The Zeitgeist Politics

Global Politics with a focus on The Middle East

Posts Tagged ‘West Bank

The New York Summit & Bibi’s Brief Media Tour

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President Obama Speaks. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

President Obama Speaks. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Well the NY Summit has been and gone and, lo and behold, nothing sensational or earth-shattering has hit the press this morning. What a surprise. Abdelbari Atwan called it “a capitulation” and “a defeat” for Obama in his editorial for al Quds al Arabi.

The Majlis has a full transcript of Obama’s comments after his individual meetings with Bibi & Abu Mazen and before the tri-partite summit itself, but there’s nothing earth-shattering in it. I’d say that all in all Obama sounds kinda frustrated:

America’s frustration showed when Obama told reporters the two sides had to stop stalling. “Permanent status negotiations must begin and begin soon. It is past time to talk about starting negotiations. It is time to move forward,” he said.

Jonathan Freedland’s comments for the Guardian’s comment is free confirm what I’ve suspected of late, Bibi and, to a lesser extent, Abu Mazen, are warm and comfy in their local politics:

How had it come about that, in the words of the Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea, the Americans had “discovered that they want an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement more than the Israelis and the Palestinians want it”? The narrow answer is the usual one, that the local politics on both sides of the conflict has made inaction a safer bet than action. Netanyahu sits atop a coalition that is perfectly stable – just so long as he doesn’t do anything. Were he so much as to hint at taking any of the steps necessary for a peace deal, coalition partners would start breaking off like aeroplane wings in an ice storm. As for Abbas, he has finally acquired some political strength, removing potential rivals from within his own Fatah faction while all trace of Hamas has been eradicated from the West Bank. As one Fatah insider puts it: “Abbas is now at the peak of his powers.” All that could damage him are the accusations of treachery that would instantly follow any compromise with Israel.

Freedland is forthright in his criticism of Obama’s recent failures in the arena of Middle Eastern politics, a criticism echoed by many on both sides of the arena. It is true, Obama has failed so far to gain any real concessions from either side, to get the peace process moving with truly wilful engagement form both sides. Arabs are asking for deeds not words, Israelis are lauding their Prime Minister for his strength, but Freedland advises us to not give up hope:

Above all, those panicking that Obama has not yet bagged a clutch of foreign policy triumphs in the Middle East and elsewhere may be forgetting both the mess that he inherited and his leadership style. He plays the long, slow game, advancing gradually. So, yes, there was no overnight fix in New York, but that was never on the cards. Besides, Obama believes he has time on his side. Unlike most US presidents keen to play Middle East peacemaker, he has not tackled this in his last year, but in his first.

In addition to the summit, Bibi also embarked on a few interviews as part of the PR campaign to woo the US public. His wooing was largely successful, old Bibi is a pretty canny media operator. Some exerts from his interview with Wolf Blitzer, and some pertinent thoughts, to be found at The Majlis:

When Blitzer brought up the Goldstone report, a U.N. investigation into the clash between Israel and Palestinian forces in Gaza in 2006 that Israel has renounced, Netanyahu said the report essentially gives a free hand to terrorists who wish to attack democracies.

Hamas fighters “get a free bill out of this bias,” Netanyahu said. “American pilots, NATO pilots … are gonna be on the dock … that’s not something that any country fighting terrorism can accept, and I don’t think you can accept it too.”

Blitzer didn’t challenge Netanyahu on that point, which is unfortunate, since on its face Netanyahu’s premise makes me, as an American, pause. After all, the U.S. has killed many civilians in the course of its war in Afghanistan, shouldn’t we now be afraid that the United Nations will come after us? But upon closer inspection, there are holes in Netanyahu’s fear-mongering. The reason Israel is under investigation is the method by which it attacked Hamas in Gaza. Critics of the Goldstone report aren’t questioning its conclusions – such as Israeli use of white phosphorous, killings of police officers and bombings of sewage treatment facilities. Instead, they question the premise and bias of the Goldstone Report itself.

The other interview I came across is with ABC’s Charlie Gibson (full transcript).  In this interview, Bibi describes the recent summit in New York as “frank”, “productive” and “very good”. Gibson is a little tougher on Netanyahu than Blitzer on the issue of settlements, Bibi stonewalled him on it numerous times essentially stating that he rejects the Palestinian position of putting settlement growth ending as a pre-condition to peace talks: “The issue of the settlements has to be resolved. It should be resolved at the end of negotiations, not before the negotiations.” When pressed further, Bibi uses the old ‘natural growth’ defence and also mentions that a settlement freeze was not discussed during the NY Summit, contrary to previous reports. Gibson also asked Bibi about Iran but, isappointingly did not bring up the Goldstone Report.

On topic of the Goldstone Report, Israel has now urged the EU to reject it:

Foreign Ministry Director-General Yossi Gal on Tuesday convened 26 European Union ambassadors in Jerusalem for a diplomatic briefing.

The Foreign Ministry director-general also called on EU countries to clearly express their reservations over the report in any possible way. The report, he said, is not legal but rather “a one-dimensional, political propaganda poster biased against Israel.”

Here is the obligatory hand-shake photo, I enjoy how paternalistic Obama looks in this one.

Papa Obama looks on as yet another Palestinian-Israeli hand-shake is photographed. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque.

Papa Obama looks on as yet another Palestinian-Israeli hand-shake is photographed. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque.

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.”