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Siegman: Olmert’s Latest Speech Marks New Conciliatory Tone to Palestinians But ‘Magic Word’ Missing

Interviewee: Henry Siegman, Former Senior Fellow and Former Director for the U.S./Middle East Project
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
November 29, 2006

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Henry Siegman, a leading expert on Israeli-Palestinian affairs, says that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s recent speech reflected a “surprisingly radical change in tone,” but in substance “it’s quite true that there was very little new.” Siegman, who also is visiting professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London, asks, ”What motivated him to make this new positive conciliatory initiative? Simply to avoid being trapped in a peace process he really doesn’t want, or is there really something new—that Israel must finally offer a credible political horizon to Palestinians?”

Following a Palestinian-announced cease-fire against Israel, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gave a rather forthcoming speech the other day, which some observers regarded as an important new initiative to the Palestinians, while others said it contained the same old stuff. What’s your interpretation of the situation?

I think Olmert’s language, the music as it were, was different. Instead of threatening the Palestinians with dire consequences if they continue on what Olmert considers to be a bad path, he spoke in a very conciliatory way. The tone certainly was quite different and unexpected because it came within a context, going back even to the war in Lebanon in July, which has found Olmert to be very confrontational with all of Israel’s enemies: Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas.

This was a surprisingly radical change in tone. When you look more carefully at the specifics of what he said, it’s quite true that there was very little new in the speech. He has said on various occasions virtually everything he had to say at Sde Boker. So there are some very large questions that are left unanswered, namely whether this is simply a resort to a diversionary tactic in order to appease this rising international chorus demanding a more forceful intervention in the Israeli-Palestinian situation. He has been warned by his foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, and other members of his cabinet that if Israel doesn’t have its own proposal, then it risks being trapped in a process not of its making.

Therefore, the question is: What motivated him to make this new positive conciliatory initiative? Simply to avoid being trapped in a peace process he really doesn’t want, or is there really something new—that Israel must finally offer a credible political horizon to Palestinians?

What is happening on the Palestinian side? Today there are reports that the latest talks between Hamas and Fatah for a unity government have broken down again because of disagreements over which side should have key ministerial posts. Secretary of State [Condoleezza] Rice is meeting with Palestinian Authority Chairman [President] Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday in Jericho. And there is still some small but annoying rocket fire from Gaza into Israel despite an announced cease-fire. Do you think that Palestinians can get their act together long enough to get anything going?

First, I have to give Olmert credit for not jumping on these violations too quickly and saying the deal is off, that Palestinians haven’t lived up to their commitments. Instead he said, in keeping with this new tone that I referred to earlier, “We have to give them a chance to get their act together. They cannot implement this new course all that quickly.” So I think he needs to be commended for that. On the Palestinian side, of course, unity talks have broken down not once but many, many times over the past several months. There is great pressure on both Fatah and Hamas to make the compromises necessary to make a unity government work and I believe in the end they probably will.

I must also repeat what I have always maintained—that it is a terrible mistake for U.S. policy, and certainly Israel policy, to seek to overthrow Hamas, because Hamas brings certain important strengths to the table that Fatah does not have. Hamas was one of the earliest critics of Palestinian corruption and advocated institutional reform. They never accepted the argument that the Palestinian national movement takes precedence over the creation of an honest and effective government. They themselves have a tradition of honest government and of providing effective social services. And most importantly, if they were to reach an accommodation with Israel, everyone agrees that it would be widely honored, for no one could accuse Hamas of being insufficiently zealous in advancing the Palestinian cause. None of these strengths can be ascribed to Fatah.

Since it is clear that no progress can be made without the establishment of a new Palestinian unity government, it is incomprehensible how Washington expects this to happen even as it encourages Mahmoud Abbas to seek to overthrow the Hamas government, with both Israel and the United States providing Abbas with additional military capacity to do so.

The insistence of Olmert and President Bush that Hamas must fully meet the conditions imposed for the lifting  of the draconian boycott on the Palestinian Authority guarantees that even if Palestinians succeed in forming this unity government, nothing will change. For why would Hamas agree to accept all previous agreements if Israel is allowed to violate them? The road map clearly prohibits the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and Israel’s continued construction in east Jerusalem is intended to foreclose a Palestinian presence there, again in violation of the road map.   Insofar as both Israeli violations are intended to create irreversible facts on the ground, they constitute far more egregious impediments to a peace process than Hamas’ refusal to recognize Israel’s legitimacy, which can be reversed at any point simply by uttering a few words.

That said, it must also be said that Hamas’ behavior has been irrational and damaging to the Palestinian national cause and hurtful to the Palestinian people. For it is one thing for Hamas to refuse to declare its recognition of Israel’s “legitimacy”—as much a theological as a political matter. After all, even Olmert, when he last addressed the U.S. Congress, asserted the legitimacy of Israel’s claim to all of Palestine based on biblical sources.

But Hamas is obligated by virtue of its assumption of governmental responsibility to declare—at the very least—that it has no intention of seeking to recover Palestinian territory within the internationally recognized boundaries of the state of Israel on condition that Israel declares its acceptance of the legitimacy of Palestinian claims to the pre-1967 Palestinian territories, and that it will not seek to hold on to any of those territories without Palestinian agreement.

That is a position the international community would have to accept as a sufficient condition for normalizing political and economic ties with the Hamas-led government.

If so minimal a concession is beyond Hamas’ capacity, then its declared commitment to the well-being of the Palestinian people and for the advancement of its national cause should require it to hand over the keys of government to Fatah. Otherwise, its insistence on holding onto power would prove it is not much different than its predecessors, who held onto power for its own sake and for personal advantage.

Let’s talk about American policy. You’ve been consistently unhappy with the Bush administration’s reluctance to get deeply involved in any serious efforts to bringing the sides together. Secretary of State Rice is going to meet with Abbas, but it’s not even clear if she will go to Jerusalem to meet with Olmert on this trip. Is the United States making a big mistake in this?

To me it’s clear the United States has made a terrible mistake in being as aloof as it has been and in being so totally one-sided, approving essentially everything this particular Israeli government is doing. One could be cynical about this and say actually the accusation that the president and the White House have not been sufficiently engaged is a lie because there have been several dramatic examples of American engagement. One of them was an insistence that Israel reject the Syrian peace initiative. This is something the administration has done vigorously. In other words, the administration does unfortunately engage seriously when it comes to preventing progress in the peace process. The same was true when the administration insisted the war in Lebanon continue and not be ended prematurely. But when it comes to advancing the peace process, this administration has been entirely disengaged and I think we’re paying a terrible price for that.

So if you look down the road here could you make any forecast of what’s apt to happen? Are we going to wait another two years for a new president and a new administration?

I think it’s possible that it is not just more pleasant music we are hearing from Olmert, that this time around, for a variety of reasons, he is prepared to go beyond previous positions and to allow a bilateral process to go forward—not a unilateral Israel process to set Israel’s borders. The problem is that so far he has not said the “magic word” that suggests there is seriousness to this initiative that was lacking in previous initiatives. What I mean by that is he said in his speech at the Ben Gurion memorial, “We will agree to leave large territories in the West Bank and dismantle settlements that we’ve established in exchange for real peace.”

The truth of the matter is that for “real peace” Israel will have to do much better than leave “large territories” in the West Bank. It will have to accept the pre-1967 lines as the starting point of the negotiations. That is what has shot down every previous peace initiative—namely the fact that Israel unilaterally expanded its settlements in occupied lands and keeps expanding them even now as we speak. So the big question is whether Israel or its prime minister and government are finally prepared to bite the bullet and to say, “Let’s have a genuine bilateral process as required by the road map and begin that process at the pre-1967 line. The border can be changed, but it has to be done by agreement, and whatever settlements stay in place must be compensated for with land that Israel exchanges in return for such Palestinian concessions.” That approach has yet to be articulated by Olmert, and that’s going to be the test, because without it no peace process can go forth.

How does Jerusalem fit into that, is it included in the pre-1967 borders?

Jerusalem is a separate issue. That raises another problem because what the road map also will not allow is for any party to remove a permanent status issue from the negotiations. The future of Jerusalem, which part of it will become an Arab capital and where you draw that line, is one of the key permanent status issues, which neither party can determine on its own. It must be agreed between the two parties. The Israeli construction taking place in east Jerusalem is explicitly intended to remove that permanent status issue from the table. So this too is a necessary precondition for a successful peace process.

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