Sunday, May 26, 2013

Olmert and Abbas: Round Two, Or Is It Three?

From Open Zion, a feature of The Daily Beast, where I have a regular column.

We offered them compromise and they came back with violence. They never miss a chance to miss an opportunity. The latest installment in this melodrama, according to Jonathan Tobin of Commentary, was Ehud Olmert's offer to Mahmoud Abbas in September of 2008, which Abbas presumably rejected. Olmert's "lesson" should not be lost on John Kerry and "American and Jewish apologists" who think the peace process is worth our time, or that, oh, I don't know, things like settlements are obstacles to peace.

And the occasion for Tobin's reinforcement of Olmert's lesson is the latter's new interview with Avi Issacharoff in The Tower, provocatively entitled "Exclusive: Olmert: 'I Am Still Waiting For Abbas To Call.'" "For the first time," Issacharoff reports, "Olmert himself is revealing the full details of the proposal," a peace plan "the Palestinians rebuffed." For Tobin, this interview is definitive. "Abbas could not take yes for an answer." Kerry is on "a fool's errand."

The language here is so impacted with narcissism, I suppose I may be forgiven for noticing, first, that word "exclusive." For there is nothing--zero, nada, zip!--in the Olmert interview with Issacharoff that Olmert did not detail for me and The New York Times Magazine over two years ago, or simultaneously reveal in his Hebrew memoir, or broadly imply to others before me, including to Aluf Benn, Issacharoff's editor at Haaretz (which had induced me to ask Olmert for a detailed plan in the first place). Issacharoff should have said, "For the second, perhaps third, time, Olmert himself is revealing, etc.," but Israeli journalists often behave as if they have nothing to learn from what foreign publications print about their country.

In any case, there is clearly more at stake here than who scooped whom. Had Issacharoff read (or admitted to reading) the Times piece, he would have had to provide Tobin and Commentary a much less convenient lesson. It is false to state that Abbas rebuffed Olmert's plan. It is false to say that the Palestinians were unwilling to pursue further negotiations in the wake of Olmert's offer.  (Indeed, neither conclusion can be inferred even from what Issacharoff quotes Olmert' saying, but never mind.)

On the contrary, both Abbas and Olmert emphasized to me that neither side rejected the plan; both understood that they had the basis for a continuing negotiation. Abbas made clear, as did Saeb Erekat, that the Palestinian side accepted (with General James Jone's assistance) security arrangements acceptable to Olmert. The Palestinians also accepted the principle that the Holy Basin would be under a kind of transnational custodianship. The sides agreed to refer to the Arab Peace Initiative (which itself refers to UN Resolution 194) to launch negotiations about the number of Palestinians who'd come back to Israel under the "right of return."

They did not agree yet on a number; and, swap or no swap, Abbas did not accept the border as Olmert had mapped it out, with Ariel, Maaleh Adumim, and Efrat--that is 5.9% of the West Bank--incorporated into Israel. The Palestinians wanted a plan in which 1.9% would be Israeli, which would allow 62% of settlers to remain in place. But closing such gaps is what just American mediation would be for. In fact, negotiations to close them did ensue, though informally, at the Baker Institute at Rice University, where former Israeli officials and one of Palestine's negotiators, Samih Al-Abid (whom I also interviewed), floated ideas in the 4% range.

Why did Abbas not come back immediately with a counter-proposal? Well, from Abbas's point of view, Olmert's was the counter-proposal. Erekat had proposed 1.9%. Abbas hoped Obama would be elected and some new mediator might be more sympathetic to the Palestinians when it was time to close the deal. Yes, there is continuing disagreement between Olmert and Abbas about why that negotiation did not ensue, formally, and immediately, after Olmert's offer on September 16; or why the sides did not meet in Washington during the first week in January, 2009. Erekat insisted to me that he was willing to go to Washington to meet with Shalom Turgeman, in spite of the Gaza operation, and that Condoleezza Rice could confirm this; Olmert says the invitation was muddled and, besides, this was all too late.

Suffice it to say that Abbas first wanted to see if Obama would indeed be elected. But then the border with Gaza started heating up, and Olmert, though already a lame-duck, thought he could actually advance peace (and help Abbas, in a way) by undermining Hamas's strategic capabilities along the Philadelphia Corridor. Then, the sheer bloodiness of the war eclipsed everything; and by the time the two leaders might have come together, revulsion for Israel's leaders on the West Bank, and Livni's emergence as Olmert successor, etc., made Olmert's and Abbas's plans moot.

The one story Issacharoff does reveal for the first time to English audiences--which is lovely, and I could not use for reasons of space--is how Olmert first got Abbas to come to the Prime Minister's residence late in 2006, that is, by telling him that his wife had prepared all of his favorite dishes and that Abbas would insult her by not showing up. However, the real poignancy of this story has a background Issacharoff does not reveal, namely, that Olmert (so he told me) had been in several meetings with Abbas and Olmert's predecessor, Ariel Sharon, in which Sharon treated Abbas so bullyingly that Olmert himself cringed but, alas, had to remain silent; that Olmert knew he would have to make a gesture to Abbas to prove he was not approaching things as his former boss did.

Which brings me to the main point. There was, and is, no disagreement between Olmert and Abbas that American diplomacy might have picked up from where they had left off. They also agreed that it was Netanyahu who said "No way" as soon as he came into office in the spring of 2009. Tobin might consider why Netanyahu has repudiated what Abbas and Olmert achieved, not why Abbas did not just take a deal, on Israel's political schedule, that he reasonably sought to improve.

In fairness to Issacharoff, many of whose Haaretz pieces I admire, he needs no instruction from me about Netanyahu's rejectionism or Olmert's frustration with it. But he curiously chose to leave all of this out in reporting the interview. For his part, Olmert told Issacharoff--with a touch of bravado meant to evoke what Dayan had said of King Hussein--that he is still "waiting for a call from Abbas," though the two have spoken warmly about private matters since the fall of 2008, and Olmert continues to view Abbas with respect and as a potential partner.

What Olmert really means, as he prepares to get back into the political fray, is that he is hoping, understandably, for Abbas to publicly join him in endorsing the principles they had negotiated, something that might strengthen Olmert's moral prestige internationally, and with the Israeli public. Given memories of the carnage in Gaza, and Olmert's subsequent political losses, Abbas--also understandably--is reluctant to make any public declarations outside of Kerry's channels.

Still, Olmert has told me (and everyone who'll listen) that he cannot understand why the Obama administration still does not publicly embrace the Olmert-Abbas agenda and rally the EU to it the way he had wanted to. He told Issacharoff that Abbas is "no big hero," which in context is a kind of Olmertian compliment. The times call for diplomacy and consensus building, not heroism. The threat to Israel from international isolation requires nothing more than common sense.

A final caveat.  I don't meant to imply that the "core issues" Olmert and Abbas dealt with are the final ones. I have argued here and elsewhere that the confederal approach the two leaders tipped-toed up to in Jerusalem, over security, the international commission on refugees, etc., will have to be deepened and expanded if a two-state solution will ever be made plausible. Business leaders must get involved to push interdependence, as some have done this week at the World Economic Forum. Good faith can produce creative plans for reciprocity and greater integration. Olmert is surely right about the need, at times, for "creative ambiguity" in reconciling practical interests.

Then again, to expect good faith from Commentary is probably not wise. Tobin's sly effort to turn Issacharoff's over-hyped interview into a replay of what Benny Morris did with Camp David 2, namely, place the blame for the failure of serious peace initiatives on the leaders of the Palestine Authority, does no justice to history, or Olmert's own intentions, for that matter.

Olmert should indeed be taken seriously. With Yair Lapid losing altitude, Olmert may well emerge as the centrist voice to organize Global Israel and the peace camp; readers will not be surprised to know that I wish him well. I dare say Olmert has learned many lessons over the years and has many yet to teach. Condescending to Palestinians is not one of them.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

J Street: The Documentary--Thank-you

This is just a thank-you to all who contributed or just circulated the producers' Kickstarter page.  Ben Avishai and Ken Winikur set a goal of $35,000.  They raised $40,270.  You can see their statement, and watch more clips, here.    

Monday, May 13, 2013

Can The Peace Camp Cope With 'Fragility'?

From Open Zion, a feature of The Daily Beast, where I have a regular column

On April 29, at Blair House, Arab League ministers led by Qatar's Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani reiterated their commitment to the Arab Peace Initiative, including a (by now, familiar) proposed finesse, that the 1967 border might be adjusted with land swaps to accommodate the large settlement blocs. Three days later, on May 1 (and again on May 3), Israeli aircraft attacked an apparent cache of Hezbollah-bound Iranian weapons near Damascus, attacks embattled President Assad called an act of war demanding retaliation, and which the same Arab League ministers, no friends of Assad, roundly condemned.

It is hard to imagine a juxtaposition capturing so vividly Israel's way forward in "the region." Netanyahu's government did not exactly reject the Qatar initiative and even dispatched Justice Minister Tzipi Livni to explore things with Secretary Kerry. But the attacks in Damascus seem a truer, or at least more urgent, expression of popular attitudes the government derives its mandate from. Israelis have always seen the logic of current military preemption more clearly than that of eventual diplomatic engagement. This won't change.

One former intelligence head-- a man who, fearing a general regional war, has been outspoken in his opposition to attacks on Iranian nuclear installations and even advocated negotiations with Hamas--told me in Washington last week that if Iran grows its military footprint in Syria (elements of the Revolutionary Guard are already there) then all Israelis would be united behind the IAF attacking Iranian forces there. "We simply cannot tolerate Iranians on our borders," he said. And what of the Arab Peace Initiative? "The original Saudi Plan made no mention of Palestinian refugees," he added gravely. Hameivin yavin.

Some of this is just a professional default. Intelligence officials tell you that Arab enemies must be judged in terms of their capabilities and motives. Officials are paid to understand something about capabilities; as to motives, nobody is paid to be Dostoyevsky. They may study the various "ideologies." But they really assume that motives flow from power and, besides, what can Israelis (Jews, "Zionists," etc.,) do but demotivate Arabs by reducing their capabilities?

Given what's happening in Syria, you have to be blind not to see the neighborhood is dangerous. So, no, don't attack Iranian nukes, but perhaps Israel has no better course on Palestine than to wait out the regional violence, reinforce its "deterrence," and defer the peace process. Jeffrey Goldberg, with typical brio, captured this attitude (in a somewhat different context) last year: "If you’re an Israeli, you look at the last twelve years... and [say], 'Now’s the moment when you want me to pull out of territory on the West Bank, including the mountains that overlook Israel’s central cities and its airport? Right now?'"

I could pick nits with this intelligence official as with Goldberg. How would an attack on Iranians in Damascus not invite the same regional war that an attack on their nuclear installations would? Has not preemptive Israeli power, from the Suez War to Gaza, itself helped excite the fanaticism that's made the region so dangerous? Would not more attacks on Damascus touch off a widening war, in which Assad desperately tries to rally weakening forces in the Syrian opposition to stand against Israel, say, by launching (or encouraging Hezbollah to launch) missiles at Israeli cities? As for Goldberg, when you put things the way he does, how does Right now? not translate as Ever?.

Still, I am not writing to criticize either man. For I think that, taken together, their cautions expose the partialness of the peace movement's answers when immediate security issues come up, which is why our leaders and literary heroes never seem to know what to say when the IAF springs into action. ("Okay, bomb Gaza, but avoid civilian casualties, and stop sooner than the right says...")

No doubt, the peace camp has been broadly right to insist that reaching a deal on Palestine would, over time, seriously undermine jihadist and Islamic radicals, who cannot be expected to be more rejectionist regarding Israel's existence than the Palestinian people; that Israel cannot continue to defy the region and the world and expect to thrive or even survive. Anyway, that's the argument we've been making for two generations, though mainly to answer the settlers and their like, whose every excess has been rationalized by the claim that Arab enmity is natural, not historical.

Still, when you do look at what's unfolded in Syria (and Iraq, and Lebanon), it seems clear that settlers are not the peace movement's only foils, and we have meanwhile failed to acknowledge two inconvenient truths. The first is that the same post-Sykes-Picot world that left Lord Balfour's Britain in control of Palestine also left the Middle East full of weird and seriously fractionalized states, all potentially subverted by inflamed ethnic and religious minorities, potentially supported by brothers who are majorities in neighboring states.  The second, that the same advanced technology that allows a small state like Israel to become a great power in a region where Israelis are out-numbered 50 to 1, also allows the smallest of inflamed factions the power to do Israeli cities enormous and disruptive and unacceptable damage.

The sad fact is that our region has evolved into the poster child for what Nassim Nicholas Taleb (who began to shape his theories as as a youth in war-torn Lebanon) has called "fragile": an interconnected system in which the smallest, eccentric, fanatic part--the people you don't ordinarily encounter, the "black swan"--can do catastrophic damage to the whole. For Israelis, relying on the good faith of the Palestinian majority will invite disaster, much like an airport that assumes a security screening process fit for the average traveler.

Yes, Israeli military intervention in Lebanon in the early 1970s helped inflame what needed to be contained. Yes, the same can be said for the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. Yes, the occupation. But Syria? There, the factions needed only each other. Nobody knows where this will end. Goldberg may be demagogic at times, but he's right to assume an approach that does not simply entail "pull[ing] out of territory on the West Bank." No Israeli in his or her right mind will go for this, nor should any Palestinian. Which brings me back to the integration imperative I spoke about in my last post.

Given the scale and proximity of the states in question, no two state solution is conceivable--so I argued--apart from the confederal arrangements that would allow them grow by integrating a common (in effect,) urban infrastructure. The problem of security makes such integration all but inescapable. By speaking of a "demilitarized" Palestinian state--like the one Abbas offered Olmert--Palestinians have shown extraordinary goodwill; but when Israelis just take this for granted, we insult our Palestinian partners without really doing justice to the dangers and methods of contemporary terrorism, especially Jihadist terrorism, but settler terror as well: the dangers of shoulder-mounted anti-aircraft missiles, or chemical and biological agents, or attacks on the electric and telecommunications grid, attacks on water. Preparing for only the white swans, as Taleb warns, is just not good enough when the system is a highly interdependent and the means of destruction in the hands of a few outliers is so outsized.

Israelis particularly have come by their wariness honestly. As my friend Carlo Strenger has been emphasizing lately, the wave of suicide bombing that accompanied the Al-Aqsa intifada from 2000-2004 has left deep scars and a plausible sense of fragility, even among people who've been fighting the occupation their whole lives. Imagine not one bomb killing and maiming civilians in Boston but over 150 over four years. Now imagine that southern New Hampshire were a kind of Chechnya, and that radicals from Manchester placed the bombs; imagine that polls showed a majority of New Hampshire Chechens favored the bombs. Would people in Boston now be inclined to trust any plan in which some insane subset of New Hampshire Chechens could be in a position to fire missiles at Logan airport?

I know, I know, you also have to imagine also that Massachusetts occupied southern New Hampshire--cruelly, and with irredentist ambitions--and negotiations to end the occupation had been stuck. By the end of Oslo the number of settlers doubled. I know also that Abbas and his brains-trust has condemned the intifada, the bombs, the violence. But who can guarantee Abbas can survive the radical forces roiling his own streets or the jihadist forces threatening Assad across the Syrian border? For Israelis, the enemy of my enemy is my enemy.

For that matter, will a Palestinian state be able to cope with potential Jewish terrorist groups which almost certainly will try to disrupt and discredit any settlement that potentially forces settlers out of hotbeds of fanaticism like Kadum or Kiryat Arba? Remember what De Gaulle had to deal with after Algeria? Now imagine that Algeria was a big city adjacent to Paris?  

No, the terms of the Arab Peace Initiative, the borders, the all-sided recognition, the effort to deal with the refugees--all of these things--are only the beginning. We need to think about security cooperation much more deeply. I don't pretend that anyone has worked through the details yet, which may take months of management analysis and negotiations; but it will simply not be enough for Israelis and Palestinians to assume a solution in which two states arise, separate, and each has sole discretion over internal security.

During Oslo in the 1990s, until the start of the Al-Aqsa intifada, Hamas dissidents were responsible for virtually all Palestinian acts of terror, but Israel held Arafat's PA (which was vainly trying to jail Hamas people) accountable. The settler groups were responsible for Baruch Goldstein and Yigal Amir, but Palestinians saw "Israelis." This formula--"you're sovereign, so you're responsible"--is a recipe for disintegration. It makes any peace hostage to sociopaths.

Both states, rather, will have to agree in advance to shape confederal internal security institutions, almost certainly in conjunction with third parties like the FBI and Interpol to facilitate close cooperation. Until now, given the occupation, the on-the-ground intelligence gathered by Israel's security services (its "Gatekeepers") and by the PA's US-trained police have been sources of repression and provocation. In any two state solution, intelligence and counter-terror methods can, and must, be shared. They will then be the source of both shared stability or shared responsibility for inevitable failures.

External security is a different matter, of course, and Israel will--for obvious reasons, and during our lifetimes--want to retain sole discretion over its defense forces. It will have its air force, combat divisions, cyber force, and nuclear arsenal, though ideally buttressed within an alliance like NATO.

But here, the Arab Peace Initiative might well be seen as an invitation to consider building toward collective security agreements, too. If you are Qatar or Bahrain or Saudi Arabia, your nightmare is Iran, not Zionism. Souad Mekhennet, the roving New York Times correspondent who has interviewed virtually every jihadist in the game, told me recently that in her view, an agreement on Palestine would not only greatly diminish the moral prestige of jihadist forces, and undermine the growing hatred for "Jews" and Americans, but that the Gulf states, Jordan, etc., would welcome an implicit alliance against Iranian ambitions.

The key for Israel, and Kerry, is a Syrian war that does not widen into a regional one, which could sweep away the Hashemite regime in Jordan, and put Israel into confrontation with groups supported by the very Gulf states offering peace. More Israeli attacks on Damascus, in this sense, cannot help. Offering Jordan aid in caring for Syrian refugees might.