The Zeitgeist Politics

Global Politics with a focus on The Middle East

Posts Tagged ‘Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process

Michael Oren loses his way again

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The ongoing stalemate in peace talks has led to another op-ed in the New York Times by Michael Oren, Israel’s Ambassador to the US. As is often the case with Oren’s op-eds, the piece is full of weak arguments, hyperbole and hypocrisy.

The introduction sets the tone for the entire piece:

NEARLY 63 years after the United Nations recognized the right of the Jewish people to independence in their homeland — and more than 62 years since Israel’s creation — the Palestinians are still denying the Jewish nature of the state.

This, like the entire article, tries to oversimplify an incredibly complex issue and then make the Palestinians out to be some sort of irrational, anti-semitic barbarians. Oren is talking about a “Jewish nature of the state” when clearly defining Jewishness is a problem in itself, let alone boiling the nature of a state down to an ethno-religious identity.

Back in 1948, opposition to the legitimacy of a Jewish state ignited a war. Today it threatens peace.

Sure, it threatens peace as much as Israeli intransigence over the demands of the Palestinians. That’s what negotiation is. As for 1948, really Mr. Oren? Was 1948 really so simple? If Israel had established a Christian state, a secular state or a Rastafarian state, I’m pretty sure the Arab reaction would have been much the same. When you establish a state on land occupied partly by those who have inhabited it for the last thousand or so years, they being outside your ruling class, and partly by a massive population of recent migrants, war kind of tends to happen.

Such a step by the Palestinian Authority would be a confidence-building measure,” Mr. Netanyahu explained, noting that Israel was not demanding recognition as a prerequisite for direct talks. It would “open a new horizon of hope as well as trust among broad parts of the Israeli public.”

I’m pretty sure Israel wouldn’t fight so hard for a “confidence-building measure”. Building confidence takes a great deal more than that.

So what is the purpose of this new obsession then? Well Oren will actually tell you:

Indeed, Israel never sought similar acknowledgment in its peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. Some analysts have suggested that Mr. Netanyahu is merely making a tactical demand that will block any chance for the peace they claim he does not really want.

The problem is, Oren then fails to actually refute this. And I don’t mean robustly, I mean at all. Oren goes on to claim that Israel “recognizes the existence of a Palestinian people with an inalienable right to self-determination in its homeland”, which sounds nice but the reality of it is very different. This is because Israel doesn’t actually recognise a Palestinian homeland. How else would you explain its policy to settle Palestine’s “inaliable homeland” with hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers?

Oren’s position gets even more tenuous:

So why won’t the Palestinians reciprocate? After all, the Jewish right to statehood is a tenet of international law. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 called for the creation of “a national home for the Jewish people” in the land then known as Palestine and, in 1922, the League of Nations cited the “historical connection of the Jewish people” to that country as “the grounds for reconstituting their national home.” In 1947, the United Nations authorized the establishment of “an independent Jewish state,” and recently, while addressing the General Assembly, President Obama proclaimed Israel as “the historic homeland of the Jewish people.” Why, then, can’t the Palestinians simply say “Israel is the Jewish state”?

Oren’s reference to “international law” seems to contain very little actual law. We can discount immediately a random speech by Obama, which could only have been intended as complete buffer. Citing the now extremely defunct League of Nations policy as a “tenet of international law” is tenuous at best. The Balfour Declaration too was a British policy statement, and though the British mandate over Palestine was accepted by the League of Nations in 1922, one would then also have to consider the McMahon-Hussein correspondence and the Churchill White Paper, which both repudiate much of the Balfour Declaration. Besides, Palestine had zero representation in the League of Nations.

Moreover, Mr. Oren’s extremely selective use of international law is galling. What about the whole host of UN Security Council resolutions that Israel routinely ignores? Not to mention the recent UN HRC fact finding missions into both Cast Lead and the flotilla incident? The hypocrisy is maddening.

The rest of the op-ed then collapses into fear mongering about “a two-stage solution leading, as many Palestinians hope, to Israel’s dissolution” and Palestinians failing to accept “that the millions of them residing in Arab countries would be resettled within a future Palestinian state and not within Israel”. Why should they accept this? They have no hope of being “resettled” in Israel regardless of its identity, and why should they want to be resettled in Palestine? Should we forcibly resettle the Jewish diaspora in Israel? This is ridiculous beyond words.

Israelis need to know that further concessions would not render us more vulnerable to terrorism and susceptible to unending demands. Though recognition of Israel as the Jewish state would not shield us from further assaults or pressure, it would prove that the Palestinians are serious about peace.

And equally the Palestinians need to know that Israel is serious about peace, that it is willing to accept the right of a Palestinian state to exist and immediately halt the illegal settlement of occupied land within that future state. Though a halt to that settlement would not shield Palestine from further assaults or pressure, it would prove that the Israelis are not suicidally inclined towards an inevitable one-state solution. That’s how easy it is to turn this ridiculous argument on its head.

Mr. Oren concludes his op-ed with a paragraph that neatly sums up the tone and content of the rest of it, namely unabashed propaganda without meaning, logic or sense.

The core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been the refusal to recognize Jews as a people, indigenous to the region and endowed with the right to self-government. Criticism of Israeli policies often serves to obscure this fact, and peace continues to elude us. By urging the Palestinians to recognize us as their permanent and legitimate neighbors, Prime Minister Netanyahu is pointing the way out of the current impasse: he is identifying the only path to co-existence.

There are many ‘cores’ to the conflict, be they territory, security, national self-determination, dignity or oppression, but no one serious “refuses to recognize the Jews as a people”. The fact that some Jews are “indigenous to the region” is a matter of irrelevance and as for “the right to self-government”, the only way that Jews are going to lose the right to govern Israel is if they absorb a massive demographic shift of Palestinians under an inevitable one state solution.

And therein lies the irrational, paradoxical quality of the debate today. Mr. Oren’s op-ed reflects a fear that Israel will lose its Jewish character, but the most surefire way that that can happen is by not fast-tracking a two state solution by halting settlements and negotiating seriously. Every day the two-state solution grows further out of reach, until the inevitable point when Israel will be the only political entity between the Mediterranean and the River Jordan. On that day, Israel will be faced with a choice: give the Palestinians a right to vote or create a state of true apartheid character. I strongly suggest that, instead of writing hyperbolic op-eds in the New York Times, Mr. Oren devote himself to getting his country out of that inevitable mess.

Written by alexlobov

October 15, 2010 at 1:19 am

UPDATED: A Knesset bill to watch

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This isn’t getting much coverage:

The Israeli parliament’s Ministerial Committee on Legislation approved a bill on Monday requiring a 60-MK majority and national consent on withdrawing from territory occupied by Israel in 1967.

The referendum bill on withdrawal from the Syrian Golan Heights and East Jerusalem mandates that any government decision be brought before Israeli citizens in a referendum, Israeli news site Ynet reported. [Ma’an News Agency]

I don’t know what the likelihood is that a bill like this would pass but the fact that it might see the light of the Knesset is troubling. Firstly, it damages the potential of success for a future Israeli-Syrian peace track. By putting a plot of land viewed widely by Israelis to be a key strategic advantage to a populist referendum it harms any opportunity of future Israeli governments easily returning it to Syria.

Most pressingly, what this bill essentially achieves is yet another barrier to a two state solution and an independent Palestinian state. By putting in place further political roadblocks, it makes it easier for far right populist politicians like Avigdor Lieberman to manipulate both public opinion and votes in the Knesset and further the two state impasse. Once again, one state between the Mediterranean and the Jordan becomes ever more inevitable.

Update: One of the smartest Twitter users in the Middle East, @Elizrael, points out that there is already such a law in place for the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied after the Six Day War in 1967 and annexed in 1981 with the Golan Heights Law. This action is not recognised internationally and is still considered occupied territory, as per UN Security Council Resolution 242 which remains in force to this day.

The bill that @Elizrael refers to also appears to be called the “Golan Heights Law” and was proposed by Likud MK Silvan Shalom. Any return of the Golan Heights was to require a 50% special majority of Knesset members (61/120) as well as a majority in national referendum. This was a move by the right to preempt any move by Barak to hand the Golan back to Syria, as negotiations at that stage were considered quite advanced. Incidentally, one piece of evidence indicating that Israel’s current path of discriminatory lawmaking is not that recent an event, Likud MK Uzi Landau advocated excluding Israeli Arabs from such a referendum on the grounds that it would be unfair to have Arabs voting on a proposal to hand back Arab land. On March 1,2000, the Knesset gave the bill preliminary approval. (1)

Unfortunately, I can find no further evidence or information on the interwebs about this bill, or whether it was passed. If anyone hears of anything, let a brother know. According to @Elizrael, “The Golan law was passed, however, it needs additional legislation of how to conduct the referendum, which wasn’t passed. The additional legislation has been delayed for years (including by Bibi now) because it can cause problems with the US. This means that the current law will also never see the light of day.”

All this makes for some interesting food for thought.

1. The only thing I could find via google on this bill came form Steven K. Maize’s 2006 book, “Israel’s Higher Law”. Page 215.

Israeli-Palestinian talks – A very troubling “compromise”

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The sheer amount of media reports about these talks has been deafening, and the amount of comment has been an absolute deluge, to the point where I have been reluctant to write about it (until now), due to the difficulty of contributing something new to the discussion. However, a new piece of information has come to light that I could prove very important to the future of talks and solutions.

These past few days has seen a flurry of reporting, and to-ing and fro-ing, about an article filed by David Makovsky for the Washington Institute of Near-East Affairs:

According to senior U.S. officials, the administration’s efforts culminated in a draft letter negotiated with Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak and chief Israeli peace negotiator Yitzhak Molcho, and ultimately sent from President Obama’s desk to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

At its core, the draft letter offers a string of assurances to Israel in return for a two-month moratorium extension. More specifically, U.S. 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.

As agencies picked up the article, the White House issued a denial that there was any letter sent. As noted in that Haaretz report, Mahmoud Abbas and Saeb Erekat have repeatedly stated that they will leave talks unless an Israeli moratorium on settlement construction is extended, and the White House has been desperate to see such an extension so that talks can continue.

Outlets are now reporting that a deal is in fact on the table, whether or not a physical letter was sent. Politico’s Laura Rozen has a translation of a report in Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv up at her blog. The report is dated several days ago. The money graf, emphasis Rozen’s:

Sources close to the negotiations said that the American package includes a compromise for both parties on the issue of a construction freeze in exchange for a written American commitment to support the parties on other issues that are important to them in later stages of the negotiations. The sources said that in exchange for a compromise on the issue of extending the moratorium, Israel apparently demanded a written American commitment to support its demands on a number of issues, such as recognition of Israel as the Jewish people’s nation-state and security strategies that pertain to defending the eastern border of the Palestinian state. The Palestinians demanded, apparently, American commitments on the issues of borders and Jerusalem, in exchange for their concession regarding the discontinuance of the complete construction moratorium.

The WaPo report says:

Among other inducements, the administration has proposed that there be a lengthy “transitional period” for security on the eastern border of a future Palestinian state, a plan that would presumably include Israeli troops. The United States would also promise military hardware and pledge to veto U.N. resolutions relating to Arab-Israeli peace for a year.

As part of the package, Israel would agree to extend a partial freeze on settlement growth for 60 days.

While both are reporting that Netanyahu has not yet agreed to the offer, to me it seems quite troubling.

The Palestinians have repeatedly said that Israeli troops on Palestinian land would be unacceptable in any peace agreement. Various alternative ideas have been floated, including demilitarisation for a Palestinian state (effectively reducing it to a paper tiger and affecting its legitimacy as a state altogether) and/or international peacekeeping troops, both along the border and in sensitive parts of Jerusalem.

Military hardware is, of course, nothing new, and neither is the veto-ing of UN resolutions. Already the US has been blocking anything critical of Israel in the UN on the tenuous basis that it might “harm peace talks”. A written agreement, however, to block these things for an entire year is a serious smack in the face to international institutions that further entrenches the concept of American exceptionalism as a norm (which also extends to allies like Israel).

What’s most troubling, however, is the promise to officially recognise Israel as “the Jewish people’s nation-state”. The call for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state has come loudest from Israel’s controversial hardline Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, a West Bank settler and crazy UN speech maker.

Officially recognising Israel as a “Jewish state” is troubling for a number of reasons. Firstly, it affects the key Palestinian request of the right of return, and while, in my opinion, it’s the most unreasonable Palestinian request and the most likely to face the axe, it’s still a key part of their negotiating position.

Furthermore, such recognition by the US would only serve to undermine further the tenuous claims that Israel is a “Western-style democracy” and has “similar values” to the US, a call frequently made in defense of the “special relationship”. If separation of church & state is a key element of America’s identity, how can an expressly ethno-religious basis for Israel’s identity be considered “similar”?

Most worryingly, such recognition will dramatically affect the standing of over a million Arab, non-Jewish, citizens of Israel. There are already numerous Israeli laws that discriminate against Israeli citizens of Arab descent, placing them outside the state by virtue of its internationally recognised identity would serve to only further entrench this discrimination.

And making all these concessions on behalf of the Palestinians just for a 60 day extension on illegal construction of settlements in occupied land, that probably won’t be adhered to anyway, so that manifestly uneven peace talks can continue seems completely ludicrous. Make no mistake, these concessions should not be treated lightly, but it seems that, in its self-serving drive to score brownie points for “peace in the Middle East”, the Obama Administration is doing just that.

Domestic politics – Frustrations with the Peace Process

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We’ve heard that the appeal has been made in private before but, over the weekend, Mahmoud Abbas publicly requested that President Obama impose a solution to the Middle East conflict. This implies, of course, that he’ll ‘impose’ a Palestinian state on the Israeli people, and ‘impose’ concessions on behalf of the Palestinians also. While I can appreciate Abu Mazen’s frustrations, even he must understand this is impossible and stating it is also not doing Obama any favours.

The obvious implication of Abu Mazen having the boldness to make such a request is that he believes Obama is firmly on ‘his side’. In an increasingly polar, divided and confrontational political arena, this is more bad press for the President as it could further erode his base of support within Israel and the Jewish community as well as giving tea party activists and the like another bone to chew on. I don’t see any political benefit for Abu Mazen here either. What political ends could it possibly serve for him to once again confirm his total political impotence? Begging the President of the US to do the job for him against the Israelis does not build confidence in a leader.

No, I see this as a statement made purely out of desperation. Perhaps Abbas really thought that he would be the one to bring a Palestinian state? Perhaps he really thought he could finally step out of Arafat’s shadow and be the father of a new Palestine, a Palestinian Ben Gurion or something. But even Abbas must think twice, a state will not be achieved by begging. Politics respects the strong, not the weak.

Let’s take a quick look at the frustrating political stalemate that has brought this desperate situation about.

Of the main players:

  • Abbas is looking inreasingly weak, impotent and useless. He has completely lost Gaza, there have been plenty of allegations about corruption and very few people among his own constitutents have any respect for him or hope under his leadership. He has been treated like a pawn by the Israelis time and time again, eclipsed even by Salam Fayyad’s proclamations of Palestinian statehood being just around the corner.
  • Obama is presiding over an increasingly bitter and divided country. The watered-down health care reform bill that he passed may have been lauded in the papers as monumental but drew a huge toll in blood & sweat from the Democratic party and himself. His first term has been far from easy. Both Iraq and Afghanistan are still looking like losing battles, Israel-Palestine is spiralling out of control, his power base on the left thinks that he hasn’t gone far enough whereas the right is getting more and more hostile as the days wear on.
  • Netanyahu, what can we say about poor old Bibi. It’s a testament to the man’s political canniness that he has been able to hold his shaky coalition together for this long. The inordinate amount of power held by the far right in the Israeli Knesset has made it almost impossible for Netanyahu to make any real progress in any direction when it comes to Palestine. What the man actually wants to do is no longer even relevant, he is basically a middleman. Bibi is trying to strike a balance between increasing pressure from the international community in the wake of Cast Lead and from a far less friendly President in the White House on one side, and a powerful far right not willing to make any concessions on the other.

But more on Netanyahu. This piece from Hagai Segal for YNet further highlights the delicacy of the tight-rope that Bibi is walking. Segal highlights what we already knew, there is no actual construction going on in East Jerusalem, probably a part of the ‘gentleman’s agreement’ Bibi is said to have struck with Obama. Bombastic announcements of settlement expansion were made and we assumed they were to curry favour with the right, but is the right so stupid as to accept these announcements without bricks and mortar? Is the Israeli public going to keep buying the line that Bibi is running rings around Obama? Or is something going to give somewhere?

Meanwhile, Abu Mazen is still refusing to enter negotiations with Israel until they agree to a total settlement freeze in East Jerusalem. So while the settlement announcements served to hold the right-wing at bay for a time and the lack of construction is holding Obama at bay, Abu Mazen is refusing to accept it. The only political points Bibi can score at the moment is that the Palestinians are being belligerent about refusing to enter peace talks. He can’t even point out the lack of construction in East Jerusalem as a concession because it’s meant to be one that flies under the radar.

Where to from here?

The AFP reports that Abbas has been invited to Washington for direct talks with Obama. Ha’aretz is reporting that the stalled indirect ‘proximity’ talks are to start no later than mid-May, citing the perennial deus ex machina, unnamed officials. I’m inclined to believe this claim. I think Abbas is heading over to Washington for drilling. Obama is going to tell Abbas to back down on the request for a settlement freeze, to take heed of the lack of construction, to stop pushing Bibi because a collapsed coalition and a political vacuum in the Knesset would help no one (least of all Obama) and to enter ‘proximity’ talks.

The irony of the settlement situation is that, although settlement construction in East Jerusalem has stalled, none of the principal actors mentioned above can draw any political capital from it unless proximity talks begin. If proximity talks happen then that can be considered a limited victory for Obama & Mitchell, which is why they are presumably keen to see them start again in earnest.

Whether these talks will amount to anything is the million dollar question asked before every single round of talks, every single new ‘peace process’ or ‘road map’. I’m tempted to say no, but presumably Obama wants us to have ‘the audacity of hope’.

Syrian Scuds & Israeli Settlements

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It’s been a Middle East fest for the Obama Administration today with several key pieces of news being discussed. An issue that’s dominated discussion over the past few days is the alleged transfer of scud missiles from Syria to Hizbullah in Lebanon, with Hillary Clinton fielding questions on it on Thursday. Israeli President Shimon Peres has accused Syria of sending Scuds to Hizbullah. Syria denies the charge and says Israel may be using the accusation as a pretext for a military strike. (Daily Star)

The National gives a succinct roundup of the latest phase in Syrian-Israeli games:

Syria wants the Golan Heights back, but Israel does not feel the necessity to make concessions to a weaker adversary. Israel wants Syria to break its ties to Iran, but Damascus will not abandon an alliance that gives it more influence. When the two countries have engaged in indirect talks, most recently under Turkish mediation, they have been interested in theatrics, not progress.

FP’s Blake Hounshell, in a controversially titled post, cannot understand why Syria would do something like this, given its position:

For all the figures you read in the press about the size of Syria’s military and its vast arsenal of tanks, the country is essentially a tin-pot dictatorship with little ability to project power beyond Lebanon, where for decades it has dominated its smaller neighbor’s domestic affairs.

That post drew the ire of a Syrian embassy spokesman in Washington that fired back:

How can the “dumbest country” outmaneuver the strongest country in the world, and its superpower, along with the numerous Western and other countries that followed in its footsteps and that tried to isolate it? How can the superpower, during its previous administration, work so diligently on isolating “the dumbest country”, yet end up being isolated itself (former Bush-official and current Obama-appointee, Assistant Secretary of State Jeffery Feltman: “consequently, the United States, not Syria, seems to be isolated”; Senators John Kerry and Chuck Hagel in a 2008 op-ed: “our policy of non-engagement has isolated us more than the Syrians.”)?  how can the “dumbest country” face all these economic sanctions imposed by the superpower, while simultaneously achieving some of the highest economic growth figures in the region and being considered one of the top ‘frontier markets’?

It seems this Scud fiasco is provoking a broader discussion about Syria’s position in the region and the future of Syrian-Israeli talks as well as Obama’s policy of engagement.

UPDATE: There is growing doubt about whether this transfer actually took place and, it seems, certain US officials at least, agree that Syria is usually not a dumb country:

“We don’t think Scuds of any shape or size have been moved to Lebanon,” one of the officials said.

“The Syrians aren’t always known for making the right political calculations. But in this case, surely they realize that transferring this kind of weapons system to Hezbollah — and especially to Hezbollah in Lebanon — could lead to serious consequences,” the official added. [Khaleej Times]

Meanwhile, Netanyahu has rejected President Obama’s request to halt settlement construction in East Jerusalem:

The aides said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered his government’s position to Obama over the weekend, ahead of the arrival Thursday of the US president’s special Mideast envoy, George Mitchell. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the contact between the two leaders was private.

The State Department responded via spokesman Philip Crowley who told reporters that the long-standing Israeli position on settlement in East Jerusalem is understood but that the status quo cannot last. There has also been talk of a “gentleman’s agreement” between Obama and Netanyahu whereby Israel won’t publicly announce a freeze in East Jerusalem so as not to lose face but will not announce any new settlement building either. This, to me, at least seems the most likely case. While it’s obvious that Netanyahu cannot afford to to be seen as if he is giving in on this issue so as to preserve his coalition in Israel, neither would he want to rock the boat further by announcing more settlements, considering the shit-storm the last announcement caused.

The other piece of US-MidEast news today has been further talk of renewed Iran sanctions in May. Read the full story here.

Obama ‘humiliates’ Bibi over settlement impasse

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Not a happy camper. Image credit: REUTERS

Not a happy camper. Image credit: REUTERS

It’s been a hefty week of diplomatic news for Israel. Apart from the news of the expulsion of a UK diplomat and the possibility of Australia following suit, there has also been settlement news, Obama love-hate news, potential intifada news and even Osama comes back from the dead to weigh in with his two cents, what fun.

On the settlement/Obama front there’s been so much random news that I don’t even know where exactly to start digging in all this muck. Let’s start with the fact that Israel announced another 20 settlement units in East Jerusalem, once again impeccably timed with Netanyahu’s visit to the US. Paltry, you might say, nothing compared to announcing 1,600 to welcome Joe Biden with, but still, fairly similar. Sure 1,600 is a bigger number than 20 and Netanyahu is visiting the US not welcoming Biden, but in principle, it’s essentially the same damn thing. Mondoweiss rightfully asks the question, why isn’t Obama outraged?

Moreover, constructing the new 20 units is going to involve demolishing a historic building, the Shepherd Hotel in Sheikh Jarrah:

The Shepherd Hotel, close to the British consulate, was once a headquarters for Haj Amin al-Husseini, the former Palestinian grand mufti of Jerusalem. After 1967, Israel deemed it absentee property. It was then bought, reportedly for $1m, in 1985 by Irving Moskowitz, a Jewish American millionaire who funds settlements.

Elisha Peleg, a Jerusalem city councillor, said the Shepherd Hotel building permit was a “technical step” and that more construction would follow there and in other Palestinian areas of the city. “We will continue to build all over Jerusalem, in Sheikh Jarrah and Ras al-Amud as well,” he said. [Guardian]

So what of the talks between Bibi and Obama? Reportedly, Bibi got freaked by the supposed crisis happening in US-Israeli relations, cancelled a bunch of appointments and flew to Washington quick-smart. A media blackout was imposed during the meeting, an unusual step and a possible indicator of the frosty atmosphere. This was no ‘beer summit’.

The White House spokesman suggested that talks were “honest and straight forward” and early reports from Israel suggested that Netanyahu was claiming ‘progress’ made during the meeting but a recent report from the Sydney Morning Herald suggests otherwise. Apparently, according to leaked documents, Bibi was ‘humiliated’.

According to leaked accounts reported in the Israeli media, Mr Obama humiliated Mr Netanyahu by leaving the meeting early.

”I’m going to the residential wing to have dinner with Michelle and the girls,” Mr Obama reportedly said, adding that Mr Netanyahu should consult his aides about goodwill gestures Israel was prepared to make towards the Palestinians before renewed peace talks. ”’I’m still around,” he said. ”Let me know if there is anything new.”

When the President returned, Mr Netanyahu is said to have made a counter-offer which Mr Obama did not accept. [SMH]

I’d snub Bibi for dinner with Michelle and the girls too. After all, they are considerably more attractive than that stern-faced gargoyle pictured above.

For an alternative and very well-reasoned take on how the talks should have gone, Avi Issacharoff for Ha’aretz:

How could Netanyahu have safeguarded the construction in East Jerusalem? By offering something in return. Past Israeli governments have indicated their intent to build in Jerusalem beyond the Green Line, but they simultaneously gave the U.S. a political strategy to present to the Palestinians. Netanyahu’s government is backtracking on all fronts and offering nothing to the Americans or the Palestinians.

More on the Shepherd Hotel demolition, also from the Guardian, an important thing to consider:

“What it means politically is that it is one very important project that can torpedo the peace talks,” said Hagit Ofran, a settlement expert at the Israeli group Peace Now. “It is in the hands of the settlers to decide when to bring the bulldozers … It is a very dangerous step.”

This is a salient point. If the settlers control the bulldozers then the settlers have a very provocative tool at their disposal, it’s like allowing a bunch of potentially crazy wingnuts to have control over the red button that starts a war. How’s that Palestinian powder keg coming along?

Well not great, Israel is still planning to enlarge the Jewish prayer plaza at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City. I’ll let Electronic Intifada explain this one:

The site eyed by Israeli officials is located at the Mughrabi Gate, an entrance to the mosque compound known as the Haram al-Sharif, the most sensitive site in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Inside are al-Aqsa Mosque and the golden-topped Dome of the Rock.

Earlier encroachments by Israel on Islamic authority at the site have triggered clashes between Israeli police and Palestinians. A heavily armed visit to the compound by Ariel Sharon in 2000, shortly before he became prime minister, to declare Israeli rights there sparked the second intifada.

There’s also the contentious killing of four Palestinian teenagers at the hands of the IDF that has sparked protests in the Occupied Territories and, supposedly, an Israeli investigation into the matter. All of this sounds very very intifada-like.

Also, Ban Ki Moon is going to ask the Arabs to go back to peace talks, yeah… that’ll work. Sometimes the man’s, or rather the position’s, impotence astounds me.  Jordan’s King Abdullah thinks Israel is playing with fire. Bashar al Assad has no faith in Israel. Oh and there’s also that other guy, he’s not happy either. And if anyone is still wondering why people are angry about Gaza, here’s yet another story. Two soldiers are being tried in an Israeli military tribunal (any guesses as to how it will turn out) for using a 9 year old boy as a minesweeper… classy.

US-Israeli relations hit 20 year low. Crisis?

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A Palestinian protester runs with a burning tyre during clashes with Israeli police. Image Credit: AP/Gulf News

It seems the fiasco of the 1600 slaps received by Joe Biden has escalated somewhat, newspapers are now calling it a ‘crisis’. The big piece of news came when details of a telephone conversation between Hillary Clinton and Netanyahu came to light.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley described the nearly 45-minute phone conversation in unusually undiplomatic terms, signaling that the close allies are facing their deepest crisis in two decades.

Clinton called Netanyahu “to make clear the United States considered the announcement a deeply negative signal about Israel’s approach to the bilateral relationship and counter to the spirit of the vice president’s trip,” Crowley said. Clinton, he said, emphasized that “this action had undermined trust and confidence in the peace process and in America’s interests.” [WaPo]

Strong words perhaps, but it remains to be seen how the relationship and the supposed damage that has occurred to it will unfold. Israel’s response so far has been to order an enquiry into the matter, which will probably turn into the usual political obfuscation of the truth. I’m not entirely sure what this enquiry is even supposed to ascertain. According to Khaleej Times:

“The prime minister has decided to create a committee bringing together ministry directors to examine what happened during vice-president Biden’s visit and lay down rules to ensure such incidents are not repeated in future,” a government spokesman said.

But it’s clear what happened. An ill-advised announcement about settlement expansion plans in East Jerusalem was made at an inopportune time, showing more signs of arrogance in the Israeli government’s approach to peace. This is nothing new. As for, ‘rules’, what possible rules can be laid down? Something like, let’s make controversial announcements at more opportune times when we’re less on the international diplomatic radar? What’s the point of the exercise?

The latest is the following from Haaretz:

Instead of accepting Netanyahu’s partial apology and letting bygones be bygones, Obama issued a stern warning to the Israeli prime minister and is now demanding that he take “specific actions” to show he is “committed” to the U.S.-Israel relationship and to the peace process itself.

Netanyahu is still governing a fragile and cumbersome coalition which includes a good number of prominent right-wingers who are against any negotiation and any compromise over East Jerusalem (some over the West Bank altogether). Where, up until this point, Bibi has ridden the trend of defiance against Washington and reaped its domestic political benefits, with this added pressure to actually maintain the diplomatic relationship and the ball now firmly in his court, what happens next remains to be seen.

An editorial in Haaretz:

There is one reason for the crisis: Netanyahu’s persistence in continuing construction in East Jerusalem, in placing Jews in Arab neighborhoods and evicting Palestinians from their homes in the city. This is not a matter of timing but substance. Despite repeated warnings and bitter experiences, he stokes the flames over the conflict’s most sensitive issue and is bound to get himself in trouble. Netanyahu has made it clear by his actions that American support for Israel, especially essential now in light of the Iranian threat, is less important to him than the chance to put another few Jews in the Sheikh Jarrah or Ramat Shlomo neighborhoods. Even if Netanyahu’s adversaries in the U.S. administration have exploited his misstep to push him into a corner, as his “associates” will certainly argue, a statesman as experienced as he should have been especially careful.

There was news today that the statesman placed a few calls to Europe, namely Merkel and Berlusconi, telling them that Israel has no plans to “accelerate” the pace of settlement construction in East Jerusalem. Bibi is probably trying to cut his losses and limit the fallout from the 1600 slaps after the Quartert (The US, Russia, the EU and the UN) also condemned the settlement announcement. It should be noted that, in all public statements to this date (including the announcement of the enquiry), Bibi has expressed vehement condemnation… but only at the timing of the announcement, rather than the announcement itself. This is of course understandable, Bibi still holds the ideological position of support for housing expansion in East Jerusalem, but I wonder if he thinks vehement condemnation of timing will be enough to pull the wool over people’s eyes.

Speaking of his ideological position, Aluf Benn in Haaretz seems to think that the shit has hit the fan, so to speak, for Netanyahu who “has reached the moment of truth, where he must choose between his ideological beliefs and political cooperation with the right on one hand, and his need for American support on the other.” Benn rightly points out that Obama has been fearful of exerting too much pressure and causing the fragile coalition to collapse, creating an volatile and unpredictable power vacuum. Better the devil you know? We soon shall see.

I’m predicting some sort of diplomatic overture, a few public statements about peace and some efforts to restart peace negotiations. Netanyahu probably knows that some well-mannered stalling is now his safest route but I’m sure he has on intention of actually taking any real action. He still can’t afford to rock the boat in the Knesset, even if he wanted to. The Obama administration, while mindful of being treated like a doormat and losing face in the eyes of the international community, is also mindful of its own domestic problems over health care and wars and its need to get reelected. It can’t afford a total public break with Israel right now. The name of the game right now is not ‘actions’, at least not the sort we expect, it’s face saving and politics.

In other ‘action’-related Israeli news, Israel has put the West Bank on lockdown and restricted access to the Al Aqsa mosque after increased clashes with troops in response to the East Jerusalem announcement and the usual frustrations with living under occupation. UAE Foreign Minister Shaikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan has said that Arabs won’t continue to support Middle East peace talks until Israel halts colony expansion, putting further skids on the peace process which now appears completely dead in the water.

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