The Bush initiative to convene an international meeting on the Middle East has caused contradicting reactions in the region.
Some politicians and analysts, particularly in Israel and Palestine, have greeted the initiative with optimism. They believe that as a result, a political process may be reactivated along with the American engagement that the conflict has long been waiting for. They see in this plan an attempt to reverse American support for former Israeli PM Ariel Sharon's unilateral approach and a return to the bilateral process that the US has traditionally supported.
But others have been very skeptical about the real American motives and the ability of this administration to deliver anything positive on the Middle East. The skepticism stems from the absence of any reflection of a new American attitude in American-Israeli relations of a kind that can significantly affect ongoing Israeli policies and practices that consolidate the occupation. Such a change is seen by many as the most important criteria in judging the seriousness of any US initiative.
On the regional level, the exclusion of Syria from the meeting and thus discussion about Syrian-Israeli relations also casts a cloud over the initiative. Without Syria there is already a lack of Arab harmony, which is necessary to reach comprehensive peace as outlined by the Arab initiative. A comprehensive peace promises normalization across the board in exchange for a full withdrawal from occupied territory including the Golan Heights, but it needs broad Arab support and without Syria, this support is already weakened.
With regard to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, two factors mitigate against optimistic scenarios regarding an historic breakthrough before the end of US President George W. Bush' term. The first is the internal Israeli political scene and the second is internal Palestinian divisions.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who along with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas appears to be going along with the US initiative, is facing significant political difficulties in the near future with the publication of the Winograd commission's final report into the Israeli government's handling of last year's war in Lebanon. As a result, an atmosphere of electoral politics is already apparent in Israel, with Labor leader Ehud Barak and Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu training their sights on each other. The recent prominent statement by Barak dismissing the possibility of significant political progress between Israel and the Palestinians in the near future would appear to be the opening salvo in this battle.
In such an atmosphere, the internal Israeli political scene will not be conducive to the kind of change in Israeli policies and practices that would be needed for real political progress. More importantly, however, and regardless of the atmosphere, Israeli policies on the ground are completely incompatible with a fruitful political process. In spite of promises to the contrary, Olmert has been unable to remove settlement outposts, while settlement expansion continues apace. In addition, the system of restrictions on Palestinian movement continues unabated and the illegal wall in Palestinian territory only grows longer with each passing day.
As experience has shown, to allow settlement expansion to continue in tandem with a political process is to condemn the latter.
On the Palestinian side, the situation also is not conducive to real political progress. Isolating Hamas in the Gaza Strip does not reduce the movement's influence. In complete control of part of occupied Palestinian territory, Hamas still enjoys support from a majority of Palestinians in every single district across occupied Palestinian land. And although Hamas is unable to take over militarily in the West Bank as it did in Gaza, this is only a result of Israeli military control there. Hamas will thus be able to play the spoiler of any process if it so desires and if it continues to be neglected.
There are two prerequisites on the Palestinian side before a critical stage in any political process can be reached. One is to shift the balance of power between Fateh and Hamas, something that requires a little bit more than just paying the salaries of PA employees and includes the reform and unification of Fateh. The second is to launch an internal dialogue with Hamas that will give the movement an agreed-upon role in internal Palestinian arrangements in return for allowing a process to proceed. This is similar to the arrangement that was established by the Mecca agreement in which Hamas formed part of the government and Abbas was mandated by a national unity government and a Hamas-led parliament to proceed with a political process. As long as Hamas is a significant power and in fact enjoys majority support, it's impossible to ignore the movement when it comes to strategic developments like the process that is being suggested by this autumn meeting.
While renewed American diplomatic involvement is a good sign, success also requires American efforts in influencing positively internal Israeli politics while taking into consideration the internal Palestinian political reality.- Published 20/8/2007 © bitterlemons.org
For several weeks now I have been writing in these virtual pages that the Bush/Rice initiative to convene an international "meeting" in Washington in the fall to confirm some sort of new Israeli-Palestinian agreement has little chance of succeeding. I added that, nevertheless, I wish it success as long as its failure doesn't make it more difficult for Israelis and Arabs to make peace in the future.
Let us assume for a moment that it does indeed fail. The reasons would be fairly obvious. The principals, Messrs. Olmert, Abbas and Bush, are failed leaders grasping at straws. The Syrians and Hamas, neither of whom is invited, will seek to sabotage any chance of success. Israeli-Palestinian agreement even on a virtual declaration of principles will not be achieved because the right of return and Jerusalem issues will continue to elude consensus formulations and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas cannot afford simply to ignore or postpone these issues. The Saudis, even if they participate, will have done little or nothing to advance their own Arab-Israel peace initiative. And of course heavier Middle East crises in Iraq, Iran and possibly Lebanon will cast a long shadow over the proceedings.
It is time to ask how, indeed, such a near certain failure will impact future efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Here it is instructive to compare Bush's "meeting" to the most recent Israeli-Palestinian peace conference on record, the abortive Camp David II talks of July 2000. Then, the leadership situation was better. Unlike President George W. Bush, President Bill Clinton had been deeply involved in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process for years and had the support of the Arab world; Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was infinitely more authoritative than Abbas. Only Israeli PM Ehud Barak was in a comparable situation to current PM Ehud Olmert in that his government was tottering and his leadership qualities were called into question. The overall Middle East atmosphere was also infinitely more peaceful and optimistic than today.
Despite having been held in overall better circumstances than those that await Bush and Rice's fall meeting, Camp David II failed. The result was the second intifada and a near collapse, especially in Israel, of faith in a negotiated peace agreement with the PLO. This led to an attempt to withdraw unilaterally from Palestinian territories that produced equally problematic results.
Now, after all these tragedies and setbacks, the leaders of Israel and Palestine are finally back in a negotiating mode with the backing of an American president. For a variety of reasons, virtually none of which directly concern Israeli-Palestinian peace, all three leaders desperately need the political achievement of a successful conference: Abbas, to justify his refusal to deal with Hamas in Gaza; Olmert, to hang onto power when the Winograd commission's next report condemns his handling of last summer's war; Bush, to recruit Arab good will despite his failed endeavor in Iraq, his counter-productive democratization program and his empowering of Iran and al-Qaeda in the region.
But these are the wrong reasons. The meeting that Bush and Rice project for the fall cannot succeed with such weak leadership and poor strategic thinking. A Middle East peace process that ignores the Syria-Israel track, deals with only half the Palestinian leadership, fails to deeply involve the Arab moderates and is guided by a US administration whose Middle East strategy has patently failed is destined also to fail. And when it does, the consequences could be as bad for Israel, its neighbors and the US as those that followed the failure at Camp David in July 2000.
A failed Washington peace "meeting" could ensure the rise of Hamas to power in the West Bank, leading to a new round of Palestinian-Israeli violence and ending any chance of genuine peace for years. Ignoring Syria could well generate more conflict on Israel's northern front. Extremist Sunnis (al-Qaeda) and Shi'ites (Iran, Hizballah) would benefit from the failure, to the detriment of American interests and the moderate Sunni Arab states. In Israel, Olmert's government would fall and the moderate peace camp would again be discredited.
Some will argue that these dire predictions are precisely the reason to encourage Olmert and Abbas to reach preliminary agreement and enshrine it in an international conference, thereby giving new hope to the region. I would counter that, considering the odds, we would all be better off encouraging Olmert and Abbas, with international support, to engage in more modest but promising pursuits. They should continue implementing confidence-building measures and building Palestinian security and other institutions, with an eye to renewing partial territorial withdrawals once security progress enables such a move.
Anything more ambitious at this time and under current circumstances is liable to be counter-productive and destructive to all our interests.- Published 20/8/2007 © 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 special adviser to PM Ehud Barak.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Back in time
an interview with Khalida Jarrar
bitterlemons: Does the possibility of an autumn meeting as proposed by the United States give you cause for optimism?
Jarrar: No, it does not. What is being proposed is only an international meeting rather than an international conference. Such a meeting will lead us back to the kind of mechanism we have had before where we do not discuss the fundamental issues. Discussing the Palestinian issue should be done at an international conference under the umbrella of the United Nations, not the United States.
I don't think this meeting bears any relation to the central issue of ending the occupation. As far as I understand, it will only discuss how to strengthen the Palestinian Authority. That is its aim and it will take us back to the circle we went around 13 years ago.
bitterlemons: What then is the purpose of the meeting?
Jarrar: The purpose is related to American policy across the region whether in Iraq, Lebanon or Palestine. Iraq is being divided along sectarian lines, in Lebanon a similar policy is being pursued but with different tools, and in Palestine too there is this divide and conquer policy.
I don't think this meeting will lead to a political process because such a process needs a framework and the framework is not clear. The US is focusing only on security and economic issues and there is no provision for an end of occupation.
bitterlemons: Is there any advantage for the Palestinian side to attend this meeting then?
Jarrar: In my opinion there is none. But for those who are still happy to talk about two states without talking about the content of those two states, there will be. Some think that the mechanism of Oslo, which is what this meeting essentially reprises, still provides an opportunity to end the occupation. Experience, however, shows that we need to review the kind of mechanism needed to end the occupation.
That is why I think we need an international conference under the UN in order to apply pressure to implement international resolutions. But I do understand the weakness of the Palestinian side at the moment, especially after Oslo, the internal Palestinian fighting and the division between the West Bank and Gaza.
bitterlemons: Does this division not mitigate against attending such a meeting?
Jarrar: There is no unified Palestinian position at the moment. Some are willing to enter into this kind of process and others are not. The democratic mechanism, and the only mechanism to solve this problem, is to undertake a political review through the Palestinian institutions over how best to proceed to end the occupation and preserve Palestinian national rights: self-determination, the right of return and the establishment of an independent, sovereign Palestinian state.
bitterlemons: But in order to undertake such a review, there first needs to be dialogue between Hamas and Fateh, does there not?
Jarrar: Not only between Fateh and Hamas, there needs to be a national dialogue among all the factions, a tool whereby Palestinians can discuss and reaffirm a unified program. We already have a program, the three points I mentioned earlier, but we need to reaffirm this program and decide who is not following it and what mechanisms will not lead us to those aims. I think the mechanism that some Palestinians are willing to follow will not lead to the fulfillment of these three conditions.
bitterlemons: So there will be no progress until Palestinians sort out their own internal divisions?
Jarrar: We cannot follow any mechanism without a united Palestinian position. We have already had experience of the mechanism of individual negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis under the umbrella of the US. I don't think the US has any political program to put an end to the occupation and uphold Palestinian rights. There is no content to [US President George W.] Bush's talk of support for a Palestinian state. The state is not the question. What will such a state look like, what about the right of self-determination and the right of return?- Published 20/8/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Khalida Jarrar is a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and head of the PLC's Prisoners' Committee.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Bush's international farewell party
by Elie Podeh
Ostensibly, President George W. Bush's call for an international conference in the fall has created a political horizon. In the American view, since the conference is likely to be the farewell party of the Bush era, it must succeed. But what are its chances of success?
The American initiative stems from a desire to compensate for ongoing policy failures in the Middle East. Generally speaking, the occupation of Iraq has not enhanced regional stability. To the contrary, anarchy in Iraq, the rise of Iran and the Shi'ites in the Arab world, Hamas' takeover of Gaza and continued growth in al-Qaeda cells all bear witness to the threat posed by the region to world order. Beyond considerations of prestige, the need for a constant flow of oil at reasonable prices is cardinal in western eyes. In view of these problems, progress toward a solution of the Israel-Arab conflict is intended to contribute to a reduction of threats from other sectors and an increase in regional stability. Thus the international conference is an instrument for generating political negotiations in the hope of triggering progress toward solving additional problems.
The conference idea in and of itself is not at all a bad one. First, it ensures that the regional agenda is not determined and dominated by radical Islamists. This is a convenient opportunity for moderate voices in the Arab world to join together and combat the forces that threaten their regimes. Second, there are many indications that Saudi Arabia will be present at the conference. Its participation is most vital insofar as it provides an umbrella of Islamic legitimacy. The KSA has good reason to favor a conference that enhances its standing in Washington and the Arab world. The conference also constitutes a natural extension of the Arab peace plan that began as a Saudi initiative.
Yet the conference idea also generates not a few difficulties. First, priority for the Palestinian track is liable once again to drive Syria toward extremism. Lately there have been quite a few hints regarding the existence of a secret Israeli-Syrian negotiating track; this indicates that Damascus is not necessarily committed ideologically to the radical camp. The US and Israel should not leave Syria out of this conference lest it seek to sabotage it.
Second, the Palestinian track is extremely problematic. The current split between Fateh headed by Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and Hamas bodes ill. Any progress with the one is liable to be vetoed by the other. The attempt by the US and Israel to strengthen Abu Mazen, while helpful in the short-run, is liable to backfire in the long-run. Hamas can make common cause with other regional actors interested in torpedoing any political initiative; an agreement between Abu Mazen and Israel will be condemned as a "betrayal" of the Palestinian cause, thereby rendering its realization that much more difficult.
Correspondingly, an agreement enjoying broad Arab backing will have greater legitimacy and isolate Hamas. Theoretically, Hamas can allow Abu Mazen a degree of diplomatic flexibility on the assumption that he will attain for Hamas what it itself cannot achieve without compromising its principle of non-recognition of Israel--in the hope that it will ultimately "liberate" the West Bank as well.
A third difficulty regarding the conference is that as presently constituted it ignores the Lebanese track. There is currently a struggle in Lebanon over the approaching elections between candidates supported by Iran, Syria and Hizballah and those identified with the opposing camp, with divisions cutting across ethnic community allegiances. Just as the West is trying to strengthen Abu Mazen, so should it strengthen PM Fuad Siniora's pro-western government by inviting it to the conference.
Accordingly, I propose adopting a "multi-bilateral" approach to the conference that would open up a number of simultaneous dialogue tracks: Israeli-Palestinian, Israeli-Syrian, Israeli-Lebanese and Israel-Arab. Each track would have its own separate agenda dealing with its specific problems. The Israel-Arab track would deal with regional issues such as economic cooperation, water, environment and tourism. It would also address the questions of Jerusalem and the refugees that go beyond the Israeli-Palestinian bilateral track.
The multi-bilateral approach has several advantages: it enables the bypassing of anticipated obstacles like Hizballah and Hamas opposition; progress in one track could positively impact the quality of negotiations in a parallel track; it could narrow the confidence and credibility gap that has developed in recent years; and it guarantees pan-Arab legitimization for any agreement reached.
Farewell parties, by their nature, are less about delivering good tidings than about summing up an era and creating a sensation, if only for a moment, of exaltation. The problem is that all the relevant actors will arrive at this party exhausted. One can only hope that the conference momentum will create a convenient infrastructure for a more courageous American leader to generate a successful negotiating process.- Published 20/8/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Prof. Elie Podeh is chair of the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
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