October 19, 2016 - The UN, the US and the Palestinian issue

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Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

This week, Alpher discusses what in particular in last week’s UN Security Council discussion of the settlements angered the prime minister; B'tselem's Hagai El-Ad's and APN’s Lara Friedman's testimony before the Council on the settlements issue; at the broadest strategic level, what the Security Council discussion contributes toward a two-state solution; and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's suggestion that a “Potemkin” Israeli-Palestinian peace process would be better than none at all.

Q. Last week’s UN Security Council discussion of the settlements has generated angry criticism from the Netanyahu government. What in particular angered the prime minister?

A. A host of issues. The October 16 Security Council meeting came hard on the heels of a one-sided UNESCO resolution that appeared to define Jerusalem’s religious significance in terms that ignored Jewish and even Christian links to the Temple Mount. Netanyahu is concerned in general with US-supported UN activism regarding Israel. He fears that after November 8 President Obama will appeal to the Security Council to pass a US-sponsored resolution on the two-state solution that creates internationally-sanctioned standards and undercuts Netanyahu’s preference that the world ignore the Palestinian issue. For him, last week’s discussion of settlements was an unwanted preview.

Then there was the appearance before the Council of an Israeli, B’tselem head Hagai El-Ad, who sharply criticized Israel’s handling of Palestinian human rights issues in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem and called upon the Council to take action against Israel. Netanyahu’s response singled out “the mendacious argument that ‘the occupation and the settlements’ are the reason for the conflict”.

Q. Hold on. APN’s Lara Friedman also testified before the Council on the settlements issue.

A. It was fascinating to compare the B’tselem and APN testimonies and the Israeli reaction. Friedman concentrated on what Peace Now does so well: chronicling the spread of settlements and the damage this does to the prospects for a viable two-state solution. Since even the settlers at times rely on Peace Now’s maps and data, it was hard for the Israeli right to criticize her. Here is Yedioth Aharonoth’s right-center columnist Ben Dror Yemini’s take on her appearance: “Peace Now’s” representative, Lara Friedman, presented data on settlement expansion, expressing concern regarding Israel’s future. . . Her appearance was reserved.” That’s all.

In contrast, El-Ad in his testimony and his justification of it to the Israeli media concentrated on the human rights angle. This particularly rankled some Israelis. After all, human rights are a huge issue in the Middle East--particularly in Syria and Yemen where violations exceed at least one-hundred fold those in the West Bank. So why discuss West Bank human rights issues in a UN discussion dedicated to settlements? Many Israelis would argue that even if Israel delivers to the Palestinians a West Bank free of settlements, human rights issues will not go away as long as Israel maintains security forces in the Jordan Valley and enforces non-militarization on the West Bank--two more or less agreed preconditions for an Israeli withdrawal.

This may explain some of the resentment in Israel. But in addition, El-Ad is an Israeli and Friedman is not. Not a few Israelis who speak out in Israel to oppose the settlements and criticize human rights abuses in the West Bank are uncomfortable when one of their number does it abroad, and at the United Nations--with its ugly built-in anti-Israel bias--to boot.

Here I would add on a personal note that I read B’tselem’s publications. Under El-Ad they have become, in my estimation, less objective: IDF sources are not always consulted for comment and response regarding allegations of human rights violations; the allegations themselves do not always appear balanced.

The State Department went out of its way to praise the Security Council testimony. Netanyahu, perhaps sensing that “worse” is yet to come from Washington, limited his threats of punitive reaction to a ridiculous “punishment”: denying B’tselem its lone slot for hosting a youth doing national service--a slot that in any case has for several years not been filled. Nor can Netanyahu so easily complain about the one-sided UN treatment of Israel when his ambassador in New York, Danny Danon, takes understandable pride in his own achievements there: Yom Kippur is now observed by the UN; and Danon himself was elected chair of the UN Permanent Sixth Committee--which appropriately deals with matters of international legal law: the first time an Israeli has been picked for such a senior position within the organization. Certainly Danon can’t complain when an Israeli activist addresses a UN audience.

Q. And at the broadest strategic level, what does the Security Council discussion contribute toward a two-state solution?

A. Friedman was right in arguing before the Council last week that Israel’s settlement policies “reflect a deliberate strategy designed to prevent the emergence of a viable, contiguous Palestinian state.” But of course that strategy--I would call it a grand strategy--is far more comprehensive than just the settlements. It’s time Israelis of all persuasions, along with the rest of the world, recognize that what has emerged in the course of nearly 50 years of occupation is a powerful movement spearheaded by a messianic half-million-strong settler movement and backed by several million additional Israelis whose elected representatives hold political power. That movement seeks, in a variety of ways and across a broad spectrum of ideological and religious modalities, to create “Greater Israel” by holding onto the West Bank and East Jerusalem and to render it more Jewish and less democratic. To that end it has increasingly infiltrated all relevant Israeli institutions, from the education establishment to the courts, the IDF and the Shin Bet. Its adherents sense that the rest of the Middle East, itself an increasingly chaotic, religious (Islamist) and undemocratic part of the world, will tolerate this grand strategy if only the Palestinians and the non-Arab world will just leave us alone.

The Netanyahu government’s argument that the settlements are not an obstacle to a two-state solution rings increasingly ridiculous with the ongoing spread of settlements. Still, there are plenty of additional obstacles, some Israeli but many of them mounted by the Palestinians: denial of Israel as a Jewish state, denial of the Israeli link to the Temple Mount, insistence on the right of return of all five million-plus 1948 refugees. They weren’t on the Security Council agenda last week at least in part because Israel fears that demanding they be discussed by the international forum will prompt a more comprehensive look at that grand strategy of more territory, more Jewish religious content and less democracy, particularly as it applies to the fifty percent of the population of emerging Greater Israel who are Arab.

Q. Last week, leaked US presidential campaign correspondence quoted democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton suggesting, immediately after Israel’s March 2015 elections, that a “Potemkin” Israeli-Palestinian peace process would be better than none at all. Do you agree?

A. No. The entire Israeli-Palestinian complex has careened so far beyond a peace process that a peace initiative emanating from parties who know it has no chance of success would do more damage than good. Indeed, I would go so far as to submit that any peace process initiative at all today--meaning even one whose sponsors somehow believe it can succeed--would be counterproductive.

Any initiative these days has the effect of raising false expectations among those interested in peace and sounding an alarm among parties (e.g., Hamas, the settlers) that oppose a two-state solution. When the initiative fails, both sides tend to react negatively, thereby worsening the situation.

Q. Examples?

A. Here are the two most recent examples.

First, Secretary of State John Kerry’s initiative of 2013-2014. It was sincere: Kerry somehow convinced himself that circumstances were ripe for another attempt. He ignored the fact that he was dealing with two recalcitrant and weak leaders, Netanyahu and Abbas. He ignored the lessons of Oslo’s failure and proceeded to try to duplicate the “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” formula embedded in Oslo. He picked one of the most unsolvable narrative issues--Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state--and placed it front and center in the process.

By the spring of 2014, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas was so weakened by his inability to deal with Kerry’s demands that he “fled” to a renewed unity government initiative with his arch-rival, Gaza-based Hamas. This facilitated a renewed subversive Hamas presence on the West Bank. Hamas proceeded to kidnap and murder three West Bank yeshiva students. This in turn precipitated a major security deterioration that, by July, generated a two-month Israel-Hamas war. The war solved nothing and subjected hundreds of thousands of Gazans to additional hardship. The entire experience further worsened Israel’s already bad international image.

A second and even more recent example was Prime Minister Netanyahu’s May 2016 initiative to recruit Egyptian support in initiating an expanded peace process based on the Israeli interpretation of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. In contrast to Kerry’s effort, this initiative was not sincere. It was part of Netanyahu’s tactical balancing act of persuading the Arab world, the US and the EU that he is interested in a peace process, putting his own internal far-right opposition on notice that if they don’t support his leadership he’ll opt for a more centrist coalition, while all the time strengthening that very coalition and doing nothing of substance to advance a peace process and everything (settlements) to render one impossible.

To accomplish this complex feat, Netanyahu needs to be able almost constantly to leak to the public that he is talking to Zionist Union/Labor party leader Yitzhak “Bougie” Herzog about bringing Labor into the coalition to advance peace. Herzog, who faces accusations from within his own party that he is a naive dupe in Netanyahu’s political maneuvers, insists Netanyahu must produce a genuine peace process as an incentive. In May this took the form of Netanyahu recruiting ever-willing emissaries Tony Blair and John Kerry to relay a request to Egypt’s President Sisi that the latter take the initiative in calling for a regional peace process. Sisi compliantly spoke publicly (and courageously for an Arab leader) about Israeli readiness for a new process. Netanyahu and Herzog jointly celebrated the new prospect for peace and let it be known that a new unity coalition was imminent.

And then? Then Netanyahu turned around, dumped Herzog and brought the right-wing Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beitenu party into the coalition, awarding Lieberman the defense portfolio in place of the more moderate Moshe Yaalon. Netanyahu and Lieberman proceeded to praise Sisi and hint at a “regional” peace process even as they were moving the now-expanded coalition further to the settler-messianic right.

Netanyahu is so clever at these maneuvers that I’m not sure the duped Sisi, Blair and Herzog understand to this day how they were used. After all, Herzog is still periodically meeting with Netanyahu to discuss a peace coalition. This time around, Netanyahu’s objective is presumably to head off an Obama two-state solution initiative at the UN by hinting that any day now he will set up his own peace coalition and obviate the need for outside involvement.

As for Hillary Clinton, assuming she is elected president, she would be well advised by this writer to beware of Potemkin-style or any other Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives undertaken under circumstances that just make matters worse.

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