US Scrambles to Save Peace Talks
With a key Arab League meeting delayed until Friday, the administration
of U.S. President Barack Obama is scrambling to keep one-month-old
direct Israeli- Palestinian peace talks alive.
The stakes are high. If the talks fall apart, a number of observers
believe a third intifada could break out on the West Bank and in East
Jerusalem where tensions have been simmering over the demolition of
Palestinian homes for some months.
A new poll of Palestinian
opinion released Monday found majority support for a recent attack by
Hamas that killed four Jewish settlers on the West Bank, while
harassment and vandalism by settlers - including an arson attack on a
mosque near Bethlehem Monday - have further stirred the pot.
special envoy, former Senator George Mitchell, is currently shuttling
between Arab capitals in hopes that he can rally enough diplomatic
support to permit Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas to
return to the negotiating table he left after Israeli Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu refused to extend a 10-month partial moratorium on
settlement construction in the occupied West Bank late last month.
Arab leaders have so far been non-committal, the senior leadership of
the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and Abbas' own faction,
Fatah, said after a Saturday meeting that Abbas should not return to
the talks unless Netanyahu agrees to freeze settlements.
is hoping that Netanyahu himself will indeed reverse his decision in
light of the number and value of inducements the Obama administration
has informally offered him if he agrees to extend the moratorium for a
mere 60 days.
Over the weekend, some of Netanyahu's aides
suggested that the Likud leader - who heads the most right-wing
government in Israel's history - was indeed reviewing his refusal to
extend the moratorium and would bring up the question at a cabinet
meeting this week before the Arab League meeting, which is to be hosted
Netanyahu was reportedly also coming under informal
pressure from a number of key U.S. Jewish figures - including members
of the more-hawkish leadership of the so-called "Israel Lobby" - to
accept the carrots offered by Obama.
"Those are juicy carrots,"
one official of a major pro-Israel group told IPS. "It's pretty clear
that Netanyahu's initial rejection was not well received among some of
his friends here."
Those carrots, which reportedly came in the
form of a "draft" letter negotiated here late last month primarily
between Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak and a top Obama Middle East
aide, Dennis Ross, include a number of items that Israel has long
As disclosed last week by David Makovsky, a close
associate of Ross who also co-authored a book with him about Middle
East peace-making published shortly before Obama's inauguration, the
offer included a pledge to support Israel's stationing of Israeli
troops between any eventual Palestinian state on the West Bank and the
Jordanian border to prevent arms smuggling or infiltration.
also promised that Washington will veto any U.N. Security Council
resolutions critical of Israel over the next year and provide additional
weapons systems - including missiles, aircraft, and satellites - that
have not been included in previous arm packages.
offer included a pledge not to ask Netanyahu for any further extensions
of the settlement moratorium after the 60 days have expired.
observers believe the content of the package was deliberately leaked to
Makovsky, in order to exert pressure on Netanyahu after his initial
In addition to his close ties to Ross, Makovsky is a
veteran official of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy
(WINEP), a think tank created some 25 years ago by the most powerful
pro-Israel lobby group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee
Makovsky suggested that if Netanyahu failed to accept
the inducements, Washington may "explicitly adopt a position favored by
Abbas, who argues that the 1967 border should be the baseline for
talks, with minor modifications allowing Israel to trade for settlement
blocs adjacent to its cities in exchange for land from within the 1967
border." Such a formal position on the 1967 border on Washington's
part has long been sought by Arab states, as well.
The offer - and particularly Netanyahu's initial reaction - has provoked conflicting reactions both here and in Israel.
is hard to imagine anything Ross left out," wrote M.J. Rosenberg, a
long- time observer of Israel-Arab peace efforts on his 'Foreign Policy
Matters' blog. "Bibi [Netanyahu] seems not to believe that his dealings
with America have to be two-way streets. He will only consider deals
where the United States gives and he gets."
"[O]ne can only
imagine what the U.S. president would offer Israel if it were to reach a
full agreement with the Palestinians, if he agreed to give all that
merely in exchange for an additional 60-day freeze," noted Orly Azulai
of Israel 'Yedioth Ahronoth' newspaper. "President [George W.] Bush, in
all his years of friendship with Israel, did not offer it so much in
exchange for so little."
Stephen Walt, a prominent Harvard
professor and co-author of the controversial 2007 book, 'The Israel
Lobby and U.S. Foreign policy', suggested the package's generosity will
deliver yet another blow to Obama's credibility as an honest broker in
Arab world, coming, in particular, in the wake of a highly
embarrassing retreat earlier this year from his demand for a total
settlement freeze by Israel covering both the West Bank and East
"Not only is the United States acting in a remarkably
craven fashion, it's just plain stupid," Walt wrote on his blog at
foreignpolicy.com after the Makovsky leak. "How will this latest bribe
change anything for the better? What do we think will have changed in
The most-hawkish elements of the "Israel Lobby" -
including some groups associated with the Jewish settler movement -
have, on the other hand, echoed the far right in Israel by denouncing
the package as either meaningless, insufficient, or a trick.
Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), for example,
focused on the "implicit threat that if Israel doesn't take the deal,
it will be punished with the corollary that the United States now
conditions its commitment to Israel's security on being obeyed."
far-right foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman echoed that concern
Sunday, arguing that the offer was part of a plan "to force a permanent
agreement on Israel - two states for two peoples along the 1967
borders, plus or minus three or four percent of the territory
exchanged. [T]he objective of a continued freeze [is] to give the U.S.
and the international community two months to come up with a solution
that will be forced on Israel."
Palestinian officials meanwhile
have denounced the package, saying it effectively rewards Netanyahu's
refusal to extend the moratorium unilaterally.