October 11, 2010
Palestinians Must Fight Fire With Fire
For a moment the Palestinians appeared to be playing with fire by continuing Israel’s momentum. September 26th felt like a distant memory when the Arab League finally convened a special summit to debate the future of direct talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who resists any thought of a free extension on settlement restrictions. The intervening weeks have further eroded the Palestinians’ weak negotiating position as Washington rolls over to prevent another collapse of US-sponsored talks and shield its own floundering image in the Middle East.
Then Mahmoud Abbas, acting president of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), and the Arab League gave President Barack Obama and his team another month to skew a final status agreement.
This “crisis” has the makings of an organized heist and a scam, so it seemed particularly suicidal to offer America more time to coax a settlement extension out of Israel. No political maneuver should be ruled out of the shrewd Netanyahu’s arsenal, and a partial 10-month freeze looks chopped down from a year. Confident that Washington would pay extra for the final two months, Netanyahu’s predictable stalling has him dictating terms to the White House. America’s mediation has become more lopsided by the day under Dennis Ross’s watch, ensuring the rich get richer.
US Congress and the multitude of pro-Israeli officials walking the White House halls settle for nothing less. Speaking before the Arab League meeting, Deputy State Department Spokesman Mark Toner said that what Washington considered "the best outcome is continued support in the region for direct negotiations."
Israel and America optimistically maintain this position because they command the high ground on the Palestinians.
What reason, then, do the Palestinians have to enter that fight? Farther ahead on September 26th than they are now, they’ve caught themselves in a dilemma beyond settlements. As Washington tries to seal a new deal with Israel, at what point does it break its agreement with the Palestinians - the concept of blind justice? Bilateral agreements that indirectly affect the Palestinians, such as military and financial packages, have morphed into direct infringements on their negotiating terms.
An obvious sleeper cell installed within the White House, Ross’s overt emergence marked the beginning of new deterioration to the Palestinian position. Manifested in a draft letter promising security guarantees to Israel in exchange for a 60-day extension to Netanyhu’s partial freeze, Ross’s influence and connections have come to dominate US-Israeli relations and thus negotiations with the Palestinians. Described as “a crucial, behind-the-scenes conduit between the White House and the Israeli government,” an October 6th report from The Washington Post noted that “Israeli officials have long preferred to bypass the State Department and peace envoys, and deal directly with a senior official in the White House.”
The report goes on to detail how both Ross and Netanyahu, realizing the stalemate between their governments, came looking for each other. One Israeli official said of the latest communications, "Very few players are involved. The prime minister has said it is crucial that we do this in a discreet and quiet fashion."
This leaves a few choice Israeli advocates within the White House largely in control of negotiations with the Palestinians, subverting Obama’s own authority.
The contents of Washington’s package to Israel are well known by now, but it’s worth recounting just how much the sum weighs down the Palestinians. One of the first rumors allowed an Israeli military force in the Jordan Valley, which the Palestinians oppose as enabling the West Bank’s occupation. Although US officials later told the Palestinians that the Jordan Valley offer was not included, they would have to be recklessly naive to believe everything Washington tells them.
In regards to settlements, Israel has demanded that one 60-day extension be its last and that if future borders aren’t defined by then - tough luck for the Palestinians.
One Israeli official said the wish list also includes “U.S. guarantees to veto anti-Israeli resolutions at the United Nations,” even though Washington has consistently threatened to veto a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood. Accentuating this obstructionism is Israel’s new “loyalty oath,” passed by Netanyahu’s cabinet and on its way to the Knesset for a final vote. Rejected by the Palestinians and moderate Israelis alike, who expect a settlement freeze as payoff, the oath requires non-Jewish immigrants to swear loyalty to the "Jewish, democratic state” of Israel.
Though Netanyahu claims the oath recognizes Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state, it stands as a warning salvo to Israel’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Palestinians also view the oath as a new wall for potential refugees attempting to return; with Washington’s position on Palestinian refugees mirroring Israel’s, Netanyahu has reportedly requested a US guarantee to block their return. Thus as Israel defines its own laws that will affect Palestinians, it’s also blocking the Palestinians’ unilateral moves at the UN.
Meanwhile Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin told recently told The Jerusalem Post that Netanyahu will never divide Jerusalem, despite what they expect to be “significant pressure” from Washington. This fear appears unfounded. While no agreement has been finalized, Israel’s wish list ends with, “guarantees that Washington would not impose an accord on Israel or force a full withdrawal from the West Bank and east Jerusalem.” And Netanyahu’s position is consistent with most of Washington: religious sites in East Jerusalem would open to all faiths while the streets around them remain under Israeli control.
Negotiations look to become even more lopsided in the coming months, especially in the event of a GOP victory in mid-term Congressional elections. Ross’s actions have attracted a degree of scrutiny for undermining the State Department and US envoy George Mitchell, mimicking his own escape from State to Obama’s personal adviser on the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia. One of Ross’s associates claims that he understood the “risk,” but risk is hardly the word for a calculated move nearly certain to succeed in feeding Israel its desires.
This was the plan all along.
And Ross’s maneuver may be the future trend. Elliott Abrams, a prominent Israeli advocate and lead negotiator under George W. Bush, recently called for Mitchell to be replaced. A bellwether of the Israeli lobby, Abrams told the Washington office of the Council on Foreign Relations, “It’s October 2010. We’re in a mess. Who’s really been the lead player here? And the answer is that we have a special envoy.”
Given the last two weeks, it’s not unrealistic to expect a more malleable envoy in the future - as if Washington wasn’t pro-Israeli enough.
For the Palestinians, the danger of engaging direct talks under these conditions is proportional to Israel’s bravado. Abbas himself told Arab leaders on Saturday that he doesn’t expect any significant compromise from Netanyahu. But as the minutes leaked out of the Arab League’s summit, the outline of what should be the Palestinians’ future strategy began to take shape. Through innovative strategy and coordination, they must attempt to fight fire with fire.
"We are not willing anymore to consider 60 days," Nabil Shaath, one of several senior Palestinian negotiators, told The Associated Press. "When you see nothing but hardened positions, you really have to meet it with the same tactic.”
Though the first part of Shaath’s threat is likely a bluff, his attitude is shared by the bulk of the PLO. Objectives have shifted from halting Israeli settlements to retrieving illegally-occupied Palestinian land. However, the Palestinians and Arab League chose wisely in their first stage of operations: avoiding Netanyahu’s trap to scapegoat failed talks. Once settled the counterattack can begin, which it already has. The Palestinians have reversed the pressure back on America and Israel for the time being and set them up for their own potential fall.
Even if the two parties build up implausible conditions, the Palestinians can veto an unfavorable agreement under better pretenses.
Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, also informed reporters that Abbas prepared the Arab League to represent Palestine’s statehood claims in the UN. While Ahmed bin Helli, the Arab League undersecretary-general, said that Arab leaders did not immediately respond to Abbas' request, only a month ago this threat was off the table. Aware that Washington will block any resolution against Israel, Palestinian statehood or otherwise, Erekat now said that measures would nonetheless be presented to the Security Council.
But here the Palestinians must launch a new campaign to turn a symbolic gesture into strategic advantage. Rather than simply focus the world’s attention, the Palestinians can combine a media offensive with political flanking maneuvers for a potentially devastating result.
For over 25 years the Palestinians have worked to isolate Israel at the international and propaganda levels, a natural reaction to Israel’s military superiority. Their efforts bore fruit as Israel’s credibility plummets and now, rather than use America to blockade Israel, they must isolate Washington too if it refuses to apply impartial judgment. Rumors spread of appealing to the Quartet in full - America, the EU, Russia, and the UN - a strategy that has yet to be applied but demands serious consideration.
America’s guidance has proven itself distorted and so the logical reaction is to appeal to more favorable actors. Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, has frequently called upon Israel to “restore settlement restraint under its road map obligations” and the recent terror threat in Europe provides new incentive for the EU to assume a more proactive role. With its support added to Muslim states and as many neutral countries that can be gathered, the Palestinians must then hold both Israel and America accountable on the world stage.
The Palestinians must beat into world’s collective mind that an unequal final-status agreement will collapse and return the situation to a stalemate. Erekat would later tell Al Jazeera, "The whole world holds Netanyahu responsible for what is happening in the region, after he chose to push ahead with the settlement project at the expense of an advance in the peace process. Settlement freeze is a commitment Netanyahu should respect."
And if worst comes to worst, Abbas may choose to blow up the PNA if an agreement fails to be reached. The threat of resignation is nothing new, but its proliferation has spiked in recent weeks and now may be the time to actually play it, leaving Washington to deal with a less moderate Palestinian leader. Abbas, who made suggestive comments to Mitchell during his last visit, would be a lame duck if left empty-handed anyway.
Might as well go out with a bang.
There’s a difference between playing hardball and descending into legitimate warfare. Right now Israel and the Palestinians are engaged in the latter, a fourth-generation conflict waged through political means to break each other’s political will. The Palestinians will never be able to match Israel’s military strength. Their only hope is to overwhelm its political and media firepower, then encircle Washington before it can come to the rescue again.