The American benchmarks plan that was recently submitted to both Israelis and Palestinians is a very significant step. It marks an important and useful change of gear for American involvement in the conflict in an apparent effort to arrest the deteriorating economic and political Palestinian situation.
It doesn't, however, include anything new at all. The benchmarks are components of past agreements that the parties, mainly Israel, have failed to fulfill to date.
Some of these benchmarks simply set new dates for old commitments. Most of these were already stipulated in the Agreement on Movement and Access that was negotiated during and after the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza Strip settlements in 2005 with the help of the then special envoy of the Quartet, James Wolfensohn, and brokered by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The rest relate to security issues, particularly Gaza-related security requirements.
Nevertheless, the benchmarks plan is important in that it indicates that Washington has begun to understand that the economic deterioration in the Palestinian territories is a major factor in the radicalization of the population and consequent violence. If Israeli sanctions and restrictions--the main cause of this dire economic condition--aim at combating violence and "terrorism", then in fact they have backfired and are producing just the opposite.
The Americans along with other international actors have realized, rightly, that Israeli reluctance to implement the original AMA has contributed dramatically to the economic deterioration in occupied Palestinian territory. The World Bank alluded to this in its recent report, "Movement and Access Restrictions in the West Bank: Uncertainty and Inefficiency in the Palestinian Economy", concluding that Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movement, which to the Bank have no security justification, are responsible for the economic deterioration and for preventing the success of any efforts toward economic recovery.
A further significant aspect of the World Bank report is the indirect reference to the relationship between security and economic recovery. The drafters of the benchmarks list also seem to have realized that in order for the Palestinian Authority to be able to fulfill security commitments such as ending rocket fire, there is a need to reduce the economic difficulties, poverty and unemployment. It is recognized in many previous reports from many agencies, including the World Bank, that increasing economic hardship is one of the main factors in encouraging radicalization and a tendency to violence on the Palestinian side.
So far, so good. But the question that Palestinians want answered is whether Washington, which is behind the benchmark plan, will this time invest serious political capital in it, or, as some Israeli analysts say, is only paying lip-service in order to ease some of the growing pressure on the US administration from Arab, European and other countries. It is worth pointing out that the problem with deteriorating Palestinian-Israeli relations is not a lack of ideas or proposals but a result of the imbalance of power between the two sides. For as long as the Israeli side feels no serious pressure from the outside it has no incentive to abide by any proposals, plans or resolutions even when internationally binding, whether they come from the UN, the Quartet or the International Court of Justice in the Hague.
The flat rejection of the benchmarks plan by Israeli officials did not come as a surprise, especially to the Palestinians. It was clear from negotiating the AMA that Israel was not happy with that scheme. The Palestinian reaction is more interesting.
The Palestinian reaction reflects the new rules of the game in the Palestinian political system. While, for obvious reasons, the Hamas movement's displeasure with the stipulated benchmarks was expressed at the highest level with Khalid Meshaal as well as by spokesmen for Hamas' armed wing, the Izzedin al-Qassam Brigades, the Hamas-led government did not reject them.
This would appear to be an indication of a division of labor within Hamas to separate the government from the movement. That in turn frees up the government to commit to previous agreements signed by the PA with Israel, without necessarily committing the movement at large. This was part of the spirit of the agreement that allowed this government to come into existence with a political platform significantly different from that of Hamas.- Published 14/5/2007 © bitterlemons.org
What possible chance does the new American "benchmarks" proposal have for improving internal Palestinian movement and security, when Hamas rejects it and Khalid Meshaal calls it a "farce"? Even in the days before Hamas came to power in the Palestinian Authority, security plans proposed by the US and others in which PA forces were supposed to suppress and prevent attacks on Israelis generally failed for lack of a genuine and comprehensive Palestinian commitment. Why is there a better chance now?
Optimists cite two possible reasons. First, Israeli PM Ehud Olmert appears to be genuinely committed to lightening the burden of Israeli checkpoints, roadblocks and other restrictions on Palestinian movement within the West Bank. There are indications that the dialogue he has established with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is generating some sort of basis for progress. Obviously, the sort of confidence-building measures comprised in the benchmark plan would be an important adjunct to a high-level Israeli-Palestinian political dialogue.
Secondly, the benchmarks plan is part and parcel of the effort made by US General Keith Dayton, in coordination with Israel, Jordan and Egypt, to beef up Abbas' Presidential Guard and organize the office of National Security Adviser Mohammad Dahlan in order to give forces loyal to Fateh and Abbas a stronger hand in Palestinian internal security affairs.
But these encouraging aspects of the environment accompanying the plan are more than overshadowed by the bad news. For one, Olmert is on the way out; he is already a virtual lame duck prime minister thanks to the Winograd report. Hence, under the very best circumstances there is little chance his dialogue with Abbas will get anywhere. One indication of this growing political stalemate is the decision by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to cancel her monthly visit to Israel/Palestine.
Then too, the Dayton plan does not appear capable of enabling Fateh to neutralize Hamas as a negative security factor. On the contrary, by strengthening Fateh to the point where it might challenge Hamas, which has demonstrated clear superiority on the Gaza street, Dayton's scheme could reignite a Palestinian civil war and bring down the new unity government, thereby spreading chaos rather than security. In general, the Dayton plan appears to reflect a broad American strategy--across the region, from Somalia via Palestine and Lebanon to Iraq--of strengthening internal forces that oppose militant Islamists. Yet those Islamists in many cases owe their rise to power to US-supported democratization schemes. The obvious contradictions embodied in this American approach are not lost on the peoples of the region. In any case, the situation in Gaza is so anarchic that it may be too late for anyone to reestablish order.
Finally, the Israeli security community has legitimate concerns regarding some of the proposed benchmarks. In recent years, it has succeeded in radically reducing Palestinian suicide bombings and other attacks by aggressively cutting Gaza off from the West Bank and restricting movement inside the West Bank. It has, in recent months, cancelled internal-West Bank travel restrictions here and there, e.g., in the Jordan Valley. But it is not likely to relax its grip much further until and unless it perceives political developments that bespeak a firmer Palestinian hand on security. It has already indicated publicly that it opposes the benchmark plan's provision that by July 1 bus convoys of Palestinians be allowed to travel five days a week between Gaza and the West Bank.
With the Olmert government teetering and a possible period of domestic Israeli political re-ordering ahead of us, there is no strong Israeli political leader who might countervail his security chiefs' advice. Indeed, the main discussion currently on the Israeli security-political agenda concerns the severity of Israel's response to Hamas' build-up of weapons and construction of fortifications in the Gaza Strip, even as Qassam rocket firing and ambushes on Israeli patrols continue daily.
Perhaps the most pressing aspect of the benchmarks plan concerns the need to regularize the movement of Palestinians at the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egyptian Sinai. The mandate of EU-BAM, the European Union monitoring force at Rafah, is due to be renewed by May 25. Recently, after a prolonged period during which the passage was frequently closed in the aftermath of the Gilad Shalit abduction, Israeli security authorities have agreed to open it several days a week. But if the EU force mandate is not renewed--and the Olmert government is so preoccupied with other issues that this could be the case--then the situation at Rafah could get worse, not better.- Published 14/5/2007 © 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
No more security plans
an interview with Abu Obeidah
bitterlemons: Khalid Meshaal and the Izzedin Qassam Brigades both rejected the recent US benchmarks scheme to ease restrictions on Palestinian movement in return for an end to rocket fire from the Gaza Strip. Why?
bitterlemons: It's not only Khalid Meshaal and Hamas, it is all the Palestinian people including the DFLP, the PFLP, even Mustapha Barghouti's al-Mubadarah. The plan is rejected because it is first of all a security plan that aims at ending the Palestinian resistance. As we also now know, another aim of the plan is to relieve the European force at the Rafah Crossing. But what Palestinians need is a comprehensive political plan based on restoring the rights of the Palestinian people. What sense does it make that in exchange for some checkpoints, they want us to end the resistance?
bitterlemons: But the Hamas-led Palestinian government took a much more compromising position. Is there a division within Hamas over this issue, and if not, do Hamas government ministers properly represent the Hamas movement?
bitterlemons: There are no divisions, but there is a separation between the government and the movement. The Hamas minsters represent Hamas in the government. They are in the business of government. Any position taken by the government does not necessarily represent the political position of the movement.
bitterlemons: What could be added to the benchmarks plan to make it more acceptable to the wider Hamas movement?
bitterlemons: We really do not need any more plans. We have the roadmap, the Tenet principles and now this plan, and they all show the same features, I think they share seven items in common. These are unrealistic security plans that do not address the central issue of solving the conflict by restoring Palestinian rights and ending Palestinian suffering. We don't want to add to this plan. We want a serious, logical political plan, not another security plan.
bitterlemons: How large a problem do the Israeli-enforced restrictions on Palestinian movement of people and goods pose for chances of economic growth and, with this in mind, how important is it to have restrictions eased?
bitterlemons: The suffering as a result of the restrictions on movement is huge. It has debilitated the lives of Palestinians. There is no import, no export and no movement. Life is almost paralyzed. There is no economy, no industry, the agriculture sector is suffering and every day we are losing.
But the Palestinians are not fighting just to open two checkpoints near Jenin or Nablus and then forget about their basic rights. The Palestinians have been suffering and resisting for a long time to get their independence, restore their lands and achieve the basic rights that all Palestinians have reached consensus on. This plan came only to save an Israeli government that is not able to end the rockets or the Palestinian resistance. And with the current turmoil in Israeli political circles, the Israeli government is not able to deliver on any promises anyway. President Mahmoud Abbas and [Chief Negotiator] Saeb Erekat have met [Israeli Prime Minister] Ehud Olmert several times and received repeated promises to ease the restrictions on movement, but nothing has happened.
Palestinian rights are more important than dismantling some checkpoints.
bitterlemons: To what extent do the US proposals to strengthen security forces loyal to President Abbas play a role in Hamas' position?
bitterlemons: The aim of the Americans in supporting forces loyal to Abbas is to create civil strife. Washington wants the presidential guard to confront the Palestinian resistance that is headed by Hamas. Hamas is the main backbone of the resistance. Once Hamas is stopped, the resistance will end. So by strengthening the presidential guard now, the Americans will one day ask them to confront the Palestinian resistance in return. If the US is interested in supporting the Palestinians, why doesn't it help reform the security apparatuses to fight the security chaos? Why not rebuild security institutions instead of only supporting Abbas? Today the Americans will give them money and weapons and tomorrow they will ask them to pay their due and fight the Palestinian resistance headed by Hamas.- Published 14/5/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Abu Obeidah is the spokesperson for the Izzedin al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas' armed wing.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Benchmarks to nowhere
by Alon Pinkas
Taken at face value, the introduction of American benchmarks for Israel and the Palestinians--designed to alleviate the daily plight of Palestinians and remove irritating and suffocating roadblocks and enclosures--is a good thing. Here is the United States getting involved in the nuts and bolts of daily life in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Is this not what Israelis and Palestinians want? Is it not what the US has committed to do?
At the same time, several questions linger: Does the US administration actually believe these benchmarks are attainable? Why risk another, albeit local failure? What is the point of presenting a plan that Washington knows both sides are politically and practically unable or unwilling to implement? This leads to the broader question of whether the idea of setting benchmarks is essentially a politically-driven, not to say public-relations, exercise in futility.
The basic concept of an agreement on movement and access (AMA) was already presented in November 2005, at a time when all three parties--the US, Israel and the Palestinian Authority--were still enthusiastically paying lip-service to the roadmap, a grand sequential plan that made perfect theoretical sense but in practical terms was pronounced dead on arrival.
Now a new document, drafted by US Ambassador in Israel Richard Jones and US Security Coordinator Major-General Keith Dayton, calls for Israeli compliance by specified due-dates (May, mid-June) with "benchmarks" for progress on roadblock removal around Palestinian cities and the easing of passage for Palestinians throughout the West Bank and Gaza. The document is thoughtful and reasonable, yet impractical.
The plan was submitted to Israel a few days before the publication of a scathing report by the World Bank criticizing and accusing Israel of effectively preventing and impeding Palestinian access to 50 percent of the West Bank. Later, the US clarified the document by calling it "a flexible set of targets" rather than a fixed set of deadlines. Still, Israel expressed considerable objection to several of the major benchmarks, viewing them as security risks that should not be taken.
At a time when a military ground operation against Hamas and Islamic Jihad weapons stockpiles in Gaza is being debated, and following the criticism that over the past six years Hizballah was left unimpeded as it built up a missile arsenal in Lebanon, it is difficult to see Israel consenting to lift roadblocks around Nablus.
It is hard to believe that the administration had no prior knowledge of the contents of the World Bank report. So what, then, was Washington's interest and objective in presenting the benchmarks? And why do it concurrently with the publication of the Winograd commission interim report (on the 2006 war in Lebanon), which significantly weakened Prime Minister Olmert's already untenable position? It is equally difficult to see either the US or Israel benefiting from back and forth haggling over certain benchmarks that Israel treats as "non-starters".
So what's the point? It's about politics, regional and local. The US knows that by June Israel will have a new defense minister and conceivably, before the end of 2007, a new prime minister. As seen from Washington, the Israeli political timetable is linked to developments in Iraq (where the administration has also set security benchmarks for the Iraqi government) and to the Bush administration's legacy in the Middle East. The administration's major actors have about 12 months before judgment is passed on their performance as the 2008 presidential elections enter into high gear.
The US has to be perceived as being involved in the Israeli-Palestinian process (if that is the appropriate term for what is essentially an ongoing impasse) if it wants European and Arab support for a variety of critical policies in the broader region: withdrawal from Iraq, containment of Iran, mitigating anti-American sentiment in the Arab world and war on terrorism. Secretary of State Rice knows that PM Ehud Olmert's meetings with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are "Seinfeld" meetings: no amount of photo-ops and platitudes can conceal that they are about nothing. She also knows that Olmert's political and public legitimacy problem in Israel following the Winograd report (and before the final report comes out in September) prevents him from initiating any move or even seriously entertaining the Arab League (a.k.a. Saudi) peace plan.
In addition, the US has to maintain and sustain the boycott of the Hamas-led Palestinian government. The Europeans are still complying, but cracks are bound to develop if the US stands-by and adopts a policy of benevolent non-intervention.
The US has confronted the Palestinians on many occasions since 9/11, effectively endorsing Israel's policies. There was harsh criticism in both the Arab world and in Europe over this "imbalanced pro-Israeli" stance. On an issue like the benchmarks plan, the US can afford (as can Olmert) to declare "disagreement" or even "friction" and express sympathy for the Palestinians.
Washington has neither a comprehensive and coherent policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict nor Israeli and Palestinian partners with which to develop such a plan. So a series of smaller, incremental measures is all that can be offered at this stage in the hope that within a few months the Arab League plan will become more acceptable. Until then, it is "we tried, but we cannot want this more than the parties".- Published 14/5/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Alon Pinkas is former chief of staff to two foreign ministers and former consul-general of Israel in New York.
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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.