Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas may have opened the door to his government’s joining the International Criminal Court on New Year’s Eve when he signed the Rome Statute, the 2002 treaty that created the court. But that doesn’t make the Palestinian Authority — or the State of Palestine, as the United Nations now calls it — a member of the court. Not yet, anyway.
The road from signing the treaty to hauling Israelis before the court on war crimes charges — the road from Rome to The Hague, as Ynet’s Elior Levy put it — is still long and complicated. Abbas has flexed some muscles and shown his people some moxie, but he hasn’t yet declared judicial war on Israel, and it’s not entirely clear that he can — or even that he wants to.
What he’s been doing, it appears, is building, slowly, step by step, a legal-diplomatic edifice that may eventually make that possible. But he still has some hurdles to cross. And there are still opportunities for Jerusalem and Washington to stop the process. His end goal is not getting Israelis thrown in jail, but getting them out of his people’s lives.
If Abbas’s State of Palestine were to be accepted as member-state of the court, it would be entitled to bring charges of war crimes perpetrated against it. At first glance Israel might not seem to be vulnerable, because the rules of the court only apply to countries that are members. Israel is not a member. However, the court specifically allows member-states to bring charges over crimes committed on their territory, even if the alleged perpetrator wasn’t a member-state.
The whole tactic of going to the court carries high risks for Abbas and his allies. He heads up a government that includes the terrorist Hamas, with its long record of intentional, bloody attacks on civilians that unambiguously constitute war crimes. Palestinian leaders might find themselves more vulnerable to prosecution than Israelis.
What could Israel be charged with? The obvious charges involve the large-scale death and property destruction wreaked on Gaza during the three wars against Hamas over the past six years. There are disputes about the proportion of civilians among the dead, but no one questions that there were a lot of them. But it’s not at all clear that those deaths, horrific as they are, would be indictable as war crimes.
The Palestinian effort to have the U.N. Security Council set a deadline for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank failed to win the necessary nine votes for approval this afternoon. Palestinian spokesmen had spoken confidently before the vote of winning nine or even 10 votes. But two nations whose support they said they expected, Nigeria and South Korea, ended up abstaining. In the end eight nations voted for the resolution, two voted no and five abstained.
The outcome ended up confirming what some Palestinian and Israeli spokesmen had said weeks ago: that the resolution would fall short if it came up for a vote in 2014. Palestinian chief peace negotiator Saeb Erekat had warned in a December 15 interview with an Arabic-language Israeli radio station that the resolution didn’t have nine votes.
Jordan, which holds the Arab group’s seat on the Security Council, was said to be pushing for a delay in the vote until next week, when five new members take their seats, including fiercely anti-Israel Malaysia, which will take the Asia-Pacific seat currently held by South Korea. But the Palestinians insisted on holding the vote before the New Year’s holiday.
Jordan submitted the resolution to the Security Council Monday night, over furious objections from Israel and an American hint of a veto.
The resolution called for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement within a year and full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank by the end of 2017. The full text appears after the jump.
France tried in mid-December to put together an alternative draft resolution that eased some of the terms that most alarmed Jerusalem and Washington, in hopes of securing U.S. backing and perhaps getting unanimous council support. Palestinian officials were said to be reluctantly supporting the French effort. Just before Christmas, though, the Palestinians let it be known that they would submit their own draft, and that instead of softening the language they were hardening it even further.
That evidently made it easier for Washington to peel away enough support to yield today’s result: instead of nine supporters the resolution won eight, with two voting against and five abstaining.
The Palestinian tactics mystified Israeli and American diplomats and prompted speculation that the Palestinians were intending to lose the vote. It was thought that they wanted to put on a show of toughness to counter rising anger on the Palestinian street and increasing pressure from Hamas, but they didn’t want to anger Washington by forcing it to cast a veto at a time when it needs Arab support against ISIS.
Intriguingly, during the council discussion following the vote Palestinian U.N. delegate Riyad Mansour delivered a long, detailed, furious denunciation of Israel behavior and repeatedly criticized the council for failing to act on its “responsibility” to intervene. But he ended, incongruously, by thanking by name the five council members whose terms end tomorrow for their service: Rwanda, Australia, South Korea, Luxembourg and Argentina. Three of the five abstained (Rwanda and South Korea) or voted no (Australia) and thus provided the margin for the resolution’s narrow defeat.
Think of it this way: The council’s 15 members include the five permanent members — U.S., U.K., France, Russia and China — and 10 non-permanent members. Five of those 10 joined the council in January 2013 and leave tomorrow while rhe other five (Chad, Chile, Jordan, Lithuania, Nigeria) joined in January 2014 and serve for another year.
Of the seven no’s and abstentions that blocked the Palestinian resolution, two came from the five permanent members, two from the class of 2014 and three from the class of 2013 that leaves tomorrow. In other words, it was the class of 2013 that provided Washington and Jerusalem their margin of victory. And that was the group that Mansour chose to salute in closing his speech.
And if you’re wondering, no — none of the other speakers saluted the departing class of 2013. Only Mansour.
Here is today’s roll call:
Three of Israel’s most senior ex-defense officials came out last week, almost simultaneously, with blistering attacks on the security policies of the Netanyahu coalition. Appearing in separate forums, the three — former Mossad director Shabtai Shavit, former Shin Bet director Yuval Diskin and former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi — each charged that the government is endangering Israel’s future by allowing right-wing extremists to sabotage prospects for a two-state solution, putting the country on a path toward a single, binational state that will be plagued by continuing ethnic strife.
Two of the attacks appeared as op-ed essays in last Friday newspapers. One, by Diskin, appeared in the mass-circulation Yediot Ahronot. Titled “What lies ahead for Israel” (in English here), it argues that the current “Jerusalem intifada” is a “microcosm” of what awaits Israel if it does not resume serious peace negotiations with the Palestinian leadership. Diskin is particularly critical of the “inflammatory propaganda” and “brainwashing” that depicts Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas as an obstacle rather than a partner, when in fact, he writes, Abbas is strongly opposed to terrorism and maintains a “clear policy” of security cooperation with Israel.
The second, by Shavit, appeared in the liberal-leaning Haaretz. Titled “Blindness, Stupidity, Cause for Concern” (here, Hebrew only), it worries about the “haughtiness and arrogance” among “central factors in religious Zionism,”
together with more than a bit of the messianic thinking that rushes to turn the conflict into a holy war. If this has been, so far, a local political conflict that two small nations have been waging over a small and defined piece of territory, major forces in the religious Zionist movement are foolishly doing everything they can to turn it into the most horrific of wars, in which the entire Muslim world will stand against us.
I also see, to the same extent, detachment and lack of understanding of international processes and their significance for us. This right wing, in its blindness and stupidity, is pushing the nation of Israel into the dishonorable position of “the nation shall dwell alone and not be reckoned among the nations” (Numbers 23:9).
[Postscript: An English version appeared Monday morning under a different title: “Former Mossad chief: For the first time, I fear for the future of Zionism.” I’ve replaced some of my translations with Haaretz’s text.]
The director of Israel’s Shin Bet domestic security service, speaking in the wake of today’s massacre in a Jerusalem synagogue, told a Knesset committee that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas “is not interested in terrorism and is not leading [his people] to terrorism. Not even under the table.”
His remarks directly contradicted a string of statements (English) by Israeli leaders, from Prime Minister Netanyahu on down, accusing Abbas of “inciting” the attack by his calls to “defend Al-Aqsa.” Netanyahu called (Hebrew) the synagogue slaughter “the direct result of incitement led by Hamas and Abu Mazen, incitement that the international community is irresponsibly ignoring.”
The security chief, Yoram Cohen, was addressing a closed meeting of the Knesset foreign affairs and defense committee. His remarks were described to reporters afterward by participants.
Cohen acknowledged that there were “factors within the Palestinian Authority” who interpret Abbas’s criticisms of Israel as “giving legitimization to terror.”
However, in describing the sequence of events that led to this morning’s bloodbath, he said the confrontations began after the July 2 murder of Palestinian teenager Muhammad Abu-Khdeir. He said the tensions were exacerbated by Knesset discussions of a bill to permit Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, submitted last spring by Likud lawmaker Miri Regev, and by high-profile visits of politicians to the Temple Mount that are seen as supporting the legislation.
Hamas is eager to have Mahmoud Abbas’s U.S.-trained Presidential Guard take control of the border crossings between Gaza and Israel. But the Islamist organization isn’t likely to give in to pressure from Abbas and the West to put its own military wing under Abbas’s control, nor to let officials of the proposed Fatah-Hamas unity government take the reins of civilian government in Gaza.
So says Colonel M., head of the Palestinian unit in the research department of Israel’s Military Intelligence Directorate, in a wide-ranging interview with Arab affairs correspondent Avi Issacharoff of the English-language Times of Israel website and the Hebrew-language Walla! News site.
Colonel M. (the Times of Israel incorrectly translates his title as lieutenant colonel) also describes the IDF intelligence reading of the events that led to the outbreak of this summer’s war in Gaza. He states flatly and firmly that Hamas neither wanted nor planned a war, but stumbled into it unintentionally as the end result of a series of missteps beginning with the kidnapping of three Israeli yeshiva students in the West Bank in early June. He says that published accounts of Hamas planning for a “July War” are “nonsense.” His account of the events is virtually identical to the scenario I laid out in a column in July.
The colonel emphasized, Issacharoff writes, that the views he expressed aren’t his own personal assessment or that of his unit but the consensus view of Israeli Military Intelligence as a whole. He says the assessment is shared by the Shin Bet security service. (This contradicts a recent news analysis in Yediot Ahronot by military correspondent Alex Fishman, who claimed the Shin Bet disagrees and believes Hamas planned the war).
No less intriguing than what the interview says is what it doesn’t say. Issacharoff writes that Colonel M. refused to discuss the situation on the West Bank or Abbas’s strategic thinking, “apparently out of fear of appearing to criticize the political echelon.” It’s yet another indication of the deep and growing divide between Israel’s security professionals and their politician bosses over Israel’s security needs.
This should have been Bibi Netanyahu’s big year at the United Nations. World revulsion toward ISIS was at a peak, putting Islamist terrorism at center stage. President Obama, long derided by Netanyahu and his allies as a naïve peacenik, had suddenly become a wartime president. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was, at last, the least of the world’s problems. If Bibi wanted the world to leave Israel and the Palestinians alone to fight things out in their own way, all he had to do was show up and play it cool.
But, of course, you knew he wouldn’t. He had to go and take this opportunity — nay, engraved invitation — to show gracious statesmanship and use it instead to show the petulance and short-sightedness for which he’s famous.
Obama, addressing the assembly September 24, hit all the right notes. In a 39-minute speech that ranged from Ukraine to Ebola, Iran, poverty and climate change, more than one-third was devoted to the fight against radical Islamism, as epitomized by ISIS. He called on “the world to join in this effort” to destroy “this network of death.” He declared, uncharacteristically for him, that there could be “no reasoning, no negotiation with this brand of evil.” He demanded that “the Arab and Muslim world” end funding of extremist ideologies. He called on Muslim youth to choose between pluralism and stagnation. He even pooh-poohed the “illusion” that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is “the main source of problems in the region.”
The president wasn’t just talking through his hat. Before showing up in New York he’d assembled a global coalition of more than 60 nations to join the fight against ISIS. Some are just providing funds (not a small thing in these tight-budget times; that’s the role our ally Japan played in the 1991 Gulf War). Others, notably the Europeans, are fighting with us in Iraq but haven’t crossed the border into Syria.
On the other hand, five Sunni Arab states have mobilized to join our attack on the Islamist army’s bases on Syrian soil. That’s a historic achievement — getting Arab states to fight openly alongside us Western infidels to extirpate a diseased branch of Islam. You might think back to World War I and T.E. Lawrence leading Arabs against the Ottoman Turks. But that was to dismantle a bloatec empire. This is to defeat concentrated evil that wraps itself in the pages of the Quran.
Israel and the Palestinians are said to be near agreement on the terms for a long-term cease-fire for Gaza, following a day of talks in Cairo under Egyptian mediation. The Israeli team was reported by Yediot Ahronot’s Ynet news site to be heading back to Israel this evening to present the tentative agreements to Israel’s security cabinet.
The 11-member Palestinian delegation includes five representatives of Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, including Azzam al-Ahmed, the delegation head, and delegation spokesman Qais Abd el-Karim of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine; four representatives of Hamas, including deputy political secretary Moussa Abu Marzouk; and two representatives of Islamic Jihad. The Israeli delegation includes Shin Bet director Yoram Cohen; Defense Ministry political-diplomatic director Amos Gilad; coordinator of government activities in the territories Maj. Gen. Yoav “Pauly” Mordechai; director of the IDF planning directorate Maj. Gen. Nimrod Sheffer; and Yitzhak Molcho, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s personal lawyer.
Following are the terms of the emerging agreement, as reported on Israel’s Mako-Channel 2 News by veteran Arab affairs commentator Ehud Yaari and reporter Udi Segal:
Demanded by Israel:
A complete halt to firing and hostile action from Gaza.
Israeli control of border crossings to be opened between Gaza and Israel in the framework of the agreement.
Payment of money and any other cash transfers to public workers in Gaza will be carried out only via the Palestinian Authority.
Demanded by Palestinian negotiators:
The determination that the Israeli infantry officer thought to have been captured is in fact dead has changed the trajectory of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, Operation Protective Edge, which now appears to be winding down.
Military officers were quoted by Walla News and Haaretz late Saturday night as saying that IDF engineers will be finished within a day with the demolition of the 31 Hamas attack tunnels that have been identified leading into Israel. Numerous Israeli and Palestinian news outlets report that troops have begun withdrawing from the populated areas of the Gaza Strip to a staging area along the border fence, where they will remain until the Israeli government decides its next steps. The government said it will continue air strikes against rocket launchers and other offensive targets.
Even before Friday’s abortive cease-fire, the question of how much longer Israel should continue the operation was becoming a political football in Jerusalem last week. Senior military officers told reporters that the mission they were assigned was nearly done and that they were waiting for the government to decide whether to push on or pull back. Cabinet ministers on the right replied that it was up to the military to decide whether the country was safe or not.
The question appeared to become moot Friday morning after a Givati infantry brigade officer, Second Lieutenant Hadar Goldin, 23, was reported to have been snatched by Hamas gunmen during an ambush near the city of Rafah and spirited away into a tunnel. Troops closed off Rafah and began a house-to-house search for the missing officer. That led to expectations of a prolonged dragnet like the one conducted in the search for the three kidnapped yeshiva students in the West Bank in June.
On Saturday evening, however, the army’s personnel chief and chief rabbi reported that they had determined that Goldin was dead, relying on “medical, halachic and other considerations” based on “evidence from the battlefield.”
That reopened the political debate over whether Operation Protective Edge was nearing its end or approaching a new stage, and what would constitute victory. Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke to the press (Hebrew, English) at IDF headquarters Saturday night and essentially punted: He indicated that the army had done a fine job in taking care of the tunnels, but said that operations would continue as needed.
Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel. Sometime around noon the wind shifted and the tide began to roll out, and Israel started to lose international sympathy for its Operation Protective Edge in Gaza.
Up until Sunday morning Israel had a pretty clear field, owing to a combination of factors. For one thing, the optics. As long as Israel was responding to Hamas rockets with air strikes against Hamas targets, it looked to most observers like a fair fight. Israel’s opponents claimed there was no equivalence given the lopsided death toll. Israel’s supporters claimed the opposite: there was no equivalence because Hamas was aiming at civilians, while Israel was just trying to stop the rockets. In practice, it was a wash.
Even after Israel’s ground troops entered Gaza on Thursday night, July 17, the action looked reasonably measured to most outsiders. Hamas’ network of cross-border tunnels had ceased to be a theoretical problem that morning, when a squad of terrorists emerged on the Israeli side, prepared to attack a kibbutz. Israel sent in troops for what was announced as a limited operation along the border fence to destroy the tunnels. There were no international complaints. Lots of noisy street demonstrations, but hardly a peep from the world’s governments.
It didn’t hurt Israel’s case that the same Thursday saw 298 passengers killed when a Malaysian Airlines passenger was jet shot down over Ukraine, apparently by pro-Russian rebels, and 270 Syrians — soldiers, security guards and civilians — murdered execution-style by ISIS militants who had taken over a natural gas field. Gaza was just one of the world’s killing fields as the weekend approached.
Most important, Israel was facing an enemy, Hamas, that was almost universally despised. Egypt, always central to Israel-Hamas mediation, had been pouring contempt on Hamas throughout the crisis. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas had loudly condemned attacks on Israel during the crisis, once at a June 18 meeting of Islamic foreign ministers in Saudi Arabia and again when Hamas started bombarding Israel. When Egypt’s July 14 cease-fire proposal was accepted by Israel and rejected by Hamas, the Islamist organization’s support was reduced to rogue-state Iran, Islamist Turkey and the emirate of Qatar.
Qatar launched its own cease-fire initiative, which included the preconditions Hamas had demanded — freeing prisoners, opening borders, putting the Gaza-Egypt border under international supervision — but nobody endorsed it. The Arab League, led by Saudi Arabia, lined up formally behind Egypt — and by implication, Israel. The Jewish state had never had more sympathy in the Arab world for its defense needs.
What happened next was something that’s happened over and over in Israel’s military operations in recent years: The government overestimated the depth of its international support and decided to broaden the scope of the operation. On Saturday night the ground campaign was expanded beyond the surgical operation that had been promised against tunnels near the fence. It became a major assault on a densely populated neighborhood of Gaza City, Sheja’iya. The neighborhood houses some of Hamas’ tunnel entries and rocket launchers. It also houses tens of thousands of civilian families.
By evening the shelling and ground fighting had killed more than 80 Palestinians, including an estimated 60 civilians. The expanded fighting also began taking a serious toll on the Israeli side: 13 soldiers killed.
From the “If You’ve Only Got Time To Read One Thing” Dept. Actually, I’ve got three items to recommend, each of which casts invaluable light on what’s going on right now in Gaza. In a moment I’ll rank them in order of importance, but first, a comment on what they have in common. The three are from — in no particular order (I’ll get to that later) — reporter Patrick Kingsley in the left-wing British daily The Guardian; conservative-leaning Israeli political reporter Haviv Rettig-Gur in the right-of-center Israeli news site Times of Israel (he’s formerly of the Jerusalem Post); and liberal-leaning Middle East affairs analyst Zvi Barel in Haaretz.
Interestingly, they all end up in pretty much the same place: Hamas is increasingly isolated, refusing to accept the Egyptian call for an unconditional cease-fire; it keeps on bombarding Israel because it’s desperate for something, anything, that can be presented as a win for all the trouble it’s caused; and consequently, Hamas is receiving (and deserving) most of the blame — from Europe and even the Arab League — for the current suffering of the Palestinians under its rule in Gaza. Its only remaining friends are Turkey and Qatar.
Now to the individual items on my list. First up, Haviv Rettig-Gur’s piece in Times of Israel, a must-read. It’s really two analyses woven together, presented in an unemotional, straightforward and quite convincing argument.
In the first place he looks at the way that both Israel and Hamas use contradictory claims of their own strength and their own weakness — strength in order to deter the enemy, weakness in order to win sympathy abroad. It’s not the most original argument in the world, but he presents it extremely well, and it’s important coming from him.
He proceeds from there to expand on Hamas’s victimhood mentality in order explore its mistaken use of post-colonial theory in service of the Palestinian cause. In Hamas thinking, he writes, the Palestinian fight against Israel is like the Algerian fight against the French in the 1950s. Therefore the enormous suffering that Hamas’s “resistance” causes to the Palestinian people is worth it, as was the unspeakable suffering of the Algerians, because it ends in victory. The weakness of the post-colonialism approach as an anti-Israel strategy, Haviv writes, is that Hamas fails to grasp Israel’s self-understanding as a nation on its own soil rather than a colonial invader.
The Forward has my latest column on how Israel and Hamas stumbled through a series of accidents and misunderstandings into a war nobody wanted. Because it’s written for print (unlike this blog) it has limits on length, and even though the paper generously lets me run way over my limit every week, there are inevitably things left out that need to be said. Permit me to add.
First, the current blowup began with a kidnap-murder of three Israeli teenagers, two of them 16-year-olds who just finished 11th grade. As the father of a son who is the exact same age — and is in Jerusalem right now on a summer program — I can just begin to guess at the feelings. But I can only begin to guess.
Second, the Israeli government suppressed the fact that the boys were dead, as it knew on Day 2, with the apparent motive of dismantling the Hamas infrastructure in the West Bank. The prolonged, fabricated uncertainty had the collateral effect of inflaming Jewish emotions in Israel and the Diaspora, and the tension may well have intensified the resulting anger after the bodies were found. On the other hand, it also provided cover for Israel to round up and dismantle, with barely a shot fired, a network operating in territory it controls that openly preaches destroying Israel and murdering its citizens. I don’t know that such a roundup is a bad thing.
Moreover, if it allows for a new Fatah-Hamas unity government with Hamas in a seriously weakened position, and a PA that can openly embrace the Quartet conditions and peace process with greater authority — including the ability to speak for and deliver Gaza — then it just might be something even hardcore doves can celebrate.
Third, regarding the current mutual bombardment. Here’s where the series of accidents and misunderstandings kicked in. When Israel began rounding up Hamas-West Bank, amid declarations from Bibi that Hamas “will pay,” the Hamas leadership in Gaza went underground and began gearing up for a renewed Gaza war that they feared — incorrectly, I believe — that Israel was planning. Going underground meant abandoning their earnest-but-not-always-competent enforcement of the 2012 cease-fire. The result was a sudden, drastic increase in rocket fire from PRC, Islamic Jihad and the Qaeda-style jihadis to its right. Israel responded with several aerial attacks on rocket crews.
Mourners at the fresh grave of Naftali Fraenkel, one of three Israeli teens murdered, allegedly by members of the Hamas-linked Qawasmeh family of Hebron. / Getty Images
Now that the bodies of the three kidnapped Israeli teenagers have been found and laid to rest, the crisis is rapidly turning into a wickedly complex, five-sided tug-of-war with enormous stakes on all sides. One axis pits hawks against doves inside Israel, with cries from the public for revenge backed by right-wing cabinet ministers while the military, backed by government doves, urges cautious, calibrated measures, to avoid an escalation into war. Prime Minister Netanyahu is caught in the middle, immobilized by indecision.
The debate erupted into angry verbal confrontations at security cabinet meetings on Monday and Tuesday, reaching a climax at one point when IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz praised the cabinet for adopting a temperate set of counter-measures that avoid escalation into full-scale war. In reply Gantz received a tongue-lashing from economics minister Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home Party, the cabinet’s strongest advocate of harsh measures. Bennett angrily told Gantz he had no authority to “critique” the ministers’ actions.
The second line of tension is a tug-of-war between Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas over Abbas’s month-old unity pact with Hamas. A Hebron-based Hamas cell is believed responsible for the kidnap-murders, and Netanyahu is demanding that Abbas break off ties with the Hamas leadership in response. Abbas is holding off, deterred by doubts over the involvement of Hamas leaders — Hamas officials in both Gaza and Damascus continually deny any involvement or knowledge — and by popular pressure from below not to be identified too closely with Israel. But Israel anger and Hamas recalcitrance may leave him no choice.
The third and perhaps most significant line of confrontation is the growing tension between Hamas leaders in Gaza and Damascus and the local Hamas organization in Hebron. The Hebron organization, dominated by one of the city’s oldest and largest clans, the Qawasmehs, has effectively operated for more than a decade as an independent franchise within the fundamentalist movement, and frequently as a radical opposition force and spoiler. The Shin Bet has identified Marwan Qawasmeh, 29, and a family hanger-on, Amer Abu-Eisha, 33, as the kidnappers of the yeshiva students.
Several detailed accounts of the Qawasmeh family’s alleged spoiler role in Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire efforts have appeared in several Israeli and international publications in the last day, claiming, based on Palestinian and Israeli intelligence sources, that the clan staged the kidnapping in order to sabotage the Fatah-Hamas unity pact and reignite armed conflict.
Martin Indyk, the Obama administration’s special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian peace, will formally resign this afternoon and return to his think-tank job at the Brookings Institution, the Associated Press reports. If there was talk of a renewed American effort to reignite peace talks, this is probably a bad sign.
It’s probably just coincidence that the news comes the morning after Washington throws a farewell party to end all farewell parties for visiting Israeli President Shimon Peres, who’s due to retire in a month.
Back home in Israel, meanwhile, the nastiest Middle East conflict was the one between hawks and doves inside the Netanyahu government. Over the last two days they’ve been furiously calling each other names and demanding each others’ resignation.
It all started on Wednesday, when Israel’s president-elect Reuven Rivlin praised Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas in a speech for his fierce condemnation the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers, delivered June 18 in a highly publicized speech in Saudi Arabia to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Rivlin went on to say that he’s prepared to meet with Abbas, as he’s done in the past.
Economics minister and Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett responded in a radio interview Thursday morning, calling Rivlin’s praise of Abbas “horrible.” Bennett called Abbas a “mega-terrorist,” his evidence being that the Palestinian Authority pays salaries to Palestinian prisoners serving time in Israeli prisons.
Abbas, visiting Moscow yesterday, said that he’s ready to return to the negotiating table for another nine months under certain conditions: that Israel complete the stalled fourth round of prisoner releases agreed to last year as part of the deal for the last round of talks, and that the first three months be devoted to discussing the borders of the new Palestinian state. No formal reply yet from Israel.
Israel appears to be sending mixed signals to Washington on U.S. aid to the new Palestinian unity government. On one hand, the Netanyahu government wants everyone to know it’s furious over the new “reconciliation government” that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas has formed with the reviled terrorist organization Hamas. Officials from Prime Minister Netanyahu to Washington ambassador Ron Dermer have been declaring that the unity pact means “there can’t be business as usual.”
On the other hand, it’s not clear Israel that wants Washington to respond by cutting its financial aid to the Palestinian Authority. Jerusalem depends heavily on the PA security forces’ cooperation in fighting terrorism in the West Bank, and loss of funding could freeze their salaries and keep them home. In the longer run, the aid underwrites billions of dollars in PA governmental services from health to mail delivery and garbage collection that would fall on the Israeli taxpayer if the authority were to collapse under U.S. and international pressure.
Israelis who have met members of Congress in recent days say they’re hearing expressions of confusion over Israel’s mixed messages — that the new PA government is essentially a terror-backed group but that aid should not be cut.
Pro-Israel lawmakers and Jewish groups have been reciting a line that seems to represent a demand for ending aid, namely: “U.S. law is clear — no funds can be provided to a Palestinian government in which Hamas participates or has undue influence.” Those words appear in a pop-up on AIPAC’s website. A nearly identical phrase appears in a speech by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez that’s touted on the American Jewish Committee website and elsewhere.
But that’s not the whole law. Deeper on the AIPAC website is a set of “key points” that states the entire relevant law:
Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Mahmoud Abbas in 2010/Getty Images
Israel’s decision today to suspend peace talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization, in response to yesterday’s Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement, is really three distinct decisions. One is sensible. The second is understandable if questionable. The third is inexcusable.
The first decision is the actual suspension of talks, pending formation of the new Palestinian Authority government. The second is to suspend transfer of tax revenues that Israel collects on the Palestinians’ behalf, in retaliation for Palestinian actions. The third is to launch an international media campaign to “blacken the name” of PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas in international public opinion.
The first, suspending talks, sensibly reflects the gravity of the Palestinian step and the delicacy of Israeli domestic politics. Israel isn’t alone in viewing Hamas as a rejectionist, irridentist and terrorist organization; that’s the assessment of the international community.
The Middle East Quartet — the diplomatic partnership of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations — laid out three conditions back in 2006 for Hamas participation in the diplomatic process: recognizing Israel, swearing off terrorism and accepting previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements. To date it has met none of them. There have been unofficial trial balloons, never formally confirmed, about Hamas possibly accepting peaceful coexistence on some basis. And Hamas has largely observed a cease-fire across the Gaza border since taking a whipping in Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012. But it has flatly refused to give up terror in principle, and the only thing preventing Hamas attacks in the West Bank, where no cease-fire exists, has been Israeli-PLO security cooperation.
Under the circumstances, then, it’s reasonable for Israel to suspend negotiations until it sees whether the new Palestinian unity government meets minimal international norms — in effect, whether unity means Hamas following Fatah toward coexistence or Fatah following Hamas toward endless war. It’s not merely reasonable — it’s the least Jerusalem can do to show its voting public that it’s doing its job.
The second Israeli decision, to suspend the monthly transfer of Palestinian tax revenues, is a longstanding tactic for retaliating over Palestinian provocations. It does seem to be useful as a political safety valve, to let the Israeli public know that their government is on its toes and not giving away the store. Like Palestinian-led boycotts of Israel, it’s a way to pressure (read: beat up on) the other side without actual bloodshed. Like those boycotts, its usefulness in encouraging Palestinian good-faith adherence is a lot less clear. Still more unclear is whether or not it’s legal under Israel’s signed agreements.
Palestinians in Gaza City on Wednesday celebrating Hamas-Fatah unity pact. / Getty Images
Old Jewish joke: The beggar of Chelm goes to the rabbi’s house and pleads in a most pitiful tone: “Please rabbi, I haven’t eaten in days. Won’t you please give me a ruble to buy some food?”
The rabbi is touched and gives the beggar a ruble.
An hour later the rabbi is walking downtown when he sees the beggar sitting in a café, eating a thick slice of cake. Incensed, he rushes across the square and accosts the beggar: “Scoundrel! I gave you a ruble to buy food because you were in need, and now I see you’ve wasted it on cake. How dare you?!”
“Excuse me,” the beggar replies indignantly. “Yesterday I had no money and I couldn’t eat cake. Today I have money and you say I shouldn’t eat cake. Tell me, rabbi, when can I eat cake?”
So it is with Hamas, Fatah and Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Last week there was no point in Israel closing a deal with the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority because it could only speak for the West Bank half of the Palestinians, given that Gaza is controlled by Hamas. Today there’s no point in closing a deal because the Palestinian Authority is finalizing an agreement for joint rule with Hamas, which will put it in partnership with a terrorist organization sworn to Israel’s destruction. So tell me, rabbi, when will there be a point in closing a deal?
Conventional wisdom offers two possible answers to the question. One is that the economic blockade of Gaza is intended to weaken and eventually topple the Hamas government so that the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority can regain full control. That would allow it to speak for all Palestinians and become a viable negotiating partner—assuming, that is, that you believe Fatah could ever be a viable negotiating partner.
The Palestinian daily Al Quds reported on its website Monday afternoon, quoting a “knowledgeable source,” that the Palestinian leadership had decided to return to the negotiating table for two more months, with the aim of laying out the borders between Israel and a potential Palestinian state, according to Walla! News reporter Amir Tibon.
The source “ruled out the possibility” that the Palestinians would reverse their decision to sign 15 United Nations conventions, but added that the Palestinians have “no intention” of joining any more international bodies “in the near future.”
Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas is scheduled to meet Tuesday in Cairo with Arab League foreign ministers to seek their backing for the Palestinian position. In advance of that meeting, the Jerusalem Post reports, the Arab League’s deputy secretary general said in a statement issued Monday that the United States still “has a role to play in pushing the peace process forward.”
This is a news flash for anyone who’s waiting to hear the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas declare publicly in Arabic that he’s ready to recognize and make peace with Israel. He said it. You can watch it here.
The background: Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, in a taped interview to be screened this week at a Tel Aviv conference, declared that the Palestinian goal is full peace between the state of Israel and a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, with the Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem.
Speaking in Arabic (subtitled in English and Hebrew), Abbas said that the transition period for Israeli withdrawal could be as much as three years, but that “those who speak of 10 or 15 years don’t want to withdraw.” He said that Israeli troops would not remain on Palestinian territory, but that NATO troops could be put in their place to secure the borders.
The interview is to be screened at the annual conference of the Institute for National Security Studies, the Tel Aviv think tank formerly known as the Jaffe Center of Tel Aviv University. The interviewer is attorney Gilead Sher, who served as chief of staff and chief policy adviser to onetime prime minister Ehud Barak. The two-day conference opens on Tuesday.
Institute president Amos Yadlin, former IDF chief of military intelligence, addressed a pre-conference press briefing today (English, Hebrew) to present the institute’s annual Strategic Survey. He said that the odds of reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians in the coming year are not high, but that the risks of avoiding the difficult decisions required for an agreement are greater than the risks of taking those decisions.
If no peace agreement is possible, Yadlin said, Israel should consider taking unilateral steps to withdraw from the West Bank. He said crucial lessons had been learned from the 2005 unilateral Gaza withdrawal, and a unilateral West Bank withdrawal need not repeat the mistakes of Gaza.
One of most striking aspects of today’s news coverage is the stark difference between English and Hebrew language versions of the reporting:
Israel’s peace-pact rejectionists, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon (Wikimedia Commons)
Benjamin Netanyahu is looking more and more these days like he’s preparing to take on the pessimists and nay-sayers and prove them wrong.
For most of the past year the cynics have been insisting that neither Netanyahu nor Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas believes anything will come of Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative — but that they’re both playing along with Kerry in hopes of avoiding be blamed when the whole thing collapses. It’s sort of like musical chairs — whoever ends up looking worse when the music stops will bear the brunt of very considerable European economic anger, and likely U.S. anger as well.
Lately, though, it looks like Bibi has given up trying and is now opting for Plan B: telling Europe, America and the rest of the world to go to hell. On a practical level, he seems to be doing everything he can to short-circuit the talks, blame or no blame. Most blatantly, he’s reported by aides to be planning an announcement of new housing construction in West Bank settlements, up to 2,000 units worth, in conjunction with this week’s Palestinian prisoner release. This despite Palestinian threats to walk and European threats to blame Israel and retaliate if that happens. Bibi spends a good deal of time and effort decrying those international moves to delegitimize Israel, which include some highly alarming European sanctions, but he shows little interest in blunting international delegitimization by nodding toward norms the rest of the world considers legitimate.
From the Palestinian viewpoint, the prisoner release was intended as a way for Israel to demonstrate a good faith commitment to mutual recognition — effectively acknowledging the other side’s fighters as combatants — but the new construction cancels it out by implying an unwillingness to end the occupation. Those close to Netanyahu say the new construction announcements accompanying each prisoner release — this week’s is the third since the peace talks began — are necessary to keep his right flank on board while he moves forward.
If construction were Bibi’s only negative signal, the sop-to-the-right argument might make sense. But it’s just one in a series. There is, to begin with, the fact that his two most senior ministers, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, have both stated repeatedly, in the most public manner imaginable, that they believe the peace talks have no chance of success and that Abbas is the problem and is no partner for peace. One of the main Israeli criticisms of Abbas, ironically, is that he frequently and his aides regularly accuse the Netanyahu government of actions that sabotage peace.
President Obama and Haim Saban, Washington, D.C., December 7 / Getty Images
Tempers are wearing thin both in Washington and Jerusalem over continuing disagreements on the Iran nuclear talks and the U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. And the situation wasn’t helped by last weekend’s Saban Forum in Washington. The three-day forum, sponsored by the Brookings Institution, featured talks by President Obama, Prime Minister Netanyahu, Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, all taking the opportunity to stick fingers in each others’ eyes.
Both Obama, who spoke Saturday afternoon (video, transcript), and Kerry, who spoke Saturday evening (video, transcript), strongly defended the agreement with Iran signed November 24. And both took digs at Netanyahu’s sharp criticisms of the agreement, Obama in a jesting, almost mocking tone, Kerry in sharper tones. Kerry went through the agreement point by point, occasionally raising his voice in anger as he noted concessions won from Iran that reflected what Netanyahu had been calling for.
Obama, by contrast, had a smile on his face through most of his 47-minute dialogue with forum backer Haim Saban. He drew frequent audience laughter, sometimes at Netanyahu’s expense, as when he referred to Netanyahu’s demand that Iran give up all enrichment capabilities. Reaching an agreement that sharply limited and monitored Iran’s enrichment capabilities is far preferable to not reaching an agreement and seeing Iran continue its progress toward a bomb, he said. In order to reach an agreement, he said, Iran would have to be:
Now, you’ll hear arguments, including potentially from the prime minister, that say we can’t accept any enrichment on Iranian soil. Period. Full stop. End of conversation. And this takes me back to the point I made earlier. One can envision an ideal world in which Iran said, we’ll destroy every element and facility and you name it, it’s all gone. I can envision a world in which Congress passed every one of my bills that I put forward. I mean, there are a lot of things that I can envision that would be wonderful.
And both American leaders argued strongly for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement that meets Palestinian as well as Israel needs. At the same time, they indicated clearly that the agreement would be in stages, with full Palestinian statehood coming only at the end, after Israeli security concerns have been satisfied. Palestinians have rejected a staged settlement up to now.