[[Jerusalem Times: Opinion]]

 

September 10, 2006

 

This week in Israel….. Behind the news with Gershon Baskin

 

 

A renewed peace process?

 

Tony Blair’s visit launched the week today with renewed optimism of a possible Olmert-Abbas summit.  Suddenly Olmert announced last evening at his press conference with Blair that he is ready to meet Abbas without any pre-conditions and even before kidnapped soldier Corporal Gilead Shalit is released from captivity.  This is a definitive break from former policy.  Just two weeks ago, one of Olmert’s senior advisors told me that Olmert wants to meet with Abbas, but that no such meeting would take place prior to the release of Shalit.

 

Blair also traveled to Ramallah to meet with the Palestinian leadership.  Palestinian President Abbas told Blair that he was ready to meet Olmert immediately to renew the peace process with permanent status negotiations. Prime Minister Olmert limited his willingness to meet to discuss renewing the Road Map.  Neither option seems to be very promising at this time, but going down the path of the Road Map is clearly a dead-end and a waste of time.  Even with the mandate to negotiate that Abbas received from the internal Palestinian national dialogue process, there is no way that Abbas can fulfill the Road Map requirements of dismantling the Hamas.  This is completely unrealistic.

 

At the same time, within Israeli internal political problems and facing the weakness of the coalition, it seems that Olmert has no desire to confront the right-wing following the drop in his public support after the war.  Instead of dismantling illegal outposts and freezing all settlement activity, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Defense are searching for ways to “legalize” the illegal outposts and more than 650 tenders were issued for new housing in Maaleh Adumim and Betar Elite – two settlements.  Therefore, talking about the Road Map is like talking about the weather – something the Brits like to do, but I think that Blair and other European leaders have higher expectations for a renewed peace process than another round of talking about the Road Map.

 

 

 

Olmert’s investigation problems

 

Olmert does not want a national investigation committee on the war in Lebanon appointed by a Supreme Court Justice, but he may have no choice in the end.  Two of the members appointed to the Admoni committee that Olmert formed were forced to resign after the Attorney General decided that they had conflicts of interests – both of them have dealings with the Ministry of Defense and represented defense contractors.  Now the head of the committee, Nahum Admoni may have to resign himself because of the reported conflicts of interest involving his wife, who Olmert had appointed to three separate positions when he was Minister of Industry and Trade.

 

Olmert is now tossing around the idea of a Government appointed committee that will be headed by a Judge.  This is a compromise and will probably have government backing, but not public support.  Thirty-thousand Israelis turned up in Rabin Square last night calling for a National Investigation Committee. Many of the demonstrators are still calling for the immediate resignation of Olmert, Peretz and Halutz. Olmert’s problems are not yet behind him.

 

The MIA’s in Lebanon

 

Israel surprisingly agreed to lift the siege on Lebanon’s coastal waters prior to the release and return of kidnapped soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev.  This was a turn around from positions held by Israel since the cease fire was declared.  Israel must have been under intense pressure in order to reverse its decision.  The pressure from the international community regards the deployment of the expanded UNIFIL forces and Israel probably had no choice but to lift the siege. Now the fate of the soldiers is left in the hands of the good will of Hassan Nasrallah and various international negotiators and initiatives underway. 

 

The latest initiative comes from the UN Secretary General who appointed a special negotiator on his behalf. The history of negotiations on prisoner releases and exchanges with Hizbollah has not been very positive.  According to information in the public domain, Israel has still received no sign of life from the soldiers.  It is clear that negotiations will not begin until that first hurdle is crossed.  The international community is going to have to play a significant role in order to ensure that these negotiations will not go on for years.

 

It is most unfortunate that Israel is in no position to reach out directly to the Government of Lebanon.  Just last week Lebanese Prime Minister Siniora stated emphatically that Lebanon would be the last Arab country to make peace with Israel.  Although there are no real issues in conflict between Israel and Lebanon, with the exception of the Shebaa farms, the anger amongst the Lebanese people towards Israel is perhaps the highest in the Arab world. Nonetheless, Israel would be best advised to find some back channel to begin official talks with Siniora’s government.  Those relations need to be developed and warmed and peace between Israel and Lebanon is no longer hostage to the Israeli-Syria track. Israel would be advised to also pursue some inroads to Mr. Assad in Damascus.  There are some reconciliatory sounds coming from that capital and there may be chances for renewing that track as well.  An Israel Syria expert told me that Assad, the son, is willing to accept the international border that does not go down to Lake Tiberias as opposed to his father who refused any deal that would not allow him to sit on the sea shore. This is worth investigating at more official levels.

 

The Arab League goes to New York

 

“There is a new Arab League peace offensive.”  That was the headline of a tiny piece in Haaretz last week stating that the Arab League was preparing itself to propose a UN Security Council Resolution backing the Arab League Peace initiative, aka the Saudi peace plan.  This initiative calls for complete and comprehensive peace between Israel and all of the members of the Arab League.  The plan was backed unanimously by the Arab League summit of Beirut in March 2006 and reaffirmed at the Arab League summit this year in Khartoum.  Most Israelis remember quite well the Khartoum summit that said: No negotiations, no recognition and no peace.  A lot of water has flowed, even through the Jordan River, since then.  When I read the headlines about an Arab League Peace offensive, I had to make sure that I was reading correctly.  The Arab League Peace plan is probably the best deal that Israel could ever hope to get, yet almost no one in Israel takes it seriously. Most Israeli opposition to the plan is based on what is stated on the issue of refugees Achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194. Israelis reject the idea of a solution based on Resolution 194 which the Israelis see as recognizing the right of return. What is new and important in the sentence above is the use of the word “agreed”.  This is the first time that there is a formal recognition that Israel must agree to the solution and secondly the agreement should be in accordance with Resolution 194 and not the usual language that Resolution 194 must be implement by Israel. 

Further Israel opposition comes from the clause about Jerusalem and the definition of borders: “The acceptance of the establishment of a sovereign independent Palestinian state on the Palestinian territories occupied since June 4, 1967 in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.”  Palestinians have already accepted the idea of territorial exchange as well as the Clinton parameters on Jerusalem (what’s Jewish to Israel, what’s Arab to the Palestinians) which were already the basis for the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in Taba in January 2001.   The Arab League peace initiative is the first Arab document ever that states that “the Arab countries affirm the following:

I- Consider the Arab-Israeli conflict ended, and enter into a peace agreement with Israel, and provide security for all the states of the region

II- Establish normal relations with Israel in the context of this comprehensive peace.”

Israel rejection of this initiative should be re-visited.  The Arab world, with all of its oil revenues would be well advised to invest a large amount of money on educating the Israel public about the positive elements of the Arab League Peace initiative. The main thing preventing the advancement of the initiative is not a UN Resolution, that will not change anything (despite Israel’s recent affection for UN resolutions), but the fact that the Israeli public doesn’t know anything about the initiative, except for the negative things stated by the government.  The Israeli public needs to hear clear and coherent voices from Arab leaders throughout the Arab world in favor of peace with Israel.  If the Arab League wants to wage a peace offensive, its address should be in Israel, not in New York.

 

Gershon Baskin is the Co-CEO of IPCRI – the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information.  www.ipcri.org