Saturday, 31 July 2010

July reviewed

Gaffes and Dilemmas

David Cameron, Britain's prime minister, approves of blunt speaking, so let's be blunt. His remarks in Turkey on Monday (26 July) about Gaza, compounded by his comments in India later in the week concerning Pakistan, were gaffes – little more than simplistic headline seekers, devoid of context.

The phrase he uttered in Turkey that has gone round the world is "Gaza is a prison camp" – the underlying assumption, understood even if not spoken, being that Israel is the prison guard.

There was certainly nothing of the prison camp about Gaza in September 2005, when Israel completed its evacuation of the Gaza Strip. The Palestinian Authority was planning elections, Palestinians not only in Gaza, but in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, would be able to vote and then govern themselves, and a significant step would have been taken towards achieving the two-state solution.

In the elections, which were indeed held on 25 January 2006 for the Palestinian Legislative Council - the legislature of the Palestinian National Authority - the Islamist organisation 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 in a bloody coup d'état, 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.

It was from that moment that Gaza was indeed turned into something of a prison camp – and perhaps even more so as the months went by and Hamas tried to impose ever stricter Sharia law on its inhabitants. Hamas's rejectionist policy towards Israel, which it translated into a continuous flotilla of rockets fired indiscriminately into the country for several years, finally drew a short, sharp military response from Israel, to be succeeded by a land and sea blockade aimed at preventing a repeat of the practice. Egypt, equally dismayed by Hamas's extreme Islamist policies, took similar action and blockaded Gaza at its own Rafah crossing.

As Ephraim Sneh, the former Israeli deputy minister of defence, has said: "Cameron is right – Gaza is a prison camp, but those who control the prison are Hamas. I'm totally against the double standards of a nation [ie Turkey] which fights the Taliban but is showing its solidarity with their brothers, Hamas. Cameron doesn't understand that 1.5m people live in Gaza under the repressive regime of Hamas – and yet he blames Israel."

In his references to Gaza, David Cameron did not once mention Hamas.

Speaking of prison camps, Gaza has certainly been nothing less for Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier snatched by Hamas and held hostage for more than four years, despite the most intensive efforts of mediators, both Egyptian and German.

Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, approves of Hamas and calls the Iranians "our friends, our brothers". David Cameron, in urging Turkey's acceptance into the EU* extolled Turkey's unique position in facing two ways, East and West, because it could act as a bridge between Europe and Islamist states such as Iran.

Two days later he was condemning Pakistan for facing two ways, and allying itself both with the West and the forces it was opposing. The inconsistency is glaring. Did he, one can't help speculating, stop to consider that what is sauce for the Pakistani goose is sauce for the Turkish gander?

So much for the gaffes – though there is much more to be said about them. Let's turn to the dilemmas.

July has been dominated by a single, simple issue – when and how can the current arm's-length "proximity" talks between Israel and the Palestinians be upgraded to direct face-to-face negotiations. Both the principals – PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, face dilemmas over the matter.

Diplomatic activity around the question has been intense. In his visit to Washington early in July, Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, took care to restore the cordial relations with the US that had been badly damaged earlier in the year. Knowing that President Obama has invested a deal of personal capital in achieving a Middle East accord, Netanyahu played along. Even before leaving Israel, he was calling on PA President Mahmoud Abbas to enter direct negotiations, declaring himself ready to do so at any time and in any location. This call chimed in nicely with the pressure already being applied by Washington on Abbas to come to the table – so nicely that Netanyahu made a point of repeating it while in the States, not once but several times.

Abbas, while certainly not wishing to appear to the world as rejectionist, laid down certain pre-conditions – and he has stuck to them, right up to 29 July, the day the Arab League met to discuss the possibility of direct talks. Abbas has been demanding that Israel agrees to a complete halt in settlement construction and – while allowing for land swaps and adjustments – accepts a Palestinian state in territories overrun by Israel during the 1967 Six Day War, namely the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. He is quoted by Egypt's state-owned news agency as saying that when he receives written assurances on those matters, "I will go immediately to the direct talks,"

For his part, Netanyahu has consistently refused to commit himself to any pre-conditions. "Let's just get to the talks," he said in a TV interview in the States, "and one of the things we'll discuss straight away is this issue of settlements."

Abbas held off responding to the diplomatic pressure exerted on him from Washington until the scheduled meeting of the Arab League on 29 July. Already regarded with suspicion by more extreme Palestinian and Muslim opinion, Abbas had needed the cover provided by the Arab League before even commencing the proximity talks. How much more would he need it when the prospect of talking face-to-face with Israel's prime minister was being mooted?

And then, in the last week of July, an internal Palestinian document was leaked to the Associated Press. It revealed the type of argument that the US has been using in its efforts to drag Abbas to the negotiating table. The document apparently revealed that President Obama's special peace envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, warned Abbas that if he does not agree to direct talks, President Obama will not be able to help the Palestinians achieve a state of their own.

In response, the Palestinian president seems to have reiterated the line he has been following for some weeks, namely that he first wants to see progress in the proximity talks on the issue of the borders of a future Palestinian state. The internal Palestinian document warned Abbas that to give up on those demands would be political suicide. The thought arises that to do so could, perhaps, amount to literal suicide, too – a dilemma indeed for the PA president. But even so, it is surely not necessary to make these matters a precondition for entering negotiations. Direct talks would almost certainly start with an assumption that most of the West Bank and certain Arab-occupied neighbourhoods in and around Jerusalem would indeed be included within a new sovereign Palestine. As for Gaza, it has already be evacuated by Israel, and it would be up to Abbas and the PA to sort out its governance and their relationship with Hamas, its de facto rulers.

All of which doubtless explains the somewhat equivocal outcome of the Arab League meeting. For the Arab League foreign ministers authorised the Palestinian Authority to enter into direct negotiations with Israel, but left it up to PA President Mahmoud Abbas to decide on the timing.

The timing is all-important, for Israel's moratorium on building in the West Bank settlements is due to expire in September, and there are fears in Washington and Jerusalem that Abbas will play a waiting game right up to the wire – creating a real dilemma for prime minister Netanyahu. Abbas is well aware that Netanyahu is himself under intense pressure from within his cabinet to authorise the resumption of West Bank construction the instant the moratorium expires.

Danny Danon, Likud member of Israel's parliament, the Knesset, knows the exact moment the 10-month freeze on new settlement construction will end –6:06 p.m. Tel Aviv time on September 26. Danon has said that he and opponents of the freeze were not planning to let it last any longer than that.

“When the sun sets," he said, "people will start to build.” He told the press that opponents of the freeze are already planning a large ceremony for that moment, complete with tractors that will break ground for new homes.

Abbas wants to put Netanyahu through the painful dilemma of either going along with the hard-liners who are demanding an immediate restart to West Bank construction, or facing them down and continuing the negotiations. If he chooses to go along with them and finally authorises the restarting of construction, then he will have been wrong-footed in the eyes of the USA and world opinion. If he does face them down, then Abbas will be perceived to have won his point by sheer persistence.

This is why officials in Jerusalem believe that Abbas will attempt at all costs to delay the beginning of direct peace negotiations with Israel, probably waiting until the temporary settlement freeze expires, before declaring his own decision on the matter. They also assume that the Palestinian president, waving the impending dilemma in front of Netanyahu's nose, will use the time to try to convince him to continue the freeze or at least to take other "equal" measures in respect of West Bank construction.

How will things pan out? There's the whole month of August to get through first – and on the basis of precedent, almost anything can happen in that time, and probably will.

*Note on Turkey's application to join the European Union
First made in 1987, it has been outstanding largely on account of Turkey's 1974 invasion and seizure of northern Cyprus, and its continuing stand-off with Greece ever since. France and Germany also fear the uncertain role a large and predominantly Islamic society might play within a European political and economic bloc. In May 2009 French President Nicholas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel jointly questioned the wisdom of Turkey seeking full membership of the European Union. They emphasized their objection to the EU's enlargement to include Turkey, argued that any misguided expansion might endanger its operational effectiveness, and instead reiterated their support for "privileged partnership" as an alternative framework to regulate Turkish-EU relations – an offer immediately and robustly rejected by Turkey.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

The Friends of Israel Initiative

To coin a thought – people possess an infinite capacity to amaze and astound. Who could ever have predicted that in the middle of 2010 considerable numbers of well-respected figures, virtually all of them non-Jewish, from countries all around the world, would come together to defend Israel against the insidious and growing campaign to delegitimize her waged by her enemies and supported by numerous international institutions.

Who are these people, prepared to take so unfashionable and therefore so courageous a stand?

The "Friends of Israel Initiative" is led by former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar. The list of members includes Peru's former president Alejandro Toledo, former Italian Senate president Marcello Pera, former United States Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, British historian Andrew Roberts, Northern Ireland's Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Lord Trimble. With a working budget of almost £1 million a year, FII has been funded by a dozen private donors from Spain, America, Israel, France, Italy and Britain.

It was in May 2010 that José Maria Aznar brought together a high level group in Paris to launch a project aimed specifically at asserting Israel's position as a legitimate democratic sovereign nation, an integral part of the Western world and of fundamental importance to its future. Although the FII acknowledge that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is important, the members of the group are even more concerned about the rising tide of radical Islamism and the prospect of a nuclear Iran, both of which threaten the entire world.

The Mexican newspaper El Financiero defines the purpose of the Initiative as to "reaffirm Western values," and counteract "anti-Semitic criticism of Israel." According to Spain's ABC News Internacional, the Initiative is founded on the conviction that "the campaign against Israel corrodes the international system from within, beginning with the United Nations."

The Friends of Israel Initiative is committed to act consistently and diligently in its effort to disseminate its members’ vision of Israel as a democratic, open, and advanced nation like any other, and that it should be perceived and treated as such. Israel, the organisation maintains, is a sovereign democracy which like all the others is, of course, capable of making mistakes. Nonetheless, it asserts, this should not be used as an excuse to question Israel’s right to exist, its legitimacy, or its basic rights as an independent state. "Israel is an inextricable part of the West," they maintain; "we stand or fall together."

Earlier this month (July) José María Aznar wrote: "It is easy to blame Israel for all the evils in the Arab world, and some are even ready to sacrifice the future of Israel if a new understanding with the Muslim world were to be achieved in return. However, to weaken Israel is a serious mistake since it is our first line of defence in the region; if Israel fell into the hands of its enemies, the West as we know it would cease to exist.

"To defend Israel’s right to exist in peace and within defensible borders requires a moral clarity that has mainly gone lost in Europe - this spectre is also looming over the United States. The West is what it is, thanks to its Judeo-Christian roots. If the Jewish part of those roots is upturned and Israel is lost, then we are lost too. Today, to defend Israel is to defend the West. With this initiative we aspire to make that reality ever more patent."

Last Monday (19 July) saw the Initiative open a front in the UK. At the invitation of the Member of Parliament Robert Halfon, and hosted by the Henry Jackson Society, the FII was launched in Britain's parliament building, the Palace of Westminster. The next launch will be in Washington in September, followed by Rome and then another event in Paris.

In advancing its campaign the group is casting its net wide. It appears to recognise that radical Islamism poses as great a threat to the moderate Muslim world as to the West. The group is considering visiting Arab countries in the coming year, as well as addressing the United Nations and the European Parliament. There has already been contact with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. The reach will then be widened to embrace entertainment (including a possible visit to Hollywood), science, and other areas beyond politics.

Yes, a strange phenomenon indeed, when liberal opinion throughout the western world seems determinedly blinkered about the threats posed by rampant Islamism, a movement dedicated to eliminating the western way of life, and not least its democratic foundations. And even if more moderate liberal opinion acknowledges something of this, it seems incapable of taking the next logical step of acknowledging that Hamas in Gaza, and Hezbollah in Lebanon, supported and supplied by Iran and Syria, are part and parcel of that Islamist front, that Israel is a first line of defence against it, and that the Western world as a whole – including Israel as an integral element of the West – should oppose it wherever it exists.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

No willing partner

Yesterday (Tuesday, 20 July) David Cameron made his first journey to Washington as Britain's new prime minister. After an unprecedented three-hour visit to the White House, and a private face-to-face discussion lasting a full hour, the two leaders emerged to face a joint press conference dominated by two issues. The first was the release of the convicted Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, from a Scottish jail eleven months ago on humanitarian grounds and any role that America's current hate-figure, BP, may have had in it. The second was the situation in Afghanistan, and the withdrawal process for US, British and NATO forces.

Scour the internet and the press as you may, and you would be fortunate indeed to find references to any interchange the two men may have had on current issues in the Middle East.

But, swamped by matters of more immediate interest, both the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and Iran's nuclear development programme did come up for discussion. The President and the PM agreed on the necessity of starting direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians. On that issue, according to a White House press statement, Cameron said: "We desperately need a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians that provides security, justice and hope. It is time for direct talks, not least because it is time for each, Israel and Palestine, to test the seriousness of the other."

On the topic of Iran, President Obama said that he was united with Prime Minister Cameron on the threat posed by Iran's nuclear programme, and warned that further defiance by Iran will lead to further isolation of the Islamic regime.

During the joint press conference Cameron reiterated this message: "America and Britain, with our partners, stand ready to negotiate, and to do so in good faith. But in the absence of a willing partner, we will implement with vigour the sanctions package agreed by the United Nations Security Council, and in Europe we will be taking further steps as well."

Odd that the question of a "willing partner" should feature so strongly in considering possibly delicate negotiations with Iran on nuclear matters, but should be conspicuous by its absence when discussing an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. For the fact of the matter is, as distinguished Middle East commentator Barry Rubin recently observed: "There is a partner for talks and shorter-term cooperation (ie the Palestinian Authority) but no partner for full peace. Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah are not amenable to diplomacy."

And there, as Shakespeare has it, is the rub – which the Concise Oxford dictionary defines as a difficulty or impediment. Indeed. The opening of direct discussions, if or when they come about, may encompass all manner of outstanding issues, but the one issue they cannot resolve is the indisputable fact that the Gaza Strip is in the hands of an Islamist terrorist organisation that is viscerally opposed to any accommodation with Israel.

As Barry Rubin points out, revolutionary Islamism is advancing and the US, given its current policy, isn’t exactly a bulwark battling against it. He points to the need for the US to have a worked-out strategy in place to contain Iran when – not, he says, if – it gets nuclear weapons, and even more with how to deal in the Gaza Strip with Hamas, a repressive revolutionary Islamist dictatorship and a client of Iran.

Not that the leaders of Fatah in the Palestinian Authority do not themselves recognise the problems that Hamas poses. "The worst thing that has happened to us," is how the PA chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, characterised the Hamas coup d'état in Gaza in a recent TV interview.

But wringing one's hands over an unsatisfactory state of affairs goes no way towards solving it. Either Hamas must be driven out of Gaza by fair means (ie democratic elections) or foul (ie militarily) – or the organisation must be induced to come to terms with its internecine rivals, Fatah, and accept the outcome of peace negotiations. This would require Hamas to agree to a two-state solution – the only feasible option currently on the table – and therefore, by implication, the existence of Israel within secure boundaries alongside a sovereign Palestine.

The leaders of the Western world, and the organisations closely involved – the UN, the EU, the Quartet – never seem to approach this fundamental issue in their many interventions. It is as if all the parties concerned had voluntarily donned blindfolds so as to avoid seeing what was in front of their noses – that Islamist terrorism, wreaking havoc across the world, the reason for major commitments of forces and resources in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for the continued imposition of UN sanctions on Iran and its nuclear ambitions, is the same Islamist terrorism at work in southern Lebanon and in the Gaza Strip.

There is a community of interest, which would involve also many "moderate" Muslim countries, in combating fundamentalist Islamism, a movement totally ruthless in pursuing its objectives, sacrificing not only the lives of its own adherents by supporting and celebrating its suicide bombers, but also slaughtering innocent people in droves.

Joined-up thinking is called for. One fears the call will go unheeded.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

The secret Palestinian peace offer

It is not generally known that the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, initiated amid high hopes in Annapolis on 27 November 2007, spawned two potential peace deals before the talks collapsed in December 2008 in the wake of Israel's strike against the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip.

One of the deals was the well-publicised offer from Ehud Olmert, made in the dying days of his premiership. The other – revealed in a TV interview only a few weeks ago by chief PA negotiator, Saeb Erekat – was a far-reaching, written peace proposal submitted by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the Israeli government during the final days of the Bush administration.

This information appeared to come as a total surprise to the Israeli TV interviewer. But in fact Erekat had referred to it nearly a year before in a radio interview in April 2009. During the interview, Erekat disclosed that he made a secret trip to Washington on 18 December 2008 in order to present a copy of the document to President George W Bush.

Parallelling each other in recriminations, Abbas claims that he had asked Israeli premier, Ehud Olmert, to reply to the proposal in writing, but Olmert had failed to do so. Olmert makes precisely the same charge against Abbas. He says that he showed Abbas a map embodying the full offer he had made for territorial compromise on both sides. Abbas wanted to take the map away. Olmert agreed, so long as they both signed it. It was, from Olmert's point of view, a final offer, not a basis for future negotiation. But Abbas could not commit. Instead, he said he would come with experts the next day.

"But," said Olmert, "the next day Saeb Erekat rang my adviser and said we forgot we are going to Amman today, let's make it next week. I never saw him again."

The details of Olmert's final offer are well known. In more than 35 meetings – some of them discussions attended by officials on both sides, some private face-to-face encounters involving just the two men – Olmert believed they had reached agreement on a plan, which he presented to Abbas in written form on 16 September 2008.

The territorial solution would start from the situation obtaining on the ground just prior to the Six Day War. Minor modifications on both sides would allow Israel to keep the biggest Jewish settlement blocks, including some suburbs of Jerusalem, but would certainly have entailed other settlers having to leave Palestinian territory and relocate to Israel. In total this would have involved Israel claiming about 6.4 per cent of Palestinian territory in the West Bank. In return there would be a swap of land to the Palestinians from Israel as it existed before 1967.

"I showed Abu Mazen* how this would work to maintain the contiguity of the Palestinian state," said Olmert in an interview in November 2009. "I also proposed a safe passage between the West Bank and Gaza. It would have been a tunnel fully controlled by the Palestinians but not under Palestinian sovereignty, otherwise it would have cut the state of Israel in two."

Olmert's solution for Jerusalem was for the city to be shared – Jewish neighbourhoods to be under Jewish sovereignty, Arab neighbourhoods under Palestinian sovereignty so that they could be the capital of a Palestinian state. As for the sites within the old city sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians, they would be jointly administered by five nations: Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Palestinian state, Israel and the United States.

Dealing with the issue of the Palestinian right of return, Olmert said: "we would agree on a humanitarian basis to accept a certain number every year for five years, on the basis that this would be the end of conflict and the end of claims. I said to him 1000 per year. I think the Americans were entirely with me. In addition, we talked about creating an international fund that would compensate Palestinians for their suffering."

What was never tested was the extent to which this package would have survived the democratic test of acceptability within Israel, let alone within the Israeli government which would have had to endorse it in the final analysis. The political situation in the final months of 2008 was that Olmert, who had resigned over corruption allegations on 21 September, was acting merely in a caretaker capacity until the new elections. He had, in a sense, nothing to lose – which is perhaps why he was able to say: "what no previous Israeli leader has ever said: we should withdraw from almost all of the territories, including in east Jerusalem and in the Golan Heights."

For his part, Saeb Erekat, speaking of the proposal submitted by Abbas, said that it dealt with all the core issues of the conflict, including Jerusalem and borders. The Palestinians insisted on a written agreement, he said, because they had learned from the botched peace summit at Camp David of July 2000.

Intriguingly, we do not yet have nearly as detailed a picture of the Palestinian proposals as the Olmert ones, but given the extent and depth of the negotiations between Olmert and Abbas during 2008, and the apparent meeting of minds between them, the two plans could not have been that far apart. And indeed, in his recent TV interview, Erekat claimed that it was the "most advanced offer" ever made by Palestinians, echoing Olmert's similar claim from the Israeli side.

Echoes of the Olmert plan were, moreover, discernible in recent reports of remarks by Mahmoud Abbas, in which he is said to have proposed a land swap involving some 2.3 per cent of West Bank territory, (somewhat reduced from Olmert's 6.4 per cent), but which would leave larger Israeli settlement blocs, such as Gush Etzion, Pisgat Ze'ev and Modi'in Ilit, in Israel's hands, along with a swathe of land overlooking Ben-Gurion International Airport. In return, the Palestinians would get land bordering the southern West Bank, in addition to land for a "passageway" between the West Bank and Gaza. Olmert's tunnel? An underground rail system or subway? Or something more space age, like a roadway on stilts? Who may say.

Erekat almost acknowledged a congruence between the two plans when he asserted that the "Annapolis agreement did not fail… We turned every possible stone. Yes it’s true we didn’t reach an agreement, because instead of meeting us in Washington on January 3 to put the maps on the table as was agreed, Mr Olmert just went to Gaza."

His implication is clear. The two parties had been within a whisker of reaching an historic agreement. The spade work has in fact been done. Why reinvent the wheel?

"We no longer need negotiations," said Erekat. "We need decisions. There was a proposal of Mr Olmert. There was a proposal from President Abbas, but this time we learned from what happened in Camp David. We submitted ours in writing, Olmert talked; I went to the US secretly and handed what we proposed in writing. History will show that President Abbas is a man of courage and commitment."

What Erekat does not consider is the strong possibility that either plan, if simply resurrected, would now be quite unacceptable to both Israeli and Arab opinion. Much water has flowed under the bridge since December 2008 – not least the strengthening of Hamas's hold over Gaza. What would be the value of an agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that was totally rejected by the de facto Islamist power in Gaza, bolstered as it is by Iran and Syria? In his TV interview, Erekat acknowledged as much, going so far as to describe the Hamas coup d'état in Gaza as "the worst thing that has happened to us" – which, from the chief PA negotiator, is saying something.

Other sticking points to a final agreement are, on the Israeli side, the demand for an unambiguous Palestinian acknowledgement of Israel as a Jewish state. The PA side are currently demanding an equally unambiguous declaration of a halt to all construction and development on the West Bank and East Jerusalem as a precondition to entering face-to-face discussions. Both issues seem little more than bargaining chips, relatively easily disposed of – provided the game is actually being played out.

So yes, the bare bones of a final agreement are probably in place. The trick will lie in putting flesh on the bones and then, trusting the outcome is no Frankenstein's monster, breathing life into it.

*Abu Mazen is Mahmoud Abbas's "kunya", a naming method widely used in the Arab world as an alternative to given names. "Abu" (father) precedes the name of the bearer's first born, whether son or daughter.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Face-to-face talks – a problem or two

Improbable as it may have appeared over the past six months – given the succession of events that have tested the peace process almost to its limit – direct talks between the Palestinian Authority and Israel are becoming more likely by the day.

Following the visit of Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu to Washington last week, the US administration has, it appears, been putting PA President Mahmoud Abbas under intense pressure to agree to move from the proximity phase of the negotiations to face-to-face discussions. Abbas has been cautious about entering direct talks until now. Following a successful visit to Washington last month, though, the Palestinian President may now be more willing to enter direct talks, feeling greater confidence that US backing will mean this round of talks will produce results.

And indeed in Ramallah a few days ago Palestinian Authority officials said that direct talks with Israel were not ruled out, but that the PA was waiting for US special Middle East envoy George Mitchell – who is scheduled to return to the region shortly – to see if he has replies to a number of questions presented to him by the Palestinians. These include whether Israel would be willing to freeze construction in all West Bank settlements and in east Jerusalem, and to recognize the "4 June 1967 lines" as the future borders of a Palestinian state.

As for the settlement freeze, during his visit to Washington Netanyahu was asked repeatedly whether he would extend the 10-month building moratorium that expires on 26 September. All his responses indicated that he wanted this issue to be on the table as an element in direct negotiations, but that he did not intend to provide an unequivocal answer in advance.

The other substantive issue in the minds of PA President Abbas and his officials is whether the borders of the future sovereign state of Palestine – and therefore of the future Israel – are to be a return to the status quo on the day before the Six-Day War, which began on 5 June 1967.

The phrase "the line of 4 June 1967" has been part of the Arab-Israeli peace process lexicon for over five years. During a visit to Bahrain on 4 February 2010, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: "we believe that the 1967 borders, with swaps, should be the focus of the negotiations over borders."

This was an error in terminology that she subsequently corrected. 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.

On the Egyptian and Syrian fronts there had been a history of international boundaries between the British Mandate and its neighbours. But along the Jordanian front the armistice line was the position on the ground when the fighting stopped. In fact, Article II of the Armistice with Jordan explicitly specified that the agreement did not compromise any future territorial claims of the parties, since it had been "dictated exclusively by military considerations."

As Dr Dore Gold, the renowned expert on Middle East affairs, has pointed out, after the Six-Day War the architects of UN Security Council Resolution 242 insisted that the old armistice line had to be replaced with a new border. Thus US Ambassador at the time, Arthur Goldberg: "historically, there have never been secure or recognized boundaries in the area"; adding that the armistice lines did not answer that description.

"Which is why," Dr Gold writes, "Resolution 242 did not call for a full withdrawal from all the territories that Israel captured in the Six Day War; 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."

This issue, interesting historically though it is, is far from an insuperable difficulty to achieving a final PA-Israeli peace agreement. The Arab call for a return to the pre-Six Day War situation is as much an emotional attempt to erase the humiliation inflicted on the combined Arab forces at the time, as a requirement to be scrupulously observed. Although the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative refers to the 1967 lines, and the 2003 Road Map speaks of ending "the occupation that began in 1967," all sides acknowledge that a final agreement will incorporate land swaps aimed at ensuring secure borders for both Israel and the future Palestine.

When might the direct face-to-face talks begin? Chief PA negotiator Saeb Erekat has confirmed that President Obama has urged the PA to agree to direct negotiations, but said he was unaware of reports suggesting that they could commence by the end of this month (July). Other reports, also unconfirmed, have said that Obama wanted to kick off the talks at a trilateral meeting between him, Netanyahu and Abbas on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York in September.

Netanyahu is travelling to Sharm-el-Sheikh this week to discuss the question of direct talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. President Abbas is expected to meet with the Egyptian leader shortly afterwards. Abbas has made it clear that,just as occurred before the start of the proximity talks, he would require backing from the Arab League foreign ministers before agreeing to launch direct negotiations with Israel. The question of Arab League approval will doubtless feature high on the agenda in Netanyahu's meeting with President Mubarak.

So despite setbacks, obstacles, the odd problem or two, we continue to inch our way forward.

Friday, 9 July 2010

A peace deal by 2011?

On Thursday (8 July), Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the Council of Foreign Relations in New York.

The good news is that he said a peace deal with the Palestinians could be signed by next year. He stressed his own willingness to engage in the process, and repeated his call for direct negotiations with the Palestinians.

The bad news is that, though he stressed that a partner was needed in order to make this happen, he did not specify the main obstacle to a comprehensive agreement – the fact that Hamas rules in the Gaza Strip, and that Hamas is dead set against an accommodation with Israel

The speech to the Council of Foreign Relations was the concluding engagement in Netanyahu's trip to the US, and he returned to Israel that evening. During the day Netanyahu gave interviews to CNN, ABC and CBS news networks. In all his speaking engagements, Netanyahu reiterated his call for direct negotiations between Israel and the PA.

Netanyahu's visit to the US is generally considered successful in burying the strains of the past few months and re-establishing cordial relations between Israel and the USA. What remains uncertain is whether differences will eventually re-emerge over, for example, the issue of the settlement freeze.

Relying on hope rather than probability, in his speech to the Council of Foreign Relations Netanyahu dismissed the idea that an extension of the freeze should be a precondition for continued negotiations. The 10-month settlement freeze is due to expire on 27 September, and he hinted that the moratorium on West Bank construction would not be renewed. The likely impact of a renewal of settlement building on Arab opinion in general, and Palestinian opinion in particular, does not require much imagination.

The subject came up during an interview Netanyahu gave to Larry King on America's top-rated talk show. Asked if he would extend beyond September the 10-month moratorium on housing starts in settlements in the West Bank, Netanyahu said it was time for the Palestinians to drop preconditions for face-to-face talks.

"Let's just get into the talks," he said, "and one of the things we'll discuss right away is this issue of settlements and that's what I propose doing. I put on a temporary freeze – seven months passed by but the Palestinians didn’t come, and now they need another extension. It requires courage on the Palestinian side to stand up and do what the late president of Egypt Anwar Sadat did – to say 'It’s over, enough with the bloodshed.'"

Wisely, perhaps, Netanyahu did not spell out the fatal price Sadat* paid for his courage. It is, perhaps, going a little far to ask someone to put his neck willingly on the chopping block. No doubt Netanyahu also has the fate of his predecessor as Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin**, in mind from time to time.

Asked if he would sit down at the negotiating table with Hamas, Netanyahu said he "would sit down with anyone who recognizes our existence and is not calling for our destruction." Is that, King might have asked, a "yes" or a "no"? Of course what it represents is an invitation to Hamas to modify their unyielding approach to the idea of the two-state solution – and, incidentally, to their objection to the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state. This they oppose because the idea carries in its train recognition that Palestine must live alongside Israel – and it is to Israel's destruction that Hamas, alongside its sponsors Iran and Syria, and its brothers-in-arms Hezbollah, is dedicated.

Following his return to Israel, Netanyahu will, reports indicate, apply himself to taking the political steps necessary to have Kadima join his coalition government. Natan Eshel, the director of the Prime Minister's Bureau, met a number of days ago with a senior member of Kadima and passed on to him an itemised proposal for joining the coalition. According to a report in Israel's Ma'ariv newspaper yesterday, Netanyahu's offer would give Kadima head, Tzipi Livni, the role of Israel's chief negotiator in talks with the Palestinians. The presumption is that the PM does not intend to restructure his coalition or redraw its guidelines.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas was reported on Wednesday in the official Palestinian Authority daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida as supporting negotiations with Israel at present because it is the only option. However, the newspaper quotes Abbas as saying: "If you [Arab states] want war, and if all of you will fight Israel, we are in favour. But the Palestinians will not fight alone because they don't have the ability to do it."

Some might find this comment dispiriting. Personally, I find it quite hopeful. Whatever the motive for talking peace, let the two parties only talk it. As regards the proximity talks, and even the face-to-face negotiations that might follow, it is almost certain that they are seen by a significant proportion, perhaps even a majority, of Arab opinion as a step towards the ultimate goal of a Middle East somehow shorn of Israel.

My reaction? Let’s have the peace, and Israel will then have the task of defending the subsequent status quo. After all, on the other side of the fence, hard-line Israeli settlers may have a parallel ultimate objective somewhere in mind regarding the Arab population of the West Bank. Let both parties dream their dreams, but let realpolitik rule in the political sphere. The important thing is a peace agreement – the only way to achieve some sort of accommodation and stability. Who knows what benefits a period of peace might not yield for the region in the long-run? An unprecedented economic, financial and trade boom on the lines of Hong Kong or Singapore, through an Israel-led confederation including Jordan and Egypt, and even Lebanon and Syria, is not way outside the bounds of possibility.

* Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by an Islamist extremist
** Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by a Jewish extremist

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Bibi and Barack straighten out a few things

When Israel's Prime Minister met US President Obama in Washington yesterday, the atmosphere was described as very friendly, and the discussions went well. Later, both men were adamant that the relationship between the USA and Israel was not only strong but unbreakable. Obama called the meeting "one more step in the extraordinary friendship between the US and Israel, which has grown closer and closer as time goes on."

This cordial outcome might suggest that Benjamin Netanyahu (generally known within Israel as "Bibi") had brought to the White House a vision for the future of the Middle East that Obama could sign up to.

The President's immediate and longer-term aspirations for the Israel-Palestine issue seem clear enough. Having invested a good deal of effort in promoting negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel – indirect in the first instance –he is now seeking direct face-to-face talks between the two parties. And the objective? That, too, is clear – a peace agreement leading to the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

Netanyahu does not demur from either proposition, though – as they say – the devil is in the detail. He reiterated his call, delivered in Israel before he left for the States, for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to meet him and move to face-to-face negotiations on Palestinian statehood. It was "high time," Netanyahu said, to begin direct talks.

Several obstacles lie on the road to total agreement between Netanyahu and Obama – for example, Israel's 10-month freeze on construction in the West Bank, imposed in November 2009 and due to expire in September. Or, even more fundamental, the question of how many of the settlements would remain within Israel's sovereignty as part of a peace accord. That some would, as part of a "land swap" agreement, has already been acknowledged by Abbas himself, Arab-language newspaper Al-Hayat recently reported.

Abbas is said to have proposed a land swap involving some 2.3 per cent of West Bank territory, which would leave larger Israeli settlement blocs, such as Gush Etzion, Pisgat Ze'ev and Modi'in Ilit, in Israel's hands, along with a swathe of land overlooking Ben-Gurion International Airport. In return, the Palestinians would get land bordering the southern West Bank in addition to land for a passageway between the West Bank and Gaza.

In the press conference following their meeting, Netanyahu endorsed Obama's hope that direct negotiations would get under way "well before" the 10-month Israeli freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank expires. But Israel's senior English-language newspaper, the Jerusalem Post, claims to have learned of a proposal under which Obama might hint at the US accepting Israeli control over the major settlement blocs, if Netanyahu extends the settlement freeze in the West Bank. This idea was originally part of former US president George W. Bush's 2004 agreement with Israel's then-prime minister Ariel Sharon.

However if the Palestinian Authority remains unwilling to enter direct talks, Netanyahu is likely to come under heavy internal pressure to re-commence construction in the West Bank. If he accedes to it, then the Arab League support for the continued PA participation in peace talks is almost certain to be withdrawn.

Both Obama and Netanyahu were complicit – as so many parties to discussions about the Israel-Palestine issue are – in pretending that the peace talks, indirect or face-to-face, can somehow incorporate the Gaza Strip, even though it is under the control of Hamas, a terrorist Islamic régime supported by Iran and Syria, and resolutely opposed to any accommodation with Israel. How to square that particular circle is a problem that has been resolutely ignored so far, but will eventually have to be faced.

The Gaza flotilla episode and its aftermath – a relaxation of Israel's land and sea blockade – featured in the discussions between Prime Minister and President. Netanyahu had brought with him to Washington a detailed list of goods Israel will not allow into the Gaza Strip. Originally negotiated by Tony Blair, the Quartet's special Middle East envoy, this "negative" list, setting out a catalogue of prohibited imports, replaces the system operating so far of a list of permitted goods, and was welcomed by the US administration.

The two nations seem eye-to-eye also on their reaction to the establishment of a committee, on behalf of the United Nations Human Rights Council, to investigate the storming of the Mavi Marmara by Israeli commandos, and the subsequent death of nine Turkish citizens. Headed by a former president of the International Criminal Court, Canadian Philippe Kirsch, the committee begins work today, after its full membership is announced.

The US, which had welcomed the formation of an independent committee of inquiry in Israel under former justice Jacob Turkel, is opposed to an international probe into the events. France and Britain are reported to share Washington's view on the issue. A US diplomat in New York is reported to have said: "As far as the US administration is concerned, at a time when it is trying to resume the peace process, the investigation into the events of the flotilla … could not have come at a worst time."

Turkey persists in demanding an apology from Israel for the attack, but evidence is mounting of Turkish government complicity in conceiving, assisting and involving itself in an enterprise, pre-planned and carefully designed, to provoke a violent encounter with Israel. Fronted by a Turkish non-governmental organisation – the IHH – and concealing its intentions under the cloak of delivering humanitarian aid, the plan appears to have involved the smuggling on board the lead ship, the Mavi Marmara, which itself carried no humanitarian aid at all, of 40 armed and dangerous thugs who subsequently took over control of the ship from its unsuspecting captain.

How deep will the UN Human Rights Committee probe in its investigation? If it confirms the growing evidence that the whole Gaza Freedom flotilla enterprise was an operation specifically designed, and carefully planned, to induce a violent confrontation with the Israeli military, it may be difficult to determine whether it is Israel or Turkey that is the more deserving of an apology.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Peace talks: a sort of blind-man's bluff

Next Tuesday, 6 July, Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is due to visit Washington. His previous scheduled date with President Obama. inconveniently coinciding as it did with the Gaza flotilla debacle, was hastily cancelled. The last time the two actually met the climate was frosty, as the US President presented the Israeli PM with a list of required actions aimed at restoring sufficient confidence on the Palestinian side to allow the proximity talks initiative to go ahead.

Those, by and large, Netanyahu met, and indeed the US special Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, was able to set up and subsequently maintain the arm's-length negotiations that have been dubbed "proximity talks". The process even survived the Gaza flotilla incident, and Mitchell returned to the Middle East last week to initiate the fifth round.

This, according to a report in yesterday's (Saturday's) edition of the London-based Arab language newspaper, Al-Hayat, has yielded an unexpected outcome. The report, not as yet officially confirmed, is that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has handed Mitchell a list of firm proposals for reaching a peace agreement with Israel.

Abbas is said to have proposed the creation of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, but with a land swap encompassing 2.3 per cent, which would leave larger Israeli settlement blocs, such as Gush Etzion, Pisgat Ze'ev and Modi'in Ilit, in Israel's hands, along with a swathe of land overlooking Ben-Gurion International Airport. In return, the Palestinians would get land bordering the southern West Bank in addition to land for a passageway between the West Bank and Gaza.

Abbas is also reported to have presented a softened stance on East Jerusalem, which would become the future capital of the Palestinian state. Abbas reportedly proposed that Israel should retain control over the Old City's Jewish Quarter and Western Wall. The rest of the Old City, while under Palestinian sovereignty, would be open to worshippers of all religions.

Included in the scheme are suggestions on borders and security arrangements.

This package, if the reports are accurate, must be regarded as a good opening gambit on Abbas's part. While certainly unacceptable to Israel as it stands, it undoubtedly contains more accommodating elements than previous negotiations have yielded. And once the concept of a land swap is on the table, there is room for manoeuvre, discussion and agreement. The concept of a roadway of some sort linking the West Bank and Gaza has been contained in previous Israeli proposals, notably in the last set offered by Ehud Olmert, when prime minister, and never formally responded to by Abbas.

The sticking point, of course, lies in the final status of Jerusalem. The most far-reaching of previous Israeli suggestions – those sponsored by Ehud Barak, currently Defense Minister, and Ehud Olmert – envisaged the capital of a Palestinian sovereign state as being in a new municipality, perhaps to be called Al-Quds, created from current Arab-occupied districts of East Jerusalem amalgamated with adjoining areas containing a number of Arab-occupied towns.

This concept may indeed still be negotiable within the terms of Abbas's new proposals. A real intractable – though perhaps not insoluble – problem will be sovereignty over the Old City and access to the holy places. This is where the hard bargaining will eventually be required.

Whether Netanyahu will respond immediately is doubtful. Last Friday, in an interview on Israel's TV, he called on Abbas to enter direct negotiations. “I’m ready anytime,” he said. “Let’s not waste another 15 months before we sit down together.” He added that he was willing to discuss the end of the Israeli government's West Bank building freeze, set to end in September, and that he was prepared to go to Ramallah to negotiate with Abbas if the PA President would come to Jerusalem.

"Willing to discuss" the end of the settlement freeze he may be, but here Netanyahu is caught in something of a pincer. On the one hand four ministers in his fragile coalition cabinet – Avigdor Lieberman, Moshe Ya'alon, Benny Begin and Eli Yishai – want construction on the West Bank to be resumed as soon as the official moratorium expires. On the other, in discussions with President Obama next week, Netanyahu is likely to be questioned closely about the possibility of extending the moratorium on West Bank construction in one form or another. Obama is expected to suggest this to Netanyahu in order to enable direct talks to take place, for American officials are pressuring Abbas to start talking face-to-face with Israel.

This coming week, if Netanyahu is capable of demonstrating just a touch of statesmanship, he has the chance of bringing the US President alongside a joint vision of where the peace process should lead. The question is: does Netanyahu in fact, have a clear vision to impart? What sort of future does he envisage for the region? Does he have a destination he wishes to reach, or a clear direction on how to get there?

As noted columnist, Aluf Benn, wrote last week: "Instead of citing hostile statements from the archives of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Netanyahu needs to present Obama with a practical proposal that can be neatly packaged and marketed. His current formula - "a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside a Jewish state" - is yawn-inducing… Compare that with phrases like "the ingathering of the exiles," "peace," "an end to the conflict," and "disengagement," as enunciated by his predecessors. These messages electrified the public and tilted world governments toward Israel."

Meanwhile, Palestinian sources close to Abbas are quoted as saying the Palestinian leader expects more effective US participation in peace talks, with some suggesting that Abbas wants the Obama administration to impose a settlement if negotiations fail.

Nor is he the only one. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, present at a meeting in Paris last Thursday attended by the PA Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, said that if the arm's-length negotiations do not make progress by September, Arab leaders would begin to push the UN for the unilateral creation of a Palestinian state.

"The Arab League foreign ministers," he said, "would agree on the need to act in the Security Council. The state should not be delayed beyond this year. Who should decide? The Quartet is not enough. The Security Council is the venue."

Yet all these statements and discussions, actual and potential, are perpetuating a sort of fictional drama in which all the parties involved appear willing players. Who questions the presumption that Mahmoud Abbas is negotiating on behalf of the whole Palestinian people? But is he? Is the reality not that he speaks only for those resident in the West Bank? Does George Mitchell, or President Obama, believe that a "successful" end to the negotiations, even if achieved at face-to-face talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, would be acceptable to Hamas – let alone Iran or Syria? Would Hamas, the de facto (though not the de jure) government of the Gaza Strip, feel bound by agreements reached in its absence from the negotiating table (not that Hamas would agree to sit down with Israel in the first place)? It is as if all parties have willingly put on blindfolds in order to play a game of blind-man's bluff.

And the game would continue, even if the talks ended in failure. Far from Ahmed Aboul Gheit's dire last-ditch scenario solving anything, the reality is that Hamas has set its face against endorsing a Palestinian state alongside Israel, and there seems little softening of their attitude. The sort of response from Hamas that would follow a two-state solution imposed by diktat of the Security Council requires little imagination.

The truth is that the regional problem requiring the most immediate attention in the Middle East is the bitter and bloody inter-Palestinian feud between Hamas and Fatah. Until that is resolved – and resolved in a way that brings Hamas willingly alongside Mahmoud Abbas in his peace negotiations – any "settlement" of the Israel-Palestinian issue could be only partial and unstable.