What Next for Bibi and Obama?

By George S. Hishmeh – Washington

There is increasing doubt in the Arab World and elsewhere that Israel is seriously interested in negotiating peace with its neighbors the Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese. That doubt has once again emerged in the wake of its ill-conceived policies and bloody actions of late which Israel mistakenly believes will give it more security and longevity and offers it the chance of usurping additional Palestinian properties.

Every time the Palestinians and the Israelis seem ready to resume peace negotiations Israel takes advantage of the near-calm atmosphere in the region and undertakes some expansionist move that nip in the bud hopes of peaceful co-existence with the Arabs. That happened more than a year ago when it invaded the Gaza Strip while Syria was on the verge of opening peace negotiations with Israel under the auspices of the Turkish government, a long-time ally of the Israeli government led at the time by Ehud Olmert.

Again, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has just completed a colorless first year in office, towed the same line of his discredited predecessor. His only achievement has been in compelling a weak-kneed Barack Obama to abandon his demand for a total freeze on Israeli expansionist policies, a U.S. position conveyed privately to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. As a result, the Palestinian inhabitants of East Jerusalem are now being mercilessly evicted, and some 3,000 apartments in the occupied West Bank are being completed. 

In a face-saving gesture, the Obama administration has come up with a half-baked formula, known as "proximity talks," where George Mitchell, the administration’s special Mideast envoy, will shuttle between the two sides in the hope of reaching a preliminary agreement on some key issues, primarily the borders of the projected Palestine state. The talks have yet to be announced officially.

Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, long-established Palestinian families have petitioned the United Nations for help in stopping Israel and the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center from establishing a museum atop part of a prominent, centuries-old Muslim graveyard known, in Arabic, as Ma’man Allah or Mamilla Cemetery.  

Unperturbed, Netanyahu took another step last Sunday by attaching two shrines, sacred to both Muslims and Jews, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank to a restoration project, described by the Israeli media, aimed at "rehabilitating Jewish and Zionist heritage sites." The first is located in Hebron and is known as Haram al-Ibrahimi, one of Islam’s holiest shrines, or the Tomb of the Patriarchs; and the second in Bethlehem is the Bilal (Prophet Mohammed’s muezzin) Mosque, or Rachel’s Tomb.

The U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East, Robert Serry, underlined that these shrines are in Palestinian territory and warned that the de facto "implementation of the (Israeli) government’s decision could harm trust between the two sides and hurt the efforts to renew (peace) talks." The Mufti Palestine, Sheikh Mohammed Hussein complained that "the occupation has devoted all its efforts to steal Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem, Hebron and (other) Palestinian cities to change their Arab and Islamic character to prove the country is Jewish." About 500 Jewish settlers are at present living in enclaves near the mosque which is surrounded by 17.000 Palestinians.

Peace activists inside the West Bank have also been subjected to tough Israeli measures including several raids on the Ramallah offices of the International Solidarity Movement, among others, arresting a Spaniard and an Australian and confiscating office equipment, T-shirts and bracelets bearing the word "Palestine." More nighttime raids were undertaken against the villages of Na’alin and Bil’in where more than 30 persons were arrested reportedly because of their participation in protests against the separation wall which, according to Haaretz, "invades these villages and very severely harms the inhabitants’ welfare." The paper commented, sarcastically, that such a policy gives a bad name to "the only democracy in the Middle East," as Israel is often described in the West.

But the headline grabber was the assassination, reportedly sanctioned by Netanyahu, of a senior Hamas commander assumedly by an Israeli hit squad that used passports of several European countries and Australia. Targeting Mahmoud al-Mabhouh (Arabic for hoarse), said to be responsible for smuggling Iranian arms to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, during a visit to Dubai is believed by Israelis to have delivered two messages, one to Iran and the other to the Islamist militant group in Gaza.

The operation   not Israel   was condemned by the European Union while the Barak administration as well as the U.S. media were surprisingly mum about the news. On the other hand, the European and Israeli media were unabashedly critical, and an opinion poll by Haaretz revealed that the highest percentage of respondents (47 percent) voted that "such assassinations are wrong."

Netanyahu may believe mistakenly that he is riding high, after all even the Israeli opposition leader, Tzipi Livni, was supportive of the assassination. But this fluid situation cannot last long; neither Netanyahu nor Obama can bury their heads in the sand much longer.

– George S. Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: hishmehg@aol.com.

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