The Mideast Moratorium Mess

The Mideast Moratorium Mess

The end of Israel’s ban on settlement building creates political problems for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and a dilemma the Obama administration in part brought on itself, says Mideast expert Michele Dunne.

October 13, 2010 9:10 am (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Direct peace talks between Israel and Palestinians were halted in early October after the expiration of the ten-month moratorium on settlement construction. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has so far not accepted Obama administration incentives to extend the moratorium for two months. The administration is now scrambling to avoid the collapse of the peace talks, and struggling with a dilemma it helped create by launching a peace process "without having a solution wired for the expiration of the settlement moratorium," says Michele Dunne, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment and editor of the Arab Reform Bulletin. Dunne believes Netanyahu is looking for a way to renew the moratorium, but his recent offer a two-month settlement freeze if Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state is "less a serious proposal than an attempt to show that the Palestinians are the intransigent party."

President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority went to the Arab League over the past weekend to vent his unhappiness with the peace talks, which are at a standstill. What was the result of that meeting?

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There were two Arab League meetings last week. One was the foreign ministers meeting, and that was followed by a summit. The Arab League summit dutifully ignored this issue, but the foreign ministers meeting did take up the Israeli-Palestinian issue. What they said in a statement was that they were supporting Abbas’ decision not to return to talks unless Israeli settlement activity is stopped, and the foreign ministers urged the United States to pursue efforts to persuade Israel to stop settlement activity. They decided to meet again in a month to revisit the issue.

Are the Arabs seeking a permanent freeze or just a one- to two-month suspension?

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The impression that’s being created is that Netanyahu is working with the members of his cabinet, who are more to the right than he is, to get them to agree to, say, a sixty-day settlement moratorium. I don’t know whether moving forward on this loyalty pledge could be part of a deal with them.

At this point they’re taking their cue from Abbas. If the Israeli prime minister were to agree to renew the settlement moratorium--which is not a full freeze but imposes some significant limits on settlement building--that would last sixty to ninety days, Abbas would return to the direct talks and he would ask the Arab League to endorse that.

What did you make of Netanyahu’s offer for a two-month settlement freeze if the Palestinians recognize Israel as a "Jewish state"?

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Netanyahu has raised this idea in various forums in recent months. On the face of it, he is attempting to get a concession out of the Palestinian leadership on the refugee issue--specifically, an understanding that no matter how the issue is resolved, it will not involve the return of a significant number of Palestinians to their pre-1948 homes in what is now Israel--before actual negotiations take place on that issue. I doubt Abbas would make that deal even if a large-scale and long-term settlement freeze were on the table, and what Netanyahu is offering is much less than that. Therefore this is less a serious proposal than an attempt to show that the Palestinians are the intransigent party.

The Israeli cabinet has just adopted a proposed law that any new non-Jewish immigrant has to pledge loyalty to the "Jewish state." The discussion about a new settlement freeze seems to be on the back burner right now, although Netanyahu is obviously under a lot of pressure from Obama to extend it.

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Correct, and Obama apparently has offered Netanyahu a package of U.S. guarantees or pledges about positions the United States would take on various things in exchange for a moratorium of some sixty days. We’re seeing various things surface in the Israeli press about the positions of different members of Netanyahu’s coalition, in particular the Shas party and Yisrael Beiteinu [headed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman]. Regarding the citizenship loyalty pledge that the cabinet approved, it has to go to the Knesset. I think Netanyahu had promised Lieberman from the beginning that he would support that kind of an action, at least within the cabinet. It’s hard to know whether this could be part of some kind of a deal. The impression that’s being created is that Netanyahu is working with the members of his cabinet, who are more to the right than he is, to get them to agree to, say, a sixty-day settlement moratorium. I don’t know whether moving forward on this loyalty pledge could be part of a deal with them.

If something happens positively in the peace talks--like a new moratorium for two months--that would benefit President Obama and Democrats in the midterm elections. But how much can be accomplished in such a short period, particularly since Obama seems to be promising Netanyahu that he will only press for a two-month extension in the settlement freeze?

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The fact that this summit--which was attended by Netanyahu, Abbas, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and Jordanian King Abdullah II--was held in early September had a lot to do with the U.S. domestic political calendar. Obama certainly wanted to create the impression that he and the Israeli prime minister were on the same page and were cooperating to move the peace process forward. The idea was to make it look as though Obama was having some success in foreign policy and certainly was not having any strong differences with Israel. Now, unfortunately, the fact that the administration went ahead with that summit and the launch of the talks without having a solution wired for the expiration of the settlement moratorium has really created a bit of a mess for the administration because, as you say, it looks as though they launched these talks with great fanfare only to have them collapse three and a half weeks later because of a problem that everyone knew was there--the expiring settlement moratorium.

Let’s jump to the Arab League foreign ministers’ meeting. Why did Abbas have to go to the Arab League foreign ministers? That’s sort of unusual, isn’t it?

He has now done this several times. His new modus operandi is to go to the Arab League. The basic reason is the extreme weakness of the Palestinian position and of Abbas’s own position. Because of the divisions between Fatah and Hamas, with the Palestinian political house divided internally, he feels he needs Arab state support to show that he is not taking decisions totally on his own. There certainly are accusations by Hamas and others that he cannot really speak for the Palestinians now with authority. So he is trying to bolster his position by having Arab states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia and Jordan standing behind him. I also think it’s a bit of a way to bolster his standing vis-a-vis the United States and the international community. He and the Palestinian Authority have become completely dependent on international political and financial support. There is a danger inherent in this, of course, that he has given away the independence of Palestinian decision-making, which was something that his predecessor Yasser Arafat fought very hard for.

Some commentators, like CFR’s Elliot Abrams, have noted that the Palestinians have a functioning West Bank government, headed by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, and they could morph into their own state, and that in fact Fayyad has a plan for a Palestinian state. Is there any realistic possibility of the Palestinians just announcing they now have a state?

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Unfortunately, the fact that the administration went ahead with that summit and the launch of the talks without having a solution wired for the expiration of the settlement moratorium has really created a bit of a mess for the administration.

After the Arab League summit, Saeb Erekat, one of the lead negotiators on the Palestinian side, said that the Palestinians discussed with the Arab foreign ministers alternative courses of action should there not be renewed or successful peace talks. And he outlined a couple of possibilities. One of them was that the Palestinians would ask the United States to recognize the existence of a Palestinian state along the 1967 "green line" [borders] for the West Bank and Gaza. Another variation on that would be that they would ask the UN Security Council to recognize the same thing--a Palestinian state along the 1967 lines. I don’t know how realistic they are. Frankly, I think the Palestinians at this point are trying to use them as threats. They’re desperately trying to find something they can use to press the Israelis. This is something that Fayyad has talked about since he launched his plan for building the institutions of a Palestinian state in August 2009, that the Palestinians would somehow go to the international community and ask for recognition of the state.

There’s no political chance that any U.S. president would recognize the Palestinian state without Israeli approval, right?

That’s extremely unlikely. In fact, what we’ve heard about the pledges that Obama has offered Netanyahu in exchange for an extension of the moratorium, one of them was that the United States would veto any Security Council action along these lines.

In 2002, the Arab League adopted a plan first put forward by then-Crown Prince and now King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia for a comprehensive Middle East peace, in which essentially Israel would recognize the borders of 1967 and the Arabs would establish peace with Israel. Is this plan still floating around?

It’s still floating around. Officials in the administration talked about this plan a lot when Obama first came into office. They seemed to see it as a very important initiative, something that would really offer an important incentive to Israel. But it hasn’t been clear how you put it into operation. One of the problems with it is that the Arab proposal to offer Israel a full recognition and peace with all members of the Arab League is contingent upon peace deals not only with the Palestinians, but also with the Syrians and the Lebanese. The understanding for a long time has been that it would be very difficult for Israel to move on all these fronts at once: to make peace with the Palestinians, to give up the West Bank and also the Golan, and so forth--that Israel would need to do these things one at a time, and therefore it’s difficult to put into action any kind of a grand strategy that does it all at once.

The big news in the Middle East this week is the pending visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Lebanon. It’s stirring up a lot of controversy in Lebanon since it’s supposed to be a big plus for Hezbollah, which is financed heavily by Iran. It’s also stirring up concern in Israel that there might be some provocation on the border with Lebanon. What do you think of this visit?

There is an increasingly tense situation inside Lebanon, and between Israel and Lebanon; there were a couple of border incidents in the past few months. There is this impending action of the Hariri tribunal [set up in 2005 to investigate the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri] that could include indicting some people from Hezbollah. So there are a number of things hanging fire that could cause an outbreak of violence either inside Lebanon or between Lebanon and Israel. In this context, the visit by Ahmadinejad is troubling--not so much that anything necessarily would happen during the visit, but whatever he might say and do during his visit and the controversy that might set in motion.

Amr Moussa, the secretary-general of the Arab League, has raised the idea of expanding the Arab League to incorporate Iran and Turkey. It isn’t clear whether he was proposing them to become full members, or that they would somehow be present at Arab League summits and have some sort of share in decision-making. Several Arab states, notably Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have opposed this strongly. The Arab League has become a very weak instrument, and Moussa’s proposal is an acknowledgment that it’s very difficult for the Arabs to do anything together when there are these stronger actors in the region.

What’s your guess now on the chances for the direct talks to resume?

It’s possible that Netanyahu will manage to get a sixty-day settlement moratorium of some kind out of his cabinet. He’s right now playing sort of the "good cop" against Lieberman, the "bad cop." The French and Spanish foreign ministers met with Lieberman, and so the Europeans are getting into the act too. Everyone’s trying to do various things to help Netanyahu get this sixty-day moratorium. But the difficulty you see with the parties taking even small steps, such as Netanyahu even extending some limits on settlement construction for sixty days to continue direct talks, underscores how very difficult it’s going to be to make real serious progress with the current leaderships--the current Israeli prime minister and cabinet, and the current Palestinian president in his very weak internal situation. I think that right now the United States is just looking to keep things from collapsing, and to move forward through the U.S. elections and then to reassess after that what’s really going to need to be done if they want to move this thing forward.

So it’s not a time for optimists?



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