Tokyo bank freezes Iranian assets

A Japanese bank has halted transactions by the Iranian government in response to a U.S. court ordering a $2.6 billion asset freeze over the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marines barracks in Beirut.

A spokesman for the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UJF confirmed the move to the Agence France-Presse, on Thursday.

The court order reflects “the amount that the court in 2007 upheld for compensation demands by families of victims of the 1983 attacks on US forces in Beirut,” the spokesman said.

The bank lodged an appeal against the U.S. court order on Thursday, saying that the action is “problematic” under Japanese law. He would not reveal the amount of money involved or who held the assets. The spokesman, however, said the bank “handles a relatively large number of transactions for trade with Iran,” AFP reported.

The ruling stems from the Oct. 23, 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marines barracks in Beirut, which killed 24 U.S. troops. Tehran has denied responsibility for the attacks, but Washington subsequently named Iran on a list of terrorism-supporting states. A 2007 court ruling in the United States ordered Iran to pay $2.65 billion to victims’ families.

Clinton unfreezes Palestinian aid despite congressional objection

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton overruled a hold by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) on Palestinian aid, allowing $147 million U.S. funds to flow to the West Bank and Gaza.

The aid package is expected to move forward even though it is not typical for the U.S. to release funding if any relevant committee lawmakers object.

“The U.S. has given $3 billion in aid to the Palestinians in the last five years alone, and what do we have to show for it?” Ros-Lehtinen said, according to National Journal. “Now the administration is sending even more. Where is the accountability for U.S. taxpayer dollars?”

U.S. releases $40 million to PA

The United States transferred $40 million in foreign assistance to the Palestinians. 

The Associated Press reported Thursday that congressional lawmakers released the funds, which amount to 20 percent of the $187 million in foreign assistance from fiscal year 2011 that was held up by Congress in response to the Palestinians’ actions at the United Nations. 

The assistance that the U.S. is for humanitarian and economic purposes and not for security assistance.

The release of the 2011 funds comes after an omnibus 2012 appropriations package passed by Congress earlier this month included restrictions that would limit any assistance to the Palestinians if they continued with their efforts to achieve member status at the United Nations. 

During yesterday’s State Department briefing, spokesperson Victoria Nuland emphasized that it was not in the interest of the United States to withhold assistance to the Palestinians.

“We don’t think it’s in U.S. national interest to keep this money frozen. So from that perspective, we’re gratified that 40 million has now been released,” Nuland said.

A senior Republican Hill staffer noted that this could be a good way to test the Palestinian Authority without putting U.S. taxpayers at too much risk.

The staffer said “this is a smart move by the appropriators to put [Mahmoud] Abbas to the test without risking too much taxpayer money. Now that we have built-in legal conditions tying future Palestinian aid to issues like statehood, UN agency membership and a unity government with Hamas, the Congress is making the first move for 2012 – releasing a little bit of money to the PA in good faith. If the Palestinians act responsibly and comply with US law, they’ll get another tranche. If they don’t, especially in these times of great austerity, the American people will understand if we turn the spigot back off.”

Livni says Israel should freeze settlement building

Israel should have instituted a second settlement building freeze in exchange for U.S. guarantees, Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni said on ABC News.

“In choosing between building more buildings or making peace, I prefer to make peace,” Livni said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week with Christiane Amanpour” in a joint interview with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. “I believe that a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians is in Israel’s interest. It’s not a favor to President Obama. Israel needs to make these kinds of decisions in order to live in peace.”

Livni, who heads the left-of-center Kadima Party, met privately with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton over the weekend and attended the Saban Forum in Washington.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would not extend a 10-month moratorium on building in the settlements despite guarantees from the Obama administration.

The current state of the Middle East peace process was due to the makeup of Netanyahu’s right-wing government, said Livni, who indicated that she had offered to form a national unity government with his Likud Party.

Fayyad did not answer directly when asked if the Palestinian leadership would unilaterally declare a Palestinian state.

“What we are committed to is statehood. Not a declaration of statehood, we’re looking for a state,” he said. “We did make a declaration of statehood [in] 1988. This time we’re looking for a real state on the ground.”

Fayyad said he was waiting to hear from Netanyahu on what the Israeli leader means when he says he is committed to a Palestinian state.

Palestinians reject offer of recognition in exchange for freeze

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would reinstate a West Bank construction freeze if the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

Netanyahu made the offer Monday in a wide-ranging speech at the opening of the Knesset’s winter session.

“If the Palestinian leadership will say unequivocally to its people that it recognizes Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, I will be ready to convene my government and request a further suspension,” Netanyahu said. “Just as the Palestinians expect us to recognize their state, we expect reciprocal treatment.”

The Palestinian Authority issued a statement rejecting Netanyahu’s offer immediately following the speech.

Netanyahu called the deal a “trust-building step.” He said that such recognition was not a precondition to talks for Israel.

The prime minister said that he has floated the idea to the Palestinians, who have not been responsive to the idea.

“The United States is attempting other means to ensure that the talks take place,”  he said.

Netanyahu pointed out that Israel enforced a 10-month building freeze in the West Bank “with determination and without compromise,” adding that “Unfortunately, the Palestinians wasted those 10 months as well. Now they demand that we continue the moratorium as a condition to continuing the talks. I hope they are not doing so to avoid making the real decisions necessary for a peace agreement.”

In saying that a peace agreement must include a strong security arrangement, Netanyahu pointed out that Israel previously had peaceful relations with both Iran and Turkey, with whom Israel’s relations have “deteriorated against our will.”

The statement by the Palestinians said they would return to peace talks in exchange for a freeze on building in the settlements.

“The issue of the Jewishness of the state has nothing to do with the matter,”  said Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

Why Israel allowed the settlement freeze to expire

In the four weeks since direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks resumed, settlement construction has been identified widely as the most immediate obstacle to the survival of negotiations.

In media accounts about the diplomatic standoff over the issue, Israel’s decision not to extend its self-imposed 10-month freeze on settlement building has been portrayed as a slap in the face to the Obama administration, deepening Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and creating more stumbling blocks to a final peace accord between Israelis and Palestinians.

This week, world leaders reportedly telephoned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to urge him to extend the freeze. French President Nicolas Sarkozy called for an end to settlement building following a meeting in Paris with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and Quartet peacemaking envoy Tony Blair met with Netanyahu twice over four days. All to no avail.

The Palestinians, meanwhile, say they will wait a week before carrying out the threat of withdrawing from the peace talks.

“Of course we don’t want to end negotiations; we want to continue,” Abbas told Europe 1 radio, according to Israel’s daily Haaretz. “But if colonization continues, we will be forced to end them.”

In Israel, the only response is the rumbling of earth-moving equipment headed for construction sites in the West Bank.

That’s because what is perceived around the world as Israeli stubbornness is seen much differently in Israel. The differences in outlook cut to the heart not only of how Israelis view these negotiations but how they view the future border between Israel and a Palestinian state.

In Jerusalem, it is the Palestinians who are seen as stubborn for sticking to their insistence that settlement building be halted before coming to the negotiating table. Never before had such a precondition been imposed on negotiations; in the past, Israelis and Palestinians talked while both continued to build in their respective West Bank communities.

Having offered the freeze unilaterally 10 months ago to coax the Palestinians back to the negotiating table and satisfy U.S. demands for an Israeli good-will gesture, the Israeli government sees itself as the accommodating party whose gesture was never reciprocated. Rather, it took the Palestinian nine months to agree to resume negotiations, leaving virtually no time for substantive progress before the freeze expired.

Then there are the political considerations: Netanyahu’s right-leaning coalition partners made clear that extending the freeze was a nonstarter. Perhaps most important, however, the freeze was seen by many Israelis as unfair.

The vast majority of the 300,000 or so Jews who live in the West Bank are families living in bedroom communities within easy commuting distance of Jerusalem or metropolitan Tel Aviv. While some Israelis moved to the settlements for ideological reasons, for many the motivating factor was economic: Housing was much cheaper in the West Bank than in Israel proper.

What’s more, for decades the government offered Israelis economic incentives to settle across the Green Line—the 1949 armistice line that marked the Jordan-Israel border until the 1967 Six-Day War.

During the freeze, these Israelis saw themselves as unfairly penalized: Why were they barred from expanding their homes when their Palestinians neighbors were not?

“Stop making us look like monsters,” Yigal Dilmoni, director of the information office for the Yesha Council, the settlers’ umbrella organization, told JTA in a recent interview.

The problem, of course, stems from the ambiguous nature of Israel’s presence in the West Bank.

Most nations view the area as illegally occupied by Israel. The Israeli government views it as disputed territory captured from Jordan in the 1967 war. While Israel annexed some territories captured in that war (eastern Jerusalem from Jordan, the Golan Heights from Syria) and withdrew from others either unilaterally or within a peace deal (the Sinai Peninsula in a deal with Egypt, the Gaza Strip unilaterally), Israel left the West Bank in legal limbo.

The Palestinians claim the land as the site of their future state.

In Israel, many on the right believe that Israel should not cede an inch, and many on the left say settlements are a crime and the West Bank should be entirely Palestinian. But the majority Israeli view is that most of the West Bank will end up as Palestine while parts of it—large Jewish settlement blocs adjacent to the Green Line—will be annexed to Israel.

In almost all the scenarios, Israel plans to keep the major settlement blocs. Among them are Gush Etzion, a largely religious cluster of towns with some 55,000 people less than 10 miles from Jerusalem; Maale Adumim, a mixed religious-secular city of some 35,000 about five miles east of Jerusalem; and Modiin Illit, a haredi Orthodox city of some 45,000 located less than two miles inside the West Bank, halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

More difficult is Ariel, a city of 18,000 located approximately 13 miles inside the West Bank. Israel also aims to keep the smaller settlements near the West Bank-Israel boundary. This plan encompasses the vast majority of the settler population.

Israeli officials say they have received assurances from U.S. officials that this would be the case—most notably in the April 2004 letter by then-President George W. Bush to then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Operating under this assumption, the Israeli government viewed a complete, open-ended settlement freeze as unreasonable: If the major settlement blocs will be Israeli, why stop building within them?

After 10 months of an experimental freeze to see what it would elicit from the Palestinians, their return to the negotiating table was not enough. It was time for the experiment to end.

Op-Ed: Netanyahu’s choice

The State of Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are fast approaching a fork in the road.

Down one path lies a future of settlement expansion, continued control over the entire West Bank and a population under Israeli rule in which non-Jews outnumber Jews.

Some Israelis to the prime minister’s right see no problem on this path. They are consciously supporting a “one-state solution” in which Israel keeps all the land without addressing how non-Jews maintain the rights necessary to maintain Israel’s democratic character. Others, like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, believe this is Israel’s path by default, since there is no way to achieve peace in this generation.

The cost to Israel of going down this path, however, is further international isolation and a place as a pariah among the nations. Down this path lies never-ending conflict and little promise of long-term security, or even survival, for the nation-state of the Jewish people.

The other choice is compromise, some of it painful to many Israelis. On this path, Israel establishes an eastern border based on the pre-1967 borders (with equal land swaps) and builds only within that border, relinquishing dreams of Greater Israel. It removes far-flung settlements and relocates their Jewish residents within the country’s borders. It acknowledges Arab East Jerusalem as the capital of a new Palestinian state and agrees to compensate Palestinian refugees. 

In return, Israel will get solid international commitment to its security and legitimacy, recognition of its borders and acceptance in the region by its neighbors.

Stark choices also face those in the United States who care deeply about Israel’s future and about peace and stability in the Middle East.

On the left, some criticized the new direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks as fruitless before they even began and are now preparing to badmouth any compromises made to keep alive the chances of negotiated resolution to the conflict.

Their aversion to Netanyahu makes it hard for them to accept that he may be the one best positioned to lead them to the promised land of peace. Their answers—increasing international pressure on Israel, holding out for other leadership or banking on a solution imposed by a U.S. president or the United Nations—are far more likely dead ends than paths to conflict resolution.

On the right, some already are laying the groundwork for blaming the eventual collapse of the talks on the Palestinians. They highlight a “settlement freeze” during which thousands of units of new housing were built over the pre-1967 Green Line and then ask why Palestinians won’t acknowledge Israel as a “Jewish state” at the start of talks they say should have “no preconditions.” Theirs, too, is a dead-end path filled with zero-sum politics and blame games.

So here we all are at the fork in the road, in search of the path that brings stability to the Middle East, peace to all its people and long-term security for Israel as the democratic, national home of the Jewish people.

For the prime minister, the first step on the road should be to suspend settlement construction just a bit longer—not even a full freeze, simply the compromise that he himself shaped last fall—so that negotiations can continue.  Down the road it will mean far tougher concessions and sacrifices—on both sides. But defining a border ends the debate over settlements forever, and whatever building is delayed in the short term can be quickly and legitimately undertaken in communities that through negotiation are recognized as within the State of Israel.

For the American Jewish community, it is time to move past recriminations and finger pointing, to stop worshiping the ideal and to accept the possible. It is time to pledge support to any Israeli prime minister who chooses to make the tough decisions needed to end the conflict though a negotiated two-state solution.

Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, said last week that he anticipates opposition from some parts of the American Jewish community as Israel makes further moves for peace, and he appealed for support from American Jews as Israel prepares to take risks for peace.

It’s not the first time an Israeli official has lamented the lack of vocal support for efforts to reach peace from Jewish Americans. Support from Jewish Americans is never short when Israel is at war, under attack or simply under pressure. But when it makes moves for peace, support can be much harder to come by.

The fork in the road is clear for the prime minister and for American Jews. The time for decision is now.

Jeremy Ben-Ami is the president and founder of J Street.