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Is anyone serious about the Middle East peace process?

03/10/2010

We have to try to be optimistic about the indirect Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, because they are better than nothing at all. But we should not fool ourselves about the probable outcome. Bitterlemons, titled its issue about the peace talks, "Is Netanyahu serious about the peace process?" But as co-editor Yossi Alpher pointed out, that it is the wrong question.

Nobody is serious about peace, and nobody is prepared, evidently, to face the issues that require facing in order to make peace. Some of the problems are insolvable without unpopular moves or drastic measures that are politically perilous Short-term and selfish political considerations as well as genuine concerns, triumph over long term vision. Everyone is willing to lecture other parties about "taking risks for peace," but nobody is really willing to do it themselves. Some of the problems may in fact not be solvable at all in a reasonable way.

There are several major issues, some of them so distasteful that they are not discussed.

Iran- It is inconceivable that with or without nuclear weapons, Iran will allow the success of a U.S.-mediated peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, or Israel and the Arab countries. A peace agreement would be a major triumph for the U.S. and a major defeat for Iran. It would leave Iran without an issue that can be used to assert Muslim unity against the United States and Israel, and without an issue that provides a cover for Hezbollah control of the Lebanese government. It would leave Iran isolated in the Middle East. Any peace agreement, no matter how earnest the intentions of Palestinian Authority leaders, would be sabotaged by the Iranian/Syrian puppet terror organizations, Hamas, Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. We can be sure that any Palestinian state that comes into being, if it ever happens, would be the target of tireless efforts by the Teheran and Damascus regimes to turn it into a base for terror attacks on Israel.

Syria - For much the same reasons as Iran, Syria could not countenance an Israeli - Palestinian agreement. Moreover, Syria would not allow an Israeli-Palestinian agreement to succeed unless it too could get a "peace" agreement that would have to encompass return of the Golan heights and a free hand in Lebanon. The United States is not about to acquiesce officially in giving a free hand to Syria in Lebanon, It has already done so unofficially in order to secure some quiet in Iraq. It is questionable whether it got anything.

Iran and Russia, Syria's patrons, are not about to allow Syria to make peace with Israel and hand the U.S. another diplomatic triumph. Israel might conceivably give up the Golan Heights. But Israel is not going to agree to give Syria the Sea of Galilee, which is part of its conditions, or the small area that it conquered and occupied illegally in the 1948 Israel war of Independence. Hafez Assad set those conditions and those borders precisely because he calculated that it would make peace impossible, and there are no signs that Bashar Assad, his successor, is about to change his mind. So Syria, like Iran, has a vital interest in sabotaging any peace negotiations. Syria has direct control over Hamas leadership, in the form of Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, who, along with Iraq terrorists and the Hezbollah, is harbored and sheltered and nurtured in Syria.

Hamas - Hamas's raison d'etre is destruction of Israel. That is the business they are in. It is vain to hope that appeasing them will change their founding goals. Even they wanted to do so, Hamas leaders would find themselves challenged by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Al Qaeda radicals if they decided to make peace with Israel. They are already having difficulties with extremist groups. Hamas's tactical goal is to take over the political leadership of the Palestinians, much as Hezbollah has taken over Lebanon. If they are appeased, as some propose, they will not become a force for peace, but a permanent and totally unmanageable impediment to peace. There cannot be peace as long as the Hamas government exists in Gaza. They will not allow it, and their very existence forces the Palestinian Authority to toughen its positions vis-a-vis Israel.

The Palestinian Authority - The current situation of no war and no peace allows the Palestinian Authority many advantages. On the one hand, its rival Hamas is pressured by the Israeli, US and European partial embargo, that are supposed to remain in force as long as the Hamas will not agree to recognize Israel and join in the peace process. At the same time, the Palestinian Authority is the recipient of generous foreign aid from the United States and Europe, and enjoys wide support. It is viewed as moderate, despite its glorification of terrorists and despite its education programs that cite Haifa as the "largest port in Palestine." As long as it is less bad than the Hamas, it will continue to enjoy such support. But the Palestinian Authority can't afford to be too good.. We mustn't forget that President Mahmoud Abbas has outstayed his term and presidential elections are long overdue. Formally, the Palestinian Authority government is not much more legitimate than the Hamas government in Gaza, which took power by a coup. Palestinian Authority leadership cannot be seen as being too conciliatory, because it is in competition with the Hamas to show who can do the most to advance the Palestinian cause. Major concessions to Israel, such as giving up right of return of Palestinian refugees, recognizing Israel as the state of the Jewish people or allowing any Israeli sovereignty in East Jerusalem, would probably end the perceived legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority.

Without those concessions, which are basically U.S. policy of a decade ago, as outlined in the Clinton Bridging Proposals, there cannot be peace. That is not just because of Israeli "inflexibility," but because a peace that doesn't include those conditions would be more like unconditional surrender for Israel than peace. The Palestinian Authority knows this, and it has probably stuck its demands for right of return, its refusal to recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people and its refusal to grant any Israeli sovereignty in East Jerusalem, precisely because those conditions prevent peace. Peace would very possibly bring down the Palestinian Authority government. It would certainly create a lot of problems for the new Palestinian state with Iran and Syria, and internally with the Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. It would finally put pressure on the Fatah to provide real administrative reform. A great many people benefit from corruption, and would be unwilling to part with the old order. The "clincher" for the Palestinians, is that many are convinced that in 18 months or less they will be able to declare a state unilaterally. This will be a deluxe version of the Palestinian state, unhampered by inconvenient agreements with the Zionist entity. It will claim, at least, all of the land conquered by Israel in the Six Day War as well as demanding right of return for millions of Palestinian refugees. It will be backed by the Arab states, and Palestinians have good reason to believe it will be backed by the European Union. If so, why should they spend any effort negotiating away what they see as their rights? As long as Palestinians believe they can have all of their demands without negotiating, why should they negotiate seriously?

Remember too, that the entire institution of the Palestinian Authority is supposed to be temporary. It is supposed to exist only as an interim government that negotiates a peace agreement with Israel. Peace will therefore bring about changes in the Palestinian political structure, and is necessarily risky for those in power.

Israel - Israel would have to give up a great many settlements in any peace agreement, if not all of the settlement project. Even if "only" 80,000 or 100,000 people must be resettled, that task will still be problematic. The 8,000 or so people who were evacuated in the disengagement are still largely unsettled. "United Jerusalem" - which refers to the enlarged Jerusalem municipal area that Israel created after the Six Day War, has been a slogan of right-wing parties since the Likud came to power. Yossi Alpher tries to be hypothetically optimistic about the possibility of Israeli concessions in Jerusalem, but realistically, it is hard to see how Benjamin Netanyahu could make such concessions. Jerusalem is a core issue in Israeli politics, as well as between Israelis and Palestinians. The issue of Jerusalem has been a Herut-Likud centerpiece since 1948. Menachem Begin blamed Labor Party Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion for allowing the division of Jerusalem in 1948. In 1996, Netanyahu campaigned with the slogan "Peres will divide Jerusalem." Even if Netanyahu were able to find political support for handing over the outlying areas of Jerusalem, including Har Choma and Gilo, and even if, by some stretch of the imagination, he could get his own Likud party and his right wing partners to agree to give up Arab sections of Jerusalem like Sheikh Jarrah, it is hard to imagine that any Israeli government could get a majority for giving up sovereignty of the Temple Mount. It is equally unimaginable that any Palestinian government or the Arab states would agree that the Haram as Sharif (the Arabic name for the Temple Mount) would remain under Israeli sovereignty. Both sides are "right," which makes the problem totally symmetric and therefore incapable of resolution in any satisfactory way. Giving up the Israeli presence in Hebron, another deal breaker, would be equally problematic.

Just as the raison d'etre of the Hamas is destruction of Israel, the raison d'etre of the settler movement, especially the "hill top youth" and the knit kippah NRP voters, is settlements. They won't give up the settlements without a fight. Unlike the disengagement, this time concessions affect the heartland of settler Zionism, the holy places in the West Bank and Jerusalem. And now they have the miserable example of the results of Gaza disengagement to wield as an effective weapon against peace.

This once marginal section of the population has become a major political force. Like the Hamas, they do not have numerical strength perhaps, but they make up for it in the stubbornness and enthusiasm with which they support their cause. And like the Hamas, the Israeli right raise issues that resonate even among more moderate and pragmatic sections of the population. The chief one is security. We of the Israeli peace camp have much to answer for, and would do well to review our actions and recommendations over the last 15 years, before enthusiastically recommending another "peace" move.

From the Israeli point of view, the "peace process" has been something between a very sick joke and a nightmare. We were told, and we told other Israelis, that the peace process is reversible, and that if there are problems, Israel is strong and can remove the Palestinian Authority. It turned out to be untrue. Palestinian Arabs yelled "itbach al yahud" (Slaughter the Jews) in the tunnel riots, just as they had done in 1929, but Israel, then under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu, was powerless to stop them. In the May 15, 2000 riots, Palestinian Authority "police" fired on IDF soldiers with weapons Israel had supplied to them, but even Netanyahu could not stop the "peace" process. In the administration of supposedly tough Ariel Sharon, Palestinian suicide bombers exploded in Israeli supermarkets and cafes and discotheques, funded by the Palestinian Authority. Still, there was no way to reverse the "peace" process.

The Oslo "peace" process has cost the lives of well over a thousand Israelis. It has installed a government in the West Bank that works tirelessly to delegitimize the existence of Israel through boycott movements, Israel Apartheid Week in universities, bogus war crimes allegations and even through absurd and racist accusations that the IDF kills Palestinians in order to serve traffic in illegal organ transplants. The Palestinian Authority, through its NGO connections and the UN, with the backing of the Arab states and certain European governments, has used its position as a quasi-state to raise an international lynch mob against Israel. It is not a lynch mob protesting the occupation, but rather a mob that protests the legitimacy of the Jewish state, and that chants in synchrony in the United States, in Britain and in Holland, "Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the Gas."

But as bad as the Palestinian Authority is and was, the Hamas takeover in Gaza proved, from the Israeli point of view, that it could be worse. The disengagement that we all supported made matters much worse. We can't ignore the security dimension just because the people who raise the specter of Katyusha rockets in Kfar Saba hold distasteful political views. The threat is quite realistic. "Peace" and "concessions" are now dirty words for most Israeli Jews, even as they are for most Palestinian Arabs.

Benjamin Netanyahu can't ignore the security risk politically either. Nobody wants to be responsible for a failed agreement that allows an extremist state in the West Bank and results in a major security threat to central Israel and Jerusalem. It is a non-starter both in the long term political perspective and from the selfish political point of view. The Al-Aqsa Intifadah brought down Ehud Barak. A failed peace agreement would spell the end of any Israeli government that agreed to it.

The announcement by Israel's right-wing Interior Minister Eli Yishai of the plan to build over 1,600 housing units in East Jerusalem, timed to coincide with the visit of Vice President Biden and the start of indirect peace talks was, of course, not an accident. It was designed to embarrass the U.S., torpedo the talks and embarrass the Netanyahu government. As Yishai himself admits, the units have been planned for several years. If so, why did they have to be announced just now? Yishai was subsequently force to apologize, but the damage has been done. The toothpaste will not go back into the tube.

Yishai's announcement was a clear illustration of putting short term political considerations before national interests. It embarrassed the Israeli government and dod absolutely nothing to advance the Israeli cause in any way. It ensured, as Yishai must have known it would, that both the U.S. and the Palestinians must make a major issue of those 1,600 apartments. It does however, allow the Shas party to portray itself as a better guardian of Israeli interests than the Likud. That was the purpose. But this sort of in-your-face circus showmanship and petty political in-fighting is nothing compared to what the extreme Israeli right will do if there is substantive progress in the peace talks. Netanyahu is certainly well aware of this.

The Palestinian refugees- The Palestinian refugees, especially those living outside the Palestinian territories, are a political and military force on their own account, which has been ignored from the start of the Oslo process. The Palestinian Authority is not elected by them and does not represent them. Most of these "refugees" were not born in Palestine, and most of their parents were not born in Palestine either. For them, Palestine and "return" are unrealized abstract ideas, something like "restoration of the Jews" was for the Jewish people prior to the creation of Israel.

In all Arab countries other than Jordan, refugees are not allowed citizenship. They were deliberately maneuvered by the Arab countries to serve as pawns in the Israeli-Arab conflict. In Lebanon, they are not even allowed to work. They were also kicked out of Kuwait and later Iraq, because of their support for Saddam Hussein.

The impoverished refugees of the UNRWA camps, both within and outside the Palestinian territories, have been told by NGOs like the Norwegian sponsored BADIL as well as by Palestinian UNRWA personnel and the PLO and others, that peace means return to Palestine. In the past, the Palestinian Authority organized Nakba day demonstrations each year, featuring placards that read "Haifa." "Beisan," "Isdood," "Majdal" and Birsaba," all now cities and towns inside Israel - places that really exist only as memories. Their homes are gone. The little Arab towns are replaced by sprawling urban complexes. The society that existed before 1948 is gone, not only from Israel, but from the entire world. A modern country cannot exist on pastoral agriculture. They cannot return. They have been promised something that is impossible to fulfill. Those who have settled in the West form a powerful political lobby that supports the al-Awda movement, the ISM and the one-state hate groupies in places like the University of California at Irvine. The Palestinian refugees constitute a permanent lobby against peace and a permanent source of recruits for terrorist groups, motivated both by poverty and ideology. They will not easily accept that their families have been humiliated for over 60 years in order to get a few dollars in compensation. They will fight any peace settlement that does not include return to Israel and destruction of Israel as a Jewish state. It will take years to re-educate this population, to absorb them and integrate them into productive life anywhere, yet no start at all has been made in this direction.

Europe - Europe is playing its own game, which is to discredit the U.S. and give the Palestinians to understand that they will get better terms under European mediation. That was the reason for European support of the Palestinian plan to declare independence unilaterally, and also motivated the EU Parliament vote to support the Goldstone report.

U.S. Posture in the Middle East - If the US is to cajole the parties into a peace agreement, it must demonstrate that it is a serious, respected and savvy world power. In the Middle East, U.S. policies have failed ignobly and the U.S. is in retreat everywhere. In Lebanon, it has allowed Syria and its puppet Hezbollah to take control of the government. All U.S. allies in the Middle East must have learned important lessons from that debacle. Iraq is probably a disaster waiting to happen after U.S. withdrawal. As it is, bodies were piling up in the period before the elections.

In Afghanistan, the heart of the conflict is, according to U.S. policy, elimination of Al-Qaeda. Without their ties to Al-Qaeda, the Taleban would not be a real threat to the U.S. Taleban ties to Al-Qaeda are supposedly what prevents making a deal with the Taleban. But the U.S. now has 62,000 troops in Afghanistan, supposedly battling Al-Qaeda. You would think Al-Qaeda is a formidable force. In reality there are an estimated 100 Al-Qaeda fighters left in Afghanistan, but the 62,000 U.S. troops plus additional NATO troops are no match for them. The Al-Qaeda must have some really formidable weapons! Are camels and Katyushas and Kalatchnikov rifles that much more effective than stealth aircraft, smart bombs and Predator UAVs?

U.S. policy failures regarding Iran are perhaps the greatest problem - a problem that is still emerging. Israel and the Arab countries will only follow the lead of the United States if the U.S. can deliver a solution to the Iranian problem. In this case, the policy of the Middle Eastern countries is based on the most realistic geopolitical and long term calculations. U.S. policy seems to be based on nothing except wishful thinking and the desire to avoid another distasteful confrontation for as long as possible.

If Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons, there would be much greater problems than Israeli-Palestinian peace. Iran would control the flow of oil to the West because it would control all the governments of the Gulf states. The U.S. and Europe would be reduced to second rate economic and geopolitical powers. No wonder China and Russia are not anxious to vote for sanctions against Iran! Supposedly, the Netanyahu government has been relatively cooperative about the peace process in return for U.S. action on Iran. If that is true, then Netanyahu made a bad bargain. The United States demonstrated time and again, under both the Bush and Obama administrations, that it is unwilling or unable to do anything about the Iranian nuclear program. Two supposed deadlines for Iranian acceptance of US and European proposals passed - in October and in January. The US was supposed to be ready to take decisive action after the passage of these deadlines, but it did nothing at all. It has not even curbed violations of its own embargo on exports to Iran by U.S. firms! Preventing Iranian hegemony is a primary interest of the United States, not just an interest of all of its Middle East allies, yet its policy thus far has been worse than doing nothing. Had it kept silent and remained inactive entirely, the U.S. would only have been suspected of being weak. Having blustered about stopping the Iranian nuclear program and failed to do so, it confirmed the suspicions. It demonstrated that the U.S. is diplomatically incompetent and unable to project its power: a crippled giant. It showed that the U.S. starts diplomatic initiatives but doesn't have the will and the resourcefulness to carry through with them. The U.S. hads one "ace in the hole:" to market the "uncontrollability" and "unpredictability" of Israel as a deterrent. Instead, the U.S. ensured that it was widely leaked that its officials had come to Israel to dissuade it from taking military action, pulling the teeth out of the Israeli paper tiger.

The latest demonstration of U.S. diplomatic skills was evident its apology to Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Gaddafi is perceived as an eccentric in the Arab world and is not particularly popular. He represents nobody. He called for a "Jihad against Switzerland," ostensibly over the Swiss law against minarets, but actually because of a longer term dispute. State Department spokesperson P.J. Crowley observed that ""lots of words, not necessarily a lot of sense." Under threat of an oil boycott, he was humiliatingly forced to apologize for these fairly harmless remarks. Gaddafi of course, did not apologize for calling for a Jihad against Switzerland.

The United States has promised to pressure whatever side it sees as the obstacle to progress in the talks. This assumes that all the issues, including the Temple Mount problem, have a reasonable solution that could be acceptable to all sides. It also assumes that the U.S. can pressure anyone. Israelis have generally interpreted the leaked promise as a threat to pressure Israel. Almost all of the public U.S. pressure until now under the Obama administration, has been on Israel, and it is assumed that this policy will not change in the future. On the other hand, with congressional elections coming in October, President Obama is not likely to pressure Israel too much. Realistically, even Obama can also understand that pressuring the Israeli government into an unpopular deal will bring about the replacement of that government with one that is even more obstinate, and pressuring the Palestinians will bring about exactly the same result, possibly by more violent means.

Of all the players, only the U.S. may be serious about peace, and the U.S. is clueless about how to get there.

Ami Isseroff

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Replies: 5 comments

All doom and gloom so what must we conclude? Do we ship our grandchildren to college abroad and tell them not to come back? Are we wasting our energy at Sheikh Jarrah and Bil'in? Israel is drifting towards an internal regime that is both theocratic and fascist and as such has no hope of long term survival. Your posting could have been written by Barbara Tuchman z"l and contains the same conclusion,namely, that the March of Folly is inexorable. I wonder if you have a clue of where all should be going. My first proposal would be a major upgrading of education in the Arab world and an attempt by Obama to pull together a coalition of nations that is capable of confronting reality. If the Democrats lose Congress in November, then that too will be unlikely. Of course, no one except Emanuel Todd anticipated the fall of the USSR, so something unexpected may yet happen. The rise of a New Left as we saw in Sheikh Jarrah last Saturday night is encouraging. Throwing up our hands in despair is not a real option.

Posted by Aharon Eviatar @ 03/11/2010 10:39 AM CST

A fair appraisal of the facts on the ground, but as Prof Eviator mentions above, such "doom and gloom". I prefer to remember Abba Eban's words, "man achieves wisdom when he has exhausted every other possibility".

Posted by Jeff Bracey @ 03/19/2010 01:50 PM CST

Some questions:
1. If Palestinian nationalism is legitimate,why wasn't a Palestinian State declared before 1967 when Israel was not in
control of the West Bank
2. why does the Palestinian Charter which specifically eschewed the West Bank
and stated that only pre 1967 Israel is the Palestinian State remain unamended?

Posted by walter @ 03/25/2010 02:34 PM CST

Pity about the situation, many Israelis, say nothing, head down working away.
A litle bit like Nero playing his lyre as Rome burnt.
Wake Up !!!!!! get rid of those religeous fanatics, those extreemists that will rob YOU ALL of a peacefull future. don`t stay silent like the 30`s and 40`s.

Posted by fredio @ 06/04/2010 05:43 PM CST

A few comments:

(Quote from the article)
"Supposedly, the Netanyahu government has been relatively cooperative about the peace process in return for U.S. action on Iran. If that is true, then Netanyahu made a bad bargain. The United States demonstrated time and again, under both the Bush and Obama administrations, that it is unwilling or unable to do anything about the Iranian nuclear program. Two supposed deadlines for Iranian acceptance of US and European proposals passed - in October and in January. The US was supposed to be ready to take decisive action after the passage of these deadlines, but it did nothing at all. It has not even curbed violations of its own embargo on exports to Iran by U.S. firms! Preventing Iranian hegemony is a primary interest of the United States, not just an interest of all of its Middle East allies, yet its policy thus far has been worse than doing nothing."

First, the Netanyahu government has NOT been relatively cooperative in regards to Road Map stipulations and or US interests in resolving the conflict. The US administration has effectively been "getting the finger" ever since Obama got elected. -So that premise is a lie.

Second, the United States has not accomplished anything (that is, anything satisfactory to Israel) in regards to Iranian nuclear development specifically because it intends to re-shape the dynamic of mid east regional power. For 40+ years Israel has been been the regional power, -backed up by US hegemeny. While its power has remained unchecked, Israel has generally done as it pleased in regards to the mid east conflict. For instance, Israel has repeatedly ignored international law and UN resolutions pertaining to its continued occupation of territory intended for creation of a Palestinian state. Israel has ignored repeated requests of the US administration to stop all settlement activity in occupied territory.

At this point, Obama may anticipate the development of potential Iranian nuclear capacity as a motivating factor in moving Israel toward resolution of the mid east conflict. If the USA acted to eliminate Iran's capacity to refine uranium, it is likely that Israeli cooperation with the US peace initiative would be reduced. In fact, I believe without the specter of a potential nuclear Iran, the USA would be getting 2 fingers from Israel in regards to the peace process instead of 1.

Lastly, preventing Iranian hegemony WAS a primary interest of the United States. That interest was part of a failed western geo-political policy that has been ineffective in realizing strategic goals for many decades. It's time to try something else. It's time to finally find out if an Iranian government with The Bomb is as crazy and fanatical as an Israeli Settler with a machine gun and IDF backing. The effect of power -and the intrinsic responsibility that goes along with it- can be quite sobering, at least when that power is checked AND balanced.

I suggest the only way to pre-empt this development is to rapidly resolve the mideast conflict in a manner that honors international law, previous agreements, Road Map stipulations, and UN resolutions.

God speed.

Posted by Kiev500 @ 06/08/2010 10:43 AM CST


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