The narrative of the Middle East peace process according to the international media has pretty much been set in stone for the last 17 years since the first time Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister of Israel: the “hard line” leader’s intransigence is the primary obstacle to peace with the Palestinians. Ever since then, we have been endlessly told that his ideology has prevented the Jewish state from making efforts to negotiate with the Palestinians. The fact that Netanyahu signed peace deals during his first term and has called for a two-state solution that would allow for an independent state for Palestinians, and even froze building in the West Bank to entice Mahmoud Abbas back to the negotiating table, hasn’t altered this. Nor will the prime minister’s latest attempt to bend over backwards to accommodate the Obama administration.
According to Haaretz, “senior Israeli officials” are confirming that Netanyahu “promised U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry ‘to rein in’ construction of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem until mid-June.” In doing so, Netanyahu will be depriving the Palestinian Authority of its standard excuse for not returning to peace talks four and a half years after fleeing them in the wake of Ehud Olmert’s offer of a state that included parts of Jerusalem as well as almost all of the West Bank. But don’t expect anyone in the liberal Western media that treats Netanyahu like a piñata to give him credit for playing ball with Kerry’s hubristic effort to achieve a deal that has eluded all of his predecessors. Even worse, this very far-reaching concession is unlikely to coax the leaders of Fatah, let alone the Hamas terrorists who rule the independent state in all but name that exists in Gaza, to negotiate.
In his post supporting a referendum on any Palestinian peace agreement (“Democracy is Not an Obstacle to Peace”), Jonathan Tobin asked why peace processors would possibly fear a referendum:
It is true that if a peace agreement were to be submitted to a vote, that would raise the possibility that Israel’s voters would reject it. But if a deal was truly in Israel’s best interests, what exactly are advocates of a two-state solution worried about?
It’s a good question. Let me try to address it–because the answer is probably something other than a fear that the referendum might fail.
Secretary of State John Kerry was encouraged yesterday by the idea of a revived and improved Arab Peace Initiative being floated by an Arab League delegation. But the Palestinian Authority wasted no time in pouring cold water on the idea that even this baby step means a thing. Palestinian Authority negotiators dismissed the significance of the statement issued by the foreign minister of Qatar that the 2002 proposal would be modified to recognize the idea of “minor” territorial swaps that would modify the 1967 lines. As far as Erekat is concerned, the Palestinians won’t even bother to return to the talks so long as Israel is unwilling to concede the outcome in advance.
“Netanyahu has to say 1967,” Erekat told Nazareth-based Radio Ashams. “If he doesn’t say that, there’s nothing to talk about. For us, what the Arab League delegation presented in Washington is no different from the official Palestinian position.”
Erekat noted that the Palestinian Authority had negotiated in the past based on the 1967 borders and had been willing to adjust 5 percent to 7 percent of the border.
“We don’t see that as recognition of the settlement blocs, as some commentators on both sides try to interpret it. For us, every stone in the settlements constitutes a violation of international law, so it’s impossible to talk about Palestinian consent regarding the settlements,” he said.
“Our position is clear: As long as Netanyahu does not say the number 1967, there’s nothing to talk about. Maybe he needs to undergo psychological therapy to utter that number.”
But if the Palestinians are really interested in peace, it’s they who need the therapy. By issuing demands in this manner, Erekat is not just directly defying President Obama’s call for them to come back to the peace table without preconditions. Nor is his attempt to justify a continued refusal to talk just about borders. It’s part of a strategy the Palestinians have been pursuing for more than four years. Since the PA knows it has neither the will nor the ability to sign a peace agreement recognizing the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn, their goal is to avoid any diplomatic setting at which they might be forced to admit this, as they did when they turned down peace offers in 2000, 2001 and 2008.
Earlier this week, Haaretz reported that “well placed U.S. sources” said Secretary of State John Kerry was planning to convene a summit in June at which the United States, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority would, with the help of Turkey and Egypt, set a new agenda for peace talks. The starting point for this push would be the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative and the principle of “two states for two peoples.” But even before the idea had begun to percolate, the administration is publicly backing away from summit plans.
Bernadette Meehan, National Security Council Spokesperson: said “We have seen the media reports of a planned Middle East Peace summit in Washington. These reports are not true. We remain committed to working with the Israelis and the Palestinians to achieve a lasting peace through direct negotiations.”
What’s going on here? It’s hard to say with certainty but it appears that after four years of having a secretary of state who understood that the White House is the only place policy is made in the Obama administration, the switch from Hillary Clinton to Kerry involves a change in attitude as well as personnel. But whether Kerry is trying to slip the leash or not, it’s clear that whoever it is that has vetoed the summit understands the situation better than Kerry. A summit is an invitation to diplomatic disaster, not peace.
Is the two-state solution to the Middle East conflict still alive? According to Secretary of State John Kerry, it’s on life support, but there are still two years for it to become reality. This piece of prophecy delivered last week in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee is presumably the justification for the peace offensive Kerry is planning on conducting in the coming months. This will keep the secretary busy shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah where, he says, he sensed a new seriousness of purpose in Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. The deadline of two years is supposed to scare these two leaders and presumably their constituencies that Kerry hopes to save from a future of unending conflict with patient diplomacy. His prediction has more to with his fantasies about achieving success in an endeavor that has chewed up and spit out better diplomats than the former Massachusetts senator than any actual chances of peace.
But however foolish Kerry’s ambitions might be, this idea of a definitive timeline beyond which peace is impossible is far more dangerous than the new secretary’s ego trip. The obstacles to a two-state solution are formidable right now. Indeed, they are so great that Kerry’s attempt to jump-start them at time when the prospects for a deal are less than negligible is actually a greater inducement to violence than the status quo. But by setting an artificial deadline without any real hope of success or by recognizing what the real threats to peace actually are, Kerry is doing more than setting himself up for inevitable failure. He’s also undermining any hope that peace can be achieved in the future.
Anyone who regularly follows the translations of the Palestinian media available on Palestinian Media Watch (www.palwatch.org) or www.Memri.org understands that the blithe talk about the possibility of Middle East peace that is heard on the left is utterly unrealistic. But keeping one’s finger on the pulse of a Palestinian culture that continues to foment hatred of Jews and Israel isn’t the only indicator of just how deep this animus runs in Arab culture. Just as informative is a look at the cultures of the two Arab countries that have already made peace with Israel: Egypt and Jordan. The potent anti-Semitism of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as the prejudice that runs throughout the culture of the largest Arab nation is well documented. But the situation in Jordan is less well known.
Jordan’s reputation as a moderate Arab nation stems mostly from the attitude of former King Hussein and his successor King Abdullah. Like his father, the Jordanian monarch is well spoken in English, charming and, despite the criticisms he lobs across the border at Israel in order to maintain his standing as an Arab leader, very much uninterested in conflict with the Jewish state. But his people and even those in his government are a very different manner.
As the Jerusalem Post reports, 110 out of 120 members of the Jordanian parliament have endorsed a petition calling for the release of the former soldier who murdered seven Jewish children in 1997. The shocking incident at the Island of Peace along the border between Israel and Jordan prompted King Hussein to personally apologize to the families of the victims for what he considered a blot on the honor of both his country and its armed services. But to the overwhelming majority of Jordanians, he appears to be a hero. If that doesn’t tell you something about how difficult it is to imagine the end of the Middle East conflict, you aren’t paying attention.
Last summer television personality and columnist Fareed Zakaria was suspended by both TIME magazine and CNN for committing plagiarism in a piece he wrote for the Washington Post. Yet the ubiquitous voice of conventional wisdom about foreign policy was soon back in his familiar haunts undaunted by his humiliation and allowed to pretend as if nothing had happened. But the problem with Zakaria wasn’t his lack of acknowledgement of the work of others so much as it is his penchant for ignoring inconvenient facts when advocating the policies that he urges the country to adopt as if they were self-evident.
A particularly egregious example of this trait was made clear last month when Zakaria was writing about President Obama’s trip to Israel. Zakaria wrote a column that endorsed the president’s speech to Israeli youth to pressure their government to make peace with the Palestinians. While, as we pointed out at the time, this appeal was directed to the wrong side of the dispute, Zakaria was entitled to his opinion about Israelis ought to do. What he was not entitled to was his own facts about the situation.
Secretary of State John Kerry is on tour this week, emulating the sort of frequent-flyer diplomacy that his predecessor Hillary Clinton prided herself on. With the help of an adoring press, Clinton managed to create the impression that roaming the globe was in itself an indication of success even if she didn’t accomplish much, if anything, by doing so. However, Kerry’s wanderings will be even more difficult to portray as a public relations bonanza. That’s because his stubborn refusal to face facts about intractable conflicts is leading him into the sort of fool’s errands that the more cautious Clinton avoided. Case in point is his visit to Turkey this past weekend that was followed by a trip to Israel, where he will engage in some shuttle diplomacy between the Netanyahu government and the Palestinians.
Kerry’s stay in Ankara was represented as a follow-up to President Obama’s supposedly brilliant triumph in brokering what is still widely referred to as a “rapprochement” between Israel and Turkey. But the details of the talks he held with the Turkish foreign minister gave the lie to the administration’s boasts about the benefits of its persuading the Israeli prime minister to apologize to his Turkish counterpart, since the Turks are making it clear they have no intention of abiding by any agreement to normalize relations with the Jewish state. Similarly, the idea of shuttling between Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Abbas, when the latter has already demonstrated his lack of interest in the sort of talks without precondition that Obama said was the only path to peace, is, at best, a waste of the secretary’s time. That Kerry is inaugurating his tenure at the State Department by conducting two visits that give him no opportunity to succeed is bad enough. But it does more than illustrate how out of touch he is with reality. By diving into problems that he can’t fix but can make worse by raising expectations of American pressure on Israel, this will not only bode ill for his tenure in his new post but also offers him opportunities to create mischief where none need have been found.
In the aftermath of President Obama’s ringing affirmation of Zionism and Jewish rights during his visit to Israel last month, many of his liberal Jewish supporters are justifiably feeling vindicated. But after years of backing Obama and sniping at Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, some of them are having a little trouble fully understanding the administration’s moves. While the president also called on Israeli students to pressure their government to make peace, he also reversed course on one of the key elements of his Middle East policy during his first term. When speaking with Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas, Obama pointedly said that settlements were not the obstacle to peace and that no preconditions should be expected of the Israelis in order to entice the PA back to the negotiating table.
These comments, which received far less play than the president’s Jerusalem speech about peace, represented a significant policy shift. After four years of demanding Israel freeze settlements as well as make other concessions prior to talks, Obama put himself on the same page as Netanyahu when it came to the question of Israel being asked to ante up and virtually guarantee that it would abandon its bargaining chips prior to negotiations. Yet somehow many of the president’s backers haven’t quite assimilated this message.
That was made clear in a letter to Netanyahu organized by the Israel Policy Forum that rounded up many of the usual liberal suspects who have periodically urged Obama to save Israel from itself. While respectful and, for a change, not containing any specific criticisms of Netanyahu’s government and even throwing him a bouquet for his phone call with Turkey’s leader (which they foolishly accept as a “rapprochement” even after the Turks have already reneged on their promises to normalize relations), the group of 100 prominent American Jews did call on Jerusalem to make “concrete confidence building steps designed to demonstrate Israel’s commitment to a ‘two-states for two peoples’ solution.” In other words, in spite of the signals from Obama that the ball is in the Palestinians’ court as far as resuming talks, the IPF’s signees are still reflexively attempting to put the onus on Netanyahu.
President Obama is being praised for his peace advocacy during his visit to Israel this week. But it hasn’t escaped the notice of savvy observers that for all of his eloquent appeals for coexistence, he did not commit himself to any specific peace plan. In fact, he actually endorsed Israel’s call for negotiations without preconditions, a clear change from previous U.S. demands for a settlement freeze and other concessions. Even more to the point, since Palestinian attitudes toward Obama’s visit ranged from indifference to outright hostility, it’s hard to see how the president’s attempt to urge young Israelis to work for peace will change a thing.
The president was wise to avoid specifics since the prospects for progress in negotiations, or even holding talks, are bleak. But it appears that new Secretary of State John Kerry has no such inhibitions. According to an article in Politico today, Kerry is straining at the leash this week as he prepares to dive headfirst into an all-out effort to restart the peace process. Kerry is undaunted by the unbroken record of failure on the part of a long list of his predecessors, and seems blithely indifferent to the current situation in which the Palestinians remain divided and unable to move toward peace. The president appears willing to let Kerry waste his time on another go at mediation, so long as, Politico notes, “he keeps a low profile and doesn’t generate a political backlash.” But Kerry’s open desire to use his new position to make a place for himself in the history books seems to be setting up the president for exactly what he seems to want to avoid: an embarrassing fiasco that could distract both the Europeans and Israelis from the main security threat to the region coming from Iran and set the stage for more Palestinian violence.
Jewish left-wingers are cheering President Obama’s Jerusalem speech in which he once again made the case for a two-state solution. Some are hoping that this will mean a renewed campaign of U.S. pressure on the Netanyahu government. With a new secretary of state in John Kerry who may well be foolish enough to believe he can succeed where so many other American peace processers have failed, perhaps they are right. But it is also possible that although Obama was eager to reiterate his ideas about the necessity of peace, the only real insights about the impact of the presidential visit may be coming from Palestinians and some of their cheerleaders.
While they will also welcome the president’s reassertion of the right of the Palestinians to a state of their own and his criticisms of Jewish settlements, it is far more probable that the part of his address today that will resonate with them is the section in which he laid out at length not only a defense of Zionism but a case for Israel’s right to self-defense and America’s ironclad guarantee of its security. Though there may be some in the Muslim and Arab worlds who will take to heart the president’s sermon on coexistence and shared goals, the chant of demonstrators that greeted him in Ramallah today, in which the crowd chanted for rocket propelled grenades, not more cooperation with the U.S., was perhaps a more accurate reading of public opinion.
Were Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas, whom the president inaccurately praised as a “partner for peace,” really interested in pursuing a two-state solution, he would take up the president’s challenge and agree, as Obama insisted during their joint press conference, to a new round of peace talks without insisting on preconditions. But the odds that the embattled Abbas, who is far more worried about Hamas than he is about Israel or the U.S., will do that are slim, making any new U.S. initiative a fool’s errand.
President Obama continued his charm offensive with the people of Israel with his speech to an audience of students in Jerusalem that reaffirmed his support for Zionism and Israel’s “unbreakable” alliance with the United States. But however far he may have gone toward reassuring Israelis of his concern for their security during this trip, many of the headlines today will be devoted to the part of his address that attempted to prod the Jewish state to recommit to the peace process.
The speech demonstrated that, despite the new warmth between Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, there is still considerable distance between their positions. But even the section devoted to advocacy for a renewed peace process showed that there is even greater distance between the United States and the Palestinians.
In a transparent effort to go over the heads of Israel’s government by appealing to the public, the president made the argument that peace and the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel were both just and necessary to secure the country’s future. He urged the hand picked left-leaning audience of students to pressure their leaders to pursue peace. He spent the first half of his speech extolling the legitimacy of Zionism as well as highlighting the threats to its existence from terror groups and hostile neighbors as well as Iran. But his clear purpose was to establish his bona fides as a friend of the Jewish state primarily in order to give him the standing to advocate for a reinvigorated peace process in which the country would once again take “risks for peace.” This was both clever and effective and there’s no doubt that, as many pundits seemed to say in its aftermath, is was a better exposition of the liberal Zionist position on the peace process that had been given in the country in many years.
The idea that America’s Middle East policy is purely the result of the machinations of a shadowy “Israel Lobby” was once again proven to be a canard with the release of a new poll that shows that an overwhelming majority of the American people sympathizes with the Jewish state. The Washington Post/ABC news poll published today on the eve of President Obama’s visit to the country shows that Americans sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinian Authority by a margin of 55 to 9 percent, with 35 saying they liked both or had no opinion. It also showed that a plurality of those polled thought the U.S. needed to pressure the Palestinians to make peace more than the Israelis. Most interestingly, an even more resounding majority thought the U.S. ought not to be the prime mover of the peace process, with fully 69 percent saying the decision should be left to the parties while only 26 percent thought it should play a leading role.
The results, especially with regard to support for Israel, are consistent with previous polls. But the number of those who want America to be running the peace negotiations has plummeted in the last decade as the futility of trying to coax the Palestinians to abandon terrorism and embrace a two-state solution has been amply demonstrated. This gives the lie to both the “Israel Lobby” theories as well as the notion that Americans want their president to be twisting the arm of the Israeli government to make concessions to revive a process that the Palestinians have shown no interest in.
The basic numbers illustrate why those who claim the across-the-board bipartisan support for the alliance with the Jewish state in Congress is bought and paid for by Jewish campaign finance donations (as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman put it) is a lie. Israel has the backing of every political and demographic group measured by the poll showing that backing Israel is simply a matter of political survival irrespective of how many Jews vote or donate money in a given district or state.
During a press appearance yesterday with the Jordanian foreign minister, a reporter told Secretary of State Kerry that “many people in the Arab world were disappointed” that President Obama made no mention of the “peace process” in his State of the Union address. The reporter asked if Kerry could “assure us that this Administration have this peace process as a priority.” Kerry responded that he’s an optimist, believes “there are possibilities,” but noted that:
“[T]he President is not prepared, at this point in time, to do more than to listen to the parties, which is why he has announced he’s going to go to Israel. It affords him an opportunity to listen. And I think we start out by listening and get a sense of what the current state of possibilities are and then begin to make some choices.”
It’s a better approach than the one Obama adopted in his first term, when he ignored experts who urged him to study the failures of President Clinton and President Bush before rushing right back into the process (as if all that was necessary was a new president). But even a “listening tour” ignores the lesson of the preceding peace processes, which was that the absence of peace was not the result of Israel’s failure to offer the Palestinians a state, or accept an American bridging proposal, or withdraw from territory, or dismantle settlements, or agree to a year-long final status negotiation with intensive American involvement, which resulted in yet another offer of a state. Israel did all those things and got no peace. The reason for the repeated failures of the “peace process” was something else.
Speculation about President Obama’s intentions to push a revival of the moribund Middle East peace process may increase today with reports of plans for a new European Union initiative. According to Ynet News, the British and French foreign ministries are concocting the plan with the support of Germany and the European Union. The conceit of the scheme is a return to the familiar theme of an accord based on the 1967 lines with a division of Jerusalem and agreed-upon swaps of territory between Israel and the Palestinians. It is expected that it will include specific details such as a demand for an absolute freeze in Israeli building in the territories including those areas that it might keep under the swaps. Even more troubling is the notion that the negotiations will be in the context of a regional committee which will include not only the Europeans, Israelis and Palestinians but also nations such as Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf states, a situation in which the Jewish state would be outnumbered, isolated and backed into a corner without much room for diplomatic maneuvering.
The only real variable as far as the push to implement such a plan is the United States. While the Europeans have reportedly held off on putting forward their plan until after President Obama was safely elected and then inaugurated, the question remains as to whether the administration will put its weight behind it. While on the face of it, the plan ought to be to President Obama’s liking since he has pushed Israel hard on settlements, Jerusalem and the ’67 lines, these attempts to strong-arm the government of Prime Minister Netanyahu have always been in the context of American-led negotiations. As with much of the rest of his Middle East foreign policies, it seems the administration is prepared to “lead from behind” on this track and throw its support behind a European initiative, marking a significant policy departure from past efforts in which the president made the Israel-Palestinian issue a priority. If he’s willing to defer to the EU here, it will be a step that could rightly be interpreted as abandoning Israel to a forum in which it will be treated badly.
But it could also be a sign that Obama has finally learned his lesson about the Middle East. The EU plan is doomed to failure just like every other past peace idea. Having been sandbagged by the Palestinians for four years, perhaps he prefers not to waste any of his time or his precious political capital in a second term on the Middle East.
One of the remarkable aspects of Israeli politics is that even as Benjamin Netanyahu cruises to what is likely to be a landslide re-election later this month, the political figure there who continues to be treated as an international celebrity is not the prime minister. Rather it is Shimon Peres, the 89-year-old veteran of virtually every position in Israel’s government and currently serving in the symbolic post of president that remains the focus of much of the world’s attention. No one enjoys the spotlight more than Peres, something that comes across in spades in Ronen Bergman’s fascinating interview with him in the New York Times Magazine. The piece gives us an excellent summary of his views on the challenges facing Israel. But put in the context of the nation’s upcoming elections, the irony is that his answers also give us a good explanation for Netanyahu’s ascendancy.
As Bergman points out, Peres was the focus of intense pressure from some of the prime minister’s critics to run against Netanyahu at the head of a center-left opposition ticket. He wisely refused, leaving the incumbent without any serious rival. That has only increased the fawning on Peres from foreign observers who can’t stand Netanyahu. But Peres’s stubborn refusal to give up his illusions about the Palestinians tells us all we need to know about the inevitability of a right-wing victory. If Israel’s January 22 vote is one in which Netanyahu’s real rival is a person who won’t be on the ballot, it should be understood that the reason why those who are trying to unseat the Likud are failing has everything to do with Peres’s failed legacy.
After more than a year of campaigning for it, the Palestinian Authority will have its moment tomorrow when the General Assembly of the United Nations will vote to upgrade the PA’s status to nonvoting observer. Israel’s foes will rejoice and many of its friends will worry. Some of that will be justified, as the decision will be a symbolic triumph that the Palestinians will attempt to portray as tantamount to UN recognition of their independence in the areas Israel won in the Six-Day War. But after working hard to prevent this from happening, the Israeli government has decided to downplay the outcome. Some will interpret this as nothing more than a feeble attempt to spin a diplomatic defeat; the reaction is more than just politically astute. It is an accurate reflection of the real-world impact of the vote since it won’t change a thing on the ground in the Middle East or even at the UN itself.
The Palestinian Authority knows all too well that the victory they will win tomorrow is of minimal use to them. They can use it to create mischief for Israel in the International Criminal Court as well as bolster their already secure niche in the hearts of most UN member states and the world body’s bureaucracy. But it won’t get them one inch closer to actual independence or — more importantly — give them any credibility with Palestinians who will be quick to note that it will change nothing in the West Bank or in Gaza where the PA’s Hamas rivals rule over an independent state in all but name. Rather than seeking to punish the PA and its leader Mahmoud Abbas for effectively trashing the Oslo Accords, Israel can afford to ignore the vote since it will not move him any closer to a state or genuine international legitimacy. The only reason European nations and even some of the PA’s third-world allies are backing the move is because they know it has no significance. After all, how can any government claim to be independent when a rival group already exercises sovereignty over part of the territory it claims?