b i t t e r l e m o n s. o r g
    May 19, 2008 Edition 19                      Palestinian-Israeli crossfire
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  . The blank page option        by Yossi Alpher
Perhaps our biggest problem is that we cannot afford the luxury of mediocre leaders that the West enjoys.
. Crises at several levels        by Ghassan Khatib
The PA could end up with neither functioning parliament nor elected president.
  . Israel's leading team: an unfulfilled promise        by Nimrod Novik
Our leading trio has the time and much of what it takes to change the course of history.
. Divided factions and domestic constraints        an interview with Azmi Shuaibi
There are effectively two governments: one in Gaza and one in the West Bank.

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The blank page option
by Yossi Alpher

Abraham Lincoln said, "Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power." The leaders in our neighborhood, as well as the American president who just came from Washington to visit us, have been given power and their character has been found wanting. Olmert, Barak, Netanyahu, Abu Mazen, Bush, the Hamas leaders, Mubarak, Assad--the list is long and depressing. Here and there we find possible glimpses of good leadership--Livni, Fayyad and Abdullah of Jordan come to mind. But they are as yet untried or unfulfilled, hence below the cutoff point required for our judgment. Nowhere do we find a Ben-Gurion, a Sadat, a Begin, a Rabin or a Hussein of Jordan.

The temptation, particularly in writing about leadership in the Israeli-Palestinian context, is simply to leave the page blank.

Since first perceiving themselves as a people or a nation, the Palestinians have had only three national leaders. Haj Amin al-Husseini and Yasser Arafat took power and led them to repeated disasters. Mahmoud Abbas inherited power but does not know how to translate it into authority; moreover, his status as a truly national leader must be questioned since Hamas took over Gaza. For nearly 100 years, the Palestinians have failed at nation-building--perhaps the ultimate test of the use of power.

Compared even to our Arab state neighbors, Palestine constitutes without doubt a depressing instance of the failure of leadership. Israel, incidentally, is finally becoming aware just how severely it suffers from the Palestinian leadership's extended failure to create a stable state neighbor. That the Palestinians almost exclusively blame Israel for their failures does not enhance their case. Yet Israel's own leadership failings have undoubtedly contributed heavily to this state of affairs.

Israel itself is not nearly as badly off. Yet all its recent leaders failed at both peace and war and most were the subject of repeated police inquiries. Under present circumstances, it's hard to imagine the emergence of a Begin or a Rabin.

Many outside observers from the democratic countries would at this point remark that we Israelis are being too tough on our leaders. Or, put differently, our leadership problems are shared by much of the western world we aspire to belong to. Look, for example, at the mediocre and at times ludicrous nature of politics in the United States, France, Italy and the United Kingdom. The blame, it is suggested, has to be directed at least partially at the environment: the asphyxiating media, the intrusive courts, the total lack of privacy that drives all the good men and women away from politics.

Indeed, here in Israel our politicians are subject to problematic fundraising norms, corrupting primary systems and horrific constituent pressures. Wealth and politics are now thoroughly and fatally mixed. Nevertheless, one might argue, our leaders are talented people who work hard day and night for our safety and welfare and who don't deserve the microscopic scrutiny they are constantly subjected to.

If you want to appreciate how tough our leaders have to be, note the instances of good people like Dan Meridor, Uzi Baram and Avraham Burg--all candidates for national leadership--who felt obliged to leave politics at a relatively young age because they refused to continue exposing themselves and their families to the unfair pressures of public life. I myself was once a rising young activist in what purported to be one of Israel's most civilized and well-run parties; I left it at an early stage, thoroughly disgusted with the level of politics. I can appreciate the staying-power and survival skills required of an Olmert, a Netanyahu or a Barak.

Yet they remain mediocre leaders, tainted by charges of corruption and lack of strategic insight and "human" skills. And perhaps our biggest problem is that we cannot allow ourselves the luxury of mediocre leadership that the West enjoys. There, if the civilian or security leadership performs poorly the private sector, where all the talented people seem to have gone, takes up the slack. Here in Israel, on the other hand, while many of the most talented people also seem to have gone into the globalized private sector, the threats against our security and even our existence are such that we simply must have more of them in the public sector, and soon. That means radically changing the system. And that is not about to happen.

A blank page, indeed.- Published 19/5/2008 © 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 and a former special adviser to PM Ehud Barak.

Crises at several levels
by Ghassan Khatib

The recent statement attributed to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in which he declared his intention to resign at the end of this year if the current negotiations do not succeed in reaching agreement came as a surprise neither to the Palestinian people nor observers.

In fact, the Palestinian leadership has been one of the main victims of the Annapolis process. This is because this process was designed to suit the political needs of the American and Israeli sides at the expense of the interests of the Palestinian leadership.

US President George W. Bush--who proved in his recent speeches at the Israeli parliament and in Sharm al-Sheikh that he comes from a rather religious fundamentalist background--needed a political process to give the impression that he is trying to make peace in the Middle East. At the same time, however, it is clear that he is not actually interested in making peace, since that would require the kind of political pressure on Israel that he is simply not prepared to exert.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, meanwhile, needed a process to fend off domestic critics of his leadership. His government, however, is too weak even to engage in substantive negotiations.

With no serious intention to make peace on the part of these two parties, the weakening of the Palestinian leadership--which constitutes the peace camp and the secular segment of Palestinian society--was inevitable.

But to compound its troubles, the Palestinian leadership is facing a crisis of legitimacy on several levels. At the level of the PLO, the internationally recognized representative of the Palestinian people, there is an urgent need for fresh blood in the Executive Committee. The number of Executive Committee members now only just constitutes a quorum. Should another member pass away or be otherwise incapacitated, the PLO will be institutionally paralyzed. If the PLO fails to convene the National Council before this quorum is lost, it will lose legitimacy.

Fateh, the dominant party in the PLO, is in no better health. For years, younger members have asked that the party's national congress be convened to elect new leaders within the party. If the congress is not held this summer, as scheduled, the current leadership of the party will lose legitimacy in the eyes of its own members, as well as the public at large, as indicated by several of the so-called young guard within the movement including the imprisoned Marwan Barghouti.

In addition, if there is no breakthrough either in the internal Palestinian dialogue between Fateh and Hamas or in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, the leadership of the Palestinian Authority will face a crisis of legitimacy come the new year when Abbas' term comes to an end. Since the Palestinian Legislative Council is unable to convene due first to the imprisonment of many of its members by Israel and second because of the Hamas-Fateh split, the PA could also face paralysis. Israel has indicated that it will not allow new presidential elections, especially if Hamas should run, and the PA could end up with neither functioning parliament nor elected president.

The collapse of the Palestinian leadership and its legitimacy is catastrophic to Palestinians. It will also have very detrimental effects on the potential for peace with Israel and stability wherever there are Palestinians in the region.

But the potential for peace with Israel is in any case very remote. The Israeli leadership is very far from being ready to make peace. The current government, which until recently was prevented by its own coalition members as well as the opposition from even negotiating final status issues, is now further paralyzed by the new corruption scandal surrounding Olmert that may leave the whole political process in the air.

Indeed, negotiations for peace have several times in the past brought about crises of leadership in Israel. Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated and his successor Shimon Peres subsequently ousted in general elections in favor of the anti-peace process Binyamin Netanyahu. Ehud Barak, when prime minister, lost one part of his ruling coalition on his way to the Camp David talks in 2000 and another on his way home. If these past experiences are anything to go by, Olmert doesn't stand a chance.- Published 19/5/2008 © bitterlemons.org

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons.org 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.

Israel's leading team: an unfulfilled promise

by Nimrod Novik

For decades, we Israelis have found ourselves frustrated by the shortcomings of our leaders and yearning for the miracle of a mid-life genetic mutation: an act of nature or nurture that would mesh the best in each and thus produce the ideal leader.

Most still remember the Peres-Rabin rivalry dominating Israeli politics for almost 30 years. Complimenting each other in character and skill, jointly they could have made that perfect leader. Neutralizing each other in an endless personal rivalry, they had to be in their seventies to realize that separately they were handicapped, but jointly unstoppable. Alas, that moment was all too brief, as a despicable assassin put an end to the life of our prime minister and to a unique hour of hope in our country's history.

They neither invented nor were the last incarnation of the phenomenon.

The next generation is now in charge. From the outset, jointly they seemed to represent much of what Israel needed to unleash our national energies onto a new chapter in domestic and regional politics. The three of them--PM Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, or "Mr. Politics, Mr. Security and Ms. Marketing"--share a commitment to a very similar agenda, yet thus far they have failed to translate that common vision into a joint action plan. While, as in most human endeavors, the reasons for this are both numerous and elusive, personal ambivalence and the all too familiar mutual mistrust seem to dominate their relations.

Until recently, few would have identified either Olmert or Livni--children to leading figures in Israel's Right and themselves firm opponents of territorial (or other) concessions for peace--with the peace camp. Nor is Barak--the formal leader of that camp by virtue of his chairmanship of the Labor party--perceived as the classic Israeli peacenik. This is due less to their current views, which closely resemble those of the extreme left some 25 years ago, than to the shifting sands of Israeli politics. The three of them personify the centralization of Israeli society around one theme: resignation to the need to divide the land with the Palestinians coupled with doubts that this is doable given the current state of Palestinian politics.

However, our leading trio shares not only a less romantic view of the peace process than previous advocates of a compromise. Each of the three also exhibits an additional layer of personal ambivalence about it.

Over the past couple of years, with all other misgivings, Israelis have grown to recognize Olmert's mastery of politics and sincerity in seeking an accommodation with our neighbors. Yet, his political DNA seems to have the upper hand in a tug of war with his new found membership in the peace camp. By amplifying the potential risks to his coalition--hence to his tenure--hesitation and half measures have thus far substituted for bold decisions. His recent encounter with yet another investigation for alleged violation of laws governing campaign finance, coming in the wake of earlier police investigations--some already dismissed, others still pending--and a damaging verdict concerning his management of the Second Lebanon War introduce yet another complicating factor. On the one hand if destined to fall, Olmert would rather it be due to the disintegration of his coalition over major efforts for peace than because of charges of wrongdoing. On the other hand, courageous decisions toward peace will be met with accusations by the opposition of "selling national assets for the sole purpose of changing the agenda".

Barak needs to prove nothing: as prime minister he had the courage to slaughter "sacred cows" that none of his predecessors dared touch. Like Rabin, Peres and Netanyahu he was prepared to withdraw from the Golan Heights in the context of peace with Syria. Unlike any of them, his platform for peace with the Palestinians included not only the return of most of the West Bank but the division of Jerusalem as well. His failure to accomplish either has as much to do with his shortcomings as a negotiator as it was due to the mistakes and failures of his various interlocutors. Yet his problems as a negotiator did not tarnish domestic appreciation for his analytical brilliance, political courage and security credentials. The post-Camp David violence left him ever more skeptical about prospects for progress with the Palestinians, to the point of hostility to any relaxation of security measures in the service of political negotiations.

The third member of the current leading team, Livni, is here dubbed "Ms. Marketing" because broad segments of the Israeli public--left, right and center--who differ on much of the national agenda, consider her the most reliable and trustworthy among national leaders. While this is certainly a personal compliment, it is no less a potent asset in the government's arsenal when the time comes to seek public support for the tough decisions associated with any peace agreement. Yet, in the absence of personal experience with previous rounds of negotiations, her role as chief negotiator with the Palestinians accentuates the arduous process of internalizing the requisites of an agreement.

Thus, the three are committed to the same agenda, yet--for different reasons--pursue it half-heartedly. Nor is that the whole story: political ambition further reduces prospects for cooperation among them on the sensitive aspects of the peace process.

The fact that all three aspire to the same post of prime minister makes them allies in blocking the fourth (and presently more popular) contender, Binyamin Netanyahu representing the Right, but rivals in seeking support from the country's Center and Left. The current Olmert difficulties serve to accentuate this reality: the last thing Barak would like to see is a popular Livni replacing the politically crippled Olmert at the head of Kadima.

Dealing with Hamas is a case in point. Individually and privately, all three have reached the conclusion that "undoing" Hamas by force is not possible. All three now believe that engaging Hamas--albeit by proxy--is essential for restoring tranquility to Israel's southern population, preventing a new wave of terrorism, avoiding the massive casualties of a major--yet inconclusive--military operation in Gaza and bringing home Corporal Gilad Shalit from his captivity. They are also convinced that without some form of an intra-Palestinian reconciliation, the preferred partner for peace, President Mahmoud Abbas, is ineffective.

Yet, when it comes to publicly articulated positions or even to Cabinet deliberations, one can find little evidence of this reality. Only close scrutiny of steps taken or avoided (e.g., in the location, timing, scope and specific targets of military operations) and the content of messages carried by third parties, especially Egyptians, reveals a policy of "creeping accommodation" of Hamas.

The price for such incrementalism is high. Not only does it delay opportunities for ending the agony of all victims of the current status quo--Israelis and Palestinians, civilians and uniformed--but prospects for a different reality do not improve with time. Still, our leading trio can make a difference. Even with the recent allegations against Olmert--which will not mature into accusations or dismissal for many months--they've got the time and much of what it takes to change the course of history. They need to take a page from the textbook of their predecessors to realize that separately they are handicapped, but jointly they may be unstoppable.- Published 19/5/2008 © bitterlemons.org

Nimrod Novik is a former senior policy advisor to the prime minister of Israel, a businessman involved in the largest Arab-Israel joint ventures and chairman of ECF, the Israeli NGO that has been involved with all peace efforts since it launched the Oslo process.

Divided factions and domestic constraints

an interview with Azmi Shuaibi

bitterlemons: It is said there is a crisis of leadership on both the Palestinian and Israeli sides that means no agreement can be reached by the end of the year. Do you agree?

Shuaibi: On the Palestinian side there is no argument about who should be negotiating. Mahmoud Abbas, like Yasser Arafat before him, as the head of the PLO, the body that represents the Palestinian people, is empowered to negotiate with Israel. There was a problem between Hamas and Arafat over this representation, since Hamas is not a part of the PLO. But after the parliamentary elections in 2006, Hamas issued a statement agreeing that Abbas can negotiate in the name of the Palestinian people as long as he takes any agreement back to the people in a referendum.

But although Abbas has the green light from the Palestinian factions, as well as from Arab countries and internationally, his weakness is the weakness of Fateh. Fateh has not held internal elections yet and lost parliamentary elections in 2006. Having lost its position as the leading Palestinian faction, Fateh's defeat also weakened Abbas' position in the eyes of his people.

bitterlemons: And on the Israeli side?

Shuaibi: The defection of Ariel Sharon from the party he helped created, the Likud, and the creation of a new party, Kadima, shook Israeli politics. Being the powerful leader that he was, his subsequent illness left this new party weakened even if it managed to win elections.

Sharon had created a party of personalities drawn from other political parties but not a real party. It was left to Ehud Olmert to bring these people together. Now, with corruption allegations hanging over his head and other domestic problems, including a troublesome coalition and the rocky relationship with Ehud Barak, there is a real problem of leadership in Israel.

Both the Palestinian and Israeli leaderships face domestic difficulties of such a nature that it will render them unable to reach agreement, because these constraints make it harder for both Abbas and Olmert to make what people call the "painful" concessions. Even if they did, they would still need either public or parliamentary approval, unlikely to be forthcoming. With both Arafat and Sharon, we had leaders able to take decisions that their own people might have disagreed with.

bitterlemons: How much of the problem of leadership is down to weak institutions?

Shuaibi: The elections of 2006 were the first time there was real democratic competition between the major Palestinian factions. This caused a situation in which the Palestinian Legislative Council constituted a majority that did not agree with Abbas' political platform even if it agreed to let him negotiate. Today, after the split between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, the PLC is paralyzed, as are the Palestinian Authority institutions in general. There are effectively two governments: one in Gaza and one in the West Bank.

Although Salam Fayyad has been trying to create greater transparency, especially in the financial workings of the PA, and improve the performance of the PA's institutions especially in the fields of health, education and in fighting unemployment, there are still inherent weaknesses in the institutions.

bitterlemons: Will there be a crisis in 2009 if Abbas steps down, since there is no quorum in parliament and Israel says it won't allow new elections?

Shuaibi: This was an important question raised at the time of Arafat when his absence threatened to affect the very infrastructure of the PA. But the aftermath of Arafat's death was a test that was passed without trouble. Today, however, it's harder because there is no unified PLC and there is this division between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

When Arafat passed away, there was a consolidation of support around Abbas and there was no argument within Fateh. But now there is an internal struggle in Fateh. The movement is unable to find a new leadership, having been unable to agree to convene the general conference. It is the duty of the new generation in Fateh to elect a new leadership but this can only be done at the conference. Since there is a split within Fateh on how things should be there is a question mark over whether the conference will be held. If it is not, it poses great danger to the credibility of Fateh. In all cases, it is obvious that Marwan Barghouti will play a big role, but I don't think Israel will release him. Israel wants a weak Palestinian leadership. It provides the Israeli government an excuse not to reach agreement.- Published 19/5/2008 © bitterlemons.org

Azmi Shuaibi is the head of Aman, Transparency Palestine.

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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.