Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Olmert and Abbas/ Peace Prospects

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Update from AIJAC

January 5, 2007
Number 01/07 #02

On Dec. 23, Israeli PM Olmert held a long-anticipated meeting with PA President Mahmoud Abbas and discussed both a prisoner exchange deal and some Israeli concessions arguably designed to strengthen Abbas in the increasingly violent Hamas-Fatah clashes.

This Update opens with some basic analysis of the measures discussed and the background from the British Israel Communication and Research Institute, BICOM. This backgrounder also discusses whether the meeting opened up prospect for a larger renewal of Israeli-Palestinian political talks. For all the basic information you need, CLICK HERE.

Next, in the context of the summit,  Jerusalem Post analyst Herb Keinon offers some intelligent discussion of the limitations of a current Middle East policy buzzword - "Strengthening the moderates." He points out that, while Olmert's efforts to strengthen Abbas with money and other concessions may be a good idea, everyone should keep in mind that it is not poverty or frustration that primarily breeds violent extremism, but ideology, and that throwing money at the problem is not an effective solution. For this insightful argument, CLICK HERE.

Finally, Middle East scholar Emmanuel Ottolenghi offers a realistic assessment of the calls by Tony Blair and other leaders to revive the Middle East process, asserting that, desirable as peace is, they need to face the fact that the pre-conditions just aren't there. He uses a good analogy from the former Yugoslavia to illustrate his point, and also deals with the widespread but delusional belief that an Israeli-Palestinian agreement will essentially solve all the region's problems. There's a lot more, and to read all of this important article, CLICK HERE.


New horizons?

The prospects for a revival of the mid-East diplomatic process

BICOM, 2 January 2007
                

On 23 December, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas at the Israeli Prime Minister's residence in Jerusalem. The unexpected meeting took place following PM Olmert's recent reaffirmation of Israel's willingness for negotiated concessions to advance peace between Israelis and Palestinians.  According to reports, the meeting was held in an atmosphere of cordiality. This unexpected initiative came against a background of continued high tensions among the Palestinian factions. The stalemate between Chairman Abbas's Fatah movement and the Hamas government led by Ismail Haniyeh remains unresolved as Hamas continues to reject Chairman Abbas's call for new elections. Despite this, the Olmert-Abbas meeting has revived hopes for a renewed negotiating process between Israelis and Palestinians, as it was the first time in 22 months that Israeli and Palestinian leaders had met officially. The meeting also appeared to have borne fruit in a series of concrete declarations from the sides. What were the precise commitments to emerge from the meeting? To what extent have they begun to be implemented? and what prospects are there for the new year to see a substantive revival in the diplomatic process?

In terms of commitments, PM Olmert announced two concrete changes following the meeting. Firstly, Israel undertook to transfer $100 million in frozen tax funds to Chairman Abbas. These funds represent tax revenue collected by Israel on behalf of the Palestinian Authority.  Following the victory of Hamas in the January 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council‚s (PLC) elections, Israel ceased the transfer of the funds. Since Hamas openly refused to accept Israel's right to exist, renounce terror and recognise previously signed agreements between Israel and the PA, Israel reasoned that it was absurd that it be expected to finance a declared enemy. Following the meeting, it was agreed that the transfer of funds will resume, but the money will not be given to the Hamas-led government. Instead, in consultation with Chairman Abbas's office, the funds will be directed at areas where they are needed most, for example in the fields of health and education, and will be directly aimed at specific projects.

Analysts assessed that this decision derives from a desire to help Chairman Abbas bolster his domestic credentials in his ongoing confrontation with Hamas. It has been noted that Hamas has proved particularly adept at finding ways around international sanctions - by smuggling large amounts of cash to the PA areas. The result, observers on the ground agree, is that Hamas's independent social and educational structures remain largely unharmed by the sanctions, while the official PA structures have decayed, so the much-needed injection of $100 million may serve to alleviate this situation. In addition to this sum, Israel agreed to transfer $7.25million to east Jerusalem medical facilities.

Secondly, Israel agreed to remove some of the restrictions on Palestinian travel in the West Bank, which were made necessary during the years of the Intifada. A commitment to remove entirely a number of roadblocks - which severely lengthen the time of journeys undertaken by Palestinians - was made. In addition, Israel agreed to meet a quota of 400 trucks that would be allowed to move through the main cargo crossing between Gaza and Israel.

Despite the efforts, the sides did not reach an agreement that would lead to the freeing of kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit. It was agreed, however, that further meetings would be held on this subject.

The sides also discussed the possibility of extending the Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire to the West Bank, but nothing concrete was concluded in this regard. In addition the Israeli side raised the issue of the continued launching of Qassam missiles by Palestinian terror organisations from Gaza. Over 50 Qassam missiles have been launched since the conclusion of the ceasefire.

Following the meeting Prime Ministerial Spokeswoman Miri Eisen noted that "The essence of tonight's meeting ... was about dialog and about going forward on a road to try and find at the end a resolution between the Palestinians and Israel."

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Analysis: It's about ideology, stupid

By HERB KEINON    

Jersualem Post, December 25, 2006                              

The newest buzzword in Middle East diplomacy is "strengthening the moderates." This is an expression that continuously rolls off the tongues of both world and Israeli leaders these days. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert uses this phrase repeatedly and heard it often on his visit two weeks ago to Rome and Berlin, and in his meetings last week with the visiting prime ministers from Britain and Norway.

The question is how to do it. How do you prop up the moderates? On Saturday night, Olmert gave his answer: by providing the moderates with money. And he is not alone in the belief that this is the way to help combat Islamic extremists.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who spoke at his press conference with Olmert in Jerusalem last week about providing funds to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, was asked whether this was not tantamount to buying votes - paying the Arab street to vote for the good guy. The British prime minister gave a long-winded reply that could not be interpreted as an unequivocal no.

The West, he said, had the right to support financially those who shared its principles. This argument takes on added weight in light of the fact that with Iran successfully smuggling hundreds of millions of dollars to Hamas - some estimate the sum to be $250 million - those being hurt by the world's financial siege of the PA are the moderates, who are not seeing this Iranian money.

Now this is about to change. The money that Israel freed up Saturday night is intended to prop up Abbas. It will go to him directly, and there is little real fear - because of the intra-Palestinian fighting - that he will then pass this money on to Hamas. This money is clearly meant to buy him support on the Palestinian street.

The problem with this approach, however, is that it underestimates the strength of religion and ideology in the society, and reduces everything to shekels and agarot. It is a throwback to the Shimon Peres way of thinking of the early 1990s, that if you just improved the Palestinian economic situation, peace would spring up along with the next branch of McDonalds.

While few dispute that destitution nurtures terrorism, alleviating the poverty will not necessarily dry up the reservoir of terrorists. Remember that those who brought down the World Trade Center were not destitute refugees in rags.

If this summer's war in Lebanon taught Israel anything, it is that our conflict is as much an ideological/religious one as it is territorial. Hizbullah had no legitimate territorial claim on Israel, yet it provoked a war.

The same holds true in Gaza. Israel has left Gaza completely, yet the rockets continue to fall. It's not only territorial, not even mostly territorial, but largely ideological and religious.

And for whatever reason - and they are myriad - an extreme ideology is on the ascent from Afghanistan to the Sudan. And it is an ideology that is more attractive to the masses - or so it now seems - than the stodgy, bland, often corrupt alternatives offered up by the Arab "moderates."

While Egypt's Hosni Mubarak was critical of Hizbullah this summer, his people loved what they achieved. While King Abdullah is concerned about what Hamas represents, what the organization stands for has an appeal for a significant number of Jordanians.

While the war in Lebanon won Hizbullah the admiration of the Arab masses, it divided those masses to a large degree from their "moderate" regimes - at least in Jordan and Egypt.

Which doesn't mean that Saturday night's decision to try and prop up the moderates in the PA was wrong. Just that it should be done with eyes wide-open, fully aware that in this part of the world - where religion and ideology have such a powerful pull - money isn't everything, and throwing money at the problem won't necessarily solve it.


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Picture Imperfect

Serious policymakers must get serious about the prospect for peace in the Mideast.

By Emanuele Ottolenghi

National Review, Dec. 20, 2006

Would anyone argue today that the best way to stabilize the Balkans is reviving the Federal State of Yugoslavia?

Whether a united post-Communist Yugoslavia was a realistic political solution to Balkan tensions in 1991 is for historians to determine. It clearly is not today. Historical opportunities rarely linger. After the Balkan wars and their horrors, that window of opportunity and that possible political settlement are no longer available. Opportunities that statesmen failed to seize will not return. Certain arrangements succeed only under certain contingent historical circumstances. Unless seized at the right time, opportunities fade. History is not inevitable and neither is peace.

Not so, it seems, when it comes to the Middle East and the prevalent view that regional stability depends on peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Despite the failure of successive attempts at peacemaking, and despite the current lack of favorable conditions to renew peace efforts, there is a broad international consensus that bringing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a happy ending is both possible and urgent. Diplomats and policymakers even know the contours of a peace agreement: They assume that before long, an Israeli leader and a Palestinian leader, with the blessing of an American president (and possibly of the European Union and the United Nations) will seal a deal resembling the Clinton Parameters proposed in 2000. Armed with this faith, Western leaders periodically produce their own peace plans, in the almost messianic belief that if they can bring peace to Zion, its light will radiate far and wide.

A sense of urgency is gripping Europe’s leaders. Though divided by worldviews and sometimes even personal antipathies, British prime minister Tony Blair and French president Jacques Chirac have both pledged in recent weeks to solve the Arab-Israeli dispute. Blair, a Labourite, identified Palestine as the “core problem” of the Middle East; in his recent visit to Ramallah, he proclaimed, unperturbed by the civil war being fought under the windows of the presidential palace in Gaza, that “the next week will be critical” for peacemaking. Chirac, who presides over a right-of-center party, recently launched a Middle East peace initiative with Spanish Socialist prime minister Luis Zapatero, which forgot to mention the Roadmap and other principles to which the EU was formerly committed to. Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, shares the same sense of urgency: The Palestine question, he said in a recent Timeinterview, is “the mother of all problems.” With the German presidency of the EU now looming, Chancellor Angela Merkel has similarly made an energetic commitment to the Middle East peace process.

For European statesmen, peace between Israelis and Palestinians takes precedence over all other diplomatic initiatives, because it is central to world peace; as the European Council’s final statement reads, “The EU is committed to overcoming the current impasse in the peace process and to easing tensions in the broader region.” With the PA prime ministers and foreign ministers shot at, and battles in the streets of Gaza, it is remarkable that Brussels still calls this “an impasse” But Europe could not do otherwise — sugarcoating the hopeless situation with such language is needed, if you believe that nothing can be fixed unless peace is first achieved in the Holy Land. How you achieve it is also indicative of a mindset: Israel is only expected to make the “necessary steps” for peace. How else could Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema, wish for Israel to make “constructive steps” on the Sheeba Farms to help forestall a crisis in Lebanon? The real steps to forestall a crisis in Lebanon are that the EU — and the rest of the international community — take their own commitments to U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1559, 1680, and 1701 seriously and realize that the Lebanese government is not under siege in the Serail because Israel is not making constructive steps on the Sheeba Farms. Besides, the U.N. has already adjudicated the issue in favor of Israel six years ago. Why does D’Alema call on Israel to make overtures? Is it not time that Europe hold the Arab side accountable too

Perhaps this is too much to ask. With so many enemies in the area, the French have so far threatened only the Israeli airforce with hostile action. And in its final act before its semester presidency is over, the Finland asked Israel to clarify its prime minister’s comments on its nuclear program, in light of EU troops’ presence in Lebanon. As if Europe and its troops were truly threatened by Israel, and not by Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iran’s nuclear designs. But asking for Israel to make amends is easier and it keeps the illusion going in Europe, that Israeli concessions will bring peace to the Middle East — and redemption to the world.–And judging by the wording adopted unanimously by the members of the Baker-Hamilton report — the Mideast-centric view is not uniquely European.

What unites this illustrious lineup of statesmen of different nationalities and political persuasions is not just a commitment to peace, but a conviction that peace between Israel and the Palestinians is — with the right mixture of pressures, incentives, and brinksmanship — possible, imminent, and crucial to the achievement of other important policy goals. This focus is certainly well-intentioned: The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a human tragedy that deserves resolution for its own sake, regardless of the extent of positive repercussions it is bound to have on the region and beyond.

The question that serious policymakers must ask, though, is not whether all this is desirable. Of course peace is desirable. The question is whether peace is attainable at present. And on this matter, all historical evidence is against it. The peace efforts of the 1990s occurred under exceptional circumstances: The collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War, and the aftermath of the Gulf War all contributed to unique conditions for peacemaking, which included an exceptional international consensus around the procedures and substance of peacemaking. But the collapse of the Oslo process in 2000 coincided with a return of turbulent times in which the unique conditions that could have given Palestinians a state and Israel its security simply no longer exist. While it is not wholly unreasonable to think that these circumstances may materialize again in the future, one should be once again cognizant of history: The previous missed opportunity for peacemaking occurred in 1947, when another rare set of historical circumstances created an ephemeral international consensus around the two-state solution. In 1947 there existed a rare alignment of forces that made a compromise possible: The end of the old world order, the new one not yet fully formed, opened a rare window of opportunity. History was made differently then by the will of men, but the chance was there for the taking.

Once that opportunity faded — challenged by the Arab refusal to come to terms with Jewish statehood and then overtaken by the events of 1948 — it took another 46 years before a new set of historical circumstances could make peace efforts realistic once again. By then, of course, the substance of a possible agreement between Israel and the Palestinians had been radically altered by half a century of conflict and international politics. But in the 1990s, again, an old order collapsed, giving way to a new world order that was not yet defined. The exuberance of that age was ephemeral, and so were the conditions that made peace possible. Promoting a two-state solution then was realistic, and even urgent. But once that narrow window of history closed, it is foolish to assume a new opening will reoccur soon. A new order of things has crystallized now, and with the return of history to the world stage, the curtains have fallen on the peacemakers.

Statesmen, diplomats, and policymakers should surrender themselves the fact that what was once possible, for but a season, is no more. Peacemaking belongs to yesteryear, and all that a realistic foreign policy can do is to ensure that the current bloodletting does not submerge our allies and subvert our interests in the region. Containment of our enemies and the management of conflict is all that our generation can hope for.

The chance to make peace in 2000 was turned down by the Palestinian refusal to come to terms with history and the limits it imposes on national dreams and fantasies. Their failure to embrace reality now makes the quest for a new opportunity futile, until the historical tide has turned again. Until then, any policy that center on Palestinian-Israeli peace in our times is futile, wasteful, and delusional.

— Emanuele Ottolenghi is executive director of the Transatlantic Institute in Brussels.

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