The Latest Blow to Palestinian Unity Efforts

Marc Lynch has been kind of enough to allow me to publish this guest post on his blog at Foreign Policy with five observations on the latest deterioration in the internal Palestinian political situation.  

Rumors have been circulating in recent weeks of the imminent signing, in Cairo at the end of this month, of an Egyptian-brokered Palestinian reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas. There is even what purports to be an agreed draft document in existence. Over the past week, that unity deal appeared less and less likely, notably against the backdrop of the fallout from the PA’s abandonment of the Goldstone report at the UN Human Rights Council and the dramatic impact that had on the already compromised standing of the Fatah leadership (and the way it strengthened Hamas’s hand).

Well as of yesterday, the reconciliation agreement has been put on indefinite hold. PLO Chair and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas gave a televised speech in Ramallah in which he explained and defended the PA Ramallah’s position and launched a frontal verbal assault on Hamas. Within hours, Hamas leader Khalid Meshaal responded from Damascus with an assertive pushback, a withering critique of Abbas’s leadership and a definitive ‘no’ to any unity under current circumstances. Deposed Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh weighed in today from Gaza in support of Meshaal’s position, and on the flip side, some of Fatah’s leaders have begun to rally around their embattled leader.

It is not clear what Egypt’s next steps will be or how this will unfold in the coming weeks. Marc Lynch has been kind of enough to allow me to post this guest blog with five observations on this latest deterioration in the internal Palestinian political situation.

1. Abbas tries to shore up his base, Hamas overplays its handimg

Mahmoud Abbas’s account of the PA/PLO’s management of the Goldstone report and his insistence that it will now be acted upon will do little to sway or convince his domestic political opponents or just about anyone in the NGO/human rights community, or third party/independent political forces in the Palestinian territories or diaspora. But they were apparently not his target audience in yesterday’s speech – rather, he seemed to be appealing to his home base inside Fatah.

To recover from recent setbacks, Abbas has apparently decided he needs to first of all re-establish his standing inside Fatah, and he has started to do that by taking off the gloves and offering lots of red meat in his attacks on the enemy… not Israel, stupid, but Hamas. After a summer of impressive politicking by Abbas with the Fatah conference and filling of vacancies in the PLO’s Executive Committee, everything was beginning to fall apart as key Fatah members joined the unprecedented outpouring of anger expressed over the PLO’s Goldstone decision.

Abbas provided just enough yesterday to give those parts of the Palestinian press that are PA-controlled (and who also found themselves having to join the criticism), and the PA-Fatah nomenklatura a just-about-plausible narrative to fight back with.

Abbas received help from an unlikely source – Khalid Meshaal, who overplayed his hand by abruptly saying ‘no’ to reconciliation, thereby allowing some of the blame in the public debate to shift from Fatah to Hamas. This was picked up eagerly by the pro-Abbas elements of the PA-Fatah echo chamber, for instance in today’s editorial in the pro-PA Palestinian al-Quds.

2. The Abbas-Fatah-PA Position Remains Tenuous
Even though Abbas came out punching in his press conference and has shored up some Fatah support, it is still very unlikely to be enough to reverse the trends of the past weeks which run heavily against his leadership group. Even yesterday’s statement failed to provide a reasonable explanation on the Goldstone affair, to really accept responsibility, or to draw a line under this episode. The criticism of Abbas & Co. in the past fortnight has been dramatic. The handling of the Goldstone report was the latest and by far the most damning of a series of setbacks.

First Abbas attended the New York trilateral meeting without initially securing an Israeli settlement freeze, contradicting his own commitments (and the claim that he was just attending a meeting, not resuming negotiations–while actually quite logical and diplomatic–was not effective in political terms). Even prior to New York, a powerful anti-PA narrative existed regarding its ongoing security and economic cooperation (for the critics, read: collaboration) with Israel, suggesting the PA was acting for personal and patronage self-interests, and as a subcontractor of the occupation, rather than standing up for and defending Palestinian interests. Then came the release of 20 female Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Hamas producing video evidence of Gilad Shalit’s well-being (and Abbas hosting the released prisoners in Ramallah fooled nobody).

The Goldstone debacle was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and yesterday will do little to reverse that tide. Abbas continues to be in an unenviable position. That is likely to remain the case until there is either a shakeup in Palestinian politics or until Fatah presents and acts on an alternative to its longstanding strategy of being exclusively negotiations-dependent. The Fatah leadership is simply still bought-in to a political strategy that has been fatally undermined and flawed, namely that with US support it will negotiate with Israel a way out of occupation and to independence, and will do so without a serious effort to mobilize international pressure or domestic resistance whether of the non-violent or violent kind (I’m not advocating any of the above, just setting out the debate).

The US, put simply, has not delivered Israel. The Israelis are not dismantling the occupation of their own free will, and the PA-Fatah strategy has precious little traction with its own people.

3. Can any good come out of this latest spat?

In actual fact, the collapse of the latest Cairo effort may not be such a bad thing. The draft document under discussion raised more questions than it answered, and a unity effort based on such a document would likely have collapsed in very short order. One of Abu Mazen’s closest confidants was heard recently to say that if the previous unity agreement lasted three months, this one would have barely lasted three days. Partly this reflects the state of play and more deepened animosity between the key actors in Fatah and Hamas. But it also has something to do with the mediation effort.

The Egyptian monopoly in leading the reconciliation effort is just not helpful or conducive to success. Egypt has a role to play but it cannot be the exclusive mediator. Following the visit of Saudi King Abdullah to Damascus last week and the ongoing rapprochement between the Syrians and the Saudis, there is a strong case to be made for broadening the mediation effort to include these two key actors and perhaps others in addition, notably Turkey, Qatar, and if they were willing to play a role, Jordan too.

A reconstituted Palestinian polity and national movement is likely to be crucial to any successful peace effort, and an optimistic take on the latest set-back to unity is that it could presage a redoubled effort in the future that is more effectively and solidly structured.

4. A Pyrrhic victory for Israel

The Israeli government has largely refrained from commenting thus far on these developments. If previous positions are anything to go by (and in this case, they most certainly are), then Israel’s political leadership will be encouraging further Palestinian division and enjoying every moment of it. At first glance, it would seem to make sense for Israel to favor a divided, and thereby weakened, Palestinian interlocutor/adversary.

For any Israeli government seeking to maintain the status quo and avoid any hard choices on peace, a logic of win-win may even apply here. If the Palestinians remain divided then Israel can bemoan the lack of domestic legitimacy or capacity to implement of its Palestinian partner (“What’s the point of cutting a deal with Abbas? He can’t deliver anyway,” they would say).

If there is a unity agreement, then Israel can claim that the Palestinian interlocutor has done a deal with the devil (as in Hamas), is now tainted with terrorism, and is therefore no longer a legitimate negotiating partner. In today’s circumstance, one can even throw a further ‘win’ into the mix – the Palestinian political standoff will make it even more difficult for Abbas to begin negotiations  without a settlement freeze, Israel ain’t doing a settlement freeze, and the Palestinian can be blamed for the lack of progress!

The Israeli government’s standard modus operandi would now be to very publicly declare the need to strengthen its Palestinian partner, throw them a few economic bones, maybe a new frequency for a second mobile phone operator, or even a minor and highly sectarian prisoner release. The entirely predictable effect of this is, of course, to further stigmatize and delegitimize the Palestinian recipient of this faux largesse.

Such a strategy may all seem terribly smart to its Israeli designers but I would suggest that this is an enormously costly and tragic pyrrhic victory. The net effect of this ongoing approach is to render ever less viable and likely a two-state solution. That in itself is far more threatening to Israel’s future than to the Palestinians (who, unlike any adherent to Zionism, can accept or even prefer a one state outcome).

5. What does it all mean for America’s peace efforts?

I’ll keep this brief. Abbas is now in an even worse position to sign up for the new formula of resuming negotiations sans settlement freeze. Such bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations would anyway now be rendered even less likely to produce a groundbreaking or even constructive outcome.

I’ve argued elsewhere that for all the criticism that it has encountered, the Mitchell approach actually has its advantages and has created some useful potential pivots for the US peace effort. The diplomatic shuttling of Special Envoy Senator George Mitchell between the parties is likely to prove more productive at this stage than getting the parties to sit together. The most important conversations will anyway need to take place between America and each of its interlocutors – the Israelis, the Palestinians, and the Arab states. Those conversations should now be shifting to a more sustained focus on the nature and details of a post-occupation two-state reality.

The US needs to continue to work towards an appropriate moment, in the not too distant future, for presenting an internationally backed American implementation proposal for a viable and dignified two-state outcome.

In that effort, the lack of a resumption of direct talks does not represent a setback, but the deepening division inside the Palestinian polity does. The Obama Administration cannot continue for much longer to sit this one out (de facto encouraging the split). A public U-turn is unnecessary; rather, the US should be quietly encouraging its allies and non-allies in the region to step into the breech (the aforementioned Saudis, Syrians, Turks, Qataris …etc) to supplement Egyptian efforts, and to help restructure a Palestinian national movement that can carry forward a serious peace effort.

Who Didn’t Get the Memo–Israel’s President or its D.C. Ambassador?

Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, reopened today after a long break for the summer and the Jewish holidays. In line with protocol, Israel’s president opened the winter session and Shimon Peres had this to say on the linkage between reaching peace with the Palestinians and addressing the Iran issue:

In my opinion, if we move forwards with peace and make peace with the Palestinians, and if we start negotiations with Syria and Lebanon, we will remove the main pretext for the Iranian madness – against us and against the other residents of this region. (President Peres, October 12th in the Israeli Knesset).

Now Mr. Peres is in reality not exactly the dove he is portrayed to be (he authorized many of the settlements, he supported Israel’s recent wars with Lebanon and Gaza, and he never really earned his own Nobel peace prize), but this was nonetheless an interesting acknowledgement of the linkage from Israel’s head of state–and it seems to directly contradict the messaging coming from Israel’s ambassador to Washington D.C., Michael Oren.

Here’s Michael Oren in an interview on October 3rd for Newsweek:

Q: Do you believe that the Arab states would make their support of action against Iran contingent on progress in the peace process?

A: No, there is no linkage whatsoever. The Arab states understand that the peace process is going to take a while, and we don’t have a while with Iran. The peace clock and the Iranian nuclear clock are running at completely different speeds.

Oren was simply, and spiritedly, sticking to a lame PR line that has now been exposed as rubbish by none other than Israels’ own president. On entering office six months ago, Prime Minister Netanyahu tried a similar trick, arguing that Iran would have to be dealt with first and that the Palestinian issue could be placed on the backburner. But President Obama wasn’t buying any of that, insisting that both issues be addressed in parallel, and much to the chagrin of the Likud hawks, making Israeli-Palestinian peace a priority–something he repeated when responding to being awarded the Nobel peace prize last Friday.

The linkage, though aggressively denied by occupation apologists, is all too real (and credit to President Peres for acknowledging that). Here’s how it works.

Iran’s ability to spread influence and use leverage in the region is partly a product of the largesse it spreads around and of the allies it has through denominational allegiance or simple patronage. But crucially, it also depends on the narrative that Iran espouses–and the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict is central to that. Iran does not have an appealing story to tell the region when it comes to it system of governance based on an interpretation of Shia jurisprudence (Velayat-e Faqih) or when it comes to its internal freedoms and achievements.

Rather, the narrative which allows Iran to speak to the Muslim and notably Sunni street, above the heads of Arab leaders, can be paraphrased as follows:

Only we, Iran, are standing up to the Israelis and the Americans in defense of our downtrodden Palestinian brothers and sisters; you, the Arab leadership who are close to America, host American troops, visit Washington and do Washington’s bidding, and are even openly or sometimes secretly in contact with the Israelis–all these friendships have done nothing to help the Palestinians or address their grievance; our version of resistance is therefore honorable when compared to your shameful collusion.

It may be grating to the ear and make us feel uncomfortable, but that is a message that resonates. And that is what President Peres seemed to understand in suggesting that peace with the Palestinians would, in his words, “remove the main pretext for the Iranian madness.”

Ending the occupation and delivering peace would fundamentally undermine Iran’s narrative and its leverage.

Realizing a comprehensive peace can be done as part of a process of U.S. dialogue with Iran in which these issues are also raised, or it can be done in parallel to an engagement with Iran (it should not be done as part of a blunt, unsophisticated frontal assault on Iran, as was tried at Annapolis during the Bush presidency).

However, it appears that the neoconservatives in this country and their Likud friends in Israel, who expend so much time and energy in refuting this linkage, just forgot to cc Israel’s president on the talking points memo.

A Nobel prize for hope

 This piece was co-written with my colleague Amjad Atallah, with whom I direct the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation.

It was first published at the Guardian.

President Obama’s efforts to achieve a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the Arab states, including a Palestinian state, received a much appreciated, if surprising, boost with the awarding of the Nobel peace prize to the US president. It’s fair to assume that the Nobel prize committee is hoping that the award will promote Obama’s diplomatic efforts across a range of issues.

President Obama said he considered the award support for American leadership on behalf of international aspirations and “as a means to give momentum to a set of causes”. He also made it clear that a top agenda item, along with nuclear non-proliferation and climate change, is achieving peace for Israelis and Palestinians. In fact, it was the only conflict he mentioned by name, noting: “We must all do our part to resolve those conflicts that have caused so much pain and hardship over so many years, and that effort must include an unwavering commitment that finally realises the rights of all Israelis and Palestinians to live in peace and security in nations of their own.”A Nobel prize for hope

As in his UN general assembly speech last month, where the president devoted 559 words out of 5000, more than on any other issue, to ending the occupation and achieving a comprehensive peace, Obama again made it clear that this conflict is central to his vision for a transformed Middle East.

The Israeli and Palestinian public will no doubt be skeptical, and understandably so. Events on the ground continue to move in the opposite direction and have even begun to spiral back towards violent confrontation, as evidenced by Friday’s clashes in occupied East Jerusalem and outside Ramallah. Yet on both sides polling consistently shows the desire for a very different, more peaceful future. Obama’s Nobel prize, and his highlighting of Israeli-Palestinian peace in responding, provides an injection of that most precious of commodities: hope.

The Israeli president and Hamas leaders both welcomed the announcement: Shimon Perez with a typically poetic flourish – “You gave us a licence to dream and act in a noble direction.” Hamas senior official Ahmed Yousef with the more down-to-earth, “[w]e know he is somebody different from past leaders who supported Israel economically and militarily.” The Gaza-based Palestinian prime minister Ismail Haniyeh added for good measure, “We are in need of actions, not sayings….”

What is fascinating is that even hardened foes from both sides of the divide see in President Obama a potential positive game-changer. Given the realities today, it is not reasonable to expect the parties to generate a solution of their own volition. Israelis and Palestinians both have dysfunctional politics, and suffer too great an asymmetry in power to be able to successfully conclude bilateral negotiations. American leadership has become the essential ingredient to delivering a way out of this conflict. And that requires presidential will and determination.

Certainly a part of the Nobel award was an acknowledgement of what Barack Obama‘s election has already achieved in embracing a global agenda of engagement and partnership, in doing more to rekindle hope for a better world than any other event this past year, and yes – frankly – in not being George Bush. But this was also an anticipatory or aspirational peace prize – front and center of the anticipation is Israeli-Palestinian peace. From day one in office, President Obama has made achieving a two-state solution a priority, appointing a special envoy to the region and setting out expectations in his remarkable Cairo speech.

This nudge of encouragement from Oslo comes at an important moment, when a sense of lost momentum was beginning to set in. The Nobel committee is signalling that it too is placing its hopes in the new American president. Other supportive, international interventions will not doubt be needed along the way.

The world should enthusiastically and constructively line up behind President Obama’s goal of ending this conflict.

Acknowledging the role Obama’s leadership will need to play is a recognition not only of the two sides’ inability to end this on their own. It also recognises that unlike in almost any other conflict, the US in a way supports and has significant leverage over both sides of this divide. And President Obama individually has the commensurate moral weight to complement America’s sole superpower status.

Such expectations, embellished with Friday’s Nobel announcement, can be daunting – but they can also help fortify and mobilise the presidential determination and will needed to get this done.

So, did Netanyahu really ‘win’?

This article also appeared in Haaretz

After his triumphant United Nations visit and trilateral New York summit, the verdict apparently is in: Benjamin Netanyahu is the heavyweight diplomatic champion of the world, defeating Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas by a knockout and U.S. President Barack Obama on points. How do we know? Well, we are told, the preeminent goal of the second Netanyahu premiership is now within reach, namely urgent and unconditional permanent-status negotiations with the Palestinians on all issues, with active American shepherding.

NetanyahuReally? Does Netanyahu really want, at the earliest opportunity, to be negotiating the 1967 borders, land swaps, settlement evacuation, and the sharing or dividing of Jerusalem, while there are Palestinians and Americans in the room? I don’t think so. So what did he think he was getting himself into?

The much derided and scorned Obama team actually has pulled off one of the more difficult moves in diplomatic choreography. They now have a tricky interlocutor, in this case Israel’s leader, enthusiastically embracing their target (endgame two-state negotiations) as his own.

This does not mean we have entered the home stretch, or that a two-state deal is now a foregone conclusion. Netanyahu will no doubt pursue new exit strategies, but several of his more cherished diversionary tactics already have been neutralized, and Israel’s prime minister is barely even aware he has been mugged.

Not that this exercise has been cost-free for the Obama administration. A price has been paid, both in the squandering of newly earned goodwill with the Arab and Muslim worlds and in appearing to Israelis to have blinked first. Still, neither of these is irreversible.

Let’s be honest: The general assumption when Netanyahu returned to the prime minister’s office was that he would do everything to avoid being cornered into negotiating the core two-state issues. That was understandable, given that his opening positions, on territory or Jerusalem for instance, fly in the face of U.S. and international consensus and previous Israeli precedents. And so he did.

The initial rabbit Netanyahu pulled out of the hat to avoid the core Palestinian issues was called “Iran first.” That was politely yet firmly rebuffed by a well-deployed counterargument from the Americans. The Iran file becomes harder, not easier, to manage if the Palestinian issue is neglected or allowed to deteriorate further.

Next came the “normalization first” canard: The Arab states must take tangible steps toward normalizing relations with Israel if Israelis are to have faith in a renewed two-state effort. This one showed more promise. Alas, as Nahum Barnea reported last week in Yedioth Ahronoth, when Israel’s government takes a meaningful settlement freeze off the agenda, there can be no serious push for Arab gestures.

Finally, we were served the Netanyahu specialite de la maison: “economic peace first.” If the Israeli official spin machine had its way, we would all be googling listings for the Nablus cineplex and marveling at the West Asian economic tiger of Palestine’s West Bank archipelago. That is not happening either, some overly rosy puff pieces notwithstanding. For one thing, the case rests on flimsy foundations – severe restrictions remain on Palestinian freedom of movement, access to land and resources, and the economy remains precarious.

Just as important, the Obama team, while encouraging economic progress, has consistently insisted that interim confidence-building measures must begin with a full settlement freeze. A clear principle has been established: A prerequisite for a gradual peace effort based on mutual confidence-building measures is a comprehensive settlement freeze now; the alternative is permanent status now. So here we are, with Benjamin Netanyahu on the fast-track to endgame two-state negotiations.

This is an Obama achievement secured with consummate Obama style. He has wrong-footed an opponent without fanfare, without vitriol, and quietly reframed the terms of debate to his liking. Of course, Netanyahu may and probably will continue to seek diversions and escape routes, but his opening moves have all been foiled. It seems Obama cornered Netanyahu rather than the other way around.

However, the problem with this analysis is in its framing. Is the U.S.-Israel relationship really a zero-sum game about who can more effectively hoodwink the other? Israel must desist from making it so. The United States and Israel have certain independent and shared interests. If the latter exist only with a neoconservative, Fox News, and pro-settler evangelical America, then we are in serious trouble. And in truth, such a narrow definition of shared interests is incorrect.

America and Israel are both served by a United States that is stronger, not weaker; more credible, not less; whose message of hope and tolerance resonates louder in the Middle East and elsewhere, not softer. Israel does not have a spare America. Israel and America are also both served by maintaining their partnership and by America’s ability to continue to stand by a long-time regional ally. That is why President Obama refers to securing a two-state solution, to ending the occupation that began in 1967, as a strategic interest for America and Israel alike.

We could count down the days to January 2013 and pretend that Obama is fatally naive or politically weakened (or both) – despite polls showing him to be more popular at this stage of his presidency (with 56 percent support) than either Ronald Reagan (53 percent) or Bill Clinton (42 percent) – but that would be a fool’s game.

The truth, inconvenient or otherwise, is that the absence of a sovereign and viable Palestinian state devastates American interests, and that should matter for Israel and the U.S.-Israeli strategic relationship.