The domestic Israeli political scene and balance of powers have a very strong effect on the peace process and the domestic Palestinian scene. The Israeli balance of power is in turn deeply influenced by Israeli public opinion. The latter sets the limits for how far negotiators can go as well as for how far Israeli bulldozers may reach.
The Israeli public and its political elite have always fluctuated in terms of their vision and positions vis-a-vis the Palestinians and the occupied Palestinian territories. During the days of the late Yitzhak Rabin there seemed to be a consensus among the political and security elite that a peace process based on territorial compromise could produce an agreement. But the assassination of Rabin ushered in an era full of hesitation and indecisiveness in Israel as far as the end of the peace process was concerned.
The election of Ariel Sharon marked a third phase in which Israel developed a strategy that disregarded the peace process altogether. Instead, the Israeli government pursued a unilateral approach that, through very practical measures, sought a combination of functional and territorial divisions of the occupied territories. Thus, Israel unilaterally evacuated Gaza and erected a wall dividing the West Bank into populated and non-populated areas. That wall created a de facto functional division where in the parts of the West Bank inside the wall, i.e., the populated areas, Israel maintained security control and control over any resources while the Palestinian Authority was left with responsibility for services such as health and education.
The period after Sharon has witnessed a continuation of that strategy even if the negotiations process has been allowed to play a cosmetic role. On the ground, Israel is still determining the future of the occupied territories through unilateral measures including settlement expansion, the wall, restrictions on movement and the separation of different areas of Palestinian territory from each other, most dramatically severing Gaza and East Jerusalem from everywhere else. However, the outgoing Israeli government did pursue a negotiations process that, according to almost everybody involved, has little to no chance of achieving any agreement within the deadline set by US President George W. Bush in Annapolis last year.
The gradual weakening of the current Israeli government led by Ehud Olmert that has led to the early elections came about as a result of both political/peace process and domestic/corruption factors. On the one hand, this reflects a return to a period of Israeli hesitation and weakness, and on the other it serves to further weaken the negotiations process, such as it is, rendering it completely meaningless.
The Israeli elections may have several negative consequences. First, they will paralyze the political and negotiations process (which wasn't expected to bear fruit anyhow). Second, and most importantly, they will only bring a continuation of the unilateral Israeli practices that have been pursued over the last six years. These, detailed above, have in turn left several deep marks on the Palestinian side, most notably by contributing to the process of radicalization in Palestinian society. This process culminated in the election of Hamas and eventually the Islamist movement's military takeover of Gaza, which further consolidated the fragmentation of the Palestinian territory. This, in turn, will only undermine the two-state solution.
Third, Israeli elections will provide a new opportunity for the right wing in Israel to make greater headway in its anti-peace settlement expansion project.
What has further aggravated the situation has been the inconsequential role of the international community, which, under US leadership, has veered between ineffectiveness and partiality. The lack of a balanced and determined international position will only magnify the effect on the peace process of the coming Israeli elections.- Published 3/11/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons 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
by Yossi Alpher
Israel finds itself in a unique position in terms of both its political history and the annals of the Israel-Arab peace process. PM Ehud Olmert has resigned and elections have been set for February 10, 2009. The elections have caught Israel in the throes of two peace processes, with the PLO and Syria. Olmert, who is not running for reelection, has indicated that he intends to pursue negotiations on both fronts.
Non-candidate Olmert is apparently concerned less with the effect on the elections of the ongoing negotiations than with his legacy--as well as perhaps his long-term prospects for a political comeback once his legal troubles are behind him. Be that as it may, he has ensured that he and his peace process-related decisions will become a factor in these elections. Any achievements and setbacks in talks with either the PLO or Syria in the months ahead could conceivably help or hinder the election efforts of Tzipi Livni, Ehud Barak, Binyamin Netanyahu and the smaller sectoral parties on the left and right. This is particularly problematic for Livni, Olmert's designated successor in the Kadima party, whom Olmert clearly does not support and who is running on a set of peace principles that do not necessarily coincide with Olmert's.
Nor can the other side, the PLO and the Syrian leadership, feel free to negotiate with Olmert while ignoring the political implications for their future relationship with Israel. Olmert is a lame duck leader who lacks the support of his own party, much less the Knesset.
But since the two peace process tracks will remain open in the months ahead, three additional factors become relevant. One is the coincidence of Israel's electoral process with that in the United States. The identity of the next American president and his anticipated political leanings could markedly affect the way Israelis vote or, for that matter, the way Olmert chooses to pursue peace in the coming months. Specifically, if Barack Obama is elected the anticipation of his playing an activist role in Israel-Arab affairs could have a dovish influence on both.
A second relevant factor is events in Palestine. If there are no elections in Palestine this coming January there may be disorder, as the Gaza ceasefire comes to an end and Hamas again challenges Fateh. New violence between Israelis and Palestinians or even among Palestinians could push some Israeli voters to the right. On the other hand, a Fateh-Hamas rapprochement, engineered in the weeks ahead by Egypt, could present Israeli decision-makers with hard choices regarding the identity of their Palestinian negotiating partners.
Yet another factor is the different chances of success of the two tracks, the Palestinian and the Syrian. The Annapolis process, commenced a year ago by three weak leaders, Olmert, Abbas and US President George W. Bush, never had much chance of success and apparently never registered much progress. In contrast the Israeli-Syrian process, solicited originally by Assad and endorsed by the Israeli security community, has gained momentum and supporters because of its relevance for broader regional strategic issues such as Iran, Lebanon, Hizballah and Hamas. If he so desires, Olmert's prospects for trying to create some sort of peace process fait accompli in the months ahead are better on the Syrian track.
It is not without precedent for an outgoing Israeli prime minister to continue negotiating up to the last minute. Yitzhak Shamir did it in 1992 in Washington, as did Ehud Barak at Taba in 2001. Unlike Olmert, both were running for reelection. Barak, in particular, lost votes among some Israelis who insisted he had no mandate to pursue negotiations.
It stands to reason that both Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Syrian President Bashar Assad, while welcoming ongoing contacts with Israel, will avoid entering into any definitive commitments with Olmert that could end up embarrassing everybody. Olmert's Palestinian and Syrian negotiating partners should be aware of the pitfalls of pursuing serious negotiating progress with the outgoing Israeli prime minister at this critical juncture. If Olmert himself doesn't understand or accept the need to redefine the negotiations as "maintenance mode" pending the arrival of a new government in Jerusalem, then Abbas, Assad and the next US president should.- Published 3/11/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Israel is not ready for agreement
an interview with Walid Salem
bitterlemons: What does it mean for negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis when the chief Israeli negotiator, Tzipi Livni, was unable to put together a functioning coalition?
Salem: On the one hand it means that those pushing for negotiations cannot form a government. But the second problem is that those pushing for negotiations are not ready for a political agreement. The problem in Israel is that those that are ready for an agreement are falling apart, while those on the right that do not want any agreement are in the ascendancy. In the middle there is Kadima, about whom one cannot be sure they want anything but negotiations.
bitterlemons: So is this the end of the Annapolis process?
Salem: Mahmoud Abbas has said he is ready to continue negotiations. But what shape the negotiations will take after the American elections, nobody knows. What is understood is that Barack Obama is ready to continue working on this track from day one and may push for a permanent status agreement. What John McCain wants is less certain, though a McCain presidency might lead to a continuation of the current policy of negotiations.
Whatever the outcome of the US elections, progress depends on whether Kadima or Likud will win the elections. And even if Kadima leads a new government, it is not clear it will push for a permanent agreement, partly because it looks like it will need right wing parties to form a government and partly because it is not clear Kadima itself is ready for such an agreement.
If we are talking about the promise to reach agreement by the end of the year, the Annapolis process is finished. It will end with the reports both sides present to the Quartet about those negotiations.
bitterlemons: You don't expect any surprises from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in the meantime?
Salem: I am doubtful. And even if it does happen, any agreement will not be implemented or rubber-stamped until Israeli elections.
bitterlemons: There are two apparent scenarios for the Israeli elections: either a Likud-led right wing government or a narrow Kadima-led government. Should Likud win, what are the consequences for negotiations?
Salem: The Likud will pursue negotiations with the Palestinians, but only negotiations about issues of security and economic development, not territorial issues. The Likud believes that before discussing territorial issues, the Palestinians need to promote democracy and fight "terrorism". Those are pre-conditions for the Likud, and they will demand them from Palestinians in any negotiations. This, of course, is just a verbal tactic to avoid any serious negotiations.
bitterlemons: How will the US elections affect Israeli elections?
Salem: I see the two as being completely separate. The US has shown twice in the last eight years that it is powerless to pressure Israel to do what the latter is not willing to do, first when President George W. Bush asked Ariel Sharon to withdraw the Israeli army from the West Bank in 2002, which was completely ignored, and second when the administration promised an agreement by the end of this year.
bitterlemons: How might the fact of Israeli elections affect Palestinian reconciliation talks?
Salem: I think Palestinian reconciliation talks need to overcome mostly internal problems. Of the issues that they are discussing, including security reform, government make-up, PLO reform and when to hold elections, the Israeli dimension is minor, except in the extent to which Palestinian security forces should act in cooperation with Israel. All these problems go beyond the issue of negotiating with Israel.
bitterlemons: You don't think that with the outlook for negotiations seemingly poor with the new elections, this might act as a spur for unity?
Salem: Not unity. It might help forge a fluid agreement maybe on a date for elections, but nothing more substantial.- Published 3/11/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Walid Salem is director of the Center for Democracy and Community Development and a member of the PLO's Palestinian National Council
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Advance the dialogue regardless of transition
by Gilead Sher
Global challenges of economy and security become an ever-growing concern in transition periods such as the present one. In that context, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other geopolitical developments in the Middle East represent a myriad of problems of leadership, legitimacy, continuity and practicability. The concurrent transition among the terms in office of the relevant actors in the arena--the United States, Israel and the Palestinian Authority--should be meticulously prepared for.
The prospect of a bilateral Israeli-Palestinian agreement based on the two-states-for-two-peoples principle decreases as time passes. Yet Israel's national interest is to secure its future as a Jewish and democratic state while gradually terminating its control over the Palestinian population. From a Palestinian perspective, the objective of establishing an independent state should be promoted by strengthening the moderate Palestinian leadership through a series of tangible achievements in economy, law enforcement, institution-building, quality of life and international assistance. While security and personal safety are pre-conditions to any real movement forward, economy is a major facilitator and accelerator for such political progress.
Finally, in light of the Iranian threat and fundamentalist radicalization within the Islamic world, there are long odds to ending the Israel-Arab conflict via bilateral arrangements only. There is a struggle going on in the Middle East between the moderate forces identified with the West and led by the US and the radical alliance led by Iran. The strategic goal of the radical alliance is to bring about the fall of Israel by annulling its Jewish nature. To this end, the radical alliance objects with all its might to the two-states-for-two-peoples principle, employing both terrorism and political-diplomatic tools while advancing instead the idea of a single state.
One of the major arenas where this struggle takes place is the Palestinian. In this arena, the radical alliance won a significant victory in June 2007 when Hamas took over the Gaza Strip. It remains to be seen whether the current Egyptian reconciliation effort can inject in the coming weeks a six-to-eight month supply of oxygen to the present PLO leadership prior to elections.
I have often heard that dialogue can only be based on mutual confidence. It is rather the other way around: it is dialogue, as well as a binding, consistent, continuous negotiation process, that can bring about trust between parties. Therefore the Israeli-Palestinian negotiation process must continue in order to build upon understandings reached to-date and get the parties to commit to continue negotiations within the Annapolis framework.
In addition, the current US administration should encourage a broader dialogue based upon the Arab peace initiative, thus leading to an indispensable mindset change on the part of Israel, the Palestinians, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria.
The "Jenin First" plan (the "Jones Plan") will be acknowledged as a security/governance/institutional/economic pilot program toward creating a positive atmosphere of change in order to support diplomatic efforts. It will allow the upgrading of the US-Israel security dialogue toward two-state status as well as American-Israeli-regional security understandings, coordination and cooperation. The positive traction already attained should pave the way for both the missions of US generals Jones and Dayton and USAID to upgrade Palestinian security capacities, foster economic development and gradually expand the model to other areas in the West Bank. Israel will systematically transfer powers and responsibilities over to the Palestinian Authority based on the Jones model.
At present, Israel will continue to maintain control over the external envelope of the Palestinian territories and to act against the terrorist infrastructure in coordination with the Palestinian Authority. This reality will continue throughout the transition period until the Palestinian security forces have been stabilized and an anti-rocket defense system has been established on the Israeli side.
As for the third party role, it seems imperative that the international community upgrade the assistance package to the Palestinian entity, allocating an international force that would be able to assume security responsibility in the West Bank areas and in the spheres defined. A mandate for an international stabilizing (and later peace implementing) force should be worked out between Israel and the Palestinians and endorsed by the United Nations Security Council.
Internally, Israel should prepare itself in advance, planning for qualitative alternative solutions that will if necessary enable resettlement of the evacuated settlers according to their communal and ideological needs. The timeframe for completing the planning stage of such solutions is estimated at three years at the very least. It should be noted that only if negotiations fail, and after exhaustive, sincere and continual efforts to make them work, would Israel be forced to take unilateral steps to ensure its Jewish, Zionist and democratic identity. It would do so by disengaging from the Palestinians and defining its boundaries roughly along the contours of the security fence. Such a substantive policy step should be prepared, on-hold, in advance and parallel to the negotiation process.
No sustainable agreement could be either accepted by the respective constituencies or endorsed by their political systems unless they have been on board prior to its conclusion, let alone in problematic transition periods. Therefore, concerted effort and attention must be given to continuous, comprehensive public discourse within Israeli and Palestinian civil societies, explaining to the public the thinking behind the political process.- Published 3/11/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Attorney Gilead Sher is former chief of staff of Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Ehud Barak. In that capacity he acted as Israel's co-chief negotiator in 1999-2001 at the Camp David summit and the Taba talks.
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Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.