Sunday, January 23, 2011

A provisional Palestinian state is Netanyahu's best bet

Now that his coalition is restabilized, Netanyahu must address external threats, starting with growing international pressure on Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to surprise us, and presumably not only by bringing about a split in the Labor Knesset faction, which lifted the political threat that had been hanging over his government. Now, his coalition restabilized, Netanyahu must address external threats, starting with growing international pressure on Israel.

Since he rejected President Barack Obama's proposal to suspend settlement construction for 90 days of intensive negotiations over the future border between Israel and Palestine, Netanyahu has been depicted internationally as an opponent of peace.

His rival, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, meanwhile, has been collecting nations that recognize Palestinian independence, claiming that only Israel is preventing its realization. This weekend, Abbas ruled out the possibility of a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state, without Israeli agreement, but also warned of a new intifada in September in the absence of such agreement.

Netanyahu needs a countermeasure that will get Abbas off his back, depict Israel as an avid supporter of peace and, if possible, also paint the Palestinians as having yet again missed an opportunity to reach an agreement.

But Netanyahu's ability to offer compromises and territorial withdrawals in the West Bank are limited. Any territorial concession, even a theoretical offer of concession, could cost him the coalition he just shored up. What's a prime minister to do?

One option is to adopt the concept advanced by the Reut Institute, under which Israel would upgrade the PA's political status and recognize it as an independent state within its existing borders. The state that would be established in the Palestinian urban enclaves would negotiate with Israel over the remaining West Bank territories and all the other issues of the final-status agreement. This concept is built into the second phase of the so-called "Road Map," which called for the creation of a Palestinian state within provisional borders.

Among those who favor this idea are Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Vice Prime Minister and Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon. By announcing his support in principle for the establishment of a Palestinian state, Netanyahu also implied that he supports this idea. Those behind it argue that it would eliminate all of the threats and dangers that the Palestinians pose for Israel: the demographic danger, the danger of the PA's collapse and concomitant reimposition on Israel of the burden of the occupation and the threat of a binational state (the one-state solution). The Palestinians would have a state, whose citizens would have the right to vote in its elections. The demographic threat would then be over. And the greater the number of nations recognizing the Palestinian state, the smaller the danger of the PA's collapse and merger with Israel. Perhaps that explains why Israel has responded to the wave of international announcements of recognition of the Palestinian state with limp protests.

Right-wing figures, with Netanyahu leading the pack, are against even the tiniest territorial concession or withdrawal before the Palestinians recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people and declare an end to the conflict and to their claims. Lieberman's proposal for an interim arrangement is an attempt to pour content into the form of this idea.

Abbas has opposed a state with provisional borders in the past and can be expected to do so again, even if the offer comes from Netanyahu. If he changes his mind and says yes, Israel will come out looking good. If he refuses, Israeli public relations will have a field day: We offered them a state again, and they didn't want it.

That's the best place for Netanyahu to be, with the Palestinians once more in the role of the nay-sayers and Israel not having to make payments in the form of territory or dismantling settlements. Until either the next counterpropaganda measure from Abbas, or the outbreak of a new intifada next fall, when hopes for a final agreement and Palestinian independence are ultimately dashed.

Iran urged to give up most enriched uranium

World powers called on Iran on Saturday to agree to part with most of its stockpile of enriched uranium under a revised proposal for a nuclear fuel swap, seen by the West as a possible confidence-building measure.

During talks in Istanbul on Saturday, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton proposed to the Iranian side that Tehran send abroad 2,800 kg of low-enriched uranium (LEU) and 40 kg of higher-grade material, according to one Western diplomat.

The meeting ended without any concrete progress on this or other ideas aimed at helping to resolve the long-running dispute over Iran's nuclear program.

Ashton's proposal for a fuel swap would represent most of Iran's stockpile of enriched uranium, which the West fears is potential atom bomb material but which Tehran says is intended as fuel for a planned network of nuclear power stations.

Iran, which denies it is seeking nuclear weapons, has in the past rejected any toughening of conditions for an exchange first proposed in late 2009, under which it would receive fuel for a medical research reactor in return.

Ashton said after the meeting she had hoped for a detailed and constructive discussion on the fuel swap and other ideas.

"But it become clear that the Iranian side was not ready for this, unless we agreed to preconditions relating to enrichment and sanctions," she said.

In the run-up to the talks in Istanbul, both sides had signaled willingness to resume talks on the fuel swap plan, which was brokered by the U.N. nuclear watchdog in late 2009 but later fell apart after Iran backed away from its terms.

Western diplomats suggested the idea could be revived if Iran also accepts wider discussions they hope will lead to it agreeing to curb nuclear work which they fear has military aims.

Under the original proposal Iran was designed to send out 1,200 kg of LEU and receive higher-enriched fuel in return for the Tehran research reactor. That amount is roughly equivalent to what is needed for a bomb, if refined much further.

Western officials have said the plan must be updated to take into account Iran's enrichment work over the last year -- it now has a stockpile of more than 3,000 kg -- and address Tehran's decision last year to start enriching to a level of 20 percent.

"What we wanted to do was to leave behind in Iran roughly what had been left behind when we made the original proposal -- that is to say a level someway short of what you need to make a weapon," a senior EU official said.

"The proposal also needed to take into account the fact that the Iranians now do enrichment to 19.75 percent ... and any deal will have to involve agreement by Iran that they would cease enriching to that level," he added.

Western diplomats have suggested the idea could be revived if Iran also accepts wider discussions they hope will lead to it agreeing to curb nuclear work which they fear has military aims.

Analysts and diplomats believe the 2009 deal fell victim to Iran's internal power rivalries, with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's opponents keen to deny him a diplomatic victory.

Irish govt in crisis as coalition partners pull out

Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen's government was in tatters Sunday after the junior coalition partners pulled out, in a move likely to spark elections even earlier than those planned for March 11.

Green Party leader John Gormley told a press conference in Dublin that "our patience has reached an end" after a week of political turmoil that resulted in Cowen quitting as leader of his ruling Fianna Fail party on Saturday.

"Because of these continuing doubts, the lack of communication and the breakdown in trust, we have decided that we can no longer continue in government," Gormley said after talks with his party's national executive.

However, he said his six lawmakers would support a finance bill seen as vital to securing a 67-billion-euro (90-billion-dollar) international bailout agreed with the European Union and International Monetary Fund in November.

"We will remain true to our promise to support the finance bill from the opposition benches with the promised co-operation of the opposition parties," he said.

Shortly afterwards, Cowen told reporters he accepted the Green party's decision and thanked them for their work in government, adding that he remained focused on getting the finance bill through parliament.

"The important thing now is to have an orderly completion of the finance bill in the interests of the country and then obviously we move to a dissolution of the Dail (parliament) and a general election," he said.

Asked if he should resign now, Cowen replied: "I think it important that we get the finance bill through and we need a government to do that."

He said there would be discussions about the timetable for the bill on Monday, but said a request by the opposition Fine Gael and Labour parties to get it done in time to call an election on Friday was "not possible".

Gormley also cast doubt on the timetable, but said his party was in talks with the opposition leaders and added: "We also hope that the Fianna Fail party will make every effort to fast-track this legislation."

Cowen had been under pressure for months over his handling of the debt crisis that brought Ireland to its knees and caused it to become the second eurozone country after Greece to accept a bailout last year.

He survived a leadership challenge by foreign minister Micheal Martin last week, but an attempt to use Martin's subsequent resignation and five other apparently coordinated cabinet resignations to force a reshuffle backfired.

The Green party vetoed any new reappointments and pressured Cowen into announcing the election date of March 11. Two days later he quit as leader of his party, which he has led since becoming premier in May 2008.

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny had described the situation "is complete madness", saying on Saturday: "We are now the laughing stock of Europe. We have a leaderless party and a powerless Taoiseach (prime minister)."

Martin is now the frontrunner to take over Fianna Fail, although he will be up against Finance Minister Brian Lenihan, Defence Minister Eamon O Cuiv and Trade Minister Mary Hanafin, who all declared their candidatures Saturday.

Nominations close at 1:00pm (1300 GMT) Monday, ahead a vote planned for Wednesday at a 2:00pm (1400 GMT) in Dublin.

Fianna Fail is expected to be punished by voters angry at the economic crisis, which has led to the imposition of harsh austerity measures.

Cowen said in his resignation speech that the centrist party -- which is currently polling at about 14 percent -- could now fight the election "free from internal distractions".

However, Green leader Gormley said Sunday: "The ongoing saga in relation to the Fianna Fail leadership, which is a total distraction from government... has not been resolved.

"Unfortunately I think very many people now feel that we need an election. That has always been our view and that is why we are going to have that election."