Commentary Magazine


Posts For: October 27, 2013

Palestinian Terms Leave Little to Talk About

The silence couldn’t last forever. The one thing that was conspicuously successful about the peace negotiations initiated by Secretary of State John Kerry was the way the Israelis and the Palestinians managed to keep their mouths shut about what’s been discussed since they agreed to start meeting again in July. While some reports have surfaced indicating that there has been no progress, today’s scoop by Israel’s Channel 2 gives us a lot more insight as to where the parties stand. And what we’ve learned makes it obvious that the meetings are every bit the fool’s errand that most observers thought they would be all along. According to the Israeli TV station, a “disgruntled Palestinian official” has leaked the Palestinian proposals offered for peace. As the Times of Israel reports:

According to the report, the Palestinians are also insisting that they gain control over water, and control at their sides of the Dead Sea and border crossings; that a Palestinian state be able to sign agreements with other states without Israeli intervention; that Israel release all Palestinian prisoners it holds; and that all Palestinian refugees and their descendants be granted the right to choose to live in Israel or the Palestinian territories as part of a final agreement.

Let’s digest that for a minute. Not only did the Palestinians arrive at the peace table not prepared to compromise on their ability to militarize their putative state or join in offensive alliances against the smaller and more vulnerable Israel that would result from a peace treaty authorizing the birth of “Palestine.” They are also insisting that the millions of descendants of the Arab refugees of the 1948 War of Independence be allowed to “return” to Israel and effectively end the existence of the Jewish state. If that’s peace, what’s their idea of war?

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The silence couldn’t last forever. The one thing that was conspicuously successful about the peace negotiations initiated by Secretary of State John Kerry was the way the Israelis and the Palestinians managed to keep their mouths shut about what’s been discussed since they agreed to start meeting again in July. While some reports have surfaced indicating that there has been no progress, today’s scoop by Israel’s Channel 2 gives us a lot more insight as to where the parties stand. And what we’ve learned makes it obvious that the meetings are every bit the fool’s errand that most observers thought they would be all along. According to the Israeli TV station, a “disgruntled Palestinian official” has leaked the Palestinian proposals offered for peace. As the Times of Israel reports:

According to the report, the Palestinians are also insisting that they gain control over water, and control at their sides of the Dead Sea and border crossings; that a Palestinian state be able to sign agreements with other states without Israeli intervention; that Israel release all Palestinian prisoners it holds; and that all Palestinian refugees and their descendants be granted the right to choose to live in Israel or the Palestinian territories as part of a final agreement.

Let’s digest that for a minute. Not only did the Palestinians arrive at the peace table not prepared to compromise on their ability to militarize their putative state or join in offensive alliances against the smaller and more vulnerable Israel that would result from a peace treaty authorizing the birth of “Palestine.” They are also insisting that the millions of descendants of the Arab refugees of the 1948 War of Independence be allowed to “return” to Israel and effectively end the existence of the Jewish state. If that’s peace, what’s their idea of war?

To those who will argue that this is just an opening bargaining position that ought not be construed as their final offer, let’s imagine what the Israeli moral equivalent of these demands would be. It’s more or less the same thing as the Israelis saying the Palestinians could have an independent state alongside Israel provided that they accept that Jews would rule it.

Leaving aside the refugee question for a moment, the land-swap question is no minor technical dispute. Peace process advocates have estimated that 80 percent of the Jewish communities in the West Bank including the overwhelming majority of the settler population could be incorporated into pre-June 1967 Israel with a swap of 4 percent of West Bank land. But according to this report, the Palestinians won’t budge past 2 percent.

While the Palestinians may not like the Israeli positions on land swaps, they do not compromise the basic premise of land for peace. Such demands are subject to negotiation and if there was a genuine commitment to make a deal on the part of both sides they could, albeit with difficulty, be resolved. The Israelis, even this so-called “right-wing” government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has accepted the legitimacy of a two-state solution and agreed to the principle of territorial withdrawal from almost all of the West Bank. But the Palestinians are still stuck on what is, in essence, among the first principles of any peace deal: recognizing the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. Part and parcel of that would mean discarding the right of return. Without doing that, what they are demanding is a Jew-free Palestinian Arab state in the West Bank and Gaza alongside an “Israel” inside the 1949 armistice lines with what would potentially be an Arab majority.

It’s true that Kerry’s blueprint for the talks calls for them to stretch out for nine months and we are only three months into that schedule. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who is leading the Israeli delegation in the negotiations, is still making optimistic noises even while keeping mum about details. But such terms being offered by Palestinians make it hard to believe they are doing anything but going through the motions.

Peace is not just about pressuring parties to come to the table, though it must be conceded that Kerry’s efforts in this regard were impressive. In order for the diplomatic process to succeed there must be a desire to reach some sort of accommodation. But any discussion that involves terms that basically mandate the end of Israel illustrates that the Jewish state’s alleged peace partner is not genuinely interested in ending the conflict.

Given the Palestinian Authority’s culture of incitement and fomenting of hatred, this should come as a surprise to no one. And even if we accept the proposition that PA leader Mahmoud Abbas wants peace, the fact that Gaza is ruled by his Hamas rivals makes any agreement unlikely since signing it might give the embattled Islamists a major boost at his expense.

Meanwhile Israel is still acting as if peace is a real possibility and keeping its promise to release Palestinian terrorists, the price Kerry asked Netanyahu to pay in order to entice Abbas to participate in the talks. Israeli right-wingers continue to fret about the possibility that the Palestinians will take yes for an answer from Netanyahu.

By the same token, many in the United States still continue to talk as if it is Israel that must be pressured to make more concessions to the Palestinians. But so long as the Palestinians are still talking about the right of return, it’s painfully obvious there is nothing to talk about.

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Obama’s “Modest Strategy” Good For Putin

For those seeking an explanation for the puzzling turn that American foreign policy has taken during Barack Obama’s second term, the New York Times has one today. In a front-page feature in their Sunday edition, the Times’s Mark Landler provides National Security Advisor Susan Rice with the kind of puff piece the paper’s readers have come to expect when such analyses of administration policy are provided. Rice’s “blueprint” for a change from the president’s more ambitious goals of his first term was, we are told, formed at a series of Saturday morning bull sessions where those involved decided that they wanted to “avoid having events in the Middle East swallow [Obama’s] foreign policy agenda, as it had those of presidents before him.” So they chucked the “freedom agenda” of George W. Bush that Obama had tentatively embraced at the time of the outbreak of the Arab Spring protests as well as any interest in Egypt. As the Times reported:

At the United Nations last month, Mr. Obama laid out the priorities he has adopted as a result of the review. The United States, he declared, would focus on negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, brokering peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians and mitigating the strife in Syria. Everything else would take a back seat.

In theory, that might make sense. But given that the Iranians only use diplomacy to buy themselves more time to build their nuclear program; the Israeli-Palestinian talks are widely believed to be a fool’s errand (and were included in the agenda only because Secretary of State John Kerry had already committed the U.S. to another round of diplomacy with all of its risks and dangers regardless of what Rice or anyone else wanted to do); and the administration has already punted on Syria, this is not a promising agenda. Indeed, it looks to be even more of a disaster than the more wide-ranging to-do-list of the president’s first term that no one is claiming was exactly a great success.

But unfortunately for Rice and her boss, their “modest strategy”—as the headline of the Times feature puts it—just got a little shakier today. Earlier this month, I was one of many administration critics who warned that the president’s decision to cut aid to Egypt could open the door for Russia to step back into the alliance that Anwar Sadat trashed back in the 1970s as he strove to make peace with Israel. It appears Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to do that. At the same time that Rice was using the Times to send a message to Egypt that it is no longer a U.S. priority, reports are circulating that the Russian autocrat is planning a visit to Cairo where he will attempt to revive the military alliance that existed between Russia and Egypt. If he succeeds in getting the Russian fleet back into Egypt’s Mediterranean ports, he should send a thank you note to Rice and the president. But, of course, he already owes them one for the administration’s retreat on Syria.

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For those seeking an explanation for the puzzling turn that American foreign policy has taken during Barack Obama’s second term, the New York Times has one today. In a front-page feature in their Sunday edition, the Times’s Mark Landler provides National Security Advisor Susan Rice with the kind of puff piece the paper’s readers have come to expect when such analyses of administration policy are provided. Rice’s “blueprint” for a change from the president’s more ambitious goals of his first term was, we are told, formed at a series of Saturday morning bull sessions where those involved decided that they wanted to “avoid having events in the Middle East swallow [Obama’s] foreign policy agenda, as it had those of presidents before him.” So they chucked the “freedom agenda” of George W. Bush that Obama had tentatively embraced at the time of the outbreak of the Arab Spring protests as well as any interest in Egypt. As the Times reported:

At the United Nations last month, Mr. Obama laid out the priorities he has adopted as a result of the review. The United States, he declared, would focus on negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, brokering peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians and mitigating the strife in Syria. Everything else would take a back seat.

In theory, that might make sense. But given that the Iranians only use diplomacy to buy themselves more time to build their nuclear program; the Israeli-Palestinian talks are widely believed to be a fool’s errand (and were included in the agenda only because Secretary of State John Kerry had already committed the U.S. to another round of diplomacy with all of its risks and dangers regardless of what Rice or anyone else wanted to do); and the administration has already punted on Syria, this is not a promising agenda. Indeed, it looks to be even more of a disaster than the more wide-ranging to-do-list of the president’s first term that no one is claiming was exactly a great success.

But unfortunately for Rice and her boss, their “modest strategy”—as the headline of the Times feature puts it—just got a little shakier today. Earlier this month, I was one of many administration critics who warned that the president’s decision to cut aid to Egypt could open the door for Russia to step back into the alliance that Anwar Sadat trashed back in the 1970s as he strove to make peace with Israel. It appears Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to do that. At the same time that Rice was using the Times to send a message to Egypt that it is no longer a U.S. priority, reports are circulating that the Russian autocrat is planning a visit to Cairo where he will attempt to revive the military alliance that existed between Russia and Egypt. If he succeeds in getting the Russian fleet back into Egypt’s Mediterranean ports, he should send a thank you note to Rice and the president. But, of course, he already owes them one for the administration’s retreat on Syria.

This is a potential disaster for U.S. foreign policy.

The Egyptian military seems to have succeeded in not only ousting the Muslim Brotherhood government that threatened to turn the most populous Arab nation into an Islamist regime but in keeping the group from organizing a rebellion. Though the process by which they have done so is not easy to defend, they at least understood something the president and Rice seem not to have learned: that the struggle with the Brotherhood is a zero-sum game. By taking out the Brotherhood, clamping down on terror in the Sinai, and squeezing Hamas in Gaza, the military has made the region safer. But they’ve gotten no thanks for this from Washington. Not only has Obama distanced the U.S. from Cairo and cut aid, Rice has now announced, via the front page of the Sunday New York Times, that what happens in Egypt isn’t all that important anyway.

While the Egyptian military will be loath to swap up-to-date U.S. hardware for Russian knockoffs, who can blame them for shopping around for new friends after the snubs they’ve received from President Obama?

Though his staff wants to save the president from being swamped by events in the Middle East, by putting all their chips on the slim hopes of an acceptable nuclear deal with Iran and the virtually non-existent chances of an Israeli-Palestinian accord, they have only set him up for more failure. Worse than that, by granting Putin a victory in Syria—where Russian and Iranian ally Bashar Assad looks more secure than ever thanks to Obama’s backing away from striking at his chemical-weapons stockpile—and setting him up to win back Egypt, President Obama has made the Middle East much less stable for U.S. allies like Israel and Arab nations like Jordan and Saudi Arabia. That’s a formula for exactly the kind of blow-up Rice and her buddies had hoped to spare the president.

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