Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 53-59)


28 FEBRUARY 2007

  Q53  Chairman: Good afternoon and welcome, Dr. Hollis and Ms. Bar-Yaacov. We know you both very well; you have given evidence to the Committee before, so it should be less of an ordeal for you than for those who come here for the first time. You heard the previous session and we would like to explore the same areas with you. May I begin by asking for your assessment of the Mecca agreement between Hamas and Fatah?

  Dr. Hollis: I shall give mine and then Nomi will give hers. My assessment is that it is a welcome development because—I can substantiate this—although all the possible scenarios on the Israeli and Palestinian fronts, and the latter in particular, might be unattractive, this is the best of those scenarios—a unity Government. The alternatives included, first, the complete collapse of the Palestinian Authority; secondly, an internal Palestinian war, which we have seen a bit of already, and which would result in a very chaotic situation in the West Bank and Gaza; and thirdly, a dysfunctional situation in which Hamas struggles on.

  I would like to point out that new elections now would be illegal under Palestinian Basic Law and that, therefore, it would be difficult for the international community to call for something that undermines the Palestinian constitution. In conclusion, a functioning Palestinian Authority involving both factions is a positive step, because the Quartet, including the European Union in particular, would otherwise find themselves literally with a trusteeship on their hands that they never asked for.

  Ms. Bar-Yaacov: I would like to add a couple of words, although I might be a little more blunt than Rosemary. The alternative to the Mecca agreement was civil war in Gaza. I think that we saw that coming. It happened at the moment when Hamas managed to overrun Fatah's preventive security force. Hamas showed that it potentially has the upper hand in terms of force. Both factions are arming rapidly via tunnels from Egypt in order to fight each other, and but for Mecca, we would be in a dreadful place.

    I also think that it is very important to note that it is a terrific achievement for Saudi Arabia, which is part of the so-called Arab quartet, which you discussed in the previous session. That comprises of Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Given that Israel and Palestine are in the Middle East, that is a welcome development for further engagement with the Arab world in order to resolve the conflict. It can have a positive role, as opposed to the ambiguous, more difficult one that it played in the past.

    I would also like to remind the Committee that Saudi Arabia also proposed what is today known as the Arab initiative adopted by the Arab League in Beirut in 2002, which is a very welcome peace initiative. We are increasingly seeing Saudi Arabia playing a very constructive role. Personally, I welcome the agreement and see it as a very positive step forward. If the national unity Government is formed—there is no given that Haniya will succeed in forming such a Government, but I certainly hope that he will—I think that it should be viewed as an interim Government. I do not think that the Government would necessarily last for very long, because of internal differences between Hamas and Fatah.

  Q54  Chairman: Is the arming that you talked about still going on despite the agreement?

  Ms. Bar-Yaacov: The arming is going on, but there is no use of the arms. That is what has stopped. The arming is certainly going on, because there is a lot of tension between the two factions. There are a lot of unsettled scores in Gaza: more than 100 deaths earlier this month; and many of the powerful families have taken serious losses. Unsettled scores are not usually solved by peaceful means. If the national unity Government does not succeed and does not get the international community's backing and recognition, we will see a return to violence very quickly.

  Q55  Chairman: How long do you think we can have what Dr. Gooderham referred to as the "wait-and-see approach" to this agreement?

  Ms. Bar-Yaacov: Not too long, because the guns are back. The euphoria of the Mecca agreement did not last very long in Gaza. We saw the celebrations—the media are always where the spotlight is. Today, we see that the guns are back in the streets. We see the executive force of Hamas displaying its arms and flexing its muscle, particularly in the evacuated settlements. We also see the presidential guard, Abbas's force, displaying its armour in the streets. There is a lot of tension in Gaza at the moment. I would not describe the situation as calm and I think the wait-and-see policy should be turned into a rather more proactive policy of seeing how we can support the formation of a national unity Government and how we could work with them, given that the alternative is dire.

  Q56  Chairman: But the Quartet itself is not united, is it? There are divisions within the Quartet as to how to react to this situation.

  Ms. Bar-Yaacov: Yes, the Russians have already reacted, saying that they are calling to lift the boycott on the Palestinian Authority and on Hamas more specifically. The French made similar noises. However, so far, the position of the Quartet is what it came out with in a very weak statement at the end of the Berlin meeting, which was what Peter Gooderham described as a kind of wait-and-see policy. Not much has come out of the Quartet policy (post-Mecca) thus far. However, it has decided to meet in an Arab country soon and to conduct talks with the so-called Arab quartet, which I have just discussed. Again, that is a very welcome move, and I think that the Arab influence is extremely positive. The Arabs clearly know what the dynamics are. Their interest is certainly peace, or, rather, stability, as peace is not really on the horizon at present.

  Dr. Hollis: I simply mention that last year, when Hamas won its victory, in January, the Quartet and, more to the point, the European Union adopted a wait-and-see policy, waiting until the Palestinians had formed a Cabinet—in fact, until June—before they had the temporary international mechanism for paying the salaries of doctors, teachers and so on around the edges of the PA. In other words, it took six months to adjust to the election of Hamas. If another six months are spent adjusting to the unsatisfactory, inconclusive nature of the deal done in Mecca, an insufficient signal will be sent to the Palestinians—by that I mean both Fatah and Hamas.

    Fatah needs to know that there are rewards for working with the status quo. So far it has had signals that if it waits on the sidelines, the international community will bring down Hamas and then Fatah can come back to power. That has not been a very productive signal to send. Both factions need to know that there will be rewards for coming to a more practical and more moderate position on this issue of accepting precedent. Down the line, there could be an expectation of recognition of Israel at the same time as contemplating a peace deal with Israel that would be a two-state solution. That would be the moment at which Hamas would have to choose. A lot of Palestinians would expect it to choose in favour of the two-state solution rather than sticking to its principles. I am advocating that signals be sent. Fortunately, divisions within the Quartet are sending some signals that there may be light at the end of tunnel.

  Q57  Mr. Keetch: It is interesting that, when I asked Dr. Gooderham about the Quartet, he talked of it being united and staying together. Clearly, you do not share that view. I tend to be more on your side of that argument than his.

    I asked Dr. Gooderham about the reaction to the Mecca agreement in the United States and Israel. Unless they sign up to it, it ain't going to go very far. Did Israel and the United States react how you expected them to react? Do you think that it was generally helpful or are there signs that it could be improved, specifically in the case of the United States given that we are looking at a certain change of President in a couple of years? Will that be helpful?

  Dr. Hollis: I will say something about the US; I would rather Nomi answered about Israel. If you do not believe that anything is worth doing unless the US is on board for it, we will not do anything. There has been a tacit division of labour between the US and the EU many times in the past, when the EU has had the encouragement of the United States to hold a situation because politically it was impossible for US politicians to do so. If handled skilfully, there could be similar acceptance of the Mecca process. Signs need to be given to the Palestinians of both factions that there will be benefits for them to come up with a better joint position than they have at the moment.

    Otherwise there will be a repeat of what happened with Iraq. The United States and Condoleezza Rice, in particular, were supposed to have said, "Wait a minute. Who was it who decided to create a vacuum in Iraq? Who was it who made the decision to dismantle all the Government institutions that we now have to build up from scratch?" My concern would be that, while fiddling around waiting for everybody to agree or to get a better position out of Hamas or the Palestinians, events move on and two years down the line somebody will be asking, including in America, "Whose decision was it to let this situation drift so that we have no Palestinian Authority?"

  Ms. Bar-Yaacov: I will reply about the US as well as Israel. In the US, unfortunately the reaction was quite predictable. One has to look at who the decision makers are in the US. The National Security Council plays a very important role there and the role on Palestine-Israel policy is led by a neo-con, Elliott Abrams. He is very powerful and accompanies Condoleezza Rice on all her trips. He was present recently during the Quartet meeting. He opposed the Oslo agreement; he opposed the idea of exchange of land for peace; and his hardcore approach has been very detrimental to the (peace) process for a long time. He is part of the reason why the Road Map is so watered down.

    As Rosemary was saying, there have been tremendous efforts on the part of the Quartet to move the process forward. There have to be some incentives and some rewards, and one of the reasons why Abbas was pushed to Mecca and why he signed to the deal in its current shape and form was that he did not get anything from the US in return (for their demands of him). He really did not. He had to go to Mashal with something and say, "Okay, come my way. Come closer to my position and, in return, I will give you one, two, three or four." But he got zero. That unfortunately is where the US's role stands.

    However, the recent developments that Condoleezza Rice announced in respect of talks on Iraq that will include Iran and Syria are welcome. I should be very surprised if, in the sideline of those talks—not officially but unofficially—the question of how to deal with Israel and Palestine does not come up. Let us consider the proximity and the mere dialogue. The fact that there will be a meeting at a fairly high level at which Syrians and Iranians will be present is, of course, welcome.

    As Simon McDonald said in the previous session, the current Israeli Government is very weak. It was dealt a heavy blow after the debacle in Lebanon and has very little support, so it is not really in a position to come out with any great peace moves. So in that sense, yes, unfortunately, the reaction was quite predictable.

  Q58  Mr. Hamilton: May I return to internal Israeli politics and ask you both to comment on what is actually happening in Israel? As you say, Dr. Bar-Yaacov, the Kadima Government of Ehud Olmert have been considerably weakened by the Lebanon conflict last year. We know that they are now down to 14% in the polls—even worse than the Labour Government in Britain—and that Binyamin Netanyahu, the former Prime Minister, who is a hard-liner, is increasing in popularity and is getting quite substantial backing financially from certain Israeli businessmen. Is there a danger that Olmert's Government could collapse altogether, even though they had quite a mandate from the electors just a year ago? Even if that does not happen, will the drift in leadership, with Olmert simply trying to survive in government and as Prime Minister, detract from the Israeli Government's concentration on the peace process?

  Ms. Bar-Yaacov: I think that you have summed it up. I think that the Government's weakness has detracted from the peace process, because Olmert, unfortunately, is dealing with his own political survival. If you look at the current composition of the coalition, you will see that Avigdor Lieberman, who is a settler himself and a staunch advocate of the settlement policy, joined it recently. Shas, which is also not a moderate party, is in the coalition, as are the pensioners. Labour has also lost face after the war, with a Defence Minister who did not do a particularly good job either. It is a very weak Government, as you stated, and it is not going to make any bold peace moves—not only not at this time, but sooner or later it will collapse. The question is when.

    Olmert is also under criminal investigation and the Vinograd Commission interim report is due next month. That commission is looking into the conduct of the Prime Minister, and that of other senior Ministers during the Lebanon war, and is unlikely to have any kind words about it. It is really just a question of time as to how long he will last. Once he goes, legally Tzipi Livni, the current Foreign Minister, will become the Prime Minister. Although she has a lot of popularity with the public, she does not have much political force and support within Kadima, her own party. Plus, Kadima's political platform has gone. The party won the election on a platform of unilateral disengagement and, because that (policy) failed in Lebanon and in Gaza, it (unilateral disengagement) is unlikely to happen again in the near future. The question is what is it (the party) standing for. I do not think that Kadima is going to be there for that much longer—certainly not as the leading power in Israeli politics.

  Q59  Mr. Hamilton: And Netanyahu.

  Ms. Bar-Yaacov: Yes, Netanyahu—very much so. He is racing ahead in the polls. He has got so much more support. He has five times more support—four to five times, depending on the polls—than Kadima or any other party at the moment. We all know who he is and what he stands for. He is a quite hardcore, right-wing politician. He stayed with Likud when Sharon split into the centre, into Kadima. He not only has a lot of financial support, but has a lot of public support.

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