Abbas must wait
In rolling over before Netanyahu in Washington, Barack Obama has proven that he cares more about US mid-term elections than Israeli-Palestinian peace, writes Saleh Al-Naami
Laughter filled the large hall next to the home of Rabbi Ovadiah Yossef, the spiritual leader of the Israeli Shas Party, during his weekly sermon when he was discussing US concerns over settlement construction plans in East Jerusalem. The audience particularly enjoyed Yossef's remark: "The day has not yet come when slaves will control us." This in reference to US President Barack Obama and his African origins. The racist remarks were broadcast by Shas's satellite channel that broadcasts his religious sermons to Jewish followers around the world.
The sermon came after Obama gave an interview to Israel's Channel 2 during which he attempted to draw closer to the Israeli people by reassuring them that he "is greatly fond of Israel". The president added that, "the fact that my middle name is Hussein creates suspicion."
No Israeli official has dared to contradict Yossef, and the US Embassy in Tel Aviv found nothing in his statements objectionable. Yossef is an influential figure in a party that holds four important ministerial posts in the Israeli cabinet.
In fact, the Americans are looking forward to a visit to Washington to meet with Obama by Israeli Minister of Interior Rabbi Eli Ishai, the political leader of Shas, who holds a hardline position in rejecting Washington's demands on settlements in Jerusalem. All these developments took place against the background of Netanyahu's visit to Washington, which for many represented a turning point in relations between Netanyahu's cabinet and Obama's administration.
Israeli commentators agree that Obama's warm reception of Netanyahu, despite the latter's public challenge and deliberate defiance of Obama's requests, clearly demonstrates a change in Obama's stance towards Netanyahu. According to Israeli journalist Aluf Benn, Netanyahu's strategy of letting time resolve his confrontation with Obama has succeeded. Netanyahu always assured his circle that prolonging the confrontation with Obama until it was close to congressional elections, scheduled for November, was the best strategy. That way, Obama would be forced to overturn his attitude towards Israel and take more conciliatory positions towards Israel, without causing Tel Aviv to revise its policies, especially with regards to the conflict with the Palestinians.
While the majority of political and media observers in Israel believe that a real political settlement to end the Israeli- Palestinian conflict is the last thing on Netanyahu's mind, Obama asserted that he believes Netanyahu "wants peace and is willing to take risks in order to achieve it". According to Benn, Obama has come to realise that by these statements he can convince Jewish voters and donors ahead of congressional elections that they can rely on him, and not doubt his support of Israel and its prime minister.
Obama pledged support for Netanyahu's call for negotiations with the Palestinian Authority (PA). Like Netanyahu, he emphasised procedural elements and ignored the core issues of discussion. In a joint news conference with Obama, Netanyahu reiterated positions that do not demonstrate a real intention of achieving a settlement. He warned against withdrawal from the occupied territories, claiming that they would become "the centre and base for terrorism". He called for a change in the Palestinian school curricula and in Obama's presence delivered a blow to Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. He announced his objection to handing over land in the West Bank to the PA to construct Rawabi city, which Fayyad's cabinet plans to build near Ramallah. Tony Blair, the envoy for the Quartet, described the plan as the most vital economic project with political implications since the PA was formed. Settlers had complained that Rawabi would interfere in their lives, causing Netanyahu to scrap the plan.
Despite being urged by the press, Netanyahu refused to commit to a renewed moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank once the present freeze expires in September. On the other hand, he was adamant in highlighting the "high and painful price" of reaching an agreement with the Palestinians. Addressing the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in New York on 7 July, Netanyahu stated that if the PA agreed to direct negotiations with him, he promised to reach a comprehensive agreement on all issues of contention within one year. But Akiva Eldar, political commentator for Haaretz newspaper, was unconvinced by this promise. Eldar pointed out that exactly 14 years ago, on 7 July 1996, Netanyahu made the same promise at a CFR gathering in New York, and subsequently delivered nothing.
During his first tenure as prime minister, Netanyahu promised former US president Bill Clinton that the world would be "surprised" with the steps he would take to resolve the conflict, the same way that former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin surprised the world with the Camp David Accords with Egypt.
But while Netanyahu appears enthusiastic about direct talks with the Palestinians, he is taking steps on the ground that would ensure that these talks amount to nothing. Netanyahu does not want to talk about the understandings reached by his predecessor Ehud Olmert with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, under the auspices of former US President George W Bush. He openly mocks the proposal suggested by Clinton in December 2000, which calls for Israel to annex about six per cent of the West Bank that contains Jewish settlements. Netanyahu also wants to ignore the Wye River Agreement he signed with late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat in October 1998, which called for transferring control of 13 per cent of the West Bank to the PA, but has not been applied to this day.
Indeed, Netanyahu has ignored the flexible positions adopted by Abbas, including allaying Israel's fears about the creation of a Palestinian state by allowing international troops to be deployed anywhere Israelis decide in the West Bank. Not only that, but Abbas suggested that joint committees resume their discussions to prevent provocations on both sides.
Even Israeli author Amos Oz expressed his disdain for Netanyahu not taking action against Jewish settlers who continue to viciously attack Palestinians by destroying their farmlands, as well as poisoning their livestock and wells. Palestinian and international human rights groups sharply criticise the PA's security forces for arresting and torturing members of the Palestinian resistance who are suspected of plotting against Israel -- mostly Hamas members.
At a time when security coordination between the PA and Tel Aviv is at an all time high and despite all the PA's efforts to curtail Palestinian resistance movements, Netanyahu's government continues to embarrass the Palestinian leadership in front of its people by refusing the PA's request that the Israeli army stop arresting and assassinating members of the resistance in West Bank areas under the PA's control as it undermines its credibility and security apparatus. Also, Netanyahu refuses to demonstrate any goodwill towards the PA by releasing Palestinian detainees in Israeli jails, although he declares he is willing to release 1,000 Hamas members in return for the release of Israeli solider Gilad Shalit, held by the group.
It is true that Netanyahu talks approvingly of the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, but he quickly invalidates the possibility, analysts say. For example, while Abbas agreed to postpone negotiations over Jerusalem and the issue of borders between two states, Netanyahu hesitates and insists that any agreement about borders must guarantee beforehand Israeli control over water resources and detailed understandings about security arrangements.
Netanyahu's rewards in Washington went further than Obama's political backing for the Israeli prime minister's policies. The two also agreed that the US administration would work intensely to ensure Shalit's release by Hamas. At the same time, Obama granted Netanyahu something no other US president had done in the past: cooperation in the field of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes -- this despite Tel Aviv's elusive nuclear policies.
In short, the US's enthusiasm for re-launching direct talks between Israel and the PA is nothing more than an attempt by Washington to limit these talks to procedural matters, without jeopardising the chances of the Democrats in the upcoming congressional elections. Consequently, Abbas and the PA will have to wait.