Friday, April 30, 2010
The latest moves out of the Middle East lead me to some interesting conclusions on future developments.
In the latest game change, the Palestinian Authority's capo del Ramallah Mahmoud Abbas did a complete about face after 15 months of stonewalling on restarting talks with Israeli PM Benyamin Netanyahu.
In an interview with Israel Channel 2 TV's Ehud Yaari, Abbas stressed his willingness to go back to talks with Netanyahu if the Arab League approves it in their May 1st summit.
"I want to work with Netanyahu," he said. "Try me."
"I say on behalf of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, that we are prepared for an agreement."
Even more interestingly,Abbas indicated that Netanyahu’s demands that any future Palestinian state to be demilitarized might be acceptable, provided a US or NATO could be deployed on the borders.
He also mentioned that he might be amenable, in principle, to territorial swaps that would enable Israel hold on to the major Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria ( AKA the West Bank, and the fact that the Palestinian demand for a “right of return.” might be withdrawn.
Why the sudden turn around after such a long display of stalling and intransigence?
A number of observers have come up with the obvious solution, that Netanyahu caved on a building freeze in East Jerusalem and that's why Abbas is suddenly so reasonable. The reality is a lot more complex than that, and it encompasses the needs and strategies of Netanyahu, Abbas and yes, Barack Hussein Obama.
We'll start with Obama.While the president's disdain for Israel and Bibi Netanyahu is palpable,he never expected to be hit with the firestorm he was hit with for his treatment of the Jewish State and its leadership. Obama found out to his shock that both Congress and the American public are very pro-Israel..by a better than two to one margin in the case of the latter. Even his efforts to promote an anti-Israel Jewish coalition in the form of J-street essentially failed. And when even a reliable Democrat soldiers like Senator Chuck Schumer went off the reservation publicly over the president's Israel policy,Obama belatedly realized that he needed to make a major change in his MidEast policy..which wasn't working anyway.
Next, let's look at Abbas. Why the sudden turnaround?
Mahmoud Abbas was apparently given every reason to believe - most likely by George Mitchell or perhaps Hillary Clinton - that all of the Palestinian's demands were going to be delivered to him on a silver platter by Obama. This made him even more intransigent and unwilling to negotiate in the least.
Unfortunately, Abbas has run into two problems, one external and one internal. The internal one comes from the younger Fatah commissars that are challenging Abbas' leadership and the cronyism of the older Fatah leadership Abbas represents. They point out that Abbas' actual term ran out over a year ago.
In reality, Abbas has very little real power on the ground in the Palestinian occupied areas of Judea and Samaria ( AKA the West Bank) and what power he does possess comes from his relationship with the West. In Gaza, of course, Abbas has no power whatsoever and Gaza's Hamas rulers challenge his authority to make any kind of deal with Israel - quite correctly, if one looks at the the results of the last Palestinian elections.
The external one is that Obama overestimated his leverage on Israel and underestimated the political fallout domestically in the US. With the midterms coming up and already looking grim for the Democrats, the last thing Barack Hussein Obama needs is yet another political cause to galvinize US voters to vote for the Republicans, who are seen as stronger on national security and on Israel.
Obama severely misjudged his handling of Netanyahu and Israel.
The Obama Administration's earlier unilateral trashing of the agreement under which Israel signed on to the Road Map, its de facto arms embargo on Israel, Obama's demands that Israel forbear seeking to protect it's religious shrines as part of its heritage, his demands on Jerusalem, his open courting of the Muslim world and his treatment of Israeli PM Netanyahu all combined to convince the majority of Israelis that the current regime in the White House is not to be trusted one iota. ironically, as Obama sought to weaken Netanyahu, he actually strengthened him as the majority of Israelis united behind Netanyahu's government.
The Israelis, to be blunt about it, have been here before, with Oslo and with Gaza and they are simply not inclined buy the same shoddy merchandise a third time, especially from Barack Hussein Obama.
In addition to all this, so far the Obama Administration has dropped the ball on the one major issue Netanyahu and most Israelis care most about - preventing a nuclear armed Iran.
In short, while the Israelis obviously care very much about keeping their strategic alliance with the US going, the leverage Obama now has to pressure them into unsafe or politically unpopular concessions 'for peace' are severely limited. They have no pressing need to move forward
Presented with this status quo by Obama, Abbas has belatedly realized that after the November US elections he is unlikely to get anything like the deal he might get now from Obama by appearing cooperative. It also reinforces Abbas' cachet as the West's preferred 'Palestinian' leader to the Young Guard at home that increasingly wants to take over from the old Fatah mafiosos Abbas represents.
And now we come to the third member of this troika, Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. By this time, Netanyahu can certainly be under no illusions about the basic hostility of the Obama Administration, but the realities of the situation demand skill and a certain amount of face saving from both Israel and Obama.
Picture them as two relatives who detest each other attending a family gathering who are compelled to make certain gestures to keep the peace and reach certain goals they both want.
Obama, having bumbled the Middle East peace process through his own ineptitude needs to convince the Arab world that he's capable of leaning on Israel, and at the same time he badly needed to turn the heat down on Israel for his own domestic political purposes. To do that, both practically and temperamentally (President Obama is not without a considerable ego), he needed some kind of face saving concession from the Israelis to take to Abbas to get him back to the proximity talks.
There are a great many reports out there that Netanyahu and his government made some kind of short term under the table concession on building in Jerusalem to Obama in order to allow the president to give Abbas the leverage to come back to the table. My sources tell me that it involved a moratorium of building permits for six weeks, although one source said 8 weeks and the notoriously unreliable Ha'aretz said their 'sources' told them 4 weeks. Abbas will now go to the upcoming Arab League summit, brag about how the Jews caved in to his demands and seek an Arab League endorsement of his re-entering the proximity talks.
The thaw in US-Israeli relations was immediately perceptible. When Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak went to the Pentagon last week, he was received with full military honors, a far cry from the way Netanyahu was treated.
Some observers see in this an attempt by Obama to sideline Netanyahu and bring in a Labor/Kadima coalition that would do Obama's bidding. While there's no doubt it might be Obama's intent, it once again shows that he has little or no understanding of Israeli politics.
Aside from the fact that Kadima leader Tzipi Livni and Labor's Ehud Barack have hated each other for years, Kadima and Labor simply do not have enough seats to pull a coalition government off - and in a country where President Obama's approval ratings are insingle digits, no Israeli politician is going to risk hitching himself to Obama.
What Netanyahu gets out of this I think, aside from a thawing of US-Israel relations is leverage in several matters.
While Bibi obviously does not want to appear as the unreasonable party ( and in fact, it has always been the Palestinians and not Netanyahu who have refused to begin negotiations) based on the past he he is largely skeptical of the 'Palestinians' ability to come to an agreement and keep it . And in any event, his main focus right now is not on Abbas but on Iran and its proxy allies Hezbollah and Hamas. That's where Israel's main security threats exist, and Netanyahu knows it.
As Israel gears up for strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities, Netanyahu essentially seems to be creating an implicit deal with Obama - the building halt in Judea and Samaria and continued progress in negotiations with the 'Palestinians' will continue as long as the US supports Israel's strike on Iran and not a minute longer.
Not only is this sort of bargain something Netanyahu can sell domestically to his current coalition partners, but it's one Obama would have major problems crossing him on.
Can you imagine the domestic American political feedback if Obama betrays the Israelis and leads the charge against Israel in the UN? Not only would Obama be derided for betraying an ally who took the initiative to stop Iran from going nuclear after he fumbled the ball, he would have the onus of being the one who destroying the peace process so beloved in DC as well.
All this is highly speculative, but given how little leverage Obama has on Israel and given Israel's need to deal with Iran decisively - after all, somebody has to - it seems a reasonable bet.
And in the end, all the players might just end up getting at least some of what they want.
We'll see more as the chess moves continue.