What next – from crisis to progress?

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What next – from crisis to progress?

Gershon Baskin

March 19, 2010

The crisis in relations between Washington and Jerusalem is not necessarily a bad thing in terms of being able to move a peace process forward.  There is no doubt that the crisis poses one of the most serious challenges to the Obama administration in its foreign policy agenda in general and potentially could shape and influence the policy of the US in the region for years to come.

It is quite important to map out all of the policy options within the US diplomatic tool box now in order to be able to develop a positive outcome. The facts of what really transpired are not completely known to the public.  There are rumors and only limited clear facts really known.  The following is what I have been able to piece together – with a clear reservation that if this scenario is incorrect then the projections may also be incorrect; however, if it is correct the situation is in fact the most serious crisis in Israel-US relations, perhaps, ever.

Prior to the decision of the Arab League to support the launching of the proximity talks, the PLO presented Mitchell with a three page document with questions and firms positions regarding the beginning of the negotiations.  The Palestinian paper included: negotiations will be based on the green line, the negotiations should begin where the Olmert proposal to Abbas ended, the negotiations must include all of the permanent status issues and there must be a total settlement freeze, including Jerusalem,  throughout the course of the negotiations.  I was told by someone who is usually a reliable Palestinian source that Senator Mitchell gave Abbas a paper with the US responses include  US assurances that the Israeli building in East Jerusalem would be frozen during the period of the negotiations.  If this is true, I can only assume that Netanyahu agreed to it, although he probably also agreed that there  would be no Israeli announcement of this policy.  Again, if this is true, then advancing the planning process of the 1600 units in Ramat Shlomo and other plans that were advanced in the District and Local planning committees at the same time is a direct breach of trust with the US and is therefore, much more serious than a bureaucratic mishap or a simple decrease in trust between the parties prior to negotiations.  The depth of the breach also determines to a certain extent the depth of the policy options.

Certainly Netanyahu’s announcement in the Knesset in front of the Brazilian President that regardless of the mishap, Israel would continue to build in all parts of East Jerusalem is a clear sign of the decision of this government to go head-to-head with President Obama.  Netanyahu’s announcement followed the Clinton-Netanyahu 43 minute phone call reported in depth by Clinton and by the State Department spokesperson to the world.  Clinton include three demands to Israel: (1) the withdraw the plan for the 1600 units in Ramat Shlomo, (2) to provide serious gestures to the Palestinians such as a prisoner release and checkpoint removals; and (3) to announce that all permanent status issues would be on the table during the negotiations. Netanyahu’s statement that the building in Jerusalem would continue following the US demands is a direct frontal attack on the Obama administration and cannot be viewed in any other terms.

As I read the Israeli political map, Netanyahu, in coordination with his allies in Congress, AIPAC, and other US Jewish organizations have made a decision that President Obama will be, as far as they are concerned, a one term President.  In this respect, they seek to weaken the President, regardless of the repercussions in the international community.  Mid-term Congressional elections are only eight months away and the strategic map of key Congressional races has been mapped out with the goal of winning those races in Congress with the most pro-Obama members that are vulnerable.

The challenge to the President by the Israeli government on the issue of building in East Jerusalem is one that will largely determine if the President is perceived in Israel, the region and the world as weak or strong.  If the US administration gives in to the Government of Israel after making this such a pinnacle issue, the prestige, power and reputation of the President will be severely damaged.  Ironically, Israel needs a strong US President to take on the international community vis-à-vis Iran and the Israeli challenge could in fact weaken the President and the United States.  The Government of Israel does not perceive that it is the party that has climbed high up the ladder.  In fact, I have been asked in the past 2 days, by the Israeli national Security Advisor and the Director of the Policy Planning Research department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Israel “what will bring the Palestinians down from the top of the tree?”

Why did Netanyahu make the challenge?  One, because this is his ideological position. Two, because of the coalition pressure, especially from Lieberman and Shas who have turned the issue of Israel standing up against the world in to the new Israeli worldview. Lieberman says it everyday, we  will no longer give into to any international pressure, we will make the world respect Israel! And with a not to distant leadership crisis in Shas, Eli Yishai is building his leadership around the issue of Jerusalem as the Jewish Protector of Jerusalem. Three, there is the scenario spelled out above of a determined course to weaken the President and to ensure that he will not have a second term.

With the current Israeli coalition, there is no chance at all of moving forward on the peace process with the Palestinians.  It is not at all sure that it is possible to move forward as long as Netanyahu is at the head of the government.  There is hope, however, that the same dynamic that has influenced other Israeli leaders to radically change their positions could also happen to Netanyahu – as Rabin, Sharon and Olmert all stated: what you see from here is different than what you see from there.

What would be in the interest of the US and what can the US do?

1. Backing down is not an option. If the US were to give into Israeli pressure, the US administration would be perceived as weak, inconsistent with their own policies, and ineffectual.  The prestige of the Office of the President would be compromised and Obama as an individual would be seen as a push-over which would have deep repercussions for the US foreign policy throughout the world and especially in the Middle East.   US backing down would also strengthen the myth of the power of the Jewish Lobby in the United States and would probably lead to a direct rise in anti-Semitism throughout the world.  So it is essential for the President that at least the three demands issued by Secretary Clinton are met by Israel.  It is likely that Secretary Clinton’s position will be strengthen from the Quartet principles meeting in Moscow today.

2. An Israeli government shuffle could be a positive outcome of the crisis.  A government made up of Likud (27), Kadima (28) and Labour (13) with 68 seats, even with some trouble making back-benchers in Likud and Kadima could, in principle, move faster than the current coalition.  Moving Lieberman, Shas, United Torah, and Habayit HaYehudi into the opposition (there is a chance that United Torah with their 5 seats would remain in the coalition) would enable Netanyahu a lot more domestic room to maneuver into a real peace process (if he wanted to, of course).  There is a possibility for the US to have influence in bringing about such a scenario through behind the scenes contacts, first, perhaps with leaders of Kadima and with others in the Likud including a direct conversation with the Prime Minister.  Of course, US fingerprints on this should be completely invisible.  To the best of my understanding the US has already been advancing this scenario.

3. Another possible outcome could be the opening of a secret back channel for negotiations – but only if Netanyahu was serious about moving forward.  In fact, this would be recommended even if the official proximity talks do get underway.  The question is how to break the current deadlock.  Here I would propose the idea which I already presented months ago  –  an imposed process – not an negotiation on the process.  In other words, the US would issue a document, in public or in secret,  that would outline the negotiations process, the parameters of what the sides will talk about and the mechanism for the talks – either proximity or direct talks or a process of moving from proximity to direct talks. Those parameters would include statements such as:  the negotiations will be conducted for a permanent status agreement between Israel and the PLO on the basis of previous agreements that would bring about the complete cessation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and be based on the two-states for two-peoples formula.  The negotiations will lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state next to Israel. The territorial dimensions of the agreement will be based on the 1949 armistice green-line with agreed upon territorial swaps on a 1:1 basis. All permanent status issues will be on the table including Jerusalem, borders, refugees, security, water, economic relations, etc. The United States will serve as a mediator in the talks and when deemed necessary by the mediator, will submit bridging proposals to the parties for their consideration.  The United States is commitment to a positive outcome to these talks and see their successful conclusion as  a major policy objective of the Obama Administration.  The letter of invitation to the first round of talks is issued by President Obama himself. Let’s see if Netanyahu or Abbas will refuse to show up.  (It is essential that the US impress upon the parties the consequences of not showing up before the invitation is issued.

4. The is also the Thomas Friedman option – leaving the parties to stew in their own juice. This may very well be the preferred option of the Administration.  It requires the least amount of effort and perhaps has the smallest damage on the President’s prestige, but it is also the most dangerous of options.  There is a grass-roots campaign all over the West Bank to launch the “white intifada” of massive civil disobedience and direct confrontation with the occupation.  It is very unlikely that such a new intifada would remain non-violent and it more than certain that the IDF will respond with a massive amount of force. The entire project of Salam Fayyad’s government would be at risk and all of the achievements of the past two years would disappear over night.  The right wing in Israel would grow in strength and there would be increasing alienation between the US and Israel.

5. There is another US policy option which is to embrace the Fayyad plan and government even more strongly than currently done.  There are ways for the US to support the Fayyad plans economically and politically that would send a very clear message to Israel and to the world and would continue to advance regardless of the lack of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.  The US could exert pressure on Israel to transfer more parts of area C to the Palestinian Authority and to work with the rest of international community in preparing Palestine for Statehood.  This could also have international consequences such as not vetoing a Resolution for granting Palestine UN membership in the Security Council.

There is no option for the US to do nothing.  It would be advised that whatever the US does, it should be done in coordination and in full collaboration with the full Quartet.

Gershon Baskin is the Co-CEO of IPCRI – the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (www.ipcri.org) and an elected member of the Israeli Green Movement Political Party.

Gershon Baskin

Gershon Baskin

Gershon Baskin is one of the most recognizable names in the Middle East Peace process. His dedication to creating a culture of peace and environmental awareness, coupled with his impeccable integrity, has earned him the trust of the leaders of all sides of the century old conflict. Few people have such far-reaching and positive impacts on promoting peace, security, prosperity and bi-national relationships.
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.
Gershon Baskin