Saturday, April 18, 2009

US Ship of State: Middle East ENGAGE!

US Special Envoy to the Middle East Mitchell just finished a series of meetings with Israeli PM Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Lieberman and Opposition Leader Livni. Some of the comments to come from these meetings, and some of the comments that didn't come at all are worth mentioning.

For starters, the US position on the Israeli Palestinian conflict was clearly articulated. The solution will be the creation of two states, a secure Israel living next to a Palestine in peace and security. Interestingly, Mitchell made reference to two states for two peoples and that Israel is and ought to be a Jewish state. Israeli officials held up this language as indicating that a final settlement's treatment of the right of Palestinian refugees to return will not actually be satisfied by a physical return--which could undermine the Jewish character of Israel--but rather by some form of compensation for them to settle in a newly created sovereign Palestine.

Netanyahu conveyed three messages to Mitchell in their discussions about Palestine. He emphasised that Palestinians must recognize that Israel as a Jewish state. He expressed a desire for peace but insisted that Israeli security concerns must be prioritized in any peace agreement. In making this point he rejected a policy of unilateral withdrawal from occupied territory with what may become a new Israeli slogan no "Hamastan in the West Bank." Finally, Netanyahu suggested that in negotiating peace countries like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia should be brought into the fold.

This last point is interesting because traditionally, Israel has leaned on its friend and ally the US to support it in negotiations with its neighbours, this may be the first time an Israeli leader is suggesting that other Arab states be involved, especially one with whom Israel has no peace: Saudi Arabia. Why? Well, Netanyahu's stated position is that these states have a common fear of Iran and Iranian proxies (read Hamas and Hizbollah.) Nonetheless, this doesn't mean that any Arab country would be more sympathetic to Israel than they would be to Palestinians, why would Israel invite in parties that could work against it in negotiations? The answer may be an elementary political science question of balancing versus bandwagoning. The choice is to sign up with Palestinians to balance Israel and the US's negotiating power or to get on the bandwagon of states opposed to terrorism conducted by Hamas in Gaza. The reality is, with the US watching Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia could have to choose between siding with moderate Palestinians in the West Bank and Hamas. It is difficult to imagine them choosing to adopt any position that could bolster Hamas, especially when their own governments fear any Hamas style or inspired group appearing on their own territory. In other words, bringing these other Arab states into the fold could have the automatic effect of further isolating Hamas, which in itself, is not a new Israeli policy.

It is also worth noting that Netanyahu did not respond to Mitchell that Israel also seeks a two state solution. Not because Israel doesn't, but because it seems, from the meeting with Lieberman, that they just don't know, the exact term used was that there was an ongoing "policy review." Despite not having a clearly articulated policy, Lieberman was unequivocal that a change in policy was needed and that in his view, concessions (such as withdrawing from Gaza) don't work. Lieberman, like Netanyahu also stressed the need for international support for Israeli security.

The most interesting statements, the one about bringing other Arab states into the peace process came from Netanyahu, not Lieberman. In fact, Lieberman seems to have offered nothing that Netanyahu hadn't already. This could be a sign Lieberman talks tough when he's asked to and/or when he wants to, but the real shots and important messages are being called/delivered by the Prime Minister.

The leader of the opposition, Livini, in her meeting with Mitchell argued that time was of the essence in these peace negotiations and that the longer the diplomatic track stagnates, the more likely it is that the violent one will be taken up. Historically, there's some truth to this as the second intifada, for example, began after Arafat rejected the Camp David offer in the Clinton years.

In the meantime, as the "policy review" continues, Netanyahu continues to walk the difficult tightrope he's on, which is now complicated by the US attention and pressure to see some progress and movement on the diplomatic, peacemaking front. This analysis from the Jerusalem post explains the challenges Netanyahu faces from within his coalition. It concludes, however, that despite Lieberman's tough talk, Netanyahu's dependence on Labour in his coalition binds him to the roadmap for peace and guarantees that at the very least, he'll have to talk the talk. Walking the walk...still yet to be seen...

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