There is a broad consensus among non-political officials with frequent access to the Prime Minister's Office that since the Second Lebanon War Ehud Olmert has been an efficient and effective prime minister. Some would say that even initiating and balancing no fewer than five diplomatic negotiating processes at one and the same time is no mean feat.
Israel is currently directly talking to the West Bank-based Palestinian leadership on two fronts: the Livni-Qurei (Abu Ala) final status talks and the Barak-Fayyad roadmap phase I contacts. And it is engaged in indirect negotiations with Syria (over peace), Hamas (ceasefire, prisoner exchange, crossings) and Hizballah (prisoner exchange). Arguably, this is far too much. Olmert's predecessors found that even parallel negotiations with the PLO and Syria put too much strain on the system; when they did pursue both tracks simultaneously it was usually for tactical reasons, e.g., to signal the Palestinians that if they were not more forthcoming Israel had better things to do.
Yet it is difficult to make the claim that the Israeli prime minister is merely trying to generate a lot of smoke in order to distract the public from the scandals he has generated--first, the Winograd commission reports and, most recently, allegations of corruption. The two tracks of talks with the PLO and Palestinian Authority leadership reflect explicit demands from Washington and correspond closely with the strategy of withdrawal from the West Bank that got Olmert elected more than two years ago and that requires negotiations rather than unilateral disengagement in the aftermath of the Second Lebanon War. The initiative to talk with Syria, it now emerges, has engaged Olmert's energies for nearly a year and a half, while contacts with Hamas and Hizballah are mandated by the need to repatriate Israeli prisoners in their hands.
Nevertheless, when you negotiate on so many fronts simultaneously your chances of concentrating successfully on any of them are weakened. This is particularly true in view of the passive nature of the American role. Hence, the current multiplicity of negotiating fronts appears to reflect, if not Olmert's grasping at straws because of his political weakness, then at least his lack of a clear strategic perception of events. Meanwhile, Olmert's political position at home has become so fragile because of the scandals that any strategic initiative taken by anyone else in his government (Livni, Barak) is suspect in his eyes, while even a surprising success in negotiations would be met by the Israeli public with extreme skepticism. Hence, from both a peace process-related cost-benefit standpoint as well as a moral-ethical approach, the sooner Olmert departs from office the better.
It remains to inquire what the effect of Olmert's likely proximate removal from office could have on these multiple negotiating fronts. This is an issue that could have strategic repercussions for the Middle East, hence must be addressed with considerable caution by Israel, its neighbors and other interested parties.
If Olmert is replaced in a smooth transition by FM Tzipi Livni, the repercussions would be minimal. She and he have the same strategic approach to negotiations and they would proceed apace. Yet even in this best-case scenario, a Livni government might not last long before new elections put everything on hold for at least several months.
The alternatives--elections within six months or conceivably the more hawkish Shaul Mofaz taking over Kadima and the government--almost certainly mean an even earlier hiatus in the multiple negotiating process. And a freeze in negotiations, however temporary, with the Palestinian and Syrian leaderships arguably further weakens the PLO leadership under Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and heightens the danger of military escalation on Israel's northern borders.
Both the United States and Palestine hold presidential elections in late 2008/early 2009, thereby in any event slowing if not freezing Israel-Arab diplomatic processes. From this standpoint, Israeli elections at about the same time make sense and would do the least damage to the cause of regional peace and stability--unless of course they produce a right wing government not prepared to make the concessions and take the risks required for peace.
One way or another, the near-term likelihood of a successful peace breakthrough that is supported by the Israeli public is very low. Olmert's self-inflicted troubles contribute heavily to this assessment.- Published 2/6/2008 © bitterlemons.org
The simultaneous Israeli engagement on so many negotiating fronts is an unprecedented phenomenon in the history of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. Israel is conducting negotiations with the Palestinian Authority headed by Mahmoud Abbas, while also indirectly negotiating ceasefire arrangements with Hamas in Gaza through Egypt. At the same time, Israel is suing for peace with Syria through Turkey and negotiating a prisoner exchange with Hizballah in Lebanon through Germany.
While this is a new development, it is an old objective. In the course of preparing for the peace process in the early 1990s, Israel was pushing for separate tracks of negotiations--with Jordan, with Syria and with the PLO--in addition to separate subject-based tracks such as economic cooperation, water, refugees, etc.
At the time, the Arab parties and the PLO wanted as few tracks as possible in order better to maximize coordination among them. There was always a feeling that Israel would try to take advantage of running different tracks with different partners to weaken the Arab demand that negotiations be based squarely on the relevant resolutions of the United Nations Security Council. The current disintegration of a peace process into multiple negotiations processes is therefore a sign of weakness of the Arab parties.
The multiple tracks also reflect the narrow interests of the current Israel leadership rather than an appetite in Israel generally to make peace with as many Arab parties as possible. Most importantly, Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister who is facing serious challenges on the domestic front especially since the corruption scandal broke, is trying to gain time for survival purposes. By giving the impression that he is engaged in as many peace-making attempts as possible and that pursuing these would require a continuity of leadership, Olmert hopes to convince both his rivals and the Israeli public that interrupting his career would jeopardize chances for peace with Palestine and Syria as well as the release of captured Israeli soldiers in both Gaza and Lebanon.
The situation is reminiscent of that immediately after the Camp David talks in 2000 when then prime minister Ehud Barak had already lost his government majority and was effectively a lame duck leader. In an attempt, most observers at the time agreed, to bolster his standing among Israelis, he encouraged "extensive" final status negotiations with Palestinian negotiators in Taba in Egypt.
It did not work then and it will not work now. Successive Israeli leaderships, including the current one, have never educated their public that the price of achieving the legitimate Israeli objectives of peace, security and integration into the region entails recognizing the legitimate objectives of the other sides. These include an end to Israeli control over occupied territories, whether Syrian or Palestinian, allowing for the creation of an independent Palestinian state and finding a just resolution to the refugee problem.
The current context of negotiations on the Palestinian track leaves us with little hope that this process aims to or can achieve anything other than just a process. The multiple processes on several fronts are no different. They are pursued simply as an outcome of domestic Israeli political considerations rather than any true aspiration for peace. - Published 2/6/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons.org family of internet publications. He is vice-president of Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning. He holds a PhD in Middle East politics from the University of Durham.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Look at Olmert's deeds, not words
by Barry Rubin
Clearly, the conduct of negotiations by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government with Syria, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas has an Israeli political dimension. Yet it is easy to misunderstand this relationship.
Olmert's unpopularity and link to strong allegations of corruption give him an incentive to conduct such talks. His basic argument is: I'm engaged in such important efforts to achieve peace as to render unimportant all these other petty issues. Stop distracting me.
But two other neglected points must be added. First, this message is primarily aimed at the political left and the Israeli media. By saying he's working for peace, Olmert believes--with good reason--that they won't criticize him. Second, by the same token, this gambit makes him more unpopular with the right.
Additionally, Israeli public opinion is generally cynical. It isn't against negotiations and very much wants peace but Israelis doubt that Syria, Fateh or Hamas are willing to make real peace. Consequently, Olmert's activist policy on talks also has negative effects on his domestic popularity and political support.
In brief, then, Olmert may be influenced by political considerations but the result is not all positive, nor is his diplomatic strategy by any means responsible for his survival. Parliamentary politics are far more important in this regard. He has a majority coalition, his partners are afraid of elections and his party colleagues know that his mismanagement would lead to their destruction in case of elections. These points--not rushing to talks, sometimes overestimating their results or making huge concessions--are the main reasons why Olmert has remained in office.
Here there enters an important irony. The fact is that--for reasons that cannot be fully covered in this short article--Hamas, Hizballah, Iran and Syria don't want to make peace with Israel, while Fateh (hence the PA) is entrapped in a mixture of rejection and, to the extent that some of its leaders are more moderate, weakness that prevents it from doing so.
Given this reality, Olmert and other Israeli leaders know that achieving agreements is unlikely. Consequently, they can engage in negotiations and offer concessions in the relative security that they will not have to implement deals. This is not to imply that they are motivated by cynicism--they'd prefer success--but that's the situation in which they work.
There has been withering and heated criticism of the Olmert government from the right, sometimes crossing the border to incitement. Yet this storm has been based on the words of Olmert and the government. It is much harder to show that their actual deeds have involved extreme unilateral concessions, jeopardizing the country's security or giving away assets for selfish political gain. The talks have remained just that, talks. And there is an important structural reason why this has been so, in terms of the other side's positions, interests and needs.
An additional factor in this situation is a search to meet shorter-term goals. Even granted that negotiations will not succeed in achieving total peace and an end to the conflict, certain things might be gained that benefit both Israel and the government. In many cases, there can be a debate over specific ideas but they are not irrational ones.
Most important is how this works in Israel-PA talks. There is broad consensus in Israel that the country's interests require the survival of the PA, whose replacement by Hamas in the West Bank would create a more dangerous and violent situation. Equally, it is vital to improve the PA's capacity to fight terrorism, improve its people's well-being and reduce the level of direct conflict. Talks, easing tensions, some concessions and allowing the PA to get resources it needs are worthwhile pursuits even for such partial successes. And, of course, by showing its flexibility and desire for peace, Israel also improves its relations with the West.
Talks with Syria have a different but parallel set of criteria. There is the hope (which this author believes mistaken) that this might somehow lead to peace and to the detachment of Syria from its alliance with Iran. Yet there are also more modest expectations.
It is important to remember that Defense Minister Ehud Barak has long believed that advancing on the Syrian track is a way to sidestep the deadlock he perceives on the Palestinian track and gain leverage over the Palestinians. This was his policy as prime minister in 1999.
Another goal is to give Syria an incentive to keep the Israel-Lebanon border quiet, reining in Hizballah to avoid destroying talks that also benefit itself (though the Syrian regime is uninterested in achieving peace with Israel). In contrast to the PA policy, however, the Syria initiative arguably undermined US-Israel relations to some extent.
Any talks with Hamas offer far less in all respects, which is one reason why they have lagged behind the other two tracks.
Finally, the idea that the problem in negotiations is that the Olmert government is too weak to make peace should be laid to rest. While this is superficially appealing, unquestionably if Olmert could show any real progress he would be much stronger. And if he fell, his successors would probably pursue roughly similar policies--definitely so on the PA track. Olmert's problems stem not from his negotiations policies, while his negotiations policies stem only partly from his political problems.- Published 2/6/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books include the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan).
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
No substantive change
by Ali Jarbawi
The corruption scandal surrounding Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, erupted just as the Israeli government was negotiating simultaneously on four separate tracks--with the PLO, Hamas, Hizballah and Syria. The conventional "wisdom" of conspiracy theorists will suggest that the eruption of this scandal is timed to sabotage these peace talks, especially with PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas. But this suggestion does not hold water for two reasons. Firstly, Olmert is truly in trouble--with his party, with government coalition partners, with the opposition and, most importantly, with the Israeli public. He is struggling to save his political career and keep his job, but even under the best circumstances he will only be able to delay the process of being ousted. Secondly, Israel has no need for a diversion mechanism since it faces no pressure to give in on any of these negotiating tracks.
To examine whether Olmert's scandal and disappearance from the political scene will negatively affect these negotiations, one should examine Israel's intent for engaging in the first place. Is Israel really interested in reaching a settlement with its Palestinian and Arab neighbors, or does it want to impose a settlement on them according to its own terms? Does Israel participate in these negotiations out of a conviction that they are the proper and only channel to reach a settlement, or is there a hidden motive for carrying on negotiations on all of these tracks?
First, it is rather obvious from past experience that Israel, irrespective of the composition of its government, is only interested in forcing a settlement to the Arab/Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Therefore, negotiations on three out of four of these tracks (the one with Hizballah is rather "technical" in nature) are not intended to yield results unless of course the other parties cede to Israel's demands. Should this happen, negotiations would be deemed a success. Whatever the outcome, the negotiating tracks are being used by Olmert's government, as they were used by previous Israeli governments, to gain time to create facts on the ground to impose Israeli conditions.
Second, the widest national consensus in Israel now is not on achieving peace with the Palestinians or Syrians but rather on protecting Israel from the "Iranian threat". Therefore, it could be argued that the real intent of at least two out of the four negotiating tracks (with Hamas and Syria) is not to conclude lasting agreements, but rather to try and deconstruct regional alliances with Iran before launching a strike against its nuclear facilities. It is an Israeli priority that such a strike take place before US President George W. Bush leaves office in six months. Israel knows that a new American administration, Republican or Democrat, will not want to start its term by waging war on Iran. Israel also knows that it might lose White House support altogether on this issue if Barack Obama wins the presidency. So the coming six months are crucial for Israel if it wants to remove the Iranian threat. And if a strike is to be launched against Iran during this period, it is better that Iran's allies be entangled with Israel in negotiations that they have a stake in, in order that they might remain calm.
Will Olmert's disappearance from the political scene have a negative effect on the current negotiating tracks? A mixed answer is most accurate: yes on the surface but no on substance since not much is expected to come out of them in the first place. Also, it all depends on how the machinations of Israeli politics deal with this issue in the coming couple of weeks. If a transition is managed smoothly within the ruling coalition and if the current composition of the cabinet survives then the effect will be rather minimal. But if the current Knesset is dissolved and early elections are scheduled, then the rhetoric of the coming election campaign might affect these negotiation tracks, at least on the surface.
Not all those who talk will reach agreement. Israel has been dragging the Palestinians and Syrians into useless negotiations for many years now. There are no developments that would make us believe that any substantive change in the Israeli attitude has occurred. Therefore, it should be expected that Israel will continue its time-honored tactic of taking us all on an open-ended ride.- Published 2/6/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Ali Jarbawi is professor of political science at Birzeit University.
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