Posts Tagged Mahmoud Abbas

Gaza: if the current strategy isn’t working that well, why not try something stupid?

 

Israel has been hit with hundreds of rockets over the past couple of weeks. There is nothing new about this — Israel has been hit with thousands upon thousands of rockets for the past decade or so — except that the situation is becoming untenable.  The people of southern Israel are tired of living in bomb shelters, periodically closing schools, and having to make a decision every night about whether or not it’s safe to sleep in the second story of their homes and put the bomb shelter too far away to reach should a rocket land overnight.

Before anyone says anything, I am not trying to downplay what the Palestinians in Gaza are going through. I am trying to explain how Israelis are feeling and how they are thinking. Whatever else may be said about the rocket fire, it is not ‘harmless’ at all, it is terrifying for the people who have to live through it on a daily basis. The casualty rate is low only because of the insane precautions that the population has to go through, but being under constant threat is no way for 1/5 of the country to live.

The entire Israeli public are demanding that something be done. This crosses any kind of partisan and factional lines that you could imagine. Even those who are generally in the peacenik camp have been amping-up their rhetoric. Holding an outstretched hand does not seem like a great idea when you’re being shot at. Wheat we are looking at, potentially, is a repeat of 2008/09’s Operation Cast-lead. It’s an outcome that nobody wants, but if it’s the only way to stop these attacks, it may be needed.

Well, there have been a couple of alternatives floated. Take Nervana Mahmoud, for example:

The End Of Deterrence – The Daily Beast.

Going to war, however, is not the only option. There is potential for a political out, as some analysts advocate, including Khalid Elgindy of Brookings. A smart move would address both elements of the problem: the lack of a state that Israel can deal with and the non-state players. The solution for Gaza is two-fold, a conditional acceptance of Mahmoud Abbas’s U.N. bid in return for demanding that the Egyptians reinstate the U.N.-recognized Abbas government in Gaza and empower his security team to run the Rafah border. In addition, Israel announces its willingness to engage with the emerging Sunni alliance—Turkey, Qatar, and Egypt—to formulate a plan to dismantle Gaza militants’ military capabilities in return for lifting the siege. Such a gambit could snooker Hamas supporters into either accepting the deal, offering alternatives, or a rejection, which would make them appear to be the opponents of a political solution.

Clearly, among the different schools of foreign policy, Mahmoud falls into the ‘remedial class’. Let’s break this down item-by-item. First, Mahmoud wants Israel to offer to the Egyptians — who are led by the Muslim Brotherhood, let me remind you — that Israel will provisionally accept a UN bid that Egypt has not really expressed much investment in, in return for Egypt forcibly expelling the MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD-offshoot Hamas regime and instead installing a secular-nationalist Palestinian regime led by corrupt officials whose relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood could be best described as ‘sworn enemies who have been killing each other for years’. Do I have that right? Just checking we’re on the same page.

And then part two of this genius plan is for Israel to show that it is ‘willing to engage’ with Egypt, Turkey and Qatar. That would be the Egypt that has just decided to stop supplying Israel with natural gas, the Turkey that has just suspended all formal relations with Israel, and the Qatar that never had formal relations with Israel. Leaving Qatar to one side for a second, Mahmoud is suggesting that Israel engage with its two former allies, both of which have become increasingly belligerent towards Israel as a result of Islamist parties taking over.

Right.

I like this idea better:

State of Gaza – JPost – Opinion – Editorials.

Today, Hamas functions as the official political leadership of the entire Gaza Strip. The party sets both domestic policies – such as the institution of Shari’a law – and foreign policy. Just last month, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh represented the entire Gaza population when he welcomed the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. And the emir effectively recognized Hamas as the legitimate representative of the Palestinians living in Gaza.

Recognizing Hamas as responsible for what happens inside Gaza – which has clear geographical borders – would serve Israel’s interests. Instead of struggling to distinguish among a myriad of players – Hamas, Salafis and international jihad-affiliated terrorist groups, as well as the Gaza civilian population – Israel should view the “state of Gaza” and its Hamas government as directly responsible for any act of aggression emanating from the territory under its control. Israel’s response to such attacks would, therefore, be directed against the territory of Gaza as a whole.

It makes no sense for Israel to provide an enemy state with electricity, fuel and other goods as it currently does. This makes sense only if a fabricated distinction is made between those in Gaza who fire at Israel and the wider “innocent” population. In reality, however, the majority of Gaza’s population continues to support Hamas, which rules the entire Gaza Strip domestically and represents it internationally.

In contrast, if Hamas provides stability and prevents smaller terrorist groups operating inside Gaza from firing on Israeli civilians, Israel could reciprocate by providing fuel and electricity and keeping trade borders open.

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World’s gone mad and it don’t seem right

I sleep in a little on one Sunday morning and everything’s gone crazy.

1. Vandalising in the name of “social justice”

From what I gather, some of the “social justice protesters” in Tel Aviv from last year tried to put up tents in Rothschild Blvd again, but were arrested as the government didn’t want the whole of central Tel Aviv to shut down for a second year in a row. This sparked a whole new protest, which blocked Ibn Gvirol and marched south, joining-up with some kind of anti-homophobia protest.

At some point, the whole thing went out of control and the protesters started just smashing things. The police responded with what has been alleged to have been “police brutality”. It’s hard to tell either way, but I can say this: breaking into and smashing-up banks is not a good way to defend “social justice” or to get any kind of point across.

Haaretz report HERE, more photos HERE.

2. Flare-up around Gaza

There has been another of what are becoming routine flare-ups in violence around the border between Gaza and Israel. Jerusalem Post reporter Yaakov Katz even argues that this one is half-hearted compared to the last ones.

It is a very sad state-of-affairs that this kind of language can be used about an incident that has killed 14 Palestinians so far and has forced a million Israelis to be living in bomb shelters for a week, with rockets seriously damaging a school in Sderot, amongst other things.

However, I have heard reports privately that the IDF General Staff has been pulling all-night meetings and could be planning another large-scale Gaza incursion. That is not going to be fun for anyone, but may be necessary in order to stop these perpetual flare-ups. I’m not sure which is the bigger evil, in all honesty.

That brings me to…

3. Third Intifada

Nathan Thrall argued in the New York Times Sunday Review that a third intifada is inevitable. For some reason, this was released online on Friday, but it has caused a stir amongst a lot of analysts who accuse Thrall of actually supporting the idea.

One point that has been repeatedly made is that another intifada would pose little real threat to Israel, but could well unseat the current Palestinian leadership (not a bad outcome IMO). Fatah and Hamas know this, so they have been doing everything they can to avoid it and to keep their peoples’ attention on Israel.

There also seems to be a threat from within that is coming to unseat Mahmoud Abbas – Salaam Fayyad has just announced that he may challenge the Palestinian Authority presidency in the event that elections ever actually happen.

4. Egypt: the tale of two presidents

The results of Egypt’s presidential elections are rumoured to be coming any minute. This has not prevented both candidates announcing victory and the supporters of both holding huge, angry riots against each other.

Essentially, the country is polarised. Half hate the old regime candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, and half hate the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohammed  Moursi. Whoever wins, there will be mass dissatisfaction and possibly violence.

5. And the rest

I’m getting a little tired of writing out these short summaries, so to conclude: Sudan is exploding and Turkey is about to go to war with Syria over what was probably a stunt to prevent further Syrian airforce pilots defecting (shooting down a plane is a good way to do it).

Gotta love the Middle East.

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EXCLUSIVE LEAK: Palestinian Authority letter to Netanyahu

BIG NEWS!

After years of refusing to negotiate or meet with the Israelis, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has sent Israelis Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu A LETTER!

PM Netanyahu meets with Saeb Erekat and Majad Faraj 17-Apr-2012.

Israel and the Palestinian Authority are committed to achieving peace. This evening, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with representatives from the Palestinian side who gave him a letter from President Abbas. Within two weeks, a letter from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be given to President Abbas.  Both sides hope that this exchange of letters will help find a way to advance peace.

Against all odds, the letter itself has been leaked to Major Karnage and is reproduced below in its entirety:

Dear Bibi,

I know I haven’t been in touch for a while, but I thought that it may be time to give it another go.

I have to admit, I never got over Olmert — even after he was indicted for corruption and then launched that whole “Gaza incursion” thing. I just… I guess I was so hung up on him that I didn’t give you a chance.

You know, it’s sometimes so hard to accept that someone can change. We used to fight all the time when we were younger. It was just so hard to believe that you were serious when you said you wanted a two-state solution too. And there’s the whole settlement thing of course.

I feel so stupid now, I should have trusted you. I know it couldn’t have been easy to come out like that! I know your dad has always been against the whole idea and you’re the first Likkudnik to take this step. I know how important Lieberman and Yishai are to you, you must have been under so much pressure!

I’ve had to come a long way too, you know. I can see why you would doubt that I had really renounced terror — especially when I’m still putting on parades for released terror convicts and naming schools after suicide bombers. But I’ve grown up, really. All that’s in the past, it’s not worth us sulking like this.

Look, I can’t promise that I can reign-in the other guys, but I have finally realised that I have to do this. I guess we both have to take a leap of faith, but let’s face it, we’re not getting any younger.

Anyway, I’ll understand if you need time to think about it, but please write back. I can’t face not hearing from you for another three years.

 

Sincerely,

Abu Mazen

xxox

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Olmert Rebukes J Street at their own Conference

Anyone else who just watched Ehud Olmert addressing J Street saw a great performance from the former Israeli Prime Minister. I have a feeling that it was not quite what the organisers of the conference had envisioned when they organised for him to give the keynote address at their conference.

Olmert did criticise the current Israeli Government (he is from the opposition party after all) and he did laud J Street as a legitimate pro-Israel organisation, but he made a lot of points that run counter to J Street’s narrative and policy platforms.

For instance, he spoke about the Iranian threat to Israel and made it clear that the military option, while a last resort, is on the table in order to prevent a nuclear Iran. Also, after speaking at length about the need to make peace and how the current Israeli Government is not moving towards peace (which I don’t entirely disagree with), he very bluntly stated that Palestinians have responsibilities and they do not always meet those responsibilities — proceeding to detail the generous proposal he made to Mahmoud Abbas and how this was walked away from.

(I will note that he spent a while heaping praise on Abbas and explaining that Abbas does not support terrorism and is a partner for peace. My feeling is that this may be true, but Abbas faces a lot of internal opposition in Fatah.)

Most importantly, he said that he will not ask J Street to go to their government and ask them to pressure the government of Israel. As he said, “is this an American problem?” This is exactly the argument I have been using against J Street’s methodology. Israeli government policy is an Israeli problem, it is not America’s place to pressure them one way or the other and doing so often backfires — creating resentment for America in Israel, winning sympathy for the more extreme elements of Israeli society and generally hardening the Israeli mindset against America’s agenda.

Barukh Binah, the deputy chief of mission at Israel’s Washington embassy, made a similar point when he addressed the conference. I hope (but don’t expect) that J Street’s leaders will take this on board and start re-evaluating their raison d’etre. There are a lot of more productive uses of their time than lobbying Congress.

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The Middle East trust deficit

Don’t you love it when someone succinctly puts exactly what you feel? Gershon Baskin using the “both sides” equivalency, but being right:

Encountering Peace: Q&A on the fu… JPost – Opinion – Columnists.

Q: The Palestinians breached every agreement they ever signed with Israel, how can we trust them?

A: Israel and the PLO, representing the Palestinian people, signed five agreements. Every one of those agreements was breached by both sides. Neither side fulfilled its obligations, and the breaches were substantive in all of the agreements.

…Breaches upon breaches piled up and created a total breakdown. The failure of both sides to implement in good faith and to repair the damage in real time led to a total collapse of trust between the parties. The basic idea of an interim period (of five years) was to develop the trust that would be required to negotiate the main issues in conflict.

That trust never developed – quite the opposite. Today, objectively speaking, there is absolutely no reason why Israel and Palestine should trust each other – they have completely earned the mistrust that exists between them.

… There is no possibility for progress without negotiations, yet while both sides recognize this truth it seems that the complete absence of trust, what I call the “trust deficiency,” is more powerful than the desire to reach an agreement at this time. This is enhanced by the complete belief on both sides of the conflict that there is no partner for peace on the other side. Both sides say that they want peace, and both sides blame the other for lack of any progress.

Yup, that’s pretty much the situation. Abbas doesn’t trust Bibi; Bibi doesn’t trust Abbas; neither of them trust Obama; Obama is sick of them both; Obama, Abbas and Bibi all don’t trust Hamas and Hamas’ leaders don’t even trust each other, let alone anyone else.

The Israelis don’t trust the Palestinians because Israeli concessions are just met with violence and condemnations; the Palestinians don’t trust the Israelis because no one in Israel can agree on anything and the same government seems to have 5 different policies; the Palestinians don’t trust each other because every second person is an informant for Israel or secretly working for whichever of Hamas/Fatah the first person is worried about; the Jordanians don’t trust the Palestinians because Arafat tried to overthrow King Hussein in the ’70s; the secular Egyptians don’t trust the Palestinians because Hamas is too close to the Muslim Brotherhood; the Israelis don’t trust the Egyptians because they think they’re all Muslim Brotherhood; The Muslim Brotherhood don’t trust Fatah because they’re against Hamas…

I’m going to stop here, you get the picture. Anyone see a way out?

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Great guide to Israel/Palestine borders and land swaps

I was just linked to the below video from The Atlantic and the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace.  It’s brilliantly done, very simply and clearly explaining the whole concept of land swaps and going through the possible options and the difficulties that they create.

Drawing an Israel-Palestine Border – The Editors – International – The Atlantic.

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Shalit is free but what is the real story?

Emotionally and symbolically, exchanging Gilad Shalit for 1027 Palestinian prisoners had a lot of value – mostly because of intense campaigning over the past few years. In the broader picture, however, the deal was of very little consequence. That said, the end of a 5-year impasse in negotiations must have come for a reason. So what was really going on when Hamas made the deal with Israel? Well, as Karin Laub and Ibrahim Barzak point out, the Egyptian mediation in brokering the deal was perhaps the most important and overlooked part of the story:

Gilad Shalit Deal Questions Complex Regional Ties.

The swap, mediated by Egypt, has strengthened Hamas’ bond with the regional powerhouse next door and removed a major irritant from its fraught relationship with Israel.

…The swap helped boost Egypts stature as a regional power against competitors Iran and Turkey. In the final phase of the negotiations, Hamas showed flexibility to ensure success, in part to avoid alienating Egypt, analysts said. Hamas made sure that Schalits first interview, after emerging from captivity, was given to Egyptian television, apparently to highlight Egypts role.

So the deal confirms not only that Egypt is getting closer to Hamas, but that it is ramping-up its meddling in Palestinian affairs. That means a lot – Mubarak was very insular, but Egypt has historically been a powerhouse. The new rulers are obviously keen to assert themselves.

Egypt’s next goal is to push for a unity deal between Hamas and Abbas’ Fatah movement, said an official with knowledge of those efforts. Having rival Palestinian governments – Abbas’ in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza – endangers the region, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters.

Abbas and Mashaal are to meet in coming days in Cairo to try to break the impasse that has held up a reconciliation agreement reached in the spring. Skeptics say a breakthrough is unlikely because of deep ideological differences and because each side wants to safeguard achievements in the territory it controls.

Martin Indyk, hoever, doesn’t think that Egypt deserves so much credit. By his reckoning, the story is really happening in Damascus as Hamas is looking around the Arab world for a new city to base themselves in.

A Shift in Israel-Hamas Relations? – Council on Foreign Relations.

The negotiations were conducted by the same Egyptian intelligence services that conducted negotiations in Mubarak’s time, so there has really been no change in that regard. What’s changed is that Hamas was more willing to do the deal and make concessions this summer than they were previously. The key to understanding why they became more flexible lies not in the Egyptian revolution but in the Syrian revolt.

Hamas’ external leadership has been based in Damascus, where they are under the direct influence of Iran and Syria. The Iranians have had no interest in any deal that would lower the flames of Arab-Israeli conflict, because it is that conflict which enables them to spread their influence into the Arab hotbed, right up to the borders of Israel. Therefore, in the past they pressed Khaled Meshaal, the leader of the external Hamas based in Damascus, not to do the prisoner deal with Israel. Much to the frustration of Egyptian and German mediators, they were unable to pull this deal off at critical junctures because of Iran telling Meshaal not to do the deal.

But the real tragedy of the deal? As Indyk points out, it has strengthened Hamas and those who support violent resistance while weakening any Palestinian support for negotiations.

 The deal’s human dimension can’t be dismissed, because it was what drove the deal. And Israel’s desire to save one soldier’s life is what led to this lopsidedness. The broader political implications aren’t positive. Hamas has long argued that its approach–violence, terrorism, kidnapping, hostage-taking–is the most effective way of retaining Palestinian rights, whether that’s getting prisoners released, getting settlements evacuated, or getting territory liberated. That narrative has been vindicated by this deal.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), who is Hamas’ political opponent, was unable to achieve a major prisoner swap like this, which included the release of many terrorists with a good deal of blood on their hands. Abu Mazen has been unable to achieve through negotiations the evacuation of Jewish settlements from the West Bank or the liberation of Palestinian prisoners. So those who reject compromise and peacemaking with Israel and talk violence and terrorism are the ones who have been strengthened.

The message from the swap is simple: terrorism works. Israelis were ok with that because of their emotional investment in Shalit, but this is not something that anyone should lose sight of.

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Israel will never make peace from the corner

 

There are still too many people talking about Israeli intransigence. In the best rebuke that I have seen of Netanyahu’s various statements in the US last week (as in, the only one that didn’t read as if the author had presupposed that Bibi was wrong and then gone about finding reasons why), former mayor of Jerusalem Jeff Barak writes on why Bibi’s statements made negotiations and a peace deal look further off than ever. And to an extent, he’s not wrong.

The limits of rhetoric – JPost – Opinion – Columnists

This is inevitable, and it’s also the right move for those who wish to maintain Israel’s capital as a Jewish city. There is no escaping it.

As Jerusalem’s former mayor, I know this well, and it’s possible. Those who refuse to discuss it terminate the chances for a peace process. One can speak nicely, stir up rightist radicals and draw applause from the settlers, yet this will not bring peace, genuine negotiations or global understanding [of Israel’s position].”

INDEED, NETANYAHU’S remarks on Jerusalem slammed the door shut on any hope that his government had the slightest intention of entering into negotiations with the Palestinians. His stirring phrases might have boosted his standing in the opinion polls, but opinion polls do not change reality.

That said, there have been a lot of events spurring this supposed intransigence – there are some very good reasons why Israelis are giving up on peace. Elliot Abrahams, a prolific Middle East analyst from the Council on Foreign relations, has outlined all these, shedding light on exactly how far weak Palestinian leadership and confused policy from the Obama administration have allowed the situation to deteriorate.

 

The Third Man | The Weekly Standard

The incoherence of U.S. policy is summed up in this passage from Obama’s AIPAC speech: “We know that peace demands a partner​—​which is why I said that Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with Palestinians who do not recognize its right to exist. .  .  . But the march to isolate Israel internationally​—​and the impulse of the Palestinians to abandon negotiations​—​will continue to gain momentum in the absence of a credible peace process and alternative.” So Israel cannot be expected to negotiate and it must start negotiating.

That is where the president stands after two years of involvement in Middle East peacemaking, and his problems are largely of his own making…We would not be where we are had all three men​—​Abbas, Netanyahu, Obama​—​not given up on each other, a striking failure in American diplomacy.

As Abraham points out, this is causing the Israeli public to feel increasingly isolated and jaded, rallying them around those who seem to be taking a principled stand against the pressure that they are receiving from all sides.

British novelist Howard Jacobson summed this up well on Australian TV recently, observing that everyone points fingers at Israelis without trying to understand exactly how they feel and why they do what they do.

Sydney Writers’ Festival | Q&A | ABC TV.

The Israeli Government has to deal with the problem that the people with whom it must negotiate – some of the people with whom it must negotiate say you’ve got no right to exist. You do not have any. So they’re frightened. Well, blow me the Israelis are frightened. It’s not often understood how frightened Israelis are. They are there surrounded on all sides by people who would like them not to be there.

As Larry Derfner wrote in the the Jerusalem Post, this sense of fear and isolation leads to exactly the policies that then spark further condemnation, which continues the spiral toward further fear.

 

Ours is not to reason why – JPost – Opinion – Columnists

Remember the hysteria over the coriander menace? Until a year ago, we were stopping coriander and God knows how many other edibles from entering Gaza – in the name of national security! Then the Mavi Marmara sails for Gaza, we shoot it up, the pressure’s on again, and suddenly a long list of previously banned foods – yes, even coriander – is moving into Gaza, and suddenly no one wants to remember how mindless and sheep-like they were to take the army’s and government’s word that this insane policy was necessary to keep Israel safe.

This is the problem with all of the pressure on Israel and the relentless condemnation of everything Netanyahu does – ironically, rather than forcing Israel to make concessions and advancing whatever vestige of hope there may be for a resumption of negotiations, it only increases the Israeli public’s sense of helplessness and drives public opinion to the right. As Abrahams points out, Israelis have made concessions in the past not under fierce condemnation, but rather when they feel that whoever is asking for concessions is on their side and that they are not the only side being forced to do so.

All of this makes life harder for Israel and in a way easier for Prime Minister Netanyahu. When a deeply sympathetic American president asks for concessions and compromises and appears able to cajole some from the Palestinians, which was the Clinton/Rabin and Bush/Sharon combination, Israel must respond. When a president most Israelis regard as hostile pushes them while the PLO leadership turns to Hamas, most Israelis will back Netanyahu’s tough response.

It is absurd to suggest that peace is ebbing away because of Netanyahu. He may have been a factor, but there has been a dramatic failure from the Palestinian Authority and the US to do anything conducive to a dialogue or compromise. At the moment, it looks like the best idea would be to top trying to make peace…and rather, start trying to prevent a war from breaking-out.

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Well…so much for that unilateral statehood idea

In his original Middle East speech, Obama spoke-out against this idea that the Palestinian Authority would unilaterally declare a state in September and be accepted into the UN, affirming that a negotiated settlement is the only way to find a peace deal. I completely support this position – declaring a state without solving the key issues (borders, refugees, security and Jerusalem) would probably just result in another war.

Well, it seems as if the President of the UN General Assembly has put that little doozy to bed. Unlucky Abu Mazen.

‘Palestinian state bid at UN can’… JPost – Diplomacy & Politics

The Palestinians cannot circumvent the UN Security Council to avoid a likely US veto if they try to join the United Nations as a sovereign state later this year, a top UN official said on Friday.

But the official made clear a US veto would not put the issue of Palestinian statehood and UN membership to rest.

And almost symultaneously, the G8 released a statement to a similar effect. Pay particular attention to the lines in bold.

Renewed commitment for freedom and democracy – French Presidency of the G-8.

67. We are convinced that the historic changes throughout the region make the solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through negotiations more important, not less. Aspirations of the peoples in the region need to be heeded including that of the Palestinians for a viable and sovereign State and that of Israelis for security and regional integration. The time to resume the Peace Process is now.

a. Negotiations are the only way toward a comprehensive and lasting resolution to the conflict. The framework for these negotiations is well known. We urge both parties to return to substantive talks with a view to concluding a framework agreement on all final status issues. To that effect, we express our strong support for the vision of Israeli-Palestinian peace outlined by President Obama on May 19, 2011.

b. We appreciate the efforts and the progress made by the Palestinian Authority and the leadership of President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad as they are building a viable State as recently commended by the IMF, the World Bank and the ad hoc liaison Committee.

c. We look forward to the prospect of the second donors’ conference for Palestine in Paris, also in view of the resumption of negotiations.

d. We call on Israel and the Palestinian Authority to abide by existing co-operation agreements and to abstain from unilateral measures that could hamper progress and further reforms. We call for the easing of the situation in Gaza.

e. We demand the unconditional release of the abducted soldier Gilad Shalit without delay.

Why is this particularly significant? The G8 includes the US, UK, France and Russia – four out of the five permanent Security Council powers (excluding China), who all have veto power. This puts the Palestinian chances of unilateral statehood at slim to nil. Ah well, back to the negotiating table?

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Obama saves face with AIPAC clarification

In the wake of his recent Middle-East Policy speech on Friday, which received excessive heavy criticism, Obama met with Netanyahu. The ensuing press conference was embarrassingly tense, with Bibi openly disagreeing on several points – such as the withdrawal of Israeli military from the Jordan valley (at 9:00) and the President’s failure to mention the issue of Palestinian refugees (at 11:00). Despite both leaders reaffirming their “friendship, the body language shows the icy relationship between the hawkish PM and the bleeding-heart President. Obama did not look at all happy while Bibi was talking.

Last night, Obama spoke at the annual policy conference of powerful lobby group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to clarify his position. The full video is embedded below and I have summarised the take-home points.

The most important point is that he constantly reaffirmed his support for the US-Israel relationship, including US support for the Israeli military, and that he constantly recognised Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

AIPAC Policy Conference 2011 | U.S. President Obama’s Speech

On Friday, I was joined at the White House by Prime Minister Netanyahu, and we reaffirmed that fundamental truth that has guided our presidents and prime ministers for more than 60 years—that, even while we may at times disagree, as friends sometimes will, the bonds between the United States and Israel are unbreakable, and the commitment of the United States to the security of Israel is ironclad.

And he also made it clear that he would veto a UN vote on Palestinian statehood without a peace agreement.

…These are the facts. I firmly believe, and repeated on Thursday, that peace cannot be imposed on the parties to the conflict. No vote at the United Nations will ever create an independent Palestinian state. And the United States will stand up against efforts to single Israel out at the UN or in any international forum. Because Israel’s legitimacy is not a matter for debate.

The first vaguely controversial point was where he spoke about the “harsh realities” that Israel has to face:

…There are the facts we all must confront. First, the number of Palestinians living west of the Jordan River is growing rapidly and fundamentally reshaping the demographic realities of both Israel and the Palestinian territories. This will make it harder and harder — without a peace deal — to maintain Israel as both a Jewish state and a democratic state.

Second, technology will make it harder for Israel to defend itself in the absence of a genuine peace.

And third, a new generation of Arabs is reshaping the region. A just and lasting peace can no longer be forged with one or two Arab leaders. Going forward, millions of Arab citizens have to see that peace is possible for that peace to be sustained.

I agree with points one and two – they are extremely important. Really, the clock is ticking for Israel. If a solution is not found soon, we will be looking at a very different Middle East and Israel’s existence as a democratic, Jewish state will become harder and harder to maintain. On the other hand, the validity of the third point has yet to be seen.

He later went on to confirm that Israel has to make “hard choices”, although acknowledged that Israel is not alone in this:

…Ultimately, however, it is the right and responsibility of the Israeli government to make the hard choices that are necessary to protect a Jewish and democratic state for which so many generations have sacrificed. And as a friend of Israel, I am committed to doing our part to see that this goal is realized, while calling not just on Israel, but on the Palestinians, the Arab States, and the international community to join us in that effort. Because the burden of making hard choices must not be Israel’s alone.

To his credit, Obama did not shy-away from his critics and addressed the issue over the 1967 borders that has been plaguing him since Friday. The response has been completely overblown, as observed by the Jerusalem Post‘s David Halperin and Peter Joseph:

When peace met partisanship – JPost – Opinion – Op-Eds.

To be sure, semantics are critical in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. President Obama’s articulation of the date “1967” in his speech was significant. But the dishonest – and dangerous – politicization and demagoguery on display over the last 24 hours in response to this speech, and the dishonest suggestions that Obama has placed Israel’s security in jeopardy by imposing on Israel a full return to the ‘67 border, has been shameful.

Obama’s response was completely fair – as I observed on Saturday, this is not a new policy at all and really should have come as no surprise to most. It definitely did not deserve the hyperbole that it created.

…Now, it was my reference to the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps that received the lion’s share of the attention. And since my position has been misrepresented several times, let me reaffirm what “1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps” means.

By definition, it means that the parties themselves — Israelis and Palestinians — will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967. It is a well known formula to all who have worked on this issue for a generation. It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last forty-four years, including the new demographic realities on the ground and the needs of both sides. The ultimate goal is two states for two peoples. Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people; each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace.

That last point in bold is extremely important. As noted by Akiva Eldar in Haaretz, the crux of Obama’s speech was self-determination for both sides. He also reaffirmed that he had no regard for Hamas and understood that as long as they defy the Quartet’s three conditions – that they recognise Israel’s right to exist, renounce violence and agree to abide by past agreements – Israel cannot negotiate with them.

Obama, the first U.S. president to tell AIPAC the truth – Haaretz Daily Newspaper | Israel News.

The time has come to pay for American opposition to the Goldstone commission report on the Israeli incursion in Gaza and the veto of the UN Security Council’s condemnation of construction in West Bank settlements. Obama denied Netanyahu the opportunity to exercise a veto on the terms for negotiations with the Palestinians. The U.S. president said that negotiations could not be conducted with Hamas as long as the organization does not recognize Israel’s right to exist, refuses to accept existing international obligations and engages in terrorism. The Palestinian party to the negotiations was and remains the Palestine Liberation Organization and not Hamas.

Obama also rejected Netanyahu’s demand that negotiations begin based on the principle of Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. The president was careful to speak about both parties’ right to self-determination. Period.

That said, there was a fundamental issue with the speech: Obama at no point recognised the Palestinian refugee issue. As Bibi mentioned in the press conference above, it is not possible for these refugees to have the “right of return” that they demand. A just solution must be found, but this will rely on a comprehensive peace agreement. By taking no stance on the issue and not even mentioning it, yet pressuring Israel to make severe concessions, Obama is effectively undermining himself and damaging his relationship with the Israelis. As the Jerusalem Post editorial said:

What about the refugees? – JPost – Opinion – Editorials

Obama’s repeated omission of the refugee issue raises serious questions. The US president did state several times his support for Israel as the “homeland for the Jewish people.” Obviously, maintaining such a homeland precludes recognition of a “right of return” for Palestinians that endangers Jewish sovereignty. Still, if Obama was already taking the opportunity to clarify and reformulate some of the more problematic aspects of his speech from last week, why didn’t he clarify this vital point? The Palestinians’ stubborn insistence on demanding the “right of return” for millions of “refugees” within Israel’s borders marks a refusal to accept Israel as the Jewish state. This outrageous demand, coupled with the fact that Hamas, an anti-Semitic terrorist organization bent on the destruction of Israel, is an equal partner in the Palestinian people’s official political leadership, are the real obstacles to peace. If Obama is truly sincere in his desire to facilitate peace, he must acknowledge this and do everything he can to remedy the situation.

Obama implicitly acknowledged it by affirming Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, but he cannot ignore the issue and expect any resolution to be reached.

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