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Israel Watch; The End of May

by on April 15, 2011

A couple important events will take place at the end of May.  AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, will convene for its annual meeting.  At that meeting, Israel will have to decide how to interact with the world.  Less than ten days later Israel will be forced to make a choice about how it wishes to be perceived by the world, and how it will interact with the world.  AIPAC considers itself the voice of American Jews, and until the recent creation of JPAC (also known as J STREET), was the only voice heard on Capitol Hill that was allowed authority on Israel.  Shortly after the AIPAC meeting which convenes on May 22, on May 31 a convoy of supply ships, leaving from a port in Turkey, are due to arrive in the same location they did on May 31 of 2010; last year, as the convoy approached Israeli water commandos from the Israeli army rappelled onto several ships and killed several activists.  Will Israel do the same thing this year, drawing the same international condemnation?

As a brief aside, about seven months ago, as campaign season 2010 was becoming a heated battle, and I was working for the campaign of Washington’s Majority Whip Kevin Van De Wege, I attended a forum at which the candidates answer questions.  A Jewish Tea Partier – a strange thing – who I have had previous, but as brief as I can make them, interaction with began espousing to me that America must do this and must do that in the Middle East because it represented the interests of all Jews and all Israelis.  This TPer, who I don’t think remembered that I am Jewish – he may not have remembered me – was a bit surprised that I told him I am Jewish and I disagree.  I told him forcefully that he was saying his opinion was the only right one, and I told him that’s not the way it works.  …Having reprimanded this Tea Partier who has the classic Tea Party view ‘there can only be one opinion, and it’s mine,’ I hope that as I write the following summary of the state of Israel’s policy that, much as I hope you agree with me, I allow and respect and encourage disagreement.  I have opinions and will express them, but I want the work I site, much of it from Israeli papers, to show that my opinions are not alone.  More importantly, I hope that in writing on Israel, by siting Israeli sources my points become more poignant, though there is a counter-argument to every opinion.

As you know, or as your intuition tells you, the Palestinian Conflict, which lies at the root of both AIPAC and the Mavi Marmara – the lead ship of the convoy – incident, has a great deal to do with international concern over Iran.  While Israel is at conflict with Palestine, de facto or de jur, Iran has reason to support Palestine.  Of course, this leads to the almighty threat from the West against Iran: sanctions.  “When sanctions are slapped on Tehran, Iranian entrepreneurs manufacture the banned goods themselves. When the Afghani and Pakistani drug trade seems to overwhelm Iran’s borders, the Islamist government shrugs off religious myopia and sets up needle exchange programs, free methadone prescriptions, and the distribution of condoms to promote safe sex.”  While Iran is a side show compared to the always-present risk of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is a side show that continues to threaten to take center stage – a very dangerous center stage – unless the main show of Palestine is solved.

The Palestine Papers

Remember WikiLeaks?  I’m going to break the golden rule the State Department set when it suggested no one interested in government employment express an opinion about WikiLeaks.  But really, I’m just summarizing other writing.  Second hand opinion, mostly.  The Palestine Papers are WikiLeaked documents about just how close the peace process is; maddeningly close.  Among the most contentious issues: Right of Return: “the biggest nightmare for Israel is the issue of 6 million Palestinian refugees who, as per UN resolution 194, have the right to return to their homeland.”  I went through American history to determine what past law – admittedly, past American law (but we have to start somewhere)  – would say about Palestinians returning to their homes – and I mean to the homes they were forced to leave between 1947-49.  However, when I came across the obvious example of Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee I realized that the case which argued whether the Supreme Court had authority over a State Surpeme Court was not relevant in Israel, where the discussion is not broken into state interests versus federal interests.  We’ll have to look at the numbers of Palestinians in Israel and surrounding countries to understand what’s going on.

By the end of 2010, Israel’s Jewish population stood at 5.8 million. With 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza, 2.5 million in the West Bank, 1.4 million Palestinian citizens of Israel, and between 5 and 6 million refugees, the total number of Palestinians totals approximately 10 million, which not only outnumbers the Jews in Israel, but defeats –if they succeed in claiming their right to return – the ideal of a purely “Jewish” state.

Sadly, it is unacceptable to a state founded on theocratic democracy to remove the theocracy from its name.  In 2007 a chief negotiator for the Palestinians, Saeb Erekat told Tzipi Livni, Israel’s Foreign Minister: “We’ve never denied Israel’s right to define itself. If you want to call yourself the Jewish state of Israel—you can call it what you want. (Notes the examples of Iran and Saudi Arabia).”  In the same  meeting Livni defined “Israel [as] the state of the Jewish people — and I would like to emphasize the meaning of ‘its people’ is the Jewish people — with Jerusalem the united and undivided capital of Israel and of the Jewish people for 3007 years…. and Palestine for the Palestinian people. We did not want to say that there is a ‘Palestinian people’ but we’ve accepted your right to self-determination… If we can’t say two states for two people then we have a problem.”  There you have it, from the Foreign Minister: a Jewish State called Israel, and a state called Palestine for people that aren’t Jewish.

Palestinian negotiators, it appears, for better or for worse (probably for better if any result is to be expected of the ‘Peace Process’) have relinquished any serious expectation of the right of return.  A negotiator Qurei “doesn’t object to the principle of relinquishing the right of these refugees to return, and instead replies that this will be discussed ‘confidentially’ with host countries.”  About 2,000,000 ‘refugees’ live in Jordan, and Livni bluntly stated in their meeting that “there’ll be no Israeli official whether from the Knesset or the government or even the public who will support the return of refugees to Israel.”

Among the many  reasons the decisions that Israel will make at the end of May matter – whether to use AIPAC’s lobbying, as it  has, to make Washington D.C. policy synonymous with Israeli policy; whether to repeat the rappelling of commandos onto a convoy bound for Gaza, which led to deaths – Palestine, through the Palestinian Authority, has declared that it will ask the United Nations for a vote on Palestinian statehood this September, and has been pushing hard for international approval.  In response ,” Israel is considering annexing major West Bank settlement blocs,” if the Palestinians seek unilateral recognition from the world as a state.  To put it lightly,

Although it is widely assumed that under any peace deal, Israel would hold onto major settlements it has built in the past 44 years, any decision to formally annex West Bank territory would be a precedent-setting move that could increase Israel’s already considerable international isolation.

Annexation of the West Bank is not definitive, nor is it the only option being considered. The official (unnamed) who suggested that the government was considering such a move also said restricting water or port access were options that may be considered.  This doesn’t sound like it is close, maddeningly close, to a solution.  But there’s a lot more.

I don’t need to remind you that the Greater Arab world (that is, the Arabian Peninsula and Maghreb – North Africa) have seen a lot of revolts and revolutions recently.  However, it has to be stated because that’s the starting point for the next part of the discussion of Israel’s interaction with the world.  I’ve already written about why Israel isn’t going to see protests or revolts, and shortly after writing that I went to Eretz Yisrael and my observations agreed: no protests.  Nonetheless, Israel is strongly affected by the changes taking places nearby.

Israelis understand that their occupation of the West Bank and siege of Gaza are sources of rage in the Arab street, but many have come to believe that the peace process is futile — especially since President Obama seems to have despaired of achieving meaningful negotiations — and they fear democracy will bring Islamists to power, or at least encourage anti-Israeli politicians.

It is comforting to any power, but especially a regional hegemonic power (the US has proved this point well), to have leaders in countries in the region who can be trusted to be autocratic dictators – to stay in power and control people on their own terms.  It is likewise worrying to any country when a neighbor can’t be controlled.  When discussing solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and the Peace Process it is necessarily assumed that the US must be involved – both the Israelis and the Palestinians think that, as does the above-sited New York Times article.  Therefore, “a settlement in Palestine will not put bread on Egyptian tables, but it will transform American status in the region. And it might rescue the fortunes of Israel.”

The author the New York Times article, Bernard Avishai, is a well known academic and spoke with both Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas before writing this article.  They told Avishai, at different times on the same day, how close they were, what gaps were left, and what compromise was possible.  That meeting was recently, so we can maintain hope; it was on January 21, 2011.  ” Each told me that if new violence breaks out in Palestine, as seems quite likely, historians will look back with a sense of pathos on how narrow and, in some key areas, trivial the gaps were.”  “If new violence breaks out in Palestine” –  how prescient and how sad it did almost exactly two months later!  What will that do to the years of discussion?  “‘We were very close,’ Olmert told me, ‘more than ever in the past, to complete an agreement on principles that would have led to the end of the conflict between us.'”  “Abbas said the talks produced more ‘creative ideas’ than any in the past. He took pains to assure me that he had been most flexible on Israel’s security demands.”  Just how close were they?

Olmert insisted that he had conceded to Abbas every major demand Palestinians had made for decades: a border based scrupulously on the 1967 lines, a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem and “recognition of the problem” of refugees. “I was ready to take complete responsibility and move forward forcefully,” Olmert told me. “I believed, I still believe, that I would have broken through all the barriers and won over public opinion in this country and the world.”

The most difficult part of the discussion came down to land, which is not surprising.

Where bridging proposals seemed most called for was over the extent and nature of land to be swapped — in effect, the fate of specific large Israeli settlements. The Israeli position, where it diverged from the Palestinian, was not about principle but focused primarily on the practical matter of how many (often violent) settlers the Israeli government would have to force back behind the Green Line. The most important discussions were on security, borders, Jerusalem and the Palestinian “right of return.”

Sometimes, though, the issue broke down to people and their people-behavior; and all the issues of land, borders, and security just fell into the background. Benjamin Netanyahu succeeded Olmert, and despite a public speech in June, 2009, in which Netanyahu promised to work toward a Palestinian state, little progress is known since then. The plan Olmert and Abbas agreed to was that Palestine would have everything it needed for law enforcement; it would have no army and no air force; the border with Jordan would be patrolled by an international force to prevent weapon smuggling; Palestine could not have military agreements with countries that do not recognize Israel. Israel would reserve a broad right to self-defense, including being able to chase terrorists (not defined here) across borders. Israel would have airspace over Palestine and the IDF would maintain a disproportionate advantage in telecommunications. This worked well for the Palestinians (by which I mean the negotiating Palestinians: Abbas and his team, which comprise Fatah):

“We don’t want an air force or tanks or rockets.” He insisted that the whole matter had been worked out with Gen. James Jones, who eventually became Obama’s national security adviser. Abbas confirmed that Israel could indeed negotiate special permits regarding Palestinian airspace.

Abbas further offered Olmert his choice of international forces to patrol the border with Jordan, and he even said that he had consulted the Americans, who agreed to participating in a NATO force as long as it was under American command. Jordan and Egypt, whose borders were implicated, made some conditions of their own: no Jordanian or Egyptian would participate in the force, and it would be based only on Palestine’s side. “The file on security was closed,” Abbas told me. “We do not claim it was an agreement, but the file was finalized.”

That’s how close they were and are, and that only describes the agreements of security. Far more difficult is the matter of what to do with people: the displaced Palestinians and the settlers who think Israel must think of them first.

Abbas opened the negotiations over land with a map showing how Israel could annex 1.9 percent of Palestine in return for tracts of land equal in size and quality; Olmert produced a map of 6.3 percent, suggesting that for the percentage of Palestine Israel would annex, it would compensate Palestine with 5.8 percent, plus a 25-mile tunnel that would run under Israel from the South Hebron Hills to Gaza.

Although both had reason to think that their offer was more than enough, Olmert gave some room for lowering the number, and since talks fell apart the general number has been suggested at around 4%, along with hopes that the United States would mediate the difference. The decision over who controls Jerusalem, though, is vital. Before 1967 Jordan controlled Jerusalem; afterward Israel controlled Jerusalem, except that for many years Jordan provided the administrative structure in East Jerusalem. As negotiations took place Secretary of State Condaleezza Rice made it clear that Israel’s claim to East Jerusalem was not acceptable. “When Olmert finally showed Abbas his map on Sept. 16, it was an established principle of these negotiations that any territory Israel sought to annex in Greater Jerusalem would have to be compensated like any other occupied territory.”

As much as possible settlements (I think that’s the only nice thing to call the communities built by Israeli Jews to encroach on land) would not be disturbed. This has a great deal to do with the the meeting next month at AIPAC, and I think with Mavi Marmara (or whichever fleet leads the convoy this year) as well. Abbas offered a plan that would allow more than 60% of settlers to stay in place, without confusing administrative changes.

Olmert, for his part, was presenting a plan in which the most sparsely populated settlements would be evacuated, but Efrat (extending from Gush Etzion), Maale Adummim (a town just east of Jerusalem) and Ariel, a town of 18,000 between Ramallah and Nablus, should be permitted to stay. From Olmert’s point of view, the problem was not helping settlers fulfill their dream of redeeming promised land but helping the Israeli military avoid the pain of removing them. Many settlers are fanatical, armed and contemptuous of Israeli democracy; some even like to call themselves Judeans. Israelis, Olmert implied, are loath to fight Judeans for the sake of Palestinians; and his map already called for removing the ultrafanatical town of Kiryat Arba, abutting the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

Because Bernard Avishai stresses the importance of the town of Ariel, I feel I must comment on it here, though I know nothing about it that is not written.  Between the cities of Nablus and Ramallah, Ariel is a settlement that exists to make a blatant statement: Israel is indisputably Jewish. Ariel disrupts the continuity of a proposed Palestinian state and threatens security of a possible state. The only solution proposed that might be viable is space for time: if Israel agreed to vacate (forcibly move people) from Ariel, they would be given a lot of time to do so.

These deals are roundabout ways of showing the importance of a particular person or set of people guiding a process along.  Olmert and Abbas created a magnificent deal that did not succeed.  Now Abbas is still in power, and Olmert, at the final stages of the deal, in 2008, announced he was stepping down due to corruption charges once his party chose a new leader.  Negotiations, though, were not formally suspended until Israel attacked Gaza in January, 2009.  I constantly refer to the deal as being maddeningly close to fruition, which it is.

To this day, Abbas still expects America to put the deal over. The gaps appear so pitifully small: Ariel and a couple of other settlements, the question of whether parts of Silwan would be a part of the holy basin, a compromise number on refugees? “We still want bridging proposals,” Abbas told me, adding, “we want America to be a strong broker.”

That’s it? That’s it. A couple deals on settlements, redrawing some lines in the sand (the Middle East has experienced that at the hands of Western Powers before, but this time they are requesting it), and decisions about which body, or international body, controls Jerusalem. That’s it, but that’s not all. Let’s return to AIPAC and Mavi Marmara.

AIPAC

AIPAC reflects the positions of Netanyahu’s government, and often announces policies before Israel’s government does. AIPAC takes positions that are then adopted by the US Congress. AIPAC is also a good indicator of future Obama policy, who gets guidance from both AIPAC and Dennis Ross, former head of AIPAC’s think tank, and current advisor to Obama on Middle East policy. AIPAC, then, is worth watching. And, as said, they are meeting in the not-too-distant future, to develop more policy.

The conference is a huge event, attended by most members of the House and Senate, the prime minister of Israel, and either by the president or vice president of the United States. It is also attended by thousands of delegates from around the country and by candidates for Congress who raise money for their campaigns at the event. This year, the leading Republican candidates for president will also be in attendance, all vying for support by promising undying loyalty to the AIPAC agenda.

All fine and good; they get to do that. The problem is, AIPAC and the policies they recommend tend to run counter to all the things we want to avoid: a showdown with Iran, continued involvement in Iraq; in short, their policies run counter to the Peace Process, the point of which is to develop peace. “Most of the sanctions [against Iran] enacted by Congress and signed into law by the president originated at AIPAC.” This year, the worry will be protests in the greater Middle East. According to MJ Rosenberg’s article of March 15th “early indications are that the main theme that will dominate the conference will be that Israel, once again, has ‘no partner’ to negotiate with. This is an old theme, but one that receded as the Israeli right came to view the Palestinian Authority as not only partners but as collaborators in maintaining the status quo.” Why? As mentioned, the Palestinian Authority plans to go to the UN this September to ask for an up or down vote on independence. Britain has called for a return to the borders before 1967, which, as discussed at length above, came very close to final negotiations. Then the players in the game changed.

While I’ve read various reports of Netanyahu’s preemptive plans to prevent the Palestinians from taking the ball and putting it in their own court, including suggestions of partial withdrawals from the West Bank, let’s go with Rosenberg’s speculation in the earlier-sited article.

Reports from Israel indicate that Netanyahu’s plan rules out any withdrawal to the ’67 lines, offering instead a Palestinian state within temporary borders and only a very partial settlement freeze (no freeze in East Jerusalem at all).

Knowing that the PA can no longer afford to even consider such an offer, Netanyahu has decided to preemptively label Israel’s old friends in the Palestinian Authority as extremists, with the goal of ensuring that both Congress and the Obama administration back his plan. His hope is that with the United States safely in his corner, any Quartet (US, UK, EU, Russia) initiative will be blocked. As always, his goal is to maintain the status quo, which requires US acquiescence in his schemes. Thus far, the tactic has worked.

If, after a several-decade quarrel with you in which I claim your house as mine, build in your attic (and let’s say I move a whole array of toys in), then agree that you can have your house back, so long as I can keep puttering in the attic … well, maybe you could understand how the Palestinians feel. You may take issue you with this example because it’s not exact, but what I want to do is illustrate a point. After a while, things get frustrating.

To return to real speculation, if Netanyahu and AIPAC succeed in their preventative plans, and make Abbas, and all of Fatah, the non-partner, then years of work go down the drain. The Israeli goal (I’m summarizing Rosenberg here, but it is the expected, though unfortunate, course) is to convince America – Obama – to stop the Palestinian effort to create a state – especially unilaterally – so that Israel can once again portray itself as partnerless.

At this rate, the Israeli government and its lobby will soon be back to its old mantra (1948-1977) that “there is no such thing as the Palestinian people” at all.

All this to preserve an ugly and deadly status quo. So far, this tactic has worked every time. Don’t bet against it winning again. As so often, a winning strategy for AIPAC and Netanyahu is a losing strategy for Israel and the United States.

All of the the above is based on the article by MJ Rosenberg of March 15. Let me diverge now, to continue to talk about AIPAC a few short weeks later, from the same author, written April 6th.

Time, though arguably created as we know it by Ancient Israelites, by Abraham or his direct forefathers (as argued by Thomas Cahill), is not in Israel’s favor. After all this time, when Abbas has been a willing partner to the Israelis and made genuine efforts at peace – more genuine than Netanyahu – how does Israel make Abbas and the Palestinian Authority a non-partner? Because the PA has no control over Hamas, in Gaza. “Netanyahu understands, of course, that Abbas cannot make peace with Israel except as a representative of both the people of the West Bank and of Gaza. If he tried, Hamas would subvert it (no doubt through violence).” And without Gaza, the Palestine of the West Bank is landlocked.

The region is changing, and that is where time comes in.  Mubarak was a steady friend in Egypt, and though I, ever the optimist, think that great things will come of that change, there is no certainty of what follows, and there won’t be for a few months.  Even Jordan, with a parliamentary monarchy and a wise Hashemite ruler who has friendships with every side of every quarrel, is crumbling to protests.  Assad, in Syria, is also beset by domestic problems.  “In short, time is not Israel’s friend. It is the Palestinians, not the Israelis, who can simply sit back and watch the clock…. The ultimate loser, however, will be the Jewish state, which has become a political football used to advance the fortunes of people and institutions that look out only for themselves.”

Another article, also published April 6th, by a different author is also worth a look. The topic is no longer AIPAC, but time will still play a major role.  The Israeli Military has already been preparing for several weeks for the arrival of a pro-Palestinian convoy, a convoy much better prepared and with more ships and more activists than last year, when Israel surprised the flotilla at night, killing nine activists.  Here’s some advice from the editor of HaAretz:

So here’s some free advice for the government and the IDF. Relax. Let them sail to Gaza and don’t interfere. Announce that Israel has disengaged from the Gaza Strip and has no interest in returning to control it, but just wants the border to be quiet and doesn’t want arms to be smuggled to terrorist organizations. That’s it. Nothing else interests Israel, and we say to anyone who wants to demonstrate and protest: “Be our guest.”

Aluf Benn, the author agrees this is not the intuitive way to do things.  (I think it’s the rational way).

One can understand the motivations of Israeli officials and officers who want to teach them a lesson. But that’s superfluous. Nothing is going to convert these “Free Gaza” activists into ardent Zionists, not embracing them or shooting at them. The danger they present lies in the support they mobilize among less involved segments of the public in Turkey and the West and in enlisting them in the fight against Israel. Convincing such people that Israel is an evil, criminal country requires that it be portrayed as such.

Like all of us, individually and collectively, Israel is intent on making mistakes and repeating them. After all, it’s easier that way, right? Why is the article titled “Let the aid flotillas sail to Gaza”?

It is therefore worth remembering that the blockade of Gaza was designed for one purpose: to prevent the smuggling of heavy weaponry into the Strip. As a result, Israel has mounted major intelligence efforts that have also borne fruit. Someone with the capacity to locate and capture the arms ship Victoria in the middle of the Mediterranean and a Hamas engineer in Ukraine can, and must, also uncover what is hiding on the flotilla ships. If the flotilla organizers are so foolish as to smuggle rockets and bombs in the ships’ hulls and are then caught red-handed, Israel would enjoy a huge public relations coup. In the absence, however, of confirmed information on the presence of weaponry on the protest armada, it should be allowed to pass through.

Letting the ships through is not intuitive, but to stop them is irrational and provocative.  Israel has two choices to make at the end of May.  Will it be an occupier or a partner?  Will AIPAC, which very effectively creates Israeli policy and solidifies that policy in America, choose to maintain and enhance a partnership of many years?  Will the IDF prevent a public relations disaster?  I’ll be watching at the end of May, because this will determine our world for years to come.

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