Akiva Eldar on the new Netanyahu government

Akiva Eldar has written in Haaretz today that the new U.S. Administration of Barack Obama has a new bipartisan document “waiting for the new Israeli government to be sworn in. The American president is due to use it as the basis of a special speech in which he will present his vision for the Middle East”.

Akiva reports that it will be based in large part on “a report drawn up at the end of 2008 by 10 senior figures from the two principal political parties in the United States. One of them, former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, has in the interim been appointed a senior economic adviser to the president. The authors of that report recommended to the president that he replace ‘the conditions of the Quartet’ with a readiness to recognize a Palestinian unity government, on condition that that government would agree to a cease-fire with Israel, authorize Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to conduct negotiations on a final-status solution, and bring the agreement to a referendum” …

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Uri Avnery on new Netanyahu government

Uri Avnery has written of the new Israeli Prime Minister, who is being sworn in as this post is being composed, that:
“Binyamin Netanyahu has proven that he is a consummate politician. He has realized the dream of every politician (and theatergoer): a good place in the middle. In his new government he can play off the fascists on the right against the socialists on the left, Liberman’s secularists against the orthodox of Shas. An ideal situation. The coalition is large enough to be immune from blackmail by any of its component parties. If some Labor members break coalition discipline, Netanyahu will still command a majority. Or if the rightists make trouble. Or if the orthodox try to stick a knife in his back. This government is committed to nothing. Its written ‘Basic Guidelines’ – a document signed by all partners of a new Israeli government – are completely nebulous. (And anyhow, Basic Guidelines are worthless. All Israeli governments have broken their agreed Basic Guidelines without batting an eyelid. They always prove to be rubber checks.) All this was acquired by Netanyahu on the cheap – a few billions of economic promises that he would not dream of fulfilling. The treasury is empty. As one of his predecessors in the Prime Minister’s office, Levy Eshkol, famously said: ‘I promised, but I did not promise to keep my promises’…

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Seymour Hersh hopes for peace in the Middle East…

In the latest issue of The New Yorker, dated 6 April, Seymour Hersh writes:
“Obama’s Middle East strategy is still under review in the State Department and the National Security Council. The Administration has been distracted by the economic crisis, and impeded by the large number of key foreign- and domestic-policy positions yet to be filled. Obama’s appointment of former Senator George Mitchell as his special envoy for Middle East diplomacy, on January 22nd, won widespread praise, but Mitchell has yet to visit Syria. Diplomatic contacts with Damascus were expanded in late February, and informal exchanges with Syria have already taken place. According to involved diplomats, the Administration’s tone was one of dialogue and respect—and not a series of demands. For negotiations to begin, the Syrians understood that Washington would no longer insist that Syria shut down the Hamas liaison office in Damascus and oust its political leader, Khaled Meshal. Syria, instead, will be asked to play a moderating role with the Hamas leadership, and urge a peaceful resolution of Hamas’s ongoing disputes with Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The Syrians were also told that the Obama Administration was reëvaluating the extent of Syria’s control over Hezbollah. (The White House did not respond to requests for comment.)

“A senior White House official confirmed that the Obama transition team had been informed in advance of Carter’s trip to Syria, and that Carter met with Obama shortly before the Inauguration. The two men—Obama was accompanied only by David Axelrod, the President’s senior adviser, who helped arrange the meeting; and Carter by his wife, Rosalynn—discussed the Middle East for an hour. Carter declined to discuss his meeting with Obama, but he did write in an e-mail that he hoped the new President “would pursue a wide-ranging dialogue as soon as possible with the Assad government.” An understanding between Washington and Damascus, he said, “could set the stage for successful Israeli-Syrian talks.”

“The Obama transition team also helped persuade Israel to end the bombing of Gaza and to withdraw its ground troops before the Inauguration. According to the former senior intelligence official, who has access to sensitive information, ‘Cheney began getting messages from the Israelis about pressure from Obama’ when he was President-elect. Cheney, who worked closely with the Israeli leadership in the lead-up to the Gaza war, portrayed Obama to the Israelis as a ‘pro-Palestinian’, who would not support their efforts (and, in private, disparaged Obama, referring to him at one point as someone who would ‘never make it in the major leagues’). But the Obama team let it be known that it would not object to the planned resupply of ‘smart bombs’ and other high-tech ordnance that was already flowing to Israel. “It was Jones”—retired Marine General James Jones, at the time designated to be the President’s national-security adviser—’who came up with the solution and told Obama, “You just can’t tell the Israelis to get out”.’ (General Jones said that he could not verify this account; Cheney’s office declined to comment.)

“One issue that may be a casualty of an Obama rapprochement with Syria is human rights. Syrians are still being jailed for speaking out against the policies of their government. Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director for Human Rights Watch, said that Assad ‘has been offering fig leafs to the Americans for a long time and thinks if he makes nice in Lebanon and with Hamas and Hezbollah he will no longer be an outcast. We believe that no amount of diplomatic success will solve his internal problems’. The authorities, Whitson said, are ‘going after ordinary Syrians—like people chatting in cafés. Everyone is looking over their shoulder’.”

“Assad, in his interview with me, acknowledged, ‘We do not say that we are a democratic country. We do not say that we are perfect, but we are moving forward’. And he focussed on what he had to offer. He said that he had a message for Obama: Syria, as a secular state, and the United States faced a common enemy in Al Qaeda and Islamic extremism. The Bush White House, he said, had viewed the fundamentalists as groups ‘that you should go and chase, and then you will accomplish your mission, as Bush says. It is not that simple. How do you deal with a state of mind? You can deal with it in many different ways—except for the army’. Speaking of Obama, he said in his e-mail, ‘We are happy that he has said that diplomacy—and not war—is the means of conducting international policy’.

“Assad’s goal in seeking to engage with America and Israel is clearly more far-reaching than merely to regain the Golan Heights. His ultimate aim appears to be to persuade Obama to abandon the Bush Administration’s strategy of aligning America with the so-called ‘moderate’ Arab Sunni states—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan—in a coördinated front against Shiite Iran, Shiite Hezbollah, and Hamas.

“ ‘Of course, the Iranians are nervous about the talks, because they don’t fully trust the Syrians’, Itamar Rabinovich said. ‘But the Assad family does not believe in taking chances—they’re very hard bargainers. They will try to get what they want without breaking fully from Iran, and they will tell us and Washington, “It’s to your advantage not to isolate Iran”.’ Rabinovich added, ‘Both Israel and the United States will insist on a change in Syria’s relationship with Iran. This can only be worked out—or not—in head-to-head talks’.

“The White House has tough diplomatic choices to make in the next few months. Assad has told the Obama Administration that his nation can ease the American withdrawal in Iraq. Syria also can help the U.S. engage with Iran, and the Iranians, in turn, could become an ally in neighboring Afghanistan, as the Obama Administration struggles to deal with the Taliban threat and its deepening involvement in that country—and to maintain its long-standing commitment to the well-being of Israel. Each of these scenarios has potential downsides. Resolving all of them will be formidable, and will involve sophisticated and intelligent diplomacy—the kind of diplomacy that disappeared during the past eight years, and that the Obama team has to prove it possesses”.
This Seymour Hersh article can be read in full in The New Yorker here.

Secretary of State Clinton: There's a great exhalation of breath going on around the world … on Israel-Palestinian situation, We'll be working on a series of short-term obectives, but we'll wait until Mitchell gets back

Here are excerpts from remarks with reporters today by U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton: “There’s a great exhalation of breath going on around the world as people express their appreciation for the new direction that’s being set and the team that’s put together by the President to carry out our foreign policy goals. And as I said when I came here last week, you know, we view defense, diplomacy, and development as the three pillars of American foreign policy. That’s not rhetoric. That is our commitment. That’s how we are proceeding”…

President Obama “reserves the right to engage in whatever way he deems best, at whatever time he chooses to further American interests. And clearly, that is not limited to any one country. It is a broad statement of our approach. We are engaged ourselves in a vigorous policy analysis of a number of problems and challenges that we face around the world. And we will be, you know, rolling out ideas and plans as we go forward. The President and I thought it was important that we, as quickly as possible, set forth our policies in the Middle East and Afghanistan and Pakistan, because we knew we wanted to reengage vigorously from the very beginning in the Middle East. And, you know, we chose as an envoy someone who – we have great confidence in his ability to do that. And to carry the message from the President, from myself, from our government that, you know, we’re going to be working on a series of short-term objectives with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian situation, but that we remain committed to the long-term objective of a comprehensive peace that provides security in the context of a two-state solution for the Palestinians …

“QUESTION: both you and the President in the wake of the Israeli-Hamas conflict have talked a lot about the plight of Palestinians while recognizing Israel’s right to self-defense, but you’ve put a lot of emphasis on the Palestinian plight. And I was wondering if you think that the Israeli campaign, given the fact that Hamas is still in control of Gaza and still on the ground and not completely decapitated, do you think that that was a counterproductive mission?

“SECRETARY CLINTON: You know, I think we’ve said all we’re going to say about the Israeli-Palestinian situation as we send our envoy out. I think we want to give him the opportunity to listen and bring back his impressions and information. And we are at this moment focused only on the Israel-Palestinian track. And I think it’s important to put the emphasis where it rightly belongs. We have, as I said, some short-term objectives such as a durable ceasefire, which as you know has receded somewhat today because of the offensive action against the IDF along the border. But of course, we’re concerned about the humanitarian suffering. We’re concerned any time innocent civilians, Palestinian or Israeli, are attacked. That’s why we support Israel’s right to self-defense. The rocket barrages, which are getting closer and closer to populated areas, cannot go unanswered. And it’s, you know, regrettable that the Hamas leadership apparently believes that it is in their interest to provoke the right of self-defense instead of building a better future for the people of Gaza. We are supporting the efforts by the Palestinian Authority under President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad to try to support the humanitarian efforts. We will participate with our own contributions. The United States is currently the single largest contributor to Palestinian aid, and we will be adding even more because we believe that it’s important to help those who have been damaged and suffering. But again, this is one of those situations that we’re going to await the report of our envoy. I mean, that’s why we chose Senator Mitchell. We have a lot of confidence in his knowledge of the area and his political ear, so you not only hear what people say but what the meaning behind the words might be. So we’re going to wait and let him report back to us about the way forward…”

Next! George Mitchell coming to update his listening

George Mitchell has been here before. He wrote a report in 2001 on the causes of the Second Intifada (which broke out at the end of September 2000, following the failed Camp David talks, then a provocative visit by Ariel Sharon to what Jews call the Temple Mount (but what Muslims know as the Haram as-Sharif).

He is now the envoy of the new U.S. President Barak Obama, and he is now in the region. His mission: to listen. He will meet Egypt’s President Husni Mubarak on Wednesday, then travel to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. On Thursday he will meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the Muqata’a Presidential Palace — a former British governor’s building, and prison — in Ramallah. (After that, Mitchell will go to Jordan and Saudi Arabia, then to Paris and London).

Obama’s first phone call to a foreign leader — on Wednesday, the day after his inauguration — was to President Abbas in Ramallah. Obama told Abbas that he would be engaged in the search for a peaceful solution to the long-standing conflict here. Obama then called Israeli leaders, and the heads of state in neighboring Jordan and Egypt. Obama named Mitchell as special envoy a day later. At the time, obama said Mitchell’s mission would be “to engage vigorously and consistently in order for us to achieve genuine progress … progress that is concrete”.

Last Friday, three days after his inauguration, Obama urged Israel to open Gaza border crossings to aid and commerce. “Now we must extend a hand of opportunity to those who seek peace — as part of a lasting ceasefire, Gaza’s border crossings should be open to allow the flow of aid and commerce … [And] Relief efforts must be able to reach innocent Palestinians who depend on them”, Obama said. He also called for a border monitoring regime involving the Palestinian Authority and the international community. At the same time, he added, Hamas must however stop firing rockets into Israeli territory.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Robert Wood told journalists Monday that “Special envoy Mitchell will work to consolidate the cease-fire in Gaza, establish an effective anti-smuggling and interdiction regime to prevent the rearming of Hamas, facilitate the re-opening of border crossings, and development of an effective response to the immediate humanitarian needs of the Palestinians in Gaza and eventual reconstruction and re-invigorate the peace process”.

Wood indicated that Mitchell will be accompanied by an inter-agency team of Middle East specialists, and will start with an effort to shore up the current Gaza truce. But, Mitchell will not have contacts with Hamas, Wood said.

UPDATE: Ahmad Yousef, a top aide to Ismail Haniyah, received visiting journalists in Gaza in the garden of his house near the border with Egypt, said that “We would like him [Mitchell] to listen to us and to the Hamas vision, what Hamas expects from this American administration … We expect fairness and objectivity and even-handedness when they handle this conflict”, according to the Financial Times. The Christian Science Monitor, whose correspondent said that Yousef was a foreign policy adviser to Hamas leader in Gaza Ismail Haniyeh, reported that he said in the same briefing to visiting journalists: “The Americans and Europeans were mistaken to boycott Hamas from the start … I expected Obama to say that he will go and talk to everybody … We’d like to see America as impartial, not just seeing Hamas as a terrorist group … The people chose Hamas [in January 2006 elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council], and America and the rest of the world should respect that”.

Yousef was repeating a position staked out by Khalid Mash’al, head of Hamas’ political bureau, in a televised speech from Damascus last Wednesday, when he called the international community to deal with Hamas. “For three years they have been trying to get rid of us, including through a blockade. Now it is time to start talking to Hamas, a force whose legitimacy was reinforced in the recent war,” he said. This was reported by Ma’an News Agency here.

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