The Zeitgeist Politics

Global Politics with a focus on The Middle East

Posts Tagged ‘George Mitchell

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.

Israel welcomes Joe Biden with 1600 slaps in the face

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Perhaps Joe Biden is wondering if it's really worth it. Ariel Schalit/AP

On a high profile visit to Israel to begin ‘proximity talks’ or rather, indirect talks that involve shuttling between Tel Aviv and Ramallah, Joe Biden has been met with closed fists instead of open arms. We heard about the resumption of construction on 112 new homes in occupied East Jerusalem on Monday. Now comes the announcement from Eli Yishai, leader of the right-wing Shas Party, who has made Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem one of his central clauses, that Israel will be constructing 1600 new homes in East Jerusalem’s “ultra-Orthodox” Ramot Shlomo district.  To add insult to belligerence, Danny Danon, the deputy speaker of the Knesset, said the following to WaPo: “While we welcome Vice President Biden, a longtime friend and supporter of Israel, we see it as nothing short of an insult that President Obama himself is not coming.”

So uh, great start to the vaunted four months of indirect peace talks announced by George Mitchell on Monday. Incidentally, speaking of this latest round of peace talks, Paul Woodward hits the nail on the head:

That was 2006. Now in 2010 the Israelis don’t even need to inconvenience themselves by sitting in the same room as the Palestinians, even though Netanyahu would be happy to be granted the photo-op of face-to-face talks — talks that he can be confident will be fruitless. [Mondoweiss]

And that was before the 1,600 slaps. So, the question begs… why? Why insult Joe Biden when the Obama Administration just seemed to be (and I have no idea why, really) trying to cosy up to the Israeli electorate by pushing a softer line (The Majlis called it a ‘velvet glove’) on Israel? Haaretz goes some way to explaining:

The profit, for the hard right, is political. It mines an emotional vein along a relatively small but potent segment of the Israeli electorate, which holds that to insult Israel’s indispensible ally is to assert the Jewish state’s independence.

In their drive to expunge any trace of hitrapsut – groveling to the colonial master – there are those among the ostensible super-patriots of the right who revel in shots across the bow of the American ship of state.

Well it seems Netanyahu has been surprised yet again by one of these shots, again coming form a right-wing coalition partner. Though, undoubtedly, as with the humiliation of the Turkish ambassador, he’ll be able to put it behind him and even turn it to his advantage. Yet again, the David of Israel is standing up to the Goliath of its erstwhile US supporter, that dares to mildly chide the Israelis about their intransigence on settlement building and real peace negotiations.

Biden, incidentally, responded by condemning the announcement:

I condemn the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem. The substance and timing of the announcement, particularly with the launching of proximity talks, is precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now and runs counter to the constructive discussions that I’ve had here in Israel. We must build an atmosphere to support negotiations, not complicate them. [The Majlis]

A solid statement but, yet again, it’s only a statement. Israel knows what it can get away with and, at the moment, it seems that it can get away with just about anything.

UPDATED: New York Summit with Netanyahu, Obama & Abbas likely to be a Waste of Time

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In the wake of the Goldstone Report (which The Majlis is blogging also as they read, check their coverage out) , we have a tri-partite summit in New York between President Obama, Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas. All of this, of course, assuming that Netanyahu actually cares and that Abbas still has some sort of authority to throw around… you know, just assuming of course.

There has been a slightly conspicuous silence coming from the Israeli right on this, usually they would be all over it. The silence was explained in Haaretz today, an explanation that is, well, fairly on point:

MK Tzipi Hotovely (Likud), one of the ideological rebels, explained the silence Monday: “We all know that this summit has no significance. There is no possibility of achieving anything, so there is no real argument about where we are going. There is a united front in the Likud for now.”

Aluf Benn for Haaretz discusses the different working styles and varied expectations between the US, Israeli and Palestinian approaches to the peace process and politics in general:

He (Obama) is not dependent on a coalition in which the majority of members oppose diplomatic steps, as is Netanyahu, or in legalistic tricks keeping him in power after his term has ended, as is Abbas.

That leaves Obama time to work determinedly, yet gradually.

This is also Mitchell’s style: another meeting, another discussion, another preparation, all aimed primarily at building trust and bringing both sides closer to the bigger decisions to be made later.

I agree with Benn, US politics moves much slower than Israeli politics, has more time and opportunity for careful consideration and planning and relies a great deal more on lengthy dialogue – in many ways this can be a good thing. On the other hand, the idea that the Palestinians have another 4 years to wait for Obama to get his act together is dismissive. While realistically, it may take that long, and even longer, to actually achieve something (if possible at all), during this time Palestinians continue to live in squalid, repressive and humiliating conditions that prevent their development and progress as a people. This may not mean that everyone has to hurry, but it is not a situation that should be dismissed lightly. The Palestinians will wait, because they have to, but that doesn’t mean that they should be made to unnecessarily.

But I digress… the summit.

Yes, so I agree with the Israeli right for once, I don’t think this summit is going to achieve anything but a photo-op. Let’s see, the Israelis refused to halt settlement in the West Bank, the Palestinians refuse to negotiate or engage in “peace talks” unless said settlements are halted, Obama has his hands full with domestic politics anyway so he might well be a touch distracted… seems like a recipe for a nonsensical waste of time to me.

Apparently the Obama Administration realises this and some ideas have been thrown around for how to avoid this. According to Haaretz:

One idea to “upgrade” the summit was that Obama would announce at the end of the meeting that Israel has agreed to suspend construction in the settlements temporarily. This would be seen as an achievement and would jump-start the talks, a Jerusalem source said.

Another idea was to have Obama announce the United States was interested in resuming the talks in mid-October, after further talks with the two parties.

Obama could also announce that the sides are close to resuming the peace talks and call for an international peace conference in the next few months, at which the negotiations would be launched, the source said.

Ahh you have to love politicians and their never-ending ability to spin bullshit, pretending that it constitutes something real. An “announcement” that peace talks will resume later seems hardly an achievement to me, and seems hardly a reason to invite Abbas & Netanyahu to New York in the first place. The announcement of an international peace conference, likewise. If you want a conference, run a conference, you do not need a summit to announce a conference. Which leaves the temporary settlement freeze, the only tangible result from the summit, and we can all agree that it’s far from a sizeable one. Besides that, I’d say that it’s unlikely that Netanyahu will agree to even a temporary settlement freeze considering how strong his coalition is looking right now and how secure the Israeli Right is with this summit. I don’t think he would want to stab them in the back, even if it’s only a small stab. UPDATE: Twas silly of me to have missed this but there’s in fact been a settlement freeze on the table for weeks. Bibi offered 9 months, Mitchell was gunning for 12 (excluding East Jerusalem & necessary public works either way), no agreement was reached and Mitchell went home. [Thanks @Elizrael & @glcarlstrom] The settlement freeze possibly to be announced at this summit is referring to this contested one. Whether this constitutes a sizeable outcome is up to you. I still wonder why the Israeli Right seems so comfy with a 9 month settlement freeze, please inform me in the comments if you should know.

So there you go kids, you can look forward to another non-event in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, mmmm, surprises surprises.

UPDATE: Neither Hamas nor Fatah are particularly happy with Abbas’ decision to meet with Netanyahu while settlements are ongoing, Hamas describing it as “stabbing Palestinians in the back”. The response from the PA has been that this is not signalling the restarting of peace talks but rather a “courtesy meeting”. [Haaretz]

UPDATE 2 (22/09 3pm GMT): According to a Washington Times exclusive confirming the above, Israel has agreed to a 6-9 month settlement freeze excluding East Jerusalem and 2,500 homes already slated to be built. This is still shy of Mitchell’s requested 12 month freeze. However here’s the meat:

A U.S. official, speaking on the condition that he not be named because the negotiations are continuing, said Mr. Mitchell has received private assurances from some Gulf Arab and North African states to grant over-flight rights to Israeli jets, open interest sections in Israel and end a travel ban against Israelis if Israel freezes settlement construction. Saudi Arabia, guardian of Islam’s holiest sites, has not agreed to these steps absent a peace agreement.

As usual it’s the Gulf states & the North Africans that are friendliest to Israel. Apart from Saudi Arabia, this is also assuming that Qatar isn’t included (since they already have normalised relations with Israel), still ‘interest sections’ in the UAE, Bahrain & Kuwait could be very handy. In North Africa, I presume Tunisia & Morocco are involved. This is relatively big news in my opinion.

“Thus far, the Arabs have stiffed Obama and the Israelis in their own exquisite way are stiffing him,” said Aaron David Miller, a former senior Middle East adviser to six U.S. secretaries of state. “He is not getting a comprehensive settlement freeze. In fact, over the next 18 months, it may look like a construction boom; 2,500 to 3,000 new units is a lot of construction and to boot the Israelis will never agree to anything on Jerusalem.”

The Washington Times does point out, however, that this will be the first time a US President has gotten the Israelis to agree to any formal settlement freeze. That may sound impressive but the reality is that much more is expected.

On Obama’s success so far:

Elliott Abrams, a former deputy national security adviser to Mr. Bush, said Mr. Obama’s diplomacy has backfired.

“The Obama administration’s approach has done precisely the opposite of what they intended, because I believe they intended to weaken Prime Minister Netanyahu and strengthen President Abbas,” he said. “But in fact polls make it clear that Netanyahu is stronger now than he was on the day he took office. And the administration has put President Abbas in a very unhappy corner.”