Aug 21 2006

Palestinians must be ready for November 3rd

Published by at 11:28 am under Blogs

by Daoud Kuttab

The outcome so far of the Israeli war on Lebanon is a mixed bag for Palestinians. The war reinforced the near blind support Israel enjoys in what both Israel and the US consider the war on terror. The Israelis clearly have a blank check to do almost anything they want to Lebanese or Palestinians so long as it is done in the name of a war against Hizballah or Hamas.

At the same time, it seems clear that as a result of Lebanon, the international community is once again engaged in the Middle East. With this engagement, the international community appears to have realized that simply leaving the parties to the Middle East conflict to solve their own problems will not produce any results. The resulting stalemate, which has been tolerated until recently by the US and other world powers, produces no stability. Just as the relatively minor cross-border attacks in Gaza and Lebanon produced avalanches of violence, a powder keg stalemate will result only in continued conflict.

The recognition that the Palestinian problem continues to be a major irritant in the region and the wider Islamic world was also noted by a number of world leaders. Tony Blair, Condoleezza Rice, Jacques Chirac and others were among many who spoke publicly about the need to deal with the root causes of Middle East conflict.

Caught between unreserved US support for Israel (especially in its fight against Hamas) and the realization that the international community wants to re-engage to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the big question for Palestinians is how to proceed from here. The road map endorsed by the Quartet was out of date the minute Israel unilaterally pulled out of Gaza. With the Lebanon war considerably weakening Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a similar attempt to unilaterally pull out of areas of the West Bank seems to have been put on hold.

But the Americans and their allies, who were never very excited about the idea of a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank, would be mistaken if they expect Olmert to replace his “convergence plan” with serious negotiations with the Palestinians. Indeed, in the coming months as the Israeli leadership concentrates its efforts on dealing with the fallout from Lebanon, little can be expected of them vis-a-vis the Palestinians. Certainly nothing will happen so long as Hamas is still in power and an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, remains in Palestinian hands.

Palestinian leaders Mahmoud Abbas and Ismail Haniyeh seem to have realized the need to remove any Israeli excuses not to engage with them. A hitherto underreported agreement over the so-called Prisoners’ Document is expected to usher in the establishment of a national unity government that will include Islamist and secular nationalist factions.

It remains to be seen whether such a government and its inevitably more moderate political program will be sufficient to ease the financial siege that was imposed on Palestinians and that has crippled the Palestinian National Authority. A more significant change is likely to occur if a solution is found that can lead to the release of Shalit and an end to the firing of the amateur rockets from Gaza to Israel. But no matter what happens in Lebanon, for Palestine to benefit it will require a stable and moderate Palestinian government whose agenda is clearly in favor of the two-state solution.

If the Lebanon war has shown the fragility of the region and the utter failure of unilateralism to solve anything, it has also shown the overwhelming power of the United States. While pragmatism is needed to shake up the Palestinian track, ultimately any serious breakthrough in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will require the strong and continuous engagement of the world’s only remaining superpower.

If the United States means what its president repeatedly says about the need for a viable and contiguous state of Palestine living side-by-side with a secure state of Israel, it needs to put the power of the president’s office behind that pledge. This is unlikely to happen until after the mid-term congressional elections in the US on November 2. In preparation for that, a wise Palestinian strategy would be to remove all possible contentious issues that can be used as excuses by Israel not to engage directly and seriously with the Palestinian side, from November 3 on.

– Published 21/8/2006 ©

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