b i t t e r l e m o n s. o r g
    August 7, 2006 Edition 31                      Palestinian-Israeli crossfire
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  The Palestinian and Israeli governments after the war
  . New political realities        by Yossi Alpher
A post-war worst-case scenario might witness ongoing border tensions with Hamas and Hizballah and unstable governments in both Israel and Palestine.
. National unity?        by Ghassan Khatib
Should a prisoner exchange deal materialize, the possibility of a national unity coalition government might emerge again.
  . Israeli disengagement frozen; de facto Palestinian trusteeship        by Gerald M. Steinberg
The continuing talks on a unity government between Fateh and Hamas are largely irrelevant in this context.
. Same old crisis        by Mustafa Abu Sway
It is no wonder that a growing number of Palestinian voices are calling for an end to the existence of the interim PA.

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New political realities
by Yossi Alpher

Once this war is over on both the Lebanese and Gazan fronts, we can expect a period of flux in the fortunes and direction of the governments of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. What follows is of necessity a speculative assessment as to where that may lead.

In Israel, public and political criticism will be leveled at the Olmert government over its handling of the war, and particularly its hasty decision to respond to the Hizballah attack on July 12 with an all-out offensive and its acquiescence in the IDF's over-confident plan to rely almost entirely on air power. Its handling of contacts and negotiations regarding a ceasefire and deployment of an international force in southern Lebanon may also come in for heavy criticism, depending on their outcome. If there seems any likelihood that Israeli troops will remain in South Lebanon for an indeterminate time, public anger at the government could grow. While the Knesset will remain on summer vacation until mid-October, opposition politicians from the right and the left could try to convene it for a vote of no-confidence.

A lot of criticism will focus on the army, its degree of preparedness for the war in terms of both intelligence and operations, and the growing dominance of the Israel Air Force in the IDF's most senior ranks. It will be hard to blame the government for these alleged lacunae, given that it had not served even 100 days when the war began. On the other hand, the near total lack of national security decision-making experience at the highest levels of the Olmert government, including the prime minister himself, will undoubtedly draw criticism, including from within Kadima and its primary coalition partner, Labor. Certainly, in the aftermath of a war fought across two internationally-recognized boundaries to which Israel had withdrawn unilaterally, any attempt by Olmert to proceed with plans for "convergence" or further unilateral disengagement on the West Bank could jeopardize the stability of his government.

One additional factor that could either weaken or energize the Olmert government after the war might be new local or international initiatives concerning Lebanon, Syria and/or Palestine that seek to exploit the war and the surrounding regional crisis to leverage new peace departures. PM Olmert's response to such initiatives, and the attitude of the Israeli public, could be crucial for the stability of his government in the months to come. Given the likely opposition to another unilateral disengagement in the near future, Olmert would be wise to weigh carefully the possibility of engaging in some sort of peace process if the opportunity arises.

Turning to the Palestinian Authority, speculation centers on the likelihood that the current Hamas government will be replaced after the war in Gaza by a Hamas-Fateh unity cabinet, catalyzed by the Prisoners' Document the two sides have reportedly agreed on. Depending on its composition and its guidelines, such a government might be better able to interact with the international community, receive aid and possibly even dialogue with Israel at the economic and political levels. Here, too, a lot depends on the way the war in Gaza ends and the possibility of new initiatives emanating from the international community. If, for example, Syria is successfully co-opted into a renewed political process, this might help soften up Hamas' hard line positions on some issues.

Here it behooves us to recall the Israeli-Palestinian agenda prior to the war. Olmert was about to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). According to both Abu Mazen and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Olmert intended to release a considerable number of Palestinian prisoners--women, minors and the aged--as a goodwill gesture. He then planned to explore with Abu Mazen various possibilities for a peace process. At the time, it appeared that little would come of these meetings, thereby clearing the decks for Olmert's convergence plan.

Now Olmert may feel obliged to shelve his convergence plan. In a best case scenario, Abu Mazen's status might be strengthened by the presence of Fateh representatives in the PA government, while developments to Israel's north might include some sort of political process with Lebanon and/or Syria. This could bespeak a new political reality for Israelis and Palestinians--though how different, and in what direction it might lead, are for the moment matters strictly for speculation. Nor is a post-war worst case scenario beyond the realm of speculation: ongoing border tensions with Hamas and Hizballah, and unstable governments in both Israel and Palestine.- Published 7/8/2006 © 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 and a former senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak.

National unity?
by Ghassan Khatib

Before the June 25 capture of an Israeli soldier in the Gaza Strip, the Hamas-led government was facing a number of severe difficulties as a result of lack of experience and the Israeli and international boycott of that government.

These difficulties, compounded by the fact that all rival parties, including Fateh and the PLO factions, were outside the government creating a relatively strong opposition, had started to produce the beginnings of public criticism of the government.

For these and other reasons, the ground was being prepared for a possible national unity government. After June 25, however, and with the Israeli campaign of violence against Gaza as well as the arrest of most Hamas Cabinet members and parliamentarians in the West Bank, these efforts froze.

Within Hamas now, the debate seems to be focused on whether or not to link negotiations on the captured Israeli soldier in Gaza with what Hizballah might be doing regarding the two Israeli soldiers captured on the Lebanon-Israel border.

Most Hamas members in Gaza do not seem enthusiastic about such a linkage and prefer a deal that would involve a release of Palestinian prisoners and an end to the Israeli violence against Gaza in return for the release of the Israeli soldier held in Gaza and an end to the rocket launching at southern Israel.

Should such a deal materialize--and strenuous efforts to this effect are being undertaken by Egypt and the presidency of the Palestinian Authority--the possibility of a national unity coalition government might emerge again.

There are two views within Hamas on such an eventuality. There are those who still take seriously their task as a government and believe that a coalition government has a better chance of survival and consequently of sustaining Hamas' victory in parliamentary elections in January.

This strand of thought also holds that a coalition government will be better able to confront and end the international boycott and might also help convince Israel to stop withholding the taxes it collects on behalf of the PA, monies that constitute one-third to a half of the PA's salary bill.

Indeed, the transfer of that money might also be a condition in any deal with Israel over the captured Israeli soldier.

However, there have been no encouraging signals from Israel or the international community to indicate that support of the PA can resume should a national unity government emerge. This is in spite of suggestions that any such government will have a technocrat prime minister rather than a Hamas premier or even that President Mahmoud Abbas would himself play that role.

The lack of such signals is being used as an argument by the other strand of thought on the issue within Hamas. This strand holds that a pure Hamas-government should continue because no matter how flexible and forthcoming on this issue Hamas is, there is little that can be expected in terms of flexibility in the attitude of the donor community and Israel.

Nevertheless, any prisoner exchange deal with Israel is likely to be followed by at least a government reshuffle. That might coincide with a change either in the composition of the Israeli government or a change in its attitude and position vis-a-vis the Palestinian issue.

One of the conclusions that Israel is invited to draw from its crises with both Hamas in Palestine and Hizballah in Lebanon is that relying only on military superiority and the use of force will not be enough to ensure the safety, security and survival of Israel. No matter how strong Israel is, the continuing injustice it inflicts on its neighbors and the lack of any peaceful political prospect for co-existence--the sum total of the Palestinian experience of negotiations for a historic compromise based on the exchange of land for peace--will always give rise to resistance.

That's why, logically, it should be expected from either a new post-conflict Israeli government or the existing government to move toward a political process. Without such a process, Israel cannot hope to defuse the growing hostility among Israel's neighbors that has resulted from Israeli arrogance, the disproportionate use of force and a total neglect of the basic needs and rights of the other side.- Published 7/8/2006 © 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.

Israeli disengagement frozen; de facto Palestinian trusteeship

by Gerald M. Steinberg

Domestic politics in Israel and the Palestinian Authority were already unsettled before the kidnappings in Gaza and by Hizballah touched off the current confrontations. And while the outcome of the fighting remains uncertain, these events are likely to produce major changes in leadership and policies.

In Israel, the war in Lebanon has stressed and tested the coalition led by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz. The lack of military or diplomatic experience among these two top leaders is highly unusual (a point that did not escape Hassan Nasrallah) and is reflected in widespread criticism of their policies. They are likely to face formidable domestic challenges to their leadership in the coming months.

Olmert, who was selected by Ariel Sharon as deputy prime minister in reward for loyalty, suddenly took over following Sharon's stroke in January. He also inherited the leadership of the Kadima party, which was formed by centrist elements from the Likud and Labor. Sharon's decision to proceed with disengagement from Gaza in August 2005 triggered a major realignment in Israeli politics, and Kadima's main source of cohesion was support for extending unilateral separation to the Judea and Samaria regions of the West Bank.

While this process was supported by a majority of Israelis, there was also strong opposition, and even without the war in Lebanon it would have been difficult to gain agreement. The Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections and the growing missile and rocket attacks from Gaza raised additional doubts regarding further withdrawals. The kidnapping attacks from Gaza and Lebanon highlighted the importance of maintaining military control of territory. Indeed, Olmert's comment to a European journalist that a victory over Hizballah would promote the disengagement in the West Bank led to angry protests from many Israelis, and Olmert was forced to withdraw the statement. Although completion of the security/separation barrier will be accelerated and the demographic concerns remain, further Israeli disengagement will be delayed for many years. Even the long-planned removal of outposts will now be difficult for this government.

Furthermore, if the war in Lebanon does not end well for Israel and the Hizballah threat continues, Olmert and Peretz are likely to face major leadership challenges. The coming confrontation over the Iranian nuclear program and the repeated Iranian threats to "wipe Israel off the map" will add to these concerns. A number of former high-level IDF officers are positioned to present themselves as candidates, recognizing that an Israeli public that feels threatened is likely to turn to experienced military leaders.

On the Palestinian side, the intense focus on Hizballah has overshadowed the escalating military conflict that followed increased Qassam rocket attacks and the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier. The chaos and lack of control by the government was highlighted by this incident, and there is little evidence that this situation is likely to change in the near term.

The continuing talks on a unity government between Fateh, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, and Hamas are seen as largely irrelevant in this context. In practice, Abbas appears powerless to implement even limited agreements with Israel that would provide some security, end the missile attacks from Gaza, and allow Israel to reopen border crossings for aid shipments. The official Hamas leadership is subordinate to Khaled Meshaal, who is based in Damascus. So even if an agreement on a new government were to be announced, the reality on the ground is not expected to change.

That reality is based on the relative power of Hamas and the legacy of failed governance following decades of control by Fateh. An agreement among the leaders of these two factions is unlikely to resolve the bitter fight over access to economic assets--external aid funding, control over customs and duties, income from monopolies and licenses, protection, etc.

Under these conditions, the Palestinian Authority is being transformed, de facto, into an international trusteeship (a framework floated by American former diplomat Martin Indyk a few years ago). Economic policy and major budgetary decision-making are increasing the responsibility of the World Bank and international aid organizations. Diplomatic contacts, including negotiations for providing access of aid conveys to Gaza, have been carried out by representatives of the Quartet--primarily the US and the European Union. And Israel has resumed full and direct responsibility for security, moving forces in and out of Gaza and the West Bank based on intelligence information regarding rocket production, explosives smuggling and planning for terror attacks.

This division is likely to be reinforced in coming months regardless of internal Palestinian agreements, including the announcement of a unity government under Abbas. Until basic changes in Palestinian self-governance take place and a more capable and pragmatic leadership emerges, de facto trusteeship is likely to continue.- Published 7/8/2006 © bitterlemons.org

Prof. Gerald M. Steinberg directs the Program on Conflict Management at Bar Ilan University and is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

Same old crisis

by Mustafa Abu Sway

The conflict(s) in the Middle East cannot be reduced to the most recent Israeli asymmetrical and "disproportionate" war on Lebanon (which is being described in Arab media as the Sixth War). It is also naive to believe that this war was launched because of the two Israeli soldiers captured by Hizballah. The conflict goes deeper and the recent crisis is only a symptom of it. One should not lose sight of the original cause of all that is going on today: the Israeli occupation of Arab lands.

It has become a cliche that no military action can solve the Middle East conflict. Yet, it seems that one war is only a prelude to another. This means that during and in between these wars, diplomacy fails to address the root problems.

For the Palestinians, there is a strong feeling of deja vu all over again. The destruction of infrastructure that Israel is inflicting on Lebanon today, it has done and is still doing in the occupied Palestinian territories, mostly in the Gaza Strip. Israel has hit the airport in Gaza, destroyed electric power plants, bombarded bridges and private homes, killed families and children, created a no-man's zone in the north of the Strip, etc., etc., etc.

While Israel continues to bombard Lebanon, people around the world, including Arabs and Muslims, are bombarded with heartbreaking images such as those coming from the second massacre at Qana. There is sadness, sorrow and anger. These images continue to shape the collective memory of those who surround Israel. It is a guaranteed recipe for continued conflict.

The same could be said about the United Nations Security Council. Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, has realized that people around the world are aware of the players and mechanisms that prevent a ceasefire in Lebanon. He wasted no time in stating that the future of the UN was at stake. Every resolution has to be approved by the United States; any attempt to bypass the US will be met by a veto. Of course, Israel has not complied with a host of previous resolutions that were not to its liking. Allowing Israel such a free hand and not holding it accountable to international law only means that the conflicts will not be solved.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is interested in creating an image of a war that he will win to employ this "victory" for his unilateral "convergence" plan. Again, this plan does not solve the conflict since it ignores the roots of the problem: the occupation.

All of these facts and scenarios should signal trouble for any Palestinian government. The current Palestinian government, formed by Hamas, has been isolated by Israel and western countries. Though it came to power through a transparent democratic process, it was not internationally accepted. It had to fulfill Israeli and western conditions, including the recognition of Israel. The situation on the ground in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is very grim. Over 65 Palestinian ministers and members of the Palestinian Legislative Council are prisoners in Israeli jails. The government functions under very difficult circumstances; it has not been able to pay the salaries of civil servants for the past five months. Israel continues to withhold taxes it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. The end result is that there is a cash crunch and ministries do not have proper running budgets.

It should be noted that previous Palestinian governments that included prime ministers Ahmed Qurei and Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), who did recognize Israel and were pillars of the Oslo Accords, did not stand a much better chance. And since Abu Mazen became PA president, he has been deemed irrelevant and subsequently weakened by Israel.

As a possible way out, leaders of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails agreed on a document that paved the way for a potential Palestinian unity government. Ismail Haniyeh, the current prime minister, is on record as saying that Hamas would still form this new government because it has the largest number of seats in the PLC. But even if all parties agreed to a government formed of technocrats, it would not bring the conflict to an end. Israel continues with its unilateral steps that in practice confine Palestinians to living in Bantustans, large jails circumscribed by a huge network of Israeli colonies, military checkpoints and walls.

An end to corruption in the PA and a unity government might be helpful steps, yet no solution will loom on the horizon until Israel is either willing or pressured to implement relevant UN resolutions to end the occupation. But there is no apparent change of heart in Israel, nor does the international community, especially the United States, appear willing to put any pressure on Israel to comply with international law any time soon.

It is no wonder then that a growing number of Palestinian voices are calling for an end to the existence of the interim PA itself in order to force Israel to assume its responsibilities as an occupier.- Published 7/8/2006 © bitterlemons.org

Dr. Mustafa Abu Sway is director of the Islamic Research Center at Al Quds University.

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