Mideast chaos reigns supreme as peace talks continue to stall
In his new weekly column, Haaretz diplomatic correspondent takes a closer look at the murky underside of a peace process rife with mutual mistrust.
Alan Dershowitz, the top Jewish-American lawyer, and one of the most outspoken pro-Israel voices in the United States, sent a package to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a few weeks ago. It included a DVD holding an July 24 episode of Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm, one which was viewed by 2.5 million people, and simply called "Palestinian Chicken."
Talking with the Jewish student magazine The Columbia Current, Dershowitz said it was his favorite episode of the American-Jewish comedian's series, adding that he had suggested to the premier to "invite Abbas over to watch it together. And maybe if they both get a good laugh, they can begin a negotiating process."
"So it may be that Larry David will not only win Emmys, but he may even qualify for the Nobel Peace Prize, if his episode could bring together Netanyahu and Abbas, and bring Abbas to the negotiating table," Dershowitz told The Columbia Current.
The episode depicts the dilemma David and a few of his friends face when eating in their favorite Palestinian chicken restaurant, named, ironically, Al-Abbas.
Relishing the restaurant's cuisine, David's friend Jeff Garlin says: "What these people should do is send their chicken over to Israel," to which David replies: "They'd take down all their settlements in the morning."
The plot thickens as David expresses his attraction for Palestinian women, one which he ultimately fulfills. Debating the point with Garlin, David asks: "You're always attracted to someone who doesn't want you, right?....Well, here you have somebody who not only doesn't want you but doesn't even acknowledge your right to exist, wants your destruction. That's a turn on."
Dershowitz was there when Netanyahu made his speech in front of the UN in New York this September, meeting him for a Shabbat dinner a few hours later. I asked one of the premier's aides if he had watched the episode, but he could not say. In any account, the aide promised to check things out and view the episode himself.
Dershowitz's story may be nothing more than an anecdote, but it is meaningful in one way. Ties between Israel and the Palestinians have entered such a stall, that it seems that conventional wisdom isn't going to bring forth the long-awaited breakthrough. When a violent escalation on the ground seems more and more likely, it may be wise to try Larry David's laughing cure.
Reality is, however, that no one is even dreaming of resuming peace talks anymore. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, who visited Israel two weeks ago, needed only one word to describe the situation: Stuck. The Americans feel that neither Netanyahu nor Abbas are interested in a genuine advancement toward the renewal of negotiations, in the face of a profound mutual distrust and their fears of internal politics.
The Israeli leader and his Palestinian counterpart continue to lay blame at each others' doorstep in front of any international official arriving at the region.
Netanyahu claims, in any which seems difficult to argue with, that Abbas, by attempting to reconcile with Hamas, has effectively abandoned negotiations with Israel. The Palestinian president, on the other side, says, rightfully, that Netanyahu refuses to present serious positions during negotiations and is busy safekeeping the settlements.
While those two bicker, U.S. President Barak Obama has effectively disengaged himself from the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The American peace team has gone to pieces, with Dennis Ross, the White House's chief Mideast advisor, as the latest official to back away.
The departure of Ross, Netanyahu's man in the White House, serves a blow to the PM, as the U.S. official believed in caressing and rewarding Netanyahu, not in pressuring and threatening him.
However, the premier knows that Obama is going to leave him be, at least until after the 2012 U.S. presidential elections. The U.S. president is too busy fending off an aggressive Republican campaign targeting U.S. Jews, according to which Obama is anti-Israel. In 2008, 80 percent of American Jews voted for Obama. The next election, however, is anyone's guess.
Obama, fighting to stay on for a second term, is struggling for every vote. On Wednesday the American president had to again address a conference of Jewish donors, this time at the house of Jack Rosen, chairman of the American Jewish Congress in Manhattan, to explain how much he has supported Israel in the last three years.
"I try not to pat myself too much on the back, but this administration has done more for the security of the state of Israel than any previous administration," Obama told the donors, who, by the end of the evening, signed checks for about $300,000. Faced with all that, the last thing Obama wants right now is a fight with Netanyahu.
With the situation on the ground being the way it is, the main fear for many in Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and in international community is a violent escalation. The name of the game these days, as U.S. Special Envoy to the Middle East David Hale put it, is "de-escalation" and tension relief.
With no peace talks in sight, what the sides are left with are sporadic problems, met with equally sporadic attempts to resolve them. Israel's offering from the last two weeks, ones that have brought on the ire of international officials, include: plans to demolish the Mugrabi Bridge connecting the Western Wall Plaza to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem; a freeze of Palestinian tax collection funds; an expulsion of 2,500 Bedouin from the E1 area near Ma’aleh Adumim; and a string of anti-democratic legislations in the Knesset.
Americans, Europeans, Jordanians, and Egyptian, busy trying to cool the situation off, can't seem to understand the way the Israeli government has been handling the freezing of Palestinian tax collections funds.
They pressed Netanyahu hard for close to a month, and, to their growing frustration, kept hearing from Netanyahu's aides – personal envoy Yitzhak Molcho and National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror – that the money would be released, only to find out a few hours later that the PM could not get the cabinet or his forum of eight to approve.
On Wednesday, Netanyahu finally managed to hand over the money. The PM said that the reason was the halt of Palestinian bids for recognition at the UN, but, in reality, he knew of Abbas' decision two weeks ago. The Americans briefed both him and his advisers.
So, what is the reason for this strange behavior? As in the past, the answer lies with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. The FM assaulted the move to un-freeze Palestinian funds during the meeting of top ministers, managing to enlist Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz to his side. Later, he even threatened to dismantle the coalition. Netanyahu got nervous, and the rest is history.
A top minister said that he couldn't comprehend Netanyahu's fear of Lieberman. "Every few weeks Lieberman places a gun on the table, and every time we find out it's either empty or loaded with caps," he said, adding: "Bibi knows this too, but he gets nervous every time."
Earlier this week, President Shimon Peres arrived in Amman to meet Jordanian King Abdullah II as Netanyahu's emissary. The president, who has long ceased to voice his true opinion regarding the government's diplomatic policy in public, has become a postman carrying Netanyahu's messages in envelopes.
Considered an emblem of the State of Israel around the world, Peres arrived in Jordan behind the back of the official emblem and envoy of Israel in the Hashemite Kingdom, Ambassador Daniel Nevo.
On Monday morning, not long before Peres arrived at his visit, Nevo received a phone call from an Jordanian official: "Will you be attending the meeting with the president?", he asked.
The envoy had no choice but to apologize and admit that he knew nothing of the visit, let alone of a meeting with the king. While Israel's official envoy was shut out of the meet, someone who did attend is Avi Gil, the Israeli representative of Jewish-American businessman S. Daniel Abraham.
Gil, who had served at one time as the director general of the Foreign Ministry, functions as a kind of exterior adviser to Peres, while still employed by Abraham's Center for Middle East Peace.
The president may have hoped that his Jordan visit would stay under wraps, but the Jordanian king decided to go public within minutes of the meeting's end. Peres' helicopter hadn't even crossed the border back into Israel before the Jordanian news agency reported how Abdullah had warned the president of an Israeli policy to "change Jerusalem's character."
Senior Foreign Ministry officials severely criticized Peres and the way he conducted himself in Jordan, saying that it wasn't "respectable that the president of the state of Israel arrives in Amman like a thief in the night behind the back of the Israeli ambassador."
Those close to the president rejected the criticism, however, saying that "the president maintains extensive ties with heads of state from around the world, including those of neighboring countries, and his attempts are fully synchronized with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu."
"This latest meeting was coordinated fully with the prime minister," Peres' aides added.
Read this article in Hebrew: לארי דיוויד, העוף הפלסטיני והקשיים של נתניהו