Archive for May, 2014

April 02, 2014

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — In a surprise move that could derail U.S. peace efforts, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday resumed a campaign for further international recognition of a state of Palestine, despite a previous promise to suspend such efforts during nine months of negotiations with Israel.

Shortly after Abbas’ announcement, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry canceled plans to return to the Middle East on Wednesday, but also said it’s “completely premature” to write off the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks he restarted in late July.

“We are continuing, even now … to be engaged with both parties,” Kerry told a news conference in Brussels, where he was attending a meeting of NATO foreign ministers. “We urge both sides to show restraint while we work with them.”

There was no immediate Israeli comment. However, Abbas’ decision threw into doubt Israeli claims that a deal was emerging that would have extended Israel-Palestinian talks beyond an April 29 deadline and included the release of Jonathan Pollard, an American convicted of spying on the U.S. for Israel in the 1980s.

It remained unclear whether Abbas’ dramatic announcement was a negotiating tactic or signaled a fundamental shift in strategy. In a hastily convened ceremony televised live from his West Bank headquarters, Abbas signed applications for Palestinians to join to 15 international treaties and conventions.

Abbas said he was compelled to act because Israel had failed to carry out a promised release of Palestinian prisoners by the end of March. At the same time, Abbas said he is not seeking a confrontation with the United States and remains determined to “reach a peaceful solution through negotiations” with Israel. A senior aide, Nabil Abu Rdeneh, later urged the international community to pressure Israel to release the prisoners, indicating that the Palestinians might reverse course if their demand is met.

Still, Abbas’ surprise decision signaled a new crisis in Kerry’s troubled peace efforts. Kerry had nudged Israelis and Palestinians back to the table in July, after a five-year break in negotiations, and got them to commit to nine months of negotiations, until April 29. The target was to reach a framework deal on the terms of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

As part of the resumption of talks, Abbas had promised to suspend efforts to seek further international recognition of a state of Palestine for nine months. A major nod from the U.N. came in November 2012, when the General Assembly voted by an overwhelming majority to accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem — lands Israel occupied in 1967 — as a non-member observer, overriding Israeli and U.S. objections.

Palestinian officials have said that vote paved the way for Palestine to join 63 international institutions, conventions and treaties. A Palestine Liberation Organization statement quoted Abbas as saying Tuesday that the 15 letters he signed were for conventions and treaties that can be joined immediately.

Israel, meanwhile, had pledged last year to release 104 of the longest-held Palestinian prisoners during the course of the negotiations. The Palestinians say the fourth and final group was to have been released by the end of March. Israel argues that the release was contingent on the Palestinians negotiating “in good faith.”

In recent days, Kerry has been trying to negotiate a deal on extending the talks until the end of the year. An Israeli official close to the negotiations said earlier Tuesday that Kerry was pushing a formula that would include Pollard’s release.

In exchange for Pollard, Israel would free the last group of 26 veteran Palestinian prisoners, show “restraint” in settlement building and release about 400 additional Palestinian prisoners it would select, the official said.

The Israeli offer received a cool reception in Ramallah, according to Palestinian officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue with reporters. The officials said the release of the long-held prisoners was not up for new negotiations, and that any discussions about extending negotiations can only begin once those prisoners are freed.

The Palestinians demanded a full settlement freeze and the release of 1,000 additional prisoners, including political leaders, as a condition for extending negotiations. The officials said Israel’s offer to show “restraint” in settlement expansion on occupied lands was largely meaningless since it would halt only the issuing of tenders for new construction.

The Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now said Tuesday that promise would not affect construction of thousands of settlement apartments that have already been approved. The inclusion of Pollard, a former U.S. naval intelligence analyst convicted of spying for Israel nearly three decades ago, had been the most surprising element of recent efforts to rescue the faltering peace talks. It reflected the importance Kerry put on continuing the talks.

Earlier Tuesday, an Israeli government official said that as part of that deal, Pollard was to be released before the Passover holiday, which begins April 14. For years, U.S. officials have vehemently opposed any talk of releasing Pollard early.

He is serving a life sentence at a federal prison in North Carolina but eligible for parole in November 2015. He was arrested in 1985 and convicted of espionage for giving reams of classified documents to his Israeli handlers.

Pollard’s case has become a rallying cry in Israel, where leaders say his lengthy sentence amounts to excessive punishment when compared with other U.S. espionage cases. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who once visited Pollard in prison when he was out of politics, and other Israeli leaders have routinely pressed President Barack Obama and other U.S. presidents for his pardon or release.

Securing Pollard’s release would help Netanyahu sell a package that would include more releases of Palestinian prisoners — something that would otherwise be unpopular with his hard-line Cabinet. A number of senior officials have already come out against further releases, and Netanyahu’s coalition is dominated by lawmakers sympathetic to the West Bank settler movement.

Pollard’s ex-wife, Anne, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that she still hopes for her husband’s release and fears for his health. “I really, truly have no idea how he has lasted this long,” she said. “And I have no idea how much longer he could last.”

Associated Press writers Josef Federman in Jerusalem and Matthew Lee in Brussels contributed to this report.

March 31, 2014

The March 10 killing of Jordanian judge Raed Zuaiter by an Israeli soldier at a West Bank border crossing strained Israeli-Jordanian relations, and now a third party has entered into the crisis between Amman and Tel Aviv: Hamas. Osama Hamdan, Hamas’ head of international relations, condemned the killing and expressed his “deep appreciation for the popular movement in Jordan that is raising the issue of reopening Hamas offices in Amman in response to the incident.”

The reconciliation file

Ahmed Youssef, the former political adviser to Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, announced that the movement “is looking to transfer its political bureau to Jordan, as it is keen to have a presence in the country. Jordan is the best location for [this office], considering it is an open arena and close to Palestine. Given the special and reliable relations that link the Palestinian and Jordanian peoples, it is an option the movement is inclined to choose.”

This statement came in response to a March 12 request by Jordanian parliament member Musa Abu Sweilem, who called on the government to reopen Hamas offices in Amman. Sweilem also expressed his readiness to mediate a reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas.

A rapprochement between the Hamas and Jordan was further encouraged by Hamas spokesman Hossam Badran, who currently resides in Qatar. Badran told Al-Monitor that he doesn’t “mind Jordan taking on the role of mediator for a reconciliation in principle.” At the same time, however, he said that “Hamas has [not] received an official invitation regarding this topic.” He further noted, “Withdrawing this file from Egypt to Jordan requires a decision from Fatah and Hamas.”

Meanwhile, a Jordanian official who previously worked on the mediation file between Amman and Hamas told Al-Monitor in a phone conversation, “The relations between [Amman and Hamas], in terms of the role and mutual needs, are not new, in light of political, geographic and demographic reasons. Jordan is concerned with the rights of the Palestinian people — first and foremost, the right of return. It is also interested in internal Palestinian stability in order to prevent a collapse of the situation, and the resulting spillover, and dissociating itself from the internal Palestinian conflict.”

The official added that on the other hand, Hamas “is interested in the Arab and Islamic dimension, beginning with neighboring states, first and foremost Jordan. This is because the two sides have many common interests relating to security, stability and demographics, and to face the repercussions of Israel’s recent demands aimed at making Jordan an alternative homeland for the Palestinians.”

Jordanian chill in relations with Abbas

Talk of a rapprochement between Hamas and Jordan coincided with a chill in relations between the latter and the Palestinian Authority (PA). Jordanian Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour has expressed his concern about the “presence of secret negotiating channels, of which Amman is not aware, between Tel Aviv and Ramallah. This is in agreement with [statements made by] former Jordanian Prime Minister Marouf Bakhit, who said that he feared the existence of secret arrangements for an ‘Oslo II’ between the PA and Israel that would come at the expense of Jordan.”

The same Jordanian official, who preferred to remain anonymous, commented on this to Al-Monitor. He said, “Increasing talk about Amman’s fears regarding the PA could open the door for a rapprochement in relations with Hamas. The ‘alternate homeland’ option proposed by Israel in order to get out of the bottleneck in negotiations with the Palestinians is rejected by Hamas and Jordan more than by the PA. This means an increasing intersection of interests between the two, and is pushing toward the establishment of a strategic relationship.”

Thus, political circles in Amman heard private objections from the PA about a possible rapprochement with Hamas in the near future, despite assurances from the royal palace. The latter said that Jordan has no intention of making any substitutions in its map of allies and that the issue does not go beyond responding to the developments of the current stage and for purely tactical purposes.

Of interest, talk about Hamas’ possible return to Jordan coincided with the almost complete break in the movement’s relations with Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan condemned Egypt’s decision to ban Hamas, calling it a “serious turnaround in Egypt’s role in supporting the Palestinian cause and a frank expression of [Cairo’s] alliance and identification with Israel. This was done to alleviate the predicament of the coup and internal problems and to work to appease [Israel] in order to gain more international support.”

It would appear that relations between Hamas and Jordan are strengthened by Amman not banning the Brotherhood like Saudi Arabia and Egypt have done. Jordan’s internal equation does not allow for this dangerous scenario, which would harm its position with the Brotherhood and make this sensitive stage even more difficult.

Meshaal’s visit

Hamas is well aware that Jordan’s goal in improving relations with the movement isn’t necessarily to provide Amman new horizons in the region. Rather, the goal is more internal, aimed at helping to absorb the Muslim Brotherhood, which is influential and seeks real reform and the trial of figures involved in corruption in the Hashemite kingdom. Coming to an understanding with Hamas is considered a gesture of good faith toward the Brotherhood, whose influence in the street is a source of concern among decision-making circles.

A senior official in Hamas residing outside Palestine and speaking on condition of anonymity told Al-Monitor that the movement informed Jordan that it does not intend to use the kingdom as its primary arena for organizational work and came to an understanding regarding the limits on its relationship with the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood. The movement is aware that any new relationship with Jordan will be restricted to a minimum and will depend on its relations with the PA. Moreover, these ties would not affect Jordan’s commitment to its peace treaty with Israel nor its excellent ties with the United States, according to the official.

Despite the above steps and declarations, Al-Monitor has learned in a phone interview with a senior leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan that Amman has yet to approve a visit to the kingdom by Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal. His trip has been postponed several times in recent months for various reasons amid silence on both sides.

Source: al-Monitor.