After Lebanon, a wise Palestinian strategy required

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As I predicted in earlier columns, Israel’s unilateral policy has proven to be one of the first victims of its war against Lebanon. Politically tarnished from the unsuccessful gamble in Lebanon, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert clearly cannot stomach another ill advised gamble that will turn both the Israeli right and left against him.

The failure of Israeli unilateralism in both Lebanon and Gaza highlight the fact that peace cannot be decided by one party. For way too long Israelis have attempted to negotiate among themselves with respect to issues dealing with their Arab counterparts.

Israel’s unilateral theory has been based on the conveniently created assumption that there are no partners on the Palestinian side for the Jewish state. Ariel Sharon coined this legend when Yasser Arafat was alive. The argument was repeated when Hamas won the parliamentary elections. The fact that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was in power before the elections that brought the Haniyeh government to power is conveniently ignored. Also ignored is the fact that the international community, including the US, recognises President Abbas as the legitimate Palestinian partner. Even the Haniyeh government has repeatedly declared that President Abbas is legally and politically entrusted to negotiate with the Israelis.

Unfortunately, however, the decision to trash the unilateral withdrawal will not be replaced by a more sensible plan of bilateral negotiations with the Palestinians.

Also, having scrapped the convergence plan Olmert and company are not sending out any signals that they will now embark on the international community’s roadmap peace plan, which is based on US President George W. Bush’s declared vision of a viable and contiguous Palestinian state alongside that of Israel.

As much as I am firmly opposed to the Israeli unilateral policy, there is one area where I am sorry it has been scrapped. While unilateralism cannot and will not resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, it did promise a short-term break for many Palestinians (except those behind the illegal wall built deep into Palestinian territory). After 39 years of living under a foreign military occupation that controls all aspects of Palestinian life, Israel’s unilateral policy might have provided relief from the ugly reality of occupation and would have helped Palestinians start on the road to economic independence.

In the post Lebanon realities one can’t help but recognise the sad fact that the Israelis clearly have a blank cheque to do almost anything they want to Lebanese or Palestinians so long as it is done in the name of the war against Hizbollah or Hamas.

Concurrently with this position one cannot deny that the international community is once again actively engaged in the Middle East. Within this engagement the US and its allies appear to have realised that simply leaving the peoples of the Middle East to solve their problems will not produce any tangible and long term results.

Caught between the unreserved US support for Israel (especially in its fight against Hamas) and the realisation that the international community wants to engage in solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the big question that is asked is how. The Americans and their allies who were never very excited about the idea of a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank are mistaken if they expect Olmert to voluntarily initiate serious negotiations with the Palestinians. Without active US involvement this will not happen.

Palestinian leaders Abbas and Haniyeh seem to have realised the need to remove the Israeli excuse not to engage with them. A hitherto underreported agreement over the Prisoners’ Document (which calls for a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders) will allow President Abbas to usher in the establishment of a national unity government that will include Hamas and secular nationalists. It remains to be seen whether the new government and its more moderate political programme will be sufficient to end the siege imposed on the Palestinians, which has crippled the Palestinian National Authority. A more significant change will occur if a solution is found that could lead to the release of the captured Israeli soldier, coupled with an end to the firing of cross border rockets from Gaza into Israel.

The war on Lebanon has shown the overwhelming political power of the United States when it comes to policies dealing with this region. If Washington is serious about its president’s vision of a viable and contiguous Palestinian state living side by side with a safe and secure Israel, they need to put the power of the president’s office behind such a plan. This is unlikely to happen until after the mid-term elections in the US scheduled for Nov. 2. Until then, a wise Palestinian strategy should include the removal of all possible contentious issues that can be used as excuses by Israel not to engage directly and seriously with them.

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