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Middle East Peace Report- January 4, 2010

Vol. 11, Issue 14

Negotiations Soon?; Road Opened; How Far Will They Go?; Adventures in Diplomacy Parts I & II; Deterrence and Diplomacy

Negotiations Soon? Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas may soon resume peace negotiations, Israeli political sources told reporters.
 
The optimism follows news that Israel has dropped its objections to a two-year deadline for the completion of the talks, and will agree to negotiate over Jerusalem's future. Israel also reportedly will accept American assurances to the Palestinians that the talks will be based on the 1967 borders. The United States may also provide Israel assurances regarding security considerations and the recognition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people.
 
Progress toward negotiuations was reportedly made in a meeting last week between Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Prime Minister Netanyahu, and Israeli Trade Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer. Mubarak met with Abbas today. Results of this meeting are not yet clear.
 
Ma'ariv today published an un-sourced account of what it says is the outline of the Obama administration's plan for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. According to the report, final status negotiations would start immediately and a comprehensive agreement would be achieved within two years. The first issue to be discussed is permanent borders, with a nine month deadline, to match the expiration date of the Israeli moratorium on West Bank settlement construction.
 
Ma'ariv reports that "the Palestinians will receive an American side letter with a guarantee that the (two year) deadline will be final, and there will be no delays after that. If no agreement is reached, the Palestinians will request US backing for their demand to receive an area equal in size to the territory under Arab rule prior to 1967. It is believed that an Israeli demand can be expected for an equivalent American side letter, with a ratification of Bush's letters to Ariel Sharon in 2004."
 
The report triggered angry reactions among right-wing Israeli politicians as well as a prompt clarification from Netanyahu, who told a Likud Party forum today that he has not agreed to negotiations based on the pre-1967 borders. "There is no truth in that," he said. Netanyahu said that he is prepared to launch negotiations immediately, "without preconditions." Solution formulas will be reached "around the negotiating table, at the end of the process, certainly not at its beginning," he said.
 
One leading Israeli security figure said that Israel would need to demonstrate some flexibility before talks can be successfully renewed. "As far as the Palestinians are concerned, the decision of the government to freeze construction does not constitute the basis for restarting the political process," General Security Services chief Yuval Diskin said last week. "For there to be a basis there also needs to be an Israeli statement on Jerusalem."
 
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak is hoping for a renewal of negotiations in 2010.  "The alternative to peace talks is a dead end that will surely lead to violence and a surge in Hamas' power," he told a Knesset committee last week. "We have an advantage that can help us carve an agreement that would lead to a two-state solution. If we keep controlling the millions of Palestinians living between Jordan and the ocean we'll end up with a non-Jewish country or a non-democratic country, which will be an apartheid state - neither of which are what the Zionist vision is about." (Ma'ariv, 1/1, 1/4 & 1/3/10; Haaretz, 12/28 & 12/30/09, Israel Radio 1/4/10)
 
Road Opened: Israel's High Court of Justice instructed the IDF last week to open to Palestinian traffic a segment of Route 443 running in the West Bank, which for the past seven years has been open to Israelis only. The Court ruled that the sweeping prohibition, which "absolutely rules out Palestinian traffic on the road, does not conform with the rules of international law," in the words of Supreme Court Justice Uzi Fogelman, who wrote the decision. "the complete removal of [Palestinian] residents of the area from the road, which is geared to serve them, fails to balance adequately between the rights of the Palestinian residents as 'protected residents,' and security needs," Fogelman wrote, "and, as such, is disproportionate." He emphasized that the road was planned for the needs of the West Bank's Palestinian residents and partially paved on lands expropriated from Palestinians.
 
The road was closed to Palestinians in 2002 following several lethal terrorist attacks against Israeli vehicles. In recent years, the volume of attacks against Israelis on West Bank roads has diminished significantly.
 
The Court ruling was a major victory for the petitioners, a group of West Bank Palestinians whose land was expropriated to pave Route 443, and for Israel's Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which joined the petition. But it enraged West Bank settlers, right wing Israeli politicians, and many Israelis who use the road as an alternative to Route 1, the often congested highway that connects between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
 
Following the ruling, several Knesset members drafted a bill that would unilaterally annex Route 443 to Israel. Others suggested legislation that would change the makeup of the Court, in a way that would reduce the influence of "liberal" judges. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's bureau told Yedioth Ahronoth that the Prime Minister was unhappy about the ruling and instructed his staff to consider legislation that would overturn the Court's decision.
 
For the most part, however, commentary by legal experts and pundits in the Israeli media supported the Court's decision. Haaretz, in an editorial headlined "there is no benign occupation," pointed out that "over the course of 42 years of occupation, an approach has taken root, which holds that the security and even convenience of the settlers take precedence over the property rights and welfare of the Palestinians." Haaretz concluded, "The barring of Palestinians from Route 443 was one of the ugliest aspects of a deluxe occupation. Real security cannot be achieved by roadblocks, fences and separate roads, but only by a fair peace accord that will bring an end to the occupation."
 
Several writers referred to the impact that such road closures cause to Israel's image internationally. "Closing the road caused severe damage to Israel, which was cast as an apartheid state," wrote Ma'ariv's Ben Dror Yemini.
 
The Court's Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch, supported the decision, but took issue with the petitioners' depiction of Route 443 as an "apartheid road," commenting that the implied analogy to the racial separation in pre-1994 South Africa is flawed. Yedioth Ahronoth's legal analyst Boaz Okon begged to differ. Okon, who in the past called on Israelis to boycott the road,  wrote: "Route 443 is just one example of the practices put in place in the territories which are part of a systematic and declared policy of applying one law to Jews and another law to Arabs. It is unrelated to the war on terror, but to a policy that prioritizes Jewish interests in the territories in the realm of water, land, etc. No one likes to hear that our country is almost like South Africa or is becoming like it. Despite this, one must be careful. Apartheid states form slowly and tend to crash in one fell swoop." (Ma'ariv, 12/30/09; Yedioth Ahronoth, Haaretz, Ma'ariv, Israel Hayom 12/31/09)
 
How Far Will They Go?: Fear that Israeli extremists will try to assassinate Defense Minister Ehud Barak have prompted Israeli security officials to beef up his personal security detail and to double the number of security guards that escort him.
 
The move reportedly followed a threat on Barak's life.
 
Barak was not the only Israeli official to have security around him tightened last week. Procedures to protect Israeli Police Commissioner Dudi Cohen were put into place earlier in the week, after Cohen received a death threat. Israeli police believe that the threat was made by extreme right-wing activists, who oppose the construction freeze in West Bank settlements and the police commissioner's comments criticizing settler rioters.
 
In related news, more details about Jewish terrorist Yaakov Teitel were published in the Israeli media this weekend. Teitel, an Israeli-American dual national who resided in the West Bank settlement outpost of Shvut Rachel before his arrest this fall, is charged with a twelve-year murder and attempted-murder spree of Palestinians, Christian missionaries, gay Israelis, and the attempted murder of Peace Now activist Zeev Sternhell.
 
During his police interrogation, Teitel reportedly said that he wanted to kill Peace Now Director General Yariv Oppenheimer, but that he was unable to collect enough information about Oppenheimer's whereabouts before he was detained by police.
 
The attempted murder of Sternhell, which included circulating flyers offering a reward for the killing of Peace Now activists, prompted Israel's law enforcement authorities to provide special security arrangements for Oppenheimer. (Ynet, 12/29 & 12/31/09; IsraelHhayom, 12/30/09)
 
Adventures in Diplomacy: Israel's ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren stepped into diplomatic hot water last month when he accused J Street of "fooling around with the lives of 7 million people" for advocating for policies his government does not support.
 
Hannah Rosenthal, the State Department's Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, the former chief of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, termed Oren's comments "most unfortunate."  Her seemingly innocuous comments sparked outrage in Israel and among officials with some American Jewish groups, and an eventual unusual clarification from the State Department.
 
"This is not the first time that Oren has stuck his nose where it does not belong," remembers Haaretz columnist Akiva Eldar. "After the Oslo Accords were signed, Oren, then the American Jewish Committee's representative in Israel, distributed a document calling for a centrist bloc headed by Ehud Barak (then IDF chief of staff) and MK Benny Begin as a counterweight to Yitzhak Rabin... and to Benjamin Netanyahu... Oren stepped down soon afterward. Incidentally, this short interval was omitted from the ambassador's official resume."
 
Oren's latest problematic public comment was his suggestion that the Obama administration should and will impose "crippling sanctions" on Iran in an interview with the Jerusalem Post.
 
The United States, however, appears eager to target any sanctions on the Iranian leadership, and avoid sanctions that would cripple the country. "We have never been attracted to the idea of trying to get the whole world to cordon off their economy," a senior administration official told the Washington Post last week. "We have to be deft at this, because it matters how the Iranian people interpret their isolation - whether they fault the regime or are fooled into thinking we are to blame."
 
In a interview on IDF radio last week, journalist Razi Barkai pushed Oren on these issues, noting that "one of the charges against you is that you became a mouthpiece for AIPAC, and that is internal American Jewish politics, and has nothing to do with supporting or not supporting Israel. After all, J Street is not an organization that is against the existence of Israel, it just differs over some of its policies. But because AIPAC despises them for historical reasons, you decided to go with AIPAC on this against J Street."  Oren denied the charge, stating "I did not go against J Street, I opened a channel of dialogue. We have full communication and I sent a high-level observer to the J Street conference. We are not talking about a boycott, there is communication here. Not as a representative of AIPAC, but as a representative of the government of Israel..." (Forward, 12/18/09;Haaretz, 12/23 & 12/24/09; Jerusalem Post, 12/31/09; Washington Post, 12/30/09, IDF Radio 12/29/09)
 
Adventures in Diplomacy, Part II: Notwithstanding his skirmish with Obama Administration appointee Rosenthal earlier this month or his apparent difference of opinion with the Administration over Iran sanctions, Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren heaped praise on the Obama administration during an interview with the Jerusalem Post last week.
 
Asked if he felt that President Barack Obama was getting an unfair shake in Israel, Oren responded that the president "deserves more credit for some of the things that don't make the press."
 
For example, he said, "this administration has been particularly good on our security interests. I say this without reservation. They have been good on support for the Arrow anti-missile defense program. They have been very good on the joint military maneuver with Turkey - when the Turks forced us out, they pulled out. They have been good on the whole issue of QME [qualitative military edge]. The have been excellent on QME. When they ascertained that our qualitative military edge had been eroded they worked very quickly to redress that."
 
"This is the kind of stuff that doesn't make the press here," Oren explained, "but there are many nuances to the relationship. It is not monochromatic. Because there is so much emphasis on the settlements, on east Jerusalem, you don't see the other things."
 
Oren categorically denied that the Obama administration has pressured Israel, recalling that President Ronald Reagan shut down the supply of jets to Israel and that President Jimmy Carter threatened to cut off aid to Israel. "That is pressure," Oren said. (Jerusalem Post, 12/28/09)
 
Deterrence and Diplomacy: Reports by Israel's security establishment, showing that 2009 was one of the most quiet in the country's security history, prompted discussion in Israel last week on the value of the country's deterrence against its adversaries.
 
An end-of-year report published by Israel's secret service ("Shin Bet") last week points out that for the first time in over a decade, the past year was a year without suicide bombings. Only 15 Israelis were killed by Palestinians in 2009, most of them soldiers who took part in Operation Cast Lead in January. Only 234 Israelis were injured by Palestinians, 185 of whom were soldiers, during the Gaza war in January.
 
The report does not mention the high death toll among Gaza's civilian population. According to the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem, of the 1,385 Palestinians killed during the operation, 762 were civilian non-combatants, of whom 318 were minors under the age of 18.
 
The chief of Israel's Military Intelligence, General Amos Yadlin, told a Tel Aviv think tank last month that the relative quiet was a result of the "strong deterrence" that Israel established following its 2006 war against Lebanon's Hezbollah and following last winter's Cast Lead operation against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The military operations, Yadlin said, created a situation in which "the enemy makes loss-and-gain calculations between the benefit of attacking us and its willingness to take risks." However, he said, Hamas and Hezbollah - as well as Iran - have been relatively quiet not only because of Israel's deterrence but also because they are rearming and rebuilding for a possible next round.
 
Yadlin also said that the quiet comes at a price. World public opinion likes to empathize with the underdog, he said, and "the fact that Israel has not been suffering recently from terrorism makes the world support the other side."
 
Yadlin - as well as other security officials and pundits commenting on the security lull of 2009 - cautioned that military deterrence against non-state entities is typically short lived. Pundits, therefore, emphasized the importance of maintaining a strong military advantage and an effective intelligence apparatus.
 
Gabi Sheffer, a professor of political science at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, pointed out in a Haaretz article that Israelis often disregard the mundane fact that deterrence - just like the conflict as a whole - is not one-sided. "the overwhelming majority of the Israeli public, as well as politicians and military officials, act as though the Arab-Iranian side is the sole cause of the continued conflict and the inability to resolve it through negotiation," Sheffer wrote. Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and Syria are building their own capability of deterring Israel.
 
Sheffer continued, "What are the strategic conclusions of all this? One conclusion is that Israeli leaders must stop spreading the idea that Israel has the ability to take decisive deterrent action and must initiate a military operation every few years to preserve that ability. Instead of preparing for an attack on Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas, the government should be investing a lot more in direct attempts to resolve - by negotiations - the conflicts with Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians." (www.shabak.gov.il, 12/30/09; Ynet, 12/15/09; Yedioth Ahronoth, 1/3/10; Haaretz, 12/31/10)