Hillary Clinton's first visit to the region as United States secretary of state registered one clear achievement, albeit seemingly a marginal one: a step toward closer American engagement with Syria. As for the focus of her visit, the Palestinian issue, the outcome is bleak. The effort to galvanize financial aid to the Gaza Strip without compromising Washington's refusal to deal with Hamas and all the while advance the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace has little chance of succeeding.
The "side visit" to Damascus by two senior administration officials is important. We recall that the administration's special envoy to the Israel-Arab sphere, George Mitchell, did not stop in Damascus in the course of his first visit a few weeks ago. If US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman and Daniel Shapiro of the National Security Council were able to lay the initial foundations for American re-involvement in an Israel-Syria peace process, however long and tortuous it may yet be, even the potential benefits for the Israeli-Palestinian track are not insignificant.
In contrast, last week's Sharm al-Sheikh conference seemed like an expensive attempt to square a circle. Plenty of new aid money was pledged to Gaza reconstruction. But it will be forthcoming only if Hamas can be induced to enter a new unity government based on its acceptance of the three famous Quartet conditions concerning recognition of Israel's right to exist, renunciation of violence and acceptance of past agreements. Or if some other way can be found to return Palestinian Authority forces and officials to the Gaza Strip so that they and not Hamas will administer the funds. All this, against a backdrop of unsuccessful attempts by Egypt and others to anchor a new Israel-Hamas ceasefire and prisoner exchange.
Clinton, who represents new and strong American leadership, confronts in Israel and Palestine varieties of leadership that are either weak or uncooperative. Her chances of working successfully with one or the other are slim. In Israel, the Olmert government is in its final days, while the new Netanyahu government is going to hold the Palestinian Authority and PLO to standards that are liable to preclude any constructive engagement, while defending settler interests.
In Palestine, the resignation of PM Salam Fayyad is not likely to prove sufficient to facilitate the establishment of a unity government that sanitizes the delivery of aid to Gaza. Indeed, the US has signaled that it intends to work with no one else but Fayyad, while Hamas, which emerged from the recent war stronger than ever politically, is not about to forego power in the Strip.
Hence it is difficult to find much joy in the decision of the donors' conference to pour billions of dollars into Gaza reconstruction. The approximately $4.4 billion pledged at Sharm al-Sheikh last week (for the West Bank as well as Gaza) is reminiscent of the $3 billion that Quartet envoy James Wolfensohn recruited for Gaza back in the summer of 2005, when Israel withdrew both its settlements and its army from the Strip. That money had far fewer strings attached to it: all the PA had to do was administer the Strip in a reasonable manner. But it failed.
Now the obstacles are Hamas, a unity government and a ceasefire. When it comes to Gaza, the Palestinian state-building effort has regressed over the past four years. That means it is extremely problematic to base American hopes and intentions on repeat exercises like donors' conferences and unity governments that proved abortive in the past.
The Obama administration has started out on the right foot in the Middle East with its innovative appointments of distinguished emissaries, planned withdrawal from Iraq and openings to Syria and Iran. It has to recognize that new policies are required in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere as well. It should take another look at the US approach to Hamas. And it should prepare to get very tough very quickly with the Netanyahu government on issues concerning settlements in the West Bank.- Published 9/3/2009 © bitterlemons.org
As is by now usual after political failures or catastrophes, the international donor community met last week in Sharm al-Sheikh in order to pledge financial assistance for the reconstruction of Gaza. This followed Israel's indiscriminate destruction of Gaza that left an estimated 15 percent of Gaza's buildings either fully or partially destroyed in addition to the 1,300 dead and 5,000 wounded.
The latest donors' conference was an echo of the Paris donors' conference, which was convened soon after the November 2007 Annapolis conference failed to agree on almost anything except to launch a peace process that in turn achieved nothing.
While Palestinians continue to be in real need of international humanitarian and development aid in order to cope with the damaging practices of the Israeli occupation, the suspicion lingers that the international community, through these conferences, is simply trying to make up for its failure to make Israel comply with international law and in particular with the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council.
Indeed, financial aid, which is necessary in the Palestinian case, can never be a substitute for a political solution of the kind that will end the Israeli occupation and allow for the creation of an independent Palestinian state on the territory occupied by Israel in 1967.
Although the donors' conference committed generously to helping Gaza, it remains in the hands of the Israelis to allow the required materials for reconstruction to enter Gaza in the first place. Israel is so far allowing only humanitarian goods into Gaza and continues to prevent basic construction materials such as cement, steel, iron and glass from getting through. The donor community needs to commit political support in addition to financial support to pressure Israel to ensure that materials can reach Gaza.
The Sharm al-Sheikh donors' conference came amid an unusually confused situation that included divided Arab states, a divided Palestinian polity, a transitional phase in Washington that caused some vagueness in the official American attitude toward the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, as well as Israeli elections, which brought a new leadership that so far is refusing to express any commitment to the two-state solution, the basis of the peace process.
The conference witnessed statements from the new American secretary of state that seemed out of harmony with the constructive tone of the new US president, Barack Obama. On the issue of Palestinian reconciliation, Hillary Clinton repeated the rhetoric of the previous American administration that had been responsible for the abortion of successful Palestinian reconciliation efforts sponsored by Saudi Arabia in March 2007. The Mecca agreement that resulted from that Saudi mediation included a Hamas commitment to a political platform that differed significantly from the movement's traditional platform and bound the first unity government to previously signed agreements between the PLO and Israel as well as the relevant resolutions of the Security Council and the Arab League, including the Arab initiative.
In fact, the attitude of the international community vis-a-vis domestic Palestinian politics is extremely important and can encourage or discourage the reconciliation process. And while Palestinian factions are negotiating a possible agreement on both forming a new unity government and reforming the PLO, a dialogue between those Palestinians and representatives of the international community, especially Americans and Europeans, would be of utmost importance.
Such a dialogue would allow the international community to understand the political limits of these reconciliation talks and, conversely, the Palestinians to understand what is acceptable and what is not acceptable to the international community. It will enhance the possibility of harmony between the outcome of the reconciliation dialogue and the position of the international community.
If true, media reports of the reactions to Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's resignation, however, are an example of extreme shortsightedness. Haaretz and other Israeli papers reported that American and European officials have set conditions for who should lead the next government and are conditioning aid agreed in Sharm al-Sheikh on the personalities composing that next government. This is not constructive and will only greatly discredit Fayyad. A responsible diplomatic dialogue would be much more constructive.
The resignation of Fayyad's government is in fact a sign of the possible successful outcome to the reconciliation dialogue. The move represents a win-win scenario for Fayyad. If the national reconciliation dialogue reaches agreement, he will be in good shape because he contributed to paving the way for that agreement. And if the dialogue fails and consequently President Mahmoud Abbas asks him to continue as caretaker prime minister, it will put him in a stronger position vis-a-vis Fateh, which has not been facilitating his mission until now.
The changed regional atmosphere and the recent reconciliation processes between Arab countries that had contributed to Palestinian divisions as well as the improved international atmosphere caused by the Obama effect should be allowed to play a constructive role in allowing the Palestinian dialogue to begin the process of reunifying the political system in the West Bank and Gaza.
That would necessarily require American and European pressure on Israel, which was strictly preventing any kind of movement between the West bank and Gaza even before the Fateh-Hamas split.- Published 9/3/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president for community outreach at 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
The new administration signals it means business
by Oded Eran
Last week's intensive Middle East tour by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has sent a very strong message: President Barack Obama intends to be active in pursuing a peace process. Observers and pundits who may have surmised that the global economic crisis would absorb all the new administration's energies, leaving limited resources for other issues, should reexamine their analysis.
But Clinton did more. She repeatedly set the objective: the two state solution. In and of itself, there is no novelty in this stated US position. What is worth underlining is that it is most unlikely that the guidelines of the new Israeli government will include a reference to the idea, certainly not by name. An Israeli government that relies on the votes of two ultra-right parties whose sole agenda is maintaining Israeli control over the West Bank and expanding the settlements will be strongly averse to the idea.
But even if Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu manages to convince Obama and his team that the failure of Oslo, Camp David II and Annapolis creates a sufficient body of evidence that a new paradigm is necessary, other issues contain potential for confrontation between Israel and the US. In Jerusalem, Clinton said on March 3 that the US would express views that may differ from those of Israel. The following day, in Ramallah, she made it clear that she meant the settlements and Jerusalem. When asked about the Jerusalem municipality's intention to demolish houses in East Jerusalem built without a permit, she replied, "Clearly, this kind of activity is unhelpful and not in keeping with the obligations entered into under the roadmap."
In her talks in Israel, Clinton indicated that as soon as a new Israeli government is in place the US would raise the issue of settlement activity. Beyond insisting on the implementation of promises made by the Sharon government to Washington in April 2004 to remove unauthorized outposts in the West Bank, the US will demand a settlement freeze. That ensures a collision course is set between the two new governments in Jerusalem and Washington.
During her visit, Clinton emphasized more than once that the administration intends to give full support to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and to Prime Minister Salam Fayyad (who has since resigned): "The United States supports the Palestinian Authority as the only legitimate government of the Palestinian people." She made it clear at the donors' conference in Sharm al-Sheikh and in Ramallah that the US would work with the two on Palestinian needs both in the West Bank and in Gaza. From the Israeli defense minister she demanded opening the crossings into Gaza to allow entry of humanitarian assistance. New US pressure is expected on issues such as free movement between Palestinian cities in the West Bank.
In this respect, Netanyahu will have to beef up his "economic peace" plans for the West Bank. He called for creativity following his meeting with Clinton: he could propose several steps that would increase the PA's control over additional areas in the West Bank and allow for enhanced economic activity. Some of these measures might entail taking risks that could be reduced by either additional equipment or faster completion of the security fence. Yet it is still unlikely that the Obama administration will emulate its predecessor's silence on the settlements.
Netanyahu may partially blunt US pressure if he agrees to pursue the Syrian track. If he does--and notwithstanding his own statements on the issue on the eve of Israel's February 10 Knesset elections and those by his major coalition partner, Avigdor Lieberman of the Yisrael Beitenu party (calling for "peace for peace" with Syria as against territories for peace)--he might deflect some of the American pressures on the West Bank issue.
The pledges made during the Sharm al-Sheikh conference in support of reconstruction of Gaza amount to approximately $4.4 billion, of which $900 million will come from the US. Even if met only partially, this is a far-reaching commitment by the international community. It raises many questions--in particular, how will it be possible to channel these enormous funds toward constructive purposes in Gaza without having to deal with Hamas?
US officials have avoided Gaza for several years, now. With no effective PA presence there, the US has to work with international agencies and organizations that are present and active in Gaza. Unavoidably, these organizations will be in touch with Hamas-led local authorities there. Even the establishment of a Palestinian government of "technocrats" may not solve this dilemma for the US. Other donor governments may be even less scrupulous in maintaining the no-dialogue policy with Hamas.
This would give the organization yet another achievement in the wake of what was considered just a few weeks ago a clear military victory for Israel.- Published 9/3/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Oded Eran is director of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. He served as Israel's ambassador to Jordan and the EU and is a former negotiator with Egypt and the Palestinians.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Financial support a two-edged sword
an interview with Walid Salem
bitterlemons: A lot of money was pledged at the Sharm al-Sheikh conference for the reconstruction of Gaza. Do you think that this means reconstruction can now go ahead?
Salem: I see two problems when it comes to the reconstruction of Gaza. The first is raw materials. If Israeli restrictions preventing raw materials from entering Gaza continue, the money is of no use. So there either has to be a ceasefire agreement or an expansion of the Rafah crossing so it can process goods, not just people.
The second problem is that there should be some kind of guarantee from Israel that any new construction won't be destroyed again. I don't think Israel will make such a commitment unless it too contributes financially to reconstruction. Such a contribution would show that Israel is serious about not destroying new construction in Gaza.
bitterlemons: The conference showed that there is financial will on the part of the international community. Is there also political will?
Salem: The financial support is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it is a good sign for Palestinians, but it can also become a tool to desensitize Palestinians to continued occupation, i.e., a price is paid to make the occupation bearable.
Giving money to Palestinians should be combined with pressure on Israel so that Israel is committed not to destroy again what is built in Gaza as well as to a firm ceasefire agreement. It was primarily Israel that violated the last one, after all.
bitterlemons: The US pledged $900 million but also said none of that money should fall into the hands of Hamas and reiterated the Quartet conditions for any dealings with a government that includes Hamas. Do you see any change in the US position?
Salem: The $900 million includes $600 million for the West Bank and $300 million for Gaza. Washington will pay this through the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. There is little new there.
The change I see in Washington, which I hear from both [US Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton and [Senator] John Kerry, is on Syria, through which I think the US wants to engage Hamas. This process has already begun, given that we see some flexibility in Hamas' position in Cairo. [Hamas leader] Mahmoud Zahar, in Tehran three days ago, said Hamas would accept a technocrat government that would then prepare for new elections. I see the hand of Syria and even Iran in this.
But for this Syrian role to continue, Damascus will want a guarantee from the US that it will eventually be returned the Golan Heights. So this will determine whether or not Syria will continue trying to influence Hamas.
bitterlemons: What do you make of reports that the US will only deal with a Palestinian government led by Salam Fayyad?
Salem: I don't know how correct these reports are. The discussions in Cairo are not heading that way. Hamas will accept an independent but not Fayyad.
bitterlemons: What did you make of Hilary Clinton's visit? Did you see any positive signs?
Salem: There is a change in rhetoric, on Syria, for example. Also Washington does not appear as negative on the Palestinian dialogue as the last administration. However, Washington continues to speak of the Quartet "principles"--as they call them now, rather than conditions. So, while I see a change in American policy toward Syria, I see less change on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
In the end, if Palestinians agree on a government that does not adhere to the Quartet "principles", the US will boycott it. Also, Washington will not pressure a Netanyahu government to move forward.
What may happen is that [Senator] George Mitchell will get the sides into one room and not let them leave until they come up with some agreement. But in the end, like in Northern Ireland, he will at most reach an agreement on conflict management.- Published 9/3/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Walid Salem is director of the Center for Democracy and Community Development and a member of the PLO's Palestinian National Council.
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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.