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May 02, 2007 -

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Upcoming Event

Reviving the Peace Process in the Wake of the Winograd Report

Wednesday, May 02 -
The Brookings Institution
Falk Auditorium

1775 Massachusetts Ave., NW
Washington, DC

Summary:

A Senior Israeli official spoke off the record about the necessity of resuming the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the aftermath of the recently published Interim Report of the Winograd Committee into the conduct of the Israel-Hizballah war of 2006. While much attention has been given to the political ramifications of Winograd, the true relevance of the inquiry is its analysis of why the Israel failed during the war with Hizballah during the summer of 2006. Furthermore, the current debate about who should be in government distracts from the pressing question of what policies the government should pursue.

The report blames Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, and former Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces Dan Halutz. However, according to the senior Israeli official, despite this emphasis on the failings of the Israeli leadership, there are significant unanswered questions regarding defense policy. These include examining the reasons for the insufficient resources provided to the Israeli military from 2003 to 2006 and Israeli decision to withdraw unilaterally from south Lebanon in 2000.

According to the senior Israeli official, it is important to understand the context of the major demonstration against the Olmert government held in Tel Aviv on May 3, 2007. For some, the proximate cause of the protest was political discontent, rather than frustration about the handling of the Israel-Hizballah war. This political discontent comes from a right-wing constituency that objects to the liberal policies of the government and wants to capitalize on the current leadership crisis to effect a change in government. A second group is generally unhappy with the situation in Israel but does not articulate a desired solution.

The senior Israeli official remarked that this dissatisfaction is unfortunate because the pro-peace inclinations of the current Israeli government provide a window of opportunity to resume peace negotiations. In the Knesset, there is a strong majority for peace. The 70 to 50 split for peace represents an even larger majority than under the late Yitzhak Rabin.

However, early elections are possible and these may eliminate the current coalition for peace. Early elections are likely to herald the return of a right-wing government under Benjamin Netanyahu. Furthermore, the risks presented by such an occurrence extend beyond the peace process. The region is already highly unstable and missteps by a right-wing government might shatter the region’s already tenuous balance.

Regardless of these possible negative developments, the speaker maintained that the most relevant question is not who will be at the helm of the government but rather what platform they will pursue. Israel must revive the peace process and thereby taking advantage of a more supportive regional environment. The Israeli government and public should engage in a serious conversation about negotiating final status issues with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Negotiations must cover critical issues and demonstrate a political horizon to the Palestinians. There are numerous benefits from this strategy. Real progress towards a final status agreement will deliver a blow to Hamas. Additionally, bold negotiations can strengthen the Israeli government.

Discussion:

The discussion fleshed out the prospects for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians and framed the Israeli-Palestinian situation within a regional context. The Middle East has changed. The Arab League has moderated significantly over the years, despite the attitudes of the current Arab League Secretary-General, and Israel should take advantage of the opportunity provided by the reintroduction of the Arab League Peace Initiative. However, the Arab League Peace Initiative should be dealt with through serious deliberations rather than accepted as a final offer.

On the Israeli side, there is much to motivate action. The problems caused by unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and south Lebanon point to the necessity of a negotiated solution. Furthermore, the public largely supports a peace deal that is similar to that detailed by the December 2000 Clinton Parameters, and Olmert was elected with a mandate to withdraw from the West Bank. Although a participant questioned the feasibility of a further Israeli withdrawal in current circumstances, the senior Israeli official argued that the government must embark on serious negotiations. The senior Israeli official advocated this despite the upcoming Israeli Labor Party primaries on May 28, 2007. The primaries may delay negotiations; however, several of the candidates are strong supporters of final status negotiations and the process must resume by early summer.

Hamas’ ascendancy presents a further imperative for negotiations with Abbas. A vibrant political process would demonstrate the benefits of moderation and present the Palestinians with a viable alternative to the disastrous position created under Hamas leadership.

The senior Israeli official displayed deep concerns about Hamas. For Israel, the emergence of an entirely Hamas-controlled Palestinian Authority would be unacceptable. Khaled Meshal, the Hamas leader based in Damascus, is presenting himself as a moderate to further his goal of taking control of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The opposition of Mahmoud Zahar, the former Hamas appointed Palestinian foreign minister, to the Palestinian national unity government is part of the trend of weakening Palestinian institutions in which Abbas’ Fatah movement plays a role. The senior Israeli official noted that the core tension between Hamas and Fatah is not their policies towards Israel but their strongly divergent visions for Palestinian society.

Hamas must be isolated and the embargo against the group should be maintained. Working with Hamas will be counterproductive as it will prevent the very emergence of the moderate Palestinian politics that negotiations with President Abbas can foster. Meanwhile, policies to help Abbas and his governing institutions at the expense of Hamas should be pursued. Economic progress in the Palestinian territories could will take a severe political toll on Hamas.

The discussion considered the utility of peace talks with Syria. The senior Israeli official expressed a clear preference for pursuing talks with the Palestinians before negotiations with Syria. Resolving the Palestinian conflict is more important and more plausible. Furthermore, it can lead to positive ramifications in Israeli-Arab ties more broadly due to the salience of the Palestinian issue in the Arab world. While Israel cannot give up the Golan Heights before any concessions from Syria, there are confidence-building measures available to Syria to demonstrate its interest in peace—measures Syria has not taken. Still, the senior Israeli official argued that the lack of discussion with Syria was an Israeli decision and that if Israel felt there was gain to be had from talks with Syria, then it would likely pursue them regardless of American cautions.

The senior Israeli official conveyed a sense of independence from U.S. policy in other regards. Although he spoke highly of the work of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and General Keith W. Dayton, the U.S. Security Coordinator for the Palestinians, he argued that third party assistance cannot be a substitute for the necessary progress between Israelis and Palestinians. The basis for negotiations is clear and Israeli and Palestinian leaderships must act.

The discussion also covered other strategic threats including those presented by the military buildups by Syria, Iran, and Hizballah and the effect of a possible U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in the near future. Iraq policy is an internal U.S. domestic political issue, but Israel is concerned of the effect that a withdrawal might have on Jordan, whose stability is a vital Israeli national interest. Jordan has to be prepared for an inflow of terrorism from Iraq. Furthermore, the senior Israeli official argued that Iran is likely to make any U.S. withdrawal from Iraq as difficult and humiliating as possible.

The senior Israeli official was clear that, along with an entirely Hamas-controlled Palestinian Authority, a nuclear armed Iran is unacceptable. As with Hamas, so with the current Iranian regime, ideology matters and makes a nuclear-armed Iran a vital threat to Israel. The senior Israeli official therefore called for regime change in Iran, a regime change to be implemented through sanctions or a domestic democratic revolution, rather than through military means. The Iranian people, he observed, have twice overthrown regimes in the recent past. According to the senior Israeli official, Israel recognizes that it might be forced to deal with a nuclear Iran alone. If so, it reserves the right to take the necessary measures unilaterally.

The senior Israeli official argued that the central lesson of the Israel-Hizballah war is the necessity of military preparedness. Disputing the notion that Israeli leaders’ lack of military experience affected the outcome of the war, the senior Israeli official argued that the war demonstrated that responsible leadership is of paramount importance. A military background is no guarantee of sound leadership.