There does seem to be some sense of renewed hopes mainly because of the Arab Peace Initiative and the positive comments of Prime Minister Olmert and Foreign Minister Livni. The Abbas-Olmert summit this week, beginning a round of talks every two weeks between the leaders also seemed more positive than negative, although expectations are quite low for any significant breakthrough towards the renewal of a real peace process. Olmert and Abbas agreed to move forward on plans for implementing mutual commitments that were made within the framework of the Road Map. They also spent about 45 minutes alone without aides or other ministers present. I would hope that they are planning a secret back channel for renewing negotiations. That is what I would do if I was in that room.
Olmert and Abbas did agree that the Karni transportation zone will be open from now on until 11 pm each working day and Olmert promised that no truck will wait on line more than 24 hours. This is quite important because Karni is the main economic artery for the Gaza Strip. Until now transport costs for goods going from Tel Aviv to Gaza or from Gaza to Tel Aviv could be more than what it would cost to send the shipment to Europe because of the amount of time it would take and the amount of bribes that would have to be paid.
Olmert also promised that the Rafah crossing from Gaza to Egypt would be opened on a more regular and predictable basis. Since the kidnapping of Corporal Gilead Schalit in June 2006 Rafah has been closed more than it has been opened giving the residents of Gaza the real feeling of living in a prison. The European monitors who were commissioned to Rafah as part of the Agreement on Access and Movement threatened to leave the area to head back to Europe if they would be required to spend their time waiting in Ashkelon for Israeli to decide to open the border.
The plans for Rafah and Karni are also part of the broader plans developed by US General Keith Dayton who has been working diligently over the past year with both sides to develop an acceptable security protocol which includes the training and arming of the Presidential Guards of Mahmoud Abbas. One of the challenges that Dayton faced was the US requirement of replacing the preventative security forces that have been stationed at Karni since the beginning of Oslo. Those forces are under the authority of the Ministry of Interior and while the new PA Minister of Interior is not a member of Hamas, the Israeli and US Governments are not making direct contact with him. The US Government is willing to deal with the new-old PA Minister of Finance, Salam Fayyad. The Israeli government is not willing to deal with any of the PA Ministers including Fayyad. In fact, Olmert prohibited Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh from participating in a dialogue at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institute headed by former US Ambassador Martin Indyk, because Fayyad will be there as well.
Abbas agreed to renew some of his commitments on security issues such as stopping the Qassam rockets and preventing the smuggling of weapons from Egypt to Gaza.
The establishment of the PA Unity government was an opportunity for Israel to adjust its position on the PA government. While far from what Israel would want to hear from a Palestinian government, the PA government has accepted to respect all previous agreements, it is committed to adhering to the ceasefire, as long as Israel does as well, and it has empowered Abbas to negotiate with Israel. Several important western governments have decided to recognize the PA government, while others have said that they will deal with the non-Hamas members of the government. Israel is still maintaining a policy of boycott. I believe that Israel is mistaken. Now is the time to begin to rebuild the partnership and the trust. If there is no progress on the political horizon, we should not expect more moderate Palestinian governments in the future.
How to build trust and overcome a major obstacle at the same time
The Government of Israel did not properly debate the Arab Peace Initiative. There was no government decision or declaration made that Israel supports the Arab Peace Initiative as a platform for renewing negotiations on all fronts. This was a big mistake. The Arab League is continuing to meet in various frameworks with the next meetings taking place on Wednesday April 18 in Cairo. One of the Arab League committees will be formed to deal with Israel and the Israeli people and this is a very positive development. Another committee will deal with bringing the initiative to the United Nations Security Council. If the Security Council would pass a resolution adopting the Arab Peace Initiative as a platform or a framework for Israeli-Arab negotiations, it would make the initiative more binding and give it more credibility. However, the Security Council and the Arab League would be wise to take note of Israel’s primary reservations and not to adopt a Security Council Resolution that would make the Arab Peace Initiative as it is an all or nothing deal. That would be against the spirit of the initiative and would automatically end any hopes of seeing it as a platform for future negotiations.
The Initiative speaks about 1967 borders; however, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations until now have accepted the principle of territorial exchanges which do not sanctify the 1967 borders while leaving in tact the size of the territories that will be withdrawn from. The Arab peace initiative also recognizes that the refugee issue must be dealt with through negotiations as it uses the word “agreed” solution.
The refugee issue remains the most sensitive and difficult issue to confront. The right of return is related to as a “holy right” by Palestinians; a right that is an individual right and not a collective right that Palestinian leaders can negotiate away. Most Palestinian leaders suggest that if Israel were to recognize the right – the principle, it would then be possible to work out modalities that would limit or prevent a massive return of Palestinians to Israel proper. Israel claims that there is a fundamental contradiction between the right of the Jewish people to self determination in a state of their own and the right of return of Palestinian refugees to Israel proper. Israel would lose its Jewish majority and would no longer be able to maintain its claim of being a state for the Jewish people.
Palestinians also demand that Israel acknowledge its share of the responsibility for the refugee problem and express sorrow and a willingness to help to resolve the problem financially and otherwise. The gulf between Israelis and Palestinians on this issue is wider more than on any other issue. I am personally convinced that if the Palestinian leadership would be able to state that the refugee issue would be resolved by having the right of return implemented to the State of Palestine and other places, but not to Israel, the Government of Israel and Israeli society would be very willing to make the most dramatic compromises accepting most of Palestinian demands on all other issues including in Jerusalem. But this is very unlikely.
A Constructive proposal
There is a small group of Palestinian refugees who were recently forced out of Iraq. Some 240 Palestinian refugees are stranded in the desert in the most miserable conditions without any assistance and any hope. It would make a huge positive impact if Israel were to announce that it was willing for these refugees to be settled in the West Bank and that Israel would even provide some financial support for that purpose. Even without the financial support the gesture would be viewed as a real measure of building trust because it is an act of compassion when compassion is severely lacking. It would also be politically beneficial to Israel and would provide a living suggestion that it would be a lot more feasible to implement the right of return to Palestine than to Israel. If Israel had wise leaders with vision, they would accept this idea.
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.