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Middle East Peace Report- January 19, 2010

Israeli-Palestinian Talks on the Horizon?; Netanyahu's Double-Speak; Gehry Quits Controversial Jerusalem Museum; Cold Turkey; Cracking Down?; Cracking Down? Part II

Israeli-Palestinian Talks on the Horizon? "The signs are multiplying," writes Haaretz columnist Aluf Benn. "Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has exploited to the hilt his refusal to talk with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. U.S. envoy George Mitchell is hungry for action. Netanyahu is whiling away the time, and soon people will begin asking him why he went to so much trouble to return to the Prime Minister's Office. In such circumstances, renewing the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations seems an obvious way out for all parties, even if a few more weeks of preparations are needed."
Indeed, U.S. National Security Advisor Jim Jones reportedly told Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak that he predicts Israeli-Palestinian peace talks will resume next month.
According to Israeli press reports the Obama administration wants to see a Palestinian state established within two years, and that the first items to be discussed are the security components for Israel and the demarcation of the borders between Israel and the Palestinian state. The United States is reportedly trying to mobilize a number of Arab states to back Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the negotiations process.
Former Israeli negotiator Daniel Levy is not optimistic about this effort. "A peculiar if familiar ritual is currently playing itself out in Middle East diplomacy," he writes in Friday's Haaretz. "A concerted push is under way to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, though none of the chief protagonists show any signs of believing they will change anything. We have all been here before, many times over."
At the same time Levy offers a caveat, noting that "the history of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is not preordained to repeat itself." (Haaretz, 1/15/10; Yedioth Ahronoth, 1/15/10)
Netanyahu's Double-Speak: One factor in the difficulty of restarting talks may be serious reservations among Palestinian and American leaders over whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is genuine in his stated support for a two-state solution.
Ma'ariv columnist Shalom Yerushalmi writes that it is "easy to understand envoy George Mitchell, who doubts Netanyahu's intentions and threatens to damage the loan guarantees, and those who are certain that the prime minister is engaging in tactical moves versus the world and piling up difficulties in the way of the negotiations that the Palestinians will not be able to overcome."
Yerushalmi points to Netanyahu's pairing of the announcement regarding no new construction starts in settlements with the supplemental funds his government provided isolated settlements.
Along the same lines, Friday's Haaretz carried a report that a member of Netanyahu's cabinet said that a number of Israel's demands - including recognition of Israel as a Jewish state - are intended to convey that negotiations for a final status agreement will lead nowhere.
It turns out that most Israelis are skeptical about Netanyahu's commitment to peace.
A poll of Jewish Israelis sponsored by the right-wing Independent Media Review and Analysis organization discovered that 57% interpret Netanyahu's call for the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state as a rejection of the idea of establishing a Palestinian state, since Netanyhau understands that it is impossible to guarantee that such a state would be demilitarized.
The poll similarly found that 64% of Jewish Israelis believe that the settlement freeze is a tactical move intended to provide international acquiescence to future settlement construction.
60% of Jewish Israelis expressed dissatisfaction with Netanyahu's handling of Arab-Israeli affairs. (Ma'ariv 1/11/10; IMRA 1/8/10; Haaretz, 1/15/10)
Gehry Quits Controversial Jerusalem Museum: Famed architect Frank Gehry pulled out of a project to build a "Museum of Tolerance" in Jerusalem over the ruins of an ancient Muslim cemetery.
The planned museum, being built by the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC), has drawn protests not only from Muslim groups in Israel, but also by Jewish groups.
Supporters of Americans for Peace Now (APN) wrote to the Wiesenthal Center in 2008 with a request that a new site be found for the museum. Construction at the site "is disturbing, foolish, and divisive," they wrote. "It is a mark of hubris, and it is dangerously wrong."
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, wrote last winter that "there is something profoundly disturbing about the idea of putting a Jewish Museum of Tolerance on a plot of land where Muslims have been burying their dead for most of the last 800 years."
"The exit from the project of its celebrity architect offers Israel and the SWC a wonderful face-saving opportunity - a chance to change course and come up with a new plan on a new site," Lara Friedman, APN's director of policy and government relations, wrote on APN's blog. "Doing so will ensure that if a Museum of Tolerance is built in Jerusalem, it is built in a manner that reflects and supports the value for which it is named and to which, ostensibly, it is dedicated."
In a related development, Israeli Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch reportedly decided last week to scrap plans to build a series of court houses nearby.  (Table, 1/14/10; Haaretz, 1/15/10; JTA, 1/18/10)
Cold Turkey: The public humiliation of Turkey's ambassador to Israel last week at the hands of Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon - and the Israel apology that followed - triggered a wave of scorn in the Israeli press, including calls for Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and for Ayalon to resign.
The crisis in Turkish-Israeli relations reached a peak last Tuesday when Ayalon summoned the Ambassador Ahmet Oguz Celikkol to complain about a Turkish TV show viewed as promoting anti-Israel sentiments. Ayalon was caught on tape directing photo journalists to make sure that their footage showed the ambassador sitting on a low sofa, while Ayalon and another Israeli diplomat were sitting on taller chairs. The clear implication was that the humiliation was intentional. Outraged, Turkey threatened to recall the ambassador, forcing Ayalon to apologize.
Under the headline "Where is the Forethought," Dan Margalit of Israel Hayom wrote: "Avigdor Lieberman and Danny Ayalon, who initiated the senseless move of humiliating Turkish Ambassador Ahmet Oguz Celikkol before the cameras, folded their tail between their legs, lowered their voice and bowed their head, and sent a signed apology to Ankara last night.  Where was their forethought?  Even if the humiliation had succeeded, what benefit would Israel have derived from seating Celikkol on a hassock?  It appears that Lieberman, who is considered efficient, a successful manager and a person who knows how to set up initiatives, is a rookie in his field."
Margalit, whose newspaper is close to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, slammed Lieberman and Ayalon for not clearing the unusual step with the prime minister, and concluded: "The fact that Lieberman and Ayalon believed that they could take such an unfamiliar and unconventional initiative at their own responsibility and of their own volition, is cause for concern with regard to placing foreign policy in their hands."
Commentator Adi Dvir, writing for the web-based news site Ynet, charged: "The Israeli public and its leaders should be calling for Ayalon's resignation. His childish 'reprimand' of the Turkish ambassador, aside from being wholly unnecessary, was so blatantly devoid of diplomatic nuance, not to mention human decency, that it ultimately forced Israel to plead for an apology from a country that has expressed nothing but denigration for our army and leaders since Operation Cast Lead."
Despite the widespread criticism and despite sending two letters of apology to Ankara, Ayalon went again on the offensive on Saturday and said in an interview to Israel's TV Channel 2 that if Turkey continues to air the controversial show, Israel will consider expelling the Turkish ambassador. He added, "Any country that harms Israel, we will weigh expelling their ambassador as well. All the options are open... if a country feels that it can kick us without a price, then we lose."
Itamar Rabinovich, a veteran Israeli scholar who served as ambassador to Washington, wrote Tuesday that the crisis in Israel's relations with Turkey is so important and complex that it should be handled by Netanyahu himself. Israel should do its utmost to prevent Turkey from sliding toward Iran and Syria, Rabinovich wrote. "The prime minister must place it high on his agenda."
(Haaretz, 1/17 & 1/19/10; Israel Hayom, 1/14/10; Ynet, 1/14/10; Jerusalem Post, 1/16/10; Channel 2, 1/16/10)
Cracking Down? Israeli police raided a prominent yeshiva in Jerusalem and a West Bank settlement Sunday to arrest individuals suspected of torching a mosque in the West Bank village of Yasuf last month.
The attack on the mosque - in which threatening graffiti in Hebrew was left behind - sparked rioting. It also drew widespread protests. Shortly thereafter, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak publicly ordered defense forces to locate the perpetrators.
Despite these developments, violence by settlers against Palestinian civilians is still commonplace. A United Nations report found that there were six "settler-related incidents affecting Palestinians" during the second week of January alone. This includes an assault on an elderly Palestinian farmer and the uprooting of olive trees.
"Lack of adequate law enforcement against violent Israeli settlers continues to be a concern," the UN report noted. (Ynet 1/18/10; Ma'ariv, 1/19/10; OCHA, 1/12/10)
Cracking Down? Part II: Israeli police overstepped its bounds when they arrested 17 activists at a demonstration Friday against the settler take-over of homes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.
The Jerusalem Magistrate's Court ordered the activists released unconditionally after determining that the rally was legal and that the activists were arrested without cause.
Haaretz devoted its editorial to the incident on Monday, slamming the police for infringing on free speech in Israel.
"The activists have been protesting in Sheikh Jarrah every Friday for the past three months against the takeover of Palestinians' homes by settler and far-right organizations. Not only do they have every right to do so, it is their civic duty as people concerned about events in the capital," the editorial argued.
"The arrest of the protesters for no reason creates the suspicion that the police have had enough of these demonstrations," Haaretz added. "It also shows that the police discriminate between demonstrators from the right and left. While right-wing activists run amok in the West Bank to protest against the construction freeze and are almost never arrested, civil-rights demonstrators are being detained in increasing numbers." (Haaretz, 1/17 & 1/18/10)