Racing For A Final Status Palestinian Deal
Diplomacy on Front Burner As Renewed 'Land For Peace' Talks Begin
By C. Hart | August 3, 2007
Despite being blamed for the failures of the Second Lebanon War of 2006, and his current unpopularity among Israeli voters, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has managed to stay in office, muting disagreements in his coalition over his current diplomatic and defense policies. While the public is upset over continued widespread corruption within the present government, believing that members of the Knesset care more about their jobs and pocketbooks than the needs of the nation, there still has been no serious attempt to change the status quo. There has not been the kind of consistent public outcry expected, or a call for early elections among opposition leaders like Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu.
Olmert, the master politician, has learned much from his predecessor, the great master politician former Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon. Olmert has managed to not only keep most of his government ministers on board -- both on the left and right -- he has also been able to fortify his position as leader of the Kadima party, as well as secure his power through putting loyal comrades in high level jobs around him.
New Bedfellows In Olmert's Government
One of those comrades is current Israeli President Shimon Peres, an 84 year old dovish long-term civil servant, who has failed to gain the trust of a majority of the Israeli public, and who has never actually won a general election. Olmert has welcomed Peres into his inner circle. Peres sits in the seat of presidential royalty, making “peace” overtures to world leaders, which some Israelis claim goes beyond his call of duty. His main responsibility is to unify the people of the nation, while providing a positive public relations image of the state to nations abroad. He is supposed to refrain from offering his political opinions, or his own peace initiatives.
Yet, Peres, who reportedly believes in a new world order, is expected to use his position to further his agenda. In June, the editors of one of Israel’s leading Hebrew newspapers, Yediot Ahronot, said that Peres will make the most out of his seven year term. They are convinced that he will use his energies to bring heads of state to Israel; to negotiate peace at his own discretion; and, to bring investors and VIP’s to the country to contribute and invest in projects he likes.
Israel’s Negotiating Partners
Many of the projects Peres likes involve global economic policies that are not only geared to help Palestinians obtain their own independent state, but also to maintain it. This sounds like a good plan until one realizes that wide-spread financial corruption continues in the West Bank, despite the promises to curtail it by Palestinian Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. The so-called military force under Abbas’ leadership, which involves Palestinian factions such as Fatah and its al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, is actually comprised of criminal gangs and mob leaders who hate Israel, who have violently terrorized and killed Israelis, and who still believe in Israel’s destruction, despite international attempts to reform them.
The surprise take-over of Gaza by Hamas militants caused a world-wide stir as the global community tried to assess if this was a good thing or a bad thing for Israel. Despite the fact that an Islamic entity sits five kilometers from the Israeli town of Ashkelon, Olmert chose to focus attention on his now-revived West Bank withdrawal plan. Immediately, he went to work on pumping up Abbas as a moderate, and then kick-starting the peace process.
World leaders, including U.S. President George Bush and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, quickly joined the fray, putting pressure on Israel to offer more concessions to get the Palestinians to the peace table. Israel responded just as quickly, releasing 255 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. Some Israelis objected because they felt Olmert should have insisted on the release of Israel’s POW’s, especially Corporal Gilad Shalit, who is being held by militants in Gaza. But, Olmert knew Abbas could not deliver Shalit, who is most likely in the hands of Hamas operatives.
Yet, this comes at a time when new IDF (Israel Defense Forces) soldiers are not as enthusiastic about serving in the army as they were before the Second Lebanon War. They think that their prime minister cares more about helping the Palestinians get a state than bringing home Israel’s POW’s from captivity. This is not a confidence-building measure by Olmert for the Israeli population.
Hoping to hold off a war in the south and the north of Israel, Olmert has also welcomed the revived 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, looking beyond the local conflict to a solution for the troubled Middle East region. But, the proposed Saudi plan calls on Israel to withdraw from all lands obtained by war in 1967, including the Golan Heights; to agree to a contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with east Jerusalem as its capital; and to find a solution for receiving the so-called Palestinian “refugees” who want to live in the state of Israel.
This plan was not seriously considered by previous Israeli governments, but Olmert suddenly embraced it as a “starter” to over-all peace negotiations with Israel’s Arab neighbors. Some analysts see the plan as a non-starter. They believe the Arabs are not interested in compromising on this initiative. The plan, in its current form, does not allow for defensible borders, but instead, limits the geographical portion of the state of Israel to a long narrow sliver of land. If the Arab initiative were implemented today, the agreement to allow hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to live in Israel would cause the Jewish state to cease having a Jewish majority in the future. Furthermore, giving overall control of East Jerusalem to the Palestinians, or to an international world power like the Vatican, as some have suggested, would limit Israel’s control over the Temple Mount and other important holy sites in the Old City.
In essence, Jews would be exiled, once again, from the heartland of their homeland and from portions of their capital city, Jerusalem. Instead of the fence/wall barrier that is now in place on Israel’s borders to keep terrorists from infiltrating into Israel’s main cities, there would be another kind of enforcement limiting Jews from access to many parts of the country, and from fully enjoying the freedom of worshipping at the Western Wall.
While Israel’s Foreign Minister, Tzippi Livni, saw the presence of the Arab League in Jerusalem in July as an “historic” moment for Middle East peace, Israeli analysts didn’t necessarily agree. Israel’s dialogue on its own soil with those representing “moderate” Arab states in the Middle East region comes at a time when former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has been setting up offices in Jerusalem. Blair’s new position as peace envoy for the Quartet (the EU, the UN, the US and Russia), is another attempt by world leaders to bring Israel and the Palestinians to a quick final status deal, without any real change in the overall violent policies of the Palestinians toward Israel. The goal is to get the Palestinians their state, no matter what it takes, and as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, after months spent fighting with Congress over Iraq, the Bush Administration has been overcompensating in its focus on the Middle East peace process. Concerned about losing its influence as the chief negotiator in peace negotiations, the Bush Administration sent Rice to Israel in early August. Rice told Olmert to go to the next level of diplomacy with Abbas, despite the fact that the two have met often and are already discussing final status issues.
Accompanying U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to the Middle East, Rice first met with “moderate” Arab states before flying on to Israel. Shoring up U.S. support with strategic Arab allies, America offered billions of dollars in arms deals, especially to Saudi Arabia. The U.S. got its ‘thank you’ when Saudi Arabia signaled the possible acceptance of an invitation to an American-sponsored Middle East peace conference that is expected to take place in the fall, bringing key Arab leaders together with Israel.
In the meantime, other world powers have also attempted to exert their leadership in the peace process including the European Union. The EU has revealed recently that it will exert full pressure towards a final peace deal, as well as open the door to dealing with Hamas, even if Hamas is not willing to recognize Israel. It also hints at the possibility of establishing a peace-keeping mission, which could result in international troops being sent to contested land areas, something Israel has opposed in the past.
Recently, Olmert signaled that he would like to see a division of Jordanian armed forces in the West Bank commissioned to help undergird the present Palestinian military force under Abbas because the current force lacks cohesiveness or stability. Jordan’s King Abdullah is against this option, as well as against bringing in Jordan’s elite Badr forces, or any possibility of a Jordanian-Palestinian federation.
Two Heads Of The Same Coin
What is being gravely overlooked in this fast paced diplomacy is the lack of internal reform among Palestinian leaders or their population in the West Bank. This includes lack of changes in Palestinian textbooks and media outlets, which continue to be virulently anti-Semitic. An overhaul of Palestinian institutions and financial structures is needed before any successful final status deal can be negotiated in order for there to be a successful democracy in place.
Also being largely ignored is the increased influence of Islamic Shariah law in Gaza, despite denials by Hamas. This, along with an Islamic radical agenda, continues to be exploited by Hamas, while Western leaders passively look on. Some in Israel think that the West Bank and Gaza will remain two separate entities controlled by Fatah and Hamas respectively. But, others believe the two groups will heal their differences for the greater common cause. The Palestinians are looking forward to all the territory promised them by the international community. Many are still committed to Israel’s destruction, whether through peace or war. When peace negotiations become unacceptable to them, more rocket attacks and suicide bombings can be expected, leading Israel into yet another military conflict with its rebellious neighbors.
Marking The End Goal
Skipping over key points of accountability in the Road Map, and quickly pushing forward to a final deal for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, global leaders are seizing this current window of opportunity. Olmert himself may be showing much more optimism than he should, thinking that he will present his case to Israel’s disgruntled population, and that they will readily accept it. But, in reality, the diplomatic flurry distracts from the accusations of his personal failures in governance as well as from the pointing to the lack of integrity of some whom he appointed to office. Meanwhile, only time will tell if this recent peace process fervor will provide a “political horizon” that fails as miserably as Oslo did, or will succeed beyond everyone’s current expectations.
C. Hart writes for ThreatsWatch from Jerusalem, Israel.