Haaretz has reported that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned that the Palestinian Authority might “collapse” if Israel applies sanctions in a pre-emptive effort to avoid a Palestinian move at the UN in September. The meeting was held on Wednesday, and lasted four hours, Haaretz said. Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman did not attend, but some 30 political and military officials did: “in addition to Netanyahu, Steinitz and Barak, also present were Interior Minister Eli Yishai, Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Minister without Portfolio Benny Begin and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz … Several of the ministers urged preemptive sanctions against the Palestinian Authority in an effort to pressure PA President Mahmoud Abbas to back down, but Defense Minister Ehud Barak objected, warning that it could lead to the collapse of the PA. Haaretz learned that the discussion also dealt with possible Israeli responses following the vote in the UN General Assembly, which is expected to recognize a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders by a large majority. Among the preemptive sanctions discussed was a proposal by Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz to stop transferring the customs duties that Israel collects at its ports on the PA’s behalf. The PA is suffering a severe cash shortage and is having a hard time paying its employees; the taxes Israel passes over are used to pay the lion’s share of those salaries. F or this reason, Barak vehemently objected to the measure, saying it could lead to the PA’s collapse, which would leave the territories in a state of anarchy. Representatives of the Justice Ministry and the military prosecution also warned against taking such unilateral steps”. This report is posted here.
An editorial published in Haaretz on Friday said that “As the UN vote on Palestinian statehood within the June 4, 1967 borders approaches, Israel’s government is showing increasing symptoms of hysteria … [Recently] Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman threatened that Israel would revoke the Oslo Accords. This week Lieberman proposed severing all ties with the Palestinian Authority to preempt the wave of violence he says will erupt the day after the UN declaration”.
The Haaretz editorial, which can be read in full here, also notes that “It’s hard to think of a more dangerous and foolish move than destroying the PA and cutting off the livelihood of tens of thousands of security personnel and officials who depend on it for their wages. As Defense Minister Ehud Barak said at the debate, this move would lead to anarchy in the West Bank, making Israel responsible for the welfare of 2.5 million people”.
Henry Siegman, currently research professor at the University of London, analyzed what’s behind this “hysteria” this week in an article saying that “The alleged legal objection to the Palestinian initiative is that it violates the terms of the Oslo accords, which preclude measures by either party to resolve unilaterally any of the permanent status issues. If it were true, as Israel’s government maintains, that an impermissible unilateral measure frees the other party from the Oslo accords’ obligations, then Palestinians were freed of Oslo’s obligations long ago, for both the UN and the International Court of Justice have declared that Israel’s settlements in the West Bank are not only impermissible unilateral acts but in clear violation of established international law. More fundamentally, however, it is simply not true that the proposed Palestinian initiative violates the Oslo agreement. Palestinians do not intend to ask the UN to address any of the permanent status issues they are required to negotiate with Israel. If the UN were to declare that Palestinians have achieved the requirements of statehood—as they have in fact been found to have done by the IMF and the World Bank—and a Palestinian state were accepted into full UN membership, Palestinians would still have to reach agreement on each of the permanent status issues with Israel. The United States and Israel have warned Palestinians to abandon their UN initiative on prudential grounds as well, for even if they were to succeed in obtaining UN recognition of their right to statehood in the Occupied Territories, nothing would change on the ground, for Israel’s government would be as indifferent to such a UN declaration as it has been to countless other UN directives. Indeed, Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has threatened that in those circumstances Israel would feel free to annex far more West Bank territory than it already has. But if were true that UN action would have no effect whatever in advancing the Palestinian cause, except perhaps to spur an even greater Israeli land grab, why is Israel engaged in such frantic efforts to prevent a UN showdown? Indeed, why does it not welcome the Palestinian initiative? The answer is that what the Netanyahu/Lieberman government fears most is an international confirmation that the 1967 border is the point of reference for Israeli Palestinian territorial negotiations”…
Henry Siegman, a former president of the American Jewish Congress, argues firmly that, contrary to the hysterical arguments being advanced, the UN is the right venue for this matter, and the U.S. preference to return to stagnating peace negotiations is not. He states that “The assumption that in the absence of an agreement, the occupying power can retain its permanent hold on the occupied territories is absurd”.
And, he writes, “What is so shameful is that not only have we failed to support a legitimate Palestinian demand but we threaten to punish them severely for it”.
Siegman’s analysis is posted here.
An earlier article by Daniel Levy, now in the U.S. but formerly the chief staff drafter on the Israeli team of the Geneva Initiative, said some of the same things — and also accused the Quartet of “sophistry” when it comes to the 1967 borders.
Levy’s step-by-step explanation centers around a jousting match between the U.S, and the European Union around a surprising Obama Administration effort to fudge the expressed EU resistance to a 2004 letter from then U.S. President George W. Bush to then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (that letter was part of an American effort to help the Israelis accept the Road Map). In that letter, Bush wrote that existing realities on the ground (meaning, Israeli settlements in the West Bank) should be taken into account.
The EU never accepted that 2004 Bush letter — and the EU said they vigorously opposed it in a Quartet meeting attended by then U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. But, how was that expressed? The Quartet adopted a statement drafted in extremely diplomatic language saying that it could only accept changes that both parties agreed.
The U.S. never mentioned the Bush letter again — and journalists asked about its status a couple of dozen times, without any clear recommitment — until Obama’s recent speech to AIPAC.
Daniel Levy goes through this in detail:
“The U.S. presented to its Quartet ‘partners’ a suggested one page text that looked rather like an exercise in cherry picking Obama’s recent speeches by the Israeli Prime Minister’s office (given the recent traffic between Jerusalem and Washington and the end product it is reasonable to speculate that that is precisely what happened). The American pitch went something like the following: the proposed text is a reflection of the President’s speech, the Quartet had encouraged the President to give such a speech, the President had taken some political heat for the speech, the Quartet had even endorsed the speech (which it did in a May 20 statement), therefore the Quartet should now stand united behind the American draft, demonstrate to the Palestinians that they have no alternative but to accept the Quartet position, resume negotiations, and drop the UN idea. The text was quite clearly pre-cooked with the Israeli leadership, so no problem of acceptance from Israel.
Except that the U.S. text was not a faithful rendition of what the Quartet had endorsed — namely, the May 19 State Department speech of the president — but rather a hodgepodge of language from that speech, from the May 22 speech at the AIPAC conference, and of elements never before endorsed by the Quartet and even contradicting the existing positions of the EU and others. Hence the stalemate — and not altogether a shock given Jerusalem’s apparent co-authorship of the text.
So here are the details. To recap: President Obama’s May 19 speech spent 1,040 words addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Obama described the conflict, touched on Israeli and Palestinian aspirations, and made a case for a solution being more urgent than ever in the context of the Arab awakening. The President then made news when, in calling for a resumption of negotiations, he stated that ‘the basis of those negotiations is clear’, and then spent 170 words providing the parameters of a borders and security first approach to achieving two-states (his reference of the 1967 lines in particular drew attention). He closed out this part of the speech by saying ‘these principles provide a foundation for negotiations’.
The U.S. draft proposal presented to the Quartet did include the President’s language from the May 19 speech, but it also included a whole lot more, all of it skewing, extremely uni-directionally, in Israel’s favor. To the simple May 19 border language of ‘based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps’, the U.S. added the following from the May 22 speech:
The parties themselves will negotiate a border between Israel and Palestine that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967, to take account of changes that have taken place over the last 44 years, including the new demographic realities on the ground and the needs of both sides.
This is essentially America asking the Quartet to endorse illegal Israeli settlement activity that has taken place since 1967 (and in phrasing this as ‘the parties themselves will negotiate a border…’ the U.S. is deviating from its own previous policy of not dictating to the parties). Compare that to the official position of the European Union: ‘The European Union will not recognize any changes to the pre-1967 borders including with regard to Jerusalem, other than those agreed by the parties’.
Remember, the Quartet issued a statement endorsing the president’s May 19 speech; it has never endorsed the May 22 speech.
The U.S. text also included language about Israel that was spoken on both May 19 and May 22 but was not part of the principles or foundations for negotiations set out on May 19 (and it is these principles that the Quartet endorsed). As follows:
A lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland of the Jewish people.
Again, this is terminology that neither the EU nor the Quartet has endorsed in the past. While it may be derived from previous U.N. resolutions (UNGA 181) it is problematic in several respects. It comes at a time when the nationalist chauvinism of the Netanyahu-Lieberman government is creating in practice an ever less democratic rendition of Jewish statehood. And America’s text actually fails to even mention the need for Israel to be a democracy or to respect the equal rights of all citizens (maybe the American drafters did understand more than appears at first glance). It is being claimed by Israel, and for understandable reasons, to be a definitive position on the Palestinian refugee issue, and it meets a key Netanyahu demand without anything even resembling a reciprocal nod to Palestinian rights.
The U.S. wanted the Quartet to agree that:
[N]or can the two-state solution be achieved through action in the United Nations.
Again, this was not in the principles of negotiations May 19 language and is closer to the May 22 text and is an Israeli position…and a bit of a stretch to ask everyone else, including the UN Secretary General, to join America in de-legitimizing the idea of acting through the United Nations.
Another proposed sentence would have the Quartet saying:
No country can be expected to negotiate with a terrorist organization sworn to its destruction.
Taken from the AIPAC speech, and while ostensibly reasonable, this is not something that has been applied in other conflict situations or that does anything other than curry favor with Jerusalem. It was America’s way of coming out firmly against Palestinian national reconciliation and conceding to Israel’s argument that even if the Palestinians accept these principles for negotiations, Israel would still not be expected to enter talks until the unity deal was undone. One Quartet member, Russia, actually hosted a joint Hamas, Fatah, and other factions delegation in Moscow to encourage the reconciliation deal, while the EU position is to call ]on all Palestinians to promote reconciliation behind President Mahmoud Abbas’.
To top it all off, nowhere in the proposed statement was there a mention of settlement activity and the need for it to be stopped (other than retroactively legitimizing it as mentioned above). Europe’s position on settlements is clear:
[They are] illegal under international law…and threaten to make a two-state solution impossible. The [European] Council urges the government of Israel to immediately end all settlement activities, in East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank and including natural growth, and to dismantle all outposts erected since March 2001.
Finally, the U.S. attempted to introduce a new procedural construct with the following sentence:
The Quartet calls on the parties to return to direct negotiations, beginning with preparatory work to maximize their chances of success.
It reads like an attempt to ensure that September could be navigated safely by not even starting the negotiations before then — instead focusing on this new ‘preparatory work’. Under the conditions embodied in the U.S. text, the only preparatory work that one can imagine might lead to success would be a Hogwart’s crash course in Wizardry (although American officials no doubt have different ideas and are proposing the kind of minimalist Israeli confidence-building measures that have made such a massive contribution to peace in the last decade!)”.
Daniel Levy’s article, detailing the Quartet’s “sophistry”, was published here on Foreign Policy magazine’s Middle East Channel.