The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged mepp
Reasons for Dennis Ross' departure

I have no idea why Dennis Ross, to the surprise of many, has announced he will leave his White House position next month, as the NYT reported. Some questions this raises:

  • Why did Ross make the announcement at a gathering of Jewish leaders? Is it linked to the recent comments by Obama and Sarkozy about Netanyahu? Ross was often said to be, among other things, a key liaison to the lobby writ large — in a sense, their man inside the White House of a president that Zionists never fully trusted. 
  • As a corollary: does this mean that major Jewish organizations are likely to dump Obama for re-election? This is what Elliott Abrams suggests (perhaps wishful thinking on his part, and not representative in any case of the wider average Jewish-American electorate which remains pretty Democratic and mostly concerned about other issues than Israel — even if the major Jewish organizations have significant fundraising clout).
  • Is it linked to Obama's Iran policy, including his reluctance to beat the war drums? Ross was supposed to be the key pointman on Iran — was he pushed out of that role or frustrated because he could not get his way?
  • Is it simply that with the peace process going nowhere (Ross having made sure of that), he is no longer needed or no longer feels useful?
  • Is it that, ahead of the presidential election, the Obama administration will not engage in any major new initiatives, and thus Ross feels like he would be twiddling his thumbs waiting for an uncertain second term?
  • Or maybe it's just the promise to his wife — but if so, how come we didn't know earlier than he would leave in December 2011?

Whatever the reason, good riddance.

The Economist debates the Middle East Peace Process

The Economist is hosting one its week-long online debates this week, on the following question:

This house believes that bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are not currently a viable way to reach a two-state solution. 

On one side of the debate is David Makovsky, an Israeli-American and a major figure of the Israel lobby writ large in Washington and director of the leading Zionist think tank WINEP.

On the other side is Daniel Levy, who is Israeli-British, the co-director of the left-leaning New America Foundation's Middle East Task Force, and former peace-processor in the government of Ehud Barak. Levy has written some great things generally and is taking the lead on skepticism about resuming negotiations now. 

Two Israelis. Two commonly seen talking heads about the nitty-gritty of the 20-year peace process. I like Daniel Levy and his work, so at least there is a real difference between the sides, but still: there are so much fewer opportunities for Palestinian (or other Arab) analysts to put their views on this topic to a public of the kind The Economist can muster. 

The Economist's fine former Jerusalem correspondent, Gideon Lichtfield, introduces the debate with some caveats about the fact that you have Israelis debating this, rather than an Israeli and a Palestinian:

In their next statements our speakers will take their arguments further. But by now you may well be asking why we have two foreign-born Jews debating this issue, rather than a Jew and a Palestinian, and preferably native ones.

That was actually an accident of logistics rather than an ideological choice, but the fact is that on this particular question, national identity counts for little. This is not a clash between Israeli and Palestinian views (which range widely, in any case) on what is just; it is a much more pragmatic argument, reflecting the disputes in international policy circles, where both men now work, about how to get things moving. There are Palestinians who will take Mr Makovsky's side, and Israelis who will find even Mr Levy's cautious hope that peace talks can one day resume too optimistic.

You may also wonder why we restricted the debate to a fairly narrow spectrum of opinion. Mr Levy and Mr Makovsky differ mainly on how to get to two states, and some will say that is the wrong question to ask. We could have invited a "one-stater" who believes that Israel's occupation is too entrenched to undo, and that the only solution is to create a single country with equal rights for all Jews and Palestinians. At the other extreme, we could have asked an Israeli right-winger to argue that the Palestinians must remain in stateless limbo to ensure Israeli security. But it would have been an unedifying shouting matchhence the narrow framing. Where the Middle East is concerned, it is hard enough just getting people to agree on what to disagree on.

We will, however, broaden the conversation with two guest contributors, one Israeli and one Palestinian, who will each add a different perspective. 

Still, it adds up to three Israelis and one Palestinian. It's not that this debate between two people who know the fine details of peace-processing is not interesting. And I'm not saying that there has to be absolute parity in nationalities. But why restrain the debate to being about the modalities, rather than the very relevance, of the two-state solution? Perhaps they should correct this by making a future debate involving mostly Palestinians about some other aspect of the conflict, such as what should be done about settlers, or perhaps the viability of the one-state solution. After all, why air the same stale ideas all the time? 

On Egypt's Gaza policy

After the recent cabinet change, Egypt now has a Prime Minister and a Minister of Foreign Affairs who argue against Egypt's role in the Gaza blockade. Nabil al-Arabi, the new FM, in particular is on record has criticizing that policy on the grounds of international humanitarian law. Will we see a change in the policy anytime soon?

In some sense, it already has changed. Palestinian officials from Hamas have been allowed to travel from Rafah. The border crossing has also been re-opened after a month-long shutdown following January 25, although it is still only taking 300 people a day. But fundamentally, the official position is the same for now. It's based on a legal reality that the siege of Gaza is Israel's responsibility, since it is the occupying power, as well as more convoluted legalism that the border cannot fully be reopened until Gaza is part of an independent Palestinian state. The real reasons for Egypt's participation in the blockade were a mixture of anti-Hamas sentiment, legitimate concern that Egypt could be held responsible for Hamas' actions by Israel, American and Israeli pressure on Cairo, and a fear that the Israelis were maneuvering to dump the Gaza problem onto Egypt's lap.

It's true that Israel is chiefly responsible for Gaza, which is still legally considered occupied territory despite the 2005 withdrawal, since it controls the borders and makes repeated incursions. Gaza cannot be considered separately from the rest of Palestinian territory. But it's also true that Egypt has a moral responsibility to address the humanitarian situation in Gaza, as well as encourage the international community to pressure Israel into lifting the siege. There's a reasonable middle-ground: set up a system for orderly passage of people at Rafah, and provide the water and electricity Gazans need. The passage of goods is more problematic, since it would involve a review of customs agreements that the Palestinians have with Israel (perhaps not so much of an issue considering the state of Israel-Palestine relations and the Israelis' unwillingness to make peace) as well as tempt Israel into closing its crossings to Gaza on the ground that Gaza can simply trade through Egypt. There are no easy solutions here, and perhaps the answer lays more in a dramatic escalation in Egypt-Israel relations over this issue (which I'm not sure would necessarily work to improve the conditions for Gazans.)

But perhaps a first start is to make an announcement that would make it clear that Egypt finds the current Gaza set up unacceptable, breaks with the ridiculous Quartet positions, and calls for the abandonment of the international community's current approach to Israel-Palestine. It might not achieve much, but at least it would send a clear message that Cairo won't back business as usual with the Israelis. 

A few links on the EU and Israel/Palestine

Some interesting recent developments in the Israel/Palestine issue, notably in terms of EU-Israel relations. The letter cited at the end from European heavyweights who were formerly deeply involved in EU policymaking is quite important.

EU stops short of outright recognition of Palestinian state - but final statement is weak and limp, as usual (I guess the usual suspects — UK, Netherlands, France, Germany and some of the newer Eastern states — provided protection for Israel.)

Hamas reiterates 'all of Palestine' claim - Mixed messages from Hamas, as always.

US envoy returns to grasp nettle of Mideast peace - Mitchell resurfaces.

Palestinians express doubts over 2-state future - No kidding.

Letter from European Former Leaders Group (EFLG) [PDF]

Update: I should have also mentioned this great letter from The Elders.

Excerpt from the above letter:

It is now one year on and we appear to be no closer to a resolution of this conflict. To the contrary, developments on the ground, primarily Israel’s continuation of settlement activity in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) including in East Jerusalem, pose an existential threat to the prospects of establishing a sovereign, contiguous and viable Palestinian state also embracing Gaza, and therefore pose a commensurate threat to a two-state solution to the conflict.

Given this situation and the urgent need for action, we consider it a matter of fundamental credibility that the Council revisit the principles and requirements it enunciated in December 2009 and establish the next steps forward at its meeting scheduled for 13 December 2010. In addition to reconfirming the framework and principles it collectively adopted in December 2009, we consider it vital that the Council should also identify concrete measures to operationalize its agreed policy and thence move to implementation of the agreed objectives. Europe cannot afford that the application of these policy principles be neglected and delayed yet again. Time to secure a sustainable peace is fast running out.

[. . .]

During the past twelve months, the EU has continued to develop its bilateral relations with Israel within the framework of the ENP, with additional support provided in other fora, such as Israel’s accession to the OECD. Yet Israel has continued with settlement construction in the OPT, including East Jerusalem, and refused to negotiate seriously on terminating occupation and the establishment of an independent and sovereign Palestinian state.

The EU has always maintained that settlements are illegal, but has not attached any consequences for continued and systematic Israeli settlement expansion in the OPT, including East Jerusalem.

We therefore strongly believe that the EU must make absolutely clear that enhancement or upgrading of the EU-Israel Association Agreement and other bilateral agreements and programs will not occur unless settlements are frozen.

We furthermore recommend in the strongest possible terms that the EU examine the legal implications for the EU of the continued application of bilateral agreements by Israel to Israelis and Israeli entities in the OPT, i.e. to areas outside the internationally recognized boundaries of the State of Israel. We consider it necessary that the EU add safeguard clauses to these agreements which rule out their application to Occupied Territories, to ensure that entities prohibited by international law and considered unlawful by EU policy, such as settlements, are excluded from European privileges and will not be promoted and legitimized by their provision. We consider it necessary that the EU bring an end to the import of settlement products which are, in contradiction with EU labeling regulations, marketed as originating in Israel. We consider it simply inexplicable that such products still enjoy benefits under preferential trade agreements between the EU and Israel.

Hopefully next year will see the development of a stronger BDS movement in Europe after 2009's progress, and EU leaders bringing an end to Israel's Advanced Status negotiations with the EU, which are an outrage.

Flotilla fallout: strategize and disentangle

I want to get this quick thought down amidst tons of work and much distraction from Twitter and the flotilla fallout.

There are three issues that have been raised at the heart of international debate as a result of the flotilla murders:

  1. The need for an investigation into the incident;
  2. The need to lift the Gaza blockade;
  3. The longer-term need for a breakthrough in the deadlock in the Middle East peace process caused in part by Israel's intransigeant and aggressive behavior, from settlement expansion to landgrabs to assistance to attacks by settlers to its lack of desire for a permanent resolution that is in anyway reasonable (or indeed, its lack of interest in a viable two-state solution)

These must be disentangled from one another and prioritized. The international response so far, at the UN, has put the focus on the investigation. It should instead be moved to lifting the Gaza blockade. Several governments have explicitly come out in favor of this, as well as many opinion leaders around the world.

The investigation process is underway, and there will inevitably be battles over what direction it takes. There is a principle in parts of international law that countries get to conduct investigations on their own actions themselves, and that things go to an international investigation only after the country in question is shown to be incapable of conducting a fair investigation. This is certainly the case with Israel — the precedent of the military investigation into the Gaza war, which was inadequate and led to the Goldstone report suggests that. There may also be a legal argument that Turkey should be conducting the investigation, although that's up to Turkey. I say let that process take place and be debated, but do not allow it to take center stage.

Gaza is the crux of the matter. An international effort towards lifting the blockade must be inventive and propose a solution to a complicated problem quickly. They should be focused on lifting the restrictions Israel imposes on goods coming into Gaza and ensure that reconstruction materials are allowed in. They must also tackle the security demands that Israel will make to prevent weapons going into Gaza. International institutions like the UN will almost certainly have to play a role, and perhaps also the European Union as monitors (as has been suggested before.) This is costly both politically and financially, support needs to be rallied around the idea. But an immediate aim must be allowing aid and reconstruction material, and secondly relinking the Gazan economy to that of the West Bank, i.e. restoring Palestine's economic integrity. 

This brings us to reviving an admittedly discredited peace process.

Update: to clarify (see Helena Cobban's comment below) I think focus peace process and what follows from here should take place after the blockade on Gaza is lifted.

Fully normalizing Gaza's status has to mean abandoning the "West Bank First" strategy implemented by the Bush administration in 2006, endorsed by the Quartet and continued by the Obama administration. It has to mean working towards Palestinian reconciliation leading to new elections and a legitimate Palestinian representation (neither the PA nor the Hamas government are currently legitimate, since their electoral terms have expired), and turning the proximity talks into preliminary talks while that can happen. It means renewed efforts at stopping potential spoiler states (Iran, Syria, Egypt and the United States) and spoiler factions (parts of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Dahlan Gang, Shas, Israel Beiteinu and others). And it may mean abandoning some of the legal infrastructure of the Oslo process and the Quartet process and bringing a fresh approach. I'm not optimistic, but as I see it this might be necessary. There is a great risk that various parties involved in this conflict will choose to grandstand and temporize — the Arab states with their threats of reneging the Arab Initiative, the US by continuing a policy based entirely on shielding Israel from hard decisions and sensible behavior. Now is the time to push, not retreat.

Out of chaos and tragedy, a breakthrough is possible — but only with intensive and continuous effort.

Update: Along the same lines do read Helena Cobban, who has much deeper knowledge of the intricacies of the Middle East peace process than I do: How to end the siege of Gaza and How to end the siege of Gaza, addendum.