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    Middle East
     Oct 8, 2010


Middle East squeeze on Obama
By Victor Kotsev

TEL AVIV - Two years ago, Israeli journalist Bradley Burston wrote an article in the form of 10 pieces of advice to then newly elected United States president. He cautioned Barack Obama: ''Israelis and Palestinians both will greet your arrival with maddening moves, some of them designed specifically to derail your progress, some of them simply having this as a side effect.'' [1] In light of the deadlock over the West Bank settlement moratorium, Burston appears prescient.

Clearly, time is running out on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, even as a massive American-led effort is underway to save them. Amid conflicting media reports, it is not easy to determine the exact parameters of ongoing bargaining, and the official sources

 

are unusually tight-lipped. United States think-tank Stratfor writes: ''The Israelis have resumed settlement construction but do not want the peace talks with the Palestinians to end... This might either be an extraordinarily clever ploy of which the meaning is not yet evident, or just an incoherent policy. It would be nice to figure this out.''

To many observers, it appears that something close to a miracle is needed to keep the peace process going. In the analysis of Foreign Policy editor Blake Hounshell, ''We're no longer in the middle of a negotiation; we're well into the blame game, with each side trying to hang the likely failure of the talks around the necks of the other.'' [2]

According to a report in Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, work on 350 new housing units has started in the settlements since the settlement moratorium expired late last month: an impressive construction effort, carried out in part by numerous Palestinian workers who themselves face threats of persecution from the Palestinian Authority.

For his part, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has repeatedly threatened to walk out on the negotiations if the settlement freeze is not extended - and even to resign and to dismantle the PA down the line. Likely alluding to the latter scenario, he ominously promised to ''declare historical decisions'' during an Arab League meeting called to address the crisis.

Attesting to the intense negotiations underway to avoid an abrupt end to the peace talks, the summit was already delayed twice and is expected to take place on Friday.

The Obama administration seems desperate. The US president called for a two-month renewal of the Israeli moratorium on settlement construction and, according to a report last week by David Makovsky, offered a letter with wide-ranging incentives and guarantees to Netanyahu. [3] The offer, which Harvard Professor Stephen Walt denounced as a form of ''begging'', [4] and which US officials attempted to deny as soon as it was leaked out, [5] further polarized an Israeli government already divided over the issue. It is unclear whether Netanyahu, even if he wished to oblige Obama, would be able to do so, since a number of his ministers have rejected the idea out of hand.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, one of the staunchest opponents of an extension, broke protocol recently and delivered a speech at the UN in which he expressed his view that peace would not be possible in this generation. In a subsequent interview, he added that the American push for an extension of the moratorium was a dangerous ploy to impose a withdrawal to the 1967 lines on Israel. On this issue he is supported by the religious party Shas, which has a number of supporters living beyond the Green Line.

The most prominent supporter of extending the moratorium, on the other hand, is Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak - the leader of the Labor party which represents the moderate wing of the Netanyahu government. Rumor has it that Barak was instrumental in drafting Obama's letter. Meanwhile, several other Israeli ministers are undecided, while, according to Jim Lobe, a number of pro-Israeli lobbies in the United States are pushing Netanyahu to accept the offer. [6]

According to several recent Ha'aretz reports, Netanyahu has already agreed to extend the moratorium. ''Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will convene his forum of top ministers on Tuesday afternoon to debate extending Israel's moratorium on construction in West Bank settlements for 60 days,'' wrote Ha'aretz on Monday. As of Wednesday evening, however, no such meeting had taken place. The Israeli prime minister, moreover, has insisted that ''restrained and moderate construction in Judea and Samaria in the next year will not even affect the peace process.''

Furthermore, for all the hype over the American letter, it is unclear that Obama promised Netanyahu anything that the Israelis did not expect to receive anyway. Some of the military hardware mentioned in the report by Makovsky - for example, the F-35 fighter jets - has already been approved for sale to Israel. Far from craving additional units, the Israelis have been debating the high cost of the jet and considering scaling down their purchases. [7]

In the diplomacy field, to give another example, Obama's commitment to Israel's security needs is also something that the US president has voiced previously. This stance is unlikely to change: a majority of the American voters support Israel, as does a majority of congress (a support that is likely only to increase following the November mid-term elections).

Obama admittedly does not have much of a leeway to be generous - any offer to the Israelis that would appear too capitulating to the Palestinians could destroy his credibility as an honest broker, and thus torpedo the talks and defeat its own purpose. Consequently, one way to overcome the domestic opposition to the freeze is for Netanyahu to make a significant concession to his right-wing partners in addition to Obama's letter.
There are signs that this is already in the works: on Wednesday, the Israeli prime minister approved a draft law that requires anyone applying for Israeli citizenship to swear an oath of loyalty to ''Jewish, democratic Israel''. [8] According to Ha'aretz's Jonathan Lis, ''allies at both ends of the political spectrum and the Labor party hope that his latest concession is a sop to right-wingers ahead of a decision to renew a ban on settlement building in the West Bank.''

Whether the measure will pass, or make Lieberman more accommodating, is unclear, as is whether that would make things much easier for the US government. Several Israeli-Arab leaders have already responded angrily, and, moreover, the law seems directed specifically at the Palestinian Authority's refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish national state; [9] for an analysis of the significance of this issue, see This isn't about semantics (ynetnew.com, September 15, 2010). Even if Abbas, under US pressure, stomachs this blow without leaving the negotiations, his internal position would weaken and this would make him less forthcoming subsequently.

While most of the above analysis is focused on Israel, it is important also to take into account the US pressure on the Palestinians as well as the internal bargaining that is taking place on their side, too. Abbas, for example, recently renewed his efforts to reconcile with his rivals in Hamas, something that is likely directly related to the negotiations and reportedly angered the Israelis. It remains to be seen what, if any, further concessions he will be able to extract from the Americans in exchange for continuing the talks.

The future of the peace process is uncertain, but it is hard to avoid the realization that the two sides, in a way, have so far supported each other's tricks on Obama's peacemaking efforts, despite their seemingly diverging goals and aspirations. For example, Netanyahu likely calculated the timing of his freeze so that it would expire right before the US congressional election, when Obama's hands would be tied, and he would be able to bargain from a superior position.

Such a calculation, however, hinges on the assumption that the talks would be at most in their early stages when the moratorium expired, something that Abbas helped ensure by refusing to enter direct negotiations until a month before the end of the freeze. Until practically the last moment, the Palestinian president stuck to his decision not to enter direct talks, perhaps in an effort to increase the American pressure on Israel and thus to cause Netanyahu's government to collapse. [10]

Perhaps, in fact, both leaders have sensed Obama's weakness: the US administration publicly set peace in the Middle East as one of its top priorities and consequently implicitly declared its willingness to pay a high price for its achievement. By continuously playing brinkmanship, Netanyahu and Abbas are not only trying to squeeze more out of each other, but also are collectively squeezing the Americans.

It could also be argued that such a strategy constitutes a desperate attempt from both sides to keep America's attention (and aid) focused on the region. It is no secret that Obama wants a breakthrough on the Middle Eastern peace front to a large extent in order to concentrate more efficiently on other policy issues. An American shift away from the Levant is neither in Israeli nor in Palestinian interest, and one way to interpret the actions of both sides is as a pre-emption of such a development. Regardless whether this interpretation is correct, both Israelis and Palestinians are giving Obama a harder time than he likely ever anticipated.

Notes:


1. Ten Mideast traps for Barack Obama to avoid, Ha'aretz, Jul 22, 2008.
2. The Middle East blame game begins, Foreign Policy, Oct 7, 2010.
3. Dear Prime Minister: US efforts to keep the peace process on track, Policy Watch/Peace Watch, Sep 29, 2010.
4. Rewarding failure: A new low in Middle East diplomacy, Foreign Policy, Sep 30, 2010.
5. Officials: Obama made no vows to Netanyahu, ynetnews.com, Sep 30, 2010.
6. US scrambles to save peace talks, Asia Times Online, Oct 6, 2010.
7. Israel decides to buy F-35 fighter jets, despite row over cost of deal, Ha'aretz, Sep 16, 2010.
8. PM to introduce amendment to Citizenship Act, ynews.com, Oct 6, 2010.
9. Abbas: Israel can call itself Jewish-Zionist empire, ynews.com, Sep 21, 2010.
10. Lieberman's election campaign has begun, Ha'aretz, Oct 6, 2010.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst based in Tel Aviv.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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