Lots of listening, no grand initiatives expected on Obama’s Mideast trip

When President Obama visits Israel next week, Gavriel Yaakov wants him to jump-start the peace process.

“I’m excited,” said Yaakov, 67, sitting in a Tel Aviv mall. “I want negotiations to get to an agreement on a long-term peace with the Palestinians.”

Yaakov said he trusts Obama, but his friend, Yossi Cohen, is more skeptical.

“I’m not excited,” said Cohen, 64, who charged that the president supports Islamists and “hasn't done anything” to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon.

“No one has helped,” Cohen said. “Whoever thinks there will be peace, [it will take] another 200 years.”

Their views reflect two of the president's overriding concerns as he prepares to embark on a three-day trip to Israel next week.

Obama remains deeply unpopular in Israel, with approval ratings of about 33 percent last year, and Jewish leaders and local analysts are urging him to try to improve his relationship with the Israeli public. But the president also is seen as wanting to promote a renewed effort at Middle East peace, though administration officials, wary of a top-down push for peace, have emphasized that the president is leaving such initiatives up to the parties there.

In a meeting with American Jewish leaders last week, Obama conceded that the short-term outlook for a peace agreement is “bleak,” but that prospects could improve in the coming months. Instead, the president was focused on how best to reach out to Israelis, participants said, asking for input about what he should say and whom he should try to reach.

Obama held a similar meeting with Arab-Americans, soliciting their input about his trip and expressing his “commitment to the Palestinian people” and to partnering with the Palestinian Authority in an effort to establish “a truly independent Palestinian state.”

“It creates an opportunity not only for a new beginning between the president's second term and the prime minister of Israel, who is beginning a new term — assuming he puts together a government, which I think he will,” Dennis Ross, Obama's top Iran policy adviser in his first term, said at last week's American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference, before Netanyahu had established his coalition.

“But I think it also is a chance to create a connection with the Israeli public and to demonstrate unmistakably when the president says that he's determined to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons, he isn't saying that from a distance. It's not an abstraction. He can go and he can address the Israeli public directly.”

Obama will land at Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on March 20. He is scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, as well as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Peres will present Obama with the Presidential Medal of Distinction, Israel's highest civilian honor.

His itinerary includes a visit to an Iron Dome missile defense battery, the Israel Museum, the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and the graves of Theodor Herzl and slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. After departing Israel on March 22, Obama will travel to Jordan for consultations with King Abdullah.

The night before his departure, he will address thousands of Israeli students at Jerusalem's convention center. The speech is consistent with Obama's history of directly addressing the public during his trips abroad, and specifically young people.

“I think this is consistent with his town squares,” said Alan Solow, a top Obama fundraiser and former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “He recognizes that in the future, the world will be flatter than today and it's essential that future leaders understand the good intentions of the United States to promote a better and more peaceful world.”

Obama's engagement with Mideast peacemaking was turbulent in his first term. His relationship with Netanyahu has been rocky at best, and his previous attempt to restart the peace process, in 2010, failed after three weeks.

The president's low approval rating in Israel is likely only to complicate matters. The 33 percent rating is actually a significant improvement over his first term, when pressure on Israel to freeze settlement expansion in the West Bank helped push his approval numbers below 10 percent.

“Obama needs to reestablish a relationship of trust with the Israeli public,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. “Whether Obama likes it or not, Netanyahu is the elected leader of the State of Israel, and whether Netanyahu likes it or not, Obama is the elected leader of the U.S. It’s time for the two leaders to accept the inevitable and learn to work together.”

U.S. administration officials have aimed to lower expectations for any concrete outcome to the Obama trip, denying recent reports in the Israeli media that the president is preparing a major peace initiative and emphasizing that he intends to do a lot of listening. Analysts say in order to make progress on the peace front or the Iranian nuclear threat, another issue much on the minds of Israelis, Obama needs to be more candid about past failures.

“For a game-changing speech, you need to speak realistically,” said Gil Troy, a McGill University history professor who is also a Hartman fellow. “You can’t pretend it’s the start of the Oslo peace process. You need to move forward based on the failures. I think Israelis are primed for it.”

Klein Halevi said a similar honesty should be evident in Obama's treatment of the Iran issue. Israelis are doubtful of the president's repeated assertion that all options are on the table in addressing the nuclear threat, he said, and urged the president to speak directly to the Iranian leadership in his convention center address.

“When Obama speaks on Iran, he shouldn’t be speaking only to the Israeli public,” Klein Halevi said. “He should be directly addressing the leadership of Iran from Jerusalem.”

Despite the caution coming from the White House, Israelis are anything but unified in their skepticism of a new peace push. On Facebook, 23,000 people have “liked” a push to have Obama address the masses at Rabin Square, the emotionally charged plaza where the prime minister who signed the Oslo Accords was assassinated in 1995.

“We want to send the message that there’s a public desire to turn the page and strive for peace,” said Amit Youlzari, 31, the lead organizer.

With Obama set to speak in Jerusalem, Youlzari has helped arrange for the speech to be shown on large projection screens in the square.

“We want to tell the U.S. that we support Obama and the messages we hear from him,” Youlzari said. “And we want to send the world a picture of a full plaza of people who want peace.”

Ben Sales reported from Tel Aviv and Ron Kampeas from Washington.

Rice: ‘No shortcut’ to Mideast peace

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, told a Jewish group that there is “no shortcut” to peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Achieving a Palestinian state “can only come through direct negotiations and a negotiated two-state solution,”  Rice emphasized during a conversation with American Jewish Committee President David Harris Monday before a crowd of AJC members in New York.

Rice also noted the uncertainty with the Palestinians’ intentions and that “nobody knows for sure what the Palestinians will choose to do, if anything, in the coming weeks or months.”

The Palestinians are adhering to the Middle East Quartet deadline of Jan. 26 for direct negotiations to resume between the parties, but Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Wednesday that there could be a possibility of a resumption of contacts between the parties after he consults with Arab League officials on Feb. 4.

In addition, Rice argued that the U.S. spends “an enormous amount of time defending Israel’s right to defend itself” and that it reflected poorly on member nations that continue to use the United Nations “as a venue in which they can attack and harass Israel.”

Granger warns UNESCO: Admit Palestinians, lose funding

A top congressional appropriator, U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, warned UNESCO that granting the Palestinians full membership could mean a cutoff in U.S. funding for the cultural body.

The Paris-based United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organizations on Wednesday allowed to go ahead a full vote later this month on whether to admit the Palestinians as a member.

“Since April, I have made it clear to the Palestinian leadership that I would not support sending U.S. taxpayer money to the Palestinians if they sought statehood at the United Nations,” Granger (R-Texas) said in a statement. “Making a move in another U.N. agency will not only jeopardize our relationship with the Palestinians, it will jeopardize our contributions to the United Nations. As chairwoman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, I will advocate for all funding to be cut off. This is consistent with current law and I will consider additional actions as needed. 

“There are consequences for short-cutting the process, not only for the Palestinians, but for our longstanding relationship with the United Nations,” the statement concluded.

Granger’s statement cited U.S. law that bans funding of any institution that grants member-state status to the Palestinians.

The United States, Germany, Latvia and Romania opposed the vote. Forty countries voted in favor and 14 abstained.

Israel rejected the approval of the UNESCO vote. “Israel believes that the correct and only way to advance the peace process with the Palestinians is through direct, unconditional negotiations,” said a statement issued by Israel’s Foreign Ministry. “The Palestinians’ actions at UNESCO negate both the bilateral negotiations route and the Quartet’s proposal for continuing the diplomatic process. Their actions are a negative response to Israel’s and the international community’s efforts to promote the peace process.”

“UNESCO’s responsibilities address culture, science and education. UNESCO has remained silent in the face of significant change across the Middle East yet has found time during its’ current meeting to adopt six decisions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The decision to grant the Palestinians membership of UNESCO will not advance their desire for an independent state whatsoever,” teh ministry’s statement said.

The Anti Defamation League called the decision to bring the Palestinian request to a vote “woefully premature and dangerously inappropriate.”

“The Palestinians have unduly politicized this body, and if this action is approved by the full membership, it risks undermining the truly important work of UNESCO,” said ADL National Director Abraham Foxman in a statement.

“UNESCO, or any international organization for that matter, is not the place to grant recognition of a Palestinian state. Seeking such recognition ignores and delays the necessary discussions about what shape proposed borders would take; the very recognition of Israel as a Jewish state; security concerns, and many other issues,” said B’nai B’rith International President Allan J. Jacobs. “All such determinations can only be made directly between the Israelis and Palestinians.”

Is rift looming in U.S.-Israel ties?

In recent months, the tensions that have characterized relations between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government have largely receded into the background.

The Obama administration is preparing to stand virtually alone with Israel at the United Nations in opposing the Palestinians’ statehood push. A consensus is emerging within the administration that Turkey is more to blame than Israel for the crisis in their relations. And officials in the United States and Israel are basking in the afterglow of Obama’s intervention with Egypt to facilitate the rescue of six Israelis during the storming of their Cairo embassy earlier this month.

Yet amid this flowering of good feelings, some observers are pointing to what they see as deeper undercurrents of disquiet in the U.S.-Israel relationship.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a respected Washington think tank that has been consulted in the past by officials of both countries, published a paper last week suggesting that their ties may be changing — and not for the better.

“The United States and Israel have changed and continue to change, but the two countries’ relationship has not kept pace,” said the report by Haim Malka, deputy director of the CSIS’s Middle East program. “For years the growing differences have been papered over, but continuing to do so is both unsustainable and counterproductive.”

The strains transcend any single administration, Malka says, and have resulted in deep-seated disagreements, particularly over the necessity of arriving at an agreement with the Palestinians, with Israelis skeptical of the likelihood of an accord and Americans seeing such a settlement as vital to the interests of both countries.

Dov Zakheim, a former top Pentagon official in Republican administrations who also is deeply involved in the Jewish and pro-Israel communities, also expressed concern about the state of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

“The biggest problem Israelis have: Israelis think they know the United States — they really do, especially the ones with American accents,” he said at the Sept. 16 release event for Malka’s report, in an apparent reference to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was educated in the United States.

“This peace process is a major priority for the United States across the board,” Zakheim said. “It is not just realist Republicans, not just liberals, but the national security community. Israelis are having difficulty coming to terms with that.”

Indeed, discontent with the current state of the Israel-U.S. relationship has been in evidence increasingly in the last couple of years in Washington’s defense establishment — usually a redoubt of pro-Israelism.

David Makovsky, a top analyst at the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said he does not believe there is a major rift on the horizon, but added that the Middle East’s current volatility introduces an element of uncertainty into the alliance.

“The Arab spring is the new X factor,” he said, referring to the unrest sweeping the region.

A top European diplomat who is charged with monitoring the U.S. Middle East posture dismissed talk of a U.S.-Israel rift as “very theoretical.” The diplomat, who asked not to be further identified, said the United States was “covering” for Israel at the United Nations, which is its “traditional role.”

Mark Quarterman, who spent 12 years as part of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations and now directs the CSIS’s Program on Crisis, Conflict, and Cooperation, said “there has been very little change between the Bush administration, the Obama administration and generally across administrations” in voting against resolutions on the Israeli-Palestinian issue and trying to keep it off the Security Council’s agenda.

The Obama administration has said it will veto the Palestinian statehood bid if it comes to a vote in the Security Council, and the United States will likely stand alone with Israel and a handful of other countries should the Palestinians seek enhanced status through the General Assembly. As the General Assembly began its session Wednesday, Obama was slated to meet with Netanyahu but not Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

The United States also has tried to help Israel in its increasingly acrimonious diplomatic fight with Turkey. Sources in frequent contact with the Obama administration say that while officials express frustration with Netanyahu’s refusal to apologize for the deadly May 2010 Israeli raid on a Turkish-flagged ship aiming to break Israel’s Gaza blockade, they are quick to acknowledge that such an apology would not have changed the Islamist Turkish government’s determination to ratchet up confrontation with Israel.

Netanyahu and his team, for their part, have been sounding positive notes about the administration lately. The prime minister lavished praise on Obama for his Cairo intervention, saying that Israel owed Obama “a special measure of gratitude.”

“We’ve enjoyed a period over the last four months of very close coordination with the administration, probably the best coordination that we’ve had over the last two-and-a-half years over the range of issues,” Netanyahu aide Ron Dermer told Politico. “I think that we’re definitely in a good place, with the U.S. administration and us seeing a lot of things eye to eye.”

Obama and the quest for Mideast peace

So, why was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu steaming when he came out of his tête-á-tête with President Barack Obama on May 20? The president’s inherently pro-Palestinian, con-Israeli stance may have been another rude awakening for the prime minister, but the handwriting’s been on the wall for some time now.

Take, for example, candidate Obama’s statement in March 2007 that “nobody has suffered more than the Palestinian people.”  How about the Israeli people, who have had to live with the daily threat of terrorist attacks and bombings and hostile Arab armies on their borders since the inception of the Jewish state in 1948?   

Netanyahu was clearly disconcerted when he heard the president refer to Hamas as “an organization that has resorted to terror” during his press conference with the prime minister.  The imagery conveyed is of desperate Palestinian freedom fighters committing the occasional act of terror as a last resort to drive their Israeli oppressors from their rightful home, not of the coldblooded killers who routinely murder innocent civilians, as they did when they used a laser-guided anti-tank missile last April to specifically target an Israeli school bus, killing 16-year-old Daniel Viflic.

The president’s characterization of Hamas was particularly surprising as the organization has been responsible for the murder of more than 40 U.S. citizens since its formation in 1988 and was declared a terrorist group by the Clinton administration in 1995.  Netanyahu believed the United States and Israel stood shoulder to shoulder on the longstanding policy for both countrie — which, in the case of America, dates back to 1981 and the Reagan administration — that forbids negotiating with terrorists.  Yet Obama, in his Mideast policy address on May 19, soft pedaled the recent political accord between Fatah and Hamas, saying it raised “profound and legitimate questions for Israel” that Palestinian leaders will have to credibly address “… in the weeks and months to come.” 

But that’s far from the only reason Netanyahu was upset with the president.  Why is it that this administration feels compelled to set preconditions for Middle East peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA), and that those preconditions always require Israel to make the first concessions before negotiations begin?  In 2009, negotiations ran aground because Obama insisted on a moratorium on all new settlement activity in the West Bank that Israel rebuffed. Now, the principle he has set forth as a “foundation for negotiations” is that “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that … the Palestinian people [can] govern themselves in a sovereign and contiguous state.”

In his speech to AIPAC on May 22, the president misled the 11,000 American Jews in the audience — 78 percent of whom had voted for him — when he stated that his framework for peace talks has “… been the template for discussions between the United States, Israel and the Palestinians since at least the Clinton administration.”  The truth is that the president’s so-called “even-handed” policy strongly favors the Palestinian position and represents a major change in American policy, with dire implications for Israel and the prospects for Middle East peace.

No U.S. president, from Lyndon Johnson (who was in office during the Six-Day War) through George W. Bush, has ever asserted, implicitly or explicitly, that the Palestinians have a right to 100 percent of the West Bank and the territory governed by the pre-1967 borders. Johnson said a return to pre-1967 borders “is not a prescription for peace but for renewed hostilities.” Reagan stated that “in the pre-1967 borders, Israel was barely 10 miles wide at its narrowest point.  The bulk of Israel’s population lived within artillery range of hostile armies.  I am not about to ask Israel to live that way again.”  And Bush:  “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.” None of the prior eight American presidents since 1967 have said anything about returning to the 1967 borders or land swaps.  By stating that “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps,” Obama is asserting that (i) Palestinians are entitled to the territory governed by the pre-1967 borders and that (ii) should those borders differ, Israel must compensate the Palestinians with other land from the 4,000-year-old ancestral Jewish homeland.  This is a concession Israel is to make before negotiations begin?  What bargaining power would Israel have left?  And, since “mutually” entails the agreement of both parties, what if one party — the Palestinians — doesn’t agree?  Then you’re back to the indefensible 1967 borders.   

Why does this president consistently set Israel up to take the fall?  Netanyahu journeys to Washington to meet with the president at Obama’s request in March 2010 only to be presented with a list of ultimatums for restarting peace talks, including freezing settlement activity in East Jerusalem, and then, when Netanyahu hesitates, the president walks out of the meeting, snubbing him for dinner and the customary photo session for heads of state.  On the eve of last month’s summit with the prime minister, he again ambushes Netanyahu by unveiling a major change in U.S. policy that favors the Palestinians. During the first six months of his presidency, Obama journeyed to Saudi Arabia and Egypt; halfway through the third year of his term, he has yet to visit Israel, America’s staunchest, most democratic and most stable and reliable ally in the region.  Does anyone see a pattern here? 

If Obama wants to set preconditions for peace talks, then why not adopt the most logical, most fundamental and most simplistic one set forth by Netanyahu in his address before Congress on May 24?  Just as Netanyahu, and the Israeli prime ministers before him dating back to Menachem Begin in 1978, have stated that they will accept a Palestinian state, why doesn’t the president join him in calling for the Palestinian leadership to declare that they will accept a Jewish state?  How can there ever be peace if there is no meeting of the minds on this basic premise?  Why wasn’t that the framework for peace negotiations put forth by the president instead of dancing around the issue of having Hamas at the bargaining table? 

The last time Israel swapped land for peace —the Gaza Strip in 2005 — the direct consequence was to have less land and less peace.  With Hamas governing Gaza, suicide bombings, rocket attacks and terrorist strikes against Israeli civilian targets increased markedly, Hamas’ charter (Article 7) advocates the killing of all Jews (not just Israelis, mind you) by Muslims and it has never accepted Israel’s right to exist, stressing its commitment to “obliterating” Israel (preamble to Hamas charter).  Hamas is no friend of America, either.  FBI Director Robert Mueller, whose tenure Obama wishes to extend another two years, cited in testimony before the U.S. Senate that “there is a … threat of a coordinated terrorist attack in the U.S. from Palestinian terrorist organizations, such as Hamas.” According to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Hamas and another terrorist organization, Hezbollah, have joined with Iran in fomenting “subversive activity” in Latin America. 

So, if the president is bound and determined to set preconditions for negotiations between Israel and the newly united Fatah-Hamas Palestinian Authority, why did he not insist — in firm, clear language — that Hamas first renounce terror, recognize Israel’s right to exist, and affirm the previous agreements between the PA and Israel?  Why does the first olive branch always have to come from Israel, and how can it when the party across the table is aiming a gun at its heart?  Although the president took a tougher stance on Hamas in his speech to AIPAC — clearly appealing for the Jewish vote — why didn’t he do so during his national address, when the entire Arab world was listening?  Modified messages for different audiences brings to mind imagery of Yasser Arafat’s pro-peace remarks in English for Western audiences and his pro-violence oratory in Arabic for Muslims.

In his Mideast policy address, Obama also referenced two “wrenching and emotional issues” that remain: “the future of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.”  But his avowed two-state solution with “Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people” is illusory if you give any credence whatsoever to a so-called Palestinian “right of return.” The Jewish state ceases to exist if Palestinian refugees are allowed to return to their former homes in Israel. Hamas knows this, Fatah knows this, and the president knows this. Hamas has never agreed to the permanent (as opposed to “transitional”), peaceful, side-by-side coexistence of a Palestinian state with a Jewish state — not when Hamas chieftain Khaled Meshaal met with ex-President Jimmy Carter in 2008 and not now.  In the words of another Hamas leader, Nizar Rayyan, “Israel is an impossibility.  It is an offense against God.”

If he was going to mention refugees, why didn’t the president raise the issue of the 3,000-year-old Jewish communities in Arab lands that were ethnically cleansed between 1948 and the early 1970s?  Commencing with Arab League retaliation for the declaration of the State of Israel by the United Nations, 1 million Jews were forcibly removed from their homes and personal property, forfeiting 62,000 square miles of land (nearly five times Israel’s 12,600 square miles) and assets worth approximately $300 billion.  What of their “right of return”?  No one believes Jews will ever be allowed to once again peacefully coexist in Muslim lands where they lived for centuries, so why should Israelis think they can survive in a Muslim-majority Israel?

Instead of bringing the parties closer to the bargaining table, Obama has pushed them farther apart.  President Bush gave voice to what has been understood by every American president since Johnson when he observed in 2004 that “an agreed, just, fair and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel.” By reintroducing the Palestinian refugee issue, Obama has further emboldened Fatah and Hamas, leading them to take yet another negotiating position that is a nonstarter for Israel.  After all, you can’t expect Palestinians to take a less pro-Palestinian stance than the president of the United States …

Hamas is no more America’s friend than is al-Qaeda or Hezbollah. Israel may be Hamas’ immediate target, but Jews everywhere and all of Western culture — those who “have closed [their] ears to the Messenger of Allah” (Rayyan) — is in their crosshairs. The president had a golden opportunity to send a strong, unequivocal message that there is no place for a defiant Hamas to be a part of the Middle East peace process, and he didn’t take it, a fact that is troubling for any number of reasons, not the least of which is why the president used a speech that was billed to be a major policy pronouncement on the Arab spring to instead put Israel once again on the chopping block.

The Arab spring movement is not about Arabs rebelling against Israelis; it’s about the Arab street rebelling against repressive Arab rulers in Iran (June 2009), Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya and Syria.  So why divert attention away to once again scapegoat the Jews?  Osama bin Laden did it when, post-9/11, he adopted the mantle and “justification” of Palestinian freedom fighter. Bashar al-Assad did it when he orchestrated having Palestinian refugees storm the Syrian border with Israel on May 15, the day after the anniversary of Israel’s independence.

When Obama remarked in April 2010 that the Middle East conflict ended up “costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure,” he drew an explicit link between Israeli-Palestinian strife and the safety of American soldiers as they battle Islamic extremism and terrorism in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere.  This is not the first time the president has expressed this distorted view that blames Israel for the threat of Islamic terrorism facing Western countries.  In October 2007, he asserted that “our neglect of the Middle East peace process has spurred despair and fueled terrorism.” This outrageous blood libel accepts the narrative of al-Qaeda and speaks volumes about this president’s beliefs and thought processes. Perhaps the virulently anti-Semitic and anti-Israel preachings of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., who was Obama’s pastor for nearly 20 years, officiated at his wedding, baptized his children, gave him the title of his book, “The Audacity of Hope,” and served as his “sounding board” and spiritual mentor, have had more of an influence on Obama’s world view than people realize.

If the president is endeavoring to curry favor in the Muslim world by pressuring Israel back to the bargaining table with (i) a seemingly irreconcilable partner, (ii) a new, “zero-sum” game tied to 1967 borders with “swaps” that means Israel has to give up some of its own pre-1967 territory to get West Bank settlements, (iii) a contiguous Palestinian state that borders Israel, Jordan and Egypt that could connect Palestine while dividing Israel and does nothing to ensure Israel’s security, (iv) a potential “right to return” for Palestinian refugees — despite their now getting their own sovereign country, and (v) a divided Jerusalem, then the Obama administration has for the second time in three years doomed peace talks before they can even start.  Is it any wonder Netanyahu is steaming and this president has the lowest approval rating among Israelis of any sitting American president?  Now, if only American Jews would wake up … 

Lloyd Greif, the son of Holocaust survivors, is president and CEO of Greif & Co., a member of the board of directors of the California Chamber of Commerce and benefactor of the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at the University of Southern California.

UN urges bold steps to relaunch Mideast peace talks

The United Nations called on Thursday for “bold and decisive steps” to relaunch the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as the region awaits a possible new initiative by U.S. President Barack Obama.

UN political chief Lynn Pascoe and ambassadors of key Security Council countries said it was important to break the deadlock soon as a proclaimed September deadline for reaching an agreement draws closer.

Peace talks opened last September with the aim of an accord in one year but quickly broke down after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to extend a partial freeze on Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Settlements are the issue

While clearing away the rubble from Dennis Prager’s latest attack on “liberals,” which he likes to think is not ad hominem (unless, of course, one understands the term literally), we have to acknowledge that he may have a point.  One can debate whether Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are “the major impediment to peace in the Middle East.”  After all, there are weighty factors other than settlements that complicate prospects for a negotiated settlement, including Israeli political opinion, Palestinian public opinion, the attitude of neighboring Arab states, and the lack of resolve of the international community to offer carrots and sticks at the appropriate moments.

And yet, to those who brandish the claim that settlements are not the sole or primary obstacle to peace, one can only say, in the words of our sages: Tafasta merube, lo tafasta—you grasped a lot, but you didn’t grasp anything.  For settlements are the major impediment to Israel’s future as a Jewish state.  If you care about this future, you have to stop blaming others and start looking at the harsh reality.  This is not a liberal or conservative question.  This is a matter of survival.  Ignore it, and you are hastening the demise of that which you profess to love and cherish.

There is no time to lose.  Meron Benvenisti, the keen observer and former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, has been arguing for decades that the process is irreversible.  He suggests that it is no longer possible to uproot the intricate patchwork of settlements housing nearly 300,000 settlers that snakes through the West Bank (which is not to count the nearly 200,000 in the suburban communities ringing Jerusalem).  Not only is settlement a multi-billion dollar investment.  Pulling out of the occupied territories would require an exertion of political will that no Israeli government since 1967 has demonstrated.  Experience does indeed show that it is far easier for the Israeli government to build another housing unit in Ariel than to tear one down in Gush Katif.

This tendency follows the logic of what is often called “natural growth.”  Why should a family not be allowed to build an additional room or even apartment for its children?  Even if one accepts the claim that settlements are a violation of the Fourth Geneva Conventions, as I do, it is not easy to turn a deaf ear altogether to the call for new housing starts, especially when thinking of the children or grandchildren of settlers who had no say in the decision to live in the territories.

But “natural growth” is not the benign and unobjectionable process that the expression implies.  All growth in today’s world is regulated, contingent on the kind of sensitivity to the surrounding environment and one’s neighbors that the settlers blithely and often violently eschew.  In the context of Israeli settlements, natural growth is but a mask for expropriation and dispossession of the Palestinian population.

Even more dangerously, the minute one begins to argue on the grounds of natural growth or, for that matter, Jewish rights to Judea and Samaria, the battle is lost.  If settlements remain where they are, then the region between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea will become one political entity.  And within a matter of decades, if not years, the majority of the residents of that area will be Palestinian.  How can Israel then describe itself as democratic if it doesn’t allow all the residents of the land over which it claims control the right to vote?  If it grants the franchise at that point, Israel will have engaged in a fifty-year building project the net result of which is to vote itself out of existence.  The alternatives to this scenario are even more dire—either the denial of the franchise to Palestinians or their expulsion in the name of preserving the Jewish character of the state of Israel.

Faced with this array of options, it seems strange to trumpet the claim that settlements are not the major impediment to peace.  This dangerously misses the point.  To salvage a ship that is already sinking requires clear-headed, rapid, and dramatic steps.  Israel is now faced with a difficult, but unmistakable choice: either subordinate the interests of individual settlers or sacrifice the survival of the larger society.  There is no reason to believe that the Israeli government will make the right decision.  In any case, the moment for course correction may have already passed.  But at least we should not join Dennis Prager in the kind of willful and triumphant blindness that has brought Israel to the brink of collective suicide.

David N. Myers teaches Jewish history and chairs the History Department at UCLA.

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.

Abbas threatens to resign if talks fail

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to resign if peace talks with Israel fail.

Abbas made a statement indicating that he would quit over a failure of the recently launched direct peace negotiations at a recent meeting of the Fatah Central Committee, The Jerusalem Post reported Sunday.

“I have made a decision and I will announce it at the appropriate time,” Abbas said, according to the Post, which cited a senior PA official quoted in the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi daily.

The members of the committee understood Abbas’ declaration as a new threat to resign.

There is no obvious successor to Abbas. If Abbas did resign, the party’s central committee would meet and appoint one of its members to the position, according to the Post.

Meanwhile, the Palestinians continue to assert that they will halt negotiations if Israel does not extend the freeze on construction in West Bank settlements.

“If they extend the settlement freeze, the negotiations will continue,” he said. “If not, the talks will be stopped,” Nabil Shaath, a member of the PA delegation to the peace talks, said over the weekend, the Post reported.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday during a meeting of his party’s Cabinet members that Israel would not extend the 10-month freeze, which is scheduled to expire Sept. 26.

Meanwhile, Israeli President Shimon Peres left for New York on Saturday night to represent Israel at the opening meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. He is scheduled to meet there with Abbas in an effort to convince him to continue with the peace negotiations after the settlement construction freeze ends, Haaretz reported.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman had been expected to represent Israel at this week’s session.

U.S.: Direct talks on track, no deadline

An Obama administration official said direct Israeli-Palestinian talks are on track, but would not set a time frame.

“We are working through the details of what is necessary to get the parties into direct negotiations,” P.J. Crowley, the State Department spokesman, said Wednesday, referring to the Quartet grouping of the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union, which guides the Middle East peace process. “We fully expect that we’re going to get there. We just, at this moment, are still working directly and trying to move the parties to that point where they’re prepared to enter into direct negotiations.”

Crowley said the Quartet was still considering releasing a statement prior to the talks; Palestinians want such a statement as a means of committing Israel to discussing final-status issues, including borders, Jerusalem and refugees. Israel’s government has resisted such outlines.

“There could very well be a statement,” Crowley said. “When that statement occurs, I can’t tell you. I don’t know. We’re not at the point yet where a statement has been agreed to.”

Jane Fonda responds to Toronto backlash

Follow our complete coverage of the Toronto Film Festival boycotts on our Hollywood Jew blog.

Reposted with permission of Jane Fonda

I recently signed a letter protesting the Toronto International Film Festival’s decision to showcase and celebrate Tel Aviv. This in the very year when Gaza happened. The decision made the festival a participant in the newly launched campaign to “rebrand” Israel. Arye Mekel, the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Director General for Cultural Affairs, has said that artists and writers must be enlisted in order to “show Israel’s prettier face, so we are not thought of purely in the context of war.” The protesters felt it was wrong for the much-respected festival to be used in this manner. The role of art, after all, is not to prettify but to expose reality with all its contradictions and complexities.

I signed the letter without reading it carefully enough, without asking myself if some of the wording wouldn’t exacerbate the situation rather than bring about constructive dialogue.

Last week, Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz, director of the Chai Center in Los Angeles, explained to me the meaning of the Hebrew word “teshuva”—to fix things you have done incorrectly, not just by never doing them again but by “coming with a sincere heart. Words that come from the heart enter the heart.”

Some of the words in the protest letter did not come from my heart, words that are unnecessarily inflammatory: The simplistic depiction of Tel Aviv as a city “built on destroyed Palestinian villages,” for instance, and the omission of any mention of Hamas’s 8-month-long rocket and mortar attacks on the town of Sderot and the western Negev to which Israel was responding when it launched its war on Gaza. Many citizens now suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result. In the hyper-sensitized reality of the region in which any criticism of Israel is swiftly and often unfairly branded as anti-Semitic, it can become counterproductive to inflame rather than explain and this means to hear the narratives of both sides, to articulate the suffering on both sides, not just the Palestinians. By neglecting to do this the letter allowed good people to close their ears and their hearts.

Additionally, protesting the use of the festival to “rebrand” Israel was perhaps too easily misunderstood. It certainly has been wildly distorted. Contrary to the lies that have been circulated, the protest letter was not demonizing Israeli films and filmmakers. On one of the many trips I have made to Israel, I spoke at Tel Aviv University’s film department and am well aware, as I’m sure the other signatories are, that Israeli films are not a mouthpiece for their government’s policies. Nor was the letter an attack on the legitimacy of Tel Aviv as an Israeli city, or a call to boycott the Toronto Film Festival. In fact, many signatories are attending the festival and have films showing there.

As I said in my recent blog, the greatest “re-branding” of Israel would be to celebrate that country’s long standing, courageous and robust peace movement by helping to end the blockade of Gaza through negotiations with all parties to the conflict, and by stopping the expansion of West Bank settlements. That’s the way to show Israel’s commitment to peace, not a PR campaign. There will be no two-state solution unless this happens.

The Israeli-Palestinian story cannot be reduced to a simplistic aggressor-victim relationship. In order to fully understand this, one must be willing to come together with an open heart and really hear the narratives of both sides. One narrative sees 1948 as the mass expulsion of Palestinians from their land. Another sees it as the birth of a nation. Conceivably it was both. Neither narrative can be erased, both must be heard.

This post originally appeared on HuffingtonPost.com.

Obama administration must pursue Mideast peace

Across America, the Jewish community is joining with the rest of the nation to congratulate our next president. President-elect Barack Obama ran a campaign promising change, and Americans have made very clear that they are anxious to take him up on that promise. He will enter the White House at a time of great uncertainty, however, and those who would see real change take root will have to be very clear with the administration about their hopes for the future — particularly regarding the Middle East.

Many in our community have long prayed for Israeli-Palestinian peace, and in his acceptance speech, Obama sounded a promising note. “To those who seek peace and security,” he said, an hour after winning the election, “we support you.” As a lifelong advocate for a fair resolution to the conflict, I know the importance of such words — and know even more the importance of action.

The past eight years have seen an unprecedented level of diplomatic neglect on the part of the United States government, as President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said all the right things but have done very little to back up their words.

As a result, rather than move forward toward the resolution that all sides have already agreed must be our goal — a mutually acceptable two-state solution — Israelis and Palestinians remain locked in despair, and among both people, frustration has reached new heights.

Oddly, the current president seems to have forgotten that Israelis and Palestinians are not the only people who need an end to their entirely resolvable conflict — America needs it, too. Consider the blow it would be to Iran, Hezbollah and extremists across the globe if America were to mediate an end to Arab-Israeli fighting.

In the course of his campaign, Obama turned to the Jewish community to declare his support for Israel, saying that Israel’s security is “paramount.”

But if he really believes this to be true, he will have to understand that words of support are not enough. He will have to work to achieve the one thing that can bring the Jewish state true security: true peace.

If the newly elected president truly wants to advance Israel’s security, he will engage in genuine diplomacy from his very first days in office. He will vigorously pursue an agreement, appointing an envoy with the international credibility to do the hard work involved in negotiation. And he will make very clear to all parties that agreements made are to be honored.

It’s hard to believe this will happen, though, unless the new administration has gotten clear indication that it will be supported in its efforts by American Jews. To that end, the more than 85 percent of us who have said that we back a two-state resolution of the conflict have to take it upon ourselves to tell President Obama unequivocally: We will stand by you as you pursue a just, durable two-state solution. We will make our positions known in the House and the Senate, and we will communicate them to the American public. Because we are pro-Israel, we will advocate for peace.

American leaders have long turned to our community for guidance on the question of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and for that reason, I recently signed an open letter addressed to the president-elect, calling on him to dedicate himself to achieving a viable two-state agreement by the end of his first term.

Spearheaded by Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace, the letter has been signed so far by some 700 members of the American Jewish clergy, all of whom know that our highest calling is to “seek peace and pursue it.”

The potential costs of failing to achieve a just two-state solution to this bloody conflict are too awful to consider. We must apply ourselves to seeing to it that the decades of death and fear are brought to an end, and a new era begins. Tell President-elect Obama and those he names to his government: The time for peace is now.

Rabbi Arnold Rachlis is the spiritual leader of University Synagogue in Irvine; a past president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association; chair of MAZON – A Jewish Response to Hunger; and a member of the Rabbinic Cabinet of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom. He has served in Washington, D.C., as a White House Fellow and as a senior foreign affairs adviser in the State Department.

Chipping Away at Israel Support Endangers U.S.

I spent a fair amount of time in Israel in the late 1990s, traveling throughout the country. One of my many impressions of that nation was that there was a pervasive
desire by Israelis for a lasting, mutually beneficial peace with hostile neighbors.

At the time of my visit, I was a recovering ultraleftist who was open and generally sympathetic to the issues of Palestinians. But what is seared in my mind is the experience of sitting with a young woman during a lunchtime visit to a kibbutz near the Syrian border. On her lap sat her 3-year-old son and an automatic rifle was casually slung over her shoulder.

After a bit of polite chitchat, I asked her, “How are you going to be able to guarantee your son’s future with that weapon?”

She said guns could never do that. “Only a true and lasting peace with our neighbors can insure my child’s future” the woman told me.

I was thinking about that young Israeli as I watched rockets slam into Israel’s cities over the past few weeks.

Israel is getting lots of bad press these days. Easily influenced reporters from the BBC to CNN have made the argument — in one way or another — that this tiny Jewish state responded “disproportionately” to attacks from Hamas and Hezbollah — raids that killed Israeli soldiers and kidnapped others.

Parroting Hezbollah spokesmen, Israel’s Western opponents tell us that Israel has targeted civilians and United Nations personnel intentionally. This charge mimics the age-old anti-Semitic slur of Jewish blood lust, since those making this charge are hard pressed to explain how indiscriminately killing Arab civilians would serve Israel’s interests.

War is always a nasty affair — in this case complicated by terrorist operations that intentionally launch missiles from crowded urban neighborhoods, where innocent Lebanese civilians live. In other words, Iran-sponsored Hezbollah fighters cynically know that their actions will draw an immediate and deadly response, a reply that may mean death for innocent Lebanese civilians near the launch site. The resultant photos of death and destruction provide an all-important public relations advantage among willing Western media sources, as well as for the Al Jazeera network.

Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz points out that in various wars with enemy forces, Israel has killed far fewer civilians in proportion to the number of its own civilians than any country engaged in a comparable war. Yet, Israel is cited by the merlot-sipping set as the prime example of human rights violations.

Arguments of this kind are made with vigor and conviction in places like France and in the capitals of other European Union countries, where anti-Semitism is rampant, but are made, as well, by many here at home. It is part of a larger and disturbing pattern.

In a recent open letter, Noam Chomsky, the high priest of America’s crypto-Marxists, argues that Israel is at fault for the current warfare and that the kidnapping of Israeli military personnel should not have been the cause of a war of this intensity (the overreaction argument) since Israel supposedly holds “approximately 10,000 [Palestinians] in Israeli jails.” According to this view, all Palestinians held in Israeli jails, whatever the number, are innocent victims of the Jewish state — therefore judged by Chomsky and his ilk to be “political prisoners.”

On the heels of this, top human rights officials at the United Nations have said that Israel’s bombing in Lebanon “might constitute war crimes,” while generally avoiding comment on the indiscriminate shelling of cities in northern Israel by Hezbollah rocket fire — intended only to kill and maim Jewish civilians.

Some argue that the views of America’s hard left are marginal, and others see the United Nations as the emperor with no clothes. However, there is an undeniable influence here that cannot be disregarded. Chomsky — along with Marx, Shakespeare and the Bible — is one of the 10 most-quoted sources in the humanities, and despite ongoing scandals, the United Nations remains to be considered by many Americans to be a voice for peace.

The United Nation’s unsavory role in places like the Congo, Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe and Iraq remains unknown by many, although evidence from these places tells us that the United Nations may well be the world’s prime example of corruption, conciliation of dictatorships and moral timidity.

Giving new meaning to the word chutzpah, the United Nations has singled out the State of Israel for human rights condemnations more than any other nation in the world. This is more than a bit odd — since the world includes nations such as North Korea, Sudan and Cuba, among a host of others that ignore the concept of human rights.

Since 2000 in the United States, there has been an active and organized campaign by the radical left to promote divestment of city government, university, church and other investment portfolios from Israel and the companies that do business with that nation. The idea is to punish Israel for its policies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — claimed to be oppressive and racist. The Presbyterian Church (USA) has been embroiled in its own internally controversial plan since 2004 to “divest from Israel” — all the while declaring uncritical “solidarity with Palestinian liberation.”

And if all of this were not enough to test one’s patience, the Southern California chapter of the ACLU has decided to honor Salam Al-Marayati with its Religious Freedom Award at the group’s upcoming garden party.

Just this past week, Al-Marayati, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, condemned the president for referring to “Islamo-fascism”; previously he had admonished journalists to “cease the use of Islamic terminology to explain this very clear political narrative” (referring to terrorist acts). He recently opined in the Los Angeles times that Hezbollah “is not just an army” and should be understood as a “massive political party and social welfare network.”

Terrorism with a smile? For this brand of “tolerant” thinking he gets a religious freedom award.

Obviously, it is not just leftists and Muslim or Arab American advocacy groups that blame Jews for almost everything. Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, Iraq’s parliament speaker, recently accused Jews of financing acts of violence in Iraq.
He said, “These acts [random killing and kidnappings] are not the work of Iraqis. I am sure that he who does this is a Jew and the son of a Jew.”

This kind of high-level bigotry raises questions about the future of Iraqi democracy and should — if Sept. 11 didn’t adequately do that — raise our antenna to the deadly serious nature of the international struggle against radical Islamism. The warfare in the Mideast reverberates close to home.

Is this simply Israel’s war to win or lose?

As William Kristol has pointed out, “Better to say that what’s under attack is liberal democratic civilization, whose leading representative right now happens to be the United States.” Israel can’t afford to lose this conflict, nor can we. Here at home, those who chip away at American’s resolve to support Israel are chipping away at our own freedoms.

Joe R. Hicks is a social critic, the vice president of Community Advocate. Inc. and a talk radio host in Los Angeles.

Monk Could Be Way to Mideast Peace

Next week, I am sponsoring a group of Israelis and Palestinians to spend a few weeks in a small village in southern France with a Buddhist monk named Thich Nhat Hanh. These two disparate groups of people do not know each other, but often feel hatred toward each other. Some of them have been hurt in the war.

But by the end of the two weeks, under the guidance of the monks, the Israelis and the Palestinians will learn to listen to, understand, forgive and maybe even like each other. They will be at peace.

Could this work on a larger scale for their respective countries? I think so.

There are only two ways to ever make peace in the Middle East, and both are extreme. One is for one side to obliterate the other in a military conquest. The other, far more favorable approach, is for an unrelated third party to broker peace. For this to succeed, this person must come with absolutely no agenda — not one of country, religion, politics or money. Just peace.

That’s the one we are going for, because we have found such a person.

Nhat Hanh is a world-renowned Vietnamese Buddhist monk, scholar, poet and peace activist who lives in Plum Village, France. Martin Luther King Jr. nominated him for a Nobel Peace prize. He has written almost 100 books. All over the world, he teaches what he calls mindfulness — peaceful, joyful living.

He is in a unique position to help the world now. We are trying to help him.

I met him because I read one of his books and it really helped my life as a movie producer. I learned to listen more, scream less, appreciate everything around me and focus. I even learned to "de-multitask." And now I get more done, and am happier and calmer about it.

I figured if it worked for me, it could work for my friends in the entertainment business, who could sure use his help. So I offhandedly suggested he do a seminar in Hollywood.

Three months later, he called and said, "How’s next Tuesday?" I had Nhat Hanh and 15 monks over to my house to meet about 50 agents, producers, directors, studio executives and actors. I love these people, but they would stab themselves in the back if they could.

In one night, he changed some of their lives. Nhat Hanh does not try to convert people to Buddhism or get them to shave their heads. He teaches them how to listen to others and appreciate life more.

I thought it amazing what he did in Hollywood, but there are people with a lot more to be angry about than their TV series getting cancelled. He has done this for senators, cops, prisoners, people battling AIDS, victims of prejudice and hate crimes. And for Palestinians and Israelis.

Every summer people come from all over the world to Nhat Hanh’s retreat center in France to learn from him and his spiritual sidekick, Sister Chan Khong. A few years ago, they invited some Israelis and Palestinians — a few severely wounded in their war with each other. They forgave.

That gave me the idea to try this on a larger scale, and to tell the world about it. If everyone sees what can happen next week in Plum Village, it could then be done on a much larger scale. I wasn’t sure if it was the right thing to do, so I asked friends, advisers and mentors — some of whom run charities. What really convinced me was their answer.

They all said, "No, don’t do it."

They said don’t bother. It will never happen. They hate each other too much. It’s too late. One person even argued that if it cost a Palestinian more to fly to France than an Israeli, it wasn’t fair. Everyone was so far into their anger they didn’t even want to try.

That convinced me that we have to.

Nhat Hanh has no agenda other than peace. He has a great expression: There is no way to peace; peace is the way.

Something extreme must be done and will be. I vote we try extreme peace before the other alternative.

I hope the world watches what happens at Nhat Hanh’s village next week. Who better to do this, who could be more agenda-less than a peaceful Buddhist monk with unique gift for teaching people to listen and be mindful, who has no country, no desire for wealth, no stake in politics?

This is not about who is right or wrong or who started it or who is hurt the most. It is about peace.

It can happen.


Film producer Larry Kasanoff is chairman and CEO of Threshold Entertainment.

Bush, Sharon to HoldKey Mideast Talks

With a new strategic balance in the Middle East and pressure building to implement a U.S.-backed peace plan, next week’s meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President Bush could be their most important to date.

Neither Israelis nor Palestinians came away entirely pleased from U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s visit to the region over the weekend. The visit made clear that the United States is determined to keep pressing for Israeli-Palestinian peace, and that President Bush, himself, intends to be personally involved.

Palestinians had expected Powell to produce more sweeping Israeli concessions, while Israel was left wondering if the United States will force the Palestinians to undertake a serious crackdown on terror.

Analysts believe the moment of truth will come May 20, when the Sharon meets Bush at the White House. American officials say Bush is set to take up the sensitive issue of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and, in general, may seek greater Israeli flexibility on the "road map" to peace.

In dealing with Iraq, Syria and Islamic terrorism, the United States is taking care of the main strategic threats to Israel, these officials argue — and it’s now time for Israel to be more forthcoming on peacemaking with the Palestinians.

The question is whether Bush will take the position, influenced by neoconservatives, who argue that Israel must fall in line with the United States’ grand vision of a new, more stable Middle East, or whether the president will be swayed by the Republican right wing, which supports Israel and its settlement activity, and which Israeli settlers are trying to mobilize on their behalf.

The way the president leans in the meeting with Sharon could decide the road map’s fate. Sharon has yet to accept the U.S.-backed road map, saying only that Israel backs the diplomatic vision Bush laid out in a policy speech last June 24. The road map was to be the mechanism to implement the June 24 vision, but Israel contends that the plan differs from the Bush speech in important respects.

Sharon has placed two tough demands in the way of the plan: one, that the Palestinians not only stop the violence but disarm and dismantle the terrorist organizations, as they have pledged repeatedly to do; two, that from the start, they waive their demand that millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants from Israel’s 1948 War of Independence be allowed to return to their former homes inside Israel.

Some argue that Sharon is using a familiar technique before his White House visit — striking a tough pose for his domestic audience, only to magnanimously "concede" certain issues when he meets with Bush.

Though Powell managed to set up a meeting between Sharon and the new Palestinian Authority prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, he made little headway on substance.

In the wake of the Powell visit, Israel did make a number of good-will gestures — releasing 180 Palestinian prisoners, allowing more Palestinian laborers and businessmen to work in Israel and easing some restrictions on Palestinian movement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Shortly afterward, however, a full closure was reimposed on the territories because of warnings that terrorists planned to carry out attacks in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Sharon made clear to Powell that there would be no Israeli troop withdrawal until there were real signs that the Palestinians were cracking down on terror. Sharon also explained to Powell why Israel insists that the Palestinians disarm and dismantle terror groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aqsa Brigades.

If Abbas merely negotiates a cease-fire with these groups, Sharon says, they will use the lull to regroup — and launch new terror against Israel in the future.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom explained Israel’s insistence that the Palestinians waive the "right of return." The road map asks Israel to commit to a Palestinian state without the issue of the right of return being resolved, he argued. This was not the case in the Oslo peace process, in which the Palestinians were to be rewarded with statehood only after the refugee issue was resolved, Shalom said.

If they get their state first, Shalom asked, what incentive would the Palestinians have to waive their demand — the implementation of which would mean the demographic destruction of the Jewish state?

In his public statements, at least, Powell seemed to back the Israeli position on terror. The United States must "see rapid, decisive action by the Palestinians to disarm and dismantle the terrorist infrastructure," Powell declared at a news conference in Jerusalem. "Without such action, our best efforts will fail."

Privately, though, he expressed doubts that Abbas could forcibly dismantle the terrorist groups. Israeli officials fear that if Abbas negotiates a cease-fire with the groups that holds for any length of time, the United States will demand a major Israeli troop withdrawal in response.

Powell did not address the right of return issue directly. However, given his frequent statement that there’s enough agreement between the parties to make a start on the peace plan — without letting more contentious issues bog them down now — his perspective seems clear.

Powell made a concerted effort to please his Israeli hosts and the Israeli public. His demand for Palestinian action against terror was not counterbalanced by overt pressure on Israel to freeze settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The U.S. seriousness on the road map can be gauged by the fact that Powell left behind David Satterfield, one of his top aides on Mideast issues, to set up a mechanism for monitoring the plan’s implementation. Satterfield made it clear that the United States — not the European Union, United Nations or Russia, the other parties that helped draft the road map — would take the lead in monitoring compliance on security and settlements.

In addition, two senior Bush administration officials — Stephen Hadley, deputy national security adviser, and Elliott Abrams, the National Security Council’s Middle East director — met extensively with Sharon while in Israel last week. The envoys emphasized the intensity of the White House focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but also heard a great deal about Sharon’s needs.

Some say careful attention to language will be key to deciphering the outcome of next week’s crucial meeting in the White House.

In recent days, including during Powell’s trip, talk shifted from immediate implementation of the road map to calls for small steps that would build confidence on the ground.

While Bush may pressure Sharon to do more, analysts say he is not likely to seek Sharon’s direct endorsement of the plan, instead encouraging more practical steps on the ground. That would give the United States the progress it seeks and create an environment in which the new Palestinian Authority prime minister potentially could thrive. Sharon, for his part, would get credit for taking steps that please the United States, without expending political capital by directly supporting the road map.

Still, such formulas can’t work forever. Eventually Sharon will have to vote yes or no on the plan, said David Makovsky, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"The administration will understand anything that deals with security realities," he said. "But actions that are not seen as security-related but as ideological or political will not be seen in the same friendly light."

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report. Matthew E. Berger, Jewish Telegraphic Agency staff writer in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.

The Arafat Factor

According to a poll released last week by Americans for Peace Now (APN) and the Arab American Institute (AAI), U.S. Jews continue to support an active Mideast peace process and a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians, despite two years of horrific terrorism and the bitter disappointment of a peace process turned sour.

The poll showed that a majority of Arab-Americans hold similar views, leading to suggestions by the two groups that U.S. attitudes about peace can be "exported" to a region that has known nothing but war.

But it’s what the poll didn’t ask that represents the wild card for pro-peace process groups: what about Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader who still seems to think suicide bombers and rampaging gunmen are legitimate instruments of negotiation?

That dichotomy — strong ongoing support for the idea of a negotiated settlement resulting in Palestinian statehood but overwhelming distrust of the current Palestinian leadership — also defines the problem facing Amram Mitzna, the Labor Party’s candidate for prime minister in the Jan. 28 Israeli election.

Amazingly, terror-battered Israelis still tell pollsters they want a negotiated settlement. However, Mitzna will have a hard time explaining how to reach a settlement while a treacherous Arafat still calls the shots in Ramallah.

Last week’s numbers, compiled by pollster John Zogby, were striking, if incomplete. Of the U.S. Jews polled, 85 percent agreed that "Palestinians have a right to live in a secure and independent state of their own"; 95 percent of the Arab Americans said Israelis have the same right.

Add some details and the margins shrink, although the numbers still show a surprisingly durable belief in political negotiations.

A slim majority of Jews — 52 percent — said they would support "a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians that included the establishment of an independent, secure Palestinian state alongside an independent, secure Israeli state; the evacuation of most settlements from the West Bank and Gaza; the establishment of a border roughly along the June 4, 1967, border; a Palestinian right of return only to a new Palestinian state, and establishing Jerusalem as the shared capital of both countries."

Thirty percent of the Jews opposed that proposition; 18 percent said they were "not sure." The poll also found 41 percent of the Jews blamed "mostly the Palestinians" for the breakdown in peace negotiations, but even more — 42 percent — blamed "both sides."

The poll revealed something else: An overwhelming proportion of U.S. Jews are pessimistic about Middle East peace — about 75 percent — and that pessimism points right back to the missing presence in the survey — Arafat.

Zogby, AAI’s president, said the pollsters wanted to avoid questions that would provoke hot-button responses. Presumably that also explains why Ariel Sharon, a reviled symbol to many Palestinians and their supporters, was omitted from survey questions.

However, Arafat’s negative impact on Jewish public opinion cannot be overestimated. Many of the same U.S. Jews, who strongly support the idea of resumed negotiations and even back creation of a Palestinian state, no longer have any hope that Arafat is willing or able to cut a deal that would guarantee Israel’s security.

APN hopes that its poll will help pro-peace groups gain traction with a Jewish public soured by the collapse of the Oslo process and the new, deadlier surge of Palestinian terrorism. However, the Arafat factor could be a major impediment. Peace groups that are perceived as advocating a return to Oslo-style negotiations with Arafat will not rally centrist U.S. Jews to their cause, despite strong underlying support for the idea of resumed negotiations.

The same dynamic will probably hold in the Israeli election. There is continuing support among voters for a return to negotiations and even for Palestinian statehood. However, throw Arafat into the mix and that support plummets. If Mitzna is seen as seeking a renewed embrace of Arafat, Israeli voters are likely to reject him in overwhelming numbers. And he won’t do any better if he moves to the right and offers voters a "Likud-light" platform.

To a considerable degree, Mitzna’s candidacy is hostage to Arafat; so is a struggling peace movement in this country that has strongly condemned the wave of Palestinian terror, but which has been unable to jettison its attachment to the embattled Palestinian leader as a legitimate peace partner.


When Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafattouched down in Tunis last month, he had no expectation of anotherround of pomp and circumstance, of sumptuous banquets and piousexpressions of boundless brotherhood and solidarity. This wasbusiness, pure and simple.

Two of Arafat’s most trusted and long-standingaides, who adamantly opposed the Oslo Accords that were signed on theWhite House lawns back in September 1993, had refused to move to Gazawhen the PA leader and his lieutenants dismantled their headquartersin Tunis.

The two hard-liners who stayed behind were left todry out in the political wilderness.

Last month, in what is perceived as a majorpolitical climbdown and a significant personal humiliation, Arafattraveled to Tunis to implore Farouk Kaddoumi, head of the PLO’spolitical department, and Mahmoud Ghnaim, head of the mobilizationand organization department, to change their minds and move toGaza.

Their terms were swingeing. By the time theyeventually agreed, it was on the understanding that Arafat wouldsurrender much of his power and responsibility, and that the Tunispair would participate in a new collective leadership team whichwould take over running the Palestinian Authority, the PLO and Fatah,Arafat’s majority wing in the PLO — “in the event of anemergency.”

For Arafat, it was an admission of unmitigatedweakness, a move that was clearly borne out of dire necessity.

The stalemate in the peace process was the leastof Arafat’s worries as his executive jet carried him to Tunis.Indeed, he has used the impasse well, playing to packed houses andwinning rapturous applause at a stream of international events, fromthe Islamic Conference through the Non-Aligned Movement and theUnited Nations. Not least, he has enhanced his position in Washingtonand in the capitals of the 15-nation European Union, carving deeplyinto the flesh of traditional Israeli support.

But even as he basked in the internationalapplause and strengthened his standing abroad, Arafat’s position athome — within both his Palestinian and wider Arab constituencies –has been eroding, his growing vulnerability fed by rumors of hisdeteriorating health.

Arafat is facing mounting dissent from within the88-member Palestinian Legislative Council, which has threatened avote of no-confidence in the Palestinian Authority over itscontinuing fiscal mismanagement and corruption. Arafat responded bysacking his entire Cabinet and promising — again — to put his housein order.

He is also facing a growing challenge to his claimto be “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” fromthe blind, quadriplegic Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.

Yassin, who scorns Arafat as Israel’s poodle,returned to Gaza two weeks ago from a triumphal tour of Arabcapitals, where he provided a focus for Arab leaders who wanted tocover their bets by taking a shot at the PA leader. Nor were theycheap shots: Yassin netted “gifts” worth an estimated $50 million toswell the Hamas war chest.

At the same time, Arafat encountered a stunningrebuff from the Arab League when he attempted a show of strength tocounter Yassin’s unexpected success: The Arab League was unable tocobble together sufficient consensus to meet Arafat’s demand for asummit that would condemn Israel and agree to roll back the”normalization” process as a punishment for the stalled peaceprocess.

There is something deeply disturbing in the courtof Chairman Arafat these days, something that transcends the greedand graft, the cronyism and corruption that have become endemic inthe Palestinian political firmament. Arafat — Mr. Palestine, holderof the purse strings, source of power and ultimate arbiter ofPalestinian affairs — is losing his grip.

All this, according to the Jordanian daily”al-Majd,” has intensified the maneuvering for succession, whichmakes Arafat’s trip to Tunis all the more significant.

There are thought to be three principal contendersfor power when Arafat departs the scene:

* Mahmoud Abbas, secretary of Arafat’s majorityFatah wing in the PA and Arafat’s appointed deputy (earlier thisyear, Arafat confided in both President Clinton and EgyptianPresident Hosni Mubarak that Abbas was his choice for succession, buthe is now understood to have cooled to the idea). Abbas has thebacking of Jordan and Israel.

* Ahmed Kureia, speaker of the PalestinianLegislative Council and an architect of the Oslo Accords. He also hasthe backing of Jordan and Israel.

* Farouk Kaddoumi, head of the PLO’s politicaldepartment — the Palestinian foreign minister — a founding-memberof the Fatah wing and leader of the mainstream opposition to the OsloAccords. He has the backing of Syria.

All three might be rewarded. The smart money is onAhmed Kureia to head of the Fatah wing; Mahmoud Abbas to take overthe leadership of the Palestinian Authority; and Farouk Kaddoumi tosucceed as PA chairman. At present, all three positions are occupiedby Arafat.

Yasser Arafat has always been the shrewdest ofoperators, perversely translating his relative weakness into hisgreatest strength. In his declining days, Yasser Arafat will need todeploy all his considerable political and diplomatic skills toconsolidate and expand the gains he has achieved, while averting adescent into bloodshed, perhaps even civil war.

Stepping Stones

Israel is preparing a package of gestures designed to revive the Mideast peace negotiations that have been frozen since work began on a contentious Jewish housing project at Har Homa in East Jerusalem two months ago.

The measures are expected to include firm steps toward building homes for Arabs in Jerusalem and the restoration of residence rights in the holy city to hundreds of Palestinians who forfeited them by moving out.

A government spokesman, Moshe Fogel, said this week that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was determined to prove that he was not bluffing about Arab housing. “He wants to see 3,000 new Arab homes materialize,” Fogel said, adding that this was the best answer to Palestinian charges that Netanyahu was interested only in “Judaizing” the city, which both peoples claim as their capital.

The Israelis are also contemplating a more flexible approach on various unfulfilled commitments made by the previous Labor government under the interim agreement — so long as the Palestinians resume full-blooded cooperation in the war on terror.

Among the issues being considered are Palestinian air and sea ports in the Gaza Strip; a safe-passage road link between Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank and Gaza; and access for Palestinian workers to jobs in Israel, from which they are frequently barred by security closures.

The Palestinians remain skeptical, however, about whether Netanyahu can or will deliver. The Bar-On fiasco over the dubious appointment of an underqualified lawyer to the post of attorney general has left him both weaker and more dependent on hard-liners in his right-wing and religious coalition.

He can no longer hold the threat of a national-unity government with Labor over his disaffected ministers. As former Washington correspondent Akiva Eldar put it in a wry Ha’aretz column, “The Bar-On scandal has removed only Shimon Peres from the government.”

“[Netanyahu] wants to see 3,000 new Arab homes materialize.” —

Moshe Fogel, government spokesman

The Interior Ministry, a fiefdom of the Sephardi Shas party, is resisting the prime minister’s attempt to stop its confiscating Jerusalem identity cards from Arabs who have moved either abroad or to the West Bank suburbs. And Netanyahu himself is defying international pressure to stop building 6,500 Jewish homes on Har Homa.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat complains that the Israeli government is not interested in salvaging the peace process. Speaking to reporters on his return from talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo last weekend, he accused Netanyahu of “continuing to violate signed agreements.” He recognized the “good intentions” of Ezer Weizman, with whom he was meeting on the edge of the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, but he also noted that the figurehead president could offer no more than a gentle warming of the atmosphere.

In the longer term, Israelis and Palestinians reluctantly acknowledge that their best hopes lie with the United States. Dennis Ross, President Clinton’s Middle East trouble-shooter, was returning to the region on Wednesday. Under Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Washington seems to have resigned itself to a more active role.

It has been pressing Netanyahu to come up with confidence-building measures, and American officials are now expected to take part in all negotiating sessions. Previously, the Clinton administration preferred to let the two sides solve their own problems, reserving its intervention for the final, critical stages, as it did over the Hebron redeployment in January.

This is clearly no longer enough. David Afek, the sober head of the Israeli Foreign Ministry research department, went so far last week as to pronounce the peace process dead. It will take all of Uncle Sam’s skill and leverage to resurrect it.

In an internal briefing that was leaked to the local media within hours, Afek reported that most foreign governments blamed Israel for the stalemate. He urged ministers to take the initiative and prove them wrong. Otherwise, he said, things could only get worse.

Aides to Foreign Minister David Levy denounced Afek’s assessment as a “provocation.” But it begins to look as if someone is paying attention.

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