Did Obama navigate Israeli-Palestinian negotiations without a map?

 
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By Khaled Diab

The Obama administration was reportedly unaware of the true extent of Israeli settlement activity. This reveals either a monumental level of ignorance or a post-facto attempt to justify the failure of the Kerry peace initiative.

Friday 20 July 2018

It reads almost like a political thriller. An intrepid State Department official pages through a (possibly dusty) file and discovers, in 2015, a map that would change his life forever and radically alter his outlook on the world (well, at least on the Israeli-Palestinian part of it).

The official in question was Frank Lowenstein, Barack Obama’s special envoy on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The map he found, which helped him see “the forest for the trees”, showed not only the actual Israeli settlements in the West Bank, but also all the land that was controlled by Israel and off limits to Palestinians, according to a report in the New Yorker.

Lowenstein and his team then reportedly “did the math”, drew up a series of larger maps and calculated that Israel had gobbled up 60% of the West Bank, territory that had been earmarked for a future Palestinian state, and that the areas Israel controlled cut off Palestinian population centres from one another. The revelation apparently shocked Obama and John Kerry, then secretary of state and peace envoy.

The New Yorker article shocked me too – albeit for very different reasons. It shocked me because I could scarcely comprehend or credit that the Obama administration was unaware of what, to anyone with knowledge of the topic or who had spent some time on the ground, was very familiar terrain.

In light of his career path and his then recent recruitment as special envoy, it is conceivable that Lowenstein was unaware of these facts, although the so-called Area C of the West Bank, which is under complete Israeli control and represents 60% of the West Bank, is one of the most basic of basics of the conflict.

But the idea that the rest of the team, especially John Kerry, who had been shuttling back and forth trying to broker a deal since 2013, found any of this to be news was almost unfathomable. This is especially the case in light of the fact that the Palestinian negotiating team resigned, in November 2013, because they argued that Israel’s ongoing and accelerating settlement activity had rendered it impossible to establish a viable and contiguous Palestinian state.

Had I known back then that the Obama administration was so reportedly clueless of the extent of the Israeli settlement enterprise, I would have applied for the position of Middle East adviser. That is not because I am especially qualified, but because the Obama administration was so self-admittedly ignorant.

For example, I could have directed Lowenstein and his team not just to the single map he came across but an entire atlas and databases, produced by the UN, mapping out pretty much every conceivable aspect of the Israeli occupation and settlements project in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, including settlements, restrictions and closures, access to water and land, as well as demolitions and communities at risk.

Palestinian, international and Israeli NGOs, not to mention academics and think tanks, also carry out extensive research on these issues, making the Israeli-Palestinian conflict one of the most researched in the world. For instance, Israeli NGO B’Tselem has published information on settlements for years that would have made for painful reading for Lowenstein and the rest of the team.

Statistics and reports, no matter how good, cannot capture reality quite like seeing the reality on the ground for oneself. If I had access to the Obama team, I would have simply invited them round to the apartment we used to rent in East Jerusalem.

Located on the Mount of Olives, our front terrace overlooked the breathtaking beauty of the Jordan Valley, all the way down to the Dead Sea and beyond, into Jordan. Underneath the magnificence of the natural landscape one could also trace many of the topographical features of the occupation, including settlements and outposts, the Israeli wall, the gleaming modern highways snaking between the settlements, the meandering, ill-maintained roads reserved for West Bank Palestinians, the densely populated Palestinian towns unable to access and grow into the surrounding Area C, defined variously by Israel as restricted military areas, state land or nature reserves, anything to keep them out of the reach of the Palestinians.

I would point to the nearby Palestinian town of Ezeriya, only a couple of kilometres away as the crow flies and home to what is believed to be the tomb of Lazarus, where Jesus is said to have wept before resurrecting his dead follower.

In the past, the tomb and the surrounding town were a short and pleasant hike from our apartment. However, when I lived there, owing to the wall and various movement restrictions, it required a 20km or so detour to reach it.

In fact, driving is one of the simplest ways to navigate the reality of the occupation and clearly witness just how much the road to two states has been bulldozed and obliterated, and how the so-called road map to peace leads to nowhere. In fact, even satellite navigation cannot decipher the complexity of the rapidly changing political reality on the ground, as attested to by the number of times my GPS sent me to a shuttered gate or road block, or a restricted military area.

On the road, I would have driven Lowenstein and his team to view and contrast the settlements, with Palestinian villages and towns, taken them to visit vulnerable and threatened communities in Area C, such as the recently evicted Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar, or to the temporary camps set up by activists protesting the attempts to join settlements in a continuous seam.

And even if the Obama team did not have time to undertake such time-consuming field work, all they needed to do was listen to Israel’s ultranationalist, rightwing government, which made no secret of its support of the settlement enterprise and its determination to render the prospect of a Palestinian state an impossibility.

Some time before Lowenstein’s Eureka moment, Likud and Jewish Home members of the Knesset tried to push a bill through to annex Israeli settlements, thereby rendering much of Area C permanently beyond Palestinian reach. Many on the right believe the entire West Bank is and should be Israel’s. Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely is a vocal member of this camp: not only does she oppose Palestinian statehood, she also urged Israeli diplomats to tell the world “this country is all ours. We didn’t come here to apologize for that.

Binyamin Netanyahu, who has been ideologically opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state for decades, vociferously opposed and vilified Yitzhak Rabin for forging the Oslo accords, which were also violently opposed by Hamas and Islamic Jihad suicide bombers, and actively worked to destroy it when he was first elected prime minister in 1996. During his re-election campaign in 2015, he promised the electorate that there would be no Palestinian state on his watch.

If the Obama administration was ignorant of this staggering body of publicly available evidence, it suggests a monumental level of incompetence. However, I suspect there is another explanation which makes more sense: Obama and Kerry did not possess the imagination, courage and political capital to adopt new and more effective approaches to the conflict, and, like previous administrations, they did not have the guts to admit publicly from the beginning what has been clear since the mid-1990s: that the Oslo blueprint for peace was dead in the water almost as soon as it was floated.

After all, it is easier to plead ignorance than admit to spinelessness.

—-

This article was first published by The New Arab on 11 July 2018.

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Israel’s six-state reality

 
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By Khaled Diab

Netanyahu must dismantle the six states within a state Israel has created and grant every Arab and Jew full equality.

Thursday 21 January 2016

Tragedies are a time for soul-searching and deep reflection for some. For others, it is an opportunity to make political capital and to fan the flames of hatred.

Binyamin Netanyahu tends to fall squarely into the latter category. At a Tel Aviv bar where what authorities believe to be a terror attack took place leaving two dead and seven wounded, the Israeli prime minister took aim at the 21% of Israel’s citizens who identify as Palestinian or Arab.

He demanded “loyalty to the state’s laws from everyone”, claiming that Arab areas of Israel were crime-riddled, lawless and radicalised enclaves. While crime is a greater problem in Arab towns and villages than in Jewish ones, this is partly due to decades of neglect from the state, which has been more interested in the security threat Palestinians in Israel potentially pose than to the threats posed to them.

Although Netanyahu praised the swift Arab condemnation of the attack, he swiftly returned to his comfort zone when he said: “We all know that there is wild incitement of radical Islam against the state of Israel within the Muslim sector.”

While incitement does occur, what Netanyahu is wilfully ignoring is that the vast majority of Palestinians in Israel are peaceful and obey the laws of a state which increasingly discriminates against them and this despite being citizens of a country which erased their homeland and occupies their compatriots in the West Bank and Gaza.

More insidiously, while condemning incitement when committed by Palestinians, Netanyahu, in contrast to the moral courage displayed by President Reuven Rivlin, is silent about, excuses or even defends the Jewish inciters in Israel, many of whom are members of his party or coalition.

In some cases, he even promotes them. Take the firebrand of the far-right Jewish Home party, Ayelet Shaked. Despite her track record of incitement, including during the 2014 Gaza war, Netanyahu appointed her justice minister, without betraying a hint of irony. In this capacity, she has widened her net to include not only Palestinians, but also the Israeli supreme court and leftist NGOs.

Incitement also helped Netanyahu win the 2015 election, when he warned supporters that “the right-wing government is in danger” because “Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves” as part of a sinister leftist plot involving “left-wing NGOs [who] are bringing them in buses.”

In fact, the smooth-tongued Bibi, as his supporters affectionately call him, has a long track record of dangerous incitement. Leah Rabin, for one, had no doubts that Netanyahu, along with other members of the hard right, was responsible for creating the toxic atmosphere of hate which facilitated the assassination of her husband, Yitzhak Rabin.

Despite his two decades at the wheel of the juggernaut driving Israel off a cliff, Netanyahu had the audacity to tell Arabs at the weekend: “Whoever wants to be Israeli must be Israeli all the way.”

Like far-right rhetoric elsewhere, his comments imply that citizenship for the majority is an inalienable birth right, no matter how much they undermine the state, while for marginalised minorities it is a favour which must be earned and for which they must constantly express gratitude.

“I will not accept two states within Israel,” Netanyahu insisted, suggesting that Palestinian-Israelis are a state within a state.

What Netanyahu’s self-righteous rhetoric overlooks is that Israel, when you include all the territory it controls, is composed, according to my count, of at least half a dozen unequal states. At the top of the pyramid sit Israeli Jews, though they are also subdivided according to ethnicity and class.

Then there are the Palestinian and Arab citizens of Israel who theoretically have equality with their Jewish compatriots and enjoy it in the more enlightened corners of society. However, this is undermined by the legal system – which contains at least 50 laws which discriminate against Arabs, according to the legal centre Adalah – as well as other forms of racism and discrimination.

Although Jerusalem was annexed by Israel, its Palestinian inhabitants live under the precarious status of “permanent residents”, thereby turning natives into immigrants, and allowing the state to strip them of that status on the flimsiest of pretexts.

However, Jerusalemites do enjoy social security coverage, freedom of movement and the right to work in Israel. Their compatriots in the West Bank, on the other hand, face severe restrictions, live under martial law (except in Area A, where the PA possesses notional authority), reside behind walls, barriers and fences, and eek out an existence under the shadow of settlements.

In contrast, settlers occupy a legal grey zone, where they live on Palestinian land but enjoy the protection of Israeli law and the military. Ideological settlements are more akin to the lawlessness Netanyahu attributed to Arab towns in Israel, because of the Israeli authorities reluctance to bring violent settlers to justice which, in the words of Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, “creates impunity for hate crimes, and encourages assailants to continue”.

At the bottom of the pile lies Gaza, which is almost hermetically sealed by Israel and Egypt, and forgotten except in times of war. Israel controls Gaza’s territory militarily, but without any boots on the ground, and takes no responsibility for this occupation.

If Netanyahu really wants everyone to be “Israeli all the way”, he needs to move beyond self-righteous posturing to a rights-based posture. He must dismantle the six states within a state that his country has created and grant every Israeli and Palestinian, every Arab and Jew, full equality before the law and full citizenship.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 6 January 2016.

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RIP, Oslo

 
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By Khaled Diab

The “peace of the brave” has given way to the peace of the grave. It’s time to abandon Oslo in favour of a civil rights struggle for equality.

The hoped-for "peace of the brave" has morphed into the peace of the grave. Image: White House

The hoped-for “peace of the brave” has morphed into the peace of the grave.
Image: White House

Tuesday 13 October 2015

It was meant to be the handshake to end all hostilities. When Yasser Arafat shook hands with Yitzhak Rabin on the back lawn of the White House, on 13 September 1993, it seemed that the world had finally taken heed of Arafat’s call, two decades earlier at the United Nations, not to let the “olive branch fall from my hand”.

“The peace of the brave is within our reach,” then US President Bill Clinton said on the momentous occasion of the signing of the so-called Oslo Accords, reflecting the relatively more optimistic mood of the time. “We know a difficult road lies ahead. Every peace has its enemies.”

Yet two decades later, this hoped-for “peace of the brave” has morphed into the peace of the grave. Even the life-support system to which the United States had hooked up the Oslo process also gave up the ghost when Secretary of State John Kerry’s 13th-hour shuttle diplomacy came to nothing.

“As long as Israel refuses to commit to the agreements signed with us, which render us an authority without real powers,” a crestfallen and defeated Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said at the United Nations last week. “We, therefore, declare that we cannot continue to be bound by these agreements.”

So what went wrong over the past 22 years?

One major problem was the flawed nature of the Oslo Accords themselves, which set out clear and present demands of the Palestinians but left Israel with vague future commitments. And as the adage informs us, tomorrow has a tendency never to come.

However, these flaws were possibly surmountable with the right leadership – and this shaky framework agreement could have been shored up and redesigned, with sufficient supplies of goodwill and vision.

But just as the two former warriors and adversaries, Rabin and Arafat, were warming to their themes, tragedy struck. Rabin, who had started the first intifada with a “break their bones” attitude, became more committed to peace when he realised it was in Israel’s own economic and social interest.

Sadly, Rabin’s life was cut tragically short, 20 years ago next month, by an Israeli extremist before he could fulfil his newfound potential as a peacemaker. Poignantly, this occurred at one of the largest peace rallies in Israeli history.

Palestinian extremists, including Islamic Jihad and Hamas, also played their part in derailing the tentative process through a concerted, high-profile wave of suicide bombings. This pincer movement helped propel Binyamin Netanyahu to the premier’s office in 1996.

It was around this time that Hamas and the Israeli right began their longstanding anti-peace “partnership”, for want of a better word. Though they rejected compromise and had a maximalist view of the conflict, which was the main aim of their violence, both Netanyahu and Hamas’s Sheikh Ahmed Yassin couched their bloody and vengeful sabotage in terms of retaliation for past grievances.

This led to a situation in which, rather than shoring up the many failings of the Oslo process and sticking to its five-year deadline, extremists were able to exploit the faults to bury any prospects of a resolution.

The supposedly temporary Oslo Accords became an enduring reality which enabled Israel to wash its hands of responsibility for the Palestinians living under its occupation. The status quo also facilitated the unprecedented expansion of Israeli settlements, which housed about a quarter of a million settlers in the early 1990s to some three-quarters of a million today.

For the Palestinians, the Oslo charade entrenched the temporary Palestinian Authority (PA) as the de facto government that was unable to govern. Just as Arafat had wanted the trappings of statehood even without a state, many in the PA elite had vested interests in maintaining the status quo, while Hamas preferred the status quo of perpetual conflict over compromise, as well as to undermine its Palestinian enemies.

Whether unwittingly or not, the billions the international community has sunk into upholding the myth of the peace process has helped let Israel off the hook. One European diplomat I know described the situation as: “It’s a frozen conflict and we pay for the freezer,” reflecting the widespread disillusionment in aid and diplomatic circles.

Mandy Turner, the director of the Kenyon Institute in Jerusalem, has been researching how aid to the Palestinians functions as a “counterinsurgency” tool, seeking to prevent “the emergence of a Palestinian political movement with widespread support that is opposed to the Oslo process, and/or extreme poverty and political instability”.

This might explain why Mahmoud Abbas demanded at the UN that “Israel must assume all of its responsibilities as an occupying power”, bowing rhetorically to widespread Palestinian perceptions that Israel has outsourced chunks of the occupation to the PA, while Western donors pick up the tab.

“What is required is to mobilise international efforts to oversee an end to the occupation,” Abbas urged, clinging helplessly on to the old paradigm.

Instead, what is required is for Abbas to abandon Oslo and to persuade the public and the other factions to unleash the most powerful weapon in the Palestinian arsenal – its people.

The true “bombshell” would be to abandon the two-state illusion and replace it with a non-violent, popular civil rights struggle for equality and equal rights.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 4 October 2015.

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The trials and tribulations of a Palestinian Mandela

 
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By Khaled Diab

Although I wish there were a Palestinian  Mandela, I suspect that Israel-Palestine is not ready for someone like him… not yet, at least.

Partners in peace: Mandela and de Klerk shake hands. Photo: World Economic Forum

Partners in peace: Mandela and de Klerk shake hands. Photo: World Economic Forum

Thursday 12 December 2013

Since the passing away of Nelson Mandela, eulogies glorifying the great man have been circulating around the globe – some heartfelt, others opportunistic; some genuine, others hypocritical.

I will not bore the reader by adding my own longwinded homage to the cacophony of tributes already out there. Suffice it to say that, despite his imperfections, Nelson Mandela was one of the few leaders – perhaps the only – in the 20th century who succeeded both as a revolutionary and as a statesman.

My intention here is to examine Mandela’s legacy in the Israeli-Palestinian context and whether the South African model he helped pioneer could help lead Palestinians and Israelis to the Promised Land of peace.

We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians; without the resolution of conflicts in East Timor, the Sudan and other parts of the world,” Mandela said on the 20th anniversary of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People in 1997.

And from within my prison cell, I tell you our freedom seems possible because you reached yours,” Marwan Barghouthi, the imprisoned Palestinian leader who has often been described as the Palestinian Mandela”, wrote in a tribute, reflecting the deep sense of mourning many Palestinians feel.

The tiny cell and the hours of forced labour, the solitude and the darkness, did not prevent you from seeing the horizon and sharing your vision,” Barghouti wrote from his own cell in Israel’s Hadarim prison. “Your country has become a lighthouse and we, as Palestinians, are setting sails to reach its shores.”

But one reason the Palestinians have not reached this promised shore is because they have not had a leader of Madiba’s stature and vision, many argue. “The Palestinians needed a Mandela but they got Arafat,” reflected an Israeli I know, echoing a common sentiment in Israel.

While it is true that the Palestinian cause could have used someone of Nelson Mandela’s humanity and vision, what this view overlooks is that the Israelis have also been seriously short-changed by their leadership. Yes, the Palestinians have not had their Mandela but, likewise, an Israeli FW de Klerk has yet to emerge, with the nearest Israel has come to this being Yitzhak Rabin.

Although de Klerk is largely overlooked today, it is, in my view, no exaggeration to say that without his “verligte” (“enlightened”) contribution, Mandela, who nevertheless deserves the greater credit, may have failed in his mission to dismantle South African Apartheid.

After all, despite being a dyed-in-the-wool conservative for most of his political career, de Klerk called for a non-racist South Africa, lifted the ban on the African National Congress (ANC), released Mandela from prison and managed a surprisingly smooth transition to democracy. This would have been unthinkable had his predecessor PW Botha, who campaigned for a “No” vote in de Klerk’s 1992 referendum on ending Apartheid, not been forced into retirement following a stroke.

But what if Mandela had been a Palestinian and what if he had found his Israeli de Klerk, could he and would he have succeeded where Arafat and Rabin, not to mention the rest of the Israeli and Palestinian leadership, failed?

Although I would like to think so and it is tempting to believe that what Palestinians and Israelis lack is a saviour, there are certain structural problems in the Israeli-Palestinian context which could defeat any would-be Mandela, the foremost being the narrow ethno-religious character of the conflict.

Even though Palestinians generally regard Mandela as a kindred spirit and his largely non-violent tactics resonate deeply, if Mandela were actually a Palestinian leader, I fear that his philosophy would face a groundswell of opposition. Despite undoubted support amongst pragmatists, some would label him as a “traitor” for demanding no more than equal civil rights within the existing Israeli framework, while others would dismiss him as a “normaliser” for his inevitable collaboration with Israelis.

Interestingly, whites, usually leftists and communists, were involved with the ANC from its earliest days. For instance, the Freedom Charter was compiled, based on demands from across the country, by architect-turned-political-activist Lionel Bernstein. At the Rivonia trial, which led to Mandela’s long incarceration, there were five white co-defendants who, like Bernstein, were also Jewish.

On the Israeli side, Mandela’s vision and mission would also likely prove unpalatable. Although Jews make up a far larger percentage of the population of the Israeli-controlled territories (former mandate Palestine and the Golan Heights) than whites did in South Africa, there is a widespread obsession with the so-called demographic time bomb.

This would most probably lead many Israelis to condemn a Palestinian Mandela as plotting to “destroy Israel by other means”, to rob Jews of their right to self-determination and even to lead to civil war and massacres the “day after”. Even though they shared a similar angst, white South Africans managed to overcome this existential fear and survived – even thrived – to tell the tale.

Although secular Palestinian nationalism and secular Zionism have both traditionally striven for democratic societies which involved the other side as equals of sorts, this was always in a shell where the other would be a minority and willing to live under a clear, dominant nationalist framework.

One reason why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not pursued a South African solution – and is instead stuck in the unworkable doldrums of a two-state solution in a land that is under 27,000 km2 compared to South Africa’s massive 1.2 million km2 – is simply a question of time.

The European colonisation of South Africa started much earlier, and had already reached fever pitch by the early 19th century. In contrast, large-scale Jewish immigration and settlement did not take off until after the British mandate began in Palestine following World War I.

As the situation increasingly grows to resemble the segregation of Apartheid South Africa, many, especially among the Palestinians but also a growing number of Israeli Jews, are convinced that the only way forward is a single, binational state.

However, huge confusion and differences remain over what form this should take and how to get there. I urge people to take inspiration from Nelson Mandela and the ANC and launch a civil rights struggle for equality for all, while also protecting the rights of every ethnic, national and religious group. 

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 10 December 2013.

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