The chances that U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace talks will continue beyond next month’s deadline appeared to improve this week, after an Egyptian court banned the activities of Hamas and seized its assets. At the same time, a Saudi billionaire flew to Ramallah to encourage Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to make peace.
Middle East expert Avi Melamed said the timing of the visit of Saudi Arabian Prince al-Walid Bin Talal with Abbas one day after President Barack Obama met at the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is no coincidence.
“It was meant to send a clear message, which he also sent openly in a press conference,” said Melamed, the Rosenzwog Fellow of Intelligence and Middle East Affairs for the Eisenhower Institute in Washington, D.C.
“He complimented Abbas for his rational, responsible policy. He was sending a message to Abbas that we expect you to continue this policy and not miscalculate — to take courageous steps. … Behind the scenes there is movement involving the U.S., the Saudis and perhaps the Egyptian government.”
Melamed, a former senior Israeli official on Arab affairs, was referring to the actions of an Egyptian court this week that banned all activities of Hamas as a terror organization and froze its assets. Egyptian officials have accused Hamas of conspiring with deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood movement to carry out “terror attacks” in the country.
The crackdown on Hamas, which is based in the Gaza Strip, comes at a time when it has been warning Abbas against giving up the Palestinians’ so-called right-of-return to Israel and having a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.
“Hamas is under a lot of pressure; its back has been pushed against the wall, and it may start acting more like a wounded animal,” Melamed said. “Hamas is finding itself with fewer and fewer cards.”
Meanwhile, the Saudis are ingratiating themselves to the Palestinians under Abbas’ rule. The Saudi prince, who reportedly has a net worth of $30 billion, was slated to meet Wednesday with a delegation of Palestinian businessmen in Ramallah. The Palestinian’s Ma’an News Agency reported that the prince would speak of his possible plans to support the Palestinian economy and discuss an economic conference to be held in the Palestinian territories in August.
At the start of the Obama-Netanyahu meeting Monday, Netanyahu said Israel had taken “unprecedented steps” towards peace in the last 20 years — including freezing and uprooting settlements and releasing hundreds of terrorist prisoners — and in return received “incessant Palestinian incitement against Israel.”
“So Israel has been doing its part, and I regret to say that the Palestinians haven’t,” he told Obama, who just last week told an interviewer that Netanyahu had to make the necessary concessions for peace or risk facing increasing isolation in the international arena.
Speaking at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee convention in Washington Tuesday, Netanyahu said he welcomed a peace agreement with the Palestinians because it would open the door to peace with the Arab world.
“I’m prepared to make a historic peace with our Palestinian neighbors,” Netanyahu said. “Peace with the Palestinians would turn our relations with them and with many Arab countries into open and thriving relationships.”
Netanyahu said a peace agreement required Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and a long-term Israeli military presence on the Jordan-West Bank border, but he suggested that a deal could come soon.
Abbas is slated to meet with Obama at the White House March 17 to tell him whether he wishes to continue with the peace talks.
Although Obama listened politely to Netanyahu during a photo session in advance of Monday’s talks, he told an interviewer, Jeffrey Goldberg of Bloomberg View, that he would press Netanyahu to “start …[making] very difficult choices.”
“Do you resign yourself to what amounts to a permanent occupation of the West Bank?” he asked.
Obama said he intended to quote a line from the Jewish sage Rabbi Hillel, “If not now, when? And if not you, Mr. Prime Minister, then who?”
Asked about the interview, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said: “When the U.S. and Israel have issues to work out, they should do it quietly, behind the scenes. That is the way to resolve issues between two close allies and not through what might be perceived as public recriminations. That will only strengthen those who do not want to see progress.”
Jessica Rosenblum, the communications director of J Street, a nonprofit group that promotes a two-state solution to achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace, said her organization was pleased to see that in the interview Obama was bringing the “weight and authority of the presidency to bear on the peace talks. … There was thought and detail in each answer that indicates this is something he is knowledgeable about and is invested in.”
She added that his strong language was a “warning not a threat.”
“If you see a friend about to drive off a cliff, you warn him, you don’t say, ‘Have a nice trip,’” she said.
On a positive note, the interview confirmed that the Obama administration “has accepted the two core positions of Israel that had been rejected in the past – that Israel is the Jewish state and the seriousness of Israel’s security argument, which in the past was seen as an excuse,” according to Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
“These important shifts came as a result of hours of [Secretary of State John] Kerry and Bibi [Netanyahu] interacting,” he added.
Peter Joseph, chairman of the Israel Policy Forum, an organization that favors a two-state solution to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said the Obama interview demonstrated that this administration’s commitment to resolving the conflict “is at a level we have not seen.”
“We see the secretary with 11 visits to the region and an incredible commitment of his personal time in talking to the parties directly and with other parties around the world,” he said. “The secretary has shown a remarkable personal stake in seeing this reach some level of resolve. There is nothing that the president is saying that should be surprising to anybody. He said America’s commitment to Israel’s security and friendship is totally rock solid but that we live in a world where international consensus is increasingly significant. … Obama said Israel has had ability to kick the can down the road but this issue not going away and as time goes by those decisions become all the more difficult.”
Seymour Reich, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents, said Obama’s comments in the interview were “not wrong.”
“I think the prime minister ought to accept the challenge and let the Palestinians say no to the framework” agreement the U.S. is about to propose, he said. “The prime minister ought to put the onus on Abbas.”
Ammiel Hirsch, senior rabbi of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan and former executive director of ARZA, the Reform movement’s Israel arm, said “the American Jewish community — just like the Israeli government – should be supportive of the peace initiative. … It is very critical to reach a framework agreement because the alternative is failure and that will unleash very negative dynamics. … My concern is that the pressure has to be put on the Palestinians because they are further away [from an agreement] than the Israelis.”
Rabbi Gerald Skolnik, president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said after watching Netanyahu speak at AIPAC that he “doubts” the prime minister can be swayed by pressure when it comes to the security of Israel.
“He is extremely reluctant to do anything that is not a sure thing when it comes to the security of Israel,” the rabbi said, adding that an equally compelling argument is that Israel can’t absorb all the Palestinians into its Jewish state.
“If this weren’t a dilemma, it would have been solved a long time ago,” he added.