Saturday, January 1, 2011

Discordant Voices in a Land Without Peace"On Peace in the Middle East: So What Else is New

Greg Sheridan, The Australian, 1/1/11

IS there any chance that this year will produce a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians?

After nearly two weeks of intensive interviews in Israel and the Palestinian territories, my answer is almost certainly no.

The Israeli government -- never mind the broader Israeli society -- is torn by contradictory visions of how it might deal with the Palestinians.

The Palestinian leadership -- itself divided not only between the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and Hamas in Gaza, but much more deeply within each of those entities -- is unsure of its direction, weak in authority and fixated on campaigning internationally rather than negotiating directly with the Israelis.

WikiLeaks has revealed the extent of broader Arab dislocation, with leaders of almost all the Arab states secretly urging Washington to attack Iran.

The most important external player, the Obama administration, is confused and discredited. It staked everything on the strange play of insisting on a total freeze of construction in Jewish neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem and in Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Such a freeze, which had never been a precondition to Palestinian negotiations before, naturally then became a reason for the Palestinians not to negotiate.

At first the Israelis defied the Obama administration. But even when it won a temporary freeze, Washington could barely get the two sides together for direct talks.

Now the freeze has gone, the Obama administration has abandoned it as policy, the two sides are still not talking directly and the Obama administration is burned and diminished as an interlocutor in this dispute.

So where do we go from here?

Perhaps the best analysis comes from Ramallah. Qays Abdul-Karem Khaled, a veteran Palestinian politician, told a small group of Australian visitors, of which I was one: "This new stage is very hazy, very ambiguous."

Three interviews in Israel and Ramallah gave me an insight into three conflicting visions of the immediate future.

I met Avishay Braverman at the Shoresh Kibbutz, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. In the darkness of the night, inside the sprawling hillside kibbutz, we had a little slapstick comedy finding each other, but he was well worth the wait.

A big, burly man with a voluble and forceful manner, he is a member of the minority Labor Party within the generally right-wing coalition government of Benjamin Netanyahu.

A former president of Ben-Gurion University, he unashamedly wants to replace Ehud Barak as leader of the Labor Party.

He wants the Netanyahu government to immediately embrace a settlements construction freeze, whatever Obama has decided, and dive immediately into final-status negotiations with the Palestinians. If Netanyahu won't do this, Braverman wants the Labor Party to leave the coalition and campaign for a peace agreement from outside government.

Braverman speaks with a rush and a desperate sense of urgency: "A freeze is a marginal issue compared to the central issue of borders and security.

"But as a freeze is a small issue, why not go into direct negotiations with the Palestinians with a freeze for six months?

"And if there are no negotiations, why should Labor be part of the government?

"The key issue is, if we don't partition the Holy Land, eventually the United Nations will intervene and there will be one state west of the Jordan River and it will have an Arab majority. If we don't partition the Holy Land, eventually we will have one Arab state with a Jewish minority and an end to Zionism."

But Braverman's offer to the Palestinians would be very much like those of former prime ministers Ehud Olmert and Barak. Braverman says: "We need 5 per cent of the West Bank for the settlement blocks in exchange for unpopulated areas of the Negev, and we need strong security measures and help from the US."

But supposing the Braverman position triumphs, either within the Netanyahu government or within a reconfigured Israeli government following elections. What if what Braverman then considers to be the maximum offer is made to the Palestinians and they still say no, either because they want the right of return of millions of Palestinians and their descendants to Israel proper, or because Hamas cannot accept an end-of-conflict agreement, or just because they think a better offer might still come along or it's just too hard to say yes? What then?

Braverman answers the question: "If we make real negotiations and the Palestinians don't come to the table then we expose the Palestinians and we can build in the settlements later."

But this is in effect what Barak and Olmert did, and it didn't noticeably improve Israel's international standing, a consideration Braverman makes clear is central to his calculus.

He is also deeply conscious, as perhaps not too many Israelis are, of the dangers of the present impasse, notwithstanding Israel's booming economy and low levels of terrorism in recent years.

Braverman says: "The alternative right now, doing nothing, will destroy Israel. It will make it eventually an isolated Sparta.

"Now there is a great opportunity, because the Arab states fear Iran and will press [Palestinian Authority leader] Mahmoud Abbas to move forward. That won't last for long. In two or three years' time we'll wake up and it will be a much worse world for us."

You couldn't get a more contradictory view from within Israel's government than that offered by Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom. A former foreign minister, Shalom challenged Netanyahu for the leadership of the Likud and came second.

He is a formidable political leader at the centre of the Israeli government. He opposed Obama's insistence on a freeze on settlement construction and he opposed the freeze itself. I met him at a seminar at Tel Aviv's Bar-Ilan University and we talked at length in a small meeting room.

The settlement freeze "was a big mistake", Shalom told me.

"I opposed it from day one. You don't have to put all your efforts on a marginal issue."

The Obama administration "wasted all their efforts for nothing". "They brought very difficult issues to our coalition.

"No Israeli prime minister in the past was ever required to freeze settlements. And some of those prime ministers got agreements. Netanyahu himself did the Hebron and Wye River accords."

These were agreements for partial Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territories, which Netanyahu concluded when he was prime minister a decade ago.

Shalom continued: Settlements "didn't stop Barak and Olmert from making very generous offers. The Palestinians are not willing to have direct negotiations.

"They believe if they come to the table they will have to make concessions of their own, concessions they're unwilling to make."

Shalom argues that the world is focused on the concessions an Israeli government would need to make for peace to work, but rarely looks at what the Palestinians would need to do, such as respect Israeli security, recognise Israel as a Jewish state, abandon claims for a right of return to Israel proper and agree to an end of conflict and an end of claims against Israel, all of which would be necessary to make peace work.

"The Palestinians asked for a statement of commitment to a two-state solution and they got it. They never demanded a settlement freeze with Olmert. Mahmoud Abbas and [Palestinian Prime Minister] Salam Fayyad don't really like each other."

Shalom says the only realistic way forward is to try to build up the Palestinian economy in the West Bank and hope for more realistic positions in the future.

Naturally, the Palestinian leadership doesn't see things this way. As part of a small group, I met Nabil Shaath in the Fatah Foreign Relations Commission building in Ramallah, a city that looked remarkably affluent on the day I visited -- its streets clogged with cars, numerous BMW dealerships, busy markets, high-end brand-name retail stores and apartment buildings that look much like those in nearby Jerusalem. Shaath is best known as a former Palestinian foreign minister, although he also served briefly as prime minister.

He doesn't have much common ground with either Braverman or Shalom, but like a lot of people I met in Israel he thinks the Obama administration is badly wounded as a mediator in the dispute: "The Americans are in a very difficult position. They are supposed to be the main mediator but they have lost their credibility.

"The Middle East is in the vital interests of America. Hundreds of thousands of American soldiers are at risk in Muslim countries because of agitation arising from the inability to solve this Palestinian-Israeli issue.

"When America really wants to implement something it goes to war and spends billions of dollars. Every agreement since 1994 has had American involvement.

"Israel has violated every one of the commitments it was supposed to make, whereas the Palestinians have implemented everything, including implementing security that Israelis were never able to do.

"What does the US do in response to Israeli transgressions? The US tries now seduction. Mr Netanyahu you have made so many transgressions what can we give you now?"

Shaath made one statement that would please Israelis and Americans: "We are not going back to violence, even though it is our right. When you are occupied militarily you have the right to resist by military means.

"But we are not going back to violence. And no one can blame us. We fought for 20 years and lost thousands of martyrs."

He has one suggestion specifically for Canberra: "Australia should seriously consider recognising a [Palestinian] state along 1967 borders, as some South Americans have recently done, or at least raise the level of our representative in Australia to the level of an embassy."

But for much of our discussion, Shaath focused on what he saw as the parallel with South Africa -- that a vast international campaign against Israel, as was mobilised against South Africa, can force it to make concessions for peace. He has no confidence that the Netanyahu government will make such concessions otherwise.

These three men, Avishay Braverman, Silvan Shalom and Nabil Shaath, are all moderates and there is no reason to doubt their goodwill. The extremists of Hamas and Tehran have different views altogether. Yet even the visions of Braverman, Shalom and Shaath rest on completely different and contradictory understandings of the power dynamics of the world today, and as a result different calculations of incentive and disincentive, profit and loss, risk and reward.

It's very difficult to see a long-term peace deal coming out of this anytime soon.

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