Gershon Baskin's take on possibly "the most serious crisis" + Hussein Ibish's advice to the Palestinians

We have covered the developments blow-by-blow at www.un-truth.com. In brief, U.S. Special Envoy George Mitchell had been moving toward an announcement that “indirect” talks would begin, under U.S. auspices, with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators — in an effort to move toward the direct talks that will be necessary to resolve all final status issues and arrive at a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

But, when U.S. Vice President was on an official three-day visit to Israel and the region, there were serial announcements about an increase of housing units in areas of Jewish population concentration (ok, let’s call them “settlements”) in what was the West Bank before the Israeli occupation in the June 1967 war, but which Israel insists is its unilaterally-defined “Greater Jerusalem Municipality” which will be eternally united [except for areas that Israel will unilaterally decide to cut off by The Wall, because of their dense Palestinian population].

The U.S. Administration was not amused — and let this be known both privately and publicly.

Gershon Baskin writes, in an email he sent around today, that “The facts of what really transpired are not completely known to the public. There are rumors and only limited clear facts really known. The following is what I have been able to piece together – with a clear reservation that if this scenario is incorrect then the projections may also be incorrect; however, if it is correct the situation is in fact the most serious crisis in Israel-US relations, perhaps, ever. Prior to the decision of the Arab League to support the launching of the proximity talks, the PLO presented Mitchell with a three page document with questions and firms positions regarding the beginning of the negotiations. The Palestinian paper included: negotiations will be based on the green line, the negotiations should begin where the Olmert proposal to Abbas ended, the negotiations must include all of the permanent status issues and there must be a total settlement freeze, including Jerusalem, throughout the course of the negotiations. I was told by someone who is usually a reliable Palestinian source that Senator Mitchell gave Abbas a paper with the US responses include [sic – it should probably read including, or requiring] US assurances that the Israeli building in East Jerusalem would be frozen during the period of the negotiations. If this is true, I can only assume that Netanyahu agreed to it, although he probably also agreed that there would be no Israeli announcement of this policy. Again, if this is true, then advancing the planning process of the 1600 units in Ramat Shlomo and other plans that were advanced in the District and Local planning committees at the same time is a direct breach of trust with the US and is therefore, much more serious than a bureaucratic mishap or a simple decrease in trust between the parties prior to negotiations. The depth of the breach also determines to a certain extent the depth of the policy options”.

Gershon continues: “Certainly Netanyahu’s announcement in the Knesset in front of the Brazilian President that regardless of the mishap, Israel would continue to build in all parts of East Jerusalem is a clear sign of the decision of this government to go head-to-head with President Obama. Netanyahu’s announcement followed the Clinton-Netanyahu 43-minute phone call reported in depth by Clinton and by the State Department spokesperson to the world. Clinton include three demands to Israel: (1) the withdraw the plan for the 1600 units in Ramat Shlomo, (2) to provide serious gestures to the Palestinians such as a prisoner release and checkpoint removals; and (3) to announce that all permanent status issues would be on the table during the negotiations. Netanyahu’s statement that the building in Jerusalem would continue following the US demands is a direct frontal attack on the Obama administration and cannot be viewed in any other terms”.

Then, Gershon wrote: “As I read the Israeli political map, Netanyahu, in coordination with his allies in Congress, AIPAC, and other US Jewish organizations have made a decision that President Obama will be, as far as they are concerned, a one term President. In this respect, they seek to weaken the President, regardless of the repercussions in the international community. Mid-term Congressional elections are only eight months away and the strategic map of key Congressional races has been mapped out with the goal of winning those races in Congress with the most pro-Obama members that are vulnerable. The challenge to the President by the Israeli government on the issue of building in East Jerusalem is one that will largely determine if the President is perceived in Israel , the region and the world as weak or strong. If the US administration gives in to the Government of Israel after making this such a pinnacle issue, the prestige, power and reputation of the President will be severely damaged. Ironically, Israel needs a strong US President to take on the international community vis-à-vis Iran and the Israeli challenge could in fact weaken the President and the United States . The Government of Israel does not perceive that it is the party that has climbed high up the ladder. In fact, I have been asked in the past 2 days, by the Israeli national Security Advisor and the Director of the Policy Planning Research department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Israel: ‘what will bring the Palestinians down from the top of the tree?’ ” …

Gershon asks: “Why did Netanyahu make the challenge? One, because this is his ideological position. Two, because of the coalition pressure, especially from Lieberman and Shas who have turned the issue of Israel standing up against the world in to the new Israeli worldview. Lieberman says it everyday, we will no longer give into to any international pressure, we will make the world respect Israel ! And with a not to distant leadership crisis in Shas, Eli Yishai is building his leadership around the issue of Jerusalem as the Jewish Protector of Jerusalem. Three, there is the scenario spelled out above of a determined course to weaken the President and to ensure that he will not have a second term”.

Then, he says: “With the current Israeli coalition, there is no chance at all of moving forward on the peace process with the Palestinians. It is not at all sure that it is possible to move forward as long as Netanyahu is at the head of the government. There is hope, however, that the same dynamic that has influenced other Israeli leaders to radically change their positions could also happen to Netanyahu – as Rabin, Sharon and Olmert all stated: what you see from here is different than what you see from there”.

As Gershon sees it, for the U.S.:

1. Backing down is not an option. If the US were to give into Israeli pressure, the US administration would be perceived as weak, inconsistent with their own policies, and ineffectual. The prestige of the Office of the President would be compromised and Obama as an individual would be seen as a push-over which would have deep repercussions for the US foreign policy throughout the world and especially in the Middle East . US backing down would also strengthen the myth of the power of the Jewish Lobby in the United States and would probably lead to a direct rise in anti-Semitism throughout the world. So it is essential for the President that at least the three demands issued by Secretary Clinton are met by Israel . It is likely that Secretary Clinton’s position will be strengthen from the Quartet principles meeting in Moscow today.

2. An Israeli government shuffle could be a positive outcome of the crisis. A government made up of Likud (27), Kadima (28) and Labour (13) with 68 seats, even with some trouble making back-benchers in Likud and Kadima could, in principle, move faster than the current coalition. Moving Lieberman, Shas, United Torah, and Habayit HaYehudi into the opposition (there is a chance that United Torah with their 5 seats would remain in the coalition) would enable Netanyahu a lot more domestic room to maneuver into a real peace process (if he wanted to, of course). There is a possibility for the US to have influence in bringing about such a scenario through behind the scenes contacts, first, perhaps with leaders of Kadima and with others in the Likud including a direct conversation with the Prime Minister. Of course, US fingerprints on this should be completely invisible. To the best of my understanding the US has already been advancing this scenario.

3. Another possible outcome could be the opening of a secret back channel for negotiations – but only if Netanyahu was serious about moving forward. In fact, this would be recommended even if the official proximity talks do get underway. The question is how to break the current deadlock. Here I would propose the idea which I already presented months ago – an imposed process – not an negotiation on the process. In other words, the US would issue a document, in public or in secret, that would outline the negotiations process, the parameters of what the sides will talk about and the mechanism for the talks – either proximity or direct talks or a process of moving from proximity to direct talks. Those parameters would include statements such as: the negotiations will be conducted for a permanent status agreement between Israel and the PLO on the basis of previous agreements that would bring about the complete cessation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and be based on the two-states for two-peoples formula. The negotiations will lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state next to Israel . The territorial dimensions of the agreement will be based on the 1949 armistice green-line with agreed upon territorial swaps on a 1:1 basis. All permanent status issues will be on the table including Jerusalem, borders, refugees, security, water, economic relations, etc. The United States will serve as a mediator in the talks and when deemed necessary by the mediator, will submit bridging proposals to the parties for their consideration. The United States is commitment to a positive outcome to these talks and see their successful conclusion as a major policy objective of the Obama Administration. The letter of invitation to the first round of talks is issued by President Obama himself. Let’s see if Netanyahu or Abbas will refuse to show up. (It is essential that the US impress upon the parties the consequences of not showing up before the invitation is issued.

4. There is also the Thomas Friedman option – leaving the parties to stew in their own juice. This may very well be the preferred option of the Administration. It requires the least amount of effort and perhaps has the smallest damage on the President’s prestige, but it is also the most dangerous of options. There is a grass-roots campaign all over the West Bank to launch the “white intifada” of massive civil disobedience and direct confrontation with the occupation. It is very unlikely that such a new intifada would remain non-violent and it more than certain that the IDF will respond with a massive amount of force. The entire project of Salam Fayyad’s government would be at risk and all of the achievements of the past two years would disappear overnight. The right wing in Israel would grow in strength and there would be increasing alienation between the US and Israel .

5. There is another US policy option which is to embrace the Fayyad plan and government even more strongly than currently done. There are ways for the US to support the Fayyad plans economically and politically that would send a very clear message to Israel and to the world and would continue to advance regardless of the lack of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The US could exert pressure on Israel to transfer more parts of area C to the Palestinian Authority and to work with the rest of international community in preparing Palestine for Statehood. This could also have international consequences such as not vetoing a Resolution for granting Palestine UN membership in the Security Council.

There is no option for the US to do nothing. It would be advised that whatever the US does, it should be done in coordination and in full collaboration with the full Quartet”.

UPDATE: Obama has invited Netanyahu to meet him in Washington next Tuesday…

UPDATE TWO: The American Task Force on Palestine’s Hussein Ibish (who happens to be Lebanese) has posted some advice to the Palestinians on his blog (Ibishblog.com):
“The Obama Administration and the Netanyahu Cabinet, especially its right wing including Interior Minister Yishai of Shas who made the decision and the announcement, have been on a collision course for many months. Their visions of long-term peace and short-term negotiation strategy are totally incompatible, and as I’ve noted in the past, we now find ourselves in a most unusual situation in which the American position is closer to the Palestinian perspective on both of these registers than to the Israeli view. The added complication is that because of domestic political considerations, the United States is still politically much closer and provides much more support to the side in the Middle East conflict it now disagrees with more. In other words, yet again, there is a fairly radical gap between policy and politics that is rendering the quest for a reasonable peace agreement, and even reasonable terms for the resumption of negotiations, dysfunctional. For the Palestinians in this situation, obviously less is more. The controversy has had a life of its own, and the less Palestinians did and do to stoke the flames, at least in any obvious way, the more traction it will have for them. When other people (in this case the Israeli government) are doing your heavy lifting for you, sit back and let it happen. For the most part, Palestinians have done and said what they should have: very little. For those who are wondering why the Ibishblog has been silent on this controversy until now, consider the usefulness sometimes of saying little to nothing, and the silliness of a knee-jerk and adolescent impulse to always want to comment on everything right away, when sometimes judicious silence can be the most effective commentary of all. Netanyahu has managed to dig himself a remarkably deep hole, and it is imperative that Palestinians do not, as they have so many times in the past, pull him out of it through their own miscalculations. This can be done by incautious words as well as ill-considered deeds. What has happened that is so useful for the Palestinians is that American and international perceptions, especially in Washington, have now been reoriented in an extremely healthy manner” …

Ibish concluded: “Palestinians need to take a very sober and cautious approach to dealing with the ongoing US-Israel confrontation over settlements. If they overplay their hand, they will fail to reap any political or diplomatic benefits from what is an extraordinary opportunity. Not only do they have to not overreact, and to cast themselves as helpful and constructive in contrast to the defiance and obduracy of the Israeli cabinet, they have to understand what is genuinely useful to them and what is not. Palestinians DO benefit from a measure of tension between Israeli and American positions that allows the United States to be more evenhanded and to use its leverage and special relationship with Israel to push Israeli policies in the right direction. However, Palestinians WILL NOT benefit from a boiling over of US-Israeli tensions that produces a level of mistrust that, while not affecting the broader strategic special relationship, prevents any serious US influence on Israeli policies, and, worse, that might induce an administration to actually walk away from the issue and abandon peace efforts. There is no point in hoping for an end to the US-Israel special relationship, since there is no way of achieving this in the foreseeable future, and no need to achieve it in order to realize an end to the occupation. Palestinians can and should look for opportunities to leverage the special relationship and use it to pursue a goal that is in not only the Palestinian and American national interests, but in Israel’s as well, even if the present Netanyahu government does not fully understand this. That’s an achievable aim, and the present US-Israel confrontation offers a rare and extraordinary opportunity to push the ball towards that goal line”. This post can be read in full here.

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