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.

Friday, 22 October 2010

"The Bloodstained Mavi Marmara"

Sefik Dinc is a well-respected photo-journalist, working for the Turkish newspaper, Haberturk. Together with 16 other Turkish journalists, he was on board the Mavi Marmara on its ill-fated voyage last May to break Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza. He not only succeeded in photographing the violent confrontation between the IHH and the Israeli military, but managed to conceal his photographs from the Israeli security forces, and then smuggled them into Turkey.

Subsequently Dinc published his eye-witness account of events on board the Mavi Marmara. His newspaper Haberturk carried his first testimony; later he published an even fuller account in his book "The Bloodstained Mavi Marmara."

In the foreword to his book, Dinc writes: “Let’s face it, the Mavi Marmara crisis was a calculated gamble. People on the street said that Israel would not let the siege be broken. The Turkish government, by not preventing the incident, and the IHH, by insisting on entering Gaza, led to a harsh, non-compromising reaction from Israel, destabilizing the Middle East region again”.

In the last week of September, the United Nations Human Rights Council published a 56-page report on the Mavi Marmara incident. Compiled by a panel of international judges and lawyers, the report accuses Israel of a myriad of violations of international law and war crimes perpetrated against the flotilla. Sefik Dinc’s account flatly contradicts the UNHRC report on major aspects of what they claimed to have occurred.

For example, the UNHRC’s report maintains that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) used live ammunition from the helicopters before the soldiers landed, and that the IDF abused the male passengers, as well as sexually insulted the female passengers. Sefik Dinc, however, testifies that the IDF soldiers did not fire from the helicopters or while descending to the ship’s deck. The IDF soldiers started to use their weapons after they were attacked by violent activists using metal rods, and after they discovered that IDF soldiers had been taken below deck.

“The Sikorsky helicopter began to approach the ship,” writes Dinc in his Haberturk article. “Coming over the ship, the helicopter began to descend slowly, and I moved to a place where I’d be better able to take better pictures. When it was about three metres away, commandos began to descend on ropes. The three Israeli commandos who descended via rope to the pilothouse began to brawl with the volunteers waiting here on the ship. In the mêlée, one soldier was almost cast into the sea, but some members of the group were opposed to it. With the Israeli troops disarmed, the sound of the gunfire from the helicopters began to change. The rubber bullets fired by Israeli commandos were now real bullets.”

In other words, he testifies that IDF soldiers did not open fire until after other soldiers were attacked and taken hostage. Dinc’s account is consistent with the testimonies of the Israeli soldiers who boarded the Mavi Marmara. They completely contradict the narrative constructed by the IHH (the Turkish Islamist organisation, Insani Yardim Vakfi) about the flotilla events, which relies on the testimony of activists who were on board and were the basis for the flawed report compiled by the UN Human Rights Council.

Dinc’s photographs and his account match a great deal of other information [see my article: “The flotilla incident – cynical and sinister” of 13 June 2010], according to which IHH operatives had devised a carefully prepared plan aimed at fomenting a violent confrontation with the IDF. The author photographed IHH operatives beating IDF soldiers with iron bars and clubs taken from a secret stash, kidnapping three of them, beating injured IDF soldiers after they were kidnapped, and trying to throw one of them into the sea.

In his book, Dinc says that some of the volunteers on board the Mavi Marmara, during lively discussions about the possibility of Israel attacking the ship, expressed their readiness to die as long as the “siege” was broken. While waiting for the confrontation, some IHH operatives began training for a potential Israeli attack. They were also told that, as soon as the ship entered Israel’s territorial waters, additional guards would be deployed and passengers would be given a warning signal. Each person in charge of passenger security was given a specific location to report to when the alarm sounded.

“By the time the soldiers started boarding the ship,” runs the caption to one of Dinc’s vivid pictures, “the passengers had already completed their preparations. They had put on lifebelts and gas masks and began resisting the Israeli soldiers using the iron bars and wooden clubs they held in their hands.”

Dinc has something to say about those iron bars: “They were made from the railing around the ship.” In short, as part of the IHH’s prearranged plan, metal cutting equipment had been brought on board that could sever the ship’s rails in order to construct weapons. In fact, about a hundred iron bars of different lengths were found on board the Mavi Marmara, made from the ship's iron railing. Also found were 50 improvised clubs, as well as standard-issue clubs brought on the ship and hidden inside rolled-up blankets.

Moreover, there is reason to believe that IHH operatives and their supporters fired live ammunition as soon as the first soldiers descended from the helicopter. One Israeli soldier suffered a knee injury from a non-IDF weapon as soon as he came on board the ship. If IDF forces returned fire using live ammunition, it appears that they did so because their lives were at risk.

It would seem that IHH operatives used three weapons against IDF soldiers that had been taken from the Israelis, and that two of them were thrown into the sea, as were one or two non-IDF weapons. At least one of these was used to fire on the commandos descending from the helicopter. The IHH's version that shots were fired from the helicopters at the Turkish operatives is not borne out by Dinc’s account. No shots were fired from the helicopter.

On 24 September Sefik Dinc was interviewed on Israeli TV by Rafael Sadi, the spokesman for the Organization of Turkish Immigrants in Israel.

Sadi: According to your eyewitness account, IDF soldiers only opened fire when they felt that their own lives or the lives of their fellow soldiers were in danger.
Dinc: As you know, I was on board the ship. I saw with my own eyes that when the soldiers came on helicopters and started landing on the ship, they did not fire. It wasn’t until the soldiers were met with resistance and realized that some of their friends’ lives were in danger that they began using live ammunition.

As for the United Nations Human Rights Council charge that the IDF had abused male passengers, and sexually assaulted female passengers:
Sadi: In your book, you describe cases of humane treatment from IDF soldiers [of the detained ship passengers], such as removing their handcuffs, and even an interesting encounter in Israel with a Jew of Turkish descent who gave you his mobile phone.
Dinc: The soldiers uncuffed some people who were having difficulties, particularly older people, women, and people who did not act aggressively. As for the Israeli policeman, his Turkish was excellent. We spoke, and he said that he had immigrated to Israel from Istanbul. He asked me if I contacted my family and whether I had a telephone to make a call. I told him I didn’t, and then he gave me his own mobile phone so that I could call my family. I thank him again.

Meanwhile, in Israel the Turkel Commission, whose members include Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Lord Trimble, continues its investigation into the events surrounding the Mavi Marmara incident. Its latest move has been to issue an invitation to any Turkish citizens who were on board to travel to Israel and testify. In the light of the evidence that has come to light, and of subsequent eye-witness accounts like those of Sefik Dinc, their final report is unlikely to reflect the conclusions of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

What will follow the Hariri verdict?

On Monday, 14 February 2005 Saad Hariri, then 35, saw his father Rafik, the former prime minister of Lebanon, together with 22 other people, blown to pieces by a car bomb. Having attended a parliamentary session in central Beirut, Rafik was apparently heading home along the beachfront in a convoy when the explosion occurred just before midday, in a busy area full of hotels and banks.

Rafik Hariri, who had resigned as prime minister and joined the opposition the previous October, had been hoping to stage a comeback in legislative elections the following May. He had recently added his voice to calls by France and the US, as well as other opposition politicians, for Syrian troops to be withdrawn from Lebanon. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad instantly condemned the attack as a "terrible criminal act".

Lebanese security officials immediately suspected Hezbollah, because Hariri was demanding that the party disband its militia and arrange for its thousands of fighters to join up with Lebanon's conventional armed forces. The bombing also bore all the hallmarks of Imad Mugniyeh, who masterminded the 1980s Beirut lorry bombings and who was himself killed by a car bomb in Damascus in 2008.

On 13 December 2005, the Lebanese government asked the United Nations to establish an international tribunal to identify and try those allegedly responsible for the attack. It took two Security Council resolutions and eighteen months before the special tribunal formally came into being in June 2007. Its mandate: to prosecute persons responsible for the attack resulting in the death of Rafik Hariri and the death or injury of other persons. The tribunal’s jurisdiction could be extended beyond the 14 February 2005 bombing if it finds that other attacks, that occurred in Lebanon between 1 October 2004 and 12 December 2005, are connected. Crimes that occurred after 12 December 2005 can also be eligible for inclusion in the tribunal’s jurisdiction if so decided by the Government of the Lebanese Republic and the United Nations, and with the consent of the Security Council.

None of which at all pleases Syria, Iran or their protégé terrorist organization, Hezbollah, which has in the interim been boosted by an influx of military hardware from both its client states, and has acquired a significant presence in the political establishment of Lebanon. Since 1982, Iran in particular has invested billions in establishing Hezbollah as a political, paramilitary and social powerhouse in the country.

This past week Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been visiting Lebanon in general, and Hezbollah in particular. On Tuesday Hezbollah held a mass rally in Beirut. Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah welcomed the Iranian leader and called him "strong support for the opposition" – that is, Hezbollah, the opposition to the Lebanese government which is now led by Rafik’s son, Saad. Ahmadinejad addressed the crowd via an interpreter. He dubbed Lebanon a "university for Jihad" – in effect assigning the Lebanese people a role in his policy of constant war with Israel, whether they choose such a role or not.

In a few weeks' time, the United Nations special tribunal investigating Rafik Hariri’s assassination is due to publish its findings. So the next day, (Wednesday 14 October), Nasrallah attempted to stamp out mounting speculation that evidence which linked members of Hezbollah to the murder had been unearthed, speculation fuelled by numerous press reports in Lebanon that cited sources close to the international tribunal investigating the murder. Nasrallah confirmed that the tribunal had questioned 12 individuals connected to the party as "witnesses, not suspects," adding that another six people could be summoned for questioning. He claimed that the allegations were intended to weaken the "resistance," a term used for the party's formidable military apparatus.

"We have been a target for years," he said. "Destroying Hezbollah is a dream. The objective is to distort Hezbollah's image, and pressure and intimidate the party."

Details of the UN tribunal's findings that have been leaked to the Beirut press suggest that, apart from Mugniyeh, the investigators have uncovered evidence that links as many as 50 senior Hezbollah officials to the assassination. This includes intercepts of mobile phone calls made between Hezbollah officials in the days leading up to Hariri's murder.

In an attempt to distance the organisation from the report's conclusions, Nasrallah, who lives in permanent hiding for fear of assassination by Israel, issued a video statement in the summer claiming that those involved with Hariri's assassination were "undisciplined members which the group has no relations with".

Initially, the investigation linked Syria to the assassination, though Damascus has always denied involvement. The shift in the investigation's direction toward Hezbollah does not mean that Syria is off the hook, argue several Western officials and diplomats who have received briefings on aspects of the tribunal's findings.

Which perhaps explains why Syrian President Bashar al-Assad confirmed last week that a Syrian judge has issued arrest warrants for 33 people over providing false testimony to investigators. He denied the warrants were politically motivated. "They're a purely judicial issue," he told Turkey's TRT television.

The Wall Street Journal last week quoted Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem as saying that UN inquiries in Lebanon had been politicized and should be replaced by a purely Lebanese investigation. Hezbollah and its allies have also questioned the credibility of the investigation, accusing it of relying on false testimony and telephone records that Israeli spies could have manipulated. Hezbollah has said it expects to be targeted by the court – a prospect many Lebanese fear could plunge the country into fresh conflict.

As Con Coughlin, distinguished Middle East commentator for the London Daily Telegraph observed, by parading through Shia-dominated southern Lebanon last week, Ahmadinejad was not only demonstrating his loyalty to Tehran's favourite Islamic militia. He was also sending an uncompromising message to Saad Hariri's government to drop the charges against Hezbollah, or face the consequences.

Which perhaps explains why UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said loud and clear last week that the UN tribunal investigating Rafik Hariri’s murder would press ahead despite fears of violence.

"I want to be perfectly clear,” said Ban. “This tribunal is independent, with a clear mandate from the Security Council to uncover the truth and end impunity. I urge all Lebanese and regional parties not to prejudge the outcome, nor to interfere in the tribunal's work. ... It will go on."

Diplomats said the UN chief appeared to be aiming his comments primarily at Hezbollah, which has denounced the UN inquiry, and at neighbouring Syria, which has been increasingly critical of it. Some Lebanese politicians have accused Syria of being behind the assassination, and although Syria has denied involvement, it was forced in April 2005, following an international outcry, to end its three-decade military presence in Lebanon, pulling out some 14,000 troops and an unknown number of intelligence agents.

Fears of violence have intensified since rumours of the impending indictments began to circulate. Pro-Syrian politician Suleiman Franjieh warned last month of sectarian war in Lebanon if the tribunal indicted Hezbollah members.

But Secretary-General Ban rejected suggestions that the United Nations could be held responsible for any flare-up of violence resulting from the court's actions.

"Peace and security and political stability in Lebanon," he said, “should be different from this justice process.”

They should be, indeed. But will they?

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

What is Israel?

“By a set of curious chances,” as W S Gilbert has it in The Mikado, we seem finally to have reached the nitty-gritty of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Setting to one side all the issues that have bedeviled previous attempts at a negotiated settlement, and are undoubtedly of immense importance – like the final status of Jerusalem, or the borders of a new sovereign Palestine, or the West Bank settlements, or the future security of both states in a two-state solution – the vital issue at the very heart of the dispute has finally been revealed. The events of the past two days have demonstrated it to be, quite simply, “What is Israel?”

To the founders of the state, the answer was crystal clear, and they set it out in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence they signed on 14 May 1948 (appended to my last article: “Palestinian sovereignty hangs by a thread.”) Starting with the unequivocal statement: “The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people”, the preamble traces the age-old connection of the Jewish people to the land, describes how the first Zionist Congress in 1897 proclaimed the right of the Jewish people to national rebirth in its own country, and how this right was recognized in the 1917 Balfour Declaration and then re-affirmed in the Mandate of the League of Nations, which explicitly endorsed the historic connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel, reaffirming the right of the Jewish people to rebuild its national home. Finally the preamble refers to the Resolution of the General Assembly of the United Nations of 29 November 1947, calling for the establishment of an independent Jewish State in the Land of Israel, and requiring the inhabitants of the country to take the steps necessary to put the plan into effect.

“This recognition by the United Nations of the right of the Jewish people to establish their independent State is irrevocable,” runs the preamble. “This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.”

So to the vast majority of Israelis, to most Jews of the diaspora, and indeed to a vast swathe of world opinion, Israel is the sovereign state of the Jewish people.

When Israel declared its independence in 1948, it offered its Arab inhabitants “full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.” The principle of equal rights for all its citizens was subsequently enshrined in Israeli law. In the event it is undoubtedly the case that Arabs and other minorities play a full and active role in the state, including as ministers in the government, justices of the Supreme Court, members of parliament, senior academics, ambassadors, members of the civil service and officers in the military. In practice, in almost all aspects Israel is a secular multi-racial state, where freedom of religion is respected.

However, the Palestinian Authority does not acknowledge Israel to be a Jewish state.

It was thought a few days ago that the stumbling block to resuming direct peace negotiations, as far as PA President Abbas was concerned, was Israel’s refusal to renew the freeze on building in the West Bank settlements. Following what is known to have been intensive pressure by the US administration, Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced in a speech at the opening of the Knesset's winter session yesterday (11 October), that he would be prepared temporarily to renew the settlement moratorium on the West Bank, in return for the recognition by the Palestinian Authority of Israel as a Jewish state. Netanyahu said that he had transmitted the message through 'quiet channels' that he was now making public – namely, that Israel was being asked to recognise a Palestinian state as the nation state of the Palestinians, and therefore Israel could expect that the Palestinians would recognise the 'Jewish state.'

The proposal was swiftly rejected. “The Palestinian Authority will never recognize Israel as a Jewish state,” said senior Palestinian Authority officials. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said that Netanyahu’s suggestion could never be accepted, while his colleague Nabil Sha'ath added that the government in Ramallah would not tolerate a partial construction freeze and that the moratorium must also be applied in East Jerusalem. Senior Palestine Liberation Organization official Yasser Abed Rabo accused Netanyahu of using the proposal to weaken the image of US President Barack Obama in the Middle East. Rabo also said Netanyahu was begging to destroy the peace process and had made the offer to distract from deliberations on the core issues.

The US position on the status of Israel, however, is unaltered. “Both President Obama and Secretary Clinton are committed to Israel’s democracy as a Jewish state," said a State Department official.

The EU's position is that “The future states of Palestine and Israel will need to fully guarantee equality to all their citizens: basically, in the case of Israel, this means whether they are Jewish or not,' EU spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said, ignoring the fact that the principle of equality has been enshrined in the constitution of Israel, and indeed applied, from the start of the state – admittedly with varying degreees of success over the years. She did not add what it would mean in the case of a new Palestinian state, but clearly she is implying that any Jewish citizens of a new sovereign Palestine would need to have their basic rights protected and respected.

Behind the Palestinian’s 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 acknowledging 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, but in the event the “right of return” would probably be transmuted into some form of financial compensation, or perhaps some guarantee of development aid for those who cannot return to their previous family residences.

Israel’s fear is that the PA’s determination not to recognise Israel as a Jewish state, especially if allied to a demand for a full “right of return”, would result in a demographic submerging of the essential Jewish character of Israel, and open the way not to a two state solution, but to a unitary state.

Concessions on both sides will clearly be essential if a peace agreement is to be reached. Netanyahu has given way on extending the freeze on construction in the West Bank settlements. Perhaps the time has come for the PA to recognise that their “right of return” issue would not, in practice, be affected by acknowledging that Israel is indeed the sovereign state of the Jewish people.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Palestinian sovereignty hangs by a thread

A sovereign state of Palestine – the prize is too great to be cast aside in a fit of pique, or recklessly, or without cool hard-headed deliberation. Those must be the sorts of consideration underlying the conclusions of the Arab League last Friday (8 October).

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had arrived in Libya the day before. His intention: to seek Arab League backing to abandon direct peace talks with Israel unless Israel’s temporary freeze on construction in West Bank settlements 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. League representatives added that they were hopeful the US would continue to pressure Israel to agree to a renewal of the construction moratorium. In addition Arab foreign ministers, hoping to head off a collapse of the talks launched by US President Barack Obama just five weeks ago, said they would reconvene in a month to discuss "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.

"I cannot specify all the alternatives that were presented by President Abbas,” said Erekat, “but the president will keep working with the American administration to achieve a full cessation of settlement activities in order to restart talks."

So the League’s statement spelled yet another reprieve for a Middle East peace process that Obama has made a centrepiece of US foreign policy. Washington welcomed it.

"We appreciate the Arab League's statement of support for our efforts to create conditions that will allow direct talks to move forward," said Philip J Crowley, assistant US secretary of state for public affairs. "We will continue to work with the parties, and all our international partners, to advance negotiations toward a two-state solution and encourage the parties to take constructive actions toward that end.”

In the days leading up to the League meeting there had been well-documented reports of a hitherto unprecedented US offer to Israel of a host of assurances, in return for a 60-day extension of the freeze on building in West Bank settlements. According to the reports President Obama pledged that, inter alia, the US would not ask for additional extensions on the partial ban on settlement building; would commit to using the US veto to prevent UN recognition of a unilaterally declared Palestinian state, should the peace talks fail; accept Israel’s security needs as defined by the Netanyahu government (code for a long-term Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley); and sell Israel a second squadron of state-of-the-art stealth F-35 fighters and space cooperation, including access to US satellite early warning systems.

The US offer followed intensive negotiations in Washington between Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and an American team led by veteran Middle East adviser Dennis Ross, with the aim of keeping alive the direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The idea was to include the offer in a letter from President Obama to Netanyahu, in an attempt to persuade him and pro-settlement members of his government to go along with a new temporary freeze. There is some evidence that Netanyahu is in favour of clinching the deal. But it is not up to Netanyahu alone. He needs the approval of his 29-member Cabinet, or at least his 15-member Security Cabinet, and he does not have enough votes yet in those bodies.

As distinguished Middle East commentator, Leslie Susser, points out in a recent article, if Netanyahu were to lose the support of the hard-line right-wing parties that form part of his coalition – Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas, Torah Judaism, Habayit Hayehudi and Likud – the prime minister would have the support of fewer than 40 members of the 120-member Knesset. Netanyahu’s greatest political fear, says Susser, is of a repeat of 1999, when after making concessions to the Palestinians at Wye Plantation, he lost his right-wing political support base and was roundly defeated by Barak in the ensuing election.

So there appears to be a temporary stalemate.

Word has, however, emerged from Israel of the possible basis for some sort of compromise between the prime minister and his main hard-line minister, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party. The World Jewish Congress recently reported that Netanyahu has given his backing to a proposal which would require any non-Jew taking Israeli citizenship to swear allegiance to Israel as a "Jewish and democratic state". The current oath simply reads: “I declare that I will be a loyal citizen to the State of Israel, and I obligate myself to respect its laws.” The proposal has angered Israel's Arab minority, which makes up a fifth of Israel's population. The new law would mainly apply to Palestinians married to Israelis who seek citizenship on the basis of family reunification, to foreign workers, and to a few other special cases.

The Cabinet is expected to back the proposal, and it then goes before the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. The proposed wording of the oath of allegiance is: "I swear that I will be a loyal citizen to the state of Israel, as a Jewish and democratic state, and will uphold its laws." Lieberman’s party made the oath the centrepiece of its campaign in the 2009 election, which eventually led to it becoming the second largest member of the governing coalition after Likud.

Ministers of the Labour Party, who oppose the bill, said that if it went through, they expected a new freeze on settlement building in the West Bank to follow as a quid pro quo.

"I hope that Mr Netanyahu's support is a payoff to Mr Lieberman,” reported an Israeli newspaper, quoting an unnamed minister, “so that the prime minister will be able to extend the freeze without breaking apart his coalition."

Both Netanyahu and Yisrael Beitenu, however, have denied any deal involving an extension of the partial settlement freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

As the BBC website reports, the loyalty oath issue has fragmented the Israeli press. It is likely to become an issue of the most intense controversy within Israel. Whatever the rights and wrongs of attempting to introduce it at present, one underlying aspect is undeniable – the status of Israel as the sovereign state of the Jewish people. On that point, the Preamble to Israel’s Declaration of Independence*, signed on Friday 14 May 1948, is unequivocal.

*Preamble to Israel’s Declaration of Independence
The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and national identity was formed. Here they achieved independence and created a culture of national and universal significance. Here they wrote and gave the Bible to the world. Exiled from their land, the Jewish people remained faithful to it in all the countries of their dispersion, never ceasing to pray and hope for their return and for the restoration in it of their national freedom. Impelled by this historic association, Jews strove in every successive generation to re-establish themselves in their ancient homeland. In recent decades they returned in masses…

In 1897, at the summons of the spiritual father of the Jewish State, Theodore Herzl, the First Zionist Congress convened and proclaimed the right of the Jewish people to national rebirth in its own country. This right was recognized in the Balfour Declaration of the 2nd November, 1917, and re-affirmed in the Mandate of the League of Nations which, in particular, gave explicit international recognition to the historic connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel and to the right of the Jewish people to rebuild its National Home.

The Nazi holocaust, which engulfed millions of Jews in Europe, was another clear demonstration of the urgency of the re-establishment in the Land of Israel of the Jewish State, which would open the gates of the homeland wide to every Jew and confer upon the Jewish people the status of a fully privileged member of the comity of nations.

On November 29, 1947, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a Resolution calling for the establishment of an independent Jewish State in the Land of Israel, and called upon the inhabitants of the country to take such steps as may be necessary on their part to put the plan into effect. This recognition by the United Nations of the right of the Jewish people to establish their independent State is irrevocable. This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Peace process: a tussle between practicality and principle

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process appears to be wallowing in a sort of doldrums. The following wind seems to have dropped, the ship to have become becalmed. Appearances are, however, deceptive. Activity below decks is more than frantic – it’s frenetic.

The reason? A tug-of-war between the practicalities governing the public stance adopted by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the principles that are apparently governing the position of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Netanyahu is juggling a genuine desire to maintain his commitment to the peace process with the political necessity of retaining his majority in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. "We want the talks to continue,” he said recently, “and I want this. We have a mission of peace." But when the 10-month moratorium on construction in the West Bank settlements ran its course on 26 August, his right-wing supporters within the government were adamant that the freeze must end, and it was more than his premiership was worth to accede to world-wide requests to extend it.

For his part, Abbas and those who speak for him have appeared equally adamant that a cessation of settlement building was a sine qua non for continuing the face-to-face negotiations. After a meeting in Ramallah last week, Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior Palestinian Liberation Organization official, reading from a statement, said: "The leadership confirms that the resumption of talks requires tangible steps, the first of them a freeze on settlements. The Palestinian leadership holds Israel responsible for obstructing the negotiations.” Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for President Abbas said: “There will be no negotiations in the shadow of continued settlement."

Sterling efforts over the past few days by US Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, to achieve some sort of compromise appear unavailing, so far. He spent last Friday (1 October) mediating between the sides in a last-ditch bid to avert a crisis. At the centre of the US-led diplomatic activity has been an intensive effort to secure Israel's support for a sixty-day moratorium extension. According to senior US officials, the administration's efforts culminated in a draft letter negotiated with Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak and chief Israeli peace negotiator Yitzhak Molcho, and ultimately sent from President Obama's desk to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

The very existence of this letter, to say nothing of its controversial content, is befogged in mystery. Despite the apparent evidence to the contrary, last Thursday (30 September) the White House and a State Department official denied that President Obama had sent Israel a draft letter in which he offered security guarantees — including a continued Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley after the creation of a Palestinian state, if Israel in exchange re-instituted the moratorium on new settlement construction for a 60-day period.

Netanyahu’s office had no comment on the issue of the letter, first reported by David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Following the official US denial about the letter, and in view of the short period of time before the next scheduled meeting of the Arab League (then 4 October, but subsequently extended to the 6th), David Makovsky took the unusual step of publishing a full and detailed account of the letter and its contents on the website of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"At its core,” he wrote, “the draft letter offers a string of assurances to Israel in return for a two-month moratorium extension. More specifically, US officials indicate that the document makes commitments on issues ranging from current peace and security matters to future weapons deliveries in the event that peace-related security arrangements are reached."

Makovksy said that early indications were that Netanyahu liked the “inducements” offered by Washington, but was not inclined to accept it, either because he was playing a game of brinkmanship regarding the terms, or to preserve his credibility. Makovksy asserts that Netanyahu has put forward three arguments defending his unwillingness to extend the moratorium.

“First, he says the original US idea to halt settlement activity in 2009 required reciprocal actions from Arab states, which were not forthcoming. Second, the Palestinians did not initially deem the moratorium as significant, wasting nine out of the moratorium's ten months by not opening direct talks. In Netanyahu's view, why would a matter originally deemed insignificant become suddenly indispensable? Finally, he argues that the focus on settlements is excessive, since the parties will be dealing with the far larger issue of reaching the contours of an overall territorial solution within the next year. Beyond these arguments, it is also clear that Netanyahu fears losing elements of his coalition over the moratorium issue.”

Whatever the underlying reasons, the fact remains that the flurry of diplomatic activity is intense in the days leading up to 6 October, the day the Arab League is scheduled to meet in order to discuss Mahmoud Abbas’s next step.

There are hopeful signs that some sort of compromise might indeed be possible between Netanyahu’s practical problems and Abbas’s principled position. Despite the apparent impasse, Defence Minister Ehud Barak said yesterday (Saturday, 2 October) that he retained hope of a compromise within the coming week to allow the month-old talks to continue, while in remarks published on Friday, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit issued surprising criticism of the Palestinian position of making talks contingent on the settlement building restrictions, saying the sides should concentrate on drawing the borders of a Palestinian state. And despite all the stirring of the pot by President Ahmadinejad of Iran, President Bashar Assad of Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah, nothing so far said by Abbas or his officials has absolutely and completely ruled out a continuation of the direct talks (“The talks are only aimed at supporting Obama’s position inside the US,”Assad said yesterday, Saturday 2 October, during a one-day trip to Tehran.) Meeting Jewish-American leaders in New York recently, Abbas hinted that he would be willing to accept an American compromise even if it includes the continuation of limited settlement construction. Abbas had previously suggested that he will not insist on an official announcement on the renewal of the freeze, but will require a de facto curb of construction on the ground.

And that is probably precisely what Netanyahu can deliver. For several practical and political reasons a construction boom in the West Bank is unlikely. First, Defence Minister and Israel Labour leader Ehud Barak holds the power to block the approval process and prevent new construction from taking place, since any new West Bank building requires the approval of the Defence Ministry. Secondly, construction capacity has been limited by the Palestinian Authority's campaign to prevent Palestinians from working in the settlements. West Bank settlements have traditionally depended on Palestinian labour to carry out construction projects, and in their absence, building will slow significantly. In the third place, private investments in West Bank construction have declined in recent months due to the uncertainty about the future. Finally, in a statement last week, Housing Minister Eli Attais of the right-wing Shas party admitted that despite his support for the settlements, the events marking the end of the freeze were merely symbolic. "The real test is whether Defence Minister Barak will sign the building permits or not," he said.

Which more or less confirms the de facto continuation of the restraint policy even without official decisions passed in the cabinet.

Whether this will be enough to bridge the gap between the parties, or whether some additional US initiative is in the offing, the next few days will certainly reveal.