Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

Democracy Delayed in the West Bank

Posted in Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East and North Africa by Dan on July 27, 2010

Hamas supporters celebrate their victory in 2006. Palestinians are still waiting for another election.

Palestinians in the West Bank were supposed to vote last week on a new set of local politicians.  To us Americans, municipal elections aren’t a big deal.  But for people who haven’t had a taste of democracy in years, just the slightest chance at waiting online to cast a ballot is an exhilarating experience.  For Palestinians- a people under persistent occupation, divided between two political factions, and separated in two geographical areas- this exuberance would have been even more fulfilling.

Sadly, those elections were cancelled by the Palestinian Authority, which argued that elections at the present time would have fragmented Palestine’s national identity and diverted attention away from the more pressing problem of Gaza’s humanitarian catastrophe.

Little do they know that Palestinian identity hasn’t been unified for quite a long time; Hamas and Fatah have been battling it out for the past four years.  1.5 million Palestinians are separated from another 2.5 million in the West Bank.  And if you want to get mired in technicalities, the Palestinians don’t even have a national identity.  The lack of a Palestinian state kicks the “national” right out the door.

Something else is at work here.  The cancellation had nothing to do with Gaza, and it certainly had nothing to do with efforts at unity.  Instead, fear of who would win and who would lose was most likely the culprit.  And in some strange way, the United States is partly to blame for Palestine’s increasingly authoritarian behavior.

Back in 2006, the United States encouraged Palestinians to come out and vote for their next national government.  At the time, it was an historic moment; the first elections since the death of longtime leader Yasser Arafat and the beginning of a new era in Middle East democracy.  But when the elections were over, and the winner was announced (Hamas), encouragement in Washington quickly turned into despair and disappointment.

The right thing for Washington to do was applaud the Palestinians for their trust in democracy- even if the U.S. didn’t necessarily like the results.  This positive response may have been able to serve as a precedent for further elections into the future.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration took the exact opposite approach. The same democracy that Washington trumpeted beforehand quickly turned into an embarrassment. Due to Hamas’ place on Washington’s terrorist list, the United States refused to declare the contest legitimate.  The U.S. dug itself deeper by not engaging Hamas at a low level, which would have at least shown Palestinians that the U.S. meant what it said about democratic institutions.

Four years later, what we have in the Palestinian Territories is a powerless legislative branch, a Palestinian President ruling by decree, and an authority that is divided internally between old-time technocrats and upwardly mobile moderates.

We are still suffering from that disastrous 2006 experience.  Just as the U.S. was afraid about the results back then, the P.A. is afraid about what’s on the minds of Palestinian voters today. Canceling the elections gives them more time to delay the inevitable.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of Mustafa Barghouthi of the Palestinian National Initiative.  His article can be read at FP.com’s Middle East Channel**

July 6 Post-Game Report

After a short hour and 19 minute meeting at the White House, President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were quick to embrace one another in front of reporters, showing the world that they have both decided to change their rhetoric towards one another and work together on a common goal of Middle East peace.

Like I said a few days ago before the meeting took place, this is precisely what the bilateral event was designed for.  After a tumultuous eighteen months between Israel and its greatest ally (the United States)- including disagreements over Israel’s behavior with respect to the Palestinians- Obama’s staff made sure that this diplomatic exchange went as smoothly as possible.  You may recall that the last U.S.-Israel meeting did not go very well…it went so badly, in fact, that the President deliberately kept the Israeli Prime Minister waiting in the lobby for a few hours and even refused to hold a joint news conference after the talk was completed.

Three months later, Obama’s mindset towards Israel and its Prime Minister has changed dramatically.  The midterm elections are fast approaching, and the last thing Obama wants to do is jeopardize his party by appearing to be anti-Israeli.  Plus, Republicans in recent months have been all over the President on his Middle East policy, accusing him of compromising U.S. security interests and letting his grudge with Netanyahu get too far.  Given this atmosphere, the White House probably viewed this meeting as a political opportunity to show his solidarity with Israel in the hopes of stemming this criticism and shoring up Jewish support for Democrats ahead of the vote.

On the other side, Netanyahu faces a similar, yet different, domestic situation on the cusp of his Washington visit.  He has been taking a beating from the international community, dovish Israeli political parties, and Arab leaders for his terrible track record at peace talks, whether this includes brandish statements towards the Palestinian leadership or actual policy moves that have weakened Palestinian trust.  His endorsement of Israeli settlement building on occupied Palestinian land- which the international community deems illegal under international law- has driven a deep wedge between Israel and its greatest ally, donor, and patron.  Israelis critical of Netanyahu were (and continue to be) afraid that his reliance on right-wing politicians has damaged Israeli credibility in the eyes of the region and in the eyes of the international community.  Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren suggested as much a month ago, arguing that a “tectonic” shift is taking place between Washington and Tel Aviv on a number of important issues.

So both leaders had reasons for shaking hands and smiling in front of the cameras today.  Both men, regardless of their experience, are confronting political pressures in their home countries.  Netanyahu is hearing it from Jewish peace activists, and Republicans in the peanut gallery are heckling Obama.  This could help explain why the U.S.-Israel meeting went without incident.  Obama stated compassionately that he always had trust in Netanyahu, despite what the press had said, and that the U.S.-Israel relationship is stronger than it has ever been.  Netanyahu returned the favor by endorsing Obama’s vision for a two-state solution to the conflict…something that he previously opposed.

But logistics and sugarcoating aside, the July 6 meeting still didn’t bridge the United States and Israel when it comes to policy.  President Obama’s plan for a two-state solution depends primarily on the termination of Israeli settlement building, and a willingness by Netanyahu to show the Palestinians that he is serious about peace talks.  This runs right into Netanyahu’s strategy, which is both pro-settler and hawkish in its origins.  It’s one thing to say that you would like a quick and smooth end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which Netanyahu has expressed.  But it’s quite another to actually progress towards that goal.  Given his dependency on right-wing parties, I’m still not sure if Netanyahu is willing to sacrifice his political career for a successful Israeli-Palestinian resolution.

However, one thing is clear; if Israel refuses to renew its ban on new settlement building this September, all of this talk of peace is meaningless.

By the way, Obama declared that he wants Israelis and Palestinians to stop acting like children and address one another directly in just a few weeks time.  But it’s hard to see this actually happening, both because Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is opposed to the idea as long as settlement construction continues, and because Palestinian negotiators are afraid that concrete issues (like security, borders, Jerusalem) will remain off the table.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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What To Expect On July 6

Now that the Independence Day Holiday is over with, the White House is back to business as usual.  The first item on the agenda is a major diplomatic meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on July 6; a meeting that will hopefully go much better than the previous two this year (one resulted in an embarrassing moment for Obama on Israeli settlements, and the other added to an already frosty relationship between Washington and Tel Aviv).  What a way to get back to reality.

As usual, pundits and talking-heads across the political spectrum are gearing up for the meeting and speculating about what the final result between the two men will be.  So naturally, I have to add my two cents in, although I’m neither a pundit or a talking-head…just a loud mouthed and opinionated blogger.

Nothing substantial can happen in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict unless the United States and Israel get on the same page on the most basic requirements for peace.  Administration officials are acutely aware of this, so tomorrow’s diplomatic event will probably spend most of its time and energy on bridging these policy gaps, or at least portraying to the world that the U.S. and Israel are working towards the same goal.

Washington’s demands towards Israel and the Palestinians are still the same as they have ever been.  With respect to Israel, the United States wants Netanyahu to cease illegal settlement building in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), and review his Gaza policy, which has created a devastating humanitarian crisis for over one million Palestinians.  Mahmoud Abbas’ job is to put an end to Palestinian incitement in his area of control (the West Bank).  But to the dismay of many and to the surprise of none, all of these requirements are still unmet, for a number of specific reasons.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is afraid of taking the first big steps for peace, out of fear that his right-wing political allies would stab him in the back and facture his governing coalition. On the other side, Mahmoud Abbas has been powerless to eliminate the old Palestinian mindset of rejectionism in the West Bank.  But this is not entirely his fault; there is still a large cadre of 20th century Palestinians in the P.A. that are suspicious of whatever Israel decides to do.

To think that a single meeting in Washington with the Israeli Prime Minister will solve any of these problems is a façade.  In fact, it will be surprising if the Obama-Netanyahu meeting has any lasting effect on the conflict at all.

The funny thing is that Obama and Netanyahu understand this, so the July 6 event at the White House should perhaps be seen more as a P.R. stunt than the start of a new determination on Mideast peace.

My prediction: 1) the meeting will go well, both men will hold a joint press conference reiterating their friendship and their desire to end the conflict, and neoconservatives will end up blasting President Obama for not supporting the Israelis unconditionally. 2) Israel’s settlement policy will stay the same, but Netanyahu will end of scrapping some really big projects in East Jerusalem and the West Bank to show Obama he’s trying to act like a responsible partner. And 3) the Arab League will re-endorse the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative.

In other words, more of the same.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of Matthew Duss and David Halperin at FP.com**

An Upswing On The Israeli-Palestinian Roller Coaster

Posted in Israeli-Palestinian Conflict by Dan on July 2, 2010

It looks like all of my bitching and moaning has actually paid off…or at least this is what I’m inclined to tell myself.

After an enormous international uproar over Israel’s deadly raid on a pro-Palestinian humanitarian mission, and after America’s refusal to wholeheartedly support Israel at the United Nations after the incident, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has finally admitted that perhaps he was wrong about Gaza all along.

The Israeli blockade on Gaza, which was supposed to put the hurt on Palestinians to the point that they would challenge and possibly overthrow the Hamas Government, is now being loosened to its weakest position since the embargo was established three and a half years ago.  Weapons, like guns, ammunition, and Qassam rockets, will still be on the list of banned items going into the strip (and they should be).  But other goods, like certain foods, spices, construction materials, books, and movies, will now be allowed to pass through the border and make their way into the hands of Gazans.  For once, the hardship that the ordinary Gazan faces may be coming to an end.

Or it could be something entirely different, like a political move by the Israeli Government to relieve some of the pressure that they have been forced to contain over the last 6 months.  Or it could be both.

I’m not going to speculate why Israel had a sudden change of heart, because to be blunt, there is probably more than one motive at work here (although I would like nothing more than to run my mouth and pretend I know the answer).

So a word of caution; before we all jump the gun and automatically assume that the Gaza blockade is going to be a success and a pretext for future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, perhaps we should just sit and wait to see if the policy is going to be implemented correctly.

Middle Eastern history is rife with compromises that seemed positive and reassuring in the present, but then soured and turned into a big disappointment in the future. The fuel-swap deal last October that was supposed to dissuade the Iranians from enriching uranium to higher levels turned out to a political maneuver by Tehran to stall for more time. Likewise, Barack Obama’s election victory was supposed to usher into a brand new era of Mideast peacemaking, both in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and in terms of America’s relationship with the wider Muslim world. But eighteen months later, the United States is still trying to get out of Iraq despite the lack of an Iraqi Government, and Washington is still stagnant in Afghanistan despite the tens of thousands of additional American troops entering the country this summer.

The point is not to disparage Israel’s decision to ease up on Gaza. In fact, I’ve been passionately arguing for this kind of step for months on this forum and elsewhere.  I still firmly believe that Israel will not increase its security by endorsing a policy of collective punishment on those who live in Gaza. In fact, boycotting the Gaza Strip may have the exact opposite effect.  It should be clear over the past three years that this is precisely what has happened as a result of the blockade.  Israel’s legitimacy has been corroded in the eyes of much of the world, and the Muslim world continues to show its anger, which plays right into the hands of Israel and the west’s many enemies (Al’Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard).

With that being said, Israel’s decision should be applauded and expanded. The list of banned items has always been a bit overbearing. We should just hold our breath to see if it actually works. But if the last week’s shift in policy is any indication, my past concerns are now starting to look a lot less like delusional rants.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of Marc Lynch at FP.com**

Troubling Poll Comes Out Of Israel

Posted in Israel, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict by Dan on June 15, 2010

I have some bad news.  David Pollock (a senior pollster and researcher for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy) just wrapped up his latest polling project in the Middle East about what Israelis think of their prime minister, peace with the Palestinians, the Gaza blockade, and U.S. President Barack Obama.  And on all accounts, the numbers show a disheartening trend towards further conflict.

From the information that is frequently provided by the international community and Israel’s very own media, you wouldn’t think that a majority of Israeli Jews held hawkish positions on the Mideast peace process.  Similarly, you would also find it hard to believe that most Israeli voters were (and continue to be) supportive of Benjamin Netanyahu, the right leaning politician who has done more to alienate Israel in the court of world opinion than any other Israeli leader in recent memory.  But the new study by Pechter Polls confirm these trends: 53 percent hold favorable views of Netanyahu, 71 percent are unhappy about President Barack Obama’s handling of the conflict, and nearly 75 percent surveyed stated that Israel should do whatever it took to enforce the Gaza embargo (lingo for military force).

If there is anything that can be concluded from these figures, it is this: the Israeli public, for whatever reason, is deeply confused as to how to proceed with the Palestinians.

Generally speaking, Israelis understand what is required for a comprehensive peace agreement.  They recognize that Tel Aviv needs to make dramatic concessions if they want to end the conflict once and for all.  Close to two-thirds of Israelis are emphatic about the very idea of a two state solution, which has the potential of finally establishing a viable and independent Palestinian state peacefully living side by side with the state of Israel.

Yet on the other hand, this same majority is opposed to taking the step that would make the two state solution a sustainable strategy:  engaging Hamas in even the slightest form.  Unfortunately, it may be Israel’s disdain for Hamas (or vice-versa) that is quickly destroying the very prospect of the two state concept.

Over the last four years, Israel has used every tool at its disposal to weaken Hamas.  Successive Israeli Governments have enforced a blockade on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, prohibiting arms and certain humanitarian goods (like construction materials) from crossing into the coastal territory.  It has performed covert security missions inside the Gaza Strip against Hamas instillations, often stoking violence from Palestinian militants in the process.  And it launched a two-month air and ground assault against the movement in 2008-2009, hitting Hamas military facilities and diminishing its ability to carry out rocket attacks against Israeli civilians.

Yet even despite all of these operations, Israel is still hanging in a state of limbo.

As the last half-decade has demonstrated, Israel cannot- and will not- establish peace in the region by marginalizing Hamas in the hopes that it will simply go away.  In fact, this type of “divide and conquer” strategy only emboldens the Movement by giving it an excuse to operate.  Oh, and did I mention that it places an unwanted strain on the 1.5 million Palestinians living in Gaza?

Five years later, what has Israel’s Gaza policy accomplished?  Is the blockade driving a wedge between Hamas and its constituents?  Is it pressuring Hamas to change its ways towards Israel?  Is it even encouraging them to put aside their differences with Mahmoud Abbas for the sake of Palestinian unity?

The answers, respectively, are no, no and no.  Apart from the relative decrease in rocket fire in Israeli towns close to the Gaza border, marginalizing Hamas (and the broader Gazan population) has been a dismal failure.  Hamas is not receding, but becoming stronger in both image and morale.  Palestinians living in the strip are doing so in conditions that dogs in the United States would refuse to accept.  And from a P.R. perspective, states that were previously ambivalent to the entire situation in Gaza are now starting to take notice.

More importantly, Israel’s Gaza blockade is only reinforcing Hamas unhelpful behavior.

The status-quo is obviously not working, yet the polls that were conducted by Dr. Pollock still seem to support Israel’s status-quo mentality towards the conflict: open up to Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank and isolate Hamas in the Gaza Strip. This should be troubling to anyone who possesses the slightest desire to find a solution to this lingering stalemate.

More of the same is not what the region needs.  Yet more of the same is probably what we are going to get.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of David Pollock at FP.com**

Can We Please Stop Talking About The “Freedom Flotilla?”

Posted in Israeli-Palestinian Conflict by Dan on June 7, 2010

If you rely on mainstream television and syndicated columnists for your daily news, I’m sure that you’re probably sick and tired of hearing about Israel’s botched assault on a humanitarian convoy that tried to doc in the Gaza Strip (the press has repeatedly invoked the phrase “freedom flotilla” to describe the convoy of ships).  I hate to put words in everyone’s mouths, but it seems that you can’t read a news article today without hearing another op-ed columnist give some mundane analysis on what went wrong and how the incident is going to affect the state of Israel in the eyes of the world.

Here’s the bottom line, and a point I’ve already made in a previous posting: we can all argue about whether Israel should have intercepted the boat or whether international law allowed the operation in the first place.  But all this does is set the clock back when the United States and its allies should be focusing all of their efforts on getting the Turkish-Israeli relationship back on track.

More important, dwelling on the past and continuing to concentrate on the flotilla incident diverts a tremendous amount of government attention that could be used on much bigger problems, like say preparing for a nuclear Iran (which is becoming more evident by the day) or containing a powerful Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

I understand that everyone likes a little drama in their lives now and again.  It can excite and propel us out of the boring aura that usually dominates our lives.  And don’t think for a second that this is limited to suburbanites like myself; governments like some excitement too.  Who in their right mind would want to sit down and crunch budget numbers all day when something as invigorating as an “international incident” pops up?  And nothing spells “international incident” as much as a controversial and deadly Israeli raid on a pro-Palestinian humanitarian mission.

But there comes a point in time when even the drama can get a bit too dramatic.  Unfortunately, the Israeli attack on the flotilla is starting to fit rather nicely into that category.

The bad news is that this is not helping the United States in any way, shape, or form.  Calls for Washington to denounce Israel over its conduct during the “freedom flotilla” operation is only distracting President Obama from a long laundry list of national priorities that are much more important…like the thousands of barrels of crude oil that are ruining the Gulf of Mexico or the thousands of U.S. troops that are expected to land in Afghanistan in the next month.

I’m sure other bloggers or readers will disagree with my assessment.  Some may claim that the President should condemn Israel, for this would save America’s reputation in the Arab world and help the United States gain some leverage over Jerusalem in the future.  I, however, see it a bit differently.  Such a compliant will only keep the issue alive at a time when the White House is knee-deep in other problems.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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Memoriable Day Siege On The High Seas

Posted in Israeli-Palestinian Conflict by Dan on June 1, 2010

There is no other place in the world today that generates as much controversy and debate as the Gaza Strip; the slim coastal enclave smaller than the island of Manhattan that is home to approximately 1.5 million Palestinians.

The Gaza Strip has been governed by Hamas- a U.S. and Israeli designated terrorist organization- since 2007, when its fighters drove Mahmoud Abbas’ forces from the territory in a convincing display of coordinated force.  Sensing that a ferocious adversary now controlled a quasi-state right next door, the Israeli Government responded to the takeover with a brand new set of economic restrictions, including a naval blockade off the Gaza coast and a ban on certain materials.  The sale and distribution of steel, cement, and other construction materials are prohibited inside the Strip, although an impressive system of makeshift underground tunnels along the Egyptian border has diminished the effectiveness of the entire blockade.  Certain foods like jam, avocados, spices, and chocolates are also confiscated by Israeli authorities and denied to ordinary Palestinians living under Hamas rule.

The Gaza siege was supposed to put pressure on Hamas officials from the bottom up.  By making life virtually unbearable, there was a possibility that Palestinians living inside the Strip would revolt against the Islamist government out of both anger and desperation.  But unfortunately, after three years of the blockade, the objectives that Israel has sought to accomplish remain distant.  Hamas is still the primary authority in Gaza politics, Mahmoud Abbas has been unable to take the initiative and draw popular support away from the Hamas Movement, and weapons still make their way into the hands of Hamas through a sophisticated smuggling network.  In fact, if this morning’s tragic loss of life is any indication, the fortification of the Gaza Strip has actually given Jerusalem an ever greater headache.

In case you haven’t heard the news, Israeli Navy commandos intercepted a convoy of ships that were attempting to make their way to the Gaza Strip.  At the onset, it seemed like an ordinary operation from an Israeli perspective: in accordance with the embargo policy, Israeli forces would stop the ship from entering Gaza and deport those responsible.  But within the few minutes of the operation, ordinary quickly succumbed to catastrophic.

The ships were carrying thousands of pounds of civilian materials for the people of Gaza, mostly supplies that could be used to reconstruct homes that were damaged by the 2008-2009 war between Israel and Hamas militants.  The ships were also being commandeered by humanitarian workers and pro-Palestinian activists, all of whom view the Israeli siege as an unjust act of “collective punishment.”

If the activists were arrested and deported by Israeli authorities, perhaps we wouldn’t be talking about this event.  After all, the Israeli Government has thwarted a number of civilian campaigns in the past, even if the humanitarian mission is well-planned and moderate in size.

This time it was different.  14 people were killed and about 30 were injured when Israeli commandos stormed the ships at nightfall, making this one of the deadliest naval operations along the Israeli coast in decades.  So far, most of the victims have been described by hospital officials as Turkish nationals.

To say the very least, the loss of life is unfortunate, particularly when similar operations have been dealt with in a much more peaceful and professional manner (intercepting boats destined for the Gaza Strip is a fairly routine occurrence for the Israeli Navy).  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli Foreign Ministry claim that the commandos were firing in self defense after activists wielded knives as they tried to subdue the convoy.  The Arab media is reporting the story quite differently, stating that Israeli soldiers fired indiscriminately at unarmed civilians.  I honestly don’t know what to believe or who to believe at this point, because events are still unfolding and everyone has their own interpretations about what happened “in the moment.”  But what is clear is that Israel must now find some way to manage another diplomatic snafu.

So far, Turkey has recalled its ambassador from Israel in a show of protest over the deadly raid, calling it a “murder conducted by a state;” the European Union is calling the attack an indiscriminate show of force; U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is vehemently ordering a full and detailed investigation into what actually happened; the Israeli P.M. cancelled his trip to Washington to cool the fallout; protests have erupted across much of the Arab world; and the U.N. Security Council called an emergency session to draft a resolution expressing its strong displeasure.

To label this as a crisis is perhaps mollifying its significance.  Israel is already facing challenges from the international community on a number of fronts, whether its settlement activity in the West Bank or covert security missions in allied nations.  Before this development unfolded, the Turkish-Israeli relationship was slowly getting back to normal after a pretty extensive period of frosty exchanges.  And indirect peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority were finally kicking off after eighteen months of stalemate.

This episode on the high seas has the potential of jeopardizing each and every one of these improvements.  Whether it will or not remains to be seen (Israeli authorities will undoubtedly try to lift themselves out of the water in the hopes of avoiding the shark).  Yet even with this uncertainty, international condemnation from Europeans and Arabs alike is not the start that Prime Minister Netanyahu was looking for.

Note:  The Obama administration is taking a much more cautious approach to the entire ordeal, telling the press corps that the United States “expressed deep regret at the loss of life.”

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of Blake Hounshell of FP.com, Marc Lynch of FP.com, and the Economist**

Caught Between A Rock And A Hard Place

Posted in Israel, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict by Dan on May 22, 2010

Now that the Obama administration has finally gotten Israeli-Palestinian peace talks going after a year and a half of stalemate (a plan that could quickly fall apart in a day’s time if something drastic like…uh hum….more settlement building is approved), analysts from around the world are starting to ask if the meetings can produce anything worthwhile.

The short answer is no.  If anyone thinks that a magic formula for peace is going to be struck through shuttle diplomacy- jargon for indirect “proximity talks”- than you will be sadly mistaken.

The good news is that both sides have agreed to address key issues of the conflict instead of arguing about useless formalities.  Issues like settlements on occupied Palestinian land, the right of return for Palestinian refugees, borders, and security will apparently be the focus (although I’m not so sure how this could possibly be discussed without negotiating face-to-face).

Yet even with this supposed “diplomatic breakthrough” now in the works (to be fair, it is a welcomed change from the last 18 months), this development is still a step backwards from what have traditionally been direct negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians.  The Madrid Peace Conference in 1991, the Oslo Accords of 1993, and the Camp David Summit of 2000 all involved the active participation of key political players.  But now in 2010, the international community is forced to resort to an impersonal method for resolving the same-old disputes that have destroyed Mideast peacemaking for six decades in the making.

I hate to the be the bearer of bad news, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not exactly a trustworthy and constructive partner, and his religious coalition is the sort of government that you would expect to find in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

And then there was this revelation that I had about a day or two ago.

In the past, I’ve expressed a sense of urgency about Netanyahu’s government and my hope that he would someday smarten up and drop the extreme right-wing members of his coalition…especially if he wants to keep his job amid a frustratingly slow moving peace process. Doing so would not only pave the way for a new governing coalition with a much more centrist and pragmatic partner, but would also severely weaken Netanyahu’s dependence on pro-settler Jewish groups.

While I still support the idea of the Israeli P.M. dumping his more radical allies in the government, I’m now starting to question whether this move would actually change things.

Don’t get me wrong here; a more moderate government would be a fine contrast from the current administration in Israel (most of whom are all too eager to sabotage peace talks before they even start). Likewise, a more centric-oriented coalition would be a great parallel to the P.A.’s moderate leadership under Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad. The chances for a successful Israeli-Palestinian dialogue- perhaps leading to direct negotiations- would improve quite significantly at the executive level.

But what about the bigger picture…that of the Israeli electorate? Poll after poll in Israel has consistently confirmed the Israeli public’s endorsement of the current status-quo. And why not? The Israeli economy is one of the best in the world, security has been tight, and the suicide-bombings that used to terrorize Israeli cities on a daily-basis are now virtually nonexistent.

Surely the Israelis want peace and reconciliation with the Palestinians. Each Israeli Government has been trying to accomplish this goal since the state’s creation in 1948. But at the same time, Israelis don’t want to jeopardize or risk destroying the type of peaceful environment that they have been accustomed too over the last three years.

Talk about caught between a rock and a hard place.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of the Economist*

Rumors Building Up About A New Obama Peace Push

Posted in Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East and North Africa by Dan on April 21, 2010

Boy do I love rumors.  And if there is anything I love more than rumors, its rumors that originate inside Washington, which usually has the effect of spreading around town and taking on a life of their own once newspapers get a hold of them.

Such is the case with a rumor now circulating in the Beltway that President Barack Obama is working feverously on a new Middle East peace plan.  And God knows that we need it…the process has been stalled for the past decade.

Israel’s policy of unconditional settlement building, along with Mahmoud Abbas’ refusal to even sit down with the Israelis, has made peace some sort of alien concept for the past ten years.  The United States hasn’t helped the situation either, partly due to its taken-for-granted support of Israel and partly due to President Obama’s inability to take provocative steps (like sanctions and termination of the American aid pipeline) to get talks started.

So for obvious reasons, an American-imposed peace plan is generating a lot of excitement in the blogosphere…and on the twitter feeds for that manner.  But we should be cautious that such a move is actually taking place within the White House, because let’s face it, the administration hasn’t been all that united on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to begin with.  Dennis Ross, Obama’s chief Mideast Policy advisor, is staunchly pro-Israeli (so much so that some people are starting to question whether he is more sympathetic to Israel than the United States), while VP Joe Biden is probably still hot under the collar over his embarrassing trip to Israel last month.  And of course there’s George Mitchell, who is the administration’s point man on current negotiations (or lack thereof) and who seems to be enduring a level of frustration that even a patient diplomat like himself cannot bear.

Is this supposed peace plan actually a real thing?  Well, yes and no.

From what I’ve heard so far, it looks as if the Obama administration is going to wait a little longer before they decide to implement an American-led peace push. Some officials in the administration, particularly those involved in U.S. Middle East policy, are saying that the President’s main priority is still getting “proximity talks” forward, which would probably be a dismal failure anyway. Of course, I take everything that the White House says with a grain of salt, because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of those issues that can create deep schisms between high-ranking administration officials. Actually, it seems like this is occurring already, with Envoy George Mitchell calling an American plan “premature.”

Whatever the administration decides to do, I hope they wait for the proximity talks to fail first. You can only use the most important tool at your disposal after all others are exhausted, and a unilateral peace plan by the United States is the sharpest tool the country has.  Doing it now, just as Mitchell and Clinton are trying to get indirect talks back on the table, simply doesn’t make sense.

Patience is the key here. Look what happened when the President rushed earlier on in the process…he got rebuffed and humiliated by Benjamin Netanyahu over settlements, and lost a whole lot of credibility with Arabs at the same time.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of Marc Lynch at FP.com**

The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Just Gets Worse and Worse

Posted in Israeli-Palestinian Conflict by Dan on March 16, 2010

By this time, most people have probably heard about Israel’s new housing plan, which permits the construction of another 1,600 homes in East Jerusalem…an area, by the way, that has long been regarded as the capital of a future Palestinian state.  Likewise, most Americans have either heard or read about America’s strong opposition to this latest announcement, which has the potential of severely derailing the start of new Mideast peace talks between Tel Aviv and the Palestinian Authority.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent most of her day on Friday venting her displeasure to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the telephone, calling the recent settlement decision a terrible and destructive step in the U.S.-Israel relationship.  President Obama’s senior political advisor, David Axelrod, jumped on the Sunday morning talk shows to vehemently denounce the Israeli action as an “insult” to the United State.  Mideast Envoy George Mitchell went so far as to cancel his scheduled trip to Israel,  in what is obviously construed as one of the strongest forms of diplomatic protest.

When both the United States and Israel confirm that there is a serious crisis going on between the two countries, you know that an alliance is stretched to the brim.  The question now is whether President Obama and P.M. Netanyahu can mend their many differences for the sake of a new Mideast peace dialog.  They at least owe George Mitchell this little bit of satisfaction.

What does Congress have to say about all of this?  Well, nothing constructive as usual.

There is a bipartisan outraged over the administration’s public relations tour this weekend, so much so that a number of powerful Senators spent hours on the floor accusing Obama, Clinton, and Axelrod of misplaced anger.  Here are a few noteworthy segments:

Senator John McCain: “It might be well if our friends in the administration and other places in the United States could start refocusing our efforts on the peace process.  Now we’ve had our spat. We’ve had our family fight, and it’s time for us now to stop and get our eye back on the goal, which is the commencement of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.”

Senator Joseph Lieberman: “Let’s cut the family fighting, the family feud.  It’s unnecessary; it’s destructive of our shared national interest. It’s time to lower voices, to get over the family feud between the U.S. and Israel. It just doesn’t serve anybody’s interests but our enemies.”

Senator Sam Brownback: “It’s hard to see how spending a weekend condemning Israel for a zoning decision in its capital city amounts to a positive step towards peace.”

Representative Shelley Berkeley: “The administration’s strong implication that the enduring alliance between the U.S. and Israel has been weakened, and that America’s ability to broker talks between Israel and Palestinian authorities has been undermined, is an irresponsible overreaction.”

Here is a question for Congress; if you want this saga to be over with, why engage in speech that will provoke the White House to respond?

Besides, the Obama administration has every right to let their voices be heard.  As the maker and executor of U.S. foreign policy, the Commander-in-Chief has an ethical responsibility to defend his (or her) record if it’s indeed under attack.  Just ask President Bush, someone who spent most of his second term combating the media on the Iraq War.  Even President Clinton before him spoke up (for a different reason of course…cough cough).  If the White House formulates policy, they have the liberty to protect that same policy if it is being compromised.  This is an even bigger requirement if the official White House line is being challenged by a so-called friendly nation.

I personally don’t have a problem with political advisers giving their opinions on foreign-policy issues. In fact, I believe that major advisers have an obligation to provide alternatives to the President.

I will concede to Congress on one point.  David Axelrod should keep his mouth shut, especially when he lacks any firm expertise on the matter at hand.  Stick to politics Mr. Axelrod, and let the policy wonks take care of this one.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of Daniel Drezner at FP.com**