September 29, 2014 - Has Abbas slammed the door? Has Netanyahu? What will happen now?

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This week, Alpher discusses whether Abbas has slammed the door on a peace process, what to make of Netanyahu's remarks in response to Abbas' speech at the UN, how much progress Abbas will register on his new initiatives, what could happen now in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere, why the issue of African migrants is so significant for Israelis.

 

Q. Mahmoud Abbas delivered an aggressive speech at the UN General Assembly last Friday. Has he slammed the door on a peace process?

A. At the rhetorical level, yes. He underlined his blatant rejection of further negotiations with accusations of Israeli "genocide", "war crimes" and "destroying the remaining hopes for peace" in the recent Gaza war. "There is neither credibility nor seriousness in negotiations in which Israel predetermines the results via its settlement activities," he told the General Assembly.

Abbas intends now to focus his efforts to create a Palestinian state on the United Nations and other international institutions. Apparently he will shortly (again, as in 2011) ask the Security Council for recognition of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, this time with a timetable for negotiations and Israeli withdrawal. Assuming he fails in that endeavor, he will appeal to the General Assembly and probably to institutions like the International Criminal Court in The Hague. He will, in the words of veteran Fateh leader Nabil Shaath, wage "political war" on Israel.

Abbas's decision to adopt such a militant pose follows success last week in talks in Cairo between Abbas's movement, Fateh, and Hamas, regarding a formula for introducing Palestinian Authority unity government rule to Gaza. Abbas can now at least claim to be representing all the Palestinian territories that are relevant to a peace process. His militancy may also reflect a perceived need to deal with Israel at a rhetorical level that competes with the harsh language of Hamas, which continues to exceed Fateh in reliable Palestinian opinion polls.

With such angry rhetoric, then, Abbas was clearly speaking primarily to his constituency back home rather than to the international community or to Israel. His problematic strategic goal is apparently to ratchet up the sanctions and international condemnation against Israel in the hope, at some future point, of painting Jerusalem into a corner where it will be forced to make the concessions he wants. His aides describe his objective as saving the two-state solution; they conveniently ignore the extreme nature of some of his negotiating demands such as the right of return and exclusive Palestinian sovereignty over the entire Temple Mount.

 

Q. PM Netanyahu followed Abbas to the General Assembly podium on Monday, having promised to respond to Abbas and to Iranian President Rowhani. What do you make of Netanyahu's remarks?

A. He did indeed respond, with both accurate characterizations of Israel, Hamas and Iran, as well as not a few loose generalizations. His defense of Israel's behavior during the recent Gaza war was, to my mind, just and justified. His characterization of the UN Human Rights Council and its obscene obsession with Israel was an important message to the international body.

Yet what characterized Netanyahu's speech in particular were two very different qualities. On the one hand, his use of colloquial American English and metaphors (e.g., Derek Jeter) familiar only to Americans left no doubt who his primary target audience was: not Israel, not the Palestinians, Arabs or Iran, but the United States and its Jewish community. On the other, his extensive portrayal of the massive threats Israel faces, lumping Hamas, Iran, ISIS, Nazis and the new anti-Semitism in the same virtual basket, left no doubt that Netanyahu continues to be motivated by a fundamental paranoia.

With regard to the Palestinian issue, Netanyahu suggested to "update the template of peace" by reiterating two by-now familiar positions that help explain Abbas's frustration. First, there is a historic opportunity for the "leading states in the Arab world" to make common cause with Israel. Such a "productive partnership" can and should precede Israeli-Palestinian peace rather than, as understood hitherto, the opposite. And second, while Israel is prepared to make a "historic compromise" with the Palestinians, its security considerations must not again, as in Gaza, be affected by military withdrawal.

In presenting these positions, Netanyahu ignored both the Arab demand for peace with the Palestinians first and the Palestinian demand for complete Israeli withdrawal. Accordingly we must conclude that, between the two of them, Abbas and Netanyahu have seriously derailed any near-term hope for a productive peace process.

In today's Middle East, there may be a certain logic to Netanyahu's paranoia and his ratcheted-up security and regional demands, for whatever that's worth. But note that Netanyahu, true to form, maintained a defensive, status quo mode at the UN and took no real diplomatic or strategic initiatives. He will return home in time for Yom Kippur, and at some point soon initiate new settlement construction that will undoubtedly constitute his real "appropriate Zionist response" to Abbas.

 

Q. How much progress do you anticipate Abbas will register on his new initiatives?

A. I doubt he will achieve anything spectacular. His non-conciliatory rhetoric was roundly condemned by Washington which, along with Great Britain and Australia, has indicated it will vote against Abbas's statehood proposal in the Security Council. If and when Abbas turns to the International Criminal Court, he is almost certain to encounter persuasive Israeli allegations, hinted at in Netanyahu's UN speech, that he and the Palestinian Authority bear criminal responsibility for Hamas's rocket and tunnel attacks on Israeli civilians: "the real war crimes".

Further, last week's Cairo pact to introduce PA police into Gaza, pay all civil service salaries in Gaza, etc., is apparently only an agreement in principle. The devil will be in the details: it is not at all certain to what extent Hamas is really prepared to forego its own authority in the Strip in favor of Abbas's forces and the reconciliation government. How, for example, will the "Follow-Up Committee" delegated to monitor this task implement a clause in the pact stating vaguely that "The two sides stress the need for the Government to accelerate the exercising of its security duties, in accordance with the laws and regulations mentioned in the National Accord of 2011"--the latter one of many previous reconciliation agreements never implemented.

 

Q. So what will happen now in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere?

A. A number of very diverse scenarios come to mind. They all reflect the current atmosphere of waiting: for Abbas to approach the international community; for the Palestinian unity government to actually try to implement its mandate inside the Strip; for Washington to decide if, under current circumstances and in view of its involvement in the war against the Islamic State, it wishes to reinvest in an Israeli-Palestinian peace process; for a disappointed trigger-happy Islamist in Gaza to fire a rocket at Ashkelon.

In the short term, Abbas will pursue the UN track. If he registers spectacular success in pressuring Israel, this might be the opportunity for Washington or other global actors to exploit the pressure and try to renew two-state solution negotiations. Such a scenario is doubtful.

More likely, Abbas will register enough success to declare victory but not enough to change reality. This poses three possibilities: a renewed negotiating initiative with little chance of success, renewed violence generated by Hamas in Gaza, or more "muddling through". Obviously, the status of PA reconciliation government authority along with reconstruction efforts in the Strip could be relevant here. Israeli humanitarian gestures in relaxing restrictions on Gazan imports could perhaps have a positive effect.

Here, too, we must factor in the highly volatile regional situation. The Middle East is currently preoccupied with the Islamic State, not the Palestinian issue. So is the United States. By late November we will know whether or not a nuclear breakthrough agreement with Iran has been reached--another overriding priority. Hence there may be some merit to the assertion that it matters little what Israel and the Palestinians do in the coming months and they'll be left on their own to muddle through.

Finally, following Netanyahu's condemnation of Abbas's newly hostile rhetoric, the government of Israel would be well advised to recall Abbas's merits: he continues to condemn violence unequivocally; he has not or at least not yet advocated a deadline for UN-imposed statehood; he remains committed to the two-state solution; and--despite all the gossip to the contrary--he remains very much in charge, at least in Ramallah. Increasingly, it appears that the alternative to Abbas--not to a two-state solution but to Abbas himself--is a disastrous one-state solution.

 

Q. Last week the Israel High Court of Justice ruled that the government may not incarcerate African illegal migrants in a specially-constructed Negev holding center. Illegal migrants are a problem everywhere. Why is this issue so significant for Israelis?

A. First, this decision is a striking victory for Israeli liberalism and pluralism and a setback for the right-wing forces of ultra-nationalism that increasingly dominate the ruling Likud and parties to its political right. Importantly, the High Court's decision was taken by a vote of 7 to 2, an impressive majority.

What the Netanyahu government has tried in recent years to do with the mainly Eritrean and Sudanese migrants and asylum seekers--incarceration, financial incentives and heavy pressure to leave the country, long delays in UN-mandated asylum hearings--is not all that different from what Australia, the United States and Spain do with their illegal immigrants. In the past two years, nearly 8,000 African illegals have indeed left the country while, thanks to the Negev-Sinai border fence, since January only 21 have entered.

But Israel also has a nasty and growing racist right wing that trumpets the danger posed by around 48,000 remaining Africans to the future of the country (now well over eight million strong) as a "Jewish state". All the while, that same right wing expands settlements in the West Bank in a manner that increasingly integrates some three million Palestinians into Israel's demographic balance and brings Israel ever closer to one-state status--and not a Jewish and democratic state, either. This makes the Israel High Court's decision all the more remarkable.

Inevitably, additional issues are at play. One is the concentration of so many African migrants in the already sagging neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv, whose veteran residents understandably resent the socio-economic burden placed on them. Another is Israel's continuing need, even at a time of economic slowdown, for manual laborers in the agricultural and construction fields: with a little ingenuity, the desperate Africans could be put to work far from Tel Aviv. Then there are the angry responses of right-wing members of Knesset, who vow to pass legislation that bypasses and in this case neutralizes the High Court: an ominous omen for Israeli democracy.

Finally, there is Israel's special circumstance: a nation founded by Jews seeking refuge from persecution and genocide whose elected leadership turns its back on a relative handful of Africans fleeing for their lives and livelihoods. The High Court remains a beacon of liberal and rational thinking in an increasingly bleak Israeli ideological landscape.

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