Matisyahu ousted from Spanish festival for not endorsing Palestinian state


Matisyahu was disinvited from a Spanish music festival because he would not publicly endorse Palestinian statehood.

The Jewish-American reggae singer was scheduled to perform Aug. 22 at the Rototom Sunsplash festival in Benicassim, near Barcelona. But his show was canceled after he refused to release a public statement backing a Palestinian state, according to the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain, which called the disinvitation a case of “anti-Semitic cowardice.”

The organizers had been pressured to disinvite Matisyahu by activists promoting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS, movement against Israel, the report said.

“As Spaniards, we are ashamed of the organizers,” the Spanish federation’s statement said. “In this case, the BDS Movement employed all its anti-Semitic arsenal against the participation on Matthew Paul Miller,” using Matisyahu’s full name.

Matisyahu, a former Hasid, was the only festival performer asked to endorse a Palestinian state because he is Jewish, the federation said.

“Such acts violate fundamental human rights guaranteed by our constitution,” the statement said. According to the El Pais newspaper, other musicians threatened to cancel their performances unless Matisyahu made the declaration.

Matisyahu is not an Israeli citizen.

In a Facebook post Saturday about the decision, Rototom mentioned its “sensitivity to Palestine, its people and the occupation of its territory by Israel.”

Obama: Netanyahu’s Palestine stance erodes Israel’s credibility


U.S. President Barack Obama said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's terms for diplomacy that might lead to a Palestinian state meant Israel had lost international credibility as a potential peacemaker.

Obama also suggested that continued U.S. diplomatic defense for Israel at the United Nations over the Palestine dispute may be reviewed, while reaffirming U.S. support for Israeli security in a conflict-riven Middle East.

In an interview with Israeli television aired on Tuesday, he offered a bleak outlook for decades of negotiations on Palestinian statehood bearing any fruit during the 18 months he has left in office.

“I don't see the likelihood of a framework agreement,” Obama said in an interview with Uvda, a current-affairs program produced by Israel's top-rated Channel Two and Keshet television. “The question is how do we create some building blocks of trust and progress.”

While Obama has acknowledged the geographical and ideological divisions among Palestinians that have bedeviled peace efforts, in the interview — taped in the White House on Friday — he focused on Netanyahu's policies.

On the eve of his March 17 election to a fourth term, Netanyahu said there would be no Palestinian state if he remained premier. He argued that any withdrawals from occupied territory by Israel would embolden hardline Islamist guerrillas arrayed on its borders.

Netanyahu has since sought to row back from those remarks but his peace overtures have met with scepticism from the Palestinians as well as Western diplomats.

Obama said Netanyahu's position “has so many caveats, so many conditions that it is not realistic to think that those conditions would be met at any time in the near future.

“So the danger is that Israel as a whole loses credibility. Already, the international community does not believe that Israel is serious about a two-state solution.”

The last round of U.S.-sponsored talks stalled more than a year ago, with Palestinians blaming Israeli settlement-building in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, among the territories where they seek an independent state.

Obama said now was the time for a re-evaluation of “how we approach defending Israel on the international stage around the Palestinian issue”.

He cited pro-Palestinian resolutions at the United Nations that Washington has long blocked in the name of encouraging direct diplomacy between the sides. Asked whether such U.S. vetoes would continue, Obama sounded circumspect.

“Well, here's the challenge. If in fact there is no prospect of an actual peace process, if nobody believes there is a peace process, then it becomes more difficult to argue with those who are concerned about settlement construction, those who are concerned about the current situation,” he said.

“It is more difficult for me to say to them, 'Be patient, wait, because we have a process here.'”

Israelis and Palestinians both, Obama said, should work with the United States to “move off what appears right now to be a hopeless situation and move it back toward a hopeful situation”. He did not offer more concrete solutions.

Netanyahu's office did not immediately comment on the Obama interview. Speaking at an Israeli missile defense drill earlier on Tuesday, Netanyahu stressed the need for self-sufficiency: “When it comes to Israel's security, I rely, first of all, on ourselves.”

Is a two-state solution still possible?


This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

A trumpeter playing sorrowful songs outside of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art seemed to symbolize the melancholy many of the proponents of the two-state solution of an independent Palestinian state next to Israel feel these days.

Former Israeli Intelligence Chief Yuval Diskin was speaking at a conference on the roadmap for a two-state solution called the Geneva Accord. He told an overflow crowd at the museum, that dividing the land is still feasible.

“I know that the risks are great and that our success is not guaranteed. It is a deep seated issue, and much blood has been spilled,” Diskin said. “There are economic, mental and cultural gaps between the two sides. There are many, many years of disappointment. But I still believe that a true leadership, with a true vision and path can push this forward so that we can provide hope for a new momentum in the Palestinian and the Israeli streets.”

The Geneva Accord, which calls for a Palestinian state in virtually all of the land that Israel acquired in 1967, was crafted in the midst of the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising from 2000 to 2005. Palestinians killed 1000 Israelis, mostly civilians, and Israeli soldiers killed 3000 Palestinians during violent clashes.

The Accord, released ten years ago, was meant to flesh out many of the longstanding issues between the Israelis and Palestinians in order to create an agreement independent of the political process.

Secretary of the State John Kerry is in the Middle East for the eighth time since August trying to push Israelis and Palestinians toward a deal. This time, he has brought a security plan to boost Israeli confidence after a potential withdrawal from much of the West Bank.

Some international observers believe time is running out for a two-state solution.

“This is an opportunity to capitalize on the promise of regaining peace,” said Robert Serry, the UN’s Special Coordinator for the Middle East peace process. “I also feel that the international community is becoming increasingly impatient. That is why we stand to lose much if the talks fail again. We cannot afford to remain complacent.”

Diskin said Israel is making a mistake by focusing on Iran, rather than on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I am here because I believe that the consequence of this conflict left unresolved is much more existential than the Iranian nuclear threat,” Yuval Diskin said to a thunderous round of applause. “I know that this is not popular to say, especially these days, but I believe it with all of my heart. I believe that we must reach a resolution now before we go beyond a point to reach an agreement.”

Some of the biggest roadblocks to a two-state solution continue to be the same issues that have been sticking points for the past 20 years –the future of Jerusalem, the right of return for Palestinian refugees, and recognizing Israel as a Jewish state.

“These are very heavy decisions to make. These are decisions that touch upon the essence of both Judaism and Palestinian identity. For Israel to have Jerusalem, this is our Zionist ideal,” Professor Shmuel Sandler, a professor of political science and a researcher at the Begin-Sadat Institute at Bar Ilan University (BESA) told The Media Line.

Israeli and Palestinian officials each blame the other for the lack of progress toward a two-state solution.

“If the right position is taken, of course it is feasible. But the situation on the ground shows that the Israelis do not want there to be an agreement,” Xavier Abu Eid, an advisor to the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) told The Media Line. “The culture of impunity that Israel has continued allows it to violate international law without paying any price for its actions.”

The ongoing split between Fatah, which controls the West Bank, and the Islamist movement which controls Gaza, is also an obstacle.

“The drift away from the two-state solution politics in Israel and Palestine is one of the problems,” Ghassan al-Khatib, a former spokesman for the Palestinian Authority told The Media Line. “Every new election in Israel is bringing more right-wing politics into power. Public opinion is moving away from the two-state solution in Israel. The political reality within Palestine is no less of a problem. The split between Fatah and Hamas and the fact that the last election was won by Hamas is a problem.”

The current round of negotiations began in July after a five-year freeze. Secretary Kerry has made it clear that he is going to push both sides hard for a deal.

“I think Secretary Kerry has been very adamant and has been trying his best in order to reach peace between Israel and Palestine. And we definitely do appreciate his commitment for peace,” Abu Eid said. “I think that our side is very serious with him. We have gone along with everything we have committed to with Secretary Kerry. The other side has continued to undermine everything that Secretary Kerry has said.”

Recent polls have also shown that while both populations want a resolution to the conflict, neither side believes that the revived negotiations will end successfully.

“To recognize the right of Israel to exist, that’s the main obstacle. They have to cross a Rubicon,” professor emeritus Avraham Diskin (no relation to Yuval Diskin) of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem told The Media Line. “Israel is not a legitimate entity for most of the Arab world, most of the Muslim world. So to sign an agreement recognizing Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state (is difficult).”

Yet many on both sides say there is no alternative to a two-state solution, and the question is not if it will be implemented, but only when.

Jewish leaders urge Abbas to make moderate stands public


A slate of 100 U.S. Jewish leaders wrote Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas urging him to make public his opposition to a ‘right of return’ and his agreement to a demilitarized Palestinian state.

The letter, spearheaded by the Israel Policy Forum, noted that in a recent private meeting, Abbas said an agreement would end the conflict and any Palestinian claims to “Haifa, Acre and Safed,” and that a Palestinian state would not need “planes or missiles” but a “strong police force.”

“Making such statements publicly to the entire international community and emphasizing the Palestinian people’s willingness to live in peace with Israel would be important steps to improve the environment affecting the peace process,” said the letter, delivered Wednesday to Abbas, who is New York attending the U.N. General Assembly.

“It would reinforce that the Palestinian leadership has a responsible strategy for courageously forging a lasting peace with Israel,” it said.

Signatories included leaders past and present of pro-Israel and public policy groups, former Jewish Congress members, leading Reform and Conservative rabbis and top fundraisers in the Jewish federations system.

Rice: U.S. does not recognize use of ‘Palestine’


Participation in United Nations forums that refer to a “State of Palestine” does not constitute U.S. recognition of Palestinian statehood, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice said.

“Any reference to the 'State of Palestine' in the United Nations, including the use of the term 'State of Palestine' on the placard in the Security Council or the use of the term 'State of Palestine' in the invitation to this meeting or other arrangements for participation in this meeting, do not reflect acquiescence that Palestine is a state,” Rice, the U.S. envoy to the world body, said Wednesday at a Security Council debate on the Middle East.

The United States was one of seven nations, including Israel, that voted Nov. 29 against elevating the Palestine Liberation Organization's status to non-member state in the General Assembly. The motion passed with 138 voting for and 41 abstaining.

Rice said Wednesday that the resolution, which recognized Palestine as being within the 1967 lines, carried no weight.

“As we have said repeatedly, the only way to establish a real Palestinian state is through the painstaking work of direct negotiations on final-status issues, without preconditions, between the Israelis and Palestinians,” she said.

Rice also reiterated U.S. opposition to Israeli settlement building, particularly in the E-1 corridor between Jerusalem and Maale Adumim in the West Bank, which Palestinians contend would choke the viability of their state.

“Throughout our engagement, we have reiterated our longstanding opposition to Israel’s West Bank settlement activity, as well as construction in East Jerusalem, which run counter to the cause of peace,” she said. “Construction in the E-1 area would be especially damaging to efforts to achieve a two-state solution, and we have urged Israeli leaders to reconsider these unilateral decisions and to exercise restraint.”

Obama: ‘Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are’


President Obama has said privately that “Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are,” columnist Jeffrey Goldberg wrote.

In a column posted on the Bloomberg website late Monday, Goldberg wrote that when Obama was told that the Israeli government had approved plans to advance the development of housing in the controversial E-1 corridor between Maale Adumim and Jerusalem, the president “didn't even bother getting angry.”

“In the weeks after the U.N. vote, Obama said privately and repeatedly, 'Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are.' With each new settlement announcement, in Obama’s view, Netanyahu is moving his country down a path toward near-total isolation,” Goldberg wrote.

Goldberg called Obama's relationship with Netanyahu “complicated,” and said Obama has been a “reliable ally” on “matters of genuine security.” He criticized Netanyahu for supporting Republican candidate Mitt Romney in last November's U.S. presidential election.

“Obama, since his time in the Senate, has been consistent in his analysis of Israel’s underlying challenge: If it doesn’t disentangle itself from the lives of West Bank Palestinians, the world will one day decide it is behaving as an apartheid state,” Goldberg wrote.

Goldberg suggests that Israel “may one day soon notice a significant shift” in American diplomatic protection in venues such as the United Nations.

If another issue, such as a vote on Palestinian statehood, arises again in the United Nations, “It wouldn’t surprise me if the U.S. failed to whip votes the next time, or if the U.S. actually abstained. I wouldn’t be particularly surprised, either, if Obama eventually offered a public vision of what a state of Palestine should look like, and affirmed that it should have its capital in East Jerusalem,” Goldberg wrote.

“What Obama wants is recognition by Netanyahu that Israel’s settlement policies are foreclosing on the possibility of a two-state solution, and he wants Netanyahu to acknowledge that a two-state solution represents the best chance of preserving the country as a Jewish-majority democracy. Obama wants, in other words, for Netanyahu to act in Israel’s best interests.”

Netanyahu thanks Czech Republic for support


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked the Czech Republic for standing with Israel against a United Nations resolution that gave the Palestinians enhanced statehood status.

The Czech Republic was one of nine countries to vote against the resolution in the U.N. General Assembly on Nov. 29 that gave the Palestinians non-members observer statehood status.

“Thank you for your country's opposition to the one-sided resolution at the United Nations; thank you for your friendship; thank you for your courage.  I know that in voting against the one-sided resolution, the Czech Republic stood with the United States and Canada and a handful of other countries against the prevailing international current.  But history has shown us time and again that what is right is not what is popular, and if there is a people in the world who can appreciate that, it's the people of your country,” Netanyahu said Wednesday during a meeting with Czech Republic Prime Minister Petr Nečas, referring to the 1938 takeover by Germany of the Sudetenland.

“I know that your country has learned the lessons of history.  So has my country, Israel.  That is why Israel will not sacrifice its vital interests for the sake of obtaining the world's applause.  Israel is committed to a genuine peace with our Palestinian neighbors – a genuine and durable peace.  For peace to endure, it must be a peace that we can defend,” Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu stopped Wednesday in the Czech Republic on his way to Germany for an annual joint session between the Israeli and German governments.

Senate amendment penalizing Palestinians for U.N. status does not pass


A U.S. Senate amendment that would have penalized Palestinians for seeking non-member state status at the United Nations was not attached to its intended law.

The National Defense Authorization Act, which was passed late Tuesday, did not include among its amendments one that would cut funding to the Palestinians should they use their upgraded U.N. status to seek charges against Israel in international courts. The amendment also would have shuttered the Palestine Liberation Organization office in Washington until the Palestinians returned to peace talks with Israel.

It was not clear why the amendment was not approved.

The amendment had been introduced by Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) on Nov. 29, the same day as the vote in the U.N. General Assembly enhancing the Palestinians' statehood status.

J Street, the liberal pro-Israel group, rallied against the amendment, with followers sending nearly 15,000 letters to senators and making close to a thousand calls.

Other amendments favored by pro-Israel groups passed, including one approving additional funding for Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile system and one tightening Iran sanctions.

Palestinians see U.N. gambit as step toward reconciliation


[Ramallah] – Palestinians took to the streets of Ramallah on Thursday night and into the early hours of Friday morning to celebrate the UN General Assembly vote bestowing non-member status to “Palestine.” Celebrants expressed hope that their newfound recognition at the United Nations is a step closer to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and many expressed belief that this diplomatic success was empowered by the recent military confrontation in the Gaza Strip.

In Ramallah’s Yassir Arafat Square, a demonstrator held a sign that read, “From one victory to another; from Gaza to the UN” while whistles, shouts of “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great), fireworks, and gunfire could be heard above the clamor as Palestinians celebrated at midnight when the General Assembly granted Palestine non-member status. Cars paraded and honked their horns while others chanted slogans in support of Palestinian Authority President Abbas. Despite the excitement, officials noted that the turnout in Ramallah was less than it was for a similar gathering last year when the Palestinians were seeking full UN-membership.

The final tally was 138 states voting “yes” while 9 said “no” and 41 abstained.

Those gathered in the square had watched Abbas deliver his speech in New York and became louder and more boisterous, waving Fatah flags and waving their traditional head coverings as the vote count rose, ultimately to a super-majority.  

Wasilah Shihab, a PA employee, told The Media Line that the Palestinians brought their cause back to the world‘s attention. “We want to have a seat in the UN just like any other country in the world,” he said.

Participants in the square recited the famous song made popular last year, that urges,  “Oh my people, declare the state of Palestine.” On Facebook, Palestinians shared the phrase, “The State of Palestine,” saying it will replace “Palestinian territories” and the “Palestinian Authority.”

Hani Al-Masri, head of Masarat, a Ramallah think-tank, told The Media Line that the importance of the step will be diminished if the Palestinians go back to the negotiating table. “When Palestinians don’t pose a threat to Israel, Israel will not give them anything,” he said, adding that the Palestinians “should seek a different approach after the negotiations track has proved unfruitful.” However, Al- Masri expects the PA will return to negotiations as Abbas recently said it would after the UN vote.

But according the Tayseer Khaled, A PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) Executive Committee member, the ball is now in Israel’s court. “Even when some PLO members think of going back to negotiations, the leadership bears in mind Palestinian public opinion, and Palestinians will not accept going back to futile negotiations. We want serious negotiations,” he stressed to The Media Line adding that decisions about joining international organizations and moving forward with reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas will be put on the agenda of the leadership.

In his speech Abbas promised that the Palestinians will act with, “positivity and responsibility.” Analysts believe that this expression might indicate that officials are not keen on filing charges against Israel and its citizens in the International Criminal Court as its leaders fear.

Khaled warned that the Palestinians will also re-evaluate diplomatic relations with the nations that abstained and especially with those who voted against the resolution.

Hamas welcomed Abbas’ effort at the UN, albeit is a somewhat tempered fashion. Nasser Al-Din Al-Shaer, a former deputy prime minister in Ismail Haniyya’s government in the Gaza Strip stood next to Fatah officials on the podium on Thursday. “We have the right to have representation of our own…We are not attacking anyone,” he told the crowd.

Last week, a cease-fire brokered by Egypt was signed between Hamas in Gaza and Israel after eight-days of fighting that left 170 Palestinians, and six Israelis dead, making the Islamist group more powerful from the Palestinian perspective.

The popularity of Fatah and  the PLO has been diminishing during the past few years, while Hamas has gained political currency.

Analysts believe that the latest Gaza warfare has had an impact in Hamas’ support of the bid, “Hamas speaks from a position of power, and it aims to gain international recognition so they can lead or be a part of the leadership,” Al Masri told The Media Line.

Al-Masri thinks that the events in Gaza led some states to at least change their position from denial to abstention. “They don’t want the moderate political camp to collapse,” said Al-Masri.

At the same time, Al-Masri added that although there is competition between the PA and Hamas’s approaches, ”In some respect, Hamas and Fatah’s popularity are not inversely proportional, and in light of recent events, the popularity of both sides has risen which may lead to a resolution in which they both unite their efforts towards establishing a sovereign Palestinian state.”

At Arafat square, meanwhile, Amna Ali opined that there are two programs among the Palestinians, “The political one and the militant one; whichever can present something to the Palestinians, we welcome it.”

The next few months will determine the fate of the Palestinian reconciliation.  If the PA returns to negotiations it will be difficult for Hamas to return to the fold.  Hamas'may feel empowered after recent events in Gaza; leading them further away from making concessions.

U.N. bid finds Palestinian leadership between a rock and a hard place


The arguments for and against the latest Palestinian bid for statehood status at the United Nations come down to which is the faster path to irrelevancy.

The Palestine Liberation Organization is seeking a diplomatic victory to preserve the legitimacy of its affiliated Palestinian Authority in the face of a fiscal crisis and a resurgent Hamas. But any success at the United Nations is likely to trigger punitive measures by Israel and the United States that could exacerbate the PLO’s isolation.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas “is at wit’s end,” said Nathan Brown,  a political science and international affairs professor at George Washington University in Washington whose expertise is the Palestinians. “This is being driven by the absence of any viable alternative.”

The Palestinian Authority is hitting a dead end in setting up statehood infrastructure, Brown said.

“Building from the ground up has run its course,” he said. “This seems one of the few places he can still act.”

But the Palestinians' strategy is not without its drawbacks. The move is opposed by both the United States and Israel, where officials have warned of punitive measures should the Palestinians go ahead with the application.

Yuval Steinitz, the Israeli finance minister, has said he will stop transferring tax revenues to the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority if the U.N. bid succeeds, while American lawmakers say it could jeopardize the millions in annual American aid to the Palestinian Authority. President Obama reiterated American opposition to the move in a call with Abbas on Sunday, the first since his re-election.

“This could be calamitous for the Palestinians themselves,” Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, told JTA. “It would not get them closer to real statehood. It would create unrealistic expectations on the ground and it would call into question a number of agreements Israel has with the Palestinian Authority and not with the state of Palestine.”

Maen Areikat, the PLO envoy to Washington, said achieving statehood status would actually help preserve the two-state solution.

“In the face of the continued Israeli settlement activities and the confiscation of land, the chances of establishing a Palestinian state next to Israel are fading and the international community is not doing anything to hold Israel accountable, especially the United States,” Areikat told JTA.

The Palestinians have been down this road once before, but the current bid is more modest than last year's quest for full inclusion as a U.N. member state, which is subject to full Security Council approval. A draft now circulating grants the PLO non-member state observer status, defining Palestine as a state within the 1967 lines but not granting it full inclusion. The resolution needs only to be adopted by the larger General Assembly, where the Palestinians are believed to have a majority in their favor.

On Monday, Abbas said he would submit the bid on Nov. 29 — the 65th anniversary of the 1947 U.N. vote calling for two states, one Jewish and one Arab, in Palestine. Israel accepted the plan while the Palestinians and other Arabs rejected it, launching a war against the nascent Jewish state.

Areikat says that recognition would provide Palestinians the basis with which to return to talks, which they abandoned two years after Israel refused to freeze settlement building. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants the Palestinians to return to talks without preconditions. Areikat said such calls are not substantive without an outline of an acceptable outcome for the Palestinians.

“We have an Israeli prime minister who for the last four years has been focused on Iran and not dealing with the Palestinians,” he said. “The aim is not to delegitimize Israel and end cooperation. On the contrary, after we get recognition within the 1967 borders, we are willing to engage the Israelis.”

Jewish groups active at the United Nations expect that a majority in favor of the Palestinians is practically guaranteed, but they have been seeking to blunt the effect of a statehood vote by lobbying European and Latin American nations to vote against it or abstain.

“It will send a message that the Palestinians do not enjoy a broader support much beyond Arab states and Muslim nations,” said Ken Bandler, the American Jewish Committee’s spokesman.

If the U.N. gambit is successful, it likely would lead to a freeze on some of the U.S. funds designated for the Palestinian Authority, which now receives more than $500 million in American assistance each year, suggested Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the senior Democrat on the foreign operations subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee.

“The Palestinian Authority’s ability to provide basic services is important to the goal of a Palestinian state living side by side with a state of Israel,” Lowey said. “But there's no doubt there will be consequences going forward.”

It would be especially difficult to make the case for such aid in the face of intensified rocket fire from the Gaza Strip on Israel in recent days, Lowey said.

“It is important to recognize that any discussion about the Palestinian Authority gaining observer status within the U.N. General Assembly is taking place within the context of over 100 rockets hitting Israel in the last three days,” she said. “The leaders have shown they're unable to stop terrorist attacks from Gaza.”

The threat from Gaza, ruled by the Hamas terrorist group, is precisely why cutting off the Palestinian Authority would be counterproductive, said Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, a group that has not endorsed the U.N. bids but opposes punitive measures.

“The West and Israel have to recognize that if their primary reaction is to take away more money from the Palestinians and make them suffer more, the direct beneficiaries will be a rising Hamas,” Ibish said.

Lara Friedman, the director of policy and government relations for Americans for Peace Now, said that non-member observer status, unlike full membership, would not trigger laws mandating a cutoff in U.S. funds to the Palestinians or the United Nations. The question, she said, is whether Congress or the president will take steps to impose such consequences regardless.

“Congress could, of course, seek to change the law,” she said. “Likewise, the Obama administration could act on its own to exact retribution.

“However, with the 2012 elections behind it, the Obama administration has far more room to maneuver than it did in 2011, and will no doubt be aware that its reaction to this Palestinian effort will be widely interpreted as a signal of its policy direction for the coming four years.”

Palestinians considering new UN statehood bid


The Palestinian Authority is considering a bid in September to be a U.N. “non-member observer state.”

PA Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is ready to take the step, and has the backing of the Arab League, but has not yet decided when he will go ahead, according to the Associated Press. 

Abbas leans toward waiting until after the U.S. November presidential elections to avoid further straining his relationship with the Obama administration; some members of his inner circle are pushing to move more quickly, according to the report. 

Last year’s PA bid at the U.N. General Assembly’s fall session for full state membership failed. Israel and the United States led the opposition to the effort, saying it would destabilize the peace process and that the PA should return to negotiations with Israel instead of engaging in such unilateral maneuvers. 

The Arab League last month gave Abbas its backing for a new General Assembly bid, but did not specifically approve its timing. 

An internal Palestinian document noted that the negative repercussions from the move could include the United States closing the PLO mission in Washington, suspending millions of dollars of aid to the Palestinians or withholding contributions to U.N. agencies the Palestinians try to join, according to the AP.

Meanwhile, the document reportedly added, possible Israeli reactions could include canceling interim peace deals, annexing parts of the West Bank or increasing restrictions on Palestinian trade and movement.

Yigal Palmer, a spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, said his country is aware of the Palestinian intentions but he would not comment on possible Israeli responses.

World Bank: PA economy not strong enough to support a state


The Palestinian economy is not yet strong enough to support a sovereign state because of its heavy reliance on foreign aid, according to a World Bank report.

“The Palestinian Authority has made steady progress in many years towards establishing the institutions required by a future state, but the economy is currently not strong enough to support such a state,” economist John Nasir said in a statement accompanying the report, which was released Wednesday.

The PA says it is facing its worst financial crisis since it was founded in 1994, with debts of $1.5 billion and an immediate cash shortfall of $500 million, the French news agency AFP reported. Donor countries have propped up the Palestinian economy with billions of dollars in assistance.

In the report, the World Bank said the aid has led to 7.7 percent gross domestic product growth between 2007 and 2011, but only in government services, real estate and other non-tradeable sectors.

“Economic sustainability cannot be based on foreign aid,” the Nasir statement said, “so it is critical for the PA to increase trade and spur private sector growth.”

Majority of Israelis, Palestinians don’t expect Palestinian state in next 5 years


A large majority of Israelis and Palestinians do not expect a Palestinian state to be established in the next five years.

According to a poll conducted jointly by the Hebrew University’s Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace and the Palestinian Center for Policy, 71 percent of Israelis and 68 percent of Palestinians believe that such a peace deal will not happen in the next five years, though only about one-third of both populations favor a one-state solution with equal rights given to Jews and Arabs, according to The Jerusalem Post.

In addition, only 19 percent of Israelis favored a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities by Israel alone, while a slim majority favored a joint U.S.-Israeli strike. Seventy-two percent of Israelis believe an Israeli military strike will lead to a major regional war.

The survey, conducted June 17 to 21, interviewed 1,200 Palestinian adults face to face in the West Bank, eastern Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. It featured phone interviews with 602 Israeli adults. The poll has a margin of error of 4.5 percent.

The poll was supported by the Ford Foundation in Cairo and Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung in Ramallah and Jerusalem.

Abbas swears in new Palestinian Authority Cabinet


Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas swore in a new Cabinet, in a move that could spell the end of a Fatah-Hamas unity government

The new Palestinian government in Ramallah is the second reshuffle of Cabinet positions since it was formed in 2007 under the leadership of PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. In the new government, Fayyad relinquished his Finance Minister portfolio to another political independent, former university president Nabil Qassis, according to the Palestinian Ma’an news service.

The new 21-memebr Cabinet includes nine new members and also includes a record six female ministers, according to the Jerusalem Post.

The Hamas government in Gaza reportedly decried the move, calling it illegitimate and in conflict with the agreement inked in March in Doha to establish a unity government jointly decided by Fatah and Hamas and led by Abbas.

Palestinians to deliver Netanyahu ultimatum on talks


The Palestinian Authority prime minister plans to use a rare meeting set for Tuesday with Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu to deliver a letter detailing Palestinian grievances on stalled peace talks.

Although there was no official announcement of the encounter between Netanyahu and Salam Fayyad, Palestinian officials confirmed that the two would see each other during the day.

An Israeli official said Netanyahu will reiterate his call for talks to resume without any preconditions and for a meeting with the top Palestinian Authority leader, President Mahmoud Abbas.

But the letter Fayyad is due to deliver from Abbas could serve as a prelude to a renewed unilateral Palestinian move for statehood recognition in the United Nations, an effort suspended last fall amid stiff opposition from Washington and Israel.

“It’s a last ditch effort indicating that we’re doing everything possible in order to realize a two-state solution,” Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi said about the missive.

“We hope that there’s a positive response, but we’re sending a message that, without one, we have a strategy for what follows,” she said.

Palestinians said the letter would accuse Israel of failing to carry out its obligations under a 2003 “road map” agreed by both sides, which include a halt to settlement activity.

Foreign governments have viewed the letter with apprehension, welcoming a rare high-level Israeli-Palestinian meeting, but warning against any threatening language.

In a phone call last month, U.S. President Barack Obama cautioned Abbas against provocative actions. Abbas has insisted his letter, which has taken weeks to prepare, would simply remind Israel of its commitments under interim peace deals.

“All options are all on the table for Palestinians, with the exception of dissolving the national authority or withdrawing recognition of Israel. We are not seeking the isolation of Israel, but rather to isolate its settlement policy,” Abbas told the official WAFA news agency last week.

Netanyahu says the future of settlements should be decided in peace negotiations.

U.S.-sponsored peace talks froze in late 2010 after Netanyahu rejected Palestinian demands that he extend a partial construction freeze he had imposed at Washington’s behest to coax them into talks.

Palestinian officials said the letter Fayyad will hand over is a watered-down version of previous drafts which suggested the Palestinian Authority, run by Abbas, would dissolve itself or sever ties with Israel if there was no progress.

A growing number of voices in the Palestinian establishment, including Marwan Bargouthi, a popular leader serving five life terms in Israel after being convicted of murder charges during a Palestinian uprising, have argued for economic and political divorce from Israel.

“Our security people are maintaining law and order in the Palestinian territories, and consequently Israel is benefiting from the effort,” said Mohammad Shtayyeh, a member of the central committee of Fatah, the ruling party in the West Bank.

“We are paying in security terms and are not being paid in political terms,” he told Reuters.

In spite of internal disagreements and a geopolitical climate that has seen the world preoccupied with other issues, the Palestinians hope the document will articulate their position ahead of any renewed push for U.N. statehood.

“We know that 2012 is a year of political vacuum. The U.S. is busy with elections, the EU with the euro, the Arab world with the (Arab) spring,” Shtayyeh said.

Nonetheless, the Palestinians were considering taking their case to the U.N. General Assembly after failing to secure backing at the Security Council in 2011.

“Going to the General Assembly this year will be an important step. We have a majority there, and no one has a veto,” he said.

However, only the Security Council, where the United States has veto power, has the authority to grant full U.N. membership.

Additional reporting By Ali Sawafta Editing by Maria Golovnina

Prime Minister Fayyad: ‘Unity and Non-violence’ requisites for statehood


With skepticism rife over a Fatah-Hamas rapprochement and the Hamas demand to replace him, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, the man credited with energizing the movement toward statehood and the man Western governments want holding the PA’s purse strings, discusses the pending issues with Friedson Friedson, President and CEO of The Media Line news agency, at his Ramallah office. Below is the first of two sessions between Prime Minister Fayyad and Ms. Friedson.

Friedson:  Mr. Prime Minister, thank you for taking the opportunity to speak with me and The Media Line.

Fayyad:  My pleasure.

Friedson:  Is there going to be a unity government comprised of Fatah and Hamas?

Fayyad:  Well, I’m hoping that as a matter of fact, sooner rather than later. We Palestinians can have – at long last – one government that is able to run the affairs of the Palestinian people both in Gaza and the West Bank. I personally view that as an essential first step toward re-establishing unity. I have always maintained that the state of Palestine which we are seeking cannot and will not happen unless our country is re-united—and one government is a key instrument of getting there. We just cannot keep going in the way we’ve been going for four years now: separated; separate governing processes; unable to get together physically; having lots of responsibilities there; wanting to discharge them more fully and adequately toward our own people. It just can’t continue. This is really most unnatural. We must see this operation come to an end.  Now, in terms of the makeup of our government, that is what has been discussed extensively in various forms of dialogue which I hope can conclude sooner rather than later. This process has been going on way too long in my humble opinion.

Friedson: Will Salam Fayyad be able to continue as prime minister if there is a unity government?

Fayyad:  You know, on the basis of what has transpired and most recent contacts especially between the two main factions, Fatah and Hamas, it is no secret that excluding me from the possibility of being the prime minister in the next government was something that was a major issue and topic of discussion and consideration in that direction. Now, I myself have always considered that this should not be an issue, and that as far as I’m concerned, I am not now and I will never be and I can never accept being in a position of even being just thought of as an obstacle in the way of getting us there, in terms of getting the county united again. And most recently and ahead of the most recent round of negotiations which took place in Cairo, and well before that, I actually called on the factions to agree on a consensus choice other than the existing prime minister—other than me—with a view to making absolutely clear that statements and speculation as to me being the obstacle or impediment were completely unfounded and that they should really be free to go ahead and do that. That really is my position. What is really important to us is to come to the point where we can have that government – one government – and immediately the important thing is to think about what that government is going to do. This government that is going to run the affairs of the Palestinian people up to the point we have elections – that’s another important issue which I think should be definitely finalized in terms of dates for elections and all because it’s really high time for our people to have the opportunity to have their say in the form of inclusive, transparent, open elections – we must be allowed to do this and we must allow our people the opportunity to do this.  It’s not going to be just basically a mere caretaker up until the election. That government should really begin to do serious work to reunite the country. It’s easy to say, “reuniting the country,” reuniting institutions and people. What that means is quite complex and requires a lot of serious effort and that government requires a lot of support in order for it to be able to do these things and for it to be able to make inroads into the reconstruction of Gaza which is overdue. So a lot of challenges; a lot of tasks and that’s what I believe we should be focused on rather than this debate which really is a bogus controversy so far as the identity of the next prime minister. I think that should be dispensed with. There are a lot of qualified people out there and all that is required is that there be agreement and consensus on one; we should move on.

Friedson:  Having said that, the word on the street is that you might run for president.

Fayyad:  I have not considered anything in politics beyond what I’m doing right now. It is a uniform point of view of anyone who has followed my career until now and what I have been doing for more than 40 years; this would not really come as a surprise. I have just described to you the complexity of the task of the government that is going to take over in the run-up to elections and I hope this is something that is not just talked about but is something that will actually happen. I say this from the point of view of somebody who knows first-hand under these difficult conditions – highly complex conditions – domestically, regionally and internationally – as well. Given all of that, you just cannot think of anything else but what you’re doing. What I am being completely focused on is to be able to continue to chart these difficult waters; build on the progress that we’ve been able to achieve in various fields of government in terms of deepening our readiness for statehood; continue to provide support for our political activity internationally. These are really difficult challenges, so, no, I have not and I will not be thinking about anything but what I’m doing.

Friedson:  Your presence has allowed Western governments to provide aid to the Palestinian Authority. So let’s just say you did leave the government as the prime minister. Won’t a sizeable amount of [international] support be placed in jeopardy?

Fayyad:  I hope not. I think over the past few years, and this probably is or should be one of the key reasons why we have this much support and international confidence, if you will. I’m really personally flattered by all of this, but at the same time I believe it’s a reflection by and large of the progress that we’ve been able to make in institutionalizing governance processes including in the important area of monitoring finances. If the donors have confidence and faith, it’s not so much, I believe, in the fact that there is x, y or z running the show now. It’s a direct consequence of them having assurance that there are mature governance processes in key areas of government including, importantly, public finance. And so therefore I hope that would not happen. This is far too much of a responsibility, a burden, for anyone to continue to think of himself as the address through which the money, assistance, aid can go only. Exclusively. And I would really regard it, to be honest with you, as a failure on my part if it ends up being the case. I shouldn’t be talking in terms that extend beyond what I consider to be new modesty, because that’s who I am. But if I would think in terms of, well with hesitation I say the word “legacy” – I would really not want it to be my legacy on whose shoulders lies the whole responsibility of being the sole address through which, in which, the international community has confidence when it comes to assisting the Palestinian people or Palestinian Authority…

Friedson:  So how do you view your legacy?

Fayyad:  It is one of institutionalizing things. It is one of basically converting all energies that we have at the individual level as well as collectively into one part of national effort that is really capable of projecting the kind of true, real, genuine readiness for the state of Palestine that is going to happen; that I really have set out from the beginning as a goal, as a compass for everything that we really do. That’s really the most important thing. So it is progress toward the goal of institutionalizing all of these processes and I believe that is what matters.

Friedson:  Mr. Prime Minister, placing your role in the next government aside, American legislators from both parties are warning that the United States cannot fund a Palestinian government that includes Hamas because it’s on the terror list. How iron-clad do you see this stipulation as being?

Fayyad:  When we talk about one government, and I mentioned among other things that number one, it is important to have that; and number two, to discuss the makeup of that government and what it should be like, it’s platform, we touched a little bit on the tasks of that government. I do not believe that our friends in Congress would disagree with what I said about the need for us to have one government. No one can because it is, for me, a straightforward point of logic for us to want to see our country re-united. On the basis of that same logic, I see no difficulty and come to the conclusion that this cannot but be the universally-shared conclusion because that state of Palestine – in order for it to happen – must have Gaza as a component. We Palestinians can’t have a state without Gaza. And to the extent that a two-state solution is not only a Palestinian interest, but a regional interest and an international interest, there cannot but be a convergence of views on the need for our country to be reunited. This said, I think it’s incumbent on us Palestinians to really try to manage our own affairs in ways that would not interfere with our capacity to interact effectively with the international community including the United States and especially the Congress of the United States. It’s incumbent upon us to really find a way. I believe the important thing – and I believe it would be really important not to get engaged in some categorization of what might happen and characterization of that government as being [a] factional government of this color or that color or the rest of it. But really to concentrate more on issues that matter maybe more on a level of priority. For example, when it comes to matters of platform – tasks for this government – would it not really be a major consideration that this government, or one of its key tasks, is to oversee the implementation and observance of a doctrine of non-violence? I believe this is a major, major task for the government…

Friedson:  Do you believe fundamentalism within Hamas can actually go beyond this?

Fayyad:  Let me tell you: What I’ve just described to you, the doctrine of non-violence, is something we attach a greatest deal of importance to. I personally believe in the immense power of non-violence. But it is generally true that this approach, this doctrine, is more broadly shared today in Palestine than at any point before. I think we should take advantage of it and try to formalize it. Therefore, I say, if you have the prospect or possibility of having a Palestinian government, a key task of which is to oversee the implementation of such an important doctrine, would not that represent a major advance or improvement relative to status quo or status quo ante? My answer is, “Yes.” It’s a major improvement relative to what we have. If we ignore other elements, would that government be ideal? I’d say, “No.” But there’s hardly an ideal government anywhere in the world for that matter. I’m someone who looks at the realm of what is possible. What is practical. What is pragmatic and how we might be able to move. A guiding principal, or litmus test, if you will, is whether or not by moving in such-and-such direction we’re not we’re paving the way toward improving the situation. Whether the day after is now going to be better than the day before. In other words, whether we’re going to be better in regards to the status quo is the yardstick by which I measure things. Are we assured that such government is going to be perfect from every other point of view?  The answer is no. But my answer is, “Let us begin. Let’s create conditions that are better tomorrow than they are today and build on that. Create a new dynamic: a Palestinian Authority that’s able to function in Gaza.” Being able to enforce, observe and implement a doctrine of non-violence throughout the occupied Palestinian territory is a major advance in being able to formalize what has now become a broadly shared conviction in this doctrine of non-violence. I believe that it is very important to formalize that and for that to become a key ingredient for the platform of the government. This is how I look at things. Now, if we don’t get that, then I myself would say that would be a case of too many missing ingredients. It will be a case of too many things that we don’t have.  So I would say it’s important for us to take note – take good note – of the opinion of the international community, but it incumbent on us, too, to explain ourselves. I believe that the international community is reasonable…

Friedson:  But if you cannot get them – Hamas – to adopt to non-violence, then what would happen?

Fayyad:  I have just described to you what I believe would be absolutely essential in terms of the platform of that government, in terms of its key tasks and responsibilities. And if that is not really agreed upon, if that doctrine of non-violence is not a key ingredient in the platform of that government, then again I say, it will be from our own point of view, a case of too many missing ingredients.

Friedson:  Hizbullah is also on the terror list and controls 21 out of 30 cabinet seats in the Lebanese government. Yet, the United States provides aid there.  Are the situations comparable? Do you see this as a reason to believe that aid will continue notwithstanding the threats to cut off support?

Fayyad:  It is way above my pay grade to engage in cross-border comparisons. I’ll just confine myself to what is possible, reasonable, do-able on our side; and I just described to you, Felice, what is our point of view; what I believe is absolutely essential from our point of view relative to our own objective. Basic and most fundamental of our objectives – what is that? To have a state of our own. What does that mean and what does it require? It requires functional security. Functionality of security requires that the state and its agencies is the address and the state – and only the state – will have purview over security matters.

Friedson:  Speaking of obligations, you yourself have criticized Arab governments for failing to make good on pledges to the Palestinian Authority. If the United States and Western governments suspend aid, do you feel you can rely on the Arab governments to fill in the gap?

Fayyad:  We have problems now in terms of aid flows. We have an interruption and we have so far an overall flow of aid that’s been less than programmed for this current fiscal year 2011, and what we got of it did not always come in a timely way, which complicated our task and precipitated a financial crisis, which at one point during the year, or twice, made it impossible for us to pay salaries. Not to mention our failure to meet other important obligations to the private sector, vendors, suppliers. This is a major problem for us. To me, the issue is really not to look for other sources of funding in order to overcome the difficulties we face with some sources. Whether they are in the region or outside the region. The solution to me lies in stepping up our own efforts in attaining self-reliance and in the meantime reducing substantially on our reliance on aid. We have made a good deal of progress over the past few years, specifically since 2008 toward reducing our dependency on aid and reliance on it. In numbers, in fact, the aid allocated to us to help us with current expenditure has declined from $1.8 billion in 2008 to about $1 billion this year. This is a significant decline. In GDP terms, it’s a 60% decline from 2008. Actually, under current baseline for financial policy, we’re projecting a couple percentage points more reduction in the deficit of the Palestinian Authority.  We’re not looking for other sources to make up the difference. What we’re looking for to make up the difference is ourselves. We asked ourselves, “Can we do more? Can we go beyond the original base line?” And our answer was, “We must.” We must find a way to substantially reduce the deficit in 2012 beyond the level that was planned on the original baseline and we’re doing it. It is my firm expectation. Based on the strength of measures that we are contemplating and we are about to phase in. We are going to be able to substantially reduce our level of deficit in a way that should make it the last year in which we’re going to need external financial assistance for current budget support for current expenditures. That’s a major achievement. It will be yet another sign – a very important sign—of the advanced state of maturity of governing ourselves; of the level that we have reached.

Friedson:  What do you say to those who warn that because of the political situation fiscally, everything can collapse?

Fayyad:  Well, fiscally, everything is already collapsing. Not can or will. It is collapsing already under the heavy weight of the suspension of the transfers of our revenues that the government of Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. We are fast approaching the point of being completely incapacitated by this, and I really mean it. Now we cannot move checks as low in value as $5,000 and $6,000 without making a special effort with the banks. We really are on the verge of being completely incapacitated by this measure by the government of Israel. Now, those revenues which the government of Israel transfers to us are revenues it collects on our behalf under the agreement that regulates economic and financial relations – the Paris Protocols, which go back to 1994. Under the terms of that agreement, Israel – without any condition or qualification – is to transfer on a monthly basis money it collects on our behalf under that agreement. That should not be subject to any conditions of any kind. It’s not in the agreement that Israel could resort to such measures.

Friedson:  Worse case scenario you envision happening?

Fayyad:  I’m realistic. You know, in theory some might say that you should look to others to come up with the difference. But realistically, what is it we’re talking about? We’re talking about an amount of money that comprises about two-thirds of our revenues – about $100 million to $110 million per month. I just told you the order of magnitude. I told you our budget deficit for 2011 is about $1 billion. So figure we’re talking about depriving us of about $100 million a month of our revenues. That would have doubled – it’s been happening since January of this year – our financing requirement. Now, if we could not come up with $1 billion in external assistance, how can we even begin to think that we can come up with $2 billion? So it’s wholly unrealistic to expect that the withholding or suspension of transfer of money from Israel is something that can be compensated for by donor assistance. As a matter of fact, I can tell you that there is nothing we can do by adjustment that can begin to make compensation for the withdrawal of that money.  Worse case scenario, I will go back to what I just told you. This was not meant to be a dramatization or exaggeration at all. This would incapacitate us completely. You’re taking away from us two-thirds of our revenues. It is difficult for me to see how that can be compensated for by external assistance given the difficulties we have experienced in getting much less by way of external assistance. Furthermore, one would be hard pressed to think of adjustment measures that we could take that would really make the adjustment for the withholding of that money. We’re talking about $100 million per month. This is major. In principle, it is possible. In theory, it is possible. In reality, how realistic is it going to be given the orders of magnitude? Makes it unlikely and makes it difficult for me to think that it will be possible to deal with this problem by looking for money from other sources.  You know, we have been living a hand-to-mouth type of existence, living in a crisis mode for more than a year and a half.  I know Palestinian finances. The state of Palestinian finances is something of which I have intimate knowledge of since the inception of the Palestinian Authority and from various angles in different capacities from long before I joined the Palestinian Authority in 2002.  I can tell you with absolute certainty that the Palestinian Authority has never faced a financial situation that is more difficult than the one it is facing now. When I say we’re on the verge of becoming completely incapacitated, I really mean it literally. This is how difficult it is. This is not something you’re going to be able to resolve by having a little more external assistance. The only way it can be resolved is by the government of Israel doing the right thing and that is to live up to the agreement we have—the one that governs our relationship in money and finance. Continued failure to resolve this issue should rightly cast serious doubt about the capacity of the political process to deal with the more difficult issues that are to be negotiated between us and the Israelis. The international community, with all of its influence and its involvement and the fact that it’s been providing us with lots of support to help us with our capacity building and with our effort to get ready for statehood; if with all that standing the international community cannot convince the government of Israel to do the right thing when it comes to the money that should be transferred unconditionally, how much faith can we really have in the ability of the international community to do the heavy lifting that’s necessary to facilitate the political process between us and Israel adequately, effectively in a way that can produce an outcome?

Felice Friedson is President and CEO of The Media Line news agency. She can be contacted at felice_friedson@yahoo.com.  © 2011. The Media Line Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Iceland votes to recognize Palestinian state


Iceland’s parliament voted on Tuesday in favor of recognizing the Palestinian Territories as an independent state, the first Western European country to do so according Iceland’s foreign minister.

The vote paves the way for formal recognition by the small north Atlantic island, which led the way in recognising the independence of the three Baltic states after the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991.

“Iceland is the first Western European country to take this step,” Foreign Minister Össur Skarphedinsson told Icelandic state broadcaster RUV. “I now have the formal authority to declare our recognition of Palestine.”

The Icelandic parliament decided by 38 votes in the 63-seat house to back a resolution allowing for the recognition of a Palestinian state within the borders of the Six Day War of 1967.

“At the same time, parliament urges Israelis and Palestinians to seek a peace agreement on the basis of international law and U.N. resolutions, which include the mutual recognition of the state of Israel and the state of Palestine,” said the resolution, proposed by the foreign minister.

It also called on all sides to cease any violence and recalled the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.

Iceland’s recognition, however, is expected to amount to a little more than symbolic step as the Palestinian Authority strives to get United Nations recognition. Its quest for a seat at the international body has so far failed.

Reporting by Omar Valdimarsson, writing by Patrick Lannin.

Local Palestinians remain loyal to their roots


Palestinian-American Anwar Abdo was only a toddler when his family fled eastward from the earthy orange groves of Jaffa to the white stone city of Amman during Israel’s War of Independence.

More than six decades later, the Orange County resident still dreams of returning to his birthplace with Palestinians and Jews living together in a single democratic state.

“I’ve been here for 40 years, my family is here, and I respect this country, but if I had a chance to live there, I would,” the man with a graying goatee and penetrating eyes said from his cousin’s Olive Tree restaurant in Anaheim. Jaffa “is my town. Palestine is my country. That’s the way I feel about it; it’s never going to change.”

If Israel, its future and security seem inextricably linked with Los Angeles’ Jewish community, a large number of Palestinian-Americans living in the region maintain equally strong ties to the land. Palestinian-Americans across the Southland welcomed the news last week that the United Nations’ cultural and scientific agency became the first U.N. agency to approve “Palestine” as a full member.

Even as the U.S. has threatened to veto a Palestinian bid for full membership in the United Nations, many Palestinians living here saw the decision by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a long-overdue step toward greater international recognition of Palestinian rights and statehood at a time that disillusionment with President Barack Obama’s administration is running high.

Many also viewed the recent UNESCO votes related to Palestinian statehood, and potentially upcoming at the United Nations, as vital to their own interests and relevant to their lives.

“It’s about time they recognize Palestine as a state,” said Amani Jabsheh, a Rancho Cucamonga resident who left the West Bank city of Nablus at the age of 22 to join her Palestinian-American husband here. “We want to live in peace and harmony. We want our own state and our freedom. We want to build a better future.”

Jabsheh, 45, said she was optimistic that one day, with the right Israeli, Palestinian and American leadership in place, a Palestinian state would indeed be born because, as she put it, “If you look at history, no one stays oppressed” forever.

But the financial analyst, whose siblings live in the West Bank and Jordan, admitted that she couldn’t envision herself living in such a state, as America has afforded her and her family respect, freedom and tremendous opportunity.

“I have a career. Our house is here. Our children are here,” she said. “I will always go and visit with my family … [but] my life is here.”

Palestinian Christian John Makhlouf of Bellflower called the Palestinian bid for UNESCO membership “an excellent idea” and argued that because, in his view, Israel was not willing to make concessions, it is “the only nonviolent way to protect their rights” in relation to Israel.

“That will show Israel somehow that the whole world is really supporting the Palestinians to have statehood,” said Makhlouf, who left his native Jerusalem for America in 1973. He said he left to escape harsh treatment from his Israeli employers and seemingly indiscriminate detentions and interrogations by Israeli security forces in the wake of violence.

Makhlouf, a former Boeing assembler, does his part to support the cause, he said, by being a member of the Cousins Club of Orange County, a group of Jews, Palestinians and others concerned about the conflict.

The group, which was formed in 1988, advocates for a two-state solution, and members meet monthly to educate themselves and the public on the issues, write letters to local newspaper editors and lobby their government representatives, he said.

“When we all sit down and discuss, we don’t discriminate,” Makhlouf said. “Everybody expresses their opinion, whether you are saying something bad about the Palestinians or bad about Israel, they don’t care. You can say anything you want.”

Makhlouf, who said he would love to live in a Palestinian state, said they are not fighting against Jews but against the Israeli government. Many of the Jews he has met through the Cousins Club, he said, are highly educated and actively support the creation of a Palestinian state.

Mahmood Ibrahim, a professor of history and graduate coordinator and adviser at Cal Poly Pomona, said that while the recent UNESCO decision may not bring Palestinians closer to achieving a state, it does serve to underscore at these world forums that “there is an occupier amongst them.”

Ibrahim was born in Ramallah in 1948, he said, after Haganah forces evacuated his family from the now-defunct village of Jimzu, near where Ben Gurion Airport stands today.

The U.S. government’s “continued, unquestioned support” of Israeli policies, he argued, is not only exposing its inconsistency vis-à-vis Palestinian rights but is further isolating the country on the world stage.

“This is a time when a two-state situation can be had,” Ibrahim said. “Only the greedy right-wing movement in Israel, which is a fraction of the Israeli population and a fraction of the Jewish people in the world, they are the ones calling the shots. They are the ones determining U.S. foreign policy” regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Ibrahim said.

Anaheim attorney Sami Mashney, who describes himself as a media activist, said he views the UNESCO vote as if the world has cast a vote of confidence for Palestine and a vote of no confidence for Israel.

Had it not been for what he called “the Zionist lobby controlling the White House and Congress,” Mashney contended, Israel would have been left “out in the cold” with little or no international support.

Mashney, who publishes the Arab-American newspaper The Independent Monitor and founded the Network of Arab-American Professionals of Orange County, said his ultimate goal is to have 100,000 Arab-Americans rally in front of the White House, as other ethnic groups do, to show their political strength.

A self-described “secular lapsed Christian” originally from Ramallah, he said he represents clients no matter what their faith or political beliefs.

However, in hiring professionals to provide services for him, he said, “I do screen people who are Zionist or not. If I was going to put my money anywhere, or do business with anyone, if I explore that they are Jewish or if they are crazy Christian Zionists, I inquire … . If they seem like they are Zionist, I confront them, and afterwards, I end up not doing business together. I discriminate politically, but not religiously.”

Mashney said he defines a Zionist as someone who supports Israel “materially or morally” and supports the country’s policy of allowing Jews from around the world to immigrate to Israel while denying the Palestinians the “right of return.” He also advocates for one secular, democratic state for Jews and Arabs, rather than two states, arguing “that would go a long way to calm things down and pacify many Palestinians who are now angry and vengeful.”

Anwar Abdo’s cousin, Imad Abdo, who was born and raised in Jordan but whose family is originally from Jaffa, said he doesn’t believe Israel will ever agree to the creation of a Palestinian state.

“I will not imagine something that will never happen,” Imad Abdo said. He added that he would vote for Hamas, if he could, because “at least they are fighting, defending themselves against the Israelis” and following the Quran.

And it is their holy book, he said, that “tells them what to do, and it works.”

U.N. panel draft signals Palestinian statehood bid doomed


A key U.N. Security Council committee could not reach consensus on whether Palestine should be accepted as a U.N. member, a draft report said in the latest sign the Palestinian U.N. bid is doomed.

The body was “unable to make a unanimous recommendation to the Security Council,” said the report of the committee on admitting new member states, circulated to all 15 Security Council members on Tuesday.

The four-page draft appears to confirm that the Palestinian move to join the world body as a full member, which Western envoys said never had a chance due to a U.S. vow to veto it if it ever came to a vote in the council, is set to fail due to the council’s unresolvable deadlock.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas applied for full U.N. membership for the state of Palestine on September 23.

Although it is the 193-nation General Assembly that makes decisions on U.N. membership, an applicant state needs prior Security Council approval before it can go to the assembly.

Both the United States and Israel say the Palestinian push in the United Nations is unilateral and an attempt to bypass peace talks, whose resumption Abbas has conditioned on an Israeli freeze of settlement activity in occupied territory.

The Palestinians say those negotiations have failed to bring them closer to the independent state they seek in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. They say it is time to try a different approach.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland declined to comment on the draft report. But she said the “Quartet” of Middle East peace mediators will meet separately with Israeli and Palestinian officials on November 14 in Jerusalem, their latest effort to jump-start the stalled peace process.

The Quartet is made up of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.

PALESTINIANS FAIL TO SECURE MINIMUM OF VOTES

The Palestinians can still call for a vote in the Security Council, but U.N. diplomats said on condition of anonymity that it is not clear whether they will do so given that Washington will likely not even need to use its veto to block it.

The Palestinians would score a moral victory and force Washington to cast its veto if they are able to muster nine votes to support them in the council. A council resolution needs nine votes in favor and no vetoes to pass.

But U.N. diplomats say the Palestinians have so far secured only eight backers.

The draft report details how the council is divided into three groups—those planning to support the Palestinian bid, those opposing it and those planning to abstain from any vote on it. It does not identify the countries.

The draft said some countries supported “as an intermediate step, (that) the General Assembly should adopt a resolution by which Palestine would be made an Observer State.”

It also said some council members questioned whether Palestine fulfilled the U.N. membership criteria. Some voiced doubts about whether Palestine is “peace-loving” and questioned its ability to engage in foreign relations with other states.

The Palestinians already have status as an observer “entity,” but have suggested they might seek upgrading that status to that of a non-member observer state, like the Vatican. Such enhanced status would give them a higher profile and implicitly recognize Palestine as a state.

Council diplomats said that at a meeting last week, Russia, China, Brazil, India, Lebanon and South Africa supported the Palestinian bid, the United States opposed it, and Britain, France and Colombia said they would abstain in any vote.

Gabon and Nigeria, expected to support the Palestinians, and Germany and Portugal, expected to abstain, did not spell out their positions and Bosnia did not speak.

Bosnia is also thought likely to abstain because its Muslim, Serb and Croat collective presidency cannot agree.

The report by the committee, which groups all council member states, may be revised before it is formally presented to the Security Council proper on Friday, envoys said.

Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn in Washington; editing by Mohammad Zargham

Despite UNESCO victory, Palestinian statehood push running aground


They may have scored a victory at UNESCO, but the Palestinians are running into new obstacles on their push for statehood recognition at the United Nations.

The effort to pursue the issue at the U.N. Security Council has encountered a stumbling block in Bosnia, where the country’s Serbian co-president appears to have helped cost the Palestinians a crucial ninth vote.

Meanwhile, U.N. officials are sending a strong message regarding any further efforts to get U.N. agencies to follow UNESCO’s lead in granting the Palestinians membership: Please stop.

“I believe this is not beneficial for Palestine and not beneficial for anybody,” Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary-general, said in a Nov. 3 interview with The Associated Press.

U.S. laws requiring an automatic cutoff in funds to U.N. agencies that grant statehood recognition to the Palestinians already have threatened massive cuts to UNESCO, the U.N. cultural and scientific agency.

“When an organization is not properly functioning because of a lack of resources, you have to think about the millions and millions of people who are being impacted and affected,” Ban said.

The Palestinians have taken heed. On Nov. 3, the day that AP published its Ban interview, Riyad al-Malki, the Palestinian foreign minister, said the Palestinians would stick to pursuing the Security Council option.

“The backlash that’s coming from UNESCO, including from the secretary-general, made it clear it might be a risky counterproductive process to go to other agencies,” said Ghaith al-Omari, executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine. “So for the time being they’re concentrating on the Security Council.”

Pro-Israel officials said this should be a “duh” moment for the Palestinians, who had been clearly warned of the dangers—not least by congressional appropriators. The appropriators had said repeatedly that cutting off U.N. agencies recognizing “Palestine“ was a matter not only of policy but law.

“Any agency that was considering the Palestinians will now not consider it,” said Tom Neumann, the executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. “There was no margin for wiggling out of it. The State Department is unhappy about cutting UNESCO, but they didn’t have a choice.”

Israel and the United States say the only route to statehood for the Palestinians is through direct negotiations. The Palestinians refuse to return to talks until Israel freezes settlement building.

The Obama administration had made it clear that it would veto any Security Council bid. The Palestinians could have put the United States in the difficult position of having to use its veto in the Security Council by garnering nine votes from the council’s 15 members, the minimum required to approve a membership request. That, the Palestinians believed, would have been an important symbolic victory.

The Palestinians had secured the backing of China, Russia, Brazil, Lebanon, South Africa and India at the Security Council. Pledging to vote against or to abstain were the United States, Britain, France, Germany and close U.S. allies Colombia and Portugal. The U.S., Israel and pro-Israel groups had targeted the three countries that were seen as up for grabs: Nigeria, Gabon and Bosnia.

Nigeria and Gabon, both with close oil-based ties to the Arab world, reportedly moved into the Palestinian column, giving the Palestinians eight votes. That left Bosnia, a recipient of Western assistance that still nurtures hopes of joining the European Union.

The wild card for the Bosnians turned out to be its unique presidency, where U.N. votes must be approved. Three co-presidents represent the country’s major communities—Muslim, Croat and Serb.

The Muslim president reportedly favored statehood recognition, and the Croat’s position was not known. But the Bosnian Serb president, Milorad Dodik, was adamantly opposed, and last week the president’s office announced that lacking unanimity, Bosnia would abstain.

A request to the Palestine Liberation Organization office in Washington as to Palestinian strategies going forward went unanswered.

The Palestinians can still bring the case to the General Assembly, where they have the votes to achieve enhanced observer status, equivalent to the Vatican.

The setbacks to the Palestinians’ U.N. strategy do not mean that the issue of Palestinian statehood is off the table, said Jon Alterman, the director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Absent the diplomatic route, he warned, the Palestinians might press for statehood through violence.

“There’s a frustration that it’s not on the Israeli agenda, it’s dropped from the American agenda and they have to do something to put it back on everyone’s agenda,” Alterman said.

The alternative to progress toward statehood could be the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, under pressure from a populace that is fed up with its diplomatic failures, said Gidi Grinstein, president of the Reut Institute, an Israeli strategic policy think tank.

Speaking Tuesday in Denver to JACPAC, a pro-Israel political action committee, at a session convened during the Jewish Federations of North America’s annual General Assembly, Grinstein said that Israel and the United States should embrace the Palestinian U.N. bid as a means of avoiding what he said would be a disaster.

“Instead of fighting the Palestinian motion in the U.N., embrace it and work for it,” Grinstein said. “There’s a lot of risks on this option, but are there lesser risks with a Palestinian Authority that could implode?”

Protestant leaders call for U.N. endorsement of Palestinian membership


Leaders of four American Protestant denominations issued a statement endorsing the Palestinian U.N. bid for statehood.

“The Palestinians deserve membership in the United Nations—not only on the basis of international law and basic fairness—but to help preserve a multi-religious holy land that includes Christian Palestinians,” said the statement, issued last week.

It was signed by Rev. Sharon Watkins of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Rev. Geoffrey Black of the United Church of Christ and Gradye Parsons of the Presbyterian Church (USA), each the top officials of their denominations, as well as by James Winkler, general secretary of the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society.

The signatories said they believe Palestinian membership at the United Nations will further the goal of peace and does not preclude direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to resolve the conflict.

Rabbi Noam Marans, the American Jewish Committee’s director of interreligious and intergroup relations, called the statement unhelpful, saying “direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are the only path to sustainable peace.”

“Diverting the drive for Palestinian statehood to the UN without an agreement with Israel will not achieve the aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians for peace and security,” Marans said in a statement.

Appropriators warn UNESCO on ‘Palestine’


The U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee that controls foreign funding warned UNESCO in a letter that it risks a funding cutoff if it gives the Palestinians statehood status.

“Any recognition of Palestine as a Member State would not only jeopardize the hope for a resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, but would endanger the United States’ contribution to UNESCO,” says the letter being sent Friday to Irina Bokova, the director-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

The letter was signed by Reps. Kay Granger (R-Texas), and Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), respectively the chairwoman and ranking member of the Foreign Operations subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee, as well as every other member.

The letter, initiated by Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.), cites existing U.S. law against funding any body that recognizes the Palestine Liberation Organization as having statehood status.

UNESCO’s board this week agreed to allow the full body to vote on whether to recognize “Palestine,” drawing criticism from Israel, the United States and a number of pro-Israel groups.

Congress looks to punish Palestinians, but cuts to security aid pose dilemma


If the Palestinians don’t pull back from their statehood push, congressional cuts in aid are inevitable, U.S. lawmakers say. Just how comprehensive such cuts will be, however, could end up depending on Israel’s stance on the issue.

Lawmakers, lobbyists and congressional staffers told JTA that hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance for the Palestinians are on the chopping block because of the Palestinian leadership’s formal request last month for U.N. membership in the absence of negotiations with Israel.

“If they’re not going to negotiate in good faith, I don’t want American money to go to them,” said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), a veteran member of the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs.

The key to how much gets cut, a number of lawmakers and congressional staffers say, is what Israel advises.

Insiders say Israel is wary of cutting off the $150 million that the Palestinian Authority receives in security assistance from the United States. Israel believes that the PA’s fledgling police force—trained in a program structured by U.S. military personnel—has proven effective in keeping the West Bank quiet.

Engel suggested he would be willing to make an exception for security assistance.

“We don’t want security arrangements between Israelis and the Palestinians to blow up,” Engel said. “I would not be in favor of giving them money for anything else.”

Lawmakers are meeting behind the scenes with Israeli diplomats in delicate negotiations over sustaining the security aid. Insiders described a conundrum for the Israelis: Israel, through its diplomats and supporters, has tacitly encouraged congressional threats to cut funding as a means of pressuring the Palestinian leaders to abandon their statehood push and on-again, off-again unity talks with Hamas.

At the same time, Israel also has publicly backed funding for security assistance and infrastructure building.

“Israel calls for ongoing international support for the PA budget and development projects that will contribute to the growth of a vibrant private sector, which will provide the PA an expanded base for generating internal revenue,” Israel’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said in a report to the ad hoc committee of nations that help fund the Palestinians. The report was submitted Sept. 18, just five days before the Palestinians submitted their statehood bid at the United Nations.

Such mixed messages are no longer sustainable now that the Palestinian Authority has gone to the U.N., congressional insiders told JTA. If the Israelis want continued security funding for the Palestinian Authority, they have to explicitly say so in order to give political cover to lawmakers—particularly Jewish Democrats, who will be blasted by Republicans for any generosity to the Palestinians in the wake of their U.N. push.

“If they’re willing to say the Palestinian security forces are important, that’ll make a difference. If they don’t, that’ll make a difference,” said one top Capitol Hill staffer. “Ultimately, people are going to have to explain themselves.”

An Israeli official said that Israel would not comment on internal congressional deliberations. However, the official did note that the Israeli submission to the ad hoc committee was made before the Palestinians made their U.N. push. The Israelis had warned the Palestinians that such a push would have consequences.

U.S. lawmakers who strongly backed the Bush administration’s effort in 2007 to increase funding for the Palestinians to $400 million per year—up from very occasional bursts of $20 million—either have been silent or have supported cutting off the Palestinians. Their ranks include leading Jewish Democrats.

Opposition to continued funding so pervades Congress that pro-Israel witnesses who testified early in September before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in support of sustaining funding were taken aback by the pushback from the committee’s members.

The manifold increase in American funding four years ago was a recognition of the moderation of PA President Mahmoud Abbas relative both to his late predecessor, Yasser Arafat, and his Hamas rivals, who had just driven his Fatah movement out of the Gaza Strip by force. The annual American aid has since increased to $500 million to 600 million.

Much of the aid that would be least controversial to cut—the $200 million to $250 million that goes directly to the Palestinian Authority to help maintain its institutions and pay its salaries—already has been disbursed for this year. Given the mood in Congress, it likely won’t be reapproved for the next fiscal year, although Obama administration officials have suggested they will ask.

“We are continuing intensive consultations with the Congress on this money because we feel that U.S. support for Palestinian institution-building is a vital piece of what we’re trying to do here,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday in her daily briefing for reporters. “We’re trying to prepare the ground for a successful and stable peace.

“This money goes to establishing and strengthening the institutions of a future Palestinian state, building a more democratic and stable and secure region. We think it is money that is not only in the interest of the Palestinians, it’s in U.S. interest and it’s also in Israeli interest, and we would like to see it go forward.”

Capitol Hill insiders said that Congress might stop short of an absolute cutoff in assistance and instead may look at increasing congressional oversight and restricting presidential waivers enabling assistance. Much depends on how close the Palestinians come in the next few months to returning to talks.

For members of Congress seeking to send an immediate message to the Palestinians, however, what’s mostly left is the $150 million in security assistance and nearly $200 million in humanitarian assistance that bypasses the Palestinian Authority and goes to nongovernmental groups.

Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), the chairwoman of the foreign operations subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, joined with Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the subcommittee’s ranking member, in writing two letters to Abbas earlier this year warning that the statehood push would result in a cut to economic assistance funding.

Granger told JTA that she repeated the warning in a meeting she had in August with PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

“We have not changed our position at all on the withholding of funds,” she said, explaining that 2012 economic and humanitarian assistance was in danger of being severed unless the Palestinians return to direct talks with Israel.

“We are hopeful that they will return to the peace process, “ Granger said.

Security funds would be affected only if the Palestinian Authority united with Hamas, she said.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, also has placed a hold on the humanitarian funding, in part because of concerns that it might end up benefitting Hamas. Administering aid programs in the Gaza Strip is nearly impossible without the approval—and at times the cooperation—of the terrorist group.

“There is an informational hold on the funding,” a statement from the committee spokesman said.

Ros-Lehtinen and other members “are seeking further details about how funds have been used in the past, how they will be used, safeguards, and the system in place to phase the Palestinians away from dependency on the U.S.,” the statement said. “This is a tool of Congressional oversight. Additionally, Members believe that the funding cannot be considered in a vacuum, and that the PA’s activities at the U.N., its arrangement with Hamas, and its failure to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish State must all be taken into consideration.”

Such withholdings in the earlier part of the last decade drew condemnation overseas because they affected NGOs that administer food and medical aid to children. One pro-Israel insider said that this time, Europeans have shown a readiness to fill the gaps in humanitarian aid.

Moral dimension of Palestinian statehood


I felt terribly guilty when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told the U.N. General Assembly: “Enough! It is time for the Palestinian people to gain their freedom and independence.” How can we deny to others what we claim for ourselves?

Let there be no misunderstanding; I am a daily listener to what Abbas’ television is telling his children about the fate of Israel. I, therefore, know what everyone else knows, that when Abbas speaks of “freedom and independence,” he is not talking about a two-state solution; he means freedom to demand the return of Tel Aviv to Palestinian hands and independence to pursue that demand from a position of power and legitimacy. Still, the words “freedom and independence,” evoked the age-old question of equity and justice: “Can we deny to others what we demand for ourselves?”

I was not the only one to have this reaction to the Palestinian bid for statehood. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that more than 40 percent of Americans favor the United States recognizing Palestine as a state. True, only 10 percent of the respondents said that they are following the news closely on this issue, but this is exactly what we mean by the “moral dimension” — the level of consciousness that has no patience for sorting out facts, figures, intentions and consequences, but instead draws meaning from the force of certain words and their deep roots at the heart of human experience.

At that level, we must admit, Israel’s campaign has been a failure. Say what you will about Israel’s need for security, or the wisdom of entering direct negotiations before seeking statehood, it simply does not sound “right” to deny a people the right of self-determination. David Ben-Gurion expressed it quite clearly in 1931, at a time when he saw the Arabs as partners for coexistence:

“There is in the world a principle called ‘the right for self-determination.’ We have always and everywhere been its champions. … We ought not to diminish the Arabs’ right for self-determination for fear that it would present difficulties to our own mission” (Ben-Gurion, “Anachnu U’Shcheneinu,” Tel Aviv, 1931, p. 257).

The public debate preceding the U.N. session revealed a glaring asymmetry between the two sides. The Palestinian side spoke of human rights, historical justice, personal dignity and moral obligation, while the Israeli side, including its U.S. supporters, debated and agonized over pragmatic considerations: Will statehood truly advance the peace process? Will it change things on the ground? Will it lead to renewed negotiations? Will Hamas overrun or shun the new state, if created? Will the United States use its veto power? What will Abbas’ next move be?

This placed the Israeli side at a severe disadvantage. Impartial observers, even if convinced that the Palestinian bid is aimed to intensify, not resolve, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, preferred to keep silent and let the parties fight it out in the United Nations. No one wishes to appear insensitive to moral arguments or be on the wrong side of justice.

For some obscure reason, even the staunchest advocates of the Israeli position were not prepared to address the moral dimension head on and to frame their arguments in a context of universally compelling principles of ethics and justice.

The only one who did so was President Barack Obama in his speech at the General Assembly on Sept. 21.

The president said: “The Jewish people have forged a successful state in their historic homeland. Israel deserves recognition. It deserves normal relations with its neighbors.”

Note how the president speaks in the pre-1948 language of “deservedness” and “historical homeland-ness,” not in the post-1967 language of security needs, borders, settlements and other expediencies. In effect, what the president was doing amounts to a bold repudiation of Palestinian claims for sole ownership of justice and morality.

Here is my translation of Obama’s speech into the discourse over Palestinian statehood:

Obama: “A successful state in their historic homeland.” Translation: No society, no matter how oppressed, is entitled to what it denies to others. In particular, the Arab denial of a people’s homeland for 63 years is morally unacceptable.

Obama: “Israel deserves recognition.” Translation: Never in the history of nations has a society defined itself on the ruins of its neighbor, and never has such society sought recognition while admitting its intent.

Obama: “It [Israel] deserves normal relations with its neighbors.” Translation: Never in the history of human conflict did anyone ask for statehood while teaching its children of the inevitable demise of its neighbor and making no investment in education for peace.

In short, Obama is telling Abbas in no uncertain terms: “You simply do not deserve a state without first doing some elementary homework.”

It is not surprising that Obama’s speech angered Palestinians and their supporters; they are not accustomed to being challenged in the moral dimension, certainly not in public. “The humiliation of Barack Obama” Robert Grenier called the moment, in Al Jazeera (English). “No U.S. embassy will be safe,” warned a Muslim Brotherhood spokesman in Cairo.

It is also not surprising that Obama angered Jewish radicals on the left. Fringe organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace will not forgive him for defining so clearly the immoral character of their anti-Israel activities.

What is surprising to me is that mainstream Jewish organizations did not seize on Obama’s speech as the moral manifesto of their objection to Palestinian statehood. Instead, we are hearing the all-too-expected praises of the speech, mixed with arguments on its impact on renewed negotiations, and questioning Obama’s political motivations.

It is all too easy to dismiss Obama’s words as part of an election campaign. But, as often happens in our history, it is not what the world means to say that counts, but what one makes of it. The Balfour Declaration, too, could have been dismissed as a campaign speech, or worse; instead, it was taken seriously by world Jewry and ushered Israel into being.

Let us not forget, most of those who question U.S. support of Israel see Obama as a beacon of moral courage for the 21st century. Excerpts from Obama’s speech should therefore be quoted and requoted by Israel advocates on television and radio shows. Copies of Obama’s words should decorate students’ walks on U.S. campuses, including the offices of my academic colleagues at UCLA. In short, Obama’s words should become Israel’s trust deed of moral justice in the court of world’s opinion.

I will end with an answer I gave to a friend who asked what I thought about the moral justification for a Palestinian state. “In the supreme court of world justice,” I answered, “the Palestinians will earn their right to statehood as soon as they can join Israelis in chanting: Two states for two peoples, equally legitimate and equally indigenous.”

Judea Pearl is a professor at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation (

Netanyahu rejects widespread criticism of homes plan


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday rejected Western and Arab complaints that the planned construction of 1,100 new homes in Gilo on annexed land close to Jerusalem would complicate Middle East peace efforts.

“Gilo is not a settlement nor an outpost. It is a neighborhood in the very heart of Jerusalem about five minutes from the center of town,” Netanyahu’s spokesman Mark Regev said.

In every peace plan on the table in the past 18 years Gilo “stays part of Jerusalem and therefore this planning decision in no way contradicts” the current Israel government’s desire for peace based on two states for the two peoples, he added.

Netanyahu also stressed the construction approval announced on Tuesday was a “preliminary planning decision.”

The United States, Europe and Arab states said the announcement would complicate efforts to renew peace talks and defuse a crisis over a Palestinian statehood bid at the United Nations.

Britain and the European Union called on Netanyahu to reverse the decision, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said new settlement building would be “counter-productive.”

The U.S. State Department’s number two and three officials for policy, Deputy Secretary Bill Burns and Under Secretary Wendy Sherman, discussed the issue with Israeli Ambassador to Washington Michael Oren on Tuesday, the State Department said.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters both meetings were in person but had been previously scheduled, so Oren was not “summoned” to the State Department—a sign of diplomatic annoyance.

Nuland declined to say whether the United States had been given any advance warning of the construction decision.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas applied at the United Nations on Friday for full Palestinian membership, a move opposed by Israel and the United States, which urged him to resume negotiations with Israel to end the 63-year-old conflict.

Abbas has made a cessation of Israeli settlement building a condition for returning to talks which collapsed a year ago after Netanyahu refused to extend a 10-month partial moratorium on construction.

The so-called Quartet of international mediators—the United States, the European Union, Russia and the U.N.—has called for talks to begin within a month and urged both sides not to take unilateral actions that could block peacemaking.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said the new housing units Israel wants to build represented “1,100 ‘noes’ to the Quartet statement” urging a resumption of negotiations.

Palestinians want to create a state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Israel’s Interior Ministry said a district planning committee approved the Gilo project and public objections to the proposal could be lodged within a 60-day review period, after which construction could begin.

Reporting by Douglas Hamilton; Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Editing by Matthew Jones and Jackie Frank

Council takes first step on Palestinian U.N. bid


The U.N. Security Council on Wednesday took its first step on the Palestinian application to join the United Nations by handing it to a committee that will review and assess it in the coming weeks.

The standing committee on the admission of new members to the world body is comprised of all 15 council members. Normally, the review period for a membership application is a maximum of 35 days, but Western diplomats say this limit can be waived and the process could theoretically drag on.

Western diplomats on the council say the Palestinian U.N. bid is doomed to failure due to U.S. opposition. But the chief Palestinian delegate to the United Nations, Riyad Mansour, welcomed the council’s move as a first step toward eventual U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood.

“We are grateful to the Security Council for moving decisively and clearly on our application,” he told reporters after the council meeting. “The process is moving forward step by step, and we hope that the Security Council will shoulder its responsibility and approve our application.”

He reiterated that the Palestinians hoped the process would not take too long. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who delivered the Palestinian application to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Friday on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, has said he wants the review over within weeks.

The standing committee will hold its first meeting on Friday.

‘NO SHORTCUTS’

Israel’s U.N. Ambassador Ron Prosor repeated the Israeli position that the only way the Palestinians will get U.N. membership and statehood is through direct negotiations with the Israelis on a comprehensive peace agreement.

“A Palestinian state, a real Palestinian state, a viable Palestinian state, will not be achieved (by) imposing things from the outside but only in direct negotiations,” he said. “There are no shortcuts.”

Israel vehemently opposes the Palestinian U.N. bid, saying it is an attempt to delegitimize it. The Palestinian application calls for recognition of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital.

The Palestinians pulled out of moribund peace talks a year ago after Israel refused to extend a moratorium on Israeli settlements on territory the Palestinians want for a future state.

Israel has occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip since the 1967 Middle East war.

Israel on Tuesday announced plans to build 1,100 settlement homes in the West Bank, eliciting condemnations from the United States and European Union.

Mansour also condemned the Israeli announcement.

The United States has pledged to veto the Palestinian bid, which needs council approval in order to go to the U.N. General Assembly for confirmation. So far, Western diplomats say, the Palestinians have only six certain votes on their side in the 15-member council.

Security Council resolutions need nine votes in favor and no vetoes from the five permanent members in order to pass.

Some Western envoys said they were unclear what the council’s seldom-convoked membership committee would be able to do with the Palestinian application, given that the council’s divisions will be replicated on the committee.

Most Security Council committees work on the basis of consensus. When the committee last convened in July to consider South Sudan’s membership application it was able to wrap up its work in two days as no country was opposed.

The bitterly contested Palestinian issue will be very different. One envoy suggested the committee might ultimately have to pass it back to the full council.

Additional reporting by Patrick Worsnip; Editing by Will Dunham

After week of U.N. speeches, the ball is now in Palestinians’ court


After the mutual accusations of ethnic cleansing and the sarcastic posturing, the ball is back in the Palestinians’ court.

The upshot of last week’s Lollapalooza of speechmaking at the United Nations is that the Obama administration has succeeded in persuading the international community to back the resumption of talks without preconditions—a key demand of the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

A statement released last Friday by the Quartet—the grouping of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations that guides Middle East peacemaking—“reiterated its urgent appeal to the parties to overcome the current obstacles and resume direct bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations without delay or preconditions.”

The statement came just hours after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas delivered a fiery address to the U.N. General Assembly demanding statehood recognition and setting as a condition for renewed talks a “complete cessation of settlement activity.”

Netanyahu’s U.N. address delivered the same day, by contrast, repeated his readiness to talk without preconditions.

“The day I came into office, I called for direct negotiations without preconditions,” he said. “President Abbas didn’t respond. I outlined a vision of peace of two states for two peoples. He still didn’t respond. I removed hundreds of roadblocks and checkpoints to ease freedom of movement in the Palestinian areas; this facilitated a fantastic growth in the Palestinian economy. But again, no response.

“I took the unprecedented step of freezing new building in the settlements for 10 months. No prime minister did that before, ever. Once again—you applaud, but there was no response. No response.”

Such exchanges have been boilerplate for the past year since talks collapsed, but Netanyahu followed up with something new: a public declaration that he was ready to abide by parameters set out by President Obama in a May 19 speech in which the U.S. leader called on the sides to negotiate borders using the 1967 lines, with agreed-upon land swaps, as the basis.

“In the last few weeks, American officials have put forward ideas to restart peace talks,” Netanyahu said in his U.N. address. “There were things in those ideas about borders that I didn’t like. There were things there about the Jewish state that I’m sure the Palestinians didn’t like. But with all my reservations, I was willing to move forward on these American ideas.”

Netanyahu was backing away from his previous insistence that Israel could not abide such conditions, as well as paying back Obama for his U.N. speech Wednesday in which the president made a forceful case for recognizing not just Israel’s security needs but its ancient stake in the region.

“Let’s be honest: Israel is surrounded by neighbors that have waged repeated wars against it,” Obama told the General Assembly. “Israel’s citizens have been killed by rockets fired at their houses and suicide bombs on their buses. Israel’s children come of age knowing that throughout the region, other children are taught to hate them. Israel, a small country of less than 8 million people, looks out at a world where leaders of much larger nations threaten to wipe it off of the map. The Jewish people carry the burden of centuries of exile and persecution, and the fresh memory of knowing that 6 million people were killed simply because of who they are.

“Those are facts. They cannot be denied. The Jewish people have forged a successful state in their historic homeland.”

The speech, which was greeted enthusiastically by American Jewish groups, may have sounded like a pitch to a domestic constituency by a president flailing in the polls, but administration officials insisted it was also part of a strategy: To get the parties to talk on the basis of the May 19 parameters outlined by Obama, which he sees as the only viable way toward achieving Palestinian statehood.

“If these negotiations are going to succeed, they must be serious and credible and deal with all of the core issues,” a senior administration official told reporters last Friday evening, requesting anonymity that is customary when discussing strategy. “I think a very important departure point—and it was stressed throughout this statement and in our discussions with the Quartet—has been the fact that the remarks of President Obama in May that are guiding us and that provide the solid foundation for the negotiations to succeed. And in fact, I think the Quartet in the statement is making clear those ideas that are key.”

The Quartet statement also outlines a timeline for talks, and says borders and security should be the priority for the first three months, with a deadline for an agreement of the end of 2012. That made some pro-Israel groups nervous.

“We believe the Quartet erred in setting a preliminary agenda limited to issues of security and borders and timetables for proposals,” the Anti-Defamation League said in a statement. “By going as far as it does, the Quartet statement misses an opportunity to send the clearest possible message to the Palestinians that the sole path to statehood lies in direct negotiations with Israel.”

Overall, however, the pro-Israel reaction was one of relief at the perception that the onus was on the Palestinians to turn up for talks or explain why they were a no-show. The White House’s top Middle East official, Dennis Ross, briefed Jewish leaders on the week’s events in a conference call last Friday evening just before the Sabbath. One participant described getting the international community on board for talks as a “masterful job.”

It remains to be seen how the U.N. week will play out in the immediate future. Upon returning home, Abbas and Netanyahu both received adulatory welcomes from their respective publics for speeches that included charges of “ethnic cleansing” on both sides.

Democrats and Republicans in the Congress stepped up demands to cut off the approximately $600 million in aid received annually by the Palestinian Authority, both because of Abbas’ statehood bid and because of talks with Hamas aimed at setting up a unity government.

“President Abbas has been warned repeatedly,” said Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the senior Democrat on the U.S. House of Representatives’ foreign operations subcommittee of its Appropriations Committee, in a statement to JTA. “I remain firm: his action crosses a line and should lead to a reevaluation of U.S. assistance for the PA.”

But Israel and some of its closest allies in the pro-Israel community are quietly pushing back against an assistance cutoff, saying security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority has been key to maintaining the quiet in the West Bank.

The explosion that some Israelis had feared in the wake of Abbas’ statehood demand never materialized, although a father and baby apparently were killed last Friday in a stone-throwing attack near Kiryat Arba. The same day, a Palestinian man died when Israeli soldiers fired on Palestinians near Ramallah who had been clashing with settlers who were torching their groves.

Additionally, Abbas—while sticking to his insistence on a settlement freeze—said he was otherwise ready to come back to the table, and notably did not set a deadline for the United Nations to address his membership request. Meanwhile, his unity talks with Hamas are all but moribund.

Nonetheless, pleas from Israel and its friends might not stop a Congress bent on cutting waste from trimming the Palestinians right out of the budget.

“I understand that Israel might want this funding for the Palestinians,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the chairwoman of the House’s Foreign Affairs Committee, said on CNN last week. “I’m worried about the U.S. taxpayers.”

U.S., EU condemn Israeli plan to expand settlement


Israel approved on Tuesday the construction of 1,100 settlement homes on annexed land in the West Bank, complicating global efforts to renew peace talks and defuse a crisis over a Palestinian statehood bid at the United Nations.

The plan was met with a chorus of Western criticism. Britain and the European Union called on Israel to reverse the decision, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said new settlement building would be “counter-productive” to the efforts to revive peace talks.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas applied at the U.N. on Friday for full Palestinian membership, a move opposed by Israel and the United States, which urged him to resume negotiations.

Abbas has made a cessation of Israeli settlement building a condition for returning to talks which collapsed a year ago after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to extend a 10-month partial moratorium on construction.

The so-called Quartet of international mediators—the United States, the European Union, Russia and the U.N.—has called for talks to begin within a month and urged both sides not to take unilateral actions that could block peacemaking.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said the new housing units Israel wants to build represented “1,100 ‘noes’ to the Quartet statement” urging a resumption of negotiations.

“Israel is challenging the will of the international community with the continued settlement policy,” Nabil Abu Rdainah, an Abbas spokesman, said.

The new homes are to be built in Gilo, an urban settlement in the West Bank.

Palestinians want to create a state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital, and say settlements could deny them a viable country. Israel cites historical and Biblical links to the West Bank, which it calls Judea and Samaria.

Some 500,000 settlers live in the territory home to 2.5 million Palestinians.

Israel’s Interior Ministry said a district planning committee approved the Gilo project and public objections to the proposal could be lodged within a 60-day review period, after which construction could begin.

Despite the new crisis over settlements, Netanyahu held consultations on Tuesday with a forum of senior cabinet ministers about Quartet efforts to try and renew peace talks in the coming weeks, an Israeli political source said.

Palestinian leaders were expected to debate the Quartet’s plan on Wednesday.

In New York on Monday, a divided U.N. Security Council met behind closed doors for its first discussion of last week’s Palestinian application for full U.N. membership as a state.

The move seems certain to fail due to Israeli and U.S. opposition, despite substantial support by other governments.

Abu Rdainah said it was up to the Security Council to put a stop to Israel’s settlement policy “which is destroying the two-state solution and putting more obstacles in front of any effort to bring about a resumption of negotiations.”

In London, Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague said settlement expansion was illegal and “corrodes trust and undermines the basic principle of land for peace. We call on the Government of Israel to revoke this decision.”

The European Union’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said she deplored the decision, adding: “I call on the Israeli authorities to reverse this plan.”

Richard Miron, spokesman for U.N. Middle East envoy Robert Serry, called Israel’s decision “very concerning.”

Clinton said the Israeli decision was “counter-productive to our efforts to resume direct negotiations between the parties.

“As you know, we have long urged both sides to avoid any kind of action which could undermine trust, including, and perhaps most particularly, in Jerusalem, any action that could be viewed as provocative by either side,” she told reporters at a news conference.

Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Ramallah and Justyna Pawlak in Brussels; Editing by Rosalind Russell

Israel police arrest Hamas lawmaker in East Jerusalem


Israeli police arrested a Hamas lawmaker on Monday who had been sheltering for more than a year in the International Red Cross (ICRC) offices in East Jerusalem, a police spokesman said.

Ahmad Attoun had taken shelter in the ICRC building along with another Hamas legislator and a former Hamas government minister after Israeli authorities revoked their Jerusalem residency permits.

Along with the United States and the European Union, it considers the Islamist Hamas movement a terrorist group, and acted to expel the men for being members of it.

The police spokesman and a security guard at the ICRC building said paramilitary police disguised as Palestinians had grabbed Attoun at the entrance to the offices and arrested him.

He was taken into custody a day after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas mentioned the men’s case in a speech on his return to the occupied West Bank from the United Nations, where he applied for recognition of full Palestinian statehood.

The other two Hamas men remained inside the ICRC building.

In the speech, Abbas accused Israel of “ethnic cleansing” that included “decisions to expel elected representatives” from Jerusalem.

In a statement issued in June 2010, after Israel ordered them to leave Jerusalem, the three Hamas men wrote: “We as sons of Jerusalem have never left it before … we emphasise that we will remain here and never leave it.”

Hamas, locked in a bitter rivalry with Abbas’s Fatah movement, won a Palestinian legislative election in 2006. Hamas seized the Gaza Strip in 2007 after a unity government with Fatah collapsed into bloodshed.

The ICRC has said it told Israeli authorities that international humanitarian law prohibited the forcible transfer of Palestinian residents from their homes, for whatever reason.

The organisation also said it had informed the three Hamas members that ICRC premises had no special status and the ICRC could not prevent police entering the building to arrest them.

Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Kevin Liffey

U.N. speech boosts Bibi’s ratings in Israel


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s popularity has climbed in Israel after a hard-hitting speech at the United Nations opposing a Palestinian bid for statehood, an opinion poll showed on Monday.

The right-wing leader’s approval rating rose to 41 percent from 32 percent in a previous poll two months ago when popular protests against rising living costs swept the country, according to a survey in the left-wing Haaretz newspaper.

“Netanyahu has once again proved that all he needs is a good speech to pick him up in the polls,” columnist Yossi Verter wrote in a commentary accompanying the poll, in which 486 people were surveyed on Sunday.

The survey said Netanyahu’s Likud and its right-wing and religious partners in the current governing coalition were on course to win the next Israeli election, not due until 2013.

At the United Nations on Friday, Netanyahu voiced strong opposition to President Mahmoud Abbas’s application for full Palestinian membership in the world body and said peace could be achieved only through negotiations, a position echoed by Washington.

The Palestinian initiative goes on Monday to the Security Council, where it faces a tough battle to win the nine votes needed for recognition.

The United States, whose attempt to broker peace talks collapsed a year ago, has said it will veto the application if necessary.

In his U.N. speech and a series of interviews in the United States, Netanyahu gave no ground to Abbas’s demands for a cessation of Israeli settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank, land captured in a 1967 war that Palestinians want, along with the Gaza Strip, as part of a future state.

He also repeated a call, long rejected by Abbas, for Palestinians to recognise Israel as a Jewish state.

Palestinians fear that to do so would be tantamount to giving up in advance any right of return of Palestinian refugees who fled or were forced to leave their homes in Arab-Israeli wars.

HERO’S WELCOME

Returning to the West Bank on Sunday to a hero’s welcome, Abbas repeated in a speech to a cheering crowd of thousands that Israeli settlement expansion must stop for peace talks to begin anew.

The deadlock over settlements and the Jewish state recognition issue did not bode well for a proposal by the so-called Quartet of international mediators to start negotiations within a month and aim for a peace deal by the end of 2012.

“Let’s sit down and talk,” Netanyahu said in an interview with the BBC’s Arabic service hours before he returned to Israel from New York on Monday.

In the Gaza Strip, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh affirmed the Islamist group’s opposition to Abbas’s U.N. bid. Hamas seized the enclave from Fatah forces loyal to Abbas in 2007 and opposed his peace efforts with Israel.

“You establish the state when you liberate (the land),” said Haniyeh. “Liberation first and then sovereignty. States are not built upon U.N. resolutions.”

After extensive coverage of Abbas’s and Netanyahu’s duelling speeches to the U.N. General Assembly, most of Israel’s main newspapers relegated reports about the continued stalemate to inside pages on Monday.

“From a speech about independence to hard reality—he lost honourably,” read a headline in Israel’s popular Maariv daily, referring to Abbas, and his return home “without a state”.

Haaretz, a newspaper highly critical of Netanyahu’s policies towards the Palestinians, said the developments at the United Nations “made clear to Israelis once again that they are walking blindly down a tunnel with no exit”.

In an editorial, the newspaper noted that television newscasts on Friday evening featuring the U.N. speeches—“a key event in the history of the ongoing conflict between the two peoples”—drew only a quarter of Israeli viewers.

But on Saturday half of Israeli television viewers tuned into the concluding episode of the local version of “Master Chef”, Haaretz said, lamenting that, with no peace breakthrough in sight, “most of the public prefers to escape to visions of stuffed meat”.

Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Editing by Kevin Liffey