As best I can recall, the routine of bi-weekly meetings between PM Ehud Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas is without precedent in the annals of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Of course, a series of Israeli leaders--Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu and Barak--met with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the past. But those "summits" were reserved for dealing with crises, putting the final touches on agreements and signing them. Here and there, leaders from the two sides have met in back channel deliberations designed to explore future possibilities: we recall Ariel Sharon and Abbas at Sharon's ranch, Shimon Peres and Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala) when Sharon was prime minister and more recently Tzipi Livni and Salam Fayyad.
But the Olmert-Abbas meetings are unusual because they are official, public and are becoming routine. Then too, they came about as the result of third party initiative and pressure--on the part of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Moreover, the main set of issues on the agenda of these meetings thus far has been stabilization and confidence-building measures of the sort that are usually relegated to the level of lower level advisers and officials from both sides. More recently, we are informed that the two leaders also meet alone to discuss some sort of new declaration of principles regarding final status issues.
Perhaps the most striking characteristic of all of the Abbas-Olmert meetings is the image of political weakness projected by the two leaders, each in his own unique political context.
Abbas seemed to have proven the persistent allegations that he lacks leadership qualities when, in June, he lost control over the Gaza Strip to Hamas. He has now apparently bought into the "window of opportunity" theory that perceives an advantage in discussing the fate of the West Bank/Fateh alone. But his popularity is waning, and backing from key Arab states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia is at best ambiguous. He is betting everything on a scheme launched by the Bush administration. Bush, after failing spectacularly in Iraq, seeks to display a modicum of progress between Israelis and Palestinians so as to reassure the rest of the Arab world regarding his future plans for the region.
Abbas' Israeli partner, Olmert, has a proven record of strategic miscalculation in Lebanon and tactical impotence in the West Bank, where the settlements continue to expand. Olmert's public approval ratings are barely above ten percent. In the eyes of many observers his days as prime minister are numbered, either because of the much anticipated final report of the Winograd commission regarding the management of last summer's war with Hizballah or due to a series of criminal investigations regarding his previous business and ministerial activities. He has displayed considerable political skill in fending off "lame duck" status. But as matters stand right now, if he doesn't resign he is almost certain to face elections in 2008 and to lose them.
All the accumulated wisdom of the past 15 years of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations would point Olmert and Abbas toward a more modest track of confidence-building and stabilization, to be followed first by coordinated Israeli territorial withdrawals and, only at a later date, by discussions of final status issues. Without a Palestinian leader capable of persuading his constituents to accept the tough compromises Arafat rejected at Camp David in 2000; without better functioning Palestinian institutions, especially security forces; without the support of the surrounding Arab world; without rapprochement between Fateh and Hamas; and without stronger and better Israeli leadership no final status scheme will work, even a virtual "declaration of principles".
If Olmert and Abbas, and behind them Bush and Rice, are determined to proceed along their current course in spite of their own weaknesses and those of the process, we wish them success. And if, as is more than likely, they fail, we can only suggest that all parties concerned make sure that failure does not make matters worse than they already are and does not render it more difficult for stronger leaders in the future to embark on a more promising peace process.- Published 13/8/2007 © bitterlemons.org
The regular biweekly meetings of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have received a mixed reaction from both Palestinians and Israelis.
Most of the criticism on the Palestinian side falls into two categories. One reaction is that once again a Palestinian leadership is building up hope that relies on the good will of Israel and the United States, countries that were never receptive to the legitimate rights of the Palestinians or even those Palestinian rights guaranteed by international legality.
The second is that this "process" is completely removed from the reality the Palestinian people is living on the ground. In other words, there is no connection between the relatively positive and optimistic atmosphere surrounding these meetings and the actual Israeli policies and practices that continue to consolidate the occupation, making life more difficult while leaving the objective of ending the occupation as distant as ever.
The resumption of bilateral relations at the highest political level marks a departure from Israel's catastrophic unilateral strategy and is a step in the right direction. Notable, however, is the schizophrenic nature of the current Israeli stance vis-a-vis the Palestinians. On the one hand, Olmert is proceeding with bilateral relations that seem to be moving, even if slowly, from the practical and physical difficulties facing Palestinians--checkpoints, prisoners, etc.--to more general political issues. Yet on the practical level, we continue to see unilateral practices on macro and strategic issues: from the ever-expanding settlements and wall, via the deepening separation of Gaza from the West Bank to the continued fragmentation of the West Bank by a system of control that is based on the checkpoints.
But it is not only on the Palestinian side that the biweekly meetings--that seem to be developing into a kind of political process--are removed from reality. On the Israeli side too there is an obvious disconnect between the political reality and these meetings. The most recent example is last week's statement by "defense" minister Ehud Barak that it would not be possible to consider any kind of withdrawal for several years. It is a statement that very much goes against the grain of the perception Olmert would like to create for these meetings.
There is also one large ghost in the machine. Any outcome of these meetings that is opposed by Hamas stands no chance of success. Hamas not only is in direct control of the Gaza Strip; the Islamist movement enjoys the support of a majority of the Palestinian public in the occupied Palestinian territories as evidenced by the 2006 elections.
The biweekly meetings have to take into account the political realities on both sides. And while in and of themselves they mark a step forward, they should be accompanied by constructive public debates. The fact that the political aspects of the meetings are neither made public nor based on any measurable level of consultation at the leadership level will only leave the Palestinian side weak, dependant and vulnerable, just as it was during the secret and non-consultative Oslo negotiations.
Indeed, the secrecy surrounding the political aspects of these discussions, in addition to the absence of any third party involvement, will again isolate the Palestinian side from its sources of strength, which are international legality and community and Palestinian public support. That was exploited by Israel to the maximum in Oslo and led directly to the circumstance the two sides are suffering from now. It is a lesson the Palestinian side, if not the Israeli, should have learned by now.- Published 13/8/2007 © 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
Peace castles in the air?
by Gerald M. Steinberg
If necessity is the mother of political invention, the meetings between PM Ehud Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas, choreographed by the Bush administration, should be very productive. A dramatic breakthrough resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would certainly be a major boost for all three governments.
However, the substance of any such agreement and its long-term impact are far from clear. Skeptics (or realists) note that a lasting peace requires a wide societal acceptance of compromise, and this will still take many years once the maps in Palestinian textbooks start to include Israel. Until then, a facade that provides the illusion of the "end of conflict", but without the political foundation, would be very costly. The 1983 Lebanon-Israel peace treaty was built on very thin air and collapsed quickly.
In contrast, optimists believe that the very weakness of Abbas and the Fateh movement and Olmert's Kadima-led coalition provides the opportunity for a bold agreement. Fateh and Abbas are in no position to make impossible demands of Israel and this is the best time for a pragmatic compromise. On the Israeli side, Olmert remains vulnerable and needs a new program to replace the failed strategy of unilateral disengagement. Negotiations with Abbas and Salam Fayyad and the prospect of an historic agreement to "end the conflict" give Olmert and Kadima a chance for recovery.
Similarly, the US government--the perennial third party in Middle East peace efforts--needs a major diplomatic success. The colossal failure in conducting the Iraq war and the losses sustained in the 2006 congressional elections are behind this renewed activity.
On this basis, the first real engagement since the collapse of the Oslo process began with confidence-building measures. Israel released 250 Palestinians held on charges related to terror, members of Fateh's Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades promised to lay down their weapons and take up the path of peace in exchange for immunity and Israel announced some relaxation of security measures and checkpoints. Predictably, critics denounced these steps: for Palestinians they provided far too little; for Israelis they risked an increase in terror attacks.
Nevertheless, the CBMs were sufficient to set the stage for the resumption of regular talks between Abbas and Olmert. The goal, as repeated in Washington and Jerusalem, is to progress toward the creation of a Palestinian state and, on this basis, toward the long awaited two-state agreement to end the conflict, to be endorsed by an international conference (or workshop) that may (or may not) include high-level Saudi participation.
The next phase of such a pragmatic approach would be to draw borders, but since the Gaza Strip cannot be included in a Palestinian state under the control of Hamas the focus is on interim boundaries. On the West Bank, Abbas would need to convince Palestinians to accept the major post-1967 settlement blocs, perhaps offset by land swaps. And the Israeli government would have to agree to a large-scale withdrawal from Judea and Samaria.
Once this very complex issue is resolved the leaders can turn their attention to the core identity and ideological issues. During the 2000 Camp David summit, Yasser Arafat rejected the efforts to resolve Palestinian refugee claims and Jerusalem issues and accept a sovereign Jewish state. Positions have hardened, and in the years of terrorism that followed, Israelis have become less willing to take risks or make fundamental concessions on these issues. No conceivable Israeli government will agree to rewrite history by accepting moral responsibility for the 1948 Arab invasion and the resulting refugee problem, or to re-divide Jerusalem and again risk the eventual exclusion of Jews from their sacred sites.
Skeptics note that even if these obstacles could somehow be overcome and agreement reached, implementation is an entirely different and far more complex challenge. Hamas will increase its denunciations of Abbas as a traitor to Arafat's legacy and the agreement will be rejected as lacking legitimacy, as in the case of the 1983 Lebanon-Israel Treaty. In Israel, advisors and commentators warn of the possibility of a sudden rapprochement between Fateh and Hamas that would scuttle any agreement, while the settlement movement will fight intensively to prevent withdrawal from the heart of the historic Land of Israel. In addition, as Defense Minister and Labor Party leader Ehud Barak has declared, the lessons of the Gaza and Lebanon withdrawals highlight the need for an effective anti-rocket defense system before Israel removes or reduces its security presence elsewhere. Barak has ridiculed the suggestion that a peace agreement is imminent.
Olmert and Abbas are intelligent enough to recognize these limitations along with the need to first build societal support for the "painful compromises" necessary to sustain an agreement. But neither wants to be seen in the US or Europe as not making the effort to achieve peace. As a result the talks, photo-ops and optimistic reports will continue, at least for now. Whether progress toward substantive and lasting agreement can be made by weak leaders with nothing to lose remains to be seen.- Published 13/8/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Prof. Gerald Steinberg chairs the Political Studies Department at Bar Ilan University and heads NGO Monitor.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
an interview with Ali Jarbawi
bitterlemons: There has been some fanfare surrounding the biweekly Abbas-Olmert meetings. Will they lead anywhere?
Jarbawi: First we have to understand the motive behind these meetings. Israeli PM Ehud Olmert is very weak; he has many internal problems with the Winograd report coming out and with his coalition government. He wants something that will at least delay his downfall. The only thing that might give him that is a resumption of talks with the Palestinians and a sense that there is something in the air, that there is progress.
bitterlemons: And Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas?
Jarbawi: This is the only track Abbas has. He believes in it and not only on the tactical level. He believes that this is the only way to reach an agreement with the Israelis. He wants the Americans on board, he wants the Israelis on board and he is ready to talk. Before he was prevented, first by [former President Yasser] Arafat, and then by Hamas. Now he is out of their respective shadows and he is going full steam ahead to bring about what he believes in.
bitterlemons: But one thing is having biweekly meetings, another is getting practical results. So far little has been seen...
Jarbawi: At the beginning no one thought these meetings would yield anything, but the idea of an international gathering in the autumn has breathed some life into them. The Americans--for their own reasons, the crisis in Iraq, the region, etc.--want progress on this front. They know they are not going to solve the issue but they may at least put some wind in the sails for a new administration to continue. These biweekly meetings will continue until that autumn meeting and the Americans want these meetings to focus on a general framework to give the autumn meeting something tangible: a document outlining a framework on the core issues for final status.
bitterlemons: But haven't we already got these principles? Is there a need to talk about this again?
Jarbawi: If the parties know they will not reach a final settlement, tactically they may instead aim for an interim agreement. This agreement, to make it stick, at least in front of the Palestinian people, Hamas and other factions, has to be presented within a framework. Abbas has on several occasions rejected an interim state, but the only thing that can come out of Israel right now is an interim solution. This solution must then be framed in such a way that people understand this is only one stage of many stages.
bitterlemons: It still seems we are only just back to some stage of the Oslo agreement.
Jarbawi: We are. The Israelis are not ready to talk about specifics, so this framework will be extremely general. Israel may agree to the principle of a two-state solution and that a Palestinian state should be viable and contiguous. These very general items will be mentioned. However, the Palestinians do not need this. Palestinians need specifics. When will the occupation end, when will there be a Palestinian state and what will that Palestinian state look like? These are the questions Palestinians want answered.
I don't think this framework will answer these questions. At the end we will discover that we are not moving but that Abbas and Olmert are only buying time. When we reach autumn we'll find we are only talking about things we talked about ten years ago.
bitterlemons: So there is no point to these talks except for the two leaders to buy time for themselves?
Jarbawi: No one needs generalizations about how things may one day look with no timeframe and no details. Olmert knows this and Abbas knows this. So, yes, both are trying to buy time. But Abbas has the problem of Hamas and Gaza. Either he talks to Hamas or he continues with this track. He has refused to talk to Hamas and so he wants something to show his people from this track. If he reaches autumn without any result he will be in deep trouble.
bitterlemons: But it sounds as if in your assessment nothing tangible will come from these talks. What option will he then be left with?
Jarbawi: I think Abbas hopes that by autumn he will have something tangible. He hopes he will have a general framework and, on the ground, an interim solution that will not be called an interim solution, a kind of state within the wall, with an easing of checkpoints and a better economy. This would give him something tangible with which he may call early elections. He will have to convince Palestinians that this "interim solution" comes in a framework that will lead to full independence, a complete end to the occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state. He can then call for a referendum and with a referendum he will call early elections.
If he doesn't have anything in hand by autumn, he will find himself in a vacuum. He will have nothing from the Israelis or Americans and he will have refused to talk to Hamas for months. He may then find the only solution is to quit.
bitterlemons: What about talking to Hamas?
Jarbawi: Until the autumn meeting I think he will focus only on talking to Olmert and the Americans. For the first time, Abbas is having things his way. When he was prime minister under Arafat he could not pursue this track freely. When he became president and Hamas won elections he could not either. Now he has things his way. He has full relations with the Americans and Israel. He wants to appease both sides in order to get something out of them. These have always been his tactics and I think he deserves his chance.
I don't believe he will get anything more than what was offered Arafat in 2000. Then, he, along with Arafat, refused that offer. I think he will get less than that now, if anything. So the question is, is he in such a squeeze that he will now accept less? I think he wants to but let's wait until autumn to see what he can get from the Israelis. I think what he and Olmert are discussing is essentially an interim solution.
bitterlemons: So these meetings are very important to Abbas?
Jarbawi: Extremely important. He is a true believer in negotiations as the only means to obtain results. Let us see where this leads. I think it will not lead to anything acceptable to Palestinians, but this is his chance.- Published 13/8/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Ali Jarbawi is a professor of political science at Birzeit University.
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