Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Israelis and Palestinians face a common enemy

Peace rejectionists are to be found everywhere, many of them with wildly divergent agendas, though sharing the common aim of rubbishing and, if possible, derailing the current peace initiative. They abound in the Arab world, in Israel’s right-wing political parties, and under a variety of guises in many countries. The Iranian regime, for example, is a prime advocate of rejection, and a main sponsor of terrorist activity aimed at undermining the peace process.

Assuming that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, entered the peace process in a sincere attempt to reach an accommodation within the next twelve months – an assumption laughed to scorn by the rejectionists – the fact is that the obstacles in their separate paths bear more than a passing similarity. Their individual problems parallel each other – and sometimes overlap. For example, in the current political situation, with the West Bank and Gaza under separate rule, Hamas terrorism is as much a political attack on the Palestinian Authority as it is an armed attack on Israel. While Israeli and Palestinian officials continue their discussions as part of the peace process, both know that opposing the radical rejectionists is a common concern.

On each occasion that a substantive move towards peace emerges in the Middle East, the rejectionist pattern is all too wearisome and familiar. This time was no exception. Even before the present round of peace talks had started, terrorist activity increased substantially. On the evening of August 31, as Israeli and Palestinian leaders were gathering in Washington DC to launch the latest round of peace talks, four Israeli settlers were killed on a road southeast of Kiryat Arba, close to Hebron. This was the first fatal terrorist attack on Israeli civilians in nearly a year. In the following two days, two further shooting incidents were recorded, in the area of Rimonim and near Ofra, both in the northern West Bank. Two Israeli civilians were wounded. The military wing of Hamas, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, claimed responsibility for all three incidents, calling them the ‘path of Ramadan' attacks and promising more.

But speaking the day after the shooting attack outside Kiryat Arba, and on the day peace talks opened in Washington, Netanyahu pledged, ‘I will not let the terrorists block our path to peace.' As – much to the chagrin of the rejectionists – those engaged in the peace process simply refused to allow it to be derailed, nevertheless the first three weeks of September saw four Israelis killed in three shooting incidents, and some 20 rockets landing on southern Israel. Since the beginning of September, there has also been a marked increase in rocket attacks on southern Israel from the Hamas-controlled Gaza strip. In the first eight months of 2010, the average number of rockets landing in Israel from Gaza was close to eight a month. Nineteen missiles have landed in Israel already this month. The highest daily tally in nearly two years was recorded on September 15th, with nine missiles hitting Israel.

The difference this time is that the Palestinian Authority has displayed determination in tracking down the terrorists in the West Bank; Israel has also continued counter-terrorism activities, responding to the violence with targeted operations against Hamas militants and installations, but the response has been measured. Greater PA security capacity, and increasing cooperation between them and Israeli security forces, has led to the arrest of most Hamas operatives in the West Bank. Briefing the Israeli cabinet last week, Security Agency (Shin Bet) head Yuval Disking said that cooperation between the IDF and the PA security apparatus is better now than at any point in the last 16 years. He described the PA as demonstrating a great deal of ‘motivation' and ‘determination' in preventing attacks, including arresting hundreds of Hamas activists. Israel also enjoys the cooperation of Egypt, which sees Hamas as a threat to its own interests. A top Hamas official was arrested in Cairo in the past few days.

Hamas is unlikely to cease in its efforts to destabilise the situation, but their attempts to activate sleeper cells or to infiltrate new operatives into the West Bank will take time, while Israel's anti-terrorism and intelligence apparatus remains in place to foil such efforts. Incidentally, Israeli intelligence believes Hamas have developed the capability to fire rockets that could reach Tel Aviv. But even the more hard-line elements within Hamas will be wary of an escalation that would provoke major Israeli reprisals.

The Palestinian Authority’s opposition to the terrorists seems genuinely determined. On 7 September PA security forces announced they had detained the terrorists who carried out the attacks on Israel in early September. In response, Hamas called the detentions a ‘national betrayal' and threatened that ‘the weapons that reached the heart of the occupier can reach you as well.' Hamas leader Khaled Mashal denounced PA President Mahmoud Abbas as ‘a zero'.

The PA's focus on the diplomatic process was also behind an angry exchange with Iranian President Ahmadinejad. In a clear attack on the PA, Ahmedinejad said that, ‘the fate of the Palestinians will be determined by the resistance of the nation and [its] citizens.' In response Palestinian spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh attacked Ahmadinejad, claiming that ‘the man who does not represent the Iranian people... who faked the elections, oppresses the Iranian people and stole the regime would do better not to talk about Palestine.'

Israel’s rejectionists are grouped around the West Bank settlement building issue. For some time the forthcoming expiry of the building freeze seemed to pose the first direct challenge to the negotiations, since settlers and their supporters seemed determined to start new constructions the very instant the moratorium came to an end. Then, last week, a review found that the building moratorium is due to expire not on September 26, as previously thought, but September 30. Then, an agreement began to take shape on the settlement construction freeze, based on an "unspoken understanding" that security authorities will not sign new building permits, but the government will not issue a formal resolution extending the freeze. A source close to PA President Mahmoud Abbas is reported as saying that from the PA's perspective, what mattered was not Israel's declarations but the moratorium's implementation on the ground.

Assuming that the two principals indeed succeed in overcoming these challenges and out-facing the rejectionists, what other obstacles might obstruct their quest for a peace agreement?

To achieve a genuine breakthrough, Prime Minister Netanyahu may have to risk the collapse of his present coalition and division within his own Likud party. He may have to re-constitute his government, possibly allying himself with the Kadima party. However, Netanyahu seems to be increasingly persuaded that, notwithstanding the costs, a conflict-ending agreement is perhaps the only way to achieve the security that Israel acutely needs, as well as the legitimate borders it also requires in the eyes of the world. His dilemma is not just political or ideological. It turns on whether the genuine risks and compromises associated for Israel with an agreement are outweighed by the risks associated with failing to reach one.

For President Abbas, the calculations are no less complex. The decisions necessary to reach an agreement, and the challenge to the Palestinian ethos that this would entail, are daunting for any Palestinian leader. The constant challenge from Hamas, the unrest within Fatah ranks as they jostle for position, and the lack of full-hearted support from regional states will weigh heavily on Abbas. And yet, Abbas also knows that without success at the negotiating table Fatah has little to offer as an alternative to Hamas. Abbas will face real difficulties with a largely hard-line diaspora and increasing challenges to his political legitimacy. Unless tackled, these challenges may weaken his capacity to close a deal, much less implement one. However, he has already demonstrated a willingness to confront violence, confound his critics and champion a two-state solution.

And so, with a variety of problems to face and overcome, and the chance to make common cause on at least one of them – the principals set out on their hazardous voyage to discover whether peace between Israelis and Palestinians is indeed possible.

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