The Cable

Senators to Obama: Don't let Abbas slink away from peace talks

A bipartisan group of senators are circulating a new letter urging President Obama to speak out publicly to pressure the Palestinian leadership not to abandon the Middle East peace talks.

The new initiative comes ahead of the Sept. 26 deadline expiration of Israel's 10-month settlement construction moratorium, which presents the first obstacle to the direct peace talks being spearheaded by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has repeatedly stated that he will withdraw from the negotiations if settlement construction resumes, but Israeli leaders have been equally adamant that they will not extend the moratorium.

President Obama has told Jewish leaders to ignore negative public statements by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abbas, calling it all part of the diplomatic game. But the administration has publicly called on Israel to extend the freeze, at least in part.

Lawmakers, who have also bristled at the administration's public pressure on Netanyahu, are now calling on Obama to make it clear to Abbas that even if the freeze isn't extended, he should stay at the table.

"Neither side should make threats to leave just as the talks are getting started," the group of senators wrote in the letter (PDF) dated for release Sept. 24, obtained by The Cable.

The initial draft is signed by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Bob Casey (D-PA), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), and Richard Burr (R-NC), but they circulated a "dear colleague" letter (PDF) Monday calling on more lawmakers to join.

The senators praised Netanyahu for staying at the table even though the beginning of the process was marred by violence.

"Following the brutal murder of four innocent Israeli civilians by Hamas militants at the start of the negotiations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not abandon the talks," the senators wrote. "We also agree with you that it is critical that all sides stay at the table."

Administration officials have indicated that a compromise may be in the works. Former President Bill Clinton said Monday, "I believe there is a fix they can both live with."

Experts said the letter was a gentle push for the Obama administration to sharpen his stance toward Abbas as the end of the freeze rapidly approaches.

"Obviously this is a direct message to President Abbas, and President Obama, that many in Congress...want the Palestinian leadership to stop making what they see as threats and to put public pressure on the Palestinian Authority to move their position," said one Capitol Hill insider who had seen the letter. 

"Many Capitol Hill office see Abbas quitting the talks over the settlements as him using the same issue he was clinging to when trying to set preconditions for the talks in the first place."

(Correction: Netanyahu's title corrected to "prime minister.")

The Cable

Bill Clinton: Russian immigrants and settlers obstacles to Mideast peace

Russian immigrants to Israel have emerged as a central obstacle to achieving a Middle East peace deal, according to former President Bill Clinton. He voiced fears that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), which increasingly consists of soldiers hailing from this community, might not be fully willing to oppose Israeli settlers as a result.

In a roundtable with reporters during his Clinton Global Initiative conference in New York, Clinton made his most extensive remarks on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process that his wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is spearheading.

"An increasing number of the young people in the IDF are the children of Russians and settlers, the hardest-core people against a division of the land. This presents a staggering problem," Clinton said. "It's a different Israel. 16 percent of Israelis speak Russian."

According to Clinton, the Russian immigrant population in Israel is the group least interested in striking a peace deal with the Palestinians.  "They've just got there, it's their country, they've made a commitment to the future there," Clinton said. "They can't imagine any historical or other claims that would justify dividing it."

To illustrate his view on the Russian immigrant community, Clinton related a conversation he had with Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident turned Israeli parliamentarian, who he said was the only Israeli minister to reject the comprehensive peace agreement Clinton proposed at the Camp David Summit in 2000. The proposal was eventually rejected by Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.

"I said, ‘Natan, what is the deal [about not supporting the peace deal],'" Clinton recalled. "He said, ‘I can't vote for this, I'm Russian... I come from one of the biggest countries in the world to one of the smallest. You want me to cut it in half. No, thank you.'"

Clinton responded, "Don't give me this, you came here from a jail cell. It's a lot bigger than your jail cell."

Clinton used the anecdote to explain the Russian immigrant population's attitude toward a land-for- peace deal with the Palestinians. "[Sharansky] was nice about it, a lot of them aren't," Clinton said.

Clinton then ranked the Israeli sub-national groups in order of his perception of their willingness to accept a peace deal.  The "most pro-peace Jewish Israelis" are the Sabras, who he described as native-born Israelis whose roots there date back millennia, because they have the benefit of historical context. "They can imagine sharing a future."

Ashkenazi Jews who emigrated from Europe and have been in Israel for one or more generations are the next most supportive of a peace deal, Clinton said.

The "swing voters" are what Clinton called the "Moroccans": North African Jews who immigrated to Israel in the 1970s. He described them as right-of-center citizens who nevertheless want normal, stable lives.

"When they think peace is possible, they vote peace. When they think it's not, they vote for the toughest guys on the block," Clinton said.

Regarding the settlers, Clinton said that their numbers had grown so much since 2000 that their longstanding opposition to giving up their homes in exchange for peace might be more entrenched and therefore a bigger challenge than before.

"In 2000, you could get 97 percent of the settlers on 3 percent of the land. Today, you have to give almost 6 percent of the land to get 80 percent of the settlers," said Clinton. "There were 7,000 settlers in Gaza and it took 55,000 Israeli forces people to move. Somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000 settlers will have to be moved out of the West Bank."

Clinton spoke extensively about the positives and negatives he sees in the ongoing direct peace talks launched by the Obama administration.

"I'd say their chances are at least 50-50," Clinton said optimistically.

The Palestinians' internal divisions, specifically the lack of Palestinian control over the Gaza Strip, present another problem, but one that a peace deal could help solve, he suggested.

"That makes it more difficult for Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu to make a deal and to wonder what a deal means," he said. But if there's a deal on the table, that would create enough pressure for an election in Gaza that President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party would win, Clinton argued.

"I believe if there were an election in Gaza today, Fatah would win because of the greater prosperity and the greater security produced under Abbas and Fayyad," Clinton said, adding that Fatah only lost in Gaza elections because of intra-party faction fighting that saw many candidates run against others in their own party.

There are some factors that point to improved conditions for making a peace deal as compared to 2000, said Clinton. He pointed to the fact that two-thirds of Israelis trust Netanyahu to make a peace deal, more than when Ehud Barak was negotiating, according to Clinton. Also, he said that he has faith that the current Palestinian Authority leadership is serious about reaching a settlement.

"They won't do what Arafat did, they won't get up to the deal and lose their nerve. They know what the future looks like."

In the long term, Israelis will face increased pressures, Clinton said. Because of the high Palestinian birth rate, Israel will become a Palestinian-majority state sometime in the next 30 years, if it does not give up the West Bank.

"Then they will have to decide either to be a Jewish state or a democracy, but they cannot be both. They don't want to face that. They don't want to face not only the international legitimacy question but also the internal identity crisis."

Moreover, Clinton said, Hamas militants will soon have military technology that will allow their relatively low-damage attacks on Israeli population centers to have greater accuracy and lethality.

"It's just a matter of time before the rockets have a GPS system on ‘em and a few rockets will kill a whole lot of people. Netanyahu understands that," said Clinton.

He also said that Arab leaders were on board with Middle East peace now more than ever, partly because they now have Iran as a boogeyman to deflect attention from their unpopular policies.

"They think they've got a real enemy in Iran now, so they don't need a faux enemy in Israel to keep people in the street directed at somebody besides them."

Before pontificating on the peace process, Clinton seemed to realize he was stepping into some sensitive territory, but decided to proceed nonetheless.

"I wouldn't say too much about this if Hillary weren't Secretary of State and in charge of these negotiations, so I'm darned sure not going to say too much now," he said, before going in depth on the issue for over 10 minutes.

Josh Rogin / Foreign Policy