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Siegman: ‘Difficult to Be Optimistic’ About Current Israeli-Palestinian Situation

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Henry Siegman, Former Senior Fellow and Former Director for the U.S./Middle East Project
September 26, 2005

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At a time of political ferment both within the Palestinians’ newly controlled Gaza Strip and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Likud Party, Henry Siegman, the director of the Council’s U.S./Middle East Project, sees little grounds for much optimism.

“When you look at what’s happening on the ground both in the Palestinian community and with Sharon himself, it’s difficult to be optimistic,” says Siegman, a senior fellow at the Council. He says a major factor that is often overlooked by outsiders looking in on the Palestinian side is the role played by the Palestinian “street.” He says the Palestinian militant group Hamas agreed to a ceasefire last weekend not to support Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, but because they knew the Palestinian public “suffered too intensely as a result of the intifada” and that Hamas would be blamed if the situation worsens before Abbas’ diplomatic approach toward peace with Israel is given a chance.

As to the crisis in the Likud Party, Siegman says that even though Sharon narrowly won Monday’s vote by the party’s central committee not to call an early Likud leadership election, he may still quit the party and form a more centrist coalition that would be heavily favored to win a new election.

He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor cfr.org, on September 26, 2005.

Since the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in August, there’s been a lot of political and military activity both in the Palestinian territories and in Israel and a lot of questions have come up. Which are the most important?

There are indeed important political and security issues that are coming into sharper focus since the evacuation of Gaza was completed. I think one needs to say upfront that the evacuation itself was extraordinarily successful, beyond anyone’s expectations, including [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon’s and the IDF’s [Israeli Defense Forces]. So I think the kudos that Sharon, the IDF, and the Israeli police have received for the manner in which they handled the evacuation—what Sharon calls “unilateral disengagement from Gaza”—are well deserved.

But as you indicated, certain short-term issues have now come into focus. Some of these questions relate to the ability of the Palestinian Authority, particularly President Mahmoud Abbas, to take control of the situation, which is to say to really implement what he said was his goal—namely, “One Law, One Gun.” In other words, he needs to establish some order, some stability, and the rule of law in Gaza—the one area that the Palestinian Authority now controls.

Why has he been unable to control either Hamas or the Islamist Jihad factions?

He has not been able to control them so far for several reasons. First, he’s not [former Palestinian leader Yasir] Arafat—he doesn’t enjoy the kind of popular support that any Palestinian leader would need to take on Hamas and the risks entailed in doing that. He has often said, “We’re not prepared to start a civil war.”

Perhaps even more important is the fact that during the course of the intifada, Israel has destroyed the Palestinian Authority’s capacity to take on Hamas. They don’t have the equipment. The U.S. asked Israel to permit the rearming and equipping of those forces, under the supervision of General William Ward [who was appointed by the Quartet—the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations—to assist the reconstruction of the Palestinian security forces]. So far, Israel has not allowed this, except very minimally.

And at this point, if Abbas were to try to “dismantle” Hamas’ terrorist infrastructure, he would lose. So there is a frantic effort underway to enhance his capacity to combat violence, and that entails, as you know, the consolidation of the [Palestinian] security forces—bringing them under the control of the interior minister, General Nasser Yusuf, who is not the most skilled and competent person. He’s an honest man; he always had a reputation for integrity and honesty, and that’s why Arafat shunned him. But he has not shown an ability to consolidate the security forces and to reorganize them. To this day, they remain a law unto themselves.

Now, working in Abbas’ favor is the fact that the Palestinian public suffered so intensely as a result of the intifada. They are tired of the violence and desperately want some normalcy. They still believe Abbas’ policy of relying on diplomacy rather than on violence could produce significant improvements in their lives.

Of all of the factors that people look at when reaching conclusions about where this may go, the one that is most underestimated and even ignored is the influence of the Palestinian public. If Hamas agreed last February to observe the informal ceasefire—called taadyah [the Arabic word for a pause]—they did so not because they feared the Palestinian Authority or President Mahmoud Abbas, but because they pay careful attention to the mood on the streets. They know that if the situation becomes worse before giving Abbas a chance to test his approach and to show results, they will be blamed for Palestinian suffering. That would be a serious setback for Hamas. I believe that, too, is part of the reason Hamas announced very quickly Sunday that they would cease their Qassam [rocket] assaults on Israel over the Gaza border.

Let’s move to Israel proper. On Monday there was an election within the Likud Central Committee on the ostensible question of whether the party primaries should be moved to November instead of next spring. But the real issue was a challenge from the more extreme faction of the Likud Party led by Sharon’s former Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. There has been some speculation that if Sharon lost, he might quit Likud and form his own party, but Sharon won narrowly. So what are the implications of all this?

The early pre-election polls in Israel suggested Sharon would lose badly to Netanyahu in the Central Committee vote to bring forward the Likud party’s primaries, an outcome that would constitute a rejection of Sharon’s leadership by the Likud Central Committee. Apparently, a sufficient measure of political sanity and an instinct for political self-preservation prevailed, and Central Committee members voted by a thin margin to allow Sharon to serve out his full term.

However, the Likud remains a deeply, even bitterly divided party, and it is not clear that it is a governable party, or a party that can govern. The Israeli media reports that despite Sharon’s announcement that he will run for the Likud chairmanship in the party’s primaries next April, he is still considering the possibility of forming a new centrist party in coalition with Labor and Shinui, or elements from those two parties.

For those who count on Sharon to restart the peace process, his victory in the Likud is not necessarily good news. A Sharon who remains the head of the Likud and faces a bitter Likud primary in April for the chairmanship of the party is likely to be responsive to Likud hardliners, and therefore might seek to outdo Netanyahu on the right. A Sharon who seeks to mobilize centrist supporters for a new centrist party doesn’t need to do that.

Where do we go from here?

Despite Sharon’s posturing as a born-again centrist, it is not at all clear what Sharon’s goal is when it comes to the peace process. His most important adviser, Dov Weissglas, famously said a year ago that the purpose of the withdrawal is to avoid a return to the peace process and to retain Israeli control over the West Bank. While visiting the United States last week to attend the UN summit, Sharon said that Israel would not agree to resume permanent-status talks with the Palestinians for many years to come. Until then—his high-minded declarations about his commitment to a two-state solution and the Road Map [peace plan] notwithstanding—he intended to continue expanding settlements, expropriating Palestinian land for the security fence, closing off all of East Jerusalem to the West Bank, and pursuing measures that will carve up a prospective Palestinian state into a number of isolated enclaves.

Had the U.S. government taken note of this?

The Bush administration made pro forma statements reminding Israel of its obligations under the Road Map, but so far has given no indication that these statements are more than empty rhetoric. If the Bush administration allows Sharon to proceed with these unilateral measures intended to preempt a political process, then the Gaza withdrawal—for which he was lionized at the UN—will be seen in historical perspective as nothing more than a stratagem that put an end to the two-state vision.

If Sharon will form a new party, will it be a more centrist coalition?

If Sharon decides to leave the Likud and to form a new coalition, it will certainly be a more centrist coalition. And there is a possibility that it will include both Shimon Peres’s Labor party and Tomy Lapid’s Shinui party, or at least elements from these two parties. Not only that, polls have indicated that were Sharon to form a new party, it would be the strongest party in Israel and would form the next government. So if Sharon and Netanyahu were to face off in the next election, the polls now say that he would win by a significant margin.

But he would have to make some commitment, I would think to Peres in particular, on future diplomatic steps, yes?

If the past is any indication, he doesn’t have to make any promises to Peres. The only promise he has to make is that he’ll give him an important-sounding title.

My, you’re cynical.

Has Labor exacted any promises for joining the government now? The answer is no. You know, one would think that Labor could not support the building of the barrier fence on Palestinian land and that they could not support the continued expansion of settlements and the vast network of infrastructure; all of these activities are very much against the position of the Labor party. One would think they could not support the resumption of targeted assassinations [of Palestinian militants], which within the past twenty-four, forty-eight hours have taken place. And yet, nobody from the Labor Party has said anything. I don’t expect the Labor party will impose conditions. Shimon Peres and the Labor party said when they joined this government, “We’re joining for one reason only, and that is to ensure Israel gets out of Gaza. The moment we get out of Gaza, we’re out of the government.” Have you had any indication that they’re leaving? So it’s not cynicism; it’s a view based on their past record.

What would you say, over the next six months to a year—are you optimistic or pessimistic about the possibilities ahead?  

If Sharon wishes to use the Gaza withdrawal as a first step toward a resumption of the peace process that finally puts an end to the conflict, he is the man who could do it. He is in a better position than any other politician in Israel today to pull that off. So, even if one is highly suspicious of the man and his motives, one has to keep hoping this is really what he has in mind, because no one else in Israel today can do it.

However, when you look realistically at the various factors at play here—the ability of Abbas to get the Palestinian house in order and to control Hamas, Sharon’s unwillingness to empower Abbas by easing the many constraints Israel has placed on the lives of Palestinians, Sharon’s unwillingness to end the enlargement of settlements and to restart the peace process—when you look at all of that, it is difficult to be optimistic.

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