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    February 15, 2010 Edition 4                      Palestinian-Israeli crossfire
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  If negotiations are resumed: ramifications of failure
  . Look at alternatives        by Yossi Alpher
Peace talks are best held between strong and cohesive governments that are in full control of their territory.
. We shouldn't rush into negotiations        by Ghassan Khatib
We should not resume talks for the sake of having a process.
  . To negotiate or not to negotiate        by Oded Eran
The Palestinians and the US may take courage from the fact that every past round shortened the distance to the Israeli goalpost.
. Failed negotiations could fatally undermine the Palestinian Authority        by George Giacaman
It should be obvious that unless there is also direct American pressure on the Israeli government there can be no agreement.

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Look at alternatives
by Yossi Alpher

The consequences of failed Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations can be discussed in two contexts: impending talks that seem likely to fail, and past negotiations that did fail. Reviewing past experience would appear to be the best way to start. Overall, the picture is not a positive one.

In the mid-1990s, extreme violence punctuated what were considered at the time successful negotiations aimed at implementing the Oslo agreement. Prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres just kept negotiating in 1995-96, with only the right-wing opposition arguing that Palestinian suicide bombings mandated a halt. In retrospect, knowing what we now know about Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the right was right.

The political damage was extensive. It brought Binyamin Netanyahu to power. He and Arafat successfully negotiated two interim agreements during Netanyahu's earlier term in office (1996-1999). Netanyahu's governing coalition fell over the second agreement. But violence remained minimal, enabling Ehud Barak to execute a smooth takeover and continue the process.

Prime Minister Barak and Arafat went to Camp David with Arafat confidently predicting the failure of those talks. In retrospect, all sides were so poorly prepared and the gaps separating the two sides so glaringly wide, that failure was guaranteed. Moreover, neither had sufficient political support--Barak from his failing coalition, Arafat from the Arab world--to risk a deal. The outcome was the second intifada, which broke out even as post-Camp David talks continued.

Ariel Sharon's refusal to negotiate offers a different instance. As prime minister in the first half of this decade, Sharon was convinced negotiations would fail, hence avoided them. Instead, when pressured to register progress, he withdrew unilaterally from the Gaza Strip. The outcome of that non-negotiated withdrawal was prolonged violence and political disruption.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas entered the year-long Annapolis talks in 2008 with little chance of success, if only because both leaders were patently too weak politically to "deliver" their respective establishments. In the end, their negotiations also failed, but without the spectacular negative results of 2000. Indeed, the public was not even aware of the substance of the failure until Abbas revealed it almost a year later. On the other hand, once it was revealed just how far-reaching an offer Olmert made and Abbas rejected, many Israeli supporters of a negotiated two-state solution concluded that Abbas would never be a candidate for peace.

Against the backdrop of these failures and their ramifications, we approach the prospect of yet another round of talks, this time between Abbas and Netanyahu.

Leaving aside for the moment Netanyahu's lukewarm peace rhetoric and self-imposed coalition constraints and Abbas' ongoing preconditions, let's assume negotiations do get under way. Like most preceding rounds, this one too seems likely to fail due to both the substantive gaps between the two sides on issues like Jerusalem, and their political weakness. Note that the current point of departure for negotiations is relative quiet on both sides--or rather on all three sides, including Hamas in Gaza.

If the negotiations register significant progress, Netanyahu's coalition is likely to collapse, precipitating political crisis in Israel with an end result no one can predict. Abbas, too, is likely to be under heavy pressure from his Fateh supporters to avoid making concessions. Moreover, progress could impel Hamas in Gaza to initiate violence in order to thwart a Fateh achievement in the West Bank. Israeli retaliation against Hamas might also torpedo anything achieved. Hamas' escalation of violence in late 2008 and the Olmert government's response are a case-in-point.

On the other hand, the Obama administration's efforts to renew negotiations are apparently motivated at least in part by the belief that the very existence of talks could prevent violence in our part of the region and would make it easier for the US to deal with other crises in the Middle East. The past offers little evidence to support these suppositions: the 1995 suicide bombings and the second intifada broke out while talks were going on; an Iranian regime friendly to the US fell at the height of the first Camp David process. At least, if the next round of talks is indirect, its failure might be less significant, hence portend fewer risks.

Yet again, one could argue that the specter of a right-wing Israeli government negotiating a two-state solution, however unsuccessfully, is good for the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace and that it conditions an ever-growing portion of the Israeli public to territorial compromise. Netanyahu's previous tenure and his current embrace of the two-state solution could be seen as bearing out this point. Then too, final status talks, however uninspiring, could provide useful "cover" for positive unilateral moves by both sides.

Obviously, peace talks are best held between strong and cohesive governments that are in full control of their territory. But that is not the case at present on either side, and is not likely to be in the near future. Yet abandoning any and all prospect of a solution due to the fear of failure and its consequences is hardly the answer.

That's why alternative roads to progress should receive greater attention. One is Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's successful unilateral state-building enterprise in the West Bank. Another is the need to learn from the failure of the Gaza blockade and seek an alternative strategy for stabilizing the Strip so it can't interfere with a peace process. Yet a third is negotiations with Syria, which have a better chance of success and could positively influence the Palestinian track. Why is the Obama administration devoting so much of its prestige to renewing West Bank negotiations that are doomed to failure and not dealing more aggressively with these additional prospects?- Published 15/2/2010 © 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.

We shouldn't rush into negotiations
by Ghassan Khatib

In spite of the failure of US-led international efforts to secure the necessary conditions for a successful renewed peace process, pressure is increasing on the Palestinian side to accept going to negotiations anyway. This is in spite of continued Israeli settlement expansion and without any Israeli commitment to specific terms of reference such as previously signed agreements, the 2003 Quartet roadmap or relevant UN Security Council resolutions.

This pressure raises an important question for both politicians and analysts. Is it wise to resume negotiations even without ensuring that the necessary ingredients for success are present? Or is it better to continue efforts to ensure that any renewed negotiations would have at least a minimal chance of success?

Some argue that delaying the resumption of negotiations would only contribute to the trends of radicalization on both sides and give space for the creation of negative facts on the ground, more settlements, more settler-only roads and more military checkpoints. Resuming negotiations now, this school of thought holds, is the best chance of creating a positive atmosphere to neutralize all these negative developments.

Others argue that previous experience has shown that resuming negotiations without the necessary preparation and a minimum chance of success will not only be a waste of time, but will further enhance the positions of the radical elements on both sides against negotiations in general and encourage them to pursue alternatives to a peaceful negotiating process.

This was most obvious on the Palestinian side during the last round of negotiations, the Annapolis process, when the failure of one-and-a-half years of negotiations to a large degree weakened the public position of the leadership involved in the talks and bolstered the argument of Hamas and others, which were able, yet again, to say "we told you so".

But second, and more important, the negotiating process never neutralized the much more damaging developments on the ground, where Israeli settlement building does more than any argumentation by any party to undermine prospects for peace and the credibility of negotiations.

A renewal of negotiations under similar circumstances now will only give the international community the false impression that progress is being made and that the parties now need to be left on their own to negotiate with no external interference. This, of course, simply provides Israel cover to make its vastly greater power felt by pushing ahead and further changing the reality on the ground, whether with settlements or in other ways.

That's why there has to be a new and different approach to international mediation led by the United States. And this should include pursuing a political agenda that concentrates on the fundamental aspects of the conflict rather than practical and minor details.

Since there is international consensus that the peace process is about creating two states, and since the international community does not recognize the Israeli occupation of the territories, including East Jerusalem, that are supposed to make up the Palestinian state, then a more promising approach is clearly not hard to shape.

First, negotiations should be about the realization of the two-state concept and particularly the establishment of a Palestinian state. As long as Israel is engaging in activities on the ground that undermine this aim, it should have to do so in the face of a clear international vision vis-a-vis the future of Palestinian-Israeli relations.

Second, the international community needs to continue giving the necessary support for Palestinian efforts to build institutions of state to ensure that Palestinians can live in dignity and ultimately prepare for statehood.

If the international community continues to allow itself to be taken in by the Israeli tactic of engaging on small, practical, non-political issues, however, it will only provide Israel with the space it needs to maintain and consolidate its expansionist settlement project while bolstering Hamas and others who oppose a negotiated peace process. This way we will continue to see greater radicalization alongside a concomitant reduction in opportunities to secure the kind of negotiations that have any chance of success.

In all, it is preferable that we continue to work on preparing the ground for successful negotiations, including increasing efforts to secure a complete settlement freeze in addition to setting agreed terms of reference, than to resume talks for the sake of having a process.- Published 15/2/2010 © bitterlemons.org

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views.

To negotiate or not to negotiate

by Oded Eran

The Israeli prime minister and the Palestinian president claim they are interested in final status negotiation. Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) is clear in his objections to anything except final status, but he has preconditions. Binyamin Netanyahu wants final status negotiations but without prior conditions. If and when that gap is bridged and negotiations begin, the wider gap, on core issues, will be revealed.

Though the Palestinian side may agree to the Clinton proposals of 2000 that divide sovereignty over the suburbs of Jerusalem on an ethnic basis (what is Jewish is Israeli and what is Arab is Palestinian), the two sides will most probably be unable to decide on the future of the part of Jerusalem inside and just outside the walls. In the past, prime ministers Barak and Olmert went far beyond the Israeli consensus by agreeing to divide sovereignty even within the city walls, but no final agreement was reached. Whether such a proposal would have passed the political hurdles of a Knesset vote (one at least would be needed to undo the laws concerning Jerusalem that have been adopted since 1967) and a referendum, Netanyahu and most of his current ministers are unlikely to accept such a compromise.

The same can be said about Palestinian refugees. Past Israeli negotiators were willing to accept a return of up to 75,000. But Netanyahu does not recognize the very principle of return, and even if the relatively moderate Kadima party were to join the government this would not increase support for compromise on the issue.

The third core issue, the borders outside Jerusalem, is unlikely to produce a greater degree of compromise, though here the current Israeli government may be able to show greater flexibility.

In other issues that relate to the attributes of Palestinian sovereignty, further unbridgeable gaps may be exposed. These include the degree to which the future Palestinian government controls the entry points into its territory, its airspace and electro-magnetic space.

The political on top of geographic separation between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank further complicates matters. What is Abu Mazen's validity as a negotiator on behalf of the Palestinians and what is the likelihood of Hamas accepting the results of his negotiations? To the extent that there was an initial element of flexibility in his negotiating tactics, this has been eliminated by the need to prove to the Palestinian camp that he is not yielding any ground to Israel.

So the question begs itself--if the final outcome of final status negotiations is pre-determined, why are the Israeli and Palestinian leaders so keen on opening them, beyond the possibility that both are bluffing and seek to pin the blame for failure to launch the talks on the other side?

The Palestinian side is also reluctant to embark on an incremental, bottom-up approach as it suspects that the Israeli government really wishes to reduce international pressure, mostly from the US administration, by making the fewest possible concessions. The Palestinian side, though not completely averse to getting more territory in the West Bank, wishes to link any partial step to a very clear action plan for the attainment of the establishment of a Palestinian state. In Abu Mazen's view, the Palestinian side carried out its phase I obligations under the 2003 roadmap, hence what is to be discussed is the Palestinian statehood phase. The Palestinian side points to its achievements in building internal security organs and fighting terror organizations and to the famous Salam Fayyad plan for state institution-building during the next 18 months.

Netanyahu's calls for permanent status negotiations result from a different logic. This is his second term and most probably his last chance of leaving his mark in Israel's history books. Secondly, the Palestinians won't trade the only card they hold--end of conflict--for a partial step, while Netanyahu wants an end of conflict agreement. But here is the paradox: not only will Netanyahu not pay the price asked by the Palestinians but his definition of end of conflict differs from that of the Palestinians and from the one offered in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. He has repeated this demand several times, including in his Bar Ilan speech. Netanyahu wants the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the Jewish state. Abu Mazen rejects this demand, saying that what happens behind final borders once they are agreed upon is Israel's business to define for itself. Netanyahu and those supporting his demand say that the Palestinian definition of end of conflict is not necessarily the end of all claims that Palestinians harbor in their minds and souls, hence the request to the Arab side to accept his definition.

What, therefore, is the political logic of launching permanent status negotiations against the odds and given that all previous attempts failed? Both the Palestinian government and the US administration may take courage from the fact that every round in the past shortened the distance to the Israeli goalpost.

The Oslo accords produced Israel's recognition that it will be separated from the West Bank and that it will have to negotiate, among other issues, Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees. Camp David 2000 saw the introduction into the Israeli public discourse of the possibility of dividing Jerusalem and the removal of some of the settlements and the idea of a swap between territory in the West Bank and territory in Israel within the 1967 lines. Even if the next round does not produce results, according to this view, a further softening of Israeli public opinion may occur.

This view is certainly supported by the far-reaching concessions that Olmert, the former hawkish mayor of Jerusalem, was willing to make as prime minister during his negotiations with Abu Mazen during 2008. When, in 2000, I spoke to Mayor Olmert, he rejected the slightest concession in Jerusalem. In 2008 he agreed, according to his own account of the talks with Abu Mazen, to share control of the inner parts of Jerusalem with other states, mostly Arab.

From the US point of view, the deeper the talks touch the core issues of borders, Jerusalem and refugees the greater the prospect of the Netanyahu government changing it composition, with Kadima joining at the expense of FM Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu party, possibly Shas and certainly the smaller far-right parties.

Reducing the element of risk can be achieved by combining the two approaches, the bottom-up incremental one with permanent status talks. A positive development on one track may influence the other and can increase overall prospects of success. That was done already in the roadmap; its revival can assist in bringing the two sides to the talks in a framework acceptable to both.- Published 15/2/2010 © 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.

Failed negotiations could fatally undermine the Palestinian Authority

by George Giacaman

The Palestinian leadership continues to resist ever-growing pressure to return to negotiations with Israel. And unless the international community, and especially the US, is ready to underwrite serious and substantial negotiations, embarking on a negotiations process that will likely fail could have dramatic consequences.

Last year, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), the Palestinian Authority president, quickly followed the US administration in demanding a complete cessation of Israeli settlement building in occupied territory, including in East Jerusalem. The Obama administration, however, proved unable to deliver, except in a limited way. This has left Abu Mazen in a difficult position, especially given his many public pronouncements on the subject in the past several months. After all, he has a Palestinian public to worry about whose opinion, especially after the Goldstone affair, it has become more difficult to ignore.

Hence we are now witnessing an attempt to enter indirect negotiations as a way to prepare for direct talks. According to the Israeli media, Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, wants such indirect talks to last only a few weeks and merely to provide a "ladder" for Abu Mazen to climb down and begin direct negotiations. Indeed, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, is in the Gulf partly to convince Arab states to pressure Abu Mazen to restart talks. It is therefore not impossible that such negotiations will start.

But what we are really witnessing is an attempt by Netanyahu to go back to the formula revealed by Yitzak Shamir after he lost power following the first peace talks in Madrid in 1991, when he said he would have let negotiations drag on for 20 years. The objective of the present Israeli government is similarly to flesh out any negotiations long enough to make it impossible for the US administration to put any pressure on Israel, i.e., at least until just before the next US presidential elections.

This, in the meantime, will allow Israel to continue the process of settling the West Bank and East Jerusalem, as indeed it is continuing to do even under the current so-called freeze, which is in any case temporary. Certainly there is no reason to believe that such negotiations will lead anywhere in the absence of concrete and concerted pressure on the Israeli government.

Abu Mazen and his advisors understand well that 18 years since the Madrid conference in 1991 we are not anywhere near a solution. The problem with the Oslo accords was that bilateral negotiations, meaning only between Palestinians and Israelis, were posited as the sole mechanism for progress. But this mechanism has led nowhere. It should be obvious that unless there is also direct American pressure on the Israeli government as a way to redress the imbalance of power--military, political or otherwise--between the two sides, there can be no agreement.

Continued negotiations without result, furthermore, are a high-stakes game for the PA. They will engender even further loss of credibility and it is not impossible that if such negotiations are entered into and then go nowhere, Abu Mazen will resign. Then we will likely see the beginning of a process in which the PA as a whole is undermined and will gradually disintegrate.

Should this happen I doubt there will be any more rounds of negotiations. A different formula will have to be devised, perhaps an imposed solution from the United Nations Security Council. This is a scenario Israel fears. But Israel also fears the only alternative in the event of failed negotiations, the dismantlement of the PA. The present Israeli government is not interested in re-occupying all the West Bank and assuming the burden of occupation. But once the security situation deteriorates, it will be forced to do so, and with the gradual dismantlement of the PA, Israel will also be forced to take on responsibility for governing.

The question is not whether to return to negotiations, but what are the requirements for success. Here the Palestinians have been very clear. First, there can be no return to square one. Second, there has to be a timeframe. Third, there have to be certain points of reference for the talks, such as international decisions regarding the conflict, including UNSC resolutions 242 and 338 as well as the Arab Peace Initiative.

These provide a necessary framework for negotiations, because negotiating in a vacuum, as we have seen, leads nowhere. But even with such a framework, there is no guarantee of success. In addition to pushing for such a framework, the US must bring pressure to bear on the Israeli government. Without such pressure, as even US officials and analysts concede, there will be no progress.- Published 15/2/2010 © bitterlemons.org

George Giacaman is a professor at Birzeit University and contributes on a regular basis political analysis for Arab and international media.

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Editors Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher can be reached at ghassan@bitterlemons.org and yossi@bitterlemons.org, respectively.

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.