Experts wonder if move precludes possibility of deal

Experts wonder if move precludes possibility of deal

At the opening ceremony for the American Embassy in Jerusalem Monday, speakers spoke of the desire for peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. At the same time, 58 Palestinians were reportedly being killed by Israeli army sniper fire as they tried to breach the Gaza Strip’s border fence with Israel during violent protests by an estimated 50,000 Palestinians.

The Gaza Health Ministry said the deaths included that of an 8-month-old infant who died from inhaling tear gas (though according to a separate report, the child died of a pre-existing condition), and that another 1,360 Palestinians had been wounded. Israel said 24 of those killed were Hamas terrorists. The violence overshadowed news coverage of the embassy opening and cast the future of any Palestinian-Israel peace accord into doubt. 

In a statement the next day, the European Union called for both sides to exercise “utmost restraint to avoid further loss of life,” and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told CBS News that Hamas terrorists who control the Gaza Strip had pushed “civilians — women, children — into the line of fire with a view of getting casualties. We’ve tried to minimize casualties, they are trying to incur casualties in order to put pressure on Israel, which is horrible. These things are avoidable. If Hamas had not pushed them there, nothing would happen. Hamas holds responsibility for doing this and they’re deliberately doing it.”

At the embassy ceremony, President Donald Trump told the 800 guests in a video message, “Our greatest hope is for peace. The United States remains fully committed to facilitating a lasting peace agreement. … We extend a hand in friendship to Israel, the Palestinians, and to all of their neighbors.”

Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law who is leading the administration’s efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, spoke of his belief that it is “possible for both sides to gain more than they give so that all people can live in peace, safe from danger, free from fear, and able to pursue their dreams.”

And Netanyahu said he hoped the embassy move would “advance a lasting peace between Israel and all our neighbors.”

But there have been no Israeli-Palestinian talks since September 2010, when they collapsed following a meeting between Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that had been intended to help “resolve all final status issues.”

The Trump administration has yet to unveil its own long-awaited peace proposal. Media reports have quoted senior White House officials as saying the plan is nearing completion and that it would be revealed within the next month or two. One of the officials was quoted as saying the administration hopes the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital would be “clarifying” for the Palestinians — a “recognition …  that Israel isn’t going away.”

But Abbas greeted Trump’s decision with a declaration that any peace plan he puts forth would be dead on arrival, saying: “We will not accept anything from them.”

Sources insist that the Trump administration is not going to try to push the Palestinians to come to the peace table. Rather, it will seek to enlist the support of other Arab countries — including Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates — to cajole the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. It is said that the peace plan would not have a set of guiding principles, unlike the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, nor would it mandate a two-state solution. It would, however, suggest ways to deal with the issue of Palestinian refugees.

In interviews with more than a dozen Jewish leaders, former American and Israeli diplomats, and advocacy groups, only a few believe the time is right to seek an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. But Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Wilson Center and a former adviser to six U.S. secretaries of state, said it all depends on what the administration’s peace plan contains.

“If it says the Trump administration recognizes east Jerusalem as a capital of a Palestinian state and that it intends to put an embassy there, that could help get the Palestinians back” to the negotiating table, he said.

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman was reportedly told by U.S. officials two weeks ago that the Trump administration would be demanding that Israel make “painful concessions,” including transferring control to the Palestinians of four Arab neighborhoods in east Jerusalem (Jebl Mukabar, Issawiya, Shuafat, and Abu Dis), so that they could become the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Asked about Lieberman’s comment, David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, told NPR: “We don’t look at things in terms of price. There’s either a better opportunity for Israel and a better opportunity for the Palestinians, such that they both look at it and say we’re better off with something new than the status quo, or it doesn’t work.”

Zalman Shoval, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, said flatly: “I don’t think the time is propitious [for talks] because the Palestinians have not yet gotten around to realizing that this may be the worst moment in the history of their national struggle. They have lost the support of major parts of the Arab world and they started a quarrel with the United States that started long before the move of the embassy [from Tel Aviv]. Abu Mazen [Abbas’ nom de guerre] is an ineffective leader and the rest of the world no longer puts it [the Palestinian issue] at the top of their agenda.”

Shoval added that another hurdle to an agreement is the confusion over whether peace talks would be with Hamas or the Palestinian Authority.

“How do you negotiate with the Palestinians if half of them are under a completely different regime that in a Palestinian state might become the dominant one?”

Hamas has reportedly expressed a willingness through several backdoor channels to enter into peace talks with Israel in an effort to arrange a long-term “ceasefire” in the Gaza Strip, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. It said Hamas was seeking in return a significant easing of Israel’s blockade over Gaza, the approval of large-scale infrastructure projects, and a possible prisoner swap. Haaretz said Israel had not responded to the overtures, which it said highlighted the “dire” conditions in Gaza. On Tuesday reported that a senior Israeli security official confirmed that Hamas “made a number of armistice proposals to Israel through mediators,” but the official said none of the proposals included “actual concessions.”

Still, Daniel Mariaschin, executive vice president and CEO of B’nai B’rith International, scoffed at the report, noting that “Hamas has agreed to ceasefires in the past and each time used them to their advantage. The main issue is not whether you create a 12-month ceasefire, it is Hamas’ continued call for the destruction of Israel.”

Richard Heideman, president of the American Zionist Movement, said what he heard from the Trump administration at the embassy ceremony convinced him that “the time for peace is now, the interest for peace is now, and the need for peace is now. … The leadership of Hamas is doing a great disservice to its people. It’s a violation of humanitarian and international law to use young people to accomplish their political goal” by sacrificing their lives. 

A Lebanese newspaper reported last month that Egypt had worked out a prisoner swap with Hamas on Israel’s behalf. But although Hamas’ Gaza leader, Yahya Sinwar, was interested, Hamas’ leader in general, Ismail Haniyeh, opposed it, leading to a screaming match between the two men, according to the Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom.

A spokesman for J Street, Logan Bayroff, said the group believes the relocation of the American Embassy to Jerusalem “has completely alienated the Palestinian leadership by unilaterally adopting the position of Prime Minister Netanyahu.” The action, he said, indicates that “the Trump administration is not seriously interested in reaching a two-state solution or putting forth proposals about how to get to a two-state solution. Any plan that does not include the creation of a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital living alongside Israel in peace and security as its final goal has no chance of generating meaningful progress.”

A spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, Ori Nir, agreed, saying he doesn’t believe “anything the Trump administration will come up with will be constructive, and since the atmosphere is so polarized, it is probably better not to play with fire.”

Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, termed the embassy move a “real expression of bad faith, and in no way can the Palestinians see the U.S. as a real partner for peace.”

But Yael Eckstein, global executive vice president of the International Fellowship for Christians and Jews, said the peace plan should be released, explaining: “You have to do what is right without waiting for the perfect time.”

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