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    June 30, 2008 Edition 25                      Palestinian-Israeli crossfire
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Olmert's politics and the "peace offensive"
. Illusions built on domestic necessities        by Ghassan Khatib
One has to conclude that all the recent political developments are motivated by domestic circumstances.
  . Not much benefit for Abbas        by Yossi Alpher
Olmert and Abbas can begin to ignore American policy demands and strike out on their own.
. Olmert's "peacetachio" moves        by Mustafa Abu Sway
Olmert lacks the necessary courage for a leader who advocates peace.
  . Olmert's best chance        by Gerald M. Steinberg
The peace offensive may be Olmert's only chance of staying in power.

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Illusions built on domestic necessities
by Ghassan Khatib

In the last few weeks we have witnessed a series of developments that at face value might appear inconsistent with the general trends of deterioration that the Arab-Israel conflict in particular and the Middle East in general has been experiencing.

There have been reports about indirect Syrian-Israeli negotiations mediated by Turkey and not objected to by the US. Egypt succeeded in brokering a truce between Israel and the Hamas leadership in Gaza that has been observed successfully, albeit only just. Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice strikes an optimistic note regarding the current negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas.

So is the trend reversing? Are negatives becoming positives and are we in the middle of a peace offensive, as some commentators have described it? Or are these just illusions and gimmicks motivated by the short-term political interests of certain leaders?

It is usually helpful to try and look for connections between the external political behaviors among the different leaderships in the region and their domestic circumstance. And the above developments all seem to have coincided with significant developments in Israel, which is usually the major driving force behind political developments in the context of the Arab-Israel conflict.

Olmert is motivated mainly by his domestic crisis and struggle for political survival. In addition to the difficulties he has been facing in keeping his coalition together, the corruption scandal has seriously challenged his premiership and is still likely to bring him down. Nevertheless, as part of his maneuvering for survival he has been trying to create the impression among his public as well among as the political elite in Israel that his continued survival is crucial for the potential success of the different political processes he has set in motion.

Yet all of these tracks are more about illusion than substantive progress.

While the ceasefire with Hamas in Gaza might be considered a significant sign of progress toward security and peace and has succeeded in temporarily ending the violence and consequently reducing public pressure on Olmert, it cannot represent any significant progress toward peace. Israel is not negotiating peace with Hamas and the Islamist movement has been clear that the ceasefire does not mean an end to attempts at strengthening the military capabilities of Hamas, including by continuing the smuggling of arms to Gaza. In fact, there was consensus among analysts that the ceasefire strengthens Hamas at the expense of the Palestinian Authority and the peace camp in Palestine, with whom Israel is supposed to be negotiating peace.

The reopening of indirect Israeli-Syrian contacts, meanwhile, is also an illusion, particularly because Israel is making no secret that its implicit objective in these contacts is isolating Syria from Iran and reducing Syrian influence in Lebanon, including with Hizballah. Clearly, Syria has no motivation for losing either its alliance with Iran or influence in Lebanon, merely because of promises from an Israeli government that is on its last legs.

Furthermore, it is difficult to imagine serious political progress in the Arab-Israel context without significant American involvement and support. And since the US is in the middle of presidential elections it is not at all likely we can expect significant political developments from any side.

For all these reasons, one has to conclude that the recent political developments are motivated by the domestic circumstances of the different parties and have very little chance of success. In addition to Olmert's domestic woes, Hamas needs to reorganize itself and reduce the pressure on the Gazan population, while Syria wants to break the isolation that was imposed on it by the US and its allies in the region.

In other words, the parties are benefiting domestically from these political developments while they are not in a position or cannot afford to do what it takes for these processes to reach their stated destination: peace in the region.

Most illustratively, and in spite of contradicting statements, negotiations between Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas seem unable to breed any serious and justified optimism. That will be the case for as long as they fail to end the consolidation of the occupation and the expansion of settlements, the sine qua non of progress in the peace process .- Published 30/6/2008 © 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.

Not much benefit for Abbas
by Yossi Alpher

The latest display of successful political manipulation by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has given his government a temporary reprieve. He will remain prime minister for at least three months and perhaps beyond.

And he is likely to continue to pursue the ambitious peacemaking and conflict-mitigation activity that he has displayed on virtually all fronts in recent weeks and months since it serves all his presumed aims: political survival, expanding the circle of peace and even neutralizing potential accomplices to an Iranian reprisal in the event Iran's nuclear installations are attacked.

Olmert's government is weak and riven by dissent and rivalry. Not all his initiatives with Israel's neighbors make sense at the strategic level. Yet he persists, seemingly convinced that in his dismal political situation and with his public approval ratings scraping the floor, he has nothing to lose and everything to gain.

In what directions might he now embark? And how would they affect the fortunes of the most veteran and core peace process, that with the Ramallah-based PLO?

Badly, for the most part. Beginning closest to home, all of the Olmert government's dealings with the Hamas regime in Gaza have the negative effect of weakening President Mahmoud Abbas and his government. The Gaza ceasefire is seen by Palestinians as an achievement by Hamas and its arms and is contrasted to the apparent lack of real progress in the Abbas-Olmert negotiations over a peace framework. By the same token, a prisoner exchange with Hamas that involves the release of large numbers of hard-core Palestinian terrorists from Israeli jails will further weaken Abbas' image as a leader who can deliver. Indeed, even the inclusion of a handful of Palestinians among those released by Israel in its deal with Hizballah will hurt Abbas.

Note that the moderate Palestinian president's peace and security efforts, however weak and problematic, have almost never been rewarded by Olmert's releasing Palestinian prisoners. If Olmert wants his Palestinian peace track to succeed, he must deliver tangible concessions to Abbas himself. Yet it is precisely here that the Israeli prime minister appears to be powerless. With all his skills as a political manipulator, he seemingly cannot begin to remove outposts and stop settlement sprawl without losing his coalition. Nor is he or any other mainstream Israeli politician inclined to offer concessions regarding the refugee/right of return issue or the holy basin issues in Jerusalem--concessions that could compromise Israel's status as a Jewish and democratic state--just to make Abbas a hero to his fellow Palestinians.

In contrast, any sort of progress registered in the indirect Syria-Israel peace talks could serve Abbas' overall objectives, to the extent that it presages the weakening of Hamas by its leadership's eventual expulsion from Damascus. When Abbas gave the Israel-Syria talks his blessing, he evidently recognized that ultimately their success would serve his cause.

But we are a long way from achieving this goal. Meanwhile, Olmert's adventures in peacemaking and conflict resolution, especially the ceasefire with Hamas, have persuaded Abbas that his and Fateh's political survival require him to seek renewed negotiations with Hamas regarding a Palestinian unity government.

This Palestinian move, like Israel's ceasefire negotiations with Hamas and its indirect talks with Syria, points to a significant regional development: the waning of the Bush administration's influence. President George W. Bush's increasingly obvious lame-duck status, following upon a two-term record of consistent failure in the region, enables actors like Olmert and Abbas, despite or perhaps because of their political weakness, to begin to ignore American policy demands and strike out on their own by talking to regional actors that are boycotted or ignored by Washington.

We recall that it was precisely clandestine Israel-Arab talks behind Washington's back that produced the most dramatic peace breakthroughs: Sadat's visit to Jerusalem, the Oslo accord and Israel-Jordan peace. But the Israeli and Arab leaders involved in those achievements were strong and coherent strategic thinkers. That is not the case here. Indeed, in the present instance the issue at stake is far more likely to be Olmert and Abbas' political survival than a bold new peace departure.- Published 30/6/2008 © 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.

Olmert's "peacetachio" moves

by Mustafa Abu Sway

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is waging what has become known as a "peace offensive" on several fronts. The Turkish government is mediating talks between Israel and Syria about a possible Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights while Egypt brokered a ceasefire (tahdiyeh) in the Gaza Strip with Hamas and other Islamic and nationalist Palestinian movements. The ceasefire should include the West Bank in the next six months and has already survived a week of violations.

The US, meanwhile, is attempting to solve the problem of Lebanon's Shebaa farms, which are occupied by Israel and where the demarcation of a border with Syria is a necessary step. And in the latest move, Israel approved a German-mediated prisoners' swap with Hizballah.

In addition, the official Palestinian track has witnessed several high profile meetings. Olmert has repeatedly received Mahmoud Abbas at his residence in Jerusalem while Israel's foreign minister Tzipi Livni and chief Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei have spent many hours negotiating, apparently in the spirit of much ado about nothing. No breakthrough has been reached and no final status issues solved in spite of the fact that the Bush administration wants a Palestinian state by the end of this year. Resolving the Palestinian issue remains the cornerstone of peace in the region and beyond.

The November Moscow conference, if it takes place, should create some balance in negotiations. This is the rationale behind creating the Quartet. Israel is still suspicious and antagonistic toward any serious role by the Quartet, except the US. The latter has just issued invitations to the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to Washington for tripartite negotiations.

There are political analysts that interpret Olmert's feverish political maneuvers with Israel's neighbors as an attempt to neutralize important regional allies of Iran before an attack on the latter's nuclear facilities. The consequence of such an attack would dwarf the Iraqi disaster. The whole Gulf region would suffer tremendously, with deep repercussions for the world economy and stability. Yet on the other hand, and in what might be considered a "peacetachio" move, Israel has just enriched the Iranian treasury with US$20 million for Iranian pistachios. It would have been easier to interpret this business transaction had it been an established fact that nuts prevent wars.

There is another plausible scenario to explain the intense Israeli political activities that have taken place lately. Olmert wants to divert the Israeli public's attention away from his personal problems. Israeli opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu subscribes to this position; he considers the talks with Syria "a ruse by Olmert to divert attention away from the probes" against him.

Exactly one month ago, Olmert was under pressure to resign or take leave from office, while under investigation for receiving money from American financier Morris Talansky. This case, which is far from over, is not the first time he has been under public and state scrutiny, but this time it is a close call; the case reached Attorney General Mazuz who has to decide whether to indict or not.

Ehud Olmert stated that he would not resign unless indicted. But in any case, his tenure as prime minister was not expected to last this long. His days as a prime minister were thought numbered in the aftermath of the Winograd report that found that Olmert shouldered the primary responsibility for Israel's failure in the 2006 war on Lebanon. The report depicted him as someone who made decisions without systematic consultations with relevant bodies, "despite not having experience in external-political and military affairs".

Furthermore, he is leading a fragile coalition government. Members of his cabinet blackmail him politically (Shas demands child welfare payments and expansion of the Beitar Illit settlement in order to stay, while Yisrael Beitenu resigned in protest at the start of negotiations with the Palestinians). He was threatened by members of his cabinet not to include Jerusalem in the final status negotiations and responded by saying that the city would stay under Israeli rule.

In other words, Olmert lacks the necessary courage for a leader who advocates peace. He is simply a survivor who adapts his political position according to the prevailing winds. One thing is certain: waving the "peace" card for public consumption will not prevent Olmert's political demise. His own cabinet has prime minister-wannabes (i.e., Livni, Shaul Mofaz and Ehud Barak) who work relentlessly to oust him. Netanyahu is waiting on the outside. None of them has a true vision for peace since apparently none feels one is necessary.- Published 30/6/2008 © bitterlemons.org

Dr. Mustafa Abu Sway teaches at al-Quds University.

Olmert's best chance

by Gerald M. Steinberg

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has again demonstrated his skill in manipulating Israel's dysfunctional electoral system. After surviving the Winograd commission reports on the mistakes made in the 2006 Second Lebanon War, Olmert faced another wave of calls to resign following testimony related to corruption charges. But through an agreement with Labor party leader Ehud Barak, a Knesset vote was cancelled that would have led to national elections in the fall and would probably have returned opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu to power. Unless there are new political "earthquakes" (always a possibility in Israel), the current coalition is likely to continue until at least the spring of 2009.

As a result, and as part of a survival strategy that includes shifting the focus of media attention, Olmert's "peace offensive" remains very much on the table. The issues include the negotiations for a "shelf agreement" with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and talks with Syria. The prisoner exchange negotiations with Hizballah and Hamas and the unwritten ceasefire agreement that entered into effect in Gaza on June 22 are also part of this offensive.

For Olmert, the Palestinian dimensions serve multiple objectives. The platform of unilateral withdrawal on which Olmert's Kadima party ran in the 2006 elections collapsed after the Hamas coup a year later along with the escalation of rocket attacks against Sderot, extending to Ashkelon. Among the Israeli public, support for further withdrawals evaporated. Negotiations toward an "historic peace agreement" based on a two-state solution provide an alternative that Olmert and Kadima hope will keep them in power after 2009.

At the same time, Olmert also recognized the demand for action to end the missile attacks from Gaza. But a full-scale military operation to reoccupy Gaza could result in significant Israeli casualties and would leave the Israeli military back in control of the people and territory from which it had pulled out in 2005. While this is still considered by many to be the least-bad option, the ceasefire negotiated by Egypt provides a last alternative. This also opens the way for the return of Gilad Shalit, the kidnapped Israeli soldier who has been held for two years.

In addition, if this scenario succeeds and the Hamas leadership is able to prevent attacks, some Israeli leaders see this as the beginning of a more stable relationship based on deterrence--a major improvement over the chaotic Arafat and Fateh record. And if this fails because Hamas is unwilling or unable to halt the missile attacks or because Egypt fails to prevent arms smuggling, Olmert and Defense Minister Barak will be able to say that all other alternatives have been tried before ordering a major attack.

At the same time, the negotiations with the Palestinian Authority on a peace framework constitute a more uncertain proposition for Olmert and Kadima. Given the weakness of Abbas and in view of past experience, the goal is limited to a "shelf agreement" to be implemented at some future time when the Fateh leadership has regained control of the Palestinian political system, including Gaza. Polls show that most Israelis are skeptical about the ability to reach an acceptable compromise that would resolve Palestinian claims regarding refugees (the so-called "right of return"), recognize Jewish historical and religious claims in Jerusalem and accept Jewish sovereignty in the context of a two-state framework. Without these elements, for which Palestinian society has not been prepared and which Yasser Arafat totally rejected at Camp David in July 2000, the conflict will continue and the negotiations will fail. But there is still some hope that under American pressure, Abbas can deliver.

In addition, the Annapolis process helps Olmert show a close working relationship with the Bush administration, which discovered the political benefits of Arab-Israel peace efforts in its last year. The frequent photo-ops and pats on the back from the president of the United States help Olmert to shift the domestic focus away from corruption and related issues. The negotiations are also presented as a core element in the strategy to end Iran's nuclear weapons program--the main item on Israel's security agenda.

But some of the related actions, such as removal of security checkpoints in order to promote economic improvement for Palestinians in the West Bank, also involve security risks for Israel. (The latest attempt to train an effective Palestinian police force that will also act against terrorists has yet to show results.) A single suicide bombing or terror attack will halt the process, and could also trigger the political "earthquake" that results in the collapse of the Olmert government.

Overall, the peace offensive includes numerous risks. But it is also Olmert's best and perhaps only chance of staying in power.- Published 30/6/2008 © bitterlemons.org

Gerald Steinberg is the chair of Political Science at Bar Ilan University and executive director of NGO Monitor.

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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.