After all, convergence may lead to something positive

Dr. Yossi Ben Ari*

Sunday, March 26, 2006

 

In mid December 2005 a group of Israelis and Palestinian met in Jericho under IPCRI’s auspices to continue discussing the best way to advance the Israeli-Palestinian political process. The group included academics, journalists, security experts and civil society activists of various NGOs that work on peace building between the sides. The weekend led to the birth of an understanding that on both sides it would be difficult to return to the negotiating table towards advancing a permanent status agreement. It was understood then, by the Palestinian side as well as the Israeli side, that progress is possible in two stages, connected to each other from the outset as a package deal: stage one that would last about three years and would be dedicated to implementing a unilateral Israeli disengagement from most of the West Bank.  That time would be used by the Palestinians to build state institutions and the transference of the reins of authority to people in the Palestinian government.  In the second stage, following the ripening of the first stage, the sides would return to negotiations to reach an agreement, preferably a permanent status one, in order to finally fulfill the idea of two states for two peoples.

 

Shortly after the Jericho meeting the situation began to be turned upside-down: Sharon became ill and ceased his political involvement. Even if Kadima kept the inertia, the Hamas victory turned the Israeli-Palestinian reality into a kind of check-mate. The policy of Hamas, the Israeli conditions for any kind of dialogue with Hamas, and the boycott of Abu Mazen as a possible  alternative partner to Ismail Haniyeh and his colleagues, have created a dead-end for any possibility of dialogue and as such, have placed the Jericho ideas in a ridiculous light. Moreover, in the reality of the two-side detachment’ Olmert’s readiness to allocate time prior to implementing the unilateral “convergence” plan, seems to be little more than lip service that he has to pay, both for purposes of “internal peace” and for the purpose of the preventing the international community from raising concerns and objections regarding returning to the pattern of unilateralism and distancing the possibilities of arriving to an agreement.

 

And despite all this what should be done? The State of Israel must do everything possible, at every level, to break out of the cycle of no-way forward. Despite rejecting Abu Mazen as a partner, it seems clear that Jerusalem is continuing to carefully examine his weight and importance in the new reality and what will be the division of governing authorities between himself and the Hamas government.  It can be appraised that even if surprisingly Abu Mazen retains significant authorities and powers in the areas of foreign relations and security, Israel may change its relationship towards him, at least in part (international pressure can be expected that would push Israel in this direction). At the field level, holding firm to the rejection of any dialogue between the Israeli and the Palestinian establishments demands the opening of a small window for conducting a dialogue by non-officials, even if only for solving day-to-day problems.

 

But even though these possibilities may unfortunately be missed, it is necessary to look at the situation in a slightly different way. Even though it may seem absurd and strange, if the convergence plan is implemented by Israel unilaterally, it may assist in advancing the idea of two-states for two peoples.  Despite that the convergence plan may be implemented unilaterally without being recognized, agreed to or coordinated, it will result with strengthening the disengagement between the two peoples. The evacuation of large parts of the settlement population from the West Bank will undoubtedly be a reason for Hamas to celebrate, marking once again its political victory thereby strengthening its hold on the Palestinian Authority for a long time to come. We shouldn’t be surprised if euphoria coupled with a real improvement in freedom of movement for Palestinians, may entice the Hamas to declare unilaterally the creation of the Palestinian state, even if there is complete detachment between the West Bank and Gaza, and even if it would not be readily accepted by most Western capitals.  The increase that seems apparent for chances of security calm (the Hamas has a real interest in preserving the tahadieh, even with keeping closer supervision over other potentially violent forces), may accept the sting of risk that Israel might act with force to disrupt the process. The existing constraints on the Palestinians might be somewhat blurred also surrounding Israel’s efforts to reshape its borders: if the Olmert government will act, as it promises, to reach international agreement to the borders, the route of those borders will become closer to the 1967 lines. Otherwise, the proposed border will not be accepted by the international community as legitimate.  At the end of the process, it should not be a surprise if the settlement blocs become more condensed than they are presented in the Kadima platform now and if the idea of linking Maaleh Adumin to Jerusalem fades away over time. The future solution for Jerusalem itself, and the Israeli hold over the Jordan Valley, might change as well.

 

If in fact this does occur and if Israel will be pressured by world leaders to shape more attractive alternatives with acceptable territorial exchanges with the Palestinians, the Hamas viewpoint may also change.  Such a reality brings closer the basic demands of the Hamas for dialogue with Israel, even if this brings about only a long-term Hudna and not an agreement of the kind that Israel hoped for under Oslo. From the practical point of view of Israeli citizens who desire security and calm, it is not clear what is better for them: an agreement with the nationalist Fatah government that led to thousands of casualties for either sides, or a Hudna, which is not an agreement, but enables calm over a long period of time. Who, in the public’s eyes cares what it is called and who stands behind it, as long as there is calm, even if it is not permanent and absolute?

 

If only we could arrive to the point where we could reach a bilateral agreement through negotiations. But if that will not happen, it might be that the current reality poses some other positive opportunities. As strange as it may seem, it appears that we have arrived right back to the Jericho understanding, even if through the back door.

 

*Brig. General (res.) Dr. Yossi Ben Ari is the Israeli Co-Director of IPCRI’s Strategic Affairs Unit