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 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 (
“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.

Gershon Baskin: It's the OCCUPATION

Gershon Baskin, co-Chairman with Palestinian Hanna Siniora of the Israeli-Palestinian media center, who has also become a columnist for the Jerusalem Post, wrote this week that “At the outset of Oslo, the world, including the Arab world (and also including the supporters of peace in Israel and in Palestine), actually believed that the peace process was about ending the occupation, peace between two states living side-by-side, building cross-boundary cooperation in every field possible, ending violence and ending the conflict. During those optimistic days, several countries without diplomatic relations with Israel established them, and several Arab countries even allowed it to open commercial interests offices in their countries. Some Arab countries even opened their own representative offices in Israel. This was possible because they believed the Oslo peace process would bring an end to the occupation. They had good reason to believe that. The Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement of September 1995 stated clearly: ‘The two sides agree that West Bank and Gaza Strip territory, except for issues that will be negotiated in the permanent status negotiations, will come under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Council in a phased manner, to be completed within 18 months from the date of the inauguration of the council’. The agreement further stated: ‘Redeployments of Israeli military forces to specified military locations will commence after the inauguration of the council and will be gradually implemented’. The interpretation of these sections was that prior to the beginning of permanent status agreements Israel would have withdrawn from more than 90 percent of the West Bank. The US and the Palestinian calculated then that the land area connected to permanent status negotiations, meaning the settlements, accounted for 2%-5% of the West Bank (counting the built-up areas of the settlements with a radius of about 100 meters from the last home in each settlement). The ‘specified military locations’ was estimated to account for about 2% of the West Bank. When Binyamin Netanyahu was first elected in 1996, a ‘conflict’ of interpretation developed between the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry. At that time I saw a document produced by the legal department of the Foreign Ministry explaining that the new interpretation of the Prime Minister’s Office was incorrect. It stated the following: According to the Prime Minister’s office, the settlement areas in question are based on the statutory planning maps of the civil administration and not on the built-up areas. Those zoning maps provide the settlements with about 40% of the West Bank. Furthermore, the Prime Minister’s office stated that instead of ‘specified military locations’ the real intention was ‘security zones’ – meaning that the entire Jordan Valley is a security zone, all of the areas around settlements are security zones, the bypass roads to settlements are security zones, and so are all of the lands adjacent to the Green Line. In other words, 60% of the West Bank would remain in Israeli hands, and in the negotiations with the Palestinians Israel would retain well above 10% of the West Bank, and if possible more. This, according to the Palestinians and even the US, was a major breach of the agreement and it was one of the significant reasons for the failure of the entire process. At that point, the process ceased to being about ending the occupation … Ariel Sharon always believed, as did other Likud leaders,that the settlements would be the best way of preventing the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank. It turns out that they were probably right. Many today even question the very viability of a Palestinian state because of the settlements. Yet the entire international community … believes that a Palestinian state must be established on the basis of the June 4, 1967 borders. There is no other solution to the conflict. Instead of dealing with that reality, the government is trying to pressure the US and the EU to transform the peace process into a regional peace process. Netanyahu, Barak and other members of the government think that if they agree to a three-month settlement freeze, not including Jerusalem, the world will consent. The EU and the US in private meetings with Netanyahu and in public statements have insisted that Israel must focus on the settlement issue and not on tricks to avoid making the difficult decisions. All settlement building must stop”…

But, what is actually happening?

Gershon Baskin: "There is a package deal – and either we both win, or we both lose"

There has been a steady drip of leaks in the past couple of weeks. Something is in the air.

Today, Gershon Baskin, the Israeli co-CEO (with Palestinian Hanna Siniora) of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, wrote in the Jerusalem Post that the outlines of a package deal have taken shape. All that needs to be done is to grasp the opportunity.

Baskin writes: “The only way to prevent the next round of violence, which will signal the beginning of the end of the two-state solution, is to reach an agreement as soon as possible. It may not be possible before the end of the Bush administration, but the parties should already indicate their commitment to go beyond that deadline into the beginning of the next US administration. Both sides will have to make concessions on fundamentals, crossing lines that were painted “red” for them in the past. There is a package deal that can be reached and agreed upon.

“The Palestinian state will have to be established on about 96 percent-97% of the West Bank and all of Gaza (once the political regime there changes). Israel will have to give up most of the West Bank, including the ‘Ariel finger’, and should consider accepting a fair monetary price from the Palestinians for Ma’aleh Adumim – two areas that take up huge tracks of land in the West Bank . Most of the settlers will be able to remain in the areas where they live today.

“The parties have already accepted the principle of a 50-50 split of the ‘no-man’s’ land areas alongside of the Green Line. Finding 3%-4% of land inside of the Green Line for a swap is not so problematic. The Palestinians already understand and are willing to wait a period of at least five years for Israel to vacate all of the settlements that will be transferred to them. They are also ready to offer citizenship to settlers who may wish to remain within their state.

“PART OF the package includes recognizing that Jerusalem will be the capital of both countries. The Palestinian capital will be in the Palestinian parts of east Jerusalem and Israel ‘s capital will remain in west Jerusalem . The Palestinians understand that the Jewish neighborhoods within the municipal boundaries that were built after 1967 will remain under Israeli sovereignty. They account for about 1% of the West Bank .

“The Old City will be shared under a special regime, perhaps with international involvement, or through the division of sovereignty within its walls. The Palestinians will have sovereignty over the Muslim, Christian and Armenian Quarters and Israel will have sovereignty over the Jewish Quarter. The Jewish Quarter is already physically separated from the other quarters by internal checkpoints. The Palestinians will have sovereignty or guardianship over the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif and Israel will have sovereignty or guardianship over the Western Wall. Both sides will agree not to dig, excavate, renovate or construct anything on, around or underneath the “Holy Compound” without mutual agreement.

“All of the mainstream rabbinic authorities agree that no Jew should enter the area of the Temple Mount until the messiah comes. Until that time, the Temple Mount will be turned over the Palestinians de jure instead of just de facto as now. When the messiah comes, we can all agree to place the issue of sovereignty in his/her hands.

“Both sides will guarantee the right of access and prayer at holy places within their sovereign areas for members of the relevant faiths from the other state.

“PALESTINIAN REFUGEES will go home to the state of Palestine . Perhaps Israel will accept some humanitarian cases of family reunification. There will be financial compensation available for all Palestinian refugees for real property loss claims and for suffering. The State of Israel will participate in an international fund for that purpose.

“Palestinians and Israelis will recognize the Jewishness of Israel and the Palestinianess of Palestine. Both sides will agree to ensure the equal rights and opportunities for minorities within their state. Palestinian Israeli citizens will remain within the State of Israel, as part of their birthright and Jewish citizens of Palestine will be welcome to remain within the Palestinian state as long as they wish.

“It may take years to implement the agreement. Everything will depend on the security situation. Both sides will end up agreeing to an international force being stationed within the Palestinian state for an agreed designated period. That force will be composed of and led by European nations.

“It is quite clear that both sides will have to allow their people to vote for the agreement – for it to be ratified by the people…”

The article by Gershon Baskin in the JPost today can be read in full here.