Sometime soon, Ehud Olmert will complete the formation of his government and receive a vote of confidence from the Knesset. The government's guidelines will almost certainly call for an attempt to negotiate with the Palestinians if a viable partner can be found. Failing successful negotiations, the guidelines will call, explicitly or implicitly, for Israel to begin invoking unilateral measures. Shortly thereafter Olmert will travel to Washington to seek White House blessing for his convergence plan.
The call for negotiations will be included in the guidelines in order to satisfy the ideological requirements of the left wing of the coalition: Labor, and Kadima figures like Shimon Peres. The call for unilateral measures may be left implicit in order to satisfy the needs of the right wing of the coalition: Shas and/or Yisrael Beiteinu. What concerns us here is the first part of this equation, chronologically as well as logically: the possibility of finding a Palestinian negotiating partner.
Is this a realistic proposition, or merely a sop to the Israeli left and international opinion--a ritual required to justify further unilateral measures? Should President George W. Bush, or the Quartet, for example, insist that Olmert enter a serious round of negotiations as a condition for eventually--if they fail--placing a stamp of approval on Olmert's disengagement scheme? On April 23 Olmert stated that he believed the international community now understood there was no Palestinian partner. Presumably he was referring to both Hamas and Palestinian Authority President and PLO head Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen).
As matters currently stand, rejection of Hamas' candidacy as a negotiating partner is a "no-brainer". Hamas itself refuses to negotiate. And it continues to reject the conditions presented by Israel and the international community for legitimizing its rule and initiating diplomatic contact. Its enthusiastic approval for last week's suicide bombing in Tel Aviv and its appointment of a notorious terrorist to a senior police position were stark reminders that the diverse and murky "compromise" formulae its spokesmen have put forth in recent weeks cannot conceal its essential nature as a terrorist organization.
So there is little likelihood that in the coming months anyone will suggest to Olmert that he negotiate with Hamas.
That leaves Mahmoud Abbas. In recent weeks, he has maneuvered politically on two fronts, both domestically and internationally. On the one hand, he acquiesced in Hamas' government guidelines despite earlier threats and protestations to the contrary. He has also tried to raise funds, primarily in the Arab world, that could well end up in the Hamas treasury.
But on the other, Abbas presents himself as an alternative to Hamas in terms of both protocol and ideology. He reminds Israel that as head of the PLO he remains Israel's negotiating partner, a position acknowledged by Hamas. He does nothing to dispel the notion that he and his entourage should be considered a kind of shadow Palestinian government, waiting in the wings for Hamas to admit failure, soften its ideology and yield to Fateh or bring it into the PA government. He signaled the sincerity of his intentions by condemning the Tel Aviv suicide bombing in unequivocal and even provocative language.
Is Abu Mazen a viable negotiating partner for the Olmert government? I doubt it, though Olmert may have to at least go through the motions of discussing the issues with him before the Israeli government opts for more unilateralism. The reasons for Abu Mazen's lack of viability as a partner involve both form and substance.
With regard to form, it is difficult to argue convincingly that Abu Mazen has a valid mandate for negotiating with Israelis, even though as head of the PLO he is still technically our partner. For one, he is obligated by his March 2005 agreement with Hamas to integrate it into the PLO; once that happens, the PLO becomes a very different organization. Meanwhile its main component, Fateh, is still run by veteran "bolsheviks" who reject internal change and no longer even represent the Fateh rank and file, while Fateh militants are stepping up terrorist activities despite Abu Mazen's appeals.
Thus there is no assurance that, were Abu Mazen to succeed in striking a deal with Israel, either Fateh or the PA government under Hamas would accept it in a convincing way. Indeed, the growing Fateh-Hamas rift, anarchy in Gaza and the West Bank and the danger of "Somalization" of Palestinian life call into question the wisdom of negotiating at present with anyone in Palestine.
As for substance, this is the same Abu Mazen who continues to adhere to positions on the "existential" issues--the right of return, the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif--that signaled to Israelis back in 2000-2001 that we do not have a partner for an end-of-conflict agreement; the same Abu Mazen who pledged to Hamas in March of last year that the right of return would include restoration of all Palestinian lands as well as homes from the pre-1948 period--a sure formula, in Israeli eyes, for the elimination of Israel as a Jewish state. Under these circumstances, to negotiate with him and fail would be worse for the long-term chances for peace than not to negotiate at all and to proceed unilaterally in ways that do not contradict the map of an eventual two-state solution.
There may be some aspects of another West Bank withdrawal that can and should be coordinated with Abu Mazen. But only if he is prepared to work with Israel and the international community in a conflict management rather than conflict resolution mode--and if he is capable of delivering on Palestinian commitments "on the ground" in the West Bank. So far, even before Hamas was elected on January 25 of this year, he has failed conspicuously in this regard as well.- Published 24/4/2006 © 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
Abbas must be allowed to be the link
by Ghassan Khatib
It's still too early to say if there is going to be a change of Israeli policies vis-a-vis the internal Palestinian situation by the yet-to-be-formed new Israeli government.
Ehud Olmert has so far continued the policies of former Israeli PM Ariel Sharon: closing the door on any political process in the face of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas while prompting a dramatic economic deterioration for, and humiliation of, Palestinians through draconian restrictions on movement. This has only served to contribute to the radicalization of Palestinian society and ultimately led to Hamas' parliamentary election victory in January.
Olmert's new government seems set to follow the same line, though the apparent composition of the government-in-making in Israel could allow for a more rational approach.
So far, the Israeli and American strategy for dealing with the result of the Palestinain elections does not bode well at all. It is a strategy centered on cutting off all financial aid to Palestinians, even including taxes owed the PA, in order to bring about a quick collapse of the Palestinian government, which will result in the collapse of the Palestinian Authority.
This strategy contradicts, at least on face value, that of the Palestinian opposition. It is crucial for the Palestinian opposition that Hamas be allowed to govern. The public expects progress on a number of fronts including tackling unemployment, improving government services and good governance. It is not at all clear that Hamas is capable of addressing these issues. With an efficient and credible opposition, the public will draw the necessary conclusion.
The present Israeli and international strategy, however, will simply have negative consequences for the Palestinian public and a positive impact on the public standing of Hamas. The Hamas government has already used the funding freeze to escape its obligations and responsibilities by claiming that it is the victim of a conspiracy. Khalid Meshaal, the head of Hamas, even publicly accused President Abbas and his office of being part of this conspiracy.
Abbas, meanwhile, has actively and vocally sought some kind of continuity of international aid to the Palestinian people and authority--the latter, since the basic services that are vital to the public, such as health, education and security, are mostly government services.
It is important for Abbas that Israel and the international community understand the need to find a strategy that will take into consideration their own legal and political considerations but at the same time not harm the vital and basic needs of the Palestinian people.
Abbas needs to be allowed to play the role of salvaging Palestinian national interests, but he should avoid what Meshaal was trying to drag him into, which was to become party to the internal conflict between Hamas and Fateh, the government and the opposition. At the end of the day, Abbas might be the only point at which the interests of the international community and the interests of the Palestinian public meet.
The Israeli position on this issue is instrumental in shaping the international attitude and practices regarding foreign aid. That's why the new Israeli government is invited to reconsider the careless and destructive approach the previous government took vis-a-vis the internal Palestinian situation and move toward policies more sensitive to the needs and requirements of the Palestinian public, on humanitarian grounds as well as for political self-interest.
But that would require, at this moment in time, encouraging donors to resume their aid while reducing those Israeli measures and practices, especially the restrictions on the movement of goods and people, that are increasing poverty and unemployment, both of which are overwhelming factors in the process of political and ideological radicalization of the Palestinian public.
It would also require adopting a positive attitude toward the resumption of a political process of the kind that could restore hope to the Palestinian public of ending the occupation by political means. This, in turn, means a resumption of the kind of dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians on all levels, official and non-official, that disappeared as a direct result of Sharon's policies. - Published 24/4/2006 © 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|
Speak with Hamas?
by Galia Golan
Israel confronts several options with regard to the Hamas Palestinian Authority government: seek to isolate it so that it cannot function and fails; actively seek to destroy it by military, economic or subversive means; deal with it minimally on a purely technical level; or negotiate with it directly or indirectly. These are not all mutually exclusive, but they do represent quite different objectives. The question is, which objective is in Israel's best interest?
If Israel's interest is to reduce or eliminate the threat of terror and violence against it from the Palestinians, then creating greater suffering for the Palestinian population by seeking to destroy or further weaken the PA is hardly the option. Rather, this would strengthen the Hamas government and legitimize an end of the hudna and greater violence.
If Israel's interest is to reduce or eliminate the violence against it, the objective must be to end the occupation and the conflict. Parenthetically, taking down settlements, even in large numbers, will not end the occupation and certainly will not end the conflict--only an agreement regarding borders, refugees and security can do that. Clearly, such an agreement is not an easy task, and it may necessitate a series of agreements or interim steps. But if those steps are not to be accompanied by violence, they too must be bilateral (Israel and the Palestinians, not Israel and itself or the US).
How to do this when there is a PA government unwilling to speak with Israel? One way is to resume negotiations with the president of the PA, Mahmoud Abbas. Officially and legally, Abbas does indeed represent the Palestinians, not only as chairman of the PLO but as the elected president of the authority. Moreover, Hamas itself has allotted Abbas the task of dealing with Israel. If and when an agreement is reached with Israel, the PA (Hamas), according to implicit if not explicit statements, would submit it to a referendum. (Of course, if Israel had been willing to negotiate with Abbas before the Palestinian elections, Hamas might not be in power there today...) This is indeed one option, though admittedly a precarious one, for such talks might be de-legitimized at any time the Hamas government saw fit. Nonetheless, it is a door still open.
Alternatively, there are a number of options for negotiating more directly with the Hamas government itself. Much of our rhetoric today is reminiscent of the 1970s and 1980s with regard to talks with the PLO ("they refuse to talk--understand only force;" "they want to destroy us--viz., their charter;" "nothing to talk about;" "they are all alike--their so-called moderates represent no one;" "their moderate words are only words"). And lest the religious nature of Hamas be seen to rule out any chance for pragmatism, let us not forget Israel's invocation of Arafat's references to "jihad against the Zionist enemy...and for Jerusalem", not as a religious cause but certainly as one that seemed to brook no pragmatic compromise.
If we have returned to the rhetoric of those days, let us return to some of the solutions from then. There was the Shemtov/Yariv formula: the PLO has to "recognize Israel's right to exist and abandon the use of terror". Then, as now (Hamas too uses the old rhetoric), the response was that this puts the cart before the horse, demanding the fruits of negotiations before the negotiations themselves. The PLO did finally decide to give priority to the political/diplomatic road over armed struggle, and in 1988 accepted the Shemtov/Yariv formula.
That pragmatic decision was brought about (as in many examples of conflict resolution) by a number of factors:1) domestic popular opinion (not at the height of Palestinian suffering but rather the height of resistance, the first intifada); 2) regional and global pressures, particularly the attitude of the US but also of most Arab states; and 3) indications that such a move would be worth doing, i.e., that it would elicit a positive response and in fact open the way to the end of occupation. In sum, the locals wanted it, the outside community pressed for it, and there was the belief that Israel would make a deal (indicated unofficially by both American and Israeli representatives).
The first two factors exist today. Why not try to introduce the third: a declaration by Israel that it will, as before, speak with any representative of the Palestinians willing to negotiate with Israel. This would imply both recognition and the preference for negotiations rather than bombs. A mutual recognition of "the right to exist" such as occurred at the outset (not the end) of the Oslo talks would presumably suffice. If this is too minimalist for Israel, negotiations might be opened in an international forum, based on mutual acceptance of UNSC Resolution 242--an old formula that might work once again--or the version updated by the Saudi Initiative/Arab League resolution.
It may be that none of this will work. Hamas may continue in its obstinacy, even as in deeds rather than words it continues to refrain from violence. But a more open formula, possibly even accompanied by a gesture (to provide some sense of potential progress) or an international framework to ease the way, may be worth a try. What do we have to lose?- Published 24/4/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Galia Golan is a professor of political science and a leading activist in Peace Now and Bat Shalom.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Caught in the middle
an interview with Iyad Barghouti
bitterlemons: Would it be accurate to place Mahmoud Abbas somewhere between Hamas and Israel?
Barghouti: If there is such a space in the middle between them, then yes. In some ways he is even closer to Israel, because on some issues the main partner is Israel, not Hamas. But it would be better if he were between Hamas and Fateh.
bitterlemons: There have been suggestions, notably from Hamas leaders abroad, that Abbas, or at least Fateh, is engaged in some kind of conspiracy against Hamas. Do you think this is true?
Barghouti: In the beginning, Hamas didn't consider Abbas as 100 percent Fateh, and Hamas thought it could reach a better compromise with him than with Fateh. I think Hamas leaders even thought they had rescued Abu Mazen from Fateh. Now, I think they've started to consider him as part of this, let's say conspiracy, if you like.
bitterlemons: What changed?
Barghouti: Hamas at first wanted Abu Mazen to be the link between it and the Israelis and relieve it of the responsibility for negotiations on political issues so Hamas could, as it puts it, keep its hands pure and clean from negotiating with Israel.
But now I think Hamas thinks Abbas is doing Fateh's bidding by taking decisions that are weakening the government as part of a conspiracy to weaken Hamas.
bitterlemons: Is this suspicion justified?
Barghouti: To some extent, yes. Some of the decisions taken by the PLC immediately after the elections to transfer more powers from the government into the hands of the presidency justify that belief.
bitterlemons: But to what extent are Abbas' hands forced, considering Israel and the international community have effectively boycotted the PA?
Barghouti: True, he doesn't have many options open to him, but at least he should coordinate with the government. Any step the president takes should be taken as part of a dialogue with the government.
bitterlemons: Do you see any signs of such a dialogue emerging?
Barghouti: It has to. Things are getting worse. When things go to the street and there are clashes between Fateh and Hamas supporters then things are getting worse.
bitterlemons: How dangerous is the situation?
Barghouti: It's very dangerous. There is a complete lack of trust between the two sides and this might lead to a full-blown conflict.
bitterlemons: A new government has yet to be formed in Israel. What role will it play regarding the internal Palestinian situation?
Barghouti: The Israelis are behaving as if they have left the issue to the Palestinians, and maybe a conflict between Fateh and Hamas is something Israel would like to see. Perhaps the Hamas government will face problems, but then all Palestinian society will face problems.
bitterlemons: Do you think a conflict between Fateh and Hamas will really benefit Israel?
Barghouti: In some ways yes and in some ways no. A real internal Palestinian conflict might leave Israel free to impose its unilateral separation as it pleases. On the other hand, Israel would have to deal with an unstable neighbor and that could have negative ramifications for Israel.
bitterlemons: And in all this, what role does the international community play?
Barghouti: The international community has played a very negative role. It should accept the results of the elections. The international community might not like Hamas, but it is a democratically elected government. Preventing aid and support from reaching the West Bank and Gaza is a move people here simply cannot understand.
bitterlemons: To what extent might the position of the international community be shaped by a clear understanding between Abbas and Hamas?
Barghouti: I hope the international community will rethink its position toward the government and toward Abbas. If Israel starts negotiating with Abbas with positive intent, such a step could help.
But to boycott Hamas, to boycott Abbas and boycott every Palestinian is a very negative position. The West thinks it will make the government collapse, but if it does we will be left with no government. Anyone who thinks the collapse of the Hamas government will bring back Fateh is being unrealistic. - Published 24/4/2006 © bitterlemons.org.
Iyad Barghouti is the director of the Ramallah Center for Human Rights Studies and the author of several books on political Islam.
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