The Middle East Channel

The Flailing “Peace Process”

A Palestinian official recently asserted that the "current Israeli negotiating position is the worst in more than 20 years." U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the failure of talks could produce a "third intifada." Still more revealing, in late October Israel announced the final approval of 1,500 settlement units in occupied East Jerusalem and an additional 2,500 units elsewhere in occupied Palestinian territory. This settlement expansion plan was followed by the Housing Ministry's announcement of a staggering 20,000 new settlement units, which could prove to be the coup de grâce for the "peace process." 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, despite pushing the Housing Ministry to "reconsider" the 20,000 new settlements, has not demonstrated a serious effort to rein in pro-settlement policies during the current peace talks. Recently and throughout his political career, Netanyahu has worked consistently and assiduously to prevent the emergence of a Palestinian state. By his own admission, Netanyahu helped subvert the Oslo process of the 1990s, and has continued to undermine a two-state solution by expanding settlements and appeasing the Israeli right-wing.

It is therefore incumbent upon the U.S. administration -- as an "honest broker" -- to state publicly that the current negotiations are at an impasse because of Israeli intransigence and ongoing settlement activity.   

More than three months into an anticipated nine months of negotiations, Israel's leaders appear determined to prevent a breakthrough. Illegal settlement activity and home demolitions have increased. Incitement from Netanyahu's coalition partners is on the rise. Living conditions in Gaza have deteriorated markedly since negotiations began in July. Moreover, in the past few weeks Israeli authorities have escalated efforts to displace Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem.

An agreed upon cone of silence has largely enveloped the talks. But instead of infusing the process with the confidence needed to take hard steps, Israel has regarded it as a means to keep Palestinian complaints to a minimum. There is now no one to blow the whistle on the languishing "peace process."  

The urgency Palestinians feel is not shared by those who already have their freedom, as many Jewish Israelis believe they can manage quite well if this process does not work out. Indeed, Israel's right-wing leadership has too frequently signaled that it prefers failure, which would mean greater settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.  

In late September, Housing Minister Uri Ariel stated, "Israel will continue to build anywhere in the state of Israel. In the Galilee, the Negev, Judea, Samaria [the occupied West Bank] and Jerusalem...We will continue and strengthen Jewish settlement. West of the Jordan there will be only one country, the state of Israel." A spokesman for the Housing Ministry voiced a similar sentiment in November when he declared that Israel would continue to build "all over the country" as though the West Bank is part of one greater Israel.

Such a policy seriously undermines negotiations and, ultimately, endangers the two-state paradigm. The failure of negotiators to broker a two-state solution in the next six months will undoubtedly propel Palestinians into a period of strategic re-appraisal. Israeli settlement expansion and the application of the type of one-state ideology espoused by MK Ariel and his supporters foreclose the possibility of a just, equitable two-state outcome.

If Palestinians in the occupied territories believe the two-state solution untenable, then they will contemplate both nonviolent and violent methods to achieve their rights and freedom. And if the current negotiations fail, the Palestinian Authority will, almost assuredly, resume its efforts to legally challenge Israeli settlement activity along with the pillage of Palestinian natural resources (from the Dead Sea, quarries, and elsewhere) and historical artifacts (such as from Silwan) through U.N. agencies and the International Criminal Court. My own constituents within Israel itself are more likely, I believe, to fight rampant Israeli discrimination via nonviolent means and through the courts, reminiscent of the campaign by African Americans to fight segregation in the southern United States.

To date, Palestinians (and Israelis) have mobilized across the country to protest against Israel's violations of human rights. Most recently, the Prawer Plan, which aims to evict as many as 70,000 Arab Bedouin citizens of Israel from their homes in favor of Jewish-only housing, has triggered demonstrations attended by thousands. These protests have persisted despite Israel's heavy-handed response. We will demonstrate this Saturday against the Prawer Plan, and we will continue to struggle in the street, the parliament, and international agencies to achieve our rights.

Given the likely failure of peace talks and paucity of strategic alternatives, popular support for a mass movement will grow as the possibility of a two-state solution recedes. An unexpected incident or symbolic act, similar to Ariel Sharon's provocative visit to the Haram al-Sharif that sparked the second intifada in September 2000, could propel tens of thousands of Palestinians onto the streets to express outrage against decades of occupation and dispossession.

As for the form of protest, Palestinians have not forgotten that President Obama seemed to point favorably to a massive Palestinian nonviolent movement for freedom when he gave his Cairo speech early in his first term. Painfully, his administration has ignored the smaller Palestinian nonviolent efforts of the last decade that have been violently suppressed by the Israeli military. A broad-based, nonviolent Palestinian response would generate tremendous enthusiasm regionally and internationally for the Palestinian cause. Pressure would mount on the Israeli government and its stalwart defenders in the United States. Israel would face increased international isolation, which would become further amplified if Palestinians could successfully coordinate a popular nonviolent resistance movement that mobilizes all segments of Palestinian society.

Israel's time of reckoning is now. Will it back a just two-state solution or continue its strategy of obfuscation and delay that could precipitate an equal rights movement and expose Israel to the delegitimizing consequences of being an apartheid state?

The Palestinian people are committed to achieving their rights and have grown embittered with a "peace process" that strengthens, rather than dismantles, the occupation. In the absence of a credible peace process that yields tangible results, the Palestinians will seek alternative strategies that confront the occupation through international bodies and popular, nonviolent mobilization.

The United States must then also assess its options. If the U.S. administration cannot place pressure on its ally or assign blame where it belongs, then it must recognize its inability to serve as an "honest broker" and step aside in favor of some other intermediary. Unlike the Bush I and Bush II administrations, which encountered (and helped suppress) years of Palestinian freedom struggle, the Obama administration has not faced a mass Palestinian mobilization. That situation may not endure. 

Ahmad Tibi, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, is deputy speaker of the Israeli Parliament.

Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Egyptian Police Violently Disperse Peaceful Protests in Cairo

Egyptian activists demonstrating against Egypt's new anti-protest law in central Cairo Tuesday faced a severe crackdown by Egyptian security forces. Police moved aggressively to disperse the protesters, deploying tear gas and water cannons, and reportedly attacked activists using batons. The controversial protest law passed on November 24 requires that protest organizers seeking to mobilize more than 10 people obtain permission from the Interior Ministry three days in advance and forbids political gatherings around places of worship. The new law aimed primarily at halting the regular demonstrations organized by Islamists and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, but instead triggered the mobilization of both Islamist and non-Islamist activists angry with the restrictive measure. Following the protests, Egyptian prosecutors ordered that 24 activists arrested at the demonstrations remain in custody for four days pending legal charges. The United Nations and other international bodies have roundly criticized the new protest law, and U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday that the law "does not meet international standards and will not move Egypt's democratic transition forward." However, Egyptian interim Prime Minister Hazem Beblawi defended the measure, declaring, "It is not a law that limits the right to demonstrate, but it aims to protect the right of protesters." In response to the police crackdown, Egypt's constitution-drafting committee temporarily suspended its work as several of its members objected to the harsh measures employed by Egyptian security services.

Syria

The Syrian government vowed Wednesday that Bashar al-Assad would not surrender his position as president at the proposed "Geneva 2" peace conference scheduled for January 22. A statement issued by Syria's Foreign Ministry on Wednesday insisted that "the official Syrian delegation is not going to Geneva to surrender power." The statement comes a day after General Salim Idriss, commander of the Western-backed Free Syria Army (FSA), announced that the FSA would not attend the Geneva peace conference. International pressure has mounted on both regime and opposition actors to participate in the peace talks, and on Wednesday the foreign ministers of Turkey and Iran jointly called for a ceasefire in Syria prior to the Geneva conference. Meanwhile, the Turkish Interior Ministry reported that nearly 500 Turkish citizens have entered Syria to fight with al-Qaeda affiliated jihadist groups, namely the Nusra Front and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Headlines

  • Tens of thousands of Tunisians are participating in general strikes across three cities, calling for greater economic investment in their impoverished regions.
  • A series of violent attacks and bombings across Iraq left at least 33 people dead, including 18 people killed in Baghdad's Sunni and Shiite districts.
  • Israeli security forces killed three Palestinian militants Wednesday during a raid near the West Bank city of Hebron.
  • Iranian President Hassan Rouhani delivered an optimistic progress report outlining the domestic and foreign policy accomplishments of his administration's first 100 days.

Arguments and Analysis

'No Way Out' (Laura Dean, New Republic)

"Mohaned's family moved from Nablus in the Palestinian Territories to the Yarmouk refugee camps in Syria in 1967. Mohaned himself was born in Syria and has never set foot in Palestine, though he holds Palestinian, not Syrian, nationality. When the Syrian uprisings began in 2011, he and his family moved seven times in two years within Syria. At one point, pro-regime fighters began kidnapping women who wore the niqab -- the full face veil -- so Mohaned's wife stopped wearing hers. In December of 2012, intense fighting broke out in the Yarmouk camps. On January 12, 2013, after the schools in the camps closed, Mohaned and his family fled to Egypt.

As Palestinians, their flight from Syria is only the latest in a series of migrations that began in 1948. But many, like Mohaned, consider Syria their home. 'I am Syrian' he says, 'My affection for Syria is more than my affection for Palestine.'

But in the eyes of the Egyptian government, Mohaned and his family are Palestinians. As such they are not entitled to any of the benefits accorded to Syrian refugees. The Egyptian government does not allow UNHCR to deal with Palestinians, because they are supposed to be covered by UNRWA, which does not have a mandate to operate in Egypt. As a result, though they are fleeing the same conflict as those who hold Syrian nationality, they have no access to services."

'Bringing the Iran Deal Back Home' (Anne-Marie Slaughter, Project Syndicate)

"Iranian President Hassan Rouhani needs to marshal support for the deal just as much as Obama does, above all by reducing inflation and getting his country's economy moving again. If domestic tensions, above all within Iran's restive middle class, ease as a result, the government will receive the credit, while the Iranian Republican Guard and other hardliners will be weakened.

The West had better hope that the Iranian narrative proves true, because the political space for any meaningful diplomatic agreement -- both the desire for a deal and the room to achieve it -- is created at home. This is particularly true when a new government comes to power with promises of improving the economy. Rouhani can undercut hardliners who would seek to block any ultimate deal only if the Iranian population both experiences economic relief and attributes it to his administration.

The true test of this interim agreement, therefore, is whether both sides can secure the domestic space to continue negotiating. The stakes have never been higher -- and not only because of the very real and dangerous geopolitical consequences of an Iranian bomb. As Obama put it, ‘If Iran seizes this opportunity, the Iranian people will benefit from rejoining the international community, and we can begin to chip away at the mistrust between our two nations. This would provide Iran with a dignified path to forge a new beginning with the wider world based on mutual respect.'"

'Good News, But an Alliance With Iran Is Premature' (Karim Sadjadpour, New York Times - Room for Debate)

"While Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has seemingly endorsed a tactical nuclear détente in order to alleviate Iran's economic suffering, a full rapprochement with the United States -- which would require Tehran to cease its belligerence toward Israel and support for groups like Hezbollah -- would oblige the 74-year-old Khamenei to abrogate the values he's stood for his entire political career.

U.S.-Iran enmity is not indefinite, however. Indeed, Iran is one of the few countries in the Middle East where America's strategic interests and democratic values align, rather than clash. Whereas a representative government in Saudi Arabia has the potential to bring about a political system that's even less tolerant, and less sympathetic to U.S. interests, than the status quo, in Iran a more representative government would likely auger both greater political and social tolerance and a more cooperative working relationship with Washington.

For this reason, it's eminently possible to foresee a day in which an energy self-sufficient America renews its alliance with Tehran, and downgrades its rapport with Riyadh. In the near future, however, the largest economy in the world (the U.S.) is not going to abandon the world's key energy producer (Saudi Arabia) to form an alliance with a country (Iran) that remains torn between resistance and reintegration."

-- Joshua Haber

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images