Israeli-Palestinian negotiations resume–no fanfare and no new peace religion

This piece first appeared on the Middle East Channel at ForeignPolicy.com.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process was finally re-launched this week following an almost year-and-a-half long hiatus during which new governments took office in both Israel and the U.S. Arguably the most remarkable feature of such a long-awaited resumption of talks (albeit indirect ones) was the absence of not only any fanfare surrounding the occasion but also of almost any expectation that these might produce results.

Sadly, this skepticism is more than justified. Many point to the format of the talks – that these are so-called proximity talks rather than direct negotiations–as being indicative of how deep into retreat the prospects for peace have sunk. In fact, these are not even real proximity talks, which normally imply ongoing mediation by a third party between two parties ensconced in the same location though in different quarters. The process launched by Special Envoy Mitchell might be more accurately described as indirect and mediated talks.

Tantalizingly, such a U.S.-driven back-to-back negotiating format, were it to be embraced as a new methodology, could actually be promising. The U.S. is better positioned to extract concessions from both sides, and delivering a yes to the U.S. is an easier political ask for the respective leaders. The back-to-back approach could also help compensate for the deep asymmetry between the parties and correct the false sense that these are two equal sides negotiating.

Alas, the American mediator is apparently committed to viewing “proximity talks” as a fallback rather than a preference and as a way-station to the resumption of direct negotiations between the parties.

Much of the focus has been on how wide the gaps now are between the parties. That description needs deconstructing for a moment. When more closely considered, it is clear that the Palestinian negotiators are the same people as in previous rounds and that their negotiating positions, including the flexibility on display, have remained consistent. The new found chasm is almost exclusively a product of the regression in the negotiating position of Israel’s new/old Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (as gleaned from his public statements on Jerusalem, the Jordan Valley, settlements, etc.).

The almost universally held expectation in the region for these resumed talks is that they will collapse. The interesting subjects for speculation therefore become when, under what conditions, who will be blamed, and what will come next, especially from the Obama administration. Both sides already seem to be positioning themselves for both the blame game and for the post-negotiation failure phase of subsequent U.S. moves. Week one was rather confirmatory in that respect. Israel’s right wing ministers competed with each other in declaring their filialty to settlement construction in East Jerusalem and to demolishing Palestinian homes while the PLO cried foul and U.S. officials chimed in with what one imagines will become an oft-repeated mantra of “chill out.”

While almost no one is betting on success, the market on causes for failure includes some more interesting and dramatic prophecies. Might a new round of violence be launched as an ultimate distraction, could Israel introduce its own initiative involving some minimal pull-back in parts of the West Bank, or might September’s expiration of the partial settlements go-slow occasion a new crisis? All of the above are possible, as is the much discussed prospect of the U.S. presenting some kind of plan of its own. Even that, perhaps more hopeful option, tends to lack a clear articulation of what might be new in a plan this time around and how it might deliver success.

It’s hardly surprising then that the chorus of skeptics, naysayers, and non-believers is so deafening. But among that choir none have been more articulate, piercing in their critique, and justifiably paid attention to than Aaron David Miller. Writing here at Foreign Policy, Miller described “the false religion of Mideast peace,” and in so doing he set off a fierce debate.

Miller was a long time peace policy practitioner serving six presidents, and his book, The Much Too Promised Land is one of the most informative and the most entertaining of the recent histories of American peace efforts.

Anyone serious about getting something done this time in the Israeli-Arab arena must be able to answer the challenges that Miller poses – which is what the rest of this piece will attempt to do.

To recap Aaron’s argument, he rebuts what he claims are the three articles of faith of the false religion of Middle East peace, namely that it is a core U.S. interest, that it is only possible through a serious negotiating process based on land for peace, and that America has to be key in delivering it. I would suggest that the first half of Miller’s essay, his attempt at refuting this being a core American interest, is simply wrong. The second half of his essay which deals with the assumptions and mechanics of peace-making is correct in most of its critiques but is too often addressing the wrong question and chooses not to offer prescriptions for what to do instead.

In denying the U.S. national interest impetus for resolving the conflict, Miller finds himself in unusual company. He is also apparently a recent convert to this belief. Part of the more dogmatic pro-Israel community have made linkage denial a pillar of their own religion – the idea being that Palestinian and Arab-Israeli issues do not have a costly effect for America in the region and beyond. Often that entails invoking a straw-man version of the linkage argument: that achieving Arab-Israeli peace would produce the pixie dust that could then be showered onto every other problem to make it melt away and disappear. This is of course nonsense. What is more serious is that this continues to be the gift that keeps giving for rallying anti-Americanism, it undermines America’s allies and its own standing, and is the iconoclastic litmus test issue for so much of the Arab and Muslim world.

Miller’s version of denial comes perilously close to tackling this straw-man obfuscation. He claims that the region has become nastier and more complex and there is no simple fix or magic potion. Breaking news! But is the unresolved conflict a debilitating and complicating factor for America of low or high significance? It is clearly the latter. In perhaps the most perplexing claim in his essay, Miller takes issue with the predictions made for years by State Department colleagues, “An unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict would trigger ruinous war, increase Soviet influence, weaken Arab moderates, strengthen Arab radicals, jeopardize access to Middle East oil, and generally undermine U.S. influence from Rabat to Karachi.” But most of those things have happened. Arab moderates are weaker, radicals are stronger, U.S. influence is undermined, there have been wars (okay, the Soviets are no longer around but Russia is reemerging, and the oil argument was always tangential).

The ongoing Palestinian and Arab grievance and how that interacts with American foreign policy is central to all of the above. It has become even more so since 9/11 as has been recognized by every U.S. Centcom commander in the intervening period. Much was made of the prepared testimony by current Centcom head Gen. David Petraeus before the Senate Armed Services Committee recently. Petraeus claimed:

“The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the AOR [area of responsibility]… The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world.”

The denialists (not Miller) wasted no time in going after Petraeus. Yet in the weeks that followed and in clarifying his case, Petraeus never stepped back from his basic, obvious, and logical assertion. At the Woodrow Wilson Center last month, Petraeus explained that the unresolved conflict wasn’t putting U.S. soldiers at risk and that of course Israel is an “important strategic ally,” and that he should have recognized that [pdf]. Then Petraeus said this: “…[T]he fact is that I did, indeed, offer, during the transition to the new administration, our view that the lack of progress toward a comprehensive Middle East peace is, indeed, something that does very much shape the environment.” Petraeus in other words stuck to his guns.

In stating this, Gen. Petraeus was simply repeating his own testimony from a year earlier (albeit this time in a more charged U.S-Israel political environment), and following a mantra developed by his three predecessors at Centcom since 9/11 – Gen. Tommy Franks, Gen. John Abizaid, and Gen. William Fallon, everyone of whom made the same basic assertion.

Gen. Abiziad, for example, in Senate testimony from 2006, argued for the U.S. to, “focus on three strategic objectives… defeat al-Qaeda…deter Iranian designs for regional hegemony… finally, we must find a comprehensive solution to the corrosive Arab-Israeli conflict.”

That the uniformed military sees it this way should hardly be surprising. Take just one of the many for instances – this recent New America Foundation report on al-Qaeda Central and the internet by Daniel Kimmage, which found that the al-Qaeda affiliated as-Sahab’s websites were having difficulty getting an audience for their Pakistan/Afghanistan-related postings as Gaza and the Palestinian issue were attracting the lion’s share of attention.

Indeed the post-9/11 enhanced urgency of addressing this issue was something belatedly accepted by the Bush administration when it launched the Annapolis peace effort and has been continued with greater determination under President Obama. Linkage was the driving logic behind the Iraq Study Group led by Messrs. James Baker and Lee Hamilton, devoting one third of that report to how the region impacts America’s Iraq effort and focusing most intensively on the need to for an American role in resolving Arab-Israeli affairs.

Recently, Secretary Clinton has taken to including the following remarks in her speeches about the region:

The lack of peace between Israel and the Palestinians… destabilizes the region and beyond.

I told some of you this, that one of the striking experiences that I had becoming Secretary of State and now having traveled something on the order of 300,000 miles in the last 15 months and going to dozens and dozens of countries, is that when I compare that to my experience as First Lady, where I was also privileged to travel around the world, back in the ‘90s when I went to Asia or Africa or Europe or Latin America, it was rare that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was raised. Now it is the first, second, or third item on nearly every agenda of every country I visit.

What does that mean? Well, it means that this conflict has assumed a role in the global geostrategic environment that carries great weight.

Having started from this premise, Miller goes on to explain why he considers that even if it were a priority, America cannot lead the parties to achieve a negotiated peace. He contends that the political risk is too high for the local leaders, even life-threatening, that there are no longer strong leaders, and that America no longer has the carrying capacity. America’s reach is limitedby the U.S. not owning the issue, its loss of mystique, and the limits imposed by domestic politics.

Structural flaws in the peace process do indeed exist. Miller is right in pointing them out, and there is little to disagree with in his conclusion that pursuing the same format of peace process that has been tried for so long will not succeed. In calling for a profound re-think, Miller is doing a service for any future peace effort.

The particular peace architecture in which the U.S. is still engaged was begun in 1991 (at the Madrid Conference) and gelled in 1993 (with the Israel-PLO Declaration of Principles). After nearly two decades which have witnessed not only failure but also a collapse of the Palestinian national movement, a tripling of the Israeli West Bank settler population, a Second Intifada, a collapse of the Israeli peace camp, a withdrawal from and then blockade of Gaza that took place outside of the peace process, and a re-shaping of the map of regional power, one would think that a fundamental rethink and re-conceptualizing of the problem and the approach to solving it might be in order. It is very much in order.

Aaron Miller describes the problem well, but the one prescriptive paragraph in his essay is devastating in its lack of originality or internalization of the lessons that should have been learned from failure. Here it is:

The United States needs to do what it can, including working with Israelis and Palestinians on negotiating core final-status issues (particularly on borders, where the gaps are narrowest), helping Palestinians develop their institutions, getting the Israelis to assist by allowing Palestinians to breathe economically and expand their authority, and keeping Gaza calm, even as it tries to relieve the desperation and sense of siege through economic assistance.

So Israelis and Palestinian should just continue negotiating core issues, just keep building incremental confidence after almost two decades of ripping that confidence apart, and to continue building Palestinian institutions of future statehood under conditions of occupation when there is no end to that occupation or real statehood on the horizon.

So what can be done differently?

Having spent so long in indulging my own critique of these failures, it’s probably advisable to offer some suggested reframing or new thinking. Not a comprehensive peace plan (for now) but some considerations to bear in mind, a partial list to be sure:

1. It’s not peace now. We might want to think about this more as an exercise, initially at least, in arranging a de-occupation rather than a historic handshake between two great leaders that ushers in immediate peace, reconciliation, and an end of claims. Yes peace is still a convenient shorthand way of describing an urgent two-state outcome but it is very likely that a full peace and reconciliation will only be achieved after the modalities for de-occupation are in place rather than in parallel with them.

This is not a negotiation between equals. There is a huge asymmetry between the parties – occupier versus occupied, coherent functioning state apparatus versus non-state actor with collapsed national movement, and so on. Structuring a negotiation process as if there were symmetry and without factoring in the above is not smart. The way forward may end up looking more like the U.S. together with international and regional partners negotiating arrangements with Israel for it to evacuate the territory and create the space necessary to allow for the creation of a viable Palestinian state, rather than a classical Israeli-Palestinian negotiation (even one with U.S. mediation). That space would have to be on 100 percent of the ’67 territory, allowing for minor modifications of the ’67 lines in a one-to-one landswap.

2. Seek a comprehensive new regional equilibrium. Traditionally the consensus has been that you can do the Palestinian track or the Syrian track but you can’t do it all together. Today’s regional realities suggest a need to rethink that equation. If this is an effort exclusively focused on Israel-Palestine (and just PLO/Fatah Palestine at that) then one is likely to have not only Iran but Syria, Hezbollah, and half the Palestinian political forces (including Hamas), and by extension Lebanon and other Arab actors opposed or at least sitting on the sidelines. That is unlikely to deliver conditions for a new equilibrium or an Israeli ‘yes.’

If one addresses the Syrian and Palestinian issues simultaneously then one impacts (and limits) the likelihood of strong Palestinian opposition (including Hamas). If one gets Lebanon, the entire Arab world, and the Organization of Islamic Conference on board, then one offers Israel the positive reassurances that are in the Arab Peace Initiative and a finality on borders that while not a simple deal, can be embraced given all the additional benefits that would accrue to Israel. Iran would have to reluctantly come on board or be more isolated and find its ability to leverage the Palestinian grievance castrated.

3. There needs to be a compelling plan for getting to an Israeli ‘yes.’ No solution for de-occupation can be imposed on Israel. The Israeli public and the Israeli body politic will have to deliver its own ‘yes’ if this is ever going to be resolved and a new equilibrium achieved. Given contemporary Israeli realities, it would be ill-advised to expect Israel to generate and embrace a de-occupation of its own volition.

The two core ingredients worth considering in getting to that Israeli ‘yes’ might be: (a) a package deal that addresses Israel’s legitimate concerns and offers benefits to Israel while also delivering genuine de-occupation, real Palestinian statehood, and parameters that can be acceptable to the Arab side; and (b)  a recalibrated incentive/disincentive structure toward Israel in the face of acceptance versus rejection. This should be designed to generate a re-calculation of what is in Israel’s best interest by enough Israelis and their leaders. The package or plan would need to be well-constructed and marketed to the Israelis who would need to hear much more volume from an Arab ‘yes’ than silence or a ‘no.’ The U.S. would need to be able to sustain over time its demonstrable support for the package and its displeasure towards any rejection.

4. Be realistic about what current Palestinian political structures can shoulder. A divided national movement is less capable of delivering historic compromise than a united one, even if it affords the mediator the luxury of dealing with uber-moderates in isolation. Reunifying the national movement would help, as would dealing with all key elements of the Palestinian body politic (an imperfect but perhaps helpful comparison would be the All Party Talks in Northern Ireland).

Limitations to Palestinian capacity should be factored in–there will be no perfect Palestinian state birthed from the womb of occupation, including in the security sector. It may be more realistic to consider a Palestine which accepts certain limitations on its own sovereignty for a number of years in cooperation with international partners–for instance on security (with an international force) and even a degree of political oversight (again, an imperfect comparison but perhaps useful one would be how East Timor or Bosnia became independent states) This cannot of course be the replacement of one occupation with another.

5. Be creative about solutions and honest about the alternatives. Some issues may still benefit from new and untried ideas. As an example, a Canadian-sponsored group recently presented ideas for the Old City of Jerusalem. A comprehensive regional effort may open up new possibilities–for instance, arrangements for Jewish refugees from Arab countries and possibly reciprocal arrangements for Palestinian refugees.

However, the alternatives if a package is rejected should also be spelled out. Holding out would not lead in the future to Palestinian refugees attaining the full justice that is associated with return and restitution. Likewise, an Israel that rejects genuine de-occupation would be expected to take seriously the demand for full democratic rights for all those living almost half a century under its control.

6. America should not go it alone. The prospects for success would benefit from America working in closer cooperation with other states both in the international community (including the E.U. and the Quartet) and in the region. American solo-ism is not an asset, the Quartet has been underutilized, Europe can bring both sticks and carrots to the table and help persuade all sides. Arab and Muslim states buy-in will be integral to a successful effort.

7. If you can’t manage the domestic politics, don’t even try this. A meaningful U.S. effort will need to be capable of leveraging some of America’s enormous untapped influence with Israel. The U.S. may well have to sustain over multiple months its advocacy for a package of proposals and find meaningful ways to demonstrate that rejectionism will not be met by a business-as-usual approach. That does not mean dropping Israel as an ally, ending aid or security cooperation. It does mean being able to launch an effective public diplomacy campaign with Israelis, to communicate the benefits of the proposals being made.

That’s the easy part–and that is likely to win over many and very probably a majority of Israelis, but not perhaps the given leader at a given moment. It therefore also means sustaining appropriate expressions of displeasure–using the public soap box and other tools such as withholding of the veto at the U.N. Security Council on a relevant vote. And being able to do so in the knowledge that there will be a domestic political cost. I won’t go into estimating that cost here and I think that it is less than many assume. The degree of support in Israel can be expected to stifle some of the U.S. domestic opposition, but the point is clear–this needs to be treated as a domestic political campaign.

8. Always remember why the U.S. is doing this. This is not just because peace is a good thing,its not to win a Nobel Peace Prize (the current president has one of those already), and not even to help save Israel. It is because this is an American interest–but not just that, it is also the absence of any better alternative.

The U.S. essentially has three options (imposing a solution on Israel is not an option). First, America could accept the status-quo but that is costly as we have proven and it is not static. The structural dynamics dictate a deterioration that will be ever more debilitating for the U.S.

Second, the U.S. could give up on solving this, but not accept the costs of the status-quo and seek rather to off-set those costs by distancing itself from Israel or at least from the occupation. I would suggest that is an even more difficult path to take vis a vis domestic U.S. politics and that America owes its ally Israel a good faith effort to avoid this path. It would also clearly be a bad option for Israel. So to the third option, namely taking a re-framed approach to resolve this, to get that new equilibrium. This is arguably the best option available for the U.S.

Daniel Levy is an editor for the Middle East Channel

*The Middle East Channel held its official launch at the New America Foundation with a discussion on this chaired by Marc Lynch, Aaron David Miller, Rob Malley, and myself. It can be viewed here.

Why Netanyahu Canceled His DC Visit, and Why the GOP Is Applauding

Yesterday evening (late night Israel time), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he would not, after all, be attending next week’s Nuclear Security Summit to be hosted by President Obama in Washington, DC.

Speaking to Republican party loyalists at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans, Liz Cheney in a manner that was not only very predictable but also as one imagines Netanyahu would have scripted her — attacked the president of her own country for what she called his “shabby” and “disgraceful” treatment of Israel. The party faithful applauded.

The reasons cited by Israeli officials for their PM’s Washington no-show were last-minute concerns that Israel’s own nuclear program — or in official lingua franca, non-NPT signatory status — would be raised by certain summit attendees — notably, Egypt and Turkey. It is an explanation that fails to meet even the lowest bar of plausibility — unless Benjamin Netanyahu has been moonlighting as Sleeping Beauty for the last decade or more. It is a very long-standing tradition that at every possible international forum Egypt raises its concerns at Israel’s nuclear program and non-NPT status, and it did so along with other Arab states and in Israel’s presence when multilateral Arms Control and Regional Security talks took place throughout the 90’s after the Madrid Conference.

Turkey too has been articulating its public support for a WMD-free Middle East for some time. So the concerns noted by the New York Times regarding Egypt and Turkey were hardly a new development necessitating any reassessment of a prime ministerial travel schedule. To be clear, Israel is not boycotting the summit and will in fact be represented by the most respected, talented, and all-together decent member of the government, Minister Dan Meridor. But that doesn’t change the headline — the Netanyahu no-show.

The concerns regarding Israel’s nuclear posture, whether Netanyahu attends or not, will be raised, and canceling his participation focuses as much of a spotlight on this as his presence in the room would have done. Netanyahu’s decision clearly has much more to do with the current status of U.S. efforts on Israeli-Palestinian peace and the posture that Israel’s PM is choosing to adopt in response to that, as Glenn Kessler hints in today’s Washington Post.

The Netanyahu team apparently decided that next week’s visit was a lose-lose proposition. Canceling would raise eyebrows and questions, but showing up in DC would create more concrete challenges. Who would Netanyahu meet with and what messages would he be conveying regarding East Jerusalem settlement expansion and other issues?

Israel’s current prime minister is acting like the apprehensive child who hopes that by closing his eyes and waiting the threatening thing will go away. The thing that Netanyahu hopes will go away is the need to make real decisions regarding peace, Israel’s future, occupation, and the settlements, with President Obama simply playing the role of the latest guise in which that question comes.

The most revealing indication that Netanyahu was seeking to lessen the impact of this decision and avoid the issue was the timing of his announcement. It came at around 5pm EST on Thursday. That’s midnight in Israel. The weekend papers had just been put to bed (the item just makes it into some, but was too late for splashy headlines or commentary). Friday and Saturday are dead news days in Israel (there are not even newspapers on the latter), and the news-cycle was anyway being dominated by the court’s lifting of a gag order against a journalist and ex-soldier accused of leaking state secrets and the freedom of press repercussions of that story.

Substantively, Netanyahu should have every reason to positively RSVP to President Obama’s invitation to attend next week’s summit alongside over 40 heads of state. The summit is dedicated to the issue of nuclear terrorism, an area in which the U.S. and Israel share many challenges. The transfer of nuclear technology to non-state actors for terrorist purposes is a central and constant refrain of Israeli officials when urging action against Iran.

While it is true that the U.S. president’s active pursuit of a non-proliferation agenda may lead some eyes to be cast in the direction of Jerusalem (or more precisely Dimona, the site of Israel’s presumed nuclear program) Obama himself and his administration have been solid in reiterating the commitment to Israel’s unique and protected nuclear status. This assurance was reissued to Israel by senior U.S. officials in the lead-up to next week’s summit. This is hardly something to be sneezed at when nonproliferation is a centerpiece of your global agenda and when your position vis-a-vis Israel can so easily be portrayed as hypocritical.

Rather than welcome this latest American expression of fealty to the special relationship and accept the invitation, Netanyahu decided to poke the president in the eye yet again. One of the only articles that did manage to make Israel’s Friday press deadline was a short piece in the Ma’ariv newspaper by Eli Bardenstein, “Unlike the past, this time Israeli officials fear that the Egyptian position will gain the ear of the American administration… and will harm Israel’s policy of ambiguity.”

Ever since Netanyahu’s government took office, there has been a never-ending stream of stories from unnamed sources taking shots at the Obama administration, trying to undermine its standing with the Israeli public, and sending the signal to the Likud echo chamber stateside to swing into action. This would appear to be the latest example and who better today than Liz Cheney to be on the receiving end of the Netanyahu long ball.

In her speech last night, Liz Cheney repeated what has become something of a boilerplate GOP talking point in the last year — that Obama is undermining America’s most important relationship in the world. Although we’re so used to hearing it, it’s worth pausing for just a moment to ask why the GOP is so enthusiastically adopting this line.

From the Cheney clan and their school of militarist nationalism and projection of American hard power, protecting the profits of the defense, energy, and other sectors that benefit while piling up national debt and only recalling fiscal responsibility when it comes to paying for social domestic needs such as health care — from them, it should come as no surprise. Likewise, from the Likudist wing of the neoconservative movement. As Elliott Abrams stunningly wrote in his 1997 book, How Jews can survive in Christian America, “Outside the land of Israel, there can be no doubt that Jews, faithful to the covenant between God and Abraham, are to stand apart from the nations in which they live.” I actually hesitate to quote that, concerned as I am at the use it can be put to by people of ill-will. But Elliott Abrams is responsible for his writings and indeed for his life’s opus of destruction and wrongdoing.

There are of course also the pro-settlement Evangelical Zionists with their not-so-happy dispensationalist vision for the future of the Holy Land and of the Jews (probably the only time I would ever share a fate with Elliott Abrams — though he makes common cause with and encourages them while I do not). Yes, that’s a not insignificant core of today’s GOP, and the rest might think they can score cheap partisan political points against Obama and maybe even win over a few Jewish voters or donors by going along for the ride. It may be naive, but is that really a good enough reason to undermine American national security interests (and for anyone to undermine Israel’s future as a democracy and future as a Jewish homeland)?

Wiser GOP heads-notably foreign policy realists-are no doubt exasperated and hoping that the words of the normally Republican-revered General Petraeus may have some impact. He told the Senate Armed Services committee last month [pdf] and indeed last year how debilitating this conflict is for the challenges the U.S. military faces throughout the region and suggested an urgency in its resolution.

Why Netanyahu should be playing this game is perhaps more obvious. The links between the Likud and settler community and the Republican right have been strengthening over the past two decades and now have real depth and sense of common purpose to them. Netanyahu appears to be playing the same mischievous game in American domestic politics today as he did in the 90’s (although the upshot then was a fall-out with President Clinton which contributed greatly to Netanyahu’s own coalition collapse and reelection failure in 1999). They also share some of the same sources of largess, notably Sheldon Adelson.

But this does not explain what is behind it for Netanyahu, what he hopes to achieve, his goals. This does: Netanyahu may be for a Greater Israel in which case he has to play for time; or he may not be for a Greater Israel but is unwilling to confront the settlers and their sympathizers and his own personal demons which that would entail, leading to the same conclusion. Play for time.

Playing for time though, is not pretty. In practice it entails entrenching an occupation/settlement reality which is unsustainable, just gets uglier, and has consequences. Those consequences include an increasingly undemocratic Israel, one that will have neither peace nor security, and an Israel that cannot work effectively with the region or even with its closest allies in facing the challenge of Iran. It also erodes Israel’s standing even in the U.S. and allows it to increasingly become a partisan political plaything.

What all this means for President Obama and his administration is that their best option is to pursue the ideas already under consideration, and leaked this week by David Ignatius in The Washington Post and Helene Cooper in NYT, to advance it’s own plan or terms of reference for a two-state deal and present these real and clear choices to the Israelis and Palestinians. If Netanyahu is able to do the right thing, it will only be under these circumstances, and if not Israelis have the chance to come to their own conclusion in their democracy.

Let’s see Liz Cheney oppose President Obama, Secretary Gates, Admiral Mullen, and General Petraeus as they stand four-square behind a plan that delivers on the American national security interest.

Netanyahu doesn’t need to visit DC next week, but once the preparations are made and the plan is ready, President Obama needs to go to Israel and to the pro-Israel community at home and make his case — it would be an act of both courage and true friendship.

An Obama Middle East peace plan: Is it real? Is it smart?

A new round of speculation regarding the U.S. administration’s Middle East peace efforts has been set off by this David Ignatius op-ed in Thursday’s Washington Post and this report by Helene Cooper in the New York Times, both revealing a meeting hosted by current National Security Advisor Gen. James L. Jones with his predecessors and a presidential drop-in that became the occasion for a pow-wow on a prospective U.S. peace plan.

Elliot Abrams — previously a senior advisor at the National Security Council and now resident dog-whistle for the neoconservative attack machine at the Weekly Standard, was first out of the traps describing talk of a plan being borne of “frustration” and ultimately “dangerous.” Others have suggested that this might be a trial balloon or a head fake whose real purpose is to extract Israeli gestures on East Jerusalem settlement expansion by hinting at something more dramatic being in the works. In general, the tone of commentary on the Israel-U.S. spat of recent weeks has tended to depict U.S. moves as whimsical and anger-driven. So what are we to make of this news?

These leaks imply something different is at play — a premeditated strategy leading to an American peace plan, an idea that it seems has been kicked around for some months, notably by General Jones. Recent developments may have accelerated the potential timetable and won new converts to the strategy, possibly tipping the balance in favor of this approach among administration principals.

Continue reading at the Middle East Channel

 

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.

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.

A Retractionist-Retentionist Discourse

 This piece also appears online at Haaretz

In his keynote address at last week’s Herzliya Conference, Ehud Barak summoned up the most dramatic case for changing the status quo:

If, and as long as between the Jordan and the sea, there is only one political entity, named Israel, it will end up being either non-Jewish or non-democratic…If the Palestinians vote in elections, it is a binational state, and if they don’t, it is an apartheid state.

This quote is particularly remarkable for the specific wording chosen by Israel’s defense minister: He (perhaps unintentionally) suggested that the existing situation could already be described as apartheid.

Considering the Labor Party’s collapse, one may dismiss its leader’s comments, but Barak’s speech does matter, not because of its author, but because it articulates the core narrative of the centrist-pragmatic trend in Israeli-Jewish politics – from Likud realists like ministers Dan Meridor and Michael Eitan, to Kadima and the remnants of Labor and Meretz. Let’s call it the “retractionist camp” – ready to support a withdrawal from the occupied territories that meets the minimum necessary requirement for the creation of a dignified and viable sovereign Palestinian state alongside Israel, and therefore a sustainable two-state solution.

They show realist tendencies, but there is a powerful disconnect (one that was pervasive in Barak’s speech) between most of this camp’s diagnosis of the situation (an “end of the world as we know it” threat of apartheid or binationalism) and their prescription for addressing it: resume negotiations, blame the Palestinians, more of the same. It’s like telling someone they have life-threatening yet treatable cancer and prescribing two aspirins a day.

If the situation is so dire, then bolder steps are surely called for. There are any number of game-changing options to consider. Maybe it is possible to engage Hamas (as is happening in the ongoing Shalit negotiations), to lift the Gaza siege, and to accept Palestinian unity instead of vetoing it, so as to facilitate an empowered negotiating and implementing address. After all, Israel spoke to the PLO before its charter was amended, and the United States engaged Sunni ex-insurgents in Iraq and is encouraging dialogue with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Alternatively, Israel could encourage internationalization of the conflict, handing the territories over to an international protectorate and international forces, or could embrace Salam Fayyad’s two-year plan for statehood and scale back its Area C presence, or even withdraw to the 1967 lines while negotiating over a way settlers could reside under Palestinian sovereignty. Perhaps a Quartet-driven or imposed plan could be encouraged. Anything but business as usual.

Yet most of those in the camp that favors retracting Israel’s occupation – let’s call them “soft retractionists” – eschew such bold positions. Their opponents, the “retentionists,” support retaining all, most or at least enough control of the territories to render impossible a real two-state outcome (indeed, a commitment to retain all of Jerusalem under exclusive Israeli sovereignty is enough to negate a workable two-state option). Again, most retentionists belong in the “soft” category – they are ready to use the language of two states, and support negotiations, economic peace, even a partial easing of the West Bank internal closure. At the heart of both the retractionist and retentionist camps, in their “soft” manifestations, is a basic element of denial. Soft retentionists pretend that ongoing occupation can coexist with preservation of Israel’s democratic character, its security, international acceptance, and a consensus about it in the Jewish world. Making noise about peace and throwing money at public relations will do the trick. Soft retractionists pretend that the occupation can be undone without a fundamental change in approach, and in particular while maintaining existing incentive and disincentive structures (which produced and preserve the current realities).

But while the respective “soft” narratives are more pleasant to the ear, and easier to market, both are not only wrong but also increasingly irrelevant to Israel’s future. The real struggle for the country is between what are commonly labeled as the extremes.

Hard retentionists know they will have to rewrite the rules of democracy, and plead a special exemption clause for “Jewish democracy” and for the elevation of Jewish-only rights. Palestinians are to be dehumanized, human and civil rights groups and international humanitarian law excoriated and a vocabulary created for laundering and justifying an apartheid reality.

Hard retractionists will need to stand up for (long-ridiculed) Jewish values, ethics and morality, for the unloved “other” in society, hold up a mirror to the nations’ warts, and ultimately support international campaigns that distinguish between Israel proper and the occupied territories.

Both camps have a vision for the country’s future: the Jewish Republic of Israel – equal parts ethnocracy, theocracy and garrison state on the retentionist side, while for the retractionists, well, something that lives up to the words of Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

Retentionist cooperation with racist European Islamophobes and American dispensationalist evangelists (for whom Jews have a particularly unenticing role to play during the anticipated Rapture and Second Coming) is considered legitimate and necessary and is embraced by the mainstream. But when retractionists make common cause with the global civil and human rights community, they are vilified as traitors by the mainstream.

The dominant discourse in Israel massively stacks the odds against the hard retractionists. The soft retractionists continue to feed that discourse even though it undermines the very outcome they know is necessary. Their frequent silence, no less than the settlers’ noise, is drowning out Israeli democracy. The hard retentionists are very well represented in the Knesset, while the hard retractionists can barely rely on a tiny and shrinking number of Jewish MKs.

It is the human and civil rights community, the New Israel Fund, the demonstrators at Sheikh Jarrah and the few brave public figures who have joined them – including David Grossman, Moshe Halbertal and Ron Pundak – who are now the standard-bearers and source of hope in this decisive phase of the struggle for Israel’s future.

Failure to relaunch


This piece was originally published at Ha’aretz.

A peculiar if familiar ritual is currently playing itself out in Middle East diplomacy. A concerted push is under way to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, though none of the chief protagonists show any signs of believing they will change anything. We have all been here before, many times over.

If this is the case, then why the great hubbub of activity around such a redundant endeavor? The intentions and strategies behind the activity – in Israel, Egypt, the PLO and the United States – are not entirely on public display. So here is a brief guide to deciphering what they might be.

On the Israeli side, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu understands that absent the cloak of legitimacy bestowed by participation in an internationally endorsed peace process, all kinds of undesirable scenarios may start to play out. There may be more questions and recriminations abroad surrounding efforts to maintain, let alone entrench, the occupation, and various third-party actors may start to develop their own independent initiatives.

Ideally, Netanyahu would have preferred an exclusively bottom-up peace process, focused on improving conditions on the ground and postponing discussion of big-ticket items. However, when the Obama administration insisted that improving the daily environment begins with freezing settlements, the prime minister discovered that unanchored permanent-status negotiations might be a cozy comfort zone after all. If history repeats itself, Netanyahu could drag out talks indefinitely. Once negotiating, there is ample opportunity to create diversions, distractions and provocations, with escalating tensions on the border with Gaza being a recent favorite.

There is one caveat: The history of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is not preordained to repeat itself. The immediate future will largely depend on the Obama administration’s approach. For now at least, Netanyahu seems confident that the combination of Obama’s political clock (midterms, then reelection), more pressing American priorities, American timidity and internal Palestinian divisions will shield him from having to make hard political choices.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is a fervent advocate of resuming negotiations, an unpopular position at home and in the region. The Mubarak regime never gave much weight to its popular, democratic mandate, deploying variations on crude Egyptian nationalism as a legitimizing vehicle as and when necessary – most recently in its World Cup altercation with Algeria and the showdown with Hamas over protecting “national sovereignty” on Egypt’s Gaza border.

Increasingly, though, Egypt appears to be entering a new phase of regime-succession obsession. For Mubarak, playing the game of peace broker buys him cover against U.S. pressure for political reforms and freedoms, as well as American support in a future leadership transition. His embrace of Netanyahu’s Israel is a necessary part of this, and as a bonus, it buys Mubarak certain security and intelligence protections, which Israel is good at providing. Such is life for a sclerotic regime driven more by familial than national or even political self-interest.

Other regional states are watching or even assenting to Egypt’s efforts to pressure the PLO-Fatah leadership to restart talks, without themselves going out on a limb. The more grounded in democracy those states are, the weaker their enthusiasm for the Netanyahu-Mubarak negotiation groundhog day (Exhibit A: democratic Turkey).

The PLO-Fatah leadership, so far at least, has cast itself in the role of skeptical party pooper. Its members know the consequences of another meaningless negotiation process for their national – not to mention party-political – cause. Many outsiders have been surprised, and some impressed, by the determination displayed over the last several months by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in refusing unconditionally to resume talks. Yet that same leadership has not offered an alternative strategy to replace negotiations, nor has it reunified the Palestinian national movement. The PLO-Fatah leaders are viewed by all sides as the weakest link, hence the full-court press currently being applied to them. Should they succumb, they will no doubt have to justify such a move by clinging to whatever political fig leaf they are offered, but that will not shield them from what are likely to be harsh domestic political consequences.

The main wild card in this equation is the Obama administration. Year One combined early engagement and a strong declarative commitment to Israeli-Palestinian peace with a frustrating lack of new thinking or political daring from the George Mitchell team, while the president was not personally involved and did not take ownership of the issue. The United States may be satisfied with a convenient and showy re-launch of negotiations, followed by the plodding predictability of process over substance.

President Obama may, however, take seriously his own admonition that this issue matters to American strategic interests. That would translate into U.S. leadership in shaping a breakthrough, preferably with EU and Quartet support, creating real choices and deploying new incentives and disincentives with the parties, notably Israel.

Ultimately, for all the noise and speculation regarding their resumption, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are likely to prove rather inconsequential. Success or failure in achieving de-occupation and two states will depend primarily on the conversation between Obama and Netanyahu, their political calculations, priorities and persistence. And that conversation has barely begun.


How Israelis See Obama

It’s not what you think — and it may not even matter, compared to how they see Israel’s own situation.

BY AMJAD ATALLAH, DANIEL LEVY

This article also appears in Foreign Policy

President Obama - Israel

Perhaps a U.S. president’s approval rating among Israeli citizens is somewhat trivial. After all, Barack Obama’s re-election will be decided in Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, not in Haifa, Tel Aviv, and Netanya. Nevertheless, the notion persists that a U.S. president’s approval rating in Israel can significantly affect his ability to conclude a comprehensive peace agreement. That is why Obama’s alleged rock-bottom 4 percent approval rating among Israelis — a result within the margin of error — has become cause for concern.

In fact, however, the number is a red herring. Our own survey results suggest that the stalemate in the peace agreement has little to do with Israeli perceptions of Obama — which are far more favorable than one might think — but is actually more deeply linked to Israeli complacency and comfort with the status quo.

The 4 percent figure, now a ubiquitous marker of Obama’s failure in the Middle East, originally came from a Jerusalem Post survey this summer. But it wasn’t an approval rating. The survey question asked whether Israelis believed Obama was “more pro-Israel,” rather than “more pro-Palestinian” or neutral. The Western media have adopted this statistic (as in this recent New York Times editorial) often to argue that the president doesn’t have the Israeli support necessary to bolster his efforts in the peace process.

But the number is misleading. To clarify Israeli public opinion, we commissioned a poll of 1,000 Israelis, undertaken by Gerstein Agne Strategic Communications and recently released by the New America Foundation, shedding new light on Obama’s actual standing in Israel. And the bottom line is that, particularly given how little Obama has invested in speaking directly to the Israeli public, he is viewed in a relatively positive light. The favorability rating our results show, 41 percent (with 37 percent unfavorable) is 10 times that claimed by the Jerusalem Post. While this is not astronomically high for a U.S. president, it is notably stronger than the favorability ratings for Israel’s foreign and defense ministers, and a mere seven points below that of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

This is not to say that Israelis don’t have concerns about Obama: For instance, 50 percent believe he is weak on terrorism, and only 42 percent agree that he supports Israel.

In a panel this week at the New America Foundation, Gil Tamary of Israel’s Channel 10 News explained that much of Obama’s relative unpopularity in Israel is a direct consequence of the Israeli press’s daily attacks on him. But based on our survey results, should Obama decide to make a direct pitch to the Israeli public, his starting position would be one of relative strength. Obama has not yet reached out to Israelis in the way he has to the Muslim world, with his historic trips to Egypt and Turkey. A similarly momentous state visit to Israel could build a tremendous amount of goodwill with an already receptive Israeli public.

However, when it comes to building peace in the long term, the poll’s other findings on Israeli public opinion may prove even more consequential for an administration that finds itself at an impasse. According to the poll, Israelis would support any peace agreement reached under Netanyahu by a margin of 59 to 34 percent. They even favor a U.S.-defined peace deal, like the one attempted by President Bill Clinton at Taba in 2001, by 53 to 45 percent. The only problem is that Israelis do not seem to think that peace with the Palestinians and neighboring states is an urgent priority or that its absence carries any sufficiently immediate and negative consequences.

So in effect, Obama’s popularity or lack thereof has little to do with the prospects for peace. The real problem is, simply, Israelis are happy with the situation as it stands and have little motivation to change it. Only by a small majority of 4 percentage points do Israelis believe that they cannot shoulder the economic and security burdens of the status quo, and even fewer think that U.S. support for Israel will decline if there is no peace (by 49 to 47 percent, within the margin of error).

Given the daunting challenge of moving a number of the 500,000 Israeli settlers living beyond the green line, the country’s original 1949 borders, (or leaving some under a future Palestinian sovereignty), one begins to understand why the current cost-benefit calculation weighs in favor of maintaining the status quo.

If there’s any encouraging news for the Israeli government in our results, it’s the pronounced Israeli capacity for pragmatism. This is evidenced in Israeli popular support for Netanyahu’s negotiations with Hamas over a prisoner exchange, border-crossing issues, and informal understandings on a cease-fire. Although only 36 percent of Israelis consider their own prime minister “honest and trustworthy,” according to our results (this compares with 55 percent who attribute these qualities to Obama), a commanding 69 percent approve of Netanyahu’s handling of security. Indeed, the poll suggests that Netanyahu has far more wiggle room on the Palestinian issue than is generally assumed.

In the end, the poll shows that Israelis care most about regular bread-and-butter issues. When asked what would be their top reasons to support a peace, a “more normal life for our children” and “economic growth” come in first and second (polling 50 and 37 percent, respectively). Even recognition by 22 Arab states — so ardently pursued by the administration and promoted by Congress — motivates only 15 percent of Israelis.

In other words, Israelis see few reasons not to continue the occupation and are perhaps being offered the wrong kinds of incentives for choosing a different path. The behavior of Israel’s leadership is consistent with a short-term political calculation that Israelis aren’t willing to disrupt the present scenario. Continuing and even entrenching the occupation, for example, avoids hard and coalition-threatening political choices at home, incurs the most minimal international and domestic costs, and is not seen to defer new and meaningful benefits that Israelis would enjoy conditional on a peace deal. For any new peace effort to have a chance at breaking the logjam, then, its starting point will need to be the creation of a new architecture of incentives and disincentives — and Obama’s popularity, or lack thereof, will be left up to the people of Virginia.

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

Israeli Settlement

This piece also appears in The Huffington Post

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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