We pray that the new cease-fire will hold and lead to a geunine peace process. The following is the Nov. 28 edition of “This week in Israel….. Behind the news with Gershon Baskin,” published in the Jerusalem Times, East Jerusalem’s English-language weekly:
The Cease fire
Suddenly, out of nowhere, Israel and the Palestinians declared a bilateral cease fire. Even though, for the time being, the cease fire is limited to Gaza, it is a blanket cessation of hostilities covering all acts of aggression from both sides. This idea was presented to Prime Minister Olmert in the beginning of June 2006 by IPCRI but was summarily rejected by him for two reasons: (1) Israel would have nothing to do with an agreement that involved Hamas, and (2) because, he said, the Palestinians could not be trusted to enforce a cease fire. Olmert, at the time did say that if the Palestinians ceased their aggressive acts, Israel would have no reason to fire back. But then came the attack on Kerem Shalom and the kidnapping of Gilead Shalit and the sharp increase of Israeli aggression in Gaza leaving more than 350 Palestinians dead in the past months.
Some of the explanations for the sudden change in policy might be:
1. A Change in US policy. Following the Republican loss of both Houses of Congress and the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld, it has been suggested that President Bush is now going to turn his attention to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Prime Minister Olmert may have heard about this change during his recent visit to Washington and decided to take some pre-emptive steps in that direction. Press reports after the US elections profiled the new Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and referred to a report that Gates was the co-author of by the Council of Foreign Relations on US policy vis-a-vis Iran. In the operative section of the report dealing with policy recommendations it was suggested that the US needs to work on isolating Iran and the best way to do that would be to strengthen US ties to moderate Middle East regimes. The report suggested that the best way to strengthen US ties in the region would be to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Bush has two years left in the White House and until now he was created greater instability in the region and has helped to bring about a situation where there are at least three possible civil wars in the region (Palestine, Iraq, and Lebanon).
Bush has been consulting with the closest advisors and decision makers of the administration of his father’s administration, including James Baker. Baker has been working with former Congressman Lee Hamilton on preparing a detailed report for Bush on what should be done in Iraq. Leaks from that report have already appeared in the NY Times in which Bush is being advised to open dialogue with Syria and Iran. Baker has been deeply involved in Track II meetings between Israelis and Palestinians in the past years and it is well known that he is a strong advocate of the two-state solution. He also proved when he was Secretary of State that he has no hesitations about confronting the Government of Israel head-on. Most people recall Bakers strong position against Israeli settlements and his decision to withhold US loan guarantees when the stubborn Yitzhak Shamir was Prime Minister. In his famous press conference Baker stated that if Shamir wished to speak with him, Shamir could call him “my number is 242-338” (significant numbers which are very difficult to forget!).
2. No agenda. Since the war in Lebanon this summer it has been quite clear that Olmert’s government lacks a political agenda. I have written in this column in the past that governments without an agenda and without a political horizon that provides hope to the people do not survive for very long. Olmert had continued to hope that he could revive his plan for unilateral withdrawal from most of the West Bank, but that has grown increasingly unpopular in Israel. Recognizing the need for a new agenda, Olmert understood that he could not present anything new without a calming of the violence and he has finally understood that a cease fire must be bilateral.
3. Pressure on the Palestinians. The massive Israeli attacks and the heavy toll on the loss of life and property have also had significant impact on the Palestinian side. People in Gaza are fed up with the situation and feel a strong need for a relaxation period.
4. Progress on the internal Palestinian dialogue. Although the Palestinians have not yet reached full agreement on a new Government, it is recognized by all parties that Ismail Haniyeh will not be the Prime Minister in the new government. This was a major hurdle to cross. There also seems to be agreement on the appointment of Mohammed Shbair as the next Prime Minister, an Islamist academic, but not a member of Hamas. The dialogue has not reached agreement on the government’s platform nor on the acceptance of the Quartet demands, but it has been agreed that President Abbas will have a full mandate to carry on with negotiations with Israel.
5. Khaled Mashal backing the cease fire. Khaled Mashal, the main spoiler until now has come out on top and the main decision maker in Palestinian politics. This is, once again, thanks to Olmert’s resistance to deal with Abbas more seriously. Khaled Mashal came to Egypt for talks with the Egyptian leadership and the Palestinian factions. Once Mashal agreed to the terms of the cease fire was it possible to reach agreement with Israel. Although Israel never negotiated directly with Mashal, Olmert’s chief of staff, Yoram Torbovich and his chief policy advisor, Shalom Turjeman were meeting regularly with Saeb Erikat and Abass’s chief of staff Rafiq Husseini.
Additionally, Israel has been in constant contact with Egyptian Security Minister Omar Suleiman and despite Suleiman’s rocky relationship with Mashal, he has the power and the ability to influence Mashal. Suleiman is on his way to Israel and Palestine to help to conclude the negotiations for a prisoner exchange that will bring about the release of Gilead Shalit. (more on this to follow).
6. The Olmert-Peretz feud. Both Olmert and Peretz are struggling to regain public confidence in their abilities to govern. Both are facing the lowest level of public support ever known by a Prime Minister and a Defense Minister in Israel. Over the past weeks, Peretz had initiated a dialogue with Abbas, much to the anger of Olmert. With a new feud between the two in place, it became clear that there would be a competition on who has the mandate to talk to the Palestinians. Although no direct meetings have yet been held, the competition between the two speeded up contacts between the advisors on both sides.
7. Marwan Barghouthi. In prison, Marwan Barghouthi has been actively engaged in internal Palestinian politics, helping to orchestrate the first tahdiya (calm or cease fire) and then leading the work on the prisoners’ document. Now, Barghouthi has been heavily engaged in the negotiations between the factions on reaching a new cease fire. Israel’s Channel 10 News disclosed last evening that Meretz MK Haim Oron (Jumas) has been deeply involved in intensive private meetings with Barghouthi for more than a year. The meetings were first authorized by Prime Minister Sharon and the by Olmert. We are sure to be seeing more of Barghouthi’s name in the press in the context of the future prisoner exchange. Now would be a very opportune time to release Barghouthi and to hope that he will capture the Palestinian leadership and lead other practical Palestinians towards new permanent status negotiations with Israel.
The hope now is that the cease fire in Gaza will hold and that it will spread to the West Bank. Israel has given a green light for the return to the West Bank of the “Bader Brigade” – Palestinian forces in Jordan loyal to Abbas. A significant prisoner release including Barghouthi and the return of the Bader Brigade will help to stabilize the Palestinian situation. What will be important is for negotiations to resume between Olmert and Abbas that will strengthen the moderates. Additionally, life must return to more normalcy in the occupied territories. Israel must agree to re-open borders and crossings, to remove check points in the West Bank and to free the hundreds of millions of dollars of tax revenues that Israel is illegally holding since the elections of Hamas.
Prisoner exchange negotiations
Despite the optimism reported in the press about the negotiations and the statement of Olmert at the annual ceremony in memory of David Ben Gurion regarding a generous prisoner release, the negotiations are virtually frozen and the gaps are huge. Hamas is insisting to agree on the number of Palestinian prisoners to be released and the categories of prisoners to be included. Hamas is demanding that all of the women and minors be released (number about 400) and that an additional 1000 prisoners including those with life sentences, ill prisoners, Hamas politicians, leaders such as Marwan Barghouthi and Ahmad Saadat, and many others be included in the deal. Israel has been pressuring Hamas to submit lists of names in order to be more concrete in the negotiations. Hamas has insisted to first agree on the numbers and the categories and only then to submit the list of names. Israel has apparently agreed thus far to release between 300-400 prisoners.
Khaled Mashal and other Hamas leaders have said that they would like to end this affair as soon as possible, but that they would not compromise on the number of prisoners to be released. Mashal has said that they have patience and can continue to hold Shalit for months. Despite the political and security difficulties in releasing prisoners, I am afraid that without meeting the Hamas demands, Gilead Shalit will remain in the hands of the kidnappers for many more months. It is time to bring him home.
Gershon Baskin is the Co-CEO of IPCRI – the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information. www.ipcri.org