Evaluating peace process prospects

Oct 3, 2008 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

October 3, 2008
Number 10/09 #01

Today’s Update offers some new evaluations and innovative ideas on the future of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process over coming months.

First up is an important article by Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl arguing that with hopes for a”shelf agreement” before the end of the year now looking dim, it is time to pursue peace “from the bottom up”. This means primarily focussing on not a deal to sign, but “the construction of a healthy and vibrant Palestinian civil society.” He consults Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Eid and Israeli democracy advocate Natan Sharansky on why this is more likely to work and how it might be done. For all the details of this important view on an alternative route to peace, CLICK HERE. Another innovative suggestion for advancing peace – via reviving multilateral working groups on various Middle East issues – comes from Ben Lowenberg in the Guardian.

Next up, Aluf Benn of Haaretz examines the reason for continual Palestinian rejection of efforts to negotiate interim deals, and cites major differences in Israeli and Palestinian peace-making approaches. He argues that Israelis envisage a step-by-step approach to Palestinian state-building, similar to how Israel was founded, while Palestinians insist on starting with a recognition of Palestinian “rights” and only afterwards discussing details about how these can be implemented. Benn also argues that the Palestinians see Britain’s total withdrawal from its African colonies as the precedent to the establishment of their state, but other precedents exist that might be more appropriate, such as the independence of Ireland. For this article’s insights on the differing peacemaking approaches of the two sides, CLICK HERE.

Finally, here is an interview by Jerusalem Post editor David Horovitz with former Middle East mediator Dennis Ross on all aspects of current peace negotiations. Like Benn above, Ross has some perceptive insights into why, despite the fact that the positions of outgoing Israeli PM Olmert and PA President Mahmoud Abbas appear not so far apart on paper, an agreement remains elusive. He also has some interesting things to say about the Iran problem and the indirect Syria talks. For the complete interview, CLICK HERE. One of the questions discussed by Ross in the piece is whether time is on Israel’s or the Palestinian’s side – here is Barry Rubin’s take on this question.

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A Peace From the Bottom Up 

By Jackson Diehl

 Washington Post, Monday, September 22, 2008

Amid the din of the financial crisis and the presidential campaign, the Bush administration’s attempt to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal has quietly expired. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s 16 trips to the region over the past 21 months; last year’s Annapolis peace conference; months of meetings between Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams — all have sunk under the weight of the corruption charges against departing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the competition of crises from Georgia to Pakistan.

Nor is the peace process likely to revive anytime soon. The winner of last week’s party primary election to replace Olmert, Tzipi Livni, will probably be mired in efforts to form a new government for weeks or even months. To succeed she probably will have to make promises to coalition partners that would make a deal impossible. If she fails, Israel will have an election in which the favorite, for now, is hard-liner Binyamin Netanyahu.

Those are just Israel’s hurdles. The Palestinians are still split between Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. And if the presidential campaign is any indication, promoting a Middle East peace won’t crack the top 10 on the next administration’s list of priorities. How could it? With Wall Street’s meltdown, the failing Afghan war, the growing U.S. military engagement in Pakistan and Russia’s neo-imperialist eruption — not to mention the nuclear threats of Iran and North Korea — the perpetual headache of the West Bank and Gaza, where violence is at a relative low point, can barely be felt in Washington.

This isn’t an argument for the next administration to write off Middle East diplomacy, as George W. Bush did when he took office. But it is grounds for a President Obama or McCain to try a different approach to an intractable problem, one that focuses on building a foundation for peace from the ground up, rather than pushing fickle and fragile leaders to dictate a settlement from above. The timeline for success would be measured in years, not months. The goal would not be a document that Livni and Abbas could sign but the construction of a healthy and vibrant Palestinian civil society — that is, independent media, courts, political parties and nongovernmental organizations that could stand behind a settlement with Israel.

The former Soviet refusenik and Israeli political gadfly Natan Sharansky has been proposing this course for years — mostly to the irritation of peace-process supporters in both Jerusalem and Washington. Some suspect Sharansky of touting his strategy because it would indefinitely delay the necessity of Israeli territorial concessions. Others blame him for talking President Bush into a fleeting policy of supporting Palestinian democracy that led to the victory of Hamas in legislative elections.

But Sharansky’s ideas look pretty good compared with whipping the dead horse left behind by Olmert and Rice. Last week he turned up in Washington with a persuasive Palestinian partner: Bassam Eid, a veteran human rights activist who has spent the past dozen years trying to act as an independent monitor of the Palestinian Authority and its security forces. It’s a lonely, if badly needed, function: By the count of Eid’s Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, 2,000 Palestinians have been killed by Palestinians in the past eight years, but not one suspected killer has been charged or brought to trial. In August, it says, one Palestinian was killed by Israel and 36 by other Palestinians.

Eid makes the point that while Western governments, including the United States, are committed in theory to building free Palestinian institutions, in practice they route all funding through Abbas and his Fatah party cronies — who, in turn, deny it to genuinely independent groups. He heads a coalition of 10 NGOs that have been blackballed by Abbas, including organizations that advocate for women’s rights, fight drug abuse and work with youths. “I have no problem if the international community continues supporting Abu Mazen and the security forces,” Eid says, calling Abbas by his nickname. “But you can’t strengthen Abu Mazen without strengthening Palestinian civil society. Who is going to support Abu Mazen? It should be us.”

Sharansky argues that if the United States were to focus on building Palestinian civil society rather than backing Abbas — who now is being encouraged to remain in office despite the imminent expiration of his legal term — “in three years we would have an absolutely different Palestinian authority. Those leaders who then would be elected would be people with whom we could discuss issues like the future of Jerusalem and refugees.”

“People say we don’t have three years,” Sharansky said. “But that same idea caused them to favor Arafat over reform” — and that was 15 years ago. “The same idea continues all the time: ‘We must back the Palestinian leader over building civil society.’ And the result is always the same.” On that broken record, at least, Sharansky is right.

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Better occupation than a partial peace

By Aluf Benn

Haaretz,  25/09/2008            

“It is possible to reach understandings with the Palestinians by the end of the year,” says Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and proposes that the deal be hurried up and closed.

“The proposals of my Israeli counterparts are a partial peace, and that is not the way to progress,” replied Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Which of the two is telling the truth, and who is lying? Is a historic agreement to establish a Palestinian state in reach, or is it still far away? And how can it be that both leaders describe such different realities after all their meetings?

The gap between Olmert’s and Abbas’ statements in recent days do not result from a lack of truthfulness, but rather a profound gap between two fundamental viewpoints. One is from Mars, the other from Venus. What one side presents as a concession, the other views as an insult or trick to avoid making a decision. That is how it has been since the very first days of the negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.     Advertisement

The Israeli approach, rooted in the beginnings of Jewish settlement in Israel, espouses progress through creating facts on the ground. That is how the state was founded and built. To paraphrase A. D. Gordon, another dunam, another goat, another kibbutz and another settlement; another tank and another Phantom, and then all of the land is in our hands. That is what Israel is offering the Palestinians. When we offer you something, take it, and then we will see how we progress further. Start with a small state, demilitarized and surrounded by fences and Israeli soldiers, and then we can see what comes later.

The Palestinians have different ideas. They insist on the recognition of their “rights” as anchored in UN decisions, and then they will talk about details. First Israel should recognize the principles of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, without any security constraints and with East Jerusalem as its capital; Israel should also recognize the refugees’ right of return and compensation payments for the occupation, and then we will see how to implement it.

Like Yasser Arafat eight years ago, Abbas rejects the Israeli proposal and insists that occupation is preferable to a partial peace. Either the Palestinians receive full sovereignty over their state, or they will continue to wait at the roadblocks. Israelis find it hard to understand this maximalist approach. After all, Abbas is complaining about the expansion of the settlements and the theft of Palestinian land: Why doesn’t he settle for less than his full aspirations, and in the meantime force Israel to stop construction in the settlements and start the retreat from the West Bank?

The Palestinians reply that they have already given up 78 percent of their historic homeland, and are not willing to compromise on less than the remaining 22 percent in the West Bank and Gaza. They present their case using maps of the Land of Israel showing how Palestinian territory has gradually shrunk from the entire country during the British Mandate to today’s enclaves, closed off by fences and roadblocks. They have forgotten that between the various maps, their leadership turned down offers of partition and decided to go to war – and lost. “The shelf agreement” Olmert is offering them is not as good as the “permanent agreement” prime minister Ehud Barak offered them in 2000, mostly because in the meantime the Palestinians lost the second intifada, and Fatah lost Gaza to Hamas. That is the price of failure.

The Palestinians are using as their model the end of British colonial rule in India, Asia and Africa: full independence and a complete withdrawal of the foreign presence. But that is not the only model for ending an occupation. In Ireland a religious and nationalistic dispute has been going on for hundreds of years. After the Irish revolt during World War I, the British offered to end their rule of the neighboring island. The agreement, reached finally in 1921, promised the Irish approximately what Olmert is offering Abbas today. The British kept their “settlement blocs” in Northern Ireland, and Irish sovereignty in the south remained under the auspices of the empire based in London. The British fleet continued to control Irish ports.

The compromise produced a civil war in which the Irish leader, Michael Collins, was murdered after he signed the agreement with Britain. His great rival, Eamon de Valera, the Irish Ben-Gurion, retreated from his maximalist position. After gaining power, de Valera gradually freed himself from the remaining signs of British control in the southern part of Ireland and brought it to complete independence. The north remained in British hands and the strife reawakened, until only a few years ago it ended in a tense peace. In the meantime, the Republic of Ireland has enjoyed its freedom and prosperity. If it had stuck to the approach of “everything or nothing” of Arafat and Abbas, it would have remained under British occupation until now.

Israel learned the lesson of “revealing Arafat’s true face” at Camp David, and out of fear of destroying the negotiations, Israel is not portraying Abbas as a devious peace rejectionist – even though his positions are the same as those of his predecessor. This way it is possible to keep on talking, but that is not enough to reach an agreement. For a breakthrough, we have to understand the basic differences between the sides – and try to bridge the gap between Mars and Venus.

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Editor’s Notes: Misreading Abbas

David Horovitz


As Bill Clinton’s special Middle East coordinator, Dennis Ross was centrally placed to observe the failure of that president to culminate years of concerted commitment to an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal with an accord at Camp David in 2000. Indeed, Ross exhaustively documented the failure of those talks, day by frustrating day, in his 2004 doorstop volume The Missing Peace.

Ross’s US government involvement predated the Clinton administration – he had served as director of Near East and South Asian Affairs on the National Security Council staff during the Reagan era and as head of the State Department’s Policy Planning Office under George H.W. Bush. And his involvement might postdate the Clinton years, too, since he now acts as an unpaid foreign policy and Middle East adviser to the Obama campaign; when the Democratic nominee visited Israel in July, for instance, Ross was with him.

In the meantime, though, Ross has also been serving as the first chairman of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, a cumbersomely titled but earnest attempt to examine the challenges facing our future and formulate policies to best meet them. The combination of heavyweight US government experience, demonstrable commitment to Jewish well-being and ongoing ties to the key regional political players makes Ross’s assessment of where the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations sit today particularly credible. And particularly relevant – as the Bush administration’s tenure draws to a close, Mahmoud Abbas’s term as Palestinian Authority president may have only months to run and Tzipi Livni (just) takes the helm of Kadima, an imminent Olmertian resignation away from trying to form her own government.

Ross, who is six months younger than the State of Israel, has just returned to the US from a visit to the region, where he met with various Israeli and Palestinian leaders. He promptly wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Post urging the Bush administration and others to pay heed to the fact that Abbas could vacate his post and be replaced by a Hamas figure as soon as January. Ross urged Secretary Rice to use next week’s gathering of world leaders for the UN General Assembly to take steps to avert that crisis.

“This is one problem the Bush administration can and should preempt before it is too late,” he wrote in the article’s concluding sentence, prompting this reader, at least, to wonder whether he was simultaneously implying that other crises, perhaps including Iran’s relentless nuclear drive, would be better left to the handling of the post-Bush White House.

In a telephone interview on Wednesday, however, Ross stressed that he intended no such implication. “No, I don’t want Iran put off for the next administration,” he said. “The next administration will have fewer options and less time.”

What role, if any, Ross himself might play in any such administration is a matter of conjecture. Right now, Ross stressed, he was speaking to The Jerusalem Post strictly in a personal capacity.

Ehud Olmert and Condoleezza Rice are still telling us that a ‘shelf agreement’ with the Palestinians is possible before the end of the year. In your Washington Post piece, you quote one senior Israeli official telling you, “There are only two people in the world today who think that a deal is possible now: Ehud Olmert and Condoleezza Rice.” Well, what, if anything, do those two know that the rest of us don’t?

There’s a genuine desire – it’s not insincere – to achieve a deal. What they feel is that Abu Mazen [Abbas], in his heart of hearts, is basically not that far from [the positions] Olmert [is taking], so why not turn this into something.

But Abu Mazen looks at the whole political universe, and any deal exposes him to huge criticism for any compromise. And there’s the concern that such a deal would be a dead letter that can’t be translated [into implementation, because of the instability and change, respectively, in the Israeli and American governments]. That makes him more cautious; less able to conclude.

But surely Olmert and Rice know that?

Olmert, in the circumstances [of his imminent departure and sullied reputation] wants to achieve something. Maybe Rice feels the same desire for an achievement. She’s made this a signature issue.

The gaps may be small, but nonetheless represent deep differences. On territory, for instance, the difference between the sides may be only a few percent, but there is still a conceptual gap.

Abbas, on the size of the settlement blocs, [envisages them as] substantially smaller than Olmert would have in mind. For the Palestinians, when you get above a certain percentage, it becomes too much of a division of the West Bank. And as for the terms [of a land swap arrangement under which Israel would expand sovereignty to encompass settlement blocs in return for territory inside today’s sovereign Israel], a one-for-one swap is not where Olmert is.

So the gap may be very small, but the blocs’ size and the equality of territory are still conceptual gaps.

On Jerusalem, I’m not entirely clear where Olmert is on this and I don’t want to project where I’m not clear.

On refugees, again, the gap may not seem wide, but if you drill down there’s a conceptual gap. That doesn’t mean it can’t be bridged, but it must be recognized. The Palestinians want Israeli acknowledgement of responsibility for the problem. They want a certain set of numbers [of refugees being allowed into Israel] per year for a period of years – numbers that are dramatically higher than the Israeli ones [of a reported 1,000 refugees per year for five years]. And [financial] compensation. That’s pretty far from the Israeli position, [which requires the Palestinians] giving up the right of return.

Can you clarify some of that? On the issue of territory, we’ve had reports that Olmert is prepared to relinquish as much as 98 percent of the territory, and he’s spoken of land swaps on a meter-for-meter basis. (At the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting this week, Olmert said: “If we want a territorial compromise, the price would be closer to the equation of one-for-one. This equation can be reached in many ways by swapping and merging territories… I personally believe this price is lower than the price we would pay in the future.”)

There’s no contradiction [in 98%]. That still accords with [the talk of] Israel seeking to annex 7%, with 5% of that to be offset by a swap. That’s not the Palestinian position. If Olmert is saying “meter-for-meter,” then that’s not the way things were when I was there a week ago.

It’s not unreasonable to say, to be fair to Olmert and Rice, that in the historical sweep it looks like the gap is not so great. But agreements are born in psychology and there is [always] the need to make the case to the public.

If Israel under Ehud Barak had taken Olmert’s positions at Camp David, would an accord have resulted?

Arafat at Camp David had the capability and not the intention. He could not live with an end of conflict [accord], giving up claims and grievances, because the cause defined him.

The Clinton parameters are not dramatically different from what is being discussed now. In a different context, with different leaders, these or other ideas would be more likely to succeed.

These are not favorable times for concluding an accord. The Palestinians have their problems. Your problems, I don’t need to tell you: Is the Israeli government prepared to embrace Olmert’s ideas? And the US government doesn’t have particular credibility. To envelop any understanding with the necessary huge international and regional embrace, you need a capable American administration.

Do you believe Abu Mazen will quit in January?

I believe he would like to stay on. He has a personal sense of responsibility. But not infrequently he has said he will leave. He may sometimes have said this to affect folks on the inside and sometimes on the outside. But he’s said it and you can’t discount it.

Is time on Israel’s side, the Palestinians’ side?

When we look at the Palestinians who believe in coexistence, this isn’t getting better. Olmert and Livni see this. You must look for ways to empower those Palestinians. The greatest situation for Hamas is a situation that seems to have no prospects and no credibility.

Israel is not going away. No deal is a prescription for further suffering for the Palestinians, an absence of statehood…

Maybe Israel is more vulnerable than you think, with Islamic extremists on our northern and southern borders championed by an Iran seeking nuclear weapons?

Of course Israel is concerned about extremism. But Israel will sustain itself. What Israel has accomplished in 60 years, I don’t need to tell you. The US is going to stand by Israel. Israel faces real threats. Iran doesn’t disguise its agenda. But Israel will meet the threats as it always does, and it will have the US with it. For those who think Israel is going away, they’re just wrong.

The Hamas takeover of Gaza was a wake-up call in the West Bank and I’m seeing lots of young Palestinians – young Fatah members and independents – trying to put together grassroots organizations to compete with Hamas because they see their own fate at stake. It should be a strong interest to find ways to work with those who don’t want an Islamist future. The long-term strategy must be to see radical Islamists discredited.

Has there been any action on your call to use the gathering of leaders at the UN General Assembly to work toward preventing a PA leadership vacuum?

Well, I hope it serves as a wake-up call. As I wrote, it can’t wait.

Did your phrasing suggest that, by contrast, maybe Iran can wait?

No, I don’t want Iran put off for the next administration. The next administration will have fewer options and less time.

This week’s IAEA report shows that they have overcome most of their technical difficulties and their centrifuges are operating 80% of the time. They’re still not answering IAEA questions they were supposed to have answered by the start of 2008. There are the detonators that can create an implosion that are only relevant if you’re fixed on nuclear weapons.

We led our paper earlier this week with former top Cheney adviser David Wurmser saying Bush will not order a strike at Iran in his final months. Do you share that assessment?

If you listen to what Secretary of Defense [Robert] Gates has said publicly, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff [Adm. Michael] Mullen, even the president, it certainly looks like that is where the Bush administration is coming from.

And rightly so?

Yes, it is sensible. Iran has an array of very profound economic vulnerabilities and we haven’t been playing upon them. The US Treasury has probably been the most effective. But you need a more collective approach. The Iranians’ oil output is declining and their consumption is growing. The export of oil is the key revenue the regime uses to buy off the Iranian public. Pressure that and you pressure the leadership.

We don’t have a lot of time. The sooner you begin to effect real economic sanctions, the sooner they’ll have to make hard choices.

In Israel I was struck by the assessment that the entire Iranian leadership wants the nuclear weapon, but the pace is affected by the cost. They don’t all want it at any price.

(In a previous interview, with Nathan Gardels, Ross said that “for Israel, the ‘red line’ is not so much when Iran has enough enrichment capacity for weapons-grade material. Their deadline is 18 months from now, when Iran’s air defense system, which is being upgraded by the Russians, will be completed. That will make it much more difficult to successfully strike Iran’s nuclear capacity from the air. The closer we get to that window without resolution of the Iranian nuclear problem, the more Israel will feel compelled to strike. Clearly, at the moment, we are headed down the path of use of force. The slow-motion diplomacy of the West simply does not match the rapid development of Iran’s nuclear capacity and the closing window when Iran’s upgraded air defenses will be in place.”

(That interview was published in July 2007 – 14 months ago.)

Which specific steps would you urge right now?

First, Nicolas Sarkozy is now the EU president. So try to work with the EU to cut off the oil and industrial gas, and cut back the provision of refined products. Second, work with the Saudis. China’s stake in Saudi Arabia dwarfs its stake in Iran. The Saudis don’t want Iran to go nuclear. And if you line up the EU and China, that might build a Russian incentive to be more responsible.

And finally, what do you make of the indirect Israeli-Syrian talks – a year after Israel bombed a Syrian nuclear facility?

Syria is looking at its own economic situation. Bashar Assad would like to achieve a greater degree of acceptability internationally. The goal of the talks from the Syrian point of view is to show the next US president that there is potential. Even if Olmert were going to be around, nothing [concrete will emerge] unless the US is part of it. I remember back in the 1990s, during the Israeli-Syrian contacts, [Israeli ambassador to the US and point man on Syria] Itamar Rabinovich said to me, “The Syrians are more interested in making peace with you than with us.”

I think that still applies. If [an accord] is possible, it could profoundly affect the landscape. And you’re not going to know it, unless you test it.

Copyright 1995- 2008 The Jerusalem Post – http://www.jpost.com/

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