July 14, 2009

Lost at Sea

Long ago Israel crashed into an iceberg called Palestine on its voyage towards a homeland. The boat of peace was ripped at the hull and soon flooded. The ship cracked in two and sank, leaving Israelis and Palestinians to float helplessly in turbulent waters.

Rescue is still far off and the two sides, weary of vying for survival, are running out of time before another storm gathers.

President Obama and his appointment of special ambassador George Mitchell hasn’t revitalized the peace process like he probably hoped.
America already faced low odds to alter Israel's behavior and improve the perceptions among Palestinians, and the rise of Benjamin Netanyahu as Israeli Prime Minister nullified whatever leeway Obama had left. Formal negotiations remain stalled six months later over settlements, the very first final status issue, and seem unlikely to restart soon. Jerusalem could take four years itself.

Israelis and Palestinians don’t appear to have made progress on any issue since Obama came to office and negativity is taking over. After unleashing one previous barrage at a future Palestine, Netanyahu loaded and fired again.

“I am convinced that the root of the solution is in the refusal to recognize the Jewish state," he said, speaking in Jerusalem to mark the death of Theodor Herzl, founder of Zionism. “Therefore, the key to peace is the explicit recognition by the Palestinians of Israel as a Jewish state. They must once and for all give up the demand to resettle inside of Israel the descendants of the refugees.”

Netanyahu's demands have no chance of being met. Egypt and Saudi Arabia oppose a strictly Jewish state; Hamas is willing to recognize the state of Israel, but not as a Jewish state. As for the refugees - give up? Is this really Netanyahu’s message? Is he intentionally sabotaging a two-state solution?

“I call again on the Palestinian leadership in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank], to the leaders of the Palestinian Authority,” he said, “let us meet. Let us make peace, diplomatic peace and economic peace. There is no reason for Abu Mazen [Abbas] and myself not to meet anywhere in the country,”

Apparently there is. Responding to Netanyahu’s speech, Abbas said no negotiations will be held until Israel ceases all settlement construction and vowed to “never give up” on refugee right of return.

"Israel must recognize the two-state solution and stop all settlement activities in order to resume peace talks over final status issues,” Abbas said. “The final status issues are settlements, Jerusalem, borders, refugees, water, security and prisoners."

But final status issues are sinking into the icy water, leaving less flotsam to hold onto. According to Netanyahu, settlements will continue to allow natural growth, Jerusalem is property of Israel, refugees need to find another home, and a Palestine military may be vetoed. What's there to negotiate? The Israeli government is openly mocking Abbas.

Quick to jump in a political fight, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Israel Radio, “When we signed agreements with the Palestinian Authority, we signed with the PA that represented all the Palestinians - today you have Fatah in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank], and Hamastan in Gaza. Whom does Abu Mazen represent exactly? In the best case scenario, half of his people.”

While Lieberman has a point, he doesn’t seem at all eager to negotiate with Abbas, who’s term expires in 2010. Scratch at least one wasted year from President Obama’s first term.

Obama is trying to sway the currents and bring Israelis and Palestinians back to the same area. His efforts, lacking the necessary force, have kept them barely within eye sight. Their shouts can still be heard, but those too weaken. Israelis and Palestinians are drifting apart. Obama needs to stage a special rescue operation before the hour has passed, not just meet Jewish leaders.

“There can be no half-solutions with regards to the settlements, including so-called natural growth there,” said chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. “If the US administration can't force Israel to stop the settlements, how will it force Israel to abide by any agreement regarding final status issues such as Jerusalem, borders, refugees, water, security and settlements?”

An international conference to negotiate final status issues has been shopped around diplomatic circles; now is the time. What’s left of the peace process has devolved into a media circus where each side shouts the loudest, or back room dealing between Israel and America that marginalizes the Palestinians. As the process stalls further, Gaza will weaken accordingly and test the trigger of Hamas rockets. Current negotiations are a ghost ship - haunted by past agreements, without a captain, lost at sea.

Israelis and Palestinians still don't seem ready to negotiate their differences, but if President Obama wants to re-establish control of the situation he needs a daring, radical plan like a Peace World Cup. Fortes fortuna adiuvat.

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