Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 257 - 259)



  Q257  Chairman: On behalf of the Foreign Affairs Committee, may I welcome you to the Committee? The subject is Israel and Palestine. To introduce you briefly, Dr Emanuele Ottolenghi is an expert on Israeli politics at St Anthony's College in Oxford?

  Dr Ottolenghi: Yes.

  Chairman: Dr Gunning, you are an expert on Hamas and Palestinian politics and we welcome your assistance to the Committee in terms of the Middle East.

  Q258  Mr Hamilton: Welcome, gentlemen. I want to start off by asking you about the unilateral withdrawal by Israel from Gaza and I want to ask you both for your opinion as to whether, after all the controversy within the Likud Party, it will actually go ahead.

  Dr Ottolenghi: First of all, thank you for the invitation to come here. The dateline, the framework, for the withdrawal is about 16 to 18 months from now. The Middle East has accustomed us to know that in 16 to 18 months the world can change and change again, so my feeling is that the answer should be a qualified yes. The decision by the Prime Minister of Israel to go ahead with this plan and to face this kind of opposition within his own party and to renege on his political past and his ideological legacy is an indication which people across the political spectrum in Israel are starting to recognise. He takes this plan very seriously. There is the political will. The political battle ahead is very difficult because of political opposition within the coalition of Prime Minister Sharon. Having said that, the polls at least in the last two years show repeatedly and consistently the very widespread support of the Israeli public for this kind of policy. The support extends not just to the political areas that you would expect to support such a move—i.e., the Israeli left—but the withdrawal plan put forward by Prime Minister Sharon enjoys today the support of over 55 per cent of Likud voters. The strength of this plan is that, despite political opposition, it enjoys a very broad support among the public. The Prime Minister is strong with that support and will use that support in order to push forward. Of course, having said that, nobody knows how the plan once it starts rolling down the hill will play on the other side of the fence.

  Dr Gunning: Talking about the other side of the fence, I completely agree with what Dr Ottolenghi says, but it may not be as unilateral as it now looks. The fact that Egypt has been showing interest in having some kind of security arrangement with whatever authority will be there, in conjunction with US and Israeli observers, means it looks likely that there is going to be a slightly more formal handing over of power than "unilateral" indicates as a term. On the Palestinian side, there certainly seems to be a readiness for this kind of action, among the Palestinian Authority and also the opposition groups who sense that this might be an opportunity to strengthen their base. One thing I would caution against is the number of pundits who say that the Palestinian Authority is too weak to withstand Hamas and that if Israel withdraws there will be a Hamas-led Gaza. I think that is a wrong reading of events. The Palestinian Authority is weakened partly because of the campaign of bombing directed by the Israeli Government and partly by its own in-fighting, particularly between Arafat loyalists and locally reared commanders like Mohamed Dahlan, who is an independent operator. There is enough strength there and certainly much more military strength than Hamas has, so it seems that even with a weakened Palestinian authority it is more likely to be some kind of a system of power sharing than a complete takeover.

  Q259  Mr Hamilton: Gentlemen, from what you have said it would appear that this is more than just political expediency; that it is perhaps a genuine contribution to the beginning of some sort of peace process. Would you agree?

  Dr Ottolenghi: I am always very careful about using the words "peace process" because there has not been peace and there is not much process around. We like to believe that there is a peace process or that something can be done to jump start it. The bottom line of the unilateral withdrawal is that the political terms and the kinds of concessions or consequences of this step are determined by and large by the Israeli decision to move forward regardless of what the Palestinian side will do. It would be a welcome step if cooperation and coordination, either at a bilateral level or multilaterally—we have seen Egypt giving an important contribution in the last few days—could take place in order to ensure that the withdrawal is smooth and achieved with as little violence and tension between the two sides as possible. Once that has happened, it is anyone's guess if the two parties can then seize the opportunity and go back to the negotiating table. The assumption that both the Israeli Government and the Israeli public that supports the withdrawal are making is that this is the best possible course of action to take in the present circumstances because the Israeli perception is that there is no place for meaningful negotiations. Regardless of the willingness of the other side to engage, the perception in Israel today is that the gap between the two sides is too broad and, in these circumstances, a unilateral withdrawal where Israel determines its own boundaries, even in a temporary way, is the only possible course of action. Having said that, Israel relinquishing territory, dismantling and evacuating settlements, removing troops from Gaza, are all steps that can help de-escalate the tension, reduce the pressure on the civilian populations and might create conditions for something to open up once the process is over, but we are talking about 18 months.

  Dr Gunning: There is a chance of some kind of settlement. Whether it is called "peace" is a different issue. There should be concern for the economic consequences of the unilateral withdrawal. At the moment, it seems that the main issue is security on the Israeli side and building a fence, withdrawing behind the fence and leaving the Palestinians in some ways to their own lot. Because the fence is situated in such a way that much of the most arable land of the West Bank is on the Israeli side, it means that you will effectively create a huge social ghetto on the other side which, in the long term, will be destabilising for any peace effort. Despite what Dr Ottolenghi says about the perception in Israel that there is no partner for any negotiations on the other side, my reading of especially what has been happening inside Hamas—and we have to recognise that Hamas at the moment is the king maker on the Palestinian side, because the Palestinian Authority does not have the popular legitimacy to carry any compromise through—is that there is a willingness within Hamas, despite the assassinations that have happened over the last year, to come to some kind of compromise on the basis of the 1967 borders. Sharon at the moment does not seem to be ready to concede that much territory but there is a window of opportunity there which could be used if Israel and the international community shift away from thinking that to solve the problem you have to eradicate opposition groups. There is too much support for the opposition groups to eradicate them. The Palestinian Authority does not have the wherewithal to do that, so, just as in Northern Ireland, there needs to be some kind of process where you bind the radicals within the process so that they get a stake in it. I am happy to expand on that if the Committee wants.[1]

1   Note by witness: For a more in-depth discussion of this argument, see J Gunning, `Peace with Hamas? The Transforming Potential pf Political Participation', International Affairs, Vol 80, No 2, March 2004 Back

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