A forced breakthrough in the Middle East

If Obama can get Israel to agree to stop building new settlements, there may be a new opportunity for peace

Published August 31, 2009 5:32PM (EDT)

Battling against the occupier: Young Palestinian protesters hurl stones towards Israeli soldiers during a protest against Israel's controversial separation barrier in the West Bank village of Bilin near Ramallah.
Battling against the occupier: Young Palestinian protesters hurl stones towards Israeli soldiers during a protest against Israel's controversial separation barrier in the West Bank village of Bilin near Ramallah.

Cell 28, block 3, Hadarim Prison, 30 kilometers (19 miles) northeast of Tel Aviv: This is where one of the two men who could play an important role in the Middle East in the coming months is currently incarcerated. The other man sits in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington.

In 2004, an Israeli court sentenced Marwan Barghouti, 50, to life in prison for his role in the planning of several murders. At the time, Barghouti called it a "show trial" and insisted that it would not deter him from sticking to his position. Even behind bars, the charismatic Palestinian leader stressed the need to "fight the occupying power." At the same time, however, he argued the case for peaceful coexistence with the Israelis and advocated a two-state solution. Three weeks ago, at the convention in Bethlehem of Fatah, which governs the West Bank, the prisoner received the third-largest number of votes for a spot on the group's central committee.

There had been persistent rumors that the Israelis wanted to release Barghouti from prison, hoping to pave the way for him to become a potential "Palestinian Nelson Mandela." But when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's nationalist right-wing government came into power five months ago, the chances of that experiment coming to fruition seemed reduced to almost nothing. But now Israel's hawkish premier has the opportunity to release the man from cell 28 without losing face among his supporters. In exchange for turning over Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier abducted three years ago, radical Islamist Hamas is demanding the release of 450 Palestinians it has listed by name.

Somewhat surprisingly, Barghouti is on the list. The Fatah leader has been a vocal critic of what he calls Hamas radicals' "coup" in the Gaza Strip, and he has also called for reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, which have clashed violently in the past. If Palestinian unification is even conceivable, it will require Barghouti's participation. With German mediation, the Shalit deal, long in the making and hampered several times by various details, could be completed successfully in the coming weeks.

Watching from Washington

Officials in Washington are also keeping a close eye on -- and apparently taking a favorable view of -- the potential prisoner exchange deal and the prospect of changing the face of the Middle East. U.S. President Barack Obama is pursuing ambitious goals in the Middle East, and the comprehensive peace plan he has been developing is now taking shape. Obama is tying together the region's two main problems, which are widely viewed as intractable: the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians and the threat of Iran becoming a nuclear power. At the same time, he is applying tremendous pressure to all sides to achieve simultaneous progress on both fronts, progress that could lead to an overall solution.

But isn't it naïve for the U.S. president to hold out the prospect of a peace treaty in two years, in a region where radical Islamists remain determined to destroy Israel and radical Zionists create new provocations every day by expanding the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories? Can the Iranian leadership still be dissuaded from pursuing its nuclear ambitions? "The explicit linkage is, in any case, a dangerous gambit," concludes the British daily the Guardian.

The way Obama's new approach works was in evidence during the Israeli premier's trip to Europe last week. Although Obama was not physically present, his presence was nonetheless felt, as were his demands. On the one hand, he wants the Israelis to halt settlement construction in the occupied territories and negotiate with the Fatah leadership. On the other hand, Obama's plans call for tougher sanctions on the Iranians, beginning this autumn, if they do not accept Washington's offer of comprehensive nuclear talks by the end of September. Netanyahu was intent on preventing the parallel treatment of these two sets of demands -- and, above all, the establishment of a link between the two subjects -- but failed to do so during his European trip.

When the Israeli prime minister stood next to his British counterpart, Gordon Brown, at No. 10 Downing Street on Tuesday, there was a palpable distance between the two men. The construction of Jewish settlements, Brown said, is an " obstacle" and must be stopped. At the same time, Brown threatened Tehran with tougher sanctions. In Paris, French President Nicolas Sarkozy seconded Brown's demands and, in addition to agreeing with his call for a tougher approach, fundamentally questioned Tehran's reliability and willingness to compromise. "These are the same leaders, in Iran, who tell us that the nuclear program is peaceful and that the elections were honest. Frankly, who believes them?"

On Wednesday, also in London, Netanyahu met with Obama's special envoy to the Middle East. For weeks, George Mitchell has been repeating Washington's call for a "complete halt to settlements" like a mantra. Behind the scenes, there was apparently even talk of Washington suspending its deliveries of military equipment and its billions in aid if Israel refused to cooperate.

Western action bears fruit

Probably the biggest disappointment for Netanyahu came on Wednesday. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom Netanyahu's predecessor Ehud Olmert had called Israel's "best friend in Europe," and who has taken an extremely mild stance toward Israel's occupation policy in the past, joined the chorus of critics when she said unambiguously that a halt to settlement construction was a "key condition" of comprehensive peace, and that "substantial changes" on the part of the Israelis were needed on this issue. "Time is the essence," the chancellor cautioned her guest, while at the same time stressing the need to increase pressure on Tehran. But Netanyahu did not address Merkel's demands in Berlin, and instead limited himself to emphasizing Israel's good relations with Germany.

The West's concerted action seems to be bearing fruit. The stalemate, which is the status quo in the Middle East, is beginning to change. Apparently all it takes is a lot of pressure for politicians on all sides to react.

In May Khaled Mashaal, Hamas' Damascus-based political leader who is known for his uncompromising demands, surprisingly declared that his "goal" was the establishment of a Palestinian nation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This cautious overture is unlikely to be enough to convince the West to enter into talks with Hamas. However, if Mashaal meant what he said, it would amount to a de facto recognition of the existence of Israel. Even Fatah, with which both the West and Israel are negotiating, has not gone much further.

Could ultra-conservatives derail the peace talk plan?

There are signals coming from Iran that at least nourish vague hope that even the Iranians have grasped the signs of the times. According to information from diplomatic circles, a group of Iranian politicians in the "pragmatists' camp" has proposed a "limited suspension of uranium enrichment" that would approximate United Nations demands. The government has rejected such proposals, but because it was previously assumed that Iranians are united on the nuclear issue, Western observers believe that the episode is at least noteworthy.

Besides, Iran has just told the weapons inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it is willing to allow more thorough inspections of a few particularly "suspicious" nuclear facilities, such as the plant in Natanz, which is being used to make fuel, and the heavy-water reactor in Arak, which is capable of producing plutonium. In its latest, not-yet-published report, the IAEA notes that Iran hasn't increased the number of centrifuges used to enrich uranium since May. Of course, experts believe that an Iranian change of heart is highly unlikely. Tehran has reduced its pace of development several times in the past and made concessions to the UN inspectors when it seemed tactically opportune. To date, Iran has weathered three rounds of UN sanctions relatively unscathed. However, a possible fourth round of sanctions in October that would entail a ban on fuel imports would deal a heavy blow to the economy.

A new round of peace negotiations

Netanyahu is already believed to have quietly agreed to some of Obama's demands, albeit with great reluctance. He now plans to impose a nine-month moratorium on new construction in the settlements, with the exception of East Jerusalem. Although this falls short of Obama's expectations, it is probably sufficient as the basis for a new round of Mideast peace negotiations the U.S. president plans to launch, and attend, in the fall -- especially since Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas, responding to pressure from Washington, is believed to be willing to meet with Netanyahu. Obama plans to explain details of the revival of the peace process to leaders of other major nations and as many representatives of the Arab world as possible on the sidelines of the next session of the United Nations General Assembly.

Netanyahu's cabinet of unpredictable ultra-conservatives could thwart these efforts to achieve rapprochement. One of those conservatives is Minister of Science and Technology Daniel Hershkowitz, who has described Obama's positions as "borderline anti-Semitic." The national security advisor, known for his irascibility and his peculiar understanding of democracy, has also triggered alarm. Before Netanyahu's European visit, Uzi Arad called upon Merkel not to openly discuss the issue of settlement construction. He also insisted that steps should be taken to prevent journalists from asking related questions.

Sadly, another politician can be counted on to stir the pot in times of crumbling convictions or at least shifting political positions: Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. The agitator, who repeatedly draws attention to himself with his racist comments, said early last week that he did not believe in peace with the Palestinians, and that Obama's ideas were "unrealistic." Referring to the Oslo Accords, he said: "Sixteen years have passed since then. Even in another 16 years, we won't have an agreement."

The Lieberman problem could very well resolve itself soon. The Israeli judiciary is investigating the foreign minister for money laundering, embezzlement and corruption, charges he denies. Nevertheless, Lieberman has promised that, if indicted, he will resign.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.

This article has been provided by Der Spiegel through a special arrangement with Salon. For more from Europe's most-read newsmagazine, visit Spiegel Online or subscribe to the daily newsletter.

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