The Middle East Channel

Palestinians remove some eggs from the American basket

This year may bring a close to American mediation of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. Expectations, usually low, have collapsed in the face of an unwilling, and increasingly self-impeding, U.S. peace broker. Indeed, freezing settlement expansion, as opposed to removing them altogether as mandated by international law, was long regarded as the lowest hanging fruit in peace negotiations. President Obama himself emphasized that the Jewish colonies in the Occupied Palestinian Territories hindered peace efforts and securing Palestinian statehood. 

Yet, on the heels of a rekindled peace process, the Obama administration failed to successfully push Prime Minister Netanyahu to extend a ten-month partial moratorium on settlement expansion. More tellingly, the U.S.'s failure was marked by Israel's public rebuff of its military aid incentive. Suffering no consequences, Israel chose to continue its expansionist policies and to retain its existing U.S. aid package, thereby demonstrating the hollow nature of American pressure.  

The crumbling negotiations and unwillingness of the United States to exact legally required Israeli obligations has finally compelled Palestinian negotiators to look beyond a U.S.-brokered peace and to a multilateral one overseen by the United Nations.

The Palestinians' loss of faith in the U.S. was inevitable given the superpower's myopic focus on absolute support for Israel at the expense of even the bare-bone statelet desired by PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority. The American position led to the ludicrous notion of establishing a Palestinian state without sovereignty, territorial contiguity, control over air space, borders, trade, security, democratic governance, fair water allocation, and diplomatic relationships in the region and beyond -- all of which Israel deems national security threats. Arguably willing to compromise on security matters, land swaps, jurisdiction over East Jerusalem, and the return of Palestinian refugees, even Abbas could not accept continuing negotiations in the face of a defiant Israel and its supine American benefactor.

As 2010 closed more and more observers of the conflict experienced a long overdue epiphany: the U.S. administration is allowing Prime Minister Netanyahu to strike the final blow against the two-state solution -- casting it, for better or worse, into the mounting bin of missed opportunities.

Simultaneously, Fatah is losing internal support because its long compliance with U.S. prerogatives at the expense of Palestinian national interests has dramatically failed to secure peace and freedom. Instead, the U.S.-favored Palestinian Authority has been marred by its decision to abandon the powerful Goldstone report on Israeli war crimes in Gaza, collusion with Israel and the U.S. in attacking fellow Palestinians in Hamas, and the daunting presence of the Dayton Forces, the Palestinian police forces charged with enhancing Israel's security as opposed to protecting a civilian population from an Israeli military occupation that repeatedly kills and injures nonviolent civilian demonstrators and bystanders.

Where government has failed, Palestinian civil society is increasingly taking a lead role. This intrepid body is the unsung heroine that launched the boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign in 2005 and that has demonstrated week after week against the building of a "Separation Barrier" deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice. These efforts have come at no small cost as tragically demonstrated by the death of Jawaher Abu Rahmah who, on the first day of 2011, died of tear gas asphyxiation incurred the previous day while non-violently protesting against the barrier stealing her village's land. Chillingly, Jawaher is the 36-year-old sister of Bassem Abu Rahmah. Israeli soldiers shot and killed him in April 2009 with a high-velocity tear gas canister as he similarly protested non-violently. Another brother, while detained, was shot and injured at point-blank range on the direct order of a commanding officer.

Left with few options, but indirectly buoyed by a resilient civil society, Abbas declared in November that if negotiations fail, Palestinians will pursue recognition of statehood via the United Nations. The next month Brazil, Argentina, and Bolivia recognized Palestinian statehood based on the June 1967 borders. And as of yesterday, Russia added its own name to the chorus of recognition by re-affirming the 1988 Soviet position.

A shift from overdependence on U.S. leadership is underway. Quite frankly, the American embrace of Israeli wrongdoing in the territories is making the U.S. approach irrelevant to world efforts to end the Israeli occupation. 

Acting outside of American-imposed parameters, Palestinian officials and Arab League counterparts have prepared a Security Council resolution condemning settlements. While the resolution may have little bearing absent U.S. support, it demonstrates Fatah's break with the world superpower, with whom it had hitherto placed all its eggs. No longer in lock-step with American prerogatives, the resolution, which Palestinians hope to present for vote in February notes long-held American positions on settlements in order to avoid an American veto. Despite the careful wording, Assistant Secretary Philip J. Crowley noted on January 13 that "It is our belief that New York is the wrong forum to address these complex issues, that the parties should work to find a way back to direct negotiations as the only way to resolve these difficult issues and the conflict once and for all." An American veto, therefore, may still be forthcoming.

Finally, Palestinian officials may not only be seeking an alternative to American influence, they may also be exploring a different approach to the conflict -- one that includes an emphasis on rights. In a recent commentary in the Guardian, lead negotiator Saeb Erekat emphasized the centrality of Palestinian refugees to a viable peace: "When negotiations resume once again, the world must not abandon the refugees of Palestine, nor attempt to coerce their representatives to do so either."

This is a welcome departure, even if merely rhetorical, from the previous Palestinian negotiating posture, which abandoned UN General Assembly Resolution 194 and sought instead to arrive at a politically acceptable solution to the refugee crisis -- a contravention of the individual right to return held by each Palestinian refugee. Although it is highly unlikely that this article amounts to more than political muscle flexing in light of the Palestinian negotiating team's well-established position on refugees, time will tell whether this new approach is a tactic aimed at countering Israel's own existential arguments -- or a fundamental shift in the Palestinian approach to ensure the rights of Palestinian refugees both inside and outside of the territories. If the new approach is merely a tactic, Palestinian civil society will undoubtedly continue to advocate for full Palestinian rights, emancipation from colonial rule, and an end to Israel's regime of a legalized caste system imposing one set of draconian laws for Palestinians and a different set for Jews. 

Noura Erakat is an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University and a human rights attorney

AFP/Getty images

The Middle East Channel

Mideast news brief: Second bomb attack in Iraq in two days kills up 12 more people

Second bomb attack in Iraq in two days kills up 12 more people

Suicide bombers used an ambulance to kill up to 12 more in a police compound in central Iraq, only a day after a suicide bomber killed some 60 people a police recruitment center in Tikrit -- Saddam Hussein's hometown. Both Baquba, the city hit with today's attack, and Tikrit are with Iraq's Sunni Triangle, a stronghold of the country's insurgency.

"Violence overall has ebbed in Iraq, but there remains a steady trickle of deadly attacks, most often focused on security forces, government officials, or, in recent months, Iraq's Christian minority. The three-month gap since the last major attack, a siege on a Baghdad church that left nearly 60 people dead, demonstrates the progress made by Iraq security forces as American troops prepare to withdraw at the end of this year, said Lt. Gen. Robert W. Cone, deputy commanding general for operations of American forces in Iraq. Attacks in 2010 dropped by 20 percent from the previous year, despite political uncertainly and the drawdown of American troops to fewer than 50,000, from twice that figure in 2009, the general said. Still, for Iraqis each attack leaves new suffering and renewed anger that the government is unable to protect them, along with speculation that some members of the security forces are conspiring with the attackers." (New York Times)

  • Russia recognizes independent state of Palestine.
  • Arabs push for a UN settlement resolution.
  • Hezbollah simulates 'coup' of Beirut as Lebanese tensions grow.
  • Anti-government protests gather steam in Jordan.
  • Arab leaders pledge $2 billion to boost Arab economies.
  • Kuwaiti leadership vows to 'clean up' its ministry.

Shiite Muslim pilgrims arrive on January 19, 2011 in the central Iraqi shrine city of Karbala, 120 kms south of the capital Baghdad, to take part in the upcoming Arbaeen religious festival which marks the 40th day after Ashura. Ashura commemorates the killing of the Prophet Mohammed's grandson the Imam Hussein in the seventh century (680AD) by armies of the caliph Yazid in the battle of Karbala (MOHAMMED SAWAF/AFP/Getty Images).

Arguments & Analysis

Letter to the President to support UN Resolution on illegal Israeli settlements (Sullivan, Beinart, Dobbins, Pickering, et al.)

A letter to the Obama administration from a host of policymakers, commentators, and former government officials, on a pending UN resolution highlighting illegal Israeli settlements, has just gone live. Signatories to the letter include Andrew Sullivan, Peter Beinart, James Dobbins, Thomas Pickering, Frank Carlucci, Robert Pastor, Carla Hills, Robert Jervis, and many more. For a full list of signatories and the text of the letter, see here. Some key excerpts:

"The time has come for a clear signal from the United States to the parties and to the broader international community that the United States can and will approach the conflict with the objectivity, consistency and respect for international law required if it is to play a constructive role in the conflict's resolution. While a UNSC resolution will not resolve the issue of settlements or prevent further Israeli construction activity in the Occupied Territory, it is an appropriate venue for addressing these issues and for putting all sides on notice that the continued flouting of international legality will not be treated with impunity. Nor would such a resolution be incompatible with or challenge the need for future negotiations to resolve all outstanding issues, and it would in no way deviate from our strong commitment to Israel's security." 

"As you made clear, Mr. President, in your landmark Cairo speech of June 2009, "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop." There are today over half a million Israelis living beyond the 1967 line -- greatly complicating the realization of a two-state solution. That number has grown dramatically in the years since the peace process was launched: in 1993 there were 111,000 settlers in the West Bank alone; in 2010 that number surpassed 300,000."

"That official US legal opinion describes the settlements as being "inconsistent with international law". US policy across nine administrations has been to oppose the settlements, with the focus for the last two decades being on the incompatibility of settlement construction with efforts to advance peace. The Quartet Roadmap, for instance, issued during the Bush presidency in 2003, called on Israel to "freeze all settlement activity, including natural growth. At this critical juncture, how the US chooses to cast its vote on a settlements resolution will have a defining effect on our standing as a broker in Middle East peace. But the impact of this vote will be felt well beyond the arena of Israeli-Palestinian deal-making -- our seriousness as a guarantor of international law and international legitimacy is at stake."

'Lebanon shows shift of influence in the Middle East' (Anthony Shadid, New York Times)

The ongoing instability in Lebanon, resulting from the decision by Hezbollah government ministers to resign from parliament last week, is the latest sign of a trend of changing influence in the Middle East. In many cases, traditional powers, including the U.S. and its closest regional allies, have seen their influence wane at the expense of growing regional actors like Turkey and Iran. Bottom line: "The confrontation here is the latest sign of a shifting map of the Middle East, where longtime stalwarts like Saudi Arabia and Egypt have further receded in influence, and emerging powers like Turkey, Iran and even the tiny Persian Gulf state of Qatar have decisively emerged in just a matter of a few years. It is yet another episode in which the United States has watched -- seemingly helplessly -- as events in places like Tunisia, Lebanon and even Iraq unfold unexpectedly and beyond its ability to control. The jockeying might be a glimpse of a post-American Middle East, where the United States' allies and foes, brought together in the interests of stability, plot foreign policies that intersect in initiatives the United States must grudgingly accept."

'Egypt's Copt crisis is one of democracy' (Omar Ashour,The Daily Star)

Recent violence directed at Egypt's Coptic Christian minority reflects a worrying trend in the country--and in the broader Middle East. Yet despite much punditry to the contrary, the crisis is less about inter-necine conflict on its own right, and more about the structural conditions that autocracy and a lack of democratic norms have brought upon domestic social arrangements. "Egypt's sectarian crisis is rooted in the absence of four factors: equal citizenship rights (regardless of religion); a constitutional right to freedom of belief and worship; a transparent, accountable government; and a comprehensive, transparent strategy for promoting social cohesion. Such a strategy should avoid reliance on intervention by security forces, forced disappearances, torture, and other repressive methods, which seem to be the pillars of the current socio-religious "cohesion" strategy. Copts and other Egyptians directed their anger after the recent Alexandria attack against the regime for reasons far beyond the fact that there were weak security arrangements around the Two Saints Church at a time of high tensions. Rather it was the unwillingness of the regime to uphold any of the aforementioned rights, even if such measures were rationalized as necessary to pre-empt terror. The unresolved crisis of Egypt remains one of democracy rather than of religion."