Next Steps in the Middle East: Egyptian, Israeli, and Palestinian Perspectives

by Dana Steinberg

Mar 29, 2006

Within the past several months, developments in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza have overturned conventional assumptions and injected great uncertainty into Israeli-Palestinian relations. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's incapacitation has changed the Israeli political landscape, though his policies may live on through his successor Ehud Olmert, who heads Kadima, the party Sharon created that gained a majority of seats in the March 28 Israeli elections. At the same time, Palestinians chose Hamas as the majority party in their Legislative Council—-a development that likely will transform Palestinian politics for years to come.

"We don't care who gets elected; we want to make peace with the Israeli state," said Afif Safieh, head of the PLO Mission to the United States at a February 9 meeting. "Our conditions and our expectations will not change depending on who the Israelis decide to elect. Whatever coalition, we're ready to make peace."

Joined by the Egyptian and Israeli ambassadors to the United States, the three engaged in a spirited debate. "2006 will likely be the year of internal conversation," predicted Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar and panel moderator Aaron David Miller, as Israel faces elections and considers how to respond to the Hamas victory, while among the Palestinians, Hamas and Fatah will debate among themselves and with each other.

"It is an unprecedented situation in which a group, which continues to advocate the use of the gun and the destruction of a UN member state, has gained power fairly and freely in elections acquiesced by Israel" and supported, monitored and observed by the international community, said Miller. Regarding the impact of the Hamas victory on the peace process, Miller added, there are unlikely to be bold decisions taken on either side in the coming year as both Israelis and Palestinians come to terms with their new political realities.

The Egyptian Perspective
"We cannot allow for the fundamentals of the peace process we built over so many years to be reconstructed," said Egyptian Ambassador Nabil Fahmy. "We should not allow a movement toward anything but a two-state solution." The current situation is not unprecedented, he said. There were long stretches where one side did not recognize the other: for many years, the PLO charter stated Israel's existence was illegal and Israel thus refused to negotiate until the charter was amended.

Fahmy said, "This is a difficult case about two people trying to find their own identity and nationhood on a very small piece of territory and everybody else trying to help and respond in achieving that." Now both sides must address where their current leadership will take them.

Outlining lessons drawn from past experiences, Fahmy said, "In the Middle East, if we stop, we fall." During the Oslo Process, both sides tried to resolve issues then wound up demonizing each other about not having a peace partner, thus freezing the process. Both sides must stop demonizing the other, he said, or risk reverting to a time when neither trusted the other and they could only talk via third-party negotiations. Fahmy said, "We're talking today, because of the Madrid and Oslo processes, about a compromise that hasn't changed: a two-state solution with secure borders."

Next steps, Fahmy said, depend on what kind of Palestinian government is established and who wins Israel's upcoming election. "Once clear, we must hold both sides accountable to the same principles."

But, he cautioned, "Words won't be enough this time. This will have to be complemented by realities on the ground and by a sincere and serious commitment to nonviolence on both sides." And he said the quartet (U.S., EU, Russia, and the UN) must encourage a final settlement based on direct negotiations. He urged both sides to address the final settlement issues "with clarity and purpose."

Scenarios for Israel
Israeli Ambassador Daniel Ayalon said, "As challenging, dramatic, and dangerous as the results of the Palestinian election are, it hasn't changed Israel's position or policy," that of a two-state solution. Internally, Israel's major political parties, including the newly formed Kadima that Sharon founded shortly before becoming ill, accept this outcome as well as the quartet-backed Road Map, as the vehicle for achieving it.

While he questioned the fairness of having Hamas-—an armed group that includes the destruction of Israel in its platform—-participate in the elections in the first place, he stressed the importance of looking to the future. To that end, Ayalon outlined three scenarios.

He said, in the optimistic scenario, the new government accepts the prerequisites of the quartet. "That means renouncing terror, and stopping terror, and dismantling terror organizations, accepting Israel's right to exist, and accepting all former political agreements achieved and a two-state solution based on security and democratic institutions. Then we can move forward along the Road Map."

In the pessimistic scenario, he said, Hamas does not renounce terror and then "there's doom and gloom in terms of political impasse." But the in-between scenario, which Ayalon deems the most dangerous, is that a coalition forms between Hamas and Fatah in which terror and demonizing continues, "masked with technocrats trying to appeal to the international community as if all is well." This not only inhibits trust and prevents moving forward, but also in the long term, it would be dangerous if Hamas does not change and entrenches itself in Palestinian society, "and I don't believe the Palestinians are very ideologically supporting of Hamas." He is concerned that Hamas could use its influence over the security forces, education, and housing to create an Islamic republic much like Iran.

Destined to Coexist: A Palestinian Perspective
Afif Safieh said he supports choosing "the arms of dialogue rather than the dialogue by arms." Safieh said he disapproves of the negative, oversimplified coverage of the Hamas victory that demonizes both the party and collectively punishes the people who freely elected them. Yet, in Washington, one powerful lobby circulated a resolution to cut aid to Palestinians, deny their officials visas to visit the national territory, and forbid any Palestinian diplomatic representation.

"Israel is hardly equipped to be the moral compass of the world today," said Safieh. While he has no affiliation with Hamas, he opposes nations cutting relations with the Palestinian Authority just because Hamas won the election. Commentators suggest their victory inhibits the peace process but he said a peace process has not existed for years and called the process preceding this period "unconvincing." Those years, he said, the world witnessed an expanded occupation rather than withdrawal; the number of settlements doubled during Barak's Labor period even more than in the Likud period.

Why can't Hamas make peace? "There is a theory in international relations that only hawks can make peace...only a Begin could sign bilateral peace with Egypt and only Sharon could withdraw heroically out of Gaza," said Safieh. "Why don't we apply the same method on saying maybe only Palestinian hawks can conclude an acceptable, binding feat?" He added, "When is public opinion internationally going to be as demanding from one side as it seems to be demanding from the other?"

Safieh said, "I believe in the international community, in international law," adding he approves of the quartet but disapproves of "the self-inflicted impotence of the international community." He also criticized the racist "Islam phobia" that exists globally today.

"Instead of a durable, permanent peace, we're having a lasting peace process which is the symptom of its failure. We have two recalcitrant, reluctant players who are not abiding by the rules." Safieh added, "We live in an unhappy but unavoidable coexistence and I know we are destined to cohabitate and coexist, which is why I'm in favor of dialogue and negotiation."

Matters of Debate
Ayalon disagreed with Safieh on several points, asserting he believes Israel is a moral compass in that it is a democratic country with free institutions and a free press. But also, he said, Israel "took some concrete and very painful steps. Just last September we pulled out of Gaza." He said removing 21 settlements in Gaza and four in the West Bank—-some 9,000 people, including families who had lived in those regions for three generations—-"was excruciatingly painful for Israeli society [but] we did it to open opportunities for the cause of peace."

In addition, Ayalon discussed Israel's position regarding international aid to the Palestinians. "Israel doesn't want to punish the Palestinian people" he said, and does want to avoid a humanitarian disaster. He said Israel transferred $50 million in tax money to the Palestinians just a few days earlier with the one request that the new government abides by the stipulations of the quartet.

Egypt's Ambassador Fahmy asserted aid should continue to the Palestinians to engage them, build their infrastructure, empower the people and give them hope. "If you try to make them pay a price for their own choice, you're contradicting yourself by asking them to make a choice," he said, and the population would become more embittered. "Hold them accountable as a government for the pursuit of the peace process," he advised, "but help them make the right decisions."

Safieh expressed gratitude for American aid to Palestinians, but questioned why U.S. aid to Israel was not interrupted given its "illegal occupation" and unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem. He spoke of Jerusalem's importance to three religions and two national aspirations. So when Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1967, defying international will, he said, Israelis "shot themselves in the foot, but they seem to have many more than two feet to shoot at because they keep getting away with it."

Meanwhile, Safieh said, he does not think Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will negotiate Jerusalem, three big settlement blocs, and more than 30 percent of the West Bank, where some half-million Palestinians could be resettled. "But [Olmert] is a man of peace," he said, acerbically, "but Hamas is a blow to the peace process."

Ayalon retorted that Olmert never stipulated those conditions and that policy would be defined after the elections. Regarding elections, Ayalon noted that Israel bars from the elections any party the Supreme Court deems racist. He said, "We expected the same yardstick to be applied to Hamas," which calls for Israel's destruction, does not accept peaceful co-existence or a two-state solution, and claimed responsibility for most of the suicide bombings. "I don't think that any constitution whether it's in Europe or even a new Constitution in Iraq or Afghanistan allows the participation of an armed party."

Safieh cited two recent articles in Ha'aretz, in which the Israeli newspaper interviewed a leading member of Hamas who said the party does not include the total liberation of Palestine as part of its program and, if elected, they would pursue negotiations. He had added that resistance after the elections did not necessarily refer to armed struggle. Yet, Safieh said, the Israelis arrested this man and incarcerated him for several days following this interview, but then allowed him to participate in the election.

In the second article in Ha'aretz, he said an Israeli intelligence report to decision-makers credited the dramatic decrease in violence in 2005 to the debate initiated by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas with Palestinian factions, which resulted in a unilateral ceasefire. Safieh said, "But interestingly this report did not say that the reduction of Palestinian violence was due to the successful repression of my people or to the continued policy of targeted killings and physical elimination. Nor was it due because of this war of separation snaking deeply into our West Bank occupied territory." Rather, the report attributed the decrease in violence to the Palestinians announcing a unilateral ceasefire, which Hamas respected.

Ayalon responded that terror has declined because Israeli security has thwarted attacks. Ayalon said, "The fact that we do not have, on a daily basis, buses exploding with children in Jerusalem or Haifa or Tel Aviv or Hebron is not because Islamic jihad has stopped. On the contrary, it's because Israel in the last seven days stopped ten suicide bombings underway. We're stopping them at their base." On a nightly basis, he said, Israel must arrest members of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other cells because the PA, which promised in past agreements it would stop attacks, has failed to do so.

"I would hate to think that the Palestinians made their choice for the destruction of the state of Israel and the continuous violence that Hamas preaches," said Ayalon. He said if the new government accepts the principles of the quartet, they can negotiate. If they do not, however, "they render themselves as a terror government" and then "I don't think we could morally or even legally support them because we cannot just send money to terrorism...And, here, we have a caveat because we'll have to distinguish between the people and a terror government, and we'll have to make sure we avoid and prevent a humanitarian disaster."

Reinvigorating the Peace Process
Fahmy said he believes a new Palestinian government can join and participate in the peace process. Most around the world, including most Israelis and Palestinians desire an end to this conflict, he said, and he believes both sides can move forward, as politicians on both sides have changed their positions over time.
But all three disagreed on the timetable. Miller attended Camp David 2000 and contends the Israelis and Palestinians are not ready to grapple with the existential and identity issues that define the conflict. He said, "The last thing we need is another failure on permanent status."

Fahmy argued all issues on the table are final settlement ones: the status of Jerusalem, right of return for refugees, permanent borders. He believes the problem was not that both sides tried dealing with them too quickly, but that they weren't addressing them. All of the issues move when politics in each community moves them. "Every threshold came at a point of clarity," when leaders felt compelled to move forward, he said. Sadat went to war when he couldn't find a negotiating partner...The Oslo process began after the first intifadah.

But Ayalon contended this is not the time to deal with final status. "We've learned from Camp David 2000, if you preempt or frontload the most basic existential issues, the most intricate and emotionally laden ones, it's a recipe for disaster," he said. "You have to go on gradual basis, whereby you gain trust as you go. The trust is built by progress and development on the ground."

Safieh retorted, "It's not up to the Israelis to decide how much withdrawal they'll condescendingly engineer. Peace with us is not a halfway compromise formula between Labor and Likud." He said both sides should be pressured and pushed gently and decisively toward an agreement.

Moving forward, said Ayalon, requires "having two parties who believe in the Road Map, who trust each other, recognize each other, and who are committed to stop any violence and to pursue actively terrorists who are trying to scuttle and explode any process."

Fahmy spoke of the difficulty of getting a substantive agreement but said he would push for real engagement, while preserving what has been accomplished so far, once both governments have been established.

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