Commentary Magazine


Topic: peace process

The Rubber Man Meets the Peace Process

As I noted yesterday, there’s no lack of evidence that even “moderate” Palestinians aren’t interested in ending their war on Israel. Yet most of the world will go through contortions worthy of the rubber man rather than admit it. A classic example is the interview a “senior American official” (widely reputed to be special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian talks Martin Indyk) gave to Yedioth Ahronoth earlier this month.           

The official spent about 3,000 words blaming the talks’ breakdown on Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, and specifically its authorization of settlement construction during the negotiations. Only then did he describe what actually happened during those crucial final months when Secretary of State John Kerry was trying to broker a framework agreement:

“In February, Abbas arrived at a Paris hotel for a meeting with Kerry … He rejected all of Kerry’s ideas. A month later, in March, he was invited to the White House. Obama presented the American-formulated principles verbally – not in writing. Abbas refused.”

Then, in the very next sentence, came this astonishing defense: “The claim on your side that Abbas was avoiding making decisions is not true. He wasn’t running away.”

So long before the announcement of 700 new housing units that Kerry later termed the “poof” moment when everything blew up, Abbas had rejected all Kerry’s ideas and all President Barack Obama’s ideas. Yet he wasn’t “avoiding making decisions” or “running away”; he was a committed and engaged peace partner. Then who is to blame for his serial rejections? Why, Netanyahu, of course: Those “announcements of new housing tenders in settlements limited Abbas’ ability to show flexibility.”           

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As I noted yesterday, there’s no lack of evidence that even “moderate” Palestinians aren’t interested in ending their war on Israel. Yet most of the world will go through contortions worthy of the rubber man rather than admit it. A classic example is the interview a “senior American official” (widely reputed to be special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian talks Martin Indyk) gave to Yedioth Ahronoth earlier this month.           

The official spent about 3,000 words blaming the talks’ breakdown on Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, and specifically its authorization of settlement construction during the negotiations. Only then did he describe what actually happened during those crucial final months when Secretary of State John Kerry was trying to broker a framework agreement:

“In February, Abbas arrived at a Paris hotel for a meeting with Kerry … He rejected all of Kerry’s ideas. A month later, in March, he was invited to the White House. Obama presented the American-formulated principles verbally – not in writing. Abbas refused.”

Then, in the very next sentence, came this astonishing defense: “The claim on your side that Abbas was avoiding making decisions is not true. He wasn’t running away.”

So long before the announcement of 700 new housing units that Kerry later termed the “poof” moment when everything blew up, Abbas had rejected all Kerry’s ideas and all President Barack Obama’s ideas. Yet he wasn’t “avoiding making decisions” or “running away”; he was a committed and engaged peace partner. Then who is to blame for his serial rejections? Why, Netanyahu, of course: Those “announcements of new housing tenders in settlements limited Abbas’ ability to show flexibility.”           

In other words, if Netanyahu is intransigent, it’s Netanyahu’s fault. And if Abbas is intransigent, it’s also Netanyahu’s fault. Under this administration’s definition of “honest brokerage,” only one side is ever to blame; the Palestinians have no agency of their own.

But it gets even worse–because it turns out Netanyahu wasn’t intransigent. As interviewer Nahum Barnea noted, even chief Israeli negotiator Tzipi Livni–whom the American official termed a “heroine” who “fought with all of her might to promote the agreement”–says Netanyahu “showed flexibility.” The American pooh-poohed this, insisting Netanyahu hadn’t moved “more than an inch.” Yet addressing the Washington Institute the following week, Indyk admitted that Netanyahu actually evinced dramatic flexibility and was in “the zone of a possible agreement” when he met Obama in early March.            

So the bottom line is that Abbas rejected every proposal Kerry and Obama offered, while Netanyahu was in “the zone of a possible agreement.” Yet the administration nevertheless blames the breakdown on Netanyahu. In short, no matter what happens, the Palestinians will never be blamed.           

The reasons for this are numerous. As Jonathan Tobin noted last week, it helps deflect blame from the administration’s own mistake of wasting so much time and diplomatic energy on a dead end. Additionally, as Michael Doran perceptively argued this week, keeping Netanyahu on the defensive over the Palestinian issue undermines his ability to pressure the administration over Iran’s nuclear program. Nor can anti-Israel animus be ruled out, given the American official’s shocking claim, when Barnea drew a comparison to China’s occupation of Tibet, that “Israel is not China. It was founded by a UN resolution”–the clear implication being that unlike other countries, Israel’s right to exist is revocable.           

The most important reason, however, is simply that if the main barrier to peace is the settlements, then the problem is easily solvable and peace is achievable. But if the main barrier is Palestinian unwillingness to end their war on Israel, the problem is unsolvable and peace is unachievable. And to most of the world, blaming Israel unjustly is infinitely preferable to acknowledging that unpleasant truth.

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The PA, Refugees, the Holocaust, and Peace

Haaretz reported yesterday that if the Palestinian Authority’s planned Fatah-Hamas unity government actually arises, the U.S., like the European Union, will probably recognize it. Since Hamas has repeatedly said it will neither recognize Israel nor renounce violence, Israel is understandably upset at American and European willingness to peddle the fiction that a government in which Hamas is a full partner complies with those requirements. But Israel itself has helped to peddle a no less outrageous fiction for years–that PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party, unlike Hamas, is a “partner for peace.” To understand how ridiculous this claim is, consider two recent developments: last week’s Haaretz op-ed by chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, and a decision by Al-Quds University’s academic union two weeks earlier.

Erekat’s op-ed consisted mainly of standard Palestinian lies and half-truths about the Nakba–like omitting any mention of the five Arab armies who invaded Israel in 1948, thereby starting the war that created the Palestinian refugees. Nevertheless, one sentence stood out: “In my own home town, Jericho, there are two refugee camps where thousands continue to live in miserable conditions.” That happens to be completely true. What Erekat neglected to mention, however, is that Jericho was the first city Israel turned over to Palestinian rule, way back in 1994. In other words, Jericho has been under Palestinian rule continuously for the last 20 years, during which time the PA has been the largest per capita recipient of foreign aid in the world. Yet not one cent of that money has been spent on improving conditions in Jericho’s refugee camps. Instead, 20 years later, Erekat is still blaming Israel for the “miserable conditions” in those camps.

This is not a trivial issue, because the entire peace process is predicated on the theory that Fatah actually wants a Palestinian state. Yet having a Palestinian state means taking responsibility for the Palestinians’ problems, including the refugees living in those camps, rather than continuing to blame Israel for them. And as Erekat’s statement shows, the Fatah-led PA has no interest in doing any such thing: It prefers leaving the refugees in their misery as a way to score points against Israel with international public opinion. In other words, it would rather pursue its war against Israel than actually exercise sovereignty by improving its people’s lives.

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Haaretz reported yesterday that if the Palestinian Authority’s planned Fatah-Hamas unity government actually arises, the U.S., like the European Union, will probably recognize it. Since Hamas has repeatedly said it will neither recognize Israel nor renounce violence, Israel is understandably upset at American and European willingness to peddle the fiction that a government in which Hamas is a full partner complies with those requirements. But Israel itself has helped to peddle a no less outrageous fiction for years–that PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party, unlike Hamas, is a “partner for peace.” To understand how ridiculous this claim is, consider two recent developments: last week’s Haaretz op-ed by chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, and a decision by Al-Quds University’s academic union two weeks earlier.

Erekat’s op-ed consisted mainly of standard Palestinian lies and half-truths about the Nakba–like omitting any mention of the five Arab armies who invaded Israel in 1948, thereby starting the war that created the Palestinian refugees. Nevertheless, one sentence stood out: “In my own home town, Jericho, there are two refugee camps where thousands continue to live in miserable conditions.” That happens to be completely true. What Erekat neglected to mention, however, is that Jericho was the first city Israel turned over to Palestinian rule, way back in 1994. In other words, Jericho has been under Palestinian rule continuously for the last 20 years, during which time the PA has been the largest per capita recipient of foreign aid in the world. Yet not one cent of that money has been spent on improving conditions in Jericho’s refugee camps. Instead, 20 years later, Erekat is still blaming Israel for the “miserable conditions” in those camps.

This is not a trivial issue, because the entire peace process is predicated on the theory that Fatah actually wants a Palestinian state. Yet having a Palestinian state means taking responsibility for the Palestinians’ problems, including the refugees living in those camps, rather than continuing to blame Israel for them. And as Erekat’s statement shows, the Fatah-led PA has no interest in doing any such thing: It prefers leaving the refugees in their misery as a way to score points against Israel with international public opinion. In other words, it would rather pursue its war against Israel than actually exercise sovereignty by improving its people’s lives.

This preference for continuing the war on Israel over making peace also emerges from an April 30 decision by Al-Quds University’s academic union to expel a professor for the “crime” of taking his students to Auschwitz. By so doing, the union said, Prof. Mohammed Dajani was guilty of “behavior that contravenes the [union’s] policies and norms.”

Al-Quds isn’t some Islamic university deep in Hamas-controlled Gaza; it’s a flagship PA institution, located in East Jerusalem, that even had a partnership with Brandeis University, and whose president for almost 20 years (until his resignation in March at age 65) was prominent Fatah member Sari Nusseibeh, considered a leading Palestinian moderate. Yet for this “moderate” university, simply daring to expose students to the historical truth of the Holocaust is a crime worthy of expulsion from the academic union. Why? Because, as another teacher explained, it might lead students to have some sympathy for “the false Zionist narrative.” Or in other words, it might actually contribute to peacemaking by facilitating mutual understanding.

As long as the “moderates” of Fatah are unwilling either to accept the basic responsibilities of sovereignty, like helping their own refugees, or to acknowledge basic historical truths like the Holocaust, they are no more “peace partners” than Hamas is. And by peddling the fiction that they are, Israel and the West aren’t bringing peace closer. They’re merely ensuring that Fatah has no incentive to change.

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Martin Indyk’s Appalling Answers

Ambassador Martin Indyk’s address last week to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, castigating Israel for “rampant settlement activity,” featured assertions that, as Elliott Abrams and Tom Wilson have noted, were simply wrong. Settlement activity was not rampant, and almost all of it was in areas Israel would retain under any peace agreement. Indyk nevertheless made it clear he subscribes to the “poof” theory of peace-process failure.  

Even more troubling than Indyk’s prepared remarks, however, were his unscripted replies in the Q & A session. By pre-arrangement, he took only three questions–all from the Institute’s executive director, Robert Satloff. In response to the first, about settlements, Indyk said he had no idea what Satloff was talking about. In response to the second, about Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state, Indyk misstated the year Israel first raised the issue–by 14 years. In response to the third, about the U.S. role in the process, Indyk acknowledged that Mahmoud Abbas was “quite content to sit back and enjoy the show” of Israeli-American disharmony, but Indyk said it was a “puzzle” to figure out “what happened” after that. 

I think I can help here. I know what Satloff was talking about; I know when recognition of a Jewish state was first raised; and I have a theory about Abbas that might solve the mystery that puzzled Indyk. 

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Ambassador Martin Indyk’s address last week to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, castigating Israel for “rampant settlement activity,” featured assertions that, as Elliott Abrams and Tom Wilson have noted, were simply wrong. Settlement activity was not rampant, and almost all of it was in areas Israel would retain under any peace agreement. Indyk nevertheless made it clear he subscribes to the “poof” theory of peace-process failure.  

Even more troubling than Indyk’s prepared remarks, however, were his unscripted replies in the Q & A session. By pre-arrangement, he took only three questions–all from the Institute’s executive director, Robert Satloff. In response to the first, about settlements, Indyk said he had no idea what Satloff was talking about. In response to the second, about Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state, Indyk misstated the year Israel first raised the issue–by 14 years. In response to the third, about the U.S. role in the process, Indyk acknowledged that Mahmoud Abbas was “quite content to sit back and enjoy the show” of Israeli-American disharmony, but Indyk said it was a “puzzle” to figure out “what happened” after that. 

I think I can help here. I know what Satloff was talking about; I know when recognition of a Jewish state was first raised; and I have a theory about Abbas that might solve the mystery that puzzled Indyk. 

In his first question, Satloff noted that an “unnamed American diplomat” (reliably reported to have been Martin Indyk) told the Israeli media that settlements were the reason talks ended, but Satloff informed Indyk that others took a different view, believing Prime Minister Netanyahu, far from authorizing “rampant” settlement activity, in fact limited it, but had failed to “take public credit for how little there was,” lest he isolate the Israeli right. Indyk replied: 

I’ve not heard of this second account — it doesn’t make any sense to me — and I honestly don’t understand what it means. Maybe someone else can explain it to me.  

Allow me. When Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister in 2009, he sought to correct what he saw as the main error in his first term (1996-99): governing from a narrow political base. In his second term, he formed as wide a coalition as possible to negotiate peace. Ron Dermer, currently Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., described Netanyahu’s approach in 2009. The approach gave Netanyahu support across the Israeli political spectrum, so he could explore a different path to peace than those that had failed. He supported the principle that Jews could build anywhere in their capital or in the disputed territories, while in practice significantly limited actual building. Indyk’s ungracious (not to say undiplomatic) response to Satloff’s question demonstrates that Indyk was oblivious to this.   

In his reply to Satloff’s second question, on the Palestinian refusal to discuss recognition of a Jewish state, Indyk seemed to accept Abbas’s assertion this was “a new requirement.” Just two months earlier, though, Ambassador Dennis Ross stated unequivocally that it was first raised in 2000, and he had pointed words for those who pretend otherwise: 

When I hear it said that this is the first time this issue has been raised – the people who say that think that no one knows history… When we were at Camp David [in 2000], this issue was raised. 

The Palestinians still refuse to recognize a Jewish state 14 years later. Credulous journalists may report the issue as a last-minute obstacle, but one would not have expected the current U.S. peace envoy to permit such disinformation to stand.   

Replying to Satloff’s third question, musing on the mystery of Abbas’s withdrawal from serious negotiations after he observed the American-Israeli split, Indyk seemed oblivious to the fact that this was precisely the strategy Abbas announced in 2009 in the Washington Post: that he planned to do “nothing” in the peace process but watch the Obama administration pressure Netanyahu on settlements. This year, Abbas resorted yet again to the pretext of settlements as a reason to abandon negotiations.  

Abbas bet that an American administration that conducts its foreign policy like a troupe of innocents abroad would once again blame Israel. Indyk’s appalling performance last week demonstrated it was a good bet.

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Fallout from Kerry’s Debacle Continues

The violence initiated by Yasser Arafat after his rejection of the Clinton-brokered peace deal was a worst-case scenario not only for those whose lives were now in danger in the Middle East but for Western negotiators and supporters of the peace process. It presented them with the nightmarish lesson that there is risk in negotiating; the failure of talks could mean years of war.

But this year’s failed talks pushed by Secretary of State John Kerry are demonstrating another way peace talks aren’t necessarily risk-free: the deterioration of relations between the PA and Israel. As the talks collapsed, Mahmoud Abbas went ahead with a unity deal with Hamas, which immediately raised questions about Israeli support and the sharing of intel with the previously Hamas-less government. And today Haaretz sheds light on the nasty business of the blame game, with a letter apparently written by Israel’s national security advisor to Western governments:

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The violence initiated by Yasser Arafat after his rejection of the Clinton-brokered peace deal was a worst-case scenario not only for those whose lives were now in danger in the Middle East but for Western negotiators and supporters of the peace process. It presented them with the nightmarish lesson that there is risk in negotiating; the failure of talks could mean years of war.

But this year’s failed talks pushed by Secretary of State John Kerry are demonstrating another way peace talks aren’t necessarily risk-free: the deterioration of relations between the PA and Israel. As the talks collapsed, Mahmoud Abbas went ahead with a unity deal with Hamas, which immediately raised questions about Israeli support and the sharing of intel with the previously Hamas-less government. And today Haaretz sheds light on the nasty business of the blame game, with a letter apparently written by Israel’s national security advisor to Western governments:

Attached to the letter, a copy of which has been obtained by Haaretz, is a 65-page document that chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat submitted to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on March 9, three weeks before Israel was to release the final batch of Palestinian prisoners. In it, Erekat proposed a strategy for the PA during the final month of negotiations and after April 29, when the talks were originally scheduled to end before their premature collapse.

Erekat recommended applying to join various international conventions, informing the U.S. and Europe that the Palestinians wouldn’t extend the talks beyond April 29, demanding that Israel nevertheless release the final batch of prisoners, intensifying efforts to reconcile with Hamas to thwart what he termed an Israeli effort to sever the West Bank from Gaza politically, and various other diplomatic and public relations moves.

Over the past month, the PA has implemented most of Erekat’s recommendations. This, Cohen wrote in his letter, shows that even while the Palestinians were talking with Washington about the possibility of extending the peace talks, they were actually planning to blow them up, and had been planning to do so even before Abbas met with U.S. President Barack Obama on March 17. …

The document also shows that the Palestinians planned in advance to take unilateral steps in defiance of the commitment they made when the talks were launched in July 2013, he wrote.

The Israeli leadership’s decision to share that information was apparently made in response to the Palestinians’ attempt to blame Israel for the stalled negotiations. Leaking the letter to the press is also a good way to push back on the craven and self-discrediting efforts by Martin Indyk’s team to blame Israel in order to settle old scores. The blame game is, of course, far better than an intifada, which was Arafat’s answer to an offer of peace and mutual coexistence. But that doesn’t make it any less unpleasant.

It’s worth pointing out that the letter isn’t necessarily the smoking gun it appears to be; the Palestinians will no doubt claim that it was a fall-back list of options in case talks fell apart, which they always do. But that’s also a self-fulfilling prophecy, since the talks usually end with the Palestinians walking away.

Yet that’s really a side issue here. The larger implications of this have to do with the fact that Kerry’s obsessive and badly mismanaged drive for a deal that was not in the offing has consequences for just about everyone but Kerry. He and Indyk can turn their attention elsewhere as they hit the Israelis with a sneering parting shot, but their gamble has left the Israelis and Palestinians worse off and scrambling to pick up the pieces.

The fact that there is some risk in negotiations doesn’t mean such negotiations should never take place: it would be courting disaster if a negotiated solution were permanently taken off the table. But neither should peace talks be seen as all upside, the way Western diplomats have tended to believe. Nor should they always focus on grand final-status deals just because an arrogant secretary of state like Kerry wants his Nobel. Kerry and Indyk may be used to others cleaning up their messes for them, but it’s clear both Israel and the Palestinians are getting tired of it.

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Assessing John Kerry

Almost all secretaries of state believe they shine but for most, their legacy is at best basic competence. Amidst all their ceremonial trips, with hindsight it is clear that for the majority, their legacy is simply to have done no harm. This certainly would be the case for Hillary Clinton, a woman who famously cannot name her accomplishments as secretary, as well as Bush-era secretaries Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. Rice’s whole strategy was to make no waves and while Powell’s detractors point to his speech before the United Nations laying out the rationale for war against Iraq, that was less his initiative than the consensus policy of the Bush administration. Warren Christopher’s tenure was largely forgettable, and his successor Madeleine Albright was likewise just a manager. While I disagree with them on many issues, James Baker and Henry Kissinger set themselves apart, although for Baker, his success may have been less because of personal abilities and more the result of being in the right place at the right time.

Secretary of State John Kerry may be the exception: He has defined himself as a truly lousy secretary of state, with almost everything he touches turning to vinegar: The Middle East peace process is in shambles. Had Kerry simply ignored the process, the hurdles facing the two sides would be less. And, because of some ill-chosen and self-defeating words, there is virtually no choice to revive such talks under Kerry. While Vladimir Putin is the villain when it comes to the situation in Eastern Europe, the reverberations which the United States will feel for the impotency under Kerry’s watch will be felt for years to come. Libya continues to disintegrate; the Egyptians remain furious at American waffling; freedom-seeking Venezuelans wonder what American silence means; Argentina salivates over the Falklands; and a whole host of allies from Japan and South Korea to the Philippines and Indonesia fear what American weakness means in East Asia.

The Iran deal seems to be shaping up to be predicated on a willingness to sacrifice its substance rather than to win an agreement that bolsters regional or national security. Regardless, it’s hard to count as a success an agreement that has yet to be struck, especially with Tehran’s penchant for throwing a last-minute wrench into the cogs.

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Almost all secretaries of state believe they shine but for most, their legacy is at best basic competence. Amidst all their ceremonial trips, with hindsight it is clear that for the majority, their legacy is simply to have done no harm. This certainly would be the case for Hillary Clinton, a woman who famously cannot name her accomplishments as secretary, as well as Bush-era secretaries Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. Rice’s whole strategy was to make no waves and while Powell’s detractors point to his speech before the United Nations laying out the rationale for war against Iraq, that was less his initiative than the consensus policy of the Bush administration. Warren Christopher’s tenure was largely forgettable, and his successor Madeleine Albright was likewise just a manager. While I disagree with them on many issues, James Baker and Henry Kissinger set themselves apart, although for Baker, his success may have been less because of personal abilities and more the result of being in the right place at the right time.

Secretary of State John Kerry may be the exception: He has defined himself as a truly lousy secretary of state, with almost everything he touches turning to vinegar: The Middle East peace process is in shambles. Had Kerry simply ignored the process, the hurdles facing the two sides would be less. And, because of some ill-chosen and self-defeating words, there is virtually no choice to revive such talks under Kerry. While Vladimir Putin is the villain when it comes to the situation in Eastern Europe, the reverberations which the United States will feel for the impotency under Kerry’s watch will be felt for years to come. Libya continues to disintegrate; the Egyptians remain furious at American waffling; freedom-seeking Venezuelans wonder what American silence means; Argentina salivates over the Falklands; and a whole host of allies from Japan and South Korea to the Philippines and Indonesia fear what American weakness means in East Asia.

The Iran deal seems to be shaping up to be predicated on a willingness to sacrifice its substance rather than to win an agreement that bolsters regional or national security. Regardless, it’s hard to count as a success an agreement that has yet to be struck, especially with Tehran’s penchant for throwing a last-minute wrench into the cogs.

Perhaps the only success to which Kerry can point is the deal for Syria to forfeit its chemical-weapons arsenal, never mind that a cynic could see the precedent as rogue leaders getting a free shot to kill 1,400 civilians before coming in from the cold. In recent weeks, however, even that deal appears to be less than meets the eye. Last month, the Syrian regime apparently again used chemical weapons, an incident blogged about at the time and an attack subsequently acknowledged by the State Department, even if the State Department spokesman declined to assess blame.

Subsequently, the Brown Moses Blog, which tends to be the most careful and credible open source resource on Syrian chemical weapons, has posted video outlining claims of a new attack in Al-Tamanah. While the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) says Syria has complied with the removal or disposal of Syrian chemical material, it is important to remember that is based on what Syria has declared, and there is no way of knowing whether it includes all Syrian chemical munitions. Meanwhile, the OPCW has concluded “sizeable and unambiguous traces of chlorine and ammonia” in the aftermath of apparent regime attacks on civilians in northern Syria. And so, while Kerry celebrates, Syrians suffocate.

Let us hope that Kerry can redeem himself. But if there’s one lesson he might learn as he assesses his tenure so far, it’s that he isn’t the center of the world and desire and rhetoric aren’t enough to win success. Perhaps he might look at his failures and recognize that many problems are more complicated than he—or the staff charged with preparing him—seems to recognize. In the meantime, while he assesses where the United States was diplomatically when he took office and where it is today, he might remember the maxim for doctors could just as easily apply to himself: First, do no harm.

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The Benghazi Distraction

The Obama administration has committed more foreign-policy blunders than you can count on one hand. Off the top of my head, and in no particular order, I would list the failure to keep U.S. troops in Iraq post-2011; the failure to give surge troops in Afghanistan more time to succeed; the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; the failure to do more to protect Ukraine; the failure to better manage the transition in Egypt; the failure to do anything about the Syrian civil war; the failure to help stabilize Libya after the downfall of Gaddafi; the failure to stop the Iranian nuclear program; the failure to prevent al-Qaeda from expanding its operations; the failure to maintain American military strength; and the general failure to maintain American credibility as a result of letting “red lines” be crossed with impunity. 

That’s eleven failures–and I would not put the Benghazi “scandal” on the list except as a subset of the broader failure to stabilize Libya. Yet Republicans seem intent on focusing a disproportionate amount of their criticism of the administration on the events in Bengahzi–and not even the failure to better protect the U.S. consulate or to more swiftly respond with military force when it was attacked or to exact swift retribution on the terrorists who killed our ambassador and three other Americans. No, Republicans seem intent on focusing on the micro-issue of why administration spokesmen, led by Susan Rice, insisted at first on ascribing the attack to a spontaneous demonstration rather than to a planned act by terrorists who may have been affiliated with al-Qaeda. 

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The Obama administration has committed more foreign-policy blunders than you can count on one hand. Off the top of my head, and in no particular order, I would list the failure to keep U.S. troops in Iraq post-2011; the failure to give surge troops in Afghanistan more time to succeed; the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; the failure to do more to protect Ukraine; the failure to better manage the transition in Egypt; the failure to do anything about the Syrian civil war; the failure to help stabilize Libya after the downfall of Gaddafi; the failure to stop the Iranian nuclear program; the failure to prevent al-Qaeda from expanding its operations; the failure to maintain American military strength; and the general failure to maintain American credibility as a result of letting “red lines” be crossed with impunity. 

That’s eleven failures–and I would not put the Benghazi “scandal” on the list except as a subset of the broader failure to stabilize Libya. Yet Republicans seem intent on focusing a disproportionate amount of their criticism of the administration on the events in Bengahzi–and not even the failure to better protect the U.S. consulate or to more swiftly respond with military force when it was attacked or to exact swift retribution on the terrorists who killed our ambassador and three other Americans. No, Republicans seem intent on focusing on the micro-issue of why administration spokesmen, led by Susan Rice, insisted at first on ascribing the attack to a spontaneous demonstration rather than to a planned act by terrorists who may have been affiliated with al-Qaeda. 

Granted, those early talking points were off base. I will even grant that they may have been off-base for political rather than policy reasons: With an election two months away, and Obama doing his utmost to take credit for killing Osama bin Laden and finishing off al-Qaeda, the White House did not want to be blamed for a major terrorist attack. But this is not Watergate. It’s not even Iran-Contra. Unless something radically new emerges, it looks to me like the same old Washington spinning that every administration engages in–a bit reminiscent of Bush administration denials in the summer of 2003 that Iraq faced a growing insurgency. 

If you listened to Bush spokesmen, you would have been told that Iraq only faced a few random attacks from “dead-enders” and they were of little broader concern. This was not just a question of PR–it was also a policy misjudgment with serious consequences because the Bush administration failed to adequately respond to a growing insurgency. But it wasn’t an impeachable offense and neither are the far less consequential Benghazi talking points. 

Republicans should focus on the shameful failures of Obama’s defense and foreign policy but Benghazi, in my view, is a distraction from the real issues–and it’s not even likely to help Republicans politically. It certainly did little good for Mitt Romney and I suspect Republicans are now dreaming if they think it will help a GOP nominee defeat Hillary Clinton. I just don’t see much evidence that most Americans–as opposed to Fox News Channel viewers–are focused on, or care about, this issue. Republicans would be better advised to focus on the bigger issues and rebuild their tattered foreign policy credibility, which is being damaged by the isolationist pronouncements of Rand Paul and his ilk.

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Farewell Mahmoud, Mon Amour

Today marks the official end of the Kerry Process–initiated July 30, 2013 with a White House meeting and State Department press conference proclaiming an effort to achieve a “final status agreement” in nine months; then simply a non-binding “framework”; then just an agreement to talk beyond nine months. The end result: no agreement, no framework, no talks.

The concept of a peace agreement with Mahmoud Abbas was always a romantic idea, featuring the triumph of hope over experience, the repeated pursuit of a “peace partner” who kept saying “no,” and the failure of peace processors to understand every part of that answer. If there has been any benefit from the Kerry Process, it’s that it has made it clear that the Palestinians do not want a state–not if it requires recognizing a Jewish one, or releasing the specious “right” of “return” to the state they repeatedly tried to destroy, or an end-of-claims agreement that would actually resolve the conflict. You can’t have a “two state solution” when one of the parties refuses to acknowledge “two states for two peoples” as the goal. 

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Today marks the official end of the Kerry Process–initiated July 30, 2013 with a White House meeting and State Department press conference proclaiming an effort to achieve a “final status agreement” in nine months; then simply a non-binding “framework”; then just an agreement to talk beyond nine months. The end result: no agreement, no framework, no talks.

The concept of a peace agreement with Mahmoud Abbas was always a romantic idea, featuring the triumph of hope over experience, the repeated pursuit of a “peace partner” who kept saying “no,” and the failure of peace processors to understand every part of that answer. If there has been any benefit from the Kerry Process, it’s that it has made it clear that the Palestinians do not want a state–not if it requires recognizing a Jewish one, or releasing the specious “right” of “return” to the state they repeatedly tried to destroy, or an end-of-claims agreement that would actually resolve the conflict. You can’t have a “two state solution” when one of the parties refuses to acknowledge “two states for two peoples” as the goal. 

The romance has been a bad romance not just for nine months but ten years. In 2003, Abbas accepted the Roadmap and then later that year bragged to the Palestinian Legislative Council about refusing to dismantle terrorist groups, as the Roadmap required. In 2005, he was given Gaza without a single settler or soldier remaining, announced “from this day forward, there will be no more security turmoil and weapons chaos and abductions, which are not characteristic of our culture”and then did nothing as Gaza turned into Hamastan in one week.

In 2006, after his corrupt party lost the election, he cancelled all future ones, including his own. In 2007, after Hamas took over half of the putative state, he was reduced to being the mayor of Ramallah. In 2008, he was offered a state on land equivalent to all of the West Bank and Gaza, with a capital in Jerusalem, and he walked away. In 2010, after Netanyahu became the fourth Israeli prime minister to endorse a Palestinian state and implemented an unprecedented ten-month construction freeze, Abbas did nothing for nine months, had to be dragged to the negotiating table in the tenth, and then simply demanded the freeze be continued.

In 2013, he demanded pre-negotiation concessions to return to the table to discuss the Palestinian state that is purportedly his goal, got a promise of prisoner releases as long as he stayed at the table, and made it clear he would leave the table as soon as he finished collecting them. Now he has come full circle, agreeing again to form a government with the terrorist group he promised to dismantle in 2003.

You don’t have to have been a Jewish mother to know this guy was not going to be the guy.

President Obama recently suggested that Israel transfer more land to him, because the next Palestinian leader could be worse. The larger question is why the United States should continue to support creation of a Palestinian state if this is the best leader the Palestinians can present. He has essentially been a concession-reception device–a receptacle for concessions from those with the romantic belief that concessions would produce peace–while never making any concessions himself. In Ari Shavit’s words in Haaretz last week, “There is no document that contains any real Palestinian concession with Abbas’ signature. None. There never was, and there never will be.” 

Lost in the process over the past ten years has been the recognition that American support for a Palestinian state was, at least at the beginning, conditional. When President Bush announced U.S. support for a Palestinian state in 2002, he made it contingent on the Palestinians first building “a practicing democracy, based on tolerance and liberty,” with democratically elected leaders and “new institutions” that would promise a peaceful state. A Palestinian state, from an American standpoint, was intended as a means to an end, not as an end in itself.

Somewhere along the line, the means and the end got confused. Perhaps it was after the Gaza disengagement produced not peace but new rocket wars. Perhaps it was after the Palestinian failure to complete even Phase I of the three-phase Roadmap, when Condoleezza Rice responded by deciding to “accelerate” it and skip the first two phases. Perhaps it was after President Obama ignored the written and oral promises to Israel from prior peace processes and made new demands on Israel, but none on the Palestinians. Perhaps it was when Kerry decided that, notwithstanding the refusal of Mahmoud Abbas even to endorse a Jewish state as one of the two states in the “solution,” the U.S. should proceed with the process anyway. In any event, as Ari Shavit’s article last week indicated, the affair is over.

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John Kerry’s Calumny Against Israel

After having said to a closed-door meeting of the Trilateral Commission that Israel could become an “apartheid state” if it doesn’t reach a peace deal with the Palestinians, Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement saying he “would have chosen a different word” if he had to do it all over again.

In fact, Kerry’s initial comments clearly reflect his unvarnished views; his backtracking is merely the result of the criticisms he’s received. Remember, just a few weeks ago Secretary Kerry testified before Congress and falsely placed all of the blame for the collapse of the most recent negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians on Israel. 

As for the calumny against Israel by the secretary of state, let’s start out with a few observations, the first of which is that Israel is the only country in the region that permits citizens of all faiths to worship freely and openly. A few facts: Around 20 percent of Israeli citizens are not Jewish, with most of them being Arab. And while Jews are not permitted to live in many Arab countries, Arabs are granted full citizenship, have the right to vote in Israel, and have served in the Knesset. Consider this: Arabs living in Israel have more rights and are freer than most Arabs living in Arab countries, with Arab women in Israel enjoying the same rights and status as men.

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After having said to a closed-door meeting of the Trilateral Commission that Israel could become an “apartheid state” if it doesn’t reach a peace deal with the Palestinians, Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement saying he “would have chosen a different word” if he had to do it all over again.

In fact, Kerry’s initial comments clearly reflect his unvarnished views; his backtracking is merely the result of the criticisms he’s received. Remember, just a few weeks ago Secretary Kerry testified before Congress and falsely placed all of the blame for the collapse of the most recent negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians on Israel. 

As for the calumny against Israel by the secretary of state, let’s start out with a few observations, the first of which is that Israel is the only country in the region that permits citizens of all faiths to worship freely and openly. A few facts: Around 20 percent of Israeli citizens are not Jewish, with most of them being Arab. And while Jews are not permitted to live in many Arab countries, Arabs are granted full citizenship, have the right to vote in Israel, and have served in the Knesset. Consider this: Arabs living in Israel have more rights and are freer than most Arabs living in Arab countries, with Arab women in Israel enjoying the same rights and status as men.

As for a two-state solution: Israel, bone-weary of war, has repeatedly offered the Palestinians their own homeland–at Camp David in 2000, in Taba in 2001, and again (from Ehud Olmert) in 2008. The offers were enormously generous: Palestinian statehood, the West Bank, Gaza, the division of Jerusalem, and more. The reaction? Palestinian rejectionism, followed in some cases by a new intifada. (For a more expansive discussion of this matter, see this definitive column by Charles Krauthammer.) That rejectionism still exists to this day.

But there’s still more.

On the matter of “land for peace,” Israel has shown its good faith repeatedly. For example, Israel offered to return all the land it captured during the 1967 war in exchange for peace and normal relations. The offer was rejected in August 1967, when Arab leaders met in Khartoum and adopted a formula that became known as the “three no’s”: no peace with Israel, no negotiation with Israel, and no recognition of Israel. (For the record, the PLO, which was committed to the destruction of Israel, was founded in 1964, three years before Israel controlled the West Bank or Gaza. The 1948 and 1967 wars against Israel happened before the so-called occupied territories and settlements ever became an issue.)

In 1978, under the leadership of Likud’s Menachem Begin, Israel returned to Egypt the Sinai Desert in exchange for Egypt’s recognition of Israel and normalized relations.

In 1994, Israel signed a peace treaty with Jordan, which involved compromise on territory, water rights, and border crossings.

In 2000, Israel pulled out of southern Lebanon.

In Gaza in 2005, Israel did what no Arab nation (when it controlled the West Bank and Gaza) had ever done: provide the Palestinians with the opportunity for self-rule. In response, Israel was shelled by thousands of rockets and mortar attacks. Hamas used Gaza as its launching point.

John Kerry is part of an administration that has a very troubling reflex against Israel, a nation whose sacrifices for peace exceed those of any other country and whose achievements and moral accomplishments are staggering. I will leave it to others to speculate what could possibly motivate them. Suffice it to say that enemies of the Jewish state will latch on to Kerry’s invocation of apartheid.

In reflecting on Kerry’s incendiary language, I was reminded of another Democrat. When Daniel Patrick Moynihan was serving as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, a resolution declaring that “Zionism is racism” was adopted. A majority of the world’s nations condemned Israel, claiming there was an “unholy alliance between South African racism and Zionism.” Ambassador Moynihan rose to speak, declaring that the “United States … does not acknowledge, it will not abide by, it will never acquiesce in this infamous act.”

It was a luminous and proud moment. It’s a travesty that almost 40 years later, another Democrat, John Kerry, has himself committed an infamous act.

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Kerry’s Regime-Change Fantasy

Despite the attention received by yesterday’s scoop from the Daily Beast’s Josh Rogin, in which we learned that Secretary of State John Kerry raised the specter of Israeli apartheid, it probably deserves a bit more. That’s because there was more to Kerry’s comments than the apartheid claim, and they demonstrate the extent of Kerry’s ignorance on Middle Eastern politics. As Rogin notes:

It wasn’t the only controversial comment on the Middle East that Kerry made during his remarks to the Trilateral Commission, a recording of which was obtained by The Daily Beast. Kerry also repeated his warning that a failure of Middle East peace talks could lead to a resumption of Palestinian violence against Israeli citizens. He suggested that a change in either the Israeli or Palestinian leadership could make achieving a peace deal more feasible. He lashed out against Israeli settlement-building. And Kerry said that both Israeli and Palestinian leaders share the blame for the current impasse in the talks.

The key part in that parade of nonsense is: “He suggested that a change in either the Israeli or Palestinian leadership could make achieving a peace deal more feasible.” The most harmful effect of such comments is not that they insult Israeli and Palestinian leaders–they do, but Kerry doesn’t care, and they’re all adults anyway and can roll with the punches. The real danger here is that Kerry is revealing that he doesn’t know anything about Israeli or Palestinian politics if he thinks that “regime change,” so to speak, on either side might get him closer to his Nobel Prize.

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Despite the attention received by yesterday’s scoop from the Daily Beast’s Josh Rogin, in which we learned that Secretary of State John Kerry raised the specter of Israeli apartheid, it probably deserves a bit more. That’s because there was more to Kerry’s comments than the apartheid claim, and they demonstrate the extent of Kerry’s ignorance on Middle Eastern politics. As Rogin notes:

It wasn’t the only controversial comment on the Middle East that Kerry made during his remarks to the Trilateral Commission, a recording of which was obtained by The Daily Beast. Kerry also repeated his warning that a failure of Middle East peace talks could lead to a resumption of Palestinian violence against Israeli citizens. He suggested that a change in either the Israeli or Palestinian leadership could make achieving a peace deal more feasible. He lashed out against Israeli settlement-building. And Kerry said that both Israeli and Palestinian leaders share the blame for the current impasse in the talks.

The key part in that parade of nonsense is: “He suggested that a change in either the Israeli or Palestinian leadership could make achieving a peace deal more feasible.” The most harmful effect of such comments is not that they insult Israeli and Palestinian leaders–they do, but Kerry doesn’t care, and they’re all adults anyway and can roll with the punches. The real danger here is that Kerry is revealing that he doesn’t know anything about Israeli or Palestinian politics if he thinks that “regime change,” so to speak, on either side might get him closer to his Nobel Prize.

On the Israeli side, the idea of helping to collapse Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition to get more obedient peaceniks in office is an ongoing farce during the Obama presidency. Even the president’s staunch defenders noticed quite early on that he was intent on spending energy and political capital trying to compel change in the Israeli coalition so he could get what he wanted. (This is the same administration that legitimized Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s “election” “victory” in Iran.)

Barack Obama’s irrational hatred of Netanyahu was mirrored by the left in general, so he didn’t get quite the pushback such a scheme deserved. Putting aside the moral implications of destabilizing an ally in order to control it, the Obama administration should have learned by now that it would fail anyway. There has been an election since Obama’s early Mideast foibles, and that election produced a governing coalition that reflected precisely what I talked about last week: There is a broad political consensus in Israel, especially regarding the peace process, and Israeli democracy, however imperfect, tends to keep that consensus in office.

What the Obama administration wants for Israel is not what the Israeli people want for their country. The beauty of democracy is that this can be expressed at the ballot box for all to see. Kerry, then, has no excuse. We all know he’s wrong about Israeli politics, and thanks to regular parliamentary elections there’s no hiding it. Kerry, for obvious reasons, did not have much credibility on this issue to begin with; he would be foolish to bury whatever’s left of it with such pronouncements.

He is no less wrong about the Palestinians, but for different reasons. I can understand any frustration he might have with Mahmoud Abbas. The PA leader demanded pricey preconditions even to participate in talks, and then abandoned them to run into the arms of Hamas. Though it should have been obvious from the beginning that Abbas was not going to make peace and that he was playing Kerry, it probably still stings.

But who, exactly, does Kerry think is waiting in the wings to replace Abbas? Palestinian society is shot-through with hatred for Jews and anti-Semitic propaganda, and the high-profile alternative to Abbas’s crew has always been the more extreme Hamas. Additionally, Salam Fayyad’s exit from the PA government proved that the Palestinian Authority couldn’t even tolerate a reformer whose hands they had already tied. The mere presence of a man with liberalizing ideas was enough for the antibodies to attack the infection.

The Fayyad fiasco shows something else: it’s not true that there aren’t Palestinian moderates or Palestinians who want peace (or would at least prefer it to their leaders’ bombs-and-poverty governance). But they do not appear to be in the majority and, even more significantly, they do not reside in a democracy. Abbas governs by suffocating authoritarianism. There is simply no institutional structure to empower moderates.

This is one reason Fayyad’s departure was so deeply mourned in the West. Even when stymied by his rivals, Fayyad accomplished something modest by simply existing within the Palestinian bureaucracy. Though he couldn’t put his ideas into practice, he could infuse the internal debate with them and perhaps even hire likeminded staffers who, in the future, would be nearer the levers of power and greater in number. It might have been a long shot, but it was something.

As the American aid to the PA and Israeli military cooperation with it demonstrates, the alternatives to Abbas currently are unthinkable as peace partners and almost uniformly more enamored of violence. Abbas is no hero, but if Kerry thinks a change in Palestinian leadership would benefit his quest for peace, he’s even more confused than he appears.

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Time to Rethink Basic Logic of Peace Process

The collapse of Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative between Israel and the Palestinian Authority will be met with the usual recriminations, as supporters of both sides will blame the other for their failure. Perhaps with the process collapsed—for the time being irretrievably so—it’s time for American policymakers and especially the State Department to question some fundamental assumptions they have with regard to making peace in the Middle East. Here are some lessons that they might learn, or at least subjects which policymakers might debate before wasting any more jet fuel for Kerry’s travels or diplomatic energy when there are so many more pressing issues in the world:

  • Peace comes not from a process, but from a fundamental decision by both parties that peace is what they want. A lot of journalists, diplomats, and analysts rightly remember the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat as a great peacemaker. What they forget is that Sadat only chose peace after he tried to eradicate Israel through war. Only after he concluded that he simply could not achieve his aims through violence did he make his bold gesture to Jerusalem. The problem with Palestinian leaders today is that they have not abandoned terrorism and violence as a policy tool: They will extract what incentives they can at the table—for example, the release of child killers and other terrorists—but then walk away and seek to win through violence what they could not through diplomacy. An endless process will not change Palestinian minds. Perhaps the Palestinian leadership will only come to such a conclusion when they suffer a decisive defeat, much as Sadat once did. A responsible international community would let them suffer such a defeat. The only precondition that matters is for the Palestinian leadership in its current form or whatever grassroots leadership takes its place to come to the conclusion that the only way to achieve their goals is through diplomacy. Read More

The collapse of Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative between Israel and the Palestinian Authority will be met with the usual recriminations, as supporters of both sides will blame the other for their failure. Perhaps with the process collapsed—for the time being irretrievably so—it’s time for American policymakers and especially the State Department to question some fundamental assumptions they have with regard to making peace in the Middle East. Here are some lessons that they might learn, or at least subjects which policymakers might debate before wasting any more jet fuel for Kerry’s travels or diplomatic energy when there are so many more pressing issues in the world:

  • Peace comes not from a process, but from a fundamental decision by both parties that peace is what they want. A lot of journalists, diplomats, and analysts rightly remember the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat as a great peacemaker. What they forget is that Sadat only chose peace after he tried to eradicate Israel through war. Only after he concluded that he simply could not achieve his aims through violence did he make his bold gesture to Jerusalem. The problem with Palestinian leaders today is that they have not abandoned terrorism and violence as a policy tool: They will extract what incentives they can at the table—for example, the release of child killers and other terrorists—but then walk away and seek to win through violence what they could not through diplomacy. An endless process will not change Palestinian minds. Perhaps the Palestinian leadership will only come to such a conclusion when they suffer a decisive defeat, much as Sadat once did. A responsible international community would let them suffer such a defeat. The only precondition that matters is for the Palestinian leadership in its current form or whatever grassroots leadership takes its place to come to the conclusion that the only way to achieve their goals is through diplomacy.
  • Aid can be a detriment to peace, rather than an enabler. The Palestinians have been, per capita, the largest recipient of foreign aid on Earth and yet the Palestinian state is a disaster. That is not because of the border fence, the blockade of Gaza, or Israel. Rather, it is because of poor Palestinian governance. Accountability matters. The problem with aid is that it erodes accountability. If Palestinian officials need not worry about schooling, clothing, or feeding their own people because they are assured of international subsidy, then why not spend money on political or military adventurism? Aid also undercuts democracy, for it supplants the job of an elected government. At the very least, it is time to rethink the notion that aid helps when there is no evidence that it has and much evidence that it has not. Indeed, perhaps it’s time to cut off aid and assistance—there are many other peoples who are in far greater need of international assistance, for example, in Guinea, Mali, South Sudan, or even Ukraine. American assistance is not an entitlement.
  • Incitement matters. It has been almost twenty years since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority. Rather than prepare the Palestinian people for peace, the Palestinian media fed a new generation a steady doctrine of hatred and rejectionism. While the vast majority of Israelis favor a two-state solution, the same cannot be said about Palestinians who continue to be told that Israel is an illegitimate entity. The State Department will always ignore reality in order to continue processes. Had Congress taken a no-nonsense approach toward incitement, and demanded an immediate cessation of aid when it occurred, then perhaps the region could have avoided 20 years of poison.
  • Terrorism can’t be swept under the rug. In the course of researching my new book, Dancing With the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes, it became apparent that senior State Department officials in the 1990s had lied to Congress about Palestinian terrorism, fearing that if they acknowledged the involvement of senior Palestinian officials in terrorism, they might need to end the process. Simply put, senior Middle East peace processors—several of whom have served or now still serve in the Obama administration—had intelligence at their fingertips but purposely ignored it. There is no process that can succeed in the long term if the basis of that process is a lie.
  • Agreements don’t have an expiration date nor do changes of administration cancel them. Israel and the PLO signed the Oslo Accord in 1993. Since then, the Palestinians have, with Arafat’s death, had a change in leadership although Mahmoud Abbas is now more than five years past the end of his legal term. Israel has had seven prime ministers (counting Bibi Netanyahu twice). While pundits can quip about the he-said, she-said of Israeli and Palestinian compliance, the fact of the matter is that the Palestinian Authority exists because the Palestinian leadership agreed to recognize Israel and foreswear terrorism. That Hamas now forms part of the Palestinian government means that the Palestinian government no longer adheres to the agreement that forms the very basis of its existence. Israel would be perfectly within its right, should it so desire, to push the Palestinian Authority back out of Gaza and the West Bank and roll the clock back to before 1993. That might not be desirable, but if the Palestinians are going to absolve themselves of their contractual responsibilities, there is no reason why Israel should continue remitting payments or doing anything to facilitate the Palestinian Authority’s job or existence. If Abbas wants his partner to be Hamas, then he should pay the price for that decision.

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Why Hamas and Fatah Carry on the Charade

Progress in Hamas-Fatah unity talks may appear to be fertile ground for jokes at Secretary of State John Kerry’s expense, since it seems the one divide he hasn’t been feverishly trying to bridge is the one place where prospects for reconciliation have improved. But Kerry can rest easy on this score: whatever Kerry’s diplomatic faults (and they are many), he is not going to be outdone on the peace score by the terrorists of Hamas.

In fact, the Hamas-Fatah unity talks–a staple of those truly dedicated to wasting everyone’s time–are worth watching, but not for the reason the region’s idealists think. Instead, the Palestinian civil war and attempts to end it demonstrate, for those paying attention, why Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have so often been a fool’s errand. Even the Western media’s most excitable Palestinian boosters–Israel’s leftist daily Haaretz–can’t quite conceal the contradiction at the heart of the internecine compromise we are told is within reach. The paper reports:

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Progress in Hamas-Fatah unity talks may appear to be fertile ground for jokes at Secretary of State John Kerry’s expense, since it seems the one divide he hasn’t been feverishly trying to bridge is the one place where prospects for reconciliation have improved. But Kerry can rest easy on this score: whatever Kerry’s diplomatic faults (and they are many), he is not going to be outdone on the peace score by the terrorists of Hamas.

In fact, the Hamas-Fatah unity talks–a staple of those truly dedicated to wasting everyone’s time–are worth watching, but not for the reason the region’s idealists think. Instead, the Palestinian civil war and attempts to end it demonstrate, for those paying attention, why Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have so often been a fool’s errand. Even the Western media’s most excitable Palestinian boosters–Israel’s leftist daily Haaretz–can’t quite conceal the contradiction at the heart of the internecine compromise we are told is within reach. The paper reports:

The headlines were all referring to a meeting expected to take place Tuesday between the Fatah delegation to the reconciliation talks and the Hamas leadership, with the participation of Moussa Abu Marzouk, deputy to Hamas political chief Khaled Meshal. Will reconciliation come about this time between the factions, which have been at loggerheads since 2007? Will the reconciliation agreement they signed in 2011 be implemented?

That last sentence is quite the red flag. The two sides have signed agreements in the past: not only does signing a new one concede the fact that the last agreement hasn’t been honored, but the new agreement might not even require the last agreement’s implementation. The concern by Israelis has always been that even if Mahmoud Abbas signs a peace deal with them, his successor might not honor it. But the history of Hamas-Fatah reconciliation suggests it won’t get that far: the Palestinian signatories themselves are unlikely to honor it.

Haaretz continues:

If the parties reach agreement, Israel might view this as intentional Palestinian abandonment of the negotiations with Israel, and use reconciliation as a pretext to halt the peace process. This, despite the fact that Hamas had agreed at the time to allow PA President Mahmoud Abbas to continue negotiations without Hamas committing to accept their outcome, and the fact that in 2010, Hamas made clear that it does not oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state within in the 1967 boundaries.

At the same time, Abbas can present himself as the legitimate representative of all parts of the Palestinian state and thus bolster his demand for international recognition for the state.

It is unclear from the agreements attained so far what the status will be of the accords signed between the PLO and Israel, whether the PA will be able to continue implementing them and what will happen to security cooperation with Hamas still supporting armed struggle. For Hamas, which is in deep economic trouble and in a hostile relationship with Egypt, reconciliation could be an indispensable way out. The funding sources that reach the PA could then be used to cover civil activities of government ministries that would be under Hamas control. Abbas could then ask Egypt to change its position toward Hamas and also open lines of communication for Hamas with other Arab countries.

The tone of that section is typical of the Israeli left: the Israeli government would use the talks as “pretext” to skip out on their own negotiations with a government quite different from the one they were negotiating with. How unreasonable. Additionally, even Haaretz notes that this is “despite the fact” that Hamas is allowing Abbas to continue talks with Israel “without Hamas committing to accept their outcome.” So they are meaningless.

By this logic, Israeli skepticism toward the Hamas-Fatah deal is warranted: were Abbas’s faction to strike a deal with Israel, Hamas is reserving the right not to accept it. So the Hamas-Fatah deal and the theoretical Palestinian-Israeli deal are very likely mutually exclusive. The Palestinians are playing games. Again.

Why are they playing games? Abbas knows he does not have nearly enough control over the Palestinian polity to claim to be a legitimate head of state even if he were to sign a deal with Israel. Hamas’s inclusion can potentially make him president of a failed state instead of failed president of a non-state.

The benefits to Hamas are obvious, as the Haaretz report makes clear. Those benefits are chiefly financial, since Hamas’s inclusion in the government would make them eligible to share in the PA’s revenue and perhaps ease trade and migration restrictions imposed on Gaza by Egypt. Since history shows Hamas doesn’t actually have to abide by the agreement, they can take the money and run, leaving Abbas weaker than ever while eating into his popular approval by temporarily improving the economic condition of the Gaza Strip.

It’s a great deal for Hamas. And Kerry should be glad he had nothing to do with it.

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The Grave Threat of Zivotofsky’s Passport to the Peace Process

Now that the Supreme Court has agreed in Zivotofsky v. Kerry to decide the constitutionality of the law allowing Jerusalem-born Americans to have “Israel” on their passports as their place of birth, it bears reiterating that President Obama did not need to make this a federal case, and that he could still take the same approach President Clinton did in 1994, when Congress passed a law allowing Americans born in Taiwan to have “Taiwan” on their passports rather than “China.”  

Clinton enforced the law, but declared that America’s “One China” policy (recognizing only the People’s Republic of China) remained unchanged. Obama could uphold the law regarding Menachem Zivotofsky’s passport, but declare that the policy that Jerusalem’s status is subject to negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians remains unchanged. Case closed! It is not clear why this should present a problem: the State Department website identifies Jerusalem as Israel’s capital; so does the CIA website; the Department of Defense website features a 2009 picture of Secretary Gates and Prime Minister Netanyahu meeting in “Jerusalem, Israel,” a 2012 picture of Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey with Israeli President Peres in “Jerusalem, Israel,” and Secretary Hagel’s 2013 statement at his meeting with Netanyahu in “Jerusalem, Israel.” 

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Now that the Supreme Court has agreed in Zivotofsky v. Kerry to decide the constitutionality of the law allowing Jerusalem-born Americans to have “Israel” on their passports as their place of birth, it bears reiterating that President Obama did not need to make this a federal case, and that he could still take the same approach President Clinton did in 1994, when Congress passed a law allowing Americans born in Taiwan to have “Taiwan” on their passports rather than “China.”  

Clinton enforced the law, but declared that America’s “One China” policy (recognizing only the People’s Republic of China) remained unchanged. Obama could uphold the law regarding Menachem Zivotofsky’s passport, but declare that the policy that Jerusalem’s status is subject to negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians remains unchanged. Case closed! It is not clear why this should present a problem: the State Department website identifies Jerusalem as Israel’s capital; so does the CIA website; the Department of Defense website features a 2009 picture of Secretary Gates and Prime Minister Netanyahu meeting in “Jerusalem, Israel,” a 2012 picture of Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey with Israeli President Peres in “Jerusalem, Israel,” and Secretary Hagel’s 2013 statement at his meeting with Netanyahu in “Jerusalem, Israel.” 

So what’s the big deal about letting Zivotofsky reflect on his own passport–as is his right under a federal statute–what the State Department, the CIA, and the Defense Department all include on their websites: the fact that Jerusalem has been the capital of Israel for more than 60 years? The Obama administration’s brief filed in February, opposing Zivotofsky’s petition to have the Supreme Court hear the case, asserted that “grave foreign-relations and national-security consequences” would have resulted from a lower court decision in Zivotofsky’s favor, but the same brief acknowledges that the law affects only a “very small number of people” born in Jerusalem who might avail themselves of the option offered by the law. 

What were those grave consequences? The brief asserted that putting “Israel” on the passports of Zivotofsky and the “very small number” of other people would have “risked ‘caus[ing] irreversible damage’ to the United States’ ability to further the peace process in the Middle East.” 

Seriously? Irreversible damage? Menachem Zivotofsky’s passport is an obstacle to peace?  

Since the passage of the 2002 passport law, the damage to the peace process–most of it irreversible–has included: (1) the Palestinians’ failure in 2003 to dismantle their terrorist groups, as they promised; (2) the election of Hamas in 2006 to control the Palestinian parliament, which no longer functions; (3) the conversion of Gaza in 2007 to a terrorist mini-state that has conducted two rocket wars on Israel (so far); (4) the rejection in 2008 of Israel’s offer of a state on 100 percent of Gaza and the West Bank (after land swaps) with a capital in Jerusalem; (5) the refusal in 2009-10 to negotiate with Israel even during an unprecedented ten-month construction freeze; (6) the repeated attempts by the so-called Palestinian “peace partners” to “reconcile” with the terrorist group that rules Gaza; (7) repeated Palestinian breaches of their obligation not to take “any step” outside bilateral negotiations to change the legal status of the disputed territories; (8) incessant Palestinian incitement against Israel in media and schools, including grotesque, anti-Semitic portrayals and blatantly false assertions of “history”; (9) the complete failure to establish the rule of law, or even hold an election, and the abrupt dismissal of the non-corrupt Palestinian prime minister (Salam Fayyad); and (10) multiple declarations by the Palestinian “president,” now in the 10th year of his four-year term, that the Palestinians will “never” recognize a Jewish state.  

Meanwhile the Obama administration is fighting all the way to the Supreme Court to avoid putting “Israel”–not “Jerusalem, Israel,” just “Israel”–on the passport of a 12-year-old American boy born in Jerusalem, lest the “peace process” suffer “irreversible damage.” Seriously.

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Prisoner Releases Undermine Peace Process

Those seeking to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians might conclude that adding more terrorists into the equation is unlikely to help matters. That much stands to reason for most people. Unfortunately, this simple truth seems to be lost on Secretary of State John Kerry and his assistant in the negotiations, Martin Indyk. They are currently putting pressure on the Israelis to release the next installment of prisoners being demanded by the Palestinians. Supposedly this will help advance the two sides along the path to peace. Caught up in the ludicrous process of negotiating about negotiating, Kerry and Indyk might benefit from taking a step back and asking themselves what kind of partner for peace demands the release of terrorists. Terrorists belong in prison, and no one interested in a just and secure settlement between the two sides would for a moment think otherwise. Yet Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas doesn’t simply demand the release of these murderers; once they are released these individuals and their families are rewarded with fanfare and sizable cash payments.

Astonishingly, the Israeli government has already surrendered to pressure from the Obama administration and reluctantly capitulated to these outrageous demands. As David Horovitz recently wrote, in jeopardizing its most basic obligation to uphold the safety of its citizenry, Prime Minister Netanyahu undermines the legitimacy of his government. Up until now that government had continued to support Netanyahu in his policy of American-imposed appeasement of the Palestinians. However, following the recent terrorist attack on an Israeli family visiting Hebron for the Passover holiday, many of Netanyahu’s Cabinet members have insisted they will not go along with this policy any further until Abbas issues a full public condemnation.

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Those seeking to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians might conclude that adding more terrorists into the equation is unlikely to help matters. That much stands to reason for most people. Unfortunately, this simple truth seems to be lost on Secretary of State John Kerry and his assistant in the negotiations, Martin Indyk. They are currently putting pressure on the Israelis to release the next installment of prisoners being demanded by the Palestinians. Supposedly this will help advance the two sides along the path to peace. Caught up in the ludicrous process of negotiating about negotiating, Kerry and Indyk might benefit from taking a step back and asking themselves what kind of partner for peace demands the release of terrorists. Terrorists belong in prison, and no one interested in a just and secure settlement between the two sides would for a moment think otherwise. Yet Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas doesn’t simply demand the release of these murderers; once they are released these individuals and their families are rewarded with fanfare and sizable cash payments.

Astonishingly, the Israeli government has already surrendered to pressure from the Obama administration and reluctantly capitulated to these outrageous demands. As David Horovitz recently wrote, in jeopardizing its most basic obligation to uphold the safety of its citizenry, Prime Minister Netanyahu undermines the legitimacy of his government. Up until now that government had continued to support Netanyahu in his policy of American-imposed appeasement of the Palestinians. However, following the recent terrorist attack on an Israeli family visiting Hebron for the Passover holiday, many of Netanyahu’s Cabinet members have insisted they will not go along with this policy any further until Abbas issues a full public condemnation.

No one who is both honest and informed about the Palestinians will be at all surprised to learn that Abbas has failed to supply any kind of meaningful condemnation of this murderous attack. The best that the Palestinian president could muster were some words against the attack offered behind closed doors to a group of Israeli politicians visiting Ramallah earlier in the week. Yet Abbas steadfastly refused to come outside and publicly condemn the attacks to the waiting press. The Palestinians have presented Kerry with so many moments when he should have stepped away. This disgraceful refusal to fully condemn the cold-blooded murder of a father of five in front of his family should be the moment when Kerry’s underlying sense of decency kicks in and he washes his hands of Abbas. Yet he can’t and he won’t. He can’t bring himself to walk away from what many have long suspected of being a vanity project.

The Palestinian Authority’s incitement to terror through public pageants and its media network, as well as the financial backing it awards terrorists and Abbas’s shameless refusal to publicly condemn the murder of Israeli civilians, should all be enough to convince Kerry and his team that these are not people they should be mixed-up with. Instead, it seems that American officials are joining with the Palestinian Authority in pressuring for the release of more terrorists. If the last nine months of talks had shown any sign of progress at all, that would be one thing. But all the latest round of negotiations revealed was the full extent of Palestinian intransigence and unreasonableness. If Kerry and Indyk were to be honest with themselves, could they really still maintain that they are doing all this for the good of the two parties that they claim they want to help? And is there any way that it could be argued that weakening Israel and emboldening the Palestinians is at all in America’s interests?

Abbas’s latest affront has been too much for many of Netanyahu’s coalition partners as well as for some of his own ministers. It now seems, at least for the moment, that even if he wants to Netanyahu has no way of pursuing this prisoner release further without breaking up his government just for the sake of humoring Kerry’s “peace process” misadventure. 

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A Tale of Two Letters: Why the Peace Process Went Poof

Last week Zbigniew Brzezinski, joined by five other foreign-policy experts from the past, issued an open letter entitled “Stand Firm, John Kerry,” calling for “clarity” on “the critical moral and political issues” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The letter castigated Israeli settlements and proposed “halting the diplomatic process” to “help stop this activity.” At “Pressure Points,” Elliott Abrams dismantled the letter, noting that, among other things, it ignored history.  

As it happens, tomorrow is the 10th anniversary of one of the more important items of history the Brzezinski group ignored: the April 14, 2004 letter from President George W. Bush to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Abrams recounts how the letter went through “many drafts, as words, phrases, and paragraphs came in and out,” ending with a “headline” that was clear: “There would be no return to 1967 and Israel could keep the major settlement blocks.” In her  own memoir, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recounted spending three hours on the letter with Sharon the night before it was issued, and described the agreement to apply a “Google Earth test” for settlements: no new ones, no expanding the boundaries of them, but allowing building within existing settlements, since that would not reduce the land available for a Palestinian state. In his recent biography of Sharon, David Landau writes:

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Last week Zbigniew Brzezinski, joined by five other foreign-policy experts from the past, issued an open letter entitled “Stand Firm, John Kerry,” calling for “clarity” on “the critical moral and political issues” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The letter castigated Israeli settlements and proposed “halting the diplomatic process” to “help stop this activity.” At “Pressure Points,” Elliott Abrams dismantled the letter, noting that, among other things, it ignored history.  

As it happens, tomorrow is the 10th anniversary of one of the more important items of history the Brzezinski group ignored: the April 14, 2004 letter from President George W. Bush to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Abrams recounts how the letter went through “many drafts, as words, phrases, and paragraphs came in and out,” ending with a “headline” that was clear: “There would be no return to 1967 and Israel could keep the major settlement blocks.” In her  own memoir, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recounted spending three hours on the letter with Sharon the night before it was issued, and described the agreement to apply a “Google Earth test” for settlements: no new ones, no expanding the boundaries of them, but allowing building within existing settlements, since that would not reduce the land available for a Palestinian state. In his recent biography of Sharon, David Landau writes:

The American-Israeli diplomacy culminated in a hugely significant exchange of letters between Bush and Sharon in April 2004. In his letter, Sharon committed to carry out the [Gaza] disengagement. In his response, President Bush committed to back Israel on two vital issues: the Palestinian refugees would not return en masse to the State of Israel; and – by clear implication – the large settlement blocs on the West Bank, close to the 1967 line, would remain part of Israel in a final status agreement. Sharon regarded the exchange of letters as his most salient achievement as prime minister. He was probably right.

Last year, as Secretary Kerry was in Israel seeking to restart peace negotiations, an Israeli reporter asked him about “a guarantee from the past”–“telling that blocs of settlements can stay.” His question was straightforward: “does [the guarantee] exist?” Kerry responded: “I remember that commitment very well because I was running for president then, and I personally have supported the notion that the situation on the ground has changed.” Indeed, four days after the Bush letter was issued, Kerry was asked directly about it on Meet the Press:

MR. RUSSERT: On Thursday, President Bush … said that Israel can keep part of the land seized in the 1967 Middle East War and asserted the Palestinian refugees cannot go back to their particular homes. Do you support President Bush?

SEN. KERRY: Yes.

MR. RUSSERT: Completely?

SEN. KERRY: Yes.

The 2004 Bush letter was not simply a statement of policy; it was a negotiated deal, on which Israel relied in carrying out the Gaza disengagement, dismantling every settlement there and four others in the disputed territories as well. Sharon made the Bush letter part of the formal disengagement plan submitted to the Knesset for its approval. The U.S. Congress also endorsed the letter, in joint resolutions by the Senate (95-3) and House (407-9). The letter was endorsed in unambiguous terms by the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, who in 2013 as secretary of state correctly called it a “commitment.”

The Obama administration, when it took office in 2009, repeatedly refused to answer whether it was bound by the Bush letter. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denied there were any “enforceable” understandings with Israel. The day before Palestinian President Abbas met with President Obama, Clinton told the press Obama had been “very clear” with Prime Minister Netanyahu that he “wants to see a stop to settlements – not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions”–and that this had been “communicated very clearly, not only to the Israelis but to the Palestinians and others.” The same day, Abbas told the Washington Post he would do nothing but watch the Obama administration pressure Netanyahu. The administration eventually got a ten-month construction freeze, which both Clinton and Obama envoy George Mitchell called “unprecedented.” It produced nothing from the Palestinians other than a demand in the tenth month that it be continued.

Now flash forward five years, to Secretary of State Kerry’s April 8, 2014 Senate Foreign Relations Committee testimony, in which he said “both sides … wound up in positions where things happened that were unhelpful,” but that “when they were about to maybe [resume negotiations], 700 settlement units were announced in Jerusalem, and poof, that was sort of the moment.” Kerry knew the 700 “settlement units” [sic] were in a longstanding Jewish area in the capital of the Jewish state; that the area will be retained by Israel in any conceivable peace agreement; that Israel had made no commitment to Kerry to stop any construction there; and that Israel was working on an expanded prisoner release when the Palestinians went to the UN.

The peace process went “poof” not because of 700 units in Jerusalem, but because–for the third time in three years–the Palestinians violated the foundational agreement of the process, which obligates them not to take “any step” outside bilateral negotiations to change the status of the disputed territories. For the third time, the Palestinians went to the UN; for the third time, there was no American response; for the third time, there was no penalty for the violation; and on April 8, there was not even an honest assessment of the situation by the secretary of state.

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“Solving” Israel to Solve the Conflict

With the Israeli-Palestinian talks at an impasse, now would be the time for some fresh thinking on how to move forward. Two pieces have appeared in recent days offering advice on what could be done to make progress. Both are written in a highly skeptical tone about the probability of success, yet both essentially offer the same suggested remedy. Although they come at it from slightly different angles, when it comes down to it what they both propose is a pretty simple formula: more pressure on Israel. And while these writers may temper their arguments with a certain pessimism toward the process, they still tap into a more commonly held notion about Israeli concessions being the gateway to harmony in the region.

Writing for the Nation, Bob Dreyfuss argues that the United States must first posit its own detailed outline of what a final agreement should look like. Then what will be needed is an almighty amount of pressure to be brought against rejectionist Israel and, in all probability, the bringing down of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s “ultra-right” coalition. The other piece that comes to mind here is one by Aaron David Miller that appeared in the New Republic under the title Five Lessons That Could Save John Kerry’s Peace-Process Efforts. Miller served as an advisor to Secretary of State James Baker, and so perhaps unsurprisingly Miller recommends applying Baker’s approach. If it were possible to summarize the Baker doctrine on peace in the Middle East, it might be: the application of unrelenting and non-negotiable pressure on Israel. Miller paints this strategy as having been some unprecedented example of how to operate with success. While U.S.-Israel relations became more strained during that period than they have ever been under Obama, it is not clear what Baker and Miller actually achieved for all their trouble.

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With the Israeli-Palestinian talks at an impasse, now would be the time for some fresh thinking on how to move forward. Two pieces have appeared in recent days offering advice on what could be done to make progress. Both are written in a highly skeptical tone about the probability of success, yet both essentially offer the same suggested remedy. Although they come at it from slightly different angles, when it comes down to it what they both propose is a pretty simple formula: more pressure on Israel. And while these writers may temper their arguments with a certain pessimism toward the process, they still tap into a more commonly held notion about Israeli concessions being the gateway to harmony in the region.

Writing for the Nation, Bob Dreyfuss argues that the United States must first posit its own detailed outline of what a final agreement should look like. Then what will be needed is an almighty amount of pressure to be brought against rejectionist Israel and, in all probability, the bringing down of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s “ultra-right” coalition. The other piece that comes to mind here is one by Aaron David Miller that appeared in the New Republic under the title Five Lessons That Could Save John Kerry’s Peace-Process Efforts. Miller served as an advisor to Secretary of State James Baker, and so perhaps unsurprisingly Miller recommends applying Baker’s approach. If it were possible to summarize the Baker doctrine on peace in the Middle East, it might be: the application of unrelenting and non-negotiable pressure on Israel. Miller paints this strategy as having been some unprecedented example of how to operate with success. While U.S.-Israel relations became more strained during that period than they have ever been under Obama, it is not clear what Baker and Miller actually achieved for all their trouble.

Both of these pieces are only able to pursue their line of argument by refusing to acknowledge the full reality of recent events. The line that Israel is impossibly intransigent has simply become enshrined as a doctrine unalterable by real events. Dreyfuss’s recounting of the collapse of the latest talks is an all but unrecognizable version of reality. He protests that Netanyahu breached his commitments by expanding settlements and refused to release the last group of prisoners. But settlements were never subject to the concessions the Palestinians were bribed with before they would consent to their participation in talks. In any case, the last round of prisoners would have been released like all the others had the Palestinians not announced that they were about to leave talks regardless of how many additional terrorists Israel offered to let lose.  

In Dreufuss’s view pressure on the Israeli side is warranted because Palestinian leader Abbas is essentially powerless. Yet if that’s true then it might legitimately be asked whether Abbas really has the ability to give Israelis any reliable assurances of peace in return for concessions that greatly weaken Israel’s security if those assurances aren’t guaranteed. Indeed, in both the case of Miller and Dreyfuss’s article, one wonders why, if the deal on offer is really evenhanded and promises an end to the conflict, would the Israelis need so much pressuring?

Miller’s piece acknowledges that under present circumstances there is little to be gained from pressuring either side. Yet Miller seems convinced that in the event that there was an opening for peace, it would be the Israelis that would need to be forced into it and he expresses his concern that this administration hasn’t got what it takes to get tough with Israel. Not like in the good old days of Baker when the U.S. would withhold loan guarantees needed to help absorb Jews from the former Soviet Union as punishment for Prime Minister Shamir not agreeing to the additional demand of freezing construction in Jerusalem as well as the West Bank. All that any of this achieved was the spectacle of the Madrid conference, which pandered to Arab demands for an international conference from which to condemn Zionism.

Perhaps it would be claimed that Madrid somehow opened the way toward the Oslo accords, but since neither side considers that to have been an overwhelming success, it’s not clear why we should celebrate Baker’s conference. Indeed, a more concrete result of the Baker diplomacy was the move to frame Israel as the problem and thus assault its underlying legitimacy. This is the assumption that both of these pieces rest on; that to solve the conflict you must first solve Israel.

Dreyfuss has a couple of telling things to say about such a solution. As well as claiming that everyone knows what that solution will look like he also claims that “Israel holds all the high cards.” The arguments put forward by Dreyfuss and Miller are really the logical conclusion of believing that this is a territorial conflict, in which case by holding the territory Israel does hold all the high cards, and so, Israel is the problem for blocking peace by retaining territory. As such, Israel will remain vilified until it can make the case that this conflict has never been about two states, but rather the destruction of one state: the Jewish state.  

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Abbas Bets on Kerry’s Desperation

The Palestinians have had a fairly willing enabler in John Kerry so far, but if today’s New York Times report is right, they may have finally overplayed their hand. According to the Times, both sides have asked Martin Indyk to extend the talks, which were on the verge of disintegration after the Palestinians walked away. But the Palestinians are now saying they can be lured back to the table … for a price.

Apparently the Palestinians will resume negotiations on the principle that the negotiations never actually ended as long as the Israelis are made to act as though the talks crumbled and the resumption is actually a new round starting from scratch. Here’s the logic, such as it is:

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The Palestinians have had a fairly willing enabler in John Kerry so far, but if today’s New York Times report is right, they may have finally overplayed their hand. According to the Times, both sides have asked Martin Indyk to extend the talks, which were on the verge of disintegration after the Palestinians walked away. But the Palestinians are now saying they can be lured back to the table … for a price.

Apparently the Palestinians will resume negotiations on the principle that the negotiations never actually ended as long as the Israelis are made to act as though the talks crumbled and the resumption is actually a new round starting from scratch. Here’s the logic, such as it is:

Mr. Netanyahu said on Sunday that Israel would take its own “unilateral steps” in response to the Palestinians’ move last week to join 15 international treaties and conventions and reiterated that a Palestinian state could be created “only through direct negotiations, not through empty statements and not by unilateral moves.”

The Palestinians said they took the contentious step only because Israel reneged on a promise to release a group of long-serving prisoners by the end of March, breaking its own commitment as part of the negotiations.

So that’s step one: the pretext. The Palestinians say they took their unilateral steps because Israel didn’t release all the murderers it was supposed to. Those unilateral steps consisted of pushing applications to join various international conventions. According to this logic, if Israel releases the rest of those terrorists, the talks should resume. Except:

Muhammad Shtayyeh, a senior Palestinian official who resigned as a negotiator in the midst of the current talks, said on Monday that Mr. Abbas’s application to join the international entities was “irreversible” and represented a “paradigm shift” in which Palestinians would pursue other options in parallel with bilateral negotiations. But he, too, suggested that there could yet be a way out of the crisis.

“We are keeping the door open for any serious talks,” he said at a briefing in Ramallah. “We have time between today and the 29th of April. If the Israeli side is serious, we are ready for that.”

So there’s no going back. But there is a way to salvage the talks, according to the Palestinians. More concessions from Israel, with no concurrent Palestinian concessions, will bring them back to the table:

Mr. Shtayyeh rejected Israel’s demand that the applications to the entities be withdrawn and said Palestinians want to separate the issues of the release of the promised fourth batch of prisoners from that of extending the timetable for the talks. He said extending negotiations would require either a freeze on construction in West Bank settlements or the Israeli presentation of a map outlining the future borders of the promised two states.

So the two sides are to treat the negotiations as if they are beginning anew, not continuing the previous round of talks? Not exactly:

“The release of prisoners is part of an agreement, and no compromise can be accepted,” Yasser Abed Rabbo, a close aide to Mr. Abbas and an officer of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, said Sunday on the Voice of Palestine radio station.

Even if you are sympathetic to the Palestinian side in this argument, this is plainly transparent. If the Palestinians believe Israel must release the rest of the terrorists for talks to continue, then that should theoretically be the only requirement for Abbas to pretend to negotiate again. It would be appropriate for Abbas to then take back the unilateral action he claims he took in response to Israel’s action (or perceived inaction, as it were), since even he associates the two.

He doesn’t want to do that. He wants to exact a price for this delay. If you’re still with him so far, he gets the original prisoner release in order to return to negotiations plus a penalty of sorts against Israel for the delay by applying to join the international agencies and conventions. That should be it, right? Nope–Abbas wants another precondition, such as a settlement freeze, as though the process were starting from the beginning or Israel wouldn’t release the rest of the terrorists, when in fact he acts as though both were true.

What’s the argument in favor of a round of concessions as preconditions in addition to releasing the terrorists? Abbas is playing Kerry. He assumes that Kerry is sufficiently desperate for negotiations that he’ll lean on Netanyahu to give Abbas whatever he wants. In all likelihood, the Israeli Cabinet (except for Tzipi Livni) will get tired of this game, which suits Abbas just fine, since he doesn’t seem to want an actual peace deal but rather a disaster he can blame on the Israelis. The question is whether Kerry–or any representative of the Obama administration–can ever get tired of scapegoating Netanyahu.

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The Retrograde Israeli Left

Listening to Israel’s “progressives” you might think it was still 1994, as if two decades of failed peace efforts, Palestinian intransigence, and unrelenting incitement and terrorism had simply never happened. They speak as if they’re still living in some heyday of the Oslo peace accords. Naturally, it is the role of the political opposition in any democracy to find fault with the actions of governing political rivals, but what Israel’s left-wing politicians are saying goes far beyond normal critique of government policy despite the fact that, although they would never admit it, the current government’s strategy for peace talks is not fundamentally different from what they themselves propose.

On Monday Israel’s parliament convened from its recess for a session on the peace talks, as had been called for by 25 Knesset members, only 15 of whom bothered to show up. But perhaps those who stayed away were the wiser; in reality this supposedly urgent session was little more than a shameless opportunity for opposition politicians to capitalize on the failure of the latest round of peace talks. Pouring scorn on Prime Minister Netanyahu, left-wing party leaders called for everything from new elections to a breakup of the coalition and the formation of a new government. Political ambitions aside, what these individuals really displayed was a total unwillingness to recognize any of what has been happening in the last few months–really, the last few decades. Israel’s left is stuck in a time warp and whereas the right is increasingly looking to formulate new alternatives, the backward-looking left appears utterly unable to adapt to current realities.

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Listening to Israel’s “progressives” you might think it was still 1994, as if two decades of failed peace efforts, Palestinian intransigence, and unrelenting incitement and terrorism had simply never happened. They speak as if they’re still living in some heyday of the Oslo peace accords. Naturally, it is the role of the political opposition in any democracy to find fault with the actions of governing political rivals, but what Israel’s left-wing politicians are saying goes far beyond normal critique of government policy despite the fact that, although they would never admit it, the current government’s strategy for peace talks is not fundamentally different from what they themselves propose.

On Monday Israel’s parliament convened from its recess for a session on the peace talks, as had been called for by 25 Knesset members, only 15 of whom bothered to show up. But perhaps those who stayed away were the wiser; in reality this supposedly urgent session was little more than a shameless opportunity for opposition politicians to capitalize on the failure of the latest round of peace talks. Pouring scorn on Prime Minister Netanyahu, left-wing party leaders called for everything from new elections to a breakup of the coalition and the formation of a new government. Political ambitions aside, what these individuals really displayed was a total unwillingness to recognize any of what has been happening in the last few months–really, the last few decades. Israel’s left is stuck in a time warp and whereas the right is increasingly looking to formulate new alternatives, the backward-looking left appears utterly unable to adapt to current realities.

The reading of the failure of negotiations offered by Labor leader Isaac Herzog was hardly convincing. It essentially amounts to: Abbas is no picnic, but that’s beside the point because Netanyahu is infinitely worse. Apparently ignoring the fact that Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas is now without any democratic mandate, not to mention the way in which he already rejected the remarkably generous offers of Olmert’s Kadima government in 2008, Herzog announced before the Knesset, “Abu Mazen is a tough and infuriating partner and sometimes very exasperating, and can even be depressing, (but) he is our partner and there is no point at all in wishing otherwise.” Yet of Netanyahu Herzog had this to say: “We are on the edge of a volcano and the public does not understand the severity of the situation, and all of the blame is on a prime minister who is incapable of doing anything. The entire process has collapsed because as far as Netanyahu is concerned there is no place for taking real steps for peace.”

What these “real steps” are remains unclear, but presumably the offer of another 400 security prisoners going free and a partial settlement freeze doesn’t really cut it for those in the business of taking “real steps for peace.” Of course to admit otherwise would be to concede that Abbas is anything but the partner that Herzog insists he is. It is certainly remarkable that Herzog could claim, with a straight face, that “all of the blame” lies with Netanyahu. This desperate need to excuse the Palestinians, no matter how ridiculous, was also the order of the day for Labor MK Eitan Cabel who, during the same debate, declared “I’m not defending the Palestinians, but it’s amazing how people act like they’re shocked that the Palestinians have demands. Isn’t that the meaning of negotiations?” The Palestinian demand that Israel agree to all the final outcomes of the negotiations before they even got underway may seem a little unreasonable to some, yet, if this line of saying “yes the Palestinians don’t act like they want peace but…” was ever convincing then it certainly ceased to be so quite some time ago.  

These were the same delusions being pushed by Meretz. MK Tamar Zandberg was particularly critical of Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and chief negotiator Tzipi Livni, rubbishing the government’s efforts and asserting, “If we needed a negotiating process for them to accept the destructive thesis that there is no partner only so that they could stay in a coalition that undermines it, then thanks but no thanks. If you can’t do it then let’s break up the coalition and choose someone who can do the work.” Meretz’s leader Zahava Gal-On similarly singled out the centrist party leaders for propping up this supposedly anti-peace coalition, claiming that “this government does not really want to reach an accord” and referred to Livni and Lapid as “fig leaves which grant legitimacy to pointless negotiations.”

In her suggestion that these negotiations have been pointless, many Israelis will agree with the Meretz leader, only for quite different reasons. They know that if Abbas was ever serious about these talks it was only ever as a means for extracting as many concessions from Israel as possible. There are also many Israelis who, contrary to the statements above, doubt that the Palestinians are capable of being partners for peace and as such, figures on the right are starting to float new proposals for unilateral ways out of this impasse. The left, stuck in the past, has nothing new to offer, just more of the same. 

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UN Bodies Double-Edged Sword for Palestinians

Speaking on Thursday night, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas declared that he would rather “become a martyr” than withdraw the applications that the Palestinians have submitted to 15 international treaties and conventions, as Israel has insisted he must do. Not one to pass up the opportunity for melodrama, Abbas’s pronouncement will hardly cause any shockwaves, but if he continues with this reckless policy of joining international bodies then Abbas may well find himself hoisted by his own petard. While legal experts are divided about the practical ramifications of these latest moves, there are certain international organizations that, were the PA to join them, would likely render Abbas open prosecution himself.

The events surrounding this latest Palestinian action–that likely symbolize the final blow to the latest round of talks–have already been pored over in detail, and no doubt will continue to be contested and fought over a great deal more. The simple chronology is that on Tuesday, shortly before Abbas was to meet with Secretary Kerry and while Israel was awaiting a response from Abbas to its ludicrously generous offer to release more than 400 Palestinian prisoners and partially freeze settlements in return for extending peace talks, Abbas had the PA submit requests to join 15 international conventions and treaties. This, it should be recalled, is despite the fact that the PA is obligated to refrain from such actions while talks continue through to the end of April, although strictly speaking the Oslo accords prohibit such actions in any event.

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Speaking on Thursday night, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas declared that he would rather “become a martyr” than withdraw the applications that the Palestinians have submitted to 15 international treaties and conventions, as Israel has insisted he must do. Not one to pass up the opportunity for melodrama, Abbas’s pronouncement will hardly cause any shockwaves, but if he continues with this reckless policy of joining international bodies then Abbas may well find himself hoisted by his own petard. While legal experts are divided about the practical ramifications of these latest moves, there are certain international organizations that, were the PA to join them, would likely render Abbas open prosecution himself.

The events surrounding this latest Palestinian action–that likely symbolize the final blow to the latest round of talks–have already been pored over in detail, and no doubt will continue to be contested and fought over a great deal more. The simple chronology is that on Tuesday, shortly before Abbas was to meet with Secretary Kerry and while Israel was awaiting a response from Abbas to its ludicrously generous offer to release more than 400 Palestinian prisoners and partially freeze settlements in return for extending peace talks, Abbas had the PA submit requests to join 15 international conventions and treaties. This, it should be recalled, is despite the fact that the PA is obligated to refrain from such actions while talks continue through to the end of April, although strictly speaking the Oslo accords prohibit such actions in any event.

It is unclear whether the Palestinians ever directly responded to the initial Israeli offer, but instead they issued a counter-set of demands for agreeing to continue with negotiations. That list of demands essentially amounts to an itinerary of all the things that one would presume would be covered during the talks themselves. In other words, Abbas is demanding that Israel flatly agree to meet all his requirements on borders, Jerusalem, security, etc., prior to talks being resumed, at which point there would of course be nothing left to discuss. It hardly passes for what most would understand by the term “negotiation.” And if Israel doesn’t submit to all of this then apparently the Palestinians will plow ahead with their strategy of joining UN bodies.

There is, however, significant disagreement about just how damaging these moves could really be for Israel. So far it appears that in this latest round of applications the Palestinians have restricted their requests to joining treaties and conventions rather than actual UN organizations. Among the 15 they requested to join on Tuesday are the Fourth Geneva Conventions, the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, the Hague Convention respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. It has been suggested that the move toward joining the Hague Convention may be part of preparation to try and prosecute Israel over construction in Jewish communities over the 1949 armistice lines, which would include any building throughout most of Jerusalem. Other observers, such as professor Robbie Sabel of the Hebrew University, have claimed that since Israel is already bound by the Fourth Geneva Convention, it will not make any difference whether the Palestinian Authority were also to become a member.   

Predictably, Amnesty International has welcomed these moves and condemned Israel for the threats that Cabinet ministers have made about sanctioning the Palestinian Authority for its breach of its obligations. Indeed, Amnesty International is even urging the Palestinians to go further, encouraging the PA to also submit requests to join both the International Criminal Court and the Rome Statute. Yet there is good reason why the Palestinians have not already attempted this. While the statement by Amnesty International was naturally gleeful about the prospect of opening the way to bringing charges against Israel for its presence and activities in the West Bank, the statement further noted that such a move would also allow for holding the Palestinian Authority to account for its “alleged” violations. Of course, one can’t help but come away from Amnesty’s statement with the impression that Israel’s “abuses” are presumed genuine; the Palestinian Authority’s are merely “alleged,” with the statement referring to how this move would “spur the Palestinian Authority into bolstering its commitment to upholding the rights of all people.” Well, that’s certainly one commitment that if ever made, could surely do with some bolstering.

The PA’s human-rights violations against other Palestinians may not be well publicized but they are no secret either. Israel’s Economy Minister Naftali Bennett has even spoken of pursuing the PA at the ICC for its sponsorship of terrorism. That is certainly a reminder that in the event that the Palestinians were ever to join these more significant bodies, we need not assume that attempts at prosecution would be all in one direction. And it is for that very reason that Abbas will no doubt be far more cautious about applying to join the international organizations that actually carry the most significant clout. In the meantime the diplomatic war of words, threats, and counter-threats goes on. We are pretty much back to where we were before Kerry’s embarrassingly ill-conceived process began: negotiating about negotiating. 

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How Many Palestinians Would Endorse a Jewish State?

In “The Real ‘Jewish State’ Story,” Ben-Dror Yemini, a senior Maariv journalist, notes the issue of Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state was not raised first by Benjamin Netanyahu. It was not raised first by the Israeli right. It was not raised recently. It was part of the 2000 Clinton Parameters, which proposed “the state of Palestine as the homeland of the Palestinian people and the state of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people.”

Yemini notes that recognition of a Jewish state is endorsed across the entire Israeli political spectrum, both within and without the governing coalition.

The Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) has just released a new poll, conducted March 20-22 in the West Bank and Gaza, in which one of the polling questions raised this issue:

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In “The Real ‘Jewish State’ Story,” Ben-Dror Yemini, a senior Maariv journalist, notes the issue of Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state was not raised first by Benjamin Netanyahu. It was not raised first by the Israeli right. It was not raised recently. It was part of the 2000 Clinton Parameters, which proposed “the state of Palestine as the homeland of the Palestinian people and the state of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people.”

Yemini notes that recognition of a Jewish state is endorsed across the entire Israeli political spectrum, both within and without the governing coalition.

The Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) has just released a new poll, conducted March 20-22 in the West Bank and Gaza, in which one of the polling questions raised this issue:

There is a proposal that after the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and the settlement of all issues in dispute, including the refugees and Jerusalem issues, there will be mutual recognition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people and Palestine as the state of the Palestinian people. Do you agree or disagree to this proposal?” [Emphasis added].

The percentage of Palestinians that “certainly agreed” was 3 percent. A total of 58.5 percent disagreed.

In other words–just as Israel’s Ron Dermer asserted at AIPAC five years ago–the Palestinian refusal to recognize a Jewish state does not involve the refugees. The poll assumed “all issues in dispute” were settled, including the refugees. But even with no other issue remaining on the hypothetical table, a lopsided majority of Palestinians rejected a Jewish state.

The Palestinians push a specious “right of return” (which no other refugee group has ever been granted, much less Arab ones from a war the Arabs started). They express faux concern for the Arab minority in Israel, but those Arabs have far more civil and religious rights than they would under a Palestinian state (according to the PCPSR poll, only 31 percent believe people in the West Bank can criticize the PA; only 22 percent believe people in Gaza can criticize Hamas).

In 1947, the UN proposed a two-state solution involving an “Arab state” and a “Jewish state.” The Arabs rejected the resolution, rejected a state for themselves, and started a war. They still reject a Jewish state 66 years later. Yemini ends his article as follows:

[A]nyone who justifies the Palestinian refusal is not bringing peace any closer, but rather pushing the chances of a two state solution further away … On this issue [Netanyahu] deserves total support. Not to torpedo peace. But just the opposite. To pave the way to peace.

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Twelve Questions About the “Peace Process”

In today’s New York Times, a letter from Dov Bruce Krulwich in Beit Shemesh, Israel, asks two questions about the possible release of Jonathan Pollard to encourage Israel to release Palestinian murderers to convince the Palestinians to discuss a Palestinian state, even though the Palestinians “refuse even to agree that the end game involves two states for two peoples”:

Shouldn’t a people who have never had a state be the ones making goodwill gestures to continue a process that will benefit them the most?

Why weren’t the previous good-will gestures, not to mention all the good-will gestures in the past 20 years, enough to expect the Palestinians to take a step themselves?

Those questions lead to some of my own:

In today’s New York Times, a letter from Dov Bruce Krulwich in Beit Shemesh, Israel, asks two questions about the possible release of Jonathan Pollard to encourage Israel to release Palestinian murderers to convince the Palestinians to discuss a Palestinian state, even though the Palestinians “refuse even to agree that the end game involves two states for two peoples”:

Shouldn’t a people who have never had a state be the ones making goodwill gestures to continue a process that will benefit them the most?

Why weren’t the previous good-will gestures, not to mention all the good-will gestures in the past 20 years, enough to expect the Palestinians to take a step themselves?

Those questions lead to some of my own:

  • Why do people have to be paid–in the form of cash, prisoners, freezes, etc.–to convince them to show up to negotiate a state for themselves?
  • Why do people who have signed a formal agreement, obligating themselves not to take “any step” outside bilateral negotiations to change the status of the disputed territories, have to be paid to convince them to adhere to their agreement?
  • Why are people who have already been offered (and rejected) a state three times in the last decade–with each offer covering substantially all of the disputed territories and a capital in Jerusalem–entitled to a fourth offer?
  • Why is a putative Palestinian state, ruled half by a terrorist group and half by a “president” currently in the 10th year of his four-year term, with the two groups unable to live side by side in peace with each other (much less Israel), ready to be a state–even assuming agreement could be reached on its borders or any other issue?
  • Why is U.S. foreign policy–with the Arab world in a state of chaos ranging from Libya to Egypt to Syria to Lebanon–fixated on trying to establish another already-failed state right next to Israel?

Which brings one again to the two questions posed by Dennis Ross last month in the course of summarizing the Israeli position in the current impasse:

[I]f you [the Palestinians] believe in two states, why is it that Israel being the nation-state of the Jewish people is something that you can’t accept?

Why is it that self-determination for the Jewish people in a part of historic Palestine is something that you [the Palestinians] can’t embrace?

As the American secretary of state reduces his goal from (a) reaching a peace agreement to (b) reaching a “framework” for an agreement to (c) simply keeping the Palestinian “president” at the negotiating table for six months, to be purchased by more Israeli pre-negotiation concessions, the pertinent questions include those that Elliott Abrams asked yesterday:

Where does it stop? What are the limiting principles? …What will [the secretary of state] want next year [from Israel] when Abbas threatens to leave the table again?

The history of the “peace process” is now several stages past tragedy and farce. The side that supposedly wants a state won’t discuss one without compensation to do so; won’t accept a state as an end-of-claims solution but only as a stage in a continuing attempt to “return” to the other one; won’t agree that “two states for two peoples” is the goal of the process, much less explicitly recognize a Jewish state; can’t even hold an election, much less manage a stable state; ignores obligations under its prior agreement with Israel while asking Israel to believe it would abide by a new one; has already demonstrated three times in less than a decade it will not accept the “Everyone [Supposedly] Knows” peace plan; and does not even have a “president” legally in office, able to negotiate on behalf of all Palestinian groups, much less enforce any agreement he might reach.

Meanwhile, the U.S. leans on Israel, because a Palestinian state remains the central goal of an American foreign policy that long ago lost sight of the fact that–under the above circumstances–a Palestinian state would not be a “solution” to anything.

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