x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Reported US offer to Israel will fuel doubts

Obama¿s administration may deny existence of letter sent to Netanyahu but its supposed contents will give Abbas little comfort.

NAZARETH, ISRAEL // The disclosure of a letter last week outlining supposed US concessions to Israel will cause Palestinians to be even more sceptical about US and Israeli roles in the peace talks. David Makovsky, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, disclosed last week that the concessions were in a letter from Barack Obama, the US president, to Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister.

Mr Obama's administration flatly denied such a letter was sent. "No letter was sent to Prime Minister Netanyahu. We're not going to comment on sensitive diplomatic matters," Tommy Vietor, a White House spokesman, said last week. Nonetheless, Mr Makovsky said Mr Obama made a series of generous offers to Israel in the letter. The offer supposedly seeks a single concession from Mr Netanyahu: a two-month extension of the partial freeze on settlement growth.

Mr Netanyahu has not extended a previous 10-month freeze, which ended a week ago. That threatens to bring the negotiations to a halt. The Palestinians are expected to decide whether to quit the talks over the coming days. Mr Netanyahu is reported to have declined the reported US offer. And according to the Israeli media, officials in Washington are privately incensed by Mr Netanyahu's rejection.

Mr Makovsky is a close associate of Dennis Ross, Mr Obama's chief adviser on the Middle East, who is said to have initiated the offer. The letter's contents have been partly confirmed by Jewish US senators who attended a briefing last week by Mr Ross. In return for the 60-day settlement moratorium, the United States promised to veto any UN Security Council proposal on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the next year, according to Mr Makovsky. Washington also committed not to seek any further extensions of the freeze. The future of the settlements would be addressed only in a final agreement.

The White House would also allow Israel to keep a military presence in the West Bank's Jordan Valley, even after the creation of a Palestinian state; continue controlling the borders of the Palestinian territories to prevent smuggling; provide Israel with enhanced weapons systems, security guarantees and increase its annual aid, and create a regional security pact against Iran. There are several conclusions the Palestinian leadership is certain to draw from this attempt at deal-making over their heads.

The first is that the US president, much like his predecessors, is in no position to act as an honest broker. His interests in the negotiations largely coincide with Israel's. Mr Obama needs a short renewal of the freeze, and the semblance of continuing Israeli and Palestinian participation in the "peace process", until the US congressional elections in November. Criticism by the powerful pro-Israel lobby in Washington may damage Mr Obama's Democratic Party unless he treads a very thin line. He needs to create the impression of progress in the Middle East talks but not upset Israel's supporters by making too many demands of Mr Netanyahu.

The second conclusion - already strongly suspected by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, and his advisers - is that Mr Netanyahu, despite his professed desire to establish a Palestinian state, is being insincere. The supposed White House offer meets most of Mr Netanyahu's demands for US security and diplomatic assistance even before the negotiations have produced tangible results. For Mr Netanyahu to reject the offer so lightly, even though the United States was expecting relatively little in return, suggests he is either in no mood or in no position to make real concessions to the Palestinians on statehood.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz on Friday reported senior White House officials as saying that they were no longer "buying the excuse of political difficulties" for Mr Netanyahu in holding his right-wing governing coalition together. If he cannot keep his partners on board over a short freeze on illegal settlement building, what meaningful permanent concessions can he make in the talks? The third conclusion for the Palestinians is that no possible combination of governing parties in Israel is capable of signing an agreement with Mr Abbas that will not entail significant compromises on the territorial integrity of a Palestinian state.

One US concession - allowing Israel to maintain its hold on the Jordan Valley, nearly one fifth of the West Bank, for the foreseeable future - reflects a demand common to all Israeli politicians, not just Mr Netanyahu. In fact, the terms of the letter were drafted in cooperation with Ehud Barak, Israel's defence minister and leader of the Labor Party. When he was prime minister a decade ago, he insisted on a similar military presence in the Valley during the failed Camp David talks.

Ariel Sharon, his successor and founder of the centrist Kadima Party, planned a new section of the separation wall to divide the Jordan Valley from the rest of the West Bank, though the scheme was put on hold after US objections. Today, most Palestinians cannot enter the Jordan Valley without a special permit that is rarely issued, and the area's tens of thousands of Palestinian inhabitants are subjected to constant military scrutiny. B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, has accused Israel of a "de facto annexation" of the area.

But without the Jordan Valley, the creation of a viable Palestinian state - even one limited to the West Bank, without Gaza - would be inconceivable. Statehood would instead resemble the Swiss-cheese model the Palestinians have long feared is all Israel is proposing.