The Zeitgeist Politics

Global Politics with a focus on The Middle East

Posts Tagged ‘Al Aqsa

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.