JERUSALEM — Amazingly, just when all four parties — the U.S., its allies in the Arab world, the Palestinian Authority, and Israel — seemed to have hit rock bottom in terms of the prospects of moving the region away from conflict and towards peace, all of a sudden everything seems to be pointing in the exact opposition direction.
Gloom is proving a catalyst for action — at least hoped-for action.
It’s all the more amazing, because it comes at a time when all sides are taking off their gloves — both to punch their own positions hard, but also, as boxers do before a bout when they embrace one another — embrace the latest U.S. led peace-effort.
The new situation crystallized when the United Nations Human Rights Council decided to delay the vote on the findings of the damning Goldstone Report about Israel’s war in Gaza. And this, in line with a request by the Palestinian Authority, under pressure from the U.S., and with full support of its Arab peace partners.
The punches are more or less as follows.
The United States: True, the U.S. has reduced its demand on Israel with respect to settlements building — from a "freeze" to "restraint." But President Barack Obama continues to make clear he’s fully engaged and determined to get the parties back to the negotiating table.
The most striking evidence of that commitment is the decisive way in which Washington has handled the Goldstone Report.
The U.S. Administration feared that the report charging Israel with war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity would create an imposing obstacle in the way of any new negotiations between Israel and the PA.
The report has hardened positions on both sides.
Israel: Ample proof was a palpable threat from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He declared that if the findings were adopted by the Human Rights Council, that would be tantamount to inflicting a "fatal blow to peace."
The Palestinian Authority: President Mahmoud Abbas had already been under stringent criticism for having agreed to participate in the tripartite New York meeting with Obama and Netanyahu.
His critics said this made the Palestinian cause weak since Netanyahu, in their view, got away with evading the settlement freeze.
Now, Abbas’s Authority is being pummeled for capitulating to the U.S. insistence that he instruct his delegation in Geneva to delay the vote on the Goldstone Report, effectively shelving any further discussion on Israel’s "war crimes" for six months.
Increasingly under fire from within his own constituency, on Sunday, Abbas ordered an internal investigation into why his government had agreed to take the lead to delay the vote, the Palestinian news agency Ma’an reported.
At a time when the rival Palestinian governments — that of the PA in the West Bank, and that of Hamas in Gaza — have announced that they’ve agreed to sign a reconciliation charter in Cairo on Oct. 26, the controversial Abbas decision has added ammunition to the Hamas argument that the PA abandoned their own people in Gaza during the war.
Hamas leader in Gaza Ismail Haniyeh said Abbas’s decision "cannot be seen as a conciliatory act," and reflected an attitude that "would perpetuate internal turmoil."
Other Hamas leaders at a special legislative session held in Gaza City accused Abbas of committing "national treason."
And, another top Hamas leader, Mahmoud Zahar, said that Abbas could no longer be considered a Palestinian, and demanded that he be stripped of his citizenship.
The Arab World: In the broader Arab world, dismay was reflected in what the London-based Arabic paper Al-Quds Al-Arabi had to say: the shelving of the Report with PA acquiescence was a betrayal, as if the PA was lining up with Israel which had wantonly killed so many Palestinian civilians.
This mood compounded the steadfast resistance which the U.S. Arab allies had shown to Washington’s call on them to initiate confidence-building measures towards Israel as a quid pro quo for a settlement freeze.
Then came the dramatic Goldstone Report, and the yet more dramatic turnabout to put it off.
Embraces have replaced punches.
The US: For Washington, the postponement is all about making sure that the chance to restart peace talks is not squandered.
But, if, in the U.S. view, the timing of the report was wholly wrong, that does not mean that the Goldstone Report will not be used, alongside U.S. strictures on settlements building, as a Sword of Damocles held over Israel should it play only hard ball in the negotiations during the coming six months.
The Arab world: That is precisely the reason why Arab allies of the U.S. and other Muslim states agreed to accept the PA lead and go along with the deferral of the report.
The Arab states seemed actually quite relieved by the U.S. gambit.
The Palestinian Authority: Buffeted from all sides, the Abbas Authority looks to have caved in on all fronts. In fact, it could be perceived as having demonstrated unusual determination and courage. Following the hearts of frustrated Arab public opinion would have been an easy alternative.
Instead, by accepting Washington’s call for a six-month delay, the PA long- term strategic interests could well be served. It promotes the possibility of keeping the U.S. very much on the Palestinian side in terms of what will be the eventual outcome of the negotiations with Israel.
Israel: By threatening peace if the Goldstone report were to be on the table, Netanyahu may again be preparing to parade a victory, just as he did on the settlements issue.
But, in stark contrast to Palestinian-U.S. relations, that may prove short-term satisfaction.
The Israeli leader has demonstrated that he is not particularly predisposed to relinquish any occupied territory.
But, Netanyahu may soon come to discover that as on the question of the settlements, on the core peace issues (including Jerusalem’s future), there will have to be substantial talks — sooner, rather than later — if he wants the moral questions aroused by the Report not to haunt Israel permanently.
The controversial six-month freezing of the report in fact brings together all the strands of a potential breakthrough to a settlement or — alternatively — major crises on several fronts:
– The moral Sword of Damocles hangs over Israel;
– Six-month is also the period agreed between the PA and Hamas for new elections in the middle of 2010;
– Within the same time, Obama will have expected substantial peace talks to have begun;
– Most critically, the coming half-year will be a containing period, not only with regard to Israel and the Palestinians, but also with respect to Iran. It will give Obama enough leeway to handle more effectively the talks on curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
The gloves are indeed off.
Comprehensive peace was the goal, Barack Obama declared solemnly, when he struck the opening bell for a new peace move in his landmark speech in Cairo back in June.
Comprehensive is indeed the name of the U.S. Middle East game with Obama as referee.
(Inter Press Service)