The senior ministries in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's new government are manned by people of relatively limited decision-making experience at the national security level. The prime minister himself has always dealt with economic or municipal matters; Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was catapulted to high office by Ariel Sharon; Minister of Defense Amir Peretz was a labor union leader. Their detractors argue that they are not up to the heavy issues awaiting them; that a few seasoned ex-generals are needed. Their supporters say it's about time "ordinary people" ran the country.
What can we expect from them regarding Israeli-Palestinian issues? Their declared agenda is "convergence", meaning more disengagement. Their immediate timetable is fairly clear. Initially, in the coming two months, they will reach a maximum degree of coordination at the international level, first with US President George W. Bush, followed by the Europeans, Egypt and Jordan. Then, they will launch a "national dialogue" in an attempt to galvanize public opinion behind an agreed Israel-Palestine border (agreed, that is, among most Israelis). Then the government will legislate the convergence program, offer inducements to settlers to leave voluntarily, and begin building houses for the settlers who will be displaced. All the while, it will complete the security fence as quickly as possible, along a path that defines the disengagement and improves the Palestinian situation in several sensitive areas, including East Jerusalem.
Olmert and Livni face a challenge with regard to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). They don't want to negotiate with him. They assess he lacks the necessary authority and leadership qualities, that his negotiating demands would preclude a successful outcome, and that in any event he would need Hamas government approval for any deal he strikes with Israel. But Peretz does want to try another round of talks with Abu Mazen, and the US administration may agree with him. In any case, Olmert and Livni will wait a few months just in case the Hamas government accepts the international conditions and agrees to negotiate on reasonable terms. Washington may also insist that Olmert begin by dismantling those troublesome outposts that Sharon long ago committed to remove. Here, then, are several reasons why Olmert may feel he needs two years to actually begin implementing convergence.
All in all, there is precious little space for an active Palestinian role in Olmert's plans. That is one reason why some Palestinians accuse him of planning an apartheid map. Another is that Olmert's unilateral fence and settlement removal project do not go back to the green line. These arguments are wrong-headed, and the world, including our neighbors Egypt and Jordan, should tell the Palestinians so. They are wrong because the settlement blocs Olmert plans to hold onto are more or less within the parameters negotiated in 2000 between Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak; because the world will in any case not recognize Israel's unilaterally-delineated fence-border as a sovereign boundary; and because Olmert clearly describes the Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley as a security (not political) border. This means the Palestinians get more territory, more contiguity and fewer settlers in return for nothing, without prejudicing final status borders in terms of international law, and at a time when they themselves are not capable of mounting a viable effort to negotiate a two-state solution.
Olmert, and Sharon before him, represent a post-Camp David II, post-intifada II Israeli approach to the conflict with the Palestinians. It is based on conflict management rather than conflict resolution. It seeks first and foremost to extract Israel from a demographic trap laid by the settlers and the Palestinians, each for their own reasons, and to create better conditions for dealing with Palestinian suicide bombings. Palestinians can blame us for their situation, here and there convincingly. But they had also better begin blaming themselves: it is they who have been launching the suicide bombers, who elected Hamas, and who still insist on the right of return and other conditions that preclude a genuine peace.
Olmert's approach began as a reaction to all this. Now it is pro-active and unilateral. The bigger question is whether the constraints of the Israeli political system, coupled with the personal limitations Olmert shares with his senior ministers, will allow these "ordinary people" to succeed. Palestinians of good will have every reason to set aside their anger and frustration and wish them well.- Published 8/5/2006 © 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.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Just three steps toward peace
by Ghassan Khatib
It is still early to accurately predict or analyze the impact of this new Israeli government on relations between Israel and the Palestinians, particularly the prospects for peace during its tenure. The main question that Palestinians will wait to have answered is whether this new government will continue with what was the main feature of the governance of Ariel Sharon: doing everything possible to tilt the internal balance of power in Palestine against the Palestinian peace camp. Sharon fastidiously used every opportunity to dismiss and belittle moderate Palestinian leadership as personified in Mahmoud Abbas, and to create a political and economic atmosphere conducive to the growth of extremism and radicalization.
On the face of it, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made several statements as acting prime minister that seemed to distance him from Sharon's usual politics. In the very least, he left the door open for bilateral negotiations, rather than committing immediately to a unilateral approach. The composition of his cabinet is different from that of Sharon; it is dominated by Kadima, which is a mixture of right and left, as represented by former members of Likud and Labor. The leadership of the Labor Party, Olmert's other major coalition partner, may be markedly different under Amir Peretz, who previously pursued negotiations toward a political settlement with Palestinians, and who recognized Palestinians as a party for talks.
Nor did Olmert's speech at the Knesset swearing-in offer adequate indicators whether or not he will pursue a path of bilateralism or unilateralism. There is no doubt, however, that if his desire is to pursue his predecessor's strategy of avoiding any dealings with Palestinians, the existence of a Hamas-led government in Palestine provides Olmert with an additional excuse. The dangers of the radicalization of Palestinian society, as materialized in the recent parliamentary elections, should encourage any Israeli strategically keen on reaching peaceful agreements with Palestinians to try to redesign the Israeli approach to the conflict and Israeli treatment of Palestinians so as to help reverse this change in Palestinian public opinion.
There are three steps required of the new Israeli government in order to reverse the previous government's actions, which were largely responsible for the change in Palestinian public opinion and the election results. The first is to recognize the Palestinian Authority as led by President Abbas as a party to peaceful negotiations on the basis of the roadmap plan. Second, this government should halt practices such as Israeli-controlled restrictions on movement, construction of the wall on Palestinian land, and incitement of the international community against financial support of Palestinians. These practices are responsible for economic deterioration, increasing poverty, and growing unemployment, which are strong factors in the transformation within Palestinian society toward religious fanaticism, extremism and the tendency to violence. Third, Israel should put an end to the strategy of separating Gaza from the West Bank, gradual disintegration of the West Bank, expanding the settlements, and separating East Jerusalem and its surroundings from the rest of the West Bank, all of which jeopardize the future of a viable Palestinian state.
These three steps alone would certainly contribute to reversing the process of radicalization within Palestinian society, weaken the arguments of Hamas and its government officials, and lend credibility to the hope that Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian peace camp can lead the Palestinian people through peaceful negotiations to ending the Israeli occupation and attaining independence and economic prosperity. - Published 8/5/2006 © 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.
AN ISRAELI VIEW|
For Israel, the Palestinians are domestic policy
by Yisrael Harel
What, people ask, is the new Israeli government's policy toward the Palestinians. The answer is simple: it has no policy. "Israel", Henry Kissinger once said, "has no foreign policy; only domestic policy". That pearl of wisdom was spoken by the American secretary of state during Golda Meir's tenure as prime minister. Compared to what's happening now, Israel apparently did then have a foreign policy--at least in terms of what the world expects of it--one that was far more sophisticated than Ariel Sharon's more than 30 years later. Certainly this is the case with regard to Israel's close neighbor, the Palestinian Authority.
Sharon's disengagement policy from Gaza, and to an even greater extent Ehud Olmert's convergence plan for Judea and Samaria, are, by virtue of their definition as "unilateral", internal Israeli moves. Despite the dismal failure of the first part of this domestic policy, the uprooting of settlers from Gaza, Sharon's successor Ehud Olmert for some reason still insists on fulfilling the master plan of his predecessor, whose leadership tenure ended so tragically.
In presenting his new government, Olmert declared that as a "lifeline of Zionism" Israel would need a "correct definition of the desired borders for the State of Israel", i.e., it will have to give up territories in Judea and Samaria. Remaining in areas where most of the Jewish settlements are located, Olmert believes, will require Israel to give the Arabs the right to vote, thereby altering the Jewish nature of the state of Israel. Accordingly, withdrawal will bring about the salvation of the Jewish state. This, then, is the essence of the Olmert government's domestic policy. Despite the fact that this step is a consequence of fear--mainly demographic fear--of the Palestinians, the latter, who will be no less affected by the plan than the Israelis, are not partners and are not involved in its implementation.
The disengagement from Gaza had three principal objectives: reducing the demographic threat, i.e., Olmert's "lifeline of Zionism"; eliminating Israel's responsibility for Gaza; and enhancing the security of the citizens of Israel. There was no need to wait eight months after the disengagement in order to appreciate that the first objective was solely propagandistic: since 1995 (a decade before disengagement) all residents of Gaza have been citizens of the Palestinian Authority. They vote for the Palestinian Legislative Council. Insofar as they do not vote for the Knesset they do not constitute a demographic threat to Israel.
Nor has the second objective, eliminating Israel's responsibility for Gaza, been achieved: in the eyes of the world, Israel's responsibility has not changed, even following the election of a Hamas government. It is Israel and not, say, Egypt, that is held liable for the difficult economic situation in the Strip. Israel is called upon to supply employment, electricity, water, import and export services, telecommunications and health services. And that's just a partial list.
As for the third objective, security, the situation is actually worse: the western Negev region is bombarded daily with qassam rockets; even a katyusha, the ultimate symbol of Israeli fear of the consequences of unilateral withdrawal, was fired at Ashkelon. Hundreds of millions of dollars are currently being allocated for fortifying the western Negev settlements and the Israel-Egypt border. Nor have the "conventional" terrorist attacks, the suicide bombings, stopped.
Now, with Israel's unilateral domestic policy toward the Palestinians continuing despite the negative results of the Gaza experiment, it emerges that not only does Israel not have a real Palestinian policy, but it has learned nothing from its failures. After all, the objective circumstances in Judea and Samaria are no different from those in Gaza. There, too, the vast majority of Palestinians have not, since Oslo, constituted a danger to the Zionist enterprise, i.e., to the Jewish nature of the state of Israel. Some 96 percent of them live in areas A and B, where they recently voted first for a president and more recently for the Palestinian parliament. Disengaging from them will not bring about recognition that Israel has ended its role; in Judea and Samaria, as in Gaza, the world will continue to see Israel as the legally responsible party. And the Israeli security establishment expects the security situation there to worsen, not improve.
So Israel has no foreign policy regarding the Palestinians. But, as revealed in the results of its unilateral withdrawals--Oslo and the Gaza disengagement--it also has no real long-term domestic policy. What sort of domestic policy is convergence when it is already obvious that it will plunge the country into a societal crisis the likes of which we have not seen for 58 years. Uprooting 25 mainly small settlements in Gaza with their 9,000 inhabitants caused wounds that continue to bleed, despite attempts to deny the fact. Removing some 80 additional settlements inhabited by more than 100,000 people, including large settlements like Qaddumim, Karnei Shomron and Bet El, each with more than 5,000 residents who believe strongly in the justice of their cause, is liable to bring about a violent internal confrontation such as we haven't seen in Israel since the destruction of the Second Temple and the exiling of the Jews some 2,000 years ago.- Published 8/5/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Yisrael Harel heads the Institute for Zionist Strategy and writes a weekly political column in Haaretz. He is former head of the Yesha Council (Council of Jewish Settlements in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza District) and former editor of its monthly Nekuda.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Security still overrides economic issues
by Adel Zagha
Hope springs eternal in the minds of [human beings] but hope must be tempered by reason. Otherwise, frustration and despair will follow. - Pitman Buck, Jr., 1977.
Israel has a new government. What does this mean for the Palestinian question? Will we witness a change in the trend toward finding a lasting solution to the conflict? Does the political turnover in the Israeli leadership represent a turning point, an opportunity that the Palestinians should take seriously in their pursuit of a just and durable solution to their problem?
Since Israel's establishment, the political scene has been dominated by issues of security and war. The major parties were mainly distinguished by different approaches regarding the Israel-Arab conflict, with the Palestinian issue at its heart.
The 2006 elections mark the first time a major party, the Israeli Labor party, has placed economic and social issues at the top of its agenda. This is mainly attributed to Amir Peretz's surprise victory over Shimon Peres in the November 2005 Labor leadership elections; Peretz left the party a few years earlier to form the socialist Am Ehad, which only recently merged into Labor.
The resulting social democratic approach advocated by Labor, which includes promises to raise the minimum wage and allocate a pension for every worker, now stands in sharp contrast to the neo-liberal agenda promoted by Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu. Serving as finance minister from 2003 to 2005, Netanyahu followed a policy that he claimed was responsible for encouraging economic growth and lower taxes--a policy pursued at the expense of Israel's long-running welfare mechanism.This alienated him from many Likud supporters, who traditionally hail from the lower and middle classes. In the campaign, Netanyahu (backed by several economics experts) claimed to have done this to "save the Israeli economy from collapse". But such claims ignored the serious short-term ramifications for the welfare of the Israeli poor. Despite a very impressive economic growth of 5.2 percent in 2005, the latest report by Israel's National Insurance Institute showed that the number of Israelis living below the poverty line increased last year by 46,000 to 1.58 million, which is 20.5 percent of the country's citizens. Almost half of these people--738,000, to be exact--are children, comprising 34.1 percent of Israelis under 18, compared with 33.2 percent in 2004. Hence, Israel has bypassed the United States and now leads western countries when it comes to child poverty figures.
Israel's growing economic and social gaps undermine universal values of equality and social justice. These gaps are particularly glaring with respect to education: some 60 percent of Israeli 17-year-olds are not eligible for matriculation certificates, most of them coming from low-income neighborhoods and development towns. (Approximately 10 years ago, in an effort to narrow these gaps, education officials established the "Mabar" or "Passage to Matriculation" classes. Extensive resources are invested in these classes, which help selected "weak" students to matriculate. The majority of students in the Mabar classes come from Jewish-Arab roots. In practice, however, the Mabar classes have not led to a significant increase in the number of students that obtain a matriculation certificate.)
The ultra-orthodox religious party Shas, which has always claimed to champion the poor in Israeli society, joined the Labor party's chorus of attacks on Netanyahu's policies during the campaign, as did a number of small (and often new) socialist parties. Shas is now again in the government.
Further, in a surprising turn of events, the relatively unknown Pensioners' Party, whose platform deals entirely with advancing the rights of the elderly, gained seven seats. This is a protest party. As bizarre as it may seem that an "old folks" party could have some relevance for legions of young people around the country, its message took hold. Tens of thousands of Israelis who couldn't bear to vote for the same people who have made politics abhorrent to them voted for the retirees. Now it sits in the government.
In sum, Kadima's breaking of ties with the very corrupt Likud, emerging as the centrist party with an agenda of "convergence" and planning to define Israel's borders in coalition with a religious party, a social democratic party, and a pensioners' party, shows that the settlement politik is approaching its hour of truth. Resources previously allocated to the settlements are shrinking. More resources must now be redirected to reducing the poverty gap and tackling social issues long ignored because of the overwhelming priority given to security.
But we should have no illusions. This government will continue the path of suffocating Palestinians' dreams of a viable independent state. We will continue to see the separating wall rising around us, and plans to control the eastern hills running through the Jordan Valley being implemented. Ironically enough, the first decision of the new government was to raise the price of bread by seven percent, and the first decision of Defense Minister Amir Peretz was to bombard neighborhoods in Gaza. We have yet to see how socialist values are compromised by overriding security issues. Notably, the Labor party did not get control of the finance ministry. Minimum wage might rise to $1,000 a year, but the price of bread has already gone up.
Palestinians, while wrestling with each other, continue to face a fiscal crisis. The Hamas-led government is not able to find ways to pay 160,000 public servants. Israel and the US will continue to use economic pressure, while the people go on suffering. With unemployment in the range of 25 percent, poverty in the range of 45 percent, and both expected to rise in the medium term according to World Bank scenarios for 2006-2008, the future looks very dim. Perhaps we will have to cope with this situation for another two to three months. But in the end, Hamas will have to be realistic, otherwise it will face its downfall--but not in the same manner in which it celebrated its landslide victory!
Here we are: two peoples tired of the continued struggle. The logical way out is obvious: to sit around the negotiating table and take the long-awaited decision to reconcile and find a peaceful solution based on the principles of international legitimacy.- Published 8/5/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Adel Zagha is professor of economics and director of the Planning and Development Office at Birzeit University.
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