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Has a New Era in US Israel Relations begun with a White House Joint Press Conference? – A discussion with Shoshana Bryen of the Jewish Policy Center
Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Trump White House, February 15, 2017
At last, a US President casts doubt on the folly of a two state solution to resolve the impasse between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Trump's remarks at the first joint press conference with Israeli PM Netanyahu on January 15, 2017 in response to a question about crafting a peace left the door open to other possibilities as the basis for a settlement, if one can be achieved between the two neighbors.
I’m looking at two-state and one-state and I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. The United States will encourage peace and really a great peace deal. “We will be working on it very, very diligently. But it is the parties themselves who must directly negotiate such an agreement. To be honest, if Bibi [Netanyahu] and the Palestinians, if Israel and the Palestinians are happy – I’m happy with the one they like the best.
On settlement building and the recently passed Regulation law in the Knesset, legalizing 4,000 housing units in the disputed territories, Trump signaled a pause saying: “I’d like to see you pull back on settlements for a little bit.'
Prime Minister Netanyahu in response said settlements were "not the core of the conflict”. He drew attention to the two conditions for any arrangement: overcoming Palestinian resistance to recognition of Israel as a Jewish nation and negotiating secure and defensible borders based on its legal rights to the land west of the river, but not those of the pre 1967, 1949 Armistice line.
Netanyahu noted a major impediment in achieving any solution with the Palestinians. That is the investment by leadership of the Palestinian Authority indoctrinating hate in the minds of their children in schools and Mosques that has given rise to episodic intifadas and violence taking the lives of Israeli Jews and even non Jewish American citizens. He asked the rhetorical question of PA President Mahmoud Abbas how he views Palestine as a state: "is it Costa Rica or Iran".
The answer came from senior PA negotiator, Saeb Erekat who said following a meeting with UK Parliament speaker Berkow in Jericho:
We want to tell those who want to bury and destroy the two-state solution that the real alternative to a Palestinian state living alongside an Israeli one on the 1967 lines is a democratic, secular state where Jews, Christians and Muslims can live together. Those who believe they can leave the two-state solution and replace it with one state and two systems, I don’t believe they can get away with it. It is impossible. I believe undermining the two-state solution is not a joke and that would be a disaster and tragedy for Israelis and Palestinians.
Erekat's response was an outright rejection of Israel's right to negotiate secure and defensible borders based on its legal right to the land west of the river.
Netanyahu also noted the emerging tacit alliances with Arab states, kingdoms and Emirates; perhaps presenting a regional framework of bi-lateral discussion aimed as possibly resolving the impasse.
The realities are that the meme of "peace running through Jerusalem" is no longer relevant. Especially, as pointed out by Netanyahu when the threats of nuclear missile testing by Iran and proxy Hezbollah, directed at wiping Israel off the map of the world in" less than seven minutes" coupled with defeating the Sunni extremist Islamic State and Hamas ranging on Israel's borders take priority.
The joint Press Conference remarks by President Trump also raised the possibility of a future venue in Jerusalem for Trump's nominee for US Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman. Shoshana Bryen of the Jewish Policy Center in Washington, DC has suggested it is likely to be a compromise: yes to the US Ambassador’s seat in the existing US Jerusalem consulate, keeping both it and the current embassy complex in Tel Aviv as consulates. Friedman testified in confirmation hearings before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee the following day. The hearing was momentarily disrupted by raucous demonstrations by pro-Palestinian and Jewish allies from a group called IfNotNow. The consensus was that Friedman held his own, apologized for his frank campaign remarks and had the support of both Republicans and some Democrats on the panel. His Senate confirmation vote is expected in the first week in March 2017.
US UN Ambassador Niki Haley succeeded in blocking the appointment by UN Secretary General Antonio Gutteres of former PA Premier Salam Fayyad, respected for his attempt to make transparent financial transactions only to be dismissed by President Mahmoud Abbas in 2013. Fayyad’s UN Special Envoy appointment would have recognized the state of Palestine.
As reflected in comments in this U.K. Guardian article, UK and EU Middle East Quartet peace proponents are upset with the pronouncements at the Washington joint press conference dimming the future of the two state solution imposed by third parties
The worm has also turned in our nation's capitol from less than two years ago, when on March 3, 2015 Israeli PM Netanyahu mounted the rostrum at a joint session of Congress to warn then President Obama and Democratic and Republican members of both Chambers of what a bad deal with Iran was about to be struck at the UN that July. President Trump echoed Netanyahu's prescient warning calling it at the joint press conference "a very bad deal." However, the "bad deal" maybe useful in monitoring Iran's nuclear and missile testing activities as a predicate for recently announced and other sanctions against key personalities and IRGC controlled companies.
All and all this was an epic and historic joint press Conference. It represented the first sgns of a potentially productive and welcomed change in views between Washington and Jerusalem.
Following this momentous White House Joint Press Conference, Israeli Prime Minister flew off to Singapore continuing on to make visits in Australia and New Zealand.
Against this background we held another in our periodic series of 1330amWEBY International Middle East Round Table discussions with Shoshana Bryen, senior director of the Washington, DC Jewish Policy Center.
Mike Bates: Good afternoon, and welcome to Your Turn. This is Mike Bates. We are having one of our Middle East round table discussions this afternoon. With me in the studio is Jerry Gordon, senior editor of the New English Review and its blog, the Iconoclast. Jerry, welcome.
Jerry Gordon: Glad to be back, Mike.
Bates: And joining us by telephone is Shoshana Bryen, the senior director of the Jewish Policy Center in Washington. Shoshana, welcome.
Shoshana Bryen: Good morning Mike. Good morning Jerry.
Bates: Today is February 20th; exactly one month ago we had a new president inaugurated in the United States. The previous president, Barack Obama, had very strained relationships with Israel, as evidence of numerous things throughout his presidency, but I think culminated with that stunt he pulled in late December with the abstention by the United Nations Security Council on the condemnation of the settlements in Judea and Samaria.
So, what I want to begin with, Shoshana is a very broad, open-ended question: Bibi Netanyahu visited the White House last week. A new relationship, a new president, where do you see things going from here?
Bryen: The good news is that it wasn't a ground breaking visit. It was more like a “Back to the Future” visit. They restored a part of the relationship that had gotten seriously unbalanced. In the Obama administration, Washington operators - especially Secretary Kerry - believed they knew what was best, they knew how to solve the problems, they knew what other people should do, they knew what risks other people should take, and they were furious with anyone who had a different idea. Such as the Prime Minister of Israel. President Trump made it clear that he has opinions, but he can live with whatever the parties decide. That is huge.
The other place that was out of whack was US policy on Iran versus Israel's policy on Iran. The Obama administration wanted to bring Iran into the regional architecture to give it a place in the Persian Gulf and in the Middle East. They did things both under the table and over the table to make that happen. Israel and the rest of the Sunni Middle East had a different idea and they were very nervous and very unhappy.
President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu appear to be on the same page about the biggest threat to peace and stability in the region. So that's also huge.
So for a visit that wasn't groundbreaking, it was significant.
Gordon: Shoshana, what messages were conveyed to the Palestinians and so called Quartet and Sunni Arab actors about the priority of the “two state solution” under the Oslo Agreement of 1993?
Bryen: To begin with, let's be clear, the Oslo Accords do not have a “two state solution” in them. The Oslo Agreement said the Palestinians could have an elected council, but ultimately peace would be made with Israel under UN Security Council Resolution 242. And 242 is the resolution that secures Israel properly. So the “two state solution” was always a figment of someone's imagination, not part of Oslo.
At the moment the Sunni Arab states have bigger fish to fry. They are concerned about Iran, they don't want to irritate Israel, in fact they want Israel's help with Iran, and they’re worried about US policy, and again want Israel's help. So the Palestinians take a second level, third level, whatever level seat to that. And as for the Quartet, the British - and even the Russians were - opposed to the Paris Conference in January. The French remain colonialist French and they think they can do something in the Middle East, but without support from the Obama administration that will fall by the way side as well.
Gordon: Shoshana, what role did Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer have in facilitating a possible Netanyahu and Trump alliance in the Middle East?
Bryen: I don't know that we're back to “alliance state” yet. But what's clear is Ambassador Dermer, who has worked very, very hard under very complicated circumstances for the last several years, has come back in from the cold – the Obama administration wouldn’t work with him. So now you will begin to see Ambassador Dermer in a much more public role helping the United States and Israel keep this thing on track. And I think that's a great thing.
Gordon: What do you think are the chances of the US Embassy moving to Jerusalem, and is there a possible compromise that you talked about in January still in the works?
Bryen: Compromise. That's the most complicated thing you can do because everything is complicated when it comes to Jerusalem. I never believed, and we've discussed this before, that they were going to move the building and employees lock, stock, and barrel to Jerusalem. I did, however, and I still do, believe the US government will find a way to have official representation to the State of Israel in Jerusalem, which they do not have at the moment. Interestingly, I have seen one document, which appears to have come from the Trump State Department, listing employees and contractors working for the United States in the Middle East. In that document, the designation, Jerusalem, Israel appears in a list of countries along with Beirut, Lebanon, Baghdad, Iraq, and Cairo, Egypt. Now that is a first for the US State Department.
Bates: That is big, because historically when Jerusalem has been listed there's been no country behind a comma.
Bryen: Exactly. And as you know, there was an American baby born in Israel whose parents wanted to register him with the American Embassy in Israel as having been born in Jerusalem, Israel. Twelve years later, American courts finally decided against the family saying that is was up to the US government to determine for itself whether Jerusalem was in Israel or not in Israel. Or not in any country. So this child's passport reads Jerusalem with no country.
This new document that appears to have come from the State Department - and I'm hedging just a little bit, I've seen the document and I think it's real. It is the first time the State Department has placed Jerusalem inside Israel. After that all kinds of things become possible in terms of US official representation in the city even if the actual embassy building doesn't move. And I don't think it will move.
Bates: Now, I understand that Jerusalem is in Israel. What does it matter whether Israel is following the word Jerusalem or not, in the scheme of things, legally does it really mean anything?
Bryen: Yes, it means a lot. It means that 192 countries in the world get to determine which city is their capital. And the United States accepts every single one of them, but the 193rd country, Israel, does not get to determine where its capital is. And since the United States, regardless of who the president is, or the circumstance, is the most important country in the world, politically, diplomatically, and every other way. It matters greatly whether you are permitted to say, "This is my capital," or you're not.
Follow that by the way, with the understanding that the US has not had official representation to the Israelis in Jerusalem. Since 1967 it did have official US government representation to the Palestinians in Jerusalem. The US consulate located in Jerusalem works for the residents of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. That gives the Palestinians a better claim to US forbearance for their choice of Jerusalem as a capital than it gives Israel. The US consulate to the West Bank should be in Ramallah, where the seat of the Palestinian Authority is. So yes, it does matter Mike, it's not a silly question, it's extremely important. The Palestinians are trying to take the legitimacy of Jerusalem away from the Jews. And we're helping them, under the current circumstances.
Bates: So, why don't we have a consulate in Ramallah? Is it a security concern? Or is there some political reason?
Bryen: I think it's political; I don't think it's a security concern. The US ambassador goes to Ramallah when he cares to go to Ramallah. You know, we have an embassy in Baghdad, talk about a difficult place to have an embassy; we have an embassy in Kabul. Ramallah is nothing as compared to those locations. So no, I don't think it is security. I think it's political. We have a consulate that was a consulate to US embassy in Amman Jordan until 1967 and that building has become the official US representation to the Palestinians, and it shouldn't be.
Bates: So if the Trump administration does indeed move the US embassy to Jerusalem officially, it sounds like it wouldn't be all diplomatic operations. The embassy in Tel Aviv would serve as a very large consulate, and have a small "embassy" staff in Jerusalem. What do you think the outcome of that would be?
Bryen: I think that's the most likely. The real question is not the building. The very large US military staff in the embassy in Tel Aviv would have to stay there because that's where the Israeli Defense Ministry is. So just being logical, the military guys have to stay in Tel Aviv. The important thing is the diplomatic recognition of Israel, of Jerusalem, as the capital of Israel and the ability to do official US government business there. So if the ambassador has his offices there and he meets diplomatic representatives there and he meets foreign visitors who come and stop at the US embassy in Jerusalem. It puts the US seal of approval on the fact that Jerusalem is the capital of the State of Israel.
Bates: Very good points.
Gordon: Shoshana, just prior to the Washington meetings between Bibi and Trump there was an episode involving UN Secretary General Guterres, former Palestinian Authority Premier Salam Fayyad, Israeli opposition and former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, and most importantly, U.S. UN ambassador Nikki Haley. What was it all about? And what was the outcome?
Shoshana Bryen: I have to say that I didn't understand this one at the beginning, but it turns out it is extremely important and it turns out that Ambassador Haley did one heck of a job. Salam Fayyad is very well respected personally around the world, and in the United States, and for very good reason. He is an honest man who tried his best to make the Palestinian Authority financially transparent. That's a big job and the PA got rid of him because they didn't want transparency. So people looked at that and they said, "Oh, how could the United States not want to send this fabulous Salam Fayyad as an envoy from the United Nations?” Well, here is the reason: there is no such thing as a personal appointment emanating from the United Nations.
All appointed envoys are representative of their countries, so Fayyad would have been the first appointment from the “country” of Palestine. It's another way of giving the Palestinians the attributes of statehood without the burden of – say – recognizing Israel, or stopping teaching hate in their schools, or ending the Palestinian war against Israel. It would have been the United Nations agreeing that the “country” of Palestine can have envoys. And they thought Fayyad's personal popularity would overshadow the political impact of what they were doing.
The offer of an appointment to Tzipi Livni had nothing to do with Tzipi Livni. It was designed to show “evenhandedness” in the UN between the State of Israel and the presumed “state” of Palestine. President Trump has said that the United States wouldn't fund any part of the UN that recognizes and treats Palestine as a state, and there's good reason for that. But in this case, the Secretary General was doing exactly that from the highest seat in the building. We would have been in a position where for the president to follow through he would have had to cut off funding to the Security Council, to the UN secretariat – something we do not want to do. But backward, President Trump would have been in a position of having to make good on his promise. So here is where Nikki Haley was brilliant. She saved US funding for the United Nations for the moment, which I'm not thrilled about, but she also kept the president from being blindsided by the Secretary General, and she protected Israel at the same time. So ten points for Ambassador Haley.
Bates: And the president has the authority under current US law to suspend those payments, it would not require any act of Congress, correct?
Bryen: That is correct. It is the State Department, meaning the Executive Branch, which distributes money. And if they chose not to distribute it they don't have to.
Gordon: Shoshana, The Wall Street Journal floated a story about the possible formation of a Mideast NATO involving the Arab monarchies, Emirates and possibly Israel, opposing Iran's regional hegemony. What is the status in your view of how realistic would be Israel's participation in such an alliance.
Bryen: To begin with such an alliance already exists. It's called the Gulf Cooperation Council. It was founded in 1981 and in 1984 it established a military force called the Peninsula Shield Force. The Force participated in the First Gulf War and was prepared to participate in the Iraq invasion. It now has about 40,000 troops based in Saudi Arabia and it did a joint military exercise last year. So the force exists.
The idea that you would have to start to create a new NATO alliance in not true. The reason I go to all the trouble of explaining that is that Israel has relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. It has a diplomatic mission in Abu Dhabi; it has trade with a number of them, including military trade. They run it through third countries. It includes military trade. Jordan, although it is not a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, participates in GCC activities, including military activity. So the structure is already there and Israel has a relationship with the countries. Raising the level, or trying to get a new force, or trying to insert Israel from the front end, seems to me a waste of all the good quiet diplomatic work that has already been done. Everybody in the GCC knows that Israel is an ally against Iran. "Shhh. Quiet!" It's not necessarily something you want to broadcast.
Bates: And what is the reason for that? Is it purely domestic politics on those Gulf nations?
Bryen: It is domestic politics. They are probably not prepared yet publicly to give up the Palestinian thing; it's a little bit of fear that Iran will take action against them if they make public their relations with Israel. And the Israelis don't necessarily want to make it very public either. Don't forget, Saudi Arabia is still in an official state of war with Israel. They have not signed on to UN Resolution 242, nor have any of the others. So from Israel's point of view, what are they saying if they have overt cooperation with these people? Are they saying, “We don't care if they don't recognize us”? Well I think Israel does care. So the quiet levels of cooperation make sense for everybody concerned. It is a good idea for the United States to be close to that group. It's a good idea for NATO to be close to that group. But I don't see any point in announcing "Oh look everybody. Here's the new flag, here's the new organization. Oh look, the Israelis and the Saudis are in the same group." I don't think it helps.
Gordon: Shoshana, going back in history, Kuwait as you will recall was the focus of the first Gulf War. And subsequent to its liberation what happened to the 300,000 Palestinians who were there.
Shoshana Bryen: They were expelled from Kuwait into the desert of Jordan with nothing and then they were told "go find a place to live."
Gordon: Isn't that an indication of the esteem Palestinians are held in by the members of the GCC and Kuwait.
Bryen: Kuwait intensely, intensely, dislikes them because the Palestinians had been working in Kuwait for decades, particularly in banking and other highly professional fields. Fields where people needed degrees to work; they were not oil workers or laborers. So they were in the banking system and they were in the treasury and in the finance department, when Saddam invaded Kuwait. They turned the money in the Kuwait banking system over to Saddam. This is treason – a huge betrayal of the people who had let them live there and let them work there. So the Kuwaitis have never liked the Palestinians.
The rest of the Arabs just find them difficult.
Bates: Shoshana, Prime Minister Netanyahu has recently turned into quite the world traveler, visiting Australia and New Zealand. So, what is the purpose of those trips to Canberra and Auckland and what do you expect to come out of that?
Bryen: Different things in different countries, but in the end, the same thing. New Zealand has become a leading voice against Israel in the UN. New Zealand was a sponsor of UN resolution 2334, which designated all land east of the 1949 Armistice Line as "Occupied Palestinian Territory." That made east Jerusalem - where Jewish patrimony runs deepest - part of “Palestine” yet-to-be. And it's not the first time; New Zealand has been sliding down this road for a couple of years.
Australia is less problematic. But Australia has problems with immigration; they have problems with the Muslim community in Australia. Neither one however wants to be seen in the international community as either anti-Semitic or specifically anti-Israel. So what you're going to hear from both countries is "We love Jews. We love Israel. It's just those nasty, ugly, illegal, settlements we don't like." And they're going to try and draw a line, both of them, between Israelis who live east of the 1949 Armistice Line and Israelis who live west of the line. The Israelis do not accept the distinction. So it's going to be a love fest at the upper level, but underneath, it will be something else.
Gordon: Shoshana, Prime Minister's trips not only to Southeast Asia, down under, but also Africa seem to be sending a message that Israel is now being recognized as a world leader. Why is that?
Bryen: Because Israel is a world leader, particularly in Africa. The price of oil has a lot to do with it. African countries have never benefited from their relationship with the Arab states – the Arabs were and remain slave traders; they plundered African treasuries for oil money when those countries were having trouble feeding their people. There are Arab Islamic groups fostering a very radical, very fundamentalist form of Islam in Africa that was never there before.
But the African countries didn’t complain because they needed oil. But they're very well aware of the fact that the Arab states bring them a lot of trouble, and do not do anything specifically good for them.
Israel on the other hand has been operating in Africa for 50 of its 60 plus years as a partner with Africans in solar energy, in water, in telecommunications, in medicine, in all the sorts of things they actually need. So this decline in the price of oil makes it possible for a lot of small, poor countries in Africa to go where their actual interests lead them, and that is to Israel.
Bates: Jerry Gordon and Shoshana Bryen thank you for joining us.
Listen to the 1330amWEBY broadcast with Shoshana Bryen, here.