The incoming Israeli government has already received a frosty reception from almost all concerned parties, including close friends of Israel.
US President Barack Obama said the new government is not going to be helpful to the peace process. The EU has said that the upgrading of relations with Israel will depend on the new government's commitment to a two-state solution and later added that if Netanyahu did not commit to such a solution it could have negative consequences for EU-Israel relations.
The main Arab states with relations with Israel have also expressed concern. Egypt, for example, decided to cancel a celebration marking the signing of the Camp David peace treaty. Finally, the Palestinian Authority, which since the Israeli elections has suspended negotiations with Israel, has declared that the resumption of negotiations will require an Israeli commitment to the two-state solution and a cessation of all settlement expansion in occupied territory, including East Jerusalem.
The previous government, rhetoric aside, was not committed to the two-state solution, Its policy of expanding settlements made that clear. But the fact that the prime minister-elect of the new government, Binyamin Netanyahu, is refusing to even commit to the framework of two states may provide a possible point of pressure on Israel, especially from the United States and Europe.
And even with the Labor party, the new government is going to be characterized by the policies of the political right in Israel, not only politically but also in terms of its domestic social and economic policies. Taken together, it is likely that the new government, like all Israeli governments in the past two decades, will be short-lived. This trend indicates hesitation in Israeli public opinion as far as the peace process is concerned, since most Israeli government have fallen on issues relating to the peace process.
In the meantime, however, Netanyahu has been talking about "economic peace". From the little detail he has given, it seems that he will in fact continue, more or less, the same policy of unilateralism that Ariel Sharon started and Ehud Olmert continued. This approach is based on avoiding serious political negotiations while proceeding with changing the reality on the ground in the form of settlement building and expansion, construction of the separation wall and other practices that arise from the consolidation of a military occupation.
In any case, in the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the economic problems that Netanyahu says he wants to address are mostly byproducts of the political conflict. Reports and assessments by international organizations, including the World Bank, which deal with economic development have all concluded more than once that settlement expansion, the presence of a dedicated settler road network, the erection of walls and confiscation of land, in addition to other practices of a military occupation such as depriving Palestinians the use of their land and natural resources, are the main impediments to economic recovery and development.
In other words, the economic issue cannot be addressed in isolation of the political issue. A political solution is a precondition for developing the Palestinian economy.
The consequence of continuing the unilateral approach is a continuation of the trends we have witnessed in the past years. Israeli unilateralism leads to greater Palestinian radicalization and more support for groups that oppose any kind of peaceful relations or negotiations with Israel. It will also frustrate the peace camp in Palestine and further weaken the positions of President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who have been trying, with little success, to convince the Palestinian public that a peaceful end to the Israeli occupation is possible.
As much as the victory of the right in Israel is a result of the failure of the peace process, it is the responsibility of the international community to try to deal with the complicated situation resulting from the radicalization in both Israel and Palestine. The international community has to go beyond demanding that the new Israeli government simply commit itself to a two state solution, and call for practical steps from the Israeli government to behave in accordance with that vision. In particular, this means an immediate end to settlement expansion and the consolidation of the occupation, or, in other words, a practical commitment to a two-state solution.- Published 30/3/2009 © 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
Talking to Syria is the key to managing with Palestine
by Yossi Alpher
Left to its own devices, the incoming Netanyahu government will take few if any political initiatives toward the Palestinians. It may, within the framework of PM-designate Binyamin Netanyahu's "economic peace" proposal, support additional confidence-and security-building initiatives. And while Netanyahu may initiate political negotiations with the PLO leadership in order to preempt criticism, they will be even slower and less productive than the abortive talks conducted by the Olmert government. Indeed, the latter actually had sincere intentions of reaching a deal, whereas Netanyahu does not believe in a two-state solution.
In this regard, the presence of Ehud Barak as defense minister in this government will not make much difference. Barak has been skeptical of negotiations with the PLO leadership ever since the Camp David 2000 fiasco. He joined the Netanyahu government to preside over Israel's looming confrontation with Iran.
Two variables could conceivably alter this somber projection. One is a change in the composition of the Palestinian Authority government and/or the PLO as a consequence of a Fateh-Hamas unity agreement. If a unity deal gives Hamas a share of authority over West Bank security issues or if it leads to new Palestinian elections that Hamas wins, the incoming Israeli government is liable to respond militarily against perceived new security threats on the West Bank and to cut off negotiations with the PLO and cooperation with the PA.
By the by, ongoing Hamas terrorist provocations from Gaza against nearby Israeli towns and villages are likely to trigger the same mixture of ineffective responses, economic and military, from the Netanyahu government as we witnessed in the course of the past year. After all, the identity of Israel's defense minister has not changed.
A second key variable that could influence Netanyahu's calculations regarding peace process issues is the attitude of the Obama administration toward the Palestinian peace track as communicated to Netanyahu by the president, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and special envoy George Mitchell. The new administration has already signaled that it will play a more active role in this connection than its predecessor, the Bush administration.
At a minimum, a tough American position on settlements could guarantee that no new outposts are erected, that settlement expansion is limited and that controversial Israeli projects in the Jerusalem area such as E1 and the City of David/Silwan remain frozen. As for the actual dismantling of outposts, we recall that even under the "moderate" Olmert government Defense Minister Barak "legalized" more outposts than he dismantled.
But if Netanyahu plays his cards right, it is hard to conceive of a serious confrontation between him and Obama over an Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the coming year given the weakness of the Palestinian leadership, the Hamas-Fateh unity talks and the prospect of new Palestinian elections. If Netanyahu wants to be absolutely sure of smooth sailing with Obama, his best bet is to ask Washington to take the lead in facilitating Israel-Syria peace talks.
Netanyahu, we recall, was far more forthcoming in his secret talks with Syria during his previous term as prime minister (1996-99) than in his Oslo talks with the PLO. (So, incidentally, was then-PM Barak in 2000.) Now, with his recognition of the Iranian threat as Israel's primary strategic challenge, Netanyahu should have little trouble engaging Obama concerning the need to neutralize the Syrian link in the chain of Iran's hegemonic designs in the Levant region, thereby weakening both Hamas and Hizballah as well. Even Obama would then have to acknowledge that one Israel-Arab peace process at a time is all Israel can handle, especially at a time when prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough are in any case poor. Besides, moderate Palestinians are the first to admit that an Israeli-Syrian accommodation would improve their lot by weakening Hamas.
If Netanyahu chooses this route--conflict-mitigation with the PLO in the West Bank, a holding action with Hamas in Gaza and an American-sponsored opening to Syria that is integrated into US-Israel strategic coordination regarding Iran--he should be able to manage with the US, Europe and Israel's moderate Arab neighbors. He may have trouble with the right wing of his coalition, but his government will be big enough to play off one party against another.
If, on the other hand, Netanyahu opts for a hard line toward the Palestinians and rejects an American-sponsored peace process with Syria, or if he mismanages the first major regional crisis his government confronts, probably in Gaza or southern Lebanon, he could find himself at odds with Obama. And American anger at its prime minister is a transgression the Israeli public does not forgive.- Published 30/3/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Yossi Alpher coedits the bitterlemons.org family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Exposed, but still immune to pressure
an interview with Mkhaimar Abusada
bitterlemons: Do you think a Netanyahu-led government will be bad news for Palestinians?
Abusada: I'm not sure that a Netanyahu-led government will be much worse than the previous government. If you look at the Palestinian-Israeli conflict over the past 60 years, it has been going from bad to worse.
Yes, it will be worse, but that doesn't mean the previous government was good. The Olmert government talked about peace on the one hand, and on the other expanded settlements, built the wall, encircled East Jerusalem and in the process marginalized President Mahmoud Abbas.
Maybe the next Israeli government will expose itself to the Palestinians, the Arabs and the international community as a much more aggressive government.
bitterlemons: If this happens could that be a positive thing, in a roundabout way?
Abusada: Yes, in the way it was positive with the Shamir government in the past or even the former Netanyahu government. Then, US relations with Israel deteriorated because these rightwing governments did not want to abide by the peace process. So, by showing Israel's real face--look at Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister, a man who has talked about destroying the Aswan Dam, expelling Palestinians, etc.--this may raise an alarm among international actors.
We have already seen certain signals from the international community. A few days ago, the European Union said that if the Netanyahu government did not accept the two-state solution, it would damage European-Israeli relations.
bitterlemons: What about Gaza? What chance now for a ceasefire agreement or a prisoner exchange deal?
Abusada: If there will not be a prisoner exchange deal in the next few days, I don't see much chance under Netanyahu. Netanyahu does not have the same moral obligation as the Olmert government to secure the release of Gilad Shalit. Also, I don't think the Netanyahu government, based on the rhetoric of his party and coalition partners, would go ahead with a prisoner exchange deal that sees certain Hamas members freed. So I don't see any possibility of a prisoner exchange deal between Hamas and a Netanyahu government.
As for a ceasefire, as I understand it according to the coalition agreement between Netamyahu and Lieberman, the next Israeli government wants to put an end to Hamas rule in Gaza. I'm not sure whether or not Netanyahu can do this, but I don't think Netanyahu will tolerate any rockets from Gaza. I think the relationship between Gaza and Israel under the new government will be a very aggressive one.
bitterlemons: How important is Palestinian reconciliation?
Abusada: Palestinian reconciliation should be a top priority for Palestinians. The rhetoric coming from Netanyahu and his coalition should be noted by Palestinian leaders and spur them to put aside their differences. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to me that Palestinian leaders acknowledge the nature of these threats. Palestinian factions, both Hamas and Fateh, are looking out for their own narrow interests rather than the national interest.
bitterlemons: Is it your feeling that Netanyahu will commit to a two-state solution and if he doesn't, what of the international community?
Abusada: I think Netanyahu will only commit to a two-state solution in the mold of Ariel Sharon, i.e., a state on maximum 50 percent of the West Bank, something Palestinians would never accept. But I don't think the international community is in a position to put too much pressure on Israel in this case.
The EU, for instance, still labors under its historic guilt and so will not pressure Israel too much. Every time Europe tries to put Israel under pressure, it is accused of being anti-Semitic. Maybe relations will worsen, but not to the point of an economic boycott or any meaningful pressure.- Published 30/03/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Mkhaimar Abusada is a professor of political science at al-Azhar University in Gaza.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Dealing with a hostile political environment
by Amnon Lord
The second government of Binyamin Netanyahu is centered on the Likud's partnership with Labor party leader Ehud Barak. This new and seemingly unlikely collaboration between rivals Netanyahu and Barak was born out of their mutual recognition that, regarding the two major challenges facing Israel, they think alike.
They both believe that the old concepts of the peace process will lead them nowhere and that any supposed progress with the Palestinians in Judea and Samaria will only render Israel's security more precarious. Neither sees any sense in negotiating on the core Palestinian issues when there is no partner on the Palestinian side who can "deliver" security and law and order.
The second major challenge on which they agree is the nuclearization of Iran. Netanyahu sees that problem differently from his predecessor, Ehud Olmert. He is not likely to proceed under the old assumption that Iran's nukes are the world's problem and Israel should not be the leader in dealing with them. In order to shoulder that heavy burden, Netanyahu said clearly before the elections that he would seek a unity government, preferably with the Labor party. Barak was also quite clear on this issue.
The main problem the Netanyahu-Barak government will face is the hostile political environment surrounding Israel these days. The Netanyahu and Barak perception of the Palestinian and Iranian situations is widely shared by the Israeli public. In contrast, the "world" is clearly going in the opposite direction: as Israelis find themselves in great strategic peril because of a so-called peace process that handed over territorial bases to Islamic Jihad terrorists, the international community seems to side more and more with the "oppressed Palestinians". And as the Iranians move ever closer to nuclear weapons, the world seems to be friendlier and more accommodating toward Tehran's genocidal leaders while at the same time becoming indifferent to Israel's fortunes.
Netanyahu sees a clear linkage between the two issues of peace with the Palestinians and Iran's developing hegemony over the region. When asked a couple of days before elections if he was going to draw a connection between the issues in his dealings with US President Barack Obama, his answer was, "I don't have to draw this linkage because the linkage exists right there on its own". In Netanyahu's view, the Iranians have practically kidnapped the Palestinian problem, if not the Palestinian people themselves, and Tehran exploits that problem toward its own ends. The surprise is that world public opinion is happy with this and actually cheers Hamas and its Iranian patron as they fight Israel.
These two genocidal forces have lately found a new occupant in the White House who seems to be adopting a policy of appeasement while glorifying defeatism in the form of a new climate of openness toward America's opponents.
There is no doubt that Obama is ready at any moment to engage Hamas; technically the only thing he has to do is plug the Oval Office into an already existing channel with Hamas. The man who has led the US engagement with Hamas and occasionally with the Syrians is Rob Malley, who is close to both the president and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He is also the professed enemy of Ehud Barak; he is the source of the legendary canard that Barak was to blame for the failure of the Camp David summit with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in July 2000.
Thus it appears that Barak and Netanyahu will face an adversarial team in the new US administration. Lately, Wall Street Journal commentator Bret Stephens predicted in an interview to Haaretz' The Marker that while Obama was not likely to completely reverse US-Israeli relations, he very well might shift them at least 90 degrees. This would mean not just America turning it's back on Israel but also very scary results for the Abu Mazen (Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas) faction of moderate Palestinians. I have heard from Palestinian sources that they are not happy with the prospect of being forsaken and left to the mercy of fundamentalist Islamists.
On the other hand, there is no sense in America pressuring Netanyahu to seek a political goal that is plainly unattainable under current conditions. So Netanyahu has the advantage of proposing a way out of the impasse by offering to negotiate limited but attainable goals. The Likud coalition agreement with Barak hints that Israel may pursue some sort of regional peace convocation; the Madrid conference of 1991 in which Netanyahu himself participated comes to mind.
As for Gaza--what Netanyahu calls Hamastan--Barak's presence in the government ensures that a major operation to uproot Hamas will not be launched. But there will definitely be a more activist approach of striking at Hamas' capabilities. And the war against arms smuggling into Gaza will take priority, as we saw recently in Sudan.
The main challenge for Netanyahu will be the extent to which he is able to change Obama's mindset regarding the need to neutralize Iran as both a threat to all players in the region and a key obstacle on the road to peace with the Palestinians.- Published 30/3/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Amnon Lord is a senior editor and columnist at Makor Rishon newspaper.
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