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23 June 2008


Palestinian choices and realities


By: Gershon Baskin



Special to AMIN
There is a general sense amongst Israelis and Palestinians alike that the permanent status negotiations are going nowhere. The promise and hope for real changes on the ground since Annapolis have faded away, like most of the other promises and hopes of the Oslo peace process. Daily hardships for Palestinians remain much as they have been since the beginning of the second intifada.  Israeli checkpoints and road blocks still make the possibility of movement and access a challenge that most normal people fail to understand and cope with.  Israeli settlements are expanding and few people can comprehend how a contiguous Palestinian state can ever be established. 

Nonetheless, despite the understandable pessimism and even cynicism regarding the peace process, intensive negotiations are taking place. There are at least three negotiating forums: (1) the meetings between President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert, (2) the meetings between the heads of the negotiating teams – Livni and Qurie, and (3) the seven technical committees. There have been more than 70 negotiating sessions held between Livni and Qurie as of the date of this writing. The heads of the negotiating teams are meeting three times a week.  The technical committees are meeting at least once a week.  I also believe, although without any hard evidence for this, that there is at least one secret channel of negotiations taking place as well. There are continuous contradictory reports on progress or the lack of in the negotiations, but in truth, we have no real information and the negotiations are continuing.  From past experience, we know that the real hard decisions are always made in the final hours of the negotiations, and not before.

It is quite true that both Olmert and Abbas are quite weak, lack public support and head governments that have little legitimacy in the eyes of their publics.  The paradox is that the very weakness of the leaders and their governments may very well be the strength of the negotiating process.  Never before have we had a situation whereby in order to survive politically the leaders need an agreement.  The assumption is that if an agreement is reached, both sides will go to elections and both publics will give a majority of support for peace.  Without an agreement, both leaders are history!

There are of course no guarantees that the sides will reach an agreement.  The issues are complex and very sensitive.  I would like to point to few observations on some of the lessons learned from that past that seem to have been internalized and implemented by both sides. The negotiations are taking place without leaks to the public.  The negotiations are not taking place through the media.  This was the habit in the past; both sides used leaks and the media for information and disinformation as a tool to apply pressure on the other sides and sometimes from within each society by those opposed to the process.  This is not happening now. For the first time in the history of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the Israeli military is not controlling the process – they are not even at the table.  There are no army personnel involved as negotiators. The issues are being dealt with comprehensively and together and not as separate issues.  At the level of the heads of the negotiations there is an understanding that there must be a package deal in which there will be trade-offs between the sides on keys issues and interests.  You cannot negotiate Jerusalem separately from borders and refugees.  All of the issues must be dealt with together and that is what is happening.

Both publics will be faced with very tough choices.  If an agreement is reached is will include Palestinian sovereignty over the Palestinian parts of East Jerusalem and over the Haram al sharif.  But Palestinians will most likely have to accept Israeli sovereignty over the Jewish parts of East Jerusalem (the main neighborhoods/settlements – not the scattered Jewish homes in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods).  More difficult for Palestinians will be the choice they will have to make in accepting an agreement that will most likely determine that the right of return for Palestinian refugees will be mostly to the Palestinian state and not to the Galilee or to other parts of Israel proper, in addition to receiving financial compensation for losses and for suffering.  Israel will have to acknowledge and recognize its moral responsibility for its share of creating the refugee problem.

When looking around at the ground it is difficult to perceive that real serious negotiations could be taking place.  It does not seem that Israel is at all serious.  The announcements by Israel of additional settlement building and expansion despite harsh words from Bush, Rice and even Sarkozy have not changed the Israeli policy. It is clear that Olmert is in a trap held hostage by members of his own government.  If he does not implement those settlement plans, mostly in the Jerusalem area, his government will fall and he will not be able to carry on with the negotiations.  Of course, this also endangers the legitimacy of Abu Mazen and his government and there seems to be too little understanding of that on the Israeli side.  Olmert claims that the only building taking place in settlements is in areas where Israel will annex lands as part of the land swap agreement in the negotiations.  He fails to understand that this should not be done unilaterally. 

Palestinians are marching forward with their renewed national dialogue.  It is clear that the majority of Palestinians support reconciliation within the Palestinian house. If Palestinians are in dialogue with Israelis, how can they reject the idea of dialogue with Hamas?  This is easy to understand and to have sympathy towards.  This is, however, extremely problematic.  Historically, until 1994, Palestinian national politics were guided by the notion of consensus.  When parties within the Palestinian house disagreed with the PLO they left the house.  At one point there were more than 10 Palestinian organizations within the “Rejection Front”.  With Oslo, a more democratic face of Palestinian national politics took shape when the PFLP and DFLP disagreed with Oslo but stayed within the PLO house.  They became, for the first time a “loyal opposition”.  At that time Hamas had not entered the house and rejected the agreements and chose not to participate. But in 2006 Hamas decided to participate in the elections that brought them to power.  In June 2007 Hamas broke the rules of the game by using violence to assert itself and opened a new opportunity for the Palestinian people to make a choice.

National unity is a nice idea, but in reality it is a false unity.  There is no unity of purpose between Hamas and the national movement.  The goals of the two movements are diametrically opposed – both on the internal level and on the international level.  Hamas will not meet the basic requirements of the international community for recognition and any engagement with Hamas will lead the Palestinian National Movement back into isolation and further despair.  When and if there are new elections in Palestine they will not be over corruption and failed governance, as in 2006. This time the elections will be over ideology and direction.  Are the Palestinian people going to chose to turn inwards towards a fundamentalist view of an Islamic state or will the Palestinian people turn outwards towards becoming an accepted member of the international community?

I have tried to engage Hamas.  Immediately after the elections I said that I would not, but that statement did not last for long.  I was approached by so many Israelis – mainstream people, former army officers, former diplomats, even members of Kadima who wanted me to arrange for meetings (even secret meetings) with Hamas members. I honestly tried, but failed.  Throughout those attempts I had a vision in my mind of a locked door with a peep-hole.  On one side of the door there was a very long line of Israelis waiting and on the other side of the door was Khaled Meshal looking through the peep-hole. 

I traveled to Gaza.  I met with Hamas leaders myself.  I even found a professor from the Islamic University in Gaza who was interested and agreed to put together a group.  We found four countries that were willing to sponsor the meetings in secret and to provide visas for the Hamas people. But at the end of the day, the professors were afraid and did not get political “green light”.  Even after one of the senior Hamas leaders in Gaza decided to join the group, somewhere, somehow, other leaders in Gaza and in Damascus vetoed the meetings.  They never took place.  The Professor who tried to make it happen agreed on his own to come to a meeting abroad with Israelis.  Afterwards, he was punished and told to take a sabbatical from the university when he returned.

I have tried to communicate with the Hamas leadership in Damascus. I have written tens of letters, faxes and emails to Khaled Meshal and to Musa Abu Marzook. Most of my attempted contacts with them dealt with the issue of Gilead Shalit and the prisoner exchange.  But to no avail.  Even as late as two weeks ago, after sending an email and a fax to Abu Marzook, when I called his office in Damascus I was told that he refuses to speak to me.

I often joke, but in fact it is no joke, that the main difference between a Hamas moderate and a Hamas extremist is only whether or not they are willing to speak to me!  I am of course, not the issue.  The issue is whether or not Hamas and the National Movement can share the same house (a national unity government).  I don’t believe it is possible, until of course Hamas changes its ideology and I don’t see that coming.

In politics having a choice is a good thing.  There are different philosophies and different ideologies and selecting which one best fits your own beliefs and how you perceive your national interests is what politics is all about.  Politics is not about always agreeing with your adversaries.  Give the Palestinian people a clear choice.  I believe that most Palestinians are moderate people who want to improve their lives.  They want good and responsible government.  They want peace with Israel, not perpetual war and suffering. Given a clear choice, I believe the majority of Palestinians will chose peace over Hamas.

National dialogue is important.  Trying to understand each other side is essential.  Reconciliation over what happened in June 2007 is necessary. Coming together at this time in one government would probably put and end to the negotiations – and they have to be given the full chance of success.  Coming together under one political roof at this time would also probably put an end to the tremendous willingness of the international community to assist in building the Palestinian state.

If the process fails, the time will come for evaluating other strategies and possibilities.  Until that time, wisdom calls upon us all to give the process the full chance that it deserves.

* Gershon Baskin in the Israeli Co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI)- Jerusalem.


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