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    Middle East
     Sep 24, 2010

A test for Obama's Middle East neutrality
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 the forefront.

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 Israeli Prime 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 Hillary 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 of Palestine.

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 dialogue in 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 Middle East, Israel has succeeded in forging separate a la carte peace agreements with specific Arab countries.

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, India.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

Blunt Mitchell finds Hamas too inflexible
(Sep 22, '10)

The specter of the one-state solution
(Sep 21, '10)


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