Obama & Palestine: The last chance

Nathan Thrall writes: Barack Obama entered the White House more deeply informed about and sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than any incoming president before him. He had attended and spoken at numerous events organized by the Arab-American and Palestinian-American communities, in which he had numerous contacts, and he had repeatedly criticized American policy, calling for a more even-handed approach toward Israel. Yet if there has been a distinguishing feature of Obama’s record on Israel-Palestine, it is that, unlike his recent predecessors, he has not a single achievement to his name. In the view of some top advisers, Obama’s final months in power are a unique opportunity to correct the record, and, more important, score an achievement that his successors could scarcely undo.

When he came to office, Palestinians looked to Obama as a potentially historic figure capable of ending their occupation. In a 2003 toast to Rashid Khalidi, the Palestinian-American historian of the University of Chicago and later Columbia University, Obama reminisced about meals prepared by Khalidi’s wife, Mona, and the many talks that had been “consistent reminders to me of my own blind spots and my own biases.” He had met, dined with, and attended the lectures of such figures as Edward Said, the most famous and eloquent Palestinian critic of the Oslo accords, and he had offered words of encouragement to Ali Abunimah, the Palestinian activist, writer, co-founder of the Electronic Intifada, and leading advocate of a one-state solution. Unlike other presidents, Obama was able to relate personally to the Palestinian experience. He could draw parallels with Britain’s colonization of Kenya, where his Muslim father was born, and the African-American struggle for civil rights that had culminated in his presidency.

In his first days on the job, Obama did not disappoint. Within hours of taking office he made his first phone call to a foreign leader, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. “We were not expecting such a quick call from President Obama,” a pleased Abbas adviser said, “but we knew how serious he is about the Palestinian problem.” On his second day, Obama appointed a Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, Senator George Mitchell, author of a 2001 fact-finding report that called for a freeze in Israeli settlement construction. Four months later, ahead of a White House visit by Abbas, the administration publicly confronted Israel with a call for a complete freeze in settlement building in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. [Continue reading…]

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Israel seen as a ‘pariah state,’ says top strategy official

The Times of Israel reports: A top official engaged in the campaign to improve Israel’s international standing said Sunday the Jewish state is seen as an apartheid “pariah state” abroad, while expressing the hope that by 2025, no one will question Israel’s right to exist.

Director-General of the Strategic Affairs Ministry Sima Vaknin-Gil also told the Knesset Special Committee for the Transparency and Accessibility of Government Information that Israel is making progress against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, the Haaretz newspaper reported.

“Today, among the countries of the world, Israel is a pariah state,” she said. “Our objective is that in 2025 nobody in the world will raise the question ‘does Israel have the right to exist?’” [Continue reading…]

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Views on U.S. policy on Israel and Palestine show little difference between supporters of Clinton and Sanders

Shibley Telhami writes: In the lead-up to the Democratic National Convention, Hillary Clinton, now officially the Democratic nominee, and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont clashed over U.S. policy on Israel and Palestine. In one debate, Sanders criticized Clinton for not playing an even-handed role in the conflict, and more recently, the candidates’ appointees to the party’s platform committee disagreed over language calling for an end to the Israeli occupation. But is this disparity between the candidates and their surrogates reflected in the views of their constituents? Polls suggest not.

Political scientists are already debating whether Sanders supporters tend to be more “liberal” than those of Clinton on domestic policy, with two political scientists indicating they are not. Based on two national polls I conducted in May and June, these results seem to hold true for U.S.-Middle East policy as well. There is generally little difference between the supporters of Clinton and Sanders on these issues, despite significant demographic differences.

In contrast, the divide between Clinton and Sanders supporters and Donald Trump supporters is huge on some Middle East policy issues — even larger than on some of the most deeply divisive domestic issues. [Continue reading…]

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Israel should stop settlements, denying Palestinian development: Quartet report

Reuters reports: Israel should stop building settlements, denying Palestinian development and designating land for exclusive Israeli use that Palestinians seek for a future state, the Middle East peace “Quartet” recommended on Friday in a an eagerly awaited report.

The report by the Quartet entities sponsoring the stalled peace process – the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations – said the Israeli policy “is steadily eroding the viability of the two-state solution.”

“This raises legitimate questions about Israel’s long-term intentions, which are compounded by the statements of some Israeli ministers that there should never be a Palestinian state,” according to the eight-page report.

Amid a spike in violence, the Quartet criticized Palestinian leaders for “not consistently and clearly” condemning terrorist attacks and said illicit arms build up and militant activities in Gaza – controlled by Islamist group Hamas – must stop.

On Friday, an Israeli family car came under Palestinian gunfire near the Jewish settlement of Ottniel and crashed, killing a man, medics said. In the nearby city of Hebron, Israeli police shot dead a Palestinian woman who they said tried to stab one of them after she was detained.

Diplomatic sources said the report carries significant political weight as it has the backing of close Israeli ally the United States, which has struggled to revive the peace talks amid tensions between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama. [Continue reading…]

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Israeli president says Palestinian peace deal won’t happen any time soon

The Wall Street Journal reports: Israel’s president warned that there was no prospect of a peace deal with the Palestinians in the near future and urged the European Union to show patience and put its weight behind measures to facilitate future negotiations.

In a speech to the European Parliament on Wednesday, Reuven Rivlin criticized France’s peace-conference initiative, launched earlier this month, which he said amounted to “negotiations for negotiations’ sake” and would only deepen divisions between Israelis and Palestinians.

Later in the day, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who was also visiting Brussels, called the French peace push a “vital conference for our region and the whole world.”

U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian negotiations fell apart in 2014 over disagreements on land swaps and prisoner exchanges. The White House has been working on options for reviving negotiations before President Barack Obama leaves office, although it isn’t clear whether the administration will launch new talks before January.

EU officials said Wednesday they were hoping that Mr. Abbas and Mr. Rivlin would meet and talk in Brussels. That would be the highest level meeting between the Israeli and Palestinian leadership since the 2014 talks. No meeting had taken place by Wednesday evening, though Israeli officials said Mr. Rivlin was ready to meet Mr. Abbas “anytime, anywhere.” [Continue reading…]

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New York State to boycott business with groups that back boycott of Israel

The New York Times reports: Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York ordered agencies under his control on Sunday to divest themselves of companies and organizations aligned with a Palestinian-backed boycott movement against Israel.

Wading into a delicate international issue, Mr. Cuomo set executive-branch and other state entities in opposition to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, or B.D.S., which has grown in popularity in some quarters of the United States and elsewhere, alarming Jewish leaders who fear its toll on Israel’s international image and economy.

Mr. Cuomo made his announcement in a speech at the Harvard Club in Manhattan to an audience including local Jewish leaders and lawmakers, describing the B.D.S. movement as an “economic attack” on Israel.

“We cannot allow that to happen,” the governor said, adding that, “If you boycott against Israel, New York will boycott you.”

Alphonso David, the counsel to the governor, said that the executive order was specifically aimed at the B.D.S. movement launched in 2005, but that it would apply to any boycott targeting Israel. [Continue reading…]

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Israel-Palestinian peace initiatives are suddenly popping up everywhere

The Washington Post reports: Until a week ago, it seemed the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was a flat-liner.

President Obama thought so. In March, he said he wouldn’t seek to jump-start talks — the two sides were too far apart; it was not in the cards.

Now Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives are popping up all over.

On Friday, the French will host a meeting of about 25 foreign ministers, including Secretary of State John F. Kerry, to seek international consensus on a way to move talks forward.

State Department spokesman John Kirby said Kerry was going to Paris to learn and listen — not to lead.

“It’s about being there, being part of the discussion, exploring ideas and options that might get us closer to a two-state solution,” Kirby said.

But Kerry’s presence in Paris worries Israelis who fear that the international community is going to press them to end the 49-year military occupation of the West Bank and the partial trade and travel blockage of Gaza, and to stop ongoing construction of Jewish settlements on land the Palestinians want for a future state.

The Israelis also have their eyes on the calendar. They are concerned that the Obama ­administration will, before leaving office, enshrine a two-state ­solution in a speech or a U.N. resolution, in effect laying out the final status ahead of negotiations.

Kerry spent nine months trying to bring the two sides together in 2014. The talks ended in recriminations about who was to blame for their failure.

Across the political spectrum in Ramallah and Jerusalem, nobody holds out much hope for the French effort.

French diplomats shrug and say in briefings with journalists, “We have to do something.”

In Israel, there is a feeling that something is happening.

Just this week, the once-moribund Arab Peace Initiative is back in the game after years on the sidelines.

Proposed by Saudi Arabia in 2002, the deal offers the idea that the Arab states will normalize relations with Israel after Israel withdraws from the occupied territories — including East Jerusalem — and begins the process of allowing for a Palestinian state.

Former Israeli governments have been hostile or lukewarm to the Arab proposal.

Former prime minister Ariel Sharon called the Arab Peace Initiative a “nonstarter” when it was proposed.

This week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the Arab peace offer intriguing. But Netanyahu also suggested that the Arab states recognize Israel first as Israel makes moves toward giving the Palestinians a state.

That will be a tough sell in the Arab League.

Into this mix comes former British prime minister Tony Blair, who has been shuttling between Egypt, the Arab Gulf states and the Israelis, trying to broker a way to get the sides talking.

Also intriguing, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi said in a recent speech that he thinks the time is ripe to revisit a deal between Israel and the ­Palestinians.

The French seem ready to press ahead with what they see as a solution to the conflict — including what borders should look like for a Palestinian state and whether Palestinians should have a capital in Jerusalem.

The French also may try to set deadlines for future talks. If their efforts fail, French diplomats have warned that they may unilaterally recognize a ­Palestinian state. [Continue reading…]

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Israel/Palestine in the coming realignment of American politics

Following Bernie Sanders’ selection of Cornel West, Keith Ellison, James Zogby, Deborah Parker, and Bill McKibben to sit on the 15-member Democratic Party platform-writing committee, Corey Robin writes: However insignificant, power-wise, Sanders’s choices may be — his people will constitute about a third of the total committee — they are highly significant in terms of the discussion in this country around Israel/Palestine, as Haaretz rightly pointed out.

Because so much of Israel/Palestine politics in this country depends upon keeping certain voices and arguments out of the mainstream, the very fact that Sanders has chosen Cornel West — who in addition to self-identifying as a socialist, is also a long-standing critic of Israel and firm supporter of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement (BDS) — as well as Zogby and even Ellison, as his representative on the platform committee, is a big deal.

West, Zogby, and Ellison are now the voices of not only Sanders but also of the not-insignificant sector of Sanders voters within the Democratic Party.

Israel/Palestine has always been a curious issue in American politics: on the one hand, it’s one tiny piece of the world; on the other hand, it plays an outsized role in US foreign policy and political culture, for all sides of the debate.

That Sanders has chosen to make that one issue a kind of line in the sand of his particular brand of politics — when so many of us had thought he’d simply the ignore the issue altogether — suggests to me that it will play a large role in the coming realignment of American politics. [Continue reading…]

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French plan to hold Israel-Palestine conference postponed indefinitely

Middle East Eye reports: A conference on the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians, due to be held on 30 May in Paris, has been postponed, French President Francois Hollande said on Tuesday.

“[US Secretary of State] John Kerry cannot come on May 30 so it has been delayed. It will take place in the summer,” he told French radio.

Hollande said it was vital for France to take “a strong initiative” in the dispute.

“If not… what will happen? Settlement building, attacks,” he said.

The original date for the conference falls on the US Memorial Day holiday honouring members of the armed forces who died in combat.

“We’re in discussions right now with the French about any possible alternative date that might better work for the secretary,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said Monday, though he added that Kerry’s agenda is currently “jammed”.[Continue reading…]

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Israel tells France it’s not interested in multilateral peace talks

The Washington Post reports: French officials said Sunday that they will continue to press ahead with plans to host a multilateral Middle East peace conference later this year, despite hearing, in blunt language, that Israel doesn’t really like the idea.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday to promote what diplomats are calling the “French Initiative,” a still evolving and admittedly vague diplomatic project that seeks to bring global attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and find consensus among the international community on how to move forward with a two-state solution.

The French are planning to host about 30 foreign ministers — from Europe and the Middle East as well as Russia, China and India — at a preparatory meeting at the end of this month, which could lead to a peace conference later this year.

Neither Israel nor the Palestinians, who support the French Initiative, will attend the May meeting in Paris.

U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry has not said whether he would be there.

Israeli officials have been pressing Washington to pour cold water on the French effort, which seeks to fill the vacuum left behind by the Obama administration, which declared that it would not be making any major move to bring Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. [Continue reading…]

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Untangling the complicated legacies of colonialism and failed Arab regimes overshadowing today’s conflicts in the Middle East

Rami G Khouri writes: Why have most Middle Eastern lands that Great Britain, Italy, and France managed as mandates or colonies become violent wrecks and sources of large-scale conflict and human despair? It is just as dishonest to blame mainly Western colonialism for our national wreckages and rampant instability as it is to blame only Arab people and culture for those failings. We need a more complete and integrated analysis of the multiple phenomena that shaped our last erratic century.

Initially, we must absolutely acknowledge that Arab states’ inability to achieve sustainable economic growth and pluralistic democracies is the core reason for our problems today. The main reason for this reason, however, is to be found in a more complex set of interlocking relationships among powerful political actors inside our countries and capitals far and near.

This requires going back before 1916, maybe a century or two, to recall how European powers conquered much of the world as colonies or sites of unchecked imperial plunder. The main problem with Sykes-Picot is not only what happened in and after 1916; it is also heavily a consequence of the European colonial mindset that matured in the century before 1916, and continued to exercise its colonial prerogatives for decades to follow — perhaps even in today’s continued use of European, Russian, and American military power across our region.

At the same time, three critical issues after 1916 made it virtually impossible for many Arab countries to transition from Euro-manufactured instant states born on after-dinner napkins in the hands of Cognac-mellowed British and French colonial officers, to stable, democratic, prosperous sovereign states.

These three issues were, in their historical order:

1) British support for Zionism and a Jewish state in Palestine in November 1917, which plunged Palestine into endless Zionism-Arabism warfare since then, and sucked in other Arab states, Iran, and others yet;

2) the discovery of large amounts of oil in the Middle East in the 1930s especially, which the West needed to maintain access to for its own industrial expansion; and,

3) the post-1947 Cold War between the U.S.-led West and the Russian-led Soviet Communist states that was translated into perpetual proxy wars across the Middle East for forty-four years, and maybe is resurfacing today in new guises. [Continue reading…]

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Bill Clinton recalls killing himself for the Palestinians

Politico reports: Bill Clinton went on the defensive over his record on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as his wife’s, after a spectator at a Friday afternoon campaign event repeatedly pressed the former president on the issue.

Clinton was explaining his wife’s policy positions in Ewing Township, New Jersey, when a spectator yelled, “What about Gaza?”

“She and the Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt stopped the shooting war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza,” Clinton responded.

“She said neutrality is not an option,” the spectator said, prompting boos from the audience, but Clinton told them to stop.

“Depends on whether you care what happens to the Palestinians as opposed to the Hamas government and the people with guided missiles,” the former president answered.

“They were human beings in Gaza,” the audience member said.

“Yes, they were,” Clinton said. “And Hamas is really smart. When they decide to rocket Israel, they insinuate themselves in the hospitals, in the schools, in the highly populous areas, and they are smart.”

The line prompted applause, and he continued: “They said they try to put the Israelis in a position of either not defending themselves or killing innocents. They’re good at it. They’re smart. They’ve been doing this a long time.”

“I killed myself to give the Palestinians a state. I had a deal they turned down that would have given them all of Gaza,” Clinton said. [Continue reading…]

When Bill Clinton supposedly “killed himself” in his efforts at Camp David, one of his principle aides was Robert Malley, Special Assistant to President Clinton for Arab-Israeli Affairs. After Clinton and others blamed Yasser Arafat for refusing to accept a “generous” offer from Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Barak, Malley set the record straight in the New York Review of Books in 2001:

Robert Malley and Hussein Agha wrote: In accounts of what happened at the July 2000 Camp David summit and the following months of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, we often hear about Ehud Barak’s unprecedented offer and Yasser Arafat’s uncompromising no. Israel is said to have made a historic, generous proposal, which the Palestinians, once again seizing the opportunity to miss an opportunity, turned down. In short, the failure to reach a final agreement is attributed, without notable dissent, to Yasser Arafat.

As orthodoxies go, this is a dangerous one. For it has larger ripple effects. Broader conclusions take hold. That there is no peace partner is one. That there is no possible end to the conflict with Arafat is another.

For a process of such complexity, the diagnosis is remarkably shallow. It ignores history, the dynamics of the negotiations, and the relationships among the three parties. In so doing, it fails to capture why what so many viewed as a generous Israeli offer, the Palestinians viewed as neither generous, nor Israeli, nor, indeed, as an offer. Worse, it acts as a harmful constraint on American policy by offering up a single, convenient culprit—Arafat—rather than a more nuanced and realistic analysis. [Continue reading…]

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