Global Security: Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-48)


11 FEBRUARY 2009

  Q40 Mr Illsley: So, the prospects of a Palestinian national unity Government are practically zero at the moment?

  Dr Bregman: It is not unusual that a liberation movement has a debate. I remind you that in 1947-48 there was the Irgun, Stern gang and Haganah. There was competition between them and in the end one group emerged to take over. We should try to push the Palestinian groups to work together. The actor here that can help is Egypt. It can work with Hamas and Fatah and tell them that they must work together because it is the dream of the Israelis that they be separated.

  Q41 Mr Illsley: I can understand that. Dr Albasoos, do you think that there is any chance of the two organisations working it out?

  Dr Albasoos: I think it is possible, but not easy, especially nowadays, with the gap between the two parties being wider than before. There is one main obstacle and if we can solve it then we can solve this problem and we can have a unity Government between Fatah and Hamas. There was a condition given by the United States and Israel to the Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas, which was that if Hamas was to be involved in a national unity Government, they would stop the financial and political support of Fatah. If that condition were to be lifted then a national unity Government would be feasible.

  Q42 Mr Illsley: One final question. It has occurred to me throughout this conflict that it boils down to the casualty figures which were quoted earlier. It seems to me that firing rockets into Israel lost Hamas the support of the international community. If you take away the proportionality argument, a lot of commentators could not argue about what Israel was doing while Hamas was firing into Israel which was practically achieving nothing other than a show of resistance. If Hamas had stopped firing the rockets and said, "Look, we are not doing anything here and we are being attacked," do you not think that that would have strengthened the hands of the British, Americans and anyone else to say to Israel, "Stop"?

  Dr Albasoos: I think that Hamas is trying to get attention from the British, United States and other Governments by saying, "We are here, we are under occupation, come and rescue us; we need the attention; we need the support and the help." That is the point. I think that the rockets launched from Gaza towards Israel are not harming Israeli society, so much as bringing the attention of the so-called international community to engage in talks with Hamas.

  Mr Illsley: Surely it would have been better—

  Dr Albasoos: What has happened to Israeli citizens over the past eight years has been mentioned before. No one agrees with the violence and missiles from Gaza and from the Israeli side, but there is no balance of power whatsoever. Neither Hamas, nor any Palestinian faction, would launch any missiles from Gaza if the European Union and the British Government were to engage in dialogue with them.

  Q43 Chairman: Dr Albasoos, my colleagues are reacting to what you have just said and I should just like to ask a question. Is it not a fact that rockets were fired into schools and populated areas and that there were casualties? Those may have been few, but nevertheless, for a period of eight years, rockets were fired—they were fired during the ceasefire and during the recent conflict. We have the figures about the disproportionality, the balance of casualties and all the rest of it. They were fired for military reasons—to inflict damage, not just to send a signal. Is that true?

  Dr Albasoos: It is a reaction to that. I do not agree with that.

  Chairman: I am not asking whether you agree—

  Dr Albasoos: It is kind of a reaction to the Israeli actions. We are going to go to through that cycle again and again, of action and reaction between both sides, it will not finish.

  Chairman: Okay. I want to bring in David Heathcoat-Amory, who has not yet had a chance.

  Q44 Mr Heathcoat-Amory: Given that Hamas have two enemies, Israel and Fatah, and as we have heard, Fatah and Hamas are now further apart than before, what are the realistic chances of a two-state solution? Are we now looking at a three-state solution?

  Dr Bregman: I think that eventually Hamas and Fatah will work together, so we will have a two-state solution, unless the Israelis continue to build settlements in the West Bank, which will create a new reality, where you cannot disengage and create a two-state solution—that is the real danger. It is inevitable that they will work together, and they understand that. The real danger to the two-state solution is the building of settlements, which will make it impossible to have two separate entities.

    The international community—if I may use that term— should work hard on trying to stop the settlements, which are not in the interests of the Israelis. That is because they want a two-state solution, not one state where you have an Arab majority. If there is one, they either have to allow the Arabs to vote, whereby there would be an Arab Government, or say, "No, we will not allow you to vote", which would be a South Africa for me—that is the heart of the problem. We do not have to spend a lot of time thinking whether Hamas and Fatah will work together—they will do it.

  Ms Bar-Yaacov: I would like to stress the urgency of the settlement issue. I wholeheartedly agree with Dr Bregman's comment that the main obstacle to a two-state solution is the Israeli settlements that are continuing to expand. It is already late, but it will be too late if urgent action is not taken to stop their construction and expansion.

    As I said, a comprehensive plan that involves all the regional actors has to be, in my opinion, based on the Arab peace initiative, and that is also a vehicle to rally support in the Arab world, which is critical. But the settlements are absolutely the key issue, and as any Government have to realise, although a lot of work has been done on it, it is evidently not enough, because Israel is continuing to build. Eventually, that may render a two-state solution impossible.

  Q45 Mr Heathcoat-Amory: Presumably, it was Israeli policy to try to show that if you were uncompromising, you get bombed, as in Gaza, but if you were more compromising, as in the West Bank, you can live in peace—that would tend to separate the two issues. From what has already been said, would it be a mistake, or too supportive of the Israeli position, if the west or the international community tried to deal with the West Bank, with the Palestinian Authority currently based there?

  Ms Bar-Yaacov: First, I would like to say that Israel would not have attacked Gaza, at least in my opinion, if rockets were not being fired from there, while rockets are not fired from the West Bank. It has nothing to do with a compromising or uncompromising Government—it is a question of a threat: there were ongoing rockets fired. Israel tried to renew the ceasefire in December last year, but rockets were fired. I have already laid out the analysis of who broke the ceasefire, but certainly, rockets were fired on Israel. Had that not happened, Israel would not have attacked Gaza—that was most certainly a response to rockets firing from Gaza. It is important to stress that there are no rockets being fired from the West Bank, so the West Bank is not under attack—or not in that way.

  Q46 Mr Heathcoat-Amory: Should British foreign policy try to secure peace between Israel and the West Bank, while leaving Hamas and Gaza out of it, or would that institutionalise a split?

  Ms Bar-Yaacov: I think that would institutionalise a split. You must treat Gaza and the West Bank as one territory—absolutely. With any kind of international plan for peace and any kind of policy—that is what I said earlier in my response to Eric Illsley's question, that the West Bank first policy is not productive. It has to be changed. Gaza and the West Bank have to be treated as one territory and, even if a national unity Government are not around the corner, efforts have to be made. I certainly do not think that it is around the corner and that is because Hamas does not want it, not because Fatah does not want it. From what I am hearing from the Hamas-Fatah negotiations, Hamas is setting conditions that are absolutely impossible to meet, including the one that I mentioned earlier, which is that there should be no basis for negotiations, so the new national unity Government will not be able to negotiate peace with Israel. They will have to be based on the platform of resistance. That is clearly not acceptable. Hamas is looking to reform the PLO and there are all sorts of other moves but eventually, if there were elections in Palestine, I hope that international actors would learn from past mistakes and respect the results, no matter which party wins. One way forward would be to plan an understanding between Hamas and Fatah— even if they were not a fully fledged national unity Government—that will focus on two issues. First, Fabian Hamilton referred earlier to the reconstruction of Gaza, and there could be co-operation on the issue between Fatah and Hamas because they would both like to see serious reconstruction efforts made in Gaza. To that end, a conference on major reconstruction will be held on 2 March in Cairo. The second issue is the opening of the crossings.

  Chairman: We have a couple more areas to cover quickly, as there will be a Division at 4 o'clock.

  Q47 Mr Purchase: You will now have your thoughts on the likely results of the horse-trading for a new Government in Israel. I want to ask you two things. First, given your understanding of how things might turn out, will there be a considerable change in Israel's relations with occupied Palestinian territories, and secondly, do you think that relations with the EU will improve or worsen?

  Chairman: That is a question to all three witnesses, but yes or no would be quite sufficient.

  Ms Bar-Yaacov: It is not a yes or no question. Horse-trading will go on for about six weeks. It is tough. The election results were so close, and one trend that is important to note is that there was quite a major shift to the right. The right bloc has gained a large number of seats and it will be impossible for Livni to form a coalition. There is no guarantee that she will be asked to form one without Avigdor Lieberman, who is quite a hard-core, right-wing political leader. We will have to wait until the Government is formed before we can answer that question responsibly. Given the slight chance that Livni and Barak might join forces and there might be a centre-left bloc of 40 seats, the scenario would look completely different depending on who sits in the coalition, and we really do not know who will do that. As you politicians know better than I do, the negotiations will be tough, and 12 parties will be negotiating so we have to wait to see how the coalition is formed. We are looking to see whether the centre-left bloc will be strong. If Livni manages to form a coalition, she will want a two-state solution.

  Q48 Mr Purchase: Let me interrupt. There could be a slightly left or slightly right Government. Do you think that we will see significant differences in their approach, whichever party is in power?

  Ms Bar-Yaacov: Yes, very much so. If Livni were to form a Government along the lines that she would like, she would go for peace talks with the Palestinians and prioritise that on the basis of a two-state solution. She would open peace talks with Syria. If Netanyahu ends up being Prime Minister, he believes in what he terms "economic peace," which means basically no peace process, but giving some economic incentives to Palestinians on the West Bank. He does not believe in trying to reach an agreement with Hamas; on the contrary, he would like to see the movement crushed one way or another. He would like to attack Iran. We are looking at two extremely different Governments.

  Mr Purchase: If there is that degree of difference, there are no surprises there.

  Chairman: We have about one minute left. Dr Bregman, do you want to speak?

  Dr Bregman: I shall be brief. It is very clear that Israel has moved sharply to the right. Even Kadima is based on many people from Likud. The policies will be different. My last point concerns Netanyahu. We are expecting him to become Prime Minister. He will try to manage the Palestinian issue, and if the international community pushes him enough, he will try to strike a deal with Syria.

  Dr Albasoos: I do not think that there will be many changes to the peace process as there have been negotiations for 16 years. Whether the left wing orthe right wing is in power, there will be the same results. It will be worse if Netanyahu leads the Government, especially in terms of a ceasefire.

  Chairman: We have to conclude at this point. We shall start our next session with our next witness. Thank you for a very useful session.

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