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MidEast Hopes Tempered by Caution


Contact in the Middle East is thriving. Negotiations, in one form or another, are underway on five fronts: between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Israel and Hamas, Fatah and Hamas, Israel and Syria, and Israel and Hezbollah. In each case, hope must be tempered by caution: complexities abound and considerable obstacles lie in the way of success.

In any event, it is all overshadowed by allegations of corruption against Israel's Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert. He has faced similar allegations before and has always survived, but this time the information is so specific and deadly that he is unlikely to escape. He is already fatally weakened in the public arena: in a survey last week only 17 percent of people expressed trust in him.

Not only is his ability to run the country impaired, and especially at a time when critical decisions must be taken, but rivals in his Kadima (Forward) party are openly feuding to replace him. He faces daily demands to resign, with calls by political leaders for an early general election. If that happens, present indications are of a swing to the right with former Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu returning to power.

The fact of the various negotiations is known. However, the exact details in each case are confused, with speculation fuelled by flows of contradictory statements and leaks. In the most crucial area, to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are leaders making headway in their ongoing discussions - the first in nearly eight years? The answer depends on who says what on which day. What does seem certain is that the bright promise that came out of the United States-sponsored talks at Annapolis last November will not be fulfilled: there will not be agreement on an independent and viable Palestinian state by the end of this year. At best, possibly, a set of principles might emerge to work for such a state.

As George W. Bush's presidency draws to a close, he is belatedly trying to drive the peace process: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flew in on Sunday for her sixth visit to the region since Annapolis. On arrival in Israel she said that she would be raising "the issue of settlements, because I'm very concerned that at a time when we need to build confidence between the parties, the continued building and the settlement activity has the potential to harm the negotiations going forward."

Those few words, so politely put, get to the heart of the "facts on the ground" that will make a viable Palestinian state impossible: houses are still being built on the West Bank, flouting Israel's own promises not to allow it. Bush and Rice have repeatedly asked/urged/warned Israel to stop but are ignored. There is no reason to believe that Rice on her current visit will issue anything more than another toothless warning. So the outlook is bleak and imperils the needed agreements on contentious issues such as Jerusalem as a shared capital, borders, the future of refugees, security and water.

The peace efforts with the Palestinian Authority are also affected by the simultaneous attempts, brokered by Egypt, for an Israeli-Hamas deal. A temporary ceasefire, called a "tahadijeh" in Arabic, appears imminent, whereby Hamas and its cohorts will cease firing rockets and mortars into Israel - up to 50 a day are landing - and Israel will stop its attacks and killings in the Gaza Strip and drop its threats to assassinate Hamas leaders. If the truce holds, Hamas will release the Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, whom it seized in 2006, and Israel will gradually open border crossings to end its siege of the territory.

Israeli right-wingers, however, argue for harsh military action to destroy Hamas, with some calling for literally bombing Gaza City to bits. Majority opinion in the government - and the army - opposes this, fearing massive casualties on both sides and noting that it would not in any event provide a long-term solution. At the same time, there is widespread recognition that any truce will be temporary for as long as Hamas remains committed to its policy of seeking Israel's destruction and smuggles increasingly powerful rockets into Gaza. The quandaries and lack of unanimity inside government circles are reflected in the questioning of the ceasefire talks by Shaul Mofaz, former army chief of staff and Defence Minister and now the Transportation Minister: "We must act against terror through deterrence," he says. "The Gaza regime is in the hands of terrorists who want to destroy us, and we want to ask them for calm? It should be the opposite."

One of the concerns in dealing with Hamas is that the organisation will trumpet a truce as a victory and this will weaken the Palestinian Authority. The authority's President Abu Mazen has been engaged in talks with Hamas, with the help of Egypt and other Arab states, to try to restore some semblance of Palestinian unity, disrupted since Hamas took over Gaza in an armed coup in June last year. The question arises: if Hamas returns to Palestinian government, will it go along with negotiations with Israel in which, inevitably, compromises will be required?

On the Syrian front, it turns out that Israel has been engaged in indirect negotiations since February last year. Turkey has been the go-between. Direct negotiations are said to be imminent. The issues at stake are clear-cut: Syria wants the return of the Golan Heights which it lost after attacking Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967; and it wants access to the Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee). It also hopes to end its pariah status in the West. In the last round of negotiations eight years ago, Israel showed willingness to yield the Golan, with the possibility of inventive solutions which could include demilitarisation and allowing Israelis who live there to remain. Access to the Kinneret, however, is doubtful as it is Israel's main supply of water. Israel for its part wants normalisation of relations and insists that Syria break its close connection with Iran and cease headquartering Hezbollah, Hamas and other groups devoted to violent attacks on Israel. At this stage, the demands might prove too much for both countries, especially in view of the deep mutual mistrust between them. An opinion poll last week showed that 67 percent of Israelis oppose returning the Golan to Syria.

The latest revelation this week is that a long sought-for deal with Hezbollah, brokered by Germany, could be close to completion. At the crux are the two Israeli soldiers whom Hezbollah abducted on 12 July 2006, setting off the war in Lebanon. It is thought that they are dead but Israel wants their bodies while apparently finally giving up hope for information about the fate of Ron Arad, the pilot who came down in Lebanon 22 years ago. In return, four Lebanese prisoners will be released, along with Samir Kuntar, jailed nearly 30 years ago for a murderous attack on an Israeli family which included using his rifle butt to smash in the head of a four-year-old girl.

However far Olmert might or might not be willing to go to achieve accords, right-wingers fear the worst from him: in their terms, it's that he will yield land, whether on the West Bank or the Golan. To them, every centimetre is sacred, whether for religious or security reasons. They want Olmert out of office immediately. A rightwing member of the Knesset (parliament) even demanded that the Attorney-General check whether Olmert's willingness to give up land for peace with Syria constituted grounds for charging him with treason (he was told no, and to stick with public discourse). The Jerusalem Post has claimed that Olmert's current corruption troubles originate from right-wing rabbis who persuaded an American religious businessman to blow the whistle by revealing that he had, over a period of 15 years, handed cash in envelopes to Olmert and his aides, the total running into many thousands of dollars. Olmert denies wrongdoing and says the truth will emerge when the businessman is cross-examined by his lawyers next month.

The bottom line: whatever the hurdles and anxieties, enemies are talking to each other. That is an unusual and precious commodity in this part of the world. Who can tell what benefits might result?

Benjamin Pogrud

Published first at the Centre for International Political Studies (CiPS) of the University of Pretoria and reproduced by permission. The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of MidEastWeb for Coexistence or of the Centre for International Political Studies (CiPS) or the University of Pretoria

Benjamin Pogrund is Director of Yakar's Centre for Social Concern in Jerusalem. South African-born, he was Deputy Editor of the Rand Daily Mail, Johannesburg, and has written books about Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, Nelson Mandela, and the Press under apartheid.

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