Commentary Magazine


Topic: Israel-Palestinian peace talks

Clinton Unwittingly Makes Case Against Administration’s Mideast Policy

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with top Israeli officials yesterday, and made a powerful case against a renewed push for the peace process. She didn’t mean to, of course; she was actually exhorting the Israeli leadership to do whatever they must to get Mahmoud Abbas back to the negotiating table. But she employed two arguments in support of her recommendation that in reality work against it. Haaretz reports:

According to an Israeli official who was briefed on the content of the meetings, Clinton told the different Israeli officials that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad are the best partners the Israelis ever had, adding that “it is unclear who will come after them.”

If Abbas and Fayyad–who resolutely refuse to even meet with Israeli leaders face to face–are the best Palestinian “peace partners” Israel has ever had, it is clear the peace process has gone practically nowhere since it began. But the second comment is more important.

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with top Israeli officials yesterday, and made a powerful case against a renewed push for the peace process. She didn’t mean to, of course; she was actually exhorting the Israeli leadership to do whatever they must to get Mahmoud Abbas back to the negotiating table. But she employed two arguments in support of her recommendation that in reality work against it. Haaretz reports:

According to an Israeli official who was briefed on the content of the meetings, Clinton told the different Israeli officials that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad are the best partners the Israelis ever had, adding that “it is unclear who will come after them.”

If Abbas and Fayyad–who resolutely refuse to even meet with Israeli leaders face to face–are the best Palestinian “peace partners” Israel has ever had, it is clear the peace process has gone practically nowhere since it began. But the second comment is more important.

Clinton came to Israel directly from Egypt, where she met with new Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. Morsi is there because the Egyptian people finally overthrew a widely hated autocrat who was viewed, in part, as too friendly to Israel and the West. Israel’s gas deal with Egypt seemed to go up in smoke–literally–and the vaunted peace agreement, in place for more than three decades now, was called into question. Egyptians first called for it to be torn up, then renegotiated, and now Morsi says he will uphold it, but he won’t return any of the Israeli government’s overtures to him.

It’s possible to see in the evolution of Cairo’s discussion of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty evidence that the deal is in no real trouble of being revoked (though it may be violated with far more regularity). But that misses a larger point. The Arab Spring, especially in the case of Egypt, taught us not to rely on seemingly stable dictators who don’t rule with popular consent. And it should be a dire warning against striking a deal with unpopular leaders who don’t represent public opinion and who are here today, but may very well be gone tomorrow.

Obviously, Israel and the Palestinian Authority are still far from a deal–possibly farther than they’ve ever been. But what if the Arab Spring rolls along into the West Bank? And even if it doesn’t, there is no reason to treat the current leadership crop as permanent. What happens if they fall? What guarantee is there that any deal would be worth the paper it was written on? The fact that Abbas and Fayyad are unpopular, ineffective, and could be replaced any day by Palestinians to whom the deal would mean nothing is an argument against making any sort of desperate push to get a deal signed. Clinton should be pressuring Abbas and Fayyad to reform their corrupt, autocratic ways if real peace and stability is the goal.

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A New Round of Palestinian Extortion

Yasser Arafat was famous for perfecting a style of diplomacy that could win him accolades from naive Westerners without having to make a single concession or sacrifice for the peace process. He would do this by refusing to do something basic that he should have already done until he could extort a reward for it. The West would pretend they got a concession from Arafat, and Arafat would laugh and laugh. It was a classic lose-lose dance that has marked the peace process from the beginning.

Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, is a slight improvement, but in this regard he is turning back the clock. Haaretz is reporting that something which in the pre-Obama days of Middle East diplomacy was taken for granted–the willingness by Palestinians to meet for the purposes of political theater–has turned into something that requires ever more concessions. The latest is the Palestinian demand that Israel release 125 terrorists just for the pleasure of Abbas considering a meeting. Benjamin Netanyahu has supposedly accepted the offer, and issued a proposal for how to structure the deal.

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Yasser Arafat was famous for perfecting a style of diplomacy that could win him accolades from naive Westerners without having to make a single concession or sacrifice for the peace process. He would do this by refusing to do something basic that he should have already done until he could extort a reward for it. The West would pretend they got a concession from Arafat, and Arafat would laugh and laugh. It was a classic lose-lose dance that has marked the peace process from the beginning.

Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, is a slight improvement, but in this regard he is turning back the clock. Haaretz is reporting that something which in the pre-Obama days of Middle East diplomacy was taken for granted–the willingness by Palestinians to meet for the purposes of political theater–has turned into something that requires ever more concessions. The latest is the Palestinian demand that Israel release 125 terrorists just for the pleasure of Abbas considering a meeting. Benjamin Netanyahu has supposedly accepted the offer, and issued a proposal for how to structure the deal.

There are caveats to this: it’s possible Israel was mulling the release of the prisoners at some point in the near future anyway; alternatively, as Abbas has no intention of negotiating it probably won’t happen. Nonetheless, the mere whiff of such a story going public will have negative consequences, as the following two key paragraphs of the story indicate:

The Palestinians are at this point said to be in no hurry to agree to Netanyahu’s proposal; they are concerned that after the initial stage of prisoner release Israel will find excuses not to carry out the other four. The Palestinians also say Israel’s proposal for the exchange of old weapons for new ones is “humiliating,” and does not meet their security needs.

And:

Talks between Erekat and Molho are ongoing ahead of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Israel next Monday. This will be Clinton’s first visit to Israel since September 15, 2010, when she, Netanyahu and Abbas met at the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem. The talks have been stalled since that meeting.

On the first: the Palestinians are actually balking at their own ridiculous demands because Israel is only agreeing to release some weapons and some murderers to them–surely a recipe for peace–but are afraid they won’t get all the murderers and all the guns and ammo they’re asking for. Translation: they made a crazy offer designed to repulse the Israelis enough to keep them away from the negotiating table. The Israelis accepted the crazy offer–something the Palestinians didn’t anticipate–and now Abbas must find a way to weasel out of it. (He’s done this before; it works.) It’s possible the Israelis are simply calling Abbas’s bluff here. If so, the peace process is no less of a cynical joke than it has been for years.

On the second excerpt from the story: Hillary Clinton is coming to the region (though she is bound to get lost on the way to Jerusalem, since she still doesn’t know what country it’s in) to do some peacemaking, and would like the publicity stunt of announcing the resumption of talks. If she is serious, the first thing she should do is reprimand the Palestinians for trying to extort this face-to-face meeting with Netanyahu. If not, she should save the trip and her breath. If what she wants is peace, she cannot in good faith bless this sort of disaster.

What’s the point of all this? If you read this and thought: This is far too nonsensical for the United Nations not to be involved somehow, you would be right. Next paragraph:

The United States and Israel believe that a Netanyahu-Abbas meeting and Israeli moves could create an atmosphere in which Abbas is less likely to approach the United Nations once again in September with a request to receive the status of a non-member observer state.

Why? What makes them think this? If Clinton wants to prevent the Palestinians from taking more unilateral action at the dictators’ Pack ’n Play that is the United Nations, she should remind Abbas that unilateralism will thus have his blessing, and so he shouldn’t be surprised if the Israelis take a few unilateral actions of their own. What would those unilateral actions be? Who knows? Clinton should dare Abbas to find out.

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Israel, Alone at the Table

The popularity of the notion that Israel and the Palestinian Authority should consider taking unilateral action seems to be growing. I wrote in January about the proposal from Michael Zantovsky, the Czech ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, that the two sides engage in “coordinated unilateralism,” which would allow each to take steps without waiting for a negotiated settlement. Then a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned a recent event dedicated to this idea at which Robert Malley suggested the Israelis and the Palestinians take “parallel unilateral steps,” and Ami Ayalon proposed something called a “friendly unilateralism.”

The point seemed to be that the current model for negotiations is outdated and unrealistic. That certainly does seem to be the case–the Palestinian leadership has gone from saying no to every Israeli offer to simply ignoring the offers altogether. Because no one knows how long the Palestinian silent treatment is supposed to last, a movement to figure out how else to attain peace has been gaining steam. The latest possible converts to this new plan, according to this Jodi Rudoren report, include Ehud Barak. But Rudoren mentions the obstacles to such action:

The Palestinian Authority has opposed any effort by Israel to decree the contours of its territory and abandon a negotiated settlement on a wide variety of issues, including the future of Jerusalem. The Palestinian Authority, however, did take its own unilateral steps last fall, when it pursued United Nations recognition, something it is considering doing again. Israel has criticized such efforts for stepping outside the bounds of negotiations. The Obama administration has strongly opposed unilateral action by either side, and some senior Israeli officials have worried that such a move by Israel could provoke an uprising by Palestinians.

“The core issues of the conflict can only be resolved by direct negotiations,” Daniel B. Shapiro, the United States ambassador to Israel, said Wednesday. Nabil Abu Rudaineh, a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority, also objected to the call for unilateralism, saying, “This policy won’t lead to a solution and would prolong the conflict. It will end the idea of the two-state solution.”

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The popularity of the notion that Israel and the Palestinian Authority should consider taking unilateral action seems to be growing. I wrote in January about the proposal from Michael Zantovsky, the Czech ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, that the two sides engage in “coordinated unilateralism,” which would allow each to take steps without waiting for a negotiated settlement. Then a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned a recent event dedicated to this idea at which Robert Malley suggested the Israelis and the Palestinians take “parallel unilateral steps,” and Ami Ayalon proposed something called a “friendly unilateralism.”

The point seemed to be that the current model for negotiations is outdated and unrealistic. That certainly does seem to be the case–the Palestinian leadership has gone from saying no to every Israeli offer to simply ignoring the offers altogether. Because no one knows how long the Palestinian silent treatment is supposed to last, a movement to figure out how else to attain peace has been gaining steam. The latest possible converts to this new plan, according to this Jodi Rudoren report, include Ehud Barak. But Rudoren mentions the obstacles to such action:

The Palestinian Authority has opposed any effort by Israel to decree the contours of its territory and abandon a negotiated settlement on a wide variety of issues, including the future of Jerusalem. The Palestinian Authority, however, did take its own unilateral steps last fall, when it pursued United Nations recognition, something it is considering doing again. Israel has criticized such efforts for stepping outside the bounds of negotiations. The Obama administration has strongly opposed unilateral action by either side, and some senior Israeli officials have worried that such a move by Israel could provoke an uprising by Palestinians.

“The core issues of the conflict can only be resolved by direct negotiations,” Daniel B. Shapiro, the United States ambassador to Israel, said Wednesday. Nabil Abu Rudaineh, a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority, also objected to the call for unilateralism, saying, “This policy won’t lead to a solution and would prolong the conflict. It will end the idea of the two-state solution.”

That sums it up pretty well. According to the Palestinian Authority, they can take unilateral steps because without unilateral steps the two-state solution is dead, and Israel cannot take unilateral steps because that would kill the two-state solution. Also, the Palestinians may conduct a new terror war against Israel if they don’t like where this is going.

And according to the United States, whose leadership claims to practice “realism,” the Oslo process hasn’t ceased to be, it’s simply resting, or stunned, or pining for the fjords.

But for now, the unilateral disengagement from Gaza, and the terrorist enclave it has since become, casts a shadow over any proposed unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank. So Benjamin Netanyahu continues to reiterate his willingness to negotiate at any time, without preconditions. How long can the world expect Bibi to sit alone at that table? In the absence of Palestinian interest and American diplomatic creativity (or even flexibility), we’re about to find out.

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How History Weighs on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

In September 1993, Yasir Arafat told one of recent history’s most significant lies. At the time, Arafat still resided where he certainly belonged: on the State Department’s terrorism list. But the date of the White House ceremony announcing the signing of the declaration of principles was nearing, and the Clinton administration had given up its earlier resistance to asking Yitzhak Rabin to shake the bloodstained hand of the committed murderer on the White House lawn so everyone could have their “historic” moment in the sun.

So Arafat wrote a letter. He would–scout’s honor–end his campaign to annihilate the Jewish people. “Our lawyers judged this written renunciation as sufficient grounds for the president to take Arafat and the PLO off the State Department’s terrorism list,” wrote Martin Indyk in his memoir of the Clinton administration’s Middle East diplomacy. The rest, as they say, is history.

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In September 1993, Yasir Arafat told one of recent history’s most significant lies. At the time, Arafat still resided where he certainly belonged: on the State Department’s terrorism list. But the date of the White House ceremony announcing the signing of the declaration of principles was nearing, and the Clinton administration had given up its earlier resistance to asking Yitzhak Rabin to shake the bloodstained hand of the committed murderer on the White House lawn so everyone could have their “historic” moment in the sun.

So Arafat wrote a letter. He would–scout’s honor–end his campaign to annihilate the Jewish people. “Our lawyers judged this written renunciation as sufficient grounds for the president to take Arafat and the PLO off the State Department’s terrorism list,” wrote Martin Indyk in his memoir of the Clinton administration’s Middle East diplomacy. The rest, as they say, is history.

I recount this story not to take a gratuitous swipe at the naïveté of the Clinton administration nor at the cavalier way Israeli security concerns were put in a box in the White House attic so Clinton could mug for the cameras. The point is that allowing Arafat to hijack and destroy the chances for peace cannot be so easily undone, even if we’ve learned something from these mistakes.

Aaron David Miller, a member of the Clinton team, is now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a regular columnist for Foreign Policy, and has used his perch to attempt to atone for the mistakes of the Clinton administration. It is an honorable and laudable act. And yesterday at the center, Miller moderated an interesting discussion between former Shin Bet director Ami Ayalon and former Obama campaign adviser Robert Malley. The event was ostensibly about how the old negotiations paradigm has become somewhat useless and the value of unilateralism in moving forward.

Malley described a strategy of “parallel unilateral steps.” Ayalon mostly agreed, but insisted “this is a friendly unilateralism, not an antagonistic unilateralism.” Neither, however, went on to describe in any great detail what your friendly neighborhood unilateralism would look like in practice. And Malley restated Miller’s own thesis, suggesting that it was difficult to understand how giving up the fiction of a bilateral peace process could possibly be more damaging than maintaining it, at this point.

But there are two problems here. First, Ayalon readily admitted that “we know the parameters” of a final deal, and those would be “the Clinton parameters… and all that was discussed in the last 20 years.” Because the “last 20 years” have been used by the Palestinian leadership to broadcast as loudly and as often as possible that they utterly reject this idea, it’s hard to imagine why Ayalon still thinks this is a workable plan. But his opening seems to be that Israel should conform to those parameters with or without Palestinian cooperation.

This may or may not be worth exploring–I’ve written about “coordinated unilateralism” before, though I’m not sure changing the tactics while keeping the same parameters of a final-status agreement is practical.

But Ayalon does have one revolutionary idea, and it’s one he has been drawing attention to recently. That idea is: treat Israeli settlers like human beings. As Ayalon wrote in the New York Times in April: “We have learned that we must be candid about our proposed plan, discuss the settlers’ concerns and above all not demonize them. They are the ones who would pay the price of being uprooted from their homes and also from their deeply felt mission of settling the land.”

Ayalon repeated this thesis yesterday. This is important, because among mainstream media outlets and left-of-center journalists you will not find such empathy toward the settlers. Nor will you find nuance or complexity.

For his part, Malley wants the settlers at the table too. This is in part because Malley wants everyone at the table–he’s long been a proponent of negotiating with Hamas. But that just makes those who would exclude the settlers look that much more ridiculous. (Among leftists, the idea that you would talk to Hamas but not Orthodox Jews makes perfect sense–which helps explain the marginalization of the Israeli left.)

But this raises an important question: Are you bringing settlers to the table as props, to display your empathy and humanity and ask them to sit there quietly as you pat them on the head? Or are you bringing them to the table to include them in negotiations? Malley, Ayalon, and Miller are all men of the left, so it’s encouraging to hear them talk like this, but the panel was not exactly balanced. And history is, once again, an obstacle–disrespect of the settlers and the whitewashing of violent Palestinian rejectionism have become ingrained elements of the peace process.

During the presentation, Ayalon said he believes “there is no peace without partners.” If that’s true, then based on the behavior of Israel’s “partner,” there is no peace.

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Return Abbas Letter to Sender

Asked about the Palestinian letter reportedly coming next week, in which Mahmoud Abbas — currently in the 88th month of his 48-month term as Palestinian president, having failed to hold the elections he promised a year ago (when he entered into still another reconciliation agreement with the terrorist group he previously promised to dismantle) — will demand that Israel stop construction in the disputed territories, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak noted that “Not a single new settlement has been built in the last three years since this [Netanyahu] government is in power.”

The only authorized Israeli construction is in existing settlements that will be part of Israel in any conceivable peace agreement, pursuant to the understanding reached a decade ago with the U.S. that a “settlement freeze” meant no new settlements and no expansion of the boundaries of existing ones – what Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the “Google Earth Test” – not construction within established settlements. In her recent memoir, Rice confirmed both the informal understanding and Israeli compliance with it throughout the Bush administration.

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Asked about the Palestinian letter reportedly coming next week, in which Mahmoud Abbas — currently in the 88th month of his 48-month term as Palestinian president, having failed to hold the elections he promised a year ago (when he entered into still another reconciliation agreement with the terrorist group he previously promised to dismantle) — will demand that Israel stop construction in the disputed territories, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak noted that “Not a single new settlement has been built in the last three years since this [Netanyahu] government is in power.”

The only authorized Israeli construction is in existing settlements that will be part of Israel in any conceivable peace agreement, pursuant to the understanding reached a decade ago with the U.S. that a “settlement freeze” meant no new settlements and no expansion of the boundaries of existing ones – what Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the “Google Earth Test” – not construction within established settlements. In her recent memoir, Rice confirmed both the informal understanding and Israeli compliance with it throughout the Bush administration.

Not only has the Netanyahu government adhered to that understanding; it implemented an unprecedented ten-month construction freeze, which predictably produced no Palestinian response other than a demand in the tenth month that it be continued.

Back when he was he was actually in office, Abbas rejected the offer by Israeli Prime Minister Olmert of a Palestinian state on land equivalent to 100 percent of the West Bank with a capital in Jerusalem. He is a Potemkin president, making “demands” for Israeli steps he knows are neither required nor realistic, still refusing to recognize a Jewish state, or defensible borders, or an end-of-claims agreement, still unwilling to tell his people, in Arabic, what is required for a Palestinian state.

Instead of delivering a letter, he should make his Bir Zeit speech.

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