Obama’s Visit to Israel and the Peace Process 14.03.13
In Jonathan Spyer’s lunch discussion on Monday, he took one of the two dominant positions towards the peace process that I discussed previously. He essentially dismissed efforts at reviving the peace process at the present time as a dead end useless exercise, stressing that the Palestinian side is deeply divided between a rejectionist Islamist Hamas and a Fatah-led Palestinian Authoirity that is too frightened to make any move that will further undermine its precarious perch in the West Bank. That fear was exemplified when Mahmoud Abbas appeared on Israel’s Channel 2 and reiterated his support for the two-state solution with Palestine having the 1967 borders (presumably with adjustments for land swaps) and with East Jerusalem as its capital. When asked about Safed from which his family fled in 1948, he said, "I want to see Safed, It’s my right to see it, but not to live there." Of course, that remark met a fury of reproaches because it seemed to signal a Palestinian retreat from the "right of return". Noticeably, Abbas backed away from that implication and insisted that it was just a statement about his personal situation.
Ignoring for the moment the problem of the Holy Basin in Jerusalem, does not the above story alone seem to indicate that Jonathan Spyer is correct in his pessimism about the utility of any discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process? On the other hand, Ben Birnbaum wrote a piece in the current New Republic entitled "The End of the Two-State Solution" (11 March 2013) suggesting once again that time is running out and that it is imperative that the log jam on Israeli-Palestine peace needs to be broken during Obama’s second term of office. As Birnbaum correctly argued, the two sides in the last quarter of a century have come a long way towards a deal. The PLO which once rejected Israel’s right to exist has come to full acceptance of Israel. Most traditional right wing Israelis by and large have given up the plans to annex the West Bank and have accepted the need for a two state solution. However, Likud hardliners and the far right Naftali Bennet’s Jewish Home Party, which won 10% of the seats in the Knesset, hold an "unswerving conviction that the Palestinian Arabs of Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem might as well relinquish their hopes for a sovereign state." (David Remick, "The Party Faithful: The settlers move to annex the West Bank – and Israeli politics," The New Yorker, 21 January 2013)
If you look at the rejectionists, there is certainly no chance for a deal. But as Birnbaum points out, a large majority of Israelis and a majority of Palestinians both support a two-state solution. In fact, two-thirds of Israelis (and a majority of Likudniks) support the creation of a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem. While on the political front there has been a drift to the right, on the peace front the drift has been distinctively to the left. Further, there are precedents for progress even if one accepts that no formal deal is possible at this time. Sharon showed progress with the withdrawal from Gaza, though many jump on that as proof that unilateral initiatives are counter-productive. However, Sharon envisioned further moves on the West Bank which would also avoid the mistakes re security with respect to the withdrawal from Gaza. Hence, the stress on security which Obama has repeatedly echoed!
For Birnbaum, a narrow window of opportunity is now available when the desire for peace in Israel can be mobilized to support a far-reaching deal with the Palestinians while Abbas is still in office. As Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, told Birnbaum, the current situation is not only unsustainable, but unlikely ever to be replicated: “This is your dream leadership of Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad. This is a dream team! Do you think Palestinians will agree to another leadership like this in the next six hundred years?” However, the sticky point is still the settlement of Ariel which is thrust right into the northern centre of and bisecting the West Bank; it has 20,000 settlers and a university with an additional 13,000 students.
Then there are the Jerusalem neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem as well, specifically Hamaotos. On October 11, Plan no. 14295 for Hamatos was deposited for public review for the construction of 2,610 housing units east of Beit Safafa that will complete the isolation between Bethlehem and East Jerusalem, and cut Beit Safafa and Shurafat off from East Jerusalem. Given that younger Israelis are more hard line than their elders, both because of a demographic and ideological shift, a future in which Israel will be more accommodating cannot be envisioned. On the other side, at the present time, never mind the future, Hamas has an effective veto on any deal. As Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a 2009 address to J Street, “No peace will be possible nor sustainable as long as the Palestinians remain a house divided.” So if this is the last chance, the indicators are that it is a chance with virtually little likelihood of success. Spyer seems to be vindicated in his pessimism.
On the other hand, the other alternatives are even worse and harder to imagine – unilaterally creating a Palestinian state on the other side of the fence/barrier but without the security protection built into an agreement. Annexing the Israeli populated West Bank and turning the balance into autonomous bantustans would incur world-wide wrath against Israel. Other solutions – a unified state with or without Palestinian voting rights – are even more impossible to contemplate. Alternatively, Israel will come face-to-face with militant Islam for not just decades but for generations. And the Israeli nation facing militant Islam will be a largely religious and determined Jewish dominated Israel.
So it is no wonder that Rashid Khalidi asks rhetorically, "Is Any Hope Left for Mideast Peace?" The peace process made possible the expansion of the settlers from 200,000 to over 400,000 since Madrid in 1991. Obama, for Khalidi, has only one real choice if he wants to be effective – oppose the settlements and the occupation with deeds and not just words. Otherwise, back off!
Tzipi Livni is scheduled to be the new Justice Minister and will be charged with negotiations with the Palestinians. Livni regards the Obama visit as a new opportunity "to create a dialogue on a matter of principles". But Palestinians are tired of road maps, framework agreements and principles which simply allow Israel to create more facts on the ground and more barriers to a solution.
As I write, the Annual Herziliya Conference is winding up. Tzipi Livni addressed the conference but did not say anything unexpected. Rob Danin, Mike Herzog, Shlomo Avineri, Yoaz Hendel, Nati Sharoni and Danny Dayan appeared on a panel to discuss, what else, the viability of a two-state solution. And the by now very familiar themes were struck on direct talks and American re-engagement, on incremental and possibly unilateral steps and on a final agreement. Shlomo Avineri may have echoed Spyer`s pessimism about the prospects of a final status deal, but he was very positive about the advantage of pragmatic and incremental initiatives. Everyone agreed that the window was still open and no one would predict when it would close. The implication, however, was that date was not that far off.
As Ami Ayalon wrote in an op-ed in the LA Times on 8 March, the situation demands clear and unambiguous answers not more creative ambiguity. But Ayalon too offers only clear principles and generalities:
· Two states for the two peoples with mutual recognition;
· borders based on the 1967 lines with equitable swaps to enable the settlement blocks to remain under Israeli sovereignty;
· a demilitarized Palestine with international guarantees of its security;
· Palestinian refugees returning only to the Palestinian state or resettling in third countries with compensation; declaration of end of conflict by all sides;
· Jerusalem should remain an open city, capital of two states, with Palestinian sovereignty over Arab neighbourhoods, Israeli sovereignty over Jewish neighbourhoods and a special shared regime for the administration and guardianship of the holy sites.
The last is both a security and diplomatic nightmare, but if the other problems are taken care of, living with a nightmarish peace may be the better option to living in blissful denial until the next intifada. Israelis have a real choice – a real peace agreement or facing an abyss. To push that choice, "Obama should adopt a new approach: constructive and coordinated unilateralism." Ayalon does not ask Obama to impose a solution but to act as an Anansi and present American demands in their own interests that will lure the two sides into entering into an agreement with each other.
Obama, as we all know, is coming to Israel to discuss three issues: Iran, Syria and an agreement with the Palestinians. We know what he will say about Iran – he is determined that Iran not acquire nuclear weapons but is also insistent on giving Iran more room to back down diplomatically. As Vice-President Joe Biden told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee last week, "The president of the United States cannot and does not bluff." On Syria, American special forces are already secretly active in training the Syrian rebels. Syria will be a matter of coordinating Israeli and American policy to make sure the Iranian-Syrian axis is totally severed. Most commentators are guessing about what he will do about the prospects of Israeli-Palestinian peace.
What will he actually be doing and will that provide any clues? Herb Kleinon suggested yesterday that the itinerary does supply some clues since every site visited will have been weighed for its symbolic value. Obama has repeatedly stressed that Israel’s security must be guaranteed. His first stop at the airport itself will be visiting an Iron Dome anti-missile battery – a product of a joint Israeli-US venture and signifying the ironclad partnership of the US and Israel.
After being formally received by President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem, Obama will then settle into his five and a half hour talk with Netanyahu next Wednesday evening. Next Thursday, Obama will visit the Israeli Museum, in particular the Museum’s Shrine of the Book housing the Dead Sea Scrolls and the in depth literary evidence of the Jews’ ancient connection to the Land of Israel, thereby also avoiding any controversial visit to the Wailing Wall while sending the same message. He will also visit a special exhibit of Israeli technology and innovation thereby highlighting Israel as the start-up nation. Israel will get the best advertising for its efforts at self-branding totally as a freebie. Then Obama will visit Abbas in Ramallah for an equal five and a half hours. Obama will then address students in the Jerusalem International Center; it is possible that in this direct talk to the youth of the nation he will drop some clues as to what he said to both Netanyahu and Abbas. That will be followed by a state dinner at which Obama will have a chance to fill Netanyahu in on his talk with Abbas. Finally, on Friday, Obama will lay wreaths at the graves of Theodor Herzl and Yitzhak Rabin, the latter as a bow both to the peace process and a critique of militant extremism. Then a return to Palestine, but this time Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity to now assert the deep Christian connection with the Holy Land but in an area slated to be part of the Palestinian state.
Will Obama condition U.S. military and diplomatic support and guarantees of Israeli security in return for Israeli commitments to freeze ongoing expansion of settlements particularly in areas where an independent contiguous Palestinian state will be compromised? Will Obama make continuing financial support for the Palestinian Authority conditional upon the PA returning to negotiations without Hamas? Will those conditions also require in return very specific compromises from both leaders? Will continuing the life-support system for peace be made conditional on the two parties agreeing to a timetable to arrive at a solution?
In sum, the conditions are not propitious for a two state solution but they are unlikely to become more propitious. Obama has downplayed any efforts to provide a higher profile for the process, but dampening expectations under the circumstances is par for the course. I am betting that Obama has opted for a high risk but very carefully choreographed small step implemental process rather than allow the two=state solution to expire on his watch.
[Tags Obama, Palestine-Israel peace, visit, Jerusalem, settlements,