Israel and the Palestinian Authority are at a Strategic Crossroads

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 07-Feb-06 | Author: Dieter Farwick

Skyline of divided Jerusalem.

As the shockwaves have passed and the dust has settled, the bird’s view on Israel and the Palestinian Authority has become clearer: The winners are Hamas and Iran. The loser might be the Middle East peace process.

Two events have drastically changed the political landscape in the Broader Middle East: The illness of Ariel Sharon and the landslide victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections on January 26, 2006. What will the future bring?

There are mixed signals from both sides. Hardliners and moderates paint a picture of ambiguity. The two main options are clear: One road leads to confrontation and escalation – the worst case scenario being civil war in Palestine and/or a new war between Israel and Palestine and/or a stronger intifada. The other road leads to cooperation and de-escalation – the best case scenario being the reanimation of the peace process, otherwise known as the Road Map. Which road will be traveled down remains an open question. Both sides and the outside world as well should strive for the best case scenario. But this is easier said than done.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel happened to be the first foreign head of state that had the opportunity to talk with both sides. She left a clear message behind which in the meantime has become the message of the so-called “Quartet” – the UN, EU, Washington and Moscow – which was involved in previous attempts to promote peace and stability in the region.

The message says:

The abovementioned organizations and countries guarantee the existence of the state of Israel

The Palestinian side must meet three pre-conditions in order to receive further support:

Credible recognition of the right of Israel to exist in the region

Renunciation of terror and dissolution of the military arm of Hamas

Recognition of existing treaties and contracts

So far, the Palestinian Authority fully depends on financial support from the outside world. About 90% of the 1,6 billion euro budget comes from different nations and international organizations. The EU and individual European countries contribute annually about 500 million euros.

The deterrent to stop this financial support is of limited value. This is where Iran comes into the game. With high revenues from oil and gas, Iran could substitute this support in order to increase its already existing influence and power over Hamas. Such a move would not be in the interest of the outside world – especially not for Israel.

A – potentially – nuclear-powered Iran with a strategic foothold at the Mediterranean Sea would be a nightmare for the whole world. Under an Iranian umbrella and backed by the anti-Israel rhetoric of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hamas could be tempted to sharpen the conflict with Israel. But this development might not be in the interest of Iran.

With a strong involvement close to Israel, the current conflict caused by the Iranian nuclear development program would get another dimension – especially for Israel. Israel has repeatedly declared that it would not accept Iran as a military nuclear power. Israel’s threat assessment of the possible development in the neighborhood would increase the call for a preemptive strike against Iran.

The hope that the situation will not lead to a hot conflict rests on President Mahmoud Abbas who will or could stay in power for another three years. But his position has been weakened by the defeat of Fatah. The Palestinian people are obviously fed up with the corruption, incompetence and lawlessness that have been the norm under Fatah’s rule.

Whether these stumbling blocks will be removed by Hamas remains an open issue. Anyhow, Abbas executes command and control over the security forces – except Hamas. Whether Hamas will dissolve its military arm or accept Abbas's authority remains to be seen. It also remains to be seen if the president will be able to form a kind of “National Unity Government” – including Hamas and Fatah.

The next milestone in the Middle East will be the upcoming elections in Israel on March 28. These elections will be decisive for the future. Unfortunately, Israel and its electorate are not in best shape to cope with the sensitive situation.

Ahava Zarembski of Israel addresses the internal rifts and tensions in Israel’s society, which is multiethnic, multicultural and divided into secular, orthodox and moderate Jewish groups.

The unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza strip has not been digested and accepted by all Israelis. The foundation of the Kadima party by Ariel Sharon adds problems. This situation is a “good time” for populism. Hardliners from both sides – Israel and Palestine – might be tempted to influence the elections through provocative public statements.

Moderates on both sides face difficulties in being listened to. In this sense the elections might come too early, but they will come.

WSN would like to offer the following proposals to all parties involved that might help to deescalate and mitigate the internal tensions on both sides as well as avoid the worst case scenario:

Accept the result of the free and democratic elections in Palestine

Start confidence building actions

Avoid provocative official and semi-official statements

Find honest brokers to start at least an indirect dialog

Allow face-saving activities

Start a long-lasting truce to give politics and diplomacy a chance

Refrain from blackmail because it is counterproductive

Ensure free and safe elections in Israel

Be pragmatic