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Israeli views on the prospects of the talks with Abbas

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Update from AIJAC

August 16, 2007
Number 08/07 #06

This Update is designed to provide an introduction to the Israeli debates about the efficacy of the current negotiations with PA head Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, now in charge only of the West Bank. A reasonable summary of the most prevalent view is that such talks are worth pursuing, but are nonetheless unlikely to lead to anything resembling a final peace agreement, given the circumstances.

First up is Dr. Gerald Steinberg, who does a good job of summarising the various views, including the argument that the Palestinian situation creates a unique opportunity for peace progress, and the process that is going on at the moment, and how it might work. But he also highlights the arguments put forward by sceptics, especially concerning how any agreement can be implemented, given Hamas' control of Gaza, and Abbas' weakness in the West Bank. For this useful summation of the current general background and dilemmas of  recent Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, CLICK HERE.

Next up, Professor Barry Rubin gives his take on such talks, expressing support for carrying them out, but strong scepticism that they can lead to a significant breakthrough, given the state of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority. He also argues strongly that the case that there is an opportunity for peace fails to account for the realities of Palestinian politics, but outlines several benefits of trying nonetheless. For his insightful analysis of both the benefits and the prospects of these peace talks, CLICK HERE.

Finally, a more optimistic, and slightly irreverent view, comes from the well-known Israeli columnist Yoel Marcus. Marcus admits that the extent of current prospects is still not clear for a variety of reasons, but stresses the common Palestinian, Israeli, and American interests at the moment in opening a window of opportunity for a two-state solution. He also reminds readers that in the past, big things have grown from apparently small openings. For this more optimistic view of the prospects of talks, CLICK HERE.


Peace castles in the air?

by Gerald M. Steinberg

bitterlemons.org, August 13, 2007

If necessity is the mother of political invention, the meetings between PM Ehud Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas, choreographed by the Bush administration, should be very productive. A dramatic breakthrough resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would certainly be a major boost for all three governments.

However, the substance of any such agreement and its long-term impact are far from clear. Skeptics (or realists) note that a lasting peace requires a wide societal acceptance of compromise, and this will still take many years once the maps in Palestinian textbooks start to include Israel. Until then, a facade that provides the illusion of the "end of conflict", but without the political foundation, would be very costly. The 1983 Lebanon-Israel peace treaty was built on very thin air and collapsed quickly.

In contrast, optimists believe that the very weakness of Abbas and the Fateh movement and Olmert's Kadima-led coalition provides the opportunity for a bold agreement. Fateh and Abbas are in no position to make impossible demands of Israel and this is the best time for a pragmatic compromise. On the Israeli side, Olmert remains vulnerable and needs a new program to replace the failed strategy of unilateral disengagement. Negotiations with Abbas and Salam Fayyad and the prospect of an historic agreement to "end the conflict" give Olmert and Kadima a chance for recovery.

Similarly, the US government--the perennial third party in Middle East peace efforts--needs a major diplomatic success. The colossal failure in conducting the Iraq war and the losses sustained in the 2006 congressional elections are behind this renewed activity.

On this basis, the first real engagement since the collapse of the Oslo process began with confidence-building measures. Israel released 250 Palestinians held on charges related to terror, members of Fateh's Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades promised to lay down their weapons and take up the path of peace in exchange for immunity and Israel announced some relaxation of security measures and checkpoints. Predictably, critics denounced these steps: for Palestinians they provided far too little; for Israelis they risked an increase in terror attacks.

Nevertheless, the CBMs were sufficient to set the stage for the resumption of regular talks between Abbas and Olmert. The goal, as repeated in Washington and Jerusalem, is to progress toward the creation of a Palestinian state and, on this basis, toward the long awaited two-state agreement to end the conflict, to be endorsed by an international conference (or workshop) that may (or may not) include high-level Saudi participation.

The next phase of such a pragmatic approach would be to draw borders, but since the Gaza Strip cannot be included in a Palestinian state under the control of Hamas the focus is on interim boundaries. On the West Bank, Abbas would need to convince Palestinians to accept the major post-1967 settlement blocs, perhaps offset by land swaps. And the Israeli government would have to agree to a large-scale withdrawal from Judea and Samaria.

Once this very complex issue is resolved the leaders can turn their attention to the core identity and ideological issues. During the 2000 Camp David summit, Yasser Arafat rejected the efforts to resolve Palestinian refugee claims and Jerusalem issues and accept a sovereign Jewish state. Positions have hardened, and in the years of terrorism that followed, Israelis have become less willing to take risks or make fundamental concessions on these issues. No conceivable Israeli government will agree to rewrite history by accepting moral responsibility for the 1948 Arab invasion and the resulting refugee problem, or to re-divide Jerusalem and again risk the eventual exclusion of Jews from their sacred sites.

Skeptics note that even if these obstacles could somehow be overcome and agreement reached, implementation is an entirely different and far more complex challenge. Hamas will increase its denunciations of Abbas as a traitor to Arafat's legacy and the agreement will be rejected as lacking legitimacy, as in the case of the 1983 Lebanon-Israel Treaty. In Israel, advisors and commentators warn of the possibility of a sudden rapprochement between Fateh and Hamas that would scuttle any agreement, while the settlement movement will fight intensively to prevent withdrawal from the heart of the historic Land of Israel. In addition, as Defense Minister and Labor Party leader Ehud Barak has declared, the lessons of the Gaza and Lebanon withdrawals highlight the need for an effective anti-rocket defense system before Israel removes or reduces its security presence elsewhere. Barak has ridiculed the suggestion that a peace agreement is imminent.

Olmert and Abbas are intelligent enough to recognize these limitations along with the need to first build societal support for the "painful compromises" necessary to sustain an agreement. But neither wants to be seen in the US or Europe as not making the effort to achieve peace. As a result the talks, photo-ops and optimistic reports will continue, at least for now. Whether progress toward substantive and lasting agreement can be made by weak leaders with nothing to lose remains to be seen.- Published 13/8/2007 © bitterlemons.org

Prof. Gerald Steinberg chairs the Political Studies Department at Bar Ilan University and heads NGO Monitor.

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Window Dressing

By Barry Rubin

August 8, 2007
A version of this article was published in the Toronto Globe & Mail and another in the Jerusalem Post.

Is there a window of opportunity for Israel-Palestinian peace right now? Let me put it this way: in diplomatic terms, looking through the window is worthwhile but, in analytical terms, I don;t think anyone is going to be able to climb through it.

The problem of the current situation poses two typical issues which often bedevil - but could be used to clarify - Middle East issues. The first is the logical versus the real; the second is the diplomatic versus the analytical.

Let us begin by what to outsiders seems a logical evaluation of the current situation. It goes something like this: Fatah and the Palestinian Authority (PA) it controls in the West Bank are in serious shape. Hamas has seized the Gaza Strip. The Palestinian infrastructure has been devastated. There seems to be no progress toward peace or an independent state.

Given this crisis it is logical that the Fatah leadership, headed by "President" Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who seem to be moderate men, pursue a new course. They can enforce stability on the West Bank and discipline on their own forces.

They can use the aid money they are getting from international donors to improve their people's situation, build schools and hospitals, and create a viable economy. And they can make peace with Israel to obtain a Palestinian state. They can say to the Palestinians: Hah! See how we deliver and Hamas does not! We have brought you all these benefits and so naturally you must support us.

Happy ending. Curtain falls. Standing ovation from the audience. Good reviews in the media. Nobel prizes to follow.

The problem here is that this approach treats Palestinian politics as a black box without examining its inner workings. Or, to put it another way, this interpretation is totally logical but has no connection to reality.

It is worth remembering, by the way, that this is precisely the framework that was used to justify the Oslo peace process in the 1990s. Yasir Arafat and the PLO were cornered, threatened with extinction. An offer to save them by moderating them would be eagerly accepted. And once Arafat actually had to administer people - providing jobs, fixing roads, collecting garbage - he would naturally be moderated and channels toward a comprehensive peace agreement.

True, Abbas is more flexible and less extreme than Arafat but he is far weaker, also. He himself has reportedly admitted that his regime cannot stop terrorist attacks on Israel from the territory it supposedly controls. Fatah is so fossilized, factionalized, and corrupt that it is not capable of changing course. Nor does most of the leadership want to do so. They would prefer to steal aid money rather than use it effectively. And they don't want to be considered traitors to the cause by pursuing moderation. There is no chance of their agreeing to a peace accord ending the conflict. One can only hope that they would do easier things like blocking attacks on Israel or ordering their media to stop inciting terrorism. Even that modest expectation is likely to be disappointed.

All this brings us to the second issue. The above analysis argues that all the massive diplomatic effort being waged right now is going to fall on its face. Does that mean it should not be tried at all?

In diplomacy one can try things one believes will fail if they serve some purpose and do not undermine other interests. At present this means holding talks with Arab states to try to encourage them to make some effort toward peace and reduce tensions; and with PA-Fatah to see if any progress can be made toward a political solution to the conflict.

There are also some more immediate goals at stake: helping Fatah survive because it is preferable to Hamas though the gap may be narrow than often acknowledged; and to press it to block terrorism from the West Bank and reduce anti-Israel, pro-terrorist incitement in the media and institutions it controls. Additional reasons for pursuing diplomacy include showing that Israel and the West wants an equitable peace and perhaps laying a basis for long-term efforts.

Yet this kind of thing requires balance and a strong sense of skepticism, based on the analysis that full peace is unlikely for decades and that Fatah‚s drive toward political suicide seems unstoppable. This requires:
  • Not fooling people into thinking that peace is close or that there is even a good chance of achieving it.
  • Politicians not making fool of themselves by racing around to create peace blueprints, conferences, and financial give-aways which will fail in a humiliating manner.
  • Not pretending that Abbas is a great man of peace or that Fatah is a collection of moderates.
  • Not recyling the myth that peace is dependent on Israel offering more and displaying more expressions of guilt or empathy.
  • And not making dangerous concessions or taking risks to "build confidence" or prove one's benevolence.
Ironically, offering to save Fatah leaders from bloody extinction (or at least a luxurious exile paid for by foreign aid) is not being used to press them toward reform and moderation. Rather it is being cast as Fatah doing the Americans or Israelis a favor by accepting their help without any requirement to change its behavior.

The way this crisis is being handled - even though the basic idea of the strategy makes sense - makes it more likely that peace plans will be forgotten, money wasted, casualties multiplied, and the world even more misled about the nature of a conflict which is kept going by Palestinian intransigence.
 
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal.


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It's not all talk

By Yoel Marcus

Haaretz, 11/08/2007            

What could be easier than poking fun at a dreamy peace plan like withdrawal to the 1967 borders? At a time when a division of solders has to be called in to evacuate two families from Hebron, it is hard to believe that a Palestinian state can be established alongside us on 100 percent of the occupied territories. It is hard to imagine even one of the 104 illegal outposts being dismantled, let alone a Palestinian state going up next to us based on a land swap.

Is dismantling settlements really so impossible? Of course it isn't. Ariel Sharon managed to clear out Gush Katif in a jiffy. His one mistake was that he did the unbelievable without an agreement. If he weren't in a coma, there is no question he would continue with Stages B and C, whatever they were, and drum it even more into the heads of Israelis that the dream of a Greater Israel is history.

On the face of it, the statement released about establishing a Palestinian state on 100 percent of the occupied territories sounds like a lot of talk. It may be a good idea, but new it isn't. Just two weeks ago, yours truly warned Ehud Olmert not to invite Shimon Peres to get actively involved in the political process lest he take the offer seriously. And that's just what happened. Peres came up with a proposal, and Olmert accepted it and promptly turned it into a banner headline. How serious or practical it is, is not yet clear.

One way or another, declaring a Palestinian state based on the '67 borders was an excellent backdrop for the Jericho summit. It made Mrs. Erekat's cooking even tastier and the handshakes warmer.

The extremists and skeptics say it's all talk. But nobody ever died from dialogue. The Kissinger talks after the Yom Kippur War proved nothing was impossible, even in the worst of situations. The fact is, those talks initiated by Kissinger led to a full peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, in exchange for occupied territory and razing the settlements of the Rafiah Salient down to the last millimeter. And the one who set the precedent of the "last millimeter" was none other than Menachem Begin, the Greater Israel man.

Talk led to a peace treaty with Jordan and the Oslo Accords, which established Israel's acknowledgment in principle of the Palestinians' right to a state of their own. The debate was, and still is, over the territories. There have also been talks with Syria, and everyone knows that when dialogue resumes between the two countries, it will start from the point where it ended - haggling over the price.

The principle of peace for territory is the key. The argument is over how much in return for what, or how much in return for how much. It depends on whether the leaders involved - Ehud Olmert, Mahmoud Abbas and Bashar Assad - are strong enough to break the cycle of enmity with a territorial compromise. But each of them faces problems that are far from simple.

Olmert has the last installment of the Winograd Committee report looming over him, along with a slew of criminal investigations and the possibility of a violent confrontation with the settlers - three threats that could bring him down. Focusing on peace could be his lifeline.

Mahmoud Abbas has problems with Hamas, whose leaders are undermining and humiliating him, and have ripped Gaza out of his hands. Add to that the king of Saudi Arabia, who is worried about Iran and its loony leader ruining the good life in the Gulf. And Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah, who are worried about Islamic fundamentalism seeping into their governments.

The November summit proposed by President Bush in consultation with the Quartet will give him one last chance to knock out the nerve centers of fundamentalist Islamic terror threatening the free world - and wallop the axis of evil with a series of accords. The leaders of the region will have to show up with ideas and a very open mind.

We will need to know in whose name Mahmoud Abbas is speaking, and how he expects to regain control over Gaza and pry it from the grip of Hamas. We will need to know how far Olmert is willing and able to go in terms of concessions based on the '67 borders. We will need to know whether Syria is capable of being a negotiating partner, and if Saudi Arabia is willing to dip its dainty foot into the pool as the patron of a comprehensive agreement, while the eyes of the fruitcake from Iran are fixed upon it.

This is Bush's last chance to open a window through which we might just see a sail of peace glinting on the horizon.

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