The Middle East Channel

What have Obama and Netanyahu wrought?

What conclusions are to be drawn about the state of Middle East peacemaking from the extraordinary spectacle of the adversarial encounter between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and their several major adversarial addresses in the second half of May?

The spectacle did not bring an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement any closer. Indeed, Netanyahu's address to the U.S. Congress, no less than Congress's reaction to that speech, effectively buried the Middle East peace process for good. For what America's solons were jumping up and down to applaud so wildly as they pandered pathetically to the Israel lobby was Netanyahu's rejection of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, thus endorsing his determination to maintain permanently Israel's colonial project in the West Bank.

If Netanyahu succeeds in his objective, these members of Congress will be able to take credit for an Israeli apartheid regime that former Prime Ministers Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, and Ehud Olmert predicted would be the inescapable consequence of policies the congressmen cheered and promised to continue to support as generously as they have in the past.

Unfortunately, it is an outcome made more likely by Obama's insistence that a United Nations resolution could never bring about Palestinian statehood. He was wrong about that. That the United Nations can create a state was affirmed and celebrated not by enemies of Israel but in Israel's own Declaration of Independence of 1948. It is the U.N. Partition Resolution of 1947, not negotiations between the Jews and Arabs of Palestine, that is cited in that declaration as having brought about the state of Israel and the source of its legitimacy.

It is the United Nations, not Netanyahu nor even the United States, that can and should bring the state of Palestine into being -- and would do so if the United States were not to prevent it. The bilateral talks with Netanyahu that Obama is insisting Palestinians return to will only continue to serve, as they have in the past, as cover for the expansion of Israeli settlements whose purpose it is to annex (i.e., steal) enough Palestinian territory to preclude the possibility of Palestinian statehood.

Does a Palestinian appeal to the United Nations imply an improper "unilateralism" that Israel and the United States accused Palestinians of? Nothing could be further from the truth.

Leaving aside the hypocrisy of accusations of unilateralism from Israel's government, there is nothing "unilateral" about a Palestinian request to the United Nations that it help resolve a conflict that the parties have been unable to resolve on their own for nearly half a century. What is decidedly unilateral is Israel's massive transfers of its own Jewish citizens into the occupied territories in order to create "facts on the ground" that pre-empt a negotiated settlement of the border controversy. It is also a brazen violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which was adopted by the international community to prevent a repetition of the massive Nazi transfers of their population into the territories they occupied during World War II.

An equally egregious violation of the Oslo Accords is Israel's unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem, whose future is also a permanent status issue to be negotiated by the parties.

But the real reason for the groundlessness of Obama's criticism of the Palestinians' decision to turn to the U.N. is that they do not intend to ask the Security Council to determine the resolution of the permanent status issues (though that is what they should be doing, for reasons argued below). Instead, they intend to ask the U.N. to recognize their declaration of national self-determination, a declaration that -- by definition and by international law -- can only be made unilaterally.

The right to self-determination by the majority population in a previously mandated territory is a "peremptory norm" in international law, one that overrides and nullifies conflicting treaty obligations. Yet the U.N.'s recognition of Palestinian statehood would not conflict with nor pre-empt negotiations of the permanent status issues, which would still have to be resolved between the parties. But it would confirm that negotiations of changes in the status quo ante of 1967 must begin from the 1967 lines, a position endorsed by Obama, the European Union, and virtually every country in the world.

Does Obama really prefer that Palestinians negotiate with Israel as a subject people rather than as a sovereign nation?


The speeches by Obama and Netanyahu did serve to focus the world's attention on Israel's 1967 border and on the concept of land swaps. Netanyahu falsely portrayed Obama's proposal that this border serve as the starting point for negotiations over territorial swaps as locking Israel into the 1967 lines. As Obama pointed out in his speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), if the purpose of the negotiations is to reach agreement on territorial swaps, then -- by definition -- they are intended to alter the 1967 lines, not to make them permanent. So why did Netanyahu lie, and why is he so determined to avoid negotiations over land swaps, which Palestinians are not only prepared to negotiate with Israel but in return for which they are willing to forego their request for recognition by the U.N. in September, a move Netanyahu seems terrified of?

The answer is Netanyahu lied because he knows that reciprocal land swaps would necessarily rule out his goal of preventing a Palestinian state, for Israel would have to trade parts of its own territory in return for Palestinian territory it wishes to retain. Of course, Netanyahu would not have allowed negotiations over land swaps to reach a conclusion and would have continued the expansion of Israeli "facts on the ground." While the principle that Palestinian land taken by Israel must be compensated for with Israeli land is one that he and his coalition government reject, they also do not want to be in a position of having to reject it formally, for that would expose another of Netanyahu's lies -- that he is committed to a two-state solution.

It has been reported the United States is once again trying to get the parties to resume negotiations on the basis of Obama's proposal in his May 19 speech. But the expectation that negotiations based on the principle of land swaps would improve prospects for successful bilateral talks is entirely groundless. There is no reason to believe that Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would be able to reach agreement on such swaps more easily than on any of the other issues they have been unable to agree on. Netanyahu would use the same tactics he has used in previous bilateral talks -- either refusing to reveal his stand on those issues or coming up with demands that no Palestinian leader could accept -- to assure the continuation of the occupation and of Israel's land grabs, which in fact are not only continuing but have intensified, both in Jerusalem and in the West Bank.

It is not the proposal of equal land swaps that can advance a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian accord. It is, instead, the "default setting" of Security Council resolutions 242 and 338. Both resolutions affirm categorically that territory cannot be acquired --neither by the aggressor nor by the victim of aggression -- as a result of war. It follows, therefore, that if Israelis and Palestinians cannot agree on adjustments in the 1967 border, the Security Council must act to restore the status quo ante, i.e. the pre-1967 border, without any changes, or with adjustments determined by the Security Council.

The default setting of these resolutions could not conceivably be that the occupier may hold on permanently to the occupied territories or may determine unilaterally how much of those territories to annex. If that were the case, resolutions 242 and 338 would have provided states that illegally occupy territory beyond their internationally recognized borders with an irresistible inducement to avoid reaching a conflict-ending accord. It is the false notion that in the absence of a peace agreement, resolutions 242 and 338 do indeed allow Israel to continue its occupation indefinitely that is responsible for Netanyahu's expectation that he will succeed in retaining control of all of Palestine simply by putting forward conditions for a peace agreement that even the most irenic Palestinian leader could not accept.

Bottom line, Obama is wrong in his assertion that the U.N. can never bring about a Palestinian state and that only a resumed Israeli-Palestinian peace process can. The precise opposite is true. Direct negotiations, even if begun at the 1967 lines and based on land swaps, will never produce a Palestinian state. A long and unbroken history of failed direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and failed American mediation attest to that truth. Only the U.N. can produce a Palestinian state -- provided, of course, that Obama does not veto the effort.

Henry Siegman, president of the U.S./Middle East Project, is a nonresident visiting research professor at the Sir Joseph Hotung Middle East Program, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

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The Middle East Channel

Misplaced fears about the upcoming Turkish election

Leading Western publications, such as the Economist and the New York Times, have been recently editorializing in a sensational vein that the return to power of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) with an enhanced majority could be the beginning of the end of the Turkish democratic experiment. The Economist has gone to the extent of endorsing the CHP, Turkey's main opposition party and the standard-bearer of Kemalism with its mix of authoritarianism and militant secularism, as if it were endorsing a candidate in the mayoral elections in London. The New York Times has editorialized that it would be better for Turkey if the voters did not give the AKP what it calls a "supermajority" as it would erode the basis of Turkish democracy.

These apprehensions regarding an AKP victory in the June 12 Turkish elections have their roots in two sources. On the one hand, they are the products of overblown concerns about the future of democracy in a country undergoing democratic consolidation, which is hardly ever a unilinear and smooth process. A second cause for such apprehensions, which undergirds the first, is related to the Islamist pedigree of the AKP -- though the party has moved quite a distance away from its roots and repackaged itself as a conservative democratic formation akin in spirit to the Christian Democrats of Europe. Nonetheless, the fact that many of its leaders belonged to the Islamist Refah (Welfare) Party at one time and that it continues to draw support from some of the same elements that supported Refah conjures up images of a staunchly Muslim Turkey under the AKP that will be reflexively anti-Western.

It is this fear that leads to pejorative references, such as "neo-Ottomanism," used by Western journalists and even some academics not only to describe but also to disparage the recent activism in Turkey's regional policies -- especially toward the Arab world. Discerning observers of the Turkish scene, however, reject charges of neo-Ottomanism as hyperbolic. They realize that Turkish policymakers are not naive enough to try to impose a pax-Turkiana on the Middle East. What Turkey is attempting to do is to carve out a niche for itself in the greater Middle East that is commensurate with its size and capabilities, which are superior to those of most other states in the region. Interestingly, both these concerns regarding the AKP's anti-democratic proclivities and Turkish activism in the Middle East, which has sometimes -- as over the Iranian nuclear issue and the Israeli blockade of Gaza -- put it at odds with American policy, have been expressed in increasingly shrill tones by Western analysts and journalists since 2009 after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan walked out on Israeli President Shimon Peres in Davos, when the latter tried to defend Israel's Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. This may have been a coincidence, but many people especially in Turkey think otherwise.

In any case, Western apprehensions about Erdogan's authoritarian personality traits and the new trajectory in Turkish foreign policy have been heightened by prospects of an imminent AKP victory in the June 12 elections. While there is near-universal agreement that the AKP will be returned to power on the basis of its economic and political record as well as Erdogan's personal popularity, there is a sense of contrived dread in some quarters that if it manages to get 367 or even 330 of the 550 seats in the Grand National Assembly, it will be able to rewrite the country's constitution -- through a vote in parliament if it reaches the first figure and through a popular referendum if it reaches the second. According to the AKP's critics, such a unilateral move will erode Turkey's democratic system by riding roughshod over opposition opinion and by providing Erdogan the opportunity to turn the parliamentary system into a presidential one.

Both these concerns are unjustified. The Erdogan government already pushed through several amendments to the Constitution in September 2010 through the medium of a popular referendum that, in the words of the Economist, were aimed at "rais[ing] democratic standards and further erod[ing] the powers of the country's once omnipotent generals." These amendments, which were aimed at bringing the Constitution into compliance with European Union standards, included reform of the Constitutional Court in order to make it more broad-based and representative in character. Other amendments included removing the immunity provided to leaders of military coups, thus acting as a deterrent against future coup attempts. The changes were supported by 58 percent of the voters, 11 percentage points more than the number that had voted the AKP back to power in 2007. None of these amendments ought to strike one as concentrating power in the hands of the prime minister or his cabinet.

One should not forget that the current Turkish Constitution was imposed on the country in 1982 by a military-dominated regime and, therefore, suffers from a serious democratic deficit. Its primary purpose was to maintain the privileged position of the military establishment as guardians of the Turkish political order and provide the Kemalist elite -- bureaucratic, military, and judicial -- the legal instruments to outlaw popular challenges, whether they emerged from liberal democrats, religiously observant Muslims, or underprivileged ethnic minorities. There is nothing undemocratic about amending or rewriting such a constitution if there is a popular mandate to do so through fair and free elections and a mechanism that includes provisions for a popular referendum, if the proposed amendments receive 60 percent of the votes in parliament but fall short of achieving the support of two-thirds of its members.

The AKP had moved very gingerly until 2010 on issues relating to constitutional change, fearing a military coup if it moved too fast. That these fears were not baseless is proved by the fact that as late as 2007 there was an attempt by a part of the military establishment to derail Turkey's democratic experiment by making veiled threats that the army might intervene if then Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul were elected to the presidency. Fortunately, times have changed and the process of democratic consolidation in Turkey has advanced to a stage where major changes to the current constitution can be seriously contemplated. A convincing electoral victory will provide the AKP with the credibility and the legitimacy to bring about long overdue changes and help force the military into the barracks where it belongs.

Recent statements by Erdogan indicate that he is personally in favor of a presidential system for Turkey because, according to him, it would strengthen the separation of powers in the Turkish system, thereby making it more democratic and preventing an all-powerful prime minister from acting arbitrarily. His critics contend that this argument is a ruse as he is preparing to ascend to the presidency after his next term as prime minister expires in 2015. Be that as it may, there is nothing inherently wrong and anti-democratic in a politician floating the idea of a presidential system in a democracy. Moreover, there are divisions on this issue within the AKP itself with President Abdullah Gul expressing "reservations" about the idea and Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, the third member of the AKP triumvirate, openly expressing support for the parliamentary system. Therefore, it is not a foregone conclusion that if the AKP is returned with a substantial majority it will attempt to change the parliamentary system into a presidential one -- or that this would pass in a popular referendum even if the party decided to introduce such a change.

Finally, as long as elections are free and fair there is nothing anti-democratic about a party winning a substantial majority in parliament in a multiparty system even if it does not receive an absolute majority of the popular vote. If Turkey's history is any guide, single-party rule based on a parliamentary majority has provided the country with unprecedented stability, growth, and individual freedom since 2002 -- compared with the era of fragile coalitions in the 1990s when the military establishment could dictate terms to elected governments unsure of their longevity. Stable governments that are at the same time legitimate and have impeccable democratic credentials are in fact essential during the early phase of democratic consolidation.

India under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru during the first two decades of its independence proved this point admirably. The Congress Party won approximately three-quarters of the seats in Parliament during the first three elections of 1952, 1957, and 1962, though its popular vote ranged between 44 and 48 percent -- very much akin to what the AKP achieved in 2007 and is expected to reach in this month's election. Strong single-party governments that can stand up to extraconstitutional bullying are even more essential in countries like Turkey with a history of overt and covert military intervention.

An absolute prerequisite for the success of democratic governance in emerging democracies is finding a balance between popular support and a stable government. India went down this road successfully in the 1950s and 1960s thanks in part to the disjuncture between seats won by the Congress Party and the popular support for it. Turkey is doing so now. Statements about threats to Turkish democracy if the AKP returns to power with a substantial majority on the basis of less than half of the popular vote are, therefore, highly misplaced. However, if the Indian experience is any guide, this may be the last election in which the AKP is likely to be returned with a substantial majority. The process of the Congress Party's decline began with the fourth Indian elections in 1967, and though the party continues to be a major player in the political game it no longer dominates the Indian political scene the way it did in the 1950s and the 1960s.

There may be a lesson in this for the AKP and Prime Minister Erdogan as well. Alternation in power is vital for democratic governance once the process of democratic consolidation has been completed and the threat from extraconstitutional centers of power has been eliminated. Turkey is a few years away from achieving this goal. In the meantime, the AKP is the best bet for the success of democracy in Turkey.

Mohammed Ayoob is university distinguished professor of international relations at Michigan State University and an adjunct scholar at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.

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