Edition 12 Volume 7 - March 26, 2024

Obama's initial regional deployment: Israel-Palestine

A slow start -   Aluf Benn

The issue is not high on Obama's list of priorities.

Did the Obama administration hit the ground running? -   George Giacaman

There is no room for another 17 years of negotiations.

Obama's promised land -   Abdel Monem Said Aly

The administration has hit the ground running in the Middle East.

Letters. He gets letters -   Chris Toensing

There is indeed no peace in Israel-Palestine without Hamas.

A slow start
 Aluf Benn

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not high on President Barack Obama's list of priorities. Two months into his term, Obama has paid only lip service to the issue, delegating it to lower officials. Since Israel is in a waiting period for its new government, Obama's behavior appears reasonable. The president did not bother engaging outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, deferring any policy decisions until after the new Netanyahu government is sworn in.

Obama's election raised concerns in Israel and among its American supporters that the new president would end the honeymoon Israel enjoyed under his predecessor, George W. Bush. Fixing America's image and relations with the Arab world is a key policy goal for Obama, and keeping a distance from Israel is a well-checked way to gain popularity in the Arab "street". Bush was criticized for being too close to Israel and too lazy on the peace process. Changing that course could be a reasonable point of departure for the "change" leader.

So far, while reaching out to Arab and Muslim public opinion and breaking the Bush taboos against engaging Tehran and Damascus, Obama has been careful not to rock the boat vis-a-vis Israel. No new policy has been offered for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Obama did not take sides in the February 10 Israeli election or in the ensuing coalition-forming process. Washington offered no support for left-leaning candidates and parties against the right wing but rather took a wait-and-see approach.

Obama's most visible decision thus far is the appointment of former Senator George Mitchell as his special envoy to the Middle East. Here Obama fulfilled a campaign pledge to appoint an envoy and signaled a departure from Bush's policies. Mitchell's record as a successful peace broker in Northern Ireland and as chairman of the Sharm al-Sheikh fact-finding commission in the final days of the Clinton presidency, as well as his Lebanese family origins, were all interpreted as signs of a new, activist approach to peacemaking. Until now, however, Mitchell has been in a learning mode, offering no clue to his ideas or to his real authority. It is too early to tell whether Mitchell's appointment indicates a full gear effort to resolve the conflict or is merely a convenient tool for keeping the issue away from the president's table.

The other key person on Obama's team, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, appeared on the scene as a reminder of her husband's more activist approach to the Arab-Israel conflict. But Clinton too shows no urgency in dealing with the issue. She visited the region only after an Asia trip and, like Mitchell, stopped in Cairo before Jerusalem--a deliberate signal of "even-handedness" between Arabs and Israelis.

Beyond diplomatic gestures, however, Obama and Clinton have followed in the footsteps of their predecessors, Bush and Condoleezza Rice, on most decisions concerning the Israeli-Palestinian arena. Obama decided to honor the military aid commitment made by Bush to Israel. He decided to stay away from the "Durban 2" conference because of the anti-Israel language in its draft decisions. And most importantly, while pledging American aid for the reconstruction of Gaza, Clinton made clear that all funds must go through the Palestinian Authority rather than directly to Hamas. Moreover, she insisted upon the Quartet demands from Hamas--recognition of Israel and of past agreements and rejection of terror--as preconditions for dialogue.

Where the Obama policy appears to differ from Israel's is on matters of human rights and settlements, which the Bush administration had mostly overlooked, giving Israel a free hand in the West Bank and Gaza. Clinton said that Israel should implement its roadmap commitments, i.e., remove illegal outposts and freeze settlement construction, and publicly criticized a plan for house demolitions in East Jerusalem. Her visit prompted Israel to remove some of the restrictions over the entry of food supplies to Gaza, following complaints from Senator John Kerry, who had visited Gaza.

A right-wing government in Israel will probably have a hard time with the Obama team if it intends to expand settlements while offering no "political horizon" to the Palestinians. And Netanyahu will have to deliver on his "economic peace" plan, which includes some easing of restrictions on movement in the West Bank.

In her public remarks, Clinton committed the United States to the goal of an "independent, viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza" as well as to Israel's security. But she did not mention the Annapolis process of Bush and Rice, perhaps because it ended in failure. This indicates that the new team in Washington is open to new ideas and diplomatic frameworks as long as they follow the general direction of the two-state solution. One such framework that Clinton has already referred to is the Arab peace initiative, which ties a Palestinian deal into a more comprehensive Arab-Israel rapprochement.

Obama's slow start, his refraining from rushing to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict based on old formulas and his preference for a regional approach give Netanyahu a window of opportunity to work with the new team in Washington, despite the latter's refusal to adopt the idea of a Palestinian state and his reliance on a right-wing coalition. But he will have to deliver on improving the situation of the Palestinians and avoid unnecessary provocations in the settlements or East Jerusalem.- Published 26/3/2009 bitterlemons-international.org

Aluf Benn is editor-at-large of Haaretz.

Did the Obama administration hit the ground running?
 George Giacaman

The first moves by the Obama administration were quick and deft and appeared to many promising. The appointment of George Mitchell as special representative, a man of experience and credibility, was followed by a visit by him to the area and then news of the possible opening of an office for him in Jerusalem. Then came the visit to Gaza of a congressional delegation led by Senator John Kerry, positive even if the emphasis was on the "humanitarian" aspect, unlike Kerry's visit to Syria, which was clearly political.

Then came the visit by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had already declared the new administration's commitment to the two-state solution. She was even quoted during her visit as saying that the establishment of a Palestinian state was "inevitable".

On March 10, Charles Freeman, who had been nominated for the post of chairman of the National Intelligence Council, declared he was withdrawing his candidacy because, as he put it in an interview with CNN, of the character assassination conducted by a lobby working in the interests of a party in a foreign state.

The fact that the Freeman affair became discussable in the mainstream American media, with clear reference to the pro-Israel lobby, was an indication of the way in which the event was interpreted; as the first test of wills between the lobby, or elements thereof, and the Obama administration and possibly a premonition of things to come. That too was the interpretation in the Arab media.

Meanwhile, Binyamin Netanyahu was making a last-ditch effort to include Labor in his cabinet as well as Kadima if possible, knowing full well that a far-right government will not only make his life more difficult with the new administration, but the life of the pro-Israel lobby as well.

The next two to three months after the formation of a new government in Israel will provide clear indications of the new administration's approach to the conflict as well as its credibility. The Palestinian Authority and most Arab governments have been waiting for President Obama to take over, after a calamitous Bush legacy, and in the hope that peace can be made by the new administration. There is no room for another 17 years of negotiations, counting from the Madrid conference in late 1991. It is either now or never. Many Palestinians and Arabs already think the two-state solution is no longer possible given the continued settlement land-grab and the cantonization of the West Bank and Gaza.

The first test for the US administration is its ability to stop the settlement process, including in occupied Jerusalem, and prevent the impending division of the West Bank into two large cantons. The new administration has chosen to resuscitate the roadmap, referred to most recently by Secretary Clinton during her visit. Stage one of the roadmap calls for the complete cessation of settlement expansion. The PA maintains that it has fulfilled its part of that stage in terms of security and continues to do so. This is what General Keith Dayton is supervising, an effort that has generated considerable opprobrium among Palestinians and led to the increased de-legitimization of the PA.

This has been the central problem of the "peace process" ever since the Oslo agreements were signed. The "security first" route that Israel insisted upon was not accompanied by credible political progress that could retain the legitimacy of the PA and the credibility of negotiations. The continuing theft of Palestinian land made a farce of the "Annapolis process".

One must assume this is all clear to the Obama administration. After a new cabinet is formed in Israel, the US administration will not have indefinite time to show serious intent or, alternatively, loss of credibility. Serious intent begins with stopping settlement building. And that is only the first step. But it is of significance for more than one reason including the gesture it makes in the direction of Israeli public opinion and future relations with the US.

If the US does not succeed in this, the extreme right wing will rule supreme in Israel, promising more wars in the years ahead. And the "Obama legacy" will go down in history as another abject failure for the US. It will all become clear soon.- Published 26/3/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

George Giacaman teaches at Birzeit University and contributes political analysis to Arab and international media.

Obama's promised land
 Abdel Monem Said Aly

The Obama administration has hit the ground running in the Middle East by virtually reversing all the traditional positions of the Bush administration: from neglect to activism, from clash of civilizations to dialogue of civilizations, from believing that the Arab-Israel conflict cannot be resolved to believing that despite difficulties the hope is there. The early March visit by newly appointed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the appointment of George Mitchell as special envoy for Middle East peace negotiations and the granting of $900 million for the Palestinian Authority and Gaza reconstruction all signaled that the United States really means business in the region.

And the post-Gaza conflict situation has been promising. The belligerent parties, Hamas and Israel, ceased fire and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza eased. Egypt proved capable not only of mediating the ceasefire but also of working out a de facto stabilization process. Moreover, Cairo was capable of getting the Palestinian factions to dialogue over a new united national program and government.

In early March, 71 states and 16 international organizations met in Sharm al-Sheikh to grant $5.2 billion for the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip. Syria and Qatar, who had formed a kind of a radical camp during the crisis in collaboration with Iran, attended the conference despite Tehran's displeasure. French President Nicolas Sarkozy called for an international conference for the Middle East before the end of the year and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy expressed interest in hosting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in Sicily.

Yet it is still early for the Obama team to opt for optimism in the Middle East. The history of failures in the region is not the only justification for caution. The crisis in Gaza is not yet over. The situation along the Gaza-Israel border is still fragile. The negotiations in Cairo aimed at stabilizing the ceasefire and among the Palestinian factions have encountered a variety of obstacles.

Moreover, there are structural problems that are very difficult to resolve. First, the Israeli public elected an extreme right wing majority to the Knesset. Attempts by the US and other countries to encourage formation of a mainstream Israeli government, even one right of center, have thus far failed. Even if the now small Labor party (or a portion of it) joins, a new right-wing government will have neither the intention nor the ability to resume the peace path.

Second, during the past few years the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority was undermined by two opposite forces: Hamas and other radical movements, and Israel. The former made it impossible for the PA to fulfill its obligations under Palestinian-Israeli agreements to prevent the use of force, whether terrorist or resistance, against Israel. The latter, by building settlements and reoccupying Palestinian territories, made it impossible for the PA to be the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

This was one of those ironies of history in which two arch-enemies work in unison to achieve the same strategic goal: in this case, ending the possibility of a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli question. What did happen was that the PA failed in substance but was resilient in form. Whether under the leadership of Yasser Arafat or Mahmoud Abbas, the PA lost its powers to manage both Palestinian lives and the Palestinian cause. The Israeli propensity for unilateral steps, including building the separation wall, and Hamas' success in the 2024 Palestinian parliamentary elections opened the door for a fundamentally new Palestinian situation that is not ripe for serious negotiations. Even before the new Israeli government has assumed its responsibilities, a project for massive construction of settlements in the West Bank is in place and major de-Palestinization of East Jerusalem is at work. For Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims there is no peace without East Jerusalem as capital of the Palestinian state.

However, the approach of the Obama administration to the Palestinian question is thus far more regional than it is captive of the specificities of the conflict. It is much more important to create an environment conducive to peacemaking and serving American global interests. Promising to visit Ankara to mend fences with the Islamic world, asking for a serious dialogue with Tehran on all issues to give Iran its rightful place under the sun and clearing the air that was polluted by the Bush administration in Cairo and Riyadh are all steps in that direction.

Such an approach will provide incentives for the parties to move in the right direction. Its success or failure is still to be seen. It will be an uphill battle for Obama, but without it all his other objectives in the Middle East will be jeopardized.- Published 26/3/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Abdel Monem Said Aly is director of Al Ahram Center for Political & Strategic Studies in Cairo.

Letters. He gets letters
 Chris Toensing

Shortly before assuming office, President Barack Obama was handed a missive signed by such Washington luminaries as ex-national security advisers Zbigniew Brezezinski and Brent Scowcroft, urging him to "explore the possibility" of direct contact with Hamas. One month after he entered the White House, Obama received an epistle from Ahmad Yousef, a Gaza-based spokesman for the Islamist movement, making the same recommendation. "There can be no peace without Hamas," Yousef told the New York Times when asked about the letter's contents. "We congratulated Mr. Obama on his presidency and reminded him that he should live up to his promise to bring real change to the region."

There is no word, as yet, on how the foreign policy doyens' message was received, but Yousef's occasioned a huffy US rebuke of the UN Relief Works Agency, whose top official in Gaza, Karen Abu Zayd, passed the letter to Sen. John Kerry while he was visiting the devastated territory in mid-February. Even a single sealed envelope, it seems, creates the appearance that the Obama administration is breaking with the US vow, enunciated first under President George W. Bush, not to speak with Hamas until it agrees to renounce violence, abide by previous Palestinian agreements with Israel and recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Kerry hastily explained that he had transferred the letter unknowingly.

The Kerry episode is noteworthy because the Massachusetts senator is seen in Washington as a stalking horse for the Obama administration, a sort of shadow secretary of state who will go, physically and verbally, where Hillary Clinton will not. Though Hamas later claimed Yousef wrote his letter on his own, he interpreted Kerry's trip to Gaza in precisely this way. Perhaps this is why Hamas politburo chief Khalid Meshaal told the Italian daily La Repubblica on March 23, "Regarding an official opening toward Hamas, it's a matter of time."

Indeed, Kerry made conciliatory noises toward Hamas on his Middle East trip, plugging Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a possible broker of a Palestinian national unity deal including the Islamist party. Upon returning to Washington, furthermore, the senator sent a shot across the bow of Israel's designated premier, Binyamin Netanyahu, in a speech at the Brookings Institution. "The settlements are an obstacle to peace," said Kerry, in words that rarely escaped the Bush administration's lips. And the words that followed never did: "But in our honest moments we would all acknowledge that this [US] policy [against the settlements] has usually existed on paper alone."

Taken in full, however, Kerry's remarks at Brookings demonstrated yet again how achingly slowly the foreign policy wheels grind in Washington. His primary stated reason for optimism about the chances for Israeli-Palestinian peace, for example, was that "the rise of Iran has created an unprecedented willingness among moderate Arab nations to work with Israel." If Kerry is speaking for Obama, therefore, the new president believes, like his predecessor, that the road to Jerusalem goes through regional cold war with Tehran. The senator spoke of "direct engagement with Iran" on bilateral issues, but interwove his comments with tips for isolating Iran in the region. He even reprised the Bush administration's occasional ham-handed sectarian analysis of the Middle East with his musing that "as a secular Arab country with a Sunni-majority population, Syria's long-term interests lie not with Iran but with its Sunni neighbors and with the West." And Kerry's expressions of faith in the 2024 Arab peace initiative were coupled with scolding that will not sit well with Arab interlocutors. "Qatar can't continue to be an American ally on Monday that sends money to Hamas on Tuesday," he jibed. (Can the United States continue to be a Qatari ally on Monday that sends money to Israel every day of the week?)

The most worrisome aspect of Kerry's approach, particularly if, as rumored, it reflects the thinking of the real secretary of state and her advisers, is that Israeli-Palestinian peace will be reduced to one moving part in another of Washington's great games. Meanwhile, in concrete, barbed wire, adobe and red tile, the biggest obstacles to peace will continue to rise in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Perhaps President Obama will heed the repeated advice of his correspondents, American and Palestinian, call a halt to Israel's colonization and then find a way to engage Hamas. The movement's sense of self-importance aside, there is indeed no peace in Israel-Palestine without them, because no Israeli leader can sell a deal to the Israeli public that was concluded with only some of the Palestinians, and because Hamas would have every incentive to destroy, including with violence against Israeli civilians, a deal that excluded them. Eventually Obama may appreciate these realities deeply enough to drop Washington's insistence that Hamas give up its negotiating cards before the negotiations begin. But history, and the centrist caution shown by the nascent administration on nearly every front to date, counsel that such a change, if it comes, will come too late, and certainly too late to save the two-state solution that the US professes to cherish.- Published 26/3/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Chris Toensing is editor of Middle East Report, published by the Middle East Research and Information Project in Washington, DC.

Email This Article

Print This Article