MIDEAST: All Change, and Nothing Changes

  • Analysis by Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler (jerusalem)
  • Monday, March 30, 2009
  • Inter Press Service

Sixteen months ago, returning from the Annapolis peace summit that underlined the imperative of creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel, outgoing Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert warned bluntly, 'Two states, or Israel is done for.'

Ten months further on, and Olmert is 'done for' as Israel's prime minister. There's still no second state, no state of Palestine.

And, in the absence of a breakaway U.S. policy vis-à-vis Israel and the Palestinians, with Olmert's right-wing successor Benjamin Netanyahu steadfast in his refusal to commit even to the two-state principle, only a diehard optimist would dare argue it's a solution that might materialise in the foreseeable future.

Three years ago, hard on the heels of Ariel Sharon's total unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, Olmert was elected on the promise of a fresh start for the two-state solution: to carry out another unilateral withdrawal - of Israeli soldiers and settlers alike - this time in the West Bank.

But within three months of taking the helm in the summer of 2006, Olmert launched a war on Hizbullah and reneged on that promise. He turned his back on further withdrawals to a permanent border, even though the casus belli for that war was that the fundamentalist Islamic movement had violated Israel's border with Lebanon, an internationally recognised border after another unilateral withdrawal (in May 2000).

Olmert used a similar justification - border violations - for launching last December's ruthless war on Hamas in Gaza, except that in this case the casus belli was not quite so legitimate: Olmert hadn't carried out his promised withdrawal from the other part of the Palestinian Territories. There are no internationally recognized borders between Palestine and Israel. Israel continues to occupy the West Bank.

On the diplomatic front, Olmert boasts he came within touching distance of completing peace deals not only with the Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas but also with Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad. True, he engaged diplomatically both the Palestinians and Syria. But, whether his commitment to the two-state solution and his readiness to give up the Golan Heights was genuine, or whether cowardice and incompetence rather than ideology accounts for the failure to produce either or both peace deals, is immaterial.

Either way, Olmert leaves a damaged legacy - not only of inconclusive wars in Gaza and Lebanon, but of failed diplomacy. His call championing the two- state solution sounds hollow. Olmert may have constantly espoused the imperative of peace. In practice, all his policies were geared to strengthening Israel's deterrence in the wake of the two unilateral withdrawals. The end result, though, is that his policy has simply deterred the prospect of his most fundamental position - the need to vacate most of the West Bank and the two-state solution - from being implemented any time soon.

The tangible results of his foreign policy are all in the realm of military action. That is underlined not just by the two wars but by three high-risk actions further afield - the assassination in Damascus of Hizbullah operations chief Imad Mughniyeh, the bombing of an alleged Syrian nuclear reactor in-the-making, and the recently disclosed air attacks in Sudan, reportedly on Iranian missiles being smuggled to Hamas.

Responsibility for the persisting diplomatic paralysis should not, however, be laid at the door of Olmert alone. Efforts to set the region on a less confrontational path have consistently been undermined by facts on the ground.

Half a year after Annapolis, internal strife wracked the Palestinian Authority; the two competing Palestinian liberation movements, Fatah and Hamas, battled for power. The June 2007 violent Hamas takeover of Gaza (after it had won the elections there in 2006), plus the fact that they have yet to reconcile, accounts at least partially for rendering irrelevant the Annapolis parameters of the two-state solution.

Another policy to have fallen prey to the region's rifts and to the shifts of power is the Arab League initiative for a comprehensive peace in exchange for total Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories. That 2002 Arab League decision in Beirut was the first attempt to construct a cohesive Arab peace strategy towards Israel as a replacement for the negative positions struck in Khartoum in the wake of the 1967 Middle East War.

When U.S. President Barack Obama - then president-aspirant Obama - visited the region last summer, he expressed astonishment that Israel had not responded positively to the Arab League peace offer. Inclined though he may be to dialogue rather than confrontation as a means of settling disputes, President Obama might have to put the onus for unblocking the diplomatic stalemate as much on Arab divisions as on the policies adopted by the new Israeli government.

Obama may have no alternative but to take Palestinian divisions into account should they remain unresolved at the Arab summit or in its wake. In contrast, Israel's prime minister-designate is positively banking on such rifts continuing. Not that it will cut much ice with the international community which demands of Netanyahu that he take into account the stringent Olmert 'Two states or Israel is done for' warning.

Whatever the Palestinians do or do not do, whatever the ideological inclinations of Israel's new prime minister, the onus will be on him to do what Olmert did not do - make a real bid to make the two-state solution a reality.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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