Obama Tells Abbas Solution is Two States [May 24 – May 30]
May 30, 2009

The meeting between US President Barack Obama and President Mahmoud Abbas has been the highlight of the week, especially after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left Washington 10 days earlier at odds with Obama, at least on one subject.

During the Netanyahu-Obama meeting on May 18, the US President made it clear its administration wanted a complete halt to settlement activities in the West Bank and Jerusalem, a condition Netanyahu rejected, even as he shook hands with Obama.

This gave an extra push to Palestinians during their meeting with Obama on May 28. President Abbas, along with Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, met at the White House with the US leader, who told them he strongly believed in the two state solution. While Obama reiterated his stance on Israeli settlements and Israel's commitment to past agreements, he also pushed the Palestinians to do their part. He said they must improve their security and "halt the incitement of anti-Israeli sentiments" in schools, mosques and public arenas. "All those things are impediments to peace," he said.

In general, Obama, who is to deliver a speech on June 4 in Cairo addressed to the Muslim world, is going full steam ahead with his peace efforts – a radical change from his predecessor, George W. Bush.

"We can't continue with the drift, with the increased fear and resentment on both sides, the sense of hopelessness around the situation that we've seen for many years now," the President said. "We need to get this thing back on track."

Israel, however, was not as keen to make any changes. On the day of the Obama-Abbas meeting, Israeli spokesperson Mark Regev responded to the issue of settlement construction by saying that some construction would go on.

"Normal life in those communities must be allowed to continue," he said, adding that the fate of the settlements would be determined in future negotiations.

Apparently taking their cue from the US President, other world leaders have followed in the same footsteps. On May 29, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier demanded that Israel put an end to all settlement building in the Palestinian territories as well.

It is "not acceptable" to found new settlements or expand existing ones in east Jerusalem or the West Bank," Steinmeier said in a joint interview with the German Press Agency DPA and German daily Sueddeutsche.

On May 27, in a meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu Gheith, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated her administration's stance, saying the president "wants total freeze on settlements, including natural growth. He wants to see a stop to settlements - not some settlements, not outposts, not 'natural growth' exceptions," in unusually strong terms.

Even some Palestinians had a surprisingly simple solution to the settler issue. On May 26, head negotiator and former premier, Ahmad Qurei' said in an interview with Haaretz that the Palestinians would not accept the annexation of major settlement blocs to Israel in a final settlement. However, if they wish, he continued, settlers living in these settlements would not have to leave. They could remain in their homes, but would have to live under Palestinian law and rule.

This will probably not sit well with Israelis. Neither does it sit well with Hamas, who said Qurei's statements were merely a consolidation of Israel's hold on Palestinian land. As for Netanyahu, he is adamant that settlements remain where they are and that the only move he is willing to make towards the Palestinians is economic-based. On May 28, the Israeli premier said he plans to facilitate the establishment of 100 economic projects for Palestinians in the West Bank including a major industrial zone. This falls within his strategy of offering economic enticements as opposed to political solutions to the conflict.

At the political level, Israeli lawmakers are moving quickly to consolidate anti-Palestinian laws within Israel's legal system. On May 29, a group of Jordanian lawmakers urged their government to sever diplomatic ties with Israel in protest against a debate in the Israeli parliament over considering Jordan an "alternative homeland" for the Palestinians. The "two states for two peoples on the two banks of the River Jordan" proposal was introduced by MK Aryeh Eldad from the far-right National Union-National Religious Party.

“The voting on the proposal proves that ruling politicians in Israel do not believe in peace and have no respect for peace treaties and UN resolutions,” one Jordanian parliamentarian said.

Furthermore, on May 27, the preliminary reading of a draft bill was passed in Israel's parliament with 47 MKs voting in favor and 34 against. The bill, entitled the Loyalty Law, is of two parts. The first calls for imprisoning anyone who calls for the end of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. The second part seeks to criminalize any commemoration of Al Nakba, punishable with a jail sentence of up to three years. The rationale is that mourning the independence of Israel is tantamount to incitement against the state.

In other news, a UN team of independent experts mandated to probe alleged war crimes in Gaza will arrive this week to begin their investigation.

Heading the delegation is prosecutor Richard Goldstone, who has been met with much resistance so far from Israel over the investigation. Israel said on May 29 that it would not cooperate with the investigation team, calling its mandate "intrinsically flawed and defective."

Meanwhile, the rift between Hamas and Fateh continues, with more ramifications becoming apparent on the ground. On May 24, a Hamas court sentenced three Fateh members to death in a Gaza court on charges of involvement in the abduction and murder of a Hamas-affiliated journalist in 2007. Fateh warned the Hamas de facto authority in Gaza that any such move would only further deepen the split between the two rival factions and push them farther way from their goal of national conciliation.

On May 28 Israeli forces entered the Hebron-area village of Dura and killed Izzedin Qassam Brigades commander Majed Dudeen, 45. Dudeen has been long wanted by Israeli authorities for his alleged involvement in several bombings and Israeli deaths.

Finally, Israel further tightened its grip on Jerusalem, closing down the Palestinian Festival of Literature on May 23 and again on May 28, both initially held in the Hakawati Theater in east Jerusalem. The first time the participants were forced to move to the French Cultural Center to continue the events while the second time Israeli police closed down the theater, participants moved to the British Consulate close by. Israel, which claims Jerusalem as its unified capital, deems any activity remotely pro-Palestinian as the PA's attempt to impose its authority over the city.

"All cultural events which take place in areas of contention have political undertones," British writer Jeremy Harding said after police blasted the theater on May 28. "Talking about what literature is and what it means in a fraught political situation is the most honest thing we can do. They didn't like that."