Stealing Israel’s bargaining chips

Since Obama and his administration came to power it was evident that there was going to be tension between the Liberal Democrat party and Israel’s most right wing coalition in its history lead by Netanyahu’s Likud party. Their approaches could not be more opposite. Obama inheriting a huge mess caused by possibly the least popular president in US history, George W. Bush, who left Obama a lot of work to do with improving America’s image in the world, in the middle of a global recession and a continued military presence in two Middle-eastern countries having fought a war which the majority of the international community believed to be illegal and some immoral.

Bibi on the other hand was also left with having to follow what was most probably Israel’s worst government in its history. Kadima was a party made up of members from the left of the Likud party including its founder Ariel Sharon and the right of the Labour and Shinui party. The party at first seemed to offer the answer to Israel’s lack of faith in a moderate party with the right leadership to bring about peace, ‘Kadima’ meaning ‘Forward’ in Hebrew appealed to the Israeli public in a similar way to how the Obama campaign “Yes we can” projected itself. Ariel Sharon became like Yitzhak Rabin, the man of war who was becoming a man of peace, who was bold enough to remove the settlers in Gush Katif from Gaza and had begun implementing the ‘disengagement plan,’ if anyone was going to be strong and brave enough to undertake such a task it was Sharon. Sharon was held responsible for Israel not intervening in the Sabra and Shatilla massacres in Lebanon, if disengagement were to be unsuccessful his legacy would not change very much, he would be loved by some and hated by others, and now he was breaking away from the Likud party he was at the time leading in the role of Prime minister and decided to call for an early election due to opposition within his own party and form a new party.

It all seemed great, key figures from other major parties found common cause with the principles of his new party, for a Jewish and Democratic state, territorial compromise, and maintaining a Jewish majority.

Apart from that vision the party was not a very stable, it couldn’t agree with whether to unilaterally disengage, as Sharon wanted, or to negotiate, to what borders to disengage to, what to do about Jerusalem and other issues. And then the bomb hit, Sharon went into a coma and nothing has changed since. Seeing as one of the things that attracted Israelis to Kadima was the Sharon factor, now they would be puzzled as to whether or not their newly elected party leader, Ehud Olmert would be able to deliver Sharon’s vision or not. Olmert ran for prime minister and won the election, and formed a coalition composed mostly of the left wing bloc.

Olmert’s government was disastrous for Israel; this government will be remembered for losing Israel’s first war, the Second Lebanon war and the outgoing governments Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. Kadima changed their leader to Tzipi Livni before the next election but failed to form a coalition, which left Olmert in power until the next election. In a few years to come he may be remembered as the prime minister who successfully destroyed Syria’s nuclear facility, but on the whole his government was not very popular and particularly with how it had handled its military operations in Gaza and in Lebanon.

These are the two legacies that Obama and Netanyahu are following. Obama has sought diplomacy and incentives in resolving conflicts and Bibi has chosen deterrence and a firm hand in not rewarding terrorism. Obama has a lot more to live up to though than Bibi does.

Many people have a high expectation from Obama, he is the first Black president in US history, a lot is riding on that, and a huge amount of optimism has gone into his vision and he does not wish to just manage the world and keep things ticking, he wants to change the world, he is a visionary, and if he could make peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians it would be a remarkable achievement for his legacy as the first black president of the United States.

He has reached out in a very reasonable manner to the Muslim world, in his speech he made in Cairo shortly after having been elected he appealed for the Muslim world to change if America changes too. He defended Israel and criticized Arab rejection of Israel’s right to exist, incitement to hatred and anti-Semitism as well as continued Israeli settlement on the West Bank.

His approach has been welcomed by the Arab world and the international community and has made him and America a lot more popular than they were under the previous administration. But that does not mean that his approach is working.

Obama has put a considerable amount of pressure onto Israel to stop building settlements. I do not believe Israel should be building settlements but it has been not so much the issue of settlement’s that has caused the problems we are facing now, it has been the fact that the discrepancies between Washington and Jerusalem on very sensitive issues has been undermining Bibi’s authority in his own fragile government. It is not as easy in Israel’s political system for the Prime minister to just concede to what the US wants without you losing power yourself, as every election is a ‘hung parliament’ and your own coalition could be composed of ten different parties all with different interests which the Prime minister made certain promises to in return for them joining the government.

This tension has led the Arab leaders to the assumption that Israel is nothing without America and they now have America wrapped around their little finger. It is Israeli settlements that are higher on the US administrations agenda than the Iranian nuclear threat.

Since Obama came to power, he has introduced a new approach, which I was willing to observe and give him a chance to demonstrate a new way but every incentive that Obama offered to Iran, Iran has just laughed at and thrown back in the worlds face. Sanctions are coming back into play and the pressure is mounting on Obama and hopefully he will soon realize that he is no Messiah, he is not going to make world peace just because he comes bearing candy. But even sanctions have had no impact on Iran’s nuclear policy.

His policy has strengthened the radical elements of the Muslim world and has increased the de-legitimizing of Israel in the international community. The culture that has been created is one that in fact is providing no room for negotiation.

It appears that we have shifted from the idea of a peace process through negotiation to an already predetermined outcome decided by public opinion, which is that Israel must submit unconditionally to all the demands of the Palestinians.

I think that we Israelis on the left have gone too far in that even though we know roughly what the final agreement will look like, we will not reach that agreement unless we have a strategy at the negotiating table.

This is maybe where we have really gone wrong, we have dropped our guard, we have forgotten that the West Bank is of value to us, and that we have a historical claim to it, that there are sites there that are holy to Jews there. These things may be worth giving up for the sake of peace, but the historic claim to the land of Israel has been disregarded now in the international community, and Israeli presence there is considered illegal, if it is illegal then Israel must withdraw to its ‘recognized borders.’

Resolution 242, the resolution drafted after the Six-day war in 1967 on the conquered territories by Israel, does not call on Israel to withdraw to the pre 1967 borders, this is just what the Arab states demand in order for peace and recognition of Israel, it calls for Israel to return territory that it captured during that war, not all of the territories but just territories, and doesn’t even necessarily call for the creation of a Palestinian state, that too was a later development.

But this seems to be the new demand of the international community, everything Israel conquered is illegal and Israel’s security concerns are considered irrelevant.

We see this in the ASA’s ban of Israel’s use of the Wailing Wall in its UK Tourism advertisements, as East Jerusalem is considered to be occupied Palestinian territory.

Once again, East Jerusalem is not occupied territory. If the Palestinian legal claim to statehood is the same as Israel’s claim, the United Nations partition plan in 1947 to divide western Palestine into two states a Jewish state and an Arab state, at no point was it decided that Jerusalem or even East Jerusalem belonged to the Palestinians. The plan was to internationalize the city; it is no more theirs than it is the Israelis. Dividing the city is simply a proposal, I agree that some sort of change to the status quo on Jerusalem will most likely need to occur in order to make peace, but Israel will not give up control of the Old city and if it does it will not give up the Jewish quarter of it at least. But Israel’s claims beyond whatever it had before 1967 are being demanded that they be rejected as pre conditions to negotiations.

There was Palestinian protest at Israel being admitted into the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in another attempt to undermine the states legitimacy.

The reaction to the Flotilla crisis has undermined Israel’s right to defend itself by checking what gets delivered to Gaza in search of weapons. The Palestinians are sticking to their guns on the issues of Jerusalem, the return of the refugees and not accepting any amendments on the future borders and demanding that Israel accept these demands before coming to the negotiating table.

What left is there to negotiate over if Israel is not being allowed to bring any bargaining chips of its own to the table? We seem to be going to the negotiating table with nothing other than the demand that terrorism stop and that the refugees are not returning to Israel. These are the two closed issues we have, but we have simply lost leverage by giving up chips voluntarily. The offer that Barak offered the Palestinians was the best offer they were going to get. Both Israelis and Palestinians think though that they are in the better position to negotiate, Israel feels that what was on offer back then is not on offer today, things have changed, we have fought more wars and we are now offering less, take it now because the next time we will offer even less than this. And the Palestinians are behaving in the same way, what they are demanding is more and more each time.

But the US Israel tension has played into the hands of the hard liners on the Palestinian side that are taking a mile from the inch that Obama has given them. Obama, for as much as I admire his belief and desire to bring peace to the Middle East he has not yet learned that there is a different mentality in the Middle East which takes kindness  for weakness and that sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind in this region.

It is quite disturbing, but honour is a very important part of life in the region. If you take how peace was made with Egypt for example. The Arab states lost the Six day war leaving Syria without the Golan Heights, Jordan without the West bank and Egypt without Gaza or the Sinai peninsula. Sadat and Assad wanted the territories they lost back, hoping to gain it back through victory and not having to say sorry and beg Israel for it back.

Sadat managed to make a deal with Israel in exchange for the Sinai, and Sadat believed that he won the war in 1973, even though as far as Israel was concerned they lost, because from Sadat’s perspective Israel gave in and he had regained the conquered Egyptian territory but going on the assumption that Israel was determined to keep it, which its actions at the time showed that it was, as it built the town of Yamit there which it had to withdraw from. Whereas Israel saw it as a victory on its part because it wasn’t really interested in keeping the Sinai as much as it was interested in making peace with its first Arab neighbour and that the Arabs were slowly realizing that it cannot destroy Israel and are beginning to come to terms with recognizing her. In short Egypt went to war with Israel in order to make peace with Israel. And Israel also made peace with Egypt so that it could increase settlement in the West bank.

There have been developments along the way; there have been more and more people who have been willing to recognize each other and their perspectives. I am one of the people who recognize the Palestinian case and their claims, but I have not lost site of our own claims and rights. All of our cards must be on the table, we should not have preconditions to negotiations, we should come to the table with equally non realistic demands and slowly they will be used to slash their unrealistic positions and this will give us a better chance of eventually meeting half way somewhere. But we have a right to play the game, signal to the other side and keep all of our bargaining chips.

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