The Annapolis conference and process came about as a result of domestic politics in Washington, Tel Aviv and Ramallah and will continue to influence these domestic scenes, especially in Israel and Palestine.
There is no doubt that one of the main motivations behind the conference and subsequent process came from the domestic political travails of the three relevant leaders. US President George W. Bush wanted to achieve something positive in the Middle East, or at least to give the impression that no matter how late, he tried. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas thought that by reviving the peace process he might bring back hope of a solution to a despondent public, strengthen the peace camp and, by the same token, weaken the Hamas-led opposition. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert assumed that engaging in a peace process could protect his job, including from the possible negative effects of the coming Winograd report on the Israeli government's performance in the 2006 Lebanon war.
But having convened the conference and started the process, the respective leaders have found that subsequent dynamics pay little heed to their original intentions. This, obviously, is especially so in Palestine and Israel, not only because this is the arena of conflict, but because the two leaderships are domestically vulnerable.
Olmert, for example, in order to quell criticism of his leadership and still keep his broad coalition intact, planned to pursue a process that would not touch the substance of the conflict. But already, considering the strong exchange of views and accusations over the continued settlement program and other final status issues even before they have been discussed in actual negotiations, the resulting political turbulence is worrying the Israeli PM.
On the Palestinian side, the effects of Annapolis have been more dramatic and far reaching. Hamas, which is in complete control of the Gaza Strip and enjoys the support of the majority of the public as evidenced by the last elections, engaged in a chain of increasingly hostile actions with Israel that have led to the Gaza-Israel front becoming the center of gravity in Israeli-Palestinian relations.
The suffering in Gaza, caused by brutal Israeli bombardments and killings as well as the inhumane embargo on trade to and from the Strip, has directed not only the attention and sympathy of most Palestinians and Arabs to Gazans; it has created a feeling of solidarity among Gazans that plays into the hands of Hamas. Furthermore, the public image of Abbas was significantly damaged when he appeared on TV with Olmert on the same day the Israeli army killed 19 Palestinians in Gaza.
The fact that neither the Annapolis conference nor the subsequent process convinced Israel to stop the expansion of settlements and the building of the wall or curtail the continuing military incursions has also had a very negative effect on the public position of the Palestinian Authority led by Abbas and Salam Fayyad.
In other words, the Annapolis process, its shortcomings and lack of momentum and outcome, is beginning to backfire against the Palestinian leadership and appears to be also weakening the Israeli coalition government, which recently lost one partner.
The peace process that can empower the Palestinian leadership (indeed, the only way to empower the Palestinian leadership, in particular Abbas) is a process that can show the Palestinian public that the leadership is thus able to successfully bring them nearer to the end of occupation. Any other process will leave the public searching for an alternative.
Hamas will continue to gain public support for as long as it is perceived as the party fighting the occupation and the Israeli government does not respond positively to the peaceful efforts of the Palestinian leadership. The last two weeks are a case in point: these were characterized by failed attempts on the negotiating front and brutal attacks by Israel on Hamas and they have shifted public support toward Hamas.- Published 21/1/2008 © bitterlemons.org
The internal political situation in both Israel and Palestine has from the start rendered it extremely difficult for the current peace process to succeed. The problems are not ephemeral or incidental but rather structural and endemic to the political culture on both sides.
Israel's extremely pluralistic nature is reflected faithfully in its electoral system. Elections generate ruling parliamentary coalitions composed of many diverse parties, each with its own particularistic agenda. By and large, these coalitions are dedicated to political survival; it is not easy to create and sustain a stable governing coalition dedicated to peace with the Palestinians. Indeed, the Palestinian issue has been the cause of the collapse of every ruling coalition for the past 20 years. And because this issue preoccupies Israeli political life, the average lifespan of an Israeli government is two years.
In the current Knesset, even though a majority favors a compromise two-state solution with the Palestinians, there are elements in PM Ehud Olmert's coalition that do not. As the negotiating process with the Palestinians picks up steam, they are beginning to defect, beginning last week with the Yisrael Beitenu party led by Avigdor Lieberman. Olmert's prospects of forming a stable alternative coalition are constrained by his limited capacity to co-opt the ten members of Knesset from the Arab parties (who as anti-Zionists and pro-Palestinians would not be welcomed by other members of the coalition) as well as by opposition to his peace strategy from within a faction of his own party, Kadima.
In addition, in the current instance the prime minister is particularly unpopular. His position is threatened by the upcoming Winograd commission final report on management of the Second Lebanon War a year and a half ago. His only hope is to weather that report, hang onto a Knesset majority long enough to negotiate a framework agreement with the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, then seek new elections with that agreement as his platform. It is doubtful he will succeed, not only because of Israeli politics but also in view of the substantive gaps still separating Israelis and Palestinians regarding the core issues of refugees and Jerusalem.
Sadly, in the longer term, Israelis, Palestinians and those third parties that wish them well must bear in mind the major constraint placed upon Israel's capacity to do a deal with the Palestinians by Israel's own political system. This is not an excuse; it's simply a fact of life. Essentially it means that a ruling coalition in Israel can, in the best of circumstances, hope to register a single step forward with the Palestinians before crumbling under the weight of its own internal contradictions. Interestingly, the structural deficiencies of the Israeli political system did not hinder it in making peace with Egypt and Jordan, largely because those peace-making efforts did not impact measurably on the Land of Israel issues that divide Israelis since 1967.
The situation is even worse in the Palestinian Authority, where the introduction of democratic elections back in 1996 and a second election in 2006 ended up enfranchising, first, the corrupt Fateh party and then the Islamist militant Hamas. Between them, these two problematic organizations have now divided Palestine into two separate territorial entities, West Bank/Fateh (though the Ramallah government's grip on power throughout the entire West Bank is far from complete) and Gaza/Hamas. Fateh's current conceit to negotiate a two-state solution with Israel on behalf of both simply fails the test of realities. Hamas, for its part, is not prepared to negotiate and seeks a long-term hudna or ceasefire, not a two-state solution. Each and any move Israel might make with one of the two is anathema in the eyes of the other.
The cumulative Palestinian failure at state-building since 1993 weighs heavily upon the prospects for progress toward a viable two-state solution. So does the Israeli political system. Yet in the long term, we Israelis have no alternative but to seek out and exploit every strategic opportunity for ending the occupation, rolling back the West Bank settlements and consolidating Israel as a Jewish and democratic state--regardless of what happens politically in the West Bank and Gaza.- Published 21/1/2008 © 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.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Abbas and Olmert far from taking the "tough decisions"
by Khader Khader
Maybe the most important statement that US President George W. Bush made during his historic visit last week was when he told both the Palestinian and Israeli sides that "tough decisions have to be taken". One tends to doubt whether Bush was really serious, considering the domestic political ramifications of such "tough choices" on both the Palestinian president and the Israeli prime minister. No doubt Bush must feel very happy that he has spent two presidential terms without having to face any "tough decisions" vis-a-vis the Arab-Israel conflict. As usual, he is leaving the dirty job for others to do.
On the Palestinian side, President Mahmoud Abbas faces questions and dilemmas of paramount importance that raise serious doubts over his credibility as a leader who can deliver concrete results to his own people. Abbas insists to his people that the Palestinian leadership will cling to the Palestinian constants and legitimate rights as stipulated in international resolutions as the only way to achieve a "just peace". In other words, Abbas insists on a Palestinian state built on all the land Israel occupied in 1967, with East Jerusalem as its capital and the right of return of Palestinian refugees, not only to that state, but to the lands and villages where they actually come from, i.e., to Israel.
So far so good, except that recent events and meetings with the US administration and the Israeli leadership point to a different trend. News reports said Abbas held "important, positive and candid talks" with Bush and that both leaders came out optimistic with regards to the peace process. However, Bush's statements about the "tough decisions" that both Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have to take, mean someone is lying or at least playing politics. Taking tough decisions means making "concessions" but the Palestinian leadership keeps singing the tune of "constants and legitimate rights" to its own people.
The Palestinian people do not have the luxury of employing diplomatic skills to interpret the statements of Bush, Abbas and Olmert. In addition to a belligerent and violent military occupation, they face severe poverty, high rates of unemployment and an at times violent domestic political split, all of which threaten their very existence. According to international criteria, President Abbas has to take tough decisions in order for the peace process to reach its goal: a Palestinian state next to the state of Israel. But Abbas has no room for maneuver in relation to Palestinian constants and rights.
The sad part of all this is that the international community is not doing anything to help or support Abbas take such decisions. Money, contrary to what the international community appears to think, cannot solve everything. A $7.4 billion pledge does not show Palestinians the respect they deserve; it does not allow them to breathe their own air safely, move freely on their own land or leave them alone to plant their crops and earn their livelihoods. It does not bring back the dignity of any man, woman or child humiliated at an Israeli checkpoint. In short, money does not buy Palestinians their freedom and without this it is money down the drain. Domestically, therefore, the Palestinian president has few cards to play and time is running out.
On the Israeli side, the domestic political situation is no better. Whenever an Israeli prime minister tries even to approach a minimum of commitments under a peace process, Israelis know they can start to prepare for early elections. Olmert faces the Winograd report, likely to weaken his position. A few days ago, a right wing party left his coalition government and another is considering following suit. Early elections, in any case, always seem the safest way out of the trap of "tough decisions".
Considering the domestic situation on both sides, it is clear that there is no way on earth that either party is ready to take any "tough decision" at the moment. The Palestinian side clings to constants and rights that the Israeli side rejects, instead being willing to make "painful concessions" that do not come even close to Palestinian demands. The only way out of this deadlock is a strong third party role. The United States has failed at this task, opting instead for a pro-Israel bias. But can we expect the United Nations to step in and risk US financial sanctions? Indeed, no one is willing to mediate properly. And so the game continues.- Published 21/1/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Khader Khader is a media analyst with the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
A sensitive step on the Israeli political scene
an interview with Isaac Herzog
bitterlemons: What are the ramifications of the Yisrael Beitenu party's departure last week from the coalition?
Herzog: The withdrawal by [head of Yisrael Beitenu] Avigdor Lieberman reflected a clear reading by him that we are embarking on quite a sensitive step on the Israeli political scene in terms of starting to discuss the core peace issues. In my mind and in the view of my colleagues, we must move on with the process and strengthen our commitment despite the challenges posed by the upcoming Winograd report [on the Second Lebanon War].
bitterlemons: How do you see PM Ehud Olmert's options for expanding the coalition as a peace coalition?
Herzog: Olmert's first hurdle will be dealing with the Winograd report itself. We have said all along that we [in the Labor party] must see it first and analyze it; we have a responsibility to our voters and the public. Assuming we get through that phase [and the coalition survives], I believe the natural partner should be Meretz and we should look at Meretz thoroughly pending their leadership primary in March. I did mention to my friend Yossi Beilin that this is a real option. There will also be pressure on Shas from the right [to leave the coalition] and pressure to bring in United Torah. The latter is a pragmatic partner when it comes to peace. Recall that it was "half" in the coalition with Sharon during the withdrawal from Gaza.
bitterlemons: Speaking of the Winograd report, how do you assess the possibility of Labor demanding that Olmert be replaced as prime minister? Hasn't Barak been hinting in recent weeks that he would insist on this in accordance with his famous Labor primaries pledge at Kibbutz Sdot Yam?
Herzog: It depends: people hear Barak in various ways; his rhetoric is cautious. We have to bear in mind what he said at Sdot Yam, along with the needs of the state of Israel in assessing what he intends to do. Sdot Yam was a purely political statement forced on Barak prior to the labor leadership primaries. It's more important to analyze the Winograd report in terms of our national interests. One of these concerns whether we are in any sort of a real peace process. At least the international community views it as [a real peace process].
bitterlemons: Do you?
Herzog: I see it cautiously and soberly. Annapolis was an important development. I'm somewhat skeptical regarding the capacity of both parties to reach a deal and deliver on it, but it would be a fatal mistake to brush it aside as if this is not an important moment in history.
bitterlemons: How do you view the scenario whereby Olmert initiates elections once he has reached a framework agreement with the Palestinian leadership?
Herzog: It's premature to judge. There are many other scenarios, including the replacement of the prime minister by another Kadima person or moving quickly to elections. So this is one more scenario. We do not know how far the parties can go into the core issues themselves. The last Abbas-Olmert meeting and its follow-up, the results of which are not really known, may offer some answer to this question.- Published 21/1/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Isaac Herzog (Labor) is minister for social affairs and services and for Diaspora affairs in the Olmert government. He is also a member of the Security Cabinet.
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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.