MideastWeb Middle East Web Log
The long awaited meeting of Israel Prime Minister Olmert and Palestinian Prime Minister Abbas took place on Saturday evening, December 23, with hardly any fanfare, and with hardly any results either. It should have been a "great event," but if you blinked, you may have missed it.
The most interesting aspect of this meeting was the lack of publicity. The lack of results was predictable, and I predicted regarding such meetings in the past. The relative lack of publicity and fanfare was a bit strange. It is not that they didn't go out of their way to publicize it. Rather, the Palestinians, at least, went out of their way to depublicize it.
Just prior to the meeting, Saeeb Erekat was quoted in an official Palestinian news source as saying:
Only a few hours later, Erekat was happily announcing the results of the meeting.
It is not surprising that the meeting didn't accomplish much, because Abbas has nothing to offer the Israeli government, and the Israeli government is too weak to give Abbas very much without getting anything in return. Such concessions, which might be intended to strengthen Abbas's hand against the Hamas, would be attacked as "defeatism" by the opposition Likud. The meeting did not live up even to the limited expectations of a prisoner exchange. Israel is considering releasing $100 million in frozen tax funds to Abbas, Olmert promised to remove some checkpoints and to allow more trucks into Gaza. Israel may let the PLO's Badr brigade and some other forces enter Gaza to restore order.
From Ha'aretz we learn that:
Concessions would be good for Mr. Abbas and bad for the rival Hamas. Therefore, Mr. Olmert has essentially laid out a plan of action for the Hamas, telling them what they must do to prevent Israeli concessions. Of course, Olmert really didn't have much choice. Likewise, the prisoner exchange that the Palestinians wanted could not go ahead because the Palestinians will not release Israeli hostage Gilad Shalit first. Mr. Abbas didn't have any choice about that either, because forces loyal to the Hamas hold Gilad Shalit.
Lurking in the background of course, was the call of PM Abbas for new elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council issued last week. Actually, Abbas didn't exactly call for elections. Rather, he threatened to dissolve the government and call for elections if the Hamas did not agree to a unity government. Abbas has been making such threats periodically for many months. It is getting increasingly difficult to take his deadlines seriously. However, this meeting may have been an indication that there was more to last week's call for elections than the previous calls. Or not.
Meanwhile, there have been some strange doings in the inscrutable and mysterious West, as well as the Middle East. A report in the Forward newspaper claims that the US State Department is considering declaring a Palestinian state with provisional borders in 2007. If there is any truth to it, this is the latest, and perhaps the ultimate, manifestation of the US mania for imposing "democracy" on the people of the Middle East, regardless of whether they want it or not. It is not clear how the US can declare a Palestinian state if the Palestinians don't want one. This program is also opposed to that of PM Abbas who rejected the similar-sounding, but very dissimilar plan of the Hamas for a state with temporary borders. Said Abbas
. Of course, the "temporary borders" contemplated by the Hamas are the 1949 armistice borders, and the permanent borders are nothing at all, which is quite different from the plan the US State Department may have had in mind. Abbas, curiously enough, "forgot" that he had called for new elections, and instead called for a resumption of unity government talks:
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Only negotiations with both main Palestinian parties can deliver the peace deal that the two peoples now support
Jonathan Freedland in Jerusalem
The Israeli novelist Amos Oz once said Israelis and Palestinians were like patients who know exactly what painful surgery they need to undergo and are ready to face it. The trouble is, their surgeons are cowards. That's certainly how it seems now. The two peoples have come, without enthusiasm, to a realisation of what will have to be done, what will have to be sacrificed, to live alongside the other. Polls show large majorities on both sides ready to back a peace deal on the now-traditional lines: two states, one for each nation. A recent survey had 72% of Palestinians wanting their leaders to sign a peace treaty with Israel. Meanwhile, assorted members of Israel's cabinet have been tripping over each other to offer their own peace plans - recognition that there's a hunger among Israelis to escape the status quo.
Yet the two leaders - the surgeons - are frozen. Tonight Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert, will address the Herzliya security conference, an occasion that has come to be associated with high political drama ever since Ariel Sharon used it to announce his planned disengagement from Gaza. Yet few among Israel's punditocracy expect any such thunderbolt from Olmert. Ever since his core unilateralism strategy was discredited last summer by what Israelis call the second Lebanon war - which seemed to prove that unilateral pullouts from once-occupied territory only bring trouble - Olmert has been without an agenda, let alone a vision.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, is a byword for weakness. With next to no powerbase, even in his own Fatah movement, he has seen a virtual civil war erupt between his men and Hamas, which a year ago won a majority in the Palestinian parliament. More than 60 Palestinians have been killed by Palestinians. Before he can even think about reconciling with Israel, Abbas has to reconcile Fatah and Hamas.
How to navigate around this landscape is the challenge I found Israelis and Palestinians grappling with this week, whether in Jerusalem or Ramallah. Israel's officials speak of presenting Palestinians with a choice. Either they take the path embodied by Abbas, of negotiation and compromise, and reap the rewards - or they stick with the hardliners of Hamas and face the consequences, including economic isolation and a cold shoulder not only from Israel but from the European Union, the US, and beyond. To make that choice easier, Israel will sketch out the "political horizon", explaining what the Palestinians would gain if the Abbas approach prevailed - chiefly a rapid move to statehood on a substantial chunk (but far from all) of the West Bank and Gaza, with resolution of the thorniest issues to come later. That's the choice. As one official put it: "Go with Hamas, and it's isolation, stagnation and a dead end. Go with the moderates and it's international support, an energised process and a clearer horizon than ever before."
It sounds simple enough, but that approach carries multiple problems. The first is credibility. Too many Palestinians will say they've heard Israeli promises before that have come to nothing. They point to the December 23 meeting between Abbas and Olmert where the latter promised prisoner releases and relaxation of checkpoints, none of which materialised. What's more, the Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki told me yesterday, moderates face an uphill task when they argue that diplomacy gets results: "Unilateralism badly damaged that idea. Palestinians say, why should we make concessions when Israel has already given away land without any concessions from us?"
Above all, Israel's approach involves a selective blindness, lavishing attention on Abbas as if Hamas did not exist and did not command a parliamentary majority. But there could be another, riskier way - one that would benefit not only Israel but the wider world too.
If Israel decided not to shun Hamas, but to reel it into the peace process, everything could look different. Hamas almost benefits from its isolation, retaining its status as the pure party, unsullied by compromise. If, though, it could, at long last, be brought into a national unity government with Fatah, it would soon have to get its hands dirty.
Until now, the sticking point has been Hamas's refusal to sign up to the three conditions set by the EU, US and UN: recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence and a commitment to abide by existing Palestinian agreements with Israel. The international stance has been clear - either Hamas says yes three times, or it stays in the cold.
But, says one Palestinian analyst, instead of such a black-and-white choice, the international community should start seeing shades of grey. If Hamas can agree with one or two of that troika, then a process of engagement could begin. The trick would be to call on the peace negotiator's old friend, "constructive ambiguity". So if Hamas says it can "respect" existing agreements, rather than "commit to" them, maybe that should be enough (that linguistic difference is the current sticking point between Abbas and Hamas).
For Israel, the advantages would be clear. First, once locked into the process, Hamas would lose its above-the-fray status. Second, it is not a monolithic organisation, and differences between moderates and hardliners would soon be exposed. Third, Israel always used to say that it was not interested in the words Yasser Arafat uttered, it was his deeds that mattered. Well, now Israel could apply that same logic to Hamas - no longer obsessing over the statements Hamas is prepared to make, but over its deeds. If the movement continues, and entrenches, its current ceasefire and, alongside Fatah, works to enforce it among fringe groups such as Islamic Jihad, that should surely speak louder than any number of declarations.
And there is a larger interest at stake here. Currently, the isolation of Hamas has driven it into the arms of Iran, which has been only too happy to play the deep-pocketed sugar daddy, boosting Tehran's ambitions as a regional superpower. But this is a frail alliance. Palestinians are Sunni and wary of any kind of Shia hegemony. Tellingly, Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, the spiritual leader of the wider Muslim Brotherhood movement of which Hamas is a part, issued a recent warning against the growing power of Iran and Shi'ism. So Hamas is eminently separable from Iran, which could break up the Shia "arc" of influence that so troubles London and Washington.
Israel disputes all this. If there were moderates in Hamas, it says, Israel would be engaging with them, but there are not. Israelis point to the serial caveats and disclaimers that come attached to any Hamas hint of recognition of Israel's right to exist. What of the recent Hamas statement recognising Israel as a "reality"? That means nothing, one senior official told me yesterday. "I recognise Aids as a reality, that doesn't mean I don't want to defeat and destroy it."
In the end, it comes down to how you view peace processes. Do you believe that the enemy is only fit to take part in a negotiation once it has changed, or that the very act of taking part can change the enemy? The Israeli government believes the former. After the transformation of the IRA in the decade or more of Good Friday talks - from swearing it would never decommission a bullet to standing down its forces - I believe the latter. If Tony Blair wants to put his final months to good use, perhaps he can press this point on all those who need to hear it. Otherwise, the patients will remain stuck in that operating theatre, only getting sicker.
Posted by Chris @ 01/24/2007 03:31 PM CST
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