Friday, October 9, 2009

Netanyahu on the offensive-Under Netanyahu, Abbas has gone from 'good Palestinian' to foe

(Aluf Benn-Haaretz).Upon returning to power, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has changed the Israeli attitude toward Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). Previous prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert depicted Abbas as "the good Palestinian," a leader of moderates who are opposed to terror, in contrast to "bad Palestinians" like Yasser Arafat and the Hamas leaders. Abbas was the partner for peace, the interlocutor in a dialogue and a regular guest at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem. Olmert even visited Jericho once, as an expression of esteem for the Fatah leader.

Netanyahu, however, relates to Abbas as a foe who is waging a diplomatic war against Israel. In the premier's view, Abbas represents the past, the struggle for "Palestinian rights," the return of the refugees, the Palestinians' lists of Israeli crimes and endless demands for "justice."

One Israeli official has referred to Abbas as a "Holocaust denier," based on his doctoral thesis in 1982, in which he questioned the number of Jewish victims at the hands of the Nazis. Why complain about Iran's Ahmadinejad, when the PA president has denied the Holocaust, he asks.
Abbas relates to Netanyahu with similar hostility. He sees the prime minister as a downright nuisance who is interfering with the achievement of Palestinian goals. The antagonism and lack of trust between the two men were evident at the meeting forced upon them by U.S. President Barack Obama last month in New York.

Netanyahu and Abbas have opposite views on ending the conflict. Abbas wants to work from the top down: First Israel should recognize Palestinian rights and demands, then details and implementation will be discussed. Netanyahu does not believe it is possible to solve the problems of Jerusalem and the refugees - and the demilitarized state he is offering the Palestinians is far from satisfying their minimal demands. Netanyahu wants to work from the bottom up: to start with economic peace and building the institutions of a Palestinian administration in the West Bank, while postponing other issues indefinitely. In the meantime, Israel will maintain control on the ground and in the settlements.

Netanyahu believed PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad represented a different approach from that of Abbas: trying to improve the present instead of concentrating on the injustices of the past. Fayyad does indeed focus on the creation of an independent Palestine - not on settling accounts from the wars of 1948 and 1967. Netanyahu had hoped that with him, it would be possible to advance economic peace and make progress from the bottom up. Improving the economic situation in the West Bank, and strengthening security coordination between Israel and the PA, were depicted in Israel as manifestations of the success of the new, non-Abbas way.

But then, at the end of August, Fayyad presented his plan for establishing a Palestinian state within two years, and reiterated it at the conference of the PA donor countries and in various briefings for the foreign media. He said that in 2011, the Palestinians would declare a state within the 1967 borders, the world would support them and the Israeli occupation would be depicted as an obstacle to achieving "the two-state solution." Since then, at Netanyahu's bureau, Fayyad has joined Abbas on the list of 'problematic' Palestinians.

This week the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, headed by former ambassador Dore Gold, a close associate of Netanyahu's, published a document critical of Fayyad's plan. The authors, Dan Diker and Pinhas Inbari, presented the idea of "Palestine within two years" as a unilateral violation of the Oslo agreement - which forbids changing the status of the territories - and also as a security threat to Israel. Fayyad expects the Palestinians to receive control of open areas in the West Bank, the Jordan Valley, the slopes of the hills and the Judean Desert. These areas are currently defined as Area C - under full Israeli control. According to Diker and Inbari, they are essential to Israel for security and defense reasons. This is also Netanyahu's position. He is prepared to hand over Hebron and Nablus to the Palestinians, but sees Area C as disputed territory that Israel must retain.

Cold peace

The diplomatic conflict between Israel on the one hand, and Abbas and Fayyad on the other has erupted during the past few weeks. Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman waged a successful diplomatic campaign to postpone discussion by the United Nations Human Rights Council of the Goldstone report on Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip. Netanyahu persuaded the U.S. administration that discussion of the report would thwart the possibility of renewed final status talks, and the Americans pressured Abbas to retreat from appealing to the UN. It is not clear what Netanyahu promised the Americans in return, but the move was accompanied by pressure and direct threats to Abbas.

Netanyahu and Lieberman succeeded beyond their expectations: Not only was discussion of the Goldstone recommendations postponed by six months, but Abbas was subjected to harsh domestic criticism because of his concession, and his public standing was damaged. In Gaza, Hamas depicted the PA in Ramallah as pathetic collaborators with Israel and the United States.

The PA searched for a way to respond. Like Netanyahu, who promoted settling Jews in East Jerusalem in order to enlist his supporters in America against Obama, the Palestinians reacted to American-Israeli pressure by putting Jerusalem at the top of their agenda. Tensions surrounding the Temple Mount have increased, and this time Fayyad led diplomatic contacts and appeals to foreign governments to restrain Israel. Israeli "security sources" argued in response that the PA is gradually taking over East Jerusalem.

In trying to formulate a structure for renewing diplomatic talks, Netanyahu has demanded that the Palestinians commit themselves not to act against Israel in international forums and courts; if they have complaints, they should present them in direct talks. This is hard for the Palestinians to swallow: Their clear advantage in international organizations and world public opinion serves to counterbalance Israel's military superiority and its control on the ground. In the conference room, Israel enjoys a structural advantage.

The Prime Minister's Bureau is planning to launch a counterattack and is warning Abbas that Israel too knows how to fight diplomatic and propaganda battles. The Palestinians can count on support from an extensive network of human rights and solidarity organizations that promote the Palestinian cause, and seek to censure and boycott Israel. Israel has a two-pronged response: to embarrass the pro-Palestinian organizations and strike at their sources of funding, and to establish a group of "counter-organizations" to muster public opinion in Israel's favor.

In contrast to America, in Europe there are no pro-Israel lobbies, nor can there be because of the different political structures and the weakness of the Jewish communities there. However, it is possible to achieve results with quiet lobbying by bringing members of parliament, journalists and other influential people in the "target" countries to Israel. The intention is not to tilt European public opinion in favor of the settlements - that is impossible - but rather to obtain "equal time" and more openness to hearing Israel's arguments.

Israel's relationship with the PA is beginning to resemble relations with Egypt and Jordan, the countries with which there are signed peace treaties. In all these cases security cooperation exists alongside lively diplomatic warfare and a total disconnect between the peoples. The peace process, then, is just a framework for a more polite pursuit of the conflict, and not for creating friendship and cooperation or openness, as in the relationship between the United States and Canada. Nonetheless, Netanyahu's diplomatic wrangling with Abbas, unpleasant as it may be, is definitely preferable to violent confrontation.