Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Olmert Seeks Support In Europe

I thought this article by Jane Kinninmont from Business Moniter International might be interesting eventhough the events have moved on.

BMI View: As Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert lobbies European leaders to support his West Bank withdrawal plan, prospects for negotiations with the Palestinians are slim, but not yet non-existent.

Israeli officials say they are keen to gain international approval of the government's West Bank withdrawal plan - which has not yet been set out in full - in order to gain domestic support for the controversial moves. To this end, having secured what his government saw as tacit backing from Egypt on June 4, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has arrived in to Europe to drum up support for the plan. Ordinarily, we would expect the international community to oppose a unilateral plan for West Bank withdrawal,and to continue backing negotiations - but the election of Hamas, proscribed as a 'terrorist organisation' by many countries, has radically altered the playing field.

This bodes well for Israel's relations with key players like the UN and EU. However, we remain very pessimistic about the potential for unilateral steps to bring security, let alone peace, when it comes to relations with the Palestinians. While Palestinians support Israeli withdrawal, they see the planned West Bank pullouts as a distraction from Israel's ongoing consolidation of settlements around East Jerusalem, which Palestinians seek as a future capital.

The government has not yet published a full plan for its West Bank withdrawal, largely reflecting the government's stated position that it would prefer a negotiated solution and will only pursue unilateralism as a last resort. However, Olmert has outlined a rough framework, whereby Israel would withdraw settlers from around 90% of the West Bank, but would retain the three large settlement blocs of Gush Etzion, Ariel and Ma'ale Edumim. Although this would be a withdrawal from the vast majority of the land occupied by Israel in 1967, it would only require the relocation of 30-35% of West Bank settlers, because around 130,000 of the roughly 200,000 settlers live in the three major blocs that Israel plans to retain. Olmert describes the idea that Israel might pull out of the entirety of the West Bank (returning to 1967 borders) as 'a fantasy'. Israel would continue to build the separation barrier, which would take in the three major settlement blocs as well as the territory internationally recognised as Israeli.

Palestinian Power Struggle Raises Small Hope For Talks - In theory, negotiations could yet alter this plan, but the prospects for peace talks are dim. They are not, however, non-existent. Olmert said on June 4 that he was willing to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, though he did not give a date, and said he hoped to proceed with the internationally backed 'road map' peace plan. However, Abbas's position has been greatly weakened by the Hamas victory in January, which displaced his ruling Fatah party in parliament, and undermined his mandate to negotiate. At the same time, Israel is not willing to negotiate with representatives of the Hamas government unless Hamas meets the preconditions of recognising Israel's right to exist and disarming its militant wing; neither of which seems likely.

In the meantime, Israel is waiting to see the outcome of the internal Palestinian political struggle between Fatah and Hamas, before deciding whether to carry out its withdrawal on a negotiated or unilateral basis. A power struggle between Hamas and Fatah has been simmering (with occasional violence) since the Hamas electoral victory, exacerbated by the fact that Fatah still controls the bulk of the Palestinian security forces (whose ranks are stuffed with Fatah members, a legacy of twelve years of one-party rule).

This rivalry flared into heightened violence between the factions in June as Abbas called for a referendum on the 'prisoners' document', a text prepared by several influential members of both factions who are currently held in Israeli jails, which in effect calls on Hamas to moderate its position. Specifically, the document calls for all Palestinian factions to seek statehood on 'the territories occupied in 1967' (the West Bank and Gaza), a lesser claim than Hamas' stated ambition of ending the entire state of Israel. It also recognises the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), which is headed by Abbas, as the primary representative of the Palestinian people, implicitly reducing the role of the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority (PA). Predictably, Hamas opposes Abbas's calls for a referendum, but there is a strong possibility that it will go ahead.

Referendum Could Shake Up Palestinian Politics - Many Israeli officials are reluctant to comment on the referendum issue, for fear that Israeli backing would undermine the credibility of Abbas' initiative in Palestinian eyes, but it is clear that the Palestinian prisoners would not have been able to organise and publish their proposal without the tacit co-operation of their Israeli captors. In itself, the document would not be acceptable to Israel as the basis for a peace deal, because it does not formally recognise the state of Israel and because it claims that 'resistance' (including armed attacks) is legitimate within the territories occupied in 1967.

However, Israel sees Abbas' referendum plan as a clear sign that he is reasserting his authority. Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Mark Regev told BMI on our June visit to Jerusalem that 'Abbas has taken the initiative with this referendum. Fatah today is more united than ever before.' Moreover, a popular endorsement of the prisoner's document would undermine Hamas's hardline position, potentially forcing a policy change. Labour party Knesset member (MK) and Education Minister Yuli Tamir told BMI , 'If the referendum succeeds, Palestinian internal politics will turn upside down, perhaps opening the door to a change of government. It would show the vote for Hamas was a protest against Fatah's corruption, rather than a vote against an agreement.'

Amidst the current uncertainty about the Palestinian position, talks remain possible. But even if they do occur, they are only likely to deal with the interim phase of Israel's next withdrawal, while the most sensitive 'final status' issues will be deferred. Much depends on the level of international support that Olmert is able to secure for his plan. All parties say negotiations are preferable, but both the UK and Egyptian leaders have so far suggested that 'other solutions' are possible if negotiations fail.

Since it is not yet clear what would constitute a definite failure of negotiations, it is unclear to what extent world leaders are giving tacit backing for unilateralism. This lack of clarity was reflected in the contradictory descriptions of the Blair-Olmert meeting in the British press: the Times newspaper ran the headline 'Blair Risks Arab Anger By Backing Israeli Plan To Impose New Border', whereas the Guardian said 'Blair Refuses To Back Olmert's West Bank Plan'. Israel will be hoping for more decisive backing from France and Germany in the next few days.

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