Michael Jansen
The Jordan Times (Opinion)
July 30, 2009 - 12:00am

The array of envoys dispatched by the US this week to launch a regional peace process reveals that the Obama administration has not learnt the lesson of past failures. The envoys’ personalities and public stands sent contradictory messages to both Arabs and Israelis.

From the Arab point of view three of the envoys projected a positive image of the administration and its plans while the Arabs were discouraged and Israel was heartened by the presence of two particular envoys.

The first to arrive was Defence Secretary Robert Gates, a career intelligence officer who served in the CIA and the national security council. A hang-over from the supinely pro-Israel Bush administration, his task was to reassure Israel’s abrasive right-wing Likud-led leadership that the US commitment to its security is weapons-clad. This means the administration will continue to provide Israelis with the money and arms needed to fend off and defeat any attack by any combination of enemies.

By adopting this line, the administration is actually protecting Israel’s occupation of Palestinian East Jerusalem and the West Bank and the Syrian Golan. Protection encourages the Israelis to expand their colonisation drive, thereby making it impossible for a Palestinian state to emerge. If Israel were to feel a financial and materiel pinch, it might, just might, decide to curb its settlement activities and seriously adopt the “two state solution.”

The mission of President Barack Obama’s personal envoy George Mitchell partly overlapped with the visit of Gates. Mitchell is a half-Irish- half-Lebanese Democrat who served as Senate majority leader and helped broker peace between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. He chaired a commission which investigated the build-up to the second Intifada in September 2000. His recommendations to halt Israeli colonisation and end Palestinian attacks on Israelis were incorporated into the moribund “roadmap.” This was eventually supported by the Bush administration and adopted by the Palestinian Authority as a whole but cherry-picked by Israel which accepted provisions it liked and rejected those it did not.

Mitchell was preceded by adviser Frederick Hoff, an expert on Syria and Lebanon, whose presence demonstrates the administration’s determination to move ahead on a broad front. Hoff has drawn up a plan for a peace deal between Syria and Israel, proposing a process of normalisation between Syria and Israel followed by its withdrawal from the Golan to a line designated by himself. However, Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly declared that Israel will “never” withdraw from the Golan and, during the election campaign, planted a tree there to confirm his commitment to this policy.

James Jones, Obama’s national security adviser, is a former marine corps commander and State Department Middle East security adviser. During the latter posting he drafted a report highly critical of Israel’s settlement expansion, wall complex, barriers and blockades. The report was suppressed. He is seen as a hard-headed military man who straight-talks the president. The Israelis are not keen on Jones’ involvement in the peace process.

Unfortunately Obama did not stick to Mitchell as the sole mover on the peace front. After some hesitation Dennis Ross, a Democrat who served as a facilitator in Clinton administration, was appointed regional adviser. Colleagues on the Clinton team regard Ross as “Israel’s lawyer,” because he not only pressed for its demands in negotiations with the Palestinians but also put forward his own suggestions. They were, naturally, designed to benefit Israel. Respected analysts regard him as an “Israel Firster.” Last fall, while employed by the think tank he co-founded on behalf of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the official pro-Israel lobby, Ross published opinion articles in The Washington Times, a neoconservative vehicle, opposing the creation of a Palestinian state at this time. His views clearly contradict his present task of promoting the “two state solution.” He also favours military action against Iran if it continues with its nuclear programme which Israel sees as an existential threat. Therefore, there are two key issues on which Ross differs strongly with the administration he is supposed to be serving.

While Gates conveyed the wrong message to Israel, Ross is the wrong messenger. He made a major contribution to the failure of the so-called Clinton “peace process.” Mitchell, Hoff and Jones are the right men for the job but their efforts could very well be undermined or sabotaged, in particular, by Ross.

Prospects for an Arab-Israeli deal are poor unless the Obama administration gets tough with Israel, particularly on the issue of settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Although Netanyahu is apparently prepared to consider a temporary freeze on fresh construction, he insists that 2,500 housing units now being built should go ahead. If the US accepts this “compromise,” Israel will make provision for at least another 10,000 settlers to swell the Israeli West Bank population of 300,000. Another 180,000 live in East Jerusalem where Israel refuses any suspension of settlement construction although the Obama administration includes the eastern sector of the city in its freeze demand. The administration has, reportedly, written to a range of Arab leaders asking them to take certain steps towards “normalisation” with Israel in exchange for a settlement freeze. The Arabs should resist US pressure to give Israel a gift for stopping activities that are illegal under international law and which Israel is obliged to halt under the “roadmap.” “Normalisation” is the only card the Arabs possess, it should not be squandered on a settlement halt.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat made the point during a meeting with Mitchell on Monday that nothing is now being said about dismantling settlements, the West Bank wall, and settler-only roads. Israel has not even managed to remove 23 outposts - “illegal” under Israeli law - or to halt militant settlers from establishing new outposts. Unless this happens, there can be no Palestinian state, the goal of the peace process.

The Obama administration is also playing a dubious game over Gaza. While Washington calls upon Israel to allow the free flow of goods into the besieged and blockaded strip where 1.5 million Palestinians languish in poverty, no pressure is being exerted on Israel to meet this demand. The Western failure to act on this issue is shameful.

The US, European Union, and Israel are also continuing the ban on contacts with Hamas, which rules Gaza. There cannot be serious negotiations with the Palestinian Authority until it comes to terms with and reaches a power-sharing deal with Hamas. But the Western boycott encourages the Authority to resist reconciliation.

In order to encourage the Western powers to deal with Hamas, the movement has adopted a conciliatory and constructive approach to peacemaking. Hamas has repeatedly declared it is ready to accept a 22 per cent Palestinian state within the 1967 boundaries, indirectly recognising the existence of Israel in 78 per cent of Palestine. Hamas accepts a long-term ceasefire, meeting the US-EU-Israeli demand for a halt to armed resistance. Hamas agrees to respect agreements reached by Palestinians and Israelis and is prepared to accept any overall deal negotiated by the PLO/Palestinian Authority and Israel if submitted to a popular Palestinian referendum.

The Obama administration cannot be seen to be serious about peacemaking until it begins to speak of Israeli “withdrawal” from the occupied territories and of dialogue with Hamas. There should be no Arab “normalisation” of relations with Israel for a partial freeze on settlement activity while withdrawal is not on the table and Hamas is not included in negotiations.


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