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Encountering peace: Negotiating through the drums of war



The drums of war are beating once again. Israel's Independence Day festivities are behind us. The "Shimon Peres show" that brought the leaders of the Jewish world and tens of heads of state has also closed down. President Bush and his entourage are gone. Now Olmert and his government are free to devote attention to the continued rocket fire from Gaza (that is of course, in between being investigated for all sorts of corruption).

The grad missile that landed on the Ashkelon shopping mall during the exact moments when Bush was sitting with Olmert only supported the firm belief held by the US president that "you don't talk with terrorists." It is interesting to imagine what Olmert was thinking at that moment. Olmert was well aware that his negotiations with Hamas through Egypt were continuing despite the fact that Olmert, Barak and Livni delivered the identical negative response to Egyptian Security Chief Omar Suleiman regarding the package deal Egypt negotiated with the Hamas and the other factions in Gaza for a cease-fire and the reopening of the Rafah crossing for people and goods. It is quite easy to assume that Bush gave his "green light" for Israel to launch a major ground operation into Gaza (after he leaves the country of course). Israel needs US consent to use US supplied weapons that will kill Palestinians in Gaza, including innocent non-combatants who will get in the way of the fire.

Bush apparently believes that Israel cannot possibly succeed in negotiating the creation of the Palestinian state, according to his vision and time table, without first achieving a regime change in Gaza. Of course, Bush provides Olmert, Livni and Barak with the inspiration of Iraq to show how it can be done. If he got rid of Saddam Hussein and his gang of murderers in Baghdad, why can't Israel do the same in Gaza (he must think to himself)? In Bush's world-view, it is quite simple. Israel has the bigger guns, so why not use them? Surely the people of Gaza will greet the Israeli forces with sugar and rice as did the Shi'ites in South Lebanon in 1982. (One problem is that they have run out of sugar and rice in Gaza, but never mind - they'll throw something else instead). It didn't take until 1983 when the Shiites started blowing themselves up on Israeli forces in Lebanon. Does anyone believe that Palestinians in Gaza will wait even a year before they do the same thing to the Israeli forces that come to "liberate" them from the Hamas?

OK, BUSH doesn't live here. He doesn't really understand this part of the world. His Texan cowboy mentality might fit in very well with some of the "great" military minds of the Israeli security forces, but we should be able to expect that the local military minds have some understanding of local realities. Yet the loudest voices in Israel for implementing the cowboy plan for regime change in Gaza are coming right out of the military. When was the last time that Israel solved a problem with the Arabs through the use of force? Our use of force helped to create Hizbullah just as it helped to create the Hamas. Let's not forget that the Israeli refusal to coordinate or to agree on the disengagement from Gaza with Mahmoud Abbas led to the Hamas's ability to claim victory for kicking Israel out of Gaza, just as Hizbullah claimed victory for kicking Israel out of south Lebanon.

As it appears that the negotiations with the Hamas through Omar Suleiman are continuing, it can be assumed that the Israeli rejection of the Egyptian plan was not a closing of the door entirely on the possibility of arriving at a cease-fire agreement. Rather it seems that the Israeli rejection was just another stage in the negotiations. Israel is trying to get a better deal. It should have been quite clear to the Egyptians that excluding the release of Gilad Schalit in the package made it almost impossible for Olmert to accept it. I personally gave this assessment to the Egyptians some two weeks before the package was formally presented by Suleiman.

THE EGYPTIANS are in a bind because Hamas said that there would be no renewed negotiations for Schalit until the economic siege of Gaza comes to an end with the opening of the Rafah crossing. Israel and the US have been applying almost unbearable pressure on Egypt to guarantee that the tunnel routes for smuggling into Gaza would be closed by Egypt. Israel has said categorically that there would be no cease-fire without an end to the smuggling.

I have maintained the position for months that the deal which is in the interests of all parties is a package which includes the Schalit - prisoner exchange, cease-fire (Gaza first but it must be extended to the West Bank), the opening of Rafah with PA troops in place and EU monitors, and the opening of at least one of the crossings between Israel and Gaza (probably the Karni crossing for commercial goods). In order for that to happen, Israel needs to be more flexible on the list of names Hamas is demanding in exchange for Schalit (because after almost two years it should be clear that Hamas is unlikely to make significant changes in the list). This is extremely difficult for Israel to accept, but if Hamas were to agree that all of the Palestinian prisoners released would go to Gaza and not to the West Bank, Israel could live with it.

The parties need to also understand that the alternative to the agreement is much worse for all involved than reaching the agreement. In this context, it might be possible to interpret the drums of war now as part of the negotiations as well. The threats being made on both sides of the Gaza border and the escalation which has already occurred and will only increase and could be not only preparation for a full scaled Israeli invasion, but also and equally possible, a negotiating tactic to impress on Hamas what is at stake. Hamas's use of more advanced rockets could also be the same tactic being played out against Israel.

A full-scale Israel invasion into Gaza is not at all complicated. The army has had months to plan for it. There is no serious military challenge at all. Israel could, without much effort, kill hundreds of Palestinians, including most of the military and political leadership of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Israel might even have the ability to implement an Iraqi-style regime change.

All of that will not bring quiet to the South. Rockets will continue. Suicide bombers will return. The Gazan population will not celebrate the Israeli invasion. Mahmoud Abbas' government cannot come in and take over on the coat tails of the Israel invasion. The negotiations between Israel and Abbas will end immediately. Bush will smile and say, "You can't talk to terrorists," and Israel/Palestine will end up looking like the same mess he got the world into in Iraq.


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