The New Year is a time for resolutions; a time for transformation. Yet, the first week of 2007 did not bring any change whatsoever. Instead it prompted feelings of déjà vu.
The year started off with the continuation of a deadly trend. According to B’Tselem’s annual report, 2006 was lethal for the Palestinians. In total, Israel was responsible for the deaths of 660 individuals – more than three times the number from 2005. These numbers included 322 civilians and 141 minors. Israeli security forces also demolished 292 homes, housing 1,769 people.
Although Israel continued to uphold its ceasefire in the Gaza strip during the first week of the year, it conducted raids into the West Bank. On Thursday, undercover Israel forces went into Ramallah and attempted to arrest Rabia Hamad, a militant of Fatah’s al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade. In the process, they killed four civilians, wounded 20 others, and damaged cars and shops. As in the past, Prime Minister Olmert apologized for the civilian casualties but showed little guilt. He claimed that the incursion was necessary for Israel’s defense, and, on Friday, the IDF conducted yet another raid into the town Tul Karm, looking for an Islamic Jihad militant.
According to several journalists, including the New York Time’s Steven Erlanger, these raids “overshadowed” what could have been significant talks between Olmert and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to discuss plans for a prisoner release. But it’s unclear how productive these talks would have been – even without the embarrassment of civilian deaths.
Egypt has been playing a role to mediate an agreement since Gilad Shalit’s capture in June, and many times have the sides appeared close to an agreement without actually reaching one. This week seems to have been no exception.
On Tuesday, Hamas announced that it would accept Israel’s offer of 450 prisoners for Shalit. The proposed agreement involved several steps: First, the release of a small number of prisoners for a video of Shalit, proving that he is alive; second, the transfer of Shalit to Egypt then Israel, in return for 450 prisoners – including Fatah activist Marwan Barghouti; and third, another “generous” prisoner release. But throughout the week, Israeli and some Palestinian officials denied these reports, and, following the Olmert-Mubarak meeting yesterday, no agreement was announced.
The beginning of 2007 also saw the continuation of Palestinian infighting. On Wednesday, after a lull for the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha, commemorating Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac, hostilities again intensified. For the second time, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh was forced to cut short a trip abroad due to the fighting – he did so for the first time in mid-December.
With this stagnation and with the prospects for the future looking bleak, it’s no wonder that analysts are bemoaning inaction and a lack of leadership on the part of Israel. A recent Dahaf Institute poll showed that the majority of Israelis believe that Olmert has given a poor performance as Prime Minister and that he lacks decision-making capabilities and the ability to function well under pressure. And Akiva Eldar writes about the ambiguity of Israel’s policies, which “is eating away at every good part of the army, politics and all branches of the establishment.”
Others, such as Dr. Menachem Klein, lament the fact that Israeli officials, unlike others in the Middle East, seem to have no plan for the future. Indeed, this week, Egypt, which has long been a leader in Middle East peace efforts, put forth a proposal for a “four-way” summit with Egypt, and Jordan to help break the impasse between Israel and the Palestinians.
Perhaps this inaction, this lack of planning, has to do with what Rami G. Khouri sees as Israel’s dominance “going in slow reversal.” Following the summer war with Hezbollah and Israel’s inability to return Gilad Shalit to his family or to stop rockets from falling on the south, Israel’s power could be waning.
Which is why the US needs to get involved. Currently, America is providing financial support to Abu Mazen’s security forces in an effort to bolster Palestinian President’s. But it needs use its influence to actively end the conflict. According to the Forward’s Nathan Guttman, Secretary of State Condolezza Rice has plans to visit the region in the middle of this month. Nevetheless, she is not expected to press for much needed change. As Olmert has said time and again, America is Israel’s greatest ally; as such, the US needs to push Israel to take concrete steps towards a peaceful resolution.
It’s true that things look bleak at the moment. But as we saw around this time last year when Prime Minister Sharon succumbed to a stroke, things can change in an instant.