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Friendship, Obama-style

On the occasion of the 2014 Israel Conference on Peace, US President Barack Obama calls on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to compromise, but does the United States not bear any responsibility for the negotiation crisis?
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) meets with U.S. President Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington March 3, 2014.   REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst    (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR3FZYX

“Secretary Kerry and I remain determined to work with both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas to pursue a two-state solution.” This is the pledge made by US President Barack Obama in an article being published July 8 in the Israeli daily Haaretz. 

In the lead article of the special supplement being issued by the newspaper on the occasion of the Israel Conference on Peace, convened by Haaretz in Tel Aviv on the morning of July 8 (in the interest of full disclosure, I serve as director-general of the conference), Obama leaves no doubt as to the essence of that “determination.” The president makes clear that he and Secretary of State John Kerry will get to work and contribute their fair share only when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas themselves show that “the political will exists to recommit to serious negotiations.”

Neither I nor the United States will ever waver in our commitment to the security of Israel and the Israeli people,” Obama says, adding that “our support for peace will always remain a bedrock foundation of that commitment.” 

Indeed, good tidings for the people of Israel. But if the president is so committed to Israel’s security, and if his belief in peace is the basis for that commitment, why does he abandon the task of peacemaking? After all, according to his own testimony, it is the belief in peace that constitutes the basis of his commitment to the security of Israel's citizens.

The US president further notes in his article that ''refusing to compromise or cooperate with one another won’t do anything to increase security for either the Israeli or the Palestinian people.'' 

Given the deteriorating security in recent days, on both sides of the Green Line, is there any doubt that the words “compromise” and “cooperation” have left the Israeli-Palestinian lexicon for an extended vacation?

According to comments made by Abbas in a recorded interview to be aired at the conference, Obama and Kerry were the ones who failed to display exemplary political will to promote the negotiations. “Kerry did not propose any framework,” the Palestinian president contends. “He only verbally conveyed certain ideas concerning the framework.” 

Abbas says that the wording of the framework agreements was orally read to him, but he did not receive any document in his hands. When Obama asked him whether he was willing to adopt Kerry’s framework, Abbas says his answer was: “I cannot say whether I do, or do not, accept the framework without having it as a written text. Since if it [the framework] had been delivered to me verbally, any person, any side, can claim this happened and this did not. Until now, we have not been submitted any written framework. When I ask of it, I'm told: ‘We're working on it.’” 

Abbas also said that Kerry told him it would be better at that stage to give up on a framework and instead “we may better work on summarized small ideas — he named ‘petite’ — that he will present us.” Abbas rejected Israel’s claim that he did not accept Kerry’s proposal. “Tell me how exactly did we refuse and did not accept?” he claimed, insisting, “We refused nothing.” 

This is Abbas' side of the story. The rest is known. Kerry pulled out of the negotiations, the Netanyahu government put the release of Palestinian prisoners on ice and thawed out construction plans for the settlements, the Palestinian Authority (PA) joined an array of international conventions, Abbas signed a reconciliation agreement with Hamas and the American mediator, Martin Indyk, resigned. Obama left sizzling embers in a dry field and it was only a matter of time before an ill wind ignited the flames that cannot be doused.

What are Obama’s options at this point? To watch from the sidelines as the radical Jewish right wing and the Hamas zealots turn Palestine and Israel into the arena of another bloody Middle Eastern war? To drag the sides into another round of talks based on the same failed formula of the bilateral negotiations between Israeli chief negotiator Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat? To sit idly by until the Israeli public wises up and stops walking with its eyes wide shut into an abyss of racism and ostracism?

Saudi Prince Turki Al-Faisal, who served as chief of Saudi intelligence (1977-2001) and his country’s ambassador to the United Kingdom (2002-2005) and the United States (2005-2006), suggests another option. In an article in the special Haaretz peace supplement — the first by a senior Saudi in an Israeli newspaper — the prince wrote that the timeout in Kerry’s mediation efforts and the grave disappointment in the failed US diplomacy provide a rare opportunity to advance the Arab Peace Initiative, first proposed by Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz and adopted by the Arab League in 2002. According to him, the initiative constitutes a framework for a just and comprehensive solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as with the Arab world.

Turki proposes the Arab Peace Initiative as an alternative to Kerry’s suggestion of negotiating individually on each of the core issues (borders, security, Jerusalem and refugees). He writes in his article that acceptance of this initiative’s principles (normalization with all Arab states in return for Israeli withdrawal to a border based on the 1967 lines and a just and agreed-upon solution to the refugee problem based on UN Resolution 194) will enable the opening of negotiations over the exact borders and the refugee problem, in accordance with international principles. He noted that an Arab League delegation to Washington in April 2013 made clear that the Arab Peace Initiative was not static and was not a simplistic dictate; rather it could be adapted to reflect everything on which Israelis and Palestinians agree upon in negotiations.

The Saudi prince ends his article with an expression of concern. He is worried that an alternative to the Arab initiative, which Israel keeps stubbornly ignoring, is a continuous conflict until the day when the question will no longer be how to reach a two-state solution but whether bloodshed will continue to be the norm. “Is that really what Israel wants?” Turki wonders. 

That question can also be put to Obama, who wishes to show the Israelis his commitment to their security through slogans about joint development of technological defense systems, such as devices for the long-distance detection of explosives. The president would be better off helping them detect the explosives lying at their feet. When the ground is burning in Israel and the territories, true friends are not allowed to watch the impending disaster from afar.

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