Tag Archives: west bank

Palestine comes to the fore on Israeli election eve

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With polls set to open within hours in the most competitive election in Israel since prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned to the premiership in 2009, both parties aiming to form Israel’s next government made their final cases to voters — and in doing so, provided election eve bombshells.palestineISrel Flag Icon

Netanyahu’s decision to denounce the two-state solution and former justice minister Tzipi Livni’s decision to renounce her claim to the premiership both, in their own ways, brought the Palestinian issue back to the forefront of voters’ minds. That follows a three-month election campaign during which Israeli-Palestinian relations, a matter of existential importance to both voting Israelis  and non-voting Palestinians, figured less prominently than economic concerns, sniping between secular and ultraorthodox politicians, Iran’s nuclear energy program or bilateral relations with the United States. For all the controversy over Netanyahu’s speech to the US Congress two weeks ago, the most notable aspect of his address might be that he never once uttered the word ‘Palestine.’

Netanyahu denounces two-state solution

Netanyahu announced, obliquely by way of an interview with NRG, that no Palestinian state would come into existence so long as he remains prime minister, reversing his prior 2009 commitment to a two-state solution, a stand that many Netanyahu observers always believed was less than full-hearted:

“I think that anyone who moves to establish a Palestinian state and evacuate territory gives territory away to radical Islamist attacks against Israel,” Netanyahu said. “The left has buried its head in the sand time and after time and ignores this, but we are realistic and understand”…. During a visit to the East Jerusalem settlement of Har Homa earlier Monday, Netanyahu warned that if he were not elected, “Hamastan B.” would be established in Jerusalem. “If Tzipi [Livni] and Bougie [Isaac Herzog] form a government, Hamastan B will be established here.”

Netanyahu’s strategy is clear. By tying himself to a hard-line stand on Palestinian statehood, he hopes to appeal to a handful of voters on the right — settlers and other conservatives that might otherwise be inclined to support the secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu (ישראל ביתנו‎, ‘Israel is Our Home’) of foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman or the religious conservative Bayit Yehudi (הבית היהודי, ‘Jewish Home’) of economy minister Naftali Bennett. Though Lieberman and Bennett are both members of Netanyahu’s government, Netanyahu must maximize his right-wing supporters if he hopes to win the largest number of seats in Israel’s unicameral legislature, the Knesset (הַכְּנֶסֶת), thereby strengthening his claim for a third consecutive term as prime minister.

Livni clears way for Herzog to serve full term as PM

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Meanwhile, Livni, Netanyahu’s former justice minister and, only a year ago, the Israeli government’s chief negotiator in the abandoned peace process with the Palestinians, delivered her own shocker today when she gave up her claim to the premiership.  Continue reading Palestine comes to the fore on Israeli election eve

Netanyahu now depends on Palestinian Fatah-Hamas disunity

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Two months ago, the West Bank-based leadership of Fatah (فتح‎) and the Gaza-based leadership of Hamas (حماس‎) really seemed like they were on the verge of forming a coherent unity government, bringing together the two competing factions of Palestinian politics for the first time after nearly a decade of division.palestineISrel Flag Icon

At the time, Israeli an US officials took an overly alarmist view of the new unity government, given the characterization of Hamas as a terrorist organization that continues to target civilians in Israel. Whereas Fatah essentially recognizes the  existence of the state of Israel, Hamas still considers Israel as an illegitimate state. 

Nevertheless, I argued then that a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation was a necessary step toward a long-term Israeli-Palestinian peace and that Israeli and US leaders should welcome any reunification that can bring Gaza’s leadership to the negotiation table. While Ramallah (if not so much of the rest of the West Bank) boomed economically, and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has generally increased Palestinian control over security throughout much of the West Bank, Gaza has been subject to an Israeli embargo for years, crippling the Gazan economy and strangling opportunity and employment for 1.4 million Palestinians. If Gazans are more radical than their West Bank counterparts, Israel’s embargo has given them ample reason. 

But geopolitical events across the Middle East have isolated Hamas  within the Muslim world, especially over the past year. Whereas the Islamic Republic of Iran once funded Hamas, Iranian support dried up for Hamas as they lined up on opposite sides of Syria’s civil war, with Iranian officials strongly supporting Shiite president Bashar al-Assad and with Hamas backing various Sunni-led rebel groups. Moreover, whereas former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi looked sympathetically upon Hamas (technically, Hamas is the Palestinian branch of Morsi’s own Muslim Brotherhood), the Egyptian military that overthrew Morsi last July and Morsi’s newly ‘elected’ successor Abdel Fattah el-Sisi are much less tolerant of Hamas. They have cracked down on the Egyptian border with the Gaza Strip, in essence working with Israel to perpetuate the Gaza embargo.

Fatah came to that unity government from a position of strength and, had it succeeded, Fatah might have had a restraining effect on the far weaker Hamas. Nevertheless, Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu opposed the unity government from the outset, using the occasion to accuse Abbas of being less than serious as a ‘partner for peace.’

Though there’s a strong argument that Netanyahu erred in dismissing the Fatah-Hamas unity government outright two months ago, Netanyahu’s strategy today fundamentally depends on the disunity between Hamas and Fatah. With Israel and Hamas now two weeks into a lethal conflict, and with an Israeli ground offensive extending into its fourth day, the unity government has all but collapsed in the face of the latest military engagement in Gaza. Continue reading Netanyahu now depends on Palestinian Fatah-Hamas disunity

Palestinian unity need not hinder the cause of peace with Israel

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That collective freakout you heard this morning between Jerusalem and Washington? palestineISrel Flag Icon

It was the entirely premature overreaction of both the US and Israeli governments to a one-page agreement between the two competing Palestinian factions that attempts, for the third time since their 2006-07 rupture, to unite Fatah (فتح‎), which currently controls the West Bank, and Hamas (حماس‎), which currently controls the Gaza Strip.

The agreement is hardly definitive, and it follows two failed deals agreed to in high-profile meetings in Cairo and Doha over the past three years. It commits the two factions to an interim unity government within five weeks, with elections to follow within six months. Needless to say, it’s an incredibly preliminary deal, and there are countless opportunities for West Bank leader Mahmoud Abbas and Gaza prime minister Ismail Haniyeh to derail it. 

With a preliminary deadline of April 29 approaching for US-brokered peace talks between the West Bank and Israel, it’s clear that neither the United States nor Israel believe that the potential reconciliation is an incredibly positive sign. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu went so far as to describe the agreement in zero-sum terms:

Israel immediately responded by saying the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, was moving to peace with Hamas instead of peace with Israel. “He has to choose,” said the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. “Does he want peace with Hamas or peace with Israel? You can have one but not the other. I hope he chooses peace, so far he hasn’t done so.”

After the agreement was announced, Israel cancelled a planned session of peace negotiations with the Palestinians. It also launched an air strike on a site in the north of the Gaza Strip, wounding 12 people including children, which underscored the deep mutual suspicion and hostility that persists. Speaking in Ramallah in the West Bank, Abbas said in his view the pact with Hamas did not contradict the peace talks he was pursuing with Israel, adding that an independent state living peacefully alongside Israel remained his goal.

Needless to say, Israel’s freakout won’t facilitate future negotiations. Meanwhile, the US government is already talking about suspending aid to any future unity government that includes Hamas:

The United States would have to reconsider its assistance to the Palestinians if Islamist group Hamas and the Palestinian Liberation Organization form a government together, a senior U.S. administration official said on Thursday….

“Any Palestinian government must unambiguously and explicitly commit to non-violence, recognition of the state of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations between the parties,” the U.S. official said, listing terms Hamas has long rejected. “If a new Palestinian government is formed, we will assess it based on its adherence to the stipulations above, its policies and actions, and will determine any implications for our assistance based on U.S. law,” the official said, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Foreign aid, in part, is responsible for an economic boom in the West Bank, and, particularly, in its unofficial capital of Ramallah. So it’s a step that would cause some significant hardship to Abbas, undermining the most reliable Palestinian partner that the US and Israeli governments currently have. It’s not hard to see Palestinian voters delivering a resounding Hamas victory in a vote later this year if the United States and Israel take such a hard line. 

But Netanyahu or US secretary of state John Kerry couldn’t have seriously believed that a truly lasting Palestinian-Israeli peace deal could exclude Gaza, which is home to 1.4 million Palestinians; the West Bank is home to 2.4 million. It’s farcical to believe that Abbas or anyone could deliver any true stability for Israel or Palestine while Gaza remains a 1.4 million-strong refugee camp, notwithstanding the West Bank’s position.   Continue reading Palestinian unity need not hinder the cause of peace with Israel

Sharon’s legacy represents the best and worst of Israel

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Ariel Sharon’s passing is something for which Israel has had eight years to prepare, and yet it’s almost as if his sudden turn for the worse is taking Israelis by surprise.  With the impending retirement of Israeli president later this year, 2014 is shaping up as the final curtain call of the 1948 generation — though they come from very different perspectives, both Sharon and Peres came of age during the crucible of the 1948 war for independence, which would shape their leadership in Israeli government for the following six decades.  ISrel Flag Icon

Sharon belonged to the generation that cut its teeth politically and militarily under the founding generation of David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir.  It’s the generation that fought and won many of Israel’s defining wars, starting with the 1948 war, the 1967 Six-Day War that brought Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, the Palestinian territories and Syria’s Golan Heights under Israeli control and the 1973 Yom Kippur War.  Sharon’s impudence in crossing the Suez Canal, in direct disobedience of a stunned military elite, is now remembered as the iconic moment of the October 1973 war.  Sharon’s generation brokered peace with Egypt at the end of the 1970s, but failed to seal a Palestinian peace deal with the late Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat.  It’s a generation that bequeathed to modern Israel the foundations for one of the world’s most dynamic and innovative economies, but also bequeathed the same demographic and diplomatic puzzles that have plagued Israel since its foundation.

Sharon personified both the best and worst of Israel, and volumes will be written (and have been already) on both his crimes and contributions to the world.  But you can trace the complexity of Sharon’s career in the two defining events of his public life — his complicity in the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre in Beirut and his turn from a warrior’s hard-right Zionism toward the statesman’s pragmatic peacemaking, a process that culminated in the 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.  Over the coming week, you’ll read a lot about Sharon and his legacy, as an Israeli general, defense minister and as a prime minister.  Critics will point to missteps like his 2000 visit to the Temple Mount (the location of the al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site) that, in part, sparked the Second Intifada.  His boosters will mourn the window of opportunity for peace that tragically slammed shut with Sharon’s brain hemorrhage on January 5, 2006, leaving Sharon in a vegetative state for the past eight years and an entire blotter of ‘what ifs’ for Israel and the Middle East.  In some cases, his fiercest critics in the 1980s will be among those lionizing Sharon this week as a man of peace.

But the reality is much more nuanced — and you should beware any analysis that presents Sharon exclusively either a war criminal or as a prophet of peace.

Could Sharon have sealed the deal?

Sharon’s January 2006 stroke occurred two months after Sharon formed a new centrist party, Kadima (קדימה‎, ‘Forward’), leaving behind his longtime home with the right-wing Likud (הַלִּכּוּד‎), a party Begin founded in 1973.  Sharon, who spent much of his time in the political wilderness championing Jewish settlements throughout the Palestinian territories, was occupied throughout the last year of his premiership in tearing down some of those settlements when he ordered the unilateral withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza and part of the West Bank.  Sharon came to the recognition that Israel’s perpetual occupation over nearly 4 million Palestinians was untenable — for Israel as well as the Palestinians.  So while Sharon championed the construction of a security barrier between Israel and the West Bank, he also took the first steps of what was expected to be the end of Israel’s military occupation of Palestine en route to a two-state solution.

Sharon was headed to an almost certain electoral triumph.  His deputy prime minister Ehud Olmert, who lacked Sharon’s credibility, charisma and vision, and who would ultimately leave office under corruption charges, still led Kadima to an overwhelming victory in March 2006.  But without Sharon at the helm, the Kadima project faltered — Olmert almost immediately launched a war in Lebanon, a military adventure that most Israelis believed to be somewhat of a failure for Israel and a victory for Lebanon’s Shiite militia Hezbollah (حزب الله‎).

Just 20 days after Sharon’s stroke, however, Palestinians voted to elect the legislature of the Palestinian National Authority, and they delivered a stinging defeat to the more moderate Fatah (فتح‎) and a victory for Hamas (حماس‎), the more militant wing of the Palestinian liberation movement.  No one knows how Sharon would have responded to Hamas’s emergence, its clear democratic mandate and the ensuing turbulence between Fatah and Hamas in 2006 and 2007 that essentially left Gaza under Hamas control and the West Bank under Fatah control, a bifurcation that continues today.  Israel responded by imposing a blockade on the Gaza Strip, largely with Egyptian cooperation, thereby further antagonizing Hamas.  In response to the increase of Gaza-based rocket attacks on Israel, Olmert in 2008 launched a military invasion, Operation Cast Lead, that lasted 22 days and killed up to 1,400 Palestinians.

As an old warrior and one of Israel’s most conservative politicians, Sharon would have been one of the few Israelis with the ability to pull the country into a long-term Palestinian peace deal — more so than even current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, who lead one of the more hawkish Israeli governments of the past quarter-century.  It’s hard to know what might have happened if Sharon hadn’t suffered a stroke.  Would he have felt the same pressure as Olmert to respond militarily to Hezbollah in summer 2006 by launching war on Lebanon?  Maybe, maybe not.  But given the almost universal condemnation of Hamas by the United States, Egypt and the Israeli political elite, it’s hard to believe that Sharon would have been much more willing to deal with a Hamas-led government in Gaza and it’s equally hard to believe that Sharon would have been more than a bystander in the Hamas-Fatah split — it was a split a long time coming, and it’s not a coincidence that it came so shortly after Arafat’s 2004 death.

For all the wishful thinking today, especially in light of eight years of stalled progress on the two-state solution and an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, it’s not necessarily certain that Sharon would have been successful in brokering a peace with Hamas as well as with Fatah — it’s a thorny problem that continues to plague the renewed peace efforts of US secretary of state John Kerry and Israeli justice minister Tzipi Livni today.

Sabra and Shatila and beyond

For all of Sharon’s missteps as prime minister (such as his ill-fated visit to the Temple Mount in 2000), nothing really compares to his inexcusable role at Sabra and Shatila.  Arafat’s Second Intifada followed from the breakdown in the summer 2000 Camp David talks, and it was already an almost-certain uprising in search of an  excuse when Sharon conveniently made his 2000 visit.  But no honest appraisal of Sharon’s legacy can omit the 1982 Lebanon War — and not just the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Continue reading Sharon’s legacy represents the best and worst of Israel