Archive for the ‘US’ Category

hrw logo.svgOn September 11 Human Right Watch issued a detailed report on three incidents of Israeli attacks against UNRWA shelters during the recent Gaza war, at Beit Hanoun, Jabaliya, and Rafah. According to HRW:

Three Israeli attacks that damaged Gaza schools housing displaced people caused numerous civilian casualties in violation of the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said today. In the first in-depth documentation of the violations, Human Rights Watch investigated the three attacks, which occurred on July 24 and 30, and August 3, 2014, and killed 45 people, including 17 children.

“The Israeli military carried out attacks on or near three well-marked schools where it knew hundreds of people were taking shelter, killing and wounding scores of civilians,” said Fred Abrahams, special adviser at Human Rights Watch. “Israel has offered no convincing explanation for these attacks on schools where people had gone for protection and the resulting carnage.”

Two of the three attacks Human Rights Watch investigated – in Beit Hanoun and Jabalya – did not appear to target a military objective or were otherwise unlawfully indiscriminate. The third attack in Rafah was unlawfully disproportionate if not otherwise indiscriminate. Unlawful attacks carried out willfully – that is, deliberately or recklessly – are war crimes.

Asked about the report, US State Department spokesperson Marie Harf was critical of the attacks on the UN schools. According to the Jerusalem Post:

“We were horrified by the strikes that hit UNRWA facilities,” Harf said. She emphasized that UNRWA facilities must not be used for military purposes, as some were by Hamas, and that they should not use civilians to shield fighters.

“But also at the same time,” Harf continued, “the suspicion that militants are operating nearby does not justify strikes that put at risk the lives of so many innocent civilians. Israeli authorities say they’re investigating. We expect these to be investigated thoroughly and promptly, and we’ll continue pushing them to do so.”

Israel has opened an investigation into one of the three attacks, according to the Times of Israel.

Mideast Israel Palestinians

factsOn Sunday Ashraq al-Awsat ran an article alleging that the United States had pressed both the Mubarak and Morsi regimes to surrender the Sinai so that it could be used to relocate Palestinian refugees and create a Palestinian state.

Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—Towards the end of his tenure, ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak resisted pressures from Washington to cede Egyptian territory in the Sinai Peninsula to help create a Palestinian state, former senior members of Mubarak’s ruling party told Asharq Al-Awsat.

A former official from the National Democratic Party, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Asharq Al-Awsat that during the previous decade Washington pushed Cairo to allow large numbers of Palestinians to settle in the Sinai.

The official said Mubarak believed the move was the first step in a process designed to get Egypt to cede its own territory to create a Palestinian state. Egypt’s former president resisted the appeals, which he described as being “in the best interest of Israel,” the senior official maintained.

During a meeting chaired by Mubarak in 2007, the official quoted the former Egyptian president as saying: “Our main enemy is Israel, but we are fighting both the US and Israel. There is pressure on us to open the Rafah crossing for the Palestinians and grant them freedom of residence, particularly in Sinai.”

Mubarak claimed that the aim of the plan was to establish refugee camps on Egyptian territory to accommodate as many Palestinians as possible.

“In a year or two, the issue of Palestinian refugee camps in Sinai will be internationalized. Meanwhile, Israel will impose pressures on the West Bank in order to force large numbers of Palestinians from Gaza into Egypt,” the source quoted Mubarak as saying.

Mubarak said that once the Palestinian refugees were on Egyptian soil the UN would have requested “a new Oslo [accord]” in order to establish a Palestinian state stretching from Gaza to Sinai to which Palestinians in diaspora would have been welcome to return.

But the former president opposed the plan, insisting that “Egypt would remain a thorn in the project’s side.”

The same proposal was put forward when the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in 2012, almost 18 months after the January 25 revolution that toppled Mubarak, a former security official told Asharq Al-Awsat.

Err, no—that  certainly didn’t happen. It is likely that the US pressed Egypt to relax restrictions at Rafah, and possibly even to treat Palestinian refugees better. The rest of it is one large fantasy. The only really interesting question is whether anyone in authority in Egypt ever believed it, or whether it is a more recent conspiracy theory born of the current levels of anti-American paranoia in the country (where many continue to believe that Obama is secretly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood).

The Atlantic: Kerry’s Middle East peace plan

Posted: July 21, 2014 by Rex Brynen in Israel, peace process, US

The Atlantic this week has a lengthy and detailed piece by Ben Birnbaum and Amir Tibon on “The Explosive, Inside Story of How John Kerry Built an Israel-Palestine Peace Plan—and Watched It Crumble.” The article is very useful, although it does tend to focus more on the side-deals to keep the talks going rather than providing great insight into the substantive issues under negotiation.

It also contains a brief reference of where the US and Israel were on the refugee issue:

By late January, the Americans believed that their strategy of patient engagement with Netanyahu was finally paying off. After months of painstaking negotiations over every word in the framework, the prime minister had accepted once-unthinkable language. On refugees, the document would promise monetary compensation to Palestinians displaced in Israel’s War of Independence (and, separately, to Jews who left their homes in the Arab world). It also stated clearly that “the Palestinian refugee problem” would be solved within the new Palestinian state. But, in a groundbreaking departure from Israeli policy and his previous statements, Netanyahu agreed to a mechanism whereby Israelat its sole discretionwould admit some refugees on a humanitarian basis.

What is painted here as a major concession (“sovereign discretion”) was in fact part of the December 2000 Clinton Parameters, and indeed was also part of the Israeli negotiating position throughout 1999-2001 [1]. Compensation to Jews from Arab countries was first put on the table at the Camp David talks in July 2000.

In other words, what are being reported as a “groundbreaking departure” is 14 years old, even if Netanyahu himself only belatedly endorsed it. It is also significantly less flexible than the Israeli position in Taba in January 2001, where Israeli negotiators were prepared to offer concrete numbers for returning refugees.


[1] Gilead Sher, The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Negotiations, 1999-2001 (London: Routledge, 2006).

Today’s Ha’aretz has a must-read piece by Barak Ravid on the 2013-14 US/Israel/Palestine negotiations, including a summary of the draft framework document prepared by the US. It also confirms previous reporting that Washington worked on this far more closely with Israel than the Palestinians in developing the position paper.

Given the importance of the article, I’ve reproduced it below in full.

The secret fruits of the peace talks, a future point of departure?
Some think the still-secret framework document produced by nine months of talks might contain the basis for a future American peace plan.
By Barak Ravid| 00:30 05.07.14

July 30, 2013 was another hot and humid summer day in Washington. That morning, a pair of Israelis and a pair of Palestinians sat opposite each other on olive-green sofas in the air-conditioned comfort of the Oval Office in the White House. On one sofa were Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and attorney Isaac Molho, the prime minister’s envoy; on the other were the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, and a top Fatah official, Mohammad Shtayyeh.

A day earlier, another round of Israeli-Palestinian talks on a final-status agreement had been launched in a modest ceremony and with little fanfare. It was one more attempt in a 20-year chain of dashed hopes, missed opportunities, unreached agreements and no end of frustration. Secretary of State John Kerry and the U.S. special envoy for the negotiations, Martin Indyk, were on hand, playing the role of the latest American mediators to engage in a countdown to the inevitable crash.

Sitting in the brown leather chairs perpendicular to the Israelis and the Palestinians were President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. They were searching for the right words that would imbue the negotiators with motivation and a sense of urgency, but at the same time would not generate unwarranted expectations about the chances for success. “Every journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step – what’s important is seriousness,” Obama said.

“Seriousness” was the keyword at that brief meeting. Kerry, Livni and Erekat uttered it several times. But one of the participants made a remark that was something of a Freudian slip. “This time it really will be serious,” he said, possibly sarcastically.

The cynicism that accompanied the talks, the lack of enthusiasm for yet another round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and, at the end of the allotted nine months, the resounding collapse of the process – whose consequences the parties are now feeling – led to the notion that, once again, the talks had not been serious. It was alleged that it had all been for nothing, that not a thing had happened, that the parties had just played for time and the chance to hurl mutual recriminations.

But this conclusion may not have done justice to all nine months of talks. Especially to the three months from December 2013 until March 2014, in which Kerry and Indyk held intensive talks with Israel and the Palestinians on the framework document for the negotiations. The idea was to set forth for the sides the principles for a solution of the core issues: borders, Jerusalem, refugees, security, settlements and water.

Copies of that 10-page document now lie in safes at the State Department in Washington and in a few offices in Jerusalem. The number of people in Israel who have read the document in full can be counted on the fingers of one hand, maybe a hand and a half. All the American and Israeli sources who were interviewed for this article declined to show the document to Haaretz, because of its volatility and the apprehension that its publication would make both sides, but particularly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, disavow the principles they had articulated in the negotiations.

Senior Israeli and American officials who were intimately involved in the talks say that even though the negotiations collapsed, the framework document remains relevant. The reason for this, according to all those involved, is that the document, though now in deep freeze, will be thawed out at some point before Obama leaves the White House and serve as a point of departure for future negotiations, or as the basis for an American peace plan that will be presented to the sides.

“The work on the document was not a waste of time,” says a senior Israeli official, adding, “I had very low expectations from the whole process, but I was favorably surprised by what happened at the end. It’s true that there is no agreement, but relative to the composition of the government coalition in Israel and the situation on the Palestinian side, we made quite a bit of progress.”

Recalculating the route

The goal that the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators talked about in that White House meeting a year ago was nothing if not ambitious: A comprehensive and full final-status agreement within nine months. Once back home, Livni, Molho, Erekat and Shtayyeh began to hold meetings. All told, they met 25 times between August and December 2013.

Some of the meetings were held in Jerusalem, others in Jericho. Indyk, then the U.S. envoy, took part in some of them, while in others the Israelis and Palestinians faced off without mediators. But the talks did not produce a breakthrough. Both sides persisted in presenting their basic positions. Each spoke to himself, and no one really engaged in the kind of give-and-take that underlies genuine negotiations. The principal achievement of those months lay in the food served at the meetings, especially the dinners at Erekat’s home in Jericho, prepared by his wife, Naima. A senior Israeli official who took part in the talks related that already after a few meetings, the two sides began to understand that they had to recalculate the route. In other words, to abandon the goal of achieving a comprehensive settlement in favor of reaching a framework agreement that would demarcate the sector boundaries of the two-state solution.

The final decision to this effect was made in mid-November, when a wave of massive construction in the settlements following the second release of Palestinian prisoners led to the resignation of the Palestinian negotiating team and the suspension of direct talks.

In addition to changing the goal, Kerry and the American team also decided on a change of style that would involve a shift to “proximity talks” – indirect negotiations in which they would shuttle between the sides and try to bridge the gaps in an effort to formulate a framework document. Their aim was to bring about a quantum leap that would hurtle the sides from empty talks and entrenched positions to true negotiations in which they would try to strike a deal.

The framework document was not meant to be an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, but an American position paper, based on which the sides would be ready to resume the negotiations from a more advanced point. To help them politically, the Americans agreed to allow the Israeli prime minister and the Palestinian president to announce that they had reservations about certain clauses in the document. Netanyahu and Abbas would not detail their demurrers but made do with a statement that would be discussed in the negotiating room.

The Americans believed that the framework document would oblige the two leaders to make a series of tough decisions at a relatively early stage of the talks. Such decisions would completely change the atmosphere of the negotiations and the political reality on both sides, and induce the leaders to cross the Rubicon and move full-tilt toward an agreement.

In addition, the crisis that erupted at this point over the prisoner release and construction in the settlements showed Kerry that time was not on his side. Seeing the potential crisis of a third release of prisoners at the end of December, he wanted to move ahead as quickly as possible.

At the beginning of December, Kerry, who was already intensively and personally involved in the talks, ramped up his involvement even further. He and Indyk set in motion a round of marathon talks – though the major American effort was focused on talks with the Israeli side.

Senior Israeli and American officials related that this stage consisted of daily work. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of talks and discussions were held between the teams, often deep into the night. Tzipi Livni, who was at the forefront of these contacts, was indefatigable. If she found a door closed to her, she entered through a window. With great persistence she was able to get Netanyahu to budge on no few issues, in order to move toward the formulation of the framework paper.

Each and every issue was addressed: borders, Jerusalem, refugees, security, settlements, Jewish state. On every issue the Israelis presented their position, the Americans set forth a counter-position, and together they tried to work out formulations to close the gaps.

But along with the work of the teams, a large portion of the negotiations was conducted directly between Netanyahu and Kerry. During this period, the secretary of state visited Israel several times for talks with the sides, but the bulk of the negotiations was carried out by means of almost daily video conferences with Netanyahu. On one occasion, Kerry came on for a talk from Indonesia, another time from China. Sometimes the talk lasted two hours, sometimes five.

Both Kerry and Netanyahu are devotees of words. Kerry, a lawyer by training, wanted to formulate everything himself, and Netanyahu wanted to see every word. For hour upon hour they sat opposite the camera and the plasma screen, and worked on the clauses of the document. Members of the Israeli negotiating team who were in the room handed Netanyahu notes with their suggestions for wording of the text.

Senior Israeli and American officials involved in the talks on the framework document attest that during those months of negotiations, and particularly in the three months of work on the framework agreement, Netanyahu softened his positions slowly but consistently, and showed seriousness and a readiness to make progress.

From conversations with members of the Israeli negotiating team, the following picture arises of the positions put forward by Netanyahu in his talks with Kerry and which appeared in the final draft of the document:

1. Borders

Netanyahu agreed for the first time to accept the principle that the negotiations will take place on the basis of the 1967 lines together with a territorial swap. The implication: readiness to withdraw from more than 90 percent of the territory of the West Bank in any peace agreement. However, Netanyahu refused to elaborate on whether he would agree to a one-for-one swap, as the Palestinians and Americans called for. In addition, he made this conditional on the document’s including a reference to his demand for Israel to be recognized as the nation-state of the Jewish people and on his being able to announce that he had reservations about the document without detailing them.

Even though Netanyahu ultimately agreed to conduct negotiations on the basis of the 1967 lines and a territorial exchange, he flatly refused to present a map or even to discuss the subject theoretically. In one of the meetings between the Israeli and Palestinian teams, Molho, the prime minister’s envoy, left the room for a few minutes. When he returned he found Erekat and Livni hunched over a map that had been unrolled on the table. Appalled, Molho demanded an explanation. Erekat chided him and said he was explaining something about a certain region on the map to Livni. Livni, for her part, seeing Molho’s worried look, tried to reassure him. “Treat it as science fiction,” she told him with a smile. But Molho, whom the White House dubbed “Dr. No” – after the villain in the first James Bond movie – was not amused. With abysmal seriousness he said to Erekat, “Just so you know that what is happening here does not represent the position of the prime minister.”

A minor anecdote, perhaps, but it reflects Netanyahu’s deep aversion to addressing the subject of borders. The prime minister displayed great cautiousness in this realm, even in discussions with the smallest forums of the Israeli negotiating team. A senior Israeli official who took part in all the consultations noted that throughout the nine months of the talks Netanyahu did not give the slightest hint about the scale of the territorial concessions he would be willing to make. “Not even with the most intimate team did he peruse maps,” the official said.

2. Security

The Americans accepted most of Netanyahu’s security points and integrated them into the document. The clause on this issue states that the Palestinian state will be demilitarized and that there will be an Israeli army presence along the Jordan River as part of a special security regime to be established in that area. At the same time, the Americans left it to the two sides to negotiate the duration of the Israeli military presence. Netanyahu, for his part, softened his opposition to the presence of international forces in the West Bank. He agreed to the presence of an international force as a supplementary and supportive means alongside the Israel Defense Forces.

3. Recognition of Jewish state

Here, too, Netanyahu showed greater flexibility in the course of the negotiations. A senior Israeli official noted that at one stage Netanyahu replaced the term “Jewish state” with the term “nation-state of the Jewish people.” The framework document declares that peace will prevail between “two nation-states.” Netanyahu also agreed to include two clarifications in the document in order to try to placate the Palestinians, who have strong objections regarding this issue. For the first time, it was emphasized that the equality of rights of the minorities in Israel will not be infringed in any peace agreement. The second, and more interesting, clarification stated that recognition of the existence of two nation-states will not be considered an attempt by one side to oblige the other to forgo its narrative or to adopt a different narrative.

4. Refugees

A senior Israeli official related that in the framework document, the Americans adopted in general terms the Israeli position that there will be no right of return of refugees to Israel. However, the Americans wanted to give the Palestinians an honorable way out on this issue, to enable them to swallow such a meaningful concession.

Two approaches were discernible in the Israeli negotiating team. Some of those involved put forward a rigid stance of principle that rejected any compromise. Others argued that in order to obtain Palestinian agreement, Israel must protect the core of its interests – meaning to remove the issue of the right of return from the agenda – but to show flexibility on other refugee-related issues.

Washington wanted to insert a clause according to which, in addition to the options of returning to the Palestinian state, remaining where they were or moving to a third country, refugees could also choose to return to Israel based on criteria that Israel would set at its discretion and sovereign decision. A senior Israeli official noted that Netanyahu objected strenuously to the American proposals and that Tzipi Livni was even more intransigent than he on this issue.

Nevertheless, in the end Israel agreed to show flexibility here as well, and to consider return of refugees on a case-by-case basis. Israel put forward an idea according to which a special mechanism would be established to which Palestinians could apply, and Israel would examine their requests on an individual or humanitarian basis and decide whether to accept them or not, according to its own sovereign judgment. “The subject of the options to be available to the Palestinians was not finalized, and the possibility of a return to Israel remained open until the end,” says a senior Israeli official.

5. Jerusalem

This issue produced the widest gulf between Israel and the United States in the discussion of the framework document. The Americans adopted the Palestinian stance on the issue and initially wanted to insert a clause stating that Jerusalem would be the capital of both states. Subsequently they agreed to soften the formulation slightly, but not fundamentally. Netanyahu refused to have the document mention in any way that there would be a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem. A senior Israeli official noted that Netanyahu was agreeable to a formulation that would include a statement about a future aspiration in this regard, or a general sentence to the effect that it would not be possible to achieve a final agreement without resolving the Jerusalem issue. According to the senior Israeli official, Netanyahu recognized the fact that without a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem there would be no agreement, but political concerns made him shirk any statement on the subject at this stage of the negotiations. The Americans hoped that they would be able to persuade Netanyahu to make a dramatic concession on Jerusalem if Abbas agreed to make a concession on the question of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. But that potential tradeoff was never put to the test.

6. Settlements

The question of the fate of the settlements in a final-status agreement was not dealt with in detail in the framework document. The paper left an opening for Israelis to remain in the Palestinian state, but this was not a central issue. Netanyahu dealt with this issue mainly outside the negotiating room, in the form of a trial balloon with the settlers.

Neglecting Mahmoud Abbas

There were no intensive discussions with the Palestinians of the sort that were held with the Israelis. One reason for this was technical: the difficulty of holding secure video talks with the Muqata – the Ramallah-based headquarters of the Palestinian Authority. But another reason was the Americans’ wrongheaded behavior in regard to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen).

Warning lights began to go on among the Israeli team at a quite early stage of the negotiations. It wasn’t clear to Netanyahu and his aides what exactly the Palestinians thought about each of the clauses in the draft framework document that were hammering out with the Americans. “At one point we discovered that throughout the entire period, the Americans didn’t actually talk to the Palestinians, only to us,” a senior Israeli official said.

A senior American official who took part in the talks admits that the bulk of the work on the document was done with the Israelis. He explained that this was due to the fact that because the Americans viewed themselves as being closer to the Palestinian approach on a large number of the issues, their major effort had to be invested in trying to get Netanyahu to soften his positions. Fearing that the Palestinians would lock themselves into a rejectionist posture, the Americans decided not to present any proposal to them until they felt their contacts with Israel had reached a sufficiently serious outcome.

However, the Americans’ comportment brought about exactly the result they had feared. On February 19, 2014, when Kerry met with Abbas in Paris and apprised him orally of the main points of the emerging framework document, the secretary of state was stunned at the reaction.

The Palestinian leader, who was unwell and in a foul mood when he arrived for the meeting, had the feeling that the Americans had pulled “a Dennis Ross” on him – referring to the veteran American diplomat who was known throughout all the years of the negotiations for his practice of first striking a deal with the Israelis and then selling it to the Palestinians as an American proposal. Abbas thought Kerry was presenting him with a done deal and trying to stuff it down his throat.

The Kerry-Abbas meeting in Paris was a total bust. Senior American and Palestinian officials maintain that Abbas has been unbudgeable since that day. He refused to hold talks on the framework document, insisting first on getting a promise that Israel would release all the prisoners it had undertaken to free at the start of the negotiations.

Throughout the whole succeeding month, the Americans tried to extract from Abbas a response or a comment on the framework document, but to no avail. Abbas viewed the document as part of a plot against him. Things came to a head on March 17, when Abbas met with President Obama at the Oval Office for more than two hours and declined to give Obama anything other than a vague promise that he would get back to him in a few days about the framework document. Which he never did.

Both Abbas and chief negotiator Erekat say rightly that the Americans never gave them a copy of the framework document, but only presented ideas orally. They could thus not peruse the paper thoroughly and formulate an opinion. At this time, drafts of the document were being exchanged between Washington and Jerusalem on a daily basis. The Palestinians’ response, when they grasped what was going on, was that they were being duped. So great was their suspiciousness and so intense their frustration with the Americans that they lost interest in the process completely.

“The Americans did not invest enough time in the Palestinians,” a senior Israeli official related. “They didn’t hold video talks with them or discussions into the night over every letter in the document. The result was a crisis of expectations. How many times did we say to them: What about Mahmoud Abbas? Did you talk to him? Does he agree to all these points? The Americans neglected Mahmoud Abbas throughout this period, and when Kerry came to him in Paris it was already too late.”

A senior official in the U.S. administration who took part in the talks acknowledges that the biggest mistake made by the Americans was in dealing with Abbas. “It’s true, we weren’t sensitive enough toward him and we didn’t understand how he felt,” this source says. “In retrospect, we should have behaved differently.” Some members of the Israeli negotiating team maintain that throughout the nine months of the talks Netanyahu wrestled genuinely with the issues. One day he got up on the left side, filled with a desire to move ahead, and the next day he would get up on the right side and retract. On the one hand, he understood intellectually the need to advance toward a peace agreement with the Palestinians, but emotionally he wanted to go in the opposite direction. One of the major problems that kept cropping up throughout the negotiations was that decision-making was, time and again, guided by party-political considerations. A senior Israeli official who was involved in the talks noted that Netanyahu measured almost every step he wanted to take in terms of its effect on the coalition and on the basis of his political support from the right wing.

Even when Netanyahu was ready to make concessions, such as on the 1967 lines, or to implement confidence-building measures, like imposing serious restraints on settlement construction, he declined to say so clearly and expressed himself in the opposite way. This behavior severely affected the Palestinians’ trust and made it impossible to persuade them that an effort should be made to move forward.

But the primary reason for the failure of the U.S. attempt to formulate a framework document lies in the sour relations between Netanyahu and Abbas and in the fact that no point of convergence was forged between their approaches. Both of them wanted a peace agreement, but strictly on their own terms. “There is no doubt that Netanyahu budged during the talks,” says a senior member of the Israeli negotiating team. “If you look at where he was at the start and where he got to at the end, you see that it’s not the same place. There were many issues on which he started out very extreme and then became more flexible along the way. The problem is that he budged in relation to himself. Was that enough? No.”

The Prime Minister’s Bureau responded: “Without going into details, were the U.S. framework to have been completed, it would have represented the Americans’ proposals. Besides, Israel could have had reservations about its details.”

CIA: Demographic Aspects of the Arab-Israeli Dispute (1973)

Posted: February 11, 2013 by Rex Brynen in 1973, US

The Central Intelligence Agency has recently released an account of US intelligence assessment of the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war, drawing upon a number of newly declassified reports. Among the items cited is an 18 page CIA analysis of “Demographic Aspects of the Arab-Israeli Dispute,” dated 24 August 1973:

Since the 1967 war a new problem has arisen; i.e., the demographic threat posed by Arabs living inside the cease-fire lines. The threat stems from Israel’s control of about 1.5 million Arabs, those in occupied territories and in pre-war Israel itself, and from the almost inexorable intertwining of the two areas. In the future, the Arab population is apt to grow more rapidly than the Jewish population…. In absence of a peace settlement with the Arabs, a kind of territorial imperative operates in Tel Aviv. This being so, Jewish control inside the cease-fire lines will come to depend more and more on either denying the Arabs political rights or goading them into leaving.

Today’s issue of Haaretz (12 June 2012) has a good story on the recent Senate amendment to the US FY2013 Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Bill, which would require the State Department to report on how many UNRWA-registered refugees originated within Israel, and how many are descendants of that original group.

Known as the Kirk Amendment, after its sponsor, Senator Mark Kirk (R-Illinois), considered one of Israel’s strongest supporters in Washington, the bill conceals within its 150-plus words a fierce battle between Republican legislators and the State Department over the United States’ relationship with UN institutions.

Every year the United States allocates $250 million to UNRWA, which provides food as well as health, education and employment services to millions of Palestinians in Jordan, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. For years Congressional representatives have been trying to reduce U.S. contributions to the agency, on the grounds that UNRWA was born in sin and that its policies are anti-Israeli.

What is not common knowledge in the Beltway is that the Kirk Amendment got its start in the Jerusalem office of MK Einat Wilf (Atzmaut ), who toiled for months, together with AIPAC lobbyists and Kirk’s staff, to promote the change.

The report highlights both Israel’s rather schizophrenic attitude towards UNRWA, and the slight changes in Israeli policy that have occurred under the Netanyahu government. On the one hand, officials at the Israeli Ministry of Defence were wary about any initiative that might reduce overall UNRWA funding:

Wilf met with senior Defense Ministry policy official Amos Gilad and explained that she sought to end the agency’s policy of giving refugee status to successive generations of Palestinian refugees. “UNRWA’s activities perpetuate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict instead of solving it,” Wilf says.

In a letter he sent Wilf in January, Gilad set the boundaries for her initiative, writing that the UNRWA budget should not be harmed , and that “UNRWA plays an important role in aiding the Palestinian population.”

“One must prevent a circumstance which endangers the continued transfer of these [UNRWA] services, services that align with Israeli interests,” Gilad added.

On the other hand, there was some political encouragement from both the Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister’s office:

After Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Ron Dermer, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s foreign-policy adviser, gave their approval to Wilf’s efforts, she returned to AIPAC staffers and also approached Steven J. Rosen, a former foreign policy director for the organization who now works for a Washington think tank, to get things rolling on Capitol Hill.

Reaction in the Arab world to the move has been very negative, but somewhat exaggerated. Certainly the move is intended to weaken refugee claims by implying that most UNRWA-registered refugees aren’t really refugees at all. However, at this point it doesn’t challenge UNRWA funding, nor could the US easily get UNRWA to alter its eligibility rules—power over the UNRWA mandate, after all, resides at the UN General Assembly. How US senators do or do not want to count refugees would certainly have no practical effect on any future refugee negotiations, which aren’t likely to happen any time soon in any case. Indeed, as I’ve argued before, the move could even backfire by resulting in a much strong UN endorsement of refugee rights.

That being said, the episode does point to several important sets of trends and issues that need to be thought about more thoroughly:

  • What are the implications for UNRWA, and for refugees, of prolonged statement in the “peace process”? Can UNRWA indeed continue to muddle through by providing the current level and types of services to an ever-expanding number of registrants?
  • Does UNRWA need to shift to a more asymmetric mode of service delivery? Should greater priority be given the stateless, marginalized refugees in Lebanon (for example), and even less to those (citizen, tax-paying) refugees in Jordan? If so, should this been done on the basis of need, status, or some combination of the two?
  • Has Israeli policy shifted on UNRWA, and if so what might be the implications of this?
  • Is there need for a more frank, and realistic, discussion of the “right of return”?
  • How do attacks upon UNRWA as a perpetuator of conflict inhibit its ability to deliver services? What are their operational implications for fund-raising, perceptions of neutrality, and so forth?

These are all thorny issues indeed, and well worth some quiet and thoughtful discussion. (Any refugee workshop organizers out there, take note!)

I’ve been travelling much of the last week and a half, and so haven’t had any chance yet to comment yet on recent developments in the US Congress regarding who is, and is not, a Palestinian refugee.

The hijinks started when Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) proposed an amendment to the FY2013 Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Bill. This would have called upon the US State Department to report on the numbers of Palestinian refugees who had actually been displaced in 1948, as opposed to their descendants, as well as their citizenship status:

Not later than one year after the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of State shall submit a report to the Committees on Appropriations detailing the number of people currently receiving United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) services 1) whose place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948 and who were personally displaced as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict (“such persons”); 2) who are children of such persons; 3) who are grandchildren of such persons; 4) who are descendants of such persons and not otherwise counted by criteria (2) and (3); 5) who are residents of the West Bank or Gaza; 6) who do not reside in the West Bank or Gaza and are citizens of other countries; and 7) whose place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who were personally displaced as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict, who currently do not reside in the West Bank or Gaza and who are not currently citizens of any other state.

The proposed amendment received enthusiastic media support from right-wing columnist Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post (see here, here, and here) as well as by Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. It was opposed by the US State Department. In a letter to the Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides warned that the proposed legislation would ” be viewed around the world as the United States acting to prejudge and determine the outcome of this sensitive issue.”

The status of Palestinian refugees is one of the most sensitive final status issues confronting Palestinians and Israelis. It strikes a deep, emotional chord among Palestinians and their supporters, including our regional allies. Indeed the refugee issue is not confined to the Palestinian territories; it also directly and significantly the politics and stability of allies, such as Jordan and Lebanon, which host large Palestinian refugee populations.

This proposed amendment would be viewed around the world as the United States acting to prejudge and determine the outcome of this sensitive issue.  United States policy has been consistent for decades, in both Republican and Democratic administrations – final status issues can and must only be resolved between Israelis and Palestinians in direct negotiations.  The Department of State cannot support legislation which would force the United States to make a public judgment on the number and status of Palestinian refugees…

This proposed amendment poses serious risk of damaging a range of key United States interests in the region.  It pushed the refugee issue to the fore at a particularly sensitive time.  Forcing the United States to take a position on a permanent status issue would hurt our efforts to promote Middle East peace, prevent the Palestinians from returning to their pursuit of statehood via the United Nations, damage our ability to mediate between the parties, and risk a very negative and potentially destabilizing impact on key allies, particularly Jordan, who host Palestinian refugee populations

In the end, modified language was proposed by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT):

The Committee directs the Secretary of State to submit a report to the Committee not later than one year after enactment of this act, indicating –
(a)    the approximate number of people who, in the past year, have received UNRWA services –
(1)   whose place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948 and who were displaced as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict; and
(2)   who are descendants of persons described in subparagraph (1);
(b)   the extent to which the provision of such services to such persons furthers the security interests of the United States and of other United States allies in the Middle East; and
(c)    the methodology and challenges in preparing each report.

Detailed analysis of the legislative maneuvering has been provided by American Friends for Peace Now, in their excellent weekly legislative round-up.

The original Kirk amendment was clearly motivated by the view that UNRWA artificially prolongs the refugee issue. While it did not call for any limitation on funds to UNRWA, it seemed designed as part of a strategy to weaken both US support for the continuation of UNRWA services and registration practices over the longer term, as well as limiting the refugee issue to the elderly generation of 1948 refugees.

The Leahy version is less of a challenge to the status quo, in that it only addresses the generational issue (on which UNRWA and UNHCR practices are similar) and not the citizenship issue (where they largely differ).

Subsequently, the US State Department clarified to Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy magazine that it regards the children of refugees to be refugees, and not just in the Palestinian context:

In a new statement given to The Cable Thursday, a State Department spokesman said that the U.S. government does, in fact, agree with UNRWA that descendants of refugees are also refugees.

“Both the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) generally recognize descendants of refugees as refugees,” State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told The Cable. “For purposes of their operations, the U.S. government supports this guiding principle. This approach is not unique to the Palestinian context.”

Ventrell pointed out that the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees also recognizes descendants of refugees as refugees in several cases, including but not limited to the Burmese refugee population in Thailand, the Bhutanese refugee population in Nepal, the Afghan population in Pakistan, and the Somali population seeking refuge in neighboring countries.

UNHCR by default only considers the minor children of refugees to have refugee status but often makes exceptions to include latter generations.

Rogin then spun this into the sensationalistic headline “Did the State Department just create 5  million Palestinian refugees?,” raising the spectre of an ever-expanding Palestinian refugee population.

Interestingly, both legislative amendments talk about those using UNRWA services, not those registered with UNRWA. The former number is, in practice, a smaller one since many refugees may not use UNRWA services.

This episode raises three main questions:

First, what is the relationship between UNRWA and Palestinian refugee claims? While the Agency undoubtedly plays some role in refugee identity, it would require a pretty shallow understanding of the refugee issue to believe that refugee claims or Palestinian attitudes to the refugee are somehow a product of UNRWA registration status. Indeed, as noted before at this blog, the public opinion survey data shows that receiving UNRWA services has little impact on Palestinian attitudes to the refugee issue.

Second, who is really a refugee? It is true that UNRWA uses a somewhat different definition of “refugee” than does UNHCR. Then again, UNRWA’s definition relates solely to service eligibility, and is in no way a political-legal definition for negotiations purposes. On the other hand, as the State Department notes, Palestinians are far from the only multi-generational refugees. In 1951 Refugee Convention and UNHCR rules were applied to Palestinians, the results would probably be the following:

  1. Stateless (non-citizen) refugees of all generations in Lebanon, Syria, or elsewhere would continue to be considered refugees.
  2. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, who are also stateless until such time as Israel allows creation of a Palestinian state, would either be considered refugees (if the Green Line is an international border) or displaced persons (otherwise). In other words, their status wouldn’t change either, until a peace agreement establishes a state of Palestine.
  3. Palestinian refugees in Jordan who hold Jordanian citizenship—that is to say, the vast majority—would lose refugee status, since they clearly enjoy the protection of a state.

In other words, applying UNHCR rules to the Palestinians would drop the number of refugees from the current 4.8 million to approximately 2.8 million. Almost all of this reduction in numbers would occur within Jordan, and would likely be politically destabilizing in view of post-Arab Spring tensions in that country (although legitimate questions could be raised about why the UN continues to provide substantial services to tax-paying Jordanian citizens). Certainly efforts to radically transform the way UNRWA deliver services would be viewed by both Palestinians and Arab host countries as a hostile move by the US government, as Nides warned.

Finally—and most important of all—none of this would actually change the claims made against Israel, nor would it significantly change the dynamics of future peace negotiations on the refugee issue. The forced displacement  of Palestinians in 1948 was a formative experience in modern Palestinian nationalism. It is as central to Palestinian identity as is Jewish attachment to Israel. Regardless of whether UNRWA counts five million refugees or five, Palestinians will likely continue to press for recognition of Israeli responsibility, some form of refugee return (however symbolic), and compensation for the properties seized by Israel.

Toyotas, Hondas, and Palestinian refugee education

Posted: February 5, 2012 by Rex Brynen in factcheck, UNRWA, US

Last week, U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Human Rights, cosponsored a meeting on UNRWA with the virulently anti-UNRWA Center for Near East Policy Research. The session featured attacks on UNRWA by Arnon Groiss (who highlighted problems with PA textbooks used by UNRWA—although apparently he’s never ever been to a UNRWA school) and David Bedein’s infamous propaganda video about indoctrination in UNRWA summer camps (which, on further investigation, turns out not to be UNRWA summer camps at all).

Matthew Reynolds, head of the UNRWA representative office in Washington DC, labelled the testimony “pretty much a farce,” likening it to claiming problems with Toyota vehicles—but then showing pictures of Hondas to make your point.

A few quick thoughts on the issue:

1) Yes, Palestinian Authority textbooks are imperfect, and there is significant room for improvement. However, they are also a very substantial improvement on the Jordanian and Egyptian textbooks that were in use in the West Bank and Gaza before the establishment of the PA, and which were used (albeit often in censored versions) in the schools of the then Israeli-controlled Civil Administration. It also seems a bit unrealistic to expect that a population driven into exile, under foreign military occupation, and denied self-determination will have textbooks full of positive references to their occupiers. there’s also very little evidence that the Palestinian educational system plays a significant role in encouraging Palestinian hostility to the Israeli occupation—rather, the evidence suggests that Israeli actions (occupation, checkpoints, dispossession, illegal settlement construction, military actions, arrests) are the primary determinant of this. As we have noted before, Palestinians who go to Israeli schools (in East Jerusalem, or within Israel proper) have broadly similar attitudes to the refugee issue as do Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

2) UNRWA is somewhat limited to using host country curriculum, although with modifications and supplements (such as its human rights curriculum). None of the press coverage of the event I have seen so far seems to have mentioned this, or the UNRWA-Hamas tensions in Gaza (and Lebanon). Instead, much of the coverage has actually distorted the testimony still further, like this gem in Washington Jewish Week:

Groiss said that in UNRWA schools in Saudi Arabia, the curriculum “professes the hope for the elimination of all Jews.” In Egypt, there is material “which expresses hatred towards Jews.”

As most PRRN blog readers will know, UNRWA doesn’t have schools in Saudi Arabia or Egypt.

3) Criticizing UNRWA by having David Bedein show a fraudulent video that falsely identifies non-UNRWA schools and activities as belonging to the Agency pretty much implies that either one doesn’t know what they are talking about, or one doesn’t much care what the facts are.

4) Sadly, however, distorted and even demonstrably false accusations reverberate in the echo chamber that is the internet, to be cited by those looking for confirmation of their preexisting biases. Thus you find the recent testimony on UNRWA being echoed being covered by the right-wing Cybercast News Service  (“The Right News. Right Now.”), and showing on at least two hundred other blogs and internet sources in the last week.

Apparently three op eds in less than a month from right-wing racist nutjob* Martin Sherman isn’t enough from the Jerusalem Post: yesterday they published a fourth, in which he again calls for paying Palestinians to leave the West Bank and Gaza, so that they could be resettled elsewhere and leave the place all tidy and Arab-free for Jewish settlement. What’s more, he suggests that the West should help pay for this ethnic self-cleansing (which he euphemistically labels the “humanitarian paradigm”):

The estimated cost of implementation is strongly dependent on the level of compensation and the size of the Palestinian population in the “territories,” which is the subject of intense debate.

A few years ago, the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research conducted a survey on the level of compensation Palestinian refugees considered fair to forgo the “right of return.” If we take more than double the minimum amount specified by most polls as fair compensation for relocation/rehabilitation, and if we adopt a high-end estimate of the Palestinian population, the total cost would be around $150b. for the West Bank Palestinians (and $250b. if Gaza is included). This is a fraction of the US expenditure on its decade-long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have produced results that are less than a resounding success.

Spread over a period equivalent to the current post-Oslo era, this sum would comprise a yearly outlay of no more than a few percentage points of current GDP – something Israel could well afford on its own.

If additional OECD countries were to contribute, the total relocation/rehabilitation of the Palestinian Arabs could be achieved with an almost imperceptible economic burden.

Of course, it is all political fantasy of the most unrealistic and unhelpful sort. He attempts to buttress with distorted findings from the 2003 PSR refugee poll, which was neither about Palestinians leaving their ancestral homeland nor giving up the right of return, and which actually shows that only 1% of refugees in the West Bank and Gaza would consider monetary incentives to immigrate as their first choice, and that over 80% of those who might immigrate would hope to retain Palestinian citizenship.

Again, the issue here isn’t that “transfer” is a theme in Israeli political discourse (it has been since before the formation of the state), nor that a former member of Tzomet advocates it. Rather, it is the treatment of the issue as a somehow normal one in the pages of a contemporary center-right-but-mainstream Israeli newspaper.

*I was struggling for the proper academic term here, but I think this one captures it nicely.

* * *

It is no wonder, therefore, that the Jordanian have been eager to host the recently renewed Israeli-Palestinian talks in accordance with the Quartet’s call for a peace agreement in 2012—not only are they concerned about the absence of diplomatic progress and fearful of the domestic “Arab Spring” ramifications of continued stalemate, but in addition Amman has a perennial fear of  “transfer” (as well as its companion theme, “Jordan is Palestine”). The talks themselves, of course, will go nowhere: Daniel Levy and Leila Hilal are, if anything, being charitable when they noted this week that “Given the positions of the negotiating parties, their respective political realities, and their actions over the last months, the talks in Amman had the theater of absurd quality to them.” Rami Khouri gets it right too when he comments that  we are “starting the new year with failed old diplomacy”:

The good news about the Jordanian-hosted Palestinian-Israeli-Quartet meeting in Amman to explore possibilities for resuming Palestinian-Israeli direct negotiations is that former US Mideast specialist Dennis Ross is not there to guarantee failure with the pro-Israel tilt of the US delegation.

The bad news is that the meeting is likely to fail because the Ross approach to guaranteeing diplomatic failure with the pro-Israel tilt of the US delegation still prevails.

The implications of this for conditions in the Middle East are profound, and mostly negative. The continued attempts to restart negotiations, define parameters, develop confidence-building measures, establish deadlines and targets, and pursue a host of other dead ends have all failed over the past 20 years because they lacked the intellectual honesty and diplomatic evenhandedness that is required for success in such situations.

This is aggravated by the trend, over the past decade in Israel, which has seen a combination of rightwing messianic and super-nationalist militaristic groups dominate the current coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli politics in general. Their position that peace talks can continue while Zionism pursues its steady colonisation of Palestinian lands is preposterous in its own right, and a diplomatic deadweight that is apparently supported, or merely accepted, by the United States.

The Quartet of the United States, Russia the UN and the European Union, which is supposed to shepherd the negotiations to success, adds another layer of incompetence, crowned by Ross-like bias and a penchant for rhetoric, statements and meetings over action.

Conditions on the Arab side are not much more impressive than the Israeli, American and Quartet perspectives, given the lack of unity among Palestinians and the general diplomatic lassitude of the Arab world as a whole. So breakthroughs for a negotiated peace are not on the horizon. One thing is sure, however. The persistence of the Palestinian-Israeli and wider Arab-Israeli conflicts, with the current political attitudes of the United States, EU and the leading Arab powers, can only portend more conflict ahead.

It is right that concerned parties should try to restart diplomatic negotiations, as they have done in Amman this week, but this is an exercise in futility if it occurs on the foundation of the cumulative failures of the recent past. Sadly, this seems to be the case.

The new year is full of hope for many Arabs who taste freedom and democracy, but it has not yet ushered in a new, more honest and fair, approach to Arab-Israeli diplomacy.

In an interview with the Jewish Channel on December 9, would-be US Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich offered his views on the legitimacy of Palestinian national identity:

…remember there was no Palestine as a state. It was part of the Ottoman Empire. And I think that we’ve had an invented Palestinian people, who are in fact Arabs, and were historically part of the Arab community. And they had a chance to go many places. And for a variety of political reasons we have sustained this war against Israel now since the 1940’s, and I think it’s tragic.

Gingrich may have a PhD in history, but it is pretty clear he knows nothing of the history or nature of nationalism. All nationalisms are, of course, based on a common sense of identity and experience—what political scientist Benedict Anderson famously referred to as “imagined communities.”  It is hardly surprising that Palestinian identity would emerge from the shared experience of colonial rule, enforced Jewish immigration, repression, war, and forced displacement (that latter being euphemistically described by Gingrich as “a chance to go many places”–as if ethnic cleansing and exile were a summer holiday).

Gingrich later defended his position, arguing that “Somebody ought to have the courage to tell the truth. These people are terrorists.” As the Washington Post commented, “the statement put Gingrich at odds not only with the international community but with all but an extremist fringe in Israel” (a point also echoed by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz).

Rather ironically, earlier in the same interview Gingrich draws upon the example of the American War of Independence to make a point, noting that the pin he wears on his lapel is the command flag of General Washington at Valley Forge. Yet American identity is perhaps the preeminent example of an “imagined community” (or an “invented people.”). No one had ever thought of themselves as “American” before the 17th century or so. European colonists were generally of British stock, and “American” nationalism didn’t become politically relevant until the latter half of the 18th century. In the years that followed, the American state deliberately sought to inculcate a sense of common citizenship among its diverse population, through national myths, symbols, and mass education. (“Canadian” nationalism evolved in somewhat similar ways, and since the 19th century has been very much defined in self-conscious distinction to Canada’s powerful neighbour to the south.)

In short, in finding fault with the supposedly artificial nature of the Palestinians’ deep-seated sense of national identity, Gingrich is showing a fundamental disregard for a core principle of freedom (the freedom to choose one’s social identity) and self-determination. His shallow blindness to the rights, hopes, and dreams of others neither does him credit as a political candidate, nor does it serve the search for Middle East peace. He also shows a striking lack of appreciation for the “invention” of his own diverse country—a country of overwhelmingly immigrant origins, once “part of the British Empire”—and its remarkable struggle to forge a common sense of political belonging through the pain of repression, revolution, and civil war.