Not serious – this time

This piece also appears in Haaretz

Salam Fayyad

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

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

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

The list of questions goes on, but the paucity of answers from the PLO leadership suggests that it has yet to seriously consider a strategic alternative to its 16-year dependence on negotiations with Israel. In fact, the entire episode looked like another example of the PLO trying to leverage its weakness rather than rediscover or create new strengths.
Despite all this, the Palestinian flirtation with a new approach does have some significance. It is part of a new fluidity and questioning of assumptions that have entered the Israeli-Palestinian arena. Palestinian civil society, for instance, has long ceased to rely on its leadership’s strategies for achieving de-occupation. Inside the territories, nonviolent resistance, notably to the separation barrier, continues to gather adherents and momentum. Outside, the campaigns for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel are growing to dimensions that should make Israel’s leaders sit up and take notice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

On U.S Middle East Policy and Amateurism

This piece also appears in The Washington Note

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

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

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

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

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

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

The administration had three possible options in responding:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unsettling Questions

 This piece appears at Foreign Policy online

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Do settlements really matter?

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

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

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

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

5. So, what’s next?

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

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

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.

More Than Just a Photo-Op

Barack Obama’s handshake meeting with Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu is not getting nearly the credit it deserves. In fact, Obama’s Mideast peace strategy is far more sophisticated than most observers realize.

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This piece also appeared in Foreign Policy

Headlines are now being prepared following U.S. President Barack Obama’s convening of a trilateral Israeli-Palestinian-American peace summit today in New York. Many will seek to belittle the president’s efforts thus far. The summit was being dismissed as a photo-op before it even happened.

The right, in the United States and in Israel, will spin this meeting as further proof of the young president’s foreign policy naïveté. Prioritizing Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution, creating expectations in the Arab world, and publicly disagreeing with Israel, on settlements for instance, are all exhibits in the right’s case against the new administration (Steven Rosen here on ForeignPolicy.com provided a boiler-plate incantation of this hawkish line).

The spin from the left, in the United States and in the Arab world, is just as predictable. The president blinked on settlements when Israel said boo, the Palestinians have been thrown under a bus, and the U.S. is pursuing more of the same failed incrementalist policies.

In large measure, both of these views are wrong. The contours of a strategic methodical Obama approach to achieving the comprehensive Mideast peace of which he speaks are starting to become visible.

The way in which today’s trilateral was announced is in itself instructive. Special Envoy George Mitchell was getting played by the parties last week as they tried to leverage America’s desire to see the three-way meeting take place. Sometimes that is the lot of an envoy. It is also an advantage of having an envoy, allowing the president to step in, cut to the chase, and simply announce where and when the parties were expected to report for a meeting with him. The Americans decided that this week’s news cycle would not be dominated by the vagaries of Middle Eastern leaders’ mood swings or the potentially embarrassing ‘will they-won’t they’ speculation about an Abbas-Netanyahu meet. Obama decided. The trilateral happened. It’s over on Tuesday, now move on to climate change and nonproliferation.

While some on the Israeli side (with many Arab commentators agreeing) will be portraying this as an Israeli win, with Obama weakened and Abbas squaring up to a large helping of humble pie, I think that’s a misreading of the current state of play.

Let’s take the issue that has received most attention – settlements. Analysts will jump on the fact that a meaningful settlement freeze has not been achieved and that President Obama called today to “restrain” such activity, a seeming climb-down from his previous statements. While it is certainly true that some of the newfound Middle Eastern goodwill toward the U.S. has been squandered by the American inability to deliver a freeze and a price has been paid in America’s standing and credibility, something else has also been happening that is likely to prove more significant over time.

By holding Israel’s feet to the fire over settlements for a sustained period, America may actually have achieved a great deal in strategically advancing the two-state goal. The most significant effect may be this: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s preferred approach was to focus on interim issues and confidence-building measures (CBMs) and to avoid negotiating the core issues (territories, settlements, Jerusalem, etc.) on which his positions are the most unreasonable. In particular, Netanyahu has attempted to advance an economic peace agenda, with his supporters feverishly spinning the idea that the West Bank is becoming an economic paradise. The Obama team has staked out a clear position – items number 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 on the interim/CBM agenda are entitled “settlement freeze.” They have been giving short shrift, including today, to the economic peace narrative (they acknowledge the desirability of progress on the economy and freedom of movement, and should even congratulate themselves that the partial progress made is mainly a result of the heat Israel feels on settlements).

The result: The settlement freeze focus has made Netanyahu’s natural comfort zone — the interim/CBM world — a prohibitively uncomfortable place to inhabit. So paradoxically, it is Netanyahu who now feels compelled to embrace and prefer negotiations on permanent status end-game issues. That is no small achievement.

In addition, the most right-wing government in Israel’s history is, in practical terms, limiting its pro-settlements proclivities, and a tantalizing pivot has been established: namely, that having failed to reach acceptable arrangements on a settlements freeze, the best and obvious alternative is to proceed now to delineate borders. In other words, the territory — the border component of the two-state deal — becomes the default solution to what the Americans have established, possibly in a premeditated way, as the never-ending settlement freeze saga.

The cherry on the icing emerged today when the president notably and crucially failed to give a formal blessing to continued construction in East Jerusalem and in almost 3,000 settlement units as an “agreed exemption clause.” By not providing this kosher stamp, by calling for restraint, actions not just words, America (just) retained its credibility on the settlements issue. So the settlements focus can best be understood as an important exercise in setting down a marker, even though it is also an important issue in its own right.

This is also the best way to understand the Mitchell team’s several months’ worth of investment in obtaining Arab gestures toward early normalization with Israel. The point here was not necessarily the immediate deliverables, which may be meager, but rather to create an expectation. This administration is serious about comprehensive peace, and the Arab states will need to be serious about making good on their full normalization pledge, which is part of the Arab Peace Initiative. Mitchell has begun to seriously have that conversation and to get people’s heads in the Arab world around the idea of what normalization really means.

What we have been witnessing thus far, including today, has been a table-setting exercise. President Obama’s message today continued to emphasize key themes — the urgency of achieving a two-state solution, his personal engagement and commitment, and why this is an American national interest. Starting on day one, as Obama did, rather than in year seven as his predecessor did, has its advantages. It allows one to invest several months and even to reach an impasse in order to make a point. I would argue that this administration is determinedly and inexorably moving this process toward a moment of truth that may take another several months or more to arrive, but arrive it will.

The straw-man argument that a focus on CBMs and economic peace can substitute for end-game negotiations has been defenestrated. A settlement freeze will continue to be pursued but will now be delinked from these permanent status negotiations, which will be launched in parallel, and the Palestinians will be walked back from their preconditions. Israelis and Palestinians will be brought together to negotiate directly but with an ongoing American presence and guiding hand.

More than that, in fact, one can expect the existing modus operandi to continue, with most of the serious talks and negotiations taking place on three parallel axes of dialogue: American-Israeli, American-Palestinian, and American-Arab states. Most of that will be via the continuous shuttling of Mitchell and his team, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (who is more keenly involved in Middle East peace efforts than is often acknowledged) and President Obama being deployed as and when necessary.

Over time, one imagines that those key issues that have been addressed only tentatively thus far, or that have even remained taboo, will also be taken on. Syria, for instance, will at the appropriate moment need to shift from the orbit of hesitantly engaged outlier, to being a centerpiece in a comprehensive peace effort. A way will also need to be found to deal with the Hamas “untouchables.” Ultimately, that might mean an indirect engagement via a consortium of regional and other actors (such as the Saudis, Qataris, Turks, and others, including but not exclusively Egypt) or by actively encouraging and accepting internal Palestinian political reconciliation.

If there is indeed a strategy here, and I at least think one can be discerned, then it is heading towards the presentation and active promotion, at the appropriate moment, of an American plan for implementing a comprehensive peace. America will have to recognize that it is dealing on the Israeli and Palestinian sides, for all their differences, with two deeply dysfunctional polities. The parties simply cannot do this of their own volition, and this is too important for them and for America for it to be left to the mercy of the vicissitudes of their respective domestic politics. America will have to create the incentives and also the disincentives.

It is not a question of wanting this more or less than the parties themselves. It is about who is best placed to carry this effort over the finishing line — and only determined American leadership with international support can achieve that. Senator Mitchell frequently talks about his 700 days of frustration in Northern Ireland and one day of decisive, break-through success.

Today’s trilateral may register on the frustrating side of the ledger, but President Obama has set off on a path that can lead to that one game-changing day of peace-making. Given the urgency, as acknowledged again by the president today, let’s hope he dramatically trims down that 700 number.

Israel Must Now Heal Itself

 This also appears on the Guardian online

The report of the UN fact-finding mission on the Gaza conflict is outrageous, a disgrace. The mission’s head, Richard Goldstone, was the chair of the Friends of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, chair of the World ORT education organisation with more than 150 schools in Israel and a self-declared friend of Israel whose daughter made aliyah – Zionist emigration to Israel – and she told Israeli army radio this week, “Israel is more important to me than anything.”

Wait a moment, that doesn’t sound right. Ah, here it is – the report of the UN fact-finding mission on the Gaza conflict is outrageous, a disgrace. The UN Human Rights Council is composed of non-democratic, Israel-hating, human rights-violating nations and the mission was born in sin to delegitimise Israel and excuse terrorism.

That second narrative has been pushed harder since the report’s publication, but they are equally ridiculous. Indeed there exist two extreme poles of response to a report such as this: one, of the reflexive Israel-haters for whom this is a gotcha moment extraordinaire, and they gleefully wave the latest proof that Israel is a world pariah without parallel. Their mirror image is the pavlovian and delusional Israel-can-do-no-wrong crowd, for whom behind any serious critique of Israel lays the nefarious machinations of age-old antisemitism, singling out the Jewish state and to hell with the facts.

But for the vast majority of non- or only mildly partisan individuals with a capacity for cognitive reflection, the Goldstone report should be treated seriously and even perhaps as a wake-up call.

The report investigates events during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead from 27 December 2008 to 18 January 2009, the context in which they occurred and the events preceding and following that operation. In 574 pages of painstaking and well-documented detail, the report is unsparing and casts a broad net in its criticism. It finds grounds for concern that Israel did not take necessary precautions to protect Gaza’s civilians. This covers disproportionate use of force, targeting of civilians and the foundations of civilian life, among other things, all against the backdrop of the sophisticated and precision weaponry at Israel’s disposal (Israel is a world leader in defence and military R&D and manufacturing, and was the world’s third-largest arms exporter in 2008).

The Hamas-led authorities in Gaza are accused of indiscriminately and deliberately attacking the civilian population in southern Israel, as well as the targeting and use of violence against internal actors and notably Fatah opponents inside Gaza. Even the Palestinian Authorities in the West Bank are cited for their violence targeting Hamas supporters and restrictions applied on the opposition’s freedom of movement and assembly.

In its conclusions, the report calls for a process to be set in motion of independent investigations by the respective local authorities whose veracity would be internationally verified, and for procedures that include referrals to the UN security council and ultimately the international criminal court in The Hague and even recourse to national courts using universal jurisdiction in states that are parties to the 1949 Geneva conventions. Both Israeli and Hamas officials have expressed opposition to the report, although the latter have praised parts of it and are considering implementing the investigation recommended by the mission.

Most of the pushback and the vituperative attacks have come from the Israeli side, and indeed while comprehensive, the preponderance of the report does deal with Israel’s actions. This is no coincidence. The overwhelming majority of causalities and destruction were incurred on the Palestinian side (which is not to detract from the fact that all loss is tragic). The report is forthright in acknowledging the power dynamic at work, noting that there is no equating “the position of Israel as the occupying power with that of the occupied Palestinian population or entities representing it. The differences with regard to the power and capacity to inflict harm or to protect, including by securing justice when violations occur, are obvious and a comparison is neither possible nor necessary” (report, clause 1,673, p521).

This relationship of power is crucial – too many Israelis and Palestinians have effectively dehumanised the other, but the practical policy and operational consequences of that dehumanisation are very different for an occupying power as opposed to an occupied people. Since the report’s publication, and in the context of its pushback, Israel has bemoaned a different power dynamic, namely that investigations such as these are not conducted when it comes to, for instance, American transgressions in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Indeed, it is not a fair world: the Palestinians are to Israel as Israel is to America. Ironically, it is international human rights law and humanitarian law, the essence of this report, that exists to partially redress this unfairness.

The official Israeli response has followed a familiar if disappointingly ritualistic pattern. The emphasis has been on pre-emptively discrediting the report’s findings rather than substantively addressing them. Israel’s key claim – that the mission had concluded its findings in advance of its investigation – would appear to be true, only in reverse: namely that the Israeli government had decided on its response to the report in advance of its publication.

Official Israel refused to co-operate with the mission, refused to meet with its members or grant them official entry into Israel (or to the West Bank or Gaza via Israel), and had even banned the media from being in Gaza at the time of Operation Cast Lead. Israeli officials have marched in lock-step in their assertive rejection of the report, from the avuncular figure of Shimon Peres right down to the pugnacious ex-bouncer foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman (lambasting the report from, of all places, Serbia – no sense of irony was detected).

Israel has launched a veritable global PR offensive. The relentless bashing of the UN Human Rights Council, reconstituted in 2006 (and certainly far from perfect), sits uneasily with the fact that the US assumed a seat on the council this year and along with others is working to reform and upgrade that body’s standing. However, this response is in part understandable. The report is very problematic, and offence as the best form of defence is as natural in the political world as in the sporting arena. But a PR-centric response is insufficient, both substantively and legally.

The Goldstone report is only the most recent, albeit the most important, of a series of investigations that Israel has chosen to dismiss as biased. Israel has, I would argue, mistakenly chosen not to undertake its own independent commission of inquiry. Had that taken place, the Goldstone report would either never have been commissioned or (assuming a credible Israeli inquiry) would never have suggested referral to the UN security council or the international criminal court. Instead, Israel produced a 157-page internal report mainly conducted by the IDF on the Gaza operation, but this serves as an exercise in self-justification, not investigation.

For months, the Israeli human rights community has been beseeching its government to launch a credible, independent Israeli inquiry as the alternative to being hauled in front of the international community. Nine Israeli human rights NGOs responded to the Goldstone report by repeating this call and suggesting the Israeli government take the Goldstone findings seriously.

Such an inquiry would not be unheard of – prominent precedents exist such as the Kahan Commission Report on Sabra and Shatila in 1982, the Winograd Commission Report on the events of military engagement in Lebanon 2006 and the Or Commission Report with regard to the treatment of Israeli-Arabs. There was even the SELA Disengagement Authority Report in 2006 to investigate the functioning of the administration established to absorb Gaza settlers following the withdrawal.

Will a UN mission manage to nudge Israel in ways that the reports by human rights NGOs, including Israeli ones, failed to do? The instinctive answer would be no. Israel, if anything, has entered into more of a hunker-down mode with its highly dismissive response and has a track record of deep suspicion towards the UN. Repetitions of the mantra that the IDF is the most moral army in the world are again being heard from Jerusalem. Yet closer examination of these first 48 hours since the report’s publication suggest the picture is more nuanced. One of Israel’s most prominent, uncritical and rightist commentators, Ben Dror Yemini in the daily Maariv suggested that the lesson perhaps was that Israel should have ended the war after the first 48 hours of the strike. Haaretz’s Aluf Benn argued that Israel would not be able to act in such a way again after this report, a comment quite widely echoed.

While official Israel is now focusing on out-manoeuvring the implementation of Goldstone’s recommendations, it is also coming closer to a recognition that there may be consequences and repercussions for what happened during the Gaza operation. Israel’s image was already tarnished but the attention that a report of such magnitude attracts and the unimpeachable credibility and standing of its lead author, Goldstone, may cause many who dismissed previous reports to take a second look. This is likely to be a cause for particular division and concern within Jewish communities. Those groups who unquestioningly attack the report’s veracity find themselves further alienated from significant swaths of Jewish opinion, especially among the younger generation. But it is in the arena of practical judicial consequences and of implications for future behaviour that the Goldstone report could have most impact.

In these matters there is always a tension between the demands of seeking justice now and of influencing the course of future events. I anticipate that the constellation of political forces will mean that this does not reach international criminal proceedings, and I have no desire to see Israelis appearing before such tribunals. But what this report does, and this is one of its most significant contributions, is to point a finger at a failure and in fact an illegitimacy to the overall policy that guided Israel’s actions in Gaza. The report finds that the manifestations of human rights violations in Gaza were the structural byproduct of policies that encouraged the targeting of civilians – namely, an expansive definition of the so-called infrastructure of terrorism and an intentional price-tag of disproportionality.

In its Lebanon war of summer 2006, Israel declared the existence of a Dahiya doctrine, after the southern Beirut neighbourhood of the same name, a Hizbullah stronghold. The Goldstone report quotes the IDF’s then head of northern command as stating, “What happened in the Dahiya quarter of Beirut in 2006 will happen in every village from which Israel is fired on … we apply disproportionate force on it and cause great damage and destruction there … This is a plan, and it has been approved” (report, p329). Israel applied the Dahiya doctrine in Gaza.

The second doctrine is an expansive definition of the so-called “supportive infrastructure of terrorism”, whose practical application, according to the report, by extension made “the foundations of civilian life” and the “civilian population” a target. Since the Hamas election victory in 2006 and more assertively after the Hamas Gaza takeover in 2007, a policy was quite openly proclaimed that was sometimes known as the “West Bank first” approach. Living conditions in the West Bank would be improved while Gaza would be kept at a subsistence level, with the supposed intention of turning the population against their rulers. Instructively, the report digs deep into this issue, explaining the system of blockade imposed on Gaza prior to the operation and the attempt to deny Gazans a dignified living. The precise term for this is collective punishment. It is a short distance from this collective punishment to what was pursued during the operation, which translated into the targeting of governmental institutions, police services, prisons and even hospitals.

On this score, Israel is far from standing alone in the dock – the international community was complicit and in some cases actively assisted this policy. Many of us considered it to be misguided – the ceasefire period after June 2008 was far more effective in providing southern Israel with security and may well have achieved more had the siege been lifted. There is now a strong body of evidence to suggest that it was also illegal under international law. In some measure, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank lent a hand to this policy, presumably out of a calculation of its own political gain. Egypt too lent a hand by maintaining the closure of Gaza’s one non-Israeli controlled entry/exit point to the world – the Rafah border crossing in Egyptian Sinai (it is true that Egypt was under pressure to adhere to this policy, but it is a sovereign state and makes its own choices). Some members of the Quartet and the international donor community were too timid in raising their opposition. Others were instrumental in implementing the policy. The report explicitly acknowledges this international failure, and this is one reason among many for a likely lack of appetite of international actors to pursue the legal recourse that the report recommends.

It is, however, time to acknowledge the inadmissibility of the twin policies of a Dahiya doctrine and of collective punishment, based on an expansive definition of the so-called infrastructure of terrorism. I hope that Israel will do so, at least privately and practically, if not declaratively.

Finally, Goldstone’s report is clearly asking to be interpreted as a red flag regarding future behaviour. The report makes a central theme of the ongoing impunity and lack of accountability of actions taken by Israel in the context of its occupation of the Palestinian territories: “The prolonged situation of impunity has created a justice crisis in the oPT that warrants action” (p543, item 1,755).

There is no military solution. Israel, in fact, negatively affects its own population’s security by pursuing one, let alone what it does to the situation of the Palestinians. The endless and ever-more-entrenched occupation constitutes the greatest threat to Israel and its future. Reading this report powerfully brings home the fierce urgency of a political solution. Certainly the report’s findings on human rights violations will have to be addressed, and it would be advisable for Israel to do so with its own investigation. I hope that any resolution that the UN security council may vote on in six months is one that approves an internationally sponsored peace plan for a viable and dignified two-state solution, and not one that sends the legal pursuit of Israel’s actions to the international criminal court.

From the perspective of a friend and supporter of Israel – wishing to see Israel healed and its future guaranteed – the message is loud and clear. To rephrase a well-known adage, occupation corrupts, but prolonged occupation corrupts profoundly.

The Economist Debate – Closing Statements

David Frum and I posted our closing statements on The Economist’s website this morning. So far, the the daily polls have been quite consistent, with about sixty percent affirming that “This house believes that Barack Obama’s America is now an honest broker between Israel and the Arabs,” and forty percent voting against the motion.  

Since Frum and I posted our opening statements on Tuesday, July 21, the debate has been augmented by articles from some great guest authors: Henry Siegman (president of the US/Middle East project), John Mearsheimer (the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, and coauthor of The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy), James Zogby (founder and president of the Arab American Institute), Michael Singh (the Ira Weiner fellow at The Washington Institute and former senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council), and Aaron David Miller (author of The Much Too Promised Land and public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington D.C.)
 

Once again, I encourage everyone to both follow along with the debate and vote. Below is an excerpt from my closing statement:

Assuming then that Obama’s America, while maintaining and respecting the America-Israel special relationship, wants to play an honest broker role, a key question arises in this debate and elsewhere: are such efforts doomed to failure by American domestic politics, traditionally heavily favouring uncritical pro-Israel positions? I would argue not. A popular American president, who is determined, and can articulate how a particular Middle East policy serves American national security interests, while explaining how that policy also helps Israel (even if the Israeli government of the day disagrees), will eventually carry the day.

Yes, lobbies play an important role in American politics, and the Israel issue is not immune to that—far from it. But even the best-funded lobbies don’t win every time. And, the so-called Israel lobby is neither homogenous nor omnipotent. There is also a changing environment. The American Jewish community is overwhelmingly liberal and is now finding new vehicles to express nuanced and progressive positions that are supportive of Israel, but not “Greater Israel”. Notable are the successes already notched up by J Street, established fifteen months ago and active in online campaigning and political lobbying (full disclosure: I serve on J Street’s advisory board).

So, an honest broker role that acknowledges the specificity of the American context and retains the special relationship is politically possible. It is not, though, by any means politically cost-free.

Continue reading here.