Saturday, 28 August 2010

August reviewed

Hamas – a fly in the ointment

Until the 20th, August seemed, with a slight variation or two, to be "business as usual" on the Middle East scene. True, in their meeting on 29 July the Arab League had given a green light to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to enter direct peace talks with Israel–but their green light cast a flickering and uncertain beam in his direction. He could do so, the League indicated, if and when he wanted to. "Less than a full-hearted endorsement" was the general verdict.

Behind the scenes, and certainly not on public view, the fast and frenetic political, diplomatic and organisational activity can only be the subject of wild surmise. First and foremost, intensive negotiations between the US, the PA and Israel were under way to satisfy the two principals that each would be surrendering nothing of their starting positions if they were actually brought face to face under US auspices.

Abbas needed cover from Arab leaders for the action he would be taking – action vehemently opposed by a substantial proportion of Arab public opinion. So as part and parcel of the deal being assembled, Washington succeeded in persuading Egypt's President Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah to associate themselves with the initiative to restart face-to-face talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Both were invited, and both agreed, to attend an opening session in Washington. Abbas would not be facing Israel alone. Two major Arab nations would be at his side, endorsing his decision to talk peace.

Abbas had selected two issues as his bottom line for entering new talks with Israel, and he had stuck with them through thick and thin, despite the blandishments and pressure from the US. He wanted Israel to undertake that the borders of a new, sovereign state of Palestine would be essentially the boundaries that Israel crossed during the Six Day War in 1967 – although he had already indicated that these were not sacrosanct, and could be subject to agreed adjustments and "land swap" arrangements. His second requirement was that Israel agree to cease all new construction both in the West Bank and in Jerusalem.

For his part, Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, had been proclaiming for several weeks, in Washington and in Israel, that he was not only willing, but eager to enter into direct peace talks with the PA – provided there were no pre-conditions.

Washington was presented with a dilemma. Keen as the Obama administration was for the major political coup that an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord would provide, here they had one of the parties demanding two pre-conditions before agreeing to talk, and there they had the other demanding no pre-conditions before agreeing to do so. Diplomatic ingenuity of a high order was called for.

The solution? Two separate calls to the parties to participate in the opening events. The first would be a direct invitation by US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, at a press conference in Washington, during the course of which she would say that the parties would enter the talks with no pre-conditions.

The second would be a statement issued by the Quartet (the US, the EU, the UN and Russia), urging both principals to accept the US's invitation and restating the Quartet's support for “the pursuit of a just, lasting and comprehensive regional peace as envisaged in the Madrid terms of reference, Security Council resolutions and the Arab Peace Initiative.” But the documents quoted by the Quartet indeed call for a sovereign Palestine within pre-1967 boundaries and for a complete cessation of all construction in areas beyond the "Green Line" – which includes East Jerusalem.

Thus by clever sleight-of-hand Israel was able to respond affirmatively to the US's formal invitation, while the PA's response referred specifically to the Quartet's statement as the basis for their acceptance. The circle squared!

But with this legerdemain necessary as its opening gambit, one cannot help speculating about the chances of a positive outcome to the process as a whole. And of course the usual suspects are at work intent on undermining any move towards an end to the dispute, and even to a new sovereign Palestine if it means living alongside Israel with peace and security for both.

No sooner had the Arab League nodded in the direction of peace talks than a rocket attack was launched at the Israeli Red Sea resort of Eilat. In the event the one or two that fell in Eilat caused little damage, but death and damage was wreaked on the neighbouring Jordanian resort of Aqaba. The most likely explanation of where responsibility lay was provided by the Egyptian news daily al-Youm al-Saba'a, which reported Cairo security officials' belief that Hamas operatives infiltrated into the Sinai Peninsula from Gaza to fire the rockets, so that it would appear as if they had been fired by an Egyptian terror group.

The next day came the extraordinary attack from the Lebanon side of the border separating that country from Israel. A Lebanese army officer with Hezbollah sympathies took it upon himself to fabricate an incident – and make sure that the media were there to record the event. He took advantage of a two-hour delay to a planned Israeli tree-pruning operation, requested by the UN monitoring teams, to brief a sniper. put a unit on alert and tip off the Lebanese media. A TV crew duly arrived near the scene to film the attack. A Lebanese marksman fired two or three shots, one of them at the head of a senior IDF officer, who was killed, and the other in the chest of a junior officer, who was seriously wounded. Lebanon says that at least three of its soldiers and a journalist were killed in the resulting exchange of fire.

Before the end of August UNIFIL had completed its investigation into the incident. Its conclusion: Lebanese soldiers shot and killed an Israeli battalion commander earlier this month in an unprovoked attack.

Finally – no surprise this – the verdict of Ismail Haniyeh,the Hamas prime minister of Gaza, on the peace initiative: "Palestinians across the globe will not support any movement holding absurd talks with Israel." In those few words Haniyeh managed a strike at two of his main targets – Hamas's rival party within the Palestinian world, Fatah, and the very concept of seeking peace with Israel. It is not difficult to perceive Hamas's ultimate objectives, both internal and external. As regards their internal struggle, they seek domination of the Palestinian people by overcoming and eliminating their Fatah rivals, thus gaining control not only of Gaza but also of the West Bank. As for their main external aim, it is somehow, in the words of one of Hamas's main sponsors and patrons, Iran's President Ahmadinejad, achieving for Israel the fate of being "wiped off the map" – or, in another translation, "eliminated from the pages of history". One or the other.

It is against this sort of background that, on 2 September, the inaugural meeting of an initiative with the specific aim of reaching a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinian Authority within just twelve months, will take place.

Anyone who hopes for peace between the parties in this long-drawn-out conflict must surely wish those participating – whatever their private motives, reservations, intentions, plans – a successful outcome to a brave, perhaps foolhardy, venture.

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