Last year was bad for Israel and for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The new year, 2007, is not likely to be much better. Indeed, in many ways it is liable to offer a continuation of the negative developments of 2006.
Last year began with the disappearance from the scene of PM Ariel Sharon and the election of Hamas to head the Palestinian Authority government. Midway through the year, open warfare broke out between Israel and Hamas (and Hizballah in Lebanon). One of its casualties was the plan of PM Ehud Olmert to continue unilateral Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank. Another was Olmert's status as a leader enjoying broad support and considered capable of making sound national security decisions.
Toward the end of the year, a fragile Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire took hold in Gaza; tentative discussions of confidence-building measures took place between PM Ehud Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). On the other hand, Hamas and Fateh factions clashed in Gaza and the West Bank in what threatened to deteriorate into civil war.
Meanwhile, US President George W. Bush, the only third party considered capable of exercising the leadership necessary to galvanize an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, last year confronted the consequences of his misconceived and badly-managed policies in Iraq, particularly those that strengthened Iran, and of his Middle East regional democratic reform program that ended up enfranchising militant Islamists in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. Yet he seemed to learn little from his failures. Meanwhile, his leadership profile was weakened further by mid-term elections swept by the Democrats. Hence Bush is even less likely to devote his energies to Israelis and Palestinians in his last two years in office than he did during his first six years.
There were only two positive notes last year--silver linings of a very dark cloud. One was the growing readiness evinced by Israel's moderate Sunni Arab neighbors, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, to engage more seriously in at least stabilizing the Israeli-Palestinian situation. They did so largely out of a perceived need to make common cause with Israel against Iran--they must persuade their publics that progress toward peace with the Palestinians renders Israel an acceptable partner in this broader strategic endeavor. This underlines the increasing preoccupation of Israel and the region with the Iranian threat rather than, or at least alongside, the Palestinian deadlock.
A second positive development was the readiness of the international community, led by Europe, to play a role on the ground in Lebanon and Gaza. Here, too, the concern is Iran and militant Islam at least as much as the Palestinian issue.
In view of the largely negative legacy of 2006, what can we expect from 2007?
The US, Israel, Abu Mazen and the moderate Arabs will likely make an effort to create a modicum of positive momentum. It may even be called a peace process, but it will almost certainly not be one. Rather, it will consist, in the best case, of well-publicized summit meetings and CBMs like prisoner release, removal of West Bank checkpoints and transfer of funds--the latter two already underway. In a best case scenario, Israel and its neighbors will sit down with American and European backing to begin discussing the Arab League/Saudi peace plan of March 2002.
Meanwhile, inside Palestine Fateh-Hamas tensions will increase, possibly producing civil war, possibly elections, almost certainly more violence. In parallel, inside Israel Olmert's government will continue to display a low capability of dealing with heavy national security issues. The outcome or even expectation of the Winograd Commission report on the mismanagement of the war in Lebanon, coupled with Labor Party primaries in May, could conceivably bring about a government reshuffle or even new elections.
Peace will not break out in 2007. If we're really lucky, things may get a little better.- Published 8/1/2007 © bitterlemons.org
The Palestinian-Israeli conflict stands before an unprecedented crisis, and it would appear that Palestinians and Israelis, as well as other relevant parties to the conflict, are about to harvest the fruit of their past mishandling of the conflict.
The Palestinians are entering the new year, especially in Gaza, engaged in a kind of civil war whose start can probably be dated to the murder of the three children of a Fateh security official on December 11 in Gaza City. That incident raised the ongoing tensions between Fateh and Hamas to a new stage of direct, bloody and ominously continuing clashes. This is an inevitable outcome of a series of mistakes in the handling of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the internal situation by the main parties.
It's not unusual to see a state collapsing in favor of non-state players, whether they are militias, tribes or warlords, at a time when the state is no longer able to fulfill its duties or function to even a minimum degree. And the "state" in Gaza has reached a point where it is able to deal neither with the growing economic difficulties, including the severe poverty and high unemployment, nor with the volatile security situation. That situation has arisen as a direct result of the growing Israeli pressure on all levels of Gazan life, whether socio-economic as a result of the closures on the Strip or direct, in terms of military operations, assassinations and incursions.
But prospects are not just gloomy in Gaza. The weakness of the leaders on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides significantly reduces the possibility of getting out of the political impasse. On the Israeli side, weak leadership has left the Israeli government hostage to the opposition. The most recent example was the poor Israeli showing at the first summit between President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in December. The two sides were unable to talk politics and even the insignificant gestures that were agreed have not been carried out. On top of that, just a few days after that meeting, Israel officially approved the establishment of another illegal Jewish settlement in the Jordan Valley.
That disastrous development ruined the slight hopes that some Palestinians and Israelis harbored after the summit. Some Israelis, but hopefully not a majority, appear happy about the developments on the Palestinian side. Indeed, Israel has contributed significantly to the shift in the balance of power against the Palestinian president and the remnants of the peace camp, a result of many shortsighted policies by an arrogant leadership.
The deterioration in Palestine/Israel is happening at a time of great turmoil in the Arab world. In recent history, Arab states have never been as inefficient and helpless as they are now. But even the US, the main superpower involved in the region, is facing a major crisis in its Middle East policy. This obtains not only in Iraq, but also in the apparent contradiction between its declared promotion of democratization and elections on the one hand, and its hostile attitude to the political Islamic movements that would seem to be the prime beneficiaries of such a process, on the other.
It is not difficult to see how international policy regarding Middle East political, economic and social issues has contributed significantly to the present crisis. For decades, the US and Europe encouraged "stability" at the expense of social and economic progress including democratization. This led to a combination of the failure of these "stable" regimes in achieving social and economic progress and an increase in the frustration and anger of their peoples, leading in turn to the empowerment of the Islamic opposition.
To compound matters, American and European efforts not to hold Israel responsible for its illegal occupation and consequent policies, in direct contravention of international law, has further alienated the Arab masses from the international community and encouraged their isolation and inwardness.
It will be a fatal mistake to try to treat this illness with policies that only reinforce the same problems. This year, a year that is set to be one of the worst ever for the conflict, the region and American Middle East policy, can also be an opportunity to reflect on what brought about this miserable situation. To rectify it, bold and courageous thinking is needed. But this cannot reasonably be expected from the same tired players. On the international level, other influential powers are invited to play a greater role.
Despite its track record, Europe would be the party with the biggest potential, not only because of its special relations with the Middle East, but also because of its relevant influence on the US. Other countries, including China, Japan and Russia can also be useful. The same should be expected from the local players. New initiatives are needed that don't necessarily come from the Islamist opposition or the states that have lost so much credibility.
The three main characteristics of any efforts to reverse the current deterioration are: one, reintroducing the legal approach to deal with both regional conflicts and internal frictions, especially in the Palestinian-Israeli context; two, understanding the necessary linkages among the different regional conflicts; and, three, acknowledging the social and economic roots of radicalization.- Published 8/1/2007 © 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.
AN ISRAELI VIEW|
National Islamism means no progress
by Barry Rubin
In looking at the likely status of the Arab-Israel conflict or diplomatic process during 2007, a key factor is the dramatic change taking place in Arab politics. On a strategic level, there is the rise of a new alliance, which might be called the HISH powers (Hizballah, Iran, Syria and Hamas). And on the ideological front, this bloc is accompanied by a new worldview, which can be called National Islamism.
Until recently, the key battle within Arab politics was that between Arab nationalism and Islamism, with the former in power and the latter furnishing the main opposition movements. Liberal democratic trends were a distant third. Yet National Islamism is presenting itself as a synthesis between the two main warring sides, in theory able to mobilize the Arab masses.
Briefly, National Islamism simultaneously bids to replace and incorporate nationalism. The idea is that Islam is such a vital part of the Arab nation that the two cannot be separated. The best way to defend the nation, runs the argument, is to accept an Islamist leadership. Most obviously, Hamas seeks to lead the Palestinians and Hizballah to take over Lebanon--the latter demanding that all other political forces accept its rule as the most patriotic (despite its subservience to Iran and Syria).
This new approach very much suits the interests of Syria and Iran. For Syria, National Islamism lets it downplay the fact that the regime is dominated by a non-Muslim Alawite minority while winning support from the country's Sunni Muslim majority. For Iran, this doctrine makes it possible to leap the Sunni/Shi'ite and Arab/Persian divide.
A key element in National Islamism is for all Arabs (and Muslims) to unite in a struggle against Israel, the United States, and the West. National Islamism demands total victory over Israel and rejects a negotiated compromise solution. The summer 2006 Israel-Lebanon (or Israel-Hizballah) war is claimed as proof that the proper leadership and ideology can defeat and destroy Israel.
The combination of HISH and National Islamism is responsible for the much harder line in the Arab world generally toward Israel than appeared to be the case a decade ago. Its rise is still another factor bringing the chances for progress on resolving the conflict in 2007 close to zero.
Beyond this, however, the picture is more hopeful in one very important respect. The HISH/National Islamism combination poses a major threat to most Arab regimes, and especially Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the majority in Lebanon. Because of their own ambitions, the HISH forces have gone out of their way to antagonize Arab governments. To some extent, this is because they are trying to appeal to the Arab masses over the heads of their local rulers. Yet that is all the more disturbing to less radical Arab states.
Objectively, then, most Arab regimes have roughly parallel interests to those of Israel on the regional level. They are especially not thrilled about Iran getting nuclear weapons. This does not mean they will move closer to Israel or accept direct cooperation but it does indicate they are likely to want to avoid confrontation. In a real sense, many in the Arab elites would like to see Israel and the United States cut the HISH forces down to size. But they are unlikely to do much themselves toward that end.
Another interesting factor is how this development plays with the Muslim Brotherhood groups. The Syrian branch is against it, since that group wants to overthrow the Syrian regime and is angry at the Syrian rulers' ability to portray themselves as proper Islamists. The Egyptian Brotherhood is also suspicious since it is hostile to Shi'ite Muslims. The Jordanian Brotherhood, however, is enthusiastic. Among the Saudis and the jihadis--including Osama bin Laden's followers--hostility to Shi'ites also makes them anti-HISH.
Especially complex is the effect of these developments on Palestinian politics. Hamas won the January 2006 Palestinian elections and has a strong base of support. In many ways, the worldviews of Hamas and mainstream Fateh are not all that different except on the specific question of Islamization of society. Yet institutionally the two groups are serious rivals. Ironically, Fateh would be much more likely to accept National Islamism if it were in control. But the prospect of a permanent shift in power to Hamas shocks and angers Fateh people to the point of violence, if largely due to the battle over power and patronage.
This means that the differences between Hamas and Fateh are likely to prove irreconcilable, no matter how many meetings, quickly violated agreements or fast-evaporating truces they have. In short, they will not be able either to unite against Israel or make any agreements with it. And since both groups are trying to prove how militant they are--Mahmoud Abbas has little power even within Fateh--moderation is also not on the agenda.
Clearly, we are in a very different world from that of the 1990s. If National Islamism triumphs or even becomes fairly hegemonic, chances for Palestinian-Israeli peace will be set back by a generation; progress toward Arab-Israel negotiated solutions will go into the deep freeze. The paradox is that the HISH powers need war, while their enemies' need to appease them and keep up their own credentials will inhibit them from making peace.- Published 8/1/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya. His book, The Truth About Syria, will be published by Palgrave-MacMillan in April.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Yet another "peace process" looming?
by George Giacaman
There are clear indications that a political process is likely to start between Palestinians and Israelis in 2007. To what degree it will be a credible process that avoids all the pitfalls of the Oslo "peace process" is an open question, however. What is unquestionable since the end of last June, when the Israeli army invaded Gaza, is that the planned second "unilateral" withdrawal from the West Bank is shelved and "unilateralism" has failed.
The purpose behind such withdrawals was in part to generate "movement" to fill the political vacuum resulting from freezing the "roadmap", to which the Israeli cabinet under former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon appended fourteen conditions for it to be acceptable. Sharon succeeded in convincing the Bush administration to support unilateral withdrawals in lieu of a political process, and thus fill the political vacuum resulting from the failure to quell the second intifada by military means.
The shelving of "unilateralism", being its only agenda, left Kadima without a raison d'etre. But the war on Lebanon created yet another need for a political process if regional alliances stretching to Palestine were to be separated, all in the context of a failing US policy in Iraq and the possibility of a wider regional conflagration that many US allies in the Middle East fear.
Leaks in the Hebrew press concerning a "peace plan" being prepared by Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni appeared several weeks ago. In a December 29 interview in Haaretz, she herself made the broad outlines clear. Her "operative diplomatic plan", as she described it, involves "dividing up the country" with the separation wall as the "reference point". A Palestinian state with "temporary" borders is to be established, with a "final status" agreement to be left for the future.
There isn't much new in the plan, except that it has come from an Israeli and American point of view. In addition to the regional situation, the withdrawal from Gaza was proof that Israel needs a Palestinian partner, and this requires "movement" on the political front. In terms of substance, the nominal threshold from "expanded self rule" envisioned by earlier Israeli politicians to a "state" with the "trappings of sovereignty" has already been crossed. Sharon himself said in an interview shortly after he became prime minister in early 2001 that he is not opposed to a Palestinian "state" in half of the West Bank.
Evidently, not much has been learned from the failures of the Oslo process. It is clear that open-ended "interim" arrangements have a way of extending their life expectancy until another conflagration erupts. The problem is not in principle with stages, but with the specific guarantees that the end-goal will be reached in a defined period, if such "guarantees" are at all possible or credible. The Israeli-Palestinian "peace process" attests to this.
No wonder then that President Mahmoud Abbas continues to call for immediate final negotiations, while rejecting the idea of a "state with temporary borders", especially if the final outcome is not agreed upon before the beginning of any political process.
What we should therefore expect in this new year are even more difficult negotiations than at any time before. Yet there is an opportunity for a credible political process provided two conditions apply. First, the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should not be left as a domestic Israeli issue governed by the electoral and local needs of Israeli politicians. It is clear that here there is a need for an impartial and vigorous Arab and international role, a role the US has not played and could not play given Israeli influence on its policies in the Middle East.
But ultimately, it is the second condition that is even more important: the degree to which Palestinians insist on the Arab and international concept of a two-state solution, a solution that is the only guarantee for a stable peace between Israelis and Palestinians.- Published 8/1/2007 © bitterlemons.org
George Giacaman is a political analyst and teaches in the MA Program in Democracy and Human Rights at Birzeit University.
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