Do the Americans know how to do peace talks? Can they get a final status agreement within nine months?

Well, they have tried it before — the Annapolis process, Wye River, Camp David July 2000 and let’s not forget former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker announcing “here’s my phone number, call me when you’re ready”…]

Kerry's Iftar - full table - US State Dept on Monday 29 July 2013

Kerry’s Iftar – full table – US State Dept on Monday 29 July 2013

Above photo Tweeted by @michelghandour + posted here

Secretary Kerry Iftar dinner for Israeli + Palestinian Negotiators
Secretary Kerry Iftar dinner for Israeli + Palestinian Negotiators

Photo taken + Tweeted by AP Photographer Charles Dharapak + posted here

Israerli + Palestinian negotiators at Secretary Kerry Iftar Dinner
Israeli + Palestinian negotiators at Secretary Kerry Iftar Dinner

Photo taken + Tweeted by AP Photographer Charles Dharapak + posted here

So, as Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said at a joint press conference in Washington on Tuesday evening [with an emotion-laden voice, before apparently impulsively kissing U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on both cheeks],  there’s now a second chance:

“A new opportunity is being created for us, for all of us, and we cannot afford to waste it…”

Saeb Erekat + John Kerry + Tzipi Livni after press conference Tuesday
Saeb Erekat + John Kerry + Tzipi Livni after press conference Tuesday

Photo taken + Tweeted by AP Photographer Charles Dharapak + posted here

Kerry said, at the beginning of the press conference on Tuesday, that:

“As all of you know, it has taken an awful lot of work and a long time, a lot of time, to reach this new moment of possibility in the pursuit of an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”.

He said one striking thing at the end of his prepared remarks:

“I think everyone involved here believes that we cannot pass along to another generation the responsibility of ending a conflict that is in our power to resolve in our time. They should not be expected to bear that burden, and we should not leave it to them. They should not be expected to bear the pain of continued conflict or perpetual war”.

And in between, he said:

“The United States will work continuously with both parties as a facilitator every step of the way. We all understand the goal that we’re working towards: two states living side by side in peace and security. Two states because two proud peoples each deserve a country to call their own. Two states because the children of both peoples deserve the opportunity to realize their legitimate aspirations in security and in freedom. And two states because the time has come for a lasting peace.

We all appreciate – believe me – we appreciate the challenges ahead. But even as we look down the difficult road that is before us and consider the complicated choices that we face, we cannot lose sight of something that is often forgotten in the Middle East, and that is what awaits everybody with success. We need to actually change the way we think about compromise in order to get to success. Compromise doesn’t only mean giving up something or giving something away; reasonable principled compromise in the name of peace means that everybody stands to gain. Each side has a stake in the other’s success, and everyone can benefit from the dividends of peace.

We simply wouldn’t be standing here if the leaders – President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu – and their designated negotiators and all of us together didn’t believe that we could get there”…

A few weeks ago, just after Kerry’s flying visit to Ramallah on 19 July, Rami G. Khouri wrote here: “I have not given up hope that a negotiated peace can one day be achieved, but I pretty much have given up hope that it can be attained through renewed negotiations mediated these days by the United States … It is impossible to expect both sides under their current leaderships to make major substantive concessions on core issues simply in order to get to the negotiating table, where they will not be able to agree on a final accord that addresses the big sticker items of land, settlements refugees, and Jerusalem. The strategy now being used seeks to formulate vague agreements simply to resume negotiations will not work because the imprecision of positions on settlements, borders or mutual recognition necessary to restart the talks only cements the inability of both sides to achieve a permanent, comprehensive agreement”.

So what happened in the last ten days? One thing, apparently, was the U.S. issuance of still-unpublished “letter[s] of assurance”, in which the American administration took a stand in favor of concrete positions [such as, the negotiations will be based on pre-4-June 1967 borders, which changed things for the Palestinians…]

US President Obama + VP Biden meet Palestinian + Israeli negotiators
US President Obama + VP Biden meet Palestinian + Israeli negotiators

This photo was Tweeted by the US State Department and is posted here.

Now, Khouri wrote, in a piece entitled “What Do We Learn from 45 Years of Negotiations?”, syndicated by Agence Global and posted here, that he was disappointed in Kerry’s call, Monday [and Tuesday] for a “reasonable compromise” — Khouri said Kerry “sounded more like a high school guidance counselor speaking to teenagers who had an argument”.

Continue reading Do the Americans know how to do peace talks? Can they get a final status agreement within nine months?

Despite opposition, a Palestinian delegation will go to Washington on Monday to start talks after Israel's Cabinet approves release of 104 Pre-Oslo Prisoners

After hours of deliberation, Israel’s Cabinet voted on Monday to authorize the release of 104 of the longest-held Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

There was a delay of one and half hours before the start of the cabinet meeting, as Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu moved to shore up his own Likud party and make sure he had enough votes to pass the motion.’

Citizens were protesting outside Netanyahu’s office. A mountain of meanness was being expressed about the prisoner release, and the word “terror” was getting quite a workout.

Dani Dayan, for example, Tweeted this:
@dandayan — Releasing terrorists for peace, is like trying to put out a fire with gasoline, it is dangerous, immoral and irresponsible.
@dandayan — Who did John Kerry set free? My piece at @TimesofIsrael . Releasing terrorists is obscene.
@dandayan — a) I see no reason for any payment for the right to negotiate. b) Release of terrorists is morally flawed

@Marianhouk — Where is the leader who’ll tell his people that both sides have suffered? MT @DanWilliams Netanyahu: “Don’t lecture me abt fighting terror”.

According to Haaretz correspondent @BarakRavid on Twitter, Netanyahu reportedly told Likud ministers that “every Palestinian provocation will result in halting of the prisoner release process”, and also that “every decision to release Arab-Israeli prisoners will be brought back for a vote in the cabinet”…

UPDATE: Barak Ravid later wrote in Haaretz here that this latter proposal was based on a suggestion from Minister Silvan Shalom: “During the debate, Shalom proposed a compromise that eased the way for many Likud ministers to not vote against. Under the proposal, which was adopted by Netanyahu, any decision to release Israeli Arabs would require a new vote by the full cabinet. Based on the tentative schedule of prisoner releases, such a discussion is likely to take place, if at all, only in another nine months”.

Haaretz writer @AnshelPfeffer Tweeted slightly earlier that:
No PM in #Israel ever lost vote on releasing prisoners. #Netanyahu trying to “convince” ministers meant to show how “hard” the decision is

But, this leads to questions:
@Marianhouk — So it can be stopped if there are problems in talks? MT @rcolebourn – #Israel PM: prisoner releases will only happen after talks start + in a staged way…

Meanwhile, Mahmoud Abbas called his Government ministers to the Muqata’a for a [rare] meeting at 2 pm.

And, a protest demonstration was called by the PFLP in Ramallah at noon.
@DaliaHatuqa reported that according to @Addameer:  A Ramallah demo against negotiations was broken up by PA police who beat protesters, including PLC member Khalida Jarrar

@RZabaneh Tweeted an amazing video of the clashes duringt the #PFLP protest against the resumption of negotiations.

@LinahAlsaafin wrote that Demo against negotiations broken up by Palestinian Authority. PA is now arresting injured demonstrators from Ramallah Hospital v @Addameer

During the wait for the Israeli Cabinet vote, @DaliaHatuqa Tweeted that The Palestinian Prisoners’ Society published the list of names of detainees expected to be released =

And, a PLO official told Haaretz that “The release of all the prisoners was an agreement between the U.S. + Israel, not between Israel + the Palestinians…Based on this agreement, the Americans received our consent to renew talks”…

Continue reading Despite opposition, a Palestinian delegation will go to Washington on Monday to start talks after Israel's Cabinet approves release of 104 Pre-Oslo Prisoners

Rami Hamdallah "offers" his resignation on Thursday + confirms by Tweet [can Abbas get him to stay?]

The new Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, who was sworn into office 2.5 weeks ago, suddenly “offered” his resignation to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on 20  June — and then drove off in “a private car” [without security?] to his hometown of Anabta.

Even in a political culture which such an intricate resignation culture as the Palestinian Authority’s [renamed since January this year on the orders of Abbas as the Palestinian Government], this was a surprise shock.

It is a tactic that must not be over-used: serial resignations appear weak and temperamental, and will be ridiculed.

There are only two ways Hamdallah’s resignation can be respected, and the basic bottom line must be (1) that he really means it.

He could also get some points, in some calculations, if (2) he manages to get enormous concessions, and stays in office, and then amasses enough power to keep on getting what he wants, all the time.

Hamdallah — who said that he would only serve three months at the most, basically until the end of the academic summer vacation, and until a new unity goverment in place — will not get a second chance at this.

Hamdallah announced his decision in a terse Tweet on Thursday afternoon.  It was only his second Tweet, on his official Twitter account:

Rami Hamdallah @PalestineGov
I offered my resignation to the President of PA. Official note will be released soon. R.H.

Rami Hamdallah @PalestineGov 4 Jun
Welcome! This is my official Twitter account. Rami Hamdallah, Prime Minister of Palestine.

Does posting one’s resignation on Twitter make it definitive?  Apparently not.

Mahmoud Abbas, a cagey politician who is used to getting his way and who is prepared to wait to have his revenge cold, was certainly surprised and most probably also embarrassed — and sent Tayyib Abdul Rahim, an adviser, and Majed Faraj, head of the Palestinian intelligence services in the West Bank, right up to Anabta after Hamdallah, apparently to try to persuade him to come back to the Muqata’a for a chat [or to agree to change his mind].  They stayed for three hours, and nobody had anything to say afterwards [though the media was informed that had Hamdallah agreed to come back to Ramallah on Friday evening — rather than immediately — to meet with Abbas].

News detail: I was in Samer Restaurant just before noon, getting a grilled chicken to take home, when I saw a group order of sandwiches and bottles of soft drinks [mostly Coca Cola, regular + zero, as well as Fanta orange soda] being assembled to take to the Prime Minister’s office.  It looked like the sign of a convivial work session before the Palestinian weekend [Friday + Saturday], not of an imminent blow-up and resignation…

The first news reports spoke of a dispute over responsibilities and powers.

Then, attention began to focus on the peculiar imposition, by Abbas, of two deputy Prime Ministers to serve with Abbas — one a former Foreign Minister, from Gaza, who has a good and serious reputation, and the other one Dr. Mohammad Mustafa, who had recently resigned as head of the Palestine Investment Fund just before the resignation of former PM Salam Fayyad amid speculation that he was preparing to replace Fayyad.  Mustafa, who apparently remains Abbas’ economic adviser, was privy to the business secrets of the Palestinian wealthy elite, and is a man who is used to not answering sceptical questions.  Mustafa takes his privilege quite seriously.

AFP reported here that  “Mustafa, who heads the Palestine Investment Fund and was handed the role of economic adviser, was initially tipped as a possible successor to Fayyad.  And when the new government was sworn in, it was he who held the first news conference following its initial cabinet meeting on June 11, not Hamdallah, in a move which raised a few eyebrows”.

It had also been reported that Mustafa would be the spokesman of the new government. But, after the second cabinet meeting under Hamdallah on June 18, it was officially announced that Dr. Ehab Bessaiso would be the spokesperson for the government, as well as Director of the Palestinian Government Media Center [following in the footsteps of Ghassan Khateeb, a former Minister of Labor as well as Minister of Planning, who resigned within the past year and was replaced by Nour Odeh, a former correspondent of Al-Jazeera TV].

Dalia Hatuqa , a journalist who lives in Ramallah, Tweeted after the resignation “offer”:

Dalia Hatuqa @DaliaHatuqa
I don’t get why people are surprised. The man was assigned not one but two deputies for a reason: to do his job for him => power struggle

Dalia Hatuqa @DaliaHatuqa
Worth noting that Pal Basic Law doesnt mention 2 deputies. There was 1 instance (at least) where a DPM was assigned in 2007: Azzam Al Ahmad

Dalia Hatuqa @DaliaHatuqa
Also worth noting that the Palestinian Basic Law doesn’t mention a deputy prime minister position at all #previoustweet **

Dalia Hatuqa @DaliaHatuqa
2-3 weeks/months from now when Hamdallah resigns again, the news will not be met with today’s media frenzy

Dalia Hatuqa @DaliaHatuqa
We’ve seen this scenario too many times w predecessor to believe Abbas will accept Hamdallah’s resignation. Kiss-n-makeup session will ensue

** It’s also worth nothing that the Palestinan Basic Law hasn’t been adopted, as it wasn’t approved by the Palestinian Legislative Council, which was unable to meet due to a lack of quorum and whose mandate has now expired…

Continue reading Rami Hamdallah "offers" his resignation on Thursday + confirms by Tweet [can Abbas get him to stay?]

Drinking tea together – [UPDATED]

WAFA, the official Palestinian news agency, published this photo, here, of President Mahmoud Abbas [on right] sitting with Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, after Fayyad submits his resignation and Abbas accepts it.

Mahmoud Abbas + Salam Fayyad drink tea together in the Muqata'a - 13 April 2013
Mahmoud Abbas + Salam Fayyad drink tea together in the Muqata'a - 13 April 2013

A meeting between the two men, for this purpose, was set for last Thursday, then postponed after American intervention. The U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who had just visited the region, called President Abbas on Friday and urged that the differences between the two officials be settled. A meeting was set for Saturday morning, then postponed. Then, it suddenly took place on Saturday evening.

The Associated Press reported that “Mr Abbas and Mr Fayyad had been locked in an increasingly bitter dispute over the extent of the prime minister’s authority”. The AP account of this event was published by The National, here.

The New York Times also used the AP story, which said that, according to WAFA, “Abbas asked Fayyad to continue to serve in his post until Abbas forms a new government. Abbas was expected to name a new prime minister within days, according to Palestinian officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations…[T]he conflict between the two escalated last month over the resignation of Fayyad’s finance minister, Nabil Kassis. Fayyad accepted the resignation, but Abbas then overruled the prime minister, effectively challenging his right to hire and fire Cabinet ministers”.  This is published here.

Kassis served as Finance Minister for about ten months.  Fayyad was Finance Minister for years before Kassis’ appointment, and he retook control of the Finance Ministry after he accepted Kassis’ resignation in early March.

When Palestinian Government employees began strike actions in December to protest impossibly difficult conditions caused by late and only partial payment of their salaries [due to donor cut-offs and other economic problems facing the Fayyad government], it was Kassis who engaged in intensive discussions with the public employees’ union, and he appeared to have earned their cooperation — though some major union branches were not satisfied with the arrangements Kassis and the union leadership had reached.

UPDATE:  Amin Maqbul, a member of Fateh’s Revolutionary Council, said that “Fatah is relieved over Fayyad’s timely resignation which was inevitable.  Maqboul said Fayyad’s government” had ‘failed miserably’ to steer the economy through the economic crisis”. This is published here.

The London-based editor of Al-Quds al-Arabi, Abdelbari Atwan, wrote  that “We are very shocked to learn that the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah has run up debts approaching $5bn and that $1bn is external debt. These debts are a heavy burden on the Palestinian people, and will extend to the coming generations. Most Palestinians thought that the PA’s funding came from the donor countries, not debts that would constrain the hands of the Palestinian people and break their will…I thank God for the resignation of Dr Nabil Qasis, which freed him to open up this issue of debts, to expose the cover-up of the increasing financial quagmire. The Palestinian prime minister should resign from his position, as he has plunged his country, subject to Israeli occupation, into debt. Salam Fayyad and his President Mahmoud Abbas should bear the responsibility of this disaster. They should resign from their positions as they have exempted the Israeli occupation from bearing its responsibility for over 20 years since signing the Oslo Agreement. There needs to be a Palestinian investigation into the debt crisis to clarify how the debts accumulated without consultation with the Palestinian people, and the lack of transparency”.   This is a position of some in the West Bank, as well.  Atwan’s post is published here.

Though economic problems and or financial decisions are cited as the main reasons for Fayyad’s most recent problems, his control of part of the Palestinian security apparatus may well be one of the main problems. Mahmoud Abbas’ elder surviving son, Yasser Abbas, explained the set-up to me in an interview in his office in December 2008: “the Prime Minister, according to the by-laws, has the control over the Police, the fire-fighting, and the Preventive Security, I believe. The Secret Service, the National Guard, and the rest, and the Presidential Guard, are by the President”. This is published on this blog here.

UPDATE: Though Barak Ravid described Nabil Qassis as a “close confidant” of Salam Fayyad in an analysis he published in Haaretz on Sunday evening, here, there were apparently fundamental disagreements that Fayyad may have found threatening.

One of Nabil Qassis’ ideas, apparently, was to make a substantial reduction [more than 50%] in the numbers of the Palestinian security forces. [Was this proposal backed by Abbas?]

It was, in any case, apparently strongly opposed by Fayyad.  [The donors, and the Israelis, must have been with Fayyad on this…]

An article by Nathan Thrall published in The New York Review of Books in October 2010 reported that: “ ‘reforming the security forces’, Ghassan Khatib, a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority, told me, ‘is the main and integral part of the Fayyad plan. Many of the government’s other successes, such as economic growth, came as a result’.” This is reported here.

Thrall reported that there was a “law-and-order” aspect to the program, planned by then U.S. Security Coordinator Lt General Keith Dayton, and approved by Fayyad. It also had a “counter-terrorism component, which was largely directed against Hamas. According to Thrall, “the center of the Palestinian government’s security reforms are several ‘special battalions’ of the National Security Forces (NSF), an eight-thousand-member gendarmerie that makes up the largest unit of the 25,000-strong Palestinian armed forces in the West Bank”.

The huge anger that Palestinians have about the Palestinian security apparatus [that doesn’t protect them] was explained by Fateh member Qaddoura Fares earlier Saturday, when he complained that the security apparatus in Palestine is too strong, while the judiciary is too weak.  “Nothing has survived from our agreements [with Israel] but the security aspects; Israel wants only the security parts…Israel wants us to be like Antoine Lahad in South Lebanon, they want us to be the bodyguards of the settlers…which means that we legitimize what the settlers are doing…I’m from Silwad, and yesterday settlers attacked 1 of our colleagues [n.b.-a 60-year old Palestinian judge, who was working on his land].  No Palestinian police tried to save the Palestians.  But I have to think that our police are for me, to save my life or my children’s lives…”

For now, and until his replacement is appointed, Fayyad will remain in charge of what is now being called a “caretaker” government.

UPDATE: The Associated Press reported Sunday from Tokyo, where U.S. Secretary of State is visiting, that Kerry commented:  ‘We’re totally committed to moving forward with the economic thing no matter what’, Kerry said, citing US business partners including Coca-Cola.  ‘The West Bank is there, Palestinian aspirations are there, the government is there. And in order to be a viable government, there’s got to be more than one person that you can do business with.  So we will continue to work at this and hope that President Abbas finds the right person to work with him in a transition, and work with us, to establish confidence’, he added.  ‘Everybody is going to want somebody who provides confidence’. Kerry said he preferred that Fayyad stay on the job, but that he understood Fayyad’s decision.  ‘He’s been sick, he’s tired, he’s been at this seven years. He has kids in school. He’s anxious to carve his own path here and I respect that’, Kerry said.  ‘But he’s going to be there for a while. I had a long conversation with him. He’s resigned and he accepted his resignation. But there’s going to be a caretaker process for some period of time and he’s not going to go away from Palestinian politics completely — if at all’.”  Kerry’s reaction is published here.

UPDATE: Israel’s AlternativeNews reported that “Kassis, who was handpicked by Abbas, was appointed as finance minister last year. In March Kassis announced that he was stepping down”.  This is posted here.

UPDATE: Harriet Sherwood wrote in The Guardian, here, that “The immediate trigger for the crisis appears to be Fayyad’s acceptance last month of the resignation of the finance minister, Nabil Kassis, an Abbas protege. However, the Palestinian Authority has been in financial crisis for months, with public servants unpaid and protests over price rises and taxes…While he was one of the few senior politicians to frequently visit marginalised communities and ask after their concerns, tax and commodity price hikes repeatedly stoked angry street protests against him. Palestinian unemployment has risen to almost 25% and real GDP growth is set to fall from an average of 11% in 2010-11 to just 5% in 2013, according to the World Bank”.

UPDATE: Al-Quds Newspaper in Jerusalem reported Sunday, here, that Fayyad first submitted his resignation to Abbas on 23 February.

UPDATE: On 14 February, The New York Times published a very downbeat profile of Fayyad by Roger Cohen, in which Fayyad complained about, among other things, being undermined by Israeli actions: “somebody needs to explain to me how something viewed as central to building peace is left on the ropes for three years, reeling under bankruptcy, and every action is taken to erode its political viability. We have sustained a doctrinal defeat. We have not delivered. I represent the address for failure. Our people question whether the P.A. can deliver. Meanwhile, Hamas gains recognition and is strengthened. This is the result of nothingness. It is not just that we have been having a bad day”. Fayyad also complained about the lack of a functioning Palestinian Legislature: “We need to rebuild our political system democratically with elections in Gaza and the West Bank. Democracy cannot be holding an election once. I think President Abbas should issue a decree calling for elections and if Hamas says no, so be it…I don’t want to be a source of pain to anyone. It is just not acceptable to continue doing this while preaching democracy”. And, he said, “The most basic requirement for this plane to take off is, first, security”. This profile of Fayyad-on-the-verge-of-resignation is published here.

On Saturday, the NYTimes published a second story about Fayyad’s resignation, by Reuters, which reported that “A senior Fatah official said he had doubts about Fayyad’s resignation.  ‘We can’t judge the seriousness of this move until the president appoints a new prime minister. I feel as if this is an artifice to keep things as they are’, the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said”.   This is published here.

Haaretz’s Jack Khoury [with excerpts from Reuters] reported here that “Highly placed sources within the Palestinian Authority have said Fayyad was planning to quit before the Palestinian president sacks him in the wake of disputes over the management of the economic crisis in the West Bank and financial issues in the Palestinian Authority. Other officials, meanwhile, told Haaretz that the reports simply reflected the fantasies of the Fatah movement, which is trying to push Fayyad out”.

UPDATE: The National reported on Monday that former Palestinian Government spokesman Ghassan Khatib [a former member of the Palestinian People’s Party] commented that Abbas is “almost the only non-Fatah personality in the Palestinian Authority, and his absence may return us to a one-party political regime”.  Khatib is now a professor of contemporary Arab studies at the West Bank’s Birzeit University, The National reported here.

The Jerusalem Post reported that “Fayyad decided to quit following months of tensions between him and Abbas on a number of issues, including the resignation of PA Finance Minister Nabil Qassis. Fayyad has insisted on accepting Qassis’s resignation, while Abbas wants him back in government. Fayyad was also said to be angry over recurring attacks on him and his government by top Fatah officials, who hold him responsible for the financial crisis in the PA. A senior PA official confirmed that the Americans and some Europeans were acting to solve the crisis between Abbas and Fayyad. ‘They don’t want to see Fayyad removed’, the official said. ‘But they need to know that President Abbas is the only one who can decide on this matter’.” The JPost story is posted here.

It is just a year since a peculiar blow-up after Salam Fayyad reportedly refused [along with Yasser Abed Rabbo, who was soon fired from his position as head of Palestine Television, though he remains the Secretary of the Executive Committee of the PLO] an order from Abbas to deliver a letter to the Israeli Prime Minister.  We reported the refusal on 17 April 2012 here. In that post, we mentioned that in LEAKED versions of that draft letter that Fayyad and Abed Rabbo reportedly refused to take to Jerusalem, “Abbas will say that the Palestinian Authority has lost its “raison d’etre” — a nice French term, meaning that Abbas is saying the P.A. has lost any meaning or purpose, so there is no reason for it to exist…The DRAFT version of the letter also said that the Oslo Accords have been rolled back in many areas”.

A fuller version of this draft letter, and reports that Fayyad was concerned that presenting this letter to Netanyahu in Jerusalem would not “look good”, is contained in our subsequent post at the time, here.

As Arab News noted, here, “Fayad opposed Abbas’s decision to declare an independent state at the United Nations unless it would be within the context of an agreement with the Israeli government”. Fayyad’s public remarks referred to the “timing” …

Continue reading Drinking tea together – [UPDATED]

Obama visits Ramallah

Apparently, in his visit to Ramallah today, U.S. President Obama told Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas about some new and/or additional assistance, during their hours together [from 11:00 am until their press conference, which started sometime after 1:30 pm] … but no specifics were announced.

A large part of Ramallah was shut down [I’m told that even pedestrians were not allowed out on the streets] in a large zone around the Ramallah Presidential headquarters, the Muqata’a [once a British Mandate headquarters, where part was used as a prison by Israeli forces during the first Intifada].

Both men seemed relatively relaxed and happy, but Obama had the bigger smile… at least upon arrival.

Obama came in a helicopter with or some 9 or 10 helicopter escorts:

Noga Tarnopolsky had a good shot of a helicopter flying over central Ramallah’s Manara Square, which she Tweeted here.

American helicopter - perhaps the one carrying Obama - flying over Ramallah's Manara Square
US helicopter - perhaps the one carrying Obama - flying over Ramallah's Manara Square

Continue reading Obama visits Ramallah

Mahmoud Abbas says he aims to have UNGA resolution making State of Palestine a non-member State of the UN this session

Mahmoud Abbas told the UN General Assembly in New York today that:
“Developments over the past year have confirmed what we have persistently drawn attention to and warned of: the catastrophic danger of the racist Israeli settlement of our country, Palestine”…

“The Security Council is called upon to urgently adopt a resolution comprising the basis and foundations for a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that would serve as a binding reference and guide for all if the vision of two-States, Israel and Palestine, is to survive and if peace is to prevail in the land of peace”…

“When, a year ago during the previous session of the General Assembly, we submitted our application for consideration by the Security Council to allow the State of Palestine to assume its rightful place among the nations of the world as a full member in the United Nations, a major and hostile uproar was raised by some against this political, diplomatic, peaceful step aimed at saving the peace process by asserting its basis and foundation. However, our endeavor was aborted, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of the countries of the world supported, and continues to support, our application. Yet, last autumn, when the countries of the world had the opportunity to declare their stance without any restrictions or “veto”, they voted, despite enormous pressures, in strong support of the acceptance of Palestine as a Member State of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)”…

“In order to enhance the chances for peace, we will continue our efforts to obtain full membership for Palestine at the United Nations. And, for the same purpose, we have begun intensive consultations with various regional organizations and Member States aimed at having the General Assembly adopt a resolution considering the State of Palestine as a non-Member State of the United Nations during this session”…

“There is no homeland for us except Palestine, and there is no land for us but Palestine”…

Soon after Abbas spoke, Israel’s Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu told the UNGA that:
“We seek to preserve our historic ties and our historic peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. We seek to forge a durable peace with the Palestinians. President Abbas just spoke here. I say to him and I say to you: We won’t solve our conflict with libelous speeches at the UN. That’s not the way to solve it. We won’t solve our conflict with unilateral declarations of statehood. We have to sit together, negotiate together, and reach a mutual compromise, in which a demilitarized Palestinian state recognizes the one and only Jewish State”…

Palestinians will go to the UN – to preserve two-state solution

PLO official Sa’eb Erekat confirmed in Ramallah today that the Palestinians are going to go to the UN Security Council to seek UN membership — even if they fail, at first.

Erekat was speaking just before leaving on a trip with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to Qatar, for Arab League meetings later this week.

The paperwork for going to the UN is now being prepared, Erekat said, and the UN is being consulted.

Other states had to make multiple tries before being admitted to UN membership, Erekat noted.

He did, however, call on the U.S. to revisit, or to revise its position: American administration officials have made it clear on several occasions that they consider the move unwise, and they have indicated they will veto it.

But, Erekat argued, the presence of a Palestinian state in the UN is the only guarantee of the two-state solution that the US and the Quartet have advocated, because “this Israeli government now has one aim: to destroy the prospect of a Palestinian state”.

He indicated that he believed the resistance of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu was due to a refusal to accept two states, (each) in 1967 borders.

President Obama proposed in May that negotiations should re-start on the basis of the 1967 borders with agreed swaps (and should concentrate first on those swaps, in order to define an agreed border).

But, Erekat said, the U.S. “should not leave our fate in the hands of our occupiers”.

“We have recognized the Israeli government’s right to exist.  We are talking now about adding Palestine as a peace-loving member of the UN — as a country under occupation, rather than as disputed territory — if we really want two states”.

The aim is to preserve the two-state solution, he stressed.

Continue reading Palestinians will go to the UN – to preserve two-state solution

"Tell him to come in": Mahmoud Abbas once (twice) gave refuge to Ismail Haniya in Gaza

Today, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and the Hamas leadership are supposed to sign a reconciliation accord initialed by all 13 Palestinian factions in Cairo yesterday.

This comes after a bitter, extremely bitter, rivalry between the two largest Palestinian political factions

Here is an account — to mark this date, and “in the spirit of things”, as a colleague has written elsewhere –of the time that Mahmoud Abbas gave Ismail Haniyah, Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, refuge to save his live when Haniyeh feared being killed in an Israeli bombing or targetted assassination.

This story was told to me in an interview in Ramallah in late 2008 by Mahmoud Abbas’ oldest surviving son, Yasser Abbas [Mazen, the first-born male child in the family, died after surgery in Qatar some years ago].

I have since been told by others that Abu Mazen often tells people this same story:
Do you know a story – it’s important, before I tell you other stories about me – that this house that they [Hamas] seized [in Gaza in mid-June 2007], that Ismail Haniyeh took refuge in it twice. When he thought that Israeli jets were chasing him, he came to my parents’ house at 3:30 in the morning. To be exact, it was 3:25, because my Mom told me the details. They were still up, and they heard the bell ringing. And my Mom told my Dad, ‘Hold on, I’ll open the door’. She went to open the door, then she saw Ismail Haniyeh in her face. And then she saw Maher, one of the guards there, and he said to her, ‘Madam, we have so-and-so coming here’. And she ran back and told my Dad,’“Ismail Haniyeh is at the door’. He said, ‘Tell him to come in. Tell him to come in’. So, she automatically puts the lights on in the living room, for him to come in. She told him, ‘Come in, come in. Mr. President will come to see you in a minute’. So he came, and he was complaining to my Dad. He took refuge at his house in Gaza, because he was afraid that the Israelis were trying to nail him. And it happened again, three days later. He took refuge there for two or three hours, and then they left in the morning“…

The Israeli Peace Initiative is the Arab Peace Initiative-plus, with a better name?

The announcement came by email today, from Ben Or, an Israeli PR firm in Tel Aviv.

The email says: “President Abbas has invited the leadership of the Israel Peace Initiative to the Mukaata [sic] in Ramallah to present their new regional peace initiative. The invitation follows the Palestinian President’s recent statement regarding his willingness to relinquish the plan to appeal to the UN General Assembly, if the political negotiations, based on the ’67 borders, are renewed”.

A report by Israel National News today — along the same lines — said Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren told Israel Radio “that Washington is attempting to convince its European allies that a unilateral declaration of statehood for the Western-backed Palestinian Authority will bring conflict and not peace”, and that “Israel is trying to renew negotiations with the PA in order to draft an agreement of two states for two nations in the Land of Israel”. The report is posted here.

So, if these two assertions are correct, both the Palestinian and the Israeli leaderships are looking for a way to create a Palestinian State by September. Could that be true?

One of the problems with the email sent out by the Israeli PR firm about tomorrow’s [Thursday’s] meeting at the Muqataa is that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas seems not to have made the statement attributed.

It was Yasser Abed Rabbo who said it — he is Secretary (and member) of the PLO Executive Committee, and he is also head of Palestinian Television, and he was (and still may be) the head of the Palestinian team in the “civil society” Geneva Initiative [signed December 2003]. He reportedly said it in an interview in the London paper Al-Hayat, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz here.

There are, in fact, a number of signatories to the Israeli Peace Initiative who are associated with the Geneva Initiative. Before he was elected President, Abbas himself was involved in drafting the Geneva Initiative through the efforts of his staff member Ghaith al-Omary, now at the American Task Force on Palestine in Washington D.C. This is one of several indications of the tacit approval given was to the effort by the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat Israeli former Justice Minister Yossi Beilin was Yasser Abed Rabbo’s counterpart, and Beilin’s staff assistant Daniel Levy, now also in Washington at the New American Foundation, was al-Omary’s counterpart in the drafting process.

The Geneva Initiative was viewed with hostility in Israel — mainly because the Israeli government at the time said it had not been informed in advance. The Swiss government, which did give substantial diplomatic and financial support to the Geneva Initiative, was surprised and flustered by the Israeli rejection. The Swiss support since then has fluctuated. Other European states, the United Nations, and the U.S. were cool — though former U.S. President Jimmy Carter was at the signing ceremony in Geneva on 1 December 2003.

Since then, the Geneva Initiative Israeli team has been much more active than the Palestinian team — though they seem to have revived a bit, and recently held a meeting in Nablus on the Right of Return, one of the points in the Geneva Initiative most criticized by Palestinians and their supporters.

A recent Tweet from the Israeli Geneva Initiative office (@genevaaccord on Twitter) said, based on the Haaretz report, that: “Geneva Initiative’s cofounder Yasser Abed Rabbo: PA prefers negotiations to unilateral declaration of Palestinian…”

According to the Haaretz report, “The Palestinian Authority will defer its attempts to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state at the United Nations if “real and serious” negotiations with Israel begin, an official was quoted saying Monday. Secretary General of the Palestine Liberation Organization Yasser Abed Rabbo told London-based Al-Hayat newspaper on Monday that the basis of any negotiated agreement must be according to ‘the 1967 borders, very limited exchange of land and no exchanges of populations’. Abed Rabbo called on the Middle East quartet, comprised of the UN, the European Union, the United States and Russia to ‘tackle these negotiations in accordance with the timetable we previously agreed on, which ends in September’, he told the London-based daily … ‘Otherwise’, the PLO official said, ‘we will go to the United Nations, then ask them to deal with the military presence and the Israeli settlements as an assault on the sovereignty of another state, which is a member of the United Nations’. He added that ‘these are the two solutions for international powers, especially Washington. We do not have a third option’. Abed Rabbo said that the PA will honor all of its internal and external obligations as a formal state, but that it would not accept Israeli military or civilian presence in its territories”…

But Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has never said anything publicly like this, and has continued to insist that the Palestinians would present their request for recognition of a Palestinian state to the UN in September.

Given the track record, however, that doesn’t mean he disagrees with the proposition.

Maybe there is something in the works that we all don’t know about, yet.

The head of President Abbas’ press office, Mohamed Edwan, said Wednesday “No, the President has never said that he was willing to relinquish this plan” if political negotiations are renewed. However, Edwan noted, “if we reach that [a Palestinian state] by negotiation by September, that would logically change the current plan, IF…”

The website of the Israeli Peace Initiative, we are informed by today’s email, is here.

The email sent out by the Israeli PR firm also says that “The Israeli Peace Initiative is a new regional peace initiative, calling upon the Israeli government to take action that will ensure the existence of Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State, its security and prosperity, and also to ensure normal relations between Israel and the Arab and Muslim world, and not be dragged along by the political events. More than 70 Israeli leaders from the fields of economy, defense, education, media, diplomacy and academy have already signed the initiative”.

This is the same Israeli PR company that is representing another group of Israelis who made their own recent peace initiative in Tel Aviv last week, the Declaration of Independence from the Occupation (as we wrote about here yesterday, see our post, A Tale of Two Translations, here.

Though both groups are represented by the same Israeli PR firm, only one is being taken to the Muqataa tomorrow to present their plan to the Palestinian President.

Is this a conflict of interest? Does one group of Israelis simply pay a better retainer to the Israeli PR firm?

Or are their other reasons for this selection? Does the Palestinian leadership prefer to deal with ex-military and ex-security officials? Does it judge that they have a greater chance of success? Does it feel that this particular group of Israelis will be in a better position to make accusations against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu if there is no other development between now and September? Is it the linkage (though not explicit) with the Geneva Initiative part of the charm?

This Israeli Peace Initiative has already been welcomed by the U.S. as a “positive contribution”, according to a report by AFP posted here.

That, of course, is polite, but falls short of a full endorsement. It’s not a cold shoulder, however.

According to AFP, the U.S. State Department spokesperson Mark Toner said: “We remain committed to achieving an agreement… we also support the goal of fully normalized relations between Israel and the Arab world … We welcome all ideas to achieve those goals and we look forward to hearing more about the Israel peace initiative. We believe it could possibly make a positive contribution”.

Akiva Eldar, Israeli journalist who is big supporter of Arab Peace plan, and one of the signers of this new Israeli Peace Initiative, has said that the biggest problem, for Israelis, with the Arab Peace Initiative is its name.

This is not a joke.

A number of other Israelis I’ve questioned over the last three years all agree — Israel can never sign on to an “Arab Peace Initiative”. It has to be Israeli, they said.

So, now we have it — the Israeli Peace Initiative (proposed by private Israelis, not the government).

However, it is written as if by the government.

The full text of the proposed Israeli Peace Initiative [IPI], posted here.

Continue reading The Israeli Peace Initiative is the Arab Peace Initiative-plus, with a better name?

Quote of the day – 14th in our series: Abbas said leak of Palestine Papers is a "boring soap opera"

Today’s Quote of the Day — even though it was uttered some three weeks ago — comes from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), who “dismissed the leak of hundreds of secret files on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks as nothing but a ‘boring soap opera’.”

One place you can find this report published is here.

Abbas also said, to adoring crowds convened by his media counsellors and political advisers upon his return from one of many trips abroad: “We know how to respond to it and how to deal with it … We’re not shocked by this nonsense”.

Yes, the Palestinians know how to deal with it… by letting targeted people, who have become inconvenient, hang out to dry, and then settling scores… Done masterfully.

At a meeting of the PLO Executive Committee in Ramallah on Sunday, President Abbas received the report of the investigation committee appointed to look into the Palestine Papers — documents leaked to Al-Jazeera, which prepared a series of programmes in late January detailing shocking behavior in the until-then secret negotiations brokered by the U.S,. first under the Bush Administration in the “Annapolis process”, and subsequently under the Obama Administration.

The documents consisted mainly of staff notes of the sessions prepared by the Palestinian negotiating team, and held by the Negotiations Support Unit (NSU) of the Negotiations Affairs Department (NAD). ¨[Al-Jazeera prepared very wierd dramatic reenactments, using actors to represent the main figures, of meetings held under the Annapolis process]. But, Al-Jazeera also had documents leaked from one or more security offices, and from the office of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad…

The investigation committee report relied in part on security interviews with each and every one of the current staff members of the NSU + NAD. The finger seems to point to one or more former — now disgruntled — staff members.

The investigation committee also made a number of recommendations, including the replacement of the Chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat — who then resigned (after it was recommended that he be replaced), as he vowed he would do on the David Frost interview program aired a couple of weeks ago on Al-Jazeera English.

“If these documents were liked from my office, I and I alone will be responsible for that”, Erekat told David Frost, “if it is proven”… By that time, Erekat was apparently very well aware that most of the documents were leaked from his office. So, he added, in his remarks to Frost, “So, I don’t think I will remain Chief negotiator forever”.

Another recommendation of the investigation committee is that the NSU + NAD be disbanded.

Staff are convinced that this will happen, and note that their contracts all end on the same date — 31 March. The current prediction is that some of them will be absorbed into the President’s office — Abbas is the person responsible for negotiations anyway. However, the royal-court atmosphere in the President’s office, and the backbiting among ambitious people already there — combined with their gross incompetence in explaining the Palestinian position on anything — do not bode well for the future.

This does signal. with yet one more masterstroke, the relentless process of collecting and centralizing all the reins of power in the President’s hands….

And, yes, it proves the sharp correctness of Abbas’ words that this really is all (just) a soap opera — but it is much more discouraging than boring.

Current affairs, via a friend in Ramallah who loves the pointed political satire of the Palestine TV Program “Watan 3ala Watar” (“Homeland on a Shoestring”) – which is posted on Youtube here:

We also learn today that Abbas issued a Presidential decree Sunday (yesterday), in which it has now been ordained that “Targeting Qatar over leaked papers over” in response to the Al-Jazeera programs, as reported here.

Oh, and by the way, this Presidential decree also reportedly bans “local media” from insulting Qatar, too… The “local” journalists — and the international ones, too — have been silent so far…

And, today, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad tendered the resignation of his cabinet … expecting to be asked to form a new and more convenient one.

The Al-Jazeera programs on the Palestine Papers ran for five days — the first three days were hard-hitting, then, once it became apparent how seriously the situation was imploding in Ramallah, with some Al-Jazeera staff saying they feared for their lives — days four and five really pulled punches, and withdrew from more explosive revelations.

Almost all these revelations had been already revealed over the past year in the Israeli media.

All a resourceful journalist, like Al-Jazeera’s Clayton Swisher, had to do was to follow the leads, to track down documents that he knew must exist somewhere. He had the financial backing and the resources of Al-Jazeera to do it, and he had the willing and interested cooperation of disgruntled former staff in Palestinian offices and institutions to do it.

However, it has to be said that for a journalist trying to cover all this, it has been very hard indeed. The Al-Jazeera programs ruined any social life and kept one awake late into the night for over a week. Then, this segue-ing badly right into the Egyptian protests centered on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, which confined journalists their computer screens and keyboards for an additional 18-19 days. The effort required endurance, and caused real physical pain, and exhaustion. We badly need a break, some relaxation, a vacation…

Personally, I found then rather reminiscent of the Fahmi Shabaneh expose [about corruption, targetting Abu Mazen’s then-chief of staff Rafiq Husseini] that was only reported because an Israeli TV channel broke the story…