Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Written Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Professor Shai Feldman, Director, Crown Center for Middle East Studies, Brandais University

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

  This testimony attempts to identify the main strategic, political, social and economic trends in the Middle East. It then focuses on the prospects for moving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict away from its present violent course toward negotiations and reconciliation. The testimony addresses the following questions:

    —    What is the international environment within which developments in the Middle East need to be understood?

    —    How should we think about the Middle East? What are the main patterns that characterize the different developments in the region?

    —    What have been the factors affecting the efforts to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?

    —    What are the near-term prospects for Palestinian-Israeli talks?

  The current international environment of the Middle East has three main characteristics:

    (a)  It has become unipolar: the US has no superpower rivals.

    (b)  The global demand for Middle East oil continues to grow.

    (c)  A resurgence of Russian nationalism.

  The most important recent developments in the Middle East include:

    (a)  The weakening of Arab states, Arab state institutions, and the Arab state system.

    (b)  The emergence of Iran as the only local regional power in the Persian Gulf.

    (c)  The proliferation of insurgencies in various corners of the Middle East.

    (d)  The "American Project" of making the region peaceful through democratization has failed.

    (e)  Turkey has become pivotal to determining the future relations between religion and state in the Middle East.

    (f)  The Palestinian-Israeli conflict remains intractable—a victim of adverse internal developments among Israelis and Palestinians alike.

  Currently, the prospects of Palestinian-Israeli accommodation are affected by the following developments:

    (a)  The broad support for a two-state solution in Israel has ended the ideological debate over the future of the West Bank and Gaza.

    (b)  Demography has become the primary locomotive in changing Israelis' approach to the future of the territories.

    (c)  Israel is unlikely to show any flexibility with regard to the Palestinian refugees' Right of Return.

    (d)  Israelis have become disillusioned with regard to unilateral steps and they now insist that further Israeli withdrawals should take place only as a product of negotiated agreements.

    (e)  The renewed emphasis on agreements has made the process hostage to the availability of negotiation partners. Currently, Israelis believe that they lack a Palestinian partner and Palestinians believe that they lack an Israeli partner for such negotiations.

  Once Israeli and Palestinian interlocutors reappear, they will face three negotiation options:

    (a)  Follow the logic and sequencing of the Quartet's Road Map.

    (b)  Attempt to negotiate a permanent status agreement.

    (c)  Negotiate a large-scale Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and a comprehensive long-term armistice.

  In the foreseeable future, the third option, consistent with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's earlier commitment to a large-scale disengagement from the West Bank, with Hamas' concept of a "Hudna", and with Phase II of the Road Map, seems the most promising.

  Professor Shai Feldman is the Judith and Sidney Swartz Director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University, US In 1997-2005 he served as Head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. He is also a member of the Board of Directors of Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. In 2001-03 he served as a member of the UN Secretary General's Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters.

  Professor Feldman was a Senior Research Associate at the Jaffee Center since its establishment in late 1977. In 1984-87 he was director of the Jaffee Center's Project on US Foreign and Defense Policies in the Middle East and, in 1989-1994, he directed the Center's Project on Regional Security and Arms Control in the Middle East. In 1995-97 he was a Senior Research Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs (BCSIA) at Harvard University's John F Kennedy School of Government (1995-97).

  Educated at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Professor Feldman was awarded his PhD by the University of California at Berkeley in 1980.

  Professor Feldman is the author of numerous publications. These include: Israeli Nuclear Deterrence: A Strategy for the 1980s (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982); The Future of US-Israel Strategic Cooperation (Washington DC: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1996); Nuclear Weapons and Arms Control in the Middle East (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997); Bridging the Gap: A Future Security Architecture for the Middle East (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997—with Abdullah Toukan (Jordan); and, Track-II Diplomacy: Lessons from the Middle East (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003—with Hussein Agha, Ahmad Khalidi, and Zeev Schiff).

  Professor Shai Feldman, Crown Center for Middle East Studies, Brandeis University, MS 010, Waltham, MA 02454. Phone 781-736-5321, Fax 781-736-5324, Mobile 781-985-3390.

  The Anglo-Israel Association is an independent charity (registered charity No. 313523) It was established in 1949 by Brigadier General Sir Wyndham Deedes, it is the oldest organization for Anglo-Israel friendship in the UK. The purpose of the Association is to promote wider understanding of Israel among British people and generally to support activities which foster goodwill between the two countries.

The Anglo-Israel Association

INTRODUCTION

  1.  This testimony attempts to identify the main strategic, political, social and economic trends in the Middle East. It then focuses on the prospects for moving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict away from its present violent course toward negotiations and reconciliation. Thus, the testimony addresses four issues:

    (a)  What is the international environment within which developments in the Middle East need to be understood?

    (b)  How should we think about the Middle East? What are the main patterns that characterize the different developments in the region?

    (c)  What has been constraining the efforts to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?

    (d)  What are the near-term prospects for Palestinian-Israeli talks?

THE INTERNATIONAL ENVIRONMENT

  There are at least three important dimensions to the international environment of today's Middle East:

  2.  The first of these dimensions is that the international system has become uni-polar, with the US remaining the only global superpower. Thus, if between 1945 and 1989 no truly important development in the Middle East could be understood without reference to the bi-polar US-Soviet Cold War rivalry, no significant development in the region today can be appreciated without acknowledging US global power.

  3.  Indeed, US power is considered unprecedented in world history. According to one estimate, at its height the British Empire controlled 6% of the world's GDP. By contrast, the US is estimated today to be controlling some 30% of the world's GDP. This is an extraordinary feat and it has many important ramifications: No other country could pour into the region the kind of resources spent by the US in the Middle East at large since 11 September 2001.

  4.  At the same time, it seems that America's unique status as the only remaining superpower has provided it with far less leverage than might have otherwise been expected. Indeed, long gone are the days of "gun-boat diplomacy" when a world power could affect developments in a country far away simply by deploying a single gunboat outside a major harbour of that state. Today, the US, despite its global power and the enormous assets it has already deployed in the Middle East, finds it difficult if not impossible, not only to suppress an insurgency in Iraq but also to dissuade a fourth-rate power like Syria from allowing movement of weapons, ammunition and personnel into Iraq, hosting Palestinian terrorist organizations in Damascus, helping Hezbollah rearm, and continuing to exercise deadly violence against its opponents in Lebanon. While today's Middle East cannot be understood without reference to the new global "uni-polar" international system, the implications of this new system are far from clear, as the real leverage derived by the US from now being the only superpower is challenged on a daily basis.

  5.  The second dimension of the region's new international environment is the growing demand for oil. This additional demand, generated primarily by the rising economic giants of the East—India and China—has already resulted in a sharp increase in the price of crude oil. An important strategic ramification of this demand is the growing dependence of these giants—not only China and India but Russia as well—on the oil producers of the Middle East. One outcome of this dependence is that these powers are now reluctant to use pressure against an oil producer like Iran, allowing the latter far greater capacity to resist international pressures to curtail its nuclear ambitions.

  6.  The third important dimension of the international environment of the Middle East is the resurgence of Russian nationalism. Some see Russian behaviour in the Middle East as driven almost exclusively by its economic interests. However, no less important are Russia's attempts to reassert itself as an important international player that should not be ignored. This is particularly the case in the Middle East where Russia traditionally saw its interest in retaining access to warm water ports and, later, to important natural resources.

  7.  To some extent the resurgence of Russian nationalism can be seen as "payback time" for the humiliation Russia suffered at the end of the Cold War. Far from being generous regarding the terms of Russia's surrender, the United States and its western allies pushed NATO's expansion all the way to the Baltic States—Russia's back yard. In the face of protests that its vital national interests and security concerns are being ignored, the Clinton administration spearheaded by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made clear that NATO expansion will happen anyway. While remaining interested in keeping open its channels to the West and in preventing Iran from "going nuclear", Russia's diplomacy has been less than completely cooperative with regard to these efforts. In addition to its economic stakes in Iran's nuclear energy program, the Kremlin seems to be indicating: "If you ignore us when it matters to us, don't be surprised when we ignore you when it matters to you." So now that Russia's cooperation is sought in an effort to prevent Iran from going nuclear, it is not surprising that some in Russia believe that "payback time" has come. As a result, Russia seems to be dragging its feet in the matter, although in late March it seemed that it, too, had begun to lose patience with the regime in Tehran.

THE REGION'S CHARACTERISTICS

  The region itself can be understood through the prism of six main developments and characteristics:

  8.  The most important of these trends seems to be the weakness of the Arab states, Arab state institutions and the Arab state system. The social, economic and educational weakness of Arab states has been documented conclusively in a number of reports published in recent years by the United Nations Development Program. Similarly, Raja Kamal of the University of Chicago noted recently in the Lebanese newspaper Daily Star:

    "If we are to exclude oil and natural gas from the various Arab economies of the 300 million inhabitants of the Arab world, the cumulative Gross Domestic Product would be less than that of Finland, a country with a population with just over five million. The Arab world, with a few exceptions, has failed miserably at catching up with the economic renaissance of most other corners of the world." (5 January 2007).

  9.  One result of this weakness is that Arab governments are now increasingly challenged by sub-state movements like the Islamic Brotherhood in Egypt, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas in the Palestinian territories. These movements have succeeded in setting up parallel health and welfare systems that provide better services than the governments of these states.

  10.  The second significant dimension of this weakness—itself an important cause of further weakness—is the decline of national media in Arab states and its replacement by regional media like the Qatari-financed Al-Jazeera or the Dubai-financed Al-Arabia television networks. This development has further accelerated the weakening of Arab states as national governments have lost their former ability to control what their citizens do or do not know.

  11.  The third and possibly the most important ramification of the weakening of Arab states is that their importance as a focus of identity has declined and is increasingly being substituted by sectarianism, thus completely transforming the politics of identity in the Arab world. Now, fewer Iraqis see themselves as Iraqis, instead viewing themselves as Sunnis, Shi'a or Kurds. As of the mid-1970s, this has been increasingly the case in Lebanon, where few see themselves as other than Sunni, Shi'a, Maronite Christians, and Druze.

  12.  Most recently, this politics of identity has reached another climax, transcending into the labeling of others. When, during a recent ceremony commemorating the founding of Fatah, PA President Mahmoud Abbas mentioned Hamas, people in the crowd began shouting "Shi'a, Shi'a." This was remarkable given that all Palestinians, including members of Hamas, are Sunni Moslems. Fatah followers seemed to have been registering their anger at Iran's support of Hamas by depicting their supporters as Shi'a, the variant of Islam practiced in Iran.

  13.  In the region at large, the weakness of the Arab states has resulted in the Arab League becoming increasingly impotent, failing completely to prevent or affect the course of the war in Iraq. By contrast and probably more significantly, it seems that the fate of the Middle East is now affected much more by three non-Arab states: Iran, Turkey and Israel.

  14.  The second important characteristic of today's Middle East is that the dismembering of Iraq has left Iran the only local regional power in the Persian Gulf. The full magnitude of this shift and its various far-reaching consequences will probably become clear only after the US will begin to significantly draw-down its military deployment in Iraq. It will be felt with even greater clarity as Iran moves closer to obtaining a nuclear capability. And, as Iran's external face is increasingly reflected in President Ahmedenijad, who has made defiance of the West, the de-legitimization of Israel and Holocaust denial his defining themes, it is not surprising that Iran's growing power and influence results in growing nervousness within and outside the Middle East.

  15.  At the same time any balanced approach to Iran's role must acknowledge that President Ahmedenijad's powers are limited—in Iran, it is the Supreme Leader who wields considerable power—it is he who has powers more similar to those possessed by the UK's Prime Minister or the President of the United States. Thus, within the complex Iranian political system that is run by a form of collective leadership, Ahmedenijad is not even the first among equals. Additionally, in recent months he has been increasingly and overtly criticised for his failed economic policies and for needlessly antagonising the West with his overly confrontational pronouncements on the nuclear issue and his obsession with Holocaust denial.

  16.  The third important facet of today's Middle East—also a result of the weakening of Arab state structures—is the proliferation of insurgencies and terrorist groups. These include the different insurgency groups facing the US and\or the UK in Iraq; Hezbollah in Lebanon; Islamic Jihad and the military arm of Hamas in the Palestinian territories; and, al-Qaeda-related cells in the Sinai, in Jordan, in Yemen, and in northern Lebanon.

  17.  One result of the rise of these insurgencies is the growing number of asymmetric confrontations, pitting an insurgency against an established power such as Israel or the US Unique to these confrontations is that the insurgencies, facing the robust capacities of established powers, are not expected to win. Instead, mere survival in the face of the established power's robust capacities is viewed as an impressive achievement. Thus, in this new form of warfare, winning is simply "not losing."

  18.  At this point it is important to note that in contrast to some notions that have recently gained popularity, the radicalism manifested by these insurgencies does not comprise an "Arc of Shi'a" or a "clash of civilizations." Shi'a is not necessarily the defining axis of these insurgencies and their state sponsors. In the axis that connects Tehran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas, Iran is Shi'a while Syria is almost 90 percent Sunni (and its Shi'a-leaning ruling Alawite minority sees itself primarily as Alawite, not Shi'a). Similarly, Hezbollah is Shi'a but Hamas is Sunni. It is also far from clear that Iraqi Shi'a will see eye to eye with Iran's Shi'a, just as Syria's Ba'ath party and Iraq's Ba'ath party became one another's sworn enemy.

  19.  Equally important, the battle-lines delineated by these insurgencies do not necessarily reflect a "clash of civilizations." If measured by casualties, this is largely a clash within the same civilization: Over 90% of the confrontations currently experienced in the region manifest Arabs killing other Arabs, or, more broadly, Moslems killing other Moslems.

  20.  The fourth important facet of today's Middle East is that, unfortunately, the American project of advancing the cause of peace through the democratization of the region has failed. To be clear, it is not that the efforts to democratize the Middle East have failed. It is also not the case that Arab or Moslem societies are incapable of enjoying sustained electoral systems. Indeed, countries and regions of the Middle East, from the Palestinian territories to Iran have proven that they can sustain electoral processes. Instead, what has completely backfired is the expectation that democracy can bring peace to the Middle East. In fact, the opposite has happened:

    (a)  The efforts to bring democracy to Iraq have produced the bloodiest sectarian conflict in the Arab world.

    (b)  Elections in Iran produced a victory for an anti-establishment candidate, but it just happens to be that this individual hates the West with a passion, and is otherwise engaged in confrontational politics and Holocaust denial.

    (c)  Elections in Egypt have resulted in the largest-ever representation for the Islamic Brotherhood—a fundamentalist movement.

    (d)  Elections in Lebanon have resulted in Hezbollah now enjoying for the first time a significant representation in the Parliament.

    (e)  Elections to the Legislative Council of the Palestinian Authority resulted in a landslide victory for Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel and abandon terror.

  So while in all these cases Moslems proved that they can hold relatively free and fair elections, instead of encouraging moderation these elections have ended up empowering extremists.

  21.  The fifth facet of today's Middle East concerns Turkey: It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of the Turkish experiment. What is this experiment? In the Middle East there are a number of competing models for the relations between religion and state: From Egypt and Syria who deny any role for religion in the state, to Iran where religion has taken over the state. Turkey represents a rejection of both models: It is ruled by an Islamic party that accepts the country's secular state system and seems to be committed to the principles of democratic government. Thus, Turkey's experience is observed closely by other states in the region to indicate whether or not Islam and democracy can co-exist. And, to the extent that economically Turkey's success or failure depends in the long term on whether it is admitted to the EU, there is clearly a lot at stake in the EU's decisions regarding Turkey's application for membership.

  22.  The sixth facet of today's Middle East is the unfortunate seeming intractability of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict—a conflict that has eluded so many attempts at its resolution. And here is the greatest paradox of all: Most Israelis and most Palestinians know that there is only one formula for resolving the conflict. What is the formula? Its parameters do not deviate significantly from those painted in broad brush by President Bill Clinton shortly before he left office (the so-called "Clinton Parameters"), with additional amendments and clarifications provided by President George W. Bush, notably in a speech he delivered on 24 June 2002.

  23.  Indeed most Israelis and Palestinians know what this solution entails:

    (a)  Two states living in peace and security alongside one another.

    (b)  The final border between these two states will not deviate significantly from the so-called 1967-lines.

    (c)  The two states will share power in an undivided Jerusalem, including in the so-called Holy Basin.

    (d)  Palestinian refugees will be allowed to return to the Palestinian state but not to Israel. Others will receive financial compensation and arrangements will be made for their permanent settlement in Arab states as well as in other countries who will volunteer to do so.

  24.  Not only is it clear that there is only one plausible solution to the conflict—public opinion polls indicate that this solution is acceptable to the majority among Palestinians and Israelis alike. Yet while most Israelis and Palestinians can describe in general terms the only possible solution, the same majority seem to manifest similar despair with regard to the chances of implementing this solution. And the main obstacle to such implementation seems to be the weak leadership on both sides and particularly the extreme fragmentation of the Palestinian society—a society that is now torn between:

    (a)  A secular Fatah and Islamist Hamas, who subscribe to completely different approaches to conflict and peacemaking with Israel.

    (b)  More moderates within Hamas who will consider co-existence alongside the State of Israel, and extremists who would not.

    (c)  Fatah's "old guard" leaders who are incompetent and corrupt and the Fatah "young guard" who feel that they have not received their fair share of power and influence.

  With last January's elections producing a bi-focal system with Fatah lead leader Mahmoud Abbas as President and Hamas capturing the legislature and government—with each holding on to their private militias—there was no single Palestinian address, no Palestinian interlocutor able to negotiate and, more important, able to implement a resulting Palestinian-Israeli agreement.

  25.  At the same time, in the aftermath of the illness of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and particularly after last summer's war between Israel and Hezbollah, many Palestinians understandably feel that they lack an Israeli address—that is, someone who can implement any understanding reached with the Palestinians. They see the current Israeli government and the Israeli Defence Forces as having been wounded by last summer's war in Lebanon and as having sunk in any number of inquiry commissions investigating Israel's conduct of the war as well as in numerous police investigations of corruption scandals at the top of the Israeli leadership, at least three of which relate to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert himself.

PROSPECTS FOR ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN ACCOMMODATION

  A balanced assessment of the prospects of Israeli-Palestinian accommodation requires that a number of important developments be identified. Some of these developments have increased the prospects for such accommodation while others have damaged these prospects.

  26.  On the Israeli side it seems that the grand ideological debate about Israel's right to possess all parts of the Land of Israel—including the West Bank and Gaza—has been largely resolved. This debate was an integral part of the history of the Zionist movement since its inception. It erupted in dramatic form in 1937, when the movement was required to respond to the British Peel Commission Report offer of an independent Jewish State in a very small part of Palestine. The debate was muted after the 1948 war but broke out again in the immediate aftermath of Israel's conquest of the West Bank and Gaza in the June 1967 Six-Day War. Yet only 12 years later, Likud leader and Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, opened the first crack in this debate when, in the framework of the 1978 Camp David Accords, Israel acknowledged "the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people".

  27.  Paradoxically, an important step in the erosion of the Israeli ideological debate occurred following the election in 1996, when Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister and accepted the Oslo process. In this framework, he negotiated the Hebron agreement, and, in 1998, the Wye River Accord. The latter stipulated transferring to the Palestinians control of additional parts of the Land of Israel, amounting to some 13.1 percent of the West Bank. The most recent development in this context has been the public acknowledgement made by Likud leader and Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, to the effect that Israel's control of Gaza and the West Bank comprised "occupation".

  28.  In the aftermath of these many concessions, Israelis continue to debate the magnitude of possible withdrawals, the security context and requirements for such withdrawals, and whether Israel should be prepared to concede territory inside the 1967 lines in exchange for some of the large settlement blocs in the West Bank which it would wish to retain (the so-called "swap"). However, the grand ideological debate about Israel's right to proclaim sovereignty over the entire Land of Israel (that is, including the West Bank) is over.

  29.  Over the years, a number of considerations have persuaded Israelis that they cannot and should not attempt to assert sovereignty over the entire Land of Israel. Among such considerations has been the growing recognition that such an attempt would condemn Israel to an indefinite violent clash with its neighbours and that as long as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict remains acute, Israel would not be able to normalise its relations with its regional environment. However, no issue proved as powerful a locomotive for the Israelis' opinion change in this realm than their growing concern about the demographic changes taking place in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank and the implication of these trends for Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state. These trends, manifesting a persistent gap in the population growth rate between Jews and Arabs in these areas, have been recognized as soon resulting in the Jews' loss of majority status in the areas under its control. As long as Israel remains the only sovereign in these areas, such loss means that Israel could either attempt to maintain its Jewish character by denying the Palestinians full political participatory rights, thus compromising its character as a democracy, or it can attempt to retain its character as a democracy by granting the Palestinian such rights. But given these demographic trends, the application of majority rule in this area would immediately compromise Israel's character as a Jewish state. This realisation has gradually transformed Israel's perception of Palestinian statehood: from a mortal threat to an imperative. Thus, many more Israelis have come to realize that Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state requires the creation of a Palestinian state.

  30.  The fact that demography has now become the most important consideration pushing Israelis to yield the West Bank also accounts for greater Israeli willingness to compromise on different issues that are associated with such a withdrawal: The future borders between Israel and the prospective Palestinian state, the future of the Israeli settlements, etc. But regarding one issue this locomotive has transformed Israel's approach from hard-line to entirely unyielding: namely, the Palestinian refugees' Right of Return. Thus, Israelis now approach this issue by insisting that if the fear for Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state is driving them to concede lands which were considered for centuries part of their homeland and for decades as necessary for their security, they cannot be expected to make any concession that might further erode the demography within the pre-1967 borders. Thus, at best, they will not accept a formula for the refugees issue other than that expressed in the so-called "Clinton Parameters": A return of Jews to Israel; a return of Palestinians to the Palestinian state."

  31.  While a growing number of Israelis are prepared to make the territorial concessions required for a Palestinian state to be created, they have recently become increasingly wary of making these concessions unilaterally. Rightly or wrongly, they have concluded that Israel's unilateral withdrawal from South Lebanon in May 2000 allowed Hezbollah to turn the area into a huge fortress and a weapons stockpile, thus allowing it to launch massive Katyusha rocket attacks against Israeli northern towns and villages in summer 2006, forcing a quarter of Israel's population to sit in air-shelters for nearly 34 days or flee the area altogether. Similarly, Israelis observe that their unilateral withdrawal from Gaza has been "rewarded" by incessant Kassam rocket attacks against Israel's southern towns, including the city of Ashkelon which has not experienced violence since the 1948 war. Thus, Israelis have concluded that while further withdrawals are essential if the demographic challenge is to be addressed through the creation of a Palestinian state, such withdrawals should be the product of negotiated agreements between the two sides—not a consequence of a unilateral Israeli decision to withdraw.

  32.  From Israel's standpoint, the insistence that further withdrawals must be the product of negotiated agreements makes the availability of a Palestinian interlocutor absolutely essential. Following the failure of the 2000 Camp David summit, many Israelis—as well as some senior members of the US negotiating team, including President Clinton—seem to have concluded that despite their expectations to the contrary, Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat was simply not prepared to make the dramatic transition from the revolutionary leader to state-builder. Hence he shied away from making a deal at Camp David and, three months later, he failed to grab the so-called "Clinton Parameters" and to immediately embrace them at least as the basis for further detailed talks.

  33.  The Israelis' experience with Mahmoud Abbas as a potential interlocutor is different. Few Israelis would argue with the proposition that Abbas is genuinely prepared to negotiate a fair and balanced Palestinian-Israeli deal. Yet lacking Arafat's charisma and standing as the Palestinians' nation builder, Abbas is not seen as capable of implementing the far-reaching steps that a deal with Israel would entail. While more than a few Israelis agree that their government could have done more to help Abbas by making certain concessions to him personally (and thus would have been credited to him by Palestinian voters), even they doubt that such steps could have contributed significantly to building his leadership. Leadership, they say, is to be asserted, not provided for from without.

  34.  Since January 2006 Israel's search for an interlocutor hit a new snag with the electoral victory of Hamas. The resulting bi-focal Palestinian leadership, with Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas remaining President, while Hamas gained a majority in the Legislative Council and has subsequently formed a government, has left Israel once again without an interlocutor. Indeed, it was not conceivable that the Hamas leadership that refused to recognise Israel, to reject violence, to accept the Oslo process, and to abide by the obligations undertaken by the previous Palestinian government, could be considered an interlocutor for the purpose of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.

  35.  As noted earlier, from the Palestinians' perspective, the Israeli domestic scene now appears almost equally unpromising. While many among them note with nostalgia the courage and leadership demonstrated by Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin in signing the Oslo Accords, they regard his various successors as having proven to be hard-liners, unyielding, or too weak to compromise. Thus, they see Shimon Peres as having self-destructed in 1996 with his attempt to demonstrate his defense credentials through the disastrous "Grapes of Wrath" operation. They view Benjamin Netanyahu as having first provoked them into a violent confrontation over the tunnels in Jerusalem's Temple Mount and then stalling on Israel's obligations under the Oslo-II agreement. And, they regard Prime Minister Ehud Barak as having come to the Camp David Summit without a governing coalition that would have allowed him to implement any far-reaching agreement reached.

  36.  In the aftermath of Israel's 2006 war with Hezbollah, Palestinians express renewed doubts as to whether they have an Israeli interlocutor for peace. Not only was Ehud Olmert the philosopher behind Ariel Sharon's unilateral approach, his political future now seems to be hanging by a thread, with the interim report of the Winograd Commission investigating the Israeli government's conduct of the 2006 war due to be published by the end of April; with Olmert's government experiencing countless police investigations of strong suspicions of corruption; and with the Labor party almost certainly about to unseat its leader, thereby also producing a new minister of defence and, by definition, a new partner to Olmert's own beleaguered office. Under such circumstances it is not unreasonable for the Palestinians to conclude that until these developments fully play-out, they, too, lack a negotiating partner.

IN THE NEAR FUTURE: SOME ROOM FOR CAUTIOUS OPTIMISM

  Once the dust settles, in the aftermath of the aforementioned developments, it is just possible that the prospects for positive movements will appear less grim than they do now. A few more recent developments may point in that direction.

  37.  The Mecca Accord: While unsatisfactory and clearly falling short of the Quartet's justified demands that the Palestinian government should recognise Israel, reject violence and assume the obligations undertaken by previous Palestinian governments, the agreement reached between Fatah and Hamas does contain Hamas' promise "to respect" these agreements and obligations. More important, it mandates President Abbas to negotiate with Israel on the Palestinians' behalf, with the condition that the results of these negotiations will need to be ratified through a national referendum.

  38.  In Israel, by mid-June the dust will probably have settled after the various issues that are currently shaking the fabric of the Israeli government: By then it will be clear if Ehud Olmert will have survived the Winograd Commission interim report and whether the Labor Party will have provided him a formidable partner—a defence minister with sufficient gravitas to navigate a complicated peace process.

  39.  The Arab League will have demonstrated whether it is serious in its attempts to revive the 2002 Arab Initiative by offering Israel a grand-bargain—a comprehensive incentive package that might induce Israel to be more forthcoming in subsequent negotiations with the Palestinians.

  40.  Should these developments materialize and converge to allow a renewal of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, the following question would then need to be addressed: What should be the focus of these talks? Here the parties face three main alternatives: (a) follow the Quartet's Road Map; (b) attempt to conclude a permanent status agreement; (c) negotiate the creation of a Palestinian state with provisional borders and the establishment of a long term comprehensive armistice (or "Hudna") between Israel and the newly created provisional Palestinian state.

  41.  Follow the Road Map: The logic of following the Quartet's Road Map is that the progression of its phases is meant to establish the conditions for a permanent Palestinian-Israeli accommodation, with implementation of each Phase improving the environment for the next. Thus it was accepted that Israel would not be able to contemplate the significant risks associated with yielding territorial control if the Palestinians did not first end all forms of violence against Israelis. And, that Palestinians will not take the more far-reaching steps demanded of them if Israel did not implement a complete freeze on settlement activities thereby assuring them that the process is going in the right direction. Yet this logical approach never "took off" as Israelis and Palestinians could not be assured that the process would yield the desired results. Thus, they became bogged down in endless bickering as to "who goes first".

  42.  Permanent Status Negotiations: The main appeal of this option is that its success would allow "closure" with regard to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It is also only in the framework of a permanent status deal that the incentive package offered in the framework of the Arab Initiative would become relevant. And while large majorities among Israelis and Palestinians continue to support the parameters suggested by President Clinton in late 2000 for a permanent Palestinian-Israeli deal, it is doubtful that the current leadership on both sides is prepared to implement the dramatic concessions required. In this context it is important to note that while in the framework of the Mecca Accord, Hamas had agreed to mandate President Abbas to negotiate on the Palestinians' behalf, it has not committed itself to support any agreement that President Abbas would reach. Moreover, it is highly unlikely that Hamas would approve the kind of concessions regarding the hyper-sensitive issues like Jerusalem and the Right of Return that are implied by the Clinton Parameters.

  43.  Long-term comprehensive armistice with a provisional Palestinian State: While falling short of finally ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and while depriving the parties from taking full advantage of the offer made in the framework of the Arab Initiative, any serious review of the domestic factors constraining the Palestinian as well as the Israeli leadership makes it impossible to escape the conclusion that the only promising option would be to focus future negotiations on an attempt to bridge the gap between three closely related concepts:

    (a)  The Israelis' yearning for a long-term comprehensive armistice coupled with the willingness expressed in the past by Prime Minister Olmert to withdraw from up to 90% of the West Bank.

    (b)  Hamas' concept of a long-term Hudna.

    (c)  Phase II of the Quartet's Road Map that focuses on the option of creating a Palestinian state with provisional borders.

  Materialising this option will allow the creation of a new reality that would comprise a dramatic improvement upon present conditions without forcing the parties to confront some of the more hyper-sensitive issues that have plagued their previous efforts to "end the conflict."

CONCLUSION

  44.  Since the end of the Cold War, the Middle East has become increasingly fragmented. The past few years have witnessed the dismembering of Iraq, the increased role of sub-state actors and movements, the proliferation of insurgencies, the decline of national media, the weakening of the Arab League, and the failure to achieve peace through democratization. The Palestinian society has experienced a particularly acute form of such fragmentation, making it nearly impossible to discuss Palestinian national interests. Currently, however, Israel's political system manifests similar paralysis, making it unlikely that near term efforts to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace will succeed. Nor are renewed permanent status negotiations likely to yield anything but disastrous results, not unlike those experienced in 2001-05. Instead, with support from within and outside the region by the Arab League as well as by members of the Quartet, Israelis and Palestinians should seek more limited goals that may nevertheless redirect them away from violence and toward greater stability and prosperity. This can be achieved if the parties directly involved, and those who comprise their regional and international environment, would focus their efforts on more limited objectives such as those envisaged for Phase II of the Road Map: The creation of a Palestinian state with provisional borders and the implementation of a long-term comprehensive armistice (or "Hudna").

26 April 2007





 
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