Return of the Peace Process?
Once upon a time, in a decade not long ago (the 1990s, to be exact), the exchanges that took place between Israelis and Palestinians were known ’round the world as the “peace process,” not “the conflict.” Sadly, over the last seven years, since Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary compound and the beginning of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, the Israeli-Palestinian arena has seemed to generate only one depressing headline after another – with just the rarest bits of hopeful news scattered here and there.
Lately, however, a scent of change has been wafting in the air. The good vibes emanating from Israel-Palestine have been multiplying. The buds of progress seem to be sprouting. The bad news hasn’t disappeared, mind you, but it’s no longer the only news in town.
Note, if you will, the following developments (both symbolic and substantive) that have been reported in the press over the last several weeks:
* Israeli Prime Minister Olmert went to the West Bank to meet with the Palestinian President (Abbas) for the first time since the beginning of the Second Intifada.
* Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, announced that Olmert had promised Abbas to release a list of major roadblocks in the West Bank slated for removal.
* Israel has allowed the Palestinian police to resume their activity in the sections of the West Bank known as “Area B” – where, under the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Authority has been given control over law enforcement.
* The IDF halted its incendiary practice of staging training exercises within West Bank Palestinian villages.
* The “grand old man” of Israeli politics, President Shimon Peres, has reportedly submitted a peace plan under which “Israel will propose transferring to the Palestinian state areas equivalent to 100 percent of the territories conquered in 1967.”
* Indeed, various Israeli politicians have begun competing, not over who can sound most pugnacious vis-à-vis the Palestinians, but over whose framework for diplomatic progress is most viable.
* Finally, and most notably, the weekend papers in Israel are filled with items suggesting that Olmert and Abbas have been doing much more serious negotiating over the last few weeks than was commonly believed. Indeed, the Yediot newspaper reports Olmert’s optimism that the two sides can reach agreement on the principles of a permanent settlement ahead of this fall’s projected peace conference in Washington.
Several Israeli commentators have ascribed the growing signs of flexibility emanating from Ehud Olmert’s office to the Prime Minister’s need to retool his political reputation following last year’s Lebanon War and amid the multiple criminal investigations he is facing. However, Steve Erlanger of the New York Times today offers a less simplistic interpretation, suggesting that an “alliance of fear” (fear of Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas) is pushing the US, Israel, Egypt, Palestinian moderates, Saudi Arabia and others towards this renewed diplomatic push. As an unnamed US official told the paper, the Bush administration has finally come to realize that the current status quo is unsustainable.
But not everyone is optimistic. Haaretz’s Aluf Benn argues that, although all the signs seem good, Abbas and his Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, are simply too weak to enforce security in the West Bank and thereby allow a meaningful Israeli withdrawal. Hence, Benn concludes, what we are witnessing is a make-believe negotiation over a “Play Station Palestine.”
Labor Party Chairman/Defense Minister Ehud Barak is not joining the diplomatic revelry either. In a series of private pronouncements over the last several weeks, Barak has intoned that those who talk about a peace agreement with the Palestinians are indulging in “a fantasy.” Staking out a position which many see as further to the right than the centrist Ehud Olmert, Barak has suggested that he would not support a deal with the Palestinians until Israel had a proper rocket and missile defense system in place – a process that could take up to five years. Indeed, Haaretz reported today that funding for this system, known as “Iron Dome,” has been inconsistent and that, as a result, its development has been slow.
The hard line that Barak has been pushing has not enamored him to Secretary of State Rice. According to Akiva Eldar of Haaretz, “Rice is of the opinion that in the war against terrorism, technological advantage holds no special significance,” and that, “when security considerations alone dictate policy, those people not involved in violence join in the cycle of violence.” Rice is especially concerned that Barak’s negative remarks about the peace process will undermine Palestinian confidence in the Israeli side and become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Haaretz, too, has roundly criticized Barak’s approach, as well as the Defense Ministry’s continued leniency toward the illegal outposts. The paper has called on the Prime Minister to, “Restrain the defense minister.”
Martin Indyk, the ex-Clinton Administration official and former ambassador to Israel, appears to strike a middle ground between exaggerated optimism and “Barakish” skepticism. “If Rice goes for final status she’ll drive it into the ground,” Indyk told the New York Times. He argues that Israel lacks sufficient confidence in the Palestinians to withdraw from large sections of the West Bank, since it fears this would lead to rocket fire on Ben-Gurion Airport and elsewhere in central Israel.
Instead, Indyk suggests a two-pronged approach: Tony Blair will work with the Palestinians to help them build properly functioning state institutions; in parallel, Condoleezza Rice will push the Israelis and Palestinians to reach agreement on the principles of a final settlement – “not the final settlement itself, which will be carried out over many years”, according to Indyk.
Last, but not least: Haggai Alon, who was a senior adviser to former Defense Minister Amir Peretz, importantly reminds readers that it will certainly be hard to generate any movement towards peace when the pressures of occupation continue to weigh so heavily on average Palestinians. In order to strengthen President Abbas in the eyes of his own people, Alon argues that Israel must allow the Palestinians, “a modicum of civil dignity and human rights, as expressed through law, order and freedom of movement.” Alon implores the Israeli government to remove many of the roadblocks, dismantle unauthorized outposts, and cease the IDF’s incessant raids into Palestinian towns and cities.