Monday, May 18, 2009

Mideast peace plan puts Netanyahu on the spot

Web posted at: 5/15/2009 3:44:26

By Philip Stephens

Never mind the jibes; Joe Biden gets the important ones right. The US vice-president is sometimes lampooned for saying not quite the right thing. The other day he gave a speech about ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To my mind, he was word perfect.

Biden set the framework for the administration’s impending push for peace in the Middle East. This meant, among other things, laying out in plain terms the challenge for Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu.

Amid much international applause, Barack Obama is resuming the quest for a Middle East settlement. On Monday the president will receive Netanyahu at the White House. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader and Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, are due the following week. Early next month, Obama will speak to the Arab, and Muslim, world from a podium in Cairo. If all goes to plan - and this being the Middle East it is a very big “if” - a peace conference could follow. The administration is not contemplating a tortuous process stretching through Obama’s presidency. As Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, puts it, instead of drawn-out talks, it is looking for “real results”. Washington intends to enlist broad support. This week it voted for a UN Security Council statement that reaffirmed the backing of the international community for a two-state solution. The statement had been drafted by Russia. Few things could have more clearly marked the break with the Bush administration’s disdain for diplomatic engagement.

To the same purpose, Ms Rice indicated that the US wants to reinvigorate proceedings of the Quartet - the group comprising the US, Russia, the UN and European Union. Looking to the region itself, she added that the intention was to integrate into the process the Saudi-sponsored Arab Peace Initiative. Visitors to Washington have picked up both on the urgency and the intention to press for the broadest possible agreement between Israel and the Arab world. Accustomed to repeated disappointment during George W. Bush’s presidency, Europeans can scarcely contain their enthusiasm. David Miliband, UK foreign secretary, returned to London from talks with Hillary Clinton saying the administration was “throwing itself into the peace process”. Palestinian statelessness, Miliband added, was the most powerful recruiting sergeant for Islamist extremism. Which takes us back to Biden.

The vice-president delivered his speech at the annual policy conference of AIPAC, the powerful group that describes itself as “America’s Pro-Israel Lobby”. Given what he had to say, it was one of those occasions when lions and dens might have come to mind. Unsurprisingly, the vice-president prefaced everything by stressing America’s unalterable commitment to Israel’s security and to its survival as a democratic Jewish state. There was no reason to doubt him. No US administration would leave Israel at the mercy of its enemies.

Biden was careful also to emphasise that peace had to be built on compromises from all sides. Palestinians cannot shake hands in the morning and fire rockets at Israel in the afternoon. There would be no free passes, Biden said, for Arab states that castigate Israel for dragging its feet, while withholding confidence-building measures that would speed the process along.

heart of the speech

At the heart of the speech, though, was the analysis that Bush never accepted: security for Israel and a state for the Palestinians do not run in opposition to each other. Instead, Israel’s long-term security depends on peaceful co-existence with a viable Palestinian state.

The threat to Israel and the region posed by Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Biden added pointedly, was not a reason to delay Palestinian statehood. To the contrary, conflict between Arabs and Israelis strengthened Iran’s strategic position. It gave Iran a “playing field” on which to support terrorist groups. How else to explain Shia Iran’s rising influence among Sunni Arab extremists?

Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff and arguably Israel’s best friend in the administration, is said to have made the same point about Iran in a private meeting with AIPAC’s supporters. Obama is as concerned as Israel about Iran’s intentions, but delaying peace in Palestine is not the answer. This decisive shift in the US role, from unquestioning supporter to regional peacemaker, is unsettling for the new Israeli prime minister on several counts. Even before Netanyahu had established his Likud-led coalition, Israel was looking friendless amid the international backlash against the Gaza war.

The anxiety has been heightened by the US administration’s decision to broaden negotiations. Israel has never liked the idea of the international community being given a say. It wants to deal only with Washington - hence its sharp reaction to the Security Council debate. Gabriela Shalev, Israel’s UN ambassador, said that her government did not believe the Security Council “contributes to the political process in the Middle East”. Perhaps she did not realise how odd that sounds. Netanyahu’s refusal to sign up to the two-state formula that has been at the heart of previous negotiations with the Palestinians has increased the sense of Israeli isolation. His choice of Avigdor Lieberman, a hardline nationalist, as foreign minister has not helped.

Biden’s words about Iran meanwhile pre-emptively undercut Netanyahu’s strategy of arguing that any deal with the Palestinians must be contingent on a resolution of the Iranian threat. In the words of one European diplomat, that particular fox has now been shot.

Tony Blair, the Quartet’s special envoy, may have dispatched another when he gave evidence on Thursday to the Senate foreign relations committee in Washington. Netanyahu’s government has been arguing that any peace agreement should also wait for evidence that the Palestinians have the capacity for self-governance. Blair countered convincingly that the pursuit of a political settlement and efforts to build Palestinian capacity must necessarily run in tandem. For all this, Israel’s prime minister insists he does want peace. If that is the case, and I hope it is, then Biden offered him one last, and critical, test.


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