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Obama Admin Urges Israeli-Palestinian Final-Status Talks But Abandons Insistence on Israeli Settlement Freeze

StorySeptember 23, 2009
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The Obama administration has abandoned a demand that Israel freeze settlement expansion before the resumption of peace talks. President Obama signaled the shift on Tuesday as he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. We speak to Diana Buttu, a Palestinian lawyer and former legal adviser to the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and Israeli historian Avi Shlaim, a professor of international relations at the University of Oxford, author of several books, including his latest, Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions, Refutations. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

ANJALI KAMAT: On Tuesday, President Obama also organized a meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in New York, urging them to restart peace talks. The three-way talks on sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting was seen as Obama’s most direct intervention between Israel and the Palestinians since taking office.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The United States is committed to a just, lasting and comprehensive peace in the Middle East. That includes a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that results in two states — Israel and Palestine — in which both the Israeli people and the Palestinian people can live in peace and security and realize their aspirations for a better life for their children.

    That is why my Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and my special envoy, George Mitchell, have worked tirelessly to create the context for permanent status negotiations. And we have made progress since I took office in January and since Israelis — Israel’s government took office in April. But we still have much further to go.

    Palestinians have strengthened their efforts on security, but they need to do more to stop incitement and to move forward with negotiations. Israelis have facilitated greater freedom of movement for the Palestinians and have discussed important steps to restrain settlement activity, but they need to translate these discussions into real action on this and other issues.

ANJALI KAMAT: This latest meeting comes on the heels of a failed attempt by US envoy George Mitchell to reach a deal with Israel over settlements. Israel has repeatedly rejected US and Palestinian demands for a total freeze on settlement building. On Tuesday, Mitchell said that the US did not see any issue as a precondition for future peace talks.

Speaking to the media after the meeting, Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, reiterated Israel’s obligation to freeze settlements, but also praised Obama for his efforts.

    SAEB EREKAT: When Senator Mitchell could not have the Israelis comply with their obligations, starting settlement activities and resuming the permanent status negotiations, President Obama decided to interfere personally. And in our opinion, this reflected a genuine commitment of President Obama to stay the course. And we’re going to stay the course with him.

    At the end of the day, at the end of the day, things here are not going to be weighed in pessimism and optimism. Nobody at the trilateral meeting, including President Obama, woke up and felt their conscience aching for the Palestinian suffering. We did not wake up as a Palestinian, felt our conscience aching for the Israeli suffering. We’re talking about interests, talking about our region, talking about peace, and we’re talking about requirements for peace.

AMY GOODMAN: Back in Gaza, Hamas spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri called Obama’s push to restart peace talks and his decision to send US envoy Mitchell back to the region a, quote, “flagrant failure.”

    SAMI ABU ZUHRI: [translated] The American administration’s failure enforcing the occupation to stop settlement, among other Palestinian rights, is proof of its bias for Israel and a mistaken Arab bet on America’s position vis-à-vis the Arab-Israeli conflict.

AMY GOODMAN: Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said there had been a, quote, “general agreement that the peace process should resume as soon as possible with no preconditions.” Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Barak was positive about the meeting.

    DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER EHUD BARAK: I think we came out with the understanding the US is ready and wants to apply its weight, so that the sides arrive at the launch of a negotiation. And also, when you’re talking from a distance of two meters apart, and not through mediators, you cannot but see that both leaders see a responsibility to try to bring about a negotiation. I think the President rightly judged that bringing the three leaders together, or groups of leaders from the two sides, will help melt the ice and increase the chances that really we will find ourselves in a few weeks in a negotiation.

AMY GOODMAN: For more on the prospects for a just peace in the region, we’re joined by two guests.

Here in New York, we have Diana Buttu. She is a Palestinian lawyer and former adviser for the Negotiations Support Unit of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, PLO.

We’re joined in Boston by the Israeli historian Avi Shlaim, professor of international relations at the University of Oxford in Britain, author of a number of books, including The Lion of Jordan, War and Peace in the Middle East and The Iron Wall. His latest, just out, is called Israel and Palestine.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Diana Buttu, talk about what you just heard and what’s taking place, the significance of the meeting yesterday between Netanyahu, Abbas and Obama.

DIANA BUTTU: Well, the significance is, is that we’re clearly seeing a shift in the Obama administration vis-à-vis their line regarding Israeli settlements and its colonization of the West Bank. Specifically, this was a president who, as his first phone call, called President Abbas and then not only reiterated the call for a settlement freeze, but included East Jerusalem, which was the first time a US president had ever called for a freeze in East Jerusalem. And yet, now we’re seeing a complete shift away from that position. Instead, he’s now talking about the resumption of talks. He’s indicated to both sides that he wants to see peace negotiations resumed by the end of the year without preconditions. And so, what we’re really seeing is a backtracking of President Obama’s position.

ANJALI KAMAT: And President Obama yesterday, while speaking, spoke about the need for restraint on settlements. Previously, his language included a call for a complete freeze. Diana Buttu, I wanted to ask you, do think it was right for Mahmoud Abbas to come here for talks? He’s been criticized by Hamas, by the various groups in the West Bank and Gaza, for coming to these talks.

DIANA BUTTU: He was criticized by everybody. It wasn’t just Hamas. He was criticized by his own party, as well, by all political parties within Palestine, because the view was that this was the first time ever that there was a real push on the part of the US administration, on the part of the Europeans, to make settlements the focus. And so, coming to a meeting without having guarantees that there is going to be a settlement freeze, and not just a freeze, a dismantlement of these settlements, then many feel that he erred and that he’s walked away with virtually nothing.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did he do it?

DIANA BUTTU: I think he was under a lot of pressure. This is a president who does not have the weight of years of lobbying and diplomacy in Washington, but instead is a president who rules over a very divided area. And so, I think with a lot of pressure brought to bear by the US administration, he caved.

AMY GOODMAN: Avi Shlaim in Boston, as you look at what happened in New York, the meeting of Obama, Abbas and Netanyahu, the significance of it, what you think needs to happen right now?

AVI SHLAIM: The significance of the meeting is that it indicated personal commitment by the American president to pushing forward the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. We’ve had a peace process for decades, but it’s been a process rather than an actual outcome of peace. So, that is the significance of the meeting. It is an attempt by the American president to kick-start the peace process, which has been dormant for eight or nine years.

But it didn’t achieve anything, except the handshake between the Israeli and the Palestinian leaders. And they’ve already started blaming each other. I allocate the blame of the — for the failure fairly and squarely to Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israelis are saying that the Palestinians are stalling and delaying. This is completely and utterly preposterous. It is Israel, by its policy of settlement expansion, which is the main obstacle to any real progress.

And the Israelis have refused to agree to total settlement freeze, which is what President Obama has asked for. And therefore it is clear what he should do next, which is make American support, economic, military and diplomatic support for Israel, conditional on a complete settlement freeze.

ANJALI KAMAT: Avi Shlaim, you’ve been following Israeli-Palestinian relations for several years now. What hope do you hold out for the possibility of real US pressure on Israel, given the power of the pro-Israel lobby over Congress? Stephen Walt, the co-author of The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, says in a recent Washington Post op-ed, “Obama and special envoy George Mitchell are negotiating with one hand tied behind their backs, and Netanyahu knows it.”

AVI SHLAIM: One thing is clear: the asymmetry of power between Israel and the Palestinians is such, it is so great that the two sides would never come to an agreement on final status between them. America has to address the balance between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Palestinians have made enough concessions. When they signed the Oslo Accord back in 1993, they agreed to give back their claim to 78 percent of mandatory Palestine, and they settled for a state on the remaining 22 percent of mandatory Palestine — that is, Gaza and West Bank. So the Palestinians cannot make any more concessions.

If we are going to have a settlement of this hundred-year-old conflict, America has to push Israel into a settlement. That is what no American president has done in the past, partly, as you say, because of the power and influence of the Israel lobby. But the fact that no American president has exercised the full leverage that is available to him doesn’t mean that it cannot be done. It can be done.

America gives Israel money — to be precise, $3 billion a year. It gives Israel arms. And it gives Israel advice. Israel takes the money. It takes the arms. And it rejects the device. So what President Obama needs to do is to make American economic aid and military aid to Israel conditional on Israel taking note of American wishes for the settlement of this conflict.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Shlaim, what you’re saying is extremely significant, given who you are, leading scholar, renown in Israel and around the world, served in the Israeli military, now you teach at University of Oxford in Britain. Do you support the BDS movement, the Boycott, Divest, Sanction movement against Israel?

AVI SHLAIM: I do not support the academic boycott of Israel, because I reject it in principle. I’m a believer in free speech, including free speech for Israeli academics. So I’m, in principle, opposed to an academic boycott of Israeli academics and Israeli universities.

On the other hand, I do support economic sanctions against Israel, because what it is doing is illegal. It is acting illegally. The settlements on the West Bank are illegal, all of them, without any exception, and therefore it is quite right and justified for the American community to — for the international community to put pressure on Israel, to apply pressure on Israel to end the occupation.

And America is, of course, the leading actor within the international community, but there is also European Union, the twenty-seven members of European Union. They also ought to apply economic sanctions against Israel, because Israel has a highly beneficial trade association agreement with EU. And the preamble to this agreement says that Israel must respect the human rights of the Palestinians within its territory, within —- under Israeli occupation. Israel systematically violates the human rights of the Palestinians, and therefore EU would be fully justified in suspending this trade agreement until Israel abides by its obligations to respect human rights.

ANJALI KAMAT: Well, on that note -—

AVI SHLAIM: And we have — last week, we had an important report by the UN Human Rights Council, led by Judge Richard Goldstone, an inquiry into the Israeli war in Gaza last December. And it found that there was a pattern of Israeli war crimes, crimes against humanity, not one or two, but a systematic pattern of war crimes. And the conclusion is that Israeli commanders should face individual criminal responsibility.

It is perfectly reasonable for the American president to turn to Benjamin Netanyahu and say, “This report is very disturbing. It reveals unacceptable behavior on the part of Israel and on the part of Hamas. This is no way to behave, if your aim is peace. And we would like to see a definite change in the pattern of Israeli behavior towards the Palestinians.”

ANJALI KAMAT: Well, Diana Buttu, the US did respond to Judge Goldstone’s report that Professor Shlaim mentioned. The US ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, said the White House had serious concerns about the report’s focus, excessive focus, on Israel. Given this, can you respond to the US response to the UN report? And also, you’ve had long experience working with negotiations. Do you believe the US can be an honest broker?

DIANA BUTTU: At this point in time, I don’t think so. I think that the US has taken the role of being Israel’s lawyer, as some have put it in the past. But I think that that can be changed.

The question is, is whether the United States is going to focus on upholding human rights and international law, and as Professor Shlaim has mentioned, the two are intricately linked. The issue of Israeli settlements and the way that Israel has flied in the face of international law vis-à-vis the settlements, its treatment of the Palestinian is also a violation of law. And so, the question becomes whether the United States is going to step forward and use the tools that it has to actually effect pressure on Israel.

In the past, when Oslo was signed fifteen years ago, Israel was actually the primary beneficiary of the signing of these agreements. Thirty-four countries established diplomatic relations with Israel. It managed to get economic contracts and ties with countries all around the world, including in the Arab world. And so, Israel has always been a beneficiary of these so-called talks, but it’s never really felt the stick of actually violating international law. So, for me, given the past history of the United States in the way that it’s operated in the past, it has, in fact, been Israel’s lawyer, but I think there is something positive that can come. I think that —-

AMY GOODMAN: We have ten seconds.

DIANA BUTTU: —- if the Obama administration looks forward and starts to really use that stick, then I think we can move forward.

AMY GOODMAN: Diana Buttu, we want to thank you very much for being with us, and Professor Avi Shlaim. His new book, Israel and Palestine.

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