Obama golfs with Bill Clinton, spurring interest from Mideast watchers

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Middle East watchers were seized with the news that President Barack Obama was playing golf on Sunday with former President Bill Clinton.

“Pleeeeze offer him role of Mideast Envoy? Pleeeeeze?,” Israeli lawyer and anti-settlements expert Daniel Seidemann wrote on Twitter, in response to a post noting Bill Clinton was among Obama’s golfing companions Sunday.

President Obama “is golfing with former President Bill Clinton, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and Virginian gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, according to the White House press office,” White House pool reporter Eric Wasson of The Hill wrote in a pool report Sunday sent to other reporters covering the administration.

“I’m sure 42 will have advice to share on the #MidEast Peace Process,” William Daroff, Vice President for Public Policy at the Jewish Federation of North America, commented on the golf outing of Presidents 42 and 44, reported to have grown closer during Obama’s reelection campaign.

Middle East peace activists have long fantasized about Obama enlisting the popular former President to try to advance the stalled Middle East peace process. (“Bill Clinton is the only guy I can think of who is trusted and liked by all sides,” veteran US foreign policy watcher Steve Clemons told this reporter two years ago. “Employ Bill Clinton as peace envoy,” Bernard Avishai, writing at the Daily Beast, urged anew this month.)

But until recently, with the imminent departure of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, and the key role Bill Clinton played helping Obama’s reelection campaign, the prospects of such an appointment seemed entirely unlikely. Even now, as yet, there is little sign the Obama administration seems inclined to wade back into a big new Israeli-Palestinian peace push, certainly not before Israeli elections next month. The biggest obstacle: the Israelis and the Palestinians don’t seem to want it.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, angry over the United Nations vote to upgrade the Palestinian Authority’s status last week, lashed out at the Palestinian entity Sunday, as Israel announced new settlement building plans and that it was withholding $100 million in tax payments to the PA. “The Palestinians want to use the peace process in order to bring about the end of the State of Israel,” Netanyahu charged Sunday.

Given the obstacles the Israeli and Palestinian parties have thrown up to returning to the peace table, “the ultimate question is what does America do,” former Congressman Robert Wexler (D-Florida), a close ally of the Obama White House on Middle East and Jewish affairs, told the Back Channel in an interview last week. Continue reading

Israeli official: Agreement not to build in sensitive E1 zone ‘no longer relevant’


As Israel announced that it was withholding tax payments to the Palestinian Authority Sunday, an Israeli official told Al-Monitor that Israel considers its 2009 understanding with the Americans that it would not build in the sensitive E1 zone of East Jerusalem “no longer relevant.”

“The Palestinians want to use the peace process in order to bring about the end of the State of Israel,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu charged on Sunday, as the Israeli government said it was withholding some $100 million in tax funds to the Palestinian entity. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas returned home to a hero’s welcome in Ramallah Sunday, following his successful bid to get the United Nations to vote to grant the Palestinian Authority upgraded status in the world body last week.

Angered by the United Nations vote, Israel on Friday announced that it was building 3,000 new settlement homes in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and allowing zoning and building planning to go forward in the sensitive E1 zone, that if pursued would effectively divide the West Bank.

“I understand there was some agreement with the Americans in 2009 … at the start of this government’s term of office not to build in E1,” the Israeli official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Sunday by email. “That commitment has been kept in full.”

“Now we have two new factors making it no longer a relevant understanding,” he continued. First, “new elections in a few weeks [that] will bring a new government…and [secondly, the Palestinian Authority’s] fundamental violation of all prior agreements and re-writing of the rules.”

There is “no place for criticism (or even surprise) by [the] Americans,” he added. The “agreement [was] kept in full, for four long years.”

US officials did not immediately respond to requests for guidance from Al-Monitor Sunday.

But two former senior US officials told Al-Monitor that the Israelis know full well that building in E1 would cross an American red line, for both Republican and Democratic administrations.

“Building in E-1 has been a red-line for the United States, and for a reason–it would lead to the bifurcation of the West Bank and render territorial contiguity there nearly impossible,” former senior State Department official Robert Danin told Al-Monitor Sunday, noting that he spent over 20 years working Middle East issues for the State Department under both Republican and Democratic administrations. “I don’t see any administration acquiescing to building there.”

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US, Israel isolated as UN votes to upgrade Palestine status (Updated)


The United States and Israel appeared headed for a crushing defeat Thursday, as a vast majority of the world’s countries signaled they would vote in favor of the Palestinian bid to receive upgraded non-member observer status at the United Nations General Assembly. But some American diplomats and Israeli politicians said the diplomatic setback could be an opportunity for the Obama administration to rethink the politically cautious approach to the peace process it has taken over the past year.

The United States-Israeli position opposing the resolution appeared to be overwhelmingly isolated, with only around 10 countries expected to vote against the Palestinian measure, compared with some 150 expected to vote in favor.

(Update: As expected, the UN voted to upgrade Palestine’s status, with 138 nations voting in favor, 41 abstentions, and 9 votes against the measure. The no votes were: the US, Israel, Canada, Czech Republic, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, and Panama.)

Most strikingly, every country in Europe save for one signaled they were likely to abstain or vote in favor of the Palestinian statehood bid, including two of Israel’s closet allies. Germany, which had been expected to vote against the measure, abstained, and Italy, expected to abstain, said Thursday it would vote for the Palestinian status upgrade, along with France, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Ireland, and Austria. Britain abstained. S(o did Australia, following an uproar in the ruling party against Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s original intention to vote against the resolution.)

(Watch the vote at the UN General Assembly live here:)

The US diplomatic defeat could push the Obama administration to reconsider its recent hands-off approach to the peace process, following Israeli resistance to Obama’s first term efforts to bring the parties to the peace table, some American diplomats said. However, they acknowledged, Israel’s leadership showed few signs that it was prepared to reconsider its campaign to portray the moderate Palestinian Authority leadership as recalcitrant, even following the Gaza conflict this month, and Hamas’ growing political clout in the region.

“Look, there is no question this is a diplomatic defeat for the United States cause we tried very hard to postpone [this vote] and push it off the agenda altogether,” former US Ambassador to Israel and Egypt Daniel Kurtzer told Al-Monitor in an interview Thursday. “And one would assume that in the wake of a diplomatic setback, you do a lessons learned, a scrub, and you go back to some of the basics. Not just were the tactics right in trying to do this, was the strategy right.”

Such a review “may lead the President to conclude that what we thought was right thing to do last year in 2011 may not be right thing in 2012,” Kurtzer continued. “The circumstances are different—especially after what happened last week in Gaza, (when) the entire attention of the world was only focused on Hamas…the PLO was not just feeling marginalized, but the built-up frustration of kind of being the good boys.”

“Abbas gets his victory today at the UN. And that is where I think there is some diplomatic opportunity for the United States to help …persuade Abbas to have a timetable favorable to the President in terms of his next moves or non moves,” former Congressman Robert Wexler (D-Florida), a close ally of the Obama White House, told Al-Monitor in an interview Thursday, adding he saw signs that the rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah may next move towards a unity government.

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in New York Wednesday in an apparent last ditch effort to try to dissuade him from the move. (The photo above suggests the tone of their meeting was rather grim.) Burns “made a personal appeal to … Abbas promising that President Barack Obama would re-engage as a mediator in 2013 if Abbas abandoned the effort to seek statehood,” the Associated Press reported. “The Palestinian leader refused, said Abbas aide Saeb Erekat.”

Meantime, several key Israeli politicians, including former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, urged Israel and the US to support the Palestinian measure, noting it was headed for certain victory anyway, and that the resolution’s text essentially supports the vision for a two state solution that was once the consensus position of the Israeli (and American) mainstream. Continue reading

US, Israel low key as France announces support for Palestinian UN bid

The United States, in consultations with Israeli negotiator Yitzhak Molho in Washington in recent days, has urged Israel not to overreact to Palestinian plans to seek upgraded status at the United Nations on Thursday, advice Israel seemed inclined to take.

France on Tuesday said it would support the Palestinians’ bid to seek non-member observer status at the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday.

British diplomats indicated Tuesday that Britain is still undecided how it will vote.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke with British Foreign Secretary William Hague on Tuesday about the issue, the State Department said, adding it agreed to disagree with France over its decision to back the Palestinian bid.

“With regard to France and any other countries, we obviously disagree with our oldest ally on this issue,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told journalists at the State Department Tuesday. “They know that we disagree with them, but it’s their sovereign decision to make how to proceed.”

The United States, France and UK have urged the Palestinians to modify language in the draft resolution concerning whether Israel could be brought before the International Court of Justice or International Criminal Court.

But western diplomats told Al Monitor Tuesday that the Palestinians think they have enough votes for the measure to pass at the UNGA without modifying the language and did not seem likely to change it. The key imperative is for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to resume soon, a European diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Tuesday.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas sees pursuing the UN bid “as an act of [political] survival,” Rob Malley, a Middle East expert at the International Crisis Group, told a panel at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Monday. His UN bid “is the most moderate expression of his frustration. Politically, he has no choice.”

“The smart answer for Israel would be … to say ‘fine by us,’ and not react in a harsh way,” Malley continued. “Taking harsh retaliatory measures [would risk promoting] the image of punishing Abbas for going to the UN when [Israel] rewarded Hamas with a ceasefire” after the Gaza conflict this month.

Israeli diplomats indicated that is the approach Israel was likely to take for now, though they complained the timing of the UN bid being just before Israeli elections was particularly unhelpful.

“At least for now, we’re going to go low profile on the whole deal,” an Israeli diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Tuesday. “Just another day of ‘let’s be horrible to Israel.’. We’re used to it and aren’t getting excited, even if it is completely unhelpful to the pursuit of conflict resolution and a violation of all agreements between us, etc.” Continue reading

Cairo hosts Gaza mediation talks as parties seek to avert Israeli invasion

Cairo is host to four-way talks on the Gaza crisis Saturday, as regional parties seek to move Hamas and Israel to a cease-fire and avert an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza.

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi is hosting consultations with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, and several Palestinian leaders.

Speaking from Cairo, a senior advisor to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas praised Egyptian mediation efforts, while lamenting Israeli action as further unravelling aspirations for a two state solution.

“President Abbas has consistently offered negotiations for a two-state solution, but Israel has shown no interest in these negotiations,” the senior Abbas adviser told Al-Monitor’s Andrew Parasiliti Saturday. “So this is the result. And the Palestinian people pay the price. We have warned for a while that such a confrontation could be the outcome of the Arab Spring, in the absence of a peace process.”

With regard to the role of Egypt, the Palestinian senior adviser added, “Egypt has a critical role to play for both Palestinian mediation, according to the mandate from the Arab League, and between Israel and Hamas in the present crisis.”

Hours into day four of Operation Pillar of Defense, Israel has hit some 800 targets in Gaza, while Hamas has launched some 750 rockets into Israel, including five in the direction of Tel Aviv and two towards Jerusalem, Yossi Melman reports from Tel Aviv Saturday:

Three Israeli civilians have been killed, and 40 Palestinians, both Hamas combatants and civilians, including children.

Eighty of the attempted Hamas rocket launches have failed, while 27 rockets hit urban areas and caused damage. The Iron Dome anti ballistic missile defense system has intercepted 230 Hamas rockets– about 8 out of 10 rockets it has attempted to intercept in the current confrontation.

Melman estimates that:

Israel is very reluctant to move in with a ground attack. The mobilization of reservists is mainly for psychological purposes to increase pressure on Hamas.

2. The chances of a cease fire are increased.

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Netanyahu aimed to provoke confrontation amid 2010 US peace push


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not planning to launch an all-out attack on Iran in 2010, before he was blocked by his national security chiefs, as has recently been reported in Israel. Rather, Netanyahu, together with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, was intending to provoke an attack that would potentially trigger a chain of events that would draw the United States towards confrontation with Iran, Yossi Melman reports on the front page:

The truth is that Netanyahu and Barak did not order the military to plan a direct, all-out attack on Iran. Their true intention was to trigger a chain of events which would create tension and provoke Iran, and eventually could have led to a war that might drag in the United States.

Israeli censors, notably, have blocked Israeli media from reporting when in 2010 the episode occurred. But sources told Al Monitor this week that the events occurred in mid-2010. Specifically, in September, 2010. (Update:The New York Times’ Jodi Rudoren, responding to a contact on Facebook, says she was reliably told the incident was in late 2010. But a source told Al-Monitor the incident occurred in September, adding “it would be out of the question late 2010 because Dagan”–Israel’s then Mossad chief Meir Dagan, who played a key role in thwarting the plan–“left office in December 2010.” Rudoren later told me ‘late 2010’ could include September in her understanding.)

The Netanyahu and Barak “push to put forces on alert was not confined to one meeting,” Melman writes. “They raised it repeatedly on numerous occasions.”

In the summer of 2010, President Obama was meeting separately with Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House, as he geared up for a major re-launch of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in September. Those peace talks–announced with great fanfare at the White House in early September–collapsed just a few weeks later, when Israel refused to extend a partial West Bank settlement freeze. They have never resumed. Continue reading

Friday links: Abbas not seeking right of return, US Syria plan faces resistance