- Palestinian-Israeli crossfire on
"Israel and Palestine after Israel's elections and after Iraq”

December 23, 2002 Edition 46

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>< “Disturbing questions” - by Yossi Alpher
Not a few progressive Arab thinkers (and many Israelis) appear to welcome this American deus ex machina into the region.

>< “The only change is far in the future” - by Ghassan Khatib
For Palestinians, the problem with predictions is that so much of the future depends on external factors.

>< “It will create a new Middle East” - interview with Shimon Peres
The Arab world is ripe for internal revolution like the USSR and China in the past decade.

>< “This is our hope” - interview with Nabil Shaath
The war on Iraq has become the major obstacle to moving ahead with peace. Afterwards, we are really hoping that the atmosphere will change.

Disturbing questions

by Yossi Alpher

The immediate and laudatory purpose of a United States military campaign against Iraq is to stamp out the regime of Saddam Hussein, the world's most psychopathic ruler, and to strike a blow against terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. As such this is a welcome move from Israel's standpoint, whatever the consequences.

But there will be consequences, some of which are liable to have a profound effect, for better or for worse, on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, at least some of the neo-conservative planners in the Pentagon and the National Security Council fully intend that the war in Iraq project far-reaching consequences upon the region. They believe that the removal by force of Saddam's regime, the "democratization" of Iraq and the implantation of an American occupying presence--military, political, proxy or other--in the heart of one of the political and civilizational centers of the Arab Middle East will have a moderating and democratizing effect on the entire region, and as such will be good for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

At times, listening to descriptions of what these planners intend, I am reminded of the dramatic opening scene in Stanley Kubrick's classic film, "2001: A Space Odyssey," in which apes in a desert land confront a black monolith implanted from space by a superior civilization. The monolith renders the apes into ape-men; they begin to turn bones into tools; and so civilization on earth begins.

Somewhat similarly (though without any intention whatsoever on the part of this writer to compare people to apes), the American planners--who display considerable disdain for most of the Muslim and Arab worlds--seem to think that the forcible removal of Saddam's evil regime and the consequent implantation of an American military presence in the wild Middle East will project a civilizing or liberating influence. They are not alone; not a few progressive Arab thinkers (and many Israelis) appear to welcome this American deus ex machina into the region.

How the US is going to conquer Iraq is fairly clear, and appears to be definitely feasible. How it is going to hold post-war Iraq together and democratize it is less clear. Even the Pentagon planners do not yet appear to have a convincing plan. Nor do the projected ripple effects on the region reflect even a plan, but rather an assumption: that the events in Iraq will simply frighten neighboring violent, corrupt, terrorist and non-democratic regimes, including the Palestinian Authority, into reforming themselves, and/or will encourage and inspire powerful democratic elements in these countries to take matters into their own hands.

Again, these would be welcome developments from Israel's standpoint. But a thousand and one different things could and undoubtedly will go wrong with these scenarios. Here we shall mention just two.

First, in the Israeli elections, barring unforeseen developments, Ariel Sharon will be returned to power. Indeed, by election time on January 28 the prospect of war in Iraq will be so palpable that the Israeli electorate's knee-jerk reaction will probably be that this is not the time to "change horses," but rather to maintain in power a feisty general who has a steady hand on the wheel and is a good friend of President Bush. The status of the American leader will also be strengthened by the war. But Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat will probably still be around. It is hard to imagine fellow Palestinians or moderate Arab leaders physically removing him from Ramallah and leading him into exile, but even if this does happen, his replacement could easily be either persons more extreme, or simply chaos.

None of these three leaders has thus far displayed a realistic strategy for Israeli-Palestinian peace. War in Iraq will change neither their world views nor their constituencies. On the contrary, it may strengthen the hardliners among those constituencies.

Secondly if, as many fear, Iraq responds to the American military campaign by attacking Israel with non-conventional weapons, and if it succeeds in causing significant casualties, then Sharon (or for that matter any other conceivable Israeli prime minister) is liable to respond in a way that seems just and necessary from an Israeli strategic and Jewish historical standpoint but that poisons Israeli-Arab relations for a long time to come. This is not a likely scenario, but it is possible. We had better pray that Israel's improved anti-missile and other defenses, coupled with American efforts, render our concerns superfluous.

This brings us full circle back to the "Space Odyssey" scenario. As Kubrick fans will recall, the first thing the gift of "civilization" teaches the newly enlightened man-apes is. . . how to use their tools to kill one another.-Published 23/12/2002©

Yossi Alpher is an Israeli strategic analyst. He is former Director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Tel Aviv University.

The only change is far in the future

by Ghassan Khatib

The course of the Middle East conflict usually defies prediction, but for those who dare, there is one guiding principle that has been passed on from senior to junior diplomats and journalists. This conventional wisdom goes that the best way to accurately predict what will happen next is to remain pessimistic.

For Palestinians, the problem with predictions is that so much of the future depends on external factors. As a result, we are now in a sort of waiting mode: waiting for a possible war in Iraq, with all its expected regional consequences, and waiting for the result of the Israeli elections, which will determine whether the Israeli people have chosen to extend the current confrontations and violence by electing the same sort of people now in power in Israel, or to bring in leaders of the kind that can once again participate in a peace process.

Indeed, as the weaker party the only thing that the Palestinians are able to contribute to determining the future is to respond peacefully if there is a peaceful offer from Israel. (Conversely, they will continue to respond violently if there is a continuity of the violence of the Israeli occupation.)

The role of third parties is not very encouraging. Examining the only game in town, the road map presented last week in Washington by the United States government to the Quartet leaves the impression that this is not a serious plan. Its recent formulation is not workable in that it adopts the Israeli understanding of the situation, especially in demanding two prerequisites to Israel’s ending the occupation: “successful, significant reforms” and a “successful and complete” end to Palestinian violence. This once again introduces the practical problem of confusing cause and effect; how are Palestinians expected to proceed with “significant reforms” when the violent Israeli occupation continues and intensifies?

The Quartet might have approached the conflict in a more balanced way by calling for mutual and reciprocal moves from both sides that would ensure ending the violence and the causes of the violence simultaneously. For one, the internal dialogue between Palestinians currently taking place under the auspices of the Egyptian government is expected to wrap up a Palestinian consensus over offering a mutual and reciprocal ceasefire, but very few expect Israel to “accept” to participate. As such, the scenarios expected to follow the war in Iraq and the predicted results of the Israeli elections are likely to be no different than those before us today.

There is hope for the longer term, however. While the Israeli elections might not bring about a different government, they do have the power to create a political opposition that will offer the Israeli public an alternative, unlike the seemingly unanimous Israeli politics during the previous coalition government. Secondly, the involvement in the Quartet of other countries and bodies besides the United States should have a positive long-term effect on the sponsorship of the peace process. The preliminary signs of that transformation could be seen in the healthy discussions and differences that have been aired (and should continue) between the United States and Europe, the United Nations and Russia in the process of drafting the road map.-Published 23/12/02©

Ghassan Khatib is minister of labor in the Palestinian Authority cabinet. He has served for many years as a political analyst and media contact.

It really will create a new Middle East

an interview with Shimon Peres

bitterlemons: How will a war in Iraq affect the elections in Israel?

Peres: Voters will go to the polls thinking about the Iraqi issue and relations with the US. The closer we are to war, the more security-minded the atmosphere will be.

bitterlemons: What sort of governmental coalition would you like to see after the elections?

Peres: A coalition with three goals: it will agree to enter negotiations with the Palestinians immediately; it will agree to a Palestinian state; and it will agree to change the electoral system by raising the threshold for entering the Knesset. It will be centrist, built around the two big parties, otherwise it won't have a majority. And it won't be dependent on the religious parties and the settlers. It will separate religion from politics. The alternative is a right wing coalition that's dependent on the settlers.

bitterlemons: You are in effect pointing to the centrality of the settlements. What is your solution for them following elections?

Peres: Comprehensive dismantling of settlements only in the Gaza Strip. Everywhere else it's complicated, and I suggest three principles: removing isolated settlements; concentrating settlements in the settlement blocs, including land swaps with the Palestinians; and anyone who does not wish to leave a settlement or move to a bloc, will be permitted to remain under Palestinian rule, with Israel ensuring their safety.

bitterlemons: Will the conquest of Iraq by the United States bring about realization of your vision of a New Middle East?

Peres: After World War II, the central problem was communism. Today it's terrorism. The distinction favors communism, because it was never as aggressive as terrorism. It's not that America is attacking terrorism; terrorism attacked America. This is not a war in the sense of army vs. army, but rather of organizing against terrorism. It is Iraq's proximity to nuclear weaponry that put it at the head of the list of objectives.

The question is whether the US will do the job alone or in harmony. I don't see a possibility of American failure in Iraq; the US is on the defensive and has no alternative. The discussion is whether the international reaction should only involve the war on terrorism, or the denial of infrastructure to terrorism as well. You can't eliminate terrorism without eliminating the infrastructure.

bitterlemons: As you understand the Americans, this is what they intend to do?

Peres: Not really, but I think they'll get to it, and that the conquest of Iraq will really create a New Middle East. Put differently: the Middle East will enter a new age. For the time being this will happen without us, as long as there's no Palestinian solution.

Many peoples in the region are ruled by frightened dictators who have to decide whom to fear more, the terrorists or the war against terrorism. Asad fears for his legitimacy due to the war against terrorism. Arafat can also lose his legitimacy. The Saudis gave money for terrorism due to fear. No terrorist-sponsoring country is democratic. I don't believe in Huntington's clash of civilizations; within every civilization there's a clash. In those countries [that support terrorism] there will be revolutions. Television will play a role like in the collapse of the Iron Curtain. This will happen with the Palestinians, too. The Arab world is ripe for internal revolution like the USSR and China in the past decade.

bitterlemons: What will happen to the peace process in the post-war circumstances you have described?

Peres: There will be three actors: us, the Palestinians and the Quartet. We won't be able to play the powers off against one another any more. After Iraq the Americans have no alternative but to cooperate with the Quartet. Two things happened here. On the positive side, the nature of the solution is more or less known. On the negative, trust has disappeared. This brings us to the Quartet's task. Unlike others, I don't think the Quartet should send the military here, but rather should grant financial assistance and legitimize a different Palestinian regime in which Arafat can remain if he's not the ultimate arbiter. [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon's decision to accept the Bush Plan will backfire on him. If Arik doesn't see the realities he won't remain prime minister.

bitterlemons: You are as optimistic as ever.

Peres: Look, there are no national strategies any longer. There's only national poverty. With the global economy there are only global strategies. We're moving from a world of enemies that are national to a world of global dangers. Can you place boundaries on pollution? We in Israel are also living in the past. In 1965 I came out with the slogan "scientification of the country." They laughed at me: "That Peres with his dreams again." And look at us today. . . -Published 23/12/2002©

Member of Knesset Shimon Peres was twice Prime Minister of Israel, and has served also as Minister of Defense and Minister of Foreign Affairs. He is a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

This is our hope

an interview with Nabil Shaath
================================= When the Palestinian leadership looks past the Israeli elections and the war on Iraq, what does it see ahead?

Shaath: We would like to see a road to peace. What seems to be the major obstacle now to stopping the confrontations and ending the occupation is the specter of the war on Iraq and the elections in Israel on January 28. With these two on, the Americans have retreated from the position of putting the road plan in force, and with these two on, there seems to be little likelihood that there will be a major advance for peace.

After that, we are really hoping that things will change and that the dynamics in Israel will be such as to push for peace; the dynamics in Palestinian society doing the same; and the international community applying more pressure to get the peace process moving. At least this is our hope. When members of the Palestinian Authority get together and think strategically about how best to pursue those goals, what are the key things you work on?

Shaath: We are working on things that we can control now. We are working on the constitution; we are working on Palestinian reform; we are pursuing a dialogue with Hamas to stop all violence between [Palestinian factions] and stop all violence against civilians; we are engaged in a process of persuading the rest of the Arab world and international community to keep the hope alive and to push the American-sponsored roadmap.

We are also engaged in at least some form of dialogue with at last some Israelis. This is tricky because the more we engage in that dialogue, the more it can create some negative effects among those in Israel who would use this against these peace supporters. So, as much as we would obviously like to see winning the elections the coalition that supports peace and end to occupation, we have a limitation to how much we can advocate this without embarrassing the Israeli parties. Can you say who those parties are?

Shaath: Well, they are obviously parties within the pro-peace camp in the Labor party and in Meretz. What do you think right now is the Palestinian Authority’s biggest worry for the coming months?

Shaath: We are worried very much about the Israeli extreme right, which is now quite powerful within the present Israeli government, [and may] try to use the war on Iraq as a pretext for escalation against the Palestinian people, such as a full occupation of Gaza, an attempt to transfer Palestinians out of Jerusalem, or out of Palestine altogether. We are afraid that the Israeli government and the Israeli extreme right will try to push aside the minimum constraints in the Geneva Convention by claiming that the Palestinians are just part of Al Qaeda, they are doing what Osama bin Ladin did in New York, just painting us with the Taliban picture and discounting any [Israeli] commitments as an occupier to the Geneva convention. How close do you think that we are to this scenario?

Shaath: We are not far. The present government includes many people who support this ideologically and are not hiding their orientation. Within the Israeli security agencies and the army, there are those who are trying to operationally translate ideologies into specific action.

However, I have received assurances everywhere I went that this is not going to be tolerated. Mainly from Mr. Powell himself, very clearly and very adamantly, and also from Joschka Fisher, Jack Straw, President Chirac and others. The world cannot possibly look aside if this happens. Therefore, even though there is great risk, I am not really an alarmist. If Ariel Sharon does win the Israeli elections, do you think that negotiations are possible with his government?

Shaath: From our point of view, we are ready. We have been ready; we have never taken the position that we decide who is the Israeli partner. But if the question is posed differently--do you think that the Israeli party led by Sharon is really ready to go to elections and willing to make these elections lead to real peace?--I say that I am really skeptical that that is going to happen, especially with what looks like the “new line” of the Likud party and the kind of partners Likud will have.

Not unless there is a real commitment by the Americans will anything push that kind of government to go back to real negotiations leading to peace. It is not impossible, but highly improbably. What is your message to the Israeli people, then, on the eve of elections?

Shaath: We Israelis and Palestinians both need to position ourselves as clearly and as early as possible to regain the peace process and regain the process of negotiations, guided this time by clear objectives and less manipulative ways of delaying forever the inevitable.

Second, I think that we should both act as clearly as possible against escalation, particularly against civilians--be they Palestinian or Israeli civilians--in order to reduce the wounds between our two people. This is a goal that needs to be pushed and supported by the Israeli people, as much as the Palestinian people.

Peace--it is inevitable that we will get back to it. So let us keep our contacts, our relations, our hopes and our visions directed to the life after this confrontation and not be consumed by the confrontation. Let us move into action that will put both our efforts in the right direction.-Published 23/12/02©

Nabil Shaath is Palestinian Authority minister of planning and international cooperation and has participated in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations over the years.

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