Israeli PM Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are both experienced politicians. At least for the moment, they seem perfectly capable of ignoring the internal political critics of their negotiations. And there is a lot to ignore. Indeed, one could argue that in their shared predicament the two leaders' only realistic political alternative if they want to survive is "fuit en avant", keeping an innovative step ahead with the objective of achieving something so significant that ultimately it will neutralize their critics. In other words, Olmert and Abbas cannot stand still or they will certainly endanger their positions; they must display constant movement to keep their political enemies off balance and the public in a state of anticipation, even if chances of success are extremely limited.
Olmert faces not only the official parliamentary opposition led by Binyamin Netanyahu, the Likud and the settlers. Within his coalition he faces overt criticism on the left from Labor leader Ehud Barak, who cautions against making any near-term territorial concessions to the Abbas-Fayyad government with its lack of security authority, and from the Yisrael Beitenu and Shas parties on the right, whose tolerance for Olmert's peace efforts the prime minister seeks to recruit by embracing their domestic policy initiatives.
The conventional wisdom would have Olmert saying to himself that if both the left and the right are unhappy, he, the centrist, must be doing something right. But he also faces open expressions of concern within his own Kadima party, with former minister of defense Shaul Mofaz more or less identifying with Barak's security worries. Finally, Olmert must contend with extremely low public approval ratings, coupled with the threat of several judicial/police investigations and the specter of an imminent warning from the Winograd commission that his standing will be hurt by its findings.
Abbas must contend with Hamas, which, while acknowledging his mandate to negotiate, signals that it will reject any agreement based on Palestinian concessions. With the Palestinian parliamentary system in collapse and Abbas arbitrarily changing the electoral system for the next round--if there is one--Hamas will almost certainly rely on violence to thwart any significant progress registered by the president. In this sense, unlike in Israel, in Palestine the primary opposition to negotiations fits the contours of civil war more than democracy or even a semi-democratic system. There is additional criticism of Abbas from within his own Fateh party and traditionally allied parties, but it does not pose a physical threat to his plans and Abbas has not hesitated to distance the critics from his decision-making system.
Certainly, each of the two leaders must contend with a political system that makes it extremely difficult to move toward a Palestinian-Israeli solution. Abbas' own party, Fateh, is in disarray, while he has forfeited his majority to Hamas. Olmert knows that every governing coalition in Jerusalem over the past 20 years has fallen over the Palestinian issue.
While Olmert and Abbas' need to maintain a certain political momentum is logical, their chosen field of activism--a declaration of principles to be endorsed at a conference in Washington in November by the international community and moderate Arab neighbors--is not. Abbas has virtually no chance of getting a statement from Olmert that will satisfy Hamas or even provide the West Bank public with the instant satisfaction of genuine political movement. It would be a far safer bet and more constructive approach for him to concentrate on extracting confidence-building measures (prisoner release, funds, removal of West Bank checkpoints) from Israel and the Quartet, while rebuilding security institutions and rejuvenating his Fateh party.
Olmert, too, stands little chance of emerging from the Washington meeting--if he even gets there--with a peace process that is marketable to the Israeli public and his coalition partners. And he, too, has better alternatives: the same accelerated CBM route with Abbas and/or a more concerted effort to open negotiations with Syria.
Finally, both leaders' scheme for "fuit en avant" seems at this point in danger of being scuttled by a renewed outbreak of violence between Israel and either Syria/Hizballah in the north or Hamas in Gaza. If and when that happens, Olmert and Abbas' many political opponents will judge them by the leadership skills they display under fire rather than in the conference room.- Published 10/9/2007 © bitterlemons.org
While Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert appear to believe that they are making political progress, they will need the encouragement and support of the United States to strengthen their respective internal political positions. The reality on both sides is increasingly restricting any chances of success.
In Israel, the anticipation of the Winograd commission's findings and possible early elections is creating a political atmosphere not conducive to progress. Leaders within the ruling party Kadima as well as the other main parties, Likud and Labor, are competing with each other to take hard line positions in order to pander to a public that has been radicalized over the last seven years. Recent statements from Ehud Barak, Binyamin Netanyahu and even Tzipi Livni do not provide much support for the political efforts of Olmert.
In addition, of course, the government itself has been taking a tough line vis-a-vis the Palestinians, partly as a result of the political atmosphere. There is an increase, not a decrease, in the Israeli army's military operations in the West Bank and Gaza. There is a consequent increase in the number of Palestinian casualties and prisoners. There is also an accelerating settlement expansion process while a growing section of the wall is being built inside Palestinian territories along with a tightening of the closure regime and the restriction on the movement of Palestinians.
The situation on the Palestinian side, meanwhile, is not easier for Abbas. The Israeli escalation of its oppressive and illegal measures against Palestinians in occupied territory is discrediting the political efforts between the two leaders and is stripping the Palestinian political leadership of public support. The split between Gaza and the West Bank and the growing tension between Fateh and the other PLO factions on the one hand and Hamas on the other, which is apparent in both Gaza and the West Bank, is also not conducive to political efforts.
But even Fateh and the other PLO factions--which have been showing a certain level of unity in the face of the growing threats and aggression of Hamas, especially in Gaza--are unable to show much support for the political process because it is completely alienated from the reality on the ground. That reality is completely overshadowed by the hostile Israeli posture.
There are indications that Abbas is postponing dealing with his internal problems, including with Hamas, until he can reach some kind of an agreement with Israel that will bolster his domestic political position. If he achieves this, he will be able to deal with Hamas from a much stronger position. However, if such agreement does not affect the illegal Israeli practices on the ground, especially those that consolidate the occupation and humiliate the people, it may not be perceived as much of an achievement by the Palestinian public and consequently may not empower the Palestinian leadership as anticipated.
An active and effective intervention by the international community is badly needed. The Quartet, led by the US and guided by international legality, must influence both the substance of negotiations and the practical situation on the ground. An agreement on a possible future Palestinian state will be meaningless if it is not accompanied by a cessation of the expansion of settlements and the building of the illegal wall.- Published 10/9/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president of Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
To the garbage dump of history
by Yisrael Harel
Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen)--the former a head of state who enjoys little of the trust of his people, the latter the president of an entity much of whose authority, if he has any at all, devolves from the protection provided by the army defined by his people as the enemy--are discussing a declaration of final status principles. This week, if an event like the Israel Air Force flight over Syria doesn't disrupt Olmert's plans, they will reconvene for another round of drafting.
In the eyes of many Israelis, including many of those who seek not only a declaration of principles but aspire to its implementation, nothing surrounding the two leaders' meetings is serious. "Hot air" is the way it was described to me by someone intimately familiar with the proceedings.
Indeed, both figures, whether because of their character or due to decisive internal constraints, are incapable of recruiting the necessary support for the declaration of intentions whose outline is described in recent very credible leaks to the media.
Last weekend witnessed the detailed publication in Yediot Aharonot of the plan attributed to Deputy PM Haim Ramon. Everyone in Israel understands that a deputy prime minister (particularly one whose standing is as fragile as Ramon) doesn't publish a peace plan that is not acceptable to the prime minister. Just as in 2003 Ehud Olmert, then deputy to PM Ariel Sharon, could not have publicized his disengagement plan (following Sharon's murky statement of intentions at the Herzliya conference) without the knowledge and even the guidance of the man who intended to implement it.
So Ramon publishes the Olmert plan as the "Ramon plan" because, were it to bear the prime minister's direct imprimatur, the coalition, which relies on the majority provided by Shas and Yisrael Beitenu, would collapse, the government would fall and the plan, like many before it, would be thrown onto the garbage dump of history. Indeed, Eli Yishai and Avigdor Lieberman, the leaders of those two parties, responded with hostility to Ramon's plan.
Further, heavy hitters within Olmert and Ramon's own Kadima party like Minister of Transportation Shaul Mofaz, a former minister of defense, and Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter, a former head of the General Security Service, were openly critical not only of Ramon but particularly of the Olmert-Abbas contacts. Their main contention was that Abbas had first to prove that he was willing and able, independently of support from the IDF, to be a partner. Neither Mofaz nor Dichter, along with other members of Knesset from Kadima, Olmert's ruling party, believes that Abbas can ever overcome Hamas or concede the right of return.
But lack of faith in Abbas, and by extension in Olmert, is not limited to Kadima and the parties of the right. Ehud Barak, leader of the Labor party, disparages the capabilities, character and leadership qualities of the president of the Palestinian Authority. Accordingly, and because he does not envisage a future Palestinian leader who could concede the right of return or abandon terrorism, Barak remains virtually the only supporter in Israeli politics of the concept of unilateral disengagement. This is why we can totally dismiss the conspiratorial explanation that the IAF over-flight of Syria was intended to divert Israeli public opinion away from the "agreement" that is being put together by Olmert and Abbas. Moreover the Olmert plan, as described in the Ramon plan, is all too similar to the proposals presented by Barak himself to Yasser Arafat at Camp David in 2000, even including the readiness to relinquish Jewish control over the Temple Mount. And lest we forget the angry response to that position by the Jewish public: Barak's coalition disintegrated until only some 30 MKs supported the government, which was obliged to resign and go to elections--which it lost.
Most Israelis, including on the left, are well aware of Abu Mazen's shaky status. They know he was expelled in disgrace from Gaza and that a similar fate awaits him in Judea and Samaria the moment he has to rule on his own, without IDF protection for him and his regime. Hence they wonder why on earth Olmert is making such an effort to reach agreement with a man who is incapable, with all the will in the world, of implementing it.
The conference scheduled for November is not a satisfactory answer. After all, even the president of the United States, and certainly his secretary of state, knows the truth about the capacity of Abbas and his government to maintain agreements. Thus the Americans must also realize that they are dealing with an Israeli prime minister who is misreading the situation, just as he misread it in the Second Lebanon War.- Published 10/9/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Yisrael Harel heads the Institute for Zionist Strategy in Jerusalem 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
an interview with Samir Awad
bitterlemons: Is it possible for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to make any progress in the next few months of talks?
Awad: Expectations are quite low. Nobody expects Abbas or, for that matter, Olmert to achieve something in a short time. But people in the West Bank--and I'm not saying Gaza just because Israel no longer has checkpoints there--people in the West Bank spend hours at checkpoints and they want that to end. In addition, there are more than 10,000 prisoners in Israeli jails. As far as people know, these talks will not result in the release of prisoners or the removal of checkpoints. So there is a great deal of disappointment.
bitterlemons: People in the West Bank in other words want some tangible results.
Awad: Yes, at the very least. The idea here is that time should not be wasted discussing general terms for a future settlement or peace accord, on a declaration of principles again or on a framework for negotiations. People want to see some results. And I'm not sure that their objective will be met in the near future.
bitterlemons: How does the Gaza-West Bank split affect the possibility of progress?
Awad: I think it's a dramatic change in the Palestinian order whereby Gaza no longer abides by what Abbas says and officials there speak publicly about this. It takes away some of Abbas' ability to portray himself as the Palestinian leader. But I don't think the split jeopardizes chances for progress in talks. The Palestinian government of Salam Fayyad in the West Bank still pays the salaries of people in Gaza as well as their pensions. It provides a lot of services for Gazans so in reality the divide is not that official and is not so significant in hindering progress.
bitterlemons: Do you think the domestic situation in Israel is such that it can provide Olmert with the kind of atmosphere conducive to progress in negotiations?
Awad: I think Olmert can only rely on the support of his own government. He cannot take any agreement to the Knesset because he will lose there. In his Cabinet, one member, Avigdor Lieberman, the extreme right wing supporter of settlers, will oppose any declaration of principles or whatever framework for negotiations is agreed, but it will be supported by others. That is how far the agreement can go in Israel. It will only be approved by the government.
bitterlemons: And that is as far as you see the talks lead, a declaration of principles? You don't see anything else brewing?
Awad: It will be a framework for negotiations and that is something significant--let's not be cynical about it. It's significant, but on one condition: that it doesn't dwell on general terms but sets timetables and detailed agreements and such.
bitterlemons: So in spite of the domestic conditions, you are quite optimistic?
Awad: I wouldn't say quite optimistic because I don't see anything changing on the ground. But I think that if the Israeli government has any real intention to push an agreement forward, it can do so easily.- Published 10/9/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Samir Awad is head of the Political Science Department at Birzeit University.
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