b i t t e r l e m o n s. o r g
    July 28, 2008 Edition 29                      Palestinian-Israeli crossfire
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Message to the next US president
. Engage        by Ghassan Khatib
An open-ended approach offers only more violence and oppression.
  . Syria first        by Yossi Alpher
The next president's Middle East agenda should logically begin with Iran/Iraq/Afghanistan and follow with Syria-Israel.
. Dear Senator Obama        by Laila El-Haddad
I plead with you not to fall into the traps that former US presidents have.
  . The Arabs will look differently upon America        by Ron Pundak
The dangerous tension between Iran and Israel can only be dispelled by energizing a peace process in the Arab-Israel sector.

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by Ghassan Khatib

There seem to be two schools of thoughts among Palestinian politicians and analysts regarding the coming elections in the United States. Some, including President Mahmoud Abbas and the head of the negotiating delegation, Ahmed Qurei, believe that this last year of President George W. Bush is a year of opportunity that must not be wasted. Others, including Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, are convinced that no progress can be expected in the Palestinian-Israeli political process before a new administration has settled in.

However, all of the above agree that the coming elections in the US are crucial for a troubled Middle East in general and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in particular. This is especially true in light of the evident interaction between the different political trends and conflicts in the Middle East.

The main cause of hope regarding the American elections for the people of the Middle East, especially Arabs, is the same as for Americans, namely change. It is difficult for Arabs to believe anything but that US Middle East policy in the past seven years has been the worst, most damaging ever. In parallel, this period coincided with the lowest level of credibility granted to any American administration.

So what is the message to the next administration? The most urgent one, based on past experience, is this: engage. Whenever Palestinians and Israelis are left to their own devices, their relations deteriorate. When the current administration abandoned the diplomacy of the preceding one, what was left was the balance of power between the two sides. This favors Israel to the extent that the country has little motivation to move seriously toward peace, leaving Palestinians little option but to resist and complain. What leaving the two sides alone does not achieve is confidence and an atmosphere conducive to peace-making.

Serious and sustained American and international engagement is the only way to improve hopes for a peaceful and negotiated solution and reverse the growing support for radical forces that promote violent and unilateral approaches to ending the conflict.

Having engaged, a new US administration must influence the behavior of the two sides in such a way that neither acts outside the agreed terms of reference of a solution, i.e., a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, a division of Jerusalem into two capitals and a fair resolution to the Palestinian refugee problem.

In this regard the current situation is untenable. While the international community continues to support a two-state solution, practices on the ground contradict such a goal. Israel continues expanding its settlements on occupied territory and especially in Jerusalem, while the division between the West Bank/Fateh and Gaza/Hamas is undermining hopes for a single Palestinian polity.

The strategy of keeping all options open for a final agreement has proven unwise. A new administration would be wise to understand that an open-ended approach allows both sides to pursue their own interests regardless of the effect on peace-making. That way offers only more violence and oppression.- Published 28/7/2008 © 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.

Syria first
by Yossi Alpher

Thus far in the American presidential campaign, neither the Obama nor the McCain camp appears to have formulated a realistic order of priorities for dealing with issues surrounding the Israel-Arab peace process within the larger Middle East context. Here is an attempt to sort out those issues.

Both candidates clearly and justifiably place highest priority on Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran. Senator John McCain says the US must "win" in Iraq, enlarge its armed forces so it can reinforce the troops in Afghanistan and oppose Iran's military nuclear program. He and his entourage barely mention the Israeli-Palestinian and Israel-Syria peace processes.

Senator Barack Obama talks about withdrawing from Iraq within around a year and a half, moving forces to Afghanistan--an arena to which he assigns higher priority--and talking to Iran without preconditions. When visiting Israel and Palestine he promises to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process immediately and intensively, while back home he indicates he "won't wait seven years" (like the Bush administration) to apply his administration's energies to that process--a prescription that appears to imply somewhat less urgency. Understandably, in view of the Bush administration failure in this regard, neither camp talks much about democratization.

When you confront spokespersons for the two candidates with the obvious necessity to prioritize their Middle East tasks, the usual answer is that everything is equally urgent and important. But no US administration can apply all of its limited military, financial and diplomatic resources simultaneously and over time to so many demanding issues in the region. Obama appears to have done a bit more prioritizing than McCain: he clearly assigns greater importance to Afghanistan than Iraq, for example, and may be ranking Israel-Palestine at a lower level of urgency.

Indeed, Israel-related issues do not merit top priority on the next president's Middle East agenda. Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan come first, even when we factor in the undoubted positive influence any Israel-Arab peace agreement could have on America's fortunes in those more distant arenas. So leaving aside the campaign hype on both the Republican and Democrat sides, the question the next president will really confront is, after dealing with Iran/Iraq/Afghanistan, how does he allocate his limited residual Middle East resources to the Israel-Arab conflict.

The answer should be clear: give priority to Israel-Syria over Israel-Palestine. An Israel-Syria peace process with heavy American input is more likely to succeed than an Israeli-Palestinian process, and the payoff, the peace dividend, is potentially far greater for the region-at-large and particularly the Iraq and Iran arenas.

An Israeli-Palestinian peace process cannot succeed without stronger Israeli and Palestinian leadership. The current Israeli government can barely dismantle a single outpost, while the Abbas/Fayyad government in Ramallah cannot deliver Hamas-ruled Gaza. While the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic must not be neglected by the next administration lest it regress, American input should be directed in the short term toward confidence-building, laying the political foundations for united and moderate Palestinian rule and testing the capacity of the government of Israel to deliver on its commitments. The worst thing the Obama or McCain administration could do is commit to another all-out Israeli-Palestinian peace process that fails and consequently generates more chaos and violence.

In contrast, the Israel-Syria process is begging for constructive American input. The next president should, together with his European and moderate Arab allies, offer Syria a package of economic and political benefits that enable it to leave the radical pro-Iran camp and commit to a major change in strategic orientation. If this succeeds (there is no guarantee when it comes to Bashar Assad, but the odds are better than in Ramallah and Gaza), the resultant major transformation in Syria's regional status, setback for Iran's aspirations in the Levant, reduction in Hizballah and Hamas terrorism and added stability for Iraq would not only benefit Washington's higher-ranking priorities to the east but would convince Israelis to "pay" with the Golan Heights in return for enhanced strategic security. It would help stabilize Lebanon--another highly problematic item on the next president's Middle East agenda that neither candidate appears interested in talking about--and would even strengthen the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace by weakening Hamas and bringing Syria into the moderate camp.

Thus, President Obama or President McCain's Middle East agenda should logically begin with Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan and follow with Syria-Israel. Obama in particular must consider the strategic needs of Israel and the moderate Arab states in talking to Iran or withdrawing from Iraq. In the short term, the Palestinian-Israeli process should be lower on the list, with the emphasis on conflict-management and improving the political environment. The impression left by Obama's rhetoric on his recent visit here that on January 21, 2009 he would somehow "hit the ground running" regarding Israel-Palestine is a mistake. So is McCain's apparent preference not to address Israel-related peace process issues with any sense at all of urgency.

Finally, both American political camps must never forget or ignore the true Middle East reality. At the end of the day, it is the region's unanticipated crises that to a large extent determine the direction of American policy. A Hizballah takeover in Lebanon, a mega-terrorist attack on Israel, the assassination of a national leader, skyrocketing energy prices, a regime crisis in Kabul or Baghdad, a new Iranian boast or threat or even a new war in the region--these are the sort of developments that the next president will have to respond to in the middle of the night in Washington.- Published 28/7/2008 © 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.

Dear Senator Obama

by Laila El-Haddad

I am a Palestinian from Gaza. I write to you as a Palestinian, a supporter of what you stand for and to share my thoughts with you as you continue your run for the presidency.

There's been a lot of excitement about your candidacy. As you have no doubt surmised from your recent global tour, this excitement extends the world over. The energy and promise of your campaign has resonated with Palestinians too, who yearn for change of their own.

If you are indeed elected, I plead with you not to fall into the traps that former US presidents have and not to make the same mistakes. Otherwise the promise of peace will be just that--no more than a promise.

Challenge the conventional wisdom of those before you. Oslo has been around for 15 years now. The reality on the ground for Palestinians is at sharp odds with the process itself. During that time, Israel's illegal settlement enterprise has nearly doubled while Palestinian poverty and unemployment rates have reached historic heights. Meanwhile, the prospect of a viable, contiguous Palestinian state is more remote than ever.

Take a hard look at what worked and what didn't and be open and ready to consider alternatives such as power-sharing arrangements or confederations. Increasingly, both sides are realizing it is time to act or consider alternatives that are more sustainable, just and viable for both sides.

Stand in the face of injustice. I ask you to think back to your own anti-apartheid activism. You had been forthright in your criticism of US Middle East policy and called for an even-handed approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This was--and still is--the courageous and patriotic thing to do, Mr. Senator. This is change. Real change.

Be open to meet with a wide range of representatives and leaders and contingents from both sides--something that Oslo failed to ensure. If Israel itself has established contacts and negotiated a ceasefire with Hamas, then so too should the US. This does not mean compromising American principles. Tough talk may be well and good in politics and the race to the White House. But the real test of an effective leader is whether those words accomplish the goals of securing peace and security for the United States and the region.

Despite all that has happened, Palestinians continue to believe that the US is the only country capable of helping negotiate a just and lasting peace between Palestinians and Israelis. But in order to do so, the US must be a fair and honest broker. And a fair and honest broker cannot turn a blind eye to Israeli aggressions nor be its biggest provider of arms and unrestricted aid dollars.

According to aid organizations, the situation for 1.5 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip is worse now than it has been since the start of the Israeli military occupation in 1967. The people of Gaza are suffocating. But there is no natural disaster to speak of here, no civil war or genocide. This catastrophe is completely man-made, and fortunately it is reversible. The people of Gaza have been subject to a determined effort to choke an entire population into submission. And history will judge us on how we react.

More than 80 percent of Gazans now rely on humanitarian aid and more than half live under the poverty line and are unemployed as a direct result of the Israeli blockade. Movement in and out of Gaza is all but impossible and supplies of food and water, sewage treatment and basic healthcare can no longer be taken for granted. The blockade has effectively dismantled the economy and impoverished the population of Gaza.

But let us not make the mistake of reducing this to mere economics, Mr. Senator. Israel's policy affects the civilian population of Gaza indiscriminately and constitutes a collective punishment against ordinary men, women and children. The measures taken are illegal under international humanitarian law as well as US law.

Palestinians have national aspirations as they do social and economic ones. We yearn for our freedom, Mr. Senator, the freedom to move and think and breathe without outside control; the freedom to live and be united with our loved ones.

Mr. Senator, though my husband is also Palestinian, he is not allowed to visit--let alone live in--Gaza. We cannot exercise our natural right to live together in our own land and as a family. This is because Israel, despite its much-lauded disengagement from that territory, maintains its occupation and control of the area.

On your recent trip to Berlin, you applauded the felling of the wall there and talked about the need to tear down walls "between races and tribes; Christian and Muslim and Jew". The speech was inspirational. It would have been more impressive if you had called for the abolition of Israel's wall--three times the length and twice as high as the Berlin wall--during your trip to Jerusalem.

The Quartet put forward a list of three conditions to end the blockade of Gaza: that violence ends, that peace agreements are abided by and that Israel is recognized where Palestine has yet to be recognized. It is as though the onus of Israel's security lay with the Palestinians. The statistics paint a very different picture of the reality on the ground.

Last year, 520 Palestinians were killed, including 70 children. Twenty-four Israelis were killed during the same period. Since the Annapolis conference, the number of Israeli military checkpoints increased by about 60, and the rate of Israeli settlement expansion has exploded.

These trends are destroying the possibilities of peace in the Middle East and they are undermining America's national interests as well as Israel's own security.

The overwhelming majority of Palestinians did not leave their districts last year due to Israeli control over their movement. The average illegal Israeli settler is allowed to use almost 50 times more water than a Palestinian residing legally in his own land.

Yes, this is apartheid, Mr. Senator. Ending it will be the real change. A change we can all believe in.- Published 28/7/2008 © bitterlemons.org

Laila El-Haddad is a journalist from Gaza.

The Arabs will look differently upon America

by Ron Pundak

On January 20, 1993 we departed--Yair Hirschfeld and myself--for our first meeting in Norway with the PLO delegation headed by Abu Ala (Ahmed Qurei). This meeting would eventually lead to the Oslo accord, signed nine months later on the White House lawn under the auspices of the president of the United States. That same evening, we watched the inauguration ceremony of President Bill Clinton. A new president, a wave of hope: we asked ourselves how involved the new administration would become in the Middle East peace process. Little did we know that to a great extent, it was the process we had launched that day that would dictate policy to the Americans and not the reverse.

The reality that will confront you, the next American president, whether Republican or Democrat, exactly 17 years later, on January 20, 2009, is completely different. The key to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still held by the two sides, but American interests in the Middle East have changed dramatically: the US can and must advance the peace process.

The Israel-Palestine file is ostensibly not a major strategic issue in terms of American global policy. Yet history shows that without a hard and fast resolution of that file the conflict will continue to affect American strategic interests. The cornerstone of a solution to the Israel-Arab conflict is a stable permanent status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Such a move will significantly strengthen the US both in the Middle East arena and with regard to the troubled relationship between the West and radical Islam. At a time when the US is at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Arab and Muslim worlds will look differently upon America and upon an American president who is advancing Middle East peace processes.

In this respect, timing is an important factor. The new president will not have the luxury of beginning his term while doing nothing to advance a Middle East peace process. The many regional challenges demand a move that embraces the broadest possible context, beginning with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but expanding toward Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Hamas, Shi'ites, Hizballah and additional threats to the moderate states in the Middle East. It is easier to withdraw from Iraq and to fight bin Laden's terror when America is taking the lead in a strategic peace process.

Time is running out. Hence a dual process, initiated by America, must be advanced as quickly as possible and must lead to two political settlements--between Israel and the Palestinians and between Israel and Syria. We are not referring to detailed peace agreements but rather to detailed declarations of principles, including maps, that place the entire region on a new road--one that rests on the foundation of the Arab peace initiative of March 2002 that was ratified in full in 2007.

The Arab peace initiative is revolutionary compared to earlier and similar documents. The innovation lies not only in the initiative's political content but in its wrapping as well. Indeed, its language and cultural references strengthen its message. A double agreement, with Syria and the Palestinians, in effect realizes the historic Israeli aspiration, anchored in the Arab peace initiative, to end the Arab-Israel conflict and establish "normal relations" with all 22 members of the Arab League. Such a Middle East is decidedly an American interest.

Some will advise you, Mister President, to wait with the Syrians; that their interests are not clear and that they won't give up their dangerous link with Iran. Yet realistically speaking, there is no regional peace without Syria; in fact, the formula for Syrian-Israeli peace has been awaiting signature since 2000.

Syria can be either a spoiler or a builder. Its interests lie in its natural environment: in the domestic Syrian tension between Alawites and Sunnis, in Lebanon, and in confronting Israel, but not in Iran or in an alliance with extremist Shi'ism. Syria must not be left alone and feeling threatened. Its inclusion in the circle of peace is precisely what could weaken Iran's capacity to stir up trouble in distant arenas like Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.

The dangerous tension between Iran and Israel can also be dispelled by energizing a peace process in the Arab-Israel sector. The day Israel establishes diplomatic relations with a Palestinian state--when Jerusalem is no longer an Israel-Arab or Jewish-Islamic cassus belli--the regime in Tehran will have no rationale for threatening to destroy Israel.

Apropos destruction, we conclude with a few words about Israeli fears. Bear in mind, Mr. President, that we are truly a paranoid people. Israeli fears have historical underpinnings, some real and some exaggerated. Dealt with properly, these fears can be overcome, but he who ignores Israeli paranoia will never succeed in facilitating a solution. Most of the Israeli public wants peace and is prepared to pay a price we are all aware of. The problem is lack of trust and a strong sense of constant threat at both the individual and collective levels. Israel's readiness to make concessions to the Palestinians and Syrians will not be forthcoming unless it senses that the world, and particularly America, will continue to stand by its side and neutralize threats to its existence.

This, then, is an issue of public opinion. But who better than you knows that without supportive public opinion it is extremely difficult to lead toward change.- Published 28/7/2008 © bitterlemons.org

Dr. Ron Pundak is the director general of the Peres Center for Peace. He was one of the architects and negotiators of the Oslo Agreement.

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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.