Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Look who is worried about Obama's Middle East policies

An Arab lament

Marwan Bishara, Al Jazeera's senior political analyst, is lamenting President Barack Obama's backing for the idea that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. "Worse, it seems the…administration has slowly but surely adopted [Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu's position on the need for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a 'Jewish state,' which predetermines the negotiations over the 'right of return' for Palestinian refuges... ," Bishara wrote late last week.

Abandoning the "right of return" would indeed remove the risk that Palestinian Arabs could demographically asphyxiate Israel by inundating it with millions of refugees and their descendants. But do Arab pundits really think Israel would sign a peace deal that didn't guarantee an end to irredentist claims?

It's hard to fault Bishara's analysis, which comes amid a flurry of diplomatic activity. In addition to backing Israel on the "right of return," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton makes it a point to frequently reference the "1967-plus" formula of basing final borders on agreed land swaps. She's even implying that the settlement issue is a red-herring. "Resolving borders resolves settlements, resolving Jerusalem resolves settlements," Clinton said at the weekend. "I think we need to lift our sights and instead of looking down at the trees, we need to look at the forest."

There are also indications that peace envoy George Mitchell is pursuing a multi-pronged effort to re-start negotiations, including a security component focusing on mechanisms for a demilitarized Palestinian state.

THE administration is heavily invested in re-starting negotiations. Israel is on board. But the Palestinians appear to have adopted Syria's bargaining approach.

Just as Damascus will not come to the table until it is assured - in advance - that its maximalist demands will all be met, the Palestinians, too, have developed an ever-longer list of prerequisites that need to be accommodated before they will deign to talk.

As articulated by various Palestinian Authority spokespeople in recent months, these include: a complete construction freeze everywhere over the Green Line; talks must commence from Ehud Olmert's last generous offer (ignored by the Palestinians as unworthy of a response); Israel must commit to a pull-back to the 1949 Armistice Lines; the Palestinian "right of return" must be recognized; Israel will not be recognized as the legitimate state of the Jewish people; and, the details must be wrapped up within two years.

Under these circumstances, Mitchell's Plan B will apparently be to shuttle between Ramallah and Jerusalem conducting "proximity talks."

Even if by some miracle Mahmoud Abbas did send his negotiators back to the table, the fragmentation within the Palestinian polity, namely Hamas's control of Gaza, limits the chances of a breakthrough.

UNDER THESE circumstances it would be nice if we could report that Egypt is trying to talk some sense into the Palestinians. No such luck. Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit, who was in Washington over the weekend, insisted that the Palestinians should hold firm to their demand for all territories "occupied" by Israel since 1967.

And just to throw another wrench into the works, Arab moderates have resurrected the Saudi-inspired take-it-or-leave-it peace initiative warning - for the umpteenth time - that it will not forever remain on offer. Israeli leaders have repeatedly indicated they are willing to discuss the initiative, which has some positive elements embedded in a fine print no Israeli government could ever accept. Indeed, the initiative is so potentially perilous to Israel that Hamas has yet to reject it outright.

The Syrians have meanwhile appeared on the scene to pull Hamas's chestnuts out of the fire. The negotiations over Gilad Schalit are not going well from Hamas's viewpoint; relations with Egypt are at an all-time low; smuggling conditions under the Philadelphi Corridor are deteriorating; Gazans are growing weary because Hamas's relentless belligerency has netted unremitting misery.

Enter Damascus to bridge the gap between Fatah and Hamas in a bid to create a Palestinian unity government. Rest assured that any alliance manufactured in the Syrian capital will serve Iran's interests more than those of peace.

Mitchell is due back in the region later in the month. The Palestinians say they have been placed on the defensive. Hopes that their positions would be imposed on Israel by the Obama administration have been dashed.

What should Jerusalem do? Continue to show appreciation for the administration's efforts. Because a viable two-state solution that permanently ends the conflict is in Israel's interest.

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