Tuesday, 30 November 2010

November reviewed

Israeli-Palestinian stalemate; WikiLeaks doesn’t help

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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