b i t t e r l e m o n s. o r g
    November 6, 2006 Edition 41                      Palestinian-Israeli crossfire
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  Interim agreements first?
  . The only option on an empty agenda        by Yossi Alpher
Neither interim direction appears promising. Yet cautiously probing them is better than doing nothing.
. Interim favors the strong        by Ghassan Khatib
The interim/final feature is among the structural reasons for the failure so far of the peace process.
  . No partner for an interim agreement        by Efraim Inbar
Fateh and Hamas and their militias are too weak to constitute a strategic address for Israel.
. Boiling point        by Ali Jarbawi
The success of any future attempts at re-launching the political process will depend on a change of both intentions and mechanisms.

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The only option on an empty agenda
by Yossi Alpher

Since Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert shelved his unilateral convergence plan for the West Bank, his government has had no political agenda at all for dealing with the Palestinian issue. Between the weakness displayed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and the escalating military activity in Gaza brought on by Hamas' arms buildup and aggression, it is not easy to conceive of such an agenda.

Yet a total political vacuum between Palestinians and Israelis is extremely dangerous. Not only does it advance the arguments of extremists on both sides, but in the post-Lebanon war era it also disappoints Israel's moderate Arab neighbors and friends in the West who seek to make common cause against Iran yet need to point to some sort of political momentum that reflects Israeli good will toward the Palestinians.

A few on the Israeli left continue to argue that comprehensive peace negotiations with Abu Mazen are possible and desirable right now. Most Israelis, this writer included, accept that the gaps are too great and the leadership (on both sides!) too weak. That leaves interim measures. Their advantage for Israel is that, logically, the concessions they require of it in terms of land and/or authority should be politically more tolerable for the Olmert government, while they might serve as a vehicle for moderating Palestinian positions and building confidence. Palestinians, for their part, would be required to make fewer (if any) concessions as part of an interim agreement, but would have to postpone realization of at least a portion of their ultimate goals and rely on assurances that an interim achievement would not close the door on an eventual comprehensive deal.

Current Israeli-Palestinian political realities point to two conceivable interim directions. Neither appears particularly promising. Yet cautiously probing them is better than doing nothing.

A deal done with Abu Mazen, which would be designed to strengthen his position and authority, could involve Israeli territorial concessions in the West Bank and be legitimized as roadmap phase II (a Palestinian state with temporary borders) or even the second further redeployment of the 1998 Wye agreement.

The problems with this approach are manifold. After this summer's war in Lebanon and Gaza discredited Israel's unilateral withdrawals, it will not pull out of additional Palestinian territory where security cannot be guaranteed by a reliable force. Yet Abu Mazen is not currently capable of fielding such a force, and deployment of an international force would constitute a radical and risky departure. Nor will Palestinians easily agree to declare a "temporary" state without adequate guarantees for the future, although more and more moderate Palestinians are apparently prepared to consider this avenue for lack of anything better.

An alternative interim approach would involve Hamas. That movement's spokesmen have in recent weeks sought to present the hudna idea for a temporary but long-term ceasefire as an attractive option for Israel given the current impossibility of engaging in final status negotiations. They hint that a prolonged ceasefire could even eventually pave the way for a more permanent relationship.

Here the problems are different. It is assumed that Hamas could indeed enforce a hudna more effectively than Abu Mazen could ensure security. But in order to negotiate such a deal, Israel would have to abandon or modify its (and the Quartet's) three conditions for entering into contact with Hamas: recognition, acceptance of past agreements and an end to violence. It would also, effectively, have to abandon Abu Mazen, if only to allow Hamas to enforce a ceasefire in the West Bank as well as Gaza. This would require problematic coordination with the Quartet, and particularly the United States. It would also almost certainly strengthen the grip of a militant Islamist movement on Palestine.

Moreover, Hamas' recent overtures regarding a hudna have carefully avoided mention of its own conditions. Judging from past discussion of this option by Hamas, these are totally unacceptable to Israel: Hamas appears to insist that Israel accept the 1967 borders and a comprehensive refugee right of return as a quid pro quo for a ten-year ceasefire. This is more than Fateh demands in return for comprehensive peace and a two-state solution, and is hardly compatible with the interim nature of the Hamas approach. Nor does a hudna apparently require that Hamas abandon its militant Islamist creed, which rejects Israel's right to exist. Still, these are Israeli suppositions about Hamas' position. Conceivably they could be clarified in informal talks, where Hamas might show enough flexibility to make it worth entering into more formal discussions.

Ostensibly, Abu Mazen is too weak to pull his and Fateh's weight in an attractive interim deal on the West Bank, while Hamas is too extreme to be a candidate for an alternative interim deal. Yet, in the absence of better alternatives, these avenues of political movement are worth further investigation.- Published 6/11/2006 © bitterlemons.org

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications.

Interim favors the strong
by Ghassan Khatib

One of the features of Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking attempts has been the division of the process into interim and final stages. The interim stage ranges from a series of confidence-building measures to the establishment of an interim authority with no sovereignty or borders. All the substantial aspects of the conflict are supposed to be negotiated in the final stage, including borders, refugees and Jerusalem.

This approach brings with it two consequences: first, the interim period is reversible, and second, the final stage is open-ended.

It is a widely accepted on the Palestinian side that this interim/final feature is among the structural reasons for the failure so far of the peace process. In fact, at the moment we are witnessing, after more than ten years of this process, a situation that is in all respects worse than it has even been. Palestinians are further from achieving their legitimate objectives of an end to occupation and independence, Israelis are less secure and further from being integrated into the region, and relations between the two on official and non-official levels are at their lowest ebb ever.

When Palestinians analyze why and what went wrong, one of the conclusions is usually related to the structure of the process. It would be more fruitful for the parties to directly negotiate the fundamental aspects of the conflict in a way that would allow different levels of compromise on the different final status components, including the settlements, borders, Jerusalem, security and future relations between the two sides.

Such an approach would not only save time, but would also avoid the temptation to use the interim period to deviate from efforts to negotiate peace by creating realities that promote one side's vision over the other vis-a-vis the final phase. As we have seen, such actions and policies can deepen the mistrust and hostility, rather than build the confidence to proceed.

Of course there is a major risk. Heading directly to final status negotiations would risk the possibility of final disagreement instead of final agreement. In this case, there will be no interim arrangement to fall back on until the situation proves more conducive to further rounds of final negotiations.

But another lesson from the interim/final structure of the peace process experience is the opportunity the interim stage affords the more powerful party, especially when there is a non-neutral broker. Israel, as the powerful party, held all the cards from the outset and used them to disadvantage the other, weaker and less sophisticated, Palestinian side.

Thus the interim reality was perverted by Israel. To give but one example, Israel simply refused, unilaterally, to pursue the stipulated phases of redeployment for its forces from Palestinian territory, especially during Barak's time. Barak decided that redeploying, i.e., withdrawing troops in the interim period as Oslo stipulated, would leave Israel vulnerable to making compromises over issues such as Jerusalem, refugees and settlements.

The US, which monopolized and manipulated the role of sponsor and mediator, unfairly enabled Israel to undermine the interim phase. The obvious example was and continues to be closing its eyes to Israel's continued settlement-building, a clear violation of the peace process. The expansion of illegal Jewish settlements in territories upon which a Palestinian state was supposed to be built was the single most damaging factor to the chances of success for the peace process.

Palestinians, meanwhile, were helpless, but were consistent in warning the US and other members of the international community against this Israeli strategy.

Given the special nature of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and peacemaking experience, the interim/final structure hasn't been a constructive one. If the parties are genuine in wanting to exchange occupied land for comprehensive and lasting peace, dealing directly and upfront with final status issues is the only strategy that remains untried. .- Published 6/11/2006 © bitterlemons.org

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is the former Palestinian Authority minister of planning, and has been a political analyst and media contact for many years.

No partner for an interim agreement

by Efraim Inbar

We can generally distinguish between two strategies for dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The first strategy assumes that conflict resolution is basically within reach if the right formula is presented to the warring parties. The concessions required on the part of each side in order to reach a comprehensive agreement on all issues under dispute can be negotiated during a relatively short period of intensive diplomacy in which third party involvement may prove necessary. The American "Brookings Plan" of the 1970s constitutes one example of such an approach, as does the ill-fated Camp David Summit convened by President Clinton in the summer of 2000.

The second strategy is more realistic in terms of its goals. This line of thought, associated with the Kissingerian "step-by-step" approach, assumes that conflict resolution is impossible because the differences between the two sides are so great as to be unbridgeable. It therefore advocates reaching a series of interim agreements on minor issues, thus delaying the need to deal with the more difficult issues. Such a course of action, it is argued, creates a political climate characterized by a sense of progress, lowering the incentives for violence among the dissatisfied Palestinians. Moreover, interim agreements may lead the protagonists to reassess their positions, potentially facilitating additional agreements on the more difficult issues. The Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty seems to be the result of such a gradual process. The agreements between Israel and the Palestinians in the 1993-1998 period were also of an interim character.

Currently, the general evaluation both inside and outside Israel is that this gradual process, as well as the attempt to reach a comprehensive agreement in 2000, have both failed, and that the resulting situation is a severe political and humanitarian mess. This predicament has led to well-meaning suggestions to revive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in an effort to bring about even a modest improvement by reaching an interim agreement.

While the step-by-step approach is indeed the more appropriate method of dealing with protracted ethnic conflicts such as we have in the Holy Land, progress within the framework of this more realistic strategy requires a reliable strategic "address". This means that each side of the conflict must have a political leadership that can authoritatively negotiate and subsequently implement an agreement.

Unfortunately, the Palestinian political system lacks a strong and effective political center. As a matter of fact, the Palestinians are on the verge of civil war and it is unclear at this stage whether any party will succeed in establishing an effective monopoly over the use of force in the PA. The two largest political parties, Fateh and Hamas and their associated militias are too weak to constitute a strategic address for Israel. The chaotic situation in the PA is likely to continue for some time with the two movements at loggerheads.

Even if Hamas takes over the PA and is successful in restoring central authority, law and order, Israel should refrain from negotiating with its representatives since such a move would grant it legitimacy and a chance to stabilize its hold over the PA. Hamas is actually interested in an interim agreement and recently aired a proposal for a ten-year hudna (truce). This would buy Hamas time to strengthen its hold over the Palestinian polity and make adequate preparations for its struggle against the Zionist entity. Israel has no interest in providing Hamas with time to establish a Jihadist regime. Moreover, the entrenchment within the PA of Hamas, a probable ally of the Islamic Republic of Iran, runs contrary to the western interest in weakening radical Islamic forces in the region.

The remaining available strategy is simply to wait until the Palestinians put their house in order, which may take a long time. As depressing as it may sound, Israel and the international community cannot bring about any positive change among the Palestinians. Over a decade, territorial concessions on the part of Israel and generous international financial support have had no positive impact on Palestinian society, which has degenerated into chaos. Outside intervention has little chance of overcoming the political and social dynamics within the Palestinian entity.

Colonial history clearly indicates the resistance of Middle Eastern societies to attempts to ease their transition into modernity. Even America cannot "fix" Iraq. Only the Palestinians can extricate themselves from their dismal situation and eventually become a true partner for negotiations with Israel.- Published 6/11/2006 © bitterlemons.org

Efraim Inbar is professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University and the director of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies.

Boiling point

by Ali Jarbawi

Our region with its vital resources and strategic location is at a boiling point, and the course of events here has a direct impact on international stability. From here, a world war could break out. Conversely, from here global peace could prevail.

It is widely understood, except in the US and Israel, that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is at the center of regional tension, in the sense that reaching agreement on this conflict would be key to defusing the regional situation. But because the United States and Israel have not accepted this opinion, instead relying on the use of overwhelming force, the situation has been complicated by greater and greater resentment of US and Israeli policies and thus further escalation.

To address the powder-keg regional situation, efforts must start with Palestine-Israel, and any successful conclusion to this conflict must achieve the legitimate national rights of the Palestinian people. But endeavors toward a settlement of this conflict have been exerted over the past 15 years, and these endeavors were characterized by Israeli intransigence and complete American bias toward Israel in an attempt to impose a settlement on the Palestinians. This led to the complete failure to reach any positive conclusion from lengthy and open-ended negotiations.

The failure did not result from the porous mechanisms of the negotiating process alone--even though this had significant negative impacts--but also from the lack of any real desire among the Israelis and Americans to reach a satisfactory settlement to this chronic conflict.

The success of any future attempts at re-launching the political process will depend on a change of both intentions and mechanisms. Specifically, there must be recognition of not only the principle of the two-state solution but also the realization of this solution according to international resolutions regarding borders, based on the status quo of June 4, 1967. Without this initial recognition, all attempts at imposing a settlement on the Palestinian side will fail.

There are those who believe that since the process is in such a crisis, the best and most successful way to turn it around is to adopt a gradual step-by-step approach in order to rebuild trust between the two warring sides in the interim. It is argued that going directly to final status negotiations on all aspects of the settlement will only lead to another eruption of the already disastrous situation.

The proponents of this interim approach say a step-by-step settlement will allow the sides to reach partial agreements that accumulate with time, increasing trust and leading, inevitably, to a settlement. However, critics of this approach say it has been tried in the past and failed to produce a final settlement, because the stronger party--that is, Israel and America--controls the course of the negotiating process and can halt interim steps at any point that suits its interests.

For the weaker party--the Palestinians/Arabs--there is no way to guarantee that each step will follow the next, if the stronger party is not willing to let it happen. Basically, the stronger party controls the negotiating process, the course of the interim period and hence its final outcome.

In light of the failure of Oslo and its interim stage, some now insist that a reactivation of the peace process requires the immediate entry into final-status negotiations. The advocates of this approach insist that reaching a settlement depends on finalizing the fundamental and thorniest issues immediately so there is no opportunity for either of the negotiating parties, but especially the stronger party, to reconsider, procrastinate or retreat.

We can take it as granted that there can be no imposed settlement. Any imposed settlement will generate neither peace nor stability in the region. But in order to reach agreement, two conditions must obtain. First, the goal of the process must be clearly defined, i.e., an end to the Israeli occupation and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the basis of the borders of pre-June 4, 1967. Secondly, a specific time period should be stipulated that would allow the parties gradually to reach that goal.

The Quartet needs to move away from the idea of "constructive ambiguity" when it comes to the goal or timeframe of the process. Only then is there hope for a political horizon to alleviate the growing pressures not only here but in the region.- Published 6/11/2006 © bitterlemons.org

Ali Jarbawi is a professor of political science at Birzeit University.

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