Big Thaw – Abbas agrees to meet Olmert on 7 April

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said at a joint news conference with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in Amman this afternoon that he would meet Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, probably on 7 April.

About two weeks after that, Abbas will travel to Washington DC to meet U.S. President George W. Bush.

The Palestinian President froze contacts with Olmert after a violent Israeli offensive in Gaza at the end of February and the beginning of March. However, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Palestinian negotiator Ahmad Qurei’ (Abu Alaa) have continued to meet Israeli on a working level almost without interruption.

Both Abbas and Rice continued to express optimism that it would still be possible to reach an agreement with Israel in 2008 that would result in the creation of a Palestinian state.

However, a day after Israel pledged to remove 50 out of some 580 roadblocks and checkpoints (none of the really much more difficult manned checkpoints are included in that number, apparently), announcements were made about plans to build 1400 new homes in East Jerusalem and in the West Bank.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that no new settlements would be built, and he implied that this activity was being done under –as if part of — the present Annapolis process.

The Associated Press reported that “Olmert insisted the building would not disrupt peace negotiations. ‘This is going on within the framework of negotiations, and the negotiations will continue to progress’, he said. At a U.S.-hosted peace conference in November, Israel and the Palestinians agreed to relaunch long-stalled talks and base negotiations on the 2003 ‘road map’ peace plan. The U.S.-backed proposal calls on Israel to freeze all settlement activity, including in existing settlements. Because it annexed east Jerusalem after the 1967 war, Israel does not consider construction there to be settlement activity. The Palestinians and the international community do. Israel also maintains the right to build in West Bank settlements to account for ‘natural growth’ of the population there, even though the road map specifically bans such activity”. The full AP report can be read here .

Earlier Monday, Peace Now reported that at least 1700 new homes had been approved for the settlements since the Annapolis Conference on 27 November (presumably these are in addition to the 1400 new units announced later in the day)

After the announcement today of the new housing plans in the settlements, Rice said: “We continue to state America’s position that settlement activity should stop, that its expansion should stop — that it is indeed not consistent with ‘road map’ obligations”.

Palestinian President Abbas said, in his joint press conference with Rice, that “we hope that the American referee or judge will make sure that Israel will meet its obligation, in particularly, namely, to stop settlement activities, in particular in Jerusalem, and also to fix a comprehensive reciprocal or mutual truce and also to release the (inaudible – Palestinian?) detainees as well as to ask for the return of the (inaudible – refugees?) and to reopen the institutions in eastern Jerusalem and to reinstate the situation before 2000 – year 2000. And all of these are agreed under the Roadmap”.

Abbas also said:  “We do support all efforts exerted to remove the siege on Gaza, and these efforts are being exerted by Egypt in particular … I have asked Dr. Rice to continue in delivery of pharmaceuticals, water, electricity to our people in Gaza with practical steps in order to relieve the siege and the closures at the Palestinian internal affairs level.

Rice briefs travelling press corps on agreements in Jerusalem

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice discussed the achievements of her day in Jerusalem with her travelling press corps on Sunday.  (It was earlier announced that Israel would remove about 50 roadblocks in the West Bank –) out of over 500:

“QUESTION: There is nothing in the statement about removal of any checkpoints in – particularly around Jericho. There is reference to the roadblocks but not to specific checkpoints. One, can you explain what roadblocks means? Is it meaning sort of dirt mound (inaudible) people? And second, did you want to get a commitment on moving specific checkpoints, including those in Jericho?

SECRETARY RICE: I think we’ve gotten, or the two parties have agreed to, a set of steps that constitute a very good start to improving movement and access, improving potential economic prospects for Palestinians, and to gaining some momentum on the track that has to do with on-the-ground.  Let me just explain, though, that the whole point here is not to try and isolate and say we remove that or remove that. The whole point here is to have an integrated approach that looks at the security, looks at the movement and access issues, and looks at the potential for economic prospects, and then comes up with concrete steps that can move all three together in an integrated fashion.  So that’s the idea, to be very concrete about an area like Jenin and what needs to be done. They’ll look at other areas in turn. But this is a more integrated approach and a more concrete approach, and I think it’s a very good stand.

QUESTION: Are there more — are there specifics on which 50 —

SECRETARY RICE: General Fraser will be following up on the specifics and will be also — the term that he uses is not verifying, but making certain that, in fact, there are 50 and that they are being removed and that they, in fact, have some impact on the access issue.

QUESTION: Can you give a sense whether those 50 — and you use the term — roadblocks, what you mean by that? Do you mean things as simple as, you know, dirt barriers, or do you mean actual checkpoints where people stop (inaudible)?

SECRETARY RICE: I think that the specific of this are — have been worked out by the Ministry of Defense. They will — we will be verifying what it is they’re doing. But this is all aimed at trying to improve the movement and access for the Palestinian people.

QUESTION: Well, Israel has promised to remove roadblocks in the past and, in fact, the number of roadblocks has increased since Annapolis.

SECRETARY RICE: That’s right. That’s why I said we’ll be monitoring and verifying.

QUESTION: Well, you’ve been trying to monitor and verify for two and a half years now.

SECRETARY RICE: No, well, but this is a very specific commitment. And no, we actually haven’t been monitoring and verifying for the last two and a half years. We’ve been monitoring and verifying since Annapolis…One of the reasons for the agreement that we have here is that, in fact, we want to be much more systematic about what is being promised and what is being done than I think we have been able to be prior to the — to General Fraser’s mission. So I think it’s a very much more systematic approach.

QUESTION: Is there a timeline for removing the roadblocks?

SECRETARY RICE: We’ve been told that this is going to start and hopefully even be completed in a relatively short period of time. I’m not going to try to give you a date, but I’m expecting — I’m expecting it to happen very, very soon.

I think one step that was very good here was the meeting of Salam Fayyad and Barak, face-to-face, I guess Wednesday night, which really, after the work that General Jones and Fraser and Dayton have done here, is trying to take a somewhat different approach to this problem: rather than just saying remove this or remove that, let’s talk about what effect it will really have.  One of the interesting discussions that we had in the trilateral, without getting into too many specifics, was to look at what kind of removal of certain obstacles might really have an effect on people trying to get from Point A to Point B, rather than just saying remove something. What’s really going to be the effect? What effect would that have on the economic life in that corridor? What effect will that have on the ability of an investor to go ahead, as Tony Blair is trying to get people to do, to put a project there? Does it have the security arrangements that would make it an attractive place for an investor? Does it have the access that will allow workers to get back and forth?  That’s the kind of integrated approach that I think the two of them are trying to pursue now. And I think you’ll see more of this kind of approach and the sorts of things that you see here, but increasingly tied to specific areas to integrate the security, the movement issues and the economic issues.

I have a lot of experience now with movement and access issues, going back to the end of 2005, and I — I’ve become convinced of two things. The first is that you don’t get really good movement on movement and access unless you have a political prospect, which is why this is attached to another track of Annapolis, which is the political — the process, the prospect of statehood, if you will. And secondly, that you don’t get very far by kind of generalized requests that things be moved. You need to be pretty specific in a way that harmonizes security interests, movement issues and economic interests.  And I think if you — I’ve talked to Tony Blair about this. One of the issues that he’s had in trying to move forward some of the projects is investors or others who say, well, you know, how are we going to get the movement issues assessed here or how are we going to deal with the security requirements here. And so this is a package and that’s why it looks the way that it does.

The reason that we talk about subject to the Roadmap in terms of the implementation of the peace agreement is that it’s very hard to imagine the establishment of a state in which you haven’t been able to meet those conditions. But I don’t expect anyone to wait on the movement of the Roadmap obligations, to sort of wait for an agreement and then say, oh, the Roadmap obligations haven’t been met. The whole purpose is to move these along together.

…access and movement is difficult because it does have real security implications and it has real quality of life and economic implications for the Palestinians, security implications for the Israelis and the Palestinians, and ease of life and economic activity for the Palestinians.  And I frankly think that one of the problems with the November agreement of 2005, if you remember, it came as we were working or had done the Gaza disengagement, but we were not — they were not yet in a position to really have the launch of a serious set of political negotiations that had the prospect of statehood. And it becomes a little bit chicken-and-egg. There’s certain things that people are more willing to contemplate as it really does appear that statehood is possible. There are greater incentives to do things, I think, in terms of the restructuring of security forces and the training of them and the responsibilities they undertake. When I said — now it must have been more than a year ago that a political horizon was essential to making progress on the ground, I think that was the — that was important.

And in order to get there, we had to think about how to keep the discipline of the Roadmap without the constraint of the phases of the Roadmap, which is really what the Annapolis process did. If you remember, the Roadmap had anticipated it should finish all of the phases — all of phase one of the Roadmap, maybe some of phase two, and then you would go to phase three, which was the negotiations on final status. And with some ups and downs, what Annapolis did was really to put these not in sequence but in parallel. And I think that has helped, but now making sure that the movement and access issues are really aimed at the right thing, that the obligations and promises that are made are really aimed at having effect on the ground and that we have a really systematic way to know what’s happening on the ground.

One thing that we’ve done, the United States has done, is we have improved the ability of our monitor, our head of our committee, to move around himself and to see things personally. And I think that’s been important.

QUESTION: Madame Secretary, during your talks with the Israelis, did you raise the question of the settlements? They said recently that they were going to keep building new settlements.

SECRETARY RICE: It’s very clear, and of course, I’ve raised this issue, that Israel has a Roadmap obligation here that is essential. And what’s very important is that the reason that obligation is there is that there cannot be anything that prejudges a final status agreement. And that’s why people concern themselves with this particular obligation. And yes, we’ve talked about it.

QUESTION: It seems that before Annapolis there was the talk of an agreement within a year, a final status agreement. And then in the last couple of months, we’ve kind of moved backwards and we’re talking about a framework agreement, a declaration of principles, and both — Prime Minister Olmert has said it’ll be impossible to implement an agreement by the end of the year. And now —

SECRETARY RICE: Well, now, just a second. You just used a different verb.


SECRETARY RICE: Okay. To implement an agreement by the end of the year? We said that there — that we would hope that there would be an agreement by the end of the year. As the President said recently, there’s still plenty of time to do that. It obviously will take some time, if you just look at all the things that will have to be done in order to implement an agreement, I think nobody is expecting that you can fully implement an agreement by the end of the year.

QUESTION: But if I understand that, if I’m not mistaken, now they’re not even talking about a detailed agreement. They’re talking about some sort of —

SECRETARY RICE: I don’t think that’s accurate.

QUESTION: You don’t think that’s accurate. So you don’t have a sense that you’re moving backwards at all or that —

SECRETARY RICE: Quite the opposite. But the reason that this is somewhat difficult for everybody is that the parties have really been faithful to their agreement not to talk about what they’re talking about. And there’s great discipline on both sides in that regard.

I would like anyone to show me how you actually establish a state without having met most of the obligations or the obligations that are in the first phase of the Roadmap. So they go together. But what we had to break through is the idea that this was all sequential…But we’ve — by breaking that sequentiality, we don’t mean to imply that the Roadmap obligations are not important to fulfill.

Settlements have come up in my conversations.

Rice briefs traveling journalists on latest mission

Speaking to her accompanying press corps on the plane en route to Tel Aviv on Saturday, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice said: “I will have an opportunity to meet with all my usual interlocutors. This time I’ll meet Abu Mazen in Jordan because that’s where he is going to be, so I’ll see the King of Jordan and Abu Mazen in Jordan. I am looking forward to the opportunity to see President Olmert tonight. The purpose of this trip really is to continue to work on the three major tracks of Annapolis, as well as on the Arab track to get the King of Jordan’s advice and counsel on how we continue to move the Arab support for the Annapolis process forward.

This time, I will spend a good deal of time on the issues concerning the West Bank and issues concerning the ability to provide a better life for the people of the West Bank, including ways to improve movement and access in pursuance of some of the economic projects that I know Tony Blair and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad would like to get going. You may know that Defense Minister Barak and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad met last week to talk about some of the things that might be done to make some really concrete progress on the ground, because I’ve become convinced that it’s harder to talk about movement and access just in general than to have rather specific ways to get certain economic projects going and knowing what movement and access obstacles there are and then working on those obstacles. So that’s the approach that General Jones took when he was out here that he’s now briefed to me and that I’m now going to follow up. I’ll do that in a trilateral format with Barak and Fayyad together with me, I think, tomorrow, is that trilateral.

The other element is to talk about how the negotiations are going. As I said to you before, they are doing those quietly, below the radar screen. I think that’s absolutely appropriate. And I’m not coming to insert American ideas into this process. I think they’re doing a lot of work on their own, but I do want to talk to them, get some sense of how it’s going, see where I can be helpful. But most importantly, this is an informal conversation with the two chief negotiators, and I’ll do that also in a trilateral format on Monday, in addition to my normal bilateral meetings with all the parties. Obviously, we’re continuing to try to find an answer for Gaza, where there needs to be an end to the rocket attacks on Israel and where we need to find solutions, sustainable solutions, for the humanitarian situation for the people of Gaza. So those are target questions and the way that we’ll carry it out.

“…One of the places that I think we really do need to see, something of a step-wise functional improvement is on the West Bank movement and access issues, the ability to start to get some of these economic projects from Tony Blair, not in place, because some of them are quite large, but to really clear away the obstacles to them and to get agreement between the parties on how that piece of Annapolis is going to go forward. So the improvement of life on the ground is the piece that has to be pushed forward pretty hard … we’ve known and thought for some time that part of the problem is to be pretty concrete and specific about what you’re trying to do in a specific area, what economic projects you’re trying to put there, what Palestinian security forces are available in that area to take the transfer of Palestinian authority, of Palestinian security forces, in the way that was done in Nablus, forward. Because if you think about it, that gets at one element of the Roadmap, which is increasing Palestinian security, competence, and authority, and it begins to get at the questions of improvement of movement and access and economic life for people. And so to start to move forward concretely in some areas on those, and so to be able to be more specific about what movement and access obstacles there are and to work on those. Think of them as ways to move forward, areas that might be able to move on both security and on economic development.

QUESTION: What about actual removal of checkpoints? Is that something that you think is possible? Are the Israelis getting ready to do that despite the risks?

SECRETARY RICE: “I certainly want to take a look at that. Obviously, there are security issues, but we do have to find ways to improve movement. There are obstacles that are not checkpoints and then there are checkpoints that are obstacles and I think you have to look at both“.

QUESTION: You said earlier that, obviously, part of you’re doing this weekend is continuing to try to find an answer to the situation in Gaza. What sort of things are you exploring? Are you getting more involved in the whole idea of a ceasefire or what?

SECRETARY RICE: “No. I think, though, that there are questions about how humanitarian access could be more sustainable, how the Palestinian Authority might have more of a role in providing for the people of Gaza. You know that we supported, for instance, Salam Fayyad’s ideas sometime ago, the Quartet did, on, I think, what could be done about getting back to – not the full November 2005 agreement, but something that might take elements of the 2005 agreement help in the management of crossings, that kind of thing”.

…”I just said I thought it was important to keep in contact with our key Arab allies who are the supporters of the Annapolis process, because we don’t want to lose that thread, which is why I’m spending this time with the King of Jordan. If you remember the last time I was here, I spent some time with Mubarak, and so I just think that’s very important as well“.

The transcript of this briefing was received by email

The Associated Press then reported that “Israel agreed this past week to issue more permits for Palestinian laborers and merchants, but has yet to take down any of the hundreds of West Bank checkpoints it says are necessary to stop suicide bombers. Broader peace negotiations have bogged down despite pledges from all sides to reach at least the outline of a peace deal by the time President Bush leaves office in January. On this issue, Rice said she was not coming to the region to ‘insert American ideas into this process’ … ‘What is useful right now is for the parties to continue what I think is a pretty fruitful discussion between them’. In addition to seeing Barak and Fayyad on Sunday, Rice planned to meet with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni before a quick trip to Amman for talks with Jordanian King Abdullah II as well as Abbas, who is currently in Jordan. Rice then returns to Jerusalem for a three-way meeting on Monday with Livni, who is leading the Israeli negotiating team, and the Palestinian’s chief negotiator Ahmed Qureia. Rice later will head back to Amman for further talks with Abbas”. This AP report can be read in full here .

Movement and Access?

Nobody can write this like Haaretz’s Gideon Levy.

In his latest article, Blaming the Victim, he explains what happened to a man who had to carry his new washing machine home on his head, because his home is in a closed area of Hebron:

“Ghassam Burqan’s wife was tired of doing all the laundry by hand. With five children at home, the couple decided to buy a washing machine. Now, says Burqan with a bitter smile, had he known what buying a washing machine would get him into, he would have passed on this particular luxury, and his wife could have gone on doing all the laundry by hand forever. Because of that washing machine, Burqan is now holding a plastic bag containing his bloodstained clothes, the result of the night of terror he says he was subjected to after some soldiers, and Border Police officers especially, attacked and abused him for an entire night, while he was bound, blindfolded and bleeding from a blow to the head from a rifle butt … Meanwhile, the upshot is not what one might expect: An indictment was issued against Burqan for assaulting Border Police officers. They also tried to accuse him of attempting to steal their weapons, but this charge was immediately rejected by the judges in the military court. Get the picture? Burqan tried to assault the Border Police officers, with a washing machine on his head, and to steal their weapons while he was at it. And so the victim became the accused. Still, even the military judges had their doubts about the prosecution’s version of events, and the military court, in two different forums, in an exceedingly rare move, decided to release on bail a person accused of assaulting our forces. The trial will begin next month. Not of the Border Police officers – of Burqan. Burqan, 31, is a marble cutter who lives with his family in Hebron’s Old City, which is under the control of the IDF and the settlers. No Palestinian vehicle is permitted to enter, which is why he had to carry the new washing machine home on his head …

On Friday, March 7, the family was visiting the grandparents. In the afternoon, they drove to nearby Beit Awa to buy a new washing machine; prices are lower there. They looked around, chose one and paid for it, loaded the washing machine onto the car and returned to the grandparents’ house. At around 8.30 P.M., after dinner, they prepared to return to their home, not far away, just past the IDF checkpoint that blocks the passage of Palestinian vehicles. Burqan hefted the cardboard box with the washing machine onto his head and the whole family – father, mother and five children (ranging in age from 1 to 12), along with Burqan’s brother, headed out. Tomorrow they would put the first load in the machine.

Six jeeps were parked by the concrete blocks next to the checkpoint, some from the IDF and some from the Border Police.

‘What do you have there on your head?’ the Border Police officer, a Druze apparently, asked in Arabic. ‘A washing machine’,” Burqan replied. ‘I want to check’, said the officer. ‘What is there to check? It’s a new washing machine, still in the package’, said Burqan. The officer (according to Burqan): ‘Then I’ll open it and wreck it’. N ow Burqan was afraid of what might happen to the washing machine, which the family had spent months saving for … The court would find that at most, he struck the Border Police officer on the hand. But other forces immediately poured out of the parked jeeps and started beating the two brothers with clubs and rifle butts, even after they were sprawled on the ground. According to the court hearings, which we will get to shortly, several army officers were present, including a company commander, but no one bothered to collect their testimony. Soon the two brothers had their hands bound behind their backs, and one had a rifle pushed against his throat and his neck stepped on…” and so on…

This Gideon Levy article can be read in full on Haaretz’s website here .

What will Rice be doing on this trip?

In the U.S. State Department Daily Press Briefing on Friday, spokesman Sean McCormack was asked by a journalist (and replied) the following:

“QUESTION: Since the Secretary is going tomorrow to Israel, what about Prime Minister Olmert’s vow to continue the settlement-building process?

MR. MCCORMACK: You know our views on this matter. The President has spoken to it. The Secretary has spoken to it. We expect that both sides would comply with their Roadmap obligations. And there are obviously provisions within the Roadmap concerning settlements and outposts, and we would expect that both sides — Israel and the Palestinians — comply with those obligations. You recently heard from us that we didn’t think either side was doing enough to comply with the Roadmap obligations. So I expect that during this trip, the Secretary will talk not only about the political process with both sides and how that is proceeding, what we can do to help them move it forward, but also talk about the importance of moving forward with compliance on the Roadmap obligations”.

What did Olmert say? As reported on UN-Truth here:

“Olmert cited the 14 April 2004 letter from U.S. President George W. Bush to then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as providing the basis for developing “existing population centers” in the West Bank as well as in East Jerusalem.

Israel will not build any more settlements, Olmert said, nor will it expropriate any more land. And, illegal outposts will be dealt with, he indicated.But, he stressed, ‘in population centers there were be more additional building’, and ‘the reality on the ground will continue to change’.

He said that this had been made very clear at the outset of the present Annapolis process.

Recent Israeli announcements of a number of new housing tenders for Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and one in the West Bank (Givat Ze’ev), were made immediately after the recent attack by an East Jerusalem Palestinian on the Mercaz HaRav yeshiva, which killed eight students there (four of whom were children under the age of 18).

On Givat Zeev, Olmert brushed off any criticism. ‘Most of the apartments approved are already built, and paid for, for many years’, he said”.

The Jerusalem Post reported Friday that “Defense Minister Ehud Barak has warned the United States that gestures Israel is making to the Palestinians – including approving the transfer to the Palestinian Authority of weapons and armored vehicles, and allowing the deployment of PA policemen in West Bank cities – could ultimately backfire because Hamas could come to power in the West Bank and be better equipped to turn on Israel. Barak issued the warning during a recent meeting with the US special envoy to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Gen. James Jones. The Israeli defense establishment has drawn up a list of further gestures together with Jones that are set to include deploying 600 Jordanian-trained PA policemen in Jenin and the possible removal of dirt roadblocks. ‘We need to keep in mind the possibility that after all we have done, Hamas will take over the West Bank, not only by force but even in the upcoming general elections’, Barak told Jones, according to defense officials. ‘This is certainly a possibility’. Barak plans to present the list of gestures to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is set to arrive in Israel on Saturday night, during their meeting the next day … But Israeli defense officials dismissed claims that Barak was facing criticism from the US for not making greater efforts to remove roadblocks or to ease restrictions in the West Bank. ‘Both the Americans and the Palestinians understand that if we lift a roadblock and there is an attack we will fall back instead of moving forward in the negotiations’, one official said. At the same time, the US has welcomed Barak’s planned moves to ease movement for West Bank Palestinians. ‘These are welcome developments that indicate a desire by the Israeli authorities to move forward, to try to help improve the situation on the ground’, the administration official said. The gestures, which have yet to be finalized, include the deployment in Jenin of 600 PA policemen currently being trained in Jordan. Barak is also considering the removal of several dirt roadblocks in the West Bank. The armed policemen in Jenin will be charged with maintaining order in the town during the day, but the IDF will retain security control and will continue to operate in the town at night. Other gestures included opening a VIP lane at checkpoints and exempting Palestinian businessmen who are approved by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) from inspections”. The full JPost article is here.

Leaving the other “gestures” aside for the moment, will the Americans be impressed by a VIP lane at checkpoints for Palestinian businessmen approved by the Shin Bet? Will the Palestinians?

Haaretz reported earlier that “U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice plans to hold two trilateral meetings during her visit to the region next week. [1] One American-Israeli-Palestinian conclave will deal with the final-status negotiations, while the other will address the situation on the ground in the West Bank and what both sides are doing, or not doing, to fulfill their obligations under the road map peace plan. Rice will arrive Saturday and stay for three days. She will hold meetings in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Amman – the latter with King Abdullah of Jordan. The visit is intended to signal growing American involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and to prod both sides to make significant progress before U.S. President George Bush visits the region in May. Rice is interested in raising the profile of the final-status talks and demonstrating real progress on the core issues. To this end, she plans one three-way meeting with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and former Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qureia, who head the respective negotiating teams. A joint declaration about progress in the negotiations might be issued at the end of it. The Livni-Qureia talks are being conducted very intensively: The two met twice this week and three times last week. They are also being conducted in great secrecy, and even Rice has not been fully briefed on the details. Virtually nothing has been leaked from these talks except the message that they are ‘progressing well’. The talks have dealt with the issues of borders, refugees, settlements and security. It is not clear whether they have also dealt with Jerusalem: Both parties prefer ambiguity on this issue, especially in light of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s promise to Shas that Jerusalem will be discussed only at the end. [2] Rice also plans to focus on practical steps to improve the situation in the West Bank, as called for in the road map. To this end, she plans separate meetings with Defense Minister Ehud Barak and PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, followed by a joint meeting with both of them. A week ago, a trilateral monitoring commission, headed by American General William Fraser, held its first meeting to review both sides’ implementation of their road map obligations. At that meeting, Fraser told the Palestinians they were not doing enough to fight terror and criticized Israel for its failure to remove West Bank roadblocks and dismantle illegal settlement outposts. Rice has made several statements recently about her unhappiness with both sides’ foot-dragging on their road map commitments. However, she has directed most of her criticism at Israel, for not doing enough to improve the daily lives of West Bank Palestinians. Barak plans to present Rice with the list of Israeli steps that he decided on this week, which he previously discussed with Fayyad at their meeting on Wednesday”.

In addition, Haaretz reports, “Rice is also interested in a proposed bill to compensate any settler who leaves the West Bank voluntarily, even before a final-status agreement is signed. She first heard about the idea at a meeting in Jerusalem with Minister Without Portfolio Ami Ayalon a few months ago. At the time, Ayalon told Rice it was critical for the U.S. to push this matter forward, since otherwise, it would go nowhere. American officials have also discussed this issue with MKs Avshalom Vilan(Meretz) and Colette Avital (Labor), who sponsored the legislation. There is growing interest in the idea in Washington, on the assumption that such a law would show the Palestinians that Israel is serious about quitting the West Bank”. This Haaretz article is posted here.

To make this perfectly clear, the Israeli Defense Minister (and former Prime Minister) Ehud Barak said he would make these “gestures” — but would not take other steps that U.S. officials (including the U.S. Road Map “monitor”, General Jones, and Secretary Rice as well) have been pressing Israel on, for months.

On Monday, for example, the Associated Press (AP) reported: “Visiting a crossing between the southern West Bank and Israel, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the checkpoints block militants and are vital to Israel’s security. The government would ‘look into’ certain changes to in a limited test area, he said, but offered no details. ‘It’s still too early to give an answer’, Barak said. Israel sees the barriers as a key element of a military policy that has dramatically reduced militant attacks in recent years. Palestinians say the roadblocks humiliate them and stifle their economy. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, now an international Mideast envoy, has urged Israel to ease Palestinian travel restrictions … Barak also pledged Monday that Israel would facilitate the construction of several industrial zones meant to provide thousands of jobs and boost the Palestinian economy. Many of the projects, funded by foreign governments, have been held up because of Israeli security concerns. Barak gave no timetable for the projects and did not say how he intended to move them forward”… This AP report was posted here.

Haaretz newspaper picked up this AP report and added its own touches, reporting: “Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Monday that Israel will soon begin making life easier for West Bank Palestinians, but that it won’t remove checkpoints for now. Barak said that Israel would facilitate the construction of several industrial zones meant to provide thousands of jobs and boost the Palestinian economy. Many of the projects, funded by foreign governments, have been held up because of Israeli security concerns. However, Barak gave no timetable for the projects and did not say how he intended to move them forward. Visiting a crossing terminal between the southern West Bank and Israel, Barak said Israel would soon take steps to expedite movement through the hundreds of checkpoints and roadblocks Israel has built in the West Bank … [On removing checkpoints] Barak indicated Monday such a move was not expected soon. The checkpoints block militants and are vital to Israel’s security, Barak said. He said only that the government would look into certain changes in a limited test area, but offered no further details. ‘It’s still too early to give an answer, he said’. This AP report is posted here.

The next day, Tuesday, the Jerusalem Post reported — apparently picking up on Monday’s reports and asking Barak for further information: ” ‘It is clear to us all that we must exhaust all possible means of assisting the negotiations with the Palestinians’, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Tuesday. ‘We must ease restrictions on the Palestinians whenever it does not conflict with [Israel’s] defense, even at the price of a calculated risk’.” The defense minister, who was speaking during a tour of an IDF induction base, also said that ‘There are a number of economic projects that we are working on, which are intended to generate momentum and provide jobs for Palestinians’. Barak, however, emphasized that ‘we must remember that our top responsibility is to provide security to the citizens of Israel’.” This JPost report is posted here.

It requires a lawyer’s analytical ability — and probably also many lawyers — and a lot of stamina, to deal with all this …

Condoleeza Rice to return to region this weekend

The U.S. State Department announced that “Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will travel to Israel and Jordan on March 28-31, 2008. She will meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders to support their ongoing bilateral dialogue and the serious effort underway to achieve agreement this year on the establishment of a Palestinian state, living side by side with Israel in peace and security. The Secretary will also discuss efforts to improve conditions on the ground and to advance Palestinian economic development and capacity building. Additionally, she will meet with King Abdullah to discuss Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, the political situation in Lebanon, stability in Iraq, and other regional developments”.

At a State Department briefing with journalists on 25 March, spokesman Sean McCormack said: “She’s going to be traveling to Jerusalem. She’s going to be traveling to Amman. I think she’s going to be having some of her meetings with Palestinian officials actually in Amman. They are going to be transiting there. I’ll try to clarify for you whether or not there will be any travel to the West Bank”.

The Jerusalem Post has reported that Rice is scheduled to arrive in Israel on Saturday night.

Haaretz reported that ” ‘Rice will meet Abbas in Amman on March 30 after the Arab summit in Damascus ends. She will then travel to Israel for talks with Olmert and return to Amman for further talks with President Abbas’, a senior Abbas oficial said”. The full Haaretz article can be found here .

Eminent Israeli Law Professor on Settlements

Amnon Rubenstein, an eminent Israeli professor, has denounced the Israeli settlement enterprise as undemocratic, discriminatory, and against international law, in an article published in today’s Jerusalem Post.

Professor Rubenstein wrote: “Settling Jews outside of Israel proper is – it is submitted – illegal in international law and is defective morally. The fourth Geneva Convention, which Israel has signed and ratified, prohibits such settlements. True, the Knesset has not translated these provisions into Israeli legislation, but in the opinion of this writer such an act of domestic reception is unnecessary as the convention by its very definition relates to occupied territories which lie outside the limits of Israeli law and jurisdiction. At any rate, Israel accepts the humanitarian provisions of this convention, and the Supreme Court has acted upon these provisions. The government has declared, in sworn affidavits, that settlements in occupied territories are there for a limited duration and are justified by military considerations.

These declarations are, to put it mildly, not accurate.

THESE SETTLEMENTS, established at great cost to provide housing for tens of thousands of Jews, are seen as permanent communities; the uprooting of settlements from the Gaza Strip was a heartrending experience even for those who advocated this decision at the time.
For successive Israeli governments to state the opposite and for the courts to accept this blatant untruth, has been an exercise in unmitigated insincerity.

But the issue is not merely one of international law. By establishing purely Jewish communities in the West Bank and by applying an Israeli legal system to their residents, Israel has created a dual system within the same territory – one applicable to Jews, and one to Arabs. This duality has had a negative impact on Israeli public life, has rightly antagonized many of our friends and is responsible for the radicalization of the Israeli Left.

It also nullifies the equation often made between these settlements and the ones established by the yishuv under the British mandate. The socialist settlers of the past saw themselves as precursors of a Jewish state in which Jews and Arabs shared the same equality by law and never dreamt of any separation between Arabs and Jews. Add to this the flouting of Israel’s undertaking to stop establishing and expanding these settlements, and you will begin to understand the folly of the Givat Ze’ev decision.

In short, Israel, according to its basic laws, aspires to be both Jewish and democratic. Its outposts in the West Bank are Jewish, but not democratic“.   This piece is published in the JPost here .

Now I know why I wasn't notified of this briefing

Dion Nissenbaum has explained it all for me in his latest Blog: Checkpoint Jerusalem post, entitled Strippin’ for Cheney.

To attend — or to be in attendance at — U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney’s press encounter with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Dion and other journalists had to drop their pants for security first.

Even Saddam Hussein — who was famous for the wierd security rituals he subjected journalists to, before they could be in his presence — did not go this far.  Dion doesn’t explain what happened to female journalists — that is, if any were present (don’t take this for granted …)

Dion wrote: “After a five-year absence, US VP Dick Cheney returned to Israel this weekend as part of a broader Middle East trip … The VP, as most people know, has a reputation for secrecy and inaccessibility. (For more, check out the award-winning series, “Angler,” from The Washington Post.) This trip did little to dispel that notion. Cheney arrived on Saturday night and met Israeli PM Ehud Olmert for dinner. Before getting their nosh on, the two were slated to hold an evening news conference at Olmert’s Jerusalem residence. Security in Israel — from the airport to the Israeli parliament — is exceptionally tight, and getting into Olmert’s official residence was especially intrusive. First came the normal procedure of being pulled out of the line and questioned: How long have you lived here? Where do you live? Do you live alone? Do you have family here? Do you speak any Hebrew? Why do you travel to Jordan and Egypt? Have you been to Syria and Lebanon? Do you have friends in those countries? Etc. etc. etc… This process seemed to drag on especially long and a photographer who has lived here nearly a quarter century, has two kids and is married to an Israeli, stormed off after being held at the entrance for more than an hour. Once you make it past the first check, (if you make it through the first check) there’s the routine metal detector and x-ray machine, followed by the side trip behind the curtains for a body search. Only, this time, I was asked to drop my pants. ‘Really?’ I asked the security officer, who seemed slightly embarrassed by it all, though, since he does it all the time, I suspect he wasn’t really… The security guard said he needed to check the zipper of my jeans, though security also made other international reporters in normal pants strip before getting into the press conference. Strippin’ for Cheney might have been worth it – had we been given the chance to ask a question or two of the vice president. Instead, at the last minute, apparently, Cheney decided not to take questions … Fine. Lesson learned. That’s the last time I drop my pants for the vice president”.

Dion’s revelations were posted on 24 March on his Blog: Checkpoint Jerusalem here .

Gideon Levy: the U.S. and Europe aren't real friends

Gideon Levy, who writes brilliantly on the occupation for Haaretz, wrote this today: “Who hasn’t come to visit lately? From the German chancellor to the leading frontrunner for the American presidency. And the secretary-general of the United Nations is on his way. A visit to Israel has become de rigueur for foreign pols. If you haven’t been here, you’re nowhere. 

“The visitors are taken, of course, to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, the Western Wall and now to Sderot as well – the new national pilgrimage site.

“A few also pay a perfunctory visit to Ramallah; no one goes to the Gaza Strip, and they all have nothing but praise for Israel. Not a word of criticism on the occupation, on Israel’s violent operations in the territories, on the siege and the starving – with the exception of a few vague remarks on the need for a solution. Israel squeezes the Sderot ‘informational’ lemon for all it’s worth.

“The mix of Sderot and the Holocaust, international Islamophobia and Hamas rule in Gaza do the trick. Israel hasn’t scored this kind of foreign-policy success since the days of the Oslo Accords. To judge by the declarations of our foreign guests and our hosts abroad, no other state in the world is more loved than we. A state that imposes a siege that is almost unprecedented in the world today in terms of its cruelty, that adopts an official policy of assassination, is embraced by the family of nations, if we are to judge by the words of the many statesmen who cross our doorstep” …

Levy says that this is an illusion, and that public opinion in the countries of these politicians and statesman is running in decidedly the opposite direction.  And, he continues:  “The world sees images from Gaza on television – in comparison, Sderot looks like a resort – and it draws its own conclusions. The natural sense of justice that dictates support for the freedom struggles of oppressed people such as the Tibetan dictates natural support for the Palestinian struggle for liberation. The fact that it is a struggle between a Palestinian David and an Israeli Goliath only adds to the story. With the exception of the U.S., the world is indeed against us, apart from its statesmen. Therefore, we must not give in to the illusion: The current bout of official support for us is not genuine.  Also not genuine is the idea that blind, unconditional friendship is friendship. The support for Israel as a just enterprise that is extended by most of the West does not mean accepting all of its caprices.  A true friend of Israel, one that is sincerely concerned for its fate, is only that friend who dares to express sharp criticism of its policy of occupation, which poses the most serious risk to its future, and who also takes practical to steps to end it.  Most of the ‘friendly’ statesmen do not understand this“.  [emphasis added]

Levy writes that he believes Europe is even worse than the U.S. in these respects: “Saccharine visits and sweet speeches in fact express a deep disrespect for Israel – and for European public opinion.  This blind friendship enables Israel to do whatever it wants. The days have passed in which every mobile home erected in the territories and every targeted assassination were carefully considered out of fear of international criticism. That time no longer exists. Israel has a carte blanche to kill, destroy and settle. The U.S. long ago gave up the role of honest broker, and Europe is now following in its footsteps. How depressing: With friends like these, Israel almost doesn’t need enemies”.

Cheney in Jerusalem

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney indicated in a Saturday night press conference with Israeli PM Ehud Olmert that Israel (and Israel alone) is affected by problems of terrorism and a lack of security.

Cheney seemed oblivious to the lack of freedom that Israel’s continued belligerent military occupation imposes on the Palestinians.

In his remarks to journalists after the meeting, Cheney indicated that only Israel might be facing “wrenching national sacrifices on behalf of peace”, while both Israelis and Palestinians would have to make “tough decisions and painful concessions” to reach an agreement.

The U.S. would not “dictate the outcome”, Cheney said, but will “help in the negotiations, and provide all the support and encouragement we can”.

He said that the U.S. wanted to see “a resolution to the conflict”, which would bring “an end to the terrorism that has caused so much grief to Israelis, and a new beginning for the Palestinian people”.

Much speculation has been written about why Cheney was making this trip.  In his remarks after meeting Olmert, Cheney indicated that the invitation had come from Olmert: “I want to thank him for the kind invitation that he extended to me and to my wife Lynne to visit Israel again. I’ve been gone too long – it’s now been five years since I was last here”.

For his part, Olmert indicated that he saw threats to Israel both from the north (Hizballah, Iran and Syria), and from the south (Gaza), and said he would welcome Cheney’s “advice and observations”.

Here are some fuller excerpts.


“There are many items on the common agenda of America and the State of Israel. We are both very concerned about Iran; we are anxious to carry on the peace negotiations with the Palestinians; we are watching very carefully the northern front, the behavior of Syria and the Hizbullah; and naturally, I know how concerned America is with the continued terrorist attacks against Israel coming from Gaza against innocent civilians in the south part of the State of Israel. All these matters will be discussed while you are visiting here, and we will always be happy to hear your advice and your observations about these very important issues which are on top of the agenda of the State of Israel and this part of the world”.

Cheney: “I’m especially pleased to be here as we celebrate the 60th anniversary of Israel’s emergence as a modern nation-state. The State of Israel’s rise out of the ashes of World War II is one of history’s great miracles.  So too is the fact that Israel has survived these six decades, despite often violent assaults against its very existence … America’s commitment to Israel’s security is enduring and unshakable, as is our commitment to Israel’s right to defend itself always against terrorism, rocket attacks and other threats from forces dedicated to Israel’s destruction. The United States will never pressure Israel to take steps that threaten its security. As successful democracies, the U.S. and Israel have a basic confidence in the power of freedom to lift up whole societies and to lay the foundation for peace. We will defend ourselves and protect our people, but as President Bush said here in January, we will do more than defend ourselves; we will seek lasting peace.

“History has clearly shown that when encountered by Arab partners like Anwar Sadat and the late King Hussein of Jordan, who accepted Israel’s permanence, and are willing and capable of delivering on their commitments, Israelis are prepared to make wrenching national sacrifices on behalf of peace.  I have no doubt this is equally the case with Palestinians. On this journey, I am reiterating the President’s commitment of two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security …

“Reaching the necessary agreement will require tough decisions and painful concessions by both sides, but America is committed to moving the process forward, and to that end I will meet with President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad. They too can be certain of America’s goodwill in this process.  It is not America’s role to dictate the outcome, but we will help in the negotiations, and provide all the support and encouragement we can.  We care deeply about these issues.  We want to see a resolution to the conflict; an end to the terrorism that has caused so much grief to Israelis; and a new beginning for the Palestinian people”.