- Israel puts off prisoner release after Palestinian President rules out U.S.-backed peace concessions
- As Obama visits Saudi Arabia, White House faces scrutiny for statements brushing off Arab allies' concerns
Palestinian officials today threatened to suspend negotiations with Israel after Jerusalem declined to release 26 Palestinian prisoners in the coming days, with the Palestinians insisting that the releases had been promised to them and top Israeli politicians dismissing those claims as simply false. Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who had run in the last election on a peace platform and has continued to prominently press for Israel to make concessions, nonetheless was explicit that Jerusalem had not made any "automatic commitment to release prisoners unrelated to making progress in negotiations." Progress in those negotiations had been uneven for months, with Ramallah rejecting U.S. bridging proposals calling for mutual recognition of Jewish and Palestinian states, a definitive stance ending refugee claims against Israel, and an Israeli security presence along the border with Jordan. Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas told the Arab League on Tuesday that he now rejects "even holding a discussion" over Israel's long-standing and U.S.-backed requirement that any comprehensive peace deal include a formal Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Former Israeli national security advisor Yaakov Amidror on Thursday gauged the situation as one in which the Palestinians "have not moved one inch" in their negotiating position. The Israelis had already conducted three previous rounds of releases as good-will gestures in the context of on-going peace talks. Top PA figures, up to and Abbas, had for their part had ostentatiously celebrated the freed terrorists and murderers as heroes,badly undermining Israeli politicians who sought to push through a fourth round of releases.
The erosion in the international sanctions regime against Iran has generated what the Wall Street Journal on Thursday described as "a steady flow of Western executives" - a signal that the outlet read as suggesting that "economic detente with the rest of the world may be on the horizon" - generating renewed concerns among journalists and analysts that the Obama administration may have been over-optimistic when it repeatedly insisted that the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) would not leave Iran open for business. Emanuele Ottolenghi and Benjamin Weinthal, respectively a senior and a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, had on Tuesday published an extensive description of Swiss economic activity with the Islamic Republic under the headline "Switzerland Is Open To Iranian Business." The reports came alongside others noting that Iran is on track to exceed its permitted oil exports for the fifth straight month and that it is now in position to become the largest gas storage facility holder in the region. Analysts reacting early to the JPA had explicitly warned that reducing sanctions risked triggering a downward spiral as companies scrambled to access reopened Iranian markets - the dynamic has since been described variously as a feeding frenzy and a gold rush – and they had called for the administration to firmly signal to Tehran that failure to dismantle its nuclear program would be met in the future with crippling financial restrictions. Those concerns were derided as "fanciful" by analysts linked to the administration, and the White House subsequently expended significant political capital to block Congressional legislation that would have imposed future sanctions if nuclear negotiations failed.
President Barack Obama on Friday traveled to Saudi Arabia for what had long been anticipated as a fence-mending visit, after months of increasingly public disagreements between the US and its traditional Gulf allies over Washington's posture towards Shiite expansionism, on the one hand, and political Islamists within the Sunni world, on the other. The Saudis have been openly furious with the White House over what they consider to be weakness toward Iran and disregard for the dangers posed to Arab regimes by the Muslim Brotherhood. The BBC explained that "the Saudis have yet to forgive [President Obama] for turning his back on Egypt's former President Hosni Mubarak in 2011" - a controversy that was followed by further disagreements over how to approach Egypt's subsequent Muslim Brotherhood-linked government and, a year later, the Egyptian army's overthrow of that government - and that "the Sunni royals feel encircled by Shia Iran and its allies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain, and are worried the US is indifferent to the anxiety this causes." The outlet bluntly stated that "the Saudis may not be entirely wrong." The Telegraph described Washington and Riyadh as "at loggerheads over every burning issue in the Middle East." The Hill described the administration as "at odds with all" of America’s key Middle Eastern allies. A New York Times article from last December had already quoted former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal blasting the administration for inaction against Iranian clients in Syria, describing President Obama's red lines against the use of chemical weapons by the Bashar al-Assad regime as having become "pinkish as time grew, and eventually... completely white." Comments from administration officials on the eve of the visit however downplayed reports that the President would seek to substantially ease Riyadh's concerns. The Daily Caller conveyed comments from White House foreign policy chief Ben Rhodes brushing off suggestions that President Obama would agree to take a tougher line with Iran or change his stance regarding the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Reports of the visit will be closely scrutinized as signals regarding Washington's broader approach to the region. Recent years have seen the emergence and hardening of three regional blocs in the Middle East, with Washington's Arab and Israeli allies aligned opposite Iran and its clients, and both aligned opposite a radical Sunni camp composed of Turkey, Qatar, the Brotherhood, and their allies. Observers have at various times expressed frustration over what they insist is Washington's refusal to decisively side with its traditional allies.
The Palestinian Hamas faction is reportedly making something of a comeback in territories long dominated by its rival Fatah - staging rallies in the West Bank and in the Jerusalem campus of the Palestinian Al-Quds university - after a series of bad geopolitical gambles had left the terror group economically and politically isolated in the Gaza Strip. The Times of Israel on Friday described Hamas's West Bank leader as leading a funeral procession in the West Bank town of Jenin that "was almost an exact reenactment of the first days of the Second Intifada, when [Sheikh Hassan Yousef] stood at the head of the organization’s gatherings and called for revenge." The outlet quoted Yousef insisting that "the rallies and processions we have seen in recent months, in which most of the participants were Hamas supporters, show the clear support for the organization," opposite claims that support for Hamas is dropping. The funeral came a day before a separate Hamas rally on the Jerusalem campus of Al-Quds University in which "demonstrators were seen with black ski masks and carrying replicas of rockets." The Fatah-linked president of the university, Sari Nusseibeh, announced three days later that he was stepping down from his post. Tensions between Hamas and Fatah have long been cited as among at least four structural barriers threatening the viability of any future Palestinian state. Analysts have recently and particularly emphasized the dynamic as a threat to state cohesion - Fatah rules the West Bank, Hamas rules Gaza, and any state with territory divided between rival governments is by definition a failed state - but the rivalry also risks generating security-based problems. It is not at all clear that Fatah security forces, left to their own devices, would be capable of preventing Hamas from seizing control of the West Bank as Hamas did in the Gaza Strip.