US Pushing Beyond Settlement Freeze

JERUSALEM – "Nobody can usurp the right to determine the fate of the nation on their own – not the Palestine Liberation Organization, nor anyone else. It is the will of the Palestinian people that must determine our future," declares Hamas political leader in Gaza Ismail Haniyeh.

Haniyeh was speaking Sunday at the onset of the Eid ul-Fitr holiday marking the end of the Holy Muslim month of Ramadan.

The Hamas leader’s barbs were directed against the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, and his decision to accede to the call of U.S. President Barack Obama to join a tripartite meeting with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington Tuesday.

At the end of a week of shuttle diplomacy by the special presidential envoy, former senator George Mitchell, the U.S. intermediary was unable to resolve differences between the Israelis and Palestinians and between Israel and the White House.

The Palestinian president found himself in a real fix. He had made plain in no uncertain terms that he would not attend such a summit unless Netanyahu recanted on his "No" to a complete settlement freeze.

But after urgent consultations with Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah II, when Obama phoned him personally to invite him to the meeting, the Palestinian leader found himself constrained to say "Yes."

Going into Tuesday’s summit, the Palestinian position has remained "freeze settlements" or "freeze negotiations."

Will anything make him change his mind, see the value in opening peace talks even without the hoped-for total halt on settlement-building?

That is the first of twin tests that faces the U.S. president on Tuesday – how to entice the Palestinians to the peace table.

The second challenge is to the Israeli prime minister.

Back in May, in his inaugural White House meeting, Netanyahu was rocked by the U.S. president’s blunt attitude on settlements, and by the stark implication that he would not stop short of pressuring Israel to do what he believed essential to advance peace.

At first, Netanyahu seemed to take fright. He looked for any way to avoid a showdown with the new administration, even committing himself, albeit reluctantly, to the principle of a two-state solution.

In the interim months, he chose to hold his ground, adroitly managing to maneuver between his hard-line nationalist coalition and the insistent U.S.-Arab demand to implement a total settlement building freeze and agreeing only minimally to that demand.

His supporters heralded a "first-round victory on points."

The U.S. administration has indeed – for now – fallen short of its goal to get Israel to commit to a settlement freeze.

But, the president has repeatedly insisted that such a freeze, coupled with stepped-up normalization of relations between the Arab world and Israel, was not an end in itself. It was, he indicated, but the gateway to restarting talks towards a comprehensive peace settlement.

"Comprehensive" has been the Obama watchword ever since in June in Cairo he laid out his credo on how to advance the cause of peace in the Middle East and beyond.

At this critical juncture, in advance of the new UN General Assembly session and prior to possible talks between the six powers and Iran, "comprehensive" means reaching way beyond the instrumental matter of a settlement freeze.

A "comprehensive" U.S. strategy now has two objectives: first and foremost, how to deal with Iran – how to wrap the containment of Iran and its alleged nuclear ambitions into the arena of Arab-Israeli peacemaking.

Second, comprehensive means pursuing a Palestinian-Israeli peace full-tilt, the substantive matter of ending the Israeli occupation, not just a settlement freeze for its own sake.

Proof that Obama is on course for that is to be found in the nature of the last Mitchell mission.

After his extensive talks in Jerusalem and Ramallah, sources close to the talks acknowledge that two sets of problems remain.

The first deals obviously with the length and extent of the settlement freeze in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. But it appears the talks did not revolve around that alone.

Mitchell is reliably understood to have pushed the parties on still more substantial issues that divide Israelis and Palestinians – even issues on which they had previously agreed in prior talks – the basic configuration of the borders between Israel and the future Palestinian state, and whether the status of Jerusalem should be included in the upcoming round of peace talks.

Obama has already made his point on settlements. Each time a new settlement project is announced – even in Jerusalem – comes immediate U.S. condemnation. In other words, the U.S. has laid down an active policy constraint – not just a demand – that is now a fact of Middle East peacemaking.

One that Netanyahu can no longer ignore.

No settlement expansion is now a cornerstone of the U.S. Middle East strategy – irrespective of whether Netanyahu implements a freeze, fully or partially.

Netanyahu argues that he’s ready for talks "without precondition." Obama may be able to hoist him on his own petard. After all, for the president the tripartite meeting means exactly that – the first step to full talks.

Unless Netanyahu is genuine about negotiating a two-state solution with the Palestinians, he may soon find that his satisfaction of having survived the U.S. pressure is short-lived.

Provided that the president can in fact get the talks going.

For their part, the Palestinians are chary about getting into another open-ended negotiating process.

Obama’s real test will be to prove to them that what the U.S. offers is not simply another vision of peace, but a readiness for real commitment, for U.S. engagement, and eventually, in need, for U.S. action.

The U.S. parameters on settlements, zero tolerance for further building – whether acceptable to Netanyahu or not – are already on the table.

Now, similarly on the crucial issue of the borders between the two states, Obama may be readying himself to define specific U.S. parameters.

That would constitute a dramatic shift in the U.S. status in the peace effort: No longer aloof as honest broker, but a U.S. stand, so that, when the parties struggle to reach agreement on borders, the U.S. will no longer stay on the sidelines, but be prepared to lay down its own parameters on where those borders ought to lie.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler write for Inter Press Service.