Why the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks must work

Cynicism about new Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts comes in a variety of flavors. There is the lazy cynicism of allegedly objective pundits: “Only a fool would believe that this could work.” There is the cowardly cynicism of the disillusioned: “I won’t be fooled again!” And there is the malicious, smirking cynicism of crypto-peace opponents: “It’s foolish to think this can ever work, or that the Palestinians can ever be trusted, or that settlers can ever be removed.” What the latter really mean, of course, is: “I want this to fail, and this is my way of helping.”

Let’s be clear: The current Kerry-backed peace effort is probably the last, best hope for achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace in this generation. The situation on the ground — code mainly for settlement expansion — is nearing a tipping point after which a two-state solution will no longer be available (many settlers gleefully argue the point has already been passed). The end of the two-state solution doesn’t then magically create some new alternative — it just plays into the hands of zero-sum extremists on both sides, with devastating implications for everyone else. Until eventually, perhaps after another generation or more of Israeli-Palestinian mutual bloodletting and mutual efforts at delegitimization, both peoples come to a realization, as they did in the 1990s, that their respective aspirations for peace, security, self-determination and a better future for their children will only be realized at the negotiating table. 

[Related: Why David Suissa thinks peace talks will fail]

For anyone who truly cares about Israel and Israelis — as opposed to those who prioritize land over peace, settlements over security, and Greater Israel over Israel’s good standing in the community of progressive, democratic nations of the world — must recognize that the stakes today are too high to give in to self-indulgent cynicism and self-protective defeatism.

Yes, there are reasons for skepticism about the current peace effort. The provocative and self-defeating march of Israeli settlements goes on. The release of Palestinian prisoners is reopening painful wounds for Israelis across the political spectrum. And rhetoric that is inconsistent with a commitment to peace and coexistence continues to emanate from both sides. 

At the same time, there are compelling reasons to believe that this new peace effort can succeed, starting with the personal investment of President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, backed by power-hitters like Special Envoy Martin Indyk, leading negotiations, and Gen. John Allen, focusing on Israeli security issues. The Quartet and Tony Blair remain active, focusing on economic issues, and the European Union and the Arab League are playing positive supporting roles.

Likewise, there are solid reasons to believe that this effort is serious. Both sides have publicly committed to negotiating for nine months. Neither side wants to be the one that walks away and is blamed for destroying the process — creating a negotiations-preserving dynamic. Moreover, the parties have agreed to secrecy, insulating the effort from destructive real-time “crowd testing.” And finally, these negotiations are taking place in the context of unprecedented recognition of both the fact that the window is closing on the two-state solution and that achieving the two-state solution is a vital U.S. national security interest.

It is also clear that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can deliver if he wants to. He has the trust of the majority of the Israeli public, strong Knesset support for entering talks, and, if cornered by right-wing members of his coalition, he has a new pro-peace coalition available. Likewise, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas can deliver if he wants to and if the agreement on offer from Israel is indeed serious. Abbas is a founder of the Palestinian national movement, committed to nonviolence, and has long experience negotiating with Israel. He ran for president of the Palestinian Authority on a platform that centered on his commitment to negotiate a two-state agreement with Israel, and, according to former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and former (and current) Israel negotiator Tzipi Livni, went a long distance toward doing exactly that.

Finally, recent reports of a single poll notwithstanding, polling has shown, year after year, that both peoples want peace and would support the compromises necessary if packaged together as an end-of-conflict-end-of-claims agreement.

At this time, we would do well to recall the words of Yitzhak Rabin, who famously said that he would “fight terrorism as if there is no peace process” and “pursue peace as if there is no terrorism.” Today, the greatest threat to peace efforts is not terrorism, but cynicism, skepticism and spoilers on both sides. In this context, Rabin’s wise formula becomes: “We must fight skepticism and spoilers as if there are no peace negotiations, and we must doggedly support the pursuit of peace at the negotiating table, refusing to allow skeptics, cynics and spoilers to demoralize us or distract us from our goal.”

Lara Friedman is director of policy and government relations for Americans for Peace Now.

Netanyahu to call on Abbas to return to the negotiating table

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intends to send a letter to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, in which he will call on him to return to the negotiating table, promptly and without preconditions.

A senior Israeli official said the letter would be a response to a similar communiqué Abbas plans to relay to Netanyahu in the upcoming days.

The Israeli message will stress among other diplomatic statements the Israeli willingness to resume the talks that took place in the Jordanian capital Amman, under the aegis of the Jordanian king and the in Quartet of Middle East peacemakers.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Obama administration must pursue Mideast peace

Across America, the Jewish community is joining with the rest of the nation to congratulate our next president. President-elect Barack Obama ran a campaign promising change, and Americans have made very clear that they are anxious to take him up on that promise. He will enter the White House at a time of great uncertainty, however, and those who would see real change take root will have to be very clear with the administration about their hopes for the future — particularly regarding the Middle East.

Many in our community have long prayed for Israeli-Palestinian peace, and in his acceptance speech, Obama sounded a promising note. “To those who seek peace and security,” he said, an hour after winning the election, “we support you.” As a lifelong advocate for a fair resolution to the conflict, I know the importance of such words — and know even more the importance of action.

The past eight years have seen an unprecedented level of diplomatic neglect on the part of the United States government, as President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said all the right things but have done very little to back up their words.

As a result, rather than move forward toward the resolution that all sides have already agreed must be our goal — a mutually acceptable two-state solution — Israelis and Palestinians remain locked in despair, and among both people, frustration has reached new heights.

Oddly, the current president seems to have forgotten that Israelis and Palestinians are not the only people who need an end to their entirely resolvable conflict — America needs it, too. Consider the blow it would be to Iran, Hezbollah and extremists across the globe if America were to mediate an end to Arab-Israeli fighting.

In the course of his campaign, Obama turned to the Jewish community to declare his support for Israel, saying that Israel’s security is “paramount.”

But if he really believes this to be true, he will have to understand that words of support are not enough. He will have to work to achieve the one thing that can bring the Jewish state true security: true peace.

If the newly elected president truly wants to advance Israel’s security, he will engage in genuine diplomacy from his very first days in office. He will vigorously pursue an agreement, appointing an envoy with the international credibility to do the hard work involved in negotiation. And he will make very clear to all parties that agreements made are to be honored.

It’s hard to believe this will happen, though, unless the new administration has gotten clear indication that it will be supported in its efforts by American Jews. To that end, the more than 85 percent of us who have said that we back a two-state resolution of the conflict have to take it upon ourselves to tell President Obama unequivocally: We will stand by you as you pursue a just, durable two-state solution. We will make our positions known in the House and the Senate, and we will communicate them to the American public. Because we are pro-Israel, we will advocate for peace.

American leaders have long turned to our community for guidance on the question of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and for that reason, I recently signed an open letter addressed to the president-elect, calling on him to dedicate himself to achieving a viable two-state agreement by the end of his first term.

Spearheaded by Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace, the letter has been signed so far by some 700 members of the American Jewish clergy, all of whom know that our highest calling is to “seek peace and pursue it.”

The potential costs of failing to achieve a just two-state solution to this bloody conflict are too awful to consider. We must apply ourselves to seeing to it that the decades of death and fear are brought to an end, and a new era begins. Tell President-elect Obama and those he names to his government: The time for peace is now.

Rabbi Arnold Rachlis is the spiritual leader of University Synagogue in Irvine; a past president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association; chair of MAZON – A Jewish Response to Hunger; and a member of the Rabbinic Cabinet of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom. He has served in Washington, D.C., as a White House Fellow and as a senior foreign affairs adviser in the State Department.

Political realities may doom Olmert’s peace push

With his Kadima Party just weeks away from electing a new leader, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is making a concerted last-ditch effort to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians.

Olmert has drawn up a detailed peace offer and presented it to U.S. and Palestinian leaders. After being shown the plan last week, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described it as “very generous.”

Although the Palestinians say wide gaps remain, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Olmert reportedly agreed in talks Sunday to make every effort to wrap up a full-fledged peace agreement by the end of the year.

But both sides are skeptical.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and former PA Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, who are involved in a parallel negotiation that is conducting line-by-line drafting of a final-status agreement, estimate that the process could go on well into 2009 and beyond. They say the effort must be given all the time it needs.

Warning against the danger of rushing things, Livni said artificial deadlines could lead to frustration on the Palestinian side and spark a third intifada. Alternatively, time pressure could lead Israel to compromise on vital interests.

Right-wing opposition to the Olmert-Abbas talks go even further. Opposition leaders have questioned the very legitimacy of Olmert’s conducting a vigorous peace drive so close to the end of his term. Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu described Olmert’s peace plan as “morally and substantially flawed” and warned that it would strengthen Hamas.

There are problems on the Palestinian side, too.

Abbas’ term could end early next year, leaving the Palestinians with a more radical leadership before an agreement is finally wrapped up.

What’s worse is that as long as Hamas controls the Gaza Strip, the chances of implementing any Israeli-Palestinian peace deal are virtually zero.

Olmert’s latest proposal deals with four core issues: territory, security, refugees and Jerusalem.

On territory, he offers the Palestinians 93 percent of the West Bank, with Israel retaining large Jewish settlement blocs in the remaining 7 percent. As compensation, the Palestinians would get an area equivalent to 5.5 percent of the West Bank in Israeli land close to the Gaza Strip, and a land corridor connecting Gaza and the West Bank, linking the two in a single Palestinian state.

On security, Olmert proposes that the future Palestinian state would be demilitarized and barred from building military alliances. Israel would have early warning stations on the Samarian hills in the West Bank, a temporary army presence in the Jordan Valley, a presence at border crossings, control of airspace over Gaza and the West Bank, and access to the main east-west corridors in the West Bank.

On refugees, Olmert categorically rejects the so-called Palestinian right of return: Palestinian refugees would be entitled to return to the Palestinian state in unlimited numbers, but not to Israel proper. Still, there is a small concessionary loophole in the Olmert proposal: 1,500 to 2,000 Palestinians would be allowed to “return” to Israel proper every year for 10 years for “humanitarian reasons.” In other words Israel could, at its discretion, allow the immigration during 10 years of 15,000 to 20,000 Palestinians.

Although Olmert insists that Jerusalem has not been on the negotiating agenda — the Orthodox Shas Party has threatened to topple the government if Jerusalem is so much as discussed — the prime minister does include a temporary solution for the city in his proposal.

The final Israeli-Palestinian document would include reference to “a joint mechanism with a fixed timetable” for resolving the dispute over Jerusalem. Olmert aides refuse to elaborate but say there would be elements in the joint mechanism “attractive to the Palestinians.”

This apparently refers partly to an offer by Olmert to involve other Arab and international parties — including Jordan, Morocco, Egypt, the Vatican and the international Quartet grouping of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations — in seeking a permanent solution for Jerusalem and its holy places.

The Palestinians, however, argue that Olmert’s proposals do not go far enough, and they insist that the gaps between the Israeli and Palestinian positions remain wide.

Some analysts suggest that the only realistic way forward would be through American bridging proposals. But the Americans are unlikely to be forthcoming: During a visit in June, when Rice asked for a paper highlighting key points of agreement and disagreement, both sides refused on the grounds that that kind of hands-on American intervention would not be helpful at this stage.

“We and the Israelis told Dr. Rice that the decisions are required from Palestinians and Israelis,” senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told JTA. “I am sure the Americans, the Arabs and the Europeans will stand shoulder to shoulder with us in order to implement whatever we agree. But the decisions are for Palestinians and Israelis.”

Officials close to Olmert argue that even if it can’t immediately be implemented, a joint Israeli-Palestinian document on permanent-status issues would constitute a historic breakthrough.

“We believe it would become a galvanizing point for all the moderates and offer an alternative to the Hamas-Hezbollah-Tehran paradigm,” Olmert spokesman Mark Regev said.

Regev believes that not only would the deal win wide international support and boost the moderates in the Arab world, it also would help resolve the problem of Israeli settlement in the West Bank.

“If we are successful in delineating to a great degree of specificity where the final borders will be, then obviously we will continue to build in the settlements on our side and not in those on the Palestinian side,” he said.

In other words, immediately upon signing the deal, Israel would regard settlements on its side of the border as part of Israel proper, with no extrinsic restrictions on development and growth. Those on the Palestinian side, by contrast, would be seen as living on borrowed time and slated for evacuation.

For any agreement to stand a chance of implementation, its advocates would have to find a way around Palestinian rejectionists — including Hamas in Gaza — and around Israeli opponents. In both cases, opponents may press for new elections, which would serve as a referendum on the peace deal.

That does not bode well for a peace deal. Hamas is unlikely to allow elections in Gaza unless it is sure of winning. On the Israeli side, polls suggest the right-wing opposition will win the next general election.

Should either of these likely scenarios occur, the “shelf agreement” the Olmert administration is working on probably would be shelved indefinitely. That would leave Olmert’s 11th-hour effort to set a new peace agenda, like many others before it, dead in the water of Middle Eastern realities.

Fatah fighters’ escape to Israel and what it means

Even for the complex Middle East it was a moment of exceptional irony. Some 180 Fatah loyalists fleeing a series of shootouts and summary executions by Hamas

on the streets of Gaza ran for the border — banking on the mercies of the enemy they usually target.

Remarkably, Israeli soldiers braved Hamas fire to save the Palestinians. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, however, opted to return the fighters to Gaza. The first group of 35 returnees was promptly arrested by Hamas.

Seeing the danger to their erstwhile foes, the Israel Defense Forces balked at transferring the rest of the Fatah men, while the Association for Civil Rights in Israel appealed to Israel’s Supreme Court to block the forced repatriation. Finally, Israel prevailed upon Abbas to give safety to his own followers, and they were sent to Jericho.

The reaction in the Arab world to this incredible turn of events is instructive. Writing in Beirut’s Daily Star, columnist Rami Khouri offered an assessment of the larger issue:

“This is the latest and most troubling example of how a once-grand and noble Palestinian national liberation movement has allowed itself to degenerate into ineptitude…. As Fatah and Hamas battle it out like a bunch of armed neighborhood gangs, it will not be surprising to see some friends of Palestine quietly walk away, mumbling that if the Palestinians wish to kill each other and destroy their own society, they are free to do so.”

Writing in Al-Hayat, Mohammad Salah goes even further:

“The flight by Ahmad Hilles and other Palestinians to Israel in search of safety away from the bullying and aggression of Hamas affirms that the Palestinian issue is on its way to disappearing, evaporating and being forgotten. It also proves that Israel, for many Palestinians, is a refuge or objective one seeks and heads toward when Palestinians oppress each other.”

The border episode should have been cheered by nongovernment organizations and church groups who insist that peace will come to the Middle East not through governmental fiat, but when people on both sides recognize the humanity of the other.

Other developments, however, indicate that we are a long way off from moving beyond widely held stereotypes in the Arab World that depict Christians as bloodthirsty crusaders and Jews as the offspring of pigs and monkeys. The reaction to a University of Haifa course shows just how much toxicity prevails in the Arab street.

Professor Ofer Grosbard, assisted in a project by 15 Muslim students, quoted verses from the Quran that would help Muslim psychologists reinforce in their religious patients concepts like respect, responsibility, honesty, dignity and kindness. Their selections were vetted by three Islamic clerics.

Nonetheless, the project drew furious responses. Speaking to Gulf News, Dr. Abdullah Al Mutlaq, of the Senior Ulema Board in Saudi Arabia, insisted that the project should not be trusted by Muslims, because it is run by Jews who openly show their hatred to Islam and Muslims, and that Grosbard’s interpretation of the Quran’s lessons in human dignity and kindness would give Muslims the wrong impression of their religion. Not surprisingly, officials of the Palestinian Authority concurred.

Don’t expect the caretakers of the global civil society to challenge the Arab world anytime soon. Some self-appointed activists, operating in the rarified moral high ground of nongovernmental organizations, refuse to be impacted by the facts. For even as Israelis fought to obtain the safety of Arab fighters on Aug. 5, two boats in Cyprus were preparing a mission to burst through Israel’s sea blockade into an embrace with Hamas. The success of the mission was to be measured by Google hits on BBC and Iranian media coverage, not by any humanitarian cargo for the beleaguered residents of Gaza.

Israel has consistently allowed such supplies in and arranged passage for many critically ill patients to Israeli hospitals. This despite the fact that at least one ill woman from Gaza used the privilege of shuttling back and forth to an Israeli hospital to try to smuggle a bomb that would blow up the very facility and doctors who treated her.

Most nongovernmental organizations (NGO) that see themselves as protectors of Palestinian interests remain blind and silent, both about the Israeli largesse and the rupture of Palestinian society. Have they ever wondered what issues Israelis grapple with, what their needs are in the Gordian knot we call the Holy Land?

Did anyone consider the reaction of the parents of Gilad Shalit to the Fatah rescue? Shalit is the Israeli soldier kidnapped near that very crossing where the Fatah members were saved by other Israeli soldiers.

And what of the bereaved families of Vadim Nurhitz and Yossi Avrahami, two Israeli reservists who took a wrong turn into Ramallah? Taken to a PA police station, they were brutalized and dismembered by a mob. Rather than protect the two soldiers, a PA policeman at the station participated in the lynching.

For too many, repeating empty mantras about the “occupation” is much easier than rethinking the nature of a future Palestinian state and how it would treat its own citizens or its Jewish neighbors. Indeed, too few in the international community care enough to demand a modicum of accountability from the Palestinians.

These events present a microcosm of a clash not between two governments but of two fundamentally different cultures. Nothing will ever change until the world comes to understand the truths that led the Fatah fighters to choose the Israeli enemy over their Palestinian brothers?

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is director of interfaith relations for the Wiesenthal Center.

Israeli policy headed for radical changes in post-Olmert era

JERUSALEM (JTA)—Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s decision to resign after a new Kadima Party leader is elected in September has opened up the possibility of radical new directions in Israeli policy.

As of now Olmert has four potential successors, since Kadima’s new leader may not be able to stave off new general elections.

Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud Party and Shaul Mofaz of Kadima are inveterate hawks who see peace, if it is at all possible, being achieved only in drawn-out, painstaking stages. Tzipi Livni of Kadima and Ehud Barak of the Labor Party are pragmatic doves ready to cut to the chase but wary of illusory quick fixes.

Important differences exist within the two camps.

Netanyahu views the current attempt by the Olmert government to reach final peace deals with the Palestinians and the Syrians as foolhardy. He is against what he calls “endism”—trying to end the complex Israeli-Arab conflict with a single stroke—and instead advocates a measured, step-by-step approach.

For example, on the Syrian track, Damascus would have to break with Tehran and demonstrate over time that the breach is final before Israel returns any part of the Golan Heights. Other powers interested in moving Syria away from Iran, including the United States and the European Union, would be called on to provide much of the quid pro quo to Syria, making it possible for Israel to retain at least part of the strategic Golan.

On the Palestinian track, Netanyahu regards the “shelf agreement” Olmert is negotiating with the relatively moderate Palestinian leadership in the West Bank as meaningless. Under present conditions, with Hamas controlling Gaza, Netanyahu sees no way to implement an agreement now or in the foreseeable future.

Instead, he again advocates a step-by-step framework in which each side progresses only after the other has fulfilled a commitment. Under Ariel Sharon, this performance-based, reciprocal approach led to a stalemate.

Netanyahu hopes that the creation of new economic realities in the West Bank will provide the infrastructure for political progress. The former prime minister strongly backs efforts to that effect by Tony Blair, the special envoy of the Quartet grouping of the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia.

Like Blair, Netanyahu sees economic progress driving a peace process, not the other way round.

Netanyahu’s top priority, however, would be stopping Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program. He has been urging world leaders to impose stronger economic sanctions on Tehran to alleviate the need for force. But if Netanyahu becomes prime minister, a pre-emptive Israeli military strike cannot be ruled out.

Mofaz, although he abandoned the Likud for Kadima, is as hawkish as Netanyahu. In fact, were the current transportation minister to win the Kadima leadership, the split between Likud and Kadima could become a thing of the past. Mofaz left Likud reluctantly when pressed by Sharon, Kadima’s founder, and after Sharon promised to make him defense minister.

The Iranian-born Mofaz takes a long view of historic processes in the Middle East who sees change evolving slowly over decades. Peace, in his view, will come only when conditions are ripe and cannot be accelerated artificially.

On the Syrian track, Mofaz says he is ready to offer “peace for peace”—an old Likud counter to the Arab land-for-peace formula. He also would be unlikely to make territorial concessions on the Palestinian front.

Indeed Mofaz, a former army chief of staff and defense minister, would likely be less industrious than Netanyahu in creating conditions for peace, but more proactive in trying to stop Iran from going nuclear.

Mofaz, who heads the Israeli team in strategic dialogue with the United States, has warned that Iran will cross the nuclear weapons threshold in 2009 or 2010 and said that if the international community fails to interdict the process, Israel will.

Like his colleagues on the right, Barak sees the Middle East as a tough, unforgiving neighborhood in which the weak are devoured—he once famously described Israel as a “villa in the jungle.”

The difference between Barak and the hard-line Netanyahu and Mofaz is his conviction that Israel to survive must be strong and divest itself of the West Bank to ensure a Jewish majority in a democratic state.

After the failure of the Camp David negotiations with Yasser Arafat in 2000, the then-prime minister Barak was quick to claim there was no genuine Palestinian peace partner. That led him to back the notion of unilateral withdrawal as the only way to establish a border between Israel and the Palestinians.

Barak modified his thinking, however, when Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza was followed by ceaseless Kassam rocket attacks. He still seems to envisage an eventual unilateral pullout from the West Bank, but only after Israel has an effective anti-missile defense system.

As defense minister, Barak has made the development of a multilayered anti-missile system—one that provides protection against long-, medium- and short-range missiles—a top priority.

Livni, whose parents both fought for the prestate Irgun underground, entered politics in 1996 holding fiercely hawkish positions. But as minister for regional cooperation in the first Sharon government in 2001, she underwent a profound ideological metamorphosis, turning from hawk to relative dove.

A lawyer by training, Livni places supreme importance on Israel retaining international legitimacy by withdrawing to a line close to the 1967 borders and allowing the Palestinians to establish a state of their own.

Livni, now the foreign minister, sees one of the main tasks of government as securing the best post-withdrawal conditions for Israel. For example, she insists that no Palestinian refugees be allowed to return to Israel proper, arguing that the Palestinians cannot simultaneously demand a state and insist that their refugees be settled somewhere else.

Livni was one of the chief backers of Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, but also after the Kassams from Gaza, she says Israel cannot simply leave the West Bank and “throw the keys over the fence.”

Thus, unlike her three main rivals, Livni advocates intensive negotiations with the Palestinians on a final peace deal and bringing in an international force to help implement it. But Livni is in no hurry and would be less likely than Olmert to make concessions on key principles—like the refugee issue—for a deal.

The first stage in the battle to succeed Olmert is scheduled for Sept. 17, when Kadima holds its primary. Livni and Mofaz are the runaway front-runners: A recent poll in Israel’s daily Ma’ariv gave Livni 51 percent of the party vote to Mofaz’s 43 percent.

The second stage in the leadership stakes could come as soon as early 2009. If Kadima’s winner fails to assemble a coalition government, the Knesset will be dissolved and early general elections would be held, bringing Netanyahu and Barak into the picture.

Whoever finally emerges as the new prime minister, a break with Olmert’s policies seems certain.

Can Olmert’s goodwill gestures kick-start peace?

After the plethora of goodwill gestures Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made in his meeting Saturday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, politicians and pundits on both sides are asking one question: Will it be enough to kick-start the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process?

Leaders on both sides are optimistic. They see Olmert’s moves as part of a new and wider American plan for Israeli-Palestinian accommodation.

Pundits, however, are downbeat. Few believe Abbas will be able to create the necessary conditions on the Palestinian side for successful negotiations with Israel.

The meeting was the first between the two leaders since Olmert’s election victory last March. Its primary purpose was to help strengthen Abbas and his relatively moderate Fatah movement in their ongoing power struggle with the radical Hamas.

Olmert’s moves were part of a two-pronged plan: To show the Palestinian people that more can be achieved through Abbas-style dialogue with Israel than armed confrontation, and to strengthen Fatah militarily by allowing it the wherewithal to build up its armed forces ahead of a possible showdown with Hamas over approaches to Israel.

With this in mind, Olmert made the following goodwill gestures:

  • Israel would release $100 million in frozen Palestinian tax money.
  • It would remove dozens of checkpoints to facilitate Palestinian movement in the West Bank.
  • It would ease passage in and out of Gaza to enable the free flow of goods and medicines.
  • It would consider freeing a few dozen Palestinian prisoners in early January to mark Id el-Adha, the Muslim feast of the sacrifice, ahead of the release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held by Hamas-affiliated terrorists.
  • It would agree to set up joint committees to consider further prisoner releases and the removal of key Fatah operatives from Israel’s wanted list.
  • It would allow Egypt to supply Fatah with 1,900 Kalashnikov rifles.
  • It would allow the Palestinian Badr Brigade, currently stationed in Jordan, to redeploy in Gaza.

Olmert went out of his way to show friendship and respect for Abbas and his presidency, waiting for Abbas outside the prime minister’s residence and embracing him warmly on arrival.

Olmert also made a major symbolic gesture: For the first time, Palestinian flags were flown in an official Israeli state building.

“Abu Mazen is an adversary — he is a not an easy adversary, but with an adversary like this, there is, perhaps, a chance of dialogue that will bring an accord between us and the Palestinians,” Olmert said in a speech Sunday, his first public comments following the two hours of talks with Abbas.

Senior Abbas aide Saeb Erekat also was cautiously optimistic.

“It would be a mistake to think that all the problems could be solved in one meeting, but the meeting improved the feeling on both sides,” he said.

Writing in the mass-circulation daily, Yediot Achronot, political analyst Itamar Eichner summed up the new friendship between Olmert and Abbas.

“They have a common interest not to mention a common enemy: to block the rise of Hamas, which enjoys massive support from Iran,” he wrote.

The Israeli moves complement U.S. and European efforts to strengthen Fatah.

The Americans are soon expected to release about $100 million to Abbas, and they also have been training Fatah forces.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in a mid-December visit to Ramallah, outlined economic projects from which the Palestinians could benefit if they reached accommodation with Israel.

All of these moves are part of a wider plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that has begun to take shape in the U.S. State Department. The new American thinking envisages leapfrogging stage one of the internationally approved “road map” for Israeli-Palestinian peace and moving directly to stage two, which calls for the establishment of an interim Palestinian state with provisional borders.

Discarding stage one means that talks could go ahead without the Palestinians first stopping all violence and without Israel dismantling West Bank outposts.

The idea is that once a ministate is established, those things would be much easier for the parties to handle.

By strengthening Abbas, the Americans hope to create conditions for the establishment of a new Palestinian government that would recognize Israel and become a serious negotiating partner. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to make a visit to the region soon to press the plan.

The American approach is not much different from ideas being bandied about in the Israeli Foreign Ministry and supported by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

Livni, who favors going directly for an interim Palestinian state, told a meeting of Europe-based Israeli ambassadors in Jerusalem on Sunday that the Olmert-Abbas meeting was important not as “a lone gesture, but as a process of which gestures are a part.” She added that in her view, moderate Arab and Muslim states should be involved, as well.

On the Palestinian side, Abbas also expressed the hope that the meeting would lead to peace talks.

Israeli pundits, however, are skeptical. They doubt Abbas will be able to carry off the necessary first step: the establishment of a Palestinian government that makes the right noises about recognizing Israel, accepting previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements and renouncing violence.

“First that must happen, but as we know from experience, something on the way is bound to go wrong, and all we’ll get is more of the same,” political analyst Ben Caspit wrote in the Ma’ariv daily.

“Many meetings between Palestinian and Israeli leaders have taken place up till now, but it seems that never have two such weak partners sat on either side of the table — Abu Mazen on the verge of a civil war and Olmert after a war and embroiled in an investigation,” Caspit wrote.

“They have a great many qualities in common: not a bad vision and considerable courage. On the other hand they are lacking in leadership and confidence, exhausted and shackled by political constraints, enemies inside and out.”

The trouble is, Palestinian society is deeply divided over how to proceed.

In Abbas’ view, the Palestinians will always be outgunned and therefore will lose in any violent confrontation with Israel. Thus, negotiation is the way forward.

Hamas holds that time is on the Palestinians’ side, and the best path is to establish a temporary truce, use it to stockpile weapons and wait for Iran to become the dominant regional power.

Israeli intelligence estimates that if Abbas is able to rekindle a peace process, Hamas will escalate its violence against Israel in a bid to extinguish it.

Complicating matters even further, the fight on the Palestinian streets is not only between Fatah and Hamas. Poverty and the breakdown of law and order have spawned violent, armed gangs loyal only to themselves and contemptuous of authority, whether from Fatah or Hamas. They will probably continue to use terror against Israel, even if Abbas and Hamas agree to a cease-fire.

If the latest American initiative is to succeed, it will have to find a way of neutralizing both Hamas and the street gangs. Otherwise, new peace prospects will drown in a sea of Palestinian chaos.

Making peace at the best of times would not be easy. In these circumstances, it will be a very tall order indeed.

Leslie Susser is diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem report.
JTA correspondent Dan Baron in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

Abbas’ Move Challenges Olmert

As Prime Minister Ehud Olmert presses ahead with plans for another unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is determined not to be sidelined by Olmert’s go-it-alone approach.

In late May, as Olmert tried to convince President Bush of the need for unilateral action, Abbas urged the Hamas-led Palestinian government to accept a package that would enable the Palestinians to break out of diplomatic isolation and emerge as full-fledged negotiating partners with a say on Olmert’s pullback plans.

The vehicle Abbas hopes to use to regain international legitimacy is an agreement hammered out between Palestinian prisoners from Hamas, being held by Israel, and his own Fatah organization, calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. The so-called “prisoners’ covenant” is based on the Saudi-initiated peace plan of 2002, which received widespread international support at the time.

As of May 26, Abbas gave Hamas 10 days to accept the package.

If not, he says he will go to the Palestinian people and ask them to approve the prisoners’ covenant in a referendum within six weeks. Should the Palestinians accept the covenant, analysts believe there could be strong international pressure on Israel to engage in peace talks on the basis of the Saudi plan. In this way, they say, Abbas hopes to re-establish the Palestinians as players and undercut Olmert’s unilateralism.

But it won’t be easy.

Hamas leaders have already rejected the plan and question Abbas’ constitutional right to call a referendum. Moreover, without Hamas’ compliance, Abbas may not have the power to stage and secure a nationwide ballot, even though most Palestinians seem to want one. Latest polls show that between 70 percent and 80 percent of Palestinians favor a referendum.

The Saudi plan is based on a “land for peace” formula. It stipulates that if Israel withdraws from all territory gained in the 1967 Six-Day War, all the Arab states will normalize their relations with Israel. Hamas, however, continues to reject anything that implies recognition of the Jewish state.

The radical movement’s leaders also reject other key elements of the “prisoners’ covenant.”

For example, they refuse to be bound by previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements and insist on the right of Palestinians to use force against Israel, not only in the disputed territories, but in Israel proper as well.

Abbas has evolved several strategies to overcome Hamas intransigence. One is the planned referendum. Another is the establishment of a national-unity Hamas-Fatah government in which he, as the senior Fatah representative, would be empowered to conduct negotiations with Israel, not only as the president, but in the name of the government as a whole.

Then there is the ultimate weapon: Abbas could dissolve the Hamas-dominated Parliament and call new elections.

If he manages to get the Palestinian people and polity to commit to the Saudi plan, Abbas will create a major dilemma for the international community.

On the one hand, senior American and European officials are highly skeptical about the Palestinian president’s ability to deliver. They note that in the three years since the formulation of the internationally approved “road map” peace plan, Abbas has done virtually nothing to implement it, and doubt whether things would be different with the Saudi plan.

On the other hand, both the Americans and Europeans would much prefer a negotiated settlement to unilateral moves by Israel, which they fear might spark more fighting rather than less.

Olmert is not only skeptical about Abbas. He also has deep reservations about the Saudi plan, which calls for withdrawal to the 1967 lines, without Israel retaining any of the large settlement blocs he wants to keep.

Moreover, the Saudi formula insists on eastern Jerusalem as the capital of the projected Palestinian state and it suggests that Israel would have to accept the Palestinian refugees’ right of return — positions Olmert rejects out of hand.

The prime minister, therefore, hopes to keep the Saudi plan off the international agenda. He plans visits to Egypt and Europe in the coming weeks to persuade key players that Abbas cannot be relied on to deliver, and that Israel’s unilateralism is the only game in town.

Olmert, however, may not have things all his own way. If Abbas is able to get the Palestinians to accept the Saudi initiative, Olmert could find himself under strong domestic and international pressure to make a serious negotiating effort, despite the skepticism about its efficacy.

After a recent meeting with Abbas, Ami Ayalon, a leading Labor Party legislator, declared that even though he rejected many of its stipulations, the Saudi plan “could be a basis for negotiation,” because it “supports the idea of a two-state solution.”

The key to whether the Saudi plan becomes a serious option — even if adopted by the Palestinians — lies in Washington. The American goal remains a negotiated two-state solution based on Bush’s “vision” that he outlined in June 2002.

U.S. leaders hope to further this aim by strengthening Abbas and using economic and political leverage to bring Hamas down or force it to moderate its positions. Backing the Saudi plan as a basis for negotiations could promote these ends.

But there is another possibility: that the Saudi plan be put on the table only after Israel completes its planned pullback or what Olmert is now calling “realignment.”

In his Washington meeting with Olmert last week, Bush made it clear that the United States was in no hurry to see unilateral Israeli moves, and wanted to give negotiations another chance. But Bush also assured Olmert that as soon as it became apparent that negotiations are going nowhere, Washington would back Olmert’s unilateral alternative, as long as it does not contradict Bush’s vision of a viable and contiguous Palestinian state.

Most importantly, Bush emphasized that the United States will not recognize the borders Israel pulls back to unilaterally as permanent. And he reiterated the American view that final borders must be agreed upon in negotiations between the parties.

It is here where some analysts believe the Saudi plan could come in: not as a means of pre-empting Israel’s “realignment,” but as a way of taking things further once it is achieved.


Grim Faces, Tense Words at Summit


As photo-ops go, this one didn’t develop quite as expected.

The meeting Monday between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President Bush at Bush’s vast Texas ranch was to have affirmed the special U.S.-Israel relationship and paved the way forward in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process — a triumphant summit between two friends, farmers and statesmen.

Instead, what emerged between the tense lines the two men delivered as a stiff Texas breeze ruffled their scripts were profound differences over how Sharon and Bush perceive Israeli and Palestinian obligations and the future of the peace process.

Bush made his position clear: Israel’s settlement expansion in the West Bank must stop.

“I told the prime minister of my concern that Israel not undertake any activity that contravenes ‘road map’ obligations or prejudices final-status negotiations,” Bush said, referring to the “road map” peace plan his administration launched three years ago. “Therefore, Israel should remove unauthorized outposts and meet its road map obligations regarding settlements in the West Bank.”

That was just the first of three emphatic calls by Bush to end settlement expansion.

Just as emphatically, Sharon reserved the right to build in major settlements that Israel plans to keep in any final agreement.

“It is the Israeli position that the major Israeli population centers will remain in Israel’s hands under any future final-status agreement, with all related consequences,” Sharon said.

The only thing keeping a lid on the tensions was the joint commitment to the success of Sharon’s planned evacuation of settlements in the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank, scheduled to begin July 20.

Bush urged Israelis and Palestinians to coordinate the pullout.

“By working together, Israelis and Palestinians can lay the groundwork for a peaceful transition,” he said.

At the heart of the dispute were conflicting visions of the road map. Bush sees it as under way; Sharon believes the plan will go into effect only when the Palestinian Authority meets its initial obligations to eradicate terrorism, dismantle terrorist groups and end anti-Israel incitement.

Until that happens, he made clear Israel will not begin considering its settlement obligations under the plan.

“Only after the Palestinians fulfill their obligations, primarily a real fight against terrorism and the dismantling of its infrastructure, can we proceed toward negotiations based on the road map,” Sharon said.

Sharon was even more emphatic later, in a meeting with Hebrew-speaking reporters.

“We are not at the road map, we are before the road map,” he said. “As long as the Palestinians don’t take the necessary steps, the road map is not under way.”

Sharon acknowledged that P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas has made some progress in maintaining quiet since his January election, but argued that Israel has no simultaneous obligations — at least when it comes to settlements, which Sharon believes should be addressed only in the final stage of negotiations.

Sharon recalled Israel’s historic commitment to settlement building, a commitment he helped advance as a minister during the rapid settlement expansion in the first Menachem Begin government, from 1977 to 1981. The United States, he said, historically opposed the settlements, but Israel forged ahead because of its strategic interests; the bilateral relationship never suffered.

The history lesson was Sharon’s way of chiding Israeli reporters who asked whether his tense joint appearance with Bush was evidence of a “crisis.”

Even if there were a crisis, Sharon said, “not every crisis needs to lead to a revolution of the soul.”

Translation: Sharon, the visionary of the settlement movement, hadn’t given up on his dreams of expanding Israel’s narrow waist and offering the country a bit of strategic depth.

It was clear even before it began that there would be tensions, and the visit might not go as well as originally had been expected. Sharon spent Sunday night at a hotel in Waco, 30 miles away, while virtually every other world leader accorded the privilege of an overnight stay in central Texas has slept in the Crawford ranch’s guest house.

A preparatory meeting Sunday night between Sharon, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Stephen Hadley, Bush’s national security adviser, at a dimly lit Waco bar-and-rib joint, stretched to two hours as Secret Service agents kept locals seeking refreshments at bay. Participants finally emerged grim-faced.

The grim looks reappeared when the negotiators stood outside Bush’s office building, watching the two leaders deliver their statements. Almost all of the negotiators adhered to a White House-imposed dress code meant to suggest unanimity — dark blue jacket, open-necked shirts the color of the Texas bluebonnets dotting the Bush ranch, and khaki trousers — but the Israelis stood to one side, the Americans to the other.

Hadley is to visit Israel next week to resume the conversation.

Bush got no relief on the specific issue that helped precipitate the recent tension: Israel’s decision to add 3,500 apartments in Ma’aleh Adumim, a major West Bank settlement and Jerusalem bedroom community that Israel intends to keep in any final peace agreement.

The development would choke off a major north-south West Bank artery. Palestinians claim this would affect the territorial contiguity of the state they hope to build, something Bush regards as critical to the success of the peace process.

Sharon turned the contiguity question around.

“We are very much interested that it will be contiguity between Ma’aleh Adumim and Jerusalem,” he said, standing alongside Bush.

There were areas of substantial agreement: Bush restated his historic concession, made last year, that Israel’s major settlements are “facts on the ground” that must be taken into account in any final peace deal.

He also agreed to consider U.S. assistance in developing the Negev and Galilee, regions of Israel that are expected to absorb thousands of evacuated settlers. A senior Israeli Treasury official is to visit Washington next week to discuss the parameters of such assistance.

Bush is biding his time until the Gaza withdrawal. Sharon laughingly told Israeli reporters that U.S. admonishments about settlement expansion took the mild parental tone of “we’ll discuss this later.”

In his recent dealings with the United States, Sharon repeatedly has stressed that he must placate a restive Israeli right wing before the settlement evacuation this summer. He spoke Monday of a “civil-war atmosphere” in Israel.

That’s something Bush appreciates, but he has his own political constraints. Bush is trying to mend alliances with Europe and the Arab world that were fractured by the Iraq War, and he believes that substantial progress on the

Israeli-Palestinian front would heal many wounds. Bush also believes that the death last year of Abbas’ predecessor, Yasser Arafat, removed the principal obstacle to progress.

Bush expects Sharon to change his mind once the trauma of evacuating Gaza is past. Delaying any Israeli action until the Palestinians have fulfilled all their commitments, he said, suggests “a rather pessimistic point of view.”

He glanced over at Sharon and continued, “I just suspect that if there is success in Gaza, in other words, if there’s a state that’s emerging, the prime minister will have a different attitude about whether or not it makes sense to continue the process.”


Making 2005 a Year of Peace in Israel


Prime Minister Ariel Sharon predicts 2005 will be the year of peace — and Israelis, Palestinians and key members of the international community are taking steps to make it happen.

In a keynote speech last week at the Herzliya Conference on Israel’s National Security, Sharon declared that “2005 will be the year of great opportunity,” with “a chance for an historic breakthrough in our relations with the Palestinians, a breakthrough we have been waiting for years.”

Sharon’s upbeat tone reflected a contagious optimism that has all the key players focused on an ambitious peacemaking timetable: establishment of a broad-based Israeli government in December; Palestinian Authority presidential elections in January; an international conference in London in February; Israeli “disengagement” from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank in the summer; negotiations based on the “road map” peace plan leading to a Palestinian mini-state by early 2006; and then final peace negotiations between Israel and the provisional Palestinian government.

To help the Palestinians hold free and independent elections, Israel intends to limit military operations, pull the army out of Palestinian towns and cities and dismantle roadblocks.

The initial decision was to withdraw from urban areas 24 hours before the Jan. 9 balloting and return 24 hours later. But Israeli defense officials now say they’re considering staying out for longer if the new P.A. leadership shows that it’s willing and able to curb terrorism.

Israeli intelligence analysts say they expect PLO chief Mahmoud Abbas, the front-runner for P.A. president, to take on the terrorists in a way he did not as prime minister last year under Yasser Arafat, whose death Nov. 11 opened the way for diplomatic progress.

If Abbas does succeed in creating a more stable order, Israel will be able to coordinate much of the disengagement plan with him. Even if not, Sharon says he is determined to carry out the withdrawal to the letter and on schedule.

Sharon sees disengagement as the main engine for change in 2005, and says that while he is prepared to be open-minded on the amount of coordination with the Palestinians and other players, he is determined to stick to the timetable.

To ensure that the international community sees in the Israeli pullout an end to the occupation of Gaza, Deputy Attorney General Shavit Matias has recommended that the Israel Defense Forces withdraw from all Gaza territory, including the perilous Philadelphia route along the border with Egypt. That will mean entrusting Egypt with the task of stopping arms smuggling into the Gaza Strip after Israel withdraws. Israel apparently also has become more open to the idea of an international presence in Gaza.

The National Security Council, which is putting the final touches on the disengagement details, sees two distinct stages in the plan: Israeli withdrawal, in which Israel is the main player; followed by utilization of the pullout to improve the quality of Palestinian life and create conditions for negotiations based on the road map.

This is where the British-initiated international conference comes in. The idea is for the Americans, Europeans and possibly other international players — but not the Israelis — to meet quietly with the new Palestinian leaders in London in February to assess how the international community can help them institute the security, governmental and economic reforms they pledged under the road map.

On Wednesday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair was due to arrive in Israel to discuss the conference’s terms of reference. His goal is to help bridge the crucial transition from disengagement to road map-based peace talks.

Indeed, for 2005 to become the year of peace, the road map will have to take off. A lot will depend on how Israel interprets Palestinian compliance with its demands for far-reaching democratic reforms and an end to terrorism.

European diplomats say they fear Israel will demand Palestinian democratization as an excuse to hold up the process. For their part, Israeli officials say that dumping the road map and trying to tackle final-status issues such as borders, Jerusalem and refugees prematurely — as the Palestinians and some Europeans have demanded — is a recipe for disaster.

Several months ago, according to Israeli officials, European decision-makers assumed John Kerry would win the U.S. presidential election and would be less committed than President Bush to the strict sequence of reciprocal steps the road map demands of Israel and the Palestinians. After Bush’s re-election and Arafat’s death, however, the Europeans apparently are ready to give the road-map formula another chance.

If successful, that formula will lead to an end to the terrorist war, further Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank and the establishment of a Palestinian ministate. Only then would negotiations on permanent peace issues — including final borders, Jerusalem and refugees — take place.

If the two sides can make that kind of progress, 2005 indeed will be crowned as the year of peace. Despite the optimism, however, that’s still a big if.

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.


Will Bush Change Course on Israel?

The Israeli establishment is delighted by the re-election of President Bush.

His Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry, may have been seen as a good friend of Israel, but Israeli officials speak of an ideological meeting of minds between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Likud-led government and Bush’s neoconservative-dominated milieu.

Both put a premium on the war against terror and the creation of democratic institutions as a means to world and regional peace. Moreover, Bush’s record on Israel as president is seen as impeccable, and there was some anxiety that, if elected, Kerry might have been inclined to follow a more coordinated internationalist policy leading to pressure on Israel to make concessions on the Palestinian track.

But there are concerns about pressure on Israel from a second Bush administration, too. Some suggest that Bush may seek improved ties with Europe, and that that could spell new demands on Israel. Israeli officials hold that Bush’s overall worldview, dividing the world into good and evil protagonists, allies and enemies, with Israel on the side of the steadfast allies, is a huge bonus.

Kerry, the Democrat, would probably have been more inclined to turn to the international community, and international institutions like the United Nations and the International Court at the Hague, to resolve global problems. And that, the officials maintain, might have been detrimental to Israeli interests.

They also make much of Bush’s letter to Sharon last April, in which they see a significant upgrading of the strategic understanding between Israel and the United States on the Palestinian issue.

The letter underscores agreement that the Palestinians would not have the right to return to Israel proper in a final peace settlement, that Israel would be able to keep large settlement blocs in the West Bank, and that the United States would not support any international peace plan other than the “road map,” which both Israel and the Palestinians have approved.

In addition, they say, Bush, who refused to have anything to do with Yasser Arafat because of his perceived implication in Palestinian terror, would be less likely to deal with his successors unless they carry out road map reforms. Kerry, if elected, they say, might not have stuck to the road map or to its demands for Palestinian reform. Still, there is a mainstream assessment in the Israeli Foreign Ministry that American policy on the Israeli-Palestinian issue even under Bush will be become more proactive and more closely coordinated with Europe.

A ministry position paper warns of a possible American deal with Europe over Iraq and Iran, in which Israeli concessions to the Palestinians are the payoff for European support for Washington in Iraq and the Gulf.

There are two schools of thought on a new Bush administration in the Foreign Ministry: One expects more of the same, with Bush feeling that he now has an overwhelming mandate from the American people to continue the war on terror, as well as his policies in Iraq and on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, no matter what the Europeans think.

The opposing view holds that Bush’s first order of business will be to start cleaning up the mess in Iraq, and that he will need European and Arab support.

“He won’t go to them cap in hand,” an official told JTA. “But he will be ready to coordinate moves with them on the Israeli-Palestinian issue in return.”

What this will mean on the ground, the official said, is American insistence that immediately after its planned withdrawal from Gaza and part of the West Bank next summer, Israel be ready to enter into negotiations with the Palestinians, based on the road map, with the Europeans playing a key role.

“Bush,” said the official, who asked not to be identified, “will want to see his two-state vision, Israel and Palestine, side by side, implemented before he completes his second term.”

But, the official said, much will depend on the Palestinians. Bush will only push for progress if the violence stops. Otherwise, he will give Israel the same unlimited backing in its fight against terror as he has for the past three years.

On the other hand, if a new Palestinian leadership, with a sick Arafat out of the picture, does make a serious effort to curb terror, Bush, in his second term, will want to see more from Israel, the official said. He won’t pressure Israel in a crude way but he will ask “that it help the U.S. by making moves that go down well in Europe and the Arab world.”

Labor leader Shimon Peres makes a similar argument, but sees in it positive potential. He says the next major challenge America will face will be Iran, and its drive for nuclear weapons.

After two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States will not be in a position to launch a third. Therefore, he reasons, it will need international — especially European — cooperation to contain Iran through the imposition of sanctions.

This, he says, will probably lead to a Middle East package — a new U.S.-backed European initiative on Israel and the Palestinians, in return for European support on Iraq and Iran.

In some government circles, there is a fear that this could lead to pressure Israel will be bound to resist. But Peres sees it as a welcome development. He says three major changes are coming to fruition at the same historical moment and could lead to a long overdue breakthrough on the Israeli-Palestinian track: the Israeli government’s readiness to withdraw from Gaza and part of the West Bank, a Palestinian readiness to be more pragmatic, and Europe and the United States, after the American election, ready to play a more active role.

Peres is hoping that Bush, in his second term, may be ready to risk more than he did first time around to stabilize the Middle East as a whole. And he is convinced that this need not lead to a showdown with Israel.

The Foreign Ministry officials, who foresee a more proactive American policy, agree — on the condition that the Israeli government continues to coordinate all its moves as closely as possible with the new administration.

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.

The Arafat Factor

According to a poll released last week by Americans for Peace Now (APN) and the Arab American Institute (AAI), U.S. Jews continue to support an active Mideast peace process and a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians, despite two years of horrific terrorism and the bitter disappointment of a peace process turned sour.

The poll showed that a majority of Arab-Americans hold similar views, leading to suggestions by the two groups that U.S. attitudes about peace can be "exported" to a region that has known nothing but war.

But it’s what the poll didn’t ask that represents the wild card for pro-peace process groups: what about Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader who still seems to think suicide bombers and rampaging gunmen are legitimate instruments of negotiation?

That dichotomy — strong ongoing support for the idea of a negotiated settlement resulting in Palestinian statehood but overwhelming distrust of the current Palestinian leadership — also defines the problem facing Amram Mitzna, the Labor Party’s candidate for prime minister in the Jan. 28 Israeli election.

Amazingly, terror-battered Israelis still tell pollsters they want a negotiated settlement. However, Mitzna will have a hard time explaining how to reach a settlement while a treacherous Arafat still calls the shots in Ramallah.

Last week’s numbers, compiled by pollster John Zogby, were striking, if incomplete. Of the U.S. Jews polled, 85 percent agreed that "Palestinians have a right to live in a secure and independent state of their own"; 95 percent of the Arab Americans said Israelis have the same right.

Add some details and the margins shrink, although the numbers still show a surprisingly durable belief in political negotiations.

A slim majority of Jews — 52 percent — said they would support "a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians that included the establishment of an independent, secure Palestinian state alongside an independent, secure Israeli state; the evacuation of most settlements from the West Bank and Gaza; the establishment of a border roughly along the June 4, 1967, border; a Palestinian right of return only to a new Palestinian state, and establishing Jerusalem as the shared capital of both countries."

Thirty percent of the Jews opposed that proposition; 18 percent said they were "not sure." The poll also found 41 percent of the Jews blamed "mostly the Palestinians" for the breakdown in peace negotiations, but even more — 42 percent — blamed "both sides."

The poll revealed something else: An overwhelming proportion of U.S. Jews are pessimistic about Middle East peace — about 75 percent — and that pessimism points right back to the missing presence in the survey — Arafat.

Zogby, AAI’s president, said the pollsters wanted to avoid questions that would provoke hot-button responses. Presumably that also explains why Ariel Sharon, a reviled symbol to many Palestinians and their supporters, was omitted from survey questions.

However, Arafat’s negative impact on Jewish public opinion cannot be overestimated. Many of the same U.S. Jews, who strongly support the idea of resumed negotiations and even back creation of a Palestinian state, no longer have any hope that Arafat is willing or able to cut a deal that would guarantee Israel’s security.

APN hopes that its poll will help pro-peace groups gain traction with a Jewish public soured by the collapse of the Oslo process and the new, deadlier surge of Palestinian terrorism. However, the Arafat factor could be a major impediment. Peace groups that are perceived as advocating a return to Oslo-style negotiations with Arafat will not rally centrist U.S. Jews to their cause, despite strong underlying support for the idea of resumed negotiations.

The same dynamic will probably hold in the Israeli election. There is continuing support among voters for a return to negotiations and even for Palestinian statehood. However, throw Arafat into the mix and that support plummets. If Mitzna is seen as seeking a renewed embrace of Arafat, Israeli voters are likely to reject him in overwhelming numbers. And he won’t do any better if he moves to the right and offers voters a "Likud-light" platform.

To a considerable degree, Mitzna’s candidacy is hostage to Arafat; so is a struggling peace movement in this country that has strongly condemned the wave of Palestinian terror, but which has been unable to jettison its attachment to the embattled Palestinian leader as a legitimate peace partner.

Diplomacy and Skepticism

Middle East diplomacy shifted to New York this week amid widespread skepticism that there is any formula that can convince Israel and the Palestinians to make even slight progress toward peace.

Helping fuel the skepticism were two Palestinian terror attacks that coincided with the diplomatic meetings and claimed the lives of at least 11 Israelis. On Wednesday, two suicide bombers staged an attack in the heart of Tel Aviv, outside a move theater, killing at least three. A day earlier, in an attack similar to one carried out last December, Palestinian terrorists set off a bomb as a bus neared the entrance to the West Bank settlement of Immanuel and then opened fire as people fled the bus.Eight Israelis were killed, including two infants.

Tuesday’s attack came hours before officials from the so-called Quartet the United States, Russia, European Union and United Nations — met in New York in an effort to devise a strategy that would help Israel and the Palestinians overcome their seemingly intractable differences.

The parties emerged with a general agreement to follow President Bush’s June 24 call for the evolution of a Palestinian state within three years. But major differences still exist between the United States and the other international mediators on how to get there. Bush had said a provisional state could emerge only after the Palestinians implement serious economic and political reforms. The others seem to disagree.

Another major area of disagreement involves the future status of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. The United States has made it clear that they it wants Arafat out of power — or at least away from the day-to-day responsibilities of running the Palestinian Authority. The Europeans, Russians and U.N. leaders say Arafat is the democratically elected leader of the Palestinian people and therefore should be involved in the reform process.

Indeed, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told reporters after the first round of meetings on Tuesday: "As for Arafat, we all have our respective positions. The U.N. still recognizes Chairman Arafat and we will continue to deal with him until the Palestinians decide otherwise."

Another point of contention is whether initial reform should begin on the security front alone, as the United States argues, or in conjunction with economic and infrastructure reform, as the other international players suggest.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said he would like ideally for security, political and economic reform to work in parallel, but the top priority was to get a "better handle" on the security situation. Powell said the CIA is working on a new plan to protect Israel from terrorist attacks. The United States is discussing the security plan with Palestinian officials, Powell added. The other leaders countered that humanitarian and infrastructure reform was necessary to implement security.

Robert Satloff, director of policy and strategic planning for the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, says the Quartet’s communique contradicts much of what Bush outlined in his June speech.

"Although no one should have expected the Quartet to parrot the president’s speech, the fact that its statement contradicts that speech in critical areas is a worrisome sign that disagreements on Middle East policy persist not only among America’s allies, but within the administration itself," Satloff wrote this week in an analysis.

Among the disagreements he notes, is the fact that the Quartet seeks statehood not as the end of negotiations but as the end of implementation of reforms to the Palestinian government, and makes no mention of provisional statehood, as Bush suggested. It also calls for Israel to immediately release tax revenue funds, instead of seeking "honest and accountable hands," as the president suggested.

The State Department entered Tuesday’s meetings seeking a dialogue with its diplomatic partners to determine clear criteria for Palestinian reform. The United States has not drafted such criteria, a State Department official said, but the goal is to announce them by late August. State Department officials said they were also seeking "centralized, transparent accountable Palestinian institutions" and "reciprocal steps by Israel" as the Palestinians move forward with reform.

Much of what emerges from this week’s meetings in New York with the Quartet and with Arab leaders from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan will be utilized by a newly created international task force. The task force, involving the Quartet plus Japan, Norway, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, will seek to implement financial reforms within the Palestinian government.

And while some consensus has been reached by the Quartet on how to move forward, questions remain as to whether Israeli or Palestinian officials will be willing to accept their proposals. To that end, positive signs have emerged. Arab leaders, meeting with Powell on Wednesday, expressed support for the approach the United States has outlined for changes within the Palestinian government.

"Maybe we do not agree on all the details, but we are determined to work together for peace and I think we will succeed to bring peace to this area under the banner of legitimacy, democracy and prosperity for all," said Ahmed Maher, Egypt’s foreign minister.

The Arab leaders, who reportedly were seeking a statehood declaration after the January elections, also seem to have acquiesced to the three-year timetable the United States has proposed. In addition, a senior Palestinian official told the Associated Press on Wednesday that Arafat was considering appointing a prime minister to share day-to-day leadership responsibilities, once a Palestinian state is declared. While Israel was not a participant in this week’s meetings, Israeli officials were watching closely.

"If this is perceived as being Israeli-led, it’s not going to succeed, and we want it to succeed," an Israeli official in Washington said.

In anticipation of the meeting, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sent a telegram to Powell outlining the Israeli position. According to reports, Sharon stressed that security is still Israel’s utmost priority.

Sharon’s telegram came on the heels of one sent to Powell by Arafat in which the Palestinian leader spelled out his vision for reforms in the Palestinian Authority. For his part, Sharon has long maintained that there would be no negotiations with the Palestinians as long as violence continues. Sharon has also said that Arafat must be replaced before there can be any meaningful negotiations.

A State Department official said plans are being discussed for another working meeting of the international task force and the Quartet in August, around the time the United States would like to announce its benchmark proposals.

Sharon: No More Words

Trick or treat? That slightly out-of-season challenge reflects Israeli reaction to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s dramatic call on his people for “a complete stop to all armed activities, especially the suicide attacks.”

Analysts noted that it was Arafat’s strongest call yet — in Arabic, on Palestinian television — to end Palestinian terror.

He also mentioned mortar bombing of Israeli settlements which, he claimed, give Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a pretext to strike at the Palestinian Authority. That showed that Arafat’s call extended to the territories as well — and not, as some chagrined Palestinians claimed, only to Israel proper.

However, after Arafat has voiced support for so many cease-fires that never materialized, Sharon did not even deign to react.

Indeed, within hours of the speech Sunday, Palestinian gunmen were again shooting at Israelis in the West Bank and firing mortars in the Gaza Strip. Three Israelis were injured Monday, one seriously, in shooting attacks.

“Israel’s patience with empty words and false promises has run out,” Sharon told French President Jacques Chirac in a phone call Monday. “Israel wants to see actions and results.”

Just 10 days earlier, at Sharon’s behest, the Security Cabinet formally declared Arafat “irrelevant” and forswore further dealings with him.

But in the army and the intelligence community, there is a view that Arafat’s speech might — just might — be a turning point, representing his belated realization of just how precarious his position has become.

Arafat spoke from his office in Ramallah, with Israeli tanks parked less than 300 yards away. Other Israel Defense Force armored units had entered Palestinian-controlled areas in the West Bank and Gaza over the weekend on search-and-arrest missions that made a mockery of Palestinian pretensions to sovereignty in these territories. Israeli helicopters continued to destroy Palestinian security installations.

Perhaps even more sobering, from Arafat’s standpoint, was the fact that the United States was not publicly criticizing the Israeli military moves. It was as though Sharon had a green light from the Bush administration to mangle Arafat’s state-in-the-making.

Worse yet, Arafat’s standing in the international community, which plummeted drastically after a wave of suicide bombings in early December, showed no real signs of recovery.

Even within the Arab world, Arafat could feel his isolation growing. Egypt and Jordan signaled that they, too, are fed up with Arafat’s prevarication and want to see real action against terrorists such as those from Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

For Egypt and Jordan, it is not just a matter of the peace process with Israel: The rise of Islamic fundamentalism can spill over into their countries, putting their regimes at risk.

Some Israeli observers therefore say Arafat may have reached a watershed and will finally take meaningful action to quell violence. If he does so, however, he surely will demand a diplomatic quid pro quo — from Israel, the Americans and the international community.

Palestinian officials said early in the week that they had shut dozens of Hamas and Islamic Jihad facilities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and arrested 180 activists.

Sharon’s circle gave little credence to such claims, or to Arafat’s call for an end to violence.

“All bluff,” Finance Minister Silvan Shalom said. “Anyone putting any faith in it will quickly be disappointed.”

Close aides say Sharon wants to resume negotiations with the Palestinians, but not with Arafat. After endless “last chances,” Sharon has concluded that the veteran Palestinian leader is committed to a “strategy of terror.”

In Sharon’s book, Arafat made his strategic choice back in 1993, as soon as the Oslo peace process began. He doggedly built up illegal armed groups alongside the Palestinian Authority police force — which itself was allowed to grow far beyond its legal size — and stockpiled weapons for them.

Moreover, Sharon sees the Hamas and Islamic Jihad activity as part of Arafat’s strategy. Ostensibly in opposition to the Palestinian Authority, the fundamentalist factions are, in effect, active members in Arafat’s “coalition of terror,” Sharon says, a means of bleeding Israel while leaving Arafat ways to profess his innocence.

On Monday, Hamas activists protested Israel’s assassination of a senior militant, Yakoub Dakidak. As Dakidak’s body was paraded through the streets of Hebron, the more militant Palestinian organizations seemed in no mood for peace.

In a manifest released Monday morning, Hamas and Islamic Jihad called upon all Palestinians to continue violence against Israel. Moreover, in interviews with Arab television networks, the groups announced that they refuse to obey Arafat’s order against suicide bombings.

The premier’s aides concede that Sharon promised President Bush not to harm Arafat physically or drive him out of the country. That, they say, is the meaning of the Cabinet’s “irrelevancy” resolution: Arafat will not be attacked directly, but will simply be ignored and rendered meaningless.

The frustration with Arafat now affecting Washington, Europe and Jerusalem is shared even among some in Arafat’s close coterie, Sharon’s aides say.

“We are not going to intervene in who leads the Palestinians,” the aides say. “But we hope he will be succeeded by someone ready to abandon terror, someone we can speak to. Meanwhile, if Arafat does not do the work of stopping terror, Israel will do it instead of him.”

With this kind of mood at the top in Israel, there is little time left for Arafat to prove to the rest of the world — above all to Washington — that this time he is serious.

Despite the U.S. veto on the stationing of international observers in the West Bank, America has myriad means to determine whether, at last, the Palestinian Authority is acting forcefully against terrorist groups. “Revolving-door” jails — in which terrorists are imprisoned with great fanfare, then quietly released shortly afterward — are no longer featured only in Israeli rhetoric; their existence has been confirmed by American, British and other diplomats who will be watching to see if the latest wave of Palestinians arrested actually remain behind bars.

This is a defining moment, both for Arafat and for the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Sharon may be earnest when he talks of his desire to see the last of Arafat. But at the end of the day it will be difficult for him to affect that outcome if the American administration does not agree that Arafat has become dispensable.

JTA Correspondent Aaron Lightman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

Barak’s Political Life Depends on Syria Referendum

The interviewer’s question to Prime Minister Ehud Barak on Israeli television over the weekend was clearly one Barak would have preferred to do without.

Yet, as he must have known, it was one that has been on everyone’s minds and lips here since the long-stalled Syrian-Israeli peace track suddenly burst back into life in Washington last week, when Barak held two days of talks with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa.

During the interview, Barak replied confidently that he would bring back from the negotiations with Syria “the kind of good, solid, advantageous agreement that will win a sweeping majority” in a referendum.

That, said the premier, was the only kind of agreement he would be prepared to sign.

On Sunday, Barak told his Cabinet that in early rounds of negotiations he would seek a core agreement with Damascus that covers the main issues facing the two sides. He also expressed his determination to pursue the Syrian and Palestinian negotiations simultaneously.

Despite his show of optimism during the television interview, there are many in the pro-peace camp who are concerned over the prospect of the looming referendum — the first ever in Israel’s history.

Barak’s supporters all recognize that the vote will in fact be tantamount to a mid-term election — and if Barak fails, he will have to resign.

Some in the premier’s camp feel, though few are prepared to say so publicly, that he will need a substantial margin to achieve a credible win in the referendum — something like the 56-44 percent edge by which he defeated Benjamin Netanyahu in the election last May.

This way he would not be prone to accusations from the right that his victory would be based on the votes of Israeli Arabs, while losing among the Jewish vote.

Though his supporters are buoyed and comforted by Barak’s own air of confidence, many cannot shake off their anxiety as they survey the opinion polls and the perilous state of the governing coalition.

The polls show the country divided fairly evenly on the issue of withdrawal from all of the Golan Heights in return for a full peace with Syria.

If anything, the anti-withdrawal camp seems to have the edge at this time.

Meanwhile, the National Religious Party has given notice that it will secede from the coalition the moment a land-for-peace accord is signed.

The assertion has come not only from the hard-line party leader, Housing Minister Yitzhak Levy, but even from a relative moderate like legislator Zevulun Orlev.

“The minute it’s signed,” Orlev said Sunday, “we quit.”

Barak has courted the NRP believing that its presence within his government gives him invaluable moral and political backing in the ongoing negotiations with the Palestinians.

The fact that the pro-settler NRP was recently prepared to swallow the dismantlement of several settler outposts in the West Bank in the context of the ongoing interim accords with the Palestinian Authority was seen as an important success for Barak in his effort to represent as wide a constituency as possible in his peacemaking efforts.

The NRP may well not be alone when it secedes over the Golan.

Yisrael Ba’Aliyah, the Russian immigrant party led by Interior Minister Natan Sharansky, is likely to leave, too.

Sharansky’s No. 2, Yuli Edelstein, is chairman of a pro-Golan lobby of Knesset members and is close to the West Bank settlers, too. And Sharansky himself has voiced profound misgivings over the evolving accord with Damascus.

Worse still, from Barak’s viewpoint, Sharansky has gone on record with the prediction that the accord will not win a majority in the referendum. Sharansky said over the weekend he believes the Russian immigrant community, many of whom live on the Golan, will vote against it.

It they do, it would make Barak’s task enormously harder.

After all, it was a significant swing within that community away from Netanyahu in the month or so before the election that gave Barak his convincing victory last May.

The conventional wisdom is that most of the Russian immigrants are hard-liners when it comes to territorial concessions.

Coming as they do from a huge country, they see no reason why tiny Israel should willingly divest itself of the geographical advantages provided by the Golan.

Nor do they have much respect for the peace promises of Moscow’s former client, Syrian President Hafez Assad.

If Sharansky comes out unequivocally against the accord, that in itself would presumably affect the votes of a considerable number of the immigrants.

These uncomfortable cracks within his coalition make it all the more important for Barak to ensure the solid support of his single largest coalition partner, the fervently Orthodox Shas Party.

Shas’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, is thought to believe that the Golan is not part of the biblical land of Israel and, moreover, that land-for-peace is a worthy policy if it results in the saving of Israeli lives.

Without a doubt, Yosef has the religious and moral authority to ensure that all 17 Shas legislators vote in favor of an accord with Syria — if he himself decides to support it.

But can he ensure the votes, in a national referendum, of the much more disparate constituency of some 400,000 people who gave Shas their votes in the May election?

Not all of these people are fervently Orthodox; some are barely traditional and voted for Shas more for its platform as the party of the poor than for its religious message.

And as the party of the poor, Shas has pretty little to show its voters for the half-year it has been in Barak’s government.

With the prime minister trying this week to pass his budget bill into law before the year’s end, Shas leader Eli Yishai, the minister of labor and welfare, warned Monday that the budget, poverty statistics and the Syria referendum were all intimately linked in the minds of the many ordinary Israelis who are hard pressed to make ends meet.

The minister spoke just hours after the National Insurance Institute released figures showing an ongoing increase in the number of citizens living below the poverty line.

Granted, the figures refer to the Netanyahu years; however, as Yishai and his party contend, Barak’s economic policies have changed nothing in the lives of the worst-off sectors of the population. While the rich-poor gap in Israel continues to grow, the poor continue to get poorer.

Barak’s reply, echoed by Finance Minister Avraham Shohat, is that returning to economic growth is a long and painful process — one that can be dramatically accelerated by the early achievement of a comprehensive peace.

This reasoning, though theoretically impeccable, lacks cogency for many people, including many Shas supporters, who need to feel an immediate economic boost.

Peace by Fits and Starts

Despite the usual last-minute posturing, complaining and maneuvering in the region, administration officials prepared for Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s Mideast trip this week confident Israel and the Palestinians will sign an agreement that will lay out implementation of the long-delayed Wye River accord.

At the White House and State Department, the focus began to shift to what comes next: preparations for the explosive permanent-status negotiations that will take up Jerusalem, settlements, refugees, water rights and the nature of a Palestinian state.

Officials continue to insist that they want the parties themselves to negotiate with minimal American involvement. That new, more aloof position was implicit in the administration’s rejection of Palestinian pressure to intervene in this week’s talks on Wye implementation.

“We regard this principally, if not exclusively, as a matter for the two parties to negotiate between themselves,” said State Department spokesman James Foley on Monday, as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators continued arguing over the timing of new Israeli withdrawals and the release of Palestinian prisoners.

In Israel, the military wing of Hamas claimed responsibility for the murder of an Israeli couple earlier this week at a nature reserve near the West Bank.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who has warned that peace moves with the Palestinian Authority would halt if militants continue their attacks on Israelis, declined to comment on the Hamas claim until a police investigation of the murders is completed.

Privately, Clinton administration officials conceded that pressure to get more directly involved will be intense when final-status discussions begin.

The first step likely will be negotiations over an interim declaration of principles, which will lay out the goals and procedures for the permanent-status talks, said Joel Singer, one of the architects of the original Oslo agreement and now a Washington lawyer.

“You can’t just sit down and start writing a preamble and then work your way from there until you get to the signature block,” he said. “Before you get to that point, you have to start laying out general principles.”

Those preliminary talks, he said, will take place in private, without the diplomatic theatrics that have characterized the Wye implementation discussions.

Israel hopes to finish a framework agreement by January and aim for a December 2000 conclusion of a final-status agreement.

Officials in Washington will continue to resist efforts to drag them back into the negotiations, administration sources said, although they conceded that stance could be hard to maintain when the negotiations hit the inevitable minefields.

“The president has made it clear that it’s up to the parties themselves to structure the negotiations and work out agreements,” one administration official said. “But it’s possible to envision scenarios where it will be very difficult for us to stay out, especially if we see a threat the process could collapse. What is key is determining when that threat is real and when it’s just the result of either side jockeying for position.”

Daniel Pipes, a critic of administration Mideast policy, said an agreement on Wye implementation will spur “a shift of emphasis to the Syrian track by Washington. There’s a growing sense that it will be time to get that one moving.”

A renewed focus on Syria, political sources said, would enable Washington to maintain a modest level of involvement without the high political risks inherent in mediation on sensitive Israeli-Palestinian issues — something the Clinton administration wants to avoid as the 2000 presidential contest approaches.