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Middle East Peace Report - October 13, 2009

Volume 11, Issue 5

A New Intifada?; A New Low for Israel's Regional Standing; A Nuclear Umbrella?; Extending the Olive Branch; Labor Pains; Time for Action on Iran

A New Intifada? "We are closely following events, and it's clear to us that an extreme case-of many people injured or someone killed-could lead to a flare-up throughout the territories," a senior Israeli security official told Ma'ariv last week.

The official was describing growing tensions that have led to violent clashes in Jerusalem in recent weeks. Indeed, Israeli security officials have also noted a spike in the number of incidents of stone-throwing at Israeli vehicles on West Bank roads.

Writing in Haaretz on Friday, APN's Lara Friedman and Jerusalem attorney Daniel Seidemann echo this warning, noting that "the potential for a violent conflagration in Jerusalem is greater now than at any point since September 2000, when then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount, triggering the second intifada, the worst wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence since 1967."

These tensions "are in part a by-product of U.S. President Barack Obama's peace efforts. Fear that he may ultimately succeed in launching a peace process has driven various spoilers to undertake provocative actions," explain the two experts on Jerusalem policy.  Moreover, they note that the failure to bring about a settlement freeze and a resumption of final status talks "gives rise to skepticism, if not contempt, about the peace process and its advocates."

The tensions in Jerusalem are also exacerbated by recent events in and around Jerusalem's Temple Mount, write Friedman and Seidemann: "The approval of a new settlement at the Shepherd Hotel, the eviction of Palestinian families from Sheikh Jarrah, the wounding of two Palestinians by settler gunfire in Silwan, a Supreme Court ruling allowing settler excavations under private Palestinian homes in Silwan while imposing almost punitive court costs on the Palestinian plaintiffs... Finally, there is no shortage of Muslim and Christian extremists fanning the flames. Witness Arab extremists like northern Islamic Movement leader Ra'ad Salah, touting fabricated reports of the imminent destruction of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and failed U.S. presidential candidate Mike Huckabee on his 'I Love Jerusalem Settlers' tour in August."

Friedman and Seidemann implore all sides to act responsibly to dampen the flames:  "For Israel, this means that early intervention - such as prevention, for the sake of public order, of any inflammatory event (Israeli or Palestinian) - should be the operational imperative. It also means no provocations: no new settlement activity, tunneling, demolitions or evictions. No symbolic or ceremonial activities on the exposed nerves of the conflict. Israel's actions in all these arenas will, perhaps more than any other factor, determine whether the current tension dissipates or escalates into a conflagration."

"For the Palestinians and the Arab/Muslim worlds," advise Friedman and Seidemann, "acting responsibly means not stoking the fires of extremism with polemical rhetoric and hyperbole... Furthermore, they must also demand the same of all Palestinian factions, making clear that cynical manipulation of Jerusalem to gain domestic political points is not acceptable."

The international community is called on to engage "seriously and proactively, at the highest political levels" to make clear "that the world will not tolerate reckless Messianic games in Jerusalem." (Ma'ariv, 10/7/09; Yedioth Ahronoth, 10/13/09; Haaretz, 10/9/09)

A New Low for Israel's Regional Standing: Turkey cancelled Israel's participation this weekend in an international aerial exercise that was to begin this week. The move attests to a crisis in relations between Israel and Turkey, who have long been regional allies.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reportedly faced political pressure to ban the Israeli forces. "It is inconceivable that Israeli planes that bombed Gaza during Operation Cast Lead should train in Turkish airspace," a number of prominent Turkish journalists charged, according to Yedioth Ahronoth.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu confirmed yesterday that the cancellation was directly connected to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. In an interview with CNN, Davutoglu called on Israel to improve the situation in Gaza and return to negotiations.

Protesting Turkey's decision, the U.S. informed Turkey that it and the other NATO countries would not participate if Israel was banned. As a result Turkey postponed the exercise indefinitely. "What was important to the top government officials in Ankara was to suspend the Israeli involvement," a high-ranking Turkish government official told Yedioth Ahronoth.

Israel and Turkey have a long history of close military ties. Prior to Operation Cast Lead, Israeli planes would train over Turkish airspace several times a year. Israel exports millions of dollars of military equipment to Turkey annually.

"Ankara's sudden opposition to having the Israel Air Force take part in an international aerial exercise in Turkey's skies constitutes another red signal from the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan over Israel's policy on the Palestinian issue," writes celebrated Israeli historian Moshe Maoz in Yedioth Ahronoth. "This signal joins a long list of similar protests and warnings from pragmatic Muslim and Arab states, including Egypt and Jordan, who have signed peace agreements with Israel."

Maoz details the history of Israeli-Turkey relations, highlighting Turkey's early embrace of Israel. "However," he adds, "with the outbreak of the el-Aksa Intifada (2000), popular Muslim opposition toward Israel increased a great deal and also influenced the regime's leaders-both religious and secular... Turkey's pragmatic Muslim leaders identify with the Palestinian suffering in the territories and support the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel (and an Israel-Syria agreement).  Like the majority of the Islamic states, including all the Arab states, Turkey approved the Saudi peace initiative of 2002, which proposes to Israel, for the first time in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, peace, security and normal relations."

"Can the Israeli government not discern these signals and messages?" asks Maoz.

The director-general of Israel's Foreign Ministry, Yossi Gal, called an emergency meeting Sunday to discuss the crisis between Israel and Turkey. "There is a serious crisis and we need to address it quickly," one senior Israeli official told Haaretz. (Israel Radio, 10/11/09; Yedioth Ahronoth, 10/11 &10/13/09; Israel Army Radio, 10/12/09; Haaretz, 10/12/09)

A Nuclear Umbrella?
The Israeli and American militaries are holding an enormous joint exercise this week, which will simulate missile attacks on Israel from Iran and other countries.

Fifteen American missile boats, as well as aircraft and anti-aircraft batteries, are to take part in the exercise, which has been code-named Juniper Cobra.

In the course of the exercise the two armies will test various air-defense systems, including the American THAAD and Patriot 3 systems and the Israeli Arrow 2, Patriot and Hawk systems.

"The goal of the maneuver will be to examine new American and Israeli systems, the coordination between them and the x-ray radar that was deployed in Israel this past year," a senior Israeli security official told Ma'ariv. The same official also said that, at the conclusion of the exercise, "the Americans will leave systems here such as the Patriot Pack 3, which will provide another dimension for Israeli defense."

 "The prevalent assessment is that the joint exercise is geared to send a clear American signal that Washington is committed to the State of Israel's security," wrote Lilach Shoval in Israel Hayom(Israel Hayom, 10/8/09; Ma'ariv, 10/6 & 10/12/09)

Extending the Olive Branch:
Israel is taking steps to defend Palestinian farmers from settler attacks as the olive harvest begins.

An unprecedented number of Israeli military and police forces are being stationed in hotspots throughout the West Bank. The military also announced a temporary ban on Israelis from olive groves near settlements, so that the farmers can harvest their trees without fear of harassment.  Two settlers were ordered to leave the West Bank for the next six months.

In recent years, settlers have attacked and shot Palestinians while they harvested olives near West Bank settlements. In recent months, settlers burned agricultural areas and olive groves. The Israeli military estimates that in the last year settlers have cut down or burnt 450 olive trees in the northern West Bank.

Israeli human rights groups commended the Israeli effort, but expressed concern over the short extent of time that each grove is protected.  "We commend the army for the large forces deployed in the area but two days hardly gives the farmers enough time to complete the harvest," said Rabbi Arik Ascherman, head of Rabbis for Human Rights.

The harvest began last week and will continue until late November. It is expected to generate tens of millions of dollars in revenue for the Palestinian economy.

Despite the Israeli effort, settlers are suspected of setting Palestinian fields ablaze this weekend. The arson followed the forceful removal of settlers from a new area near the Shvut Ami settlement outpost. (Haaretz, 10/9/09; Jerusalem Post, 10/7/09; Ynet, 10/11/09; Israel Army Radio, 10/12/09)

Labor Pains:
Labor Party Chairman Ehud Barak risks losing control of his party over his support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's peace policies.

Labor Ministers Yitzhak Herzog and Avishai Braverman, as well as Knesset faction whip Daniel Ben Simon, have reportedly said that if no dramatic progress were made in the peace process in the course of the Knesset's winter session, cooperation between the Labor Party and the Likud would have to be terminated, Yedioth Ahronoth reports today.

If these three Labor leaders refuse to support the Netanyahu government they can compel Labor to leave the coalition, because four of Labor's 13 seats are held by Knesset members who have already vocally opposed Labor's presence in the government and are refusing to conform to party discipline.

A senior party official told the paper that Barak's "behavior is problematic. If no real breakthrough is achieved in the peace process, there isn't going to be a government, and there isn't going to be a Labor Party."

Barak is playing hardball with his internal opponents. This week Minister Herzog learned that he had been dismissed from his post as a member of one ministerial committee, a move seen as a way of punishing Herzog. (Yedioth Ahronoth, 10/13/09)

Time for Action on Iran:
A majority of Americans is prepared to back a wide range of policy alternatives to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons despite strong skepticism that these policies would work, according to a poll released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

63% of Americans approve of direct U.S. negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. This is a sharp rise in favor of diplomacy. In a September 2006 poll, only 54% backed direct talks.

At the same time, 64% of Americans doubt that negotiations would succeed in getting Iran to give up its nuclear program.

Similarly, 78% of Americans back tougher economic sanctions, but 56% say that sanctions would not work in getting Iran to drop its nuclear program.

61% think that it is important to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons, even if that means taking military action. The Pew Center did not ask whether Americans believed that military action would be effective.

51% of Americans have confidence in President Barack Obama to do the right thing in dealing with Iran. (Pew, 10/6/09)

Netanyahu's New Approach:
"The return of the territories that were occupied in 1967 is essential to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it is the legacy of 1948 that both parties recently placed at the center of the dispute between them," writes former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami in today's Yedioth Ahronoth. "Oddly enough, it was [Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu with his demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state that prompted the reopening of the 1948 file."
 
"Netanyahu's intention was to force the Palestinians to declare that the right of return for the refugees of 1948 would be applicable only if exercised into the future Palestinian state," explains Ben-Ami, "but the timing of his demand was problematic... Under [Palestinian Prime Minister] Salam Fayyad it would seem as if the Palestinian Authority were changing its emphasis from exile to one of state-building inside the territorial boundaries of the occupied territories. It is as if the voice of exile has been silenced."

Ben-Ami notes that historically, "it was the Israelis who wanted to focus on the issues of 1967-to wit, the territories and security-while the Palestinians wanted to go back to the issues that pertain to 1948-the refugees, the Diaspora and what they defined as the need 'to make the Israelis face the court of history.' Now it would appear as if the two sides have exchanged roles. Precisely when Israel succeeded in taming the Palestinian national movement into abandoning its revolutionary ways in exchange for state-building and economic prosperity, the Israelis decided to pull the Palestinians back to the foundations of the conflict."

"Peace is often not a matter of justice but of stability," Ben-Ami opines. "The Palestinians need to adapt their public discourse to what is attainable, whereas Israel needs to cope with the problem of the refugees in a way that will ensure the legitimacy and stability of a future peace agreement." (Yedioth Ahronoth, 10/13/09)