The anticipated meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) will reflect mainly personal, political and indirectly-related strategic considerations rather than the vain hope of advancing a peace process. Neither leader commands a viable peace coalition, neither offers the other a persuasive formula for peace, and there is no powerful and engaged third party like the United States that is ready to commit heavy political capital to shepherding a process.
A meeting is one of the few ways that both can remain relevant.
Olmert wants to show the Israeli public that he can develop a Palestinian agenda even without unilateral disengagement; he needs to distract the public's attention from the investigation of his perceived mishandling of the war in Lebanon. If and when he frees Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Gilad Shalit, he needs to deliver them to Abu Mazen, not Hamas. At the broader regional and global level, Olmert wants to preempt pressures from the moderate Arab states, the US and Europe to move forward on the Palestinian issue as a means of leveraging a broad coalition against Iran.
Abu Mazen confronts a myriad of difficulties in trying to put together a unity coalition between Hamas and Fateh: for starters, Israel's and the international community's three conditions, Hamas' hard line and the reservations of many Fateh stalwarts. A meeting with Olmert is not directly dependent on the success of these efforts, although without Shalit's release, which appears to be part of an internal Palestinian package that includes a unity government and a ceasefire commitment, Olmert will have little to say to Abu Mazen and there appears to be no point at all to the meeting.
If the renewal of a genuine peace process is too ambitious a goal for an Olmert-Abu Mazen summit, what can we expect? Here are best- and worst-case scenarios.
In the best case, the meeting would coincide with and fortify a prisoner exchange and ceasefire agreement. The Palestinian unity government that such a development appears to be dependent on would enhance Abu Mazen's prestige insofar as his own movement, Fateh, would be back in government and would receive key portfolios like foreign affairs. For his part, Olmert could be strengthened in this best-case scenario by the success of Lebanese government and international efforts to neutralize Hizballah's military threat.
The two leaders would hold productive discussions on interim confidence-building measures like a coordinated Israeli withdrawal from part of the West Bank that involves the introduction of reliable Palestinian security forces trained by the Americans and Egyptians and/or an international force that exercises a limited form of trusteeship. The entire process would be shepherded by an energetic and involved high-level American presidential envoy like Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The Arab League would improve upon its March 2002 peace plan and the Saudi, Egyptian and Jordanian leaders would present it to the two sides personally, accompanied by the offer of serious incentives.
Don't hold your breath waiting for all of this to happen. But even a portion of these positive developments would be welcome.
In contrast, in the worst case the Olmert-Abu Mazen dialogue would go nowhere because neither side trusts the other. American involvement would be confined, as in the past, to the Quartet, and would reflect a Middle East order of priorities that begins and ends with Iraq and Iran and essentially pays only lip service to the need for progress between Israelis and Palestinians. Arab involvement and support would be superficial.
More important, Abu Mazen would prove incapable in this worst-case scenario of delivering on a cessation of violence and hesitant to accept interim territorial measures lest they constitute the beginning and the end of the process. In parallel, Olmert's government would be overwhelmed politically by the aftermath of the Lebanon War and, a few months from now, a revived Hizballah would again destabilize Lebanon and its border with Israel.
One way or another, both leaders would come to a meeting preoccupied not only with personal political survival but also with alternative issues that currently relegate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to secondary priority. Abu Mazen is concerned with stemming the anarchy enveloping Palestinian society and confronting the Islamist challenge. And Olmert is worried about the threat from Iran, its client state Syria and their proxy, Hizballah, that emerged so forcefully over the summer.- Published 25/9/2006 © bitterlemons.org
The weeks since the war in Lebanon have witnessed a gradual increase in the regional and international political attention granted the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in general and the internal Palestinian economic, political and security situation in particular.
This started with a growing realization among many Arab leaders of the urgency to move toward reviving a political process and resume international efforts to alleviate the increasing suffering of Palestinians. In order to make that task possible, efforts were exerted to try to improve the internal Palestinian political situation to make it more amenable to international political efforts.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, also head of Fateh, thus went through an extensive and constructive dialogue with his prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas. The dialogue had the two objectives of creating a national unity government with a political platform that the international community could work with.
While Europe responded positively to these efforts, in the understanding that this is of necessity a gradual process that needs to be encouraged in order to be sustainable, the American administration was dismissive of Abbas' efforts.
And while it may be true that the guidelines agreed on by Abbas and Haniyeh for that government were not identical with the Quartet's positions, the fact that the agreement moved in that direction was a sign of progress that needed to be appreciated and encouraged.
But the obstacles Abbas faced in the US and those he faced in Gaza instead reinforced each other. The American administration seemed to think Abbas hadn't been transparent enough and had given them an overoptimistic picture of the provisional unity government agreement. Rather then encourage efforts that, however slowly, were moving in the right direction, the US position discouraged the effort and consequently had an immediate negative effect on the ongoing dialogue.
Meanwhile, statements out of Gaza contradicting the impression Abbas was trying to create in the US were used by US officials to counter the president's attempts to attract support for this internal process.
Now back in Palestine, Abbas is finding things deteriorating rapidly and dramatically on two vital levels. First, his authority is gradually eroding. If this is allowed to continue that authority may collapse completely. It is eroding in step with the erosion of the Palestinian Authority itself.
PA employees have not been paid for months, causing serious unrest. Even before that, and due to Israeli measures, the security sector was almost non-existent. In the West Bank, divided as it is by Israeli checkpoints, no coherent security system can function. In Gaza, real authority lies with families and militias, undermining any centralized effort. Now, a general strike, mainly of education and health sector employees, has left the PA completely paralyzed.
The second deterioration is the growing tension in Gaza, in the form of sporadic clashes and a series of assassinations between Fateh and Hamas that might lead to security chaos or full-scale civil war in the Strip. This tension is aided by the deepening of poverty and unemployment, fertile soil for an increase in internecine violence.
We have not yet reached the point of no return, but if things are left as they are we will get there sooner rather than later. There are urgent requirements on all players.
First, the leaders of both Fateh and Hamas have to come to the conclusion that, on the one hand, none of them will be able to govern successfully alone, and on the other, any government comprising both must have policies compatible with international legality. If this does not happen, both will be responsible for what follows.
Second, powerful and influential regional countries have to start playing a constructive role rather than be the negative influence many of them have been so far. There is no doubt that many countries in the region are either influencing and encouraging--politically, ideologically and/or financially--certain groups in the Palestinian arena or avoiding to do so at a time when they could be useful.
Internationally, there has to be progress on both the economic and political levels. Economically, the "temporary international mechanism" that has been benefiting the health sector must be extended to include the education sector. That could rescue the humanitarian situation without political risk on behalf of the donors.
Politically, it is simply not enough for the international community to sit idly by watching the internal Palestinian situation and evaluating whether this or that internal move meets with approval or not. The international community must take a proactive approach of the kind that will encourage moderation rather than vice versa.
In addition, the international community has to pressure Israel to ease its draconian restrictions on Palestinians and stop its campaign of violence and assassinations. These illegal measures have only been contributing to the economic hardship suffered by Palestinians and encouraged radicalization.- Published 25/9/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is the former Palestinian Authority minister of planning, and has been a political analyst and media contact for many years.
AN ISRAELI VIEW|
The tragedy of weakness
by Aluf Benn
The relationship between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) can best be described as a tragedy of political weakness. On the one hand, there has never been such proximity of opening positions and such lack of personal animosity and mistrust between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. On the other hand, each side's capacity to reach a sustainable long-term deal appears as remote as ever.
When Olmert succeeded the ailing Ariel Sharon on January 4, Israel was at the apogee of its unilateral policy vis-a-vis the Palestinians. Sharon's disengagement from Gaza won global admiration and proved that Israel was willing and able to confront its rejectionists, the settlers. A vocal advocate of deep West Bank withdrawal for demographic reasons--preserving Israel's Jewish majority and identity over a smaller territory--Olmert set out to follow in his predecessor's path. While paying the requisite lip service to a negotiated process based on the roadmap, Olmert has clearly favored going it alone. He proposed drawing Israel's long-term eastern border along the security barrier while removing the settlements outside its perimeter and maintaining a security presence along the Jordan Rift Valley.
Three weeks after Olmert's takeover, Hamas won the PA legislative elections. From Olmert's perspective, this represented both a threat and an opportunity. A hostile political force had taken charge of the Palestinian government, but this could convince the international community that Israel's unilateral strategy was justified precisely by the lack of a Palestinian partner. Olmert successfully recruited international support against the Hamas government, and sought to topple or seriously cripple it through economic and political boycott.
Abu Mazen played a key role in this strategy: as long as there was a "good" Palestinian interlocutor, even in a diminished political capacity, there was a visible alternative to Hamas. Strengthened by American, European and Egyptian support, Abbas has clung to his pro-negotiations, anti-terror stance while seeking a modus vivendi with Hamas.
Olmert, however, abiding by an old rule of Israeli politics, distanced himself from Abbas: first, to win the March 28 elections, then to form a new coalition and then to establish his credentials with key world leaders. His meeting with Abu Mazen had to wait, Olmert explained, until he concluded a round of handshakes in western and Arab capitals. He met Abbas only briefly in Petra, hugged him and promised to meet him again soon.
Alas, the foot dragging killed the momentum. The cross-border attack from Gaza on June 25 in which Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was abducted prompted an Israeli invasion of Gaza. This was followed in mid-July by another abduction and full-scale war in Lebanon.
The fighting in Gaza and Lebanon has had a quadruple effect. First, it destroyed Olmert's unilateralism, as Israel returned to areas it had evacuated only several years before. Second, it crippled Olmert's political stance, forcing him to seek a new agenda to survive. Third, it brought Hamas closer to sharing power with Abbas' Fateh in order to fend off mounting pressure. And fourth, it prompted Israel and Hamas to talk indirectly about exchanging prisoners and resuming the ceasefire.
These developments have brought Abbas back to center stage. He could serve Israel as an interlocutor, both as a substitute for unilateral moves and as a go-between with Hamas. Indeed, Olmert was quick to portray Abu Mazen as a new hope rather than a hopeless weakling as before. Olmert now said that he had wanted all along to release prisoners as a gesture to Abu Mazen, but had to postpone it because of the Shalit abduction. Knowing the penchant of western leaders for any expression of Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, Olmert welcomed Tony Blair in Jerusalem with the promise of meeting Abbas "without preconditions". Last week, Israeli ministers Tzipi Livni and Shimon Peres met Abbas at the United Nations. Olmert's long-delayed meeting with Abbas is now pending the sorting out of Palestinian unity government deliberations and resolution of the Shalit prisoner deal.
Despite the mutual need for a political helping hand, however, little can be expected from the Abbas-Olmert meeting. Both leaders' ability to deliver on key issues is strictly limited by their domestic troubles. Olmert's adherence to the roadmap first-phase requirement of a Palestinian crackdown on terror and his firm demand that any Palestinian government recognize Israel serve as impediments to any quick progress. At the same time, the current Israeli government is too weak to perform its own roadmap obligations, such as removing settlement outposts.
Therefore, the best that can be expected is another round of Israeli "gestures" and confidence-building measures, like prisoner release and easing of the economic blockade, in order to support a new ceasefire. While better than the current situation, recent history has shown that such respites are fragile and temporary, leading to yet another outbreak of violence and chaos.- Published 25/9/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Aluf Benn is the diplomatic editor of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
National unity is more important than foreign conditions
an interview with Yehya Mousa
bitterlemons: Almost all countries represented in New York reiterated the importance of Palestinian-Israeli peace. What can Palestinians do to make use of such political momentum?
Mousa: There was nothing new introduced in New York. On the contrary, they returned to resuscitate a dead corpse, the roadmap. This roadmap is used by the Americans to extend the conflict and not solve the Palestinian cause. We didn't see New York as a chance, on the contrary, there was a setback.
I think what they should have discussed is a new plan with a new vision that corresponds with the basic rights of the Palestinian people. Such a plan would have the end of the negotiations clearly specified and determined, namely the establishment of a truly independent Palestinian state. Anything else is a waste of time and only prolongs and increases the suffering of the Palestinian people.
bitterlemons: The Quartet stands firm on its demands on Hamas. Hamas stands firm in rejecting them. Can a compromise be worked out, and if so, what is it?
Mousa: It is more important for Palestinians to work out what we need from our national dialogue. National unity is more important than foreign preconditions. The Palestinian factions must meet, like they met on the national conciliation document, which is considered the main principle that can lead us out of our current crisis, to create a consensus about Palestinian rights.
If we stay in the pit of foreign conditions, we revert to the previous system that caused the intifada. With preconditions we will be hostages to political extortion again. This will take us back to the same catastrophes that Fateh led us to in the last 12 years.
bitterlemons: The unity government is seen as a way out of the crisis, but will a unity government provide such a way? Is it even possible?
Mousa: The national unity government is about political will and that political will exists already in Hamas. Now the most important thing is to find the political will, free from foreign conditions, in our brothers in Fateh as well. At the moment, they don't want a national unity government; they are involved in a coup against the PA.
Look for example at how the ministers had their detention extended by Israel. The Israelis are happy to help reshape the Palestinian political reality and see a coup against the elections. The developments with our brothers in Fateh are taking us in the wrong direction in a way that doesn't help our national interests. And that which doesn't act in our national interest aids only our enemy.
bitterlemons: What is the likelihood for a prisoner exchange, and how important is it?
Mousa: The prisoners' issue is everybody's issue. The price we are paying now is because of our determination and insistence on the issue of prisoners. The exchange of prisoners is a natural right and our prisoners must be released in honor and dignity. Such an exchange must be simultaneous, because we do not trust our enemy and we cannot put such an issue in their hands.
bitterlemons: Is the Hamas government ready to negotiate with Israel, without preconditions?
Mousa: It is not necessary that the Hamas government negotiate directly with Israel. There should be alternatives by negotiating through third parties, and any negotiations process should be based on not recognizing the Zionist entity. In any case, according to the national conciliation document, it was agreed that the PLO is the body that is authorized to play this role.
Hamas has a clear position on these issues based on not recognizing the occupation and not recognizing realities that were imposed on the ground.
bitterlemons: Is there any point at the moment to a meeting of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli PM Ehud Olmert?
Mousa: There is no horizon for such a meeting. Olmert is using Abbas to squeeze out of his internal crisis. He has no new initiative or peace plan. Furthermore, Zionist society is not ready to give Palestinians their rights. So, we carry no hopes from such meetings. On the contrary, they will take us in the wrong direction.- Published 25/9/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Yehya Mousa is a Hamas legislator from Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip.
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