"An eye for an eye"… and a unilateral move for a unilateral move?

Is there anything new on the “peace talks”?

In response to questions from journalists in Washington yesterday, U.S. State Department Spokesperson, Assistant Secretary of State Philip J. Crowley, said:

“I have nothing specific to report to you. We continue our contacts with the parties, and I don’t have anything to report”.

The “direct talks” process that the U.S. launched in September, after “indirect talks” failed in March have all fizzled out. Only a bold few are now venturing to say that the effort is dead, but nothing is happening except behind the scenes contacts.

Everything is on hold until the U.S. mid-term Congressional elections in early November.

Then. another journalist put a follow-up question to Crowley:

QUESTION: On the peace process, President Abbas has said yesterday that Israel has been taking unilateral steps for decades by building settlements. So the Palestinians might take one of their own, asking the United Nations to recognize their independent state.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think our position has been pretty clear. We continue to encourage the parties to avoid unilateral steps on one side of the ledger or the other. Our position on settlements has not changed, and we continue to encourage the parties to resume direct negotiations as the only mechanism to resolve these myriad of issues.

Pretty mild, actually…

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu offered, a few weeks after his unilateral ten-month settlement “moratorium” expired on 26 September, to resume the “moratorium” for an indefinite time period if the Palestinian leadership would recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people. The Palestinians recoiled and shreiked.

Now, Netanyahu is reportedly considering another unilateral three-month extension…

Netanyahu urges quiet

At the start of a post-holiday cabinet meeting today, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu said in public remarks to his ministers that “One month ago, the Palestinians entered into direct talks with us, following a series of gestures that the Government carried out in order to advance the peace process. We have fully lived up to our commitment, a difficult commitment that we took upon ourselves. Now there is interest in continuing the peace negotiations. This is a vital interest for the State of Israel. We are in the midst of sensitive diplomatic contacts with the US administration in order to find a solution that will allow the continuation of the talks. Now is not the time for issuing statements. We have no interest in causing an uproar. Neither do I have the possibility of denying the baseless media report. But I do have an interest in responding calmly and responsibly in order to advance the diplomatic process. We will quietly consider the situation and the complex reality away from the spotlights. I propose that everyone be patient, act responsibly, calmly and – above all – quietly. This is exactly what we must do.”

Half the Quartet failed to move Netanyahu

Half the Quartet was in Israel last week (the EU’s Catherine Ashton, and U.S. Special Middle East Envoy George Mitchell) — and they failed to move Israel’s Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu to agree to extend, even a little bit, his unilateral 10-month settlement freeze that expired on 26 September.

The Palestinian leadership gave the USA an additional four days — until 30 September — to keep trying.

But, there was no movement.

After that, the rump PLO leadership and the Fatah Central Committee meet in the Presidential headquarters in Ramallah, and urged Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to stop “direct” talks with Israel as long as there is any settlement construction going on. Following Saturday’s meeting, Yasser Abed Rabbo, Secretary of the PLO Executive Committee, said that “The leadership confirms that the resumption of talks requires tangible steps, the first of them a freeze on settlements”…

Netanyahu said there should be no preconditions.

An Arab League summit meeting is due to convene in Sirte, Libya, on 8 October. Palestinian proposals to have earlier emergency consultations with the Arab League have been cancelled.

Fatah Central Committee member Mohammad Dahlan was reported by Ma’an News Agency as saying that Abbas will tender his resignation when the Arab League summit meeting does open. Dahlan is in charge of the Media portfolio for Fatah. His comments are reported here.

[So, Abbas will not resign in front of his own people, but rather in front of Arab leaders?]

Meanwhile, Abbas is saying he still intends to work with the U.S. to find a solution…

Continue reading Half the Quartet failed to move Netanyahu

Gideon Levy profile: Oslo "peace talks" were a scam from the start (17 years ago)

In a profile of Israeli journalist Gideon Levy of Haaretz, who has chronicled Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory for decades, Johann Hari of The Independent evokes his thoughts on the peace process.

He starts with Oslo: “Levy believes the greatest myth – the one hanging over the Middle East like perfume sprayed onto a corpse – is the idea of the current “peace talks” led by the United States. There was a time when he too believed in them. At the height of the Oslo talks in the 1990s, when Yitzhak Rabin negotiated with Yassir Arafat, ‘at the end of a visit I turned and, in a gesture straight out of the movies, waved Gaza farewell. Goodbye occupied Gaza, farewell! We are never to meet again, at least not in your occupied state. How foolish!’ Now, he says, he is convinced it was ‘a scam’ from the start, doomed to fail. How does he know? ‘There is a very simple litmus test for any peace talks. A necessity for peace is for Israel to dismantle settlements in the West Bank. So if you are going to dismantle settlements soon, you’d stop building more now, right? They carried on building them all through Oslo. And today, Netanyahu is refusing to freeze construction, the barest of the bare minimum. It tells you all you need’. He says Netanyahu has – like the supposedly more left-wing alternatives, Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni – always opposed real peace talks, and even privately bragged about destroying the Oslo process. In 1997, during his first term as Israeli leader, he insisted he would only continue with the talks if a clause was added saying Israel would not have to withdraw from undefined military locations’ – and he was later caught on tape boasting: ‘Why is that important? Because from that moment on I stopped the Oslo accords’. If he bragged about ‘stopping’ the last peace process, why would he want this one to succeed? Levy adds: ‘And how can you make peace with only half the Palestinian population? How can you leave out Hamas and Gaza?’.”

He continues: “These fake peace talks are worse than no talks at all, Levy believes…

Continue reading Gideon Levy profile: Oslo "peace talks" were a scam from the start (17 years ago)

Netanyahu speaks – but doesn't answer questions – about security

Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu said at the start of his regular weekly Cabinet meeting today:
“After one and a half years, in which I called for direct talks without pre-conditions, I had, in Washington, the chance to hold a long, private talk with Abu Mazen. I very much hope that this conversation and the others that will come will allow us to open a direct, continuous and reliable link, which is essential to our ability to formulate a peace settlement between our two peoples. I proposed that we meet for such a private talk every two weeks, in which we would discuss the main issues on the agenda vis-à-vis a peace settlement, because I believe that what is currently necessary to move the process forward is not a plethora of teams, but decisions by leaders. I believe that the start of the Washington talks was an important step en route to a framework agreement between us and the Palestinians. We are aware of the difficulties. They are still before us, both in the short- and medium-term, but we will continue with our efforts to reach an agreement. As I said in my [14.6.09] Bar-Ilan University speech, the anchors for peace are recognition of the State of Israel as the national state of the Jewish People, recognition of our historic link to our homeland, an end to the conflict with us and an end to claims, and practical security measures on the ground that are in keeping with the new reality that has been created here in the past decade and which we will face in the coming decade as well. These security procedures will ensure that there will be no repetition of what occurred after we left Lebanon and Gaza“.

Meanwhile, the Jerusalem Post reported ahead of the talks that “Israel is looking into the possibility that it will receive an arms package as compensation from the United States in the event that it reaches a peace agreement with the Palestinians that entails significant concessions, The Jerusalem Post has learned. Israel’s argument is that there is a need to compensate for security assets that would be lost under a deal that would necessitate a withdrawal from almost all of the West Bank … Ahead of the launch of this long-waited round of peace talks, the IDF’s Planning Branch formulated a paper outlining Israel’s security requirements that was recently approved by Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. In the plan, the IDF referred to three requirements necessary for any withdrawal from the West Bank: a commitment that rockets would not be smuggled into the West Bank, a commitment that the Palestinians will not resume terrorist attacks against Israel like during the second intifada, and a commitment that if Iraq were to one day pose a military threat to Israel again, the Palestinians would not allow it or any other country to deploy military forces in the West Bank. In talks Netanyahu and Barak have held with US officials, there appears to be a readiness by the US to offer Israel an arms package if the direct talks succeed and result in a peace deal with the Palestinian Authority. One example of what the package could include are additional F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets. Israel recently announced it was buying 20 JSFs for around $3 billion, but there is skepticism within the defense establishment as to whether it would have funds to purchase additional aircraft down the road” etc. This JPost report is published here.

Questions for Netanyahu

Haaretz journalist Zvi Bar’el posed a series of questions in print about the restart of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and where things would go from here: “Netanyahu began well. He declared in the measured tone of a master of rhetoric that he is ready for a historic compromise and that genuine peace will require painful concessions by both sides. What, for example? Continuing the construction freeze in the settlements? Dismantling unauthorized outposts? Adopting the map that former prime minister Ehud Olmert proposed to Abbas? Stationing a multinational force in the Jordan Valley?

“What prevented Netanyahu from offering these things to Abbas during the indirect talks? Does he have a mysterious rabbit in his hat that he can sell Abbas without anyone noticing? In three weeks he will have to publicly confront his adversaries regarding construction in the settlements. No bluffing will do here. Bulldozers can’t be hidden in drawers. So it can be safely asserted that Netanyahu has no new wares to peddle to the Palestinians, and Abbas knows it.

“What is needed here is a decision by the leaders, not negotiating teams, Netanyahu said, explaining his mission. [n.b. – Chief Palestinian negotiator Sa’eb Erekat said this first, followed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas…] If so, why is it necessary to have a referendum on the agreement, if and when it is achieved? Does Netanyahu fear that he is acting outside the mandate given him by the public, contrary to his party’s platform? Or maybe he’s sure the public will approve what his coalition partners will reject? But this is the same public that elected the rightist majority that formed the governing coalition. It’s the same public that Netanyahu has done nothing to convince that it would be best to withdraw, strike a peace agreement and separate from the territories.

“The next stage is even more dangerous, because it’s too easy to con the Israeli and Palestinian peoples and present them with the trap of interim arrangements, a flexible timetable or a framework agreement that contains no practical details. These are minefields that have already exploded, from the Mitchell Report, to the Tenet Plan, to the road map, to Annapolis”…

This was published here.

Gideon Levy: "Everybody knows what the Palestinians want"

Writing after the Tuesday meeting in Washington between U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — in which Obama said he wants direct talks to start as soon as possible, and certainly by September when a nine-month [the duration was decided after considerable haggling] “settlement freeze”, Gideon Levy said in Haaretz that “When direct talks become a goal, without anyone having a clue what Israel’s position is – a strange negotiation in which everyone knows what the Palestinians want and no one knows for sure what Israel wants – the wheel not only does not go forward, it goes backward”.

This is posted here.

Obama Anxiety – Netanyahu Anxiety

Here, in the region, there is considerable anxiety about Obama, and what he may or may not be just about to do.

About a week ago, as the NY Times reported from Washington on 15 April, Obama said that a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was “a vital national security interest of the United States”.

As the NY Times wrote: “It was just a phrase at the end of President Obama’s news conference on Tuesday, but it was a stark reminder of a far-reaching shift in how the United States views the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and how aggressively it might push for a peace agreement. When Mr. Obama declared that resolving the long-running Middle East dispute was a “vital national security interest of the United States,” he was highlighting a change that has resulted from a lengthy debate among his top officials over how best to balance support for Israel against other American interests. This shift, described by administration officials who did not want to be quoted by name when discussing internal discussions, is driving the White House’s urgency to help broker a Middle East peace deal. It increases the likelihood that Mr. Obama, frustrated by the inability of the Israelis and the Palestinians to come to terms, will offer his own proposed parameters for an eventual Palestinian state … Mr. Obama’s words reverberated through diplomatic circles in large part because they echoed those of Gen. David H. Petraeus, the military commander overseeing America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In recent Congressional testimony, the general said that the lack of progress in the Middle East created a hostile environment for the United States … The glimmers of daylight between United States and Israeli interests began during President George W. Bush’s administration, when the United States became mired in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Three years ago, Condoleezza Rice, then secretary of state, declared during a speech in Jerusalem that a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians was a ‘strategic interest’ of the United States … ‘In the past, the problem of who drinks out of whose well in Nablus has not been a strategic interest of the United States’, said Martin S. Indyk, a former United States ambassador to Israel and the vice president and the director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. He said there was an interest now because of the tens of thousands of troops fighting Islamist insurgencies abroad at the same time that the United States was trying to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions. ‘Will resolving the Palestinian issue solve everything? Mr. Indyk said. ‘No. But will it help us get there? Yes’. The administration’s immediate priority, officials said, is jump-starting indirect talks between Israelis and Palestinians. There is still a vigorous debate inside the administration about what to do if such talks were to go nowhere, which experts said is the likeliest result, given the history of such negotiations. Some officials, like Gen. James L. Jones, the national security adviser, advocate putting forward an American peace plan, while others, like the longtime Middle East peace negotiator Dennis B. Ross, who now works in the National Security Council, favor a more incremental approach … Several officials point out that Mr. Obama has now seized control of Middle East policy himself, particularly since the controversy several weeks ago when Israeli authorities announced new Jewish housing units in Jerusalem during a visit to Israel by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. Mr. Obama, incensed by that snub, has given Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a list of demands, and relations between the United States and Israel have fallen into a chilly standoff”… This NY Times article can be read in full here.

Obama’s big discussion with Netanyahu in the White House was actually a month ago, on 23 March.

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported that “Senior U.S. officials said the Obama administration has discussed in recent weeks the possibility of the White House setting out its own benchmarks and timelines for the peace process if current efforts to resume negotiations fail. They said such a step wouldn’t be unlike the steps taken by former President Bill Clinton in late 2000, where he set parameters calling for a Palestinian state based on the pre-June 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the capital. Still, U.S. officials said such a move by the Obama administration wasn’t imminent. And they stressed that they hoped the Israelis and Palestinians would agree to voluntarily return to direct talks. U.S. officials said Mr. Netanyahu’s government has been communicating much of its position through the White House’s senior Middle East adviser Dennis Ross, at times bypassing the Obama administration’s special Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell. That decision has been interpreted by some in the administration as an attempt to sideline Mr. Mitchell in favor of Mr. Ross, who has advocated U.S. cooperation with Mr. Netanyahu, rather than confrontation. Mr. Ross has publicly taken positions in line with Mr. Netanyahu’s government, particularly the centrality of stopping Iran’s nuclear program as a means to underpin Mideast peace efforts … Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu conveyed to the White House this weekend his rejection of a U.S. call for a total Israeli construction freeze in East Jerusalem, calling into question the path toward Middle East peace, according to officials briefed on the diplomacy … In an interview with ABC News on Sunday, Mr. Netanyahu said stopping construction in Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem ‘is totally, totally a nonstarter’.”  This article is published here.

With characteristic, and delicious, irony, Akiva Eldar wrote in Haaretz today that “The prime minister’s response Thursday on Channel 2 that ‘there will be no freeze [in construction] in Jerusalem’, is like Bill Clinton’s ‘I did not have sex with that woman’. Benjamin Netanyahu did not insist this time that he will continue construction in Ramat Shlomo, Gilo and Har Homa – something he is leaving for Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to do … The two were aware that the moment they were swearing that ‘united Jerusalem’ would never be divided, Barack Obama’s envoys were packing their bags for a visit to the region. The Israelis knew that special envoy George Mitchell was not being sent to the eternal capital just to hear Netanyahu insist on developing the real estate business in East Jerusalem. Mitchell put up with a lot on his way to a peace agreement in Northern Ireland and did not come here to nail shut the coffin of the peace process. He does not want to bury Israel’s relations with the White House.  The signs were thick Thursday that behind the proclamations of a ‘unified Jerusalem’, a quiet accord was in the works with the Americans … The key thing is that the Palestinians don’t read in the paper that the interior minister approved new construction in the Holy City”. This Akiva Eldar report is here.

A few days earlier,  Akiva Eldar wrote this on Israel’s Independence Day celebrations held at the beginning of this week (according to the Jewish calendar, while the rest of the world marks the date as  May 15):  “This was one of our most independent years ever. Completely independently, we decided to welcome the vice president of the United States with an announcement of new construction in East Jerusalem; the deputy foreign minister independently humiliated the Turkish ambassador; the foreign minister independently boycotted the president of Brazil; the Knesset independently sabotaged relations with the European Union via legislation that would limit its donations to human rights groups; the government independently decided to bait the Muslim world by declaring holy sites in the occupied territories as ‘heritage sites’ …  Sixty-two years after Israel declared independence, its right-wing government is entitled to decide that the time has come to annex Ariel, Ma’aleh Adumim and the Jordan Valley – just as the Labor government did 43 years ago, when it decided to annex a sizable territory to Jerusalem. This year, too, Israeli citizens are entitled to celebrate Jerusalem Day in the only capital in the world that hosts not a single embassy. Benjamin Netanyahu can even propose that U.S. President Barack Obama append his list of questions to the Wye Agreement, the road map and the Annapolis Declaration. After all, Israel is an independent country … The winning phrase of the 62nd year of Israel’s independence is undoubtedly the angry response Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon would make to reports that the Obama administration intends to present its own peace plan. The man who was Israel’s ambassador to Washington said that by doing so, the U.S. would become a ‘party to the conflict’.  In other words, today, the U.S. is not a ‘party to the conflict’. The implication is that in order to respect Israeli independence, the American administration is required to forever put up with the Israeli occupation and ignore the settlements. The U.S. is a ‘party to the conflict’ only when Israel requires an airlift of arms, sanctions against Iran or a veto of unpleasant resolutions at the United Nations.  Shortly after the previous independence day, it seemed that Netanyahu had struck the right balance on how the conflict should be resolved between the particularist worldview he shares with most members of his government and the positions of the world’s major powers. Moreover, it appeared that the support he expressed in his speech at Bar-Ilan University for a solution of two states for two peoples reflected recognition of the fact that Israel’s independence will not be complete until the Palestinians receive their own independent state.  Instead, the Netanyahu government has implemented the views of the majority of independent Israel’s Knesset, which supports the policy of settlements in the West Bank and deepening the Jewish hold on East Jerusalem. To fend off pressure from abroad, Netanyahu has once again transformed the Jewish Diaspora into a defensive army against the might of the nations of the world. The leader of ‘independent’ Israel has transformed Jewish activists into ‘parties to the conflict’ between his government and the American administration (we, of course, are allowed to meddle in American politics)” …  This Akiva Eldar analysis was published here.

Meanwhile, just to be perfectly helpful, Netanyahu has made a proposal that he knows perfectly well Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has rejected for years. As Haaretz reported Friday, “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is amenable to an interim agreement in the West Bank that would include the establishment of a Palestinian state within temporary borders. Netanyahu considers such an interim step a possible way to unfreeze the stalled political process that was created because of the Palestinian leadership’s refusal to resume talks on a final settlement. However, the prime minister insists on delaying discussion on the final status of Jerusalem to the end of the process, and refuses to agree to a freeze on Jewish construction in East Jerusalem. Netanyahu and his aides have held intensive contacts in recent days with representatives of the U.S. administration in an effort to contain the crisis in the relations between the two countries … The formula of a Palestinian state within temporary borders was included in the second stage of the road map of 2003, but the Palestinians, and Mahmoud Abbas at their head, opposed it then and oppose it now, considering it a recipe for keeping Israeli occupation of the territories in place. Three Israeli politicians – Defense Minister Ehud Barak, President Shimon Peres and MK Shaul Mofaz of Kadima – tried to advance the idea of a Palestinian state within temporary borders during the past year, as a reasonable recipe for breaking out of the current political stalemate that was created since elections in Israel. Netanyahu is now leading toward their view, after losing hope of moving toward a permanent settlement with Abbas. If this initiative progresses, it is expected to result in objections from the parties on the right, who oppose any concession to the Palestinians. Establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank, or even a partial framework with temporary borders, will require Israel to withdraw from more territory and perhaps even evacuate settlements. But if the Palestinians reject the idea – as is expected – Netanyahu will be able to claim that they are once more missing an opportunity for a settlement by being stubborn and rejectionist”… This Haaretz report can be read in full here.

Giora Eiland: Obama ended ambiguity about a two-state solution

In an article published by YNet, an Israeli former National Security adviser, Giora Eiland, wrote that “When one of the sides, and especially if it’s a superpower, decides to call a spade a spade, a new reality emerges … In December 2000, President Bill Clinton presented his plan for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  It was not a list of abstract principle, but rather, concrete geographical, technical, and numerical proposals for resolving each of the core issues – borders, security arrangements, Jerusalem, refugees, and so on.   Ever since then, the notion of the two-state solution in the eyes of any US Administration, and certainly a Democratic one, has been a codename for Clinton’s plan. Its essence is as follows: Two states between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea, with the border between them premised on the 1967 boundaries (with minor changes,) a divided Jerusalem, limits on the Palestinian state’s militarization, and no return of Palestinian refugees to Israel.  To the Americans, as well as to the parties to the conflict, it’s clear that a final-status agreement on the basis of two states is the Clinton plan with minor adjustments, regardless of who the negotiators are.  For nine years – George W. Bush’s eight years in office and Obama’s one year – the Americans and Israelis preferred to make do with agreement on the ambiguous principle of two states. Both Prime Minister Sharon and PM Netanyahu were able to live with this abstract concept. It was convenient for both the US and Israel to explain that the nature of the final-status agreement is unknown, and it will be subject to negotiations between the two sides.  Yet recently, Obama decided to no longer make do with the codename and ensure that Netanyahu also understands and agrees that endorsing the ‘two-status solution’ means endorsing Clinton’s plan. This caused great embarrassment. PM Netanyahu assumed that real answers, if at all, will be needed only during the negotiations, yet he was asked to provide them here and now … Netanyahu thinks that the Clinton plan is bad for Israel; he also knows that he cannot implement it even if he wished to do so.  [Yet] … Instead, Netanyahu officially endorsed the Clinton plan (which, as noted, is the only American interpretation of the ‘two-state solution’.) Yet when Obama asked him to say explicitly what he seemingly said in his Bar-Ilan speech, Netanyahu found it difficult to speak.  The American conclusions of this are grim: Firstly, Israel has no alternate ideas.  Secondly, the Clinton plan is the only solution and there is nothing else.  Thirdly, Israel’s prime minister is an unreliable person.  The distance from these conclusions to a situation whereby the US dictates a plan, including a binding timetable, is short. Ironically, we can assume that the main possibility to get out of this problematic situation stems from the fact that the Palestinians also cannot accept the Clinton plan (recognition of a Jewish state, a declaration that they have no more demands, and renunciation of the right of return.) In fact, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas was not willing to even discuss the Clinton model with PM Olmert”.   This opinion piece by Giora Eiland can be read in full on YNet here

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.