Hope of peace in Gaza remains


Colin Rubenstein


Canberra Times, 6 May 2009

Is the new Netanyahu Government likely to be headed for a major confrontation with the Obama Administration? The argument often made is that while Barack Obama will push hard for Israeli-Palestinian progress, the supposedly ”hard-line” Netanyahu Government does not even support a two-state resolution to the conflict. Recent statements by controversial new Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman are often adduced as supporting evidence.

While some tension can be expected, the differences being claimed are exaggerated. Besides, the argument ignores the realities of the wider political situation, which make the alleged disagreements almost irrelevant. It is true Lieberman said Israel no longer supports the Annapolis Declaration. And Netanyahu has not explicitly endorsed a two-state resolution in so many words. But both have explicitly endorsed the Roadmap peace plan, and its explicit goal is two states.

Annapolis was nothing more than an attempt to short-circuit the Roadmap and jump to the third stage, a final agreement on two states, without going through the initial two stages. These two stages deal with issues such as terrorism and security issues, the creation of Palestinian civil society and an end to corruption, the end of incitement and more. Implementing them is necessary to ensure that the third stage, when implemented, will be viable. Annapolis was only ever designed to offer a ”shelf agreement”, an outline of a final deal that, it was acknowledged, could not be implemented for some time.

The somewhat naive hope was that this would strengthen the hands of Palestinian advocates of compromise, and hasten the day when a two-state deal could be implemented. The attempt failed largely because, as chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat recently said, the Palestinians were unwilling to make any sort of compromise over Jerusalem. He might also have explained, as a way of full disclosure, that in all recent rounds of Israeli- Palestinian negotiations, the Palestinian leadership has rejected every Israeli offer, and never made a counter offer. There are lessons from Olmert’s experience for the Netanyahu and Obama governments.

Even if Netanyahu and Lieberman were to follow the last three Israeli prime ministers and state repeatedly that they seek to establish a Palestinian state, there still would be no chance of a two-state resolution eventuating in the next few years. Hamas controls Gaza and remains utterly rejectionist, while President Mahmoud Abbas is too weak to enforce a peace deal even in the West Bank.

The goal of the US and Israeli governments must be to create the conditions where credible and lasting peace can occur. Until then, they must attempt to manage the conflict. The Palestinian leadership must tackle political corruption, financial corruption and the corruption endemic in its security forces.

Israel can’t do much to fix this problem but the international community can, by conditioning foreign aid on internal reform. While Netanyahu’s stated proposal to pursue ”economic peace” has been widely misrepresented as concentrating solely on economic benefits for the Palestinians, he has said repeatedly that he views such efforts as running parallel with political negotiations. Quartet envoy Tony Blair says he believes Netanyahu is trying ”to build the [Palestinian] state from the bottom up. I understand and buy into that.”

Obama has reportedly said he wishes to begin renewing peace progress by asking for a series of ”concrete steps” as reciprocal ”confidence-building measures”. This appears fully congruent with Netanyahu’s approach especially in terms of his concentration on reciprocity and his proposal to take steps such as lifting roadblocks and improving West Bank freedom of movement to better the economic situation.

What many people seem to lose sight of is that the Israeli- Palestinian conflict is not the most pressing issue on the US, international or even Israeli agenda. When it comes to the Middle East, the international community is far more worried about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and potential than other issues. Israeli-American cooperation on Iran will be a key aspect of Obama-Netanyahu relations, as well as to any chance of peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Why? Iran funds and arms rejectionist terrorist factions to keep the Israeli-Palestinian conflict alive. If Iran cannot be cajoled, sanctioned or coerced into ceasing to do so and stopped from building nuclear weapons peace will be all but unachievable.

Dr Rubenstein is executive director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council and formerly taught Middle East politics at Monash University.