March 07, 2011 Edition 6 Palestinian-Israeli Crossfire
The effect of changes in the Arab world
Sharing the search for freedom  - Ghassan Khatib
Most Palestinians believe that we are in a win-win situation.

Weak leaders responding poorly  - Yossi Alpher
None of this will bring about a productive peace process.

Shade to sunshine  - an interview with Talal Okal
The youth feel that they are able to act to change something.

In an ideal world  - Shlomo Avineri
Much, of course, will depend on Egyptian developments.

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Sharing the search for freedom
 Ghassan Khatib
The wave of protests demanding change in a growing number of countries marks a new era in the recent history of the Arab world. It is not a coincidence that Egypt has taken the lead in its revolution for political and social development. It comes half a century after Egypt took the lead in an Arab liberation movement that succeeded in ending direct colonial control over the region.

Most Palestinians believe that we are in a win-win situation. A democratic, reformed, free and developed Arab world is more useful and more capable of serving Arab causes, including ours. In addition, this movement will ensure that the political behavior of future governments will have to be more responsive to their people on all issues, including the Arab-Israel conflict.

The Palestinian people identified quickly and easily with the upheaval thanks to a shared slogan: freedom. However, a feeling of insecurity within some official circles restricted attempts to express that identification for some time. Support for the Palestinian cause and ending the Israeli occupation is a matter of consensus in Egypt and the rest of the Arab countries.

However, different Palestinians read differently the ongoing developments in the Arab world. Hamas believes that these changes will bring about more support for it and less for Fateh. Hamas also believes that the wave of change might also affect the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, because of its ties to those same Arab governments that have been changed or are facing difficulties. One of the immediate outcomes of this is additional Hamas reluctance to come to reconciliation with Fateh.

Others think that the revolution in Arab countries has been undermining traditional opposition parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood movement that birthed Hamas, as much as it is undermining the regimes. They argue that the new Arab world will continue to support the just Palestinian cause and maintain its relations with the PLO leadership, not necessarily on the basis of its factional composition.

It is no surprise to anybody that the most worried reaction has come from Tel Aviv. Israel has established unbalanced relations with some Arab governments, with little or no approval of their peoples, and should be worried. Future democratic Arab governments, while they might remain committed to signed agreements with Israel, might not be able or willing to maintain the same dependency.

The recent Israeli leak about a possible political initiative has followed close behind the ongoing revolutions in neighboring countries. It might also be motivated by dissatisfaction with the US on the part of its Arab allies after and because of its veto of a draft United Nations resolution criticizing illegal Israeli settlement activities.

Somebody--hopefully US President Barack Obama--needs to explain to the Israeli government and public that it is too late for any initiative that falls short of promising an end to the occupation and allowing for implementation of the two-state solution based on the borders of 1967. In addition, Palestinians have long ago stopped "learning about" Israeli positions by listening to Israeli statements--the gap between what Israelis say and do is too great. Without a halt in settlement expansion, nothing that Israeli leaders say will be taken with much credibility.-Published 7/3/2011

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views.

Weak leaders responding poorly
 Yossi Alpher
The revolutionary events sweeping the region, Egypt especially, have thus far produced a knee-jerk reaction on the part of the PLO and Palestinian Authority leadership that seemingly reflects a shallow decision-making process in Ramallah. The same, undoubtedly, can be said for the Netanyahu government in Jerusalem.

The Palestinian leadership in Ramallah declared elections--long-delayed elections--on the assumption that affording the citizenry a free choice at the polls would preempt any notion of inducing change through mass demonstrations. But it seemingly forgot to check first with Hamas in Gaza. The latter promptly rejected the idea, thereby eliminating any possibility of free choice in the Palestinian context and causing PA President Mahmoud Abbas to pull back from the elections idea.

Meanwhile, another long-delayed project--reconstituting the PA government--was also quickly restarted. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's cabinet was dissolved several weeks ago. A new one has not yet been formed. Here, too, hasty appeals to Hamas to somehow get involved in the new move and thereby facilitate elections also appear to have failed.

Hamas, incidentally, is waiting in Gaza for some sort of breakthrough in its relations with Egypt, presumably due to Muslim Brotherhood influence in Cairo. This has yet to materialize; even the dramatic Egyptian announcement of a permanently-open Rafah crossing linking Gaza to Sinai has yet to reach fruition and be translated into a new policy departure. Still, hopes appear to be high among Hamas leaders that, with new-found Egyptian support, they can negotiate reconciliation with the PLO from a position of strength.

No one in the Palestinian leadership has as yet paid a price for the recent hasty and seemingly ill-considered moves, for three likely reasons. First, the regimes in both Ramallah and Gaza are maintaining a tight security grip. Second, at the end of the day, both Abbas and the Hamas leadership in Gaza were chosen in fair elections, while the Fayyad government has delivered substantial benefits for Palestinians. And third, precisely because the revolution, in Egypt as elsewhere, is still a work in progress whose consequences for Palestinians are impossible to predict, many are simply sitting tight.

Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has let it be known, mainly by means of leaks from the erstwhile spin-masters surrounding him, that he too intends to respond dramatically to events--in his case, by launching a new peace initiative that will probably involve a partial agreement or Palestinian state with temporary borders. He may even ask his Republican supporters in the United States Congress to invite him to address a joint session and present his program there in the hope of achieving maximum bombastic effect. None of this is expected to happen before the spring, meaning that at this point it's all spin designed to fend off pressures.

Unlike Abbas, Netanyahu is not acting out of fear that mass demonstrations will sweep away his regime. In the Israeli case, the pressures and politics involved are both parliamentary and international. The recent US veto of a Security Council resolution condemning settlements, together with Quartet preparations to take a major new initiative regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, demonstrate just how isolated Israel has become under Netanyahu. More pressure to "do something" is coming from the Kadima-led centrist opposition, which is gaining in the polls, while within the right-wing coalition calls are mounting to stop muzzling settlement growth. And precisely because Netanyahu has knowingly surrounded himself with an anti-peace coalition, the best he will probably be able to do in his much-hyped Bar Ilan II speech is present a collection of half-baked, stale ideas for a partial solution that the Palestinians have already rejected.

In Netanyahu's case--and again, bearing in mind that we really don't know what is going to happen next in the region--the object of the exercise is to gain a day, or a week, or a month, before having to come up with some sort of new spin. In the case of Abbas and Fayyad, the objective is to get to September, when their state-building enterprise is expected to find expression in international recognition of a Palestinian state that coincides with near-total isolation of Israel.

The Palestinians have the better long-term plan. Yet as matters stand, none of this will bring about a productive peace process. That is not going to happen between Abbas and Netanyahu.-Published 7/3/2011 ©

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Shade to sunshine
an interview with Talal Okal
bitterlemons: How are revolutions in the Arab world impacting the Palestinian Authority and the authority of Hamas in Gaza?

Okal: I believe that the ongoing revolutions in the Arab world will probably affect most Arab countries. They are a reaction (albeit a surprise one) to developments over a long period of time in the Arab world. For example, political programs, internal development, the Arab leadership's interaction with the issues that affect the people, human dignity, human rights, the Palestinian issue, relations with western world, and so on. These revolutions take the Arab region out of the shade into the sunshine, commencing a new era for the Arab peoples and the area.

I believe that there are signs that we are entering a dire time, with internal requirements forming the basis for these revolutions. As a result, we are seeing the regimes say that there is external interference, that al-Qaeda is acting to try to disrupt the regimes, and so on. In fact, internal conditions are the main actor generating these revolutions.

We are being forced to revise our thinking, our main political beliefs and philosophies because of these revolutions. What are the roles of the parties and factions in civil society? What are the roles of social classes in the process of change?

bitterlemons: We see on the internet and among intellectuals that there is pressure for Hamas and Fateh to come together and to resolve their political differences. Do you think this is truly possible?

Okal: The youth in Palestine are buoyed by what is happening in Egypt and Tunisia. What is happening in the Arab region opens up a large door for young people to become active in society and to start initiatives for their demands. In Palestine, there are two targets--first, the occupation, which is longstanding, and second, the political division, which has impacted deeply the identity of the Palestinian.

The youth feel that they are able to act to change something, and hold the factions and civil society responsible for failing to bring about change. We see that there is an increase in groups that are raising the banner of "change" by ending factional division. Their presence is visible on Facebook and the internet and other media means. The movement comprises the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, as well as Palestinians outside.

Their success is related to two things--the first is the ability to unite all these youth groups, and the second is choosing the right time. Right now the media is focusing on Libya, and the presence of the media plays a major role in the success of these movements. Currently, we see that Fateh and Hamas are taking these movements into account and studying the possibility for solutions. I see that the two Palestinian political regimes (because we have two) are confronting their youth audiences with pressure. This could produce a wide explosion, either in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip.

bitterlemons: But the reconciliation of Fateh and Hamas means a total change in Palestinian's relationship with the West, which has supported Fateh over Hamas and considers the latter a terrorist organization.

Okal: Yes. But what do we mean by the West? The United States was the caretaker for the political process and negotiations. Now, after the failure of its role and the US veto, the US role is no longer very influential. Palestinians are in the process of reviewing their policies. Europe and the Europeans are thinking about increasing their political involvement; this is an important sign. But the Europeans are also not in line with all Palestinian political streams.

In any case, the reconciliation does not have to be deeply-rooted in its rejection of the West and so on. It could be as proposed by Salam Fayyad.

bitterlemons: What is your view of the proposal reportedly being worked on by Binyamin Netanyahu for an interim Palestinian state?

Okal: This is not a proposal, this is a maneuver. This is an old idea. It's the same idea conceived by [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon in 2001. The reason this is showing up now is that Israel feels that it is under international pressure. Some in the Quartet are pressuring Israel over its responsibility in stymieing attempts to activate negotiations.

There is no way that Palestinians, after all this time dealing with this radical [Israeli] government, would leave their future to the unknown: an interim state that is supposed to become a permanent one. I think that it doesn't change anything at this time. The Europeans understand this maneuver.-Published 7/3/2011

Talal Okal is a commentator based in the Gaza Strip.

In an ideal world
 Shlomo Avineri
In an ideal world, the popular insurrections now sweeping the Arab world should lead to the establishment and consolidation of democratic governments in each of the countries where they occur. In an ideal world, such developments should also lead to democratic consolidation in the Palestinian territories, bringing about reconciliation between the Fateh-led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the Hamas movement now controlling Gaza and allowing for early elections, with political movements rather than armed militias competing in a free and multi-party environment.

In an ideal world, such a democratic transformation should greatly facilitate an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians: if all sides share the democratic values of liberty, equality, self-determination, tolerance and pluralism, peace would be not just a strategic option or decision but a moral commandment anchored in shared values. Even the cold peace between Israel and Egypt, upheld by the Mubarak regime for realpolitik reasons, could be transformed into a real partnership based on common ideals. It may not be true that democracies never go to war against other democracies, but a democratic environment greatly enhances peace and stability: look at Europe today as compared to the Europe of the 1930s.

All this may happen, but other alternatives are also possible. Dismantling dictatorships does not automatically bring about the emergence of democracy: after the fall of communism in 1989, democracies did emerge in countries like Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, but in Russia the outcome has been the reemergence of a neo-authoritarian leadership epitomized by current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. And in the former Yugoslavia, the end of communism led to a number of bloody wars, ethnic cleansing, mass rapes and concentration camps.

So one should tread carefully and, while hoping for the best possible results, not overlook the more worrying possible scenarios.

Clearly developments in the Arab world will not be uniform, given the distinct histories and political and cultural traditions of each country. Even now, when things are still fluid, whatever happens in Egypt, the unity of the country will be preserved and the relative non-violent traditions of its society (going back to the bloodless way the monarchy was abolished in 1952) will in all probability be maintained; on the other hand, Libya--a much less consolidated society--may go in all kinds of unforeseeable directions. And developments in Bahrain and Yemen open a variety of unknown possibilities.

This may also explain why, in recent weeks, Palestinians have maintained a low profile. Given their weakness, current disunity and dependence on general Arab developments, both the PLO and Hamas have bided their time, adopting a "wait-and-see" approach. Much, of course, will depend on Egyptian developments. Will the new order now emerging in Cairo maintain the fundamentals of 30 years of peace with Israel? Will the new powers-that-be on the Nile try to achieve Palestinian reconciliation where President Hosni Mubarak and intelligence chief Omar Suleiman failed in the past?

But even this may have an ambiguous outcome. If PLO-Hamas reconciliation means that Hamas accepts the PLO's approach of seeking negotiations with Israel based on a two-state solution, this would of course be very welcome in Israel and may push the Netanyahu government, responding to internal public pressure, to a more conciliatory position regarding settlement construction and negotiations. On the other hand, the price the PLO may have to pay for such reconciliation and for the reassertion of its authority in Gaza may be a less accommodating position in negotiations. It is also possible that while PLO-Hamas negotiations continue to drag on, rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza will escalate, heightening the danger of a new and massive Israeli operation in Gaza.

While the arguments for PLO-Hamas reconciliation are obvious, the logic of the situation speaks for Hamas trying every means to further consolidate the power it now enjoys. This may also be enhanced if the new Egyptian government really opens the crossings into Gaza. Yet the tenuous control the Egyptian army now enjoys over some of the radical elements in Sinai suggests Cairo may be careful and prefer the current uneasy status quo rather than rush into a new policy whose consequences for Egypt, and not only for Gaza, may be unforeseen. It all of course depends on the relative roles of the army and the Muslim Brotherhood in the new configuration of power in Egypt. And there may be other scenarios as well--demonstrations in the West Bank calling for the resignation of PA President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) or prime minister-designate Salam Fayyad.

The last few weeks have proved almost all observers--and rulers--wrong. One thing, though, is clear: for the first time in history, popular revolts--and not military coups, putsches or assassinations--are changing the Arab world. Because this is such a novel development, its consequences are extremely hard to predict: it is a road not yet traveled.-Published 7/3/2011 ©

Shlomo Avineri, professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was director general of the Foreign Ministry in the first cabinet of Yitzhak Rabin.