Richard talking Israel and Palestine with Gregg Jarrett
You can’t blame the Palestinians for trying. Over the last few years, the Obama Administration has encouraged the Palestinians to make bold moves. While shifting U.S. policy away from Israel, President Obama clearly and definitively told the Palestinians to reject violence but plan for statehood. Within five months of taking office, Obama spoke in Cairo to a massive Muslim audience in what the White House billed as the President’s first major address on Israeli-Palestinian relations. Arab leaders were hopeful and sat waiting to see if the new President of the United States with a Muslim father would change the status quo. And Obama didn’t disappoint. In his speech, Obama made clear: “I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world.” The President went on to celebrate the Muslim faith like no other U.S. leader had. Arab leaders believed their time for equality had come – and Obama was on their side.
In that June 2009 speech, Obama apologized for American military might, Guantanamo Bay, the Iraq war, colonialism and even what he called our “self-interested empire”. The Arab audience had found an American who understood them. After rebuking anti-Semitism and the tragedies of the Holocaust, Obama made an unusual comparison: “On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland.” Obama had squarely placed Muslims and Christians on one side and against Israel. He went on to say, “The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.” It was the early sign Arab leaders were looking for from the new President. They saw the President’s comparison between the Holocaust and the plight of the Palestinians as an indication that statehood and international acceptance would come. Israeli leaders saw the comparison as a sign that the U.S. President could make radical changes to venerable American-Israeli policies.
After the Cairo speech, the Obama team tried to assure the Israeli government that the President would not take sides. But soon thereafter, Administration officials did. Despite long-standing U.S. policy to encourage the parties to confront their issues at the bargaining table and to adamantly reject any outside influence making unilateral decisions, Obama himself called for an end to settlements and to start negotiations using the pre-1967 borders. The Israelis outright rejection of Obama’s pronouncements were also seen by the Palestinians that Obama was going to keep the pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. Obama’s Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice consistently skipped Security Council meetings when Israel needed defending and even failed to show up for the emergency session on the Gaza Flotilla incident. The Israelis felt abandoned and the Palestinians were optimistic that the U.S. was not going to protect Israel at all costs.
But in perhaps the boldest U.S. move, Rice secretly negotiated with the Arabs on acceptable language for a possible UN resolution to condemn Israel’s settlement activity. Rice’s move sent a strong and new message that making policy, rather than just encouraging the two sides to negotiate directly, may not garner an automatic U.S. veto. The Arabs were focused and excited at their new found power. When the Israelis got wind of the scheme, they cried foul. Conservative lawmakers quickly joined forces with the Israeli government to force Obama to change his position. In February of 2011, the U.S. vetoed a UN resolution on Israeli settlements that Susan Rice had started negotiations on with the Arabs. The Palestinians were furious and rightly so. After all, they had just spent weeks with Rice going back and forth on acceptable language to make Israeli settlement activity a violation of international law. Rice’s rejection of the long-standing U.S. position of only encouraging direct negotiations led the Arabs to believe they were on a different path. Previous U.S. Administrations had bluntly threatened vetos on resolutions that made unilateral declarations but Obama’s team was clearly open to the idea.
Arab diplomats also point to Obama’s 2010 statement that he wanted to see Palestine a member of the UN by September 2011 as proof that he wants them to make bold moves. While Obama has sent the same lower level diplomats multiple times to the region to encourage direct negotiations, he hasn’t sent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It’s no wonder the two sides haven’t spoken formally since September 2010. Instead, the Obama strategy has been to push the Israelis to accept Palestinian demands even though their unity government includes Hamas, a group the U.S. government classifies as a terrorist organization.
The Arabs have been waiting for Obama to make his move for quite some time. Before the beginning of the Obama Administration in January 2009, candidate Obama spoke of the Palestinian and Israeli conflict in simple terms. His belief that he could bring the opposing sides together to find a solution was based on the premise that he is a likeable guy and if he could just get the two sides to sit down together their issues would be secondary. The Arabs saw Obama’s characterization of Iranian President Ahmadinejad and his willingness to directly negotiate with Hugo Chavez his first year in office as promising. While Obama’s bold moves once prompted Hillary Clinton to call him “irresponsible and frankly naïve” during her primary race against him, the Palestinians believed he would be willing to push back on Netanyahu too.
So it’s no wonder Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas exclaimed Friday, “We are going to the Security Council.” Despite some media reports that the U.S. has been working hard to convince the Palestinians to drop their bid for statehood at the UN, the Administration’s late discussions with lower level diplomats signals something different. U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice spent this past week in what seemed anything but frantic. She hosted a documentary film screening, tweeted about the International Day of Democracy and Friday spent the afternoon at a local New York City high school with Congressman Joe Crowley at what was billed as a “Back-to-School” event. She didn’t even mention Israel or Palestine.
The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is battling with former allies Egypt, Turkey and the U.S. and struggling to find support in Europe. As Israel grows increasingly isolated, the Palestinians are moving to take advantage of the international discontent over Israel’s settlement activity in the West Bank. Israel is losing friends.
Over the last several months, Israel has faced a barrage of diplomatic problems from some of its typical antagonists but has also faced growing criticism from some of its traditional allies. While Hamas and the Palestinian National Authority continue to work to isolate Israel, once reliable neighbors have given Netanyahu’s government new concerns. Under Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, Turkey has consistently criticized Israeli policies and fractured its relationship with its once stable ally. Erdogan, who has been moving his country away from the West and towards more traditional Islamic partners, has led an all-out diplomatic and legal assault against Israel over the last few months. Since arriving as Prime Minister in 2003, Erdogan started moving Ankara away from Jerusalem and towards a more traditional Islamic power base. Erdogan’s friendship has grown with Ahmedinejad, Assad and Qaddaffi while he has isolated himself from Netanyahu and President Obama. Erdogan vocally increased the pressure on Netanyahu’s government after Israel repeatedly refused to apologize for a 2010 Gaza flotilla incident where nine Turkish citizens were killed by Israeli military forces after the Turkish boat entered Israeli waters and failed to follow directives. Israel said it wouldn’t apologize because it was only protecting its citizens. Erdogan responded by directing all Israeli diplomats out of Ankara and promising to take the incident to the International Court of Justice at the Hague.
After 32 years of peace between Egypt and Israel following the signing of the Camp David Accords, Egypt, too, is moving away from Israel. The fall of President Hosni Mubarak in February of this year left a leadership vacuum in Cairo that has left the once stable country in turmoil. Egypt’s border with Israel has grown increasingly hostile and those seeking to become Egypt’s next President have used the chaos to stoke nationalism. Last month, Israeli forces accidentally killed six Egyptian soldiers while pursuing Palestinian terrorists who illegally crossed into Israel via the Sinai and killed eight Israelis. The calls for Egyptian retaliation against Israel increased. It prompted a 23 year old man named Ahmed Shahat to scale the building housing the Israeli Embassy in Cairo and remove the Israeli flag. For his stunt, Egyptian leaders rewarded him with a government job and a subsidized apartment. Their actions encouraged others to seek the same reward. Last week, hundreds of Egyptians stormed the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, tore down the protective barrier and illegally entered the building ransacking it.
The Obama Administration, too, has also had a bumpy road with Netanyahu’s government. President Obama’s June 2009 Cairo speech was not received well by Israeli diplomats who felt that it was a signal of changing U.S. policy. Since then, diplomats from both sides have worked hard to squash rumors of a developing feud. But earlier this year, President Obama called on Israel and Palestine to return to the bargaining table using the pre-1967 borders as a starting point with Prime Minister Netanyahu seated next to him in the Oval Office. Netanyahu bluntly disagreed with Obama in front of the assembled reporters and said it wasn’t something Israel would do.
The lingering hostilities of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the stumbling leadership from the Arab Spring protests have convinced Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan that he and Turkey have a greater role to play in the Arab world. Erdogan, an unabashed Islamic leader, sees the opening as a way to increase Turkey’s power. Erdogan also understands that one sure way to win public support in the Arab world, especially during this Arab Spring period, is to encourage a little anti-Israel activity. Nothing unites the Arab street like a fight with Israel. And right now, Erdogan could use the popularity to push his pro-Turkey agenda forward.
The Turkish government earlier rejected the UN’s report on the flotilla incident when it concluded that Israel’s actions were legal but excessive. While the report’s findings would have been the perfect reason to move on from the deadly incident, Erdogan chose to ignore the international body’s Palmer Report and instead rally more anti-Israeli protests. Erdogan’s insistence that Turkey wanted a formal apology was clearly an attempt to embarrass Israel. Erdogan has consistently looked for high-profile media events to make anti-Israeli statements. At the World Economic Forum’s 2009 Davos meeting, Erdogan stormed off the stage he shared with Israeli President Shimon Peres saying, ““When it comes to killing, you know well how to kill.” Participants were horrified but he received warm welcomes back home in Turkey. Erdogan’s actions are an attempt to rally the base of his Islamic party and that of Islamic parties throughout the Arab world. His actions aren’t helpful but it seems he doesn’t care. Recently, Erdogan went to far as to call the Israeli government’s attitude a barrier to peace in the Middle East.
Anti-Israeli statements and Egyptian nationalism are also the tools used by those individuals looking to be the next President of Egypt. President Mubarak, for all his failings, held enough political capital to keep peace with Israel by ignoring the radical elements that wanted to fight their historical enemy. The individuals looking to lead Egypt now do not have the same influence. Political candidates seeking favor with the public know that Israel is an easy rallying cry. Almost immediately after Mubarak was ousted, there were nationalist calls to reconsider the Camp David Accords. Unfortunately, no Egyptian leader was willing to calm the crowd and direct the anger towards the real enemy – an economy on the brink of collapse. The shallow excuses of unity against the Jewish enemy while fierce are sure to be short lived. Afterall, everyday Egyptians started their Arab Spring revolution to protest dwindling economic conditions and increasing unemployment. Egyptian leaders must realize that to truly calm their public they must create jobs.
President Obama’s relationship with Israeli leaders seems tense and awkward. The two sides seem to forgive and forget mistakes and usually remain supportive publicly. Obama’s early commitment in his Cairo speech to move the Israeli-Palestinian peace process forward raised expectations but some U.S. policy positions angered Israel and tested the relationship. The Oval Office incident where Prime Minister Netanyahu publicly disagreed with Obama was a low point, but the two leaders have worked to show no discernable differences seen then. The U.S. commitment to veto a Palestinian unilateral UN declaration of statehood has shown that the two sides are still great allies. Obama is under intense support within his own political party to show unity with Israel and Netanyahu, too, is pressured by Israelis to stay close to the U.S.
The government of Prime Minister Recep Erdogan of Turkey announced today that it would expel Israel’s Ambassador in Ankara and suspend all military agreements with Israel for the May 31, 2010, flotilla incident where eight Turkish nationals and one American-Turkish man died aboard the Mavi Marmara. The men died when Israeli commandos forcefully entered the ship after repeated and unanswered warnings to not enter Israeli waters without permission. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has has long demanded an Israeli apology over the incident. The Israeli Government has insisted that no apology would be made “for actions of self defense taken by soldiers.”
Foreign Minister Davutoglu told a news conference in Ankara, “Turkey-Israel diplomatic relations have been reduced to a second secretary level. All personnel above the second secretary level will be sent home by Wednesday at the latest.” Turkey’s announcement came one day after the United Nations issued its report, called The Palmer Report, on the incident calling the force by Turkey “excessive” but “legitimate”. Geoffrey Palmer, a former Prime Minister of New Zealand is the lead author of the investigation. Palmer has delayed the report three times after hearing criticisms from both sides.
Recep Erdogan has been Prime Minister of Turkey since 2003 when his party, the Justice and Development Party, won a landslide victory in the 2002 parliamentary elections. Erdogan has faced criticism from some secular Turks for what they consider to be his Islamist agenda. Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1949 and the Turkish military is considered to the protector of secular Turkey. Relations between Erdogan and military have been strained over the years as rumors of coup attempts have surfaced.
The Palmer report’s ruling that Israel was legally correct in its blockade of Gaza is a huge win for Israel. The UN has traditionally been hostile to Israel so the ruling is of particular importance given the source. Regardless of what the UN says, Israel is correct to use all means necessary to protect its border, especially given the consistent rocket attacks coming from Gaza. The Palmer report also puts pressure on the Palestinian President and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas and his partner Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, who’s Islamist political party controls Gaza. Fatah and Hamas must be able to work together and renounce all violence in order to get the international political respect they desire and need. As for Turkey’s Erdogan, his move to kick out Israel’s Ambassador and suspend all military activities with Israel will be used as further evidence that he is moving Turkey toward Islamic fundamentalism and away from the West. Erdogan’s move will also be a signal to the European Union that Turkey isn’t ready to be a full member and to NATO that its only Muslim member is at odds with its own military.
U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice announced to the UN’s Arab group that she will support their statement condemning Israel for its settlement construction after failing to convince the group to support her language. Rice previously offered the Arab group a plethora of U.S. government compromises in exchange for different language – language they rejected outright. The Arab group immediately responded to her acquiescence by announcing that they will turn the statement she is supporting into a legally binding and more serious UN resolution to be voted on soon. Rice’s failed UN engagement strategy highlights the dangerous slippery slope of bringing delicate foreign policy crises to the 15 member Security Council. Her actions also perilously miss the message of Egypt’s protesters who are demanding economic reform from their dormant and manipulative leaders.
The incentives Rice offered the Arab Ambassadors at the UN included a harsh condemnation of the Israeli settlements in a future statement from the mid-east Quartet negotiators (comprising of the U.S., UN, Russia and the EU) and an official UN organized tour of the Middle East. But as foreign policy experts hail the region’s recent democracy movement and its’ “Berlin Wall moment”, Rice is at the UN agreeing to condemn the Middle East’s strongest democratic government.
Over the last several days Rice has been negotiating with Lebanon, the UN Security Council’s Arab Group representative, to find settlement language acceptable to both sides. But after offering her compromises, Rice agreed to language saying the U.S. “does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity” and that the settlements are “a serious obstacle to the peace process.” The agreement sharply diverges from previous U.S. government statements insisting that the Israelis and the Palestinians negotiate directly to decide for themselves what issues are obstacles to peace. Shouldn’t we spend what little political capital we have left pressuring both sides to sit down face to face?
Congressman Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) called Rice’s compromise “too clever by half”. Weiner said, “Instead of doing the correct and principled thing and vetoing an inappropriate and wrong resolution, they now have opened the door to more and more anti-Israeli efforts coming to the floor of the U.N.”
Arab experts have long believed that Americans need to re-think their relationship with Israel in order to understand the Arab-Israeli conflict. But with the youth revolution moving quickly throughout the Middle East, it is the traditional Arabists who are scrambling to understand the largely peaceful and economically driven coups on non-democratic regimes. Arab leaders have consistently framed the Palestinian-Israeli issue as an Arab-Israeli issue. They have spent considerable capital trying to convince their publics and Americans that Israeli settlements and Palestinian border issues are the highest priority issues for Arab youth throughout the region.
But the recent tumult in Tunisia and Egypt have proven that Arab youth, like their counterparts in America and elsewhere, want economic freedom and good paying jobs first and foremost. Arabs want and deserve economic and political freedom. And the silent majority must have a stronger voice than the loud radicals trying to take advantage of the current chaos. Washington must stand solidly with the strongest democracy in the region, Israel, and make clear that economic freedom, individual human rights and security are our priority goals.
To understand why her UN engagement strategy was destined to fail, Susan Rice only needs to watch the news to grasp the universality of the impassioned people pleading for greater freedom in the streets of Tunisia, Egypt, Iran, Bahrain and even Palestine. Maybe then she wouldn’t fall for the canard we consistently hear at the UN that if we could only settle the Israeli problem then all would be right in the region. America should be standing with the Arab youth demanding an end to the status quo. Rice’s actions play into the hands of the self-interested leadership and their UN based support system hoping it all stays the same. If the Arab group brings forward their promised resolution, the U.S. will have to decide if it will veto the resolution or not. The predicament the U.S. finds itself in is much of Rice’s own making.