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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher - May 19. 2008

Alpher offers his take on President Bush's speech in the Knesset, and a possible Olmert-Abbas agreement regarding final status borders...

Q. What is your take from the Israeli end on President Bush's remarks before the Knesset condemning those who would negotiate with "terrorists and radicals" and comparing them to Nazi-appeasers?

A. I found the sycophantic sucking-up to Bush on the part of PM Ehud Olmert and other Israeli leaders even more embarrassing than Bush's remarks. In general, the positive response on the part of most Israelis to Bush in Jerusalem reflected an Israel that is badly out of step with the rest of the world, and certainly the rest of the Middle East, including Arab states friendly to America.

At the level of realpolitik, it's difficult to justify the satisfaction expressed by Olmert and others with Bush's expressed commitment to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon by any and all means, when back in the United States both Secretary of Defense Gates and Chair of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mullen were taking their distance from a military option against Iran and when Bush in any case will be out of office in eight months.

Perhaps most significantly, Bush's remarks about Nazi-appeasers were particularly laughable at a time when the Olmert government is itself deep into negotiations with no fewer than three "terrorists and radicals": Hamas, over a ceasefire and a prisoner exchange; Hezbollah, over a prisoner exchange; and Syria, regarding the opening of peace talks. True, these are all indirect talks, mediated by third parties. But that is only because these Arab neighbors refuse thus far to talk with us directly. Indeed, were Iran to agree to talks with Israel I have little doubt that any Israeli government would join such a dialogue.

It's a pity Barack Obama felt it necessary, in responding to Bush, to deny wanting to talk to Hamas, rather than simply referring Bush to what the Israelis themselves are doing.

The reason why Israel is so blatantly ignoring Bush's admonitions (and why Bush should retract them) is the existential importance of some of the Islamist threats Israel is exposed to, and the human factor with regard to others. Regarding Iran, the danger of a nuclear confrontation with Israel is so frightening that any and every opportunity must be exhausted to avoid it, including conversing with the devil himself. Regarding Hezbollah and Hamas, Israel will never get back the prisoners they hold unless it talks to them. Moreover, more and more high-level Israelis with security backgrounds (most recently, in a letter to Olmert, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and Ephraim Halevy) are arguing that Hamas as our neighbor in the Gaza Strip and a contender for overall leadership of the Palestinians is simply too important to ignore, whatever its terrorist ideology.

As for Syria, the prospect of peace offers the best chance of weakening Iran's drive for regional hegemony in the Levant as well as the Gulf, and the only actor preventing talks is George W. Bush (the only unanswered Syrian condition being "Americans at the negotiating table"). This doesn't mean we may not eventually fail in peace or ceasefire efforts and find ourselves at war with any or all of these nasty neighbors, but rather that we have to make every effort to prevent war if, ultimately, we have to look our sons and daughters in the eye and send them off to fight for a just cause that couldn't be avoided.

Needless to say, most of the Israeli public loved Bush's tough remarks insofar as they appeared to bespeak strong security backing for Israel in confronting a host of terrorist, missile and non-conventional challenges. Israel in its sixty-first year needs all the security benefits the US is ready to share with us. Many would argue that if making a fuss over President Bush improves our chances of getting them, then so be it. Moreover, the state leaders and Nobel laureates gathered in Jerusalem at President Peres' invitation offered a demonstration of global support for Israel that was not lost on our neighbors--the genuinely hostile as well as the mildly friendly among them. But there were aspects of the "President's Conference" that Bush and other leaders attended that made me wince.

One concerns what was happening in the "real world" outside the conference hall, where Qassam and Grad rockets and mortar shells were falling on Ashkelon, Sderot and the kibbutzim and moshavim around Gaza. Two Israelis were killed by them last week, and scores injured. Then too our prime minister, not the first in a line of high-level Israelis with whom the police have asked to speak urgently in the past year or two, clearly felt that the more embraces and expressions of friendship he could extract from Bush in Jerusalem, the less the public might begrudge him the envelopes full of dollars from America that apparently helped pave his way to the top.

Thus the dissonance between the rough reality on the Israeli street and that inside the conference hall could not have been greater. The honorary chair of the conference was the man who gave the most money, Sheldon Edelson, a fervent Netanyahu supporter. As columnist Nahum Barnea remarked (Yediot Aharonot, May 16), "I saw a gambling king from Las Vegas who purchased the state of Israel's birthday party for three million dollars". 

Most Israelis couldn't have cared less what the conference participants discussed in their panels, which could be described as "Davos without the business deals". But there were some very intelligent and accomplished people there, and one has to hope that what they contributed makes up for the discomfort projected by Bush, Olmert and the conference itself.

At least Bush didn't mention in Jerusalem the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the Palestinian state of mind on Israel's Independence Day; at least he spared us all the embarrassment of confronting his and Olmert's tottering peace effort.

Q. Apropos that process, during Secretary of State Rice's visit to Israel two weeks ago she reportedly pressured Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to honor Bush's visit by publishing their achievements regarding agreed borders. Assuming there is agreement on final status borders but not on the other final status issues, is this wise?

A. Olmert and Abbas reportedly turned down Rice's suggestion, though it is not clear whether this reflected lack of agreement on borders on their part or rejection of the idea of celebrating partial accomplishments. Since Rice's visit, additional reports have pointed to the possibility that Olmert and Abbas are hoping at least to reach a framework agreement on borders and territory and possibly say something about refugees--but not Jerusalem--by the summer.

If such a meeting of minds could be reached, it would constitute the so-called "shelf agreement" whose implementation would be postponed until roadmap phase I is carried out. From the Israeli standpoint, this would be the pact that Olmert predicted last week would be approved by a large majority of the Knesset. It would enable Olmert to pass a settler compensation bill and begin dismantling settlements and outposts (and build in those settlement blocs that become part of Israel) based on an agreed map. And, as an achievement for the Bush administration, it would correspond with enhanced American aid for settlement removal and American reassurances or even actions regarding Iran--a linkage seemingly reflected in Bush and Olmert's Knesset speeches last week.

That, at any rate is the plan speculated on by a number of informed observers briefed by Olmert's entourage. Clearly, if this is indeed the direction of negotiations, the parties are still too far apart on the territorial issues to agree and go public. One report puts the negotiating gap between at least eight percent of the West Bank demanded by Israel and only 3.5 percent agreed by the Palestinians. This is more or less where the parties were at Camp David, leaving us to wonder what progress has actually been made.

Looked at its own merits, there are both advantages and disadvantages to the idea of disclosing the details of a territorial agreement before success has been achieved concerning other final status issues like Jerusalem and possibly refugees/right of return.

On the positive side, a border delineation agreement would signal genuine progress in peace talks and could constitute an incentive to proceed and tackle the tougher issues. It could even form the basis of a Palestinian declaration of statehood that would correspond in part to Roadmap phase II (which talks about a state with temporary borders; the Palestinian state's borders would still be temporary, assuming final borders in Jerusalem and dispensation of religious sites there remained a pending issue). It could conceivably be a sufficient achievement for Olmert to take to new elections. As a "shelf agreement" it would provide impetus and incentives for Israel to begin seriously removing settlements and the Palestinians to deal more forthrightly with security issues in the West Bank. It would be good for Israel's international image and strike a dramatic blow in favor of the two-state solution. But even if a two-state solution failed, it would give Israel an agreed border to which eventually to withdraw unilaterally.

But at the substantive level, a West Bank-Israel borders agreement would also signal that Israel and Palestine had exhausted the areas where they are capable of agreeing, leaving Jerusalem and refugees for a later date, for different leaders and perhaps for a different political environment. Israelis could easily live with this, but not Palestinians. This is precisely why it is hard to believe that Abbas would make or acknowledge such a separate deal. Moreover if he did, there is no way he could persuade the Palestinian public to accept a territorial agreement--even one based on the 1967 lines--that does not offer Palestinians at least minimal satisfaction regarding the "narrative" and religious issues of right of return and Jerusalem and does not restore Gaza and the West Bank to united Palestinian rule. Moreover, the notion of a delayed "shelf agreement" is untested. How could Abbas defend his concessions when even implementation is postponed to an indefinite date? Suppose Israel's assessment of security dangers causes it repeatedly to postpone withdrawal to the agreed new lines, thereby posing the specter of yet another unfulfilled agreement.

Conceivably, then, if indeed territorial agreement is reached, what Olmert presents as a framework agreement or agreement in principle would be downplayed by Abbas as merely a positive step toward a comprehensive agreement. Abbas would hope to use it to show his public that Israel is finally dismantling outposts and settlements. The entire process might dovetail with another interesting idea regarding territory that appears to be in the works: approaching the transfer of West Bank territory and security responsibility and the dismantling of settlements on an incremental geographic basis, beginning in the northern West Bank in and around Jenin where Israel already removed four settlements three summers ago and where more and more newly-trained Palestinian security forces are being deployed.

All this speculation assumes that Olmert and Abbas are indeed capable as leaders of delivering an agreement of any sort, that Bush is energized enough to assist and support them and that the situation in Gaza somehow doesn't prevent Abbas from proceeding. If a ceasefire agreement is soon reached between Israel and Hamas/Gaza with Egyptian help, perhaps the most compelling motive for Israel to accept it and allow Hamas to rule and even build up its military potential for the coming six months will be the need to ensure peace and quiet in Gaza until Olmert and Abbas produce an agreement.