A Piece Of Peace?

While U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry returned from his Middle East trip last week with an optimistic message following his latest attempt to foster progress in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and the presentation of a security proposal to both sides, Israelis and Palestinians aren’t sharing his positive outlook.

From Dec. 4 to 6, Kerry was accompanied in Jerusalem and Ramallah by retired four-star Marine Gen. John Allen, the former U.S. commander in Afghanistan. Allen presented Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas with what Kerry and the State Department have carefully described as only “some thoughts” on the resolution of security issues that have been obstructing progress in negotiations.

“President Obama and I are absolutely committed to reaching a final status agreement that recognizes two states for two peoples, living side-by-side in peace and security,” Kerry said Dec. 7 in his keynote address to the 10th annual Saban Forum, sponsored by the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. Joining the secretary at the forum were major players such as President Barack Obama and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman; Netanyahu spoke via webcast.

“Peace is possible today because we have courageous leaders who have already taken significant political risks for peace — and the time is approaching when they will have to take even more,” Kerry said.

The exact contents of Gen. Allen’s proposal—compiled after months of conversations at the helm of a core group of security advisers and security officials on both sides — remain confidential. From the start, Kerry made certain that a strict gag order was placed on the negotiations, declaring that he will act as the sole source of information on the talks. The State Department insists this level of secrecy is necessary to facilitate frank discussion and is one of the hard-learned lessons from past failures on the Israeli-Palestinian track.

But Elliott Abrams, former top National Security Council official and currently a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the JT, “I don’t know any Israelis or Palestinians who share Secretary Kerry’s optimism.”

“The most recent Israeli polls show that very few Israelis think he will succeed in getting a final status agreement, and I don’t think so either,” Abrams said, referring to a recent poll compiled by New Wave Research for Israel Hayom. The poll showed 87.5 percent of Israeli Jews do not believe the new talks would lead to peace.

Israeli and Palestinian officials also sound pessimistic. Top Palestine Liberation Organization official Yasser Abed Rabbo told AFP that Kerry’s security proposals “will drive Kerry’s efforts to an impasse and to total failure.” Netanyahu said at a Likud party meeting on Monday, “We are not standing before a permanent accord. We have a set of specific terms that have yet to be met in the negotiations. … We are still not there, not even walking down that hall.”

“The two sides are too far apart,” Abrams told the JT.

Though Abrams commended Kerry for striving to achieve peace, he questioned the resources the secretary of state is putting into the process.

“Is he really spending his own precious time well, pursuing an agreement that no one thinks he’ll get — and he won’t get — when so many world crises exist?” Abrams asked.

Kerry and the State Department insist this round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is different from past U.S. efforts, even though most of the negotiators — led by former U.S. ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk — have unsuccessfully negotiated in the region before.

“Both sides have shown a recent willingness to make some very difficult decisions in the face of domestic political opposition,” a State Department official said, “with Prime Minister Netanyahu agreeing to release Palestinian prisoners and President Abbas agreeing not to try to upgrade Palestinian status at international organizations for the duration of the talks.”

Amid the State Department’s optimism, The Times of Israel reports that Palestinian officials are saying Kerry used his trip as an ultimatum to force them to agree to his security demands, threatening to have Israel delay further phases of the release of Palestinian terrorist prisoners until the Palestinian Authority agrees to framework agreements.

Though not without some reservations on the current negotiations’ chances for success, Natan Sachs, a fellow at the Saban Center, told the JT that the political situation in the Middle East has changed to where there may be more incentive for Israeli and Palestinian officials to come to an agreement.

“We’ve seen the Arab awakening—changes in Egypt, tragic changes in Syria that have turned into a terrible civil war, and fear that there may be instability elsewhere as well,” Sachs said.

“This of course is a cause for concern for the Israelis considering the advance of jihadi groups near Israel, in the Sinai Peninsula and in Syria particularly, if they win,” he said.

Sachs said changes in Israeli politics might also help the talks. He explained that unlike previous pushes, when centrist Israeli prime ministers like Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak oversaw negotiations but could not convince Israel’s right-wing parties to support their efforts, the current Netanyahu government’s more hawkish stance could spell real solutions without appearing to compromise the security of the Israeli people.

Sachs believes the contents are intended to appease Israel’s security concerns in a way that would not infringe on demands for the sovereignty of the proposed future Palestinian state.

A major sticking point for negotiations has been security in the Jordan River Valley and at a series of Jordan River border crossings. The Jordan River Valley runs from Israel’s northern border with Syria south into the Dead Sea. A large part of it makes up the border between the West Bank and Jordan.

Negotiators hope to find a security solution to appease Israel’s need to deploy troops along the valley in what is known as the “Eastern Front,” to prevent potential military threats from neighbors to the east. The Jordan River crossings, currently controlled by the Israel Defense Forces, are major points of entry into the West Bank and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Israeli security officials fear that these crossings could become routes for weapons and terrorists into the region if Israel relinquished control. But Palestinians insist on securing the ability to have sole control over their borders in a future state, including control over who comes in and out of their territory. According to Sachs, both sides have presented what he terms as “non-starter” demands for a final-status agreement.

Kerry’s proposal outlines for the Jordan River crossings to be jointly administered by the IDF and the Palestinian Authority, while maintaining the IDF’s right to deploy troops in case of a potential threat, The Times of Israel reports. PA officials reportedly rejected that proposal, refusing to allow for any IDF presence along the border.

Other demands from the Palestinians include that negotiations be based on 1967 borders, with land swaps of equal size and value, right of return for an agreed-upon number of Palestinian refugees and a division of Jerusalem to include East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital.

“The main sticking point remains the exact contours of the agreement in Jerusalem, and those the parties have never actually agreed upon. They’ve come closer in the past, but they’ve never agreed,” Sachs said.

At the Saban Forum, Kerry reaffirmed his support for Israel and its security needs. But Noah Pollak, executive director of the Emergency Committee for Israel, said Kerry’s latest Mideast visit was a “charm offensive” to repair what Pollak sees as strained U.S.-Israel relations stemming from the interim nuclear deal that was recently reached between Iran and world powers. Netanyahu told the Saban Forum on Dec. 8 that the U.S. should not back down from imposing new sanctions on Iran, despite ongoing negotiations.

On Israeli-Palestinian talks, Kerry maintains they are expected to reach a resolution by April 2014, the nine-month deadline established when negotiations began last July. The secretary of state is revisiting Jerusalem and Ramallah from Dec. 11 to 18, his ninth trip to the region since assuming office.

Arab Idol’s Residency Is More Than Just An Address

Celebrities around the world frequently change their place of residence for reasons much less compelling than meeting the needs of their career. But when the celebrity in question is leaving the Gaza Strip for the West Bank, unimagined complications emerge, as the newest Palestinian superstar is finding out.

Israel, which controls the movement of Palestinians between Gaza and the West Bank, has just announced that it has given approval for Mohammed Assaf, winner of the Arab world’s franchise of the international “Idol” television phenomenon, and his family, to change their residency from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank. Assaf, for whom travel will now play a large part in his life, will no longer require the Palestinian Civil Administration to ask for Israel’s permission for the singer to leave Gaza.

As a part of the contract he signed upon winning Idol, Assaf’s actual residence will be in Dubai. But according to his aides in Ramallah, he will always want to come back to the Palestinian Territories.

“It’s easier for him to travel within the West Bank having his residency changed especially when he is invited to perform in several concerts in Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jericho, etc.”, they told The Media Line. Assaf can also return to Gaza, but to do so he will need to apply to Israel for a permit.

But many people here believe that he will never go back to the Gaza Strip. “Why would he go back? There is nothing for him to do there,” Omar Adel, a Ramallah-based computer engineer told The Media Line.

With Israel still in control of movement there, Gazans cannot travel to the West Bank unless they are given a permit by Israel. Those who wish to travel abroad can ask for a permit to go to the West Bank, then cross into Jordan over the Allenby Bridge and fly from Amman’s international airport. Or, as most people do, they can register their name with Gaza’s Hamas government and travel via Egypt after entering through the Egyptian-controlled Rafah crossing point.

Upon his celebrated victory in the singing competition, Assaf was granted a diplomatic passport by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and a United Nations passport when the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) named the singer a goodwill ambassador. However, the passports will not ease his movement if he wants to leave Gaza when the border is closed: a frequent situation due to Egyptian security concerns that affects even high-level officials.

Gazans are quick to realize that Assaf’s good fortune actually began at Rafah because had the crossing point been closed, he would not have made it to the competition which was televised from Beirut. In fact, Assaf almost missed the auditions In Egypt because he was stuck at the border for two days. A fan of the former wedding singer gave him his turn to audition, leading to the storybook ending and stardom.

A few days after his victory, thousands went to the border of the Gaza Strip to greet Assaf upon his return. Sources told The Media Line that the Hamas government in Gaza told Assaf that he will not be able to hold any concerts in his hometown.

However, the situation is Ramallah is quite the opposite. Assaf came to the West Bank for second time after his June victory to inaugurate the Solomon Pools music festival in Bethlehem; and more recently returned to the West Bank to appear in the welcoming celebration for the visiting Barcelona football team in Hebron.

In fact, residents of the West Bank have already had a number of opportunities to see and hear Assaf. His first visit included welcoming FIFA (soccer league) head Sepp Blatter; hosting free concerts in Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jenin; and appearing in concert at hotels for those who paid around $125 per ticket to hear Assaf perform.

Meanwhile, fans back in Assaf’s native Gaza Strip wish they had the same opportunity to see him. The problem there is not just issues of free movement. It’s also the religious fundamentalism of the Hamas government. “Hamas prevents men and women from mingling, so we weren’t expecting that Assaf will have any parties here, but we had a dream that he would,” Rana Hamdan, a 27-year-old NGO worker living in Gaza told The Media Line.

Hamdan says she understands that Assaf was not going to stay in Gaza after he became an Arab celebrity, but many of her friends felt some of their national pride was taken away.

Others share the resentment. “The Palestinian Authority and several businessmen are using Assaf,” Ahmed Mustafa, a 30-year-old government employee from Gaza told The Media Line. “They are including him in every occasion. I don’t know how he will sing anything against the Palestinian Authority or supportive of resistance against Israel,” Mustafa said.

Palestinian writer Ramzi Sadeq Shahin published in article in the Gaza-based Donia Al Watan agency calling Assaf a “fake ambassador.” “Gaza supported Assaf, but now he forgot about it. He had always said that he’s the son of Khan Younis refugee camp in Gaza, but now he and his family moved to Ramallah as if Gaza has become a disgrace to him,” Shahin wrote in part.

Others have also been disappointed by the decision for more personal reasons. “I was frustrated when I heard that President Mahmoud Abbas gave Assaf a diplomatic passport and that Israel has agreed to his residency change,” Ruba Jahshan, 25, and originally from Gaza told The Media Line.

Jahshan is unable to leave the city of Bethlehem out of fear that officials at the Israeli checkpoints in between the West Bank cities will discover her situation and deport her to Gaza.

Jahshan posted a Facebook photo of her 1 ½-year old daughter, Tia, talking to her grandmother and aunts on Skype. Jashan, who says she hasn’t seen her sisters and brother for more than 5 years, wrote to President Abbas on his Facebook page saying, “I don’t want to be a diplomat. But can’t you, Mr. President, use these passports for people like us who can’t visit their families? It’s more humanitarian.” Jahshan says she’s not sure whether the president has heard her plea.

In 2007, Jasha came to Bethlehem using a temporary permit with the intent to marry the person she loved. “I didn’t know it would be this complicated,” Jahshan explained to The Media Line. Because Israel didn’t grant her a change of residency when the permit expired, she has lived in the West Bank illegally since then. Her parents are able to visit her each year at Easter and at Christmas when Israel provides permits for Christians to spend the holidays with their families in the West Bank.

As she waits for Israeli approval to change her residency to the West Bank, Jahshan says she will not encourage any Gazan to fall in love with a West Banker. Meanwhile, she is envious of Assaf’s newfound freedom of movement.

As a singer living amid this seemingly endless conflict, many ask Assaf to refrain from internecine politics and to be closer to the people. Emad Drimly, a journalist from the Gaza Strip and a fan of Assaf is one of them.

Drimly supports the singer’s choice of residency, but thinks he should stay clear of politics. “It’s a professional decision for Assaf to move to the West Bank. I am not against the decision as the situation in Gaza prevents him from advancing his career. There is an attempt to create a division between the people of Gaza and the people of the West Bank, so I think Assaf should stay away from the political dispute,” Drimly added.


Jewish and Arab Israelis: Different Perspectives

Sammy Smooha says there has been a hardening of Arab Israelis’ viewpoints on Israel.  (Provided)

Sammy Smooha says there has been a hardening of Arab Israelis’ viewpoints on Israel.

An extensive survey released late last month indicated that Arab Israelis have become more extreme in their attitudes to the state and its Jewish majority, while Jewish Israelis have maintained their positions or have become more amicable to the Arab minority.

On the surface, the statistics of the 2012 Index of Arab-Jewish Relations In Israel seem straightforward, but professor Sammy Smooha of Haifa University, who conducted the study, said this is not the case. There are many reasons for the shift, and Israel has to own up to its side of the story.

“Why the hardening of the Arab view?” asked Smooha on a recent call from Israel. In the last decade, he answered, Arab-Israeli aspirations have been shattered.

“The second term of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, from 1992 to 1995, was a golden age of Jewish-Arab relations. The Oslo Accords meant for the Arabs the right to self-determination. … Aspirations for peace skyrocketed,” said Smooha. “Rabin … reduced many of the discriminations against the Arabs, he engaged in negotiations with their leaders, he respected them, and he felt the Israeli government could work with the Arab Israelis with respect and with equality.”

After Rabin’s assassination in November 1995, the Arabs’ hopes were shattered; the gap between their aspirations and reality became wider and wider.

Moreover, he said, Israeli action against the Palestinians since 2000 — the second Lebanon war, Operation Cast Lead, Operation Pillar of Defense — affected attitudes, too.

“Arabs were disaffected by the state’s behavior toward [the Palestinians],” he said.

What is striking is that Israelis don’t recognize this. But Smooha said, “Why would they?” The issues that affect the Arabs often have little to do with the Jews, and the Jews don’t see it from the Arab perspective.

“Let’s take the war on Gaza. While from the Arabs’ view this was against the Palestinians, against the Arabs, and they feel a part of that group … as far as the Jews are concerned, this is an act of war and security and has nothing to do with the Arabs of

Israel,” Smooha explained.

In addition, he said, as Israel becomes more democratic — and despite media reports, he said it very much has — this affects the Jewish perspective. Jews are becoming more centrist (not right or left), which leads to a more moderate viewpoint and a goal of treating Arabs more equally than before. The Arabs, who live in Israel and read and learn about political enlightenment, become more politicized. The more they know, the more impatient they become with the continual discrimination.

Discrimination is a strong word. But Muhammad Darawsha, co-executive director of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, said it is the right term to use when referring to Israeli treatment of its Arab citizens. He said even the state has admitted that discrimination exists. In 2007, for example, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert delivered a speech in which he accused Israel of “deliberately and institutionally discriminating against Arabs.”

Darawsha is not short on examples of this discrimination.

Israel’s Land Authority has a policy of preferential treatment of Jews in land appropriation and ownership. Jews control 97 percent of the land; Arabs, who make up 21 percent of the population, 3 percent.

Double the amount of the municipal budget goes to development of Jewish infrastructure. There are gaps in the education budget; Arabs children learn in schools without enough classrooms and with outdated curriculum. The result is that only 12 percent of Arab children (as opposed to 25 percent of Jewish children) attend a university.

And after college, there is discrimination in the workforce.