Thursday, 30 December 2010

December Reviewed

Neither breakthrough nor breakdown

Early in December it became undeniable that the impetus towards achieving a settlement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority had slowed almost to a stop. Brokered painstakingly from the beginning of 2010 by the US Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, the process had moved slowly into an initial “proximity” talks phase which, against all the odds, managed to weather the storms of the Ramat Shlomo building project in East Jerusalem; the consequential spat between President Obama and the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu; recourse by PA President Mahmoud Abbas to the Arab League for political cover; and the tragic Mavi Marmara affair.

And then, against all the odds, but certainly as the result of the most intensive diplomatic and political activity on the part of Washington – and despite a succession of spoiling actions by various extremist groups, aimed at destabilising the situation – Arab League foreign ministers proceeded to give the OK to Mahmoud Abbas to enter direct peace talks with Israel if and when he wanted to.

As a result, perhaps the most surprising event of the year occurred on 20 August when, at a press conference, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, were to begin direct peace talks in Washington on 2 September. This meeting, said Clinton, was intended to "re-launch direct negotiations to resolve all final status issues, which," she said, "we believe we can complete in one year." Clinton said she herself would host the first direct Israel-Palestinian negotiating session on 2 September, and that President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan had also been invited to join that first discussion.

As we now know, that first session indeed took place amid many honeyed words and assurances from both sides that the framework of a final settlement would be a possibility within 12 months. But the worm lurking at the heart of the situation was that Israel’s 10-month freeze on construction in the West Bank was scheduled to end on 26 September. Clearly Mahmoud Abbas cherished the hope that, in view of the opening of direct talks and the lightening of the political atmosphere, Israel’s building freeze would be renewed – and indeed extended to cover East Jerusalem. If that was indeed his hope it was a vain one, for he reckoned without the right-wing elements within Netanyahu’s fragile coalition – the coalition he relied on to remain in power. So Abbas’s position hardened, and he finally made the return of the Palestinians to the negotiating table entirely dependent on a renewed construction moratorium covering not only the West Bank but East Jerusalem as well.

Israel too adopted a harder line, and maintained that there would be no renewed building freeze without some compensation – such as recognition by the PA of Israel as a Jewish state. This proposition the Palestinians rejected out of hand. And so it was left to the US to attempt to patch together some sort of formula that would enable the peace process to continue.

That formula, which rumour has it is still a possibility, has so far failed to materialise, but US special envoy George Mitchell has meanwhile returned to the region, and has virtually reopened the earlier proximity talks method of keeping dialogue going between two sides who, for the moment, are not prepared to meet face to face.

A sad way to end a year that opened with such high hopes of a possible breakthrough in the apparently endless conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

Meanwhile the Palestinians have opened a new front in their search for a sovereign state – moves suggesting the possibility of a unilateral declaration of statehood. They have begun to woo such bodies as the United Nations General Assembly, the UN Security Council, the European Union and as many countries as possible to grant them recognition as a state within the borders of the West Bank and Gaza as they were on 4 June 1967 – the day before the Six Day War.

And indeed on Christmas Eve 2010 Ecuador became the fifth Latin American state formally to recognise Palestine on this basis. Following his neighbours Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, which took this step earlier in December, Ecuador's President Rafael Correa signed "the Ecuadoran government's official recognition of Palestine as a free and independent state with 1967 borders."

The term "the 1967 borders" has been part of the Arab-Israeli peace process lexicon for over five years, but the plain fact of the matter is that in 1967 there was no recognized international border between the West Bank and Israel. What existed was the 1949 Armistice Line – basically where Israeli and Arab forces found themselves at the formal end of Israel's first battle against the combined Arab armies that surrounded it. And all sides agree that a final agreement will have to incorporate land swaps aimed at ensuring secure borders for both Israel and the future Palestine.

In virtual acknowledgement that the"1967 borders" would be totally inadequate as a basis for establishing a sovereign Palestine, the EU, although recently reaffirming its readiness to recognise a Palestinian state at an "appropriate" time, stopped short of doing so and instead reaffirmed support for "a negotiated solution" between the two sides "within the 12 months set by the Quartet" of international mediators.
The fact that this approach is unlikely in itself to prove fruitful may not inhibit Abbas from pursuing it, on the grounds that to do so may exert such a degree of psychological pressure on Israel's hard-line rightists that – to quote the Johnny Mercer song – "something's gotta give."

Meanwhile PA prime minister Salam Fayyad has not abandoned his August 2011 deadline for preparing for Palestinian statehood (and by implication Israeli withdrawal) – a deadline which, by coincidence or not, exactly matches that endorsed by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and PA President Mahmoud Abbas at their first direct face-to-face discussion on 2 September for reaching agreement on a framework settlement.

And so December comes to an end. The year 2010, though it achieved a memorable climax in the opening of direct talks in September, certainly witnessed no breakthrough in the long voyage towards an accord between Israelis and Palestinians. But equally the peace process has not broken down; it has stalled, as any vessel may do in stormy weather, battered by wind and waves. The ship can, and surely will, be repaired, and the journey towards a just and durable peace between Israel and a sovereign state of Palestine finally brought to a successful conclusion.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Israel-Palestine – can Obama’s errors be rectified?

Bradley Burston, an American-born Israeli journalist, is a regular columnist for the influential daily, Ha’aretz. In today’s edition (21 December), he produces a brilliant analysis of the mistakes President Obama has perpetrated in his Middle East strategy. He weighs the effectiveness of Obama’s strategy against Sun Tzu's ancient The Art of War.

He starts by quoting two of Sun Tzu’s basic principles:
We cannot enter into alliances until we are acquainted with the designs of our neighbours.
He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared.

Burston points out how very effectively Obama followed these principles in much of his domestic policy, and how abysmally he failed to do so in respect of his approach to the Middle East. Burston reckons the President should have taken more fully into account the inherently hardline background and beliefs of Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu; the instability of Netanyahu’s coalition foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, the former nightclub bouncer determined to bar entry to any peace progress; and should have made a realistic assessment of the chance of a working rapprochement between Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Ismail Haniyeh's Hamas in Gaza.

The last point is worth emphasising, for of what value would a peace accord be between Israel and a Palestinian Authority whose writ ran only in the West Bank? The past year has shown that every attempt to broker an understanding between Hamas and Fatah – the party of President Mahmoud Abbas – has failed. Hamas are irretrievably rejectionist – not only of any sort of peace accord with Israel, but of any rapprochement with the PA. They seized power in Gaza in a bloody coup d’état, and their aim clearly is to extend their power over the rest of the Palestinian body politic, converting it to their extreme Islamist ideology.

“A lack of movement in any one of these three elements alone,” writes Burston, “would have been sufficient to impede Washington's peace overtures. Together, they guaranteed defeat. But,” he adds, “that was just the beginning.”

To illustrate Obama’s failure in respect of his settlement policy, he quotes another of Sun Tzus’s principles: The clever combatant imposes his will on the enemy, but does not allow the enemy's will to be imposed on him. Burston asserts, not without reason, that Obama's demand for a freeze on building in the West Bank settlements including East Jerusalem played into the hands of the pro-settlement right (for to the fury of many in Israeli politics, and not only those on the right, Washington persisted in including East Jerusalem in the demand for a construction freeze).

“Had more groundwork been laid,” asserts Burston, “the administration might have concluded, correctly, that the demand for a settlement freeze would have done more harm than good. As it was, the freeze made Washington look bad for no gain and considerable pain.”

Burston asserts that if the administration had taken more time and care, it might have realized in advance that the original 10-month building freeze would not in itself be enough to bring the PA back to negotiations. In fact, once the freeze had run its course, the subsequent high-profile dispute over continued Israeli construction both in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem brought the first phase of the peace process to a juddering halt.

Even more to the point – something Burston does not touch on – the moment that Washington made public its view that all construction on the West Bank and East Jerusalem was unacceptable and should be halted (and this it did quite early on and reiterated more than once), the US administration had effectively backed Mahmoud Abbas into a corner from which there was no escape. Without so clear-cut an opinion from America, Abbas could have brokered a deal with Netanyhau, an understanding of the sort that has existed for many years. Construction in the West Bank has never inhibited previous attempts by Israel and the Palestinians to talk about the issues. It has proved an insurmountable stumbling block this time simply because the US has made it so – and in the process has strengthened the hands of Obama's pro-settlement, anti-peace process opponents in Israel and the United States.

Then there was the matter of Obama's Cairo address to the Muslim and Arab world in June 2009. "The intention was good," wrote commentator Nahum Barnea, visiting Chicago this month to interview Rahm Emanuel for Israel’s leading Hebrew language newspaper, Yediot Aharonot. “The result was destructive.” Obama sought to turn a new leaf with Arabs and Islamic peoples, wrote Barnea, but in the wake of the speech, "the Muslims he failed to gain, and the Israelis he lost."

According to Barnea, "Obama's path in the twists and turns of the Mideast has been paved with errors." Barnea's list:

Mistake A: Obama was convinced that the Palestinian issue was first on the order of priorities of pro-American Arab leaders, and that a working peace process would win their gratitude. But given Wikileaks, what the Arab leaders really wanted was for the U.S. "to annihilate Iran for them.”
Mistake B: Turning the peace process into "a hostage of the settlement freeze."
Mistake C: Thinking that the Israeli Labour leader, Ehud Barak, a conviction dove on the peace process, could effectively influence Netanyahu.
Mistake D: Making the same error with Israel that he had with the Arabs, that is, thinking that there was a connection between what Netanyahu said in public, and what he did in practice.

The end result? A foundering of the first phase of the peace process that had been so painstakingly brokered by Obama’s Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, and finally brought to the point of direct face-to-face talks at the start of September.

Can Humpty Dumpty be put back together again? Well, in the nursery rhyme all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t achieve it – but in international politics anything is possible. Nil desperandum, as the Roman poet Horace has it – “Don’t despair.”

For two senior US officials arrived in Israel on Sunday (19 December) to continue discussions with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and officials, as part of the Obama administration's attempt to revive the diplomatic process between the two sides. Dan Shapiro, Director of the US National Security Council, and David Hale, deputy to US Middle East Envoy George Mitchell, are set to meet with senior prime ministerial aides Isaac Molho, Ron Dermer and Uzi Arad. They will also meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and the PA's chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat.

Also on Sunday, a group of over 100 Israeli politicians and activists from across the political spectrum visited PA President Mahmoud Abbas and other Palestinian leaders in Ramallah, under the auspices of the Geneva Initiative. The delegation was led by former Labour Chairman Amram Mitzna. It included members of Israel's parliament, the Knesset, from the centrist Kadima and left-leaning Labour and Meretz parties, as well as activists from the centre-right Likud party and ultra-Orthodox Shas party. Abbas told the gathering that he had reached understandings with former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert on security issues during talks in 2008, and rejected accusations that he had failed to respond to Olmert's peace proposal.

With many in Israel sceptical about the chances of a breakthrough in final status talks, there are various voices calling for an alternative approach, including the opposition Kadima party’s deputy leader and former Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz. Ideas include some form of interim agreement, as opposed to a final status accord, which would give the Palestinians greater control over the West Bank, whilst deferring for now the final status issues.

All of which are straws in the wind, indicating ways in which the peace process might indeed be revived, and Phase Two launched, in 2011. "A consummation," as Shakespeare so felicitously puts it, "devoutly to be wished."

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Israeli-Palestinian peace – Phase Two

The Obama administration clearly has no intention of turning its back on the Israel-Palestinian peace process. Phase One, which climaxed at the end of August in an unparalleled display of bonhomie between Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, has run itself into the ground. At the launch the two sides agreed on the goal of a framework agreement within a year. But since the conclusion of Israel's 10-month settlement freeze at the end of September, the process has stalled. Netanyahu found it politically impossible to extend the freeze and keep his coalition together, while Abbas was unwilling to continue direct talks without an extension of the freeze.

The US attempted to address this problem by getting Israel to extend the freeze for a temporary period, in return for a package of US incentives. Washington hoped that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over a 90-day period might make enough progress on core issues, particularly on borders, to build trust between the parties and keep them both at the table. At the end of last week the US acknowledged that this approach had not worked. Netanyahu was struggling to get the deal past his coalition, and the Palestinians looked set to reject the settlement freeze anyway because it would not explicitly include East Jerusalem.

Frankly admitting that Phase One of the peace process had foundered, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week provided a detailed explanation of the Obama administration's plans to move it forward. Whilst the US had given up for now the hope of direct talks, Clinton also made clear that they did not support any attempt to impose a solution. Instead, they now proposed to try to make progress by getting the parties to set out their positions in dialogue with the US. Washington will then try to narrow gaps by asking ‘tough questions and expecting substantive answers', and will ‘offer our own ideas and bridging proposals when appropriate.'

Clinton stated that the defined goal remains ‘a framework agreement that would establish the fundamental compromises on all permanent status issues and pave the way for a final peace treaty', as agreed by the parties at the September summit. The one-year timetable has been conspicuously dropped, but the determination of the US to move forward with this issue appears as strong as ever.

US special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, maintains a pivotal role in this process, and so a first step was for him to return to the region, and virtually resume the “proximity talks” which preceded the reopening of face-to-face negotiations.

George Mitchell met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak yesterday (Wednesday, 15 December), and briefed him on the latest developments. Now, according to a news agency report today, 16 December, Mitchell has proposed that the United States holds separate, parallel talks with Israelis and Palestinians for six weeks, to discuss security and borders, in order to enable Washington to develop a strategy for the eventual re-launch of direct negotiations. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to convene his 'septet' of senior ministers to discuss the new proposal.

Mitchell’s meeting with President Mubarak came as Arab League foreign ministers rejected any talks between Israeli and Palestinian representatives unless the US commits itself on the issue of the borders of a future Palestinian state. The ministers also agreed to go to the UN Security Council to seek a resolution against the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

What is, perhaps, significant, is that the Arab League has as yet not endorsed either of the two threats made by Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas, and which appear to represent his current position. One is to break off – or at least not to re-enter – the peace process unless Israel agrees to a complete freeze on building in all West Bank settlements including East Jerusalem. The other is to seek UN Security Council recognition for what might be termed a “unilateral declaration of statehood” by the Palestinian Authority. A significant factor inhibiting any such action by the League might be that Hillary Clinton’s recent speech included an explicit rejection of the idea. And since the US is in a position to veto any such move in the Security Council, a statement by the Arab League supporting the idea would be a somewhat empty gesture.

It may also be of significance that earlier in the week the EU, although reaffirming its readiness to recognise a Palestinian state at an "appropriate" time, stopped short of outright recognition despite mounting pressure from a minority of states to seek to break the Middle East impasse in this way, and despite Argentina and Uruguay joining Brazil in actually declaring that they recognised an independent Palestinian state.

The fact is that, following long and prickly negotiations, EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels adopted a statement that falls short of an ultimatum and breaks little new ground. So while the EU statement expresses "regret" at Israel's rejection of a new freeze, describing settlements as "illegal" and "an obstacle to peace", it underlines EU support for "a negotiated solution" between the two sides "within the 12 months set by the Quartet" of international mediators.

It does, however, also welcome a recent World Bank assessment that the Palestinian Authority "is well positioned for the establishment of a state at any point in the near future" and goes on to say that the EU "reiterates its readiness, when appropriate, to recognise a Palestinian state." “When appropriate” are the operative words and, in the light of what the EU foreign ministers say, appear to mean “following a negotiated settlement.”

Let us hope so, as the hazard-strewn peace process sets out on Phase Two of its uncertain journey.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Israeli-Palestinian peace – the end of Phase One

That the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has stalled is undeniable. That it has foundered is almost certainly not the case – “almost” because nothing is certain, but the portents for a revival of negotiations are far from unfavourable.

For one thing, President Obama has invested too much political capital in achieving a Middle East breakthrough to walk away at the first major setback. For another, it is pretty obvious to the Arab League in general, and the Palestinian Authority in particular, that the first and best hope of achieving a sovereign Palestine lies in coming to an agreement with Israel. Yes, they have a couple of other options up their sleeves (eg seeking endorsement from the UN Security Council for a unilateral declaration of independence), but the chances of such a move achieving their objective are remote. For the reality of the situation is that the areas in the West Bank that they seek to acquire in order to create their state are in Israel’s hands as the occupying power, and would scarcely be handed over in the absence of a comprehensive peace agreement.

As for the Gaza Strip, Israel has vacated the area, but its administration was seized by the terrorist Islamist organisation, Hamas, in a bloody coup in June 2007. In the elections held in January 2006 for the Palestinian Legislative Council, Hamas won 74 seats to the ruling Fatah's 45. President Mahmoud Abbas accordingly formed a national unity government led by prime minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas. But sharing power with the Fatah nationalists did not suit Hamas. In four days in mid-June 2007 their ‘Executive Force’ seized control of the entire Gaza Strip, sweeping away key security services and the national militia. President Abbas responded by dissolving the national unity government and forming an emergency government led by former Finance Minister Salam Fayyad, based in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Since then Hamas and Fatah have been at daggers drawn, and all efforts to achieve a reconciliation have ended in failure. It is unlikely that Hamas would meekly hand Gaza over to Abbas in the event of a unilateral declaration of independence, when their aim is control of the whole Palestinian entity.

Nor is it as if the Palestinian Authority actually has an undisputed right to the areas in question. Strictly, the position at the moment is that the West Bank and the Gaza Strip belong to no nation. Following the 1948 war between Israel and the surrounding Arab states, the Gaza Strip was occupied by Egypt, but in March 1979 Egypt renounced any claim to the territory as part of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty – the agreement which, following the Camp David Accords, made Egypt the first Arab country officially to recognize Israel. As for the West Bank, at the time of the Six Day War in 1967 Jordan had assumed sovereignty of the area (by simply annexing the region, let it be said), but in July 1988 it renounced all claims to the area. Since neither the West Bank nor the Gaza Strip currently fall within the sovereignty of any nation, the establishment of a sovereign state of Palestine is essential in order to acquire them in the first place, and then to bestow legitimacy on their possession.

Which perhaps explains why Washington still declares itself utterly determined to press ahead with their declared aim of bringing the two-state solution to fruition.

Last Friday (10 December), in her speech before Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton provided a detailed explanation of the Obama administration's plans to move the Middle East peace process forward in the wake of the collapse of direct peace talks.

“We will push the parties to grapple with the core issues. We will work with them on the ground to continue laying the foundations for a future Palestinian state. And we will redouble our regional diplomacy. When one way is blocked, we will seek another. We will not lose hope and neither should the people of the region. We will deepen our support of the Palestinians’ state-building efforts, because we recognize that a Palestinian state, achieved through negotiations, is inevitable.”

Commenting that she shares “the deep frustrations” of so many parties invested in the peace process who have been concerned at its stalling in recent days, she said the US would be consulting assiduously with the parties to try to reignite direct talks.

Clinton's speech marked her first Middle East policy address after the United States abandoned efforts this week to persuade Israel to stop new construction of Jewish settlements, a step the Palestinians said was essential if they were to resume direct peace talks which collapsed just weeks after their September launch.

US Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell will head back to the region next week, and Clinton said diplomacy would now concentrate on a range of "core issues", all of which have so far proved difficult to resolve. These include borders and security, settlements, water, refugees, and Jerusalem itself, which Israel says is its capital but which the Palestinians also hope will serve as the capital of their future independent state.

On this key issue Israel's Defense Minster Ehud Barak, who spoke after Clinton at the Saban dinner, described the well-rehearsed solution of splitting the city. He said this issue would be discussed last and resolved along the lines set out back in 2000, namely “western Jerusalem and the Jewish suburbs for us, the heavily populated Arab neighborhoods for them, and an agreed upon solution in the ‘Holy Basin.’”

President Mahmoud Abbas has been manoeuvred by events into demanding the politically impossible from Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, as his price for returning to the negotiating table – namely a freeze on all building not only in the West Bank but in East Jerusalem. This is the log-jam that Washington is determined to break.

"Israeli and Palestinian leaders should stop trying to assign blame for the next failure," said Hillary Clinton, "and focus instead on what they need to do to make these efforts succeed." She emphasized the US commitment to the peace process and that its goal was "eventually restarting direct negotiations." She continued: "In the days ahead, our discussions with both sides will be substantive, two-way conversations, with an eye toward making real progress in the next few months on the key questions of an eventual framework agreement."

Nothing could be clearer than that. And as if to underline the US commitment, State Department spokesman PJ Crowley told reporters that the Middle East peace process had not unravelled, despite the failure of the Obama administration to keep direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians alive.

“I would say we're definitely not back at square one," said Crowley. "We think, through the many, many conversations and work that we've done over the course of almost two years, we've built a foundation for what lies ahead."

So there does indeed seem to be a future for a Phase Two in the long, wearisome peace process. The hope of a sovereign state of Palestine, living alongside the state of Israel, by agreement and in peace, is not dead.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

WikiLeaks exposes new realities in the Middle East

Following publication of the latest WikiLeaks documents, Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that, after sixty years of propaganda painting Israel as the greatest threat to the Middle East, for the first time in history there is agreement that Iran is the threat. "Israel has not been damaged at all by the WikiLeaks publications," Netanyahu told a group of editors. "The documents show many sources backing Israel's assessments, particularly of Iran."

And indeed WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, has shattered the widely-held “politically correct” view about the Middle East in the 21st century.

What is the accepted dogma? That the main cause of conflict in the Middle East is the Israeli-Palestinian situation, and that the essence of the conflict is Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Current emphasis is on the settlements and their expansion. Freeze the settlements, the argument runs, the peace talks will resume, the occupation will be brought to an end, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be solved and the Middle East will be stable.

This, writes Ari Shavit in Israel’s prestigious newspaper Ha’aretz, is “a kind of core belief that cannot be questioned.” He describes it as a “truth” that “formed the world view of enlightened élites in the West and directed the policies of the Western powers.”

“Then,” continues Shavit, “along came Assange and shattered the dogma. The secret documents that WikiLeaks published proved that the settlements, the occupation and even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were not the main problem in the Middle East. Assange proved that there was no connection between the real Middle East and the Middle East they talk about in The Washington Post, Le Monde and The Guardian. He revealed that the entire Arab world is currently busy with one problem only - Iran, Iran, Iran.”

What in fact do the leaked cables reveal? If the accounts of the conversations and the opinions reported in them are accurate – and there is no reason to suppose otherwise – they show that, contrary to their public positions, Arab leaders strongly support, and are indeed campaigning for, a US attack on Iran’s growing nuclear programme. According to the leaked documents Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah “frequently exhorted” the US to bomb Iran and “cut the head off the snake.” He warned Washington that if Iran acquired nuclear weapons, “everyone in the region would do the same, including Saudi Arabia.”

Abu Dhabi’s crown prince is reported to have said that Iran was seeking regional domination, and urged the Americans to “take out” its nuclear capacity, or even send ground troops. Iran “is going to take us to war … it’s a matter of time.”

The king of Bahrain said the US “must terminate” Iran’s nuclear programme, “by whatever means necessary”. Zeid Rifai, then president of Jordan’s senate, said: “Bomb Iran, or live with an Iranian bomb.” President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt expressed a “visceral hatred” for the Islamic Republic. Even Syria, according to conversations with Turkish officials, was sounding “alarm bells.”

Britain’s future secretary of state for defence, Dr Liam Fox, told the Americans that he thought the negotiations would fail and said that “the US and UK should work together to prevent a nuclear arms race” in the Middle East.

In short no government, Arab or Western, accepts Iran’s claim that its nuclear programme is merely peaceful. More to the point, perhaps, if ever a military strike by the US, or even Israel, on Iran’s nuclear capability were deemed essential, it could scarcely be followed by a universal outcry of condemnation given what the WikiLeaks documents have revealed.

And what effect has this new truth for the prospects of an Israeli-Palestinian accord? There is no doubt that the situation resulting from the Six Day War in 1967 must be resolved. The conflict is dangerous. A Palestinian sovereign state living in peace alongside Israel is the consensus objective of most parties that wish the region well. But the leaked diplomatic cables are telling us that, whether or not Palestinian President Abbas and Israeli prime minister Netanyahu resume the direct face-to-face talks and come to an accord, there will be no peace in the Middle East as long as the Arab world is living under Tehran's incessant threat. Iran is the heart of the problem. As long as Iran is growing stronger, is seeking nuclear weapons and is terrorizing the Middle East, there is no chance for peace.

The lesson seems to be that Iran must be dealt with, one way or another.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

WikiLeaks – the Israel-Palestine dimension

WikiLeaks, the website dedicated to publishing covertly acquired information, shook the diplomatic world on 28 November by starting to publish excerpts from more than 250,000 confidential United States documents it claims to have in its possession. In partnership with five Western newspapers, including the New York Times and the Guardian of London, it began putting out “redacted” versions of these documents – that is to say, the newspapers have cooperated with WikiLeaks in an attempt to reduce the potential danger to individuals from some of the more sensitive material, but not in any way to mitigate the embarrassment to the United States or its allies. It was quickly apparent that the disclosures have indeed angered Washington by exposing the inner workings of US diplomacy, including candid assessments of world leaders.

The diplomatic cables and other documents are being released in a drip-feed fashion, little by little, day by day – a tactic clearly designed to optimise their value to the newspapers who are cooperating with WikiLeaks in the operation. So far only a comparatively few have been concerned with the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, but on 1 December the founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, rather surprisingly defended his disclosure of the classified US documents by singling out Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu as an example of a world leader who believes the publications will aid global diplomacy.

"We can see the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu coming out with a very interesting statement," Assange told Time Magazine, “that leaders should speak in public like they do in private whenever they can. He believes that the result of this publication, which makes the sentiments of many privately held beliefs public, will lead to some kind of increase in the peace process in the Middle East and particularly in relation to Iran."

Conspiracy theorists abound the world over, and one shouldn’t be surprised at anything that emanates from people who still believe that the notorious forgery, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, reveals a world-wide Jewish plot to seize control of the world. Nevertheless, it is pretty astounding to learn that a senior Islamist official can announce with a straight face that the blame for the release of the WikiLeaks documents must be laid at the door of Israel, the universal scapegoat. Addressing reporters on 1 December, Huseyin Celik, deputy leader of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's AKP party, hinted that Israel engineered the leak of the quarter of a million US diplomatic cables as a plot to pressure the Turkish government.

“One has to look at which countries are pleased with these," Celik was quoted as saying. "Israel is very pleased. Israel has been making statements for days, even before the release of these documents. Documents were released and they immediately said, ‘Israel will not suffer from this.’ How did they know that?”

The earliest revelation in the batch of cables so far released concerns the attitude of the Irish government to Israel following the second Lebanon conflict. A diplomatic cable sent from the US embassy in Ireland reveals that "the Irish Government has informally begun to place constraints on US military transits" at Shannon Airport. It seems that the Irish government, attempting to prevent weapons from reaching Israel through Shannon Airport, started requiring that any military equipment passing through the country required "prior notification" and "exemption waivers."

The Irish Transport Department notice followed an oral, but definitive, decision by Eire’s Department of Foreign Affairs during the Lebanon conflict forbidding US military transits carrying munitions to Israel. "A policy," the document reads, “that the DFA did not convey to the US embassy before informing the media."

The cable explains that this policy is due to the fact that "segments of the Irish public see the airport as a symbol of Irish complicity in perceived US wrongdoing in the Middle East."

If we move forward to February 2009, another leaked US cable shows that Israeli prime minister Netanyahu supported the notion of land swaps with the Palestinians. An explanatory statement issued on 1 December 2010 by his Bureau said that Netanyahu meant only that he was willing to accept territorial compromises within the framework of a future peace deal. "That was Netanyahu's open policy,” said the statement, “that is his policy today and in the aforementioned meeting in February 2009, he did not voice any other position. Any other interpretation is incorrect and definitely does not represent the prime minister's position."

In the 26 February 2009 cable, written two weeks after the Israeli leader was elected, Netanyahu expressed support for the concept of land swaps and said that he did not want to govern the West Bank and Gaza, but rather to stop attacks being launched from there.

Israel and Pakistan do not share official diplomatic ties, although it is not unusual for the two countries to share intelligence on sensitive issues such as global terrorism. If we move forward to October 2009, we learn the perhaps surprising fact from one of the leaked cables that Pakistan shared intelligence information with Israel regarding possible terrorist attacks against Jewish and Israeli sites in India. According to the document dated 7 October 2009, Ahmad Shuja Pasha, head of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, told former US Ambassador Anne Patterson that he had conveyed to Israel intelligence on potential terror attacks in India. He told her that he had travelled to Oman and Iran to investigate information he received from the US about possible pending attacks in India.

"Pasha asked Ambassador to convey to Washington,” read the cable, “that he had followed up on threat information that an attack would be launched against India between September-November. He had been in direct touch with the Israelis on possible threats against Israeli targets in India."

Despite this cooperation on the intelligence front, Israeli officials, such as Mossad chief Meir Dagan, were quoted in other documents published by WikiLeaks expressing grave concern about the stability of the Pakistani government and the security surrounding Islamabad’s nuclear arsenal.

The WikiLeaks exposé of the inner workings of American diplomacy continued with revelations that in November 2009, two weeks before Israel decided on a settlement construction freeze, Berlin was urging the US to impose such a freeze on Israel. The telegram shows that German National Security Adviser Christoph Heusgen met with US Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon and with US Ambassador to Germany Philip Murphy on 10 November 2009 to suggest that the United States threaten prime minister Netanyahu with withdrawing its support for blocking a vote on the Goldstone Report [on Israel's attack on Hamas in Gaza] at the United Nations Security Council, if he did not agree to a building moratorium.

Heusgen is quoted in the telegram as saying that Germany believes that Netanyahu needed "to do more" to bring the Palestinians to the negotiating table. "He suggested pressuring Netanyahu by linking favorable United Nations Security Council (UNSC) treatment of the Goldstone Report to Israel committing to a complete stop in settlement activity."

The American officials were surprised by the proposal and said that such linkage would be counterproductive "but agreed that it was worth pointing out to the Israelis that their policy on settlements was making it difficult for their friends to hold the line in the UNSC." At the time, Arab and Muslim countries, led by Turkey and Libya, were stepping up pressure to hold discussions on the Goldstone Report at the Security Council. The US administration managed to block the initiative and avoided an anti-Israeli vote.

A final surprise revelation – for the moment – is that in the latest round of WikiLeaks documents the Emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, has said that Israel cannot be blamed for mistrusting Arabs, and that the Jewish state deserves credit for seeking peace in light of the threat posed by Hamas and Hezbollah. The Qatari leader was reported to have made the remarks during a meeting with US Senator John Kerry on 23 February 2010.

"When you consider that many in the region perceive that Hezbollah drove Israel out of Lebanon and Hamas kicked them out of the small piece of land called Gaza, it is actually surprising that the Israelis still want peace. The region, however, is still far away from peace," said the Emir.
Al-Thani told Kerry that the time was right for an Israeli-Arab peace deal, and in his opinion the best way to achieve this was to reopen negotiations with Syria using Turkey as a mediator. "The Syrian Government can help Arab extremists make tough choices, but only if the US, whose involvement is essential, demonstrates to Syria early on a willingness to address the return of the Golan Heights and supports Turkey's mediation efforts between Israel and Syria." the classified cable said.

Qatar's ties with Israel were broken off in early 2009 after Operation Cast Lead, but the document revealed that efforts were being made to mend relations, and Qatar had invited Israel’s Foreign Ministry Middle East Head, Yaakov Hadas, to Doha to discuss renewing ties.

To the general public the leaked diplomatic papers so far published cast an unusual and revealing light on how the diplomatic world really operates, and the sometimes yawning gap between what governments and diplomats say in public, and what they really believe. Embarrassing to the US and to individuals they undoubtedly are, but since all governments and all diplomats play the same game, they are unlikely to affect the course of events to any significant degree.

Of course, there may yet be a quite unexpected revelation lurking among the tens of thousands of papers not so far made public. We must wait and see.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

November reviewed

Israeli-Palestinian stalemate; WikiLeaks doesn’t help

So this is what all the high hopes and fine words of Friday, 20 August – the launch of the long-delayed direct face-to-face peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority – have come to: an apparent stalemate, each side locked into its own rigid demand-led stance, and each unable to initiate a move that could unfreeze the situation.

“Apparent stalemate” it still – just – remains, for in the wings waits a much-trumpeted, but as yet undisclosed, agreement between the US and Israel aimed at providing a formula designed to enable the peace negotiations to resume. However, given what has emerged about this agreement, the prospects for it achieving its objective seem slim.

It seems that the US is prepared to offer Israel a number of tempting incentives in return for a 90-day building freeze in the West Bank settlements – which is part (but part only) of the Palestinians’ demands for agreeing to resume the peace talks. The package is rumoured to include the US using its veto power in the UN against any unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state, and eventually to providing Israel with 20 additional F-35 Joint Strike fighter jets worth some $3 billion.

The problem is that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is demanding a total freeze on construction not only in the settlements, but also in east Jerusalem – and this, as he himself knows full well – is a step too far for any Israeli government even to contemplate as a formal concession. Informally, a temporary building cessation would indeed have been a feasible option, but Abbas and his spokesmen have ruled out any such “gentleman’s agreement” by publicly reiterating the full demand time and again.

Whether US diplomacy can eventually broker an agreement between the two sides, based on a new 90-day Israeli construction freeze that is confined to the West Bank, is one of the imponderables that bedevil the current situation. Another that emerged early in November is the odd, but apparently serious, possibility reported by the London-based newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat on 29 October. Israel, the paper reported, in its secret negotiations with the American administration aimed at clarifying the nature and demarcation of a Palestinian state, has been discussing the option of Israel leasing land in east Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley from the Palestinian state for up to 99 years. Britain’s 99-year lease of Hong Kong from China in 1898 provides a precedent. Palestinian sources apparently confirmed the story.

According to one of the sources, the initiative, which he said was "American, not Israeli," has been on the table for a while now "in order to reach common ground with the Israeli side regarding the borders issue and to reach an agreement on what will remain under Israeli sovereignty." Officials in Washington refused to confirm or deny the report.

A further imponderable is how effective the current pressures on Mahmoud Abbas, aimed at stiffening his rejectionist stance, are likely to be. He is pressurised not only by the obvious suspects – Hamas, his implacable brother-Palestinian rivals in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the leaders of the peace rejectionist axis, Iran and Syria, their puppet-masters. He is under further pressure from within his own camp, Fatah.

The Fatah Revolutionary Council concluded its fifth convention in Ramallah on 27 November by declaring its refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state – not in itself an insuperable obstacle to a renewal of the peace talks, for that concession is one of many that are likely to be made on both sides if or when an accord is reached. As for the putative US-Israeli agreement, the council dismissed plans to supply Israel with weapons in return for reviving the stalled peace talks, adding that the Palestinians would not accept any understandings between Israel and the US which could “harm Palestinian rights and prolong occupation.”

The Fatah leaders said they supported President Mahmoud Abbas’s policies, especially regarding the peace process with Israel. “The council salutes President Mahmoud Abbas for adhering to basic rights, first and foremost the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Also, the council salutes President Abbas for standing up against pressure aimed at resuming the peace talks without achieving Palestinian demands.”

Abbas told the Fatah leaders during the three-day gathering that the Palestinians want a just and comprehensive peace, but would not compromise on their rights. He also once again ruled out the possibility of returning to the negotiating table without a full cessation of construction in settlements and east Jerusalem. The plain fact of the matter is that if Abbas indeed sticks to the east Jerusalem leg of this demand, the chances of such a return are – short of the US pulling a rabbit out of the diplomatic bag – negligible. On the other hand if he gives way on this point, his street cred among his supporters would be severely dented, while the chorus of condemnation from his critics can only be imagined.

The fact of the matter is that Abbas has boxed himself – or been boxed by Washington’s rhetoric – into a corner from which it seems well-nigh impossible to escape. For it was President Obama, backed by his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who for a long time insisted that US policy favoured a complete cessation of construction in both the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Finally recognising the political imperatives of the situation facing Israeli prime minister Netanyahu, they may well have backed away from that position, but for Abbas – who took his lead from them – it may be too late. The US are capable of effecting a graceful retreat; Abbas seems stuck with his own unyielding demands.

And then, on Sunday 28 November, came the latest revelations from the internet site WikiLeaks – hundreds of thousands of confidential diplomatic cables that have passed between the United States and its allies. Out of the more than 250,000 documents, one of them claimed that Israel tried to coordinate Operation Cast Lead with both Fatah and Egypt.

The following day a top aide to Mahmoud Abbas said, perhaps choosing his words with particular care: “There were never any actual consultations between us and the Israelis before the Gaza war.” Perhaps the consultations were “virtual” rather than “actual”, but however one chooses to describe them, in a June 2009 meeting between Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak and a US congressional delegation, Barak claimed that the Israeli government "had consulted with Egypt and Fatah prior to Operation Cast Lead, asking if they were willing to assume control of Gaza once Israel defeated Hamas."

"Not surprisingly," Barak said in the meeting, Israel "received negative answers from both."

Equally unsurprisingly is the fact that Hamas has seized the opportunity to score brownie points against its arch-rivals Fatah. Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said he wasn't surprised to learn of Fatah cooperation with Israel. "We have said several times that Fatah was implicated in this war, and that they wanted to return to Gaza on the back of Israeli tanks.”

In fact the leaked telegram revealed more than a one-off contact between Israel, Fatah and Egypt on the subject of Gaza. According to the document, the defense minister had also "stressed the importance of continued consultations with both Egypt and Fatah," over the reconstruction of Gaza.

Incidentally, Hamas and Fatah have held several rounds of reconciliation talks since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in 2007. Earlier this month the two groups failed yet again to reconcile major differences between them on security issues, and ended their latest round of talks without setting a date for the next round.

If the WikiLeaks documents in general do anything, they reinforce – albeit with embarrassingly frank comments never intended for public consumption – previously known, or suspected, circumstances. That the “moderate” Arab gulf states were viscerally opposed to Iran’s pretensions to moral leadership of the Middle East, and mightily fearful of the possibility of Iran obtaining nuclear weaponry, was well known. That Israel has long conducted negotiations on a realpolitik basis with Egypt, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan, inter alia, was also no secret. Another Wikileaks document, recording the views of Israel’s top diplomats in Ankara of Turkey's prime minister, should also come as no surprise. They see him as a religious "fundamentalist" committed to spreading hatred against Israel. The dispatch by the U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, James Jeffrey, details a conversation with his Israeli counterpart, Ambassador Gaby Levy, and points to a shared assessment of Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a demagogue whose policies are fuelled by "hatred" rather than political calculations.

All of which adds a certain spice to the Middle East pudding, but advances its cooking time by not an instant.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Israel’s referendum

Yesterday (Monday, 22 November) Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, by a vote of 65-33, passed into law an Act unique in the nation’s history. In future, any proposal to withdraw from Israeli territory would have to be approved by a two-thirds majority in the legislature. In the event that this was impossible, a national referendum would be mandatory. The law will take effect immediately.

Because the law applies only to sovereign Israeli territory, no referendum would be needed to withdraw from any part of the West Bank. However, should the Knesset not approve by a two-thirds majority, a referendum would be required for a pullout from east Jerusalem or the Golan Heights, as both have been annexed by Israel. It would also be required if, under a future deal with the Palestinians, Israel ceded land within the pre-1967 lines in exchange for keeping the settlement blocs.

In all its 62-year history, Israel has never held a national referendum. Israeli political analyst Yossi Alpher says: "In effect it weakens the authority of the Knesset to decide these issues, and turns it over to a system that has never been tried in Israel. It is clearly intended to make it more difficult to approve withdrawal from these territories.”

The bill was originally sponsored by Likud MKs, and prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke in favour: "A referendum will prevent an irresponsible agreement, but at the same time will allow any agreement that satisfies Israel's national interests to pass with strong public backing." He was convinced, he added, that any agreement he submitted to the Knesset would indeed enjoy such backing.

Opposition leader Tzipi Livni said it was a sign of "weak leadership," and her Kadima party voted overwhelmingly against the bill.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, was highly critical of the new law. "The Israeli leadership, yet again, is making a mockery of international law, which is not subject to the whims of Israeli public opinion. Under international law there is a clear and absolute obligation on Israel to withdraw not only from east Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, but from all of the territories that it has occupied since 1967. Ending the occupation of our land is not and cannot be dependent on any sort of referendum."

Erekat’s view, while understandable, takes no account of the political realities. As Israel’s previous withdrawals from occupied territory – notably the Sinai peninsula and the Gaza strip – have shown, when it comes down to evacuating settlements, the government needs the utmost determination in imposing its will against often implacable opposition from its own citizens. But these earlier examples could be as nothing compared with the situation that could develop, if it came to forcible evacuations from West Bank settlements.

Imagine a situation in which an Israeli government has concluded a draft peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority involving the swapping of Israeli territory in exchange for retaining some West Bank settlements but evacuating others, and is unable to command a majority for that action in the Knesset. In such circumstances, a national referendum could provide it with enhanced legitimacy for taking the necessary action. Settlers determined to combat government efforts to evacuate them would have a far weaker case if government action were backed by a majority of the nation.

All the same, should the parliamentary vote fail, going to the Israeli public would undoubtedly be something of a gamble.

Although polls of public opinion are notoriously unreliable indicators of a nation’s mood, and indeed public opinion itself is notoriously fickle, columnist Akiva Eldar, writing recently in Israel’s Ha'aretz newspaper may be correct when he says: "Israel has gone back to having a majority of people who view peace as a dangerous trap that the Arabs are laying at the feet of weak politicians."

For example, polls tend to show most Israelis oppose ceding the Old City of Jerusalem, where Judaism's holiest site – the Western Wall – sits virtually cheek-by-jowl with the Al-Aqsa mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam, and both are within hailing distance of Christianity’s revered Church of the Holy Sepulchre. But a comprehensive peace accord could undoubtedly incorporate a formula, reasonably satisfactory to Israelis, Palestinians and other concerned parties such as the various Christian sects currently administering their holy sites. Winning a “yes” vote in a national referendum would, in short, be dependent on the nature of the agreement for which the government was seeking endorsement, and also on how convincingly the government was able to make its case.

The law received more than 61 votes, meaning it was passed by an absolute majority of the 120-member Knesset. This will make it harder for anyone to seek to overturn it through the High Court of Justice, because it will eliminate the argument that the Act was passed with insufficient support for such fundamental, quasi-constitutional legislation. Nevertheless Yariv Oppenheimer, secretary general of Peace Now, said yesterday that his organization will consider petitioning the High Court against it.

Knesset House Committee chairman Yariv Levin, of the Likud party, whose panel prepared the law, told the plenum before the vote that it "reflects the need to ensure that fateful, irreversible decisions about conceding parts of the homeland to which Israeli sovereignty have been applied" will not be made via dubious political horse trading ("as has happened in the past," he added). Instead it will reflect the will of the people, either by way of a genuine two-thirds majority in the Knesset, or failing that, by a referendum of the nation as a whole. As such, he said, the law will promote national unity, because even opponents will not be able to argue - as they have in the past - that the Knesset's decision was not actually supported by a majority of the public.

And that, in the final analysis, is the nub of the case in its favour. The question is, with the peace process apparently irretrievably log-jammed, will even the prospect of a national referendum ever arise?

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Israel-Palestine peace talks: lost in a maze

Barely five weeks after the renewal of direct face-to-face peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, the process came to an untimely – albeit foreseeable – halt. The stumbling block? The end of the temporary 10-month freeze on building in Israel’s West Bank settlements, instituted by prime minister Netanyahu in November 2009. As 26 September, the pre-determined date, approached, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas began to demand that the moratorium on construction should be renewed, not only in West Bank settlements, but also in East Jerusalem.

Netanyahu’s coalition government is dependent on the continued support of members of political parties more right-wing in their views than his own Likud – in particular, Yisrael Beiteinu. Even so, most Likud ministers supported the resumption of West Bank building when the freeze ended, and many from other parties were adamantly opposed to any renewal of the moratorium. Despite this, Netanyahu managed to get majority support in his Cabinet to offer the Palestinians a new temporary building freeze of 60 days, in return for the PA formally recognising Israel as a Jewish state. This offer was immediately rejected by Abbas.

When Abbas returned to the Arab League, asking them to back him in offering Israel his ultimatum – stop all building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem or we will pull out of the peace process – the League hesitated. The prospect of a sovereign Palestine, clearly within grasp, was too valuable to cast away heedlessly. They procrastinated. Give the United States – under whose auspices the peace process had been renewed – a month to come up with a compromise proposal, they said. We will reconvene in November to see if a deal can be agreed that will allow the talks to continue.

Since then, the Palestinians themselves have indicated that there need be no fixed deadline to a possible offer from the US. And in the interim Netanyahu has been in the States, engaging in intensive diplomatic negotiations. Last week he reported to his Cabinet that the US has put forward a proposal for a 90-day settlement freeze in exchange for support and military aid.

"This proposal was raised during my talks with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton,” he said. “It is still not final; it is still being formulated by the Israeli and American teams. If and when it is complete, I will bring it to the appropriate Government forum, which in this case is the Cabinet. In any case, I insist that any proposal meet the State of Israel's security needs, both in the immediate term and vis-à-vis the threats that we will face in the coming decade."

Netanyahu's ministerial majority may hinge on the votes of the two Shas members in the security cabinet, and they have said they will oppose him if the US does not explicitly confirm in writing that building throughout Jerusalem will be permitted during the freeze. Accordingly, Netanyahu has delayed a security cabinet vote on the freeze pending US delivery of written assurances of the understandings agreed upon between him and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said on 18 November: "we are working intensely with both parties." When asked whether, in its conversations with the Palestinians, the US discussed the possibility that the new freeze might exclude east Jerusalem, Toner responded rather obliquely: "We are trying to create the conditions to get them back into direct negotiations."

But building in east Jerusalem does indeed seem likely to prove a major difficulty, for today, 21 November, President Abbas said that the Palestinian Authority will not return to peace talks with Israel unless there is a freeze on settlement building that includes east Jerusalem. Speaking to reporters after meeting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo he said: "If there is no complete halt to settlements in all of the Palestinian territories including Jerusalem, we will not accept". Abbas added that neither the Palestinians nor Israel had as yet received an official US request to return to the talks.

The word is that the US is in the process of offering an incentive-filled package to Israel in return for a 90-day building freeze in the West Bank settlements. The package is rumoured to include the US using its veto power in the UN against any unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state, and eventually to providing Israel with 20 additional F-35 Joint Strike fighter jets worth some $3 billion. (Incidentally, some US politicians are reported to be indicating that Washington is now backtracking, and wants some sort of payment for the coveted fighter aircraft.)

It is not, perhaps, surprising, that President Abbas was quoted by the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper today as saying that there should be no linkage between freezing settlement construction and supplying Israel with weapons. Nevertheless and notwithstanding, in the middle of last week there was a convincing report that Palestinian sources had indicated that they, too, were expecting a package of incentives from the US in return for resuming peace talks with Israel.

As each party takes a turn at stirring the pot, which is bubbling ominously and looks increasingly likely to boil over, prospects for a return to the face-to-face peace talks are starting to fade. (One idea mooted a few weeks ago is that if a resumption of direct talks eventually proves impossible, the Arab League might propose a return to the “proximity” talks that started the current initiative back in the spring.)

The fact is that the two principal parties are each, in their own way, hamstrung by political imperatives. As the distinguished Middle East commentator, David Horowitz – also, incidentally, editor of the Jerusalem Post – astutely pointed out last week, the Palestinian leadership has, over the years, negotiated with Israel even as building not just in east Jerusalem but across the West Bank continued. By doing so, he wrote, “they were essentially accepting that construction would quietly go on at a relatively low level until an accord was reached – that no Israeli government was going to initiate a bitter confrontation with the potentially affected settlers before the painful deal was done, and that the eventual signature of such an accord would resolve the final status and disposition of the disputed territory.”

What Horowitz asserts, with some reason, is that President Obama and his administration, by repeatedly urging Israel to halt all building over the pre-1967 lines, including in east Jerusalem, has shattered that pragmatic framework.

Ramat Shlomo, the Jerusalem neighbourhood where new building plans caused a Netanyahu-Obama fracas earlier this year, had quietly become home to thousands upon thousands of Israeli Jews. But neither Ramat Shlomo, nor the neighbourhoods of Pisgat Ze’ev and Har Homa, the focus of this week’s row, are areas that Mahmoud Abbas can seriously believe would come under the sovereignty of a future Palestine. Washington has in effect, Horowitz asserts, cut the ground for compromise from under Mahmoud Abbas’s feet.

The bitter irony, he writes, is that while the administration evidently continues to believe that pressuring Israel over this issue will help mollify the Palestinians and thus bring them back to the peace table, Abbas himself is telling anybody who will listen precisely the opposite. As Washington Institute analyst David Makovsky noted this week, Abbas “felt trapped by Obama’s call for a complete settlement freeze in the spring of 2009.” It meant that he couldn’t now come back to the peace table without it.

And that is precisely the spot on which the Palestinians now stand – demanding what Netanyahu certainly cannot politically deliver: a complete building freeze in all West Bank settlements and in east Jerusalem. A maze indeed. Is there a way out?

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Israeli-Palestinian log-jam: a need for will and skill

“A pointless provocation” – that is how Ha'aretz, perhaps Israel’s most influential daily newspaper, categorises the latest building plan to emanate from the Interior Ministry and the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee, not to mention the planning authorities in the West Bank city of Ariel.

At the very moment when the fate of the suspended peace talks is in the balance, and when Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, is trying to convince public opinion about the sincerity of Israel’s efforts to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians, these right-wing authorities have thought it appropriate to announce a plan for new construction beyond the "Green Line" that separates West Jerusalem from the parts of the city captured from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War – over 1,000 additional housing units in Har Homa, a neighbourhood south of Jerusalem, and another 800 units in Ariel.

It is a cruel trick of fate that the senior US figure with whom Netanyahu is discussing the future of the peace initiative in Washington, in addition to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is the Vice President, Joe Biden – the self-same Biden so publicly humiliated in Israel back in March. Arriving to inaugurate the carefully prepared “proximity talks” between Israel and the Palestinians – the first formal contact between them for over a year – Biden had no sooner set foot on Israeli soil than Israel's Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, who also happens to be the leader of the religious Shas party, authorised the final approval of a scheme to construct 1600 new housing units in Ramat Shlomo, an ultra-orthodox Jewish district of Jerusalem beyond the Green Line. Poor Joe Biden must now be experiencing stomach-curdling feelings of déja vu.

It is no comfort to anyone, least of all the Palestinian leaders, that the building plans just announced are more than a year from being implemented. Palestinian leaders interpret the latest announced expansion as a sign that Israel has turned its back on the face-to-face peace talks. “Israel’s latest announcement of more settlement construction,” said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, “further threatens the already stagnated negotiations process.”

President Obama, currently in far-off Indonesia, categorises the announcement as “never helpful when it comes to peace negotiations” – a comparatively muted reaction compared with that of Catherine Ashton, the European Union foreign policy chief, who called for the expansion to be reversed. At his press conference, Obama said that in spite of the announced construction programme, the USA was committed to a two-state solution based on a negotiated settlement. “I’m concerned,” he said, “that we’re not seeing each side make the extra effort involved to get a breakthrough that could finally create a framework for a secure Israel living side by side in peace with a sovereign Palestine. We’re going to keep on working on it though, because it is in the world’s interest, it is in the interest of the people of Israel, and it is in the interest of the Palestinian people to achieve that settlement, to achieve that agreement.”

The London Financial Times reports that several analysts and officials have been arguing that the timing of the announcements, just ahead of Netanyahu’s meeting with Secretary of State Clinton, was no coincidence, and suggested they could in fact be part of an Israeli effort to prepare the ground for a new freeze on settlement construction. By allowing such sweeping plans to move ahead now, it has been argued, Netanyahu may be hoping to limit right-wing and settler opposition should he decide to implement a new building moratorium.

The US administration has repeatedly urged Israel to renew its 10-month freeze on settlement building, which lapsed in September. Washington believes a new moratorium is vital to reviving deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. So the American response to the new building announcement, an expression of deep disappointment, is not a surprise, but makes little impression on the Interior Ministry, the Jerusalem municipality, and the Ariel patrons, who glory in macho gestures in reaction to American pressure, regardless of their wider implications.

“It has thus become clear to everyone,” states Ha’aretz in a hard-hitting editorial, “that two governments rule the state: one which tries to demonstrate willingness to operate in a framework that could possibly lead to peace talks and an agreement, and another one that acts to destroy this framework. If the prime minister does not immediately announce his opposition to these construction plans, and his intention to defer them at least until a new agreement is reached concerning talks with the Palestinians, he will be unable to convince anyone that he really wants peace.”

But in his latest statement Netanyahu asserted that Israel does not see any connection between the peace process and the policy of planning and construction in Jerusalem. "For the last 40 years," he maintains, "every Israeli government built in every part of the city. During that period, peace agreements were signed with Egypt and Jordan, and for 17 years direct negotiations were held with the Palestinians. These are historical facts. Construction in Jerusalem has never interfered with the peace process.”

Washington disagrees. “There clearly is a link,” says State Department spokesman P J Crowley, “in the sense that it is incumbent upon both parties ... they are responsible for creating conditions for a successful negotiation. To suggest that this kind of announcement would not have an impact on the Palestinian side I think is incorrect.”

"I think it's overblown," riposted Netanyahu in a television interview with the Fox Business Network. "You are talking about a handful of apartments that really don't affect the map at all, contrary to impressions that might be perceived from certain news reports. So it's a minor issue that might be turned to a major issue. I think this is wrong."

Tension over settlements was diverting attention from more important topics, said Netanyahu, claiming that despite continued building in East Jerusalem, an agreement could be reached if both sides wanted it. "You put the minor issues aside and you deal with the major issues…and you try to fashion a peace deal. If there's a deal to be made there, you'll see it in a year. If there's not a deal," he said, "then we won't succeed."

In his television appearance, Netanyahu stuck rigidly to the Israeli line that it was Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, rather than settlements, that had left negotiations deadlocked soon after they began in Washington two months ago.

"Peace is going to be tough," he said, "but I think it's in our common interest to get it. It depends on their willingness to recognize Israel, to recognize the Jewish state as we recognize the Palestinian state, to end the conflict."

The Palestinians want a freeze on construction in the West Bank; the Israelis want Israel acknowledged as a Jewish state. The one is not an unstoppable force, nor the other an immovable object. There is room for give on both sides. Have they the will and the skill to find it?

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Hanging on to the peace process

Neither of the principals in the Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative want the process to fail, and nor do the interested powers that back them. All parties are bending over backwards to try to ensure that the current fragile initiative does not founder, even though the principals are each constrained by their separate political imperatives.

Direct face-to-face discussions came to an end on 26 September with the ending of Israel’s temporary moratorium on building in the West Bank settlements. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority President, has committed himself to resuming the direct face-to-face talks only if Israel renews the temporary freeze on construction.

Quite why this issue has suddenly become a precondition for the Palestinian side recommencing the negotiation is difficult to understand. The building freeze was only ever a temporary measure, it never included East Jerusalem, and previous negotiations have been conducted without any reference to the matter.

In any event, given a successful outcome to the peace talks and a final accord, the larger West Bank settlements would by common consent remain in Israel’s hands, subject to some land swap arrangement, while the smaller ones would almost certainly be evacuated. So – presuming a successful outcome to the peace talks – any new build in the largest settlements is irrelevant to the Palestinian cause, while new housing or other buildings being constructed in those smaller settlement blocs earmarked for evacuation, would eventually fall into Palestinian hands. The whole construction issue seems largely an irrelevance.

As for Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, he heads an unstable coalition and is heavily dependent on its right-wing members, especially Yisrael Beiteinu, to stay in power. They were quite insistent that the temporary construction moratorium end on the appointed day, and are opposed to its renewal. Even so, Netanyahu gained their support for offering the Palestinians a modest renewal of the building freeze, in return for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. The offer was made - and rejected. Now, Middle East analyst Anshel Pfeffer reports, sources close to Mr Netanyahu have acknowledged that with the midterms in America over, Washington will increase its pressure and Israel will find it hard not to agree to a new settlement freeze in some form. Pfeffer himself is unequivocal: “According to sources close to Prime Minister Netanyahu, he will agree to a new form of building freeze in the settlements.”

Another source of pressure on Netanyahu is his left-wing coalition partner, the Labour Party. Senior figures in the party have been threatening to leave the coalition if peace talks are not resumed. Defence Minister Ehud Barak, the Labour leader, is Mr Netanyahu's closest ally within the cabinet, travelling to Washington every few weeks on the prime minister's behalf. Without Labour, Mr Netanyahu would be left with only right-wing parties opposed to any concessions to the Palestinians. It is perhaps significant that he has recently been in contact with Tzipi Livni, leader of the main opposition party, Kadima. The aim, one can only presume, is a possible coalition deal in which Kadima would enter the government in the place of right-wing parties.

The Arab League, in its meeting on 8 October, was so reluctant to pull the plug on the direct peace talks that they gave Washington a month’s grace to try to come up with a formula concerning West Bank construction that would be acceptable to both sides. They planned to meet again early in November to reassess the situation.

In the interim, diplomatic activity between the US and Israel has been intensive in the search for a way out of the dilemma. Netanyahu is tomorrow (Sunday 7 November) travelling to the States in order to determine whether a formula acceptable to Israel is on offer. President Obama is currently on a 10-day tour of the Far East, but Netanyahu is due to meet Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said last Thursday (4 November) that she was working non-stop to try to find a way out of the impasse. "I am very involved in finding a way forward and I think we will be able to do so," Clinton told reporters in New Zealand, where she is on an official visit.

But Netanyahu is travelling on the very day that the Arab League’s month of grace expires. A problem? Not a bit of it, according to chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. Following a meeting with US peace envoy George Mitchell in Washington last week, he told reporters: "They're saying that efforts may need two or three more weeks. If the Americans needed two more weeks they can have the two more weeks. We're waiting to hear from the Americans, and there is no reason to convene the Arab follow-up committee until we hear what the Americans have to offer. The key,” he added, “is in Netanyahu's hands. The choice is his: settlements or peace. He cannot have both."

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority is becoming ever more explicit in its threats to bypass the negotiations and establish an independent state unilaterally. In a meeting with the Egyptian Foreign Minister in Ramallah on 4 November, President Mahmoud Abbas said "we are prepared to return to the negotiating table the moment Israel freezes the settlements", but added that the Palestinians are also exploring other options including a request to the UN Security Council to recognise a unilateral declaration by the Palestinian Authority of an independent Palestinian state. He said that such a move could happen "in a matter of months".

Erekat also, in his interview with reporters in Washington, reiterated that the Palestinians were considering “other options” in the event of the process remaining frozen, mentioning the possibility of seeking both US and international recognition for a unilaterally declared Palestinian state. "I hope that the United States of America, when we go to the Security Council to seek a full membership for the State of Palestine, will not oppose us," he said.

Erekat did not give a timeline for this possible move, which the State Department said on Thursday would be an unwelcome complication. "We have made clear all along,” said State Department spokesman P J Crowley, “that unilateral steps, either by the Israelis or by the Palestinians, undermine the direct negotiation which is the only way to resolve the core issues, reach an agreement and end the conflict."

That happy outcome is undoubtedly in the balance. The peace process hangs on by its fingernails.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

The Hong Kong solution

By the middle of the 19th century Britain was in the full flood of its imperial expansion. It genuinely “ruled the waves” and China, losing the first Opium War in 1841, was forced to cede the island of Hong Kong. Following the second Opium War in 1860, Britain also took possession of the Kowloon Peninsula.

During the following decades, Hong Kong flourished. Trade expanded rapidly, and banking and insurance began to thrive. But the island lacked resources such as water and farmland, and Britain pressed China to cede more land. In 1898 Britain succeeded in gaining rights in areas known as the New Territories. Unlike the previous agreements, the New Territories were offered to Britain on a 99-year lease, due to expire in 1997.

Let’s complete the story. As 1997 approached, it became clear that although the treaties signed by Britain and China gave Britain possession of Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon Peninsula for all eternity, if they attempted to hand back only the New Territories China would want the rest as well. In late-1984 an agreement was reached: China would take over the entire colony on 1 July 1997, but Hong Kong's unique free enterprising economy would be maintained for at least 50 years. Hong Kong would become a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China with the official slogan, "One country, two systems".

Now, absence of news provides a fertile breeding ground for rumour, and there has certainly been a lack of solid information emanating from Israeli-Palestinian sources over the past few weeks. We are now nearing the end of the month specified by the Arab League for the US to come up with some formula for renewing the direct peace talks. These, it may be recalled, were broken off on 26 September, when the building freeze ended and construction in the West Bank settlements resumed.

Diplomatic activity masterminded by Washington has continued throughout the period, and Israeli prime minister Netanyahu is flying to the States on 7 November to meet US Vice President Joe Biden and other officials to discuss "a renewal of the peace process with the aim of reaching an agreement on peace with security for the state of Israel." He will not be meeting President Obama, who will be travelling in Asia at the time.

The question is: will Netanyahu be seriously discussing the very odd, but apparently genuine, possibility reported by the London-based newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat on 29 October. Israel, the paper reported, in its secret negotiations with the American administration aimed at clarifying the nature and demarcation of a Palestinian state, has been discussing the option of Israel leasing land in east Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley from the Palestinian state for 40-99 years. Palestinian sources have apparently confirmed the story.

According to one of the sources, the initiative, which he said was "American, not Israeli," has been on the table for a while now "in order to reach common ground with the Israeli side regarding the borders issue and to reach an agreement on what will remain under Israeli sovereignty." Officials in Washington refused to confirm or deny the report on the new initiative. A State Department source told the paper that Israel and the US are discussing matters "as a part of the close relations between the two countries.”

Does the Hong Kong model provide any sort of template for a future Israeli-Palestinian accommodation, or is the whole concept “pie in the sky”? Of course, extremer right-wing Israeli political opinion will immediately demand: “Why on earth should we lease our own land from the Palestinians?” But if this US proposal is indeed being discussed, it is clearly designed to address some of Israel's key security concerns. Netanyahu has said that Israel must maintain a security presence along the border in a peace deal with the Palestinians to ensure that heavy weapons are not smuggled into the new state, and to prevent infiltration by extreme Islamist interests, such as Hamas, armed by their Iranian and Syrian paymasters. The leaseback option might indeed provide a medium- to long-term solution to that problem, while allowing Israel to agree the borders of a future sovereign Palestine that accords with Palestinian aspirations.

But, as they say, there is nothing new under the sun, so it is not perhaps surprising to find that five years ago a plan was seriously being mooted for the biggest Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank to be "leased" from the Palestinians. The proposal was being discussed within the Israeli Labour Party in a bid to overcome one of the most difficult obstacles to a lasting peace.

The London Independent newspaper reported in December 2005 that a group advising Amir Peretz, then Labour Party leader, had been considering a proposal for a long-term leaseback of the main settlement blocs on the model of the 99-year agreement that provided for Hong Kong to remain under British control until 1997. Clearly the proposal was an attempt to square the circle between Palestinian insistence that any two-state solution should broadly conform with Israel's pre-1967 borders, and the view of a wide segment of Israeli opinion that the major settlements should remain in Israeli hands.

Since then the situation has somewhat changed. Even PA President Mahmoud Abbas has on several occasions acknowledged that in any final agreement the major Israeli settlements would probably remain in Israeli hands, subject perhaps to a land-swap deal. The same would not be true of the plethora of smaller settlements scattered across the West Bank, and it may be that a lease-back deal affecting some of them could form part of a final accord.

But whether a final accord will indeed emerge from the current peace initative seems at the moment very much in the balance. The good news is that the Arab League appears reluctant to pull the plug on it, and much rests on whether the US can devise a formula within the next week or so that satisfies both Israel and the Palestinians. If they don’t, it has been suggested that the Arab League, rather than opting to end the face-to-face negotiations, might propose a return to the “proximity talks” that preceded them, at least temporarily. The next few weeks should resolve that matter, at least.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

October reviewed

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in suspended animation

A strange and untoward calm descended on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the first week of October, and has persisted throughout the month. The appearance of inactivity, however, is deceptive. Much has been going on beneath the surface, and the results may become apparent quite soon in November.

To recapitulate: what might be termed this “October phase” dates back to the ending on 26 September of the 10-month freeze on construction in Israel’s West Bank settlements. This building moratorium was instituted by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in November 2009 as a confidence building measure, at the instigation of President Obama. The aim – to induce the Palestinian Authority to resume the peace negotiations broken off at the start of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.

And indeed, after a wearisome journey along a convoluted path, with many a twist and turn on the way, and only at the very end of August, PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu did finally attend the launch of direct face-to-face peace discussions. And there they both expressed complete confidence in their ability to reach an agreement within one year which would lead to peace and the establishment of a sovereign Palestine alongside Israel.

Aware that the building freeze was reaching its end, as 26 September approached Abbas declared that he would find it difficult to maintain the peace process unless it was renewed. Netanyahu found himself in precisely the contrary position. His government is a fragile coalition heavily dependent on right wing parties, especially Yisrael Beiteinu, and he faced political meltdown if he did not formally allow the building moratorium to end at its predestined time. What he could – and probably did – do, was assure the Palestinians that heavy restrictions would be placed on permissions to construct in the West Bank.

This was clearly not good enough, and at a meeting of the Arab League on 8 October, Abbas sought backing to abandon direct peace talks with Israel unless the building freeze was renewed. Following its meeting, the League announced that it supported Abbas's decision, but agreed to give the US one month to find a compromise which could save the talks, and said that they would reconvene early in November to discuss certain "alternatives" mooted by Abbas.

Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told Reuters that these “alternatives” included asking the United States “to recognize the state of Palestine on the 1967 borders", and studying the possibility of a similar UN recognition through a Security Council resolution.

These may not be mere empty words, although Erekat probably set out the possibilities in inverse order. It would be most unlikely for Washington suddenly to reverse its stance, however recalcitrant they might consider Netanyahu, and agree to a unilateral declaration of independence on the part of the Palestinian Authority. The United Nations is, however, another kettle of fish.

The first purpose of Erekat’s statement might have been to apply pressure on Israel to impose a new West Bank building freeze, which would allow Abbas to return to the negotiating table without losing face. And indeed, Netayahu did announce in a speech at the opening of the Knesset's winter session on 11 October that he would be prepared temporarily to renew the settlement moratorium on the West Bank – but his price for doing so was recognition by the Palestinian Authority of Israel as a Jewish state.

This threw an extra ball into the air, which Abbas promptly batted away. “The Palestinian Authority will never recognize Israel as a Jewish state,” said senior Palestinian Authority officials. Behind the Palestinians’ intransigence on this issue lies the complex matter of the “right of return” of Palestinians to the family homes they occupied before the founding of the state of Israel. The PA fear is that to acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state would in some way downgrade the rights of former Palestinian inhabitants. These rights would inevitably form an important element in any final peace accord. The fact of the matter, however, is that the “right of return” would probably be transmuted for those who cannot go back to their previous family residences into some form of financial compensation, or perhaps some guarantee of development aid. So like most issues that lie on the table, it is probably susceptible of a solution satisfactory to both sides, given only an easing of suspicion and a modicum of goodwill.

So it is in the United Nations that any bid for unilateral recognition of a sovereign Palestine might be made. The Palestinians would easily be able to secure a majority for recognition in the General Assembly, given the certain backing of non-aligned and Muslim states. But they need more than that. They need a totally assured and legally watertight allocation of territory based on the situation immediately prior to the Six-Day War which started on 5 June 1967. For that they would require a resolution from the UN Security Council, an outcome so unlikely, given the veto powers of the USA, as to be virtually impossible.

All the same, the Palestinians are pushing ahead with a campaign to be recognized internationally as a functioning state. Towards the end of October they approached the International Criminal Court at The Hague to urge recognition of the Palestinian Authority as the equivalent of a fully-fledged state government. Recognition by the international court would, as Middle East commentator Leslie Susser has pointed out, not only open a crack for the possible prosecution of Israeli civilian and military leaders, it also would hand the Palestinians a major PR victory in their quest for internationally recognized statehood. The Palestinians would be able to cite the court's recognition as legal backing for their case.

Meanwhile, at his weekly Cabinet meeting on 24 October, prime minister Netanyahu said: "We are in close contact with the American administration with the aim of restarting the peace process. Our aim is not only to renew the process, but to renew it in such a way that it won't collapse in a few weeks or in two months, but that we will go into a full year of serious negotiations on the core issues in an effort to reach a framework agreement on the way to a peace deal. Any attempt by the Palestinians to circumvent this process by going to international organizations,” he said, “is not realistic, and will not in any way advance a genuine peace process."

He is probably right, but the PA undoubtedly has the potential for putting a cat among the pigeons. Sympathy for the Palestinian cause is widespread. Should they make a unilateral bid for recognition in the UN General Assembly, many governments, possibly including the European Union, would support them, and even recognize their territory as contained within the pre-1967 “border” between Israel and Jordan. Given that scenario, and with Israel still in control of the occupied territories, all the ingredients for a major brouhaha would be in place.

For the fact is that in 1967 there was no recognized international border between the West Bank and Israel. What existed was the 1949 Armistice Line – basically where Israeli and Arab forces found themselves at the formal end of Israel's first battle against the combined Arab armies that surrounded it. Which is why UN Resolution 242 did not call for a full withdrawal from all the territories that Israel captured in the Six Day War; it recognised that the 1949 Armistice lines were no longer to be a reference point for a future peace process. President Lyndon Johnson made this very point in September 1968: "It is clear, however, that a return to the situation of 4 June 1967 will not bring peace. There must be secure and there must be recognized borders."

If the Palestinians were to implement the unilateral option the current peace process, and the Oslo process on which it is based, would almost certainly be over. But in fact Israeli, Palestinian and US leaders all say publicly that a negotiated peace deal is much preferred to unilateral action that would almost certainly provoke a sharp response from the other side.

For now, however, Israel is focusing its efforts on putting direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks back on track. Netanyahu's special envoy, Yitzhak Molcho, is currently in Washington working with his American counterparts on the details.

"Peace will only be achieved through direct negotiations," said Netanyahu last Sunday (25 October), "and I hope we will return to this avenue in full force very soon."

The question is whether the intense activity by the US and Israel aimed at putting the talks back on track will yield results before the month allowed by the Arab League has run out. November 8th is not too far away.