Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Know--and Don't Demonize--the Enemy, Gidon D. Remba

Know—and Don’t Demonize—the Enemy

Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle

June 13, 2006

By Gidon D. Remba

It’s hard to imagine what more Hamas might do to shore itself up as an enemy of peace with Israel. First it praised an April 17 Islamic Jihad suicide bombing in Tel Aviv which killed 10 Israeli civilians, wounding 70. Now after long resisting Al Qaeda’s pandering invocations of the Palestinian cause for the “Arab street,” Hamas has for the first time cast its lot with reviled jihadi murderer Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, whom the U.S. killed in an airstrike.

What’s more, the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority refuses to curb Qassam rocket fire on civilians in Israeli cities like Sderot. An IDF probe has now concluded that a Hamas bomb, rather than a stray Israeli artillery shell, was responsible for the recent deaths of seven Palestinian civilians, including three children, and the wounding of forty others, among them many children, on a Gaza beach. By indiscriminately firing rockets on cities in Israel from residential areas in Gaza—a Palestinian war crime twice over—Hamas and Islamic Jihad recklessly endanger their own people.

After falsely blaming Israel, Hamas has announced the end of its 16-month old unilateral cease-fire and the resumption of a suicide bombing campaign against Israel. While a revenge attack may help bolster its image among the beleaguered and impoverished Palestinian public, a prolonged descent into warfare with Israel will do Hamas little good. Hamas simply cannot deliver to the Palestinian electorate on its central campaign promise of good governance if security deteriorates on its watch. And if it cannot perform, it will soon lose the coveted power it has gained as the first Islamist party to win a free election and form a government in the Arab world.

If a Hamas-Israel battle is in the offing, a new Hamas unilateral cease-fire may not be far behind. The IDF had previously forecast a series of intermittent truces with Hamas. This time, the question Israeli leaders should be asking is: are there any steps Israel can take which might help the next truce hold?

Former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevi, a hawk’s hawk and Sharon advisor who championed the war with Iraq, has surprised many by cajoling the Israeli government to talk to Hamas. Halevi believes it is a mistake for Israel to insist that Hamas first recognize the Jewish state as a precondition for any discussion. “The shoe is on the other foot,” he explains. “We should recognize them first while holding them [to] account…I think some Hamas leaders are ready to bite the bullet…” Halevi believes that Israel should try to negotiate a long-term truce with Hamas. Under such an arrangement, Hamas may agree to stop renegade groups from firing Qassam rockets at Israel—the very acts which helped unravel the current cease-fire.

An improved version of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s “convergence” of West Bank settlers behind the separation barrier, leaving more than 90% of the territory under Palestinian civil and eventual security control, might serve as a basis for such a deal. But it should be negotiated with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, as Olmert is reportedly considering, rather than with Hamas. If the Israeli blueprint that flows from such talks is acceptable to the PLO and endorsed in a Palestinian referendum, Hamas may feel compelled to cooperate in its implementation. Israel would agree to refrain from expanding settlement blocs on the Israeli side of the barrier, relocating settlers to Israel proper or to vacant apartments in the blocs. It would signal its willingness to offer an equal swap of land in exchange for the settlements it incorporates onto the Israeli side of the fence. True, Israel would be giving up tangible assets in exchange for security promises and recognition. But most Israelis have already concluded that West Bank settlements beyond the blocs are not assets but economic, security and political liabilities for Israel. Moreover, the settlements, built among millions of Palestinians, extend Israeli control over the West Bank, jeopardizing Israel’s Jewish majority, its Zionist mission, and its democratic values, sabotaging prospects for a two-state solution to the conflict.

Ideally, the new Israeli government would prefer to unilaterally consolidate the settlers behind the barrier without negotiations at all. But Israel would be better off receiving security guarantees in exchange for territorial moves, rather than ceding land for nothing. This time around, a multinational force should be put in place to monitor Palestinian compliance, to hold Hamas’ feet to the fire in meeting Palestinian commitments. Far from rewarding terror, Israel would be viewed as reinforcing Hamas moderation while bolstering Abbas and Fatah.

Contrary to popular belief, Hamas is not a monolithic movement. It is divided into two factions, a hardline group with leaders in Damascus and Gaza who spout the familiar anti-Israel rejectionist cant, and a more pragmatic contingent, with leaders based largely in the West Bank. The pragmatists have suggested that Hamas is prepared to recognize Israel and reach a long-term armistice.

Hamas is reportedly working on a new charter which will remove anti-Semitic references and authorize a decades-long truce with Israel. While it may still pay lip service to the dream of Greater Palestine, the new platform will sanction a long-term accommodation with Israel based on a two-state formula. Sheikh Hassan Yussuf, a top Hamas leader in the West Bank, has said: “We can dream about all Palestine being Muslim – like some Israelis dream of a Greater Israel that includes all our lands – but it is not practical. We must take responsibility, along with Abu Mazen and the Palestinian Authority, in taking care of our people. And that means we must negotiate with the Israelis. God created people to live, not to die. We must find an exit. We need a dialog of civilizations, not a clash of civilizations.”

Power may sooner or later accelerate Hamas pragmatism. Facile analogies to Hezbollah’s supposed failure to moderate vis-à-vis Israel, as its political role in Lebanon has grown, are misplaced. Hezbollah, for one thing, is not the ruling party in Lebanon as Hamas is in the West Bank and Gaza. And the forces operating on Hamas, which is heavily dependent on Israel to accomplish its domestic goals for Palestinian government and society, are radically different than those impinging on Hezbollah. Palestinian Prime Minister Ismayil Haniyeh acknowledged recently that Hamas will in time “suit its positions to reality and change.” Perhaps Israel can act to bring that time nearer.

Gidon Remba, co-author of the forthcoming "From Gaza to Jerusalem: A New Road to Middle East Peace?", served as senior foreign press editor and translator in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office during the Egyptian-Israeli Camp David peace process.

Friday, June 2, 2006

Convergence Toward Peace, Gidon D. Remba (The Forward)

Convergence Toward Peace

The Forward, June 2, 2006 (Also published in the Chicago Sun Times)

by Gidon D. Remba


Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's inaugural visit to Washington last week has brought out, in full force, the nattering nabobs of negativism. A host of critics, from former president Jimmy Carter on the left to former CIA chief James Woolsey on the right, are protesting that Olmert's gambit to consolidate settlers behind Israel's West Bank separation barrier cannot lead to peace.

Far from withdrawing, huff the doves, Israel is scheming to unilaterally declare final borders and annex enormous tracts of land it conquered and occupied in war, perhaps as much as half the West Bank. In fact, Olmert's election oratory about unilaterally drawing final borders has already crashed against the shoals of political reality. Both the United States and the European Union have made clear that they are loath to recognize final borders imposed by Israel on the Palestinians. Olmert and associates instead increasingly talk of "interim borders" that would result from Israel moving tens of thousands of settlers from heavily populated Palestinian areas of the West Bank back to Israel and to settlement blocs near the 1967 border.

Dovish critics wrongly discount the prospect that so dramatic a reconfiguration could bring Israelis and Palestinians closer to peace. The Road Map peace plan, endorsed by the United Nations Security Council, calls for the removal of Israeli settlements and the creation of a territorially contiguous Palestinian state with provisional borders, until the parties can agree on final boundaries. Olmert's "convergence" plan, if guided wisely by the United States, can lay the foundations for a two-state solution to the conflict.

Equally misplaced are hawkish fears that the new Israeli government's West Bank strategy will replicate the post-disengagement terrorist mayhem in Gaza. Unlike Gaza, Israel does not envision surrendering control over West Bank border crossings or the Jordanian-Israeli frontier. The Palestinians must live up to security commitments before Israel will entertain wide-ranging West Bank military redeployments involving the transfer of security responsibility.

Olmert has intimated that while several settlement blocs would be further developed, Israel would do so in a way that would not jeopardize the territorial continuity of a future Palestinian state. The Bush administration should work with Israel to define a bright line between acceptable development and expansion that would undermine the hope of Palestinian moderates for a viable state. The metastasizing settlements have long occluded the emergence of a Palestinian polity next to Israel, as Olmert and Ariel Sharon before him have understood.

Doves cry that the 60,000 settlers whom Olmert may ultimately relocate will be encouraged to join "massive settlement blocs that already slice through the Palestinian West Bank," making ever dimmer any hope of territorial continuity. When Sharon proposed that Israel disengage from Gaza, removing all 9,000 settlers and all Israeli troops, detractors objected that he was planning to shift them to the West Bank settlement blocs, which would then be expanded and annexed to Israel. Yet few of the Gaza settlers have gone to the settlement blocs; most have moved back to Israel.

Further, the current settlement blocs near the 1967 line do not, for the most part, threaten Palestinian territorial integrity. They constitute 8%-10% of the West Bank, leaving more than 90% of open geography for an independent Palestine. The present path of Israel's separation barrier follows these contours.

Olmert's vision is to relocate every Israeli who currently resides east of the barrier. This jibes with his recent remark that the Jordan Valley would serve as Israel's security border, an objective that could be served by removing the settlements but keeping Israeli troops there until they could be replaced by an American-led peacekeeping force under a future peace treaty.

The interim boundary that would emerge from Israel's eventual evacuation of settlers from more than 90% of the West Bank would extend just a few percentage points beyond President Clinton's proposed lines, discussed by Palestinian and Israeli leaders in their final round of negotiations at Taba in 2001 following the Camp David summit. Once such negotiations resume, Israel should demonstrate its willingness to move portions of the separation barrier, as Olmert has suggested it would, and offer to compensate the Palestinians with an equal land swap for settlements it wishes to incorporate into its final borders.

Critics pretend that Olmert's plan is already carved in stone. But his concept has not yet been fashioned into concrete form. Opponents tilt at straw men cobbled from election slogans, and their perfervid imaginations. Any separation program is bound to be carried out in phases over a number of years.

Israeli coalition politics may constrain the new Israeli leader from spelling out the full monty at the outset. Steps that now seem controversial to some Israelis will become more palatable if the first act goes well. Idealists, both right and left, are constitutionally disenchanted with incremental change, reminding us that the perfect is often the enemy of the good. But that may be the only kind of progress possible in Levantine quicksands.

It would be best if the separation plan were the fruit of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, so that Israeli territorial compromise is met with an achievable Palestinian quid pro quo. Long before Egypt and Israel imagined a peace treaty, Israel disengaged from part of the Sinai in exchange for an Egyptian non-belligerency promise, monitored by a multinational force. The same principle can inspire a Palestinian-Israeli interim arrangement, with Palestinians bolstering the current cease-fire by bringing renegade militias into a formal truce under Jordanian and Egyptian supervision.

Olmert has pledged to negotiate with the Palestinians before considering any unilateral moves. If the Israeli blueprint that flows from talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is acceptable to the Palestine Liberation Organization and endorsed in a Palestinian referendum, Hamas may feel compelled to cooperate in its implementation.

And should negotiations fail, Hamas may well continue to observe a cease-fire with Israel. Its ability to deliver on its central campaign promise of good governance depends on its avoiding a military confrontation with the Jewish state, and with Fatah.

Doves carp that long-term coexistence is unlikely to arise from separation along a fortified barrier scarring the landscape. But Israelis and Palestinians must crawl before they can walk. The barrier and the evacuation of Israeli settlers and checkpoints from the Palestinian heartland can help to ease tensions, prevent Palestinian suicide bombings and Israeli retaliations, and encourage a comprehensive truce — all of which can foster a more stable environment for future peace-building steps and renewed dialogue.

Olmert's critics, with the notable exception of Carter, offer no constructive ideas for leveraging the new Israeli government's determination to reverse four decades of Israeli settlement in much of the West Bank, a giant step toward disentangling Israelis and Palestinians. At worst, any borders resulting from a consolidation of settlers should be viewed as establishing a better starting point for the eventual resumption of final-status talks between the two sides. At best, settlement convergence may jumpstart a welcome new dynamic in the region.

Gidon Remba, co-author of the forthcoming "From Gaza to Jerusalem: A New Road to Middle East Peace?", served as senior foreign press editor and translator in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office during the Egyptian-Israeli Camp David peace process.

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