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.

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