Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The NY Times Tries and Fails to Explain The Israel-Palestinian "Peace Process"

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By Barry Rubin

Forget about The Onion, The National Lampoon, Mad Magazine, and Saturday Night Live (sorry for all those American cultural references). When it comes to satire nobody can beat a New York Times editorial!

Well, this one is funny because the Times is--sort of--trying to praise the Israeli government and criticize the Palestinian Authority (PA) but you can't help but laugh at the contortions they go through.

Here's the first one:

"After three months of American-mediated proximity talks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has agreed to direct negotiations on a two-state solution; the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, is stubbornly resisting. It is time for him to talk."

Now is this dishonest or what? The implication is that finally, just now, at the very last minute, and after three months (12 weeks,  about 90 days) the U.S. negotiators can wipe the sweat from their brow and say that Netanyahu has agreed to direct negotiations.

But guess what? He publicly agreed to direct negotiations during a visit to Washington about 16 months (64 weeks, about 480 days) ago! So to avoid giving Netanyahu credit for being ready to talk all along the Times pretends that thanks only to a tremendous battle has the Obama Administration landed the big fish.

Ok, though, but at least they have praised Netanyahu and pointed out that Abbas is the barrier to progress? Not exactly. Keep reading:

"There are understandable reasons for Mr. Abbas’s reluctance. We also don’t know whether Mr. Netanyahu, a master manipulator, really wants a deal or whether his hard-line governing coalition would ever let him make one."

Yeah, Abbas, that Netanyahu is one evil dude! We can hardly blame you for refusing to make peace. I can imagine Abbas saying: "Sorry, I cannot negotiate because Netanyahu is untrustworthy. I read it in the New York Times so it must be true."

Might one wonder if Abbas is a "master manipulator" or whether his "hard-line government coalition would ever let him make one?" (See below on that point.) In fact, why throw into question Netanyahu's credentials? What has he done in the last 14 years, during which he has accepted a two-state solution, to make one conclude he is insincere on the issue, rather than just a tough negotiator?

Moreover, his coalition is not "hard-line" at all. Let's give the Times a little lesson in Israeli politics. The coalition includes six parties with a total of 72 seats, 12 more than is needed:

--Likud, 27 seats. While this is the main conservative party, and includes parliamentarians who would be against concessions, Netanyahu has a firm hold on the party.

--Israel Beitanu, 15 seats. While this party is headed by Foreign Minister Lieberman, it is not the "far-right" party that is the stereotype. It is, in fact, a Russian immigrant party. In some ways, Lieberman is rather dovish, proposing far-reaching territorial swaps (even if he does so to get rid of Arab citizens of Israelis the effect is not hard-line on negotiations). He is certainly capable of populist posturing but he is not, as such, an impediment to a peace deal.

--Labour Party, 13 seats. This is the leading party of the dovish left. Enough said.

--Two religious parties: Shas (11) and United Torah Judaism (3). These parties are mainly interested in patronage. They would fight tooth and nail on the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem and perhaps over the whole eastern part of the city. But on most of the issues they are not so intransigent. Shas's mentor has in the past said that giving up the West Bank can be justified if that saves lives.

--Habayit Hayehudi (3). Aha, here's a hardline, right-wing party that would walk out of any government that agreed to a two-state resolution! But it represents only 4 percent of his coalition and Netanyahu doesn't need them.

Moreover, Netanyahu could replace any defectors if he wished by bringing in Kadima (28).  While one could debate some of the details of my analysis the idea that the Israeli coalition would never countenance a two-state solution is absurd.

What is really astonishing is that, to protect the Palestinian Authority, the Times is even willing to bash its idol, President Obama, in a flagrant miswriting of history:

"Mr. Abbas also is wary of Washington. After Mr. Obama demanded in 2009 that Mr. Netanyahu halt all settlement construction as a prelude to negotiations, Mr. Abbas did the same. When Mr. Netanyahu forced Mr. Obama to back down and the Israeli leader implemented a more limited and temporary building halt, Mr. Abbas was left clinging to the maximalist position."

What? Obama made the demand and Netanyahu complied. He gave a one-year freeze to see what would happen in talks. Was that a case of Obama "backing down?" And when Obama retroactively added Jerusalem outside the 1967 lines, Netanyahu again complied.

Here's the truth: Obama demanded, Netanyahu agreed, and Abbas still rejected direct talks. This has been going on for one year. So I'll stand up for Obama against the Times on this point.

Then there's the way the Times deals with Arab politics. True, it points out that the Arab League backs direct talks. So here's my question for you: What does the Times leave out?

Answer: Palestinian Authority politics, Hamas, Iran, and Syria. Why can't the Times mention that this is the real prime motive for Abbas? It isn't mainly that he doesn't trust Netanyahu (if he were certain Netanyahu was eager for peace it would make it harder, not easier, for Abbas to enter talks!) or he is "wary" of Obama.

The fact is that Abbas knows:

--He has no control or authority over Fatah, a group in which he has almost no direct followers, but is the real power behind the PA. This is the group that would never let its nominal leader make a two-state solution. Most of the Fatah leadership is hardline. Some don't want to make any deal that would block them from trying to destroy Israel in future. Others are afraid to do so. The number one problem is PA politics.

--Palestinian public opinion tends to be hardline. And why should that be surprising? It is conditioned by years of indoctrination to be that way on top of what existed beforehand. The PA has been pumping out hardline propaganda now for 16 years.

--Then there is Hamas which enjoys somewhere between 25 and 30 percent support in the PA-ruled areas. Even the tiniest concession, merely holding direct talks, will be used by Hamas to claim Abbas is commiting treason. And joined with some elements in Fatah this hardline coalition would be deadly for the PA, and perhaps for Abbas personally.

--Moreover, Hamas controls the Gaza Strip. This little detail seems to be left out a lot, as if the PA's making an agreement was in any way binding on almost half the territory it is claiming to control! It would be like making a deal with South Korea or West Germany and claiming it applied to all of Korea or Germany.

Incidentally, it is almost never pointed out that Abbas's term in office ended in January 2009 and he keeps extending it without elections. Why? Because if elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were held Hamas would win them. This shows how unstable is the regime with which Israel is supposed to make a peace based on massive unilateral concessions. If elections were to be held after a two-state agreement was implemented, Hamas would win, immediately reject the agreement, and return to war. This is rather significant for any discussion of Israel-Palestinian peace, don't you think? 

--Then there are the external forces like Iran and Syria that are dead-set on making anyone who makes with Israel just plain dead. If Abbas were to negotiate a deal they would do everything in their power (in line with Fatah hardliners and Hamas) to destroy that agreement and overthrow Abbas.

Doesn't all of this seem a bit significant? Isn't it ridiculous to discuss the issue as if Abbas was some independent actor who could do whatever he wished, while Israel's leader (whose public opinion is eager for a negotiated peace, generally willing to make concessions, and flexible on many of the issues) is enchained?

I'm writing about this editorial not because I think the Times is so important in itself. Rather, these are precisely the ideas that dominate Western debate on the issue. What we have here is a failure to engage accurately with the basic facts on what is persistently (if wrongly) touted as the world's most important issue.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at and of his blog, Rubin Reports, at

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