The always volatile politics of Israel have, in that curiously Israeli way, returned to their normal state – that is, a state of flux. The conduct and consequences of the war against Hezbollah have seen accusations hurled back and forth between the various political parties, pundits, and serving and retired military officers. It has been a vociferous and passionate spectacle, often enlightening, sometimes excessive and personal, but very wide-ranging and democratic to the core. It is also Israel’s great strength. At the end of it, whatever the outcomes for the political system and specific political and military leaders, Israel as a society will have learned some important lessons that will make it much less likely that any mistakes made in the conflict with Hezbollah will be repeated.
The Winograd Inquiry, which has a very broad mandate to examine all aspects of the conduct of the conflict in Lebanon, will likely dominate public discussion in Israel in coming weeks and months.
Moreover, in the wake of the war, Israeli PM Ehud Olmert has shelved the “convergence” plan for additional troop withdrawals from the West Bank. “Convergence” was the central plank of his Kadima Party’s platform during the May election campaign.
Olmert and many other Israelis will now be looking for another way to make progress toward peace. After Camp David led to a full-blown terrorist intifada encouraged by Yasser Arafat, most Israelis lost confidence that the Oslo model of talks and interim agreements with the Palestinians would work. The Gaza disengagement and the convergence plan were attempts to allow Israel to continue taking the initiative toward a two-state solution that Israel could live with, in the absence of a Palestinian partner both able and willing to deliver a lasting and secure peace settlement.
However, Israel’s complete unilateral withdrawal from Gaza was succeeded not only by a Hamas election victory, but by constant barrages of Qassam rockets into Israeli towns. Similarly, the recent conflict is arguably linked to the nature of Israel’s May 2000 withdrawal from all Lebanese territory, which allowed Hezbollah to establish a heavily armed and fortified Iranian-affiliated mini-state along Israel’s northern border, whose raison d’être was to spark on-again off-again conflict with Israel.
Israelis overwhelmingly do not want to continue to rule the Palestinians of the West Bank, but also agree it would be suicidal to allow this area to be turned into a terror state able, Hezbollah-style, to shoot rockets at will into Israel’s heartland around Tel Aviv. The very real problem of squaring this circle is likely to spark at least as much debate in Israel as the conduct of the recent conflict.
Meanwhile, politicking in the Palestinian Authority proceeds, and more than developments in Israel, will largely determine whether there is an opportunity to make any progress. PA President Mahmoud Abbas has been promoting a national unity government incorporating his party Fatah, and Hamas, since before the so-called Prisoners’ Document was signed in May.
That document, spelling out the theoretical platform of a Hamas-Fatah coalition, is not a basis for serious renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, because it doesn’t come close to fulfilling the three explicit conditions the Quartet of the EU, Russia, UN and US placed on the PA to restart direct aid transfers and resume the political process. These were the recognition of Israel, the renunciation of terrorism and the recognition of previous Israel-Palestinian agreements.
On Sept. 11, Abbas proudly announced agreement on the imminent formation of the unity government, but as we go to press two weeks later, this proclamation has yet to be made.
Hamas is spinning and twisting in an attempt to avoid giving even an implied endorsement of Israel’s right to exist. The agreement it signed with Fatah, based on the Prisoners’ Document, reportedly sees Hamas recognising the 2002 Saudi peace initiative, which, it says, is an indirect way of fulfilling the international demands.
This initiative, endorsed by the Arab League, declared that Israel would be recognised if it withdrew to the June 5, 1967 lines and if the refugee issue was dealt with fairly. The initiative left plenty of wiggle room for rejectionists by failing to call for any negotiations and specify what a fair treatment of the refugee issue would mean. However, Hamas is now reportedly trying to refrain even from directly endorsing the Saudi initiative.
Moreover, when Abbas told the UN on Sept. 21 that the new unity government would recognise Israel, Hamas was very clear. PM Haniyeh of Hamas, due to head the PA unity cabinet, said he would never lead a government which recognised Israel.
Another important part of the proposed Hamas-Fatah agreement would be Hamas’ recognition of past Israeli-Palestinian agreements, but Hamas is saying it will only honour those that “served the interests of the Palestinians,” i.e. those they feel serve their political purpose of the moment.
Israeli politics are in a state of flux and Israelis are looking for new approaches, but these will depend on changes on the Palestinian side. As the Quartet recognised with their conditions for the PA, there is little point in talking about a peace agreement with an interlocutor who says his goal is to kill you, and that he will only keep agreements he makes with you when it suits him.
If the Palestinians succeed in forming a coalition government, the international community must be very clear – if the PA wants to gain the renewal of direct aid, it must agree to the three very basic conditions laid out for it. Any fudging of these issues will help ensure that peace remains a distant hope for both Israel and the Palestinians alike.