CAN POLITICIANS SEIZE THE OPPORUNITY?
Source: The Jerusalem Times (http://www.jerusalem-times.net), June 30, 2007. Distributed by Search for Common Ground News Service with permission to republish.
The recent Sharm El-Sheikh summit resembled a love fest, where all four leaders of Egypt, Jordan, Israel and Palestine agreed the time is ripe to move forward. Unfortunately, the local public remains sceptical as similar meetings have taken place, with promises made, but no tangible results. The urgency of the summit stems from the dangerous dive into the unknown, as a serious rift developed with Gaza falling under control of Hamas and Fatah seemingly in control of the West Bank.
International pressure, mainly American-Israeli, led Hamas to pre-empt Fatah, by using its military strength in Gaza, to oust troops loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas and allowed Hamas to accentuate that the PLO is not the only political voice of the Palestinian people. Both Hamas and Fatah emerged from the confrontation in front of the Palestinian public as losers. Hamas lost the public support that the elections bestowed on the movement. Using force and committing atrocities against Palestinian brothers not only undermined the democratic process but severely questioned Hamas’s legitimacy.
The immediate backlash was an increase in the popularity of President Abbas and backing for his newly installed emergency government. How long this popular support will last depends on the ability of the President to demonstrate to the people that he can extract from the Olmert government actions and not just promises. Abbas has prohibited all others, even Fatah’s al-Aqsa brigades, from carrying arms and ordered the PA security forces to collect all such weapons. In return, Olmert should order the IDF and Shin Bet to stop their daily raids, targeted killings and arrests in the West Bank and to return to security coordination between the two sides. Olmert and his aides should understand that the PA and its forces in the West Bank are under orders of the legitimately elected President and not quislings under the beck and call of Israel. So far, Israel and its leaders have brought more harm than support to Abbas. Olmert has to understand that he is dealing with the leadership of the Palestinian people and not with lackeys and employees at his disposal.
President Abbas has crossed his Rubicon and is actively implementing phase one of the road map process obligations; the Israeli government should, in parallel, remove illegal outposts and freeze settlement activities. Hard decisions have to be carried out by both sides, otherwise the moderate Palestinian leadership will lose credibility in front of its public. The Palestinian opposition is advancing that Israel is unwilling to carry out its obligations.
In the next twenty-four months, an active policy of stabilization in the region should be the primary responsibility of the leaders of Israel and Palestine, the Arab countries and the international community as expressed in the Quartet. On the Palestinian side, the President should work toward creating a political horizon with his Israeli counterparts. The Palestinian public has fully supported Abbas in the aftermath of the armed takeover of Gaza by Hamas, but the public also supports the Arab effort to pave the way to internal Palestinian reconciliation that will allow eventually a second national unity government. The PA under PM Salam Fayyad should continue the reform process while helping the Palestinian economy regain its health in the West Bank and Gaza in order to heal the present rift. It is not enough to allow humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip, it is essential to create jobs. PM Fayyad has a tough agenda to tackle, but most Palestinians believe he can do the job. Fatah has to clean its act and hold its 6th Fatah Convention, elect younger leaders and prepare itself for the coming elections.
The Quartet has a special super-envoy, the newly anointed former PM Tony Blair; his main job is not to see that humanitarian aid reaches Gaza, or to ease the movement of people and goods. Blair’s main job is to create a political horizon for Abbas and Olmert, discretely, away from the media, to narrow the gap on final status issues and help all the parties in the conflict – Israelis, Palestinian, Syrians, and Lebanese – take advantage of the window of opportunity that the Arab peace initiative provides. Tony Blair does not need an initiation period to absorb the facts; for the past ten years, the Middle East has been high on the British agenda. One word of advice: Blair could work on phase three of the road map process while supporting both sides to meet the obligations of phase one, with phase two becoming relevant if the Israeli and Palestinian sides reach an understanding on the issues of the two-state solution.
In the present stabilization period, a long-term ceasefire, implemented by both sides in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, could help bring about an interim period in a way similar to what phase two of the road map suggests. Hamas advocated a long term Hudna from the first day it came to power; some Israelis are seriously discussing for the first time Hudna-ceasefire. In a way, President Abbas should seriously consider it, as it will help the internal reconciliation process. Hamas in the meantime has to decide if it wants to be involved and part of the process, to transform itself into a political movement and to accept, like all the other movements, to disarm its military wing.
Dark clouds cover the whole region, and as all sides believe that no military solution exists for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they should cooperate to work for a negotiated settlement. In the past the Labor Party advocated such a course but failed to realize it alone, it needed Begin and the Likud to bring about the first Arab Peace Treaty with Egypt. Fatah under Arafat and Abbas worked for a settlement with Israel, but the process will not move forward until Hamas plays the role of the Likud. The policy of sanctions and isolation have hardened Hamas; it is high time to engage them, now they have a stake to protect.
*Mr Hanna Siniora is the Palestinian co-CEO of IPCRI — the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (www.ipcri.org).