May 05 2010

President Obama Is Insisting on Building Trust as a Precondition for Working With Israel Towards Peace

Published by at 12:45 pm under Articles,Palestinian politics

(This was published in May 5th, 2010)

By Daoud Kuttab

The US is the only world power that can help Israelis and Palestinians achieve peace. Few dispute the unique American standing. For the US to be able to help shepherd a serious peace process, America’s trust towards the leaders of both parties in the conflict is critical.

A review of the Obama Administration’s efforts since moving into the White House appears to have focused on this critical issue. While the media has been focusing on measuring the temperature of the US-Israeli relations and the latest positioning regarding settlements or Jerusalem, Washington has been focusing on a much more basic issue. Trust. The absence of trust, more than settlement announcements, seems to be the real reason behind the displeasure that surfaced during the spring of 2010 of the Obama Administration toward its most important Middle East ally, Israel.

This issue did not emerge overnight. It began with a robust US involvement in the Middle East conflict starting on day one of the Obama Administration. It moved up a ratchet with strong words from the White House and the State Department regarding the need for Israel to completely and absolutely freeze all settlement activities. Then Washington stepped back and appeared to accept an Israeli offer of a sort of total freeze but with some clear commitments. And when these Israeli commitments were broken, President Obama realized that he needs to clearly establish the importance of both parties delivering on promises made in public and in private.

The need to establish trust is not new to peace efforts in the Middle East. Lessons from failed previous attempts to produce a breakthrough in the peace process often focus on the reliance on leaders sticking to their promises. The gap between what is agreed behind the walls of the White House or the State Department and what happens on the ground in Israel and Palestine has done more to poison relations between the parties, and between them and the US, than any other factor.

Diplomats and observers have repeatedly called on the US and other members of the Quartet (Europe, Russia and the UN) to identify publicly which party is in violation of agreed-upon steps towards peace. Only when the understandings behind closed doors and the reality on the ground are in sync can this elusive trust be restored.

Former US ambassador Dan Kurtzer and Scott Lasensky of the US Institute of Peace have given exactly this advice to the previous and current US Administrations, based on thorough research of what is needed for American leadership to be effective. Their book, Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace: American Leadership in the Middle East, outlines 10 lessons learned from failed US attempts to broker peace.

Lesson five states: “Commitments made by the parties and agreements entered into must be respected and implemented. The United States must ensure compliance through monitoring, setting standards of accountability, reporting violations fairly to the parties, and exacting consequences when commitments are broken or agreements not implemented.”

This was what President Barack Obama insisted on when he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and PA President Mahmoud Abbas in September 2009. He reminded them both of their obligations according to the roadmap, and agreed with the leaders on a new path. While many Palestinians saw in that September meeting a US climb down, Palestinians were finally willing to accommodate US desires to restart negotiations in 2010 by accepting that these negotiations would take place indirectly until the Israeli side was willing to show it meant business about peace.

Palestinians have been universally seen as fulfilling their commitments, especially on the security front.

Palestinian security forces on the West Bank have worked extremely well to thwart violent acts against Israel, even during its war in Gaza. US officials and even Israeli generals have praised the efforts, including the success of Palestinians newly trained in consultation with US General Keith Dayton.

This trust was violated in March 2010 when US Vice-President Joe Biden visited Israel to initiate proximity talks between Israelis and Palestinians. Unable to hold his right-wing coalition in check, the Israeli government faced its first open challenge to US attempts to broker peace. Israel’s announcement, on March 9, that it will build 1,600 housing units in East Jerusalem was seen universally as a slap in the face for the US Administration, one of Israel’s closest allies. Biden, who has regularly boasted about his “Zionist” credentials, was told that the Prime Minister did not know about the decision of his interior minister. Later and before Biden left, Netanyahu apologized for the timing but not the decision itself. That decision had come after another decision to add 112 units for a settlement outside Bethlehem a few days earlier. The Israeli defence minister had earlier legitimized a university in the Jewish settlement of Ariel deep within Palestinian territory.

A few weeks later and during discussions in Washington between US officials and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an important revelation surfaced. Under US and international pressure to stop Jewish settlement activities in Arab East Jerusalem, Netanyahu revealed that peace talks might be delayed another year.

“The Palestinians are now raising a new demand,” the Israeli leader claimed. “If this demand is adopted we are liable to lose another year.”

Calling for a settlement freeze in Jerusalem was certainly not a new Palestinian demand. Since 1967, Palestinians have not stopped demanding that Israel withdraw from all Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem. The unilateral Israeli expansion of the city limits and annexation of occupied territories has also been rejected by Palestinians and the entire world community. No country, including the US, has accepted this Israeli move nor have they agreed to move their embassies to the contested city.

Israel’s failure to produce a trustworthy relationship with Washington produced an unexpected political development not to the liking of the Israelis and the powerful pro-Israel lobby. A sector of American government that had previously been completely silent on the Middle East conflict finally broke a self-imposed taboo.

America’s military leaders, who have been silent for decades, apparently have had enough and decided to speak out about the liability that a hard line Israel causes to America’s national interest.

Popular American General David Petraeus finally revealed a public position that many have been saying behind closed doors for decades. The shift in policy of the star-studded general to a more public one put American blind support for Israel in direct opposition to the country’s most sacred institution, the military.

To be fair, hints to this effect have been leaking out of Washington for some time now. President George W. Bush and his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made the opening salvo in this direction when they said publicly that the creation of an independent Palestinian state is in the interests of the United States. President Barack Obama repeated this statement in numerous speeches, including in his historic talk at Cairo University.

However, for some reason, such statements, as important as they were, did not resonate in the US or with the Israelis. Some Palestinian and pro-Palestinian forces in the US attempted to build on them, but for the most part that effort did not register in America’s political or media landscape.

But when the top US military general responsible for the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans says so, people stop and listen. It is difficult for pro-Israel forces, whether from American Jewish circles or right-wing American Christian fundamentalists, to argue with a general as popular as Petraeus. Ironically, many of these right-wing forces are always in praise of the army and have been pushing for the same Petraeus to run for president.

Since the change in the US military’s public posture, Palestinians and many others around the world are trying to figure out whether the current US-backed push to restart Middle East talks will lead to serious negotiations or be just another act that leads nowhere.

In its latest approach, the US proposed a set of steps including Israel releasing Fateh activists as well as organizing indirect talks for three to four months.

To get around the absence of a total freeze, the indirect talks are expected to focus solely on the borders of the Palestinian state. The idea is that if this issue is agreed on, the settlement knot will become irrelevant because settlers left within the borders of the Palestinian state will have to decide whether to live in Palestine or move back to Israel.

One Palestinian demand has not been fully agreed to by the Americans: that the US recognize a Palestinian state if the upcoming talks fail. American refusal stems from the fact that it believes that such a commitment will remove any incentive for Palestinians to be involved in the serious act of give and take that negotiations are supposed to be all about. Palestinians disagree, insisting that after 43 years of illegal occupation and failed implementations of numerous accords, including the Oslo Agreement and the roadmap, the talks are supposed to focus on implementations rather than any more negotiations. Without such commitment, the Palestinians are afraid that Israel will have no incentive to reach an agreement that will require them to give up Palestinian lands.

A possible compromise appears to have been reached in this regard, whereby the Europeans have committed to recognize a unilateral de facto state of Palestine within 18 months.

Another proposed change is that American negotiators be directly involved this time, irrespective of whether the talks are held directly or indirectly. For a long time Israel has refused to allow the US or any other third party to have a seat at the negotiation table.

If the Americans succeed in their present effort, there would be three levels of talks: one strategic, between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Simultaneously, talks are to take place between senior negotiators like Saeb Erekat, the head of the PLO negotiating team, and a similar level Israeli negotiator. A third level would be on practical issues, and include Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad alongside Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak. This last set of talks, which started with Fayyad meeting Barak at the recent Herzilya conference, can prove to be quite interesting in light of Fayyad’s plans to build up the infrastructure and institutions of the Palestinian state in the coming 18 months.

While many of the above moves give the impression of some serious, behind-the-scenes accomplishments by Mitchell and his team, it is difficult to see real progress on the ground, in light of the present Israeli government’s actions.

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