Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak ruled out Tuesday an imminent large-scale invasion of the Gaza Strip to put an end to the repeated Palestinian rocket attacks against southern Israel, explaining that it would scuttle the upcoming Israeli summit meeting in Annapolis, Md., with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Barak was responding to mounting pressure for a military response following the firing of three rockets last week at the city of Sderot, one of which struck a house and another a power line, knocking out electricity to the city.
“Something has to be done,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “There is an obligation to the people of Sderot. … Making it a ghost town is intolerable.”
“Israel should continue talks while bombarding the south [Gaza],” he said. “You can’t say you will be held hostage to how someone else is going to react.”
“Abu Mazen would welcome anything that weakens Hamas,” Hoenlein insisted, using Abbas’ nom de guerre.
Hamas defeated Abbas’ Fatah forces in Gaza during a bloody coup in June, and Abbas set up a new Palestinian government on the West Bank. Hoenlein pointed out that there are continued reports of Hamas and Fatah clashes on the Gaza Strip. And he noted that Hamas continues to arm itself with weapons coming from Egypt through tunnels — seven were discovered one day last week — and openly at the Gaza-Egyptian border.
“One minister told us that it is trade, not smuggling,” he said, adding that Egypt has failed to live up to its commitment to stop the arms flow.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flew to Israel for the eighth time Sunday to again prod both Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to resolve their differences and formulate a declaration of principles ahead of the Annapolis summit. Olmert promised to try to reach an agreement with Abbas on all of the core issues separating the two sides before President George W. Bush leaves office in January 2008. Those issues include the future of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, the borders of a Palestinian state, and Israeli West Bank settlements.
Aides to Olmert were quoted as saying the prime minister wants to reward Bush for his support of the large Israeli settlement blocs and for resisting Palestinian efforts to ignore the four phases of the roadmap for peace, including the requirement that Palestinian terrorist organizations be dismantled before a Palestinian state In addition, it is believed that the new American president may not have the time or energy to devote much attention to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Stephen Cohen, a national scholar of the Israel Policy Forum, told the group in a conference call last week that Olmert’s pledge was a “significant” statement.
“I don’t know yet what the content of the basic principles will be, but [Olmert] has accepted the notion that there has to be an element of time,” he said. “The Palestinians have been insisting on it as essential to make Annapolis meaningful; now Olmert is accepting it.”
Cohen stressed that Olmert has committed himself only to try for an agreement within the next year, not to implement it.
“It seems to me that with this kind of action there is a possibility that the U.S. will be able to insist upon high level Arab participation in the meeting, and that includes Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Saudi Arabia,” Cohen added.
Regarding Olmert’s ability to make a deal regarding the core issues, Cohen said Olmert is “putting himself in a situation where he is trying to delay a crisis of his government until the last month of the Bush administration. The question is whether he will still have the kind of authority at that time to accept the conditions he has to accept to get an agreement with the Palestinians.”
Asked what kind of an agreement he could envision that would be acceptable to the Knesset, Cohen said, “I doubt very much that he would be able to get that specific and still keep his government. He is willing to agree to a Palestinian state based on [U.N. resolutions] 338 and 242. I would not demean that. It would be enough of a step forward. And he will say [about Jerusalem] that there will be neighborhoods under Palestinian control. I don’t know if he will name all of them. I don’t know how specific Olmert can allow himself to be. … There is a possibility that there will be enough people who try to fudge it that it goes through without enormous clarity.”
Cohen added that Abbas’ concession is that he is willing to accept the Saudi formula for resolving the refugee issue — that a “just solution” be achieved through negotiation.
But Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, questioned what kind of a compromise Abbas was making.
“He is not willing to say that he is ready to compromise on historic issues,” he said. “The Israeli position is that there are no Palestinian refugee rights and that Israel will not take thousands of Palestinians. It is a non-issue for us. To accept the principle of Palestinians coming to Israel means dismantling the Jewish state.”
Fred Lazin, chair of the politics and government department at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, said that “generally among many Israelis there are low expectations. It’s not that they see failure, they just don’t see success. The best thing that can be hoped for is a settlement for a number of years so that everyone can get along.”
He noted that each time Olmert “gets a little too specific [about solving a core issue], there are those in his party who object. … I don’t think he has the political support to negotiate [an agreement].” And he added the fact that Hamas is not at the negotiating table makes the more moderate Abbas and his supporters “very vulnerable.”
Before leaving Israel, Rice said he looked upon the Annapolis summit as the start of intensive negotiations between the two sides. But many observers are predicting failure even before it begins.
“To say it will be the start of negotiations means that all of the negotiations that have taken place between Olmert and Abbas in the last year have achieved no progress,” Steinberg said. “So why go through this? Because the [Bush] administration is committed to it and not holding it is worse than holding it.”
While in Jerusalem, Rice expressed the “fear” that if Abbas fails to achieve a Palestinian state, the “moderate center could collapse forever and the next generation of Palestinians could become lost souls of unbridled extremism.”
Steinberg brushed aside those remarks, saying: “The nuts will take over anyway because of internal Palestinian issues. I don’t see evidence of a pragmatic middle class ready to compromise on core issues. … Israelis want a two-state solution but not with Hamas in charge.”
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz quoted Israel’s Military Intelligence as saying the Annapolis summit is likely to fail and that Abbas might step down as a result because he views it as the last chance to revive the peace process.
Most Israeli analysts, Steinberg noted, believe Abbas’ future “is not dependent on Annapolis but on corruption and his leadership. He is an old man who is part of the old leadership and Annapolis does not change that. It will take years before the Palestinians are ready to deal with the core issues. Whatever happens at Annapolis, Abbas will be a weak leader.”
Israel’s future is also clouded by a number of events, noted Alon Ben-Meir, director of the Middle East Project at the World Policy Institute in Manhattan.
“If the current government is held together, with Barak fully cooperating [as head of the Labor Party], then it is possible they can move the peace process forward,” he said. “But if the government does not hold together for any one of a number of reasons — parties decide to leave because they feel the concessions are too much or if there are new elections and [Benjamin] Netanyahu wins — negotiations with the Palestinians are going to be severely undermined or stopped altogether. … For Abbas to say he wants a solution before the end of Bush’s term is more wishful thinking than a real possibility.”
He agreed that to expect Hamas to sit by and do nothing while negotiations are underway “does not make sense to me.”
Hoenlein said he believes the way for Annapolis to succeed is if all efforts are focused on ways to help Abbas in the areas of the Palestinian economy, political reform and security reform. And for Israel, its primary concern is security, he said.
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