Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, US President George Bush and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Annapolis Conference

Challenges on the ground threaten progress in negotiations

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There is a very curious news black-out both in Israel and in Palestine regarding what President Bush read in the Olmert-Abbas joint statement in Annapolis: `We agree to engage in vigorous, ongoing and continuous negotiations and shall make every effort to conclude an agreement before the end of 2008.`

Are those negotiations taking place? We don`t really know. Not only the politicians aren`t talking, most of the media is not reporting, the international community is silent and I have even heard that Tony Blair has instructed members of his staff to keep quiet.

Every so often, there is a statement, usually from the Palestinian side that no progress has been made. The latest statement came form PA Prime Minister Salam Fayad. Sometimes some of the politicians on the Left in Israel also state that nothing is happening on the peace front. Sometimes we hear rumors of exactly the opposite – for instance this newspaper`s headline on Monday: `Coalition crisis looms after Post reveals secret Jerusalem talks.`

A FEW weeks ago several Israeli news analysts reported that Prime Minister Olmert and Abu Mazen have made considerable progress toward a framework agreement. We even hear statements from time-to-time that the end of 2008 deadline is possible to reach, while others insist that it is impossible. We really have no idea which assessment is accurate.

If there is real progress, in the end it will serve the interests of both sides. Meanwhile there are considerable challenges on the ground that threaten the possibility of real progress in the negotiations.

The continued rocket fire from Gaza and the horrific situation in places like Sderot make it almost impossible for the Israeli government not to decide on a major ground operation into Gaza. Other than recognizing the limits of force to completely stop the Kassam rocket fire, Prime Minister Olmert is also very aware that such an operation may make it impossible for President Abbas to continue the negotiations with Israel. But the continued rocket fire may make it equally impossible for Olmert to continue as well.

There are many other contradictions in the needs of both sides that weigh heavily on the possibility of progress in the negotiations. It seems that the security cooperation and coordination between Israel and the PA is progressing positively and the PA security forces, with US assistance, are making considerable progress in reorganizing itself and in actually fighting against terrorism.

The progress, however, is too slow and the threats of a new wave of suicide bombings remains too high for Israel to completely trust the abilities of the PA to prevent them. The bombing in Dimona is only the latest example of the difficulty of Israel in leaving the work of security to the PA alone. Olmert is quite aware that continued Israeli military incursions into areas where the PA troops are working, significantly diminish the ability of Abbas and Fayad to rein in the dissidents and fugitives, even from the ranks of Fatah. Nonetheless, the Israeli security assessment remains that without continued IDF and Shin Bet actions throughout the West Bank, the chances of `successful` terrorism attacks inside of Israel remains too high to gamble on.

This is exactly the same reason why the IDF and the Minister of Defense have not removed checkpoints throughout the area that make the daily lives of Palestinians unbearable and serve as a daily reminder that the occupation is firmly in place. There are no signs or signals from Israel to the Palestinian population that their lives are about to change for the better.

Olmert and Barak know that a wave of suicide bombings will make it impossible to continue negotiations. They also know that any reports of real progress in the negotiations will bring down the Israeli government. Olmert may have survived the Winograd report. But if it becomes clear that he has agreed to compromises on Jerusalem, Shas will leave the government. Olmert cannot afford to find himself negotiating a permanent status agreement with the Palestinians with a minority government. No one in the government knows that better than Ehud Barak who tried to do the same in 2001.

OLMERT HAS apparently succeeded in bringing about a settlement building freeze; the noise on this issue from the settlers is evidence that some new strict limitations have been put in place. However, nothing has been done by Olmert on taking action against the unauthorized outposts, even though President Bush said definitively `they gotta go!` Yet despite Bush`s determination that the Israel must remove those outposts, there is an amazing amount of silence coming from Washington. Bush and Rice are aware that government action on the outposts may bring about a fall of Olmert`s coalition.

There seems to be some level of understanding between Olmert and Abbas on their mutual limitations. Both sides recognize that life in the West Bank must improve dramatically in order to advance peace, yet almost nothing has been done to create the new positive reality. The West Bank is reaching a new boiling point and Abbas is quickly losing his credibility in the eyes of his people. The situation is more serious than I believe the security forces and intelligence community in Israel understands. The Fayad government has almost no credibility in the eyes of the people and despite his real attempts of creating effective government, transparency and accountability, outside of the Ramallah area, life in the West Bank is continuing to become more and more difficult.

There are some steps that Israel could easily take that would empower Abbas and Fayad and would not increase the security risks. If opening more freedom of movement is difficult, turning over full administrative control of the Palestinian areas of the West Bank to the PA is not. There are many examples of continued Israeli control over the lives of Palestinians that can easily be removed. There is a new school being built in the village of Dir Balout near Salfit (a town Ramallah and Nablus) which is facing a demolition order from the Civil Administration because of various bureaucratic issues. Why?

The Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information is involved in the village Um Rehan in constructing an environmentally sound project for treating household sewage that will have positive impact on the shared mountain aquifer, yet the Civil Administration is demanding that it gives permits for the work to be done. Why?

There are hundreds of other examples of unnecessary Israeli control that can be added to these two. There is no need to for Israeli interference in such internal Palestinian issues.

THE PEACE negotiations are rightfully the number one issue of concern. Olmert and Abbas have until the end of 2008 to reach a framework agreement. Both are aware that once there is an agreement they will have to bring it to the people. They have to stay in power until that time; afterwards the fate of the leaders and of the agreement will be in the hands of both peoples.

The key to staying in power is not only in reaching an agreement, but in ensuring that both peoples remain hopeful that peace is actually a real possibility. In this area, they have a lot more work to do.

Gershon Baskin

Gershon Baskin

Gershon Baskin is one of the most recognizable names in the Middle East Peace process. His dedication to creating a culture of peace and environmental awareness, coupled with his impeccable integrity, has earned him the trust of the leaders of all sides of the century old conflict. Few people have such far-reaching and positive impacts on promoting peace, security, prosperity and bi-national relationships.
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.
Gershon Baskin