Conference Success, Exchanging Speeches, and more
CMEP’s fifth annual advocacy conference took place this week in Washington, DC. With more than 200 people in attendance during the three-day event, it was our largest advocacy conference yet, an amazing display of support for a just, secure, and sustainable peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Thank you to all of you who helped make that possible. A diverse group of experts, analysts, and faith leaders offered valuable insight through four plenary sessions and ten workshops that addressed topics ranging from the role of faith and religion in reconciliation to mapping potential borders for two future states.
CMEP supporters also visited about 90 congressional offices in 26 states to deliver a message of peace and U.S. leadership for a negotiated two-state solution. During a week when the conflict in the Holy Land was in the spotlight, the message CMEP supporters delivered was very important for members of Congress and their staff to hear. You can add your voice to the call for peace by writing your members of Congress today.
In his speech on the Middle East May 19, President Barack Obama’s called for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on a permanent border based on “the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps [of land]” and for an agreed timeline for withdrawal of Israel’s security presence in the Jordan river valley. The next day in Washington Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded sharply to the press after a meeting with the president, saying Israel could not return to the “indefensible” 1967 lines. In a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on May 22, the president pointed out that the 1967 border with agreed swaps has long been the basis of talks and allows negotiators the opportunity to take into account the changes on the ground since 1967, including the demographic changes represented by the approximately 500,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
In his speech to a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress on May 24, the prime minister said Israel will have to make “painful compromises” to give up land in its “ancestral Jewish homeland,” referring to the West Bank, and that some Israeli settlements in the West Bank will remain outside the borders of Israel. The closest Netanyahu got to a mention of a border based on the 1967 lines was that he was prepared to be “generous” in making unspecified land concessions to a Palestinian state.
On the other hand, Netanyahu maintained there would be no return for Palestinians [to their ancestral homeland] inside what is now Israel; Jerusalem will never be divided [not shared with Palestinians]; and Fatah should “tear up” the pact with Hamas and come to the negotiating table. He also insisted Israel would maintain control over the Jordan valley indefinitely.
The vague words about compromise on land and the tough stance on other issues that are deal breakers for Palestinians leave little hope for negotiations going forward anytime soon. As has been the case in the past, Israelis and Palestinians are not negotiating their conflict with each other but with proxies; Israelis negotiate about Palestine with the United States and Palestinians are preparing to negotiate with the international community at the UN.
Yet, there could be surprises. In the past, important negotiations have been initiated bilaterally and in secret. However, the potential presence of Hamas in a Palestinian coalition government now adds a complicating factor. The reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas is an indication that time is not on the side of reaching an agreement. Six months ago, Israel could have negotiated a deal with the Palestinian Authority alone without Hamas involvement. Now the Arab Spring that has spread across the region has seen rising popular demands and influence. Six months from now, Israel may well be dealing with most of the international community having supported Palestinian UN membership, presenting Israel with political and legal challenges that the United States will not be able to make go away.
To put off a UN vote recognizing a Palestinian state, negotiations or some credible alternative must be underway. The Israeli prime minister has not yet suggested a credible alternative. After being in power for two years, he has yet to make a specific proposal about Israel’s borders. Daniel Levy was quoted in the New York Times as paraphrasing what President Obama was saying to the prime minister, “I can continue defending you to the hilt, but if you give me nothing to work with, even America cannot save you.” Columnist Fareed Zakaria has joined those who have concluded that Netanyahu has never believed in land for peace, but has followed a strategy of putting up obstacles and waiting it out, all the while enclosing East Jerusalem with a wall of settlements.
The emerging critique is not in any way to delegitimize Israel. It has the unquestionable right to exist as a sovereign and secure state with defined birders. The PLO, the official negotiating body for the Palestinians, formally recognized both Israel and its right to exist in 1988.
The enthusiastic reception that the U.S. Congress gave Netanyahu this week will help him in Israel by demonstrating his strong U.S. support. This could be helpful if and when he believes he must make tough decisions and compromises with the Palestinians. It could also serve to help shape public opinion in Israel by preparing the general population for an eventual pull out of some settlements in the West Bank.
As expected, not all Israelis were thrilled with the speech. The consensus of the settler movement was that they will not accept any evacuations of settlements, nor will they tolerate living in a Palestinian state. Others were angered by the fact that Netanyahu even recognized that a Palestinian state should exist one day. “The PM volunteered to recognize a Palestinian state even before the Palestinians renounced their killing policy,” said National Union MK Uri Ariel.
It has become a tradition, going back at least as far as James Baker in the early 1990s, for Israeli officials to announce new housing construction in the Palestinian territories on the occasion of a high level meeting with U.S. officials. Such an announcement happened in March 2010, coinciding with Vice President Joe Biden’s arrival in Israel to announce resumption of peace talks. It happened again last week. The day after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called to tell Israeli authorities that President Obama’s May 19 speech would call for negotiations based on the 1967 lines with agreed land swaps, Israeli authorities announced the approval of new construction in Har Homa settlement and another suburbs of Jerusalem. Construction of the Har Homa neighborhood was started after the Oslo peace accords of 1993. The new expansion, if completed, will bring its border close to the West Bank city of Bethlehem and will represent another step in cutting off Palestinian areas from each other and from the Old City of Jerusalem. These announcements appear designed to assert Israeli’s independence from the United States and show its determination to go its own way in expanding control over Palestinian lands.
Egypt has announced plans to open its border with Gaza this Saturday, allowing people to cross at the Rafah border crossing more freely than at any time in the past four years. The new policy, according to an Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, is intended to help ease the suffering of Gaza residents. However, there are still significant restrictions in place. Construction materials will still not be allowed through and men between the ages of 18 and 40 will still not be allowed to cross the border without and Egyptian visa, which can only be obtained in Ramallah. But the new policy is still a significant change and is only another example of how the Arab Spring is changing the old political formulae in the region.
On May 15 when Palestinians commemorated “Nakba Day” there were a number of demonstrations in areas of East Jerusalem that have Israeli settlements in their midst. A demonstration in Silwan culminated in the death of 17-year-old boy, according to the Israeli organization Ir Amim.
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