Obama to tell Israel: Form new peace policy by July
By Barak Ravid, Natasha Mozgovaya and Tomer Zarchin, Haaretz Correspondents
Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal recently relieved two brigade commanders in the Gaza Strip on Iranian recommendations, Palestinian sources said Wednesday. The two officers, Bassam Issa and Imat Aakel, were removed from their positions following the recommendation of Iranian Revolutionary Guard officials who participated in the investigation of the perceived Hamas military failure during Operation Cast Lead. The two officers have been known to lead military wing formations in two of the Strip's refugee camps, Nuseirat and Bureij, and became brigade commanders when the Hamas regular military force was established.During Operation Cast Lead, Hamas forces avoided confrontation with the IDF and did not incur great casualties among the Israeli troops. Because of the perceived failure, the organization's leadership decided to initiate a thorough investigation of the conduct of its men during the operation.Palestinian sources said Meshal consulted Hassan Mahdawi, commander of the "Jerusalem Column" in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, a unit stationed in Lebanon. After the investigation was concluded, the Hamas leadership decided to change the organizational structure of the military wing and remove a number of field commanders.
Issa and Aakel have also recently been at odds with Hamas' new interior minister, Fathi Hammad, who had tried to extend his authority over the organization's military wing. The ongoing disagreements between the Hamas government and senior commanders in the military wing resulted in the unauthorized firing of a Grad-type rocket at Ashkelon about three months ago. The launch was carried out as a protest by the military wing against the constraints set by the government.Palestinian sources said Hammad decided to prosecute any persons involved in criminal activity, including activists from the military wing. He also banned the use of dark windows in all Gaza vehicles - popular among Hamas activists. The sources said Hammad enjoyed the support of the commander of the military wing, Ahmed Al-Jabari, while some local commanders, like Aakel and Issa, disagreed. Fatah sources claim Hamas' internal crisis was further aggravated by other senior leadership figures, who blame their lack of recent promotion on Hammad.
The complaint was the latest in a growing rift between the Obama administration and the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over how to move forward to achieve peace in the Middle East. Mr. Obama was in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday and is scheduled to address the Muslim world from Cairo on Thursday.
The Israeli officials said that repeated discussions with Bush officials starting in late 2002 resulted in agreement that housing could be built within the boundaries of certain settlement blocks as long as no new land was expropriated, no special economic incentives were offered to move to settlements and no new settlements were built.
The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity so that they could discuss an issue of such controversy between the two governments.
When Israel signed on to the so-called road map for a two-state solution in 2003, with a provision that says its government "freezes all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements)," the officials said, it did so after a detailed discussion with Bush administration officials that laid out those explicit exceptions.
"Not everything is written down," one of the officials said.
He and others said that Israel agreed to the road map and to move ahead with the removal of settlements and soldiers from Gaza in 2005 on the understanding that settlement growth could continue.
But a former senior official in the Bush administration disagreed, calling the Israeli characterization "an overstatement."
"There was never an agreement to accept natural growth," the official said Tuesday, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the matter. "There was an effort to explore what natural growth would mean, but we weren't able to reach agreement on that."
The former official said that Bush administration officials had been working with their Israeli counterparts to clarify several issues, including natural growth, government subsidies to settlers, and the cessation of appropriation of Palestinian land.
The United States and Israel never reached an agreement, though, either public or private, the official said.
A second senior Bush administration official, also speaking anonymously, said Wednesday: "We talked about a settlement freeze with four elements. One was no new settlements, a second was no new confiscation of Palestinian land, one was no new subsidies and finally, no construction outside the settlements."
He described that fourth condition, which applied to natural growth, as similar to taking a string and tying it around a settlement, and prohibiting any construction outside that string.
But, he added, "We had a tentative agreement, but that was contingent on drawing up lines, and this is a process that never got done, therefore the settlement freeze was never formalized and never done."
A third former Bush administration official, Elliott Abrams, who was on the National Security Council staff, wrote an opinion article in The Washington Post in April that seemed to endorse the Israeli argument.
The Israeli officials acknowledged that the new American administration had different ideas about the meaning of the term "settlement freeze." Mr. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have said in the past week that the term means an end to all building, including natural growth.
But the Israeli officials complained that Mr. Obama had not accepted that the previous understandings existed. Instead, they lamented, Israel now stood accused of having cheated and dissembled in its settlement activity whereas, in fact, it had largely lived within the guidelines to which both governments had agreed.
On Monday, Mr. Netanyahu said Israel "cannot freeze life in the settlements," calling the American demand "unreasonable."
Dov Weissglas, who was a senior aide to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, wrote an opinion article that appeared Tuesday in Yediot Aharonot, a mass-selling newspaper, laying out the agreements that he said had been reached with officials in the Bush administration.
He said that in May 2003 he and Mr. Sharon met with Mr. Abrams and Stephen J. Hadley of the National Security Council and came up with the definition of settlement freeze: "no new communities were to be built; no Palestinian lands were to be appropriated for settlement purposes; building will not take place beyond the existing community outline; and no 'settlement encouraging' budgets were to be allocated."
He said that Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser at the time, signed off on that definition later that month and that the two governments also agreed to set up a joint committee to define more fully the meaning of "existing community outline" for established settlements.
In April 2004, President Bush presented Mr. Sharon with a letter stating, "In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949."
That letter, Mr. Weissglas said, was a result of his earlier negotiations with Bush administration officials acknowledging that certain settlement blocks would remain Israeli and open to continued growth.
The Israeli officials said that no Bush administration official had ever publicly insisted that Israel was obliged to stop all building in the areas it captured in 1967. They said it was important to know that major oral understandings reached between an Israeli prime minister and an American president would not simply be tossed aside when a new administration came into the White House.
Of course, Mr. Netanyahu has yet to endorse the two-state solution or even the road map agreed to by previous Israeli governments, which were not oral commitments, but actual signed and public agreements.
In his opinion article in The Washington Post, Mr. Abrams, the former Bush official who was part of negotiations with Israel, wrote: "For the past five years, Israel's government has largely adhered to guidelines that were discussed with the United States but never formally adopted: that there would be no new settlements, no financial incentives for Israelis to move to settlements and no new construction except in already built-up areas. The clear purpose of the guidelines? To allow for settlement growth in ways that minimized the impact on Palestinians."
Mr. Abrams acknowledged that even within those guidelines, Israel had not fully complied. He wrote: "There has been physical expansion in some places, and the Palestinian Authority is right to object to it. Israeli settlement expansion beyond the security fence, in areas Israel will ultimately evacuate, is a mistake."
Helene Cooper contributed reporting from Washington.
Now, the flip side is I think that the United States and the West generally, we have to educate ourselves more effectively on Islam. And one of the points I want to make is, is that if you actually took the number of Muslims Americans, we'd be one of the largest Muslim countries in the world. And so there's got to be a better dialogue and a better understanding between the two peoples.
[PS: schattingen variëren sterk, maar met 2 tot 5 miljoen moslims in de VS lijkt die uitspraak van Obama toch wat overdreven...]
Even as it publicly stakes out a hard-line position against Israeli settlement expansion, the Obama administration is avoiding serious criticism from most U.S. Jewish groups and pro-Israel Democratic lawmakers.
Key pro-Israel Jewish Democrats have backed the president on the importance of an Israeli settlement freeze while also suggesting there is room for a compromise between the Netanyahu government and the White House.
Meanwhile, the major Jewish centrist organizations -- including the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and AIPAC -- have refrained from issuing statements criticizing the Obama administration on the issue.
Some Jewish leaders said that while worries had been growing in recent days, the community wanted to wait until after President Obama's speech Thursday in Cairo to fully assess the situation.
Their concern spiked after what they saw as "stark" comments by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last week in which she said that "with respect to settlements, the president was very clear when Prime Minister Netanyahu was here: He wants to see a stop to settlements -- not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions."
In subsequent interviews, Obama has reiterated the call for a settlement freeze, but also stressed that "it's still early in the conversation" and that "patience is needed." The president also has stressed the White House's continuing commitment to Israel's security, isolating Hamas and fighting to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
While the Bush administration also called for a settlement freeze, observers said the Obama administration'
Last month, former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams publicly confirmed the existence of an unwritten agreement that then-President George W. Bush and then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reached in 2004, stating that Israel could continue to build in large Israeli settlements in the West Bank that the Jewish state was likely to keep in any final peace deal.
The Obama administration reportedly has backed away from that understanding -- but, as some observers and unnamed U.S. officials have pointed out, only after Netanyahu refused to echo his predecessors' endorsement of a two-state solution.
"There would usually be a great deal of deference if he did his part," said the Middle East Forum's Steve Rosen, formerly the longtime foreign policy director at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. But without such an affirmation for a two-state solution by Netanyahu, "it weakened his ability to play that card."
Abraham Foxman, the ADL's national director, said the organized Jewish community was still treading cautiously, not wanting to "push any buttons and exacerbate the situation" in order to see what the president says in his speech to the Muslim world this week.
"It's a crisis in formation" -- but not yet a crisis, said Foxman.
"Everybody is holding their breath until after Thursday," he said.
The chairman of the Conference of Presidents, Alan Solow, also said it was "too early to come to any conclusion" on how the settlement discussions will play out.
"I'm watching very carefully to see that the American leadershp and the Israeli leadership have a candid exchange of views," said Solow, an early Obama supporter during the campaign.
While Jewish lawmakers and centrist Jewish organizations have steered clear from directly critcizing the Obama administration, more than 75 percent of the members of the House of Representatives have signed on to an AIPAC-backed letter to the president stating, among other things, that the United States should seek to settle its disputes with Israel in private.
Some Jewish leaders have expressed puzzlement at the administration'
"It's not clear what's to be gained by this public exchange on settlements, especially because there's not much likelihood of a deal at this point" and "a private channel exists," said an official at one Jewish organization who did not want to be identified.
Even Republican Jews, who attacked Obama throughout the presidential campaign for his positions on Israel, have been relatively quiet in recent days.
Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said his organization was waiting until after the Cairo speech to make a formal statement in order to have a "full sense of what's going on," although he said the group was "deeply concerned about the path this administration is taking."
Left-wing pro-Israel groups, which have been encouraging Obama to press for a settlement freeze since his inauguration, were pleased that the White House appears to be sticking to its demands.
Americans for Peace Now spokesman Ori Nir said the shift is "sweeping, if in fact the administration will stand behind its words and enforce these positions."
The Zionist Organization of America criticized the settlement freeze proposal immediately after last month's Obama-Netanyahu meeting, saying "it simply penalizes Jews, because they are Jews, from living in the ancestral heartland of the Jewish people."
Late Tuesday, the Orthodox Union weighed in with a letter to Obama, saying it was "deeply troubled" by his approach to settlements because his typical "nuanced approach" was "glaringly absent."
"To the contrary, this policy has, to date, reflected a blunderbuss, one-size-fits-
According to multiple reports, Netanyahu and his aides were shocked to discover in a meeting last month with Jewish members of Congress the degree to which they sided with Obama. Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) said it was the first time during such a meeting that he recalled an Israeli prime minister being pressed on the settlement issue in his 13 years in the House.
"Those people who have been some of Israel's staunchest and most vocal supporters in the past and would be in the future are advocating this policy and supporting the president because it is a policy in best interests of the United States and Israel," said Wexler, an early supporter and outspoken Jewish surrogate for Obama during the presidential campaign. "I'm convinced Netanyahu feels the same way. He just has to figure out the dynamic that will support it and we have to give him the time and room to do that."
Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) said he still wanted the Obama administration to more clearly define what exactly it meant by "natural growth," but generally backed the idea of stopping settlements.
"We're not talking about dismantling settlements, we're talking about a settlement freeze," said Ackerman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia. "Settlements have proven to be one of the things that have been problematic."
Ackerman said he still wanted to hear specifically whether the administration'
"I don't know how you can tell families they can't have children," he said, but expanding the "footprint" of a settlement through building or other construction was problematic.
"I think there is room for compromise," he said.
Wexler offered his own idea for a compromise, suggesting that the Jewish state offer to freeze all natural growth of settlements on the Palestinian side of the security fence as a "credible first step." He said Israel needed to make some sort of movement on the settlement issue as a way to test whether the Arab world is serious about peace with Israel.
"American Jews or Israel should not be concerned" by the recent tension over settlements, he said.
"All of this is within the context of empowering the president of the United States to extract from the Arab world normalization measures that the Arab world has never contemplated before," Wexler said.
Two of the more hard-line Jewish Democrats in Congress, Reps. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) and Shelly Berkley (D-Nev.), did voice some concerns this week.
"My concern is that we are applying pressure to the wrong party in this dispute," Berkley said in an interview with Politico. "I think it would serve America's interest better if we were pressuring the Iranians to eliminate the potential of a nuclear threat from Iran, and less time pressuring our allies and the only democracy in the Middle East to stop the natural growth of their settlements.
"When Congress gets back into session," she added, "the administration is going to hear from many more members than just me."