February 20, 2012 Edition 7 Palestinian-Israeli Crossfire
Abbas' options, Netanyahu's options
Rapidly dwindling avenues to peace  - Ghassan Khatib
Changing conditions leave Palestinians with very restricted options.

Obama's options are important, too  - Yossi Alpher
Netanyahu doesn't have to juggle his options since they are all relatively compatible.

Between two hells  - Issa Samandar
This is a street fight where winner takes all, Netanyahu says and smiles.

Beating a dead horse  - Chuck Freilich
Abbas is proving himself to be a diplomatic Houdini, a master at escaping all situations that might lead to agreement.

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Rapidly dwindling avenues to peace
 Ghassan Khatib
The regional and international environments appear increasingly less conducive to a peaceful solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, especially in the short term.

The United States is preparing for coming presidential and congressional elections, and the Arab world is increasingly involved in internal revolutions that are naturally emphasizing local agendas. These factors are limiting available options and eliminating opportunities to make progress in ending our conflict peacefully.

The impact of these events on Palestinians and Israelis is not the same, however. Israel, the stronger party, feels no urgency and is taking advantage of the situation, focusing instead on the Iranian threat. It, too, will soon be engaged in the domestic distractions of an election year.

Furthermore, the ongoing rhetoric of the Iranian leadership is aiding Israel in justifying its policies and escaping its responsibilities. More importantly, Iranian tough talk reduces international pressure on Israel to act positively to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

In contrast to Israel, changing conditions leave Palestinians with very restricted options. For Palestinians, internal and external issues are strongly interrelated. The failure of the recent Palestinian-Israeli talks in Amman, combined with the general absence of international players (especially the US) from the scene, is encouraging the Palestinian leadership to focus on reconciling the main factions Hamas and Fateh and, hopefully, bringing about new elections. That makes sense given that the chances for renewing peace negotiations with Israel are limited due to American and Israeli preoccupation with their respective elections. Palestinians see this as an opportunity to also put their house in order, in part by holding elections.

The problem is that internal Palestinian politics are deeply impacted by Israel, which controls all aspects of Palestinian life. Palestinians' ability to hold credible elections is deeply compromised by the physical separation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and internal dissection of the West Bank by Israeli military checkpoints and patrols. Recent Palestinian announcements regarding preparations for elections as part of the road to reconciliation, have been met with implicit Israeli threats to disrupt those elections. The most obvious example was the recent (re)arrest of several elected Hamas parliamentarians, a step that appears to have been intended to remind both Fateh and Hamas of Israel's role in the advancement of Palestinian political development. Israel seems to have sought to give both Hamas and Fateh a taste of how Israel can easily disrupt free and fair elections.

If Israel proceeds with these impediments to elections and to the process of reconciling Hamas and Fateh, the Palestinian leadership might be left with only the option of returning to the international arena and using the same tactics tried at the United Nations late last year to generate international attention for the Palestinian cause, the cause of peace, and the need to immediately end Israel's occupation.

That would require learning some lessons from last summer's efforts, namely focusing more on partnering with European countries, which might be ready to be additionally supportive and fill some of the vacuum created by the US elections. Hopefully, it will also mean focusing on forums where the US has no veto, such as the United Nations General Assembly and other international agencies.-Published 20/2/2012 ©

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views.

Obama's options are important, too
 Yossi Alpher
For Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, as for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the primary objective of 2012 with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to get through the year without a peace process failure, without major violence, and perhaps with some marginal achievement in the context of regional developments like the "Arab spring" that position each of them better for 2013. A genuine peace process is most definitely not anybody's realistic objective. It is in this context that we can address President Barack Obama's objectives as well.

What are the leaders' options for achieving these goals?

Abbas is juggling three. He is moving ahead, however slowly, on reconciliation with Hamas, a process that now looks certain to extend throughout most of the year, if it reaches fruition at all. He is threatening, off and on, to go back to the United Nations to ask for some form of state recognition that is designed, ostensibly, to enhance Palestinian strategic maneuverability. And he is playing with the Quartet-sponsored peace process, in full recognition that neither he nor Netanyahu is a prospective partner in a viable process, but that both are anxious not to alienate either the international community or host countries like Jordan. Abbas can be described as "juggling" these options because they don't easily coexist in the same time and space. He seemingly has to keep all three in the air simultaneously.

Netanyahu also confronts several options, but he doesn't have to juggle them since they are all relatively compatible. For one, he knows he doesn't have to worry about pressure from Obama regarding the peace process in an American election year. Nevertheless, he does have to carefully coordinate Iran-related issues with the US, and this means paying lip service to Washington's declared goal of negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization with reference to specific positions--some of which, like the 1967 lines with swaps and reduced settlement activity, Netanyahu finds unacceptable. Meanwhile, he can expand settlement construction at a dizzying rate, while showing up for negotiations whenever invited as long as Abbas' more rigid preconditions--total settlement freeze, 1967 lines--can safely be ignored.

Both Abbas and Netanyahu confront a fairly flexible option to hold elections in 2012 if it suits their purpose for this year and next. Abbas probably won't hold them unless Hamas accepts most of his conditions; he has procrastinated for two years already, and could conceivably get away with another. Netanyahu might want to hold elections this year in order to burnish his leadership profile if he anticipates that Obama will be reelected in November and make trouble for him over the Palestinian issue next year.

Obama, of course, cannot be flexible regarding his election date. It is already quite clear that he intends to avoid any risk-taking whatsoever in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere during this election year. The more interesting question, then, is what Obama and his advisers are contemplating for 2013, on the assumption he is reelected. This is an issue of vital importance to both Netanyahu and Abbas.

For a reelected Obama, the option of more of the same in 2013, as in 2009-12, is almost certainly out of the question. No more Mitchell missions and transparent "engagement" that allows the parties to do as they wish and ignore the administration's ideas because they are not backed up with "muscle". It will either be everything, or nothing: either an all-out assault on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, with lots of presidential ideas and plenty of hitherto unheard-of arm-twisting, or a James Baker-like "here's my phone number, call me if you get serious but otherwise stew in your own juice."

Are Netanyahu and Abbas thinking beyond 2012 and taking these two possibilities into account? Netanyahu at least knows how to read the map of US politics. By all indications, Abbas doesn't.-Published 20/2/2012

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Between two hells
 Issa Samandar
One can't help but be astonished by the behavior of the United States and European governments over the vast changes occurring in Arab countries, especially their reactions towards the killing spree in Syria. They have been swift--their politicians rarely vague--in their condemnations of the Syrian regime and calls for actions by the international community.

For Palestinians recalling Israel's war on Gaza, and the subsequent Goldstone report and other reports by reputable organizations that described Israel's atrocities as crimes against humanity and war crimes, it is clear that the people of Syria--despite the horrific way they are being treated--are somehow privileged. Even Arab states have been caught up in this fast-paced current after they dragged like aimless turtles in defending Palestinians.

Under these conditions, what chance does any Palestinian president have, whether he is hard-line or "diplomatic"?

President Mahmoud Abbas is clearly adapting to the Palestinian wisdom accumulated from decades of experience under Israel's brutal occupation. He is trying to "minimize losses ", while also simultaneously leaving the door open to negotiations under the rules of the Quartet (which symbolize the lowest common denominator of agreement among effective world powers--but not necessarily the conditions required for success). All the while, Abbas is also trying to guide events towards the inevitable and necessary establishment of a Palestinian state in the territories occupied in June 1967 by Israel.

The greater his efforts, the tougher Israel's response as it puts sticks in the wheels of the peace process. The other players in Europe and the US resort to a fixed menu of words: "the expansion of settlements hinders the peace process" or "we acknowledge Israel's security needs, and we are committed to defend its right to exist." These statements serve to stop in their tracks any hint of progress by the international community in seriously addressing Israel's grave breaches of international law and reverse growing awareness of Israel's incongruous policies.

In Israel, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu understands the realpolitik, where negotiations with Palestinians must reach some end--any end--that will certainly not be 100 percent in Israel's favor. This outcome is currently not an option for Netanyahu.

As a result, we have this snapshot: Abbas is trying hard to pull strings at the United Nations, among the US administration, and in the European Union, so that they in turn will draw Israel into the negotiations arena--all as Abbas attempts to hold high the flimsy Arab stick. Netanyahu's reply to all of them is that this arena should have no ropes. This is a street fight where winner takes all, he says and smiles.

Netanyahu's options are dwindling, however. Soon he will have to offer something to Palestinians (rather than placating the US or EU), or find an enemy that can keep pace with his government's cadence of violence and lack of vision.

He has some advantages in his corner, however. First among them is internal Palestinian strife, and the absurdity of factions trying to divide the spoils between them. Too, there is the reality of Israel's iron grip on Palestinian territory and Palestinian daily life.

But Netanyahu and the Israel he leads have lost other assets: the compliance of Arab rulers, and some academics, unions, and other political forces in Europe and beyond. At least in the West Bank, he has lost the ability to feed on the anarchy and deficiencies of the Palestinian Authority, as it seems that Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has outmaneuvered him in this sense. Moreover, some Israeli citizens are courageous enough to defy his policies, among them influential US and European Jews.

If President Abbas sets the quest for the Palestinian state as the only option, in order to curb various unattractive international options, other states will be required to fulfill their obligations and responsibilities. (Let's face it, this track has failed repeatedly.) He could also continue in the spirit of Palestinian liberation, emphasizing Palestine's ongoing occupation. But this entails shaking up the fragile internal political system (that ongoing Palestinian division of the cake) and adopting a new approach to shake off the occupation and attain freedom and statehood.

Decision-makers are carefully weighing the balance of power and consulting the ruler of political advantage. Options are being selected and steps taken using minute calculations. But these calculations are becoming irrelevant, I would argue. The public is no longer willing to accept the choice between the visible occupation (essentially a dictatorship) and "invisible" occupation (a "democratic" dictatorship). Both are hell, only with Satan wearing two different disguises.

It only takes a spark to ignite a forest, even one damp with rain. Popular uprisings have proven themselves in so many countries. They have proven themselves more than once in Palestine. Activists have the fuel and are gradually gaining momentum (thanks to America and Israel). They have experience that is visible in the growing number of popular, but organized, activities. The main loser, once they gain speed, will be the US administration.-Published 20/2/2012 ©

Issa Samandar is coordinator of the Land Defense Committees in the West Bank.

Beating a dead horse
 Chuck Freilich
How long can you beat a dead horse? The peace process died some years ago and the only humane thing to do may be to allow it to rest in peace. Indeed, it is questionable whether this is an opportune time to consider revival, when the future of peace with Egypt and Jordan hangs in doubt, Palestinian elections portend a possible Hamas takeover in the West Bank, and Hamas' radical mini-state in Gaza is the embodiment of every Israeli nightmare.

Peace with the Palestinians, however, including withdrawal from most of the West Bank, is not an Israeli favor to them but a vital self-interest. The entire Zionist dream of a Jewish and democratic state is increasingly threatened. Every additional settler makes a final agreement that much harder and at some point a viable two-state solution will no longer be feasible. Even if Israel retains only the settlement blocs in a final agreement, some four to six percent of the territory, it would still have to move over 60,000 people, an undertaking of increasingly questionable practicability.

The Zionist right, in its blind refusal to recognize demographic realities, is sowing the seeds of our own self-destruction. The Zionist left is no less misguided in its blind tendency to attribute the failure of the peace process solely to Israel, rather than focusing on the primary cause, the ongoing Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people and accept that a Palestinian state can only come into being alongside Israel, not in its place. It was Zionism's pragmatism that led to its dramatic success as a national movement, in contrast with the obstinacy that has led to the utter failure of the Palestinian national movement. It is time to return to our roots.

Israel has correctly claimed for years that Palestinian reunification is a prerequisite for a final agreement, but that extremist Hamas is not a partner for talks, at least for the foreseeable future. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, however, has mis-positioned himself so that no one believes that his opposition to reunification is anything but a pretext for further forestalling talks. Instead, he should repeatedly stress the terms under which dialogue with the anticipated new Palestinian government would become possible, such as if it met the conditions set out by the Quartet.

Netanyahu is right that the Palestinians refused to negotiate and merely used his 10-month settlement freeze in 2009 to gain time. But instead of rejecting any further concessions on the settlements, why not again put the onus on the Palestinians by stating what Israel could do? For example, Israel could initiate a freeze that excludes the settlement blocs and Jerusalem, a position that would gain considerable understanding in the US and elsewhere, and that could then be made contingent on the sides' ability to reach predetermined negotiating milestones.

Israel is right to fear further concessions at a time of such regional turmoil and should use this to strengthen its claim for stringent security arrangements. Netanyahu's problem, however, has always been one of overreach. By saying no to everything, he ends up losing support even in those areas in which Israel could gain international understanding.

President Mahmour Abbas (Abu Mazen), like the late Yasser Arafat, is proving himself to be a diplomatic Houdini, a master at escaping all situations that might lead to agreement. Turning to the United Nations may provide a public relations victory but it will not lead to an agreement. For that, the Palestinians must talk to Israel, not the international community, and accept the reality that they too must make painful compromises.

Turning down Olmert's offer in 2008, much as Arafat turned down Ehud Barak's in 2000, is either an act of folly or an indication of much more malevolent intentions. Refusing to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people 64 years after Israeli independence is a deeply troubling indication of the Palestinians' unwillingness to reach a true reconciliation and feeds Israel's fears that the negotiations are in fact not about the 1967 borders but about 1948. If Abu Mazen is serious about an agreement, he must begin preparing his people for the painful reality, long acknowledged by Palestinian negotiators in private but which no Palestinian leader has ever had the courage to say openly, that a "right of return" will be limited to the future Palestinian state.

Some believe that the best way to go forward is by beginning with the territorial and border issues, which are thought to be easier to resolve and which would inherently address the settlements. In reality, all of the core issues are inter-connected and should be addressed as part of an overall package. Neither side will make major concessions on these issues without knowing the contours of a final agreement on the others. Certainly, Israel cannot afford to make the territorial concessions inherent in this approach without knowing that the Palestinians will be willing to make the necessary concessions on the refugees and Jerusalem.

A two-state solution is and must remain the sole basis for a resolution of the conflict. Even if substantive progress is not realistic in the foreseeable future, the leaders on both sides could take important steps to keep it alive and improve the prospects for the future.-Published 20/2/2012

Chuck Freilich was deputy national security advisor in Israel. He is currently a senior fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School.