AxisMundi Jerusalem

Inside Israel and the Palestinian Territories

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Gridlock in the Mideast

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JamWant to know how it feels to be George Mitchell, President Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East? Try getting from Jerusalem to Ramallah on a typical weekday at the rush hour. And experience stalemate, frustration, competitive selfishness, blind fury and an absence of movement that even the most stubborn and blinkered of West Bank bus drivers might see as a metaphor for the peace process that is going nowhere fast right now.

It took me 2 full hours to drive the 100 metres (yards) or so from the Israeli military checkpoint in the West Bank barrier around Jerusalem to reach the relatively open main street through Qalandiya refugee camp, the gateway to Ramallah. The reason? Well, at its simplest it’s traffic chaos caused by anarchy, a vacuum of law and order. Look further, as with much else in the Middle East, and you get a conflicting and contrasting range of explanations.

Traffic coming through the Israeli checkpoint must merge with that arriving on a main road that follows the West Bank barrier on the Palestinian side. Just beyond the checkpoint, where these two flows merge, they must also cross with traffic going in the opposite direction, from Ramallah, either into the checkpoint or along the barrier. The snag? No traffic lights, no traffic police, no nothing (barely smooth tarmac and certainly no painted junction lines) at the crossroads. The result? Check out the picture above.

Why does it happen? For many Palestinians, the cause as in so many other respects is Israel. Take away the checkpoint and the Jewish settlements protected by further military posts and traffic would circulate much more easily. For Israelis, the checkpoints, barrier and so on are the result of Palestinian violence during the Intifada of the first part of this decade. Bad traffic is the price ordinary Palestinians are paying. Dig further, and each side will come up with a long line of causes and counter-causes going back many decades, if not millennia. Stuck in a jam at Qalandiya checkpoint, you have time to muse on all of them, believe me.

Effort vs. Action

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barack.jpgU.S. President Barack Obama’s surprise Nobel Peace Prize win last Friday has generated mixed and wary reactions from the Israeli and Arab public.

(Read our FACTBOX on reactions from the Arab Streets in Iraq, Iran, and Gaza.)

A Twitter search for ‘Obama’, and ‘Nobel’ in Hebrew returned thousands of Hebrew-speaking users sarcastically tweeting their shock and doubt at the news. @shaiinbal tweeted, “Another proof that the Nobel Peace Prize has been used as a political tool. Obama has yet to help resolve the Middle East Conflict. But he might!”. (Read our Q&A on whether the Nobel is a “Peace” or “Political” prize.)

Evaluating Obama

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obamaThe limelight this week was on U.S. President Barack Obama who made his debut at the United Nations in New York brokering his first summit of Israeli and Palestinian leaders on Tuesday and delivering his first speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday. (Read more here.)

Reviews of his performance are in from the Middle East and they are not in the main favorable.

The Iran question, again

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It seems last week’s focus, settlement expansion, has given way to this week’s prime focus: Might Israel attack Iran?

Last week the Arab media found Israel’s refusal to cease settlement expansion unsurprising and affirmative of what they said was Israel’s unwillingness to pursue a peace settlement with the Palestinians. An op-ed in Al Ahram Weekly, an English-language newspaper in Egypt, questioned the Arabs’ ability to challenge Israel: “Will they have the courage to shift the focus back from the Israeli-instigated ‘Iranian threat’ to the clear and present Israeli danger to the region?”

Hopeless or Hopeful?

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The trilateral summit tomorrow at the United Nations in New York will be the first time the Israeli prime minister and the Palestinian president will be meeting since the suspension of peace talks last December, but nobody’s waiting with bated breath. According to our latest article, the inability to reach an agreement on a settlement freeze and Israelis and Palestinians accusing each other for the lack of efforts to revive peace negotiations, continue to be the bumps in the road to peace. (Read our FACTBOX about Israel’s settlements.)

After the U.S. envoy George Mitchell’s week-long shuttle diplomacy ended last week without obvious result. He had attempted to break the negotiation deadlock between the two sides, any chance of bringing three leaders together for dialogue – albeit “without preconditions” and promise for resumption of negotiations – should seem to be an occasion worth anticipating. (Read more of our coverage here.) Israeli newspapers, however, were not encouraged, calling the summit “the flight to nowhere” and projecting it would be “solely symbolic”.

Insulting the intelligence

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Good morning, children.

Today we are going to learn about two common rhetorical tricks that help greatly with the cynical manipulation of arguments.

First, disingenuousness. The Oxford Shorter English Dictionary defines disingenuous as “lacking in frankness, insincere, morally fraudulent”, in the sense of pretending not to know what you in fact know very well.

Two-state solution

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He finally said it — in Hebrew — “shtai midinot l’shnai amim”, or, “two states for two peoples”.

Breaking a barrier that appeared to be as much psychological as political, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used the phrase, while spelling out his conditions for Palestinian statehood, in his opening remarks at the weekly meeting of his cabinet on Sunday.

Managing the message

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Gone were the track suit, the back-slapping and the wise-cracking, all part of Ehud Olmert’s casual demeanor when he used to fly to the United States for White House talks and stand in the back of a chartered El Al plane, fielding questions from the travelling press.

His successor as Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, managed the media very differently this week during his first visit to the White House since taking office on March 31.

The West Bank Archipelago

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US President Barack Obama told his Israeli counterpart, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their White House meeting that “under the roadmap and under Annapolis that there’s a clear understanding that we have to make progress on settlements. Settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward. That’s a difficult issue. I recognize that, but it’s an important one and it has to be addressed.”

To give an idea of just how difficult it will be take a look at this extraordinary map designed by French cartographer Julien Boussac. It might look like Indonesia or the Caribbean at first glance, but the map is a fanciful reworking of what is actually happening in the West Bank with the blue/water areas representing areas under full Israeli control with the dark and light green ‘islands’ representing areas where the Palestinian Authority exerts some control.

Are you ready to rumble?

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There haven’t been any official announcements yet, but it appears Benjamin Netanyahu will be heading to Washington in early May for his first meeting as Israel’s prime minister with President Barack Obama. There’s also been talk, so far unconfirmed, of an Obama visit to Israel and the occupied West Bank in June.  The above photo was taken when the two men met in Jerusalem last July, when Obama was the Democratic candidate for president and Netanyahu, head of the right-wing Likud party, served as opposition leader in Israel’s parliament.

So what do you get when a conservative Israeli leader who has shied away from endorsing the creation of a Palestinian state comes face-to-face with an American president who keeps on reaffirming that goal? Confrontation — at least according to this article in Israel’s left-leaning Haaretz newspaper.

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