b i t t e r l e m o n s. o r g
    February 19, 2007 Edition 7                      Palestinian-Israeli crossfire
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  Mecca, Rice and the Arab peace initiative
. Too many advantages to be ignored        by Ghassan Khatib
The Saudi initiative will prove useful as brokers attempt to learn from the mistakes of the past.
  . How to make the Saudi plan work        by Yossi Alpher
The Saudis and the Arab League have to address Israel directly.
. Pushing the morphine        an interview with Hazem Abu Shanab
The Israelis are not ready to pay the price for peace.
  . A different power-sharing arrangement        by Hillel Frisch
Olmert, Abbas and Rice have already proven that they can "deliver" little if anything.

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Too many advantages to be ignored
by Ghassan Khatib

America and Israel are starting to show a renewed willingness to return to a bilateral political negotiating process. The international, and especially US, abandonment in recent years of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has led to disaster, and Israel's unilateral strategy has collapsed.

It is therefore no surprise that politicians and analysts are looking to the 2002 Arab peace initiative as a promising basis for such a process. Certainly the Saudis, who drafted the initiative, as well as the Jordanians and Egyptians are strongly promoting this approach, and in this they are fully supported by the Palestinians.

The initiative provides a promising basis, because it proposes a known outcome toward which negotiations would then ensure implementation. That outcome, from an Arab and Palestinian perspective, would of course entail a complete end to the occupation and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

But the initiative also includes an unprecedented incentive to Israel. Previous agreements and initiatives were bilateral in nature. This initiative offers Israel a comprehensive peace, including normalized relations, with all Arab countries, no exceptions.

Secondly, the initiative contains the advantage of simultaneous implementation. In other words, the Israeli withdrawal is conditioned on Arab recognition.

Finally, and perhaps most important, fixing at least borders before implementation removes any chance of either side taking unilateral steps to subvert the final outcome. Such steps, specifically Israel's settlement program, were the primary factor in the failure of the peace process.

In the years of that process, Israel doubled the number of settlers in occupied territory and vastly expanded not only the number of settlements but also the areas of already existing settlements. At Camp David, such was the success of this Israeli program of creating facts on the ground that attempting to fix future borders was vastly influenced by these illegal settlements.

It is impossible to overestimate the importance of the Arab peace initiative. And as international and American Middle East diplomacy cranks up in gear again, the initiative will prove useful as brokers attempt to learn from the mistakes of the past.

Nevertheless, there are reservations in Washington because the Arab initiative requires comprehensive withdrawal in return for comprehensive peace. This includes withdrawal from the occupied Golan Heights. The US does not want to include Syria in its diplomatic efforts for reasons related to the Syrian role in Iraq and Lebanon.

But it would make sense to reverse the logic that led to this position. Inviting Syria to take part in the political process, thereby opening a dialogue between Syria on the one hand and Israel and the US on the other, would almost inevitably lead to a change in Syria's role in Iraq and Lebanon. This would especially pertain if the recent and very active Saudi regional diplomacy is taken advantage of.

A new Middle East peace process, led by the Quartet with active American, Saudi and Egyptian roles can build on the Saudi achievement of making Palestinian factions reach agreement in Mecca and will have a positive impact on both internal Palestinian politics and the regional picture. One of the main causes of Palestinian and regional radicalization is the continued suffering of the Palestinian people as a result of the ongoing Israeli occupation.- Published 19/2/2007 © bitterlemons.org

Ghassan Khatib is the coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president of Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning.

How to make the Saudi plan work
by Yossi Alpher

In recent months, Israel has increasingly recognized the interlocking nature of the multiple conflict zones--Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and the Israel-Arab conflict--that characterize today's Middle East. Not that one is the cause of the others, or that solving one will necessarily render the others easier to alleviate. Rather, the factor that links these conflicts is the expansion of radical Islam and the Iranian hegemonic drive, facilitated in part by disastrous American policies in the region.

This has led Israelis as well as moderate Sunni Arabs to recognize that history has brought them together, however uncomfortably, on the same side of a broad regional confrontation. It has provoked the Saudi leadership to take unusual steps that contradict American policy: threatening to intervene on the side of the Iraqi Sunnis, and most recently brokering the Mecca unity government agreement between Hamas and Fateh.

Now Saudi King Abdullah is reportedly planning to use next month's Arab League summit as a vehicle for expanding and improving upon his 2002 comprehensive Arab-Israel peace initiative, which was approved by an earlier League summit in late March 2002. And justifiably so. The Arab League/Saudi peace plan with its comprehensive regional nature is increasingly emerging as a possible vehicle for dealing with the Arab-Israel conflict and thereby leveraging regional cooperation against Iran and radical Islam. Saudi leadership is welcome here, especially in view of the Bush administration's mistaken regional policies and lack of energetic commitment to Arab-Israel peace.

From Israel's standpoint, in order for the plan to be more appealing Saudi strategists should consider enhancing it in a number of ways.

First, the original plan demands that Israel return to the 1967 borders as a condition for peace. Yet even the late King Hussein of Jordan and the PLO's Yasser Arafat recognized that territorial swaps and compromises have over the years become necessary. The plan should recognize and accommodate this factor with regard to both the Palestinian and the Syrian peace fronts.

Second, the plan offers Israel peace, normal relations and--perhaps most important given present conditions in the region--"security for all the states of the region". But what does this mean? It would be very helpful to present Israel with a more detailed description of the mutual security arrangements the plan contemplates, as an incentive for territorial concessions that might otherwise endanger Israel.

Third, the plan calls for "a just solution of the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194". Back in March 2002 this was touted as an Arab concession, insofar as the plan recognizes the need for all sides to agree and does not demand the right of return (in fact, neither does 194 if read carefully in its original context). Yet that same Beirut Arab League summit that approved the plan then went on to pass three successive resolutions reaffirming its demand for the right of return, as if no significant change in Arab positions had just transpired. Israel, which would be committing national suicide if it accepted the right of return even at the symbolic level, needs to hear clarifications on this issue.

Particularly troublesome for Israel is the concluding operative paragraph of the 2002 plan, which calls upon the League secretary general to recruit support for it from the United Nations, the United States, Russia, the Muslim states and the European Union--everybody but Israel. The objective seemed to be to compel Israel to accept the plan without discussion, debate or negotiation. This approach has to change. The Saudis and the Arab League have to address Israel directly. They have to come to Jerusalem to present their revised plan to the government and public of Israel. If they do so in the tradition of Anwar Sadat and King Hussein, they will be amazed at how forthcoming the Israeli public can be.

Finally, the plan has to be broken down into workable stages and integrated into the new and threatening regional context. Israel can be asked to make the first move, but there must be Arab initiatives, too. And both sides need to perceive that there are incentives to progress toward Arab-Israel peace and regional security cooperation.

Phase I should involve two Israeli steps. First, discussions with the PLO to clarify the territorial and other parameters of a successful two-state solution. This corresponds with recent "diplomatic horizon" proposals made by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni for jump-starting the peace process. The Rice-Abbas-Olmert summit of Feb. 19 was a problematic beginning, but nonetheless a beginning.

In parallel, Jerusalem should enter into preliminary back-channel negotiations with Damascus concerning the possibility of bilateral peace talks that would satisfy Israel and the United States' (and the Arabs') needs regarding cessation of Syrian support for terrorism and strategic collaboration with Iran, if and as an Israeli-Syrian territories-for-peace deal is reached. This reflects the inclination of many within the Israeli security establishment to test President Bashar Assad's invitation to Israel to renew negotiations. If, however, the Saudis share American reservations about rewarding the problematic Assad with even exploratory talks at this juncture, then they should amend their peace plan accordingly, so that Israel is not held to a hypocritical regional peace standard.

Assuming one or both of these moves begin to generate momentum and lay the foundations for full-fledged negotiations, phase II would bring Israel together with the two "quartets"--the Saudi, Egyptian, Jordanian and Gulf leaderships along with the UN, US, EU and Russia--to begin discussing normalization of Israel-Arab relations, including security cooperation. Just as the Arab public wants to see progress toward Israel-Arab peace, the Israeli public needs to witness serious Arab gestures in the context of normalization and security cooperation against common enemies, and to be reassured that successful peace processes are rewarded by the Arab world.

Phase III witnesses Israeli-Palestinian and possibly Israeli-Syrian peace processes, either in parallel or in sequence, supported by international and Arab incentives and ultimately culminating in (phase IV) bilateral peace agreements and multilateral normalization and security coordination.

Whereas the first two phases could take six months to a year, phases III and IV would, in the best case, stretch out over years. Indeed, even to begin this process requires a degree of Israeli, Palestinian and American resolve and energy that appears to be sadly lacking. Yet the interactive nature of today's Middle East crises, and their gravity, demand nothing less than a major push for peace by the moderate Arab countries led by Riyadh.- Published 19/2/2007 © bitterlemons.org

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications.

Pushing the morphine

an interview with Hazem Abu Shanab

bitterlemons: Were you disappointed by the lack of tangible results from the trilateral meeting between US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert?

Abu Shanab: There were no surprises from the meeting, and we didn't expect much from the beginning. The Israeli media had already reduced expectations because the message from there was that there is no possibility of serious peace negotiations in the very near future.

I believe there is still a lot of work to be done inside the Israeli government, which is not yet ready for real negotiations. The Palestinian side is doing much better than before, and Palestinian leaders are trying to reform their government and improve its political identity.

The international community is working to return to dealing with the Palestinian government but the problem lies with the Israeli government.

bitterlemons: But the US also seems to be opposed to the unity government.

Abu Shanab: Yes, and again that is to be expected. I think the US administration still sticks to the Israeli position, which is not to deal with any government that has any Hamas involvement.

But this is not the major problem. The major problem lies with the Israeli regime. The Israelis are not ready to pay the price for peace or to work in a systematic way to pursue negotiations with the Palestinians. And even if they did, and signed an agreement, I don't think this Israeli government is ready to implement such an agreement. The Israeli government is very weak.

bitterlemons: In spite of its opposition to a unity government, Washington seems very keen on a political process. Do you think this is genuine?

Abu Shanab: Washington is gradually evolving its position on the Palestinian question. But the US administration is primarily looking to reduce violence in the region, especially on the Palestinian track, but also in Iraq and Lebanon. The US priority is to find a way to deal with the Iranian file and the Americans want everything else to be calm so as to devote their efforts to that.

The US believes Tehran is stirring up the Palestinian, Iraqi and Lebanese issues to divert attention from Iran and thus to gain time to continue the nuclear program. So the Americans are eager to calm down the region, provide morphine, to deal with Iran.

bitterlemons: The Saudis are getting more and more involved. There was the Mecca agreement, there have been talks between President George W. Bush and King Abdullah and there is of course the Saudi peace initiative, which became the Arab peace initiative. But the Americans are reluctant to pursue this. Do you think the initiative is a fruitful avenue to explore?

Abu Shanab: I think it would be if the Israelis agreed to work on it. But I think the Israelis are not ready to work on any peace process. The major problem will appear in the very near future. The Saudis and the Arab countries are going, I believe, to refine the initiative at the upcoming Arab summit, and the Israelis will need to change direction to properly deal with what is happening on the international level. But I think the Israelis have too many internal problems to do that.

bitterlemons: How will the initiative be refined?

Abu Shanab: I think details will be fleshed out on how exactly to normalize relations between Arab countries and Israel and how any recognition will happen, whether individually or collectively.

bitterlemons: How important is Washington in this?

Abu Shanab: The current US administration does not have enough time, so it is setting its priorities. The major priority for the US is to solve the Iranian question, because they feel the nuclear program in Iran is progressing and they want to ensure that this program poses no threat. Washington only wants to calm the situation in Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon, as well as Korea, so we can only really expect the US to push morphine on us.- Published 19/2/2007 © bitterlemons.org

Hazem Abu Shanab is a political commentator and a professor of media and education at Gaza's al-Azhar University.

A different power-sharing arrangement

by Hillel Frisch

The Washington Post on February 16 described Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's trip to the region as a "high-profile" peace mission. There was only one problem with the wording. It appeared in a news-item on page 18, a clear indication of the relatively low priority the trip enjoys on the political agenda of the United States and therefore the very low probability of its success.

Worse still is the common denominator shared by all those who attended the "high-profile" meeting: PM Ehud Olmert, President Mahmoud Abbas and Rice have already proven that they can "deliver" little if anything.

Abbas does not possess a politician's fighting instinct to make him an effective prime-minister in a country like Sweden, let alone be a leader in the tumultuous, violence-ridden Palestinian arena.

Olmert, trapped between the fiasco of his foray into Lebanon and seemingly never-ending corruption charges against him, competes with Abbas in poor leadership qualities, while Rice has been consistently unsuccessful in almost everything she has done, serving a president whose inclination is to deal with Iran but is increasingly compelled to defend his policies in Iraq.

Yet leadership ability, particularly regarding Abbas, would be critical to any real attempt by Rice to advance a negotiation process.

At the very minimum, renewing negotiations that involve give-and-take by definition requires two sides sufficiently coherent and solidified to engage in the business of exchange. The Palestinians, by their own account, have yet to reach such a level of internal coherence and solidarity despite the fanfare accompanying the signing of the Mecca accord and the resignation of Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh as a first move toward the emergence of a unity government. With a tally of 100 deaths linked to politically motivated violence since December, Palestinian skepticism seems well-founded. Abbas' weakness has only fed rather than decreased Palestinian polarization.

Even more critically for Rice, the Palestinian president would clearly have to lead the unity government and the negotiations with Israel and Hamas would have to follow. Yet this is the dynamic Abbas has consistently failed to establish since Hamas' electoral victory in January 2006. To the contrary, one notable failure, his inability to thwart attempts to create Hamas' Executive Force and then prevent its consistent growth, may have already cost the Abbas camp the irretrievable loss of Gaza to Hamas.

Rice knows that it was United States policy that gave Hamas the opportunity to win and gain the political clout that has since catapulted the Syrian-based and supported Hamas political leadership to the highest forums of Arab politics. It was United States policy that placed the movement in a position where it adeptly aligned with Iran in order to initiate counter-bids and payoffs by the opposing Saudi side in the new Middle East cold war.

The US watched with dismay how the game paid off handsomely for Hamas in the Mecca agreement. The precedent of a fundamentalist government coming to power by virtue of a United States-directed policy of democratization, if not checked, could prove disastrous to US and western interests.

The secretary of state's mission, then, is hardly to made peace but rather to check radical fundamentalist power in Iran, Iraq and in the Palestinian arena. In the Palestinian arena, this means to compel Abbas to be tougher toward Hamas in two important ways. The first is to groom the leader tough enough to handle Hamas: Mohammad Dahlan. The second move is to stop Hamas at all costs from creating any significant internal military force in Judea and Samaria.

Ostensibly, the Israeli leadership should be firmly behind these attempts. But weak and fractious leadership is jeopardizing the attainment of goals Israel shares with the United States. Olmert has caved in to pressures by Hamas' sister organization in Israel, the Islamic Movement, over the Temple Mount, thereby further bolstering the Islamists in the territories.

Moreover, instead of preserving a non-existent ceasefire Olmert should have aimed, as in Judea and Samaria, to achieve a threshold of penetration that would allow preventive arrests of would-be rocket launchers. Israel was beginning to achieve such a capability in the summer of 2006, after which it erred in adopting a policy of restraint.

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Zippi Livni is harming Israel's strategic interests by trying to outflank Olmert with misguided liberal policies. Instead, the order of the day should be firmness toward Palestinians in meeting internationally-sanctified goals that require Hamas to recognize Israel, accept rather than "respect" all existing agreements and totally cease terrorism.

The Mecca agreement was presumably a power-sharing deal among Palestinians. Rice's task is to make sure that the power-sharing at Mecca remains strictly on paper. The true power-sharing should take place among Israel, the United States, Abbas and probably the Jordanian leadership for good measure. It would rest on a strong common denominator: opposition to an Iranian-orchestrated radical Islam that supports Hamas. For while Hamas might have raised the stakes in Mecca, its sentiments and ardor are nevertheless firmly implanted in Tehran.- Published 19/2/2007 © bitterlemons.org

Hillel Frisch is a senior researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, Bar-Ilan University.

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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.