro-Israel camp in the United States (and many Israelis) seem to be willing that moment into being. There are wiser heads in Israel, in America, and in the pro-Israel community inside America advocating an assertive U.S. push for peace, even though it involves taking this Israeli government out of its immediate comfort zone and presenting clear choices that were penned in Washington, DC and not in Jerusalem. But those voices are yet to prevail. The best option is to rip up that old playbook, push a U.S. plan, and lose the squeamishness around deploying U.S. leverage. But time may be running out. Barack Obama may be the last president who can avoid a scenario which is a nightmare for both Israel and America.

Want That Israeli-Palestinian Peace Deal, Mr. President? Perform a C-Section

This piece was originally published at The Huffington Post.

After more than 20 months of trying, the Obama administration will this week convene direct Israel-Palestinian peace talks in Washington D.C. Even if it is well founded (and it is), the administration must be understandably irked by the barrage of skepticism that is greeting this week’s peace summit, with reaction mostly ranging from scorn to yawn — with only a few exceptions.

This time around the parties are perhaps setting a record in starting the blame game even before they start the talks. And this unpromising picture got even more gloomy in the last days and hours with the shooting attack that left four Israeli settlers dead near Hebron and the comments over the weekend by an Israeli religious leader who has more Knesset members to deploy than any other (Shas spiritual guru Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who said of Palestinians that “God should strike them with a plague.”)

While the Obama team is approaching these talks with requisite displays of caution, they are nonetheless engaged in an exercise that raises expectations and have now set a one year timeline for concluding peace talks. Don’t expect “mission accomplished” banners either tonight during the Iraq address or tomorrow at the Iftar White House peace dinner. But this is an administration that set out its stall on the importance of Israeli-Arab peacemaking from day one and has doggedly pursued that goal ever since. The proximity of these two Middle East-related presidential diary entries — the Iraq end of combat operations speech and the Middle East peace summit — might be coincidental, though one hopes that they are not.

Continue reading at The Huffington Post.

Five comments on the Israel-Lebanon border clash and what it means

This piece was originally published at The Middle East Channel at ForeignPolicy.com

Tuesday’s flare-up on the Israel-Lebanon border continues to be analyzed from every angle. Thus far at least, the deaths of three Lebanese (two soldiers and a journalist) and one Israeli soldier have not spiraled into a broader escalation. The much-dreaded and talked about summer war is still a matter of speculation, albeit now heightened (all of this exactly on the fourth anniversary of the 2006 war).

The exact sequence of events is still unclear. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) had informed the relevant UN officials of a planned tree clearance deployment in the border area. UNIFIL updated the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) as per protocol while apparently asking the IDF to postpone its activity. The Israelis undertook their somewhat python-esque mission (Israel has none-too-subtle surveillance cameras throughout its border area with Lebanon. The Lebanese don’t like it, the trees get in the way, but until this week they were the only innocent victims). An Israeli soldier can be seen almost dangling from a crane to fell the tree – he is clearly over the border fence though the UN has clarified that this particular territory, while on the Lebanese side of the fence, is still on the Israeli side of the UN-demarcated blue line border. The Lebanese seem to be disputing this.

Here is where the respective versions of events go their separate ways. Seeing their side of the fence transgressed and having shouted for Israel to pull back, the LAF either fired warning shots or immediately responded with lethal fire at an IDF position. The IDF either responded with lethal fire of its own on LAF positions or escalated by taking this action. Initial investigations suggest that the Lebanese side escalated. A brief exchange between the LAF and IDF ensued, both sides took casualties, and UNIFIL together with Washington, Paris, and other capitols urgently intervened to prevent further escalation.

In addition to dissecting exactly what happened, the immediate question is whether this will develop into a broader outbreak of violence. That development would not exactly come as a shocking surprise – both the International Crisis Group and the Council on Foreign Relations Center for Preventive Action have released reports in the past month looking into this very question and how it could be prevented. The reports were respectively entitled, “Drums of War” and “A Third Lebanon War.”

…Continue reading at The Middle East Channel.

A glimpse of the future

This article was first published in Haaretz.

Israelis might consider sending thank-you bouquets today to the national soccer teams of Switzerland and Greece. It is thanks to them that Israelis will have to choose between getting behind Brazil, England, Ghana or whomever, as the World Cup kicks off.

Of course, it would be nice to wrap ourselves in blue and white, and cheer on the likes of Yossi, Guy and Ben. But on this occasion, one should probably be thankful that we didn’t make it. Hence, those flowers.

There were large demonstrations in Cape Town last week following the Mavi Marmara incident. For now, South Africa has recalled its ambassador, Ismail Coovadia, from Israel. An Israeli presence at this greatest of global sporting spectacles would have been guaranteed to attract an unrelenting wave of protests, PR stunts and bad publicity.

Unfortunately, South Africa is not the outlier – Israel is. In the days since Operation Sky Winds, Israel has been able to get a glimpse of the future and into the abyss that awaits if we continue on our current course. It is a future replete with both insecurity and the indignity of global opprobrium and sanctions.

Even or perhaps especially in our hyper-connected world, it seems only a finite number of truly global causes can be sustained at any one time. Palestine is now irrefutably on that list. That is certainly inconvenient for Israel and maybe unfair. We do, though, appear to be locked into a dramatic acceleration of this phenomenon and – in the absence of something resembling a credible peace or de-occupation effort – the global Palestinian solidarity movement is now competing to set the agenda.

In the last two weeks alone, two of Italy’s largest supermarket chains have stopped carrying Israeli products; Swedish dockworkers have refused to unload goods from Israeli ships; Britain’s largest trade union, Unite, unanimously voted to boycott Israeli items; and Elvis Costello and the Pixies have both canceled shows in Israel. Meanwhile, the latest debate raging in the United States is over how much of a strategic burden Israel has become.

The logic of the kind of unarmed resistance represented by flotillas to Gaza is to shine a light on the wrongdoings of an offending party. Ideally, one will succeed in appealing to the better nature, to the humanity, of the offending party, and its behavior (in this case, the blockade on Gaza ) will be corrected. If not, then one may seek to shame that party in the court of global public opinion. Any over-reaction or additional offensive behavior will only serve to strengthen the case of the light-shiner and “prove” the original premise of wrongdoing.

In this instance, Israel’s leadership played its role with Lionel Messi-like perfection. It’s true that Israel’s official PR response was ill-conceived, while its “army” of citizen advocates indulged in the use of racist stereotypes on YouTube videos, doing more harm than good. But Israel’s predicament goes far deeper than the embarrassment of having Avigdor Lieberman head this country’s diplomatic corps: It has become structural and therefore far more worrying. The gap between Israel’s self-perception and global perceptions of the country has taken on Grand Canyon-like proportions.

In short, the game is up. This is not defeatism – it’s an acknowledgment of a reality that, by ignoring, causes Israel to imperil itself. It cannot be reversed by doubling PR budgets or endlessly cloning Shimon Peres or even Mark Regev. It cannot be reversed by allowing coriander into Gaza, by another photo-op with our friend President Mubarak, or even by enthusiastically supporting the creation of a new Palestinian town (ship ) in Rawabi. An occupation that just entered its 44th year and entails denying basic rights to millions of Palestinians can no longer be sanitized. As long as Israel maintains that occupation, the costs will become increasingly burdensome.

Having lost the world, Israel’s focus turns in on itself. The country’s leadership has to work harder to keep its own public on board for the occupation project. This requires a growing suppression of dissent, further ostracizing Israel’s Palestinian minority, and ever-more aggressive appeals to Jewish national pride. Democratic norms are thereby eroded, further feeding the tarnishing of Israel’s image. This is the vicious cycle in which Israel is embroiled.

It is true that there will almost certainly always be unjustified prejudice toward Israel. Whatever it does, some people will always be out to get us. But prejudice is not what motivates the vast majority of those mobilizing in solidarity with the Palestinians. The occupation is the oxygen of their campaign, and the vast majority seek an end to it – not to Israel itself. An Israel that fails to appreciate this and which sustains the occupation is the single most proximate cause of its own delegitimization.

It is still in our power, however, to change all of this. We can end the 1967 occupation in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and its remnants in Gaza, and achieve recognition for minor border modifications to the ’67 line with one-for-one land swaps and support for reasonable arrangements on security. Israel could implement such a de-occupation with the Palestinians and Arab states directly, or with the U.S. and the Quartet – and have them deliver the Palestinian and Arab side of the bargain.

But if Israel does not take the lead, then let us at least hope that our remaining friends in the world will step forward with their own proposals and that we in turn will have the wisdom to say yes to them.

Enjoy the World Cup, and let’s look forward to Israel’s qualification in 2014 being all about soccer and blissfully devoid of politics.