Mark Landler, 7 December 2010
see also: Richard Silverstein, What’s That Giant Sucking Sound? Peace Talks Going Down the Toilet
and One Democracy, Talks expire but Two-State Process is still Undead
WASHINGTON — After three weeks of fruitless haggling with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Obama administration has given up its effort to persuade the Israeli government to freeze construction of Jewish settlements for 90 days, a senior administration official said Tuesday.
The decision leaves Middle East peace talks in flux, with the Palestinians refusing to resume direct negotiations absent a moratorium, and the United States struggling to find another formula to bring them back to the table. It is another setback in what has proved to be a star-crossed campaign by President Obama.
The administration decided to pull the plug, officials said, because it concluded that even if Mr. Netanyahu persuaded his cabinet to accept a freeze — which he had not yet been able to do — the 90-day negotiating period would not have produced the progress on core issues that the United States originally had sought.
“We made a strong effort, and everyone tried in good faith to resume direct negotiations in a way that would be meaningful and sustainable,” said a senior American official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the administration’s internal deliberations, which are continuing. “But the extension wasn’t actually going to do that.”
Administration officials did not offer a Plan B to revive the talks, and analysts said it was not clear that the administration had one, beyond a general commitment to keep talking to the Israelis and Palestinians about the major issues that divide them: borders, security and the status of Jerusalem, among others.
A preview of the administration’s next move could come in an address on Middle East policy that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is scheduled to deliver on Friday at the Brookings Institution. But the administration’s strategy appeared to be unsettled.
“Wisely, in my view, the administration is bending to reality,” said Robert Malley, a peace negotiator in the Clinton administration. “The most likely scenario is that this moratorium was going to buy them a short reprieve, and was then going to plunge them into the same crisis they were in before.”
Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians issued a response to the news. But administration officials said the United States made the decision after consultations between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Netanyahu. The two had hammered out the agreement on a 90-day freeze, which Mr. Netanyahu later said he could not sell to his cabinet without written security assurances from the Americans.
Those assurances, which included 20 F-35 stealth airplanes and an American pledge to veto anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations, were never delivered to the Israelis. While that package is now off the table, an official said, he reiterated that the United States would continue to protect Israel’s security and fight efforts to challenge its legitimacy in international organizations.
In the short run, analysts said the failure raised questions about Mr. Netanyahu’s capacity to negotiate a final deal.
“It revealed a degree of weakness in his coalition,” said Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former American ambassador to Israel. “This was such an attractive deal for him, but he still couldn’t get his cabinet to buy into it without attaching conditions to it that were unacceptable to Washington.”
But the Palestinians also shifted their position, insisting that a settlement freeze must include East Jerusalem as well as the West Bank. Israel’s initial 10-month moratorium included only the West Bank. The United States never asked Mr. Netanyahu to expand it to Jerusalem, and analysts said Mr. Netanyahu would never have been able to persuade his right-wing cabinet to go along with it.
There were also deeply divergent views about what the two sides would discuss during the 90 days, officials said. The Palestinians wanted the talks to focus tightly on the borders of a future Palestinian state. Mr. Netanyahu resisted that, saying the two sides must discuss the full gamut of issues rather than just borders.
Mr. Obama began direct negotiations with great hoopla in early September, but the talks ground to a halt within weeks over the issue of settlements. After meeting three times in that month, Mr. Netanyahu and the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, have not sat down since then.
Earlier on Tuesday, Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, suggested that the United States was halting its effort because it was preoccupied with the fallout from leaks of confidential diplomatic cables. Administration officials flatly denied that.
The paralysis in the peace process comes against the backdrop of a new challenge to Israel. The Israeli government expressed disappointment and annoyance over a declaration by Argentina that it had decided to “recognize Palestine as a free and independent state” based on the 1967 boundaries.
Argentina announced that it was following Brazil and Uruguay in recognizing a Palestinian state, saying that the move came in response to a request made by Mr. Abbas in Argentina last year.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, Yigal Palmor, dismissed Argentina’s declaration as “clearly meaningless,” in that it would not change anything on the ground. But he said it was nevertheless “regrettable” and “damaging.” Palestinian officials have said if peace negotiations fail, they will turn to the United Nations to seek recognition for a state, a move that would increase pressure on Israel.
For now, the administration will revert to brokering indirect talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. Next week, an official said, the chief Israeli negotiator, Yitzhak Molcho, and his Palestinian counterpart, Saeb Erekat, will travel to Washington to meet with American officials.
Analysts said that, while embarrassing, the administration’s decision to abandon the freeze would enable it to reassess a policy that has been stuck on a single issue. “If it encourages that more comprehensive review, then it’s not a bad thing,” said Daniel Levy, a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation.
David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said, “It’s the end of a phase for the administration: ‘We’re not focusing on the appetizers anymore; we’re focusing on the main course.’ ”
Isabel Kershner contributed reporting from Jerusalem.
With a nod to Ross Perot…It’s the sound of the Obama administration pulling the plug on the Israeli settlement freeze extension and peace talks. Pres. Obama leaves it to a big news day (another failure disguised as a victory) to announce a major foreign policy failure, that he’s given up on his vaunted 90-day settlement freeze extension. The reasons offered are instructive. It went down the drain because Bibi couldn’t deliver the votes in his Cabinet to get the extension and because:
…The 90-day negotiating period would not have produced the progress on core issues that the administration originally had hoped for…
If Obama, Mitchell and Clinton had just read my blog before committing to this path they could’ve saved themselves the trouble. I wrote precisely this when they embarked. How can you solve in 90 days, issues you haven’t been able to solve in years, if not decades? 90 days would be great if you had two sides ready to go. But Israel is about as unready to go as any party can be.
This makes the Obama policy toward the Israeli Palestinian conflict a total shambles. God, what a mess.
This is why there are alternative proposals out there to advance the peace process. That is why there is BDS. That is why there is the PA proposal to recognize unilaterally a Palestinian state, as Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay (whose recognition will be formalized sometime in 2011) did yesterday. I would urge the Arab League to follow suit along with non-aligned nations like Turkey. When the steamroller gathers enough momentum it will be too late for Israel and the U.S. to do anything to stop it. All that will be left is for them to recognize a fait accompli (of course it will be more complicated than that, but at least the heavy lifting will already have been done).
If Obama wishes to retrieve his massive failure there is only one way to do so (and I’m afraid he is constitutionally incapable of doing this), and that is to energetically, boldly attack the problem and all the players who stand in his way. There must be demands made and consequences for rejection of them. All this can be done in a fair-minded, deliberate way that leaves the world with the clear impression the president is being firm, but fair.
But as a I say it appears that this president doesn’t have the components of the truly great presidents who were willing to, and even relished, looking an opponent in the eye and staring him down when necessary. Obama doesn’t have the steely resolve that is necessary for greatness as a leader. Think of Teddy Roosevelt, Lincoln, FDR. Would they have wilted in the face of Bibi?
Others have said this, but our president would make a great professor. He can distill the arguments of both sides brilliantly. But he doesn’t have the moxie to bring the two sides together when butting heads is necessary. We don’t need a professor to run this country. We need a leader. And we don’t have one. And I fear we will not have one as long as Obama is president.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I understand that the Republican alternatives are worse. Far, far worse. And that’s the tragedy. We have a nation seeking a leader and instead we get a synthesizer of political ideas. Good for the classroom, bad for the White House.
So my friends, to take a page from the leader we hoped for but will never get: make the peace you want to see. It won’t be coming out of Washington, DC. Again, don’t get me wrong. I don’t see a full peace taking hold merely from disparate communities setting forth their vision of Middle East peace and taking action based on these convictions. But at least they can set a tone and lay the groundwork for something more substantial.
This is a big victory for Bibi Netanyahu and the nationalist advocates of the status quo. Israel feels it can maintain the status quo forever. And it looks good to them. They will be energized and emboldened by the Obama retreat. It’s a very bad day for peace. In fact, I predict a war within 12 months. It will either be in Syria, Lebanon or Gaza (with perhaps Iran thrown in for good measure). Palestinians will become even more radicalized realizing there is less hope than ever to realize their state. This will mean bloodshed. And I’ve got to say Obama has only himself to blame. It needn’t have come to this. He had two full years to lay out a coherent, energized vision of Middle East peace, pursue it, and realize it. Instead, he went for bits and pieces like a settlement freeze; and when Bibi balked Barack had no Plan B.
I wonder if this is the end of the line for George Mitchell? What more can he hope to accomplish?
10 December 2010
It’s official. The talks are dead. They died NOT because of the direct talks format, but because there isn’t the will in Israel for an end-of-conflict agreement based on two states, in any shape or form. If the White House couldn’t cajole or bribe them into a 3-month building freeze, what chance of them giving up the West Bank and keeping their hands off Gaza?
The ending of talks was agreed between Clinton and Netanyahu. It wasn’t a falling-out, we were assured, more of a “gentleman’s agreement”: but just which of these gentlemen was wearing the trousers?
Dead as the Talks are, the two state “process” seems to be Undead, ghoulishly grinding on in its coffin. Washington wasn’t about to bury it. They say they will pursue other means to get a deal on borders and security, as if that’s somehow a different and easier matter. We should have known they were not going to let their plan hang on the slim chance of the Shas party voting for a settlement freeze, or on Netanyahu’s dubious skills in coalition-building. So just what is up their sleeve? (And where is Wikileaks when you need it?)
As the two-state lobby J-Street has urged, Washington will ’simply’ re-draw the map for them to keep most of the settlers within Israel’s sovereignty, with the Palestinian “state” getting land elsewhere to compensate.
If this isn’t bad enough, the Jerusalem Post has reported that the White House has another bright idea: Israel would cede some large or sensitive tracts of land (such as the Jordan valley) to the Palestinians, who would then have to lease them back to Israel for a limited period. Reports vary on the length of these leases that “the Americans are offering”.
Netanyahu is said to agree in principle as long as the leases are long enough, which by his count is around 99 years: at least he wouldn’t be up for re-election when the time came to dismantle the cities, road, airports, military bases and other facts established by then. He and Obama, apparently, are still “negotiating” over the tenure details.
Maybe they think if Abbas simply rents it to the Israelis he won’t be accused of selling Palestine’s heritage.
All these schemes assume that the land is actually divisible, regardless of either complex topographic practicalities like water, productivity and access; intense emotional and traditional attachments; the grossly unequal political and power relationships both before and after the proposed separation; and the fact that the whole process drives an express train through international law that says no country can lawfully acquire land by military conquest.
There is little to choose between the different ways to effect division and separation against everybody’s wishes: unequal direct talks, shuttle diplomacy, financial and military carrots and sticks, or cartographic wizardry. By all rights Israel should just leave, and pay compensation for the damage it has done and the deaths and injuries it has caused. But even then, it would leave a Palestine with 22% of its original country.
So what comes next?
After the collapse of the Washington talks, there are now three possible ways to go. What do they mean for the One State vision?
1. More of the same proposed carve-up of the remaining 22% of Palestine, manipulated by the White House in separate meetings, using a more pro-active agenda. This will face all the hurdles of the previous sessions and offer no justice, no unity, no return of refugees and no sovereign Palestinian state. This will continue to hold centre stage, sidelining the struggle for one democratic state.
2. The “Sovereign State of Ramallah”, or Son of the Undead could cause some feverish heat and drama in diplomatic circles and at the UN. And it strikes an emotional chord.
But there’s a blurring of the difference between the symbolic recognition of a theoretical State already declared in 1988 and supported by 100 or so countries (who then resumed business as usual with Israel) on the one hand, and on the other, the new plan to declare a real state and claim full sovereign rights for it. Would this mean claiming the right to make its own law, to control land transactions and issue building permits, or to control the roads and natural resources, to prevent destruction of olive trees, to prevent uniformed foreign nationals kidnapping children from their homes, or to decide what hours its police may work and what vehicles they can use, and the thousand and one other orders that the present Palestine Authority is bound by.
Those who plan to declare a state based on the 4th June 1967 lands are no doubt banking on doing something quite different: getting money and help to build services, institutions, industrial estates, maybe an airport, to give an aura of solid foundations. But without an Israeli withdrawal, a self-declared Palestinian state even in the tiny Area A would be just posturing unless it created a real, physical and material showdown with the illegal occupiers.
If they could succeed in taking a convoy along a Jewish-only road, or bringing a mass demonstration to demand entry to Jerusalem, or if they could call forth a mass of small actions that doubled or trebled Israel’s policing and paperwork, or in other ways make the occupation unworkably expensive for Israel in time, effort and PR, this state may be worthy of respect.
Otherwise, the main effect will be to keep the current unelected, unimaginative and ineffectual leadership in place and give them the appearance of a political role.
A Palestinian “state” recognised by a number of nations may help to isolate Israel, help to promote BDS, and help to support the legal right to resist and fight back. It can certainly raise the cost for Israel of holding onto its ill-gotten gains. But these results could as easily be won by a civil rights struggle, by the clear demise and burial of the Oslo accords, and the dismantling of the PA.
In fact, the scenario of a state with international support seems less likely when you look at the personnel. There is little agreement on it between Abbas and Fayyad, let alone between either of them and Hamas. None of them has a popular mandate to declare a state on a small portion of Palestine.
If it did happen, it would almost certainly entail armed struggle to back up increasingly confrontational civil resistance. There could be huge violence and bloodshed, and Palestinians would be up against the settlers as well as the IDF (as they were at Bil’in last Friday), who will probably create their own provocation as cover and proceed to re-draw the map to cut the declared Palestinian state into ribbons. The militarist far-right would set the pace, and we could see a re-run of the 1948 and ‘67 mass expulsions: the Lieberman gang would not let domestic or international political fall-out tie their hands.
3. A struggle for equal civil rights within the whole of Palestine. Though this doesn’t seem to stir the blood in the same way as a Palestinian state, it would deliver far, far more. We have rehearsed the arguments and the benefits throuhgout this site: a decent life for all, a return to a whole land fairly shared, and an end to the increasingly deranged and threatening regime that has perverted neighbourly human relationships for the past six decades.
The Undead Two State Solution solved nothing, the road to it is fraught with chaos, violence and the sowing of ever-more destructive hatred, and the stinking mess that’s left threatens to be as much of an obstacle to peace as when it was alive and kicking.