|A test for Obama's Middle East
By Sreeram Chaulia
By kick-starting direct negotiations between Israel and the
Palestinian Authority just weeks before the moratorium on
Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank was to
expire, the Barack
Obama administration gambled on its
ability to persuade Tel Aviv to make some form of concession
on the stormy issue. Frantic behind-the-scenes diplomacy is
now underway to either extend the ban, which lapses on
September 26, or to at least restrict new building so that
the latest peace talks do not derail.
Should Israel's hawkish ruling coalition decide to defy the
US and announce suspension of the 10-month-long moratorium,
the peace process is likely to grind to a halt and the
possibility of a third Palestinian intifada will surge to
For Obama, who has explicitly linked peace between Israel
and Palestine to the safety of American soldiers in Iraq and
Afghanistan, the prospect of his government's spade work for
direct talks crumbling over settlements would be a
humiliating outcome. It would constitute a bigger slap in
the face to US foreign policy than the contretemps that
Israel delivered when Vice President Joseph Biden was
nastily surprised by Israel's announcement of new settlement
plans while visiting Tel Aviv in March this year.
The American president, who has staked his personal
reputation on the resumption of dialogue, is reported to be
employing every arrow in his diplomatic quiver to force
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to accept
restrictions on new settlement construction. Obama and his
people on the ground, special envoy George Mitchell and US
Secretary of State
Clinton, are said to be pressing Israel to
agree to at least a three-month extension of the building
freeze. According to the left-leaning Israeli daily,
Ha'aretz, "Israel could reach quiet understandings with the
Americans on limiting the construction for several months”
via legal and technical devices.
For much of last year, the Americans, the Arab League and
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had insisted on a total
halt to Jewish settlement activity as a precondition for
talks, but they could eventually extract only a temporary
freeze from Israel. A new book by former US president Jimmy
Carter, White House Diary, accuses Obama of watering
down his original hard line on a complete end to settlement
in the occupied territories. Critics on the left and in the
Muslim world saw evidence of continued failure to rein in an
adamant Israel in Obama's softening on the question of a
total ban on settlements.
By apparently caving in to Netanyahu on the necessity of an
absolute ban before direct talks began, Washington now risks
losing face if it does not at least get Israel to prolong
the building freeze. The hard-earned balance and "neutral
broker" image Obama engineered in the American stance toward
the Israeli-Palestine conflict thus faces its litmus test.
The settlement itch is not a minor irritant but a mother
lode of the entire peace process because it is a crucial
component of one of the major issues that needs to be sorted
out en route to a viable two-state solution. Mutual
recognition between Israel and Arab neighbors, the security
of Israel after its military withdraws from the West Bank,
and a resolution to the refugees problem are all predicated
on the primary question of drawing borders for a new state
Ultra-rightists in the Israeli government and society, who
have a representative in the Netanyahu cabinet in the form
of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, insist on a transfer
of populations on religious lines, with towns having large
Arab populations permitted to join the new state, while
large Jewish settlements are forever included as part of
Israel. The more Jewish settlement is allowed to go on now,
the more moth-eaten the new state of Palestine will be when
an accord is inked.
The other big conundrum confronting the two principal
parties to the talks is the question of the future
Palestinian state's territorial integrity and political
unity, which in turn have ramifications for Israel's
security. The West Bank is separated by about 46 kilometers
of Israeli desert from the Gaza Strip, implying that the new
state's land mass is bound to be geographically fragmented
rather than a contiguous whole.
Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak has in the past floated
the idea of digging a tunnel that would remain under Israeli
sovereignty but which would connect the two disjointed parts
of Palestine. Whether such a contraption will be honored by
Gaza's fire-spewing Hamas leadership or, for that matter, by
Israel's own military in the event of rocket fire or
terrorist provocation by jihadi Palestinian guerrillas based
in Gaza is open to doubt.
Hamas' take on the current US-facilitated Israel-Palestine
Egypt has also been ominous. Mahmoud Zahar,
one of the strongmen controlling Gaza, denounced Abbas for
agreeing to enter into direct talks and vowed that the West
Bank must first be "liberated" from the president's Fatah
faction before any overtures are made to Israel.
The other major player left out of the peace process - Iran
- has also reacted extremely negatively to direct
negotiations. Tehran is being projected by skeptical
observers as a stumbling block for a final accord between
Ramallah and Tel Aviv, especially because the ayatollahs
have great influence on Hamas.
Yet, although Hamas, Iran,
Syria and the Lebanese Hezbollah have been
excluded from the Israel-Palestine peace negotiations, the
fact that they will act as spoilers does not by itself
guarantee failure of Obama's Herculean efforts to bag a
two-state solution within one year of direct talks.
Historically, despite the interconnectedness of territorial
disputes among a maze of nation-states in the
East, Israel has succeeded in forging
separate a la carte peace agreements with specific Arab
The 1978 Camp David Accord between Israel and Egypt and the
1994 Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty were both denounced by
radical Arab actors kept out of the loop. The fury and
backlash of these Arabs did not prevent the then-Egyptian
president Anwar Sadat or King Hussein of Jordan from
settling their respective border disputes with Israel.
Unless Tehran, Damascus and their proxies in Lebanon and
Gaza stir up another full-fledged war or partial intifada,
or launch devastating terrorist attacks on Israel, the Obama
administration is poised to steer the course of the direct
talks towards a two-state solution, however imperfect and
tenuous its initial contours.
The "common threat" of Shi'ite Iran, which is in the
anti-peace-talks camp, is ironically forging unanimity among
many Arab governments to back Obama's push for peace. The
fact that Iran and its followers are angry at the direct
negotiations is thus counter-intuitively beneficial, at
least in the short term, for a two-state solution to emerge.
A third separate peace in the Middle East - between Fatah
and Israel - will not obviously reduce the systemic
volatility of the region, and it anyway has miles of risky
terrain to traverse before it can ever materialize.
But the confluence of a more even-handed US administration
and a rightist Israeli government, which can mollify settler
angst and sell compromises to a home audience, is opportune
for an once-in-a-lifetime shot at limited peace.
Sreeram Chaulia is associate professor of world
politics at the OP Jindal Global University in Sonipat,
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