Capital Letter / While We Were Busy With Gilad Shalit

The diplomatic game between Israel and the Palestinians continues in Washington.

1. The atmosphere between Israelis and the Palestinians was sour enough following the United Nations General Assembly to dampen any expectations with regard to the next Quartet meeting. To make things worse, the announcement of the meeting with the Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem on October 26, three days later than the one-month timeline mentioned at the Quartet statement on the margins of UNGA, fell on the day before the release of Gilad Shalit, so it went pretty much unnoticed. Then the State Department spokesman Mark Toner explained that these are "separate meetings," although the U.S. administration still thinks "we are making progress."

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who spoke Wednesday night at the sixth annual gala of the American Task Force on Palestine, a Washington-based pro-Palestinian organization, clearly didn't think there is any progress with the peace process."There is disappointment and disillusionment with the political process. We want to see an end to the Israeli occupation that began in 1967. We want Palestinian people to live in dignity," he said. "I convey our commitment to negotiate a resolution of the conflict, but the conditions are not right to resume talks. We cannot afford to ignore factors that must underpin every process capable of producing what we want to see. Recently the Quartet came up with a statement of purpose to resume talks. They decided to move to resume the political process. Conditions are not right at this juncture for the meaningful resumption of talks."

Salam Fayyad & David Hale - Oren Shomron - October 2011
Natasha Mosgovaya

More specificity is needed, he stressed. Without it, the process is like trying to put an elephant through the eye of a needle.

Fayyad criticized the recent announcement of the new developments in East Jerusalem - "it's basically Bethlehem" - and added that "there will not be a resolution [of the conflict] without recognizing East Jerusalem as the permanent capital of Palestine." He called on Israel "to reign in the settlers' violence," saying "much more needs to be done against these acts of extremism and terrorism," and said the money Israel is not transferring on time is making it hard for the Palestinian Authority to meet the expenditures - and hints to hardships to the Palestinian economy without the U.S. aid, currently frozen by two House of Representatives committees following the Palestinian U.N. bid.

"All we Palestinians are looking for is a viable sovereign state on 22% of the land," Fayyad said. "All we want is freedom from Israel, not freedom to vote in Israel. That's what we really want. If it doesn't happen who can prevent it from becoming a struggle for equal voting rights?"

Toner said on Wednesday that Fayyad had no meetings scheduled at the State Department. At the ATFP gala he was sitting at the same table with President Obama's advisor Dennis Ross, but during his speech he admitted that "our relations with the U.S. are going through a period of strain."

2. This "period of strain" projected also onto the relationship between the Palestinian Authority and the pro-Palestinian lobby in Washington. At the annual black-tie gala on Wednesday night at Ritz-Carlton in Washington, there were plenty of Arab diplomats (the embassies of Saudi Arabia, Libya and Egypt even helped to sponsor the event ), Palestinian journalists and artists, U.S. administration officials (including the Middle East envoy David Hale who read a letter of greetings from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who was traveling this week ), some Israeli diplomats and representatives of several Jewish organizations, from the leftist Americans for Peace Now, through the mainstream Israel Project to AIPAC - but notably absent was the head of the Palestinian diplomatic mission to the U.S., Maen Rashid Erekat, who reportedly protested ATFP's refusal to support the Palestinian UN bid.

ATFP has many supporters in Washington, where U.S. officials see them as a responsible and moderate voice of the Palestinian community. But the Palestinian president's reaction to them (despite Fayyad's quite courageous decision to attend the gala ) is reminiscent of the Israeli government's reaction to the leftist J Street lobby. The basic message is the same - if you do not fully support our position, you have no right to call yourself pro-Palestinian (or pro-Israeli ).

ATFP President Ziad Asali pledged at the gala American Palestinians' support of Palestine even when it becomes a sovereign state. With all the Palestinians' disappointment with the U.S., it's hardly a smart choice for their leadership to sever ties with their key supporters in Washington. Some U.S. Jewish organizations were engaged in this kind of conflicts when their voice was strong enough to allow some dissent. This is hardly the case with the pro-Palestinian organizations in the U.S.

3. The thwarted Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S., revealed last week by the Department of Justice, raised many questions and was met with a fair amount of skepticism around the world (though not in Saudi Arabia and Britain ). In this big mystery that became a leverage for President Obama to refocus on Iran and renew the push for sanctions against it, one small detail is no less puzzling: Where did Israel disappear to?

In the initial reports (and some hasty Congressmen statements ), it was mentioned that the Israeli Embassy was one of the targets discussed by the Iranian immigrant recruited by an official at the Quds Force, with the hitman from the "Mexican drug cartel" who happened to be a FBI-paid source. In the court papers, however, there is no mention of Israel - only "another country."

Israeli diplomats refused to comment on the issue (and probably were asked to keep mum while President Obama called the Saudi king ), and there seemed to be some diplomatic dance going on between Washington and Riyadh, where Israel was obviously an unwanted partner.

4. Especially when the Republicans' presidential contenders are working so hard to prove their support of Israel (except for Ron Paul, who called to cut all foreign aid "fairly and equally," because besides the U.S. "being broke," it makes Israel "dependent on us, and it's time for it to regain its sovereignty" ).

This week, The Israel Project organized in Las Vegas a GOP focus group with no Jewish participants, to gather some impressions on what bothers them these elections. When asked about the Middle East, all 13 participants agreed the U.S. needs to stand with Israel - but most also mentioned it means mostly material and moral support. "We should tell Israel: "We support you but we cannot get into another war. We are spread thin," one participant said on the possibility of a preventive strike on Iran.

Does Israel matter? asked the moderator.

"Oh yes," all replied, providing different arguments: "It's the only democracy in the Middle East," "If we take Israel away, we are the next step," "They are civilized. They help to keep the area under control," "Israel is showing loyalty to us and we should give back."

When asked whether the U.S. spends too much money on aid to Israel, none raises a hand.

Asked if is this administration a friend of Israel, all exclaimed in unison: "No."

5. An interesting thing on display this week during the fifth Republican debate in Las Vegas on Tuesday night was the difference between the U.S. approach to the possibility of the prisoner swap while negotiating with terrorists, and the Israeli approach. Most Republican candidates said they wouldn't negotiate with terrorists (Ron Paul, again, was the voice of dissent and reminded them of Reagan's deal with Iran, and Herman Cain diplomatically remarked that Netanyahu probably had reasons to approve the deal that the participants might not be aware of ).

The Obama administration wasn't too happy about the deal either - but this time, they kept their reservations mostly to themselves. A State Department spokesman confirmed the administration had some concerns, but said he was unaware that any Palestinian prisoners remained in Israeli jails because of these concerns.

6. And the last thing that couldn't go unmentioned this week was the growing concern among the Jewish community in the U.S. that the "Occupy Wall Street" protests are bringing in some anti-Semitic flavors. There were many Jewish participants in the demonstrations, and there were also critics of Israel, demanding to cut military aid.

In Washington's Freedom Plaza tent camp, one of the tents dwellers, Vietnam War veteran Bill Miniutti, 62, laughs. "There was already another reporter asking the same question today," he says. "I didn't see anything like this here. People are saying all kinds of things about us. They say we are dirty hippies who have nothing else to do. But I came from Florida to spend at least a month at the camp because I happen to believe that as a veteran, I have some obligations for this country, even if it forgot it has some obligation for me. They also say we get paid for it - if so, I really want to know where I can get this money."