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    August 11, 2008 Edition 31                      Palestinian-Israeli crossfire
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Suppose a peace agreement is reached
. Serious but inconclusive        by Ghassan Khatib
The three parties cannot afford to reach agreement on a solution to the conflict.
  . Counterproductive        by Yossi Alpher
All in all, conditions are not ripe for unveiling a shelf agreement.
. Unlikely to go far        by Mousa Qous
Both peoples suffer from the absence of charismatic leaders who are able to take historic decisions for the benefit of peace.
  . On borrowed time        by Yossi Beilin
I fear the current quiet will not last long without a significant political horizon.

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Serious but inconclusive
by Ghassan Khatib

Because the 1993 declaration of principles (Oslo agreement) took everybody by surprise by arriving in the middle of the overwhelming pessimism that surrounded the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations in Washington at the time, analysts have since become very alert to possible similar sudden breakthroughs.

In this regard, the current Annapolis process is very similar and analysts have perked up their ears at certain optimistic statements regarding that process, mainly from Israeli and US officials, that have been heard in recent weeks in spite of the comprehensive pessimism that otherwise surround these talks.

What is already known and agreed about about the current process is that very extensive, comprehensive and serious negotiations are going on between the Israeli team headed by Tzipi Livni, the Israeli foreign minister, and the Palestinian team headed by Ahmed Qurei, a former prime minister. These negotiations are proceeding on two levels: one deals with certain aspects of the final status issues, particularly borders with their indirect connection to the issues of settlements and Jerusalem; the other is a technical team devoted to eight practical issues.

But while the two sides seem to be in agreement about the seriousness and comprehensiveness of the negotiations, they are imparting two contradicting impressions about their progress and possible success.

Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, visited Paris recently and announced that agreement was within reach. But today we hear Qurei saying to a meeting of top Fateh leaders that while the "ongoing negotiations are serious and difficult, this does not indicate a possibility of reaching agreement on any final status issue". He went so far as to say that, "if Israel will not support our choice of an independent Palestinian state in the occupied territories including East Jerusalem, then the alternative demand of the Palestinian people and leadership will be a bi-national state."

It is possible that this is part of the negotiations process and that Qurei is making these statements as a bargaining tool to pressure Israel and the US to be more forthcoming. However, the political reality of the three parties involved leaves us with little optimism for a possible breakthrough.

Olmert will not, with the current domestic political reality in Israel and at a time when he has resigned his post and is filling space while a successor is found, be allowed to reach a comprehensive agreement with the Palestinians. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, will find it difficult to deliver Palestinians to any agreement he reaches due to the division among Palestinians and in their authority. The US, meanwhile, is in the middle of one of its toughest elections and with time running out for the Bush administration, Washington has little leverage and room for maneuver, especially since it is consumed with other pressing issues, particularly Iran and Iraq.

In spite or even because of the above it remains a possibility that these parties will resort to a face-saving formula as a conclusion to the "extensive and serious" negotiations that started at the Annapolis conference. It makes little sense for the three parties, especially the US, to invest such significant political capital, raising expectations in the process, and then just leave it with no result.

The three parties all have vested interests in reaching a conclusion to negotiations though they cannot afford to reach agreement on a solution to the conflict. Therefore likely scenarios include either an agreement on a formula that is general enough for all parties to accept, even if open to different interpretations, or a bridging proposal put on the table by the US sponsor that will be accompanied by the necessary pressure on the parties to accept, similar to the Clinton parameters after the failure of the Camp David process.

On the Palestinian side, the Fateh leadership is in a bind. On the one hand, President Abbas needs to show some tangible result from negotiations to convince an increasingly skeptical public that his chosen path is worth pursuing. In addition, the Fateh leadership is preparing for the long-awaited Fateh Congress and has been hoping to use a possible political breakthrough as a vehicle to unify, reform and restore morale to that leadership. On the other, with Israel showing little inclination to reach an agreement that would be minimally acceptable to Palestinians, a comprehensive agreement is out of reach.

Thus either of the two above alternative scenarios might seem preferable to no result at all. The problem with both is that they will not lead to any tangible progress toward an end to the Israeli occupation or even the Israeli practices that consolidate that occupation, especially Israeli settlement building in and around Jerusalem. Such a result is as bad as no result and will further convince Palestinians that the negotiations process is a dead end. This, in turn, will translate into further support for Hamas.- Published 11/8/2008 © 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.

by Yossi Alpher

An Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement between PM Ehud Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas is not likely. The two leaders are weak, Olmert's days as leader are numbered, Abbas too may not last long and the two sides are too far apart on the core issues of Jerusalem and refugees/right of return. But let's assume they surprise us and produce an agreement "in principle" while they are both still in office, i.e., in the coming months and perhaps even weeks.

The agreement will probably describe in some detail the eventual border between Israel and a Palestinian state, with the exception of the Jerusalem area. Israel will pledge to remove all settlements in Palestinian territory beyond that border. General principles will be agreed regarding security, economic relations, water and electromagnetic rights issues. A statement about Jerusalem will postpone discussion but might conceivably imply that eventually most Arab neighborhoods will be Palestinian and will host a Palestinian capital. Something general will also be said about the refugee issue, possibly suggesting that few if any 1948 refugees will return to Israel.

Israel will celebrate the occasion by releasing some Palestinian prisoners, possibly including Marwan Barghouti. The Bush administration will promise generous aid. The Israeli and Palestinian leaders will declare, perhaps on the White House lawn, that the agreement will be implemented once it has been ratified by the two parliaments and when security conditions permit. This will be stating the obvious. Abbas and Fateh are the minority in the Palestinian parliament, many of whose members are in any case in Israeli jail, and Abbas does not control the Gaza Strip. As for Olmert, his fragile majority in the Knesset will disappear the moment he unveils the agreement and Shas, sensing new elections, leaves the coalition. Some members of Olmert's own party, Kadima, will also reject the agreement. Many political opponents of both Olmert and Abbas will argue that they "do not have a mandate" to agree on anything.

This, then, would be the much-discussed "shelf agreement". Unlike, say, the Geneva accord that was negotiated in 2003 between prominent moderate politicians and figures on both sides (and which it may well resemble), it would aspire to official status, having been agreed between sovereign governments. The guiding idea behind it would be to provide a "political horizon" that justifies an ensuing intermediate stage in Israeli-Palestinian relations: tough Palestinian security measures, Israeli legislation encouraging the removal of settlements and political campaigns on both sides designed to garner strong majorities in favor of new governments dedicated to implementing the agreement. Conceivably, a similar document agreed with Syria at the indirect talks in Turkey would be added to the package on the Israeli side.

Would a shelf agreement reached in the very near future be good or bad for the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace? I fear it would be bad. I hope I'm wrong.

On the Israeli side, the agreement would ensure that Olmert's successor, once elected by Kadima and assuming he/she approved the agreement, would be unable to form a new government with a solid Knesset majority and would have to opt for new elections by early 2009. On the Palestinian side, Hamas would almost certainly reject the agreement insofar as it recognizes Israel and doesn't guarantee the right of return for all refugees. Hamas would also reject the idea of new and early elections.

In the Israeli elections, the right wing--and even parts of the center if Shaul Mofaz is elected to lead Kadima--would attack the agreement as illegitimate, having been negotiated by a corrupt and non-credible leader (Olmert) with a "virtual" and non-credible leader (Abbas). The settler movement would mount a major campaign of opposition while Hamas and even Fateh dissidents might launch a new wave of terrorism. The Israeli left and moderate center would line up behind the agreement not because it is ideal or was reached through a logical process involving two strong leaders--but because that's all there is and the clock is ticking on the two-state solution. Under these conditions, and given the paucity of leadership on both sides, neither would emerge with a government strong enough to even contemplate implementation; on the Israeli side, the new government might reject the agreement completely.

This is the legacy of the Bush, Olmert and Abbas governments that might well confront the next US administration--with its Middle East priorities anchored firmly in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. We recall that the American plan, spearheaded by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, includes not only a negotiated shelf agreement but also outpost removal by Israel, dynamic training for Palestinian security forces and a menu of economic carrots (spearheaded in the West Bank by Tony Blair) and sticks (directed at Gaza) designed to encourage Palestinian moderation. The outposts are still there. Palestinian security training has registered a good if slow beginning but is nowhere near complete. And the economic carrots and sticks have failed miserably: the Palestinian Authority is once again nearing bankruptcy while Hamas is stronger than ever.

All in all, conditions are not ripe for unveiling a shelf agreement. Such an act could prove counterproductive.- Published 11/8/2008 © 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.

Unlikely to go far

by Mousa Qous

Despite their apparent weaknesses, President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert are still scavenging for achievements in the next few months before the end of their mandate in office and before US President George W. Bush leaves the White House.

Olmert, who is battling corruption investigations, longs to go down in history as the Israeli leader who established peace in this instable and troubled region without giving concessions to the Palestinians. True to this, since resuming negotiations with President Abbas he has yet to implement any unilateral withdrawals from the West Bank, something he had previously promised. He has also avoided removing an increasing number of checkpoints dotting the Palestinian territories (or rather, he removed some and put in place more). Most importantly, he never froze accelerating settlement expansion in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Recently, he even hinted it would be difficult to achieve agreement over Jerusalem.

As for Abbas, his mandate in power is to end next January and he is in dire need of any achievement to make his people forget that his reign has been overshadowed by a split between Palestinians in their homeland. Also, any achievement on his part will help his Fateh party to assume power again in possible future elections.

Bush, who is in fact the first US president to call clearly for the establishment of a Palestinian state but has so far failed to adopt a concrete policy to translate his words into facts on the ground, will exploit any progress in the Arab-Israel conflict to change the poor reputation he acquired following wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Any perceived progress will also help the Republican party in the upcoming presidential elections.

Yet, despite the efforts by Abbas and Olmert to reach an agreement, a recent statement by the head of the Palestinian negotiating team, Ahmad Qurei, indicated that peace talks with Israel have reached a deadlock after months of negotiations and dozens of meetings failed to narrow the gap in the positions of the two sides, particularly on key negotiating issues.

If, nevertheless, both leaders are capable of discrediting speculation over the failure of talks and are actually able to achieve agreement, will they be able to market this agreement in their political arenas?

The political crisis in Israel, the competition for power inside Kadima and the fact that Olmert's resignation will be effective next month, make it very difficult for any reasonable person to believe that Olmert will be able to reach an agreement on key issues in this long and complicated conflict. Even if there is a miracle and Olmert reaches an agreement with Abbas, he will not have sufficient time to promote it since he will be excluded from Israeli political life before the ink is dry.

For his part, President Abbas has made it clear on numerous occasions that in the absence of agreement over Jerusalem there will be no general agreement at all. Still, if he actually does counter all expectations and succeeds in achieving an agreement, he may only be able to enforce it in the West Bank.

Furthermore, if a prisoner exchange takes place between Israel and Hamas, the released Hamas-affiliated parliamentarians can be expected to rescind all recent presidential decrees and agreements, including those signed with Israel, and undermine the Fayyad government with a no-confidence vote.

Moreover, that the right wing could take power in Israel in any future elections if recent opinion polls are any indication proves that the Israeli public still favors tough extremist policies toward the Palestinians and supports the continuation of settlement activities in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

On the part of the Palestinians, in the absence of any real unity, it would be unrealistic to expect that agreement reached by only a portion of the Palestinians will be honored by the rest. Therefore, regardless of the position and conditions set by the international community, it should be understood that Palestinian national unity is of vital interest to the security of the entire region. Consequently, the policy of isolation and sanctions by the international community against part of the Palestinians has failed to yield the intended results.

In addition, both peoples suffer from the absence of charismatic leaders who are able to take historic decisions for the benefit of peace and security in the entire Middle East region. If the notion that one people has the right to dominate and decide the fate of another people and hinder its self-determination continues, the region will never enjoy stability. Therefore, unless there is an emancipation of minds from the concept of occupation, nothing will change.

It is now up to Israeli public opinion to decide if it will continue to favor occupation and thus end up in a bi-national state, or support self-determination for the Palestinians in their own state in the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem and thus gain peace for themselves as well.- Published 11/8/2008 © bitterlemons.org

Musa Qous is a journalist with al-Quds newspaper.

On borrowed time

by Yossi Beilin

No peace agreement between Israel and its neighbors will be signed before the end of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's term of office. The most far-reaching move imaginable would be some sort of agreements in principle between Israel and the Palestinians and Israel and the Syrians. The chances of that happening don't appear very good, but it's not impossible.

Should those who seek peace aspire to this sort of achievement? Would such agreements, sealed at the last minute, be seen as legitimate? Would the fact that they are signed by leaders deemed "lame ducks" not weaken support for the agreements themselves? These are not easy questions. I can certainly understand the doubters within the peace camp and the dilemma they would confront.

(Opponents of peace, on the other hand, will always find good reasons to reject agreements: no one has the authority to forego territory in the Land of Israel; the agreement was not approved by a referendum; the referendum lacked a weighted majority, allowing Arab citizens of Israel to determine the outcome; the referendum questions were manipulative; etc.)

I live with a sense of borrowed time. I fear the current quiet will not last long without a significant political horizon. At present there is a constellation whereby Israel has a leadership that is seriously interested in agreements, there is a similar situation on the Palestinian side and the president of Syria is making an exceptional effort to talk to Israel and achieve peace even at the cost of tensions with Iran. The American president wants to reach peace agreements in the Middle East and seeks the success of the Annapolis process that he launched last year after first making every possible mistake, and the Arab League has reiterated its commitment to the Arab peace initiative that offers full normalization between Israel and all Arab states once there is peace with Palestine and Syria. I fear this constellation is terribly temporary.

I am concerned lest once again we miss the opportunity that awaits us for reasons that are irrelevant to the political situation. Then we'll ask ourselves how it happened that when it was still possible we decided not to take the necessary step; how we thought we had all the time in the world and that waiting would benefit us politically or personally.

An agreement between Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas should form the basis for continued negotiations over final status to be achieved in 2009 by Israel's next prime minister and the Palestinian president. The complete agreement will not be carried out immediately; that will depend on the capacity of the two sides, mainly the Palestinians, to implement it on the ground, perhaps in stages. I do not anticipate a "shelf agreement" that is signed and then locked in a desk drawer until the situation changes. Yet it's clear to everyone that "safe passage" will not be opened between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank as long as the two parts of the Palestinian Authority remain severed and Hamas continues to rule Gaza and oppose an agreement with Israel.

A near-term Israeli-Syrian agreement will have to refer to Yitzhak Rabin's famous "deposit" and the 1967 line as a permanent border, alongside the demilitarization of the Golan Heights, freedom for Israelis to circle the Sea of Galilee without a visa and normalized relations between Syria and Israel. It can be achieved by means of joint signatures, separate declarations by the two sides or even a third party declaration that is ratified immediately by Syria and Israel. Following such an agreement, negotiations will have to address the location of the 1967 border. Since this border was never demarcated, these will be complex talks and will take months. Nearly all the other issues were already agreed at Shepherdstown in January 2000 and need not be reopened. Israel's demands regarding Syrian alliances and links with elements hostile to Israel will undoubtedly constitute a precondition for agreeing to sign a peace treaty.

In its agreements with both Palestine and Syria, Israel will give up territories it annexed unilaterally. If a referendum law is passed in Israel before these agreements are signed, it will be necessary to present them for popular approval. If there is no such legislation, an absolute Knesset majority will be required for ratification. I believe that all this will come to pass if Ehud Olmert achieves agreements in principle with the Syrians and the Palestinians and that the ensuing negotiations will generate comprehensive agreements that are approved by the Knesset and the people of Israel.- Published 11/8/2008 © bitterlemons.org

Member of Knesset Yossi Beilin (Meretz) is a former minister of justice.

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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.