Encountering M. E. peace: Conclusions from a very hot summer

Gershon Baskin,* THE JERUSALEM POST, Aug. 3, 2009
[The writer is the co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information. www.ipcri.org]

The Obama road show [a summer blizzard of official visits to Israel] has come and gone. Now it's time for the DC crowd to produce its plans for peace-making. The Middle East can't wait; if there's no progress, there will be regression toward violence. There is no "status quo" in the Middle East. Here are some conclusions that the US team should be presenting in Washington:

Economic peace - Israel Television produced magazine reports on the booming economy of Ramallah. They demonstrated the direct link between access and economic growth. The short-term growth is quite remarkable considering the past years of regression. There are limits, however, which must be understood, and the sudden positive change should not blind us to the economic reality of the occupied territories.

The main investments are in real estate, which is a good way to jump-start any economy and create jobs, but the real push is needed in industrial investment, and that's just not happening. There is a lot of cash in the economy of the West Bank being spent on consumer goods, and mostly on building materials. The main real estate projects, like the building of new cities, will require a transfer of territories from Area C - 60 percent of the West Bank is under full Israeli control - to areas A or B. If this is not done, those major development projects will not happen, including some of the pet projects of Tony Blair. Economic peace has territorial dimensions.

Settlements - Israeli reports suggest that Defense Minister Ehud Barak and US special envoy George Mitchell have been negotiating a compromise that will not enforce a full settlement freeze, or perhaps limit it in time.

Reports from Washington are quite different. President Barak Obama knows that the entire Islamic world is watching to see if he caves under Israeli pressure. If he does, all the warmly-received words of his Cairo speech will not hold any credibility in the eyes of the billions of people who wanted to believe there really had been a change in Washington.

What was mainly a tactical issue - because freezing settlements makes no real change on the ground - has become an issue of major strategic importance for any US peace-brokering in the region. It is clear that the Israeli government does not understand the US resolve on the settlement issue. Temporary or false freezes won't cut it and if the Americans remain engaged, they are not going to back down.

Jerusalem - Jewish building in east Jerusalem in the eyes of the Americans is no different than building in any settlement in the West Bank. The US has never recognized Israeli sovereignty in east Jerusalem, nor will it do so in the immediate future. Jerusalem will continue to be a flash point, not only with the US, but with the entire world.

Palestinian security - Palestinian Authority security forces have made huge strides toward creating a sense of law and order in the West Bank. Continued deployment of PA forces trained under US Gen. Keith Dayton in all West Bank cities has enabled the removal of checkpoints. US pressure on Israel will now be placed on removing the hundreds of roadblocks that have created separate transportation networks.

The separation of Palestinian traffic from Israeli traffic is something that the US under Obama cannot fathom. Furthermore there is an Israeli obligation in the Road Map to redeploy IDF forces to the positions held prior to September 28, 2000. With a sense of increased PA security performance shared, there will be US pressure on Israel to pull back.

Negotiations - From what the US officials heard in Jerusalem and Ramallah last week, it should be clear to them that it is pointless to call for renewed direct bilateral negotiations of the kind that have existed throughout the Oslo and Annapolis processes. There is no chance of reaching a bilateral negotiated agreement without an American mediator in the room putting US bridging proposals on the table that force the parties to make decisions. Furthermore, if there is no timeline on the negotiations, there is no point in beginning them. The deadline has to be understood as an international intention to make decisions on the peace process, the establishment of a Palestinian state and the resolution of all outstanding issues outside any Israeli-Palestinian negotiation.

Gaza/Hamas - For the time being, there must be a recognition that Gaza is out of the peace process. Negotiations can move forward and be implemented in the West Bank. Once there is a new political reality in Gaza, it can be included in an agreement. Until then, there can be no political process regarding the future of Gaza.

In Gaza the cease-fire must be extended; the economic siege on 1.5 million Palestinians must be lifted and a prisoner exchange must take place to bring Gilad Schalit home. Israel must understand, that the economic siege has not weakened Hamas reign, it has strengthened it. Hamas activists and operatives are not affected, only ordinary people are suffering.

Should the economic siege end, continued suffering there will only be the result of the increasingly Taliban-like religious laws being imposed by Hamas against the will of the majority. Let Hamas face the people without the chance to blame Israel for everything. Hamas will not last long; people are fed up, but they can't wage a civilian uprising against Hamas as long as the main problem is the economic closure of Gaza.

Syria - Washington wants the Israel-Syrian talks to resume. Both Israel and Syria have made their preconditions known and for now, it seems there is no possibility for bridging the demands. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will not renew the "Rabin deposit" assuring Syria a full withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 lines in exchange for meeting Israel's security, water and normalization demands. Syria will not reenter negotiations that begin from square one.

One alternative for an American policy could be to simply issue invitations for both sides to come to Washington - let's see who doesn't show up.

* The writer is the co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information. www.ipcri.org.

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Gershon Baskin, Ph.D. and Hanna Siniora, Co-CEOs, IPCRI
Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information
P.O. Box 9321, Jerusalem 91092
Tel: +972-2-676-9460 Fax: +972-2-676-8011
Cellphone: +972-(0)52-238-1715