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.
A day before Secretary of State John Kerry’s expected arrival in Israel to further peace talks, Israeli news media are reporting that Kerry has begun preparing an American peace plan to present to the parties in January as a basis for negotiations, if there isn’t progress by then. It will reportedly be based on the pre-1967 armistice lines with land swaps, and will be linked to the Arab Peace Initiative.
Zahava Gal-On, head of the left-wing Meretz party, made the claim in a public statement Monday morning, saying she heard it during meetings with American, Palestinian and Arab officials in recent days. Several news organizations confirmed it with unnamed sources later in the day.
The daily tabloid Maariv reported, quoting a source “close to the negotiations,” that Kerry formulated his plan after his seven-hour meeting in Rome with Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu October 23 “sobered him up” to the realization (מעין התפכחות) that Netanyahu “had his own considerations” and that a permanent peace agreement “wasn’t attainable as he had thought.”
According to The Hill newspaper in Washington, Kerry told reporters in Saudi Arabia he “categorically” denied the “rumors” and that there was no plan other than face-to-face negotiations “at this point in time.” A State Department spokeswoman later called it “wild speculation.”
Netanyahu responded to the reports in remarks to the Likud Knesset caucus later in the day, saying Israel would look at any proposal raised in negotiations but “but we won’t accept any external dictates and no pressure will help.”
The daily Israel Hayom, considered a strong supporter of Netanyahu, reported that Kerry and Netanyahu drew maps for each other in Rome, and that Netanyahu’s map:
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas met with a group of prominent American Jews in New York Monday evening for a dialogue over a dinner of trout and saffron rice. Also on the menu were servings of hope, flattery, mutual frustration and a just soupcon of evident peace-process exhaustion and perhaps a hint of unstated despair.
Abbas, in New York to address the United Nations General Assembly, seemed intent on driving home his views on peace, which Palestinians claim are frequently misrepresented by Israelis. He repeatedly condemned the recent murders of Israeli soldiers in the West Bank, declared himself committed to a “two-state solution” with Israel and “the state of Palestine” living “side by side in security and peace,” and he insisted that “70% of Palestinians” share that goal.
And, in a seeming rebuke to persistent Israeli and Western skepticism, he stated several times that his goal in negotiations is a “comprehensive agreement with Israel that will end the conflict and end further claims” by the two sides against one another. Pro-Israel analysts commonly claim that the Palestinian leader has no intention of agreeing to a final end to the conflict and cannot agree to sign a deal ending all further claims against Israel.
The 30-odd Americans in attendance, mostly liberal activists, peppered him with questions about how he planned to convince Israelis of his sincerity, at times seemingly wanting to be convinced themselves. Of 13 guests who were called on to ask questions, no fewer than six asked him bluntly to use the U.N. pulpit to reach out to Israelis, to let Israelis “hear words of hope from you,” to “dispel the pessimism” plaguing the diplomatic process and “make clear that you are a partner for peace.”
Abbas’s replies to each were variations on “no”: “I don’t think the Israelis need to be convinced that two states are good for them—they want their state and we want our state.” And: “My speech will be addressed to the Palestinian people and the Israeli people at the same time, but when we talk we don’t have double language.” And, after being asked the same question a sixth time: “It’s not my job alone to dispel pessimism — we both have to work, both me and Mr. Netanyahu.”
To numerous guests chatting among themselves afterward, the most notable feature of the dinner was who wasn’t there. The Abbas dinner has become something of an annual September ritual when the Palestinian leader comes to address the General Assembly. It’s organized each year by the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, which is named for the Slim-Fast diet food mogul who founded it and is headed by former Florida Rep. Robert Wexler. In past years guests have included heads of the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, Conference of Presidents, Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the main synagogue unions and others.
Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas told a visiting group of Knesset members on Thursday that an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement will mean an end to Palestinian demands from Israel, and that Palestinians did not aim to return to “Haifa, Acre and Safed.” As the British Guardian newspaper reported:
In remarks possibly aimed at reassuring Israelis who believe a peace deal with the Palestinians will be followed by further claims, Abbas said: “You have a commitment from the Palestinian people, and also from the leadership, that if we are offered a just agreement, we will sign a peace deal that will put an end to the conflict and to future demands from the Palestinian side.”
He also said that the Palestinian state did not need a military capacity, but only “a strong police force.” He was speaking in Ramallah to the members of the Meretz Knesset caucus.
Abbas said critics had misunderstood his July 29 statement in Cairo that “in a final resolution” to the conflict there would not be “a single Israeli – civilian or soldier – on our lands.” Right-wing groups including the Zionist Organization of America and the Simon Wiesenthal Center jumped on the remark as evidence of anti-Semitism, and the Knesset’s anti-Semitism caucus discussed it at a meeting the following day. Abbas said his point had been that the Palestinian state would be established as a newly sovereign entity and would not agree to inherit prepositioned Israeli soldiers or settlers on its territory as relics of occupation.
This is not a new position. Abbas and other Palestinian leaders have said in the past that once their state is established, Jews would be welcome like anyone else to apply for residency or citizenship in a Palestinian state. They describe leaving settlements in place as risky because many settlers are committed to Israeli sovereignty over the territories and are considered likely to resist Palestinian rule. Still, Abbas told the Knesset members he would be prepared to discuss leaving individual settlements in place if Israel brought it up in negotiations.
Abbas’s remarks seem intended to dispel the Israeli right’s laundry list of reasons for believing the Palestinians are not prepared to make peace. Skeptics claim Abbas and his Fatah movement are not ready to declare a final end to the conflict, that they’re unwilling to give up future claims to Israeli territory, abandon the Palestinian refugees’ right of return to their former homes or accept limitations on sovereignty such as demilitarization. Abbas dismissed all those claims, one by one.
He further told the visitors, Haaretz on Friday, that he was “unhappy with the slow pace of the negotiations” and that there had been “no advances” in the first three rounds of talks, which were predictably devoted to presenting existing positions. But he voiced hope that the pace would pick up. According to Haaretz, he said:
Secretary of State John Kerry had promised that the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks would be kept confidential, so that the negotiators could exchange ideas without being subject to pressure from extremists on each side until a package of mutual concessions was ready that could show each side what it received in return for what it gave away.
But as Round Two took place Wednesday night in a secret location somewhere in Jerusalem with no Americans present, following the late-night release, at 1:00 a.m. Wednesday morning, of the first 26 Palestinian prisoners, the process is so secretive that it’s set off its own wave of speculation about the low level of shared trust, good will and faith in the outcome.
Avi Issacharoff, the former Maariv military analyst who now writes for the online Walla! News, writes (in Hebrew) that any possible pride either side might take in what should be a hopeful event is overshadowed on both sides by the humiliation of what they’ve already had to give away — for Israel’s Netanyahu, releasing prisoners with blood on their hands in the face of widespread popular outrage, and for Palestinian leader Abbas, resuming negotiations without an Israeli settlement freeze and in fact amid a much ballyhooed wave of new construction plans. Issacharoff writes:
What began as a gesture toward Palestinian Authority chairman Abu Mazen, in advance of the renewal of negotiations, became as the release date approached a serious headache for the Israel government, which had agreed to release murderers. But instead of standing before the cameras and explaining the logic of releasing “senior” terrorists in order to strengthen Abu Mazen, the Israeli side preferred to hide the action from public awareness.
In fact, according to Alex Fishman, the veteran Yediot Ahronot military analyst, writing at Yediot’s Ynet website, Netanyahu turned the supposed goodwill gesture of a prisoner release into another opportunity to humiliate Abbas by picking a list of low-level thugs to release, and then sending half of them to Gaza instead of to the West Bank where Abbas could have arranged a festive reception to reap the credit.
Whoever signed the list of released does not really believe in the peace process. What we are seeing here is a political maneuver of horse dealers exchanging some construction in the territories for a few prisoners, winking at any possible coalition. It’s not a diplomatic move, with leadership, with a backbone, one that is worth a dramatic and painful decision to free murderers.
It’s a cynical, tactic move aimed at achieving one thing: Buying time from the American administration or for the American administration. It may be part of a larger regional diplomatic move, but it’s more likely that this entire maneuver was created so that the Americans would not blame Israel for thwarting the Kerry initiative at the current stage…
Well, surprise, surprise. After months of hearing from all the wise pundits from left to right that Secretary of State Kerry was beyond his depth in Israeli-Palestinian peace-making, that he was “naïve and ham-handed” (מגושם in the original), “dumb” and “clueless,” it turns out they all got it wrong. Of course, they’re still a long way from a peace agreement. They haven’t even launched peace negotiations. But they’ve agreed to try, and that’s more than anyone thought possible just a week ago. It looks like Kerry gets the last laugh, at least for now.
How did everyone get it so wrong? Four main reasons, I think. First, a major epidemic of cynicism, reinforced by the fashionably jaded, world-weary pose so beloved of journalists. Second, wishful thinking by ideologues who oppose the idea of two states for two people and cling to the idea that it can’t happen. Third, a deep distrust of the two leaders, Netanyahu and Abbas, and of the political systems they lead.
Fourth, and perhaps most important, months and months of no news. It’s an old truism that if you want to bring two sides toward painful compromise, you have to keep the deal under wraps until it’s all done—otherwise each side can be accused of giving away the store and getting nothing in return until skeptics on both sides have nibbled it to pieces. But past rounds have been so leaky that everyone on the outside got used to hearing about every step as it happened. Consequently, the lack of incremental progress reports this time looked like a lack of progress. So when the deal was unwrapped, it took everyone by surprise.
But the image of Kerry as a clueless naïf blundering his way through the thicket isn’t the only myth that’s been exploded in the last two days. Here are a few others:
Haaretz reporter Barak Ravid writes that Secretary of State Kerry is arriving in Israel today amid “no signs” that he’s “nearing a breakthrough” toward peace talks. The funny thing is, it’s in the middle of an article that reports clear signs of a breakthrough. Specifically, he reports on a “senior Likud minister” telling him Netanyahu is ready to withdraw from more than 90% of the West Bank “if Israel’s security concerns are met.”
Those security concerns: demilitarization of the Palestinian state (which was accepted long ago) and a long-term Israeli military presence on the Jordan River — though not necessarily the whole Jordan Valley (a big Bibi concession) and not necessarily under Israeli sovereignty (another big Bibi concession).
An even bigger sign of progress came later on Thursday: a public declaration by Netanyahu, in a high-profile speech (at the annual Theodor Herzl memorial ceremony) that peace with the Palestinians is a must — even though it won’t stop defamation of Israel. Ending the international bad-mouthing and “delegitimization” of Israel is constantly thrown up by the right, with active cooperation from the center and center-left — as a test of whether a future peace is safe enough to justify Israeli withdrawal. Saying that the two — peace agreement and civil dialogue — aren’t the same and aren’t even necessarily interdependent is a big step toward a realistic opening negotiating position.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is said to be willing to return to direct peace negotiations with Israel, reports Arab affairs correspondent Ehud Yaari of Israel’s Channel 2 TV News, who is probably Israel’s best informed and most respected reporter on the topic. Yaari claims that’s “what he [Abbas] is explaining in the corridors in Ramallah,” the Palestinian Authority capital.
The Times of Israel reports that a Palestinian Authority spokesman is denying Yaari’s report—but the accompanying quote seems more like a refusal to confirm rather than an outright denial (“’Please refer to official Palestinian sources and not the off-the-record game,’ an aide to Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said.”)
Abbas will explain his intentions and discuss the terms of the negotiations with Secretary of State John Kerry when he returns to the region on Thursday. According to Yaari, Abbas intends to return to the table for a limited period to test the intentions of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s intentions and see if Netanyahu is serious about reaching an agreement. If Abbas concludes that Netanyahu is not serious, Yaari says, he will go back to the United Nations and say that the Palestinian Authority “cannot function under the circumstances.”
Here’s the original Ehud Yaari report (in Hebrew - the link will take you to Mako News)
A funny thing happened to Israeli figurehead president Shimon Peres on his way to the World Economic Forum. Scheduled to address a gathering of Middle Eastern political and business leaders at a Jordanian Dead Sea conference center on Sunday evening, the 89-year-old elder statesman came under furious attack from Likud cabinet ministers Sunday afternoon for reportedly intending to endorse Israeli withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders.
The funny thing is, he didn’t say it. What he did say was that the Palestinians should return to the negotiating table to settle their disputes with Israel. Even funnier, the attacks kept coming afterwards, undeterred.
Peres was the closing speaker at the three-day conference, preceded by Secretary of State John Kerry and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. Before his departure for Jordan, Maariv reported that Peres would declare (I’m translating from the Hebrew, as no English version has been published): “Israel wants peace. There is a clear majority among us that favors a diplomatic solution under the framework of two states for two peoples, along the 1967 lines, with agreed and equal border adjustments. Israel longs for peace.”
The Maariv report, by the respected, conservative-leaning journalist Shalom Yerushalmi, also said that Peres had discussed his speech earlier with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was in accord with his plans. Yerushalmi noted that Peres’s audience at the King Hussein Convention Center would include the president of Libya, the prime minister of Iraq and senior ministers from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Turkey, the Gulf states and others. The report said Peres would endorse the Arab Peace Initiative and say to Abbas, “I am your partner and you are my partner. Let’s bring peace.”
Responding to the Maariv account, international relations minister Yuval Steinitz told reporters on his way into a Sunday afternoon cabinet meeting: “I didn’t know that Peres wants to be the government spokesman. Government decisions are decided by the cabinet.”