April 29, 2014

Questions for Congress on Mideast peace

As usual, Congress is full of complaints, questions and demands -- especially regarding the Middle East peace process. Here are some questions Congress might try to answer this week:

1. How would Congress resolve the paradox of Palestinian representation? Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian elections, expedited with U.S. support, making it the rightful representative of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Israeli leaders, especially Prime Minister Netanyahu, have repeatedly questioned Abbas’ legitimacy by pointing out that – even on a good day – he speaks for only half the Palestinians. If he is somehow able to cobble together a functional joint effort with Hamas support (if not outright “participation”) and/or if Hamas improbably accepts the conditions of the Mideast Quartet (the PA must recognize Israel, renounce terrorism, and accept all prior agreements), Israel might truly have the credible negotiating partner it has long sought. Until September 1993, Israel banned all contact with the PLO, seen as a terrorist organization.

2. If a final resolution is vital to Israel’s long-term security and stability, how far will Congress go to back an Administration that’s seeking a workable outcome? Netanyahu, Abbas and most Members of Congress are publicly committed to achieving a two-state solution, using the 1949 Green Line (a.k.a. “’67 lines”) as a starting point for negotiations. Other terms are fairly well known, as are sticking points like the status of Palestinian refugees and Jerusalem, and the final borders of Israel and a Palestinian state

3. Can Congress develop creative channels for supporting programs, possibly outside the official scope of the PA, in order to keep efforts moving on the ground?

4. Is Congress committed to legitimizing risk-takers for peace in the Middle East? Will Congress convene hearings on functional strategies toward peace, to flesh out and publicly empower change agents and those taking risks for peace? It should be possible to do so without undermining Israel’s interest, especially since such endeavors enhance Israel’s standing.

April 23, 2014

If Israel has a Plan B, let's hear it.

Many Israelis seem pleased that the second shoe has now dropped on the unlikely U.S.-led effort to bridge old and new gaps between Israelis and Palestinians. Now, Israeli Economy Minister Naftali Bennett has even mocked Mahmoud Abbas' threat to dissolve the Palestinian Authority. 

If the leaders of Israel's governing coalition truly appreciated the degree to which a credible and sustainable Palestinian entity is in their national interest, as they often acknowledge at least rhetorically, they might be less triumphant and superior at this moment, or at any moment. And they would be more concerned with how to bolster Abbas, rather than forcing Washington to drag them kicking and screaming at each turn.

Whatever positive steps Israel has taken of late, much energy has also been spent in ways that obviously undermine Abbas and boost his Hamas rivals. Over the past few years, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has continued expansion and proliferation of West Bank settlements, even into areas generally accepted as part of a future Palestinian state. He has negotiated truces with Hamas and released hundreds of Hamas fighters without complaining to Washington.

Netanyahu alternately denies that Abbas has the legitimacy or capacity to deliver on any agreements -- because after all, Hamas and not Abbas controls Gaza -- and condemns Abbas whenever he makes an effort to coordinate with Hamas and forge a unified Palestinian front. 

If Abbas leaves the scene, with or without the Palestinian Authority, Israel will have to invent one. And it is unlikely to get as good an interlocutor as it has right now. 

If Israelis, and Netanyahu, are OK with this state of affairs, then so be it. But the notion of a tangible, sustainable peace WITHOUT a reliable Palestinian partner, or of waiting for a BETTER Palestinian partner to emerge someday -- as though any kind of real status quo could possibly hold in the meantime -- seems absurd.

If there is an alternative to the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, let's hear it (of course, several other options were tried before). Deriving political benefit and scoring rhetorical points off the flaws and failings of Mahmoud Abbas and other moderate Palestinian leaders is no way to build or maintain the possibility for an eventual peace. And yet, this is what Netanyahu's government has been doing all along. Or do they expect two million-plus Palestinians to just ride off into the sunset?

April 1, 2014

A deal, with or without Pollard?

Once again, Israeli and Palestinian leaders are locked in the endgame of...whether to continue talks. The Obama administration seems increasingly inclined to release the convicted Israeli spy, Jonathan Pollard, to help incentivize Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's release of yet more Palestinian prisoners (to help Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas keep surviving politically) and to take a few demonstrable actions to hold down new settlement construction.

Reportedly, Pollard -- in federal custody since 1986 - has renounced any such deal, saying he doesn't want to be released as an inducement to Israel releasing convicted terrorists (many of them serving as long as himself). Will Pollard refuse to leave his Federal Correctional Facility at the appointed time?

More broadly, Pollard has actively promoted his own release as a cause celebre in Israel and within the organized American Jewish community. This has come at a cost to Israel's national security, by reminding the defense and intelligence community of his (and Israel's) past offenses, and even expressing pride on occasion. If Israel continues to rely on military and intelligence cooperation with the United States, to keep the Jewish state safe from terrorists and other threats, then Pollard has already let his case compromise the safety and security of Israelis.

I wouldn't blame Pollard, but I would also expect him to withhold his own sanctimony about this deal, which is no more or less perverse than the rest of the campaign for his release. Does he honestly believe his own legitimate fight for freedom hasn't come at a cost to Israel?

Many observers believe Pollard was unfairly sentenced to life and so far denied parole (but has he ever applied?). But unlike Gilad Shalit and other Israeli prisoners, he has not been denied due process or visitation, or review under the rule of law. And unlike Gilad Shalit, he will arrive in Israel with a well-developed agenda for Israel and for U.S.-Israel relations. And he won't be satisfied with writing on sports...

As for Netanyahu and Abbas, it's unrealistic to think either of them sees any chance of a substantive, final deal emerging from the current process. Each of them must now be focused on avoiding blame if/when the process collapses, and walking away with as many tangible and political deliverables as possible.