The ramifications of the Gaza war for Israeli politics do not appear to be profound. In contrast, they could be very significant for Palestinian politics, and this in turn could redound heavily on Israeli-Palestinian relations.
In Israel, with the war over and elections scarcely two weeks away, Ehud Barak's performance as minister of defense during the war earned the Labor party extra mandates, but largely at the expense of Kadima. Hence the overall balance between the left and right blocs has not changed and, barring unforeseen events, Likud is still expected to form the next government.
What will it confront on the Palestinian side? The war appears to have had two significant effects on Palestinian politics. First, because Hamas survived the war intact and the PLO was perceived not to have supported it and even to have sided with Israel, Hamas has apparently gained in popularity at the expense of Fateh and the PLO, which remain corrupt and ossified bodies. Second, the issue of a PLO presence at the Gaza crossings, as stipulated in the 2005 Gaza unilateral withdrawal agreements, has been revived--particularly in the context of the delivery to Gaza of urgent reconstruction aid--along with Egypt's efforts to mediate the creation of a new Palestinian Authority unity government.
Hamas demands that the crossings be opened but rejects the PLO presence that Israel, Egypt and the international community insist on. Reports that Hamas killed and maimed dozens of Fateh activists in Gaza during the war have further darkened the internal-Palestinian atmosphere. Nor does Hamas appear now to be any more interested in a unity government based on terms proffered by Egypt than before the war, when it refused to negotiate them and contributed to the ceasefire crisis that ignited the war. Without a unity government, it is hard to contemplate agreement on the Palestinian presidential and parliamentary elections that are constitutionally mandated within the year.
This presents us with a number of scenarios for the coming year. All revolve around the issue that the next Israeli government in Jerusalem and the new Obama administration in Washington will have to confront: for the purposes of ending or even managing this conflict, are there one or two Palestinian political entities? Who rules them and who talks to them?
In the first scenario, a Palestinian unity government is formed and PLO personnel man the crossings. Elections are postponed or, if held, Fateh wins them by a slim margin and the unity government principle is maintained. Israel opens the crossings and has to decide with which parts of the PA government it negotiates, and over what. This situation would be similar to that which prevailed during the former unity government, which was short-lived and not conducive to productive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. None of the components of this scenario is likely.
In a variation on this scenario, Hamas agrees to a PLO presence at the crossings and international control over rehabilitation funds even without a unity government, out of philanthropic concern for the welfare of Gazans. This presumes highly uncharacteristic and unlikely behavior on the part of Hamas.
The third scenario is the same as the first, except that Palestinian elections are quickly held and Hamas wins them. Israel and the PLO now confront the prospect of a Hamas political takeover in the West Bank as well as Gaza. Jordan, too, finds this threatening. Violence ensues, as Israel and/or Fateh forcibly prevent the emergence of a Hamas government in Ramallah. This is a more likely series of developments than scenario one.
Yet a fourth scenario simply extends the current status quo. There is no unity government, no PLO personnel at the crossings, the Israeli and Egyptian economic siege continues and arms smuggling is reduced. The delivery of reconstruction aid is sporadic. Gazans are miserable, while Israel and the US work with the PLO in the West Bank. As the deterrent effect of the recent Israeli assault on Gaza slowly dissipates, the clock will be ticking on the next Gaza war or some other form of explosive development in and around the Gaza Strip. This appears to be the most likely scenario, regardless of whether the next Israeli government is a right-wing or centrist coalition.
Scenario five depicts what I believe should happen, based on a realistic Israeli and American assessment of the situation. In this scenario, Egypt and the international community successfully end the smuggling and Israel recognizes the folly of collectively punishing 1.5 million Gazans for the sins of Hamas and opens the crossings, in return for which Hamas maintains the ceasefire. Israel offers to talk to Hamas about the long-term future of Gaza and continues talking to the PLO about the West Bank. This scenario offers the best chance of formulating a prisoner-exchange agreement that brings Gilad Shalit home.
In the United States, President Barack Obama is certainly more likely than his predecessor to adopt elements of an approach that envisages engaging Hamas. As for the next Israeli government, neither a right wing nor a centrist coalition is likely to adopt it. Too bad. We have to recognize that Hamas, however repugnant, is here to stay and is our neighbor and that starving masses of Palestinians is a counter-productive strategy. Even if Hamas maintains its current refusal to talk to us, we will have vastly improved our capacity to maneuver politically on the Palestinian and regional scene.- Published 26/1/2009 © bitterlemons.org
As predicted, the three-week long Israeli war on Gaza ended with only one definite result: an eventual renewal of the previous six-month ceasefire for another year, give or take. Other military and political outcomes are less obvious and are still being shaped, with the indirect ceasefire negotiations in their infancy.
Since the Gaza war had certain obvious political objectives, it did, however, result in a number of political gains and losses on both the Palestinian and Israeli sides.
In Israel, the aftermath of the war saw a significant change in the balance of powers between the main parties competing in the forthcoming parliamentary elections. Those parties and leaders who were directly involved in initiating and managing the war have gained public support, notably the leaders of Kadima and Labor. The parties currently in opposition, meanwhile, saw their support narrow somewhat.
And while Binyamin Netanyahu, the Likud leader and head of the Israeli opposition, still maintains a lead in opinion polls, that lead has shrunk and the situation remains fluid ahead of polling, not least because the final outcomes of the war have yet to materialize.
On the Palestinian side, however, the effect of the war on domestic politics has been clearer and more dramatic. Hamas, which stopped launching missiles while still able to do so, has come out of the war politically stronger than before and certainly more popular, not only in the Palestinian territories, notably the West Bank, but also among Palestinians in the diaspora and in Arab public opinion generally.
The reasons are clear. First, the brutality of the Israeli onslaught and the unprecedented level of casualties and damage among civilians and civilian infrastructure created public sympathy and support for Gaza and, by extension, Hamas in Gaza.
Second, the performance of Hamas, both politically and militarily, also garnered respect. The language of Hamas officials remained consistent while on the ground the movement was able to maintain control over different aspects of people's lives in Gaza, during and immediately after the war. Militarily, Hamas fighters showed discipline and steadfastness.
Finally, the confused and poor performance of Hamas' political opponent, the Palestinian Authority, also added to the public support for Hamas. This was acutely apparent when the president of the PA, Mahmoud Abbas, and his top political advisors, in addition to some others, criticized Hamas and blamed the movement for the tragedy at a time when the public blamed Israel and expected all Palestinian leaders to work together on ending the suffering in Gaza.
Hamas has not yet been able to reap all the political dividends it could from the war because it has not yet achieved its main objective, which is to end the blockade on Gaza. This is especially true in Gaza, where people have suffered long and hard on both the material and humanitarian levels as a result of the 18-month Israeli-imposed closure on Gaza that Hamas has promised Gazans will end.
Nevertheless, what aided public support for Hamas was that the war came immediately after the failure of the one-year Annapolis negotiations process became clear. That process not only ended with no tangible success in furthering Palestinian aspirations for statehood and independence but with a clear consolidation of the occupation in the form of a further increase in the rate of illegal Israeli settlement expansion even as the political ceiling of the Palestinian negotiations delegation was lowered.
Elsewhere, the war has had significant political consequences on a regional level, especially in Egypt. The growing sympathy with the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza and the success of Hamas in identifying itself with the principle and practice of resistance against occupation, which is highly respected among Arabs generally, have enabled the political and ideological equivalents of Hamas in other Arab countries to take advantage of the large and angry popular demonstrations against the war by further weakening the public positions of the so-called moderate regimes and political groups. That has caused further shifts in the balance of power between the radical political Islamic groups and their political opponents across the region.
This was best illustrated by the Doha summit that included half the Arab states as well as Turkey and Iran, and where the Palestinian side was represented by a delegation of Palestinian factions based in Damascus and led by Khalid Meshaal, the head of Hamas. The summit showcased the severe divisions in the Arab world and, more importantly, the weakness of Arab regimes vis-a-vis a broader coalition of regimes--divisions that many non-Arab forces in the region (including Israel) have been trying to promote.
Those divisions were also emphasized by the awkward position of the host, Qatar, which enjoys the closest of ties with the US and Israel (it hosts the biggest American military base in the region as well as an Israeli representative office) on the one hand, and the best relations with Hamas on the other. Qatar is also home to al-Jazeera, which is perceived as favorable to the political line represented by Hamas, Hizballah and Syria.
Fortunately, the end of Israel's aggression on Gaza has coincided with the election of a new American administration that has a chance of arresting the current deterioration, especially in the peace process. It is the deterioration of the political process that has boosted the violent alternative.
With Egypt playing the main mediating role between Israel and Hamas and hopefully leading the reconciliation process among Palestinians, the new administration has a few cards to play. It has started by sending relatively positive signs of immediate engagement with the appointment of George Mitchell as Middle East envoy. He is expected here in a few days in only the second week of the Obama administration.
The new administration, in cooperation with its European allies who seem prepared to help, is the only factor that can reverse the negative trends in the region and in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.- Published 26/1/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president for community outreach at 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
A unique opportunity
an interview with Gilead Sher
bitterlemons: Can we speak in isolation of a specific political aftermath in Israel or Gaza following the war?
Sher: I think the IDF operation in Gaza enhanced the understanding that the problems of the Middle East are interconnected and that all the issues have a larger perspective.
bitterlemons: So there is an opportunity here?
Sher: [The situation] presents a unique opportunity for optimizing a strategy that would be common to the United States, Israel, the European Union and the moderate Arab states such as Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf states, regarding at least two issues. The first would be to implement the two-state solution both in the Israeli-Palestinian context and in the wider Arab-Israel context. The second issue to which such a "partnership" would aim is to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weaponry. We need a joint agenda for promoting strategic initiatives.
If I narrow it down now to the Israeli-Palestinian context, the post-war operation would require combining reconstruction and rehabilitation of Gaza with an effort to stabilize the West Bank, all in coordination with the Palestinian Authority and the international community. That's the opportunity I think is becoming clear now: that there is a clear connection between Gaza reconstruction and PA control not only over the West Bank but, in certain aspects, Gaza as well. For instance, we need some positive traction on the ground in the West Bank that would allow the PA to be more active and more present in the rehabilitation of Gaza and at the same time [expand] the plan to other areas in the West Bank so that the areas under PA control would be both in the West Bank and Gaza.
[In the West Bank] you need to put together the missions of the US security coordinator and the quartet. General Keith Dayton and Tony Blair would work together to create a comprehensive plan for a wider area that would come under Palestinian control. Combine that with a trilateral security-related plan in coordination with the PA and the consent of Israeli [security institutions] and some limitations on IDF intrusions into areas that would be designated as coming under PA control.
The future of Gaza and Hamas-PA relations has to be seen in a wider context. The steps to be taken are, first, the opening of the borders in a manner that would allow the prevention of arms and ammunition smuggling and prevent a renewal of the buildup of a military capacity in Gaza. A second step would be to allow deeper PA involvement in Gaza affairs, particularly at the border-crossings.
A third step would be the international reconstruction plan for Gaza. It would be developed in consultation with the PA and the assistance of moderate Arab states. Fourth, the money that is channeled for the rehabilitation of Gaza must be controlled by the PA, by President Mahmoud Abbas and PM Salam Fayyad, with some kind of international monitoring and supervision for the correct channeling of investments.
All these steps should be taken after some intensive talks between the US, Israel, Egypt and the PA.
bitterlemons: But how does the war's effect on the Palestinian political scene make this possible? Some observers argue that the war strengthened Hamas and weakened the PLO.
Sher: This is not a question I can answer. But I can tell you I think there is an opportunity here to promote a deeper understanding between the US, the PA, Israel and other moderate actors to promote an agenda that does not relate to Gaza as a Hamas-only territory and that relies on two main anchors, the crossing points and the monies for reconstruction. You physically broadcast a very clear message: that whatever is being positively endorsed by the international community has nothing to do with Hamas. The fact that the funneling of money for reconstruction is in Fayyad's hands rather than Ismail Haniyeh's sends a very clear message.
bitterlemons: Yet Gaza remains in Hamas' hands and Hamas refuses to accept a PLO presence.
Sher: If Hamas wishes to see Gaza reconstructed and rehabilitated, it will have to play by the rules of the new American administration, Egypt and the other moderate Arab states. The international community cannot reward Hamas for initiating this tragedy by allowing it now to take part in the reconstruction of Gaza. So it's not a matter of Hamas but of how to deal with it. Hamas is less important here because I don't think it now has the ability to resist what I'm suggesting.
bitterlemons: And how do you factor in the internal Israeli political situation, with elections two weeks away?
Sher: Theoretically [this plan] shouldn't affect Israel's elections, but everything here is politics. Still, disregarding politics, it is in Israel's best interests to hammer down its clear success over Hamas by stopping the smuggling of weapons, being part of the monitoring of monies for reconstruction and having its moderate Palestinian partner, the PA, as the authorized sovereign entity dealing with the crossing points and the monies.
bitterlemons: Can this plan work without an effective government in Israel? Everyone's busy with an election campaign.
Sher: What does the election campaign have to do with what I have said? Nothing. The creation of an effective body for the benefit of all moderate actors concerned has to be a matter of days. No political considerations should have the upper hand here. Anyhow, this benefits both the political right and the left in Israel.
bitterlemons: Did Israel miss an opportunity during the war to engineer the return of PLO rule in Gaza?
Sher: I don't think this was a realistic objective. Now, with a combined strategy, you can gain much more by not destroying Hamas altogether but rather allowing the PA to have the upper hand. Connect that [strategy] to the West Bank and you've got a comprehensive plan that Israel should be dealing with affirmatively, disregarding any political preferences.
bitterlemons: Now factor in American politics, i.e., the new administration in Washington. How quickly can the US move on a plan like this?
Sher: This is all part of an action plan being discussed these days. There can be no real movement until [US emissary George] Mitchell arrives--this is just a reconnaissance visit--and [National Security Adviser James] Jones and [Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton define their areas of authority. This is too urgent to wait more than just a few days.
[The plan could include] Gilad Shalit's release as part of a modest exchange of prisoners and--these are ideas I hear from important persons around the world--the release of Marwan Barghouti by Israel within the framework of a new Obama initiative. We need both to strengthen the legitimacy and capacity of moderate Palestinians and to show some achievements and results for Israel in order to justify this kind of initiative.- Published 26/1/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Attorney Gilead Sher is former chief of staff of Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Ehud Barak. In that capacity he acted as Israel's co-chief negotiator in 1999-2001 at the Camp David summit and the Taba talks.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Hamas emerges defiant
by Mustafa Abu Sway
The latest phase in the history of the Zionist colonial project in Palestine is marked by the unprecedented brutality of Israel's military attacks on the Gaza Strip and by the nature of the war crimes that Israel is committing in an area that is still under its occupation and, therefore, under international law, an Israeli obligation to protect civilians.
These crimes include attacks on innocent civilians at UNRWA schools and institutions, medical personnel in their marked vehicles and children in the "safety" of their homes. The idea of spacio-cide, to borrow from Sari Hanafi's most recent article, while originally applied to the confiscation of Palestinian land and the creation of illegal colonies, could be extended to Israel's bombardment and destruction of the Palestinian parliament, private homes, mosques and universities in Gaza. Yet, it is Israel's illegal use of white-phosphorous weapons and the charred bodies of Palestinian children that prompted some to coin the term "Gaza-caust".
But beyond causing total destruction, killing more than 1,300 Palestinians and wounding more than 5,000 others, many maimed for life, Israel has failed to achieve any political goals. This is not the first time Israeli political leaders time their attacks to coincide with Israeli general elections. This is not the first time this scheme fails. Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni, the supposed political beneficiaries of these atrocities, are still trailing behind Binyamin Netanyahu just a couple of weeks before the elections. As for Ehud Olmert, he could not wipe out his failure in Lebanon with a "victory" in Gaza; he has instead ensured that he enters the hall of shame because of the war crimes for which he is responsible. The world should make sure that he enters the appropriate halls at the Hague.
It will be naive to isolate the war on Gaza from previous developments, however. The larger picture necessitates mentioning David Rose's "The Gaza Bombshell", the Vanity Fair article of April 2008, which has the following introduction:
"After failing to anticipate Hamas' victory over Fateh in the 2006 Palestinian election, the White House cooked up yet another scandalously covert and self-defeating Middle East debacle: part Iran-contra, part Bay of Pigs. With confidential documents, corroborated by outraged former and current US officials, the author reveals how President Bush, Condoleezza Rice and Deputy National-Security Adviser Elliott Abrams backed an armed force under Fateh strongman Muhammad Dahlan, touching off a bloody civil war in Gaza and leaving Hamas stronger than ever."
(It should be mentioned that not all people in Fateh approved Dahlan's actions. Hani al-Hasan, for example, one of Fateh's prominent leaders, criticized Dahlan openly.)
Nevertheless, when Dahlan's coup d'etat against Hamas failed, it became time for the Israeli military land-, air- and sea-blockade of the Gaza Strip, a severe collective punishment that left 1.5 million Palestinians under the cruelest possible conditions in an open prison. Dr Abdullah al-Ashal, a former assistant to the Egyptian foreign minister asserted several times on al-Jazeera and other TV channels, two days after Israel launched its war on Gaza, that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas requested the closure of the Rafah border crossing.
This phase, that of the siege, aimed at turning the people of Gaza against Hamas, but to no avail.
The failure of the siege on Gaza, at least partially due to the hundreds of tunnels under the Gazan border with Egypt, brought about the latest phase, the war. The war on Gaza was prepared for the last six months. Therefore, it had nothing to do with the end of tahdiyeh (truce) that Israel anyway violated.
Yet, after more than three weeks of bombardment, Hamas has emerged defiant and with greater global recognition, including in some western countries. This could translate into a tougher negotiating position vis-a-vis Israel.
A stronger Hamas might also cause increasing difficulties for internal negotiations with Fateh regarding the establishment of a national unity government, with the former likely to demand that the PA release Hamas prisoners and end security coordination with Israel. This is why Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh's new initiative calls for the involvement of more Arab and Islamic countries in negotiations between Hamas and Fateh.
Rebuilding Gaza, according to Sari Nusseibeh, is a "trap" for all Palestinian factions. He insists that focus should be on a comprehensive political solution. He does see hope in new US President Barack Obama. When the rebuilding of Gaza does take place, I would add, Israel should pick up the bill.- Published 26/1/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Dr. Mustafa Abu Sway teaches at al-Quds University.
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