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GI Briefing: March 15, 2005

Joel Silberman, GI, 15.03.06

A concise yet exhaustive summary of the situation as it now stands - and where to go from here.
 
Hello friends of Geneva,

In the weeks since the Hamas election victory, we have received a number of emails from our friends in the region and around the world, asking what this development means for the future of peace.  Some of you have questioned whether there is any future for peace at all.  We at the GI have been monitoring events very closely and feel it is appropriate to give you a quick briefing on what has happened and what happens from here.  This briefing will be the first in a weekly series that will usually be in the format of a "Top Ten Articles on the Middle East Conflict this Week."  This particular briefing, however, will be a more broadly encompassing summary of the situation as it has evolved over the course of the past few months, with an eye towards the future and constructive options for all parties. 

We look forward to your responses, and encourage you to pass these updates along to others.

***

Since the Palestinian election, many have asked if the vote in the West Bank and Gaza somehow represents the Palestinian public rejecting peace and a two-state solution.  Some neo-con voices (Daniel Pipes, David Horowitz) have already chosen to answer this question in the affirmative.  Others have argued that the Hamas win simply represented a protest vote against Fateh.  In the opinion of the GI, Hamas' victory was in part due to Fateh's corruption and disorganization in the domestic sphere, but there was also much blame to be had within the Israeli government and United States policy.  By failing to strengthen Abu Mazen, by acting unilaterally and thereby not allowing him to show his people any boon for his moderate ways, the United States and Israel helped confirm the notion on the Palestinian street that negotiations would go nowhere and only Hamas could advance Palestinian aspirations.  Click here to read an excellent assessment along these lines by Israel Policy Forum's M.J. Rosenberg.

Amidst any discussion of the Palestinian election results, however, it is important to remember the following two facts:

1)       A plurality of Palestinians voted for Hamas, but not a majority.  Whereas Hamas was highly disciplined and ran only one candidate per district, Fateh and its allies were less organized, often running multiple candidates in one district and thereby splitting their votes.  In this way, Hamas won 56% of the parliamentary seats with only 44% of the vote, a respectable mandate to be sure, but by no means a majority.   Click here to see the statistics.

2)       Even amongst Hamas voters, a vast majority of Palestinians support continuing negotiations with Israel and honoring previous agreements.  In polls taken after the January 25th election, 84% of Palestinians overall and 77% of Hamas voters were found to be in favor of an agreement with Israel.  73% believed that Hamas should change the tenet in its charter calling for the destruction of Israel and 86% wanted Fateh leader Abu Mazen to remain as his post.  Click here for those statistics.

In short, the assertion by Horowitz and his cohorts that "the Palestinians have declared with this vote that they want no peace" is simply false.  Perhaps it is mistakenly false, the result of a fatal misunderstanding of Palestinian politics and culture.  Perhaps it is intentionally false, as a true Palestinian vote against peace would allow Israel to do whatever it wants, be it drawing its borders unilaterally or simply reverting to political and diplomatic stagnation. 

Either of those options have the potential to be disastrous for Israelis and Palestinians alike.  Maintaining the status quo is clearly in nobody's interest as Israel would continue to lack secure borders and Palestinians would still suffer under occupation.  Unilateral actions by Israel would impose a Palestinian state that – if it were drawn along anything close to the lines that Ehud Olmert has recently suggested (click here to read his tentative proposal) – would almost certainly be unviable.  It would never be fully recognized internationally and would produce a cantonized Palestinian state that would be doomed to failure.  A failed Palestine is obviously not a legitimate option for Palestinians and shouldn't be for Israelis either, if for no other reason than because a wall cannot protect a nation from a neighbor in despair.

Finally, the Gaza withdrawal has already shown the limits of unilateralism: Despite every effort to exclude the Palestinian Authority from the disengagement process, Ariel Sharon's government still had to hammer out significant final details – like the Rafah crossing with Egypt – in bilateral negotiations.  Sharon's government also had to coordinate security logistics with the PA, and without doing so there is no way that the pullout could have gone as smoothly as it did.  Even today, with Hamas newly in power, Israel is quietly coordinating with the PA security force.  And yet, in the absence of a negotiated agreement, Israel still does not have the security guarantees that it needs – it is still being showered by Qassam rockets (click here to read about it) – and Gaza is still some way from achieving real independence, its residents enduring the sonic booms of Israeli fighter jets and missile strikes into the heart of civilian areas (read this under-reported story here).  In short, absolute unilateralism is logistically impossible and individual unilateral moves do not themselves make peace: they only serve to redefine the boundaries of the conflict. 

It should come as no surprise, then, that US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice recently declared in her joint press conference with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzvipi Livni that, "No one should try and unilaterally predetermine the outcome of a final status agreement.  That's to be done at final status."  Click here to read the transcript.  Also, be sure to click here to read an excellent Boston Globe editorial that further outlines the limits of unilateralism and underscores the serious impending dangers of Olmert's plan. 

More importantly, click here for a recent editorial in Yediot Aharanot – Israel's largest circulation newspaper – cautioning against the trap of believing that Israel can unilaterally define its borders.  Click here for another piece opposing Olmert's plan by Israel's ardent centrist – and former proponent of unilateralism – Avi Shavit.

Granting, then, that neither unilateralism nor stagnation are particularly good choices, the question then becomes one of what Israelis, Palestinians and the international community can realistically do from here.  For an excellent assessment of these options, click here to read Daniel Levy's opinion piece "Now For Some Hard Headed Realism."  It describes several possibilities, one of which – echoed by chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat in this New York Times op-ed – is for Israel to circumvent the new Hamas-led PLC and negotiate directly with the PLO chair Abu Mazen – as per the Oslo Accords – then put whatever agreement is reached to a referendum on both sides.  In recent Geneva Initiative-sponsored polling, this option was shown to have 48.3% support amongst the Jewish Israeli public (click here for full polling details). 

Another option, not mutually exclusive to the first, is to test Hamas' capacity for moderation once it is saddled with the burden of government, providing them with achievable benchmarks, goals, "carrots" in order to move the organization towards a sustainable two-state paradigm.  Indeed, for all the ghastly and inexcusable horrors of Hamas' terrorist acts, they are also a very different entity from al-Qaeda and other Islamic fundamentalist groups.  For a good description of the differences between the two, be sure to read this piece from the Economist entitled "40 Shades of Green," as well as this recent interview with Alistair Crook, a long time interlocutor between Hamas, Israel and the international community.  Notably, there are many prominent voices within Israel and in the international community advocating some sort of engagement with Hamas, from former president Jimmy Carter (read his Washington Post op-ed on the issue here) to Brig. Gen. Shlomo Brom (click here to read his recent report).

A third option would be some form of synchronized unilateralism, wherein both sides take steps to separate from one another outside the context of a formal negotiated final status agreement, but coordinate these moves with and condition them upon the action of the other side through third party intermediaries.  There are myriad permutations of this idea, three of which were recently outlined by such noted pragmatists as Henry Kissinger (click here), Jim Hoagland (click here) and Rami Khouri (click here).  Interestingly, almost all iterations of the coordinated unilateral paradigm implicitly or explicitly frame the endgame as something along the lines of the Geneva Initiative.

The options described above are all essential to the conversation about the Big Picture, but there are also urgent issues of immediate import to be dealt with, especially given that the Israeli and Palestinian governments will not be fully formed for several months.  Perhaps most pressing is the issue of aid and funding to a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority.  The current policy of Israel and the United States, to "put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger" (click here to read that story), is a surefire road to increased Palestinian suffering and Israeli insecurity.  By withholding tax funds that were collected from the Palestinian public by Israel to be administered by the PA, the Israeli government will almost surely cause a humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian territories, a security crisis for Israel and a potentially a further destabilization of the region.  International bodies will exacerbate the problem by withholding their aid.  It also worth noting that the EU dispensed 143 million USD in aid to the PA and neither the Israel nor the United States objected.

Indeed, given the struggling private sector in the West Bank in Gaza due to the circumstances of Israeli occupation, most Palestinian workers are in some way employed by their government.  As such, cutting off funds would scarcely harm Hamas as an organization (Iran has already promised to help it with funding; click here for that story) but would have devastating effects on the average Palestinian.  Click here to get a fuller picture from the UN's envoy to the region.  

That such intentional impoverishment and collective punishment of the Palestinian people could somehow serve to force Hamas out of power (click here for a news story about the United States and Israel formulating such a plan) is a ludicrous flight of fancy that implicitly assumes Palestinians would respond differently to these circumstances than would any other society on Earth (click here to read a great op-ed making this case).  Far more likely than rebelling against Hamas, hungry demoralized Palestinians would be liable to respond by striking at Israel.

For that reason, the so-called "Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006," which has been proposed in the congress by Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Tom Lantos, cannot effectively be called "pro-Israel," as AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and its other backers would insist.  The bill would absolutely cut off any US aid to the Palestinians in every way imaginable, including reducing payment to the UN by the precise amount that it allots to the Palestinians.  Many Israelis understand that this course of action is not in anyone's interest, and as such, many have voiced their opposition to the bill.  If you are reading this in America, it is to encourage your representatives to oppose draconian legislation like this one.  If you are reading this in the region, Europe or elsewhere, the lesson of this Israel/AIPAC conflict is to remember that being "pro-Israel" does not mean being "anti-Palestinian" and that being "pro-Palestinian" does not mean being "anti-Israel."  Indeed, in a situation such as this one where the two peoples are so intertwined, the only true way to truly support one or the other is, ultimately, to support both. 

Read more about this struggle between AIPAC and Israel by clicking here. 

And finally, click here to read a recent editorial from the Lebanon Daily Star insisting on what we at Geneva, Israelis and Palestinians alike, have been saying all along:  "Peace will only come with a bilateral process that recognizes the rights and aspirations of both peoples." 

Thanks for reading, friends.  Please pass this briefing forward, and do be on the lookout in your inbox for our weekly top ten most important articles on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Regards,

Joel Silberman
International Affairs
Geneva Initiative