Monthly Archives: July 2010

Campus Watch just can?t stop lying

The compulsive liars at Campus Watch just can’t stop the geyser of falsehoods that continuously erupts from their website. Last June I pointed out in an Ibishblog posting that “campus watch… had in its initial mission statement an overtly racist complaint about the number of Arab and Middle Eastern professors in Middle East studies departments,” which is absolutely true. Someone with excellent name of Cinnamon Stillwell responded on the Campus Watch website by denying flatly that there had ever been any such statements on their site, which of course was a lie. I demonstrated the depth and shamelessness of this lie in a subsequent posting on the Ibishblog. Using both my own archives and, more importantly, the excellent “Wayback Machine” at, I demonstrated that the following bigoted passage was indeed in the initial “about us” section of the Campus Watch website:
Middle East studies in the United States has become the preserve of Middle Eastern Arabs, who have brought their views with them. Membership in the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), the main scholarly association, is now 50 percent of Middle Eastern origin.

I also showed that the original site included the following stated intentions: “Identify key faculty who teach and write about contemporary affairs at university Middle East Studies departments in order to analyze and critique the work of these specialists for errors or biases,” and, “Keep the public apprised of course syllabi, memos, debates over appointments and funding, etc.” You’ll note the word appointments in that sentence, which strongly indicates an intention to be involved conversation about in hiring and promotion at American universities.

Because both of these passages were blatant and blunt about the mentality and the intentions behind Campus Watch, they were taken down fairly quickly after the site first went up. But they were there, and to deny that is to lie shamelessly and in a demonstrably false manner, as I easily demonstrated last year.

I am absolutely amazed that in a new posting on the Campus Watch website yesterday, Cinnamon reiterates her lie from last year in the following passage: After falsely accusing Campus Watch of intervening in tenure decisions (the "CW Positions on Speakers and Tenure" page at our website explicitly states otherwise) and making "overtly racist complaint[s]" in our "initial mission statement" about professors of Middle Eastern background, Hussein Ibish, writing at his blog, concludes that CW "should admit failure and be gone forever." In light of all these mistakes, Ibish might want to take his own advice.

These people are damned liars. Cinnamon Stillwell is a damned liar. In fact she is a compulsive liar. She can’t stop lying. And she can’t stop repeating the same stupid lie even when anybody can discover its blatant falsehood with three or four clicks of a mouse. Listen, Pipes, Cinnamon, and all of you mendacious bigots at Campus Watch: you’re busted! It’s too late. You can keep repeating that this isn’t true all you like. It’s on the Internet. You put it there. You put it there because you meant it. You meant it because you are racists. And now, not satisfied with that, you insist on proving yourselves compulsive liars as well. I can’t believe you are stupid enough to issue these shameless denials of the truth again when I’ve already demonstrated that they are there, online from your own website, preserved for all eternity by the “Wayback Machine.” Bigoted, untruthful AND stupid. What a combination!

The Palestinian conundrum on direct negotiations

The PLO is now facing one of the most difficult problems it’s had to deal with in quite a while, as it comes under very heavy pressure from the Obama administration and, as Pres. Abbas said at the African Union summit in Kampala two days ago, the ?entire world? as well, to return to direct negotiations with Israel. For most people, although on two different sides of the equation, this is a no-brainer. One position will argue that the bottom line of a full settlement freeze has never been adopted by Israel and that since this was the original precondition for negotiations established by both the Obama administration and the PLO last summer, and is Israel’s primary commitment under Phase 1 of the Roadmap which is still the operative model for achieving peace, until that is accomplished direct negotiations shouldn’t even be considered. The other position will recognize that Palestinians can only achieve their goals through direct negotiations with Israel, albeit with third-party (practically meaning American) mediation and engagement, and that therefore any prolonged avoidance of them is completely unacceptable. Neither of these knee-jerk positions recognizes the complexities of the diplomatic and political situation with which Abbas and his senior PLO colleagues are presently confronted.

I think it’s important to try to tease out these difficulties in some detail.

First of all, it’s absolutely true that the Palestinians are under extremely heavy pressure from the Americans, the Europeans and many others, including some of the Arabs, to reenter direct negotiations under the present terms and conditions on the table. If they don’t, they risk placing themselves back into the position of the party that says ?no,? into which PM Netanyahu rather deftly maneuvered them between the UN General Assembly meeting in October and the fiasco of the Biden visit and the confrontations between Israel and the United States over settlements in Jerusalem earlier this year. Anyone who gets positioned as the primary obstructionist in Middle East diplomacy is in a dreadfully unenviable position, especially when they have the limited degree of options, power and prerogatives available to the Palestinians. So saying no incurs an extremely heavy price diplomatically and internationally and it’s something any sensible Palestinian would be deeply loath to do.

One of the reasonable points the Obama administration has been making in no uncertain terms to the Palestinians is that it cannot help secure concessions from Israel outside the context of negotiations and that the proximity talks are not sufficient to do that. The fact is that outside of the context of direct negotiations, in which all parties will be forced to really put their cards on the table, Netanyahu can continue to obfuscate, postpone, dither and focus on procedural and minor matters. Avoiding direct negotiations allows the Israeli government a luxury they dearly cherish but should not be allowed: the ability to avoid being tested on their commitment to making serious compromises or taking any real political risks to advance peace. Moreover, it allows them to maintain the carefully constructed ambiguity that has at least minimally satisfied both the Obama administration and the Israeli far right over the term of the present Israeli cabinet. The only thing that can really shake them out of that ambiguity might be direct negotiations.

Worse still, since the Obama administration’s entire strategy since October has been based on the idea that direct negotiations will create their own momentum or at least produce sufficient clarity to inform the next step the United States will take to try to achieve its national security priority of a peace agreement that involves the establishment of a Palestinian state, being perceived as the primary obstacle to direct negotiations places the Palestinians in an increasingly direct confrontation with American desires which they have much less ability to finesse and manage than an Israeli government in a similar position can, as we have recently observed. The one thing the Palestinians absolutely cannot afford, under any circumstances, is to alienate the US administration because leveraging American power based on its own vital national security interest in ending the conflict is the only real means Palestinians have of strengthening their position vis-à-vis Israel and making real progress towards ending the occupation. Obviously, the Palestinian leadership has to do everything it can to avoid any such development, because it will leave them with almost no options and certainly no ability to advance their position.

However, the Palestinians have two very real problems to contend with on the question of direct negotiations.

The settlement freeze issue is largely resolved, in the sense that it’s no longer really on the table: the United States has put the matter to one side practically speaking, while maintaining its position that settlement should not expand and new settlement activity is illegitimate, so the Palestinians really cannot hang their hat on it being the essential precondition for direct negotiations, because it’s not going happen. On the other hand, it also seems clear that if the United States, especially if it feels things are going relatively well diplomatically with the Palestinians, is not going to stand idly by if there is a major expansion of settlement activity after the temporary, partial and largely fraudulent ?moratorium? expires in September. It would appear the Obama administration doesn’t care what Israel calls it, or even if they formally say anything at all, but that it doesn’t want to hear about major new projects anywhere in the occupied territories and certainly not in Arab neighborhoods of occupied East Jerusalem.

Of course the outcome of the November midterm elections will be extremely important in shaping the next phase of US policy, which is probably on hold until then. There are many different possible electoral results, and this seems a particularly tricky midterm to predict, and many different possible consequences on policy and conclusions the administration may reach after the election. I don’t think either Israel or the Palestinians should have any confidence that the elections or their consequences will necessarily strengthen their position. There are far too many imponderables for that. But I do think we can say that not only is making re-engagement in direct negotiations contingent on a complete settlement freeze an implausible diplomatic position in the long run, but also that the Palestinians have realized this.

However, what this points to is the profound political difficulty Abbas faces in any decision to return to direct negotiations in the absence not only of a settlement freeze but anything concrete to show from Israel for Palestinian diplomatic efforts in recent months. During his recent visit to Washington, Netanyahu spoke of “confidence building measures” on the ground to be implemented “within weeks.” If anything remotely of the kind has taken place since then, I’m completely unaware of it. What we have seen is a new round of home demolitions and a number of other significantly unhelpful gestures. As in the fall and early winter, the PLO simply doesn’t have anything it can point to politically to justify to the Palestinian people why it would feel that the proximity talks and diplomatic process in recent months produced any results or conditions that would justify upgrading to direct negotiations.

The Palestinian leadership strongly, and with a great deal of justification, fears the consequences of a failed, and especially a spectacularly failed, set of direct negotiations. People remember the dreadful consequences of failure at Camp David in 2000, and especially the public blaming of Pres. Arafat by Pres. Clinton (who had solemnly promised him that there would be no blame if the talks failed) and the hideous video imagery of Arafat being manhandled into the negotiating room by PM Barak, even if it was genuinely an effort at “you first” politeness on the Israeli part. It seemed to sum up so much of what Palestinians felt they were being put through, and contributed mightily to the outbreak of the catastrophic second intifada that in a few months more or less killed constructive Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy until today. They are also concerned by memories of the less dramatic but still damaging consequences of the failure of the Annapolis talks during the Bush administration, even though they didn’t go badly from a Palestinian perspective. It’s more the lack of any tangible deliverables or political successes, and a narrative on the Palestinian side, especially in terms of public opinion, that has seriously compromised the flexibility Palestinian leaders and diplomats have with their political constituency.

A huge number, probably a large majority, of Palestinians feel that at least since Oslo and probably since Madrid, meaning for the past 20 years or so, they’ve been sucked into negotiations that have been all process and no peace, and that the occupation has entrenched itself, expanded and deepened during this time rather than been negotiated to a conclusion. Of course there’s a whole other story to be told about what the past 20 years have done in terms of the eventual prospects of Palestinian liberation and peace in the Middle East, but from the point of view of realities on the ground, it’s not a pretty picture and the skeptics and critics have an exceptionally powerful case to make. So as long as the PLO can’t produce tangible deliverables, let alone real diplomatic and political successes that strongly point in the direction of liberation, the credibility of both negotiations and negotiators is quite tenuous. The large majority of Palestinians according to almost all polls support negotiations and a two state solution to the conflict, but that same majority (like their Israeli counterparts) doubts it will be achieved and doesn’t believe the other side is interested. On the Israeli side there is a lack of trust in negotiations, but on the Palestinian side there is also a lack of trust in their own negotiators, and Israel has very rarely over the past two decades taken actions to bolster their credibility or prevent its continuous erosion. So there is a real political problem for the Palestinian leadership to enter into direct negotiations under the present conditions in spite of all the pressure and the very real diplomatic costs involved, not least of which is that it lets Netanyahu and his colleagues completely off the hook. In a nutshell, it will be very difficult for the Palestinian leadership to justify politically, no matter how much sense it makes in terms of national strategy.

To make matters more complicated, there is a real diplomatic difficulty as well, putting the question of the, at present, implausible and apparently unavailable complete settlement freeze aside. The Palestinians have a very real concern and an important point when they say, as they continuously have, that clear and specific terms of reference are essential to make direct negotiations meaningful. Those of us who have not been privy to the details of the proximity talks cannot really be sure what kind of conversations about terms of reference, benchmarks and mechanisms to hold the parties accountable for fulfilling their agreements have been discussed between the three parties, but it’s clear the Palestinians are totally unsatisfied with what they’ve heard from the Americans directly and the Israelis indirectly. It’s also quite clear that the Israelis dislike the idea of specific terms of reference, reject the concept of benchmarks, and only support mechanisms that would hold Palestinians accountable for their commitments (they’ve been extremely hostile to any effort to extend the privilege to themselves, naturally). It’s not clear how much the Obama administration has been or will be willing to do to provide those essential components of a process that is actually going to work, and the Catch-22 may be that in order to get more out of the Americans in that context, the Palestinians would have to agree to enter direct negotiations first, which might serve to let the Israelis off the hook on these questions anyway. But then, of course, there is no way of forcing Netanyahu’s hand on the final status issues in any other context than direct negotiations.

There are a number of other less important considerations, but this is the essential framework of the extremely difficult situation the Palestinian leadership presently faces between the Scylla of saying no and the Charybdis of saying yes under the present circumstances. In the end, no party needs direct negotiations as badly as the Palestinians do, because they have the most to gain from success and the most to lose from failure. And they cannot, by any means, afford to alienate the most sympathetic American administration in recent decades, and probably in decades to come. But their fears of the consequences of a spectacular failure are rational, and their demands for ?clear and specific? (in Abbas’ own phrasing) terms of reference, benchmarks, and mechanisms for real accountability are not only legitimate, they are extremely important for eventual success.

The bottom line is this: the ideal scenario for Netanyahu is to continue to sit there and say that he wants immediate talks without any preconditions and that he is the one who is saying yes, while the Palestinians continue to say no, even if it is for understandable and justifiable reasons. Therefore, it is essential that the Palestinians find a way to say yes as soon as possible, and that the Obama administration and all parties that are serious about resolving the conflict find a means to help them do that. They need something to show for their efforts thus far, and it doesn’t have to be that dramatic. Everyone interested in peace needs the Palestinians to say yes, and the PLO leadership clearly wants to, but they do have to be given a reason that can justify that decision to their own people.

Taffety Punk’s brilliant Two Noble Kinsmen rocks the Folger Theatre

The Taffety Punk Theater Company, which recently produced Richard Byrne’s superb new play Burn Your Bookes, tonight staged one of their annual ?bootleg? performances at the Folger Theatre in Washington DC, in this case Shakespeare and Fletcher’s The Two Noble Kinsmen. The performance was extraordinary, and in some ways revelatory, and was even more impressive than last year’s ?bootleg? Troilus and Cressida. The Two Noble Kinsmen is seldom read and even more rarely performed, and is the only play considered an authentic work of Shakespeare not to have been in any way produced for film, television, video or DVD. There are several reasons for this, not least of which that the play appears to be much more Fletcher than Shakespeare, who apparently was more or less retired by the time of the collaboration on this very late work. The play is basically bookended by Shakespeare’s writing, but the bulk of it seems to belong to Fletcher. No doubt Act 1, scenes 1 and 2 (and probably 3) are indeed the work of Shakespeare, as are scenes 3 and 4 in Act V, plus some other elements scattered around the play. But it wasn’t included in the first Folio, probably because Hemmings and Condell didn’t want to include plays which Shakespeare was involved in drafting but in which someone else had the larger part (they didn’t include Pericles either, probably for similar reasons). And, of course, this means that The Two Noble Kinsmen doesn’t compare very well in the final analysis with most of Shakespeare’s other work.

But, and here’s the really interesting element of this evenings’ performance, it’s this very quality that made it perfect play for a bootleg production. I should, no doubt, have already explained what Taffety Punk means by ?bootleg.? Essentially the actors are recruited and cast quickly and individually about a month before the performance and spend their own time studying their parts from paper whenever they want to. The cast and company meet for the first time the morning of the performance and do one rehearsal only, maybe throw some costumes and props together, and perform the entire thing in the evening, again only once. It produces very interesting effects, as were seen last year in their fascinating bootleg Troilus and Cressida. However, even in that creditable effort the real limitations of the ?bootleg? production process were pretty evident. It was great fun, and revealed some interesting things about the play, but in the end Troilus and Cressida is a very complicated Shakespeare play, one of his darkest, essentially an extremely grim parody of some of his earlier tragedies, especially Romeo and Juliet. The Two Noble Kinsmen is a much more straightforward proposition than most of Shakespeare’s other work and it sparkled this evening. I’m not sure a month of rehearsals would have wrung out very much more entertainment, excitement or, more importantly, signification than Taffety Punk was able to achieve with one morning’s rehearsal.

It’s true the actors had to resort to prompting much more frequently than in a regularly rehearsed performance, but it did almost nothing to break the spell. It’s true enough that the lighting and the sound were largely improvised, but again the effect would probably not have been particularly more powerful if they had been more polished. The extremely rudimentary costumes, such as they were, and props (ditto) certainly demanded a more than usual suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience, but in that sense it was probably a lot closer to the experience of Shakespeare’s audiences, especially his early audiences at The Theater, The Rose and The Globe (probably less so at Blackfriars). And while the Folger Theatre is probably a lot more like Blackfriars than the earlier, larger and more downscale South Bank open-air theaters, it was still a very good fit for the spartan production values of the bootleg performance (think, for example, of Shakespeare’s appeal to his audience’s imagination in the Chorus opening to Henry V — we’re going to have to suspend our disbelief anyway and a willing audience engaged by a spirited cast will disregard a great deal, especially when the language of the play can carry the day more effectively than props, costumes and special effects). Certainly it all goes to show that spirit, enthusiasm and a sense of playful adventure is a lot more important than the fancy nonsense that has tended to mar many of the recent productions by the smug and pompous Shakespeare Theater Company of DC.

What I think this evening’s triumph at the Folger shows more than anything is not just that the bootleg production process can reveal interesting things about Shakespeare’s plays, but that non-Shakespeare English Renaissance drama is even better suited to this method and is an exceptionally good fit for it. I think in fairness to do real justice to most of Shakespeare’s work requires more than a bootleg performance can possibly produce, especially in terms of getting the language right, effectively navigating its meaning in delivery and coping with both the rigors and the ever-instructive guidelines of the pentameter itself (very rarely done with precision even at the highest theatrical levels). Throughout his career, but especially in his later plays, Shakespeare wrote in a highly idiosyncratic and extremely complicated, elliptical, dense and often convoluted manner that produces dizzying proliferations of signification, and plainly even the finest actors can be challenged by a good deal of it. It’s sometimes almost impossible to parse what clauses and qualifiers in a given passage specifically refer to each other, it being possible to apply multiple readings. That’s great for reader, but poses serious challenges to actors and directors, presenting a series of detailed choices are both complicated and important. Moreover, Shakespeare wasn’t the only English Renaissance playwright to work at the level of masterpiece by any means. Most of Marlowe, a lot of Jonson and at least some of Middleton would require similar scrupulous attention to detail to be fully realized on stage.

But even the second-tier of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama was composed during what was clearly by far the greatest explosion of literary invention and talent in the history of the English language, and calls for and rewards serious attention. What the bootleg performance of The Two Noble Kinsmen, which as I say is much more the work of Fletcher than Shakespeare, suggests is that there is a good deal of excellent, if not transcendent, Renaissance drama that is too frequently passed over for performance and could be perfectly suited to this kind of production (it really shouldn’t be necessary to have the name Shakespeare attached to a play in order to get people to come see it). Certainly plays by Kyd, Chapman, Dekker, Ford, Marston, Massinger, Beaumont and/or Fletcher (without Shakespeare), some of Middleton’s less challenging work, and much more would probably respond very well to this kind of treatment. Early interesting and significant, but not artistically sophisticated, plays like Gorboduc and Ralph Roister Doister probably don’t deserve anything much more extensive than a bootleg under any circumstances, but it would certainly be a fun and rewarding project. I think it would be fascinating for both actors and audiences to engage bootleg productions of neglected but artistically significant plays like The Spanish Tragedy, The Revenger’s Tragedy, Philaster, or my number one suggestion for this performance method, The Knight of the Burning Pestle, especially since there aren’t likely to be any full-scale productions of any of them anytime in the foreseeable future.

Taffety Punk took some serious liberties with the production and even some aspects of the language of The Two Noble Kinsmen, especially the introduction of large amounts of playful contemporary popular culture, and of course they were right to do so. The whole thing about the bootleg production process is it has to be loose, lighthearted and fun. It can work for dark plays and tragedies, but it’s especially effective, think, with comedies and tragicomedies that are essentially sendups of established genres. Amid a truly excellent cast that deserved the sustained standing ovation they received, Kimberly Gilbert stole the show as the Jailer’s Daughter. The role, which often comes across as a parody of Ophelia and other tragic heroines of earlier Renaissance dramas, is perfectly suited to her exuberant style and really calls for the kind of over-the-top, leaping-about-the-stage, wild approach she gave it. She was very good as Edward Kelley’s daughter Westonia, herself a noted Renaissance poet, in Byrne’s Burn Your Bookes, but was even better tonight. Indeed, the entire cast and the whole production made no effort to be restrained or judicious. This was an enthusiastic, exuberant and fearless embrace of a very good and too often ignored play, and it suggested real possibilities for marrying the bootleg production process with some important, excellent and even more often ignored Elizabethan and Jacobean English drama. I hope Marcus Kyd and his Taffety Punk colleagues seriously consider one of the many important and generally ignored Renaissance but non-Shakespeare works for next year’s bootleg production. Tonight’s largely Fletcher play, with some Shakespeare present but not dominant, was a great example of how well that could work.

What to make of Israel’s admission that the West Bank lies outside of its borders?

An Ibishblog reader asks: "The Jerusalem Post reported: ‘Israel argued this week that a major human rights treaty, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, did not apply to its treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, because those areas were outside the country’s national boundaries.’ This is the first time I’ve heard Israel define the Occupied Territories as "outside" its national boundaries. Is this indeed the first time Israel has so clearly made this statement that defined the West Bank and Gaza outside its boundaries? Obviously the UN HRC has thrown this argument out, but putting human rights aside for a moment, how can Israel so clearly admit the Territories are outside its national boundaries yet still have an argument that justifies the legality of the settlements? I must be incorrect in my assessment of the weight of this statement as I seem to be the only one noticing it."

Well, the reader is certainly not the only one who noticed this. This is an unusual, although hardly unprecedented, admission from the Israelis, and it comes in a very interesting context. Israel’s position regarding the applicability of the fourth Geneva Convention (under which the settlements are clearly illegal) to the occupied territories has traditionally been that the territories are not occupied but “disputed,” because there was no valid sovereign before the 1967 war and other specious arguments, and that therefore the territories are not occupied in spite of a veritable mountain of UN Security Council resolutions beginning with 242 in 1967 holding that they are. If the territories are not occupied, then the Geneva Convention does not apply, Israel argues. However, it’s going to be very difficult to square that in the long run with an apparently contradictory argument about the inapplicability of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights based on the West Bank lying outside the borders of Israel.

Logic would dictate that even the Israelis would have to pick one perspective: either these areas are inside Israel’s boundaries and therefore the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights applies (no doubt it applies anyway, I’m just proceeding on the “logic” they submitted to the UN) or they are not inside Israel’s boundaries and therefore the Geneva Convention applies. Indeed, the UN Security Council has ruled many times that the Geneva Convention does of course apply to the occupied territories, as, no doubt, does the Covenant. To argue that neither applies is typical of the Israeli approach to the occupied territories, placing it in a sui generis category completely outside the bounds of established international legality and normal dictates of political logic. As I’ve written elsewhere, what the Israelis essentially have established is a virtual Israel that exists wherever a settler happens to be and an unresolved, ambiguous occupation everywhere else in the occupied territories.

The bottom line is that there is an international arbiter of such questions that transforms them from matters of opinion into those of legal and political facts: the UN Security Council, which has made its view that these territories are under foreign military occupation very clear on countless occasions since 1967. If there is a dispute, it is a dispute between Israel and everybody else, beginning with the Security Council, not between Israel and the Palestinians or the Arabs. It’s a bit like an argument in which one person says the sky looks green and everybody else says the sky looks blue: that does not constitute a legitimate dispute, it constitutes one party trying to have things its own way in a manner nobody else accepts. This is particularly true when there is an established arbiter for such matters, as there is in this case, and the arbiter has made its position crystal clear. Now the Israelis have formally agreed that West Bank lies outside of its international boundaries, it should plainly be held to that. This argument should be remembered and repeated into the foreseeable future, in case they forget they made it.

Moreover, the Israeli position regarding its boundaries requires some serious interrogation, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that Israel may be the only member state of the United Nations without clear and declared boundaries (all the other candidates for such a category are much less dramatic examples, if they qualify at all). For example, Israel would certainly claim, on the basis of its virtual annexation of occupied East Jerusalem (what they actually did was extend Israeli civil law to all of what Israel defines as “municipal Jerusalem” but not a formal annexation as such), which was flatly and indeed angrily rejected by the UN Security Council in several resolutions at the time, that Jerusalem is within Israel’s international boundaries.

Indeed, Security Council Resolution 476 (June 30, 1980) reaffirmed, “the overriding necessity to end the prolonged occupation of Arab territories occupied by Israel since 1967, including Jerusalem.” So the Security Council felt that the occupation was prolonged a full 30 years ago, “only” 13 years after it began, and was thoughtful enough to reiterate that Israel must end its occupation of Jerusalem. This was needed because ever since the adoption of 242, Israelis have been arguing that the absence of the definite article “the” in the cause “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict” somehow meant that Israel could keep hold of some of the occupied territories outside the context of an agreement that it can do so. This is always a very dubious argument because the Security Council opened 242 by “Emphasizing the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.” The idea that the missing definite article (not missing in the French text of the resolution, mind you) invalidates the principle of the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war is admirable from the perspective of lawyering, but logical and legal nonsense. Either it is, as a rule, inadmissible or it may, in some cases, be admissible. But of course missing definite articles do not turn what is flatly stated to be an inadmissible process into an admissible one. Of course the territory most specifically in question in terms of Israel’s insistence that it unilaterally retain portions of what it conquered in 1967 is occupied East Jerusalem, which is what gives Resolution 476 its special significance: it makes very clear that the Security Council regards Jerusalem as part of the territories that are occupied and from which Israel must withdraw.

To return to the admission/claim made before the United Nations last week, as I say it’s certainly not unique but it is very rare. Perhaps an even more interesting version of this same highly unusual acknowledgment of reality came a few weeks ago when the Israeli military, which effectively and under Israeli regulations controls the occupied territories, ruled that army decisions regarding settlers and settlements need to be tested primarily against international law and not Israel’s basic law. This extremely unusual ruling is a deviation from the general Israeli practice that extends the protections of Israeli citizenship and basic law to the settlers. It was designed to give the military more leeway in dealing with settlers, especially the extremists in question who were being banned from most of the West Bank. The question, as I understand it, is still being adjudicated in the Israeli appellate system, as the settlers claim that the IDF must be subject to Israeli law when dealing with Israelis in the occupied territories (but not Palestinians). But the fact that the military would point international law rather than Israeli law as the guiding principle in dealing with settlers and settlements, even when it’s manifestly in an effort to bolster its own leverage with other Israelis, is another very significant gesture in a similar direction.

In the final analysis, whatever the Israeli position might be it has no choice but to negotiate the boundaries of a Palestinian state or continue the occupation indefinitely with a kind of grim consequences I keep writing about. There are presently three main recognized dangers to Israel in official and quasi-official Israeli discourse: Iran and its nuclear program, delegitimization, and the lack of peace with the Palestinians. It depends a great deal who you’re listening to which of the three of these problems is considered the most grave. PM Netanyahu and many other officials are obsessed with the question of Iran, regarding everything else as comparatively irrelevant. Many Israeli diplomats, analysts and others are even more concerned about what they call "delegitimization," by which they tend to mean an illogical potpourri of genuine efforts to deny and challenge the legitimacy of the Israeli state with an effort to replacing it with some other kind of state, legal challenges to Israel and Israeli officials that may or may not have factual and political merit depending on the case, and completely legitimate Palestinian critiques of and actions against abusive occupation policies and other, not only legitimate but necessary, critiques of Israeli excesses. Others, including DM Ehud Barak, are blunt in their view that neither of these two problems is as serious as the problems posed by the ongoing occupation and the lack of a peace agreement with the Palestinians, which they say has to be the utmost strategic priority for any Israeli government.

Obviously I think the third opinion plainly is most convincing even from a strictly Israeli perspective, if nothing else because the occupation provides Iran with its excuse to be critical of and confrontational with Israel and to support clients that are directly antagonistic to it, and because it is mainly the occupation that fuels almost everything regarded as “delegitimization.” Ironically, those most concerned with delegitimization tend to also be those supporting the very policies that lead to that very phenomenon, whether in any given case it deserves the term “delegitimization” or not. In other words, the occupation remains at the heart of all of the most severe strategic challenges Israel faces, and this is only likely to intensify insofar as it refuses to seriously discuss ending it on reasonable terms. Continuously reminding Israel of its now formally stated position that the West Bank lies outside of its borders will be doing it quite a significant favor.

Ibish, why do you keep talking about what the Israelis will accept?

It is frequently asked, although rarely directly to my face, ?why does Ibish always talk/only seem to care (some version of that) about what Jewish Israelis will accept rather than what Palestinians want?? This question was recently repeated in a tweet, although not, as usual, directly addressed to me. Nonetheless, I do want to answer it because this confusion lies at the heart of a gulf of misunderstanding between the analyses I have been developing in recent years and much conventional wisdom among Arab-Americans and other pro-Palestinian groups. I think it defines a sustained surprise, and even bewilderment, that someone with such a strong, unequivocal and extremely public record of pro-Palestinian advocacy would raise the questions and points that I have been making in recent years. I think it also is a question that gets to the heart of the growing distance between idealistic activists who think largely in abstract, and often even theoretical, terms and those of us who are trying to find a solution to the occupation as a practical and more importantly political problem in the real world based on the actual array of forces that can produce outcomes. It is the gap between the politics, or perhaps I should say faux-politics, of emotion and longing versus the real politics of, to employ a shopworn but nonetheless indispensable cliché, the art of the possible.

First of all, the whole accusation is a misrepresentation of the thrust of my work over the past few years. I mainly, in fact, talk about what the Palestinians want and need, and especially about their national and diplomatic strategies, when I write about the conflict. My whole book about the one-state agenda was mainly about what Palestinians minimally need to accomplish for their national goals to be realized, and why. Just like the rest of the overwhelming majority of my work, it was not primarily about what the Israelis want or need, although it did frequently touch upon the subject, and with good reason. Because it seems to confuse so many people, I want to try to explain why I do this.

Let’s begin with some very simple axioms: 1) there is no military victory available to either Israel or the Palestinians to resolve this conflict; 2) if the conflict is to be resolved, it must therefore be resolved by an agreement; 3) this is therefore the only way to end the occupation and achieve Palestinian national independence; 4) the only alternative to an agreement that ends the occupation and the conflict is continued occupation and conflict. A fifth probability, that does not rise to the level of an axiom but that comes extremely, disturbingly, close, is that this continued conflict will almost certainly become increasingly religious, bitter, violent and intractable, and is likely to morph from an ethnic struggle over land and power to a religious holy war over God’s will and sacred spaces. I take these four points as axiomatic and virtually self-evident as I see no arguments capable of contradicting any of them. If anybody has any such ideas that are not fanciful and actually take into consideration the array of forces (social, economic, political and military) that produce real political outcomes in the real world, please forward them to the Ibishblog immediately as they will be an original contribution and possibly a breakthrough in thinking on the conflict. I’m not holding my breath.

One usually gets, in response to some version of these four axioms, fanciful alternative scenarios that I have often described as ?science fiction? because they do not take into consideration the forces that produce outcomes I keep referring to. The consolidation of a greater Israel, the victory of an Islamic state from the river to the sea, the democratic, South Africa style one-state solution, the so-called Jordanian option, various notions of Israeli-Palestinian Confederation and regional EU-like ?unions of the children of Abraham? or some such folderol, are all examples of fanciful scenarios that fail at the most fundamental level because in each and every case at least one of the parties that would have to accept such an outcome cannot plausibly be imagined as accepting it. As long as one party central to an outcome will neither accept such an outcome nor can be plausibly militarily forced to accept it, we can say with a great deal of confidence that such an outcome is extremely unlikely to the point not being worth serious consideration.

The latest example of this is the right wing and settler version of the ?one-state solution? being proposed by some extremist Israelis in which Israel would annex all of the West Bank, including Jerusalem, but not Gaza, adding about 1.5 million new Palestinian citizens to Israel, but keeping their political rights in various forms of check to ensure the state remains ?Jewish? and Israel rather than anything else. This is the subject of a feature article in this weekend’s version of Ha’aretz. The idea that this would end the Palestinian national struggle and the conflict because West Bank Palestinians would be delighted for the occupation to become permanent and to receive third or fourth class Israeli ?citizenship? over time, of course while being colonized and repressed more ardently than ever, and that the rest of the Palestinians don’t count and the national movement would simply collapse is a wonderful example of political ?science fiction.? From a serious point of view, we needn’t bother with it, but one is unfortunately obliged to take the time to debunk the idea lest sensible people be seduced by it any way.

In considering the range of possible outcomes and strategies for ending the occupation and the conflict, as I’m trying to explain, one must take the minimal interests and bottom line perspectives of all the central parties, especially Palestinians and Jewish Israelis, into profound consideration. It is a ubiquitous and uniting feature of all fanciful outcomes that they strikingly, blindingly, fail to do so, instead privileging one set of national imperatives over all the others, at the expense of remaining within the realm of the possible. Serious observers, and especially those who seriously want to contribute real ideas that can really make things better and, hopefully, lead ultimately to real solutions, have no practical or rational alternative but to take the perspectives of all the parties involved very seriously on their own terms and not imagine that they can be wished away or magically overcome by some secret formula for sudden success.

This means that the central failure and the central delusion of the right wing Israelis promoting the preposterous version of the “one-state solution” I outlined above is that their so-called “plan” is highly sensitive to Israeli concerns and interests about control of historically and religiously emotive land in the West Bank but fails utterly to take into consideration the minimal requirements of the Palestinian national movement. It somehow assumes that West Bank Palestinians will be mollified enough by some limited and highly attenuated Israeli ?citizenship? that they will therefore become Israeli in much the same way that the Palestinian citizens of Israel have become since 1948. One can only nurse such an assumption if it remains implicit and unstated since to ask the question of whether that would happen or not is to answer it, quite firmly, in the negative. I think there’s almost no doubt whatsoever that under such circumstances many, if not most, Palestinians in the West Bank would refuse Israeli citizenship in the way that most Jerusalem residents have, and refuse to accept the permanent consolidation of the occupation and canceling of their entire national project. It would be seen as, and in practice probably look a lot like, the ?East Jerusalem-ization” of the entire West Bank – hardly an acceptable prospect from a Palestinian point of view. This is not to mention the reaction of the Palestinians in Gaza, the Palestinian citizens of Israel, the refugees, the Arab world, particularly states ? Egypt and Jordan ? with diplomatic relations and peace treaties with Israel (which such a move would violate), or the international community which has a strong consensus in favor of ending the occupation and a large body of international law holding that Israel must withdraw from the occupied territories in exchange for peace, not unilaterally annex territory seized during warfare.

I think this most recent example illustrates pretty well what happens when one party proceeds based entirely on its own needs and assumptions, disregarding everybody else including the other main protagonist, regional actors and the international community, all of which will play a major factor in determining the plausibility of any outcome. Even when that party believes itself to be making every effort to be fair and reasonable and just, based on the principle of extending democratic enfranchisement within a given territory to ?the enemy population? or at least “the other side,” such failures produce proposals that look eminently reasonable from one blinkered, tunnel-vision and purely theoretical outlook but which seem absurd, not only to the other side, but to all informed observers who take the needs of all parties seriously in the consideration of the plausibility of outcomes. This, in fine, is why when various scenarios for ending the conflict are brought forward, especially the increasingly popular one-state agenda, one of the factors I look at carefully every time is the likely response of the overwhelming majority of Jewish Israelis. We’ve just seen a good example of what happens when Jewish Israelis try to think outside the box without considering the response of the overwhelming majority of Palestinians. I think it’s extremely important, if one is going to think seriously about the problem, rather than use politics as psychotherapy, to avoid such an obvious and dangerous pitfall.

I think about what Jewish Israelis will accept or not accept because if I don’t then I’m not thinking politically at all. I’m indulging in the ?science fiction? version of politics that is deliberately pleasing and fanciful but disconnected from fundamental realities that must always be taken into consideration. Jewish Israelis, and indeed the State of Israel, exist. They have power, considerable military means, economic success of a kind, technological expertise, and most importantly international support at a very significant level. I think most pro-Palestinian advocates don’t understand how much more influence Israel and the pro-Israeli groups have developed in Washington even over the past five years and how profoundly deeper the military and intelligence links have become. In fact, it’s clear they both don’t know about this or understand its significance. On its own, Israel is a formidable force. When placed in the context of the international forces committed to its continuation, but not its occupation, it is even more formidable. It is not going anywhere. It is not a house of cards on the verge of collapse. It is unlikely to prove a crusader state in waiting, to be driven away sometime in the next 200 years (although honestly, who cares what happens in 200 years?). It is not going to be brought to its knees by a boycott. It is a reality, a national reality, that has to be taken into consideration as seriously as possible by anyone genuinely trying to think through the Palestinian national strategy and the goal of ending the occupation (or any other goal for that matter). Some people don’t think about this because it is too painful. Some, because it disrupts their science fiction stories. Some, because they just don’t understand the basic facts. These are all unacceptable excuses for such a fundamental error.

The same precisely applies to the Israelis and pro-Israel types who do not think clearly and seriously about the Palestinians as a people and a national movement, indeed a nation, that cannot be defeated or dismissed but must be dealt with either through agreement or through ongoing, irresolvable conflict. The Palestinians exist. They have their own forms of power, sometimes the power of the weak perhaps, but their power cannot be ignored. Some of these forms of Palestinian power are their demographic reality, their undeniable history, the will of their national movement, strong and growing international support for their independence (it is, in fact, really US policy for there to be a state of Palestine), increasing global disgust with the nature and the reality of the occupation and impatience with Israel’s refusal to accept that the occupation must end. Then there is the simple fact that if the Israelis do not agree with the secular nationalists of the PLO who wish to live side-by-side in peace and security in two separate, independent states, they will almost certainly end up dealing with bearded Islamist fanatics, and will probably by that stage be themselves led by their own bearded Jewish fundamentalist fanatics as well. The Israelis must know, as must the Americans and others, that they will play a significant role in deciding which Palestinians they will have to deal with over the long run. But the bottom line is the Palestinians are not going anywhere, they are not going to be defeated, they are not going to give up and abandon their national movement, and, in the end, they are going to continue to fight, in one way or another, for their dignity and bottom-line national rights.

So, when we talk about any of the fanciful, ?science fiction,? alternative outcomes other than a negotiated end of the occupation and the conflict, it is incumbent upon those of us who understand this simple and all important principle to remind others on our side about the fundamental reality and the basic, bottom line national interests of the other party that are almost certainly being ignored in these scenarios. I’m sure that there are plenty of people in Israel who have or will point out to the right-wingers pushing their new, preposterous, version of a ?one-state solution? for the West Bank only, and with highly attenuated fourth class citizenship for Palestinians there, that they are talking nonsense because the other side will not accept any such arrangement and the conflict will therefore continue in one way or another and probably intensify and deteriorate (as it continuously has since the 1930s). Obviously it’s up to all of us to keep each other honest and to raise the most obvious and fundamental questions about what we are all proposing.

For those of us who advocate a two state solution and an end to the occupation, there are very serious challenges such as the existing settlements, ongoing settlement construction, settler and pro-settler ideology, Palestinian divisions and many other major problems and concerns that would have to be overcome in order to achieve this outcome. Neither I nor any serious advocate of ending the occupation downplays these serious challenges. But what we do say is that such an outcome is still possible because it, alone, meets the minimum national requirements of both parties and is urgently required by the international community and most regional actors. There is no doubt there are huge forces pushing against it, including on the ground, although Palestinian state building efforts (however nascent and fledgling they clearly are) are an interesting new push-back on the same ground, but there are also huge forces pushing and militating for it. I’ve never maintained it was the likely outcome, only a genuinely plausible and really imaginable one, one that does in fact correspond to the array of forces that can produce outcomes. But what I’ve also maintained is that without it, as is becoming increasingly clear, the only real alternative is increased occupation, dressed up in whatever new costumes Israel decides to force on it, and therefore, over the long run, increased conflict which will almost certainly become increasingly religious, violent and intractable. As far as I can tell, in all seriousness, those are the only two outcomes the array of existing forces can really produce. The fact that a two state agreement is the less likely of the two is no excuse for not preferring it to the gruesome, unspeakable alternative, and working, with all determination and seriousness of purpose, to make sure that it happens in spite of the obstacles.

Is the new ?Emergency Committee? anti-Obama, anti-peace or both?

A rather predictable group of Jewish right-wing supporters of Israel including William Kristol, Rachel Abrams, and Noah Pollak, along with their strange bedfellows allies in the end-of-days evangelical Christian ultra-right, in this case led by Gary Bauer, have apparently founded an organization called the ?Emergency Committee for Israel.? And what “emergency” would that be? Well, by the looks of things it’s certainly the emergency of not having a Republican president or Congress, since the group’s efforts seem to be entirely targeted at Democrat candidates for Congress in the upcoming November election. In other words, the ?emergency? would seem to be the election and the intention would be to use bizarre scare tactics about ?anti-Israel? policies of the Obama administration and other Democrats as a scare tactic to promote Republican candidates.

All’s fair in love and whatsit, I suppose, but who would the actual targeted voters be in such a campaign? Jewish voters are mostly Democrats and they are unlikely to be convinced that Obama-supporting Democratic candidates for Congress should be rejected because of Obama’s policies towards Israel. The long-established fact is that most Jews are Democrats and they mostly don’t vote based on Israel. Does anybody really expect a large number of them to suddenly vote Republican because Bill Kristol and Gary Bauer say Obama is anti-Israel? I suppose the more plausible target would be the evangelical Christians, but how many of them would have been tempted to vote for any of these Democrats in the first place? Wouldn’t the teabagging orgy of Obama-hatred be sufficient to bring them out anyway? So while the structure of the organization seems entirely geared around the midterm election, the logic of its strategy isn’t evident at all. I mean, whose votes are they really trying to influence?

It’s certainly all very anti-Obama. And maybe in the end you don’t have to have a plausible electoral strategy for actually influencing the outcomes of congressional races to justify a Republican attack on Obama, or any Democratic president for that matter, on any basis whatsoever. Might as well throw Israel into the mix, along with the death panels, the debt crisis, the BP oil spill and the defection of Lebron James Did I forget anything? Oh yes, the failure to win the Olympics for Chicago. That too. So perhaps this new ?emergency committee? is just another way of getting some rich people to pony up for a campaign against Obama and the Democrats on yet another issue among many (that almost no Americans base their vote on anyway), simply to pile on the pressure in a gigantic war of attrition by the right against the left. That is almost a satisfactory explanation. But not quite.

Perhaps it will be more accurate to say, as it turns out, that the ?emergency committee? is not simply a familiar group of Republicans, and therefore predictably and indeed professionally anti-Obama, but in fact proves to be a group that is much more deeply pro-occupation and anti-peace. In other words, what if the ?emergency? in question is not the election and targeting Democrats like Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania but rather the new consensus in the Washington foreign policy and indeed military establishments that a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians that ends the occupation is a vital national security interest of the United States? What if this constitutes an effort by a neoconservative and evangelical coalition to try to systematically push back against the idea of the centrality of peace for the American national interest? What if all this electioneering is really a red herring and the long-term idea is to turn back the clock to the days when linkage was generally thought to be a dubious concept proposed by questionable “Arabists” lurking around the CIA and State Department, rather than an established and consensus strategic understanding?

If this ?emergency committee? isn’t it, some such group or coalition of existing groups will certainly have to coalesce soon to challenge this idea because it has gained so much traction that only oddballs of this variety openly challenge it (and that too, mostly in the context of Republicans critiquing a Democratic administration, as is their job, therefore lacking the odor of real conviction). The idea has even strongly taken root in some of the mainstream and center-right Jewish pro-Israel organizations who might in the past have been sympathetic to the attitudes of this ?emergency committee,? but will now find themselves either largely indifferent to its activities or quite possibly at odds with them.

At any rate, something tells me the ?emergency? will not be over even if Republicans take over the House and possibly even the Senate in November (which I don’t think they will). It seems more likely to me that the “emergency” (alarmist terminology reminiscent of the ur-neocon ?Committee on the Present Danger,? is it not?) is mostly represented by the growing national and international consensus that peace is essential, and that peace, whether right wing Jewish supporters of the occupation and Armageddon-yearning Bible bashers like it or not, in fact requires ending the occupation. The very worst part of this ?emergency? is a growing understanding that this is not only in the Palestinian, Arab, international and American (gasp) vital national interests, but that it is essential for Israel as well. If that it isn’t an emergency for supporters of the occupation, then I don’t know what is.

What’s lurking beneath the smiles at the Obama-Netanyahu lovefest?

It finally had to happen, after several abortive efforts. A high-level US-Israel diplomatic lovefest occurred at the White House between Pres. Obama and PM Netanyahu on Tuesday. As both governments had a strong vested interest in making the event successful, it was all smiles, firm handshakes and affirmations of undying friendship. The word of the day was “excellent,” a term repeated ad nauseum by both leaders. In order to ac-centuate the positive, so to speak, the public press event the two held emphasized all the matters on which the countries are in strong agreement: US support for Israel’s military qualitative edge over regional rivals and overall security commitment, new and significant sanctions against Iran, tacit US support for Israel’s nuclear program, and ever deepening defense and intelligence ties. So far, so good.

Beneath the shimmering veneer of warmth and bonhomie, however, still lurked the issues that have caused so much difficulty between the two countries in recent months, mainly having to do with the peace process. I got a great deal of attention from my comment on Russia Today TV on Tuesday when I called the settlement issue a “timebomb” lurking for both US-Israel relations and for diplomacy generally because of the expiration of the partial, temporary and one might even go so far as to say fraudulent, settlement moratorium. Neither leader directly mentioned the moratorium or the issue of settlements directly, but they were asked about the expiration date and while Pres. Obama was fairly vague, he made it quite clear that he expects the current levels of what he called “restraint” in building in the occupied territories to continue past September. In other words, since the moratorium is really such a fraud in its own way, he’s suggesting that it doesn’t matter how you package it, the United States just doesn’t want to hear about large-scale building projects, especially in Jerusalem, and above all in Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.

We really do not know much about the substance of the private meeting or the extent to which it focused on these divisive issues as opposed to the feel-good rhetoric of the presser. But it seems difficult to imagine that Obama did not impress upon Netanyahu the importance United States places on restraining settlement activity. He needn’t have said so directly, but obviously since we’ve had three crises over settlement activity in Jerusalem since November, and no major change of policy from either country, another crisis could erupt at any moment to the detriment of both. There were clear hints during the public presentation of what Obama extracted from Netanyahu, including his praise of the state and institution building program, naming not only Pres. Abbas but Prime Minister Fayyad as well, and clearly stating the need for the zone of authority for the Palestinian security forces and other administrative control in the West Bank to spread. Both men, especially Netanyahu, repeatedly referred to practical confidence building measures to be put on the ground “within weeks,” which is very difficult to read outside of the context of Obama’s reference to the state and institution building program. In other words, it very much looks like Obama asked Netanyahu to cooperate with and facilitate state building in the West Bank, and that he seems to have agreed.

However, this brings us to the most obvious and noteworthy dissonance in the rhetoric of the two leaders who were doing their best to achieve resonance and harmony. President Obama confirmed, for the umpteenth time, that a peace agreement based on the creation of a Palestinian state is a vital American national interest. Prime Minister Netanyahu made no mention of the two state agreement, although he did talk in terms of peace. One might argue that since peace really can’t mean anything else to any rational person, he must’ve also been talking about a two state solution. One certainly hopes so. It is also noteworthy that Pres. Obama emphasized that following their conversation he was reassured that Prime Minister Netanyahu is genuinely serious about pursuing a negotiated peace agreement with the Palestinians. This could be read in two separate ways: either he was skeptical about Netanyahu’s intentions but has actually been reassured by whatever they discussed, or he is still skeptical about them but decided to make a point of the issue in order to lock Netanyahu into whatever assurances he had provided. Certainly, these are hardly the comments one would make with regard to someone whom one personally, and the world generally, regards as firmly and obviously committed to a negotiated peace agreement.

The clear difference in emphasis on this goal between the two leaders indicates a real gap in the extent to which each government believes this is possible or desirable. For the United States, this is not optional, and the foreign policy and military establishment believes that it is essential to ensuring the success of many other policy goals around the region including with regard to Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, among other challenges. Israeli society is, at best, badly divided on the subject. This, of course, is the Leviathan lurking beneath the babbling brook of goodwill at this week’s meeting.

Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren was recently in a flap over whether or not he had said there was a “tectonic rift” between the United States and Israel. I’m sure he didn’t say that, because obviously there is no rift, tectonic or otherwise. However, his clarification that what he had actually said was that there has been a “tectonic shift” at work makes perfect sense. Indeed it’s true, as I’ve argued many times in the past on the Ibishblog, that the context of the US-Israel relationship has changed, and a tectonic shift is a rather apt way of putting it. To recapitulate, in the past, US-Israeli relations have almost always been based primarily on the bilateral “special relationship” of American commitment to Israeli security, or even more problematically on US domestic politics and the wide coalition of forces that encourage maximal support for all Israeli policies. Because of the new understanding of Middle Eastern regional strategic dynamics inspired by the situations in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, among others, Washington now sees the region as much more powerfully interconnected and interdependent, and Israel’s policies, like all other regional actors, are now also seen in these broader strategic terms. Therefore a third element has been added, one in which the United States views an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement and an end to the occupation as a vital strategic national security priority for this country. This is new, and it’s clear that Netanyahu and his colleagues, and Israeli society in general, are struggling to come to terms with this.

Obviously peace will require major American pressure on Israel, the Palestinians, the Arabs and others since left to their own devices, these parties are not capable of resolving their differences. And, because it is a vital American interest, it is a role and responsibility United States can neither avoid nor outsource. Therefore, many people who understand this were disappointed with the lovefest atmosphere of this week’s meeting and the relative lack of pressure that appears, at least in public, to be placed on Israel. I think this is a simplistic misreading of what is required diplomatically for the United States to move the ball forward. In my last blog posting, I explained how successful the recent Palestinian trip to Washington was, and how strong an understanding had been developed between Abbas and Obama on the most fundamental issues. That the United States is now on good terms and has some relative understandings with both the Palestinians and Israel at the same time cannot be a bad thing from the point of view of promoting peace and negotiations. A further public quarrel at this point probably wouldn’t have served any constructive purpose, and I think in general it’s fair to say that a scared and isolated Israel is less likely to be forthcoming than one which feels confident. Of course, there is always overconfidence and indeed arrogance, which we have seen plenty of in the past. However, I think the Obama administration has made its point on that issue quite clear during the Biden fiasco and, even worse, Netanyahu’s disastrous first visit to Washington earlier this year. It was time to kiss and make up, and that’s not a blow to prospects for peace.

What’s important is to keep the ball moving. Both men agreed that direct negotiations are important and may be imminent. The Palestinians clearly explained their requirements to Pres. Obama last month, and met with a positive American response. Therefore, one can only conclude that the administration has found a way, or believes it is about to find a way, of reconciling the Israeli and Palestinian understandings of what direct negotiations should constitute. But, as everyone knows, given the relative weaknesses of the governments involved and their great differences on final status issues, any major breakthrough in the coming months is unlikely, even though a return to formal and direct talks will be an achievement in itself. In the meanwhile, the real action is more likely to be on the ground in the West Bank centered around the state and institution building program. The fact that Pres. Obama specifically mentioned the need for it to move forward and operate in ever greater areas of the West Bank is highly significant, and so too, I hope, is Prime Minister Netanyahu’s pledge of “confidence building measures” to be in place “within weeks.”

This isn’t going to be easy, quick or painless. It’s going to require all parties to swallow large bags full of bitter pills. But the historic task facing the current leaderships of all the parties, and our generation in general, is to somehow find a way of making the two state solution work and thereby avoid the rise of a cataclysmic holy war. The Leviathan lurking underneath the ultimate failure to develop a two state peace agreement over the next 10 years or so is far more terrifying and more dangerous than the relatively puny leviathan-ete of ongoing US-Israeli disputes slithering beneath the surface of this week’s feel-good theatrics. It’s good for friends to be friends. It’s good for friends to be friends again. But the only point in being friends is to help each other to avoid calamities and disasters, and this can only be done by achieving a two state agreement.

The Palestinians have set the stage for Netanyahu’s Washington trip

This week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his entourage will be visiting Washington and meeting with Pres. Obama tomorrow, but it all comes very much in the context of last month’s highly successful trip by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and an entourage of PLO leaders, the centerpiece of which was a meeting on June 9 with Obama in the White House. The logic of the Abbas visit, which had originally been scheduled to follow one week after a similar meeting between Obama and Netanyahu, originally seemed lost due to Netanyahu’s cancelation of his meeting. He returned to Israel from Canada, rather than continuing on the United States, as scheduled, probably to avoid causing yet another embarrassment to Obama, given the Gaza flotilla attack. Theoretically, no one would have scheduled a meeting between Obama and Abbas before the aborted Netanyahu meeting, but neither party had any grounds or reasons to postpone it, so the Palestinians came as scheduled. As it turns out, the visit could hardly have been more successful under existing circumstances and proved to be an impressive surprise. More importantly, it has raised a significant set of challenges for the Israeli prime minister as he prepares for his delayed appearance.

The most important aspect of the Palestinian visit was the striking demonstration of Palestinian forthcomingness on peace, especially from Abbas personally. Crucially, when the PLO came under fairly heavy pressure from predictable quarters not to return to proximity talks after the flotilla attack, it firmly pointed out that while it condemned Israel’s actions, no purpose would be served by bowing out of the American-brokered talks. The two issues were separate and not connected, they pointed out, and could have added that refusing to continue with diplomacy on final status issues would actually reward rather than punish Israel and pointlessly damage the Palestinian national interest. The wisdom of this decision became clear during the visit, which would not even have taken place if Palestinians walked away from the talks or put them on hold.

What the Palestinians were able to do, for the first time in many years, arguably since the late 1990s, was position themselves as a real diplomatic and political partner in peace to the US administration, something the present Israeli government has most certainly failed to do. The Americans and Palestinians found themselves in broad agreement on the most pressing points. They agreed that a way has to be found to relive the suffering of the people of Gaza without strengthening Hamas and that breaking down the commonality of interests between Gazans and their rulers is crucial. On vexed question of negotiations, it was expected that the Palestinians were going to be harangued with a mantra of returning to direct talks as soon as possible and without conditions. The Palestinian position was unusually serviceable: they told the Americans that while they are all in favor of direct talks, the proximity talks should yield some progress of some kind first to demonstrate that there is, in fact, a point to negotiating with this Israeli government. The essential point they were making, and that was accepted by the administration, is that direct talks are desirable and important, but that more diplomatic and political groundwork is needed before they can successfully be launched. The Palestinian suggestion to the Americans is that they work out with Israel what, exactly, is going to be tackled in the early stages of direct talks, and that when the US is satisfied that the talks will have merit and substance and can explain how to the Palestinians, they will agree to resume direct negotiations. It has also helped that while the Israelis have been insisting that the proximity talks focus on procedural issues and water, Palestinians have been pushing the issues of borders and security, which is an agenda that is very compatible with the White House approach. In other words, the Palestinians came with a reasonable and constructive position and proved themselves serious, thoughtful and, from the administration’s point of view most importantly, helpful.

This helpfulness is rooted in the sense of a party that is willing to take risks and even political hits in a common agenda. During the fall, and again in the spring, when the Obama administration had two confrontations with Israel over settlements, the first the question of a freeze and the second about continued building in occupied East Jerusalem, the Palestinians largely failed to take advantage of the tensions by giving the impression that they were creating complications of their own. There was no sense in the administration as it was feuding with Netanyahu that on the Palestinian side was a team that would and could run with the ball if it were passed to them, rather than taking it and going home, or sitting on the ground and sulking. This impression is deadly for Palestinian diplomacy, and more than any other factor it limits the extent to which a White House is likely to pressure Israel within the constraints of the American political dynamic. If they have confidence in the Palestinian response, they are much more likely to do so, as Netanyahu discovered in the 1990s. If they do not, then the whole point of such pressure is greatly reduced and they are therefore much less likely to risk it. We are not quite at that stage yet, but last week’s visit was the biggest step in that direction in a long time.

The positive developments were not limited to dealings with the administration. Abbas had a long and unprecedented dinner with 30 key Jewish American leaders and took spontaneous, candid and blunt questions for about an hour and a half. Much of what he said surprised and impressed the audience, especially his forthright acknowledgment of the deep Jewish as well as Palestinian historical ties and attachment to the lands of Israel and Palestine. Abbas’ only public appearance at the Brookings Institute was another uncharacteristically successful exercise in public diplomacy for the Palestinian president. The president began with a boilerplate speech in Arabic that was brief enough not to bore the audience, but soon settled into a Q&A session with the audience moderated by Brookings VP Martin Indyk. Abbas spoke in imperfect but perfectly intelligible English, and was relaxed, avuncular and extremely effective. At the event I was sitting next to an extremely experienced former American diplomat and Middle East expert who commented that he had never seen him perform so well, and I certainly agreed. The general mood at the end of the event was, ?why doesn’t he do more of these things?? In other words, both in style and substance his message was not only receivable but pleasantly surprising and indeed encouraging to a Washington audience. Abbas’ outreach to Jewish Americans was so successful that it prompted the Washington Institute on Near East Policy to issue a compendium of statements he had made during the trip to emphasize the new message the Palestinians were sending, and the extent to which it was being well received not only by the US government but also by many in the pro-Israel community as well.

In subsequent Palestinian diplomacy, Abbas and others have been emphasizing the borders and security issues, and the need for the United States to secure some clarification on Israel’s position on these matters in order for the stage to be set for purposive direct negotiations. Abbas took things a stage further with an unprecedented direct outreach to the Israeli public through a number of reporters gathered to ask him questions in which he emphasized his commitment to reaching a peaceful, two-state solution. Even among Israelis it’s becoming clear that the Palestinians have a goal, a vision and a strategy, even if they may not have the power to unilaterally achieve it. The problem for Netanyahu and his cabinet colleagues is that it is extremely difficult if not impossible to define what exactly they want, what their vision of the future might be, and what is their strategy to achieve it. Netanyahu himself says he is in favor of a two state agreement, but with so many conditions and caveats as to make this essentially meaningless or at least extremely dubious. Defense Minister Barak is all for it, but even he is weak on details. Foreign Minister Lieberman has categorically stated his disinterest and lack of faith in the negotiating process, and recently publicized his own completely preposterous ?plan? that essentially centered around the removal of large Arab population groupings in Israel. Others in the inner cabinet have dismissed the possibility of a Palestinian state ever emerging. This calculated ambiguity from the Prime Minister and his Cabinet in general only opens the door to speculation that in fact the majority in the present Israeli government believes a negotiated agreement is neither possible nor desirable and simply does not wish to say so directly so as not to further alienate the international community and, above all, the United States which regards such an agreement as a national security priority. Therefore, one of the most potent elements of the new Palestinian outreach has been to place a major onus on the Israeli prime minister to demonstrate that he really isn’t fundamentally opposed to a viable, reasonable two-state agreement and that he’s willing to take meaningful steps in that direction.

It is very likely that in their upcoming talks, Obama will be pressing Netanyahu on borders and security, terms of reference for direct negotiations which must be clarified for them to make any sense, and on the need to extend the partial, temporary settlement moratorium which is due to expire in the fall. In the last two months of 09 and the first few months of this year, until the flap over settlements in Jerusalem following the Biden visit to Israel, it was the Palestinians who were seen as the primary obstacle to diplomatic progress. Now the onus is most decidedly shifted to the Israelis, and Netanyahu had better not show up in Washington empty-handed, or with a message considered utterly inadequate by the administration, or he may find himself not only once again perceived as an obstacle, but with, most unusually, the Palestinians being perceived by the Americans as genuine and helpful political partners.

In other words, Netanyahu has some very difficult and important decisions to make in the run-up to this meeting, and the stakes are higher than anyone had anticipated. The partial American defense of Israel in the context of the Gaza flotilla attack certainly strengthens Obama’s hand with Netanyahu: it is impossible for the Israelis not to recognize that without American resistance to a broad-ranging international investigation into the bloody incident, Israel would’ve faced a virtually united international community insisting on a second Goldstone report, but with more teeth. Instead, Israel is conducting its own, thus far deeply flawed, investigations, but American pressure is allowing that to continue. Any sense that Israel is in a position to go it alone, snub the United States or act as if it were a superpower rather than the ally and client of a superpower has to have been most rudely disabused by this entire experience. Moreover, Netanyahu is not going to be able to triangulate between expectations from the White House based on American national security priorities on the one hand and the hard-line positions of most of his Cabinet colleagues on the other, as he rather skillfully did for a number of months. Those days are over. The bottom line is this: atypically adroit Palestinian diplomacy has placed Netanyahu in a position in which if he shows up at the White House tomorrow empty handed or without satisfactory answers to some of the blunt questions he is likely to receive, he may soon find himself reliving political experiences from the late 1990s (“Wye oh Wye, Delilah,” if you know what I mean) which he probably thought, and certainly hoped, could never recur.