06/26/2007, 00.00
ISRAEL - PALESTINE
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Sharm el-Sheikh: peace still distant, great disappointment, little sense of relief

by Arieh Cohen
Hamas is rebuked, the PNA will get its money, Palestinian prisoners will be released, but all this is small change compared to Israel’s lost opportunity to start negotiating a peace treaty with the PLO. The last word has not been said though if only the United States and Europe could encourage Olmert in the right direction.

Tel Aviv (AsiaNews) - Disappointment, but also a sense of relief, characterise the response to yesterday’s quadrilateral summit meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh which brought together King Abdallah II of Jordan, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, President Mahmoud Abbas (“Abou Mazen”) of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and of the Palestinian Authority, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel. Relief because, at least in accordance with the public image it projected, the summit went well. All four leaders appeared united in their condemnation of the military coup d’état, staged by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and in their commitment to the goal of Israeli-Palestinian peace. There was a sense of relief at the unexpected promise by Prime Minister Olmert that he “would propose to his cabinet” the release of 250 “Fatah prisoners, who have not shed blood”, and at the Prime Minister’s confirmation of his recognition of the “emergency government” appointed by President Abou Mazen, his reiteration of the promise to “unfreeze” Palestinian tax money, which Israel has sequestered, and to contemplate other steps to “strengthen Abou Mazen”.

But there is also huge disappointment at the missed opportunity to begin purposeful peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine. As he has been doing consistently since he first became “the President of all the Palestinians” (as Olmert had earlier called him), Abou Mazen explicitly invited Israel to begin structured negotiations on a peace treaty, and as he has been consistently doing since he became head of the government, Premier Olmert declined. An exceptionally “favourable moment” was lost. It was indeed an ideal moment for Israel to declare its readiness to begin negotiating the peace treaty. This was reportedly also the view of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, According to Israeli media reports, Rice had brought it up during Mr. Olmert’s very recent visit to Washington. Yes, she had said, in effect, conditions on the ground may not be favourable for the immediate implementation of the peace treaty, but at least the treaty could be negotiated, at least its principles and framework could be agreed (if not every detail), and then “put on the shelf”, to await implementation as and when conditions on the ground evolved to permit it. Such a treaty would signal clearly to the Palestinian population – under military occupation for the last forty years – that there is a definite prospect, a definite promise of freedom, on a concretely defined national territory , if only they could get their own house sufficiently in order to benefit from it. It would be the winning card for President Abou Mazen and his secular Fatah organisation in their contest with the Islamist Hamas. It would thereby, simply by being there, “on the shelf”, create the conditions for its actual implementation. The Prime Minister declined.

In comparison with the prospect of peace with freedom that negotiating a peace treaty would have held, Israel’s “gestures” and “concessions” are simply recipes for “managing” and “fine tuning” the familiar situation of the last four decades. Releasing the tax money is not a gift or an act of generosity, Palestinians immediately point out; it is simply handing over what belongs to the Palestinian Authority anyway, in accordance with international agreements. And the Israeli Government had decided on Sunday to do even that only very gradually. The prisoners, as on former occasions, may turn out to be of minor significance, petty thieves, prisoners who were due for release soon anyway, and so on, the very old or the very sick, a few women, a few children, not major figures like Marwan Barghouti, who appears to be Fatah’s best hope of re-gaining popular support. And, in any case, as long as the West Bank is under military occupation, even the released prisoners can always easily be picked up again. Other “gestures,” like removing some of the barriers impeding Palestinians’ travel throughout the West Bank likewise lack a promise of stability. Any “barriers” can be put up again at any time. And if, against this background, Israel also allows further firearms and equipment to be delivered to the Palestinian Authority and its Fatah-dominated security forces, it may only give further ammunition to Palestinian opposition claims that Abou-Mazen and his forces are no more than a Palestinian version of the “South Lebanese Army,” the locally recruited militia that collaborated with the Israel Defence Force in controlling South Lebanon until 2000. For a while, this may all work (perhaps). The West Bank may (or may not) enjoy some period of relative tranquillity – hopefully it will. But it can never be effective in the longer run. As recent history has shown, and as common sense too suggests, simply continuing the occupation and the colonisation of the territory is a recipe for future revolt, violence and chaos.

Of course, it would be extremely difficult, extraordinarily hard for Prime Minister Olmert to embark on peace treaty negotiations, which inevitably put in question the future of about 400,000 Israeli settlers (out of about only 7,000,000 Israeli citizens). The risk is enormous of terrifying internal conflicts within Israel, of a deep ideological rift, and perhaps even of armed revolt on the part of right-wing extremists. The trauma of repatriating only about 8,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip in summer 2005 could be multiplied exponentially. And getting a parliamentary majority to support such a peace treaty might look like an almost super-human task. This, and not any lack of good-will or good-intentions must be the root cause for the consistent refusal of Israeli governments since 2001 to contemplate such an initiative. Ehud Barak had tried something like this, in his own clumsy way, in summer 2000, and was left with the smallest number of legislators in his camp that any Israeli prime minister ever had. It is, of course, so much easier simply to try to “manage” the conflict, to lower the flames, to release some pressures, and to wait and hope – for what precisely? For some magical resolution in some undetermined future? Be that as it may, it is certainly the easiest thing to do. Think France in the late 1950’s, in Algeria. It is not a perfect analogy, of course, no analogy is perfect, but perhaps there is some value in it.

Perhaps, hopefully, it is not too late. Perhaps this “window of opportunity” will still be used. Perhaps, with firm encouragement from the U.S. and Europe, Israel’s current government may still come to the conclusion that the best option is for it to respond to Abou Mazen’s invitation and to agree to begin without further delay the structured negotiating process necessary to achieve a peace treaty that will end the conflict and allow both nations in the Holy Land to live in freedom and with security, while building up the prosperity of their peoples. Perhaps.

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See also
Hamas’ isolation, a chance for peace with Israel
18/06/2007
Sharm el-Sheikh summit: finding ways to help Abbas
25/06/2007
Fallout from Palestinian crisis to be discussed at four-party summit next Monday
21/06/2007
Sharm el-Sheikh summit, a positive and encouraging step, says Nuncio in Jerusalem
08/02/2005
Olmert, Abbas and Rice to meet again soon
19/02/2007


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