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August 30, 2007

November's Peace Summit: Some Guidelines for the Perplexed

Somehow, during the course of the hot August days, a presidential address which seemed to promise rather little has become an effort in Middle East peace summitry that is beginning to raise expectations and is the first of its kind in almost seven years. Three developments have seemed to converge to create this new apparent moment of hope.

First, with the entrenchment of the West Bank-Gaza divide, efforts towards the political horizon long called for by President Abbas were embraced as part of the support for the "new partner in Ramallah." Second, Israeli Prime Minister Olmert, plagued by political weakness, has decided to reinvent his premiership, and an overture to the Palestinians sits nicely with this makeover. Third, the US administration, or (to be more precise) Secretary Rice and the State Department are belatedly ready to get engaged and invest some capital on the Israel-Palestine front.

So a certain expectation is developing in the region, though it is not yet felt in Washington (and it is perhaps unlikely to be, given Iraq's dominance of the agenda post-Labor Day), that Israeli-Palestinian political issues may be fast-tracked toward an outcome in November. Olmert and Abbas have twice held preliminary discussions on permanent status issues in four eyes, and are due to meet again soon. After that a decision is expected to be taken on establishing teams to possibly begin a drafting process. The US has approached the Arab states and Saudi Arabia in particular to secure their buy-in for November. Ehud Olmert has polled his own public and discovered that they support such an effort (see posting below). Issues such as future borders, division of Jerusalem and refugee resettlement are being aired for the first time in seven years, and there has been a flurry of diplomatic activity.

I just spent ten days back in the region to get a sense of where things are at -- meeting with very senior Israeli and Palestinian officials, and catching up with old acquaintances, analysts, and policy wonks.

This piece is an attempt to address ten questions about the prospective November summit. At the outset I should state that such an effort could be very encouraging if it is done right, but could also be rather dangerous if it's part of a more-of-the-same policy.

1. What are the key actors hoping to achieve in November? It would seem that the broad approach would be to produce a paper setting out a horizon for an end of conflict, two-state solution, that boosts all the so-called moderates in the region, and improves America's standing and the overall regional atmosphere.

The question of what is the primary driving motivation behind this exercise is an important one. Is this principally about advancing a realistic, decent sustainable Israeli-Palestinian agreement, or is it more an ideological and pedagogical effort to prove that the good guys will get carrots while the bad guys get bushwhacked (punish Hamas, further isolate Syria, etc.). But trying to achieve the latter would likely come at the expense of the former and could actually be a recipe for instability and for further undermining a realizable two-state solution.

And then there is a third interpretation: that this entire effort is a chimera and an exercise in snake-oil salesmanship. It can't be done, and the entire build-up to November is actually about exposing either the Palestinian unwillingness or inability to deliver. Israel is cast as the side most wanting peace, while the US is the promoter of peaceful solutions and cannot be blamed for the failings of local actors. I think that some of the inside spoilers (the neocons still active in the administration, etc.) are playing along and are not particularly worried as they assume this outcome. I do not, however, think that this is either the motivation or the desire of the US Secretary of State, or of the Israeli leadership. But absent smart handling, it may well be the outcome.

2. What is supposed to happen next? Olmert and Abbas will continue meeting and at some stage, probably the second half of September, a decision will have to be taken on whether to start drafting a document, and, if so, who will do that drafting, and what kind of paper will they draft?  Currently, there is no consensus regarding what type of document is to be negotiated -- a short Memorandum Of Understanding, a Declaration Of Principles, or a somewhat longer, more detailed Framework Agreement (FAPS).

Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch is due in the region in the first week of September, to be followed by Condoleeza Rice ten days after that. The parties are expecting some clarifications regarding the goals for November during those visits.

The donor countries to the Palestinians known as the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee (AHLC) are due to meet in New York on September 24 in the margins of the UN General Assembly. This will undoubtedly be an occasion for lots of corridor meetings between the various actors who should be involved in November. Palestinian president Abbas actually disclosed earlier this week (look up story, 3 days ago, Abbas saying don't know who's invited, what it's to be.) Indeed the terms of reference have not been defined, but there are hints that a summit, if it is to occur, will actually be hosted by President Bush, and the effort will be to ensure maximum Arab state attendance.

3. How engaged is the US? The answer at the moment seems a little troubling. The administration's engagement on the issue appears to have transitioned from "don't want to do that" to "don't know how to do that." November is just around the corner, and yet there are precious few signs that heavy diplomatic lifting is really going on. Sporadic visits by the Secretary of State and her team hardly suggest the kind of day-to-day management that a successful outcome demands. No dedicated point person has been drafted in for this effort, and so far, the new Quartet envoy, Tony Blair, is not being given a clear political mandate. In addition, the Iraq debate will be sucking up most of the Washington oxygen in the intervening period.

The possibility of the US presenting a paper to the parties with its suggested parameters is being discussed in some quarters. The impression received in talking to certain involved Palestinians is that some of the Palestinian leadership might actually be holding out for a US position paper.

4. Where do the Arab states stand? Involving the Arab States in the November effort and building on the Saudi Initiative (which was endorsed by the Arab League) is now considered to be an important part of any process. Arab participation, preferably as broad as possible, would help confer legitimacy for a Palestinian sign-off on the compromises that any agreement would entail. This was one of the missing ingredients at Camp David in 2000. Likewise, the beginnings of a normalization of relations between Arab states and Israel would all translate into a major selling point for any agreement with the Israeli public. It would be very helpful to develop a roadmap outlining the reciprocal steps that would be taken between the Arab states and Israel as a process moves along. This might include mutual recognition, exchange of Ambassadors, security guarantees, and an architecture for regional cooperation.

Thus far there is insufficient evidence that such a roadmap is being seriously worked on. Secretary Rice's last visit to the region which included a meeting with the GCC + 2 Arab foreign ministers and a bilateral with the Saudis, marked a beginning, but this has yet to be followed up in a concerted way. Key will be Saudi Arabia. In fact, the degree of emphasis that has been placed on a possible public Israeli-Saudi interaction is such that anything short of high-level Saudi representation will be deemed a disappointment.

On the flipside it also seems that the Arab states themselves have not developed a coordinated and coherent negotiating position that could maximize the leverage they have in advance of November. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, in a press availability with Secretary Rice in Jeddah on August 1, stated that

On the peace conference, I said before that we are interested in a peace conference to deal with the substantive matter of peace, the issues of real substance and not form or non-substantive issues. If that does so, it becomes of great interest for Saudi Arabia.

When it appeared that the US administration took this to be something of a Saudi commitment to be on board with the conference, the Saudis moved quickly to send clarificatory messages that the Foreign Minister's statement should be read carefully, and that the Saudi conditions for engagement should not be dismissed. There may be a US effort to use the proposed new US multi-billion dollar arms sale to the Saudis and the difficulty that may face in Congress as leverage to soften the Saudi conditions for attendance.

And finally Syria. Syria has thus far been frozen out of any preparatory discussions for the conference, and as things stand, is unlikely to be seriously approached. Amongst many in the region, the Syrian spoiler capacity is well understood, and non-engagement with the Syrians is seen as unhelpful and even irresponsible. Better to have the Syrians on the inside was a refrain that I frequently heard from senior officials. In fact, what is remarkable is that both the Israeli and Palestinian leadership would seem to prefer an inclusive approach with the Syrians, and it is the US that is digging in on this issue, and unwilling to cede any ground. This approach is all the more fraught with danger given the fragile situation in Lebanon. Former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami had this to say in a recent YNet op-ed:

Bush's strategy is consistently lacking on several fundamental points. The international conferences basic rules do not include radical participants -- Syria and Hamas -- and thus encourage them to continue in their role of spoiling the fun. It's an illusion to believe that peace can be achieved without the participation of these forces. As long as Hamas and Syria remain outside of the peace process, they are destined to proceed on the Iranian track.

5. Are the Israeli and Palestinian leaders politically in a position to carry this off?

Ehud Olmert's political position has somewhat stabilized over the summer, although that could change when the Knesset reconvenes after the Jewish holidays. Barak's replacement of Amir Peretz as Defense Minister and Labor leader, the weakening of potential challenges to Olmert within his own Kadima Party, and the likely smooth passage of the annual budget lead most analysts to conclude that elections will not be for a year rather than in a few months.

There is one caveat, and that is the looming threat of the publication of the final report from the Winograd Committee investigating last summer's war. The schedule for publication is towards year's end (unless a court appeal procedure that is being used by army officers threatened by the report's findings causes a long delay). The Winograd's findings will be harsh and could set in motion a political unraveling, if Barak makes good on his commitment to take Labor out of the coalition. The current assessment is that this is unlikely. Olmert appears to have a parliamentary majority for a far-reaching deal with the Palestinians. Even if Avigdor Lieberman's right wing "Our Homeland Party" quits over progress with the Palestinians, Olmert can still have a majority and may even be strengthened by demonstrating resolve. It is also worth noting that Olmert is considered by many inside Israel, and among the Palestinian Ramallah leadership, to be the best option available for a peace process right now, given that the alternatives are Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak.

On the Palestinian side, the division between the West Bank and Gaza presents problems of its own. The general perception, even in the West Bank, is that this effort is unlikely to deliver any meaningful results. That assessment is only partially shared by the Ramallah leadership, among whom there are differences in nuance but the basic position is to give this effort a chance while maintaining an understandable skepticism. Were there to be some kind of agreement, then President Abbas would have no problem getting the support of the government in Ramallah. Beyond that things get tricky. Parliamentary approval would have to depend on the absence of Hamas PLC members (which is facilitated by over forty of them being in Israeli jails). Use of a referendum or new elections as a means of legitimizing any deal with the public is considered probably unfeasible in the current circumstances, especially regarding Gaza. A referendum raises the additional question of whether Palestinians outside of the territories would be able to participate. Currently, there is no real plan as to how Gaza could be reintegrated into the Ramallah-led Palestinian Authority, nor is there much appetite in Ramallah for the renewal of any dialogue with Hamas.

The Palestinian public reaction to any deal will be greatly influenced by the substantive content of what is agreed, and also by whether or not there is any improvement to the daily situation on the ground. The refugee camps in Syria, Lebanon, and even Jordan could become a magnet for opposition.

6. And Hamas, what is happening with them?

Readings at the moment suggest that the Hamas leadership does not feel particularly threatened by the November process. The working assumption in both Damascus and Gaza is that this does not lead anywhere, or at least not anywhere that worries Hamas. Of much greater concern is the day to day situation in Gaza, and, for Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Meshaal, a sense of potentially becoming the “mayor of Gaza in exile.”

Paradoxically, the November process, when at all considered, could be viewed by Hamas leaders as presenting something of an opportunity. If that process either goes nowhere, or is easy to discredit, due to its substance, or the realities on the ground, then Hamas would be in a stronger position vis-a-vis Fatah. Under this scenario, either President Abbas moves to resume some kind of unity talks with Hamas (as they have advocated), and/or Hamas is boosted and regains the popularity it has recently lost. Hamas is also confident regarding Fatah's inability to internally reform itself and gain momentum.

If the November process begins to look like it might deliver results for the Ramallah government then the Hamas calculation might change, and resorting to violence to torpedo things would likely be considered. And those who do take the conference seriously, and are planning for it are doing nothing to address up front how Hamas might be brought on board and disincentivized from collapsing the process. In fact, the current approach is quite the opposite.

7. How is the situation on the ground?

In two words, not good. There is no recognizable improvement in the West Bank (nor, of course, in Gaza), and that fuels the Palestinian sense of the futility of the current process. The one major improvement has been the payment of salaries by the Ramallah government, and this obviously has given a boost to the West Bank economy; but, so far, precious little else has changed. There has been no progress on closure and freedom of movement issues. In fact, the new/old Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak seems to be positioning himself as something of a spoiler on this front. Barak was quoted extensively in the Israeli media a couple of weeks ago as opposing any withdrawal on the West Bank in the next three to five years. A new plan is being touted that would see permanent checkpoints being replaced by " mobile checks," but this, too, would take time to implement and offers little hope. Nothing has been done on the longstanding Israeli government commitment to outpost removal, there is no settlement freeze, and the route of the separation barrier being constructed continues to meander deep into Palestinian territory.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is trying to make the most of this bleak situation by focusing on those areas where his own government can have the most impact. His main emphasis is on security and bringing internal law and order to Palestinian cities which would indeed be a significant improvement for the residents. In Ramallah at least, the situation has visibly improved and Fayyad would like to repeat this in other cities, but even this requires Israeli cooperation which has not yet been forthcoming. The impact of July's prisoner release is long forgotten, and no further releases are planned although an Israeli gesture on this during Ramadan is an option.

The situation in Gaza continues to decline with damage being done to the Gazan economy that will take years to reverse. Under siege, Hamas is increasingly using strong-arm tactics to impose its will in Gaza. There is also a sense that the Ramallah leadership is encouraging this siege on Gaza, and the mutual recrimination in the Palestinian media between Fatah and Hamas serves to feed a public sense of despair and frustration at all political actors.

If a political process does emerge, then the IDF will have another justification for maintaining the tight restrictions on movement in the West Bank. Namely, that a fragile process threatened by spoilers could be undone overnight in the event of a serious security breach, and that circumstances therefore require heightened security caution.

8. What is the best case scenario for November?

First, that the leaders agree to a document that actually spells out -- in a meaningful way -- parameters for an endgame permanent status including reference to the '67 lines, Jerusalem division, and refugees. This could perhaps be enshrined in a UN Security Council Resolution. A roadmap for relations between Israel and the Arab states that would be built in stages, as the Palestinian process proceeds, would also be helpful. The potential spoilers, especially Hamas and Syria, are given there own roadmaps or political horizons, and they perceive their own interests in acquiescing to, rather than derailing the November process.

All this bolsters the local public acceptance of the process on both sides. It also has a knock-on effect in the region that serves to limit irredentism and mobilization of opposition to the deal in public discourse, on Al Jazeera, and in the refugee camps. Positive visible moves are witnessed on the ground and security holds up, thereby increasing public belief in the process (this might include evacuation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank). The US would then lead an effort to translate the agreed parameters for a deal into a detailed implementable treaty. In this context, should the Palestinians begin to reintegrate politically and resume Fatah-Hamas dialogue, then the US and Israel, this time, do not intervene to undermine such moves.

Having spelt it out like this, I should add to this uber-optimistic scenario, that Manchester United, Chelsea, and Spurs all get relegated, Arsenal do the treble, Tim Henman wins the US open, and England retains the Rugby World Cup.

9. What if that doesn't happen, what are the pitfalls?

As we've mentioned, Abbas, Fayyad and the Ramallah government would be further weakened by failed efforts. The same could happen to Ehud Olmert, paving the way for a more right-wing government in Israel. The belief in a peace process on both sides would be further eroded.

It could, however, be much worse. Fatah, shorn of political hope, might do a repeat run of 2000 -- directing a round of violence against Israel as a way of seizing the initiative from Hamas. A half-baked effort would create ideal circumstances for a Hamas- and Syrian-led pushback, and irredentism throughout the region, de-legitimizing negotiation efforts with a long-term negative effect for the prospects of a two-state solution. In an extreme, though not totally unrealistic version of this scenario, opposition is mobilized in the refugee camps (especially in an already tense Lebanon), Iran is emboldened, US allies are undermined again, and the region is further destabilized with possible spillover effects being felt even in Iraq. The regional atmosphere is crucial and it makes the lack of an attempt to engage (even indirectly) with Syria and Hamas even more stunningly negligent.

The last time the peace process collapsed it led to seven lean years. If that were to be repeated it is highly questionable whether the two-state solution can be salvaged. If the prevailing ethos is limited diplomatic capacity and ideological stubbornness, then it would be better not to attempt a November home run. At the very least -- and learning from the Camp David experience -- fallback plans should be developed.

10. So what to do?

November could still be an opportunity, or at least a moment from which something positive can be salvaged. Of course, the entire issue could become a moot point at any moment should a security or political crisis engulf the scene.

The three key components that are likely to determine the outcome of this effort are as follows:

• The substance of any agreement.
• Getting positive traction on the ground.
• Diffusing the potential risks and addressing the spoilers.

Mishandling any of these three, let alone all of them, may do enough damage to derail the efforts.

Substance matters. This is a moment of choice, and if the leaders are not ready on either side to make the tough choices, then they shouldn't go in for deception that attempts to paper over the gaps. That means a border based on '67 with 1:1 land swaps, a divided Jerusalem, and a refugee arrangement that provides compensation, rehabilitation, and understanding, but no right of return to Israel. The US and Quartet should be ready to table a plan.

Even such a paper would still only be a photo of a carrot for the Palestinians, and if the gap between that photo and the reality on the ground is stretched to snapping point, then expect consequences for security and the entire process. In that respect, the US needs to push harder, especially with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak to secure improvements in the situation in the territories.

Finally, all who are involved must take the regional dimension seriously, and especially those actors whose exclusion is both unnecessary and threatening. This is either about building a stable Israeli-Palestinian peace or ideological point-scoring. It's either-or. It should not be both. One should be de-fanging, rather than sharpening the fangs of the potential opponents to a deal. Incentives for cooperation should be created, even indirectly via, for instance, back channels led by European states or Turkey. A helpful November outcome requires dramatically stepping up the diplomatic engagement and water-carrying, and doing so very soon.

August 29, 2007

Why Olmert’s Private Peace Polling Failed to Make a Splash

Raviv DrukerRaviv Druker (pictured here), Israel’s Channel 10’s political commentator, had a scoop on last night’s news. Nothing unusual in that, he is a rising star of Israeli TV. Raviv is highly respected as a journalist and author, he hosts his own show on the primetime Friday evening news slot. When he has an expose, it’s normally a news topping event. One might have expected last night’s story to follow a similar pattern.

Raviv’s scoop was this: Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had apparently been conducting private polling (carried out by his trusted pollster, Kalman Gayer) to check Israeli public receptivity to a possible agreement with the Palestinians on principles for a permanent status peace.

Olmert and the Palestinian President Abbas are beginning to discuss these principles in their private meetings as part of the preparation for a possible US-sponsored peace summit in November. Kalman Gayer’s survey results revealed that the yes’s have a 5% lead over the no’s regarding support for the outlines of a somewhat realistic set of Israeli-Palestinian peace parameters. The polling also showed 60% public support for negotiating a peace deal now with President Abbas. Noteworthy too was the fact that this polling was conducted exclusively among Israel’s Jewish population and therefore support in the overall Israeli public, including the Arab citizens could be expected to be significantly higher. As Druker pointed out on Channel 10 News, this is all the more remarkable when one considers how low Olmert’s personal approval ratings are. Bottom line, it would seem, the Israeli public is ready for a peace deal, if only their leaders would show some courage and make the tough choices, and they’ll support even the unloved Olmert if he does it.

So, it is revealed that the Israeli Prime Minister is conducting secret polling about a return to the ’67 border, plus/minus, and dividing Jerusalem at a time when he is discussing these very issues with his Palestinian counterpart. The question is how come this exclusive scoop was not a headline, but was rather buried as the fourth or fifth item in the news, and that there was no follow up today in the Israeli press? Even Raviv was less than his normal exuberant self in disclosing the information.

There are two possible explanations. One is that the Israeli public no longer considers it a big deal when their leaders are discussing a withdrawal from the vast majority of the West Bank and from the Palestinian parts of East Jerusalem with the neighbors. The reality of what a two-state solution will really take has finally sunk in and it no longer makes a big splash. This would be the encouraging interpretation.

The other way to understand this is that the public and media have so dismissed Olmert as a leader and his peace efforts, and by the way the Bush administration’s own promotion of a November summit, that they no longer attribute much importance to what Olmert might be discussing with Abbas or polling via Gayer. People are skeptical that this can lead anywhere or that their Prime Minister has the political traction to get much done.

Liklihood is that it is probably a bit of both. And that both the substance of Raviv’s story and it’s placement in the news cycle might actually be a positive sign.

The Truth Revealed About Al Jazeera's "Israel Peace Proposal"

Al Jazeera has been reporting that it has come into the possession of "a document claiming to be Israel's terms on which final status negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians can begin."  The story played all day yesterday on TV news reports and also appears here on the English website.  Al Jazeera's Jerusalem correspondent said the document

lays out some broad principles that Israel believes both sides should sign up to as a starting point for formal negotiations... Some of the things are fairly obvious - renouncing words and actions associated with war, recognition of United Nations Security Council resolutions... Also, previous peace endeavors such as the Madrid conference of 1991 and the declaration of principles signed between Yasser Arafat and the late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1993.

Both Channel 10 and Channel 2 News in Israel picked up and ran the story on their main news shows last night.  Reports of the document have also appeared in the Arab media and blogosphere.  Al-Quds Al-Arabi reported that

Yesterday, a document was circulated in the West Bank that has to do with what is now going on.  The document claimed to be a new Israeli proposal for a 'Declaration of Principles' that presents ideas for a final settlement that include a land swap, withdrawal from settlements, and the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. (Courtesy of Mideast Mirror)

Prospects for Peace can now exclusively reveal that the document is NOT an official Israeli paper or even non-paper, but rather an informal draft put together by some of the Israelis involved in the Geneva Initiative.  The draft is actually a distilled version, or summary, of the principles and ideas underlying the Geneva document.   Prospects for Peace has seen a copy of the draft paper but in the interest of not wanting to undermine this effort, will not be making it public.  We can tell you that, so far at least, the draft has not been shared with either the Israeli or Palestinian leaders, and exists as an unofficial private Israeli initiative at this stage.

In their last two meetings, including the one yesterday, Olmert and Abbas have discussed, one-on-one, some of the contours and principles that might be addressed if an Israeli-Palestinian agreement were to be produced for the proposed November peace conference.  Thus far, the leaders have not begun any formal process of drafting -- unless there is a secret channel operating -- and that is currently considered to be unlikely.  Only after a third Olmert-Abbas pow-wow and the visit of Secretary Rice in mid-September will a decision be taken, apparently, on whether and what type of negotiating teams will be formed.  There is also no consensus regarding what type of document is to be negotiated -- a short Memorandum Of Understanding, a Declaration Of Principles, or a somewhat longer, more detailed Framework Agreement (FAPS).

Palestinian President Abbas has argued that only a detailed paper spelling out clear endgame proposals on all issues would make the exercize worthwhile.  The Israeli leadership is thought to prefer a more general set of principles without a timetable.

It is positive that after seven years, permanent status issues can again be talked about beyond the confines of the Flat Earth Society!  But this is a high-risk endeavor, as Camp David in July 2000 and its aftermath proved.  A November effort will require senior planning as well as creative but disciplined and realistic management.  (I will discuss the November summit prospects in a future post.)  Finally, for now at least, the kind of US leadership required to prepare for November is still absent.

August 28, 2007

Gilad Shalit's Birthday and the Dilemma It Poses

First, Prospects For Peace is back after a summer go-slow, so watch this space.  Second, today isGilad Shalit the twenty-first birthday of Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit who is being held in Gaza by a group affiliated with Hamas, and the marking of this anniversary has brought the broader question of dealing with Hamas back into focus.  Events have been held in Israel today to mark Shalit's birthday with posters going up throughout the country, a rally in Tel Aviv, and the placing of a large birthday cake in the center of Rabin Square.  The issue featured prominently in today's Israeli newspapers and has continued to be mentioned throughout the day.  Ben Kaspit, writing in the daily Ma'ariv summed up the dilemma that has characterized the discussion of the issue (translated from the Hebrew):

What is worst of all is the knowledge that it is possible to bring him home.  There is a price for it.  The price is hard, tough, almost impossible to pay, but it exists... Everyone has his own answer, his own solution, and in the face of all these is one Israeli soldier in a dark cellar, dank and isolated, cut off from all connection from the outside world, counting his days and perhaps not even aware that he has a birthday today or whether he will have one next year.

The tone is emotional, but the policy question is unavoidable.  On June 25 of 2006, Shalit was captured near the Gaza security fence by members of the Popular Resistance Committees.  The Committees are an alliance of Palestinian factions in which Hamas plays a decisive role, and as efforts began to secure a negotiated release of Shalit it became clear that Hamas was the address.  Negotiations have been conducted between Israel and Hamas through various intermediaries, notably the Egyptians, and, occasionally, in direct meetings between Israeli security officials and Hamas prison leaders being held in Israeli jails. 

Since June 10 of this year (when Hamas took over the Gaza Strip), an additional complicating factor has been added: namely, what does any negotiation and prospective deal mean for the broader policy towards Hamas?  The answer thus far has been to effectively place the negotiations on a slow track, something which led Noam Shalit (Gilad's father) to accuse Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert today of not doing enough to secure his son's release.

There are, then, two questions: the immediate price to be paid for Shalit's release, and the prospects for establishing new rules of the game in the stand-off with Hamas.

The question of price is one that Israel has dealt with in the past.  In the most famous (or infamous) prisoner exchange deal, 1,150 arab prisoners were released for three Israeli soldiers in a negotiation with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) - General Command led by Ahmed Jibril, a deal that was mediated by former Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky.  The Israeli Defense Minister at the time, Yitzhak Rabin, in defending the deal, stated,

Since 1968 we have basically pursued the same policy... every government has entered into negotiations and paid a price... The circumstances and the numbers changed, but the principles didn't.  When there is no military option, and after all the possibilities have been carefully checked, there is no choice but to enter into negotiations and pay a price.  I don't believe that any Israeli government can ignore its responsibility to its citizens if they are taken hostage, and certainly it cannot ignore the fate of its soldiers, who were ordered onto the battlefield and who fell into terrorist hands.

More recently in January of 2004, then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, with the support of his cabinet (including then Minister Netanyahu), exchanged 430 Lebanese, Palestinian, and Arab prisoners for one Israeli businessman and ex-colonel Elhanan Tenenbaum and the remains of three IDF soldiers in a deal with Hizbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah.  The strong feeling is that if it was only a question of price the deal would have been concluded long ago, but then comes the Hamas factor.  Back to Ma'ariv commentator Ben Kaspit: "the main thing is that Hamas has to be thrown a lifeboat, recognizing its right and ability to govern."

It is surely no coincidence that the head of Hamas's political bureau Khaled Meshaal gave an interview yesterday in Damascus to CNN's Nic Robertson in which he discussed the Gilad Shalit issue in detail. In Meshaal's words:

As I said, we agreed with the Egyptian mediations and we responded to the Egyptian proposals.  And three months ago we reached a principle deal and we started the application of the deal.  And we had been asked to submit a list of 350 names.  We submitted the list to the Egyptians and they submitted it to Olmert.  But Olmert rejected the list and he stopped the negotiations.  (CNN, Aug. 27, 2007)

From their own perspective, Hamas views Shalit as one of the key cards that they have to play, especially in the context of an increasingly isolated and forgotten Gaza.  Rather than a narrow prisoner exchange deal, some now consider that a potentially broader package is on the table.  It might look something like this: Shalit's return and the release of Palestinian prisoners would be stage 1 in a kind of Israel-Hamas mini-armistice or renewed hudna that in its subsequent stages might include a cessation of all hostile activity directed at Israel emanating from Gaza, a suspension of Israeli military actions targetting Gaza, and easing of the aggressive closure policy against the Gaza Strip, and new arragements via designated third parties at the Gaza border corssings.  At the moment, neither the Israeli leadership nor Palestinian President Abbas seem keen on pursuing this option.  As efforts to launch a meaningful Israeli-Palestinian political process gather pace towards a possible November peace summit, the appetite for a Shalit release deal or a broader Gaza-Israel ceasefire is waning even further.  The logic behind this is that the further one walks down the political path with Abbas, the more Hamas should be punished, Shalit becomes an unfortunate victim of that policy. 

To me, that logic seems deeply flawed, and it should actually be applied in reverse.  Namely, the closer one gets to a possible peace effort in November, the more one should be striving to lock-in a Hamas ceasefire and to reduce the incentives for Hamas to undermine such an effort.  The starting point would be to negotiate (via intermediaries) a package that would begin with the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap. The opposite approach even further stacks the odds against anything helpful or sustainable emerging from the November process. 

So sensible policy and the Rabin principle on prisoner exchanges should both point in the direction of a twenty-first birthday present for Gilad Shalit of resuming negotiations for his release.

August 13, 2007

Somebody’s listening…and getting angry: an exchange with a British neo-con

I found myself under personal attack last week in Britain’s Jewish Chronicle (JC) by someone named Melanie Phillips. Now I don’t know Ms. Phillips, but from a brief check, it would seem pretty accurate to describe her as a British version of a neo-con and judging by the viciousness of her attack on me, she seemed pretty upset. You can read the full piece here (subscription is free), although here are few excerpts to give you a taste.

Daniel Levy is a fervent advocate of talking to Hamas, along with its parent body, the Muslim Brotherhood…[Levy] seems to be extraordinarily naïve…It is a matter of even deeper concern that the dangerous ideas he espouses are increasingly gaining ground. Support for talking to Hamas has been voiced privately within the Shadow Cabinet — along with the former Tory Northern Ireland minister Michael Ancram, who has now himself talked to it no fewer than three times.

In addition, Phillips called me “dangerous” and an “idiot.”

I responded in this week’s edition of the paper and to my, at least, partial surprise, the paper decided to highlight my pushback on its front page.

Levy has issued a spirited riposte to JC columnist Melanie Phillips, who last week accused him of being “dangerous” and “naive” for supporting engagement with Hamas as part of a peace strategy.

Interestingly, my arguments were echoed today by the UK House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee report on the Middle East, which criticized the UK government’s policy on the Palestinian issue and specifically on the Hamas boycott. My arguments against Ms. Philip vitriol focused on the substance.

My apparent “crime” is to support engagement with Hamas as part of a strategy for enhancing a ceasefire, security in the region, and ultimately, to advance a peace process that can actually deliver the goods. In being “dangerous” — presumably to Israel and perhaps also Anglo-Jewry — I find myself in not bad company. Former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy, ex-Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, previous West Bank Divisions Commander and Civil Administration head General Ilan Paz, Gaza Brigades Commander Colonel Shaul Arieli and ex-deputy National Security adviser Yisraela Oron are just a few of the “dangerous” types who support this approach.

To clarify; neither myself, nor I imagine other advocates of engagement, are Hamas enthusiasts or sympathisers. Let’s call it the realist school of Zionism and contrast it with say, apocalyptic Zionism…

Zionist realism accepted the 1948-9 ceasefire lines, preferred Begin’s peace with Egypt over settlements in the Sinai, and today recognises the need for agreed secure borders for Israel that end the occupation of about four million Palestinians…Israel’s destiny for [apocalyptic Zionists] is to live by the sword in perpetuity; generation after generation of warrior super-Jews fending off the invading hordes of Mohammedans. Great as a Hollywood epic, but less so as a lifestyle choice or an Israeli future with any hope on the horizon. For apocalyptic Zionists, settlements, occupation, economic blockade and humiliation are irrelevant. None of it matters. They will always hate us anyway.

Israel can get beyond occupation, beyond its current predicament and on to a more stable, secure, and hopeful footing…This requires smartening-up, not dumbing-down one’s understanding of political Islamists — they are not all the same.

There are political grievances out there that can and should be addressed, and that feed al-Qaedaism. It is worth trying to reach an accommodation with mainstream Islamists, including Hamas and the Muslim Brothers, who are in their own struggle with al-Qaeda and reject the latter’s nihilism.

Israel should continue to talk with the secular pragmatic nationalists of Fatah on a range of issues — borders, security, Jerusalem, etc. But for an arrangement to deliver stability, security, and have broad legitimacy, Hamas should be brought inside the proverbial tent.

In its report, the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs argued the following:

We conclude that the decision not to speak to Hamas in 2007 following the Mecca agreement has been counterproductive...We conclude that the decision to boycott Hamas despite the Mecca agreement and the continued suspension of aid to the national unity Government meant that this Government was highly likely to collapse. We further conclude that whilst the international community was not the root cause of the intra-Palestinian violence, it failed to take the necessary steps to reduce the risk of such violence occurring.

Given the failure of the boycott to deliver results, we recommend that the Government should urgently consider ways of engaging politically with moderate elements within Hamas as a way of encouraging it to meet the three Quartet principles. We conclude that any attempts to pursue a 'West Bank first' policy would risk further jeopardising the peace process. We recommend that the Government urge President Abbas to come to a negotiated settlement with Hamas with a view to re-establishing a national unity Government across the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

 

August 8, 2007

A little catch up on Israel-Palestine

Following the visit of Secretary Rice, with the start of preparations for a possible November peace conference, and after Prime Minister Olmert’s powwow with President Abbas this past Monday, there is a buzz of speculation regarding new peace initiatives. I haven’t had a chance to check the veracity of the various rumors so far, so I will reserve judgment on that front. The fact that permanent status issues are back on the agenda and that Israeli and Palestinians are talking borders and withdrawals again cannot be such a bad thing. However, as Danny Rubenstein’s piece in Haaretz explains, the elephant in the room (namely Hamas) is ignored at the peril of the entire process.

As long as the Hamas leadership has a hope of holding on in Gaza and of influence in the West Bank, there will be relative quiet. But when Hamas loses hope and it becomes clear that Abbas is far from achieving the minimum that the Palestinians are demanding, then the terrorism and violence almost certainly will be renewed. In other words, all the current political activity is liable to turn out to be nothing but bunk. Ultimately, the opinion of many Palestinians will turn out to be right: If Hamas isn't in the game, there is no game.

Barak Ravid provides a handy summary of the different peace initiatives apparently being advanced by Israeli President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Olmert, and Minister Haim Ramon – this is Israel, so we are of course talking about three separate initiatives, rather than a unified effort.

Aluf Benn, also writing in Haaretz, cautions not to get too carried away and quotes sources in the Israeli Prime Minister’s office as dampening expectations.

Jerusalem was busy lowering expectations, and Olmert's bureau said the leaders were not seeking to formulate an "agreement of principles," but rather "agreed-on principles" - which is the same thing, but less frightening. The bureau cautioned diplomatic correspondents not to get their hopes up.

He also helpfully reminds us that, “the real bargaining will begin only in the days and hours running up to the summit, when Olmert and Abbas are already on their way to Washington.”

The guardian in yesterday’s leader, A borderless state is no solution, provides very useful guidelines for the way forward.

Mr Olmert refuses to discuss "core issues" on the pretext that failure to reach agreement on them could jeopardise progress on the smaller ones. That leaves talks about an intermediate stage. These would be about a Palestinian state with provisional borders, the stage of negotiation that was originally envisaged in phase two of the road map. By attempting to jump straight to this stage, without first negotiating an end to the occupation, Israel is leading Mr Abbas into dangerous waters.

Hamas may have been excluded from the international arena, but it has not disappeared from the local one. Hamas still retains the power to challenge Fatah's rule in the West Bank. The West Bank is not under complete Fatah control and, as the prime minister, Salam Fayad, admitted yesterday, PA security forces are unable to impose law and order, even on their own turf. Rather than address Hamas as a political fact in Gaza, Israel has chosen to divide and rule…


Finally, the International Crisis Group has a new report out entitled, “After Gaza.” This is definitely worth reading, including the set of policy recommendations for all the key actors. The report also carries what I assess to be an unbiased report card on the successes and failures of the respective Palestinian governments in Gaza and Ramallah. Given that the ICG are serious folks (for the purposes of full disclosure, I should add that I used to work at ICG), the bottom line from the report is hardly surprising – here is a taster.

as long as the Palestinian schism endures, progress [on Israeli-Palestinian peace building – DL] is on shaky ground. Security and a credible peace process depend on minimal intra-Palestinian consensus. Isolating Hamas strengthens its more radical wing and more radical Palestinian forces. The appointment of Tony Blair as new Quartet Special Envoy, the scheduled international meeting and reported Israeli-Palestinian talks on political issues are reasons for limited optimism. But a new Fatah-Hamas power-sharing arrangement is a prerequisite for a sustainable peace. If and when it happens the rest of the world must do what it should have before: accept it.

UK-US shadow dance over Iraq troop withdrawal

There is an interesting assessment in today’s UK’s Guardian looking at the current state of play between the US and UK on possible timetables for a troop withdrawal in Iraq. New British Prime Minister Gordon Brown apparently wants out and ASAP, but is trying to pull off a balancing act whereby he avoids embarrassing the White House (with an announcement that is ill-timed from their perspective), but that also avoids the domestic British accusation of prolonging the troop deployment as a result of US, rather than UK calculations. There is also a look at the deteriorating situation in Basra and the South and the implications this might have for both US strategy and the length of time it would take the US to pull out.

August 6, 2007

Lebanon by-Elections

Two parliamentary by-elections were held in Lebanon yesterday to fill the seats of assassinated MPs, Pierre Gemayel and Walid Eido. The contest for the Maronite Christian seat between Aoun’s opposition candidate, Camille Khoury, and the pro-government father of the assassinated Pierre Gemayel and former Prime President, Amin Gemayel, was closely contested and ultimately won by Camille Khoury.

Augustus Richard Norton, an expert on Lebanese affairs and author of several books on the Lebanon, including Amal and the Shi'a: Struggle for the Soul of Lebanon, The International Relations of the PLO and Political Tides in the Arab World, and someone who I greatly respect has posted this analysis on Informed Comment Global Affairs. It is well worth reading.

The BBC overview of the election results can be read here.

Josh Landis has yet to blog on the results, but his analysis from yesterday after the turnout numbers were in, but before the final results, is still worth looking at.

August 5, 2007

Efraim Halevy in WSJ: “We don’t need their recognition”

This was in the Wall Street Journal last week: 

"We signed armistice agreements with all of the Arab world," Mr. Halevy says, adding that many Arab nations agreed to end hostilities without formally recognizing Israel. The U.S. and Israel have pushed for a formal recognition of Israel from Hamas before agreeing to possible talks.
 
"We don't need their recognition," he says. "We are a sovereign state...They need us to recognize them. The shoe is on the wrong foot."

...

Mr. Halevy says the stakes in the debate over how to handle Hamas now go far beyond Israel and the Palestinian territories. He says negotiating with the group is necessary in order to stop the spread of the even more radical ideology espoused by al Qaeda, which he sees gaining adherents in the Palestinian territories.
 
"We're dealing in issues which are existential to free society," Mr. Halevy says. "When you look around for potential allies in this war, sometimes you have to settle for strange bedfellows."

August 4, 2007

Muslim Brotherhood Coverage on Al Jazeera

Fayad on Resistance

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayad explained what he sees as a Palestinian “right to resistance":
 

What is the essence of resistance fundamentally, especially in light of the nature of the existing occupation?  Does it not begin by exerting every possible effort to ... reinforce the steadfastness of the Palestinian citizen on his land? This is the program of the government.

Daniel Levy

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About August 2007

This page contains all entries posted to Prospects for Peace in August 2007. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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