A Most Unlikely Source of Hope

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December 26, 2009

Sometimes, optimistic notes are sounded by the most unexpected voices.

One of the last places you’d expect to get a hope for peace from is the Middle East Forum, run by the right-wing huckster and demagogue Daniel Pipes. One of the last voices associated with that ignoble organization you’d expect to hear a hopeful note from is that of Steven Rosen. And yet, that’s just what’s happened.

Rosen is the former AIPAC policy director who was indicted for espionage. He later sued AIPAC for firing and abandoning him in the wake of the indictment. During his time at AIPAC, Rosen was well-known as representing the rightist side of AIPAC. He has always been skeptical of a two-state solution and has consistently backed military solutions over diplomatic ones.

In his latest article at Middle East Forum, Rosen reinforces his basic stance. But he also reports some very interesting developments in Israel. Rosen reminds us that he has excellent contacts in Jerusalem, which is undeniably true, and even more so with a Netanyahu-led government. As such, he bears listening to, albeit with a full understanding of the source.

According to Rosen, Netanyahu and Special Middle East Envoy George Mitchell have essentially come to an agreement on the framework for negotiations. My own discussions with State Department officials support this.

Rosen suggests that Bibi has agreed to a framework that includes negotiations on borders, Jerusalem and refugees, with the understanding that he is agreeing to talk, but is not agreeing to any concessions before the talks. This is very much in line with what the Obama Administration has wanted all along. According to Rosen, “…Netanyahu has accepted a solution based on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s formulation: ‘an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements.’”

If Bibi is agreeing to this formulation and, as Rosen says, to negotiations bound by all past agreements and the Roadmap, this is pretty much the best anyone can hope for. Rosen is, of course, framing all of this in a manner which paints Mahmoud Abbas as rejectionist; the theme here is that if Abbas doesn’t come to the table under these circumstances, it shows he does not want peace. One might even speculate that Bibi is hoping for just such an outcome.

Whether that cynical thought is true or not, this is a formulation which should be a comfortable one for Abbas. It is, without doubt, precisely the one the Obama administration is promoting, and if Bibi accepts it, Abbas certainly will be under pressure to accept these terms for negotiations. It will then be up to him to work with Mitchell to find a way to make it politically feasible for him to return to the table despite Israel’s rejection of a comprehensive settlement freeze.

That should be possible during the ten-month window of Israel’s partial freeze. Despite the fact that this freeze has limited impact on the ground, it offers one element of a package that could give Abbas the political space he needs. The framework, which follows all previous agreements and brings all the outstanding issues to the table, combined with some limit on settlement expansion for a while is a basis. George Mitchell may have to find a way for the US to sweeten the pot so Abbas can sell new talks, but there should be a way to do that.

Some recent events suggest that Mitchell and Netanyahu may have come to some satisfactory agreement about terms for renewed talks. The most obvious is Bibi’s sudden decision to try to broaden his government to include Kadima.

Netanyahu has asked opposition leader Tzipi Livni to bring Kadima into the government, and threatened that if she refused, he would try to split the party and get as many of its Knesset members as he can to bolt Kadima and join the coalition.

Some see this as an attempt by Bibi to simply wipe out the opposition. I find that hard to believe. If Bibi tries to split Kadima with no concrete motive, it will be seen as an act of self-serving corruption, as at least one commentator in Ha’aretz already views it. It may also be that Bibi feels that the settlers are going to up the ante in their opposition to the limited freeze and this may drive his hard right flank to bolt the government. But this also seems unlikely given the muted response of the right wing parties to the freeze.

But if Netanyahu is prepared to cooperate with the United States and begin serious negotiations according to the terms outlines above, then the departure of some rightist parties, possibly including one or both Yisrael Beiteinu (15 seats in the 120-seat Knesset) and Shas (11 seats), is much more likely.

Yet those departures would be meaningless if Kadima is in the government. Even if so many right wing parties bolt that the governing coalition with Kadima is smaller than the current coalition, the presence of Kadima and Labor in a government with Likud gives it such broad, mainstream representation that its mandate would be clear.

Bibi has implied in his public statements that he wants Kadima to enable him to pursue a two-state settlement with the Palestinians. Again, this could be political smoke, but all of this does seem to come together to support Rosen’s report.

On the Palestinian side, there is also some corroboration, from a less obvious source. The terrorist shooting on Thursday of a settler near Shavei Shomron on the West Bank was claimed by a small militant group. Another attempt at an attack, on the controversial Road 443 (which was once a joint road and now large parts of it are closed to Palestinians) was thwarted by the IDF the same day. This attack was apparently a coordinated and planned operation.

In recent months, the IDF has thwarted other attacks, but they have almost all been isolated acts by individuals. IDF spokespeople have confirmed that organized attacks have dwindled to nearly none in recent months. Two attacks by organized groups may (and I stress may) indicate some political motivation, which, in the past, has usually meant an attempt to obstruct negotiations that terrorist groups see as having potential for the kinds of compromises they oppose.

Even if all of this is true, it just means that negotiations might be re-started early in 2010. After years of pointless talks, that may not seem like much. But if Mitchell has been able to establish a framework for the talks and if the Obama Administration, now that the healthcare reform battle seems largely over, is ready to take an active role in the talks that come out of this, there is a real chance something could happen.

To be sure, the issues themselves remain thorny and none of this addresses the issue of Gaza and the split among the Palestinians. Still, given the events of the past year, if serious talks in a realistic framework begin, that is a major step forward and would go a long way to restoring both the credibility of Barack Obama on this issue and rekindling the hope he campaigned on.

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