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March 19, 2006 - Vol. 8, Issue 20


BOYCOTT THE PA: The position adopted this weekend by Israel 's Cabinet regarding the new Palestinian unity government appears clear: " Israel will not be able to work with the Government or any of its ministers." At the same time, the official communiqué states that " Israel will continue to work with [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas in order to advance issues of security and issues pertaining to improving the quality of living of the Palestinian population." Significantly, this statement limits the scope of Israeli talks with Abbas, and for that reason was a matter of controversy within the cabinet.

Yet, it is uncertain that the Israeli ban on the cabinet will be absolute. Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh was quoted on Sunday saying that "in certain cases and under special circumstances, it is possible that we will also be able to talk with ministers who are not from Hamas, regarding specific matters." Bar Ilan University Professor Menahem Klein observed that the realities of daily life will oblige Israel "to coordinate with cabinet ministers of the unity government, even Hamas ministers. It will be impossible to ignore the Hamas ministers who hold portfolios such as agriculture, interior affairs, planning and education." Minister Ghaleb Majadla - who abstained during the Cabinet vote on boycotting the PA government along with fellow Labor Party minister Yuli Tamir - argued that the ban on contacts with moderate Palestinian ministers was bad policy: "Half of the ministers in the new government signed the Oslo agreements with us in the past. Do we want to forsake them because of Hamas people with whom we have a problem?"

A poll of Israelis carried out on Sunday showed that 56% support talks with members of the new government. When asked whether Israel should agree to talk with the new Palestinian government, 39% said "Yes." An additional 17% said that Israel should talk to Fatah ministers while excluding contacts with Hamas ministers.

It is clear that outside of Israel , many countries will be dealing with the new Palestinian government. Norway has already dispatched its deputy foreign minister to meet with Prime Minister Ismail Haniya (Hamas). France invited Foreign Minister Ziad Abu Amar (Independent) to visit Paris . And, while U.S. State Department spokesperson Scott McCormack has been making clear that the Bush Administration is pursuing a wait-and-see attitude vis-à-vis the new Palestinian government, the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem said Washington would consider contacts with non-Hamas members on a case-by-case basis, depending on developments. (GOI Cabinet Communique, 3/18/07 ; Yedioth Ahronoth , 3/18 & 3/19/07 ; Ha'aretz, 3/18/07 ; State Dept, 3/16/07 ; Ma'ariv 3/19/07 ; JTA, 3/19/07 )

TALK TO ABU MAZEN: Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh told Israel Radio on Friday that "the boycott - which is justified from our perspective - can not be [ Israel 's] principle policy. In this [new Palestinian] government, in its guidelines, there is one thing which is positive, which is the mandate - that for them is constitutional - to have Abu Mazen [another name for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas ] negotiate with Israel." When asked about the clause in the Palestinian government's guidelines that allows "resistance," which is understood in Israel to be a code for terror, Sneh responded that "you have to read these documents carefully. They aren't saying that they'll continue the violence, rather that they have a right to use violence." At the same, time, explained Sneh , Israel should be working to bring down this government. "The question," continued Sneh, a retired IDF Brigadier-General, "is what are we doing to move political processes, and not to block them, nor to be self righteous.

"Not only can we [have political contacts with Abbas], but we must, and I will explain to you why. We have to cause the eventual defeat of Hamas. This cannot be done without two necessary conditions: That there will be an alternative to Hamas - [an alternative that is] Palestinian, moderate, and strong. And the second condition, that the Palestinian nation will have a political horizon. Without these two things, you will have a Hamas that is stronger, more in control. And this is something that we cannot come to terms with."

General Sneh elaborated on his central point: "What are we going to do so that this government's days are numbered? Only if we establish in parallel a political initiative with Abu Mazen, who is acknowledgeldly, only president, but he is the only person - the only - who is authorized to negotiate with us. To arrive with him at a number of agreements that he - as the government guidelines say - will bring to a referendum. This is the only way to throw Hamas out of power."

"Anger is not a policy," concluded Sneh, "we have to decide what we're going to do in order to reach the national goals of Israel . That is what we need now to do. And if we do this, it will be easier to draft the relevant countries of the world to be with us and not to be drawn to cooperate with this government whose days we need to limit."

During Sunday's cabinet meeting in Jerusalem , a number of ministers echoed General Sneh's call for an Israeli peace initiative. Defense Minister Amir Peretz (Labor) suggested that Israel begin negotiations now with Abbas to determine a final settlement. Housing and Construction Minister Meir Sheetrit (Kadima) suggested that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert should invite himself to participate in the coming Arab League summit. Education Minister Yuli Tamir (Labor) said, "It's time Israel takes the political initiative to advance the peace process. We need to implement a process in which we are leading, rather than being led."

"On the one hand, we must not concede to letting the Palestinians ignore the Quartet's conditions - they must fight terror - but on the other hand, Israel must open a political initiative rather than being on the political defense," said Peretz, who argued that it would be a mistake to wait for the Palestinians to disarm their factions and dismantle the terrorist infrastructure, as the Israeli interpretation of the Road Map suggests. ( Israel Radio, 3/16/07 ; Ha'aretz, 3/18/07 )

NO ALTERNATIVE TO TALKING: Today's editorial column in Yedioth Ahronoth , Israel 's largest circulation newspaper, argues that the only "realistic option" is to talk to Hamas. Reviewing Israel 's options, the column notes that "one option is continue the current line: To give passionate speeches, pass more government resolutions for boycotting the Palestinian Authority-and mainly to pray.

To pray that all the European countries will not immediately follow in the footsteps of Norway and fully recognize Ismail Haniya 's government, and that in the US election atmosphere, no serious presidential candidate in the US will allow himself to give up the Jewish vote and declare his willingness to engage with this government. The inevitable outcome of adopting this option: Overwhelming international recognition of Hamas as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, and pushing Israel into a corner.

"The second option is military pressure on the Palestinians in order to cause the fall of the government. Such a move was possible and advisable immediately after the first Hamas government was formed, which did not include Fatah. Now, after Israel has agreed to a cease-fire in Gaza without returning Gilad Shalit home, and after Abu Mazen has forged a loving alliance with Hamas, the military option is off the table.

"What remains is the third path, which is the only realistic course of action now: Launching a direct political dialogue with the incumbent Palestinian government. Briefly and simply: Negotiations with Hamas."

Today's editorial in Ha'aretz , opened boldly with a similar perspective: "The government of Israel can and should cooperate with the new Palestinian government. With all the significance of the complex and contradictory formulations of this government's political platform, what is much more important, what should determine Israel 's attitude toward the Palestinian government, are its actions. Israel does not have to wait to see what countries lift the boycott of the Palestinian Authority following the establishment of the unity government. Even if the boycott is morally justified since Hamas remains adamant in its refusal to recognize Israel , there is room to examine the advantages of the new situation. One of these is that full authority has been handed over to PA Chair Mahmoud Abbas to negotiate a political agreement with Israel . Abbas and the members of his government should be seen to be at the very center of the negotiation process."

The editorial's conclusion is no less significant: "The demand for recognition and for a cessation of the violence is a legitimate one, but declarations are less important than actions on the ground. The Palestinian unity government deserves a chance, and its very establishment is a positive sign, even if its platform is far from satisfactory as far as Israel is concerned. The massive weaponry in Gaza [that] the Shin Bet has reported seeing may give rise to hesitations, but such weaponry is also present in Israel , and across the border in Syria , Lebanon and Egypt . Israel must do its best to ensure that no weapon will be used, and the way to achieve this is through dialogue. Even a cease-fire of many years' duration, as Hamas proposes, is a better offer than an ongoing war, for which we must always be prepared."

Writing in Yedioth Ahronoth on Sunday, Dr. Menahem Klein , a political scientist at Bar Ilan University suggests that there is a moment of opportunity to engage the entire Palestinian body politic: "Not only can we, but it is incumbent upon us to speak with the Palestinian unity government. This government has broadcast to Israel that it is prepared to engage in dialogue with it. When Hamas chose its representatives to the cabinet it did not include the first tier of its leadership, but only academics with whom it would be easier for official Israel to talk. Furthermore, it is incumbent upon us to renew negotiations over a final status arrangement on the basis of the Arab peace initiative. That is the only game in the league. All of the other options have failed. Abu Mazen was empowered to negotiate that with Israel . He does not represent only Fatah, but the general Palestinian and Arab consensus. Prime Minister Ismail Haniya will be [at the Arab League Summit] at Abu Mazen's side to reconfirm the Arab peace plan. Anyone who is contemplating trying to drive a wedge between Abu Mazen and Hamas is misguided. That was the political strategy that was adopted by Washington and Jerusalem , and it ended in complete failure. Hamas and Fatah will begin to disagree when the time arrives to discuss the minute details of the final status arrangement."

Dr. Klein does not only call on the Israeli government to talk to the unity government "but the Israeli Left as well. The Israeli Left cannot make do with talks with Abu Mazen and Fatah members. If the Israeli government stands in its way, then the Left needs to resort to the tactics it used in the 1980s, when the government passed legislation banning meetings with members of the PLO. That is an obstacle that can be overcome with the help of a few European governments." ( Yedioth Ahronoth, 3/18 & 3/19/07 ; Ha'aretz, 3/19/07 )

POPULARITY CONTEST: With recent polls showing that 72% of the Israeli public believes that he should not continue to serve as Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert gave a speech on Thursday that was perceived as the opening shot in a battle to save his premiership. Addressing Kadima Party activists, Olmert began his speech by saying, "I am an unpopular prime minister. The polls bear witness to the fact that I am not popular. The papers make a point of reminding the public that I am unpopular. Friends from the opposition, headed by my friend Mr. Netanyahu, miss no opportunity to say that I am not popular." Olmert made it clear that he would not go down without a fight, saying, "though we are in the midst of the hunting season, I am sorry to disappoint my detractors - I am here to lead. I was elected to serve for four years, and I have no intention of misappropriating the faith of the voter. The State of Israel is my workplace, and so there will be no mistake - I plan to work for you for much longer still."

All of Kadima's leadership spoke in support of Olmert on Thursday, with the notable exception of Foreign Minister Tzippi Livini , who preferred to talk about the need to rehabilitate the party. Livni is the most popular candidate to take over the party and the premiership should Olmert step down, with the backing of 34% of Israelis and 50% of Kadima voters. Among Kadima voters, Livni is followed by Shimon Peres (19%), Meir Shitreet (11%), Shaul Mofaz (4%), and Avi Dichter (3%).

While Olmert fights, it appears that the race is already on. Shitreet announced that he plans to run for chairman of Kadima, should the prime minister be compelled to resign. Livni has already tapped Uri Keidar , the former director general of the Municipality of Raanana , to serve as her political advisor. Keidar is expected to be able to mobilize new Kadima members to support Livni, who recently succeeded in changing the party's rules to extend the registration period for eligibility to vote in the party's primary. According to Ma'ariv , Mofaz and Dichter are also likely candidates. (IMRA, 3/7 & 3/15/07 ; Ha'aretz, 3/15/07 ; Ma'ariv, 3/15 & 3/16/07 , Army Radio, 3/18/07 )

THIS LAND IS MY LAND: Israel 's Peace Now movement last week published official Israeli government data, which show that large parts of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank sit on private Palestinian land. "The data shows a pattern of illegal seizure of private land that the Israeli government has been reluctant to acknowledge or to prosecute," the New York Times reported, adding that " Israel has long asserted that it fully respects Palestinian private property in the West Bank and takes land there only legally or, for security reasons, temporarily. That large sections of those settlements are now confirmed by official data to be privately-owned land is bound to create embarrassment for Israel and further complicate the already distant prospect of a negotiated peace."

The new data, handed over to Peace Now by the government following a Freedom of Information lawsuit, substantiate conclusions of a report that Peace Now issued last November - before the updated government data were available - documenting the pattern of private land seizure for West Bank settlements. Last year's report was based on 2004 government data leaked to Peace Now. The new official data are updated to the end of 2006. They show that 32.4% of the property held by Israeli settlements - including outposts and industrial zones - in the West Bank is privately-owned; 131 of the 162 settlement sites in the West Bank are completely or partially situated on privately-owned land.

Dror Etkes , who directs Peace Now's Settlement Watch project, said the movement intends to ask Israel 's attorney general to investigate how such vast plots of private Palestinian land ended up under the control of West Bank settlements. "There's no way the state prosecutor can be indifferent to lawbreaking on such a scale," Etkes told the New York Times . (New York Times, 3/14/07; Peace Now report, 3/14/07 )

SECOND CHANCES: Housing and Construction Minister Meir Shitreet told a visiting delegation of the American Jewish Committee last Tuesday that the Saudi initiative could serve as a basis for negotiations. He also recalled that back in 2002 he urged then prime minister Ariel Sharon to invite the Saudis to Israel to discuss the initiative. Sharon ignored his advice.

Shitreet was not the only Israeli official to see the Arab League peace plan as a missed opportunity. Mati Steinberg , who at the time served as the advisor on Palestinian affairs to the head of Israel's General Security Service (also known as the Shin Bet), recalled the impact of the IDF assassination of Raed Karmi , head of Fatah's military arm in Tul Karm, in January 2002. "Just as I feared," Steinberg told Ha'aretz 's Akiva Eldar , "Karmi's assassination led to the scuttling of the truce that had lasted since December 16, 2001 . Not only did the assassination push Fatah's people into carrying out suicide attacks and give the signal for competition between them and Hamas as to who could kill more Jews, it also led to Operation Defensive Shield, which pushed the Arab initiative to the margins and eliminated the opportunity to put the diplomatic track with the Palestinians on a route of direct connection with the Arab peace initiative for the first time."

In March 2002, Steinberg - still working at the Shin Bet - prepared an analysis of the Arab peace initiative in which he compared the new positions of the Arab League to previous league resolutions. In this analysis, Steinberg identified what he termed "the great change" - the willingness to end the conflict, to establish normal neighborly relations between the Arab states and Israel , and to reach an agreed-upon solution to the refugee problem. Steinberg thought it significant that the Arab states were moving ahead with the initiative, without any connection to Israel 's reaction.

"They contacted me on behalf of Sharon 's military secretary and clarified the factual side of the League's resolution," Steinberg recalled. "I repeated the explanations I had written in the document and I never heard from them again. To the best of my knowledge there was never any discussion of this matter." Indeed, as in the case of Minister Shitreet's advice, Sharon 's office did not embrace the breakthrough. "There was a syndrome operating here of `if you don't want to look, you won't see,'" recalled Steinberg. A short while later, Yasser Arafat dispatched Mahmoud Abbas to Washington to tell the Americans that the Palestinians accepted the initiative. The Israeli military, however, was already tightening the siege on the Palestinian government compound in Ramallah. "I realized that from the [Israeli] domestic perspective, the government was not able to hold back and refrain from taking action," said Steinberg, "but it is untenable that in the wake of the PA's acceptance of the initiative we would harm Jibril Rajoub 's headquarters. What was the message to the Palestinian population? That pragmatism doesn't pay. I said that under no circumstances should the Palestinian government center be destroyed; Iran and Hamas would exploit the chaos and after them would come the global jihad." (Ynet, 3/13/07 ; Ha'aretz, 3/14 & 3/15/07 )