Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

More Analysis of Israeli-Palestinian Peace Prospects/ Alleged Israeli overflight of Syria

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Update from AIJAC

September 7, 2007
Number 09/07 #03

This Update features a couple of more pieces on the overall proposals and prospects of Middle East diplomacy in the lead-up to the Middle East summit scheduled for November.

Firstly, veteran Israeli journalist Leslie Susser reveals the details of the sort of deal in principle Israeli PM Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have been discussing in a series of talks to bring to the November Summit.  He also has some revelations about some of the economic measures for the West Bank being considered, but also details the problem created by Hamas in Gaza and the likely spoiling role it can play. To read Susser's balanced analysis, CLICK HERE.

In a somewhat more strategic vein, the British Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM) has a good paper on the general factors both encouraging peacemaking efforts at the moment, as well as those inhibiting and blocking success. It looks at the US, Israeli and Palestinian situation vis a vis the talks, but points out, that while "the determination and optimism of the US Secretary of State, the Israeli Prime Minister and the PA Chairman and Prime Minister is unmistakable, and genuine" there is widespread scepticism that political and strategic conditions will allow them to pull it off. For this backgrounder on why, CLICK HERE.

Finally, overnight there are reports of a Syrian claim that Israeli planes entered Syrian airspace, were fired upon, and "dropped munitions." A good analysis of what may be going on here come from Ron Bin Yishai, a former Israeli intelligence officer turned security columnist. He says the most likely explanation is that the Syrians are unsure what entered their airspace, and are using their claims to try and acquire information, but Israel is not cooperating. He also says they are unlikely to use the occasion to prompt a major military confrontation, as some have speculated. For his full analysis, CLICK HERE.


The Portent of Hamas: What Will Transpire?

Leslie Susser

 Jewish Telegraphic Agency, August 30, 2007

Jerusalem · Analysis - In the run-up to the U.S.-initiated Middle East peace parley in November, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas are accelerating efforts to reach an agreement on the principles of a final peace deal.

At the same time, however, Hamas is aiming to derail the process with a new wave of terrorist strikes and rocket attacks.

Olmert and Abbas want to be able to present an agreement of principles to the peace conference in order to give its deliberations real substance. In parallel, Israel and the Palestinians are working on cooperative economic projects that could improve the peacemaking climate and underpin any future peace deal.

The thinking is that if there is a serious Palestinian agenda, the conference will be able to draw major players like the Saudis and jump-start a wider Israeli-Arab process based on the Arab League peace plan. The proposal calls for the full normalization of ties between Israel and all 22 Arab states in return for an Israeli withdrawal from all Arab territory captured in 1967.

But there are a number of obvious snags. For example, what about the Golan Heights? Would Israel be expected to return them to Syria even though Syria, because of its close ties to Iran, probably won't even be invited to the conference?

Worse, Hamas radicals have made it clear that they are determined to launch a new campaign of terror to undermine progress between Israel and the Palestinian Fatah moderates. Moreover, what kind of Palestinian state could be established with the fundamentalists still in control in Gaza?

Olmert and Abbas have met several times in the past few weeks to discuss core issues such as borders, Jerusalem and refugees. What seems to be shaping up is an agreement that lays out principles for a territorial settlement in two stages and a timetable for transition from stage one to stage two.

In stage one, Israel withdraws from the West Bank up to the separation barrier after a period of quiet during which the Palestinian Authority exhibits firm control of security. In stage two, Israel pulls back to lines closer to the 1967 borders and compensates the Palestinians on a one- to-one basis for settler land it annexes.

One of the ideas for compensation is to include land used to connect the West Bank and Gaza over Israeli territory.

In stage two, the Palestinians declare a state in the West Bank and Gaza, even if Hamas is still in control there. The idea is to come to the November summit with an agreement in principle on these issues and to continue refining the details in subsequent talks.

Clearly, though, the plan would start going into effect only after a credible cease-fire has been established.

That's precisely what Hamas will do its best to prevent. The last thing it wants is for its secular Fatah rival to get credit for pulling off a peace deal with Israel, and then come under pressure to comply.

According to the Shin Bet security service, the Damascus-based leadership of Hamas has ordered the organization to launch a new campaign of suicide bombings against Israeli targets in the West Bank to show Israelis that Abbas' Fatah cannot keep the peace, and is therefore incapable of cutting a peace deal.

Israel intelligence anticipates that in an effort to destabilize the situation further, Hamas also will launch Kassam rocket attacks from Gaza. Palestinians have been firing Kassams at Sederot and other nearby towns on a regular basis, but Hamas has not yet joined in. If it does, the Israelis expect a significant increase in bombardments, which could lead to a major Israeli incursion into Gaza to stop it.

Some Israeli strategists say that is precisely what Hamas, which has been smuggling unprecedented quantities of arms into the Gaza Strip, would like to see -- a standoff in Gaza in which the Israeli army is forced to take heavy casualties.

Meanwhile, Israel and moderate Palestinians in the West Bank are proceeding with their peacemaking efforts as if the Hamas threat does not exist. In addition to the effort to shape a final peace deal, they are working seriously on economic plans to help create conditions for a sustainable peace. One of the plans is based on a Japanese initiative dubbed "the Corridor for Peace and Prosperity."

In a meeting at the Intercontinental Hotel in Jericho in mid-August, the foreign ministers of Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Japan enthusiastically backed the "peace corridor" idea. The initiative envisages the establishment of an agro-industrial park in the Greater Jericho area, with a mechanism to distribute produce through Jordan to the wealthy Gulf states. The goods would be transported across the Jordan River to a distribution center on the Jordanian side.

As part of the center, the Jordanians want a new airport for same-day conveyance to the Gulf states and other nations.

The Japanese have identified agriculture and agro-industry as a potential "driving force for sustainable economic development in the emerging Palestinian state," and see in this kind of cooperative venture a way of laying the foundation for a lasting peace.

Since the renewal of the peace dialogue between Israel and moderate West Bank Palestinians in June, an abundance of ideas have been broached to help the Palestinians create the basic infrastructure for viable statehood. Israeli officials welcome the new energy.

"For stable peace, you have to have a Palestinian state that is successful," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev. "A failed Palestinian state would be a recipe for further violence."

Indeed, Israel is drawing up plans to help modernize the Palestinian infrastructure and urban development. Officials say that Israel will be prepared to do as much as the Palestinians want, but will not force itself on them. The Israelis say that they intend to work closely with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the special Quartet envoy, who is due back in the region in early September.

Looking at the West Bank scene, chances for peace have never seemed better; in Gaza, they have never seemed worse. Whether the American summit in November actually boosts Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking will depend on the outcome of the internal Palestinian struggle.


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A renewed peace process?

BICOM Notes, 4 September 2007

Last week, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in the Prime Minister’s Jerusalem Residence.  The meeting was intended to contribute to the formulation of a joint declaration of principles by Israel and the PA on the resolution of the ‘core issues’ of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  This hoped-for declaration is then intended to serve as the basis for the agenda of the planned international peace conference to take place in Washington in November.

A sense of cautious hope and determination may be discerned in both the Olmert and Abbas camps regarding the chance of a successful outcome to the current renewed diplomatic process between Israelis and Palestinians.  Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has been identified as the real driving force behind the renewed Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, is understood to share this upbeat sense of possibility.  Beyond the immediate circles around these three figures, however, optimism appears to be in much shorter supply.  So are there any grounds for the optimism?  What, if anything, has taken place to justify it? And how does the sense of both Olmert and Abbas as leaders with only a somewhat precarious hold over their own respective camps factor into this situation?

Factors underlying the revival of the diplomatic process

The US

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been the key driving force behind the current move to revive Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy.  Her motivations for doing so may be found in regional considerations.[i] The emergence of a pro-US constellation of powers – Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan most prominent among them – and the importance these countries attach to the solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, have the potential to create a momentum toward a renewed peace process, Rice believes.  As evidence, she may point to the recent Arab League delegation that visited Israel, and the Saudi announcement of its intention to participate in the upcoming conference.[ii]  President Bush is considered to be far more sceptical concerning the likelihood of progress, and the possibility of international mediation playing a decisive role in the solution to the conflict.  This explains the relatively low expectations outlined by Bush in announcing the international conference – namely, that it should help the Palestinians in institution-building and encourage Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.[iii]

Israel

Many analysts in Israel identified the initial impetus behind the Olmert government’s interest in a revived Israeli-Palestinian negotiating process as deriving from the Olmert government’s need for a discernible agenda.  The ruling Kadima party came into being as a result of the ferment in the Likud around the issue of the disengagement from Gaza.   The party was seen as standing for a new strategy of unilateralism.   Ehud Olmert was the Israeli politician most associated with this strategy, and on becoming prime minister, he announced a plan for further unilateral withdrawals on the West Bank (the ‘convergence plan’).

Subsequent events in Gaza, however, and last year’s war in Lebanon, are seen as having discredited unilateralism.  Pioneering a revived negotiating process with the PA offers an opportunity for Olmert to fill the policy void left by the eclipse of unilateralism.   Some observers also note the Winograd Committee investigation into the Lebanon War, which is due to present its final report next year. The prime minister is known to be concerned that the final report may be harshly critical of his performance.  He may consider that close involvement with a fruitful diplomatic process may offer him a good position from which to resist calls for his resignation.

More substantively, the prime minister is known to be satisfied with the positive, workmanlike atmosphere of his meetings with Abbas.  The new PA government of Salam Fayyad is believed by the prime minister to be genuinely interested in progress.  The prime minister has a sense of urgency, believing that Israel has about a year in which to make progress.  He is known to be concerned at the possibility of an eventual Hamas takeover in the West Bank in the absence of progress, and at the more immediate danger of a renewal of Hamas or Islamic Jihad terror attacks in Israel.

Elsewhere among senior figures in the Cabinet, there is again greater scepticism.  Defence Minister Ehud Barak has expressed his belief that there is little chance of substantive progress given the weakness of the PA government in the West Bank.[iv] While Barak and Olmert broadly agree in terms of their preferred solution to the conflict, Barak is understood to be in the process of re-building his political image as a pragmatic, security-minded leader.  The Defence Ministry offers him the perfect venue for this, and Barak’s scepticism toward the current process is not expected to mean Labour’s departure from the coalition in the near future.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is also cautioning against excessive optimism, given the weakness of the Palestinian leadership.  Livni is known to be focusing attention on the fact that while Israel may make significant concessions on key issues such as Jerusalem, the government of Fayyad is too weak, and lacks the internal legitimacy to make similar concessions on such issues as the refugees of 1948.[v]

The Palestinians

It is generally accepted that the commitment of PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Chairman Abbas to a two-state outcome to the conflict is sincere. However, many questions remain regarding the ability of the PA government to deliver:

First and foremost, the fact that a rival Palestinian government rules in Gaza – and Hamas leaders have already condemned the current diplomatic process and the planned November conference, declaring them to represent a betrayal of the Palestinian interest.  Even within his own Fatah movement, however, Abbas is seen as a leader lacking in authority.  He has already announced that he will not be standing again for the leadership.  Fatah remains riven with disunity and division, and no substantive moves toward desperately-needed internal reforms have begun.[vi]

The movement is divided between the ‘old guard’ leaders who accompanied Yasser Arafat from Tunis, and younger local leaders such as Mohammed Dahlan and Marwan Barghouti.  These camps are themselves divided, however, and more importantly, Abbas possesses firm authority in no camp. He has failed to persuade veteran Tunis-based Fatah officials such as Abu Maher Ghnaim and Farouk Kaddumi to back him and return to the West Bank – and they are opposed to the current attempt to revive the peace process.[vii] Younger Fatah activists, meanwhile, are impatient for reform and scathing in their criticism of the veteran leadership’s refusal to make way for younger leaders.  An editorial in the official PA newspaper al-Hayat al-Jadida last week by Hafez Barghouti represented this view.  Mohammed Dahlan’s return to Ramallah last week may presage further internal strife.

The obvious weakness of Abbas thus raises legitimate questions regarding his ability to make the bold moves –  including inevitable compromises on such issues as the ‘right of return’ which are vital to the success of any negotiation process.

Conclusion

Behind the scenes, one may find very wide scepticism regarding the chances of real progress on the basis of negotiations between the Olmert and Abbas administrations.  Some European diplomats speaking off the record regard Abbas as lacking authority to deliver on core issues – and a common expectation is of the growth of Hamas strength in the West Bank in the near to medium term.[viii] This sense of the weakness of the PA leadership as precluding likely progress is shared by circles around Foreign Minister Livni and Defence Minister Barak.

The Olmert government is also widely considered to lack the authority to force through Israeli concessions – although the Israeli opposition is currently seen as weak and lacking the ability to draw out large public support.

Yet the determination and optimism of the US secretary of state, the Israeli prime minister and the PA chairman and prime minister is unmistakable, and genuine. This has already proved sufficient to inaugurate a renewed negotiating procedure between the two sides.   Whether this new peace process will prove able to deliver substantive results on peace as well as on process remains more open to doubt.


[i] Helene Cooper, “As her star wanes, Rice tries to re-shape legacy,” New York Times, 1/9.  http://www.nytimes.com

[ii] Aluf Benn and Shmuel Rosner, “They’re talking: Who’s listening?” Haaretz, 31/8.  http://www.haaretz.com

[iii] Ibid. 

[iv] Ya’acov Katz, “Analysis: Barak has already shown he is tougher than Peretz,” Jerusalem Post, 23/8.  http://www.jpost.com

[v] Barak Ravid, “Livni warns Rice: Summit could fail due to unreasonable goals,” Haaretz, 2/9.  http://www.haaretz.com

[vi] Khaled Abu Toameh, “Muhammad Dahlan returns to Gaza,” Jerusalem Post, 21/8.  http://www.jpost.com

[vii] Ibid. 

[viii] Interview with British diplomat.    


© 2007 - BICOM.


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Damascus' diplomatic ammunition

Syria will attempt to make propaganda profit, but it is unlikely to turn alleged infiltration of aircraft into 'casus belli'

Ron Ben Yishai

Ynet.com,  09.06.07,

The Syrians don’t know what they saw Wednesday night on the radar screens and what they fired at. Israel has no interest in helping them understand what they saw or didn’t see. But in such situations like the ones created this summer between Syria, Israel and Lebanon, even a small spark – or even what seems like a spark – may lead to a big fire.
 
It is reasonable, however, to assume that the Syrians will not turn the recent aerial incident into a catalyst for launching hostile activities against Israel, or like one of their commentators called it, "The military option."

The Syrians cannot say with certainty or prove that there was a plane or another aircraft, and they are also unable to describe the route used by that unidentified object.
 
This happens often as part of intelligence efforts: One side spots something – it doesn’t know exactly what it saw or what it fired at – and then sends an experimental balloon via the media, in order to be able to complete the missing details through the response.

This is probably why the IDF Spokesperson's Office says, "We do not comment on reports of this nature." Whether the Syrians saw something or did not see something, whether it was an Israeli aircraft or something belonging to another country – there is no reason why Israel should help the Syrians in their interpretation efforts, helping them improve their aerial defense system of course.
 
What is clear now is that in a situation of tension between two countries, each side carries out continuous surveillance efforts and intensive intelligence gathering in order to examine the other side's intentions.

Often, not only the countries experiencing the tension, but also other countries and elements with an indirect interest in what is taking place in the area of tension, are observing and exerting efforts in the area.

The fact is that what the Syrians spotted did not open fire on them, but at the most released flares when the radar closed up on it. They too understand that if there was anything there, it is reasonable to assume that it belonged to the field of intelligence gathering. Such activities are routinely carried out by Syria, Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, Iran and anyone meddling in what is happening in the region.

Looking for an excuse

What is really worrying is the Syrian information minister's declaration that his country "would find the way to respond to the Israeli infiltration." It is possible that Syria is now looking for an excuse to initiate an escalation with Israel.

We are not necessarily talking about an all-out war, but it is possible that the Syrians would like to imitate Hizbullah's harassments before the Second Lebanon War through rockets or terror attacks.

If this is in fact the Syrian information minister's intention, then in light of what is known about Israel's intentions, Damascus' calculated risk is completely wrong and may cost it dearly – for Syria as a country, as well as for Assad's regime. Therefore, if the Syrians wish to turn the incident into a "casus belli" – justification for war – it would apparently be a fatally wrong move on their part. This is at least what senior officials on the Israeli side say.

It is more likely to assume that the Syrians would try and utilize to the fullest all the propaganda profits, and might even try to use the incident as a stimulus for sticking a wedge between Israel and friendly Muslim countries in the region.

It appears that the military option, therefore, is at the moment at the bottom of the Syrian list of priorities, mainly because at the moment, Syria still does not view itself as ready for an all-out war with Israel, and understands that an unreasonable act on its part would end in exchanges of artillery fire on the Golan Heights.

Tensions in the coming days will remain high. It is possible that President Peres will find a way to send a message to the Syrian deputy president, who is also currently visiting Rome. And somehow, in a number of days, this tension will also fade away, until the next one.

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