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    August 4, 2008 Edition 30                      Palestinian-Israeli crossfire
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  Olmert's lame duck status
  . No real difference        by Yossi Alpher
An abortive agreement may actually do more harm than good to the long-term prospects for Israeli-Palestinian coexistence.
. Change and no change        by Ghassan Khatib
Olmert's absence will have little effect on negotiations that are going nowhere.
  . Don't underestimate Olmert        by David Kimche
The least the outgoing US administration can do is pressure Israelis and Palestinians to reach an acceptable agreement.
. An added complication in a bleak picture        an interview with George Giacaman
Hardly anyone seems optimistic, including President Mahmoud Abbas.

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No real difference
by Yossi Alpher

PM Ehud Olmert's new lame duck status will make almost no difference to the outcome of Israel's peace processes with the Palestinians and the Syrians, which in any case had little or no chance to succeed in the near term. It might make a difference in Israel's indirect negotiations with Hamas regarding a prisoner exchange.

Nor does it matter appreciably for the peace process whether Olmert remains prime minister for only three months (assuming his elected successor as head of Kadima succeeds in forming a coalition) or six to nine months (assuming his successor fails, new elections are precipitated and Olmert rules until a new government is sworn in after elections). It's the same Olmert, but in a worse situation: his Arab negotiating partners, whether from Ramallah, Gaza or Damascus, know he's leaving office and enjoys neither public nor Knesset support.

Olmert's negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, enshrined last November in the Annapolis process, were doomed to failure from the start for three reasons. First, neither Olmert nor Abbas has the capacity to deliver on an agreement. Olmert and his government are incapable of removing a single substantive outpost, much less a settlement. Even before he announced his departure from politics, Olmert's credibility among the Israeli public was close to zero. As for Abbas, he barely controls parts of the West Bank, much less the Gaza Strip, and has failed to reform the aging and corrupt Fateh leadership. Then too, the Bush administration as host to this process is also stumbling toward the end of its term, having failed in almost everything it has touched in the Middle East.

Second, Olmert and Abbas are not likely to agree on the two "existential" issues in an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Jerusalem and the refugee/right of return question, regarding both of which the two peoples have probably moved farther apart since Camp David 2000. The Jerusalem issue in any case has reportedly been left out of negotiations, even as Olmert creates new settlement facts in and around the city that render eventual agreement that much more difficult. In the best case, if the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams do emerge with an agreement before Olmert leaves office, it will be partial and almost certainly unacceptable to both publics. Indeed, this is not a "best case" at all: such an abortive agreement may actually do more harm than good to the long-term prospects for Israeli-Palestinian coexistence.

Finally, Olmert never built a peace coalition to support the two peace processes, and it's too late to do so now. His government, even after the defection of Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu party, has always been a survival coalition designed to keep Olmert afloat politically after the Second Lebanon War debacle. The Shas party and even a few members of Kadima are likely to join the opposition in rejecting any peace deal Olmert produces.

The fortunes of an Israel-Syria peace agreement under Olmert are somewhat less worrisome. Olmert, President Bashar Assad and their Turkish hosts understand that no agreement can be concluded without a serious American commitment to negotiate with Damascus a new strategic orientation that removes it from the Iranian orbit. This task will of necessity be based on compromises regarding such sensitive issues as the Hariri tribunal and Syrian-Lebanese relations. Olmert has evidently not exploited his position of influence with Washington to encourage Bush to take this step. Time is now running out on both leaders. Yet precisely because the limits of these negotiations are clear, there would appear to be less harm involved, and more possible profit, from continuing to talk even on Olmert's watch.

Here we must pause and address an additional question: will Olmert, knowing his days as prime minister and possibly in Israeli politics in general are numbered, now be more cautious and reserved in his negotiating pose vis-a-vis Abbas and Assad or more daring? He has already declared that he intends to press on with negotiations as long as he remains in office. But we can assume that his Arab negotiating partners will adopt a more reserved pose, insofar as they realize that Olmert cannot deliver on almost any deal he makes and won't be around for long. Hence it probably doesn't matter whether Olmert is henceforth more audacious or more reserved.

Except for one instance: a prisoner-exchange deal with Hamas that brings IDF soldier Gilad Shalit home. Such an exchange does not require Knesset approval and, as we have seen, Cabinet approval appears to be readily available even when the repatriated IDF soldiers are deceased. The generally favorable way the Israeli public received the Israel-Hizballah prisoner deal, coupled with Olmert's knowledge that he does not face a reelection campaign or even a Knesset vote of no confidence and his obvious desire to fully close the file on the Second Lebanon War before leaving office, might now embolden him to address Hamas' demand to release hundreds of hard-core Palestinian terrorists in return for Shalit.- Published 4/8/2008 © bitterlemons.org

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Change and no change
by Ghassan Khatib

The announcement by Ehud Olmert that he will step down once a successor in his party has managed to form a government coalition may have been dramatic, but it will have little effect on a peace process that has not been moving forward in any case.

It will, however, have an effect on the internal political balance of power in Palestine. That balance of power, between Fateh and Hamas, has been very sensitive to Israel's political behavior since the reactivation of American diplomacy that started at the Annapolis conference last November.

There are essentially two schools of thoughts within the Palestinian political arena with respect to the peace process. One has set great store and invested a lot of time and political capital in the Annapolis process that has seen ongoing negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. This school includes Mahmoud Abbas, Ahmed Qurei, a previous prime minister, and the PLO's negotiating department.

Very little has been leaked about the progress (or lack of) in negotiations and a very limited number of individuals are deciding the negotiating positions and tactics. But the eventual absence of Olmert, who has been the main advocate of these negotiations on the Israeli side, and the resulting complications for the Israeli government that might lead to early elections, will certainly weaken the position of this first camp in the Palestinian arena.

That will play into the hands of the second school of thought, which has been warning that hopes for negotiations with Israel under the sponsorship of the US are forlorn. Here, Israeli actions on the ground are continuing to feed the trend of radicalization on the Palestinian side and are strengthening the Hamas-led camp that has been predicting the failure of negotiations since the Annapolis process began. By way of an alternative, Hamas has argued that Israel only deals seriously with those that have proven themselves capable of exerting significant military pressure on the country.

To prove its point, Hamas need only point out how Israel has not listened to any requests by the Palestinian Authority to release prisoners or end those practices that serve to consolidate the occupation, most obviously settlement building. At the same time, Israel has given concessions to the parties that have engaged Israel militarily and maintain hardline positions.

Thus Hamas secured a ceasefire agreement with Israel in Gaza and is in indirect negotiations with Israel to open the Gaza crossing to Egypt. Meanwhile, Israel and Hizballah agreed to a prisoner exchange, while Syria and Israel have entered into indirect negotiations without Syria having to give up its alliance with Iran, a previous Israeli condition.

When Kadima members elect a leader on September 17 they may be choosing the next Israeli prime minister. As things stand now, the frontrunner is Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister, who has been leading the negotiations with the Palestinian side. Whether Livni can maintain a ruling coalition is not clear and early elections may well be called.

ButV none of these scenarios will have much effect on the ongoing negotiations, simply because the main Israeli motive for these talks has little to do with a peace agreement and everything to do with domestic Israeli politics.

Both Olmert and Livni have been using the negotiations first and foremost to gain domestic strength by imparting the impression that they're working on a peace deal that they need time to complete. Creating an image of working for peace also goes down well with the international community, whose position in turn has a strong effect on the Israeli electorate.

In other words, public relations are the main motive driving the current Israeli leadership's interest in the ongoing process, which will continue in spite of the possible absence of Olmert. At the same time, it will continue to fail to produce results.- Published 4/8/2008 © bitterlemons.org

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president of Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning. He holds a PhD in Middle East politics from the University of Durham.

Don't underestimate Olmert

by David Kimche

Is the death knell tolling for the peace negotiations as a result of Ehud Olmert's dramatic announcement last Wednesday that he is stepping down from the post of prime minister? Will the Palestinians react to the lame duck government that has come into being by refusing to negotiate with it? Can Olmert continue to negotiate under the new circumstances?

Olmert has made it plain--he said so in his declaration on Wednesday--that as long as he is prime minister he will continue the talks in an endeavor to reach peace agreements with the Palestinians and the Syrians. Our political pundits believe that the Kadima party contenders who are battling to take Olmert's place will not succeed in establishing an alternative government once Olmert ceases to be head of the party. If that is so, Olmert will continue to be prime minister until after elections are held and a new government is sworn in, meaning he could maintain his present position until next spring. This is plenty of time to conclude at least a shelf agreement with the Palestinians, even if the question of Jerusalem prevents it from being comprehensive.

By contrast Binyamin Netanyahu, leader of the Knesset opposition, has made it equally plain that as head of a caretaker government Olmert has no authority to take meaningful decisions that would bind future governments. Netanyahu intends to galvanize the public and the opposition parties to prevent Olmert from continuing the negotiations. He will, however, have no legal means to prevent the present government from continuing to seek an agreement both with the Palestinians and the Syrians; all he can do is to try to de-legitimize in the eyes of the public any results that this government may achieve.

We can therefore expect to see continued efforts, both by Olmert and by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, to reach an agreement before this government peters out. At the same time, we can expect a massive campaign on the part of the opposition against the government's efforts, aimed also at the Palestinians. "Don't talk to a lame duck that can't deliver," the campaign will be saying. "You are wasting your time."

How will Palestinians react? There has been huge skepticism among Palestinians from the outset of the negotiations. There has been as little belief among them that Israelis will deliver an acceptable peace proposal as there has been among Israelis that Palestinians are ready to make compromises in order to achieve peace. Yet President Mahmoud Abbas has no choice. If he walks away now from the negotiations he will be handing victory to Hamas on a silver platter.

Moreover, in spite of the skepticism, progress has been made, so much so that people close to the negotiations believe that an agreement can be achieved in the coming months and that the fight, at least on the Israeli side, will be about its acceptance as a valid document by the Knesset and the public.

In such a situation, a determined and forthright policy move on the part of the United States becomes essential. Annapolis and the peace negotiations that sprung from it were, after all, an American initiative. Both the Israeli and the Palestinian governments undertook to make every effort to reach a successful conclusion of the talks by year's end. One of the cardinal weaknesses of American involvement in peace initiatives over the years has been a lack of accountability. Time and again, Israelis and Palestinians have broken promises and ignored commitments. How many times have we promised to curtail construction in settlements, to remove illegal outposts, to dismantle checkpoints? And what happened to the PLO commitment to collect illegal arms in the Oslo period and to act against terrorism?

A failure to follow through with peace negotiations would be one more commitment that we ignore, one more promise that we do not fulfill. In his "Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace", Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer writes of the need for "exacting consequences when commitments are broken or agreements not implemented". The outgoing American administration has a great interest in the success of Annapolis and its aftermath; the least it can do is pressure Israelis and Palestinians to make every effort to reach an acceptable agreement.

The PA, with Hamas breathing down its neck, cannot afford to turn its back on the negotiations. Nor can Olmert, for a number of reasons. He sincerely believes in the need for an end to the conflict and a two-state solution, and he dearly wants to leave a positive legacy when he steps down from politics. The inclination of most Israelis--and probably Palestinians as well--is to write off the negotiations as "mission impossible", given Olmert's demise.

This may well be so. Yet Olmert, the ultimate politician, will redouble his efforts to reach an agreement, and Olmert, despite everything, should not be under-estimated.- Published 4/8/2008 © bitterlemons.org

David Kimche is president of the Israel Council for Foreign Relations. He is a former director-general of the Foreign Ministry.

An added complication in a bleak picture

an interview with George Giacaman

bitterlemons: It looks like Ehud Olmert's time as prime minister is coming to an end. How will this affect the peace process?

Giacaman: Hardly anyone seems optimistic that a peace agreement can be reached by the end of year. Now the resignation of Olmert will be an added complication because even if Tzipi Livni takes over and carries on negotiations, the original lack of optimism will remain.

I think maybe they are working--at least the Palestinian side has insisted on a written statement--on writing down where they have reached so far, so that in the future they won't have to start all over again.

bitterlemons: But will that oblige anyone, some one like Binyamin Netanyahu for example?

Giacaman: There's a good chance that it won't, but at least the Palestinian side can argue that it was negotiating with a government. It is generally understood that governments are responsible for affairs of state and subsequent governments are thus responsible for the decisions of previous administrations. Germany, for example, still continues to pay reparations to victims of the Nazis.

bitterlemons: You talk about the original lack of optimism. What do you mean?

Giacaman: Since the beginning of the Annapolis process there have been plenty of commentators--Israeli, Palestinian, Arab, US and European--who are not optimistic. This pessimism appears to have been borne out by subsequent events, unless there is a last minute surprise, which I think one should not completely rule out no matter how bleak the picture looks now. Still, hardly anyone seems optimistic, including President Mahmoud Abbas.

bitterlemons: You say one shouldn't rule out a breakthrough. Why?

Giacaman: There has been a back channel and no one knows what that back channel has achieved. It's a very odd situation where it is public knowledge that there are secret negotiations, but very few people know about the content of those negotiations.

bitterlemons: How might this situation affect domestic Palestinian affairs?

Giacaman: Some issues are separate, some are connected. Had there been convincing progress in negotiations from the perspective of the Palestinian public, it would have strengthened the position of the Palestinian Authority vis-a-vis Hamas. At the same time, if a whole year of negotiations elapses with no result it will be perceived as a failure, and this will weaken the PA and at the same time, to some degree, strengthen the credibility of Hamas.- Published 4/8/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

George Giacaman teaches in the MA program in Democracy and Human Rights and the Department of Philosophy and Cultural Studies at Birzeit University. A collection of his writings from the second intifada will appear in 2008.

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Editors Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher can be reached at ghassan@bitterlemons.org and yossi@bitterlemons.org, respectively.

Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.