FInding a way back to endless talking between Arabs and Israelis

Gideon Levy writes in Haaretz that Washington must back its recent comments to Israel with more than words:

Israel – addicted to the occupation, and showing symptoms of overdose and accumulated damage – has finally found a savior to rescue it from its plight. Israel’s redeemer hasn’t just stood idly by for 40 years, but has even facilitated the habit. However, it seems that change may at last be in the air.

It’s still too early to celebrate sobriety, and successful rehabilitation is by no means certain. This is a long, painful process, and the addict and its savior have yet to show adequate determination. The user is still dependent, kicking and screaming so much that the friend is likely to surrender in despair, to simply give in to pressure, having lost both interest and patience in the rehabilitation. But the measures taken by the Obama administration over the past few days prove that change is possible. Now the loyal friend must be encouraged not to give up, not to quit until the junkie is clean.

Bernard Avishai writes similarly in the International Herald Tribune:

The point is, there is a culture war in Israel now, and the only way the liberal side of it can mount an offensive is if America keeps the heat on. It is futile to treat Israel as if it were the embodiment of some big Jewish psyche in need of reassurances to regain trust in the world.

Israel has its enemies, of course, but it is not the fear of extinction that keeps it wedded to the status quo, which is a security nightmare in its own right. Rather, Israeli leaders have resisted plausible peace ideas because a large and hardened minority, perhaps a third of Jewish Israelis, regards peace as an end to the divinely self-enclosed way of life they have established in and around Jerusalem. The squishy, declining, more cosmopolitan and secular majority is unwilling to confront them for the sake of Palestinians — that is, not unless they have to in order to remain joined to the Western world.

Washington court reporter Jackson Diehl writes in the Washington Post that a group hug between the two sides may be on the horizon:

It’s beginning to look as though a week-long confrontation between the Obama administration and Israel over Jewish housing construction in Jerusalem may be winding toward a negotiated settlement. At least, that is what Israeli officials are hoping as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu prepares to reply to a series of demands relayed to him last week by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

If so, that will be a good thing for all sides in the Middle East — including the Palestinians. By seizing on the issue of Jewish settlement in Jerusalem, President Obama has, for the second time in a year, started one of the few fights that the United States cannot win with Israel. In so doing he has forced Palestinian and Arab leaders to toughen their own positions and threatened to create an impasse that would stop the indirect peace talks his diplomats just set up before they can begin.

According to press reports in both countries, Clinton demanded in a phone call last Friday that Netanyahu reverse the decision by a local council to advance the construction of 1,600 new units in a neighborhood called Ramat Shlomo, a Jewish neighborhood outside Israel’s 1967 borders. Fortunately the State Department has not confirmed that position officially — though it has now been adopted by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as a condition for proceeding with the talks.

Netanyahu would never take that step. First, he might be barred from doing so under Israeli law; more importantly, building new Jewish housing in Jerusalem is one of the few issues that virtually all Israelis agree on. No government would formally agree to suspend it — nor is such a suspension necessary to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement. Leading Israelis and Palestinians — including Abbas — have repeatedly agreed, beginning a decade ago, that as part of any final settlement Israel will annex the Jewish neighborhoods it has built in Jerusalem since 1967, as well as nearby settlements in the West Bank. In return Palestinians will exercise sovereignty over Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem and receive compensatory land in Israel.

The Israeli hope is that rather than continue to press this self-defeating demand, Obama will accept Israeli assurances that the new neighborhood will not be constructed anytime soon; it is, in fact, two or three years from groundbreaking. Coupled to that would be an Israeli pledge to avoid publicizing further construction decisions in Jerusalem. The result would not be a freeze, but something like a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for settlements.

It’s not clear whether Obama will accept such a fudge. But Israeli ambassador Michael Oren, who has been deeply engaged in back channel talks between the two governments, told me Thursday morning that “the goal of both sides at this point is to put this behind us, and go forward with the proximity talks as quickly as possible.” Tensions had been reduced, he said, as it has become clear that Netanyahu’s government was taking Clinton’s message seriously — it has spent days formulating its response in marathon cabinet meetings. Apart from Jerusalem, it seems the two sides are close to an accord on other U.S. requests, such as how the indirect talks will be structured.

It is, after all, peace talks — and not a settlement freeze — that has been the administration’s main goal. Palestinian and Arab leaders, too, have been quietly frustrated with the debate on settlements — they believe the focus should be on the creation of a Palestinian state, not on the construction of a few more homes in an area they have already tacitly conceded to Israel. Obama reopened this toxic issue in what looked like a fit of pique following the announcement of Ramat Shlomo’s expansion during a visit to Israel last week by Vice President Biden. He would be wise now to quickly settle and move on.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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