Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa | Analysis

MIDEAST: Hot Air Brings no Winds of Change

Analysis by Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

JERUSALEM, Mar 9 2009 (IPS) - Last November, on the day marking the assassination of Israel’s peace-making leader Yitzhak Rabin, the now outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Israelis something which, for decades, not even Rabin had dared say – we must end the occupation of the Palestinian territories and return to the 1967 borders.

Olmert’s call sounded revolutionary, but it was rather hollow: he had himself been elected on the ticket to settle Israel’s permanent borders, yet never dared to put into practice what he preached. When he spoke out, Olmert was already on the way out.

Hollow, or not, was it an opportunity missed? Is it now a lost opportunity?

Israelis have since elected the hard Right to form their next government. The call to end occupation sounds more hollow still. The regression into hidebound positions has gone further: prime minister designate Benjamin Netanyahu resolutely resists committing to the two-state solution that has been part and parcel of formal Israeli policy with the Palestinians over the past 16 years.

But the further Israel seems intent on retreating, the more open the rest of the region seems to be to possibilities for compromise in keeping with the spirit of change being disseminated by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The signals – and the tangible moves – are coming thick and fast.

Just 48 hours after Clinton left the Muqata’a, the Palestinian Authority (PA) headquarters in Ramallah, PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad announced he was stepping down to facilitate power sharing talks between the rival Hamas and Fatah organisations.

Should the creation of an emergency unity government succeed, Israeli officials worry this will edge Hamas towards international legitimacy. Nor are Israeli concerns eased by the belief that the U.S. will recognise such a Palestinian government only if Fayyad – who is not aligned to either party – remains in charge. That was reportedly the pointed message Clinton relayed to Arab and European donor nations meeting in Egypt last week to plan the reconstruction of Gaza in the wake of Israel’s war on Hamas.

But the Palestinian reconciliation effort only assumed real significance because of U.S. support, and once there were clear indications that the Obama administration is intent on setting a series of dialogues in motion.

In the Middle East, it is perceptions and expectations that often generate change as much as actual events on the ground. Following the shift from Bush confrontation to Obama dialogue, perceptions and expectations are a- plenty. Thus, the dispatch of ranking U.S. emissaries to Damascus, the exhorting of Syria and Israel to resume Turkish-mediated talks and, on a broader plane, overtures to Russia and Iran – the former to get involved in containing Iranian nuclear ambitions, the latter to become engaged in Afghanistan. In similar vein, Britain’s dramatic move to engage in talks with Hizbullah in Lebanon.

At the heart of the matter, there has been Washington’s willingness to take Israel on by expressing serious dissatisfaction over its West Bank and east Jerusalem settlement policies. The Israeli mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, scoffed off the U.S. Secretary of State’s criticism of his plan to demolish several “illegally built” Palestinian homes as “just so much hot air.” More responsible Israeli officials do not conceal their concern. Of the distinct change in atmosphere, one official conceded, “it’s not going to be at all easy to argue with the U.S. on this.”

Does the fresh breeze blowing in from Washington add up to real winds of change? Real indications might well emerge from how the traditionally pro- U.S. moderate Arab states position themselves when the Arab League convenes for a summit in Qatar in three weeks time.

Over the decades, there have been few cardinal pan-Arab landmarks in respect of changing policy towards Israel. Mostly, a ‘do-nothing’ attitude prevailed. There were two strategic exceptions: the 1967 summit in Khartoum when the Arab world turned its back on negotiating an end to the conflict and, 35 years later in Beirut, when the entire Arab world took the diametrically opposite position, offering comprehensive peace provided Israel is ready to settle fully the question of Palestine.

By the time of the Doha summit, Netanyahu will almost certainly be at Israel’s helm. Thus far, he restricts himself to a nebulous “economic empowerment” initiative for the Palestinians in the West Bank and to “the need to eradicate Hamas.” He has given no indication he means to head off these winds of change with any ground-breaking initiative of his own.

For the past decade, successive Israeli leaders have dismissed not just Hamas, but the Palestinian Authority as a ‘non-partner’ in peace-making. Now, Netanyahu’s critics argue that, under him, Israel risks dismissing itself as a partner. Veteran Hebrew University political scientist Prof. Yehezkel Dror says bluntly: “Leaning on the Arab peace initiative, circumstances demand a comprehensive Israeli peace plan.”

Should Israel choose to do nothing, concerns over a Netanyahu ‘dig-in-your- heels policy’ could well deepen. And, Israelis may find themselves facing the same damning indictment pronounced against the Palestinians by Abba Eban, Israel’s long-serving foreign minister during the 1960s and 70s, that “they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”

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