Obama – enough already

March 20, 2014
Richard Kuper

1) Chemi Shalev in Haaretz, 2) Mark Landler in the NY Times, 3) Samira Shackle in MEMO examine if there any routes to talks between the blocks.

Presidents Abbas and Obama stuck in the Oval Office, March 17, 2014. Photo by APA images

Obama’s objective: Avert Israeli-Palestinian meltdown in midst of crisis in Ukraine

Obama may have once asked for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, but now he is probably praying for them to simply leave him in peace.

By Chemi Shalev
March 18, 2014

President Barack Obama has already shown that he picked up a smattering of Jewish sayings during his Chicago days, so he may possibly remember the term loch in kop, as in “I need this like a hole in the head.” That thought, in one language or another, must have gone through Obama’s mind as he sat down with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House on Monday in the midst of a deteriorating international crisis with Russia and Vladimir Putin.

And you, Obama may have thought as he glanced at Secretary of State John Kerry, the instigator of what increasingly seems like yet another quixotic push for peace – you are the one who drilled that hole in the first place.

But even if the achievement of a “framework” for Israeli-Palestinian talks has been transformed virtually overnight from a lofty goal to a nagging nuisance, failure is not an option for Obama. Not now, when another setback may brand him, to borrow another Yinglish term, as a serial schlemiel; not now, when his approval ratings are dipping dangerously below 40%; not now, when the world is skeptical anyway about his ability to deal with the mess in Crimea or with a tough guy like Putin.

Obama’s main objective with Abbas on Monday, therefore, was to kick the proverbial can up the road, and to postpone what some are describing as the inevitable breakdown of Kerry’s efforts, for as long as possible. To achieve this, Obama and the administration are now pursuing a three-staged strategy of admittedly diminishing returns: first, to exert strong and possibly brutal pressure on Abbas to agree to some form of recognition of Israel as a Jewish state in the proposed “framework” for negotiations, even if the Palestinians disassociate themselves from it in public; second, to begin to explore the possibility of a much simpler agreement to extend the talks beyond their current April 29 deadline in exchange for some Israeli concession, preferably on settlements; and third, failing that, to make sure at the very least that Israeli carries out the scheduled March 29 prisoner release so that the process doesn’t implode at the height of the Crimean crisis.

Because no one really expects the sanctions announced by Obama at the Press Room at the White House – before he quickly ran off for his meeting with Abbas – to quell the rising tensions in eastern Ukraine. Whether the only thing weaker than the measures announced by Obama is “doing nothing,” as Senator John McCain suggested Monday, or whether they actually constitute a stinging and perhaps even insulting blow to Putin’s trusted inner circle, as others maintained, the Russian leader quickly clarified his reaction by recognizing and trumpeting Crimea’s newfound “independence,” despite Obama’s threats.

According to Russian-born Russia-watcher Julia Ioffe, it won’t end there. Writing in the New Republic on Monday, Ioffe noted that Putin is bound to preempt a Ukraine move to cut off Crimea’s supplies of gas, water and electricity by capturing the installations that supply them in southeastern Ukraine. Such a move — which, according to some reports, is already under way — would further escalate the already deteriorating situation, force Obama to escalate his sanctions and further inflame tensions throughout the European continent, just like the bad old days.

“You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext,” an incredulous Kerry said at the start of the crisis, though Putin seems bent on proving him wrong. Kerry’s sentiment is reminiscent of one expressed 70 years ago by Warren Austin, a U.S. senator from Vermont who was also U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who famously said – or at least is said to have said – “I hope Arabs and Jews will settle their differences in a truly Christian spirit.”

Maybe Obama shared that virtuous hope at the start of his presidency, but after meeting in recent weeks with both Netanyahu and Abbas, and after getting another concentrated dose of their boundless mutual suspicion and distrust, he may have finally shed his Christian wishes for mutual reconciliation. Instead of asking for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, Obama may now be praying that they simply leave him in peace.

Jewish State Declaration Is Unyielding Block to a Deal

By Mark Landler, NY Times
March 17, 2014

WASHINGTON — With time running out before an April 29 diplomatic deadline and no signs of progress in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, President Obama on Monday warned President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority that “we’re going to have to take some tough political decisions and risks if we’re able to move it forward.”

But Mr. Abbas, speaking before a meeting in the Oval Office, made clear that he was no closer to uttering the words that are a litmus test for the Israelis: that he recognizes Israel as a Jewish state.

“Since 1988, we have recognized international legitimacy resolutions” on Israel, Mr. Abbas said as Mr. Obama looked on, a hand on his chin. “And in 1993, we recognized the State of Israel.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted that the Palestinians go further and recognize Israel as a nation-state for the Jewish people in order to get a peace deal. Mr. Abbas has flatly refused, and his comments on Monday suggested he had gone as far as he would.

That leaves Mr. Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, in a tight spot just six weeks before the deadline that Mr. Kerry initially set for a peace treaty. Mr. Kerry has since scaled back expectations, saying that April 29 was a deadline for a framework accord that would guide the final negotiations. But even the fallback goal looks elusive.

The Israelis and Palestinians continue to disagree over several other core issues. Mr. Abbas reiterated the Palestinian demand that East Jerusalem be the capital of a Palestinian state. With so much in dispute, analysts said, the focus on both sides has shifted from bridging gaps to avoiding blame should the talks fail.

Mr. Obama, who met with Mr. Netanyahu two weeks ago, made no direct reference to the deadline. But he praised Mr. Abbas and reiterated his version of a peace agreement that the Palestinians could embrace: a Palestinian state, based on borders before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, adjusted to account for Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

That, combined with the challenging tone that Mr. Obama took toward Israel in a recent interview with the Bloomberg View columnist Jeffrey Goldberg, has led to speculation that the White House is trying to right the balance after a State Department-led effort that dwelt on issues that are of greater concern to Israel, like security.

“In this Middle Eastern version of Kremlinology, the tone has shifted,” said Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former ambassador to Israel and Egypt. “Some of this may be the way the political wind is blowing. Some of it may reflect that they’ve reached a conclusion they need to rebalance.”

Even with the change in tone, however, analysts questioned whether Mr. Obama would take concrete steps that would antagonize Israel, especially with the West about to embark on another round of nuclear negotiations with Iran and amid deepening tensions over Ukraine.

“Now that he’s locked into this awful conflict with Putin, I find it anomalous that he would open another front with Netanyahu,” said Aaron David Miller, a former peace negotiator and vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting on Monday, the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said the Palestinians saw no point in negotiating beyond the April deadline, and that now was a time for decisions.

There is another, more imminent, date that could jeopardize the process. Israel promised in July that it would free 104 Palestinian prisoners in four batches, and the last release date is March 29. Some Israeli officials warned that Mr. Netanyahu would not carry out the release unless the talks were extended. Going ahead with the release would “give a very solid impression about the seriousness of these efforts to achieve peace,” Mr. Abbas said.

The White House did not expect Mr. Abbas to reverse his position on recognizing Israel as a Jewish state in the Monday meetings, said a senior administration official. But he said that Mr. Obama was looking for some signs of flexibility from Mr. Abbas.

“When you get down to the final stages, you get to the core issues of identity,” the official said on the condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the talks. The framework would set general terms on issues like Israeli security and the borders of a Palestinian state, which the two sides would use to come to a comprehensive agreement. Some analysts said the United States was drafting alternative documents — one robust and detailed, the other less so — as it tried to find a recipe acceptable to both sides.

On a logistical level, however, with Mr. Kerry locked in feverish diplomacy with Russia over Ukraine, it is not clear how much time he will be able to devote to Middle East horse-trading between now and the end of April.

The frustration of months of fruitless talks has begun to show in Mr. Kerry. Testifying before the House last week, he noted that the United Nations had recognized Israel as a Jewish state, as did Yasir Arafat, the former leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

“I think it’s a mistake for some people to be raising it again and again as the critical decider of their attitude toward the possibility of a state and peace,” Mr. Kerry said.

Palestinians rallied in Gaza and the West Bank this week “to support the Palestinian leadership in its stance that abides by our national principles,” Iyad Safi, an activist with the Popular Campaign to Maintain Principles, which organised the rally in Gaza, told Al Jazeera. Photo by EPA

Abbas faces harsh options

By Samira Shackle, MEMO
March 18, 2014

This week, the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Mahmoud Abbas, went to Washington to meet with the US president, Barack Obama. He did so under heavy pressure, as US-brokered peace talks with Israelis reach their expiration date of April, with no deal in sight.

As Abbas landed in America, thousands of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank took to the streets to show support for their president. The organisers said that they were protesting against American and Israeli pressure on Abbas to extend peace talks with Israel, which have been ongoing for nine months. One activist told Al-Jazeera that the rallies were organized to “support the Palestinian leadership in its stance that abides by our national principles”.

While the protests were supportive, with placards bearing Abbas’s image, they demonstrate the double pressure on the Palestinian leader. If he signs up to a deal, or even agrees to extend negotiations, his people could see it as a capitulation. If he refuses altogether and walks away, he faces the ire of the international community, and the risk of being blamed for ending the peace process.

Negotiations are currently focused on agreeing a framework that would extend talks beyond the April deadline. There are three options open to Abbas: sign up to a framework for peace talks, refuse, or extend negotiations. All are fairly unpalatable.

First things first: what would the proposed framework look like? A written proposal has not been presented, but it is expected to endorse the Palestinian position that the borders of a future Palestinian state should be based on those agreed in 1967 (before Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza, and east Jerusalem) – although land swaps would most likely allow Israel to keep some settlements. It would allow for a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem, but with no specific mention of where. Israel would be permitted to retain a military presence on the Palestinian state’s border with Jordan for some years.

Signing up to the deal would be politically unviable for Abbas, who has said there is “no way” he can accept some of the provisions. One of the demands made by the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is that Abbas recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Abbas has said that this is impossible because it would jeopardise the right of return of millions of Palestinian refugees, and could put the rights of Israel’s Arab minority at risk. “I am 79 years old and am not ready to end my life with treason,” he said last week. This comment – supported by the public in Palestine – also shows that Abbas is thinking of his legacy. His political movement, Fatah, has urged him to say no to some or all of the anticipated provisions in the framework, as has the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Arab League foreign ministers.

Yet Abbas is stuck between a rock and a hard place, as he does not want to say no either for the time being. Abbas and Netanyahu are both keen to avoid the blame for derailing US peace efforts. A key part of Abbas’s political strategy has been to promote and retain close ties with Washington, and appearing wilfully intransigent could undermine that work.

The final option – extending negotiations – carries its own set of risks. This week, Abbas’s exiled rival, Mohammed Dahlan, who is seen as a potential successor to the Palestinian leadership, gave a long interview to Egyptian TV in which he suggested that Abbas would not stay true to his barnstorming rhetoric: “We all know you are going there [to Washington] only to extend the negotiations.” This paints an extension as a capitulation, a view shared by some of the protesters in Palestine this week. Even agreeing to the talks in the first place was something of a concession from Abbas, who has previously refused to go to the negotiating table while Israel continued to expand settlements. Last year, the number of new settlement buildings more than doubled from the previous year. The fear among the Palestinian political establishment is that continued talks give Israel a smokescreen to hide behind, avoiding international criticism while ramping up settlement building.

It is perhaps for this reason that Abbas is said to favour an extension only if he gets a concession in return: a partial freeze on settlement building, or a pledge by Israel to release more Palestinian political prisoners. The last group of 104 political prisoners released by Israel after a previous agreement will be freed this month.

Of three bad options, the last seems like the least damaging for Abbas. Whether he will receive the concessions required to make an extension acceptable among his people remains to be seen in the coming days and weeks.

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