Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Why Jordan’s Foreign Minister is Optimistic about Middle East Peace: A Personal Report, by Gidon D. Remba

(And why President Kennedy’s principal advisor, the legendary Ted Sorenson, challenged him)

I had the opportunity to be part of a group of several dozen NGO leaders and diplomats who met for a discussion with Jordan’s Foreign Minister, Nasser Judeh, at the Century Foundation in New York on Sept. 27. The exchange, moderated by Professor Alon Ben-Meir, director of NYU’s Center for Strategic Development and hosted by Century Foundation fellow Michael Wahid Hanna, took place as Israel chose not to renew its partial settlement freeze, and as settlers celebrated a new spurt of building in the West Bank. These blows added fuel to the fire of widespread skepticism about the prospects for the new round of direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks mediated by the Obama Administration. So many peace initiatives have come and gone, some leading to partial and important breakthroughs, and many others falling by the wayside. Mah mishtana? Why is this new peace effort different?

Mr. Judeh set the stage by recalling Jordanian King Abdullah’s remark that the Arab-Israeli conflict is not only a local conflict, but one with global ramifications. Peace in the Middle East means peace of mind for the rest of the world. Jordan’s aspiration is for a comprehensive permanent peace settlement between Israel and the entire Arab and Muslim worlds. The path to that goal is illuminated, he believes, by the Arab Peace Initiative (API), which calls for a two-state solution, an independent, viable, sovereign and territorially contiguous Palestinian state living in harmony next to a secure Israel, and a mutually agreeable just resolution to the refugee problem. A comprehensive peace will bring Syria and Lebanon into the circle of peace first drawn by Egypt and then Jordan, extending to the entire region. Not only have all 22 countries in the Arab League endorsed the Arab Peace Initiative, but so have all 57 Muslim countries in the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).

Mr. Judeh acknowledges that the gap is vast between the two sides – yet he believes there is reason for optimism this time. All issues are on the table, reflecting the seriousness of Israeli and Palestinian leaders; and the goal is to reach an agreement within one year. He acknowledges that the pessimists have every reason for their views. Some say that the definition of a pessimist is a well-informed optimist. But Foreign Minister Judeh believes we cannot allow ourselves to think this way, bringing to mind a classic line from the great Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant, who wrote in a prescient essay called “Perpetual Peace:”

“Even if the realization of this goal of abolishing war were always to remain just a pious wish, we still would not be deceiving ourselves by adopting the maxim of working for it with unrelenting perseverance.” In other words, even if we can’t fully realize the goal, if we work towards its realization, undaunted by the many obstacles and setbacks along the way, we will all be better off. Judeh is perhaps the first Arab Kantian, in theory and in practice.

Why, then, is this new effort different, offering real hope?

First, the Obama Administration has engaged on the issue of Middle East peace from day one. President Obama called Middle East leaders on his first day in the Oval Office – even in the first hour of his presidency, signaling his commitment to engaging aggressively with the issue during his presidency. On the second day in office, when people might have expected him to be more preocuppied with domestic issues, he visited the State Department and appointed George Mitchell as his Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, deploying Mitchell to the region soon thereafter.

However, Mr. Judeh did not stress enough the difference in the way the Obama administration is shepherding the talks from beginning to end versus the laissez-faire approach that the Bush Administration took to negotiations during the Annapolis phase under Olmert and Abbas. This reinforces his point about the difference in the kind of commitment and engagement that the Obama administration is displaying, and it is unquestionably a reason for optimism.

Second, Foreign Minister Judeh believes that the current Palestinian and Israeli leadership have realized that this time they must see the process through to the end. When Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu met with President Abbas in the White House a few weeks ago, he affirmed that “we seek a peace that will last for generations” and said “President Abbas, you are my partner in peace.” Abbas, for his part, promised that there will be no provocative Palestinian actions that will undermine the negotiations – there will be no violence.

How, contrary to the skeptics and the naysayers, Obama, Netanyahu and Abbas resolved the settlement freeze:  And although the partial settlement freeze expired yesterday, Mr. Judeh is encouraged by the fact that Netanyahu asked the settlers to exercise the same restraint as when the moratorium was in place. Even if there will be no official freeze in place, Netanyahu will limit construction starts in practice so that there is no practical difference between the period during and after the official freeze.   This might be Netanyahu’s way of squaring the circle. (Ynet confirms, in a report filed yesterday, that this apears to be the formula for threading the needle:  "PA says 'quiet' construction freeze to go on:  Israel will only be allowed to build in settlement blocs, talks to continue, senior PA source says."  "Other Palestinian sources believe that the compromise in respect to West Bank construction will take the form of a 'quiet freeze,' with Israel's Defense Ministry holding up construction permits.") 

In any case, Dror Etkes, Peace Now's former Settlement Watch director, reveals that the data from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics show that the “settlement freeze” was largely a hoax, a PR stunt, “Israbluff.” ("Settlement Freeze? It was barely a slowdown," Ha'aretz, Sept. 28, 2010).  The reduction in the number of houses being actively built at the end of 2009 versus the end of March 2010 - from 2,955 to 2,517 - was little more than 400, or 16%.   In fact, notes Etkes, during the "freeze," “a relatively large part of the houses were built on settlements that lie east of the separation fence,” which are not in the settlement blocs. So if Netanyahu is agreeing now not to build in settlements beyond the settlement blocs when there is no official freeze, he may, without a “freeze,” actually be improving upon what he did during the official “freeze,” when he allowed housing to be built in far-flung settlements that will certainly not become part of Israel in any peace agreement.

The Palestinians, explains Etkes, “agreed to turn a blind eye to the construction so long as the official freeze policy of the Israeli government continued.” So, all the lamentations and wailing about Israel’s allowing the settlement freeze to thaw simply buys into the settlers' and Netanyahu’s fiction that there was any kind of serious settlement freeze in the first place.

Mr. Judeh says that there should be zero tolerance for any unilateral actions, by either side, which could undermine trust and confidence.   While there is, he believes, a need for an extension of the settlement freeze (in practice if not in name), Israeli and Palestinian leaders should stop negotiating across the airwaves, forcing each to posture for certain audiences. Coalition politics pose understandable difficulties, but leaders must have long-term vision of their peoples’ and countries’ needs. Actions and words must be in synch; one can’t profess peace and then act contrary to its requirements (at least if one’s claim to be a peace-seeker is to be credible).

The settlements are illegal and illegitimate; this is the US position, not only the international consensus. Once the borders are established by agreement, both sides will know where Israel ends and Palestine begins, and where it is legitimate for Israel to build settlements. Changing the demography on the ground will completely derail the current momentum and erode the chances for a contiguous Palestinian state. When Israel confiscates Palestinian land and property; when it evicts Palestinians from their homes and takes other unilateral measures in Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, including excavations in areas of religious sensitivity, these steps undermine confidence and the negotiations themselves.

(Some American Jews, I would add, still don’t grasp why settlement construction undermines confidence during peace talks, and as public support for diplomacy wanes and support for violence rises, can sabotage them.  They imagine that the settlements are not part of the problem, that the only problem is Arab recognition and acceptance of Israel, as right-wing propagandists often say. But this turns reality on its head and ignores the obvious. Palestinians seek a territorially contiguous state in the West Bank and Gaza, while Israelis seek acceptance and security. For Israelis, the thing that most undermines their trust in Palestinian intentions is the resurgence of violence and terrorism, particularly when the Palestinian leadership (e.g., under Arafat) not only failed to do enough to stop it, but sometimes encouraged it. But that is a thing of the past; the consistent and effective efforts of the Palestinian Authority’s US- and Jordanian-trained security forces in countering terror under Abbas have been frequently hailed as unprecedented by Israeli security officials. And President Abbas has now re-affirmed his commitment to continued cooperation with Israel in preventing the extremists from launching attacks against Israelis.

But since the Palestinians seek a contiguous state in the West Bank, when Israel builds new homes in West Bank settlements – not only the settlement blocs near the 1967 border, but in the far-flung settlements near major Palestinian West Bank population centers like Ramallah, Nablus and Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem – it sends a message to the Palestinians that it has no intention whatsoever of relinquishing the territory in a peace agreement; that there will be no contiguous Palestinian state or viable two-state solution. When faith in diplomacy and dialogue fade, support for violence rises – and so, in the end, does violence. That’s how you destroy the chance for peace. Moreover, by unilaterally deciding where it will continue to build in settlements, Israel sends a message to the Palestinians that it intends to unilaterally determine the final borders, rather than negotiating them. It wields its greater power over the Palestinians to force the outcome. It suggests that Israel is prejudicing the contours of those borders before an agreement has been reached, in effect compelling the other side to accept a fait accompli – something the parties previously committed not to do.

Breaking that promise clearly undermines Palestinian confidence in Israeli good intentions, and has contributed to the eruption of both the first and the second intifadas, and a loss of hope among Palestinians; just as the resurgence in Palestinian violence helped undermine Israelis’ trust in Palestinian good intentions, leading to a loss of hope in the chance for peace among many Israelis, even if they long for it and still favor a two-state solution. So contrary to rightist claims, while terrorism and settlement expansion can’t be equated morally, they are functionally equivalent in the role they play in sapping confidence in peace for the other side, and thus in undermining peace talks.)

The third reason this peace effort is different, giving reason for optimism, is this: there is international unanimity that we’ve had enough of the Arab-Israel conflict, and that it must at long last be brought to an end.

Fourth, the US under Obama recognizes the importance of pursuing peace as a regional goal, not simply piecemeal between Israel and the Palestinians or between Israel and Syria. The Arab Peace Initiative, and the Obama administration’s recognition of the role it can play in promoting a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace for the entire region, is another reason why the new peace effort may be different.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Jordan two weeks ago and emphasized the importance of the Arab Peace Initiative. The US is seeking to bring Syria and Lebanon into the mix, testifying to its understanding of the need for a regional approach.

Jordan has played a lead role in advising the Saudis on the Arab Peace Initiative, a win-win proposition. Israel gains peace and real security and will be genuinely integrated into the region. Once a Palestinian state is created, a just solution is agreed with regard to the refugees, and Syria and Lebanon recover their occupied territory, the Arab states will consider the Arab-Israel conflict to have ended, and all Arab states will establish normal relations with Israel. Moreover, the API affirms the security of all states in the region, including Israel. Israel’s quest for security is legitimate. Treaties and agreements will make Israel’s security a collective responsibility. The opportunities for cooperation between Israel and the Arab states are many: on water, energy, transportation and in other arenas. In fact, every Middle East leader at the UN this week spoke about the desire for regional cooperation in these areas. We need to create a political environment that will make such cooperation with Israel possible.

The Arab Peace Initiative Committee will be meeting in Cairo on Oct. 4th. Foreign Minister Judeh recognizes that more needs to be done to promote the API and its benefits to Israelis. He has been planning a conference of civil society leaders on the Arab Peace Initiative – NGO leaders, academics and others, Israeli, Arab and international – as a way to strengthen awareness of its value among peoples and governments. Originally planned for this past spring, it was postponed when the Gaza flotilla incident unfolded, and has yet to occur.

But Mr. Judeh’s message is simple and direct: If we fail now, the radicals will say, “we told you so; our way is better.” We cannot allow the forces of rejection to prevail.

For the Q&A with Jordan's Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, and why Ted Sorenson, President Kennedy's legendary principal advisor, challened him, please click here.

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