Just hours after Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni assured him that peace talks would continue while she assembles a new government, Palestinian chief negotiator Ahmed Qureia suggested that Palestinians may return to violence if the talks failed.
“Resistance in all forms is a legitimate right,” Qureia was quoted as saying.
Livni reportedly called Qureia to object to his remarks, saying that “violence and terror will never be legitimate” and would only be met by force.
But Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said Qureia’s remarks should not be seen as a surprise.
“There has been no strong effort by Palestinian leaders to end the incitement and justification for violence,” he explained. “There are Palestinian representatives in Geneva and elsewhere who use terms like apartheid to refer to Israelis against Palestinians, and that is part of the incitement process.”
Steinberg added that the Palestinian leadership appears to be “insensitive to the fact that this is the daily language that is used and the damning impact it has on the peace process.”
It also has an influence on Palestinians, one of whom ran his car into a group of Israeli soldiers Monday in Jerusalem, injuring 17, two seriously. The driver, an East Jerusalem resident, was shot and killed by an army officer and a policeman.
Since March, there have been three other terror attacks in Jerusalem committed by East Jerusalem Palestinians. In the first, the terrorist opened fire on students in a yeshiva. In the other two, terrorists used a bulldozer to run over cars and people.
Arie Kacowicz, a professor of international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said such attacks are “becoming more and more of a pattern. If this happened last week perhaps Tzipi would not have been elected.”
She won the Kadima Party primary by about 400 votes over her closest rival, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, a former Army chief-of-staff.
Livni’s decision to continue peace talks with the Palestinians is in keeping with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s pledge to work for peace until he leaves office. Even though he resigned Sunday, he remains at the helm of a caretaker government until Livni forms a new government or new general elections are held.
Although talks with the Palestinians will continue, indirect talks with Syria that have been held in Turkey for several months have been indefinitely postponed until a new Israeli government is in place. And Syria has been expressing differing views on the chances of successful talks if Livni becomes prime minister.
“A couple of days ago, a Syrian paper said the government was waiting for the blonde from the Mossad [Israeli secret service] and that maybe she would be forthcoming and could make a deal with Syria,” Kacowicz said.
But Wednesday the same Syrian daily, Tishrin, reported that the Syrian leadership believed the chances of making peace with Livni were worse than they were with Olmert.
“We already know what direction Livni will take, what her political programme will be and how far she will stray from the peace track,” the paper said.
Steinberg said he is inclined to believe that Livni, who has had no part in the Syrian talks, would follow in Olmert’s footsteps. But he said he could understand Syria’s wariness.
“They have no idea about her and they were comfortable with Olmert,” he said. “But the army is behind the talks with Syria and their main purpose is to pull Syria away from Iran. I see no reason to expect her to take a different position on that.”
That view was echoed by Yossi Alpher, a political analyst and co-founder of the Israeli-Palestinian Web site bitterlemons.org., who said Livni would be “exposed to the same intelligence estimates that persuaded Olmert to open negotiations with the Syrians.”
The next Israeli government is also expected to seek a peace treaty with Lebanon, according to Sallai Meridor, Israel’s ambassador to Washington. He told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that such a peace track could be opened within a year.
“I don’t think it would be a sin to hope for peace with Lebanon,” he said. “Hopefully … in the next year, rather than having two focuses [the Palestinians and Syria], we will be able to have another one with Lebanon.
Washington envoys often are the personal pick of the prime minister. Meridor was selected by Olmert and it is not clear whether Livni would ask him to stay on if she manages to put together a new government and becomes prime minister.
Livni has also not been too forthcoming regarding her vision of peace with Israel’s neighbors.
“There are just too many variables to predict where Livni is going to go on peace process issues,” Alpher remarked. Olmert, however, has made his views well known over the past several months. He has indicated a willingness to give back the Golan Heights in return for peace with Syria. And he has been very anxious to achieve peace with the Palestinians for fear of a binational state if no deal is reached.
The idea of a binational state in which Palestinians and Israeli Jews live under one government that would be controlled by the Palestinians is one that “ever-growing segments of the international community are adopting,” Olmert was quoted last week as saying. “I see a Jewish state as a condition for our existence.”
He reportedly told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Israel and the Palestinian Authority should be able to reach an understanding on three issues: borders, security and refugees. This so-called shelf agreement would not be implemented, however, until the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure is destroyed and other elements of the international peace plan are implemented.
Israeli media reports last week said Olmert had discussed with the Palestinians the idea of transferring to them 98.1 percent of the West Bank. Earlier reports said he was offering to give the Palestinians 93 percent of the West Bank plus 5.5 percent of territory in the Negev, adjacent to the Gaza Strip, in exchange for large Israeli settlement blocs in the West Bank.
Olmert’s talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are expected to continue while he remains in office, something that Alpher said is “really quite unprecedented.”
“Even as she is negotiating to set up a new government, she has to look over her shoulder to see if Olmert is going to present her [with something] as a fait accompli that will affect her life as a peace negotiator or a coalition negotiator,” Alpher said.
Steinberg said he would not be surprised if Olmert, who was forced to resign over a corruption scandal, continued to strive for a shelf agreement with the Palestinians in order to burnish his reputation.
“It would certainly crown Olmert’s period as prime minister,” he said. “He has few accomplishments and this would be an historic legacy. In addition, he wants to do something for [President George W.] Bush before he leaves office. But there is no sense in Israel that it would have any significant impact.”
And besides, Steinberg added, he is not certain the Palestinians want to enter into an agreement with Olmert when he has one foot out the door. The Palestinians, meanwhile, still have not made the strategic decision to compromise on the refugee issue.
“The Palestinian leadership has not made the decision to change the narrative that blames Israel for starting the War [of Independence in 1948] and for the Palestinian situation” today, he said. “Olmert went far beyond [other prime ministers] by agreeing to family reunification of tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees, but the Palestinians have not made a reciprocal gesture to give up their right of return claim. And there is no indication they are willing to give it up.”
Regarding the future of Jerusalem, Steinberg said the recent terrorist attacks in the capital simply highlights the fact that changes in the status of parts of Jerusalem would make security in the city even more difficult.
Kacowicz too said he doubted whether Olmert had the political clout to enter into a shelf agreement with the Palestinians.
“There seems to be an unwritten custom that a transitional government cannot make fateful decisions, and I am doubtful whether Abbas wants to conclude an agreement with Olmert,” he said. “In my assessment, the talks will continue but I would be surprised if we see the conclusion of an agreement. … Talks are important because a lot of the understandings Olmert and Abbas reach will be a condition for Tzipi to continue, assuming she will be the next prime minister, and she is in charge of the talks at the ministerial level.”
Kacowicz pointed out also that Abbas wrote in the Wall Street Journal that he could not agree to the conditions suggested by Olmert even though they were the best conditions offered by Israel since the Taba talks in 2001.