Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 260 - 263)



  Q260  Mr Hamilton: Do you think the road map is dead, especially given what you said earlier?

  Dr Ottolenghi: Was it ever alive?

  Dr Gunning: It is as alive as it ever was, which means it is dormant.

  Q261  Mr Maples: A lot of us feel—and, Dr Ottolenghi, in your paper you said so—that most of us know what the shape of a settlement is going to be, if it happens. How close were the parties at Taba in January or February 2001 and what issues were still outstanding at that point?

  Dr Ottolenghi: There is a perception that Taba was spoiled by the Israeli elections and had it not been for the victory of Ariel Sharon Taba would have delivered. In my reading, that perception is wrong, not only because at Taba a few of the things which had been more or less agreed upon were reopened for discussion and the gap was broadened, particularly on territory. It seems to me that the Taba exercise was futile because an exercise whereby a government—I am talking about the Israeli Government now—two weeks before elections, with 25 Members of Parliament out of 120 still in the coalition, the government having resigned, that goes and negotiates the most fateful issues for a country simply lacks the legitimacy to make that kind of decision. That is part of the reason why, I am sure, the Prime Minister in office at the time lost the election. The public thought that the Prime Minister was going too far in an electoral exercise, endangering the main, national interests of the country just for electoral purposes. Secondly, on the outstanding issues such as Jerusalem and the refugees, despite the fact that the impression is that Israel conceded more than at Camp David, the fact remains that the Palestinian side did not necessarily accept those proposals as finally agreed upon. Taba remains an interesting exercise but it did not offer a blueprint for peace. There was no agreement there and since Taba in 2001 the positions of the two sides have moved away from one another.

  Dr Gunning: I fully agree with this assessment. The irony is that if you look at the kind of proposals that both the Palestinian Authority and the main opposition group, Hamas, have made since, they are very close to what was discussed at Taba, within a range of negotiation, in terms of the boundaries that were agreed on east Jerusalem and the type of shared sovereignty. The only issue that was probably a sticking point then and is still is that of refugees. It depends on the overall package but if the overall package is sufficiently attractive, the Palestinian leadership may compromise on the refugee issue. A group like Hamas which has been taking on the mantle of defending the rights of refugees since the Palestinian Authority has sold out—that is their rhetoric—is in a particularly good position to do this. They are the `Sharon' of Palestine. They are the hard liners. They are therefore in a better position to compromise on such a difficult issue if they choose to do so. At the moment, they do not show any sign that they are going to compromise on refugees but there are signs that they are interested in some kind of a settlement where they have a post-conflict presence.[2] They have shown to be responsive to shifts in popular moods. They realise that there is not the popular will to liberate the whole of Palestine. There is the popular will for violence as long as it leads to a two state solution but not beyond that. There seems to be a shift in the Hamas leadership which has recognised that. Because they are largely dependent on popular support for their power base, they cannot afford to alienate that kind of constituency, especially what you would call swing voters in Britain—not the core constituency, but the swing voters—which they have been increasingly attracting. That is one of the reasons why I think, ironically, Taba is probably the kind of agreement that would be conceivable.

  Q262  Mr Maples: If somebody took the Taba agreement and tried to bridge the gap in as objective a way as anybody can about this situation and then sought to impose a solution by a UN Chapter 7 Security Council resolution—I do not mean to seek to impose it by force but to say, "That is the settlement; these are the rights of refugees; this is the status of Jerusalem and the settlement for withdrawal of the 67 borders with these adjustments" or whatever—and imposed it in a UN Security Council resolution, you would bypass the difficulty each side has in finding something they can negotiate with on the other. Do you think that this is a starter or do you think both sides would reject it? I do not see them ever getting together in this grandmother's footsteps way that they have had for 40 or 50 years and somebody has to try to break this log jam because the repercussions of this completely outweigh its intrinsic importance and there may be an opposed settlement to say to both sides, "That is it. We will help you if you want but that is the deal. It is not going to be changed." Maybe one could get the Arab League on side for that. They have indicated that they would support a two state solution. Do you think it is a runner?

  Dr Gunning: I do not know about the Israeli side but on the Palestinian side, depending a bit on the kind of package that was presented, I think it might work, as long as there is international involvement, especially international restraint on Israel. From the Israeli point of view part of the problem is about Israeli security but from the Palestinian point of view it is not having any means to make Israel do what they want it to do. One of the reasons that Hamas has continued to advocate violence is precisely this idea that they consider Israel a spoiler of the peace process, just as Israel sees Hamas as a spoiler. They have calculated that the only leverage the Palestinians have over Israel is security. They do not have economic leverage. They do not have political leverage. If they can withhold security from Israel, that is their power. If the international community becomes involved and shows that it can, from the Palestinian perspective, restrain Israel and make it implement its promises, of course the incentive to violence will decrease. In that respect, it is very possible that this would work. I think the European Union, and Britain in particular, are in a very good position to explore this. They are not necessarily flavour of the month with the Israeli Government. There has often been tension there but they do carry much more trust with the Palestinians than the Americans do. They of course have some economic leverage over Israel in terms of various trade agreements and the way they have been funding the Palestinian Authority, so there is an economic incentive there. With Britain's own experience with Northern Ireland, there are ways and means by which it could make that experience pay in the Israeli/Palestinian case.

  Dr Ottolenghi: If one looks at the experience of the Camp David talks, the Sharm el Sheikh summit, the attempt by President Clinton in the twilight of his presidency to propose a framework for a settlement and then the Taba talks in the end, one sees that international involvement did no work. One sees that bilateral talks did not work. One sees that the players, left to their own devices, could not reach an agreement and one sees that the players, helped by very powerful friends, could not reach an agreement. The conclusion of that is that the agreement cannot be reached. The question is has the equation changed in the last three and a half years. My feeling is that it has not changed. If anything, it has become more difficult because the trust is lower than three and a half years ago, because the recriminations are higher than three and a half years ago, because the pain felt by the two sides is more intense and the consequent diffidence or mistrust in the other side is much harder to overcome. International involvement is obviously going to help the Palestinians more than the Israelis because the Palestinians are the weaker side, but the question is not so much whether that involvement would or would not be helpful. The question is what concessions can each side make to meet the other some way in between. That comes to the question of what is the concern that must be addressed. My colleague says that Israel's concern is security and I have to very respectfully disagree with that assessment. Of course, Israel's concern is with security but that is not the only concern. The main concern is that if you look carefully at the way things developed in the last 10 to 15 years what you see is a striking asymmetry between the two sides. What you see is that very slowly and very painfully the Israeli body politic has changed, has shifted. Today, with the exception of the extreme right, from the centre right all the way to the far left, there is an agreement that the Palestinians have a legitimate, moral claim. The question is the extent in practical, material concessions. How much they get and to what extent would Israel withdraw, not whether or not they do. There is a recognition of the legitimacy of the claim. You do not find a similar recognition in the mainstream on the other side. There is a grudging acceptance that Israel is there to stay because of its strength but that makes Israelis very wary because they say, "When we lose our strength or if the Arab world one days perceives that we have lost our strength, what is going to happen?" It is that issue of legitimacy that is compounded in the security question and that is why Israel will not accede to anything that might reduce its security. With international involvement, Israel has had a very bad or maybe mixed review in the past. Whether it is the UN forces in Egypt or the UN forces in Lebanon, Israel has come to mistrust international intervention. American intervention might be another question but that of course, we have just been told, is not pleasing to the Palestinians. If one thinks of how the Americans are being received in the rest of the Middle East these days, one wonders what would happen with American or UK troops on the ground in Gaza or the West Bank.

  Dr Gunning: One thing which is interesting in this analysis is that the radical discourse on Israel and the non-acceptance on Israel on the Palestinian side is only partly ideological and rooted in the fact that they have lost that land and therefore they want to hang on to it. It is also partly a function of the radical situation in which people live. If you look at other conflicts elsewhere, once the situation becomes deradicalised, more moderate views tend to be more acceptable and the more radical views become more costly. You could therefore argue that if there is a process of deradicalisation and normalisation the radical rhetoric that you hear now will slowly disappear.

  Q263  Sir John Stanley: Do you think, as far as the Sharon Government is concerned, particularly as far as Prime Minister Sharon is concerned, his disengagement plan is the first step on the implementation of the road map, or do you think it is simply a cover for the continuing, de facto annexation of the most advantageous parts of the West Bank?

  Dr Ottolenghi: I have had a lot of difficulty reading Sharon's mind in the last three years, or before for that matter. What seems to me the most important aspect of the disengagement plan is what you can do with it, what the public will do with it, what the international community will do with it. The Israeli public—and this is shown poll after poll, month after month—wants out of Gaza. It wants out of the West Bank too, interestingly enough. Polls consistently show a readiness to withdraw unilaterally—i.e., without anything in return—from isolated settlements in the West Bank, but a much greater willingness to negotiate on the rest of the settlements and the West Bank if there was a genuine partner, if there was an end to violence, if negotiations towards a final status arrangement could result. You have that as a factor. That, to me, suggests that whether Sharon means well or this is just a tactical effort to procrastinate, what ultimately will determine the course of events is what the public wants. Remember, in the last 12 years, the Israeli public has sent home four prime ministers. It is not a bad record for such a fractured society and I think that is ultimately what matters. This is an opportunity that cannot be missed. It is the first time that an Israeli Government, of its own free volition, demolishes, dismantles, evacuates settlements. Whether that is the end game for Sharon or not, it is entirely irrelevant. What matters is that there is a start, there is a precedent and the ball will start rolling again. I think that is what is really important.

  Dr Gunning: I largely agree. I do not have any more insight into Sharon's mind but it seems that the Gaza plan came about more as a tactical manoeuvre in response to domestic politics than as a well thought-out plan. Whether this means that there is going to be a precedent set and that this will continue into the West Bank is a different matter. At the moment, my understanding is that the wall is being built and extended into large settlements in the centre of the West Bank, cutting the West Bank into three and there is not the political will in the government to hand over any of that section of the West Bank. Of course, there is more willingness to hand over the more difficult-to-manage sections of the West Bank—those areas with a high concentration of Palestinians where the Israeli Government does not want to be responsible for Palestinian security. Withdrawal from these areas is more likely to happen, but I do not think that withdrawal is likely to happen, at the moment at least, from the large sections of the West Bank that are on the Israeli side of the wall.

  Chairman: Gentlemen, that has been a very helpful contribution for the Committee to consider. May I thank you both very much indeed?

2   Note by witness: The fact that the Palestinian Authority has shown some willingness to offer Hamas a few ministerial parts, and that it has finally decided to hold municipal elections (in which Hamas is expected to get some thirty per cent of the vote) will only facilitate this process of integration and is likely to encourage compromise. Back

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