Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Former Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz on Israel’s Peace and Security Challenges, by Doni Remba

Amir Peretz, now a Labor Knesset Member who serves on the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense and Economic Affairs Committees, and a front-runner for the leadership of the Labor Party, is visiting New York to share his current take on Israel’s political and security dilemmas.  He appeared yesterday before a small group during a luncheon at the Harvard Club, sponsored by the Israel Policy Forum and MTP Investment Group. (I first visited with Peretz as part of an Americans for Peace Now delegation at Israel's Defense Ministry in June 2006, when he served as Defense Minister in the Olmert Government, a position he held during 2006 – 2007; photo above).

Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks

Peretz believes that Israel must push the peace process forward, because time is not on Israel's side. Israeli Jews will soon become a minority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, and the window of opportunity for negotiations will close, leaving Israel with far worse options than a negotiated two-state agreement. After a September vote for unilateral Palestinian statehood at the United Nations, Israel’s strategic position may be dramatically weaker.

I would add that even Netanyahu’s most ardent American Jewish supporter, Ron Lauder, has now issued much the same charge against him as Peretz:  “Top Jewish leader and close Netanyahu ally blasts PM for lack of a diplomatic plan,” Ha’aretz, June 29, 2011.  Lauder’s strong criticisms of Netanyahu are all the more remarkable given that he has not only long been a close ally of Netanyahu’s, but a conservative on Israel and a sharp critic of Obama’s positions on Israel from the right.   Lauder now reportedly believes that “Israel must present a diplomatic plan in order to regain international support and block Palestinian efforts to obtain unilateral recognition for statehood from the UN in September… Lauder also criticized the conditions Netanyahu has set for talks, saying the only way Israel can escape its international isolation is to agree to begin negotiations without preconditions.”

Under Netanyahu, Israel is in a stalemate with the Palestinians, and losing valuable time, says Peretz. Netanyahu insists on two pre-conditions for negotiations with the Palestinians: first, that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Peretz says he asked Netanyahu why he needs this, when Begin signed a peace treaty with Egypt, and Rabin with Jordan, without ever making such a demand.  "We do not need anyone else to tell us who or what we are in Israel," protests Peretz. "We define that. The whole world knows that we define Israel as a Jewish state."

Second, Netanyahu insists that Abbas cancel his agreement to form a unity government with Hamas. Peretz objects to this, and has asked Netanyahu: if you sign a peace treaty with the Prime Minister of Lebanon, will you demand first that he throw out the Hezbollah ministers from his government? Let the Lebanese Prime Minister deal with the consequences of having his government approve a peace deal with Israel. If the government is willing, either Hezbollah will be forced to acquiesce and remain in government if it wants to retain its political influence, or it will protest by leaving the government on its own accord. Much the same applies to Hamas, whose leaders have repeatedly said that if Abbas reaches a peace accord with Israel, and the agreement is acceptable to a majority of Palestinians, it will not stand in the way and will accept it. So why not see if we can negotiate a peace deal with Abbas, suggests Peretz, and if we do indeed reach agreement, let Hamas be placed in the position of having to deal with remaining party to a national unity government that endorses a peace treaty with Israel?   Or it can quit the government and go into opposition if it wishes.

Those who say that they want to release Gilad Shalit, but refuse to release Palestinian prisoners who have “blood on their hands,” are not facing reality, says Peretz.  "If you want Shalit back, you have to pay the price.  Much the same applies with Israeli-Palestinian peace.  If you want a peace agreement, you have to pay the price – and the price is well known."   Peretz notes that he told jailed Fatah-Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti that he thought they needed three years to reach a final agreement. Barghouti objected, "we can do it in three hours," as we already know the contours of any possible deal.  The Palestinians, says Peretz, will need to accept that somewhere between four and six percent of the West Bank, representing settlement blocs, will remain part of Israel, with land swaps from Israeli territory in exchange.  The Palestinians also need a road between the West Bank and Gaza. The land necessary to construct such a road might play a part in a land swap agreement that allows for some settlements to remain under Israeli control.

Peretz has said to Netanyahu that instead of demanding unrealistic pre-conditions for peace talks with Abbas, he should simply admit that he believes the peace process is a danger for Israel, and that he is unwilling to pay the necessary price to achieve an agreement with the Palestinians. Peretz’s point seems to be that this is Netanyahu’s real position, and the preconditions are simply meant as a way to avoid talks by insisting on demands which the Palestinians cannot realistically meet before a negotiating process has even begun. Peretz thinks Obama’s parameters for resuming peace talks – on the basis of the 1967 lines with negotiated land swaps -- are not bad for Israel. These terms of reference reflect the reality of all previous peace efforts over the last decade under Barak and Clinton, Olmert, Abbas and Bush.

Negotiations and the September UN Palestinian Statehood Resolution

Does Peretz agree with the recent proposal by his colleague, Israel Labor Party international secretary Colette Avital (together with former Mossad official Yossi Alpher, Major-General Mordechai Gazit and Mark Heller, a researcher for the Institute for National Security Studies), that the US and EU put their weight behind devising a “win-win” UN Security Council resolution for Palestinian statehood that would be acceptable to most Israelis and Palestinians? These authors believe that it is a “waste of time and energy to try to revive a moribund peace process.” (“Buying Into Palestinian Statehood,” New York Times, June 24, 2011)

Peretz respectfully disagrees. He prefers to stop the Palestinian UN gambit entirely, which he believes is a “dangerous game,” by resuming negotiations directly with the Palestinians. Peretz may have in mind here what others have pointed out:  following the passage of such a resolution, if nothing changes on the ground, Palestinian popular frustration is likely to mount, leading to a potential new escalation in the conflict, with ramifications for peace prospects that may not be favorable. For example, what if popular Palestinian protests undermine the Palestinian Authority and its leaders, with whom Israel has an opportunity to reach a workable peace arrangement in the near term?  Peretz does not raise these specific points, but they may be what he has in mind when he alludes to the dangers of a UN Security Council resolution, even one that includes a Palestinian commitment to resume negotiations with Israel on the basis of the resolution’s parameters.

The fly in the ointment, however, is who is doing the negotiating for Israel. Peretz is running for re-election now, and my guess is that his position is intended to differentiate what he and his Labor colleagues are offering versus Netanyahu and the Likud. If Peretz, and other security-minded doves (like former IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-General Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and others who endorsed the Geneva Initiative), were doing the negotiating for Israel, chances are they would reach an agreement on borders and security acceptable to majorities on both sides.

But the likelihood of Labor leading the negotiations is slim. For this reason, I believe the Avital-Alpher-Gazit-Heller proposal is meant as a recommendation to American and European leaders for a better course of action in the likely event that Netanyahu continues as prime minister. In that case, their assessment that direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are unlikely to bear fruit, is spot on – unless the Obama administration steps up and offers bridging proposals and is willing to apply the kind of diplomatic leverage that has made a decisive difference in past (remember Kissinger’s “re-assessment” and the Egyptian-Israeli Disengagement Agreement, President Carter's threats to both Begin and Sadat at Camp David during the Egyptian-Israeli negotiations, George H.W. Bush’s withholding loan guarantees over settlement expansion with Yitzhak Shamir, which led to Rabin’s election and the breakthrough of the Oslo Accords, Israeli-Palestinian mutual recognition and security cooperation, bolstering Israel’s anti-terrorism capacities in the West Bank to this day.)

Obama is unlikely to take such dramatic steps in an election year, so the proposed win-win UN resolution may be meant to provide a more fruitful basis for renewed state-to-state negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians over borders, settlements, land swaps and security arrangements.

Peretz endorses the proposal of Israeli-American businessman David Avital, our host for the luncheon, offered in a recent opinion piece in Politico, entitled “Why Israel Should Welcome Palestine.”   Avital suggests that Obama take the lead in reviving negotiations to reach a borders-first agreement, with Netanyahu’s support. An agreement on borders will bring about a Palestinian state by mutual consent, providing a wealth of benefits to the US, Israel and the Palestinians, as well as to US allies in the Arab world. Avital believes that if Obama takes the initiative, Netanyahu may follow.  Avital has had a close personal relationship with Netanyahu for decades, since their days in Israel’s elite anti-terrorism force, Sayeret Matkal. Despite the great skepticism of just about everyone else these days, he may have a sound basis for believing that under the right conditions, Netanyahu can be brought around (which presumably would require him to refashion his governing coalition by including Kadima and perhaps even Labor). But it is Obama who must set the table.

A recent report in Ma'ariv, one of Israel's most widely read daily newspapers, suggests that Netanyahu has accepted President Obama's principles for renewing negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.  According to the report, he has "agreed in principle to define the borders between Israel and a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines, including territory swaps.   At the same time, in return for the concession, he demands of the Palestinians two conditions that would be fulfilled only at the end of the negotiations--recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and that the refugee issue would be resolved within the framework of the Palestinian state, and not Israel."   (S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, Israel News Update, July 1, 2011).   If the report proves true, it again suggests that Netanyahu will have had to come around to Peretz's position to break Israel's diplomatic deadlock.

At the end of the day, perhaps both Peretz and the win-win UN resolution proponents are right, each in their own arena.   Such a resolution would be unnecessary if Labor and men like Peretz were leading the peace charge. With Netanyahu at the helm, it may be the least bad alternative move for the US.  And it may actually do some good, especially if the US initiates and closely oversees both the negotiations and UN process, and co-opts Israel by fashioning the UN resolution to meet key Israeli requirements.

Palestinian Leaders and Strategy vis-à-vis Israel

Peretz revealed that he meets with Fatah-Tanzim senior leader Marwan Barghouti from time to time in his Israeli jail cell (as do a few other Israeli politicians on the left). Barghouti, he avers, will be the next Palestinian leader after Abbas (Peretz’s visits with Barghouti were reported a few days ago in the Jerusalem Post).  Barghouti has said to him (not reported in the Post, but shared by Peretz in New York): “Forget the idea of a Palestinian return to violence, a violent third intifada.” Barghouti has some credibility on this point, having played a key role in the militarization of the second intifada (he has been called its “mastermind”). “You Israelis love the [second] intifada” – whose hallmark was the advent of an unprecedented campaign of suicide bombings by Palestinian terrorists against Israeli civilians. “Then the whole world says that the Palestinians are all terrorists. We have learned that game.” Barghouti is saying that he and other Palestinians who once supported violent resistance against Israel, including terrorism, have learned that it ultimately works to the disadvantage of the Palestinians, discrediting their national movement and their moral case, as moderate Palestinian peace advocates like Abbas and Sari Nusseibeh insisted all along.

Barghouti has also told Peretz that “We know that the refugees cannot return to Israel. But this Palestinian concession has to be made as part of a final, comprehensive agreement.” It is politically unrealistic to insist on it as a pre-condition for peace talks. For the Palestinians, recognizing Israel as a Jewish state in advance of negotiations is tantamount to telling their own people – before negotiations have even begun – that Palestinian leaders intend to surrender wholesale the refugee “right of return” claimed for so long by Palestinians. Barghouti is saying, it is unwise – it puts us in an impossible position at this stage of the game – to demand this of us now. It can happen as part of the big package, once all the concessions and compromises are made by both sides and the peace dividend is much clearer for both societies to see.

On final borders Peretz says that the Palestinians know that between four to six percent of the West Bank will need to remain part of Israel to enable it to incorporate settlement blocs, for which Israel will need to exchange land from within the Green Line as compensation, and provide a land corridor for safe passage between the West Bank and Gaza. The net outcome, he says, should reflect Obama’s principle of 1967 borders with land swaps. Small settlements in remote areas, and the 100 illegal (under Israeli law) settlement outposts, including many settlements built in whole or in part on privately owned Palestinian land, will have to be evacuated under an agreement.

Peretz believes that Israel withdrew too hastily from Gaza, without adequate planning for resettling the settlers. Now we know what the relocation package needs to be; it can be done better. “We have a responsibility to them,” he stresses.

National Security and Defense

Peretz says that when he was Defense Minister he decided to approve Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system essentially on his own, as the Prime Minister (Olmert) and IDF Chief of Staff were opposed. This is not altogether surprising, given that Peretz lives in Sderot, which has for the last few years been the primary target of rocket attacks from Gaza by Palestinian extremists from Hamas and Islamic Jihad. He stresses that even when Israel signs a peace treaty with its Arab and Palestinian neighbors, it will need a strong army and defense network to guarantee the peace.

The Iron Dome system recently destroyed nine missiles heading towards Ashkelon and Beer Sheva. As a result, Hamas asked Israel for a “hudna,” an unwritten truce, because they grasped that the Iron Dome had neutralized their advantage, suggests Peretz.  An Iron Dome battery has now been deployed for Haifa, and more will be placed in the Galilee in due course. He suggests that the system may even deter Hezbollah, impelling it negotiate. This point seems unpersuasive to me given the very large number of missiles in Hezbollah’s possession (estimated at 40,000), and the number of missiles that Hezbollah can now fire during the course of a future war in a single day, is far greater than its capability during the 2006 Lebanon War. Israel lacks anywhere near the number of Iron Dome batteries it would need to deal effectively with Hezbollah rockets and missiles, and will for the foreseeable future.

Peretz described his visits with Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi in Egypt when he was defense minister. Tantawi now heads the Higher Military Council that took control of Egypt after President Hosni Mubarak was swept from power. He describes Tantawi as someone who did not like talking to the Israelis, so Omar Suleiman, the head of Egyptian Military Intelligence, was sent to be the interlocutor in his place. Nonetheless, Tantawi is widely regarded as committed to preserving the peace treaty with Israel, and Peretz stresses that Tantawi, like other Egyptian leaders, has strong incentives to keep the peace, and continue the $1.3 billion in military aid that Egypt receives from the US. He does not believe that the Arab Spring will alter the essence of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, having prevented war between Israel and its largest, most powerful Arab neighbor for more than 30 years.

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