By George S. Hishmeh – Washington. D.C.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton must have been very disappointed when she returned home last week virtually empty handed. She was not able to announce that the Israeli and Palestinian leaders with whom she had 11 sessions had agreed on a formula for maintaining the moratorium on building new Israeli colonies in the occupied West Bank.
And all this despite the pleas of President Barack Obama and herself that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu extend the 10-month ban, even for a short period, on additional construction in the occupied Palestinian territories where some 500,000 Israeli colonialists had moved since the 1967 Arab-Israel war. The ban expires on September 26.
"It takes time, all of this is complicated," Clinton explained feebly. "But where we sit now, it would be useful for some extension, it would be extremely useful. And I don’t think a limited extension would undermine the process going forward."
The main reason for the failure was seen as Netanyahu’s timidness or unwillingness to confront the right-wing elements within his coalition government who have lately come up with proposals that some Palestinians saw as “another stage of ethnic cleansing.” Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the ultra-rightist group, Yisrael Beitenu (Israel is our home), is now insisting on a shift in the long-held principle of the peace talks which, he explained “must not be land for peace, but an exchange of land and people.”
In other words, Lieberman wants Israel’s Arab citizens, numbering about 1.5 million or one-fifth of the country’s population, would end up within the projected Palestinian state, while the Israeli colonies in the West Bank will be incorporated into Israel.
Adding oil to the fire, Israeli officials have lately come up with another absurd suggestion, probably borrowed from – out of all people – Iranian Prime Minister Ahmad Negad who wants the U.S. to exchange a few Iranians held in the U.S. for the two American hikers who reportedly strayed into Iran and are still held there. The Israelis are floating a tradeoff in which they would extend the moratorium on colonial expansion in exchange for release by the U.S. of Jonathan Jay Pollard, the American who pleaded guilty for spying for Israel and is serving a life term in an American jail.
The Palestinian president, in turn, has his own share of domestic problems. His growing opposition to his negotiating stance is championed by several militant groups, among others and including Hamas, the Islamist resistance group that now maintains control in the Gaza Strip, where about 40 percent of all Palestinians under the Palestinian National Authority live. But Abbas’s seemingly weak negotiating position is strengthened by his commitment that whatever the agreement he reaches with Israel will be subject to a referendum.
All this aside, both Netanyahu and Abbas could use some tough American shoving. The Obama administration could whisper into Netanyahu’s ear that he needs to expand his government in order to weaken the extremists within his ranks since by most accounts the Israeli public is eagerly awaiting a final settlement.
The biggest push that Abbas could receive would be for the U.S. to initiate forthwith contacts with Hamas, which once again has publicized this week its onetime readiness to accept a Palestinian state alongside Israel. If the proposed dialogue is launched it will also help the current American efforts to engage Syria and Lebanon as well in settling their border conflicts with Israel, primarily allowing Syria to regain its Golan Heights and Lebanon its Shebaa Farms, both in northern Israel.
“While many in the Middle East bitterly resent the U.S. role protecting Israel, and even more bitterly resent what they see as a U.S. unwillingness to use its power to defend Palestinian interests,” writes Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, “the centrality of differences on this issue year after year has harmed the interests of both sides.”
But, he added, “from a U.S. perspective, less disparity would be a good thing (and) Middle Eastern interests would benefit as well.”
The Palestinians, reported The Los Angeles Times, have not forgotten that, as first lady in 1998, Hillary Clinton was the first public supporter of the goal of a Palestine state. Likewise, Barack Obama, who is in dire need of some good news to shore up his position at home, if not abroad, must realize that any Arab-Israeli settlement would push his standing sky high. He will no longer have to worry about the results of the upcoming mid-term national election which some feared may nip in the bud his dream of a second term in the White House.
– George Hishmeh contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: Hishmehg@aol.com.