From the standpoint of the Israeli security community as well as PM Ehud Olmert, the Gaza ceasefire that began last week is essentially a tactical move. By and large, they continue to assess that eventually there will be a major Israeli military offensive into the Gaza Strip, aimed at destroying or seriously weakening Hamas. Hence the ceasefire reflects primarily short-term calculations such as ways to free Gilad Shalit, Egyptian pressures, the outcry from the bombarded residents of the Gaza periphery region and Olmert's own political needs.
But there is a strategic context as well--one we ignore at our peril. It begins with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Israeli-Palestinian peace track that he and Olmert represent. If, as appears apparent, the Gaza ceasefire strengthens Hamas and thereby weakens Abbas, this may reflect an assessment on Olmert's part that the peace track is in any case dead. Accordingly, it could have far-reaching consequences for the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations. It could signal the beginning of the end of the perception that the PLO/Fateh is a viable partner for a two-state solution.
Unless, of course, Olmert, drawing on the confidence of having silenced the Gaza front, now intends to offer Abbas a series of far-reaching concessions to bolster the PLO leader's status and strengthen the peace process. Either way, the Gaza ceasefire may well be remembered as a critical turning point in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
A second aspect of the strategic context of the Gaza ceasefire is the fact that it is but one of an astonishing series of overt conflict resolution initiatives that Olmert is juggling, that also comprises talks with Syria, a prisoner exchange deal with Hizballah, an offer to open peace talks with Lebanon and resolve the Shebaa farms issue and of course both peace and confidence-building tracks with the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah. It is easy to dismiss some or all of these initiatives as the desperate gambit of a politically threatened prime minister seeking to appear indispensable to an Israeli public that has ceased to trust him. After all, far stronger Israeli leaders had difficulty, over the past 17 years since the Madrid conference, in managing even two simultaneous peace processes.
Nevertheless, Olmert's parallel initiatives do project an Israel actively seeking peace and accommodation with all its neighbors, without exception. This is an image we should not take lightly. Even if we are not on the verge of a wave of peace deals, the enhancement of the regional atmosphere could render it easier for Israel to deal forthrightly with more distant and existential problems, like Iran.
In parallel, there is an important military strategic dimension, whereby the ceasefire represents a pause that could facilitate Israel's drive to counter the new kind of warfare imposed on it by Hamas and Hizballah--non-state actors relying on rocket terror tactics. If, in six months, anti-rocket weapons currently in the R&D stage begin to make their appearance, the current pause will have been worthwhile militarily.
Finally, there is the question of Israel's future relationship with Hamas. Alongside the anticipation on both sides of violence, certain new facts on the ground have been created. Despite both sides' denials, they are actively "negotiating", first over a ceasefire, now over a prisoner exchange and their economic relationship. And the advent of a ceasefire more or less constitutes Hamas' compliance with one of the three Quartet conditions for contact with that movement, concerning a cessation of violence. Already we encounter statements of readiness on the part of some Quartet members to initiate contact with Hamas.
Is an expanding Israel-Hamas dialogue now possible, one that touches on more substantive issues such as recognition and modes of coexistence? The odds are against it. But it is certainly more possible today than a week ago. A lot depends on the Hamas leaders: will they continue to preach Israel's destruction, or will they now begin to respond positively to third party initiatives to sit them down with prominent Israelis who are prepared to explore a long-term modus vivendi with Hamas?- Published 23/6/2008 © bitterlemons.org
The ceasefire agreement that was reached between Israel and the Hamas leadership through Egyptian mediation and that has been observed successfully by the two parties since Thursday marks a very significant development with potentially far reaching consequences.
The fact of the agreement spurned a lot of contradicting reactions and analysis mainly because Israel has always expressed a principled position that it will not deal with "terrorists". Secondly, on previous occasions the several ceasefire arrangements that were reached in the past under the auspices of the Palestinian Authority were always unilateral and were never recognized or even acknowledged by Israel.
Perhaps one of the greatest ironies of the agreement is thus the fact that Israel was able to reach such an agreement with Hamas over Gaza-related issues while it hasn't been possible to reach any kind of agreement on anything with the PA over West Bank-related issues. That includes political issues that are being negotiated between PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Chief Negotiator Ahmed Qureia on the Palestinian side and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on the Israeli, with extensive mediation from US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. It also includes the practical day-to-day economic and security issues that are being dealt with by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, with extensive mediation and facilitation by the Quartet's envoy Tony Blair.
But Israel's decision to observe a ceasefire with Hamas in Gaza and agree to a gradual reopening of crossings to allow a flow of goods into the impoverished Strip is consistent with the overall Israeli strategy of ridding itself of that problem while at the same time consolidating its control over the West Bank. Hence the reason Israel was able to strike an agreement over Gaza and not over the West Bank has nothing to do with the interlocutor and everything to do with the issue.
Because the issue under consideration with Hamas was Gaza, which Israel has been trying to get rid of, it was possible to reach agreement. Similarly, because Israel has all kinds of plans to maintain control in the West Bank it is difficult and will remain difficult to reach an agreement with anybody negotiating on behalf of the West Bank with the objective of bringing the Israeli occupation there to an end.
And because, in Israel's strategic thinking, the future of the West Bank is different from the future of Gaza, the current division between the two Palestinian areas is very comfortable for Israel. Israel began the policies and practices that separated the West Bank from Gaza. Those policies were unfortunately consolidated as a result of the fighting between Fateh and Hamas and the eventual military takeover by Hamas. It can therefore be expected that Israel will resist any attempt at Palestinian reconciliation and instead continue to encourage the current separation, thus leaving itself two different leaderships to talk to in the two areas of occupied Palestinian land.
Meanwhile, the ceasefire agreement has far-reaching consequences in terms of domestic Palestinian politics. It has helped Hamas achieve an objective that the movement has sought for some while: to be the counterpart for Israel on the Palestinian arena, the party that can determine whether there is war or peace. This in turn will enhance Hamas' position in domestic Palestinian politics as well as among the Palestinian and Arab publics at large. For the same reasons, the agreement will further marginalize the PA and the leadership under Abbas in Ramallah, Fateh in particular.
The ceasefire agreement is consistent with the strategic Israeli objective of undermining the prospects of an independent Palestinian state emerging in the occupied territories. It is such thinking that minimizes chances for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, because reaching a comprehensive peace agreement requires maintaining the integrity of the Palestinian territories and respecting the relevant stipulations of international law. That is also the only strategy that can contribute to reversing the balance of power in favor of the peace camp in Palestine.- Published 23/6/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president of Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning. He holds a PhD in Middle East politics from the University of Durham.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Olmert's survival tactic
an interview with Moshe Arens
bitterlemons: Is the Gaza ceasefire a wise move from Israel's standpoint?
Arens: I think it's very unwise, not only from Israel's standpoint but that of everyone opposed to terrorism. This is a ceasefire with terrorists, an unprecedented event in recent history.
bitterlemons: What alternative course of action do you favor?
Arens: I believe terrorism has to be defeated and even destroyed if possible. The IDF has the capability in the Gaza Strip. It should have done so long ago.
bitterlemons: Egypt reportedly pressured Israel to take advantage of Cairo's good offices and accept a ceasefire.
Arens: I can understand that Egypt is not eager to have a large Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip. That portends uncertainties from their point of view. The Egyptians naturally prefer the present situation, even though Hamas as a terrorist organization constitutes, under certain circumstances, even a threat to Egypt.
bitterlemons: The need to negotiate the release of captured IDF soldier Gilad Shalit also appears to have weighed in favor of a ceasefire as opposed to a military offensive.
Arens: In southern Israel, people have been living in danger for many, many months. While Shalit can be focused on personally, those in Sderot have been suffering anonymously. In a military operation in Gaza, many of our soldiers will be in danger, not just Shalit. I would hope that Hamas would not hurt Shalit, but nobody can guarantee that.
bitterlemons: How do you assess the ramifications of the ceasefire for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and the PLO?
Arens: The ceasefire is not a wise move for anyone opposed to terrorism. Abu Mazen rejects terrorism as a bad strategy for Palestinians. The ceasefire is seen as a victory for Hamas and thus for terrorism; it weakens the Abu Mazen school of thought that opposes terrorism.
bitterlemons: The ceasefire, like peace talks with Syria, appears to have developed completely independently of US policy. As a former ambassador to Washington, does this concern you?
Arens: Israel's relationship with the United States rests on very strong foundations. Differences of opinion here and there won't endanger that relationship. We can understand why the US opposes negotiations with Syria and considers it a terrorist country. I assume that for the same reasons the US is not eager to support a ceasefire with Hamas. But they have apparently decided not to make an issue of it. The US itself would not make a ceasefire with terrorists anywhere.
bitterlemons: The Gaza ceasefire is one event in a multiplicity of parallel Israeli conflict resolution initiatives undertaken by PM Olmert. How does this approach strike you?
Arens: I think that you could view this as a man on a tightrope who feels he has to continue walking or he'll fall off. This is Olmert's survival tactic. It's bad for Israel. If these developments were in Israel's interest, okay. But announcing that Israel will turn the Golan Heights over to Syria, the ceasefire with Hamas, negotiations with Abu Mazen over a shelf framework agreement based on Israeli concessions--are all not good for Israel. In other words, I don't' think Olmert is good for Israel.
bitterlemons: Is it possible that this peace activity on multiple fronts has something to do with an assessment that a military clash with Iran is imminent, hence it is in Israel's interest to generate calm in order to avoid the conflict spreading to additional fronts?
Arens: This is a specious argument. If the US attacks Iran, then as Mohammad ElBaradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency has said, the whole Middle East becomes a ball of fire, with a series of aftershocks emanating from Iran. It doesn't make much difference what Hamas and the PLO think. Besides, public statements regarding the danger from Iran are also part of Olmert's survival tactics.- Published 23/2/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Moshe Arens is a former defense minister and foreign minister of Israel in Likud-led governments.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
by Safwat Kahlout
Ever since Hamas won an overwhelming victory in parliamentary elections in 2006, Palestinians have been paying the price for practicing democracy.
From the beginning, the international community refused to deal with the result of the elections and preferred to treat them as an atonal interlude in the international political symphony. Instead of engaging Hamas, the international community imposed the three well-known Quartet conditions that Hamas, for equally well-worn reasons, rejected.
Accordingly, international financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority stopped and along with it ended the salaries of state employees. Public sector employee salaries are the engine of the Palestinian economy and as they ended, others felt the knock-on effect and unemployment and poverty rose.
At the time it was felt that that was as bad as it was going to get, but after Hamas ousted Fateh-affiliated security forces in Gaza, people here discovered that it could get a whole lot worse.
Israel locked the doors to Gaza, shut down all the crossings and even stopped heart and cancer patients from leaving Gaza to seek treatment abroad. Furthermore, Israel reduced the flow of basic humanitarian goods into Gaza and tightened the flow of fuel to the extent that people learned to power their cars on cooking gas.
Prices tripled and in some cases, such as fuel, increased six-fold. The private sector was decimated, with no raw materials entering Gaza, and some 97 percent of private enterprises had to shut, causing at least 35,000 layoffs. According to the UN, 1.1 million of Gaza's 1.5 million people became dependent on international food aid for their survival.
The above were the headlines. Gazans suffered in a thousand other ways from the sanctions. Those were in turn designed to bring people into the streets against Hamas. That uprising never happened. Hamas can still count on widespread support in Gaza from those who consider the movement a protector of national principles. Others, less charitably inclined, were afraid to protest and make their opposition known. Overall, Gazans remained steadfast, but steadfastness requires at least a minimum of the basics. As the sanctions continued, so did the motivation to break the siege, one way or another.
The ceasefire agreement, therefore, came at an important time. Gazans need a rest to rebuild what has been destroyed and start putting broken lives back together. The agreement was also the only possible outcome absent a massive Israeli military operation that would have caused immense damage and cost many innocent lives.
Moreover, the ceasefire is important because it creates breathing space for a reconciliation process between Fateh and Hamas to gain momentum. Quiet could pave the way for direct talks in Gaza. With both sides publicly stating the importance of reconciliation and public opinion firmly in favor, this would be an important development.
For Hamas, the ceasefire works both ways. On the one hand, this is the first ceasefire in eight years of violence that is mutual. Other ceasefires have been unilateral Palestinian affairs that were never respected or even acknowledged by Israel. As such, Hamas can claim a significant achievement. However, critics will point out that if Hamas wanted a ceasefire, it could have accepted ceasefires in the past, when the political landscape was different.
The sanctions did hurt Hamas' popularity and the movement understands that it needs to start living up to the promises it gave people when they in turn mandated it to lead them. The only way for Hamas to be able to govern properly is by ensuring quiet.
The question now is, how long will the ceasefire last? Gazans are skeptical. No one here has much faith in Israeli intentions. Nevertheless, we will take any amount of time offered to escape the strangulation of the past two-and-a-half years.- Published 23/6/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Safwat Kahlout is a Gaza-based journalist.
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