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Middle East Peace Report - October 19, 2009

Volume 11, Issue 6

Negotiations Now; Abbas' Popularity Plunges; Hamas Pushes Its Advantage; Stop with the Settlements Already; Israel-Turkey Tensions; Bringing the Holocaust to Gaza

Negotiations Now: Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak called yesterday for negotiations with the Palestinian Authority to be renewed as soon as possible.
"We must work with the American administration and consolidate an agreement to open negotiations as soon as possible, even if the conditions aren't perfect and even if we have to make difficult concessions," Barak said.
This call was echoed by comments made yesterday by Israeli Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor, who added that Israel is "very close" to making a deal to restart negotiations.
Meridor noted Palestinian successes in improving the economy and in terms of Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation. Yet, he said that these efforts would not be enough to make peace. "The status quo is not an option," he emphasized.
American efforts to renew negotiation continue. Israeli negotiators Yitzhak Molcho and Mike Herzog are expected to return to Washington this week for another round of talks. A Palestinian delegation headed by Saeb Erekat will also be in Washington for meetings.
National Security Advisor James Jones said Thursday that President Barack Obama's dedication to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace is "unshaken." U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice will visit Israel this week to represent the Obama administration at a conference hosted by Israeli President Shimon Peres. (Haaretz, 10/18 & 10/19/09; Jerusalem Post, 10/16 & 10/19/09; ATFP, 10/16/09)
Abbas' Popularity Plunges: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' popularity has taken a hit, according to a series of polls released this week.
Abbas' approval numbers dipped from 48.5% last October to 39.4%, according to a poll released this weekend by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center (JMCC).
Only 12.1% of Palestinians now identify Abbas as the most trustworthy politician, compared with 17.8% in June.
The poll indicated that Abbas would run neck-and-neck with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh if presidential elections are held now: Abbas would receive 16.8% of the vote, compared with 16% for Haniyeh.
The JMCC poll suggested that the drop in Abbas' popularity has not carried over to his Fateh party, which it finds would receive 40% of the vote in elections, compared to 18.7% for Hamas.
Another series of polls of the Palestinian public, conducted by Arab World for Research and Development (AWRAD), "show that Palestinians are dismayed and dissatisfied with the status quo, as support for Hamas and Fateh, Abbas and Haniyeh is declining," according to pollster, Dr. Nader Said-Foqahaa.
The AWRAD polls indicated a rise in the percentage of Palestinians - to 47.5% - who say they support smaller, independent parties or say they are undecided. (Haaretz, 10/19/09; DPA, 10/18/09; AWRAD, 10/14/09)
Abbas' Popularity Plunges, Part II: The drop in Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' popularity is widely believed to be related to his handling of the Goldstone Report before the UN Human Rights Council.
The Goldstone Report alleges human rights violation committed during the Israeli military operation last winter. Facing Israeli and American pressure, Palestinian diplomats initially allowed a vote on the report to be postponed. After a domestic backlash, the Palestinians changed course and encouraged the Council to pass a resolution embracing the Goldstone Report.
Former Israeli Education Minister Yossi Sarid takes Israel's leaders to task for their handling of the situation: "Mahmoud Abbas might as well be considered a dead man; Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak have killed him," wrote the poet-turned-politician-turned-pundit in Haaretz. "Following a brief and angry meeting, they left a cyanide pill for him on the table and exited the room. He still managed to make two or three trans-Atlantic telephone calls and in a moment of despair swallowed the Goldstone report... To force the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, of all people, to withdraw his demand for a discussion of the report - that is an Israeli-American dictate tantamount to pressuring him to commit hara-kiri."
Sarid compares Israel's efforts on this front to the manner in which Britain and France handled Germany after the First World War, a historic error that is often considered a primary factor in Adolf Hitler's rise to power: "History repeats itself, but does not teach any lessons. It is full of examples of short-sighted stupidity - of how people cannot make do with victory and insist on abusing the bull's body. This arrogant abuse creates a fertile ground for calamity and always ends with a high cost." (Haaretz, 10/16/09)
Hamas Pushes Its Advantage: Unity talks between Fateh and Hamas appear stalled after Hamas refused to give an unequivocal response to an Egyptian proposal to deal with the schism in Palestinian governance.
The Egyptian proposal reportedly would schedule new presidential and legislative elections for next June. Until those elections are held, security in Gaza would be provided by a force comprised of a mix of Fatah and Hamas loyalists. Special committees would be set up to oversee the work of the security force and to prepare for elections.
Egypt asked Fateh and Hamas to respond with a simple "yes" or "no" answer. Fateh consented to the plan in Cairo on Thursday. Hamas, however, said it had reservations.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas threatened that if Hamas failed to accept the Egyptian initiative, he would unilaterally set the elections for January. PLO Secretary Yasser Abed Rabbo called Friday for Arab and international monitors to guarantee the elections process, even if Hamas refuses to approve them.
Writing about the state of play of these negotiations, IDF Colonel (Ret.) Shaul Arieli explains that in the wake of Abbas' perceived diplomatic failures, Hamas is trying to renegotiate the deal to its advantage: "In essence, its intention is to phrase the agreement in such a way as to annul Abbas' diplomatic freedom on the pretext that he has lost the trust of the Palestinian people. Fateh is now forced to move quickly and accept reconciliation before the agreement changes, simply to survive politically, both within the PLO and in its struggle with Hamas to represent the Palestinians." (Haaretz, 10/13 &10/18/09; Jerusalem Post, 10/15/09; Ma'ariv, 10/18/09; Ma'an, 10/17/09)
Stop with the Settlements Already: Haaretz's editorial on Sunday slammed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his failure to rein in settlement construction. The editorial followed the revelation by the Peace Now movement of settlement construction being carried out beyond those units which Israel reportedly sought American permission to continue building.
"The massive effort to expand settlements, prepare land and pave roads contradicts promises Netanyahu made to both the United States and the Israeli public that construction in the territories would be limited as an Israeli contribution to help restart negotiations," the editorial noted. "Faced with pressure by U.S. President Barack Obama's administration and the Palestinians' demand to freeze the settlements, Netanyahu put on an innocent face, arguing that 'communities cannot be frozen' and that the settlers should be allowed to live 'a normal life.'"
"These evasive explanations cast doubt on the credibility of Netanyahu and his ministers and reveal something about the government's true priorities," Haaretz added. "Expanding the settlements is far more important to Netanyahu than promoting a peace deal based on the 'Bar-Ilan Plan' he presented for forming a Palestinian state. But the real problem is not the breaking of promises to the U.S. administration and Israeli public, but the severe damage that construction in the settlements is doing to Israel's most important interests. Every new home or road compromises the probability of a partition plan based on forming a Palestinian state in the West Bank. Every hilltop construction approved by Netanyahu and Barak perpetuates the occupation and accelerates the gallop toward a binational state and the elimination of Zionism."
"Under the cloak of their double-talk, the prime minister and defense minister are taking steps that ruin trust and endanger Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state," the editorial concluded. (Haaretz, 10/18/09)
Israel-Turkey Tensions: The deterioration in relations between Israel and Turkey continued to be a focal point of discussion in the Israeli media last week. The story was sparked by Turkey's postponement of an air-force training exercise because of Israel's participation earlier this month. In the last week, Israelis have also been concerned by indications of warming relations between Turkey and Syria and by the broadcast in Turkey of a television show that depicts Israeli soldiers as killers.
Israel lodged a formal protest on Thursday with Turkey's ambassador in Tel Aviv over the television show.
Israelis are flexing their financial muscles over these incidents. Israel's large labor unions announced Thursday that they would no longer arrange vacation packages in Turkey. In recent years such trips accounted for about half of the vacation trips to Turkey sold in Israel. Israeli Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov sent a letter this weekend to union leader Ofer Eini in which he welcomed the boycott of Turkey. In 2008 Israelis comprised 2.21% of the number of tourists visiting Turkey.
At the same time, the alliance between Israel and Turkey remains evident on a host of issues. Israeli-Turkish cooperation led to the arrest of 32 alleged al-Qaida operatives last week. Israel is considering a proposal to ship drinking water from Turkey to supplement its strained supply.
Haaretz columnist Zvi Bar'el notes that the discourse over this issues has not been rational. "It seems that in the two countries' relations, terms like 'love' and 'betrayal' have replaced the correct terminology of interests and strategic partnership," he writes. "Israel feels betrayed by [Turkish] Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's verbal assault, rushing to link Turkey with the 'Islamic-Iranian-Syrian' axis of evil. And perhaps Turkey can't come to terms with Israel's lack of consideration for what it considers most important: allowing it to take part in regional diplomacy. The region's sole Muslim country with genuine 'ties of love' with Israel finds itself cast aside like a useless piece of equipment, at a time when she is offering to be a partner."
Turkey is changing, Bar'el writes. "It has become a more democratic country. The army is still dominant, but less public in its role in the civilian domain. Turkey has overcome most of its economic problems and has been transformed into a regional economic power. It is a real strategic asset for the United States, increasing its importance after the Iraq war. It has also developed a different regional strategy.... [it] aspires to become an influential player not only in the Middle East but also in the Caucasus and Asia. It is involved in the fighting in Afghanistan, is forming an economic alliance with Iraq, plans to invest billions of dollars in Egypt, and its annual trade with Iran stands at $9 billion, with Syria at $1.5 billion."
"And here is the paradox," writes Bar'el. "This is the only Muslim country that is not harshly criticized, whether by Iran or any Arab state, for having such close ties with Israel. As such, it could have served as an excellent mediator between Israel and the Arab countries had Israel not considered it an obvious satellite state."
"Turkey, the second Muslim country after Iran to recognize Israel in 1949, is neither kicking Israel nor changing its spots," Bar'el concludes. "But it doesn't want its ally to embarrass it, whether in front of its own public or its other allies." (Haaretz, 10/16 & 10/18/09; Yedioth Ahronoth, 10/16 & 10/18/09; Ma'ariv, 10/19/09)
Bringing the Holocaust to Gaza: The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) plans to include lessons about the Holocaust as part of a new curriculum for high-school students in Gaza.
UNRWA provides assistance, including education, to roughly 1 million Gaza residents.
The effort is being led by John Ging, UNRWA's director of operations in Gaza, who told The Independent that  "no human-rights curriculum is complete without the inclusion of the facts of the Holocaust, and its lessons."
Citing historical figures including Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela, Mr. Ging explained that UNRWA wanted to teach children that "those who fight for justice must fight with justice"
"The children of Gaza need this more than children elsewhere, because their daily experience is not giving them the example they need to have," he added.
UNRWA's move is facing some criticism from Hamas officials. Yunis al Astal, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, said last month that it would be "marketing a lie" and a "war crime" to include the Holocaust in any part of the curriculum. Yet, Ging maintains that the Hamas-led government has not pressured him on this issue.
Israeli historian Tom Segev welcomed UNRWA's initiative: "This could prove an interesting battle. Most Arabs tend to view the Holocaust as a Zionist invention, and do not deal with it in school curricula, books or movies. Many deny the Holocaust; only a handful of Palestinian intellectuals condemn such denial. This struggle is to a large extent over the question of who is the real victim, but the Arab difficulty in 'recognizing' the Holocaust also stems from Israel's frequent allusions to it as a justification not only for the country's existence, but also for the continued occupation and oppression of the Palestinians.
Segev added that the effort to teach the Holocaust "should be encouraged, because it is impossible to understand Israel without understanding the place of the Holocaust in the Israelis' universe, and one who does not understand his enemy will not be able to make peace with him either." (Independent, 10/5/09; JTA, 10/7/09; Haaretz, 10/16/09)