Update from AIJAC
August 8, 2007
Number 08/07 #03
As readers may be aware, Israeli PM Ehud Olmert and PA President Mahmoud Abbas met on Monday in Jericho. This meeting capped a couple of weeks of the most intense diplomatic activity on Israeli-Arab affairs in a number of years. This Update deals with analysis of what happened.
We lead with an inside news story on what was discussed at Jericho, something not well reported outside Israel. As the story makes clear, the talks focussed on broad principles of the “final status” talks, including the idea of land swaps to allow Israel to keep some large West Bank settlement blocs. Also discussed were efforts to deal with day to day problems, and increase security cooperation. For the key points discussed at the Summit, CLICK HERE.
Next up is a good round up of the previous event in the current round of diplomatic efforts, the visit to the region of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defence Secretary Robert Gates. This analysis, from the British-Israel Communications and Research centre (BICOM) looks at the prospects for the key goal of this trip, an international conference later in the year, and the criteria that will determine whether the conference has significant effects. To read it, CLICK HERE.
Finally, Jerusalem Post Palestinian affairs reporter Khaled Abu Toameh reports on a negative development for hopes of reforming Fatah on the West Bank. He says that a report into the failures of Fatah forces to offer much resistance to the takeover of Gaza appears to whitewash the higher leadership, in contrast to the Israeli Winograd inquiry into problems with the planning and command of last year’s Lebanon conflict. He also describes much internal Palestinian dissatisfaction with the outcome. To read it all, CLICK HERE.
By Akiva Eldar, Barak Ravid and Avi Issacharoff, Haaretz Correspondents and Agencies
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is examining a new framework for peace in which Israel will propose transferring to the Palestinian state areas equivalent to 100 percent of the territories conquered in 1967.
Israel will suggest to the Palestinians to conduct negotiations for adequate territorial compensation from Israel’s sovereign territory, in exchange for settlement blocs amounting to about 5 percent of the West Bank’s area.
Israel is also examining various options of exchanging settlement blocs with Arab community blocs within Israel, in agreement with the residents. An agreement on this issue would enable Yisrael Beiteinu, headed by Avigdor Lieberman, to remain in the coalition.
The new framework was presented to Olmert by President Shimon Peres, a few days after he entered the President’s Residence. It includes a timetable for negotiations for the final status agreement and implementing it, similar to the framework of the Peres-Abu Ala agreement reached at the end of 2001.
Olmert has not yet decided on his position regarding all the plan’s clauses, but apparently has not dismissed its main ideas.
Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas agreed Monday that cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority would be expanded, in an effort to expedite progress in their talks for the establishment of the Palestinian state.
“Exchanges between the two sides will become increasingly more substantive, and will deal less with routine matters,” a senior political source in Jerusalem said Monday.
The three-hour meeting between Olmert and Abbas took place in two parts: a private meeting just between the leaders, and a lunch with their teams of advisers.
Sources in the Prime Minister’s Bureau said that the atmosphere at the meeting was constructive.
Saeb Erekat, head of the PLO negotiating team, described Monday’s meeting between Olmert and Abbas as serious and detailed.
“Abbas did not come to the meeting with a magic wand, and neither did Mr. Olmert,” Erekat said at a news conference. “There is an agreement on a series of meetings to discuss the issues, including the establishment of a Palestinian state.”
Abbas thanked Olmert for the release of 255 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons, and expressed hope that the next step would result in the freeing of more prisoners. The two decided to institute a special ministerial committee, and that the Palestinian Authority will be represented by Interior Minister Abd al-Razek al-Yihiye.
Israel also promised the Palestinians to reconsider the request of the militants who were expelled after the siege on the Church of the Nativity in 2002.
“The negotiations on renewing the diplomatic talks between the two sides have reached fruition,” Erekat said Monday. “What we now need is decisions by the two leaders. We do not need to do anything new for a regional summit, but to clarify the existing initiatives and the signed agreements. We support the Arab [League] initiative and the road map as the basis for this summit.”
Erekat also said that the two leaders would hold at least three more meetings before the November summit in Washington.
Commenting on the Abbas-Olmert meeting, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said that he did not expect it to produce any results.
After the tete-a-tete, Olmert said he and Abbas discussed issues fundamental to the establishment of a Palestinian state.
“We have decided to expand the negotiations between us in order to advance mutual understanding, and formulate the framework that will allow us to move forward toward establishing a Palestinian state,” Olmert said. “Our mutual goal is to realize the shared vision between us and [U.S. President George] Bush regarding the establishment of two states for two peoples, who live side by side in security and peace. We want to achieve this as soon as possible.”
He said he had no intention of stalling.
During the expanded meeting, the Palestinians spoke of the resumed security cooperation between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. They handed a document to Olmert and his aides detailing the PA’s steps to enhance security in recent weeks, including the arrest of several members of terror organizations, and captured munitions and explosives that was handed over to Israel.
BICOM Notes, 6 August 2007
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week visited Israel and the Palestinian territories. Her visit included meetings with key officials from the government of Israel, and from the new Palestinian Authority government created on the West Bank. On the Israeli side, Secretary Rice met with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, President Shimon Peres, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defence Minister Ehud Barak. From the new PA government, she met with Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and sat in on a meeting with the new PA Cabinet. What were the key aspects of the Rice visit, and should the visit be considered of significance in terms of efforts to revive the peace process?
Key aspects of the visit
Condoleezza Rice’s visit to the Middle East lasted four days, of which a day was spent in Israel (Wednesday, 1/8), and a day was spent in the West Bank (Thursday, 2/8). Prior to her arrival in Israel, she visited Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Her arrival in Israel coincided with an encouraging statement by Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal that Saudi Arabia supported the US initiative to hold a major peace conference on the Middle-East conflict.1 Saudi Arabia, al-Faisal said, would be keen to attend such a conference. Since Saudi Arabia has not recognised Israel, and has hitherto avoided all open contact with Israeli representatives, this statement was understood to indicate a significant shift in the kingdom’s stance. The statement followed an announcement of a major US-Saudi arms deal worth $11 billion.2
In Israel, officials were cautiously enthusiastic regarding the chances for a successful return to the diplomatic process between Israelis and Palestinians. President Shimon Peres contended that with US help and guidance, he believed that Israelis and Palestinians could now begin the ‘conclusive chapter’ of negotiations. Other senior Israeli officials took a more careful tone. Both Prime Minister Olmert and Foreign Minister Livni noted the goodwill gestures that Israel has already taken vis-à-vis the new PA government – namely, the recent release of a number of prisoners, and the release of tax monies held by Israel since the Hamas election victory in January 2006. PM Olmert made clear that handing over security control of any part of the West Bank to the new PA government would depend on Israel receiving the appropriate security guarantees.3
At the same time, the prime minister introduced the idea that he could make genuine progress with Chairman Abbas in the build-up to the conference by working together on a joint ‘declaration of principles’, which would form the basis for later negotiations on a final status accord. As envisaged by Olmert, the declaration of principles would outline the contours of a future Palestinian state – while leaving for later the negotiations on key issues such as the 1948 Palestinian refugees, and the future status of Jerusalem. Foreign Minister Livni also stated that in her view, it was essential that dialogue between the sides commenced, while at the same time it would be unwise to put ‘the most sensitive issues first.’4
In the days preceding the visit, a substantial increase of US military aid to Israel was announced, totaling $30 billion over the next decade.
In the PA areas, Chairman Abbas expressed his willingness to work on the ‘declaration of principles’, but made clear that for Palestinians, it was ‘important to know what the result will be, what the end game will be.’ While in Ramallah, Rice signed off on a pledge of aid worth $80 million, to help the new PA government develop its security structures.5
Significance of the visit
The Rice visit is being seen as part of an ambitious new US strategy in the Middle East. This strategy centres on a perception of a renewed ‘cold war’ in the region between the US and its allies on the one hand, and Iran and its clients on the other. The US wishes to create a bloc of moderate, stable pro-western states in the region to contain Iran and its ambitions. Finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or at least building up a credible, popular alternative on the West Bank to the Hamas entity in Gaza, is an essential part of this strategy.
The international conference on the conflict, expected to take place in the late autumn, as well as the (already achieved) initiation of regular meetings between PM Olmert and Chairman Abbas form essential aspects of this strategy. Whether real progress will be made in this area depends on a number of factors.
In the first place, the success of the new Palestinian Authority government in extending its authority throughout the fractured Palestinian political scene, and crucially in carrying out security reform, will have a key impact in terms of making possible Israeli goodwill gestures in the area of freedom of movement and access on the West Bank. Such gestures from Israel, in turn, will play an important part in solidifying popular support for the Fayyad government. Senior Palestinian officials are not currently optimistic regarding the ability of Fatah to deliver reforms. Indeed, there remains a high level of frustration at the inability to carry out even basic changes.6
Secondly, while neither side currently has an interest in stressing this, there is a significant divide between the position of the government of Israel, which does not wish to move swiftly toward talks on final status issues, and that of the Abbas/Fayyad government, which wants to move quickly toward such talks. This issue may prove a complicating factor once form turns to substance in the contacts between Olmert and Abbas. Neither Abbas nor Olmert are leaders possessing very great credibility among their publics. Could they sell the kind of concessions necessary to produce a final status accord – for example, on such issues as the 1948 refugees and the future status of Jerusalem?7 On the other hand, some analysts consider that the relative weakness of the internal positions of the two leaders may actually prove advantageous. Both leaders need success on the issue, and each needs the other to achieve this. Perhaps, therefore, a dynamic of cooperation may develop which may take the process forward, in spite of the current modest expectations of the leading actors.
Thirdly, the problematic continued existence of Hamas rule in Gaza serves to complicate any renewed negotiation, since it raises the issue of who exactly is represented by the Abbas/Fayyad government. Would a deal reached with them mark the end of the conflict? Or would the government find itself vulnerable to claims from Hamas that it had proved excessively conciliatory, and that it had no authority to negotiate with Israel?
All these issues remain as potential tripwires. Yet the visit of Condoleezza Rice, and the broader new US regional strategy of which they form a part, constitute the boldest move toward a revival of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process since its collapse seven years ago.
1 “Rice urges deeper Mid-East talks,” Reuters, 2/8. www.reuters.com
2 Leslie Susser, “Isral on board with US arms plan,” JTA, 3/8. www.virtualjerusalem.com
3 Eric Silver, “Rice: Israel ready to discuss fundamental issues with Fatah,” Independent on Sunday, 3/8. news.independent.co.uk
4 “Rice urges push on Mid-East peace,” BBC News Online, 1/8. news.bbc.co.uk
5 “US promises Palestinians a conference of substance,” Associated Press, 2/8. http://www.iht.com
6 Conversation with senior PA official, July, 2007.
Khaled Abu Toameh
THE JERUSALEM POST, Aug. 2, 2007
At last, the Palestinians now know why Hamas managed to capture the entire Gaza Strip so easily and without facing tough resistance, if any. It’s all because of 60 Fatah security officers and political operatives who freaked out and fled to the West Bank and Egypt instead of remaining in their positions to thwart the Hamas “coup.”
The 60 “culprits” were implicated in a 200-page report that was delivered to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah last weekend by members of a special commission of inquiry that spent a whole month probing the reasons behind Fatah’s humiliating defeat.
Headed by Tayeb Abdel Rahim, a top Abbas aide and veteran Fatah operative, the commission has become known among Palestinians as the Tayebograd Commission – along the lines of the Winograd Committee that investigated last summer’s war between Israel and Hizbullah.
But unlike the Winograd Report, the Palestinian commission chose to lay most of the blame on some of Fatah’s security commanders and low-level political activists.
Although 99 percent of the findings of the report have yet to be made public, it’s already clear that Abbas and the highest echelon of the PA have emerged unscratched.
The members of the Palestinian commission chose to focus on the security aspects of the Hamas takeover by taking a close look at the role of the Fatah security forces in the power struggle with Hamas. That’s why all the Fatah security commanders in the Gaza Strip have either been fired or forced to submit their resignations to Abbas, who has clearly been exonerated of any wrongdoing.
By failing to point a blaming finger at Abbas and his entourage, the report has drawn sharp criticism from many Palestinians, including dozens of disgruntled Fatah activists in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Critics point out that the commission should have examined the political and security developments in the Gaza Strip that preceded the Hamas takeover.
The main argument made by the critics is that those who in the first place allowed Hamas to participate in the January 2006 parliamentary elections bear responsibility for the final takeover. The committee should have blamed Abbas for permitting Hamas to take part in the elections without demanding that it recognize the Oslo Accords and the PA as the legitimate authority in the Palestinian territories, the critics maintain.
But what is perhaps most disturbing – as far the critics are concerned – is the fact that Abbas had embarked on a policy of appeasing Hamas ever since the Islamist movement came to power in 2006, ignoring warnings by his Fatah security chiefs and representatives that Hamas leaders were working hard to undermine the PA.
For instance, Abbas never did anything to prevent Hamas from establishing and operating its paramilitary Executive Force, whose members played a major role in the fighting against Fatah. Although Abbas did issue a number of “presidential” decrees outlawing the Hamas force, he never ordered his security forces to crack down on its members.
“We kept warning President Abbas that Hamas was planning a coup in the Gaza Strip and that it was training its men and smuggling weapons into the Gaza Strip, but he did not take us seriously,” said a senior PA security commander who fled from the Gaza Strip to Ramallah. “Our president chose to negotiate with Hamas leaders Khaled Mashaal and Ismail Haniyeh about political partnership even while it was obvious that Hamas was planning to stage a bloody coup in the Gaza Strip.”
Abbas, added another former Fatah security commander, did not want to see the writing on the wall. “We had at least three major rounds of fighting before the final coup in mid-June,” he noted. “But instead of ordering the Palestinian security forces to crush Hamas, Abbas preferred to reach cease-fire agreements with Haniyeh and Mashaal.”
Abbas’s decision early this year to form a unity government with Hamas was interpreted by Hamas leaders as a sign of weakness on the part of the PA chairman and Fatah. By joining forces with Hamas, Abbas actually followed the saying, “If you can’t beat them, join them.”
The unity agreement that was signed in Mecca under the auspices (and pressure) of the Saudi royal family marked the beginning of the countdown for the collapse of Abbas’s security forces in the Gaza Strip, because it allowed Hamas more time to pursue its plan to take control over the entire Gaza Strip.
“We never received clear instructions from the president to wipe out Hamas,” said a senior Fatah political operative who has moved to Ramallah with his family. “If anyone is to blame for our defeat, it’s the president and the whole Palestinian leadership in Ramallah who left us alone to face Hamas. They were sitting in their air-conditioned offices and hotel rooms in Ramallah and Cairo and expecting the soldiers on the ground to sacrifice their lives.”
The major challenge facing Abbas’s West Bank authority these days is not coming from Hamas as much as from disillusioned Fatah activists who are openly blaming him and the “old guard” Fatah leadership for the Hamas takeover.
“All these guys sitting in the Ramallah presidential compound should pay the price for the Hamas coup,” said a Fatah legislator. “They are trying to put the blame on the soldiers on the ground for not fighting against Hamas. But where were they when everyone warned them about Hamas’s schemes? It’s only a matter of time before the Fatah grassroots revolt against Abbas and the old-timers.”