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    March 19, 2007 Edition 11                      Palestinian-Israeli crossfire
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The new Palestinian government and the future of negotiations
. Optimism and despair        by Ghassan Khatib
The highly exaggerated negative Israeli attitude can be partially understood as an expression of Israeli desperation to ease internal pressure.
  . Israel will end up either talking or attacking        by Yossi Alpher
Saudi sponsorship of this government ostensibly reflects an enhanced degree of Saudi influence over it.
. A pivotal time        by Ali Jarbawi
The formation of the Palestinian national government strikes at the heart of Israel's plans.
  . Weak leaders and no common ground        by Gerald M. Steinberg
At best, Palestinian and Israeli officials might resume limited negotiations on pragmatic conflict management and humanitarian aid measures.

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Optimism and despair
by Ghassan Khatib

The Palestinian Authority has finally managed to put together a new Palestinian Cabinet. The unity government is new and unique in many ways.

First, it includes the two main rival Palestinian factions, Fateh and Hamas. These two were recently engaged in fierce military confrontations mostly in Gaza. Second, the government has a political platform that is neither the PLO's nor that of the traditional opposition, i.e., Hamas and others.

But while the Palestinian people received news of the formation of the government with optimism there was little enthusiasm. The optimism stems from the hope that, like the Mecca agreement, the government will maintain internal calm and adhere to the ceasefire between Fateh and Hamas that has been observed in Gaza since Mecca. The lack of popular enthusiasm, meanwhile, is a result of the very low expectation that the new government can do much to improve the economic, social and political difficulties people have faced in the last seven years.

There are three reasons for this. One is the deep and justified sense that underlying Palestinian problems cannot be solved by Palestinians but rather are due to the Israeli occupation, the practices that arise as a result of that occupation and the actions in response, or lack of them, from the international community.

Secondly, and as much as national unity is a popular choice, there are deep misgivings among the public about the quality of the people in the new Cabinet.

The Hamas representatives are those who served and, in the public perception, failed in the last Cabinet. The Fateh ministers, meanwhile, have been chosen from the lesser-known ranks of the party and are not seen as the strongest candidates. Instead, the independent personalities in the new Cabinet appear the most qualified for their positions.

There is also a strong sense that little can be expected from this government in terms of the vital services it is meant to provide the Palestinian people, especially since the financial crisis that began with the first Hamas government appears set to continue in this second Hamas-led Cabinet in spite of the inclusion of Fateh and independent representatives.

The international community appears determined to continue the financial boycott of the PA, despite some debate in Europe. Past experience shows that Europe will eventually follow Washington's lead, and the US shows no sign of departing from the line it is taking from Tel Aviv.

This is in spite of the fact that while the new government has little chance of playing a significant political role, it has clearly delegated that responsibility to President Mahmoud Abbas. That should allow a window of opportunity for the political process that Condoleezza Rice has been promising in her two last visits.

One important obstacle is the failure to solve the prisoners' exchange issue and that of the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. In fact, the highly exaggerated negative Israeli attitude vis-a-vis this new government can be partially understood as an expression of Israeli desperation to solve the Shalit problem in order to ease internal pressure rather than any problem per se with the composition of the Palestinian government.

In fact, the unity government represents a significant move by Hamas toward international legality. This is something that must be appreciated, especially by Israel.

The platform of the government includes an explicit commitment to respect previously signed agreements between the PLO and Israel. It also expresses respect for the relevant resolutions of the UN and international legality. Finally and most importantly, Hamas recommitted itself to the ongoing ceasefire with Israel in Gaza and promised to expand it to the West Bank.

That is supposed to be one of Israel's main benchmarks in "evaluating" Hamas and its government.

Indeed from a Palestinian perspective, Hamas can even be criticized for making political concessions without achieving any in return and prior to any negotiations, in order simply to maintain its position in power.

This was something Hamas vowed to avoid when it was first elected. In light of Israel's refusal to abide by signed agreements, Hamas would appear to be duplicating Fateh's position in return for continuing in power.

The move to international legality is something that is likely to be reinforced at the upcoming Arab League summit in Riyadh. There, a Palestinian delegation headed by Abbas and including Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh is likely to attend and ratify an Arab initiative that is essentially a clear and forceful declaration of support for international legality in the form of a two-state solution on the 1967 lines and with a just solution to the Palestinian refugee issue.- Published 19/3/2007 © 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.

Israel will end up either talking or attacking
by Yossi Alpher

The advent of a Palestinian unity government once again clouds the issue of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and contacts. In reality, in considering the potential role of Hamas in preventing negotiations there are two categories of such talks to be discussed.

According to the Oslo accords, any and all peace talks or even conflict-management negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians must involve the PLO, headed by Mahmoud Abbas, and not the Palestinian Authority in which Hamas has now welcomed Fateh as a partner. In this regard, Israeli PM Ehud Olmert has been free to negotiate with Abbas over the past year and will continue to be able to negotiate without any direct Hamas-related constraints for the foreseeable future, or at least until Hamas actually becomes part of the PLO. It is not at all clear why Olmert declared that the advent of the new government somehow reduces the potential scope of his talks with Abbas, when previously the government was composed only of Hamas.

Logically, the fact that Abbas, as president of Palestine, now oversees a government in which Fateh has a stake in a power-sharing arrangement should make him more attractive to Israel as a negotiating partner. After all Abbas, who is generally considered a weak and ineffective leader but a man of integrity, could now conceivably be able to "deliver" a little more effectively than previously, when Hamas constituted the entire government.

Then too, Abbas retains control over the National Security Council and has appointed Mohammad Dahlan his national security adviser. This presents Israel with an attractive non-PA "address" for its security concerns. Moreover, Saudi sponsorship of the agreement that produced this government ostensibly reflects an enhanced degree of Saudi influence over it--an additional factor mitigating in favor of exploring with Abbas the prospects for a viable political process.

So discussion of the possibility of negotiations with Hamas over a political settlement, which would almost certainly focus on the latter's proposals for a long-term hudna, or ceasefire, is theoretical until such time (and it may come within a year or two) as Hamas assumes the presidency of Palestine and the leadership of the PLO. There remains, then, the question of "dealing" (rather than negotiating) with the unity government now that it comprises Fateh as well as Hamas.

Israel has indicated it will refuse all contact, even with such respected figures and veteran negotiating partners as Finance Minister Salam Fayad and Foreign Minister Ziad Abu Amr. After all, this new government has accepted none of Israel's and the Quartet's three conditions. Indeed, the new government's guidelines endorse armed struggle or resistance as a "legitimate right of the Palestinian people", ostensibly rejecting even the most easily negotiated of the three conditions, abandoning violence. Needless to say, the Olmert government will not turn over tax revenues to Fayad (although it has already begun to do so with Abbas and could now continue in this path).

In contrast, the international community, led by the Europeans and the United Nations, already appears to have rationalized the ethical and moral conflicts involved here and to have decided in favor of renewing contacts at least with the Fateh ministers and possibly with those from Hamas as well. Some international financial support will now enter Palestinian coffers directly through Fayad's ministry. The US position is not yet clear, but it's hard to imagine Washington refusing to talk to Fayad, whose rise to prominence under the late Yasser Arafat reflected a virtual American diktat.

Indeed, it is equally hard to contemplate Olmert himself holding for long to his refusal to talk to the likes of Fayad and Abu Amr. First, because Israel is liable to find itself isolated on this issue and subject to American pressure to show some flexibility. Second, because Israel understands that the new unity government is the child of much-appreciated Saudi involvement. As such, it is linked to the Arab peace plan that Israelis have begun to take seriously and by extension to the aspiration, however tenuous and divorced from inter-Arab realities, to make common cause with the moderate Sunni Arab states against Iran and its allies. Third, because a much-desired prisoner exchange may require closer contacts. And fourth, because Olmert's days as prime minister are almost certainly numbered and his successor will be free to ignore the taboos of yesterday and start with a clean slate.

The Saudis, incidentally, point out that the new Palestinian government's guidelines also pledge to "work to maintain the tahdi'a [pause, or ceasefire] and extend it". As the Saudis understand the Mecca agreement that produced this government, they are in the process of successfully drawing Hamas into a commitment to a two-state solution and will make sure Hamas does indeed maintain and expand the ceasefire.

In any case, Olmert or his successor would be well advised to reevaluate the three conditions, which were neither pragmatic nor historically justified to begin with. Israel doesn't need Hamas' recognition to begin talking with it; close adherence to previous agreements, which is paid qualified lip service in the Mecca agreement and the new government's guidelines, has not been a characteristic of Abbas' administration or that of Arafat before him. If the ceasefire can be maintained and expanded (a concept that must include cessation of smuggling of ordnance into Gaza) and a prisoner exchange implemented, this should qualify Hamas with Israel's guarded readiness to open contacts.

If the new Palestinian government cannot satisfy this single condition--and the identity and lack of real authority of the new minister of internal security is not conducive to confidence in this regard--then in any case the IDF is liable to end up temporarily reoccupying and disarming parts of Gaza in order to prevent a Lebanon-like situation. Such a development would in all likelihood render useless all attempts at negotiation.- Published 19/3/2007 © 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 pivotal time

by Ali Jarbawi

Finally, after a long wait and tough discussions before and after the Mecca agreement, the Palestinian national unity government has been formed. It is a broad-based coalition government that primarily includes Hamas and Fateh but also representatives from other Palestinian factions.

The formation came basically as a response to pressing internal Palestinian considerations more than escalating external pressures and demands. Over the past year, the Palestinians have endured a difficult crisis that brought them to the brink of a devastating civil war. This was in addition to being subjected to a severe and suffocating political and economic siege imposed by Israel and the international community.

That siege came because after years of a political process during which the Palestinians were coerced into accepting a number of Israeli conditions, Hamas won the Legislative Council elections and formed a government on the basis of a refusal to recognize Israel or any agreement signed with it. Rather, it called for armed resistance against it.

This raised the ire of Israel and its western allies, the United States in particular. A harsh siege was imposed on the Hamas government with the aim of changing its political platform. The impact of that siege was magnified as a result of the internal strife between the Hamas government and members and supporters of Fateh.

Meanwhile, the civil servants strike did not just harm the public interest by closing schools, hospitals and other public institutions, it served to escalate the tension between armed elements in Fateh and Hamas. Armed clashes between the two sides ensued, which only worsened with time until they threatened open armed struggle. The situation reached a crossroads: either Hamas would be coerced into entering a political settlement according to Israeli conditions--which have also become international conditions--or it would be ousted from power by external pressures and internal strife.

The course of events, however, did not proceed as Israel and its allies hoped it would. Neither scenario materialized. Instead, chaos prevailed in the occupied Palestinian territories and the feelings of frustration and subjugation increased among Palestinians. As a result, they rallied around the Hamas government.

In addition, Arab unease over events rose, especially as they were coupled with other burning issues in the region concerning Iraq, Iranian nuclear ambitions and the Syrian-Lebanese file. It became imperative to address the Palestinian situation, thus resulting in Arab intervention. The climax was the signing of the Mecca agreement that led to the formation of the Palestinian national unity government and a breakthrough in the Palestinian arena.

This breakthrough was unwanted by the Israelis. Israel has always promoted instability on the internal Palestinian front. It benefits from a lack of Palestinian consensus on a unified strategy to confront Israel on the one hand, and uses this lack of agreement as a pretext for claiming that there is no Palestinian partner with whom to negotiate, on the other. This way, Israel can continue its comfortable occupation of the Palestinians and its unilateral measures aimed at imposing the settlement it wants on the Palestinians.

The formation of the Palestinian national government strikes at the heart of Israel's plans. To escape a looming civil war, Hamas and Fateh were forced to agree on a mutual partnership, even if on the lowest common denominators. Israel does not want to see the positive aspects of this agreement, most importantly that Hamas has budged from its previous position and now accepts the establishment of a Palestinian state on the borders of June 4, 1967 and agrees to hand over negotiations with Israel to the PLO, represented by its chairman, Mahmoud Abbas.

This is a substantial change in Hamas' position. But Israel is paying it no heed, because it does not want a political settlement based on the principle of a complete end to the occupation and the establishment of an independent and sovereign Palestinian state on all occupied land, in addition to a solution to the refugee issue according to international resolutions.

This is why Israel expressed its dissatisfaction with the Mecca agreement and later with the formation of the national unity government, announcing it would not recognize this government or deal with it if it did not accept the Quartet conditions--recognition of Israel and agreements signed with it in addition to the renunciation of "terror". Israel even added the condition of releasing the captive Israeli prisoner Gilad Shalit.

Indeed, since the signing of the Mecca agreement, Israel has been waging a vigorous campaign at the international level to turn western capitals against the Palestinians and their government. Now that the government has been formed, Israel has doubled its efforts and wants to force the Quartet parties to abide by its understanding of the three conditions. In other words, Israel does not want to allow the parties of the Quartet to interpret their conditions in the manner they feel appropriate and necessary to move the political process forward. Rather, Israel wants to force them to abide by the Israeli interpretation of their conditions.

Why all this pressure from Israel? Israel feels it may now be subjected to pressures it does not want to face. In past months, there have been changes in the overall atmosphere. Because of the consequences of its blunders in Iraq, the American administration has been subjected to internal and external pressures to reconsider its policy in the Middle East. At the center of this pressure, which is growing because of the possible ramifications of Iran's emergence at the regional level, is the insistence of Arab countries allied with the US on the necessity to resolve the Palestinian issue according to the Arab peace initiative.

In addition, Russia is resisting the America's tyrannical grasp over international policy, especially in the Middle East. We should also not forget the EU's ambition for a more effective role in this region given its proximity. Due to all these factors, there are tangible Arab and international ambitions to find a solution to the conflict based on the Arab peace initiative of 2002. The existence of a Palestinian national unity government and internal Palestinian harmony reinforces and strengthens this trend.

Israel will continue to pressure the American administration and, directly and through the US, the Quartet not to deal with the Palestinian government. By doing so, Israel is hoping to divert attention away from its obstinacy and blame the Palestinians. Israel also aims to pressure Arab countries to amend the Arab peace initiative to strip it of its fundamental content, i.e., a complete withdrawal from the occupied Palestinian territories and the need to reach a solution to the refugee problem according to UN Resolution 194. Israel will do everything necessary to achieve this goal, including waging a wide-scale military campaign in the Gaza Strip.

Israel's success or failure in its current endeavors depends on the ability of the Palestinian government and the upcoming Arab summit to stand firm. If the Palestinians and the Arabs succeed in holding on to the Arab peace initiative as it is, and if the Arabs lift the siege on the Palestinian government, the Israeli pressure will fail and be directed toward Israel instead.

However, if the Palestinian and Arab position shows any sign of weakness, the situation will lean toward a settlement on Israeli terms. The result of that will be a Palestinian statelet inside the wall, divided between the West Bank and Gaza, without the right of return for refugees. That will be the ultimate disaster. - Published 19/3/2007 © bitterlemons.org

Ali Jarbawi is a professor of political science at Birzeit University.

Weak leaders and no common ground

by Gerald M. Steinberg

The tragic record of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations does not bode well for a new round, particularly given the weak standing of the leaders. Despite the Mecca accord and the Palestinian unity government, the internal power struggle and street violence is likely to resume. And on the Israeli side, the Olmert-Peretz government may not survive the report of the Winograd Commission investigating the conduct of last summer's war in Lebanon.

But the obstacles to serious and lasting agreements that will improve the lives of both Israelis and Palestinians go far beyond the crises of the current governments. Strong leaders with broad societal support are necessary to negotiate the type of historic agreements that have eluded eager peace negotiators since 1947.

In this environment, the revival of the Saudi-Arab League initiative (presented in March 2002 as part of the Saudis' campaign to repair their image after the 9/11 attacks) provides thin hope. The main driving force is the fear of Shi'ite and Iranian hegemony and threats to the survival of the Sunni Arab regimes. Core Israeli-Palestinian issues, such as mutual acceptance, refugee claims, terror, boundaries and the complexities of sharing Jerusalem are secondary in this agenda.

To show Israelis that the new Fateh-Hamas government is more than a facade to allow Europe to resume massive funding, Palestinian leaders must end incitement and terror. There is no evidence that the Fateh "security forces" are suddenly going to be effective, while from Damascus and Tehran, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and others embrace religious extremism and repeat calls for the destruction of Israel. Talk of a 20 or even 40-year truce is neither credible nor beneficial.

History has shown that outside involvement, including the Oslo effort, is also likely to fail. The November 2005 agreement brokered by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and accompanied by a public relations blitz was followed by more attacks, massive arms imports via Egypt and the quick collapse of the European security role. In the shadow of daily rocket attacks and the June 2006 cross-border raid from Gaza in which Gilad Shalit was kidnapped, talk about peace negotiations seems hopelessly out of touch.

Although the Israeli leadership is pragmatic, reflecting the broad consensus supporting a realistic two-state solution, this government is also very weak and the societal agenda is focused on scandals and investigations. True, reports of talks with the Saudis--long seen as the main source of Islamic religious opposition to Jewish sovereignty--have generated a buzz. And when the opposition, led by Binyamin Netanyahu, attempts to topple PM Ehud Olmert, momentum from a regional "peace process" will be the government's strongest card.

But the weakness of both the government and the two major coalition parties, Kadima and Labor, limits flexibility. In December 2000, after Ehud Barak's government had collapsed and polls showed a huge lead for opposition leader Ariel Sharon, the last-ditch negotiations in Taba were widely condemned as illegitimate--particularly on core identity issues. Israelis see Palestinian claims to a "right of return" as another version of the core rejectionism that seeks to end Jewish sovereignty and has fuelled the conflict since 1947. And the core issue of Jerusalem is viewed from the perspective of 1948-1967, when the armistice agreement guaranteeing Jewish access to sacred sites in the Old City, including the Western Wall and Temple Mount, was ignored.

On this basis Olmert, Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu or one of the former senior IDF officers who might emerge as prime minister can explore options with the Saudis as part of the drive for overall regional stability and the anti-Iranian effort. In this context, photo-ops with Abbas and positive words about resuming talks with Palestinian officials (not with Hamas members) provide an acceptable cover.

And while the Arab League might again be able to lead the divided and unfocused Palestinians (as part of the de facto trusteeship that has developed), it will also have to show Israelis that this is not another "peace" plan that increases the risk of war and terror. If the wording adopted in Beirut in March 2002 is presented as a "take it or leave" statement, including the language on refugee claims, the Arab plan is a non-starter.

Under these circumstances, and with no strong leaders among the major players, there is little reason to expect a breakthrough. At best, Palestinian and Israeli officials might resume limited negotiations on pragmatic conflict management and humanitarian aid measures, if these are not exploited for terror as in the past. Beyond the "who" of negotiations lies the "what", and while the Iranian threat can lead to regional security cooperation that includes Israel, the foundation for resolving the long-standing Palestinian issues will take a long time to develop.- Published 19/3/2007 © bitterlemons.org

Prof. Gerald M. Steinberg heads the Program on Conflict Management at Bar-Ilan University and is executive director of NGO Monitor.

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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.