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Global Journalist: Compromise in Middle East makes little progress

Friday, March 19, 2010 | 11:23 a.m. CDT; updated 10:09 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Stuart Loory: There is one thing certain about attempts to negotiate a settlement between Israelis and Palestinian Arabs and that is that neither side is willing to make significant compromises. The latest bone of contention is whether to allow construction of 1,600 new residences for Jews in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians say would be the capital of a new Palestinian Arab state. The decision was announced as Vice President Joe Biden was visiting in Israel with the hope of bringing both sides into proximity talks. Each side would talk to an American mediator, George Mitchell, who would shuttle between Ramallah on the West Bank and Jerusalem to try to bring Israelis and Palestinians together. Those talks have been postponed. The Israelis for a few days were arguing as much with the United States as with Palestinians, but now the situation seems to be quieting. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Moscow for a meeting of the Quartet — that is, the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations. They are all trying to bring Palestinians and Israelis to a negotiating table. Let’s start in the Middle East and ask Josh Mitnick what is going on. I understand that the Israeli inner cabinet has been meeting for hours, if not days, to try to figure out how to respond to objections to the new residences being built.

Josh Mitnick, correspondent, Washington Times and Christian Science Monitor; Tel Aviv, Israel: The U.S. is pressing Israel for a response, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems to be caught between the demands of the United States, to reportedly cancel the housing project in East Jerusalem and to make more gestures to get the Palestinians back on the talks, and his coalition, which includes many parties who are opposed to the very idea of any sort of concessions in Jerusalem and any sort of compromise. Analysts have said that he is going to try to navigate his way between those two poles, but other analysts are saying it is almost an impossible mission.

Loory: What is the reaction of the Palestinians going to be? There has been some violence on the streets in East Jerusalem, and there is talk of a third intifada.

Lubna Takruri, independent journalist; Ramallah, West Bank: From my vantage point in the West Bank, it does seem like things are a little bit worse. It does seem like it is a little more gloomy, and the violence and the tension do feel a little bit more serious. As for the Palestinian Authority, they have been surprisingly quiet through this diplomatic row with the United States. Right now, in terms of the third intifada, it looks like all of these things are coming into play where if you think it is going to be a violent intifada like the second one in 2001, no probably not. Is there a movement now towards popular resistance? Yes, that is more likely.

Loory: The United States a week ago was condemnatory towards Israel, but the rhetoric seems to be dying down now. Why is that?

Roland Flamini, foreign policy columnist, CQ Weekly; Washington, DC: The rhetoric is dying down firstly for internal political reasons, and that is we are approaching mid-terms in November, and the administration is under considerable pressure from a number of key congressmen. My impression is that this will be patched up by some kind of commitment on the part of the Israeli government. The other point is that the annual conference of the Israeli/Washington affairs is due to begin in Washington on Sunday. Netanyahu is expected to speak at the event, as is Clinton. And my impression is that he will not be too conciliatory there and that his manner will be fairly tough.

Loory: What is the feeling about what the Quartet can accomplish this week, and can it try to re-establish some semblance of negotiation between the two sides?

Vladimir Isachenkov, reporter, The Associated Press; Moscow: It appears that the Quartet is not going to achieve any direct breakthrough during Friday’s meeting. What they apparently want to do is reaffirm the international push on both sides. But from their statements today, it looks like they don’t have high hopes that this will bring any success.

Loory: This is a high-level group: It’s Tony Blair, the former prime minister of the United Kingdom representing the European Union; Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary-general; Hillary Clinton, the U.S. secretary of state; and Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister. If they can’t accomplish anything, who can?

Isachenkov: The Quartet has been saying all along that the job actually lies with the parties involved in the conflict. The Quartet’s job is to relay talks, and there are statements from both Ban Ki-moon and Sergey Lavrov that the Quartet is going to strongly reaffirm this call on both the Israelis and the Palestinians to respect the agreed principles of the Middle East settlement and go ahead with the talks. The question is how fruitful it all could be because we have heard and seen many such calls in the past.

Loory: We do have one e-mail, and it goes to Jim Budd in Mexico City. He writes, “As I understand it, Jewish homes are being built in the Arab section of Jerusalem. Are Arabs allowed to build homes in the Jewish section?”

Mitnick: I think Arabs building homes in the Jewish section is almost non-existent. I am not aware of it. It is negligible if it exists at all.

Loory: Can you tell us anything about the United States’ attitude towards construction by Arabs of housing in Israel?

Flamini: There is probably no law that prohibits Arabs from constructing houses on the Israeli side. I think there are two problems. One of them is that the Arabs won’t do it because the unofficial pressure will be too strong. Secondly, I think they would feel rather isolated, and it wouldn’t be a particularly friendly environment.

Loory: Tell us a little bit about what is going on between Fatah, which is Mahmud Abbas’ political organization on the West Bank, and Hamas, which is headquartered in Gaza. Hamas is still maintaining its militancy isn’t it?

Takruri: Yes and no. It is complicated. There really are two different countries now as much as Palestinians hate to think of it that way. Hamas, whether they are continuing their military activities is up for debate. Hamas has ordered a cease to violence against Israel and for the most part that has been adhered to. The issue now is that they are not cooperating, nor are they cooperating internally with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, which really makes you think how can there be a state, how can there be a peace process, when the international community refuses to engage a very important player.

Loory: Do you think that the international community should engage Hamas?

Takruri: My opinion is that when there is a player with a problem and you ignore them, that problem is going to remain and grow. If this is to be solved, something has to change with Hamas, and nothing is going to change unless they’re engaged.

Loory: There doesn’t seem to be much chance that the United States is going to engage Hamas, nor is there much chance that the Western European nations are going to engage them. Is that correct?

Flamini: The rest of the West European nations will not act on their own because the West European nations are committed to the Quartet. However, the Western European nations are in contact with Hamas. They send in a considerable amount of financial and other help. They are not as isolated from the cutaway enclave in Gaza as is the United States. But I think without a vigorous involvement of the United States, nothing much is going to happen.

Loory: The emigration from Russia to Israel of Russian Jews is really strong, and there is some indication that the Russian immigrants may even become at some point a majority in Israel. What impact is that having on relations between the Russian government and Israel?

Isachenkov: That was a factor in bringing Russia closer to Israel since the Soviet collapse. It has been estimated that the number of ex-Soviet Union residents not just from Russia but from other Soviet Republics in Israel is around 1 million.

Loory: There was a story the other day that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s brother-in-law called Obama an anti-Semite. Did this have much of an impact in Israel?

Mitnick: I think the prime minister’s brother-in-law represents sort of a fringe of Israeli society. There is sentiment in Israel that Obama has reached out to make visits to several Muslim and Arab countries and he hasn’t made the same effort to reach out to Israel. I think there are people who hoped that he would restart negotiations. I think the fact that he decided to go back a little bit on that demand looked to Israel as inconsistent, and many Palestinians think now that Obama is no different from any other American president in the past.

Loory: Is there a possibility that the United States can re-establish its position as the prime mediator in this conflict?

Flamini: It is very hard to tell. Certainly the showdown with Netanyahu underscores how little progress Washington has made in reviving the moribund Middle East peace process. The so-called proximity talks of which the latest row has broken out is itself an indication of how poor the chances are of brokering a central peace when you don’t even have them talking to each other. Secondly, the administration’s dilemma is basically that Obama wants to show that the Cairo speech was not just words.

Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Youn-Joo Park, Angela Potrykus, Melissa Ulbricht, Tim Wall and Megan Wiegand. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.

 


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