Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Storm continues

A fascinating article has appeared in the New York Review of Books by Michael Massing entitled "The Storm over the Israel Lobby", a continuation of the Walt/Mearsheimer debate as to whether AIPAC has too much influence on US policy in the middle east. He offers some considered critiques of the Walt/Mearsheimer paper (unlike the hysterical reactions so far) but broadly accepts their thesis.

What is fascinating about the article is that he has spoken to various congressmen, past lobbyists and various other political shakers and movers, to get a better understanding of how AIPAC operates. The result: a scathing critique of AIPAC and in particular an expose of its right wing orientation.

The article is summed up at the beginning of section 4: "What AIPAC wants can be summed up very succinctly: a powerful Israel free to occupy the territory it chooses; enfeebled Palestinians; and unquestioning support for Israel by the United States. AIPAC is skeptical of negotiations and peace accords, along with the efforts by Israeli doves, the Palestinians, and Americans to promote them".

Does AIPAC sound like the kind of organisation that is interested in genuine peace for Israelis and Palestinians? A partner for peace to use the lexicon of Israelis. Walt/Mersheimer in their original paper described AIPAC as a "de factor agent for a foreign government". I disagree - they seem to be in anything the defacto agent for the Likud and the Israeli right.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Olmert meets Bush

The first meeting between Olmert and Bush is now finished. Bush has made it clear that whilst he considers Olmert's convergence plan has 'interesting elements', the preferred option is a final status agreement with the Palestinians. Bush has urged Olmert to meet with Abu Mazen, who he has not yet met with.

Olmert has indicated he is happy to meet with Abu Mazen, but should there be no Palestinian partner, unilateral steps will need to be taken. Behind this veil of diplomacy, I sense something of concern. Israel has indicated they will not engage in dialogue with Hamas given their failure to meet minimum conditions. They have indicated that things can only progress with Abu Mazen if he firstly tackles terrorism. In other words, I see two excuses Israel may use to prevent final status talks - firstly - that Abu Mazen as president of PA does not have authority to enter final status talks since Hamas is in power and that in any event, a precondition to final status talks is that Abu Mazen firstly tackle terrorism (as set out in that horribly out of date Road Map).

But why would Israel want excuses? Olmert has recognised that the land needs partioning so surely it is in his interests to go bilaterally. The problem with going bilaterally is that there is a price. The Palestinian expect a state on the 1967 borders with minor border modifications, land exchanges, East Jeruslalem as a Pal. capital and no Israeli control in the Jordan valley. And the border modifications will be small to accomodate the settlements but would not be huge blocks as Olmert would prefer. In short - a geneva initiative solution.

Going unilaterally - avoids this. Israel determines the territory to withdraw upon with the fence/wall used as as the defining yard stick. The withdrawal, however, will certainly not meet Palestinian expectations.

So this is Olmert's dilemma. He further knows that if he goes down the bilateral track, and Israel is not willing to make concessions in line with what the Pal. expect, the world community will see Israel as the obstinate one and not fullfilling UN Resolution 242.

Perhaps I am too cynical. The Labour party, Olmert's senior coalition partner would be happy to return to serious final status talks. Olmert's position's on what he would offer in a final status agreement are unknown and his positions may be considerably more leftwards then anticipated.

The bottom line: the time has come for Olmert to meet Abu Mazen. No more trips to Washington or Europe. Abu Mazen simply needs to drive 25 minutes to the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem. It may be risky with Hamas in power to commence final status talks but its worth the risk. Serious negotiations have stalled for now over 5 years. Time is not in the interests of either side to waste.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Finally - a different approach

Haaretz reports today:

"Defense Minister Amir Peretz decided overnight Tuesday to reopening the main commercial crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip out of concern that the stringent border policy is causing humanitarian damage to Palestinians in Gaza.Karni has been periodically closed for extended periods of time due to intelligence warnings of planned terror attacks at the crossing.A planned attack on the crossing was thwarted some three weeks ago by the Palestinian Authority security services. "Our war is against terror, not against the residents of the Strip," Peretz said Tuesday during a meeting with senior Southern Command officers. Karni has been open recently for the transfer of goods from Israel into Gaza. Peretz's decision, however, would allow goods to also travel in the other direction - from the Gaza Strip into Israel, Israel Radio reported".

Finally, with a civilian in charge of defence Amir Peretz we may be seeing the start of a different approach towards the Palestinians, which takes a more humane approach towards the Palestinians without compromising on security. Apart from the fact that it is more moral course of action, in the long-term such an approach is likely to encourage a reduction in terrorism. Punishing ordinary Palestinians for electing Hamas is not an acceptable policy option.

With Mofaz gone and forgotten, are we seeing the start of how a defence minister should conduct himself. Peretz still has an uphill battle against the defence establishment and the IDF who are set in their ways and conceptions of understanding the conflict. Peretz is, however, as a tough as lion and I have confidence that this small start is only the beginning.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

A B Yehoshua is right

A B Yehoshua writing in Haaretz says:

"Jewish identity in Israel, which we call Israeli identity (as distinct from Israeli citizenship, which is shared by Arab citizens who also live in the shared homeland, though their national identity is Palestinian) - this Jewish-Israeli identity has to contend with all the elements of life via the binding and sovereign framework of a territorially defined state. And therefore the extent of its reach into life is immeasurably fuller and broader and more meaningful than the Jewishness of an American Jew, whose important and meaningful life decisions are made within the framework of his American nationality or citizenship. His Jewishness is voluntary and deliberate, and he may calibrate its pitch in accordance with his needs".

A B Yehoshua's comment recently aired at a conference in the US is that Jewish identity in Israel is a richer and deeper experience then the diaspora one. His views caused a bit of an uproar at the conference with Diaspora leaders outraged that their jewish identity was being disparaged. I am a Jew living in the diaspora and I totally agree with A B Yehoshua. Like it or not, Israel offers a richer Jewish identity as being Jewish is not simply a private voluntary commitment but is a public one. Israel as a Jewish State in a very public way is dealing with issues of Jewish identity, which is expressed in practical and multifaceted ways.

We in the diaspora can not deny this. This is not to say we can not have strong jewish identities but the possibilities for a fuller identity is more open in Israel.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Walt & Mearsheimer respond to their critics

After the furore over the publication of Walt & Mersheimer's piece in the London Review of books, they have responded, writing a letter to the London Review of Books.

Their main points are the following:

1. The Israel lobby is a 'loose coalition of individuals and organsation' and not a secrety clandestine cabal as the critics claimed they said. It is engaged in interest group politics.

2. There is a powerful moral case for Israel existence and their criticism is directed at Israeli policy and America's special relationship with Israel.

3. Israel's popularity in the US is substantially due to to the lobby's sucess at portraying Israel in a favourable light and limiting public awareness and discussion of Israel's less savoury actions. Americans would have a more critical view of Israel and US policy in the middle would look different if there was no AIPAC.

4. AIPAC is a much stronger organisation then any other counterveilling organsations such as Arab and Islamic advocacy groups. US policy in the middle east is driven primarily by the commitment to Israel not oil interests.

5. Nothing in their paper was drawn from racist sources of any kind, and Dershowitz's claims that material was taken from neo-nazi/hate web-sites is false.

6. Explicitly attacks many of Dershowitz's point namely:
(a) dershowitz's claim that Israel was not founded explicitly as a jewish state and citizenship is based on the principle of blood kinship.
(b) dershowitz's claim that Israel offered the Pal. a continguous state at Camp David.
(c) dershowitz's claim that they quoted David Ben Gurion out of context.

For the most part the Walt and Mersheimer piece has a ring of truth about it. AIPAC is a powerful lobby - and it does have influence in Congress and in the White House. Its something AIPAC is proud of. It is also true that the US media is far more supportive of Israel then any other media outlet. It is a joke to suggest that the US media is "anti-Israel". When one compares the discourse concerning the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in Israel itself to the US, one finds that the discourse in the US is shallow and superficial.

I doubt, however, whether the Israel lobby outside the Israeli/Palestinian conflict has as much power as claimed. In respect of Iran and Iraq for example, any influence is very limited. On the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, however, which for Israel is the core conflict - they do have clout and there can be no argument about it. As I argued in a recent post, my concern is not so much how this effects US policy, but rather how overwhelming pro-Israel US support influences Israel policy. My argument is that it gives Israel greater flexibility for getting away with fairly right wing policies which are not in the long-term of Israel (ie - excessive IDF responses, expansation of settlement blocs, allowing the fence to meander through the territory etc).

On a final point to Dershowitz's claims about Camp David:

He has claimed on a number of occasions that the offer made by Barak at Camp David was a great offer and that Arafat should have accepted it, and that Camp David broke down because of the right of return issue and Jerusalem. He has pointed in his response to Walt/Mearsheimer to Dennis Ross's map - which was a 9% annexation map - the final US proposal made at Camp David. I have read every possible book available in English on Camp David and every article/exchange on the topic (I am waiting for Amos Harel's excellent's book on the intifada to be translated - and I haven't had a chance to read Ben-Ami's recently translated book). The simplistic picture that Dershowitz has repeated I can say with confidence is not correct. The final US offer made at camp david was not sufficent a basis to conclude a final status agreement. Nor was a final map shown. The Israelis initially presented a 12% or so annexation map, and from there the percentages were discussed but the US never produced a map. The fact that the clinton parameters that were drafted a couple of months later improve significantly on the camp david offer is a reflection of this. I have read Ross's book and it is clear that when the clinton parameters were being drafted that from the US mediators - its was Malley, Miller and Gamal pushing for a very small annexation (close to 0%) whilst Ross was pushing for around 7% and that the 4-6% finally agreed upon (significantly better then 9%) was the middle position agreed upon. There is no question that the Palesinians over the period made a number of big stuff ups. The biggest was probably not their rejection (or rather their failure to come up with a convincing counter-offer) at Camp David but the rejection of the Clinton parameters and their delay in arriving at this decision.

And one more point. Camp David broke down because of Jerusalem not because of the right of return. That issue was barely discussed at Camp David. This is a point made both by Martin Indyk and the late Yossi Ginosaur both who were at Camp David in papers recently published.

Invite Abu Mazen to Jerusalem

The Israeli elections are now truly over. The coalition negotations are complete. The ministers are now sitting back in their departments getting used to their positions. In short, the time for governing according to an agenda has begun.

Olmert has explicitly stated that his objective over his term is to divide the land, whether by agreement or unilaterally. The time has now come to start the process.

Whilst Israel has rejected the legitimacy of the Hamas government, it has not closed the door to Abu Mazen. The time has come to talk to Abu Mazen. There is no harm as I see in inviting Abu Mazen to Jerusalem. He has a far stronger mandate then Hamas ever did having won 60-70% of the vote for president. His organisation the PLO is the party that have signed all agreements with Israel. Abu Mazen represents the only partner Israel has for a bilateral arrangement to divide the land.

And Abu Mazen wont be around forever. Maybe in years to come Marwon Barghouti who would agree to similar final status arrangment to Abu Mazen will come to the fore; but not at the moment. Israel needs to strengthen Abu Mazen. It needs to make the distinction between the president's office (Abu Mazen) and the government (Hamas) and deal with Abu Mazen.

Whether Olmert will invite Abu Mazen to Jerusalem soon is unclear. But there is no question that at least trying to get things going bilaterally is a hell of a lot better than doing things unilaterally. Israel has nothing to lose.