Saturday, 31 July 2010

July reviewed

Gaffes and Dilemmas

David Cameron, Britain's prime minister, approves of blunt speaking, so let's be blunt. His remarks in Turkey on Monday (26 July) about Gaza, compounded by his comments in India later in the week concerning Pakistan, were gaffes – little more than simplistic headline seekers, devoid of context.

The phrase he uttered in Turkey that has gone round the world is "Gaza is a prison camp" – the underlying assumption, understood even if not spoken, being that Israel is the prison guard.

There was certainly nothing of the prison camp about Gaza in September 2005, when Israel completed its evacuation of the Gaza Strip. The Palestinian Authority was planning elections, Palestinians not only in Gaza, but in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, would be able to vote and then govern themselves, and a significant step would have been taken towards achieving the two-state solution.

In the elections, which were indeed held on 25 January 2006 for the Palestinian Legislative Council - the legislature of the Palestinian National Authority - the Islamist organisation Hamas won 74 seats to the ruling Fatah's 45. President Mahmoud Abbas accordingly formed a national unity government led by Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas.

But sharing power with the Fatah nationalists did not suit Hamas. In four days in mid-June 2007 their ‘Executive Force’ seized control of the entire Gaza Strip in a bloody coup d'état, sweeping away key security services and the national militia. President Abbas responded by dissolving the national unity government and forming an emergency government led by former Finance Minister Salam Fayyad, based in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

It was from that moment that Gaza was indeed turned into something of a prison camp – and perhaps even more so as the months went by and Hamas tried to impose ever stricter Sharia law on its inhabitants. Hamas's rejectionist policy towards Israel, which it translated into a continuous flotilla of rockets fired indiscriminately into the country for several years, finally drew a short, sharp military response from Israel, to be succeeded by a land and sea blockade aimed at preventing a repeat of the practice. Egypt, equally dismayed by Hamas's extreme Islamist policies, took similar action and blockaded Gaza at its own Rafah crossing.

As Ephraim Sneh, the former Israeli deputy minister of defence, has said: "Cameron is right – Gaza is a prison camp, but those who control the prison are Hamas. I'm totally against the double standards of a nation [ie Turkey] which fights the Taliban but is showing its solidarity with their brothers, Hamas. Cameron doesn't understand that 1.5m people live in Gaza under the repressive regime of Hamas – and yet he blames Israel."

In his references to Gaza, David Cameron did not once mention Hamas.

Speaking of prison camps, Gaza has certainly been nothing less for Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier snatched by Hamas and held hostage for more than four years, despite the most intensive efforts of mediators, both Egyptian and German.

Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, approves of Hamas and calls the Iranians "our friends, our brothers". David Cameron, in urging Turkey's acceptance into the EU* extolled Turkey's unique position in facing two ways, East and West, because it could act as a bridge between Europe and Islamist states such as Iran.

Two days later he was condemning Pakistan for facing two ways, and allying itself both with the West and the forces it was opposing. The inconsistency is glaring. Did he, one can't help speculating, stop to consider that what is sauce for the Pakistani goose is sauce for the Turkish gander?

So much for the gaffes – though there is much more to be said about them. Let's turn to the dilemmas.

July has been dominated by a single, simple issue – when and how can the current arm's-length "proximity" talks between Israel and the Palestinians be upgraded to direct face-to-face negotiations. Both the principals – PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, face dilemmas over the matter.

Diplomatic activity around the question has been intense. In his visit to Washington early in July, Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, took care to restore the cordial relations with the US that had been badly damaged earlier in the year. Knowing that President Obama has invested a deal of personal capital in achieving a Middle East accord, Netanyahu played along. Even before leaving Israel, he was calling on PA President Mahmoud Abbas to enter direct negotiations, declaring himself ready to do so at any time and in any location. This call chimed in nicely with the pressure already being applied by Washington on Abbas to come to the table – so nicely that Netanyahu made a point of repeating it while in the States, not once but several times.

Abbas, while certainly not wishing to appear to the world as rejectionist, laid down certain pre-conditions – and he has stuck to them, right up to 29 July, the day the Arab League met to discuss the possibility of direct talks. Abbas has been demanding that Israel agrees to a complete halt in settlement construction and – while allowing for land swaps and adjustments – accepts a Palestinian state in territories overrun by Israel during the 1967 Six Day War, namely the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. He is quoted by Egypt's state-owned news agency as saying that when he receives written assurances on those matters, "I will go immediately to the direct talks,"

For his part, Netanyahu has consistently refused to commit himself to any pre-conditions. "Let's just get to the talks," he said in a TV interview in the States, "and one of the things we'll discuss straight away is this issue of settlements."

Abbas held off responding to the diplomatic pressure exerted on him from Washington until the scheduled meeting of the Arab League on 29 July. Already regarded with suspicion by more extreme Palestinian and Muslim opinion, Abbas had needed the cover provided by the Arab League before even commencing the proximity talks. How much more would he need it when the prospect of talking face-to-face with Israel's prime minister was being mooted?

And then, in the last week of July, an internal Palestinian document was leaked to the Associated Press. It revealed the type of argument that the US has been using in its efforts to drag Abbas to the negotiating table. The document apparently revealed that President Obama's special peace envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, warned Abbas that if he does not agree to direct talks, President Obama will not be able to help the Palestinians achieve a state of their own.

In response, the Palestinian president seems to have reiterated the line he has been following for some weeks, namely that he first wants to see progress in the proximity talks on the issue of the borders of a future Palestinian state. The internal Palestinian document warned Abbas that to give up on those demands would be political suicide. The thought arises that to do so could, perhaps, amount to literal suicide, too – a dilemma indeed for the PA president. But even so, it is surely not necessary to make these matters a precondition for entering negotiations. Direct talks would almost certainly start with an assumption that most of the West Bank and certain Arab-occupied neighbourhoods in and around Jerusalem would indeed be included within a new sovereign Palestine. As for Gaza, it has already be evacuated by Israel, and it would be up to Abbas and the PA to sort out its governance and their relationship with Hamas, its de facto rulers.

All of which doubtless explains the somewhat equivocal outcome of the Arab League meeting. For the Arab League foreign ministers authorised the Palestinian Authority to enter into direct negotiations with Israel, but left it up to PA President Mahmoud Abbas to decide on the timing.

The timing is all-important, for Israel's moratorium on building in the West Bank settlements is due to expire in September, and there are fears in Washington and Jerusalem that Abbas will play a waiting game right up to the wire – creating a real dilemma for prime minister Netanyahu. Abbas is well aware that Netanyahu is himself under intense pressure from within his cabinet to authorise the resumption of West Bank construction the instant the moratorium expires.

Danny Danon, Likud member of Israel's parliament, the Knesset, knows the exact moment the 10-month freeze on new settlement construction will end –6:06 p.m. Tel Aviv time on September 26. Danon has said that he and opponents of the freeze were not planning to let it last any longer than that.

“When the sun sets," he said, "people will start to build.” He told the press that opponents of the freeze are already planning a large ceremony for that moment, complete with tractors that will break ground for new homes.

Abbas wants to put Netanyahu through the painful dilemma of either going along with the hard-liners who are demanding an immediate restart to West Bank construction, or facing them down and continuing the negotiations. If he chooses to go along with them and finally authorises the restarting of construction, then he will have been wrong-footed in the eyes of the USA and world opinion. If he does face them down, then Abbas will be perceived to have won his point by sheer persistence.

This is why officials in Jerusalem believe that Abbas will attempt at all costs to delay the beginning of direct peace negotiations with Israel, probably waiting until the temporary settlement freeze expires, before declaring his own decision on the matter. They also assume that the Palestinian president, waving the impending dilemma in front of Netanyahu's nose, will use the time to try to convince him to continue the freeze or at least to take other "equal" measures in respect of West Bank construction.

How will things pan out? There's the whole month of August to get through first – and on the basis of precedent, almost anything can happen in that time, and probably will.

*Note on Turkey's application to join the European Union
First made in 1987, it has been outstanding largely on account of Turkey's 1974 invasion and seizure of northern Cyprus, and its continuing stand-off with Greece ever since. France and Germany also fear the uncertain role a large and predominantly Islamic society might play within a European political and economic bloc. In May 2009 French President Nicholas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel jointly questioned the wisdom of Turkey seeking full membership of the European Union. They emphasized their objection to the EU's enlargement to include Turkey, argued that any misguided expansion might endanger its operational effectiveness, and instead reiterated their support for "privileged partnership" as an alternative framework to regulate Turkish-EU relations – an offer immediately and robustly rejected by Turkey.

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