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Siegman: Palestine Government’s Future May Hinge on Fate of Israeli Soldier

Interviewee: Henry Siegman, Former Senior Fellow and Former Director for the U.S./Middle East Project
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
June 28, 2006

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Henry Siegman, a leading expert on Israeli-Palestinian affairs, says that the current Israeli military moves into Gaza to seek the release of a kidnapped soldier may have a significant impact on the future of the Palestinian government. It could affect the future of Ehud Olmert's government as well.

"While one can make certain general observations about how each influences the other, there is much that is open-ended and unpredictable at the moment," says Siegman, a CFR senior fellow. "A lot depends on what happens to the soldier [Cpl. Gilad Shalit] who was kidnapped: whether he is killed or not, whether he is returned, how he is returned, and what role Abu Mazen (President Mahmoud Abbas) and Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister of the Palestinian Authority government, will have in the outcome of this search for the kidnapped soldier." Siegman says both Palestinian leaders could emerge from the crisis strengthened if the soldier is returned alive due to their intervention.

Israeli forces entered southern Gaza in search of a kidnapped Israeli soldier. Meanwhile, diplomacy between Hamas and Fatah has resulted apparently in a draft agreement to put aside some differences and accept a unified plan which seems to accept the State of Israel and thereby meet some of the international concerns over recognition of Hamas' government. How do you interpret these events?

While one can make certain general observations about how each influences the other, there is much that is open-ended and unpredictable at the moment. A lot depends on what happens to the soldier [Cpl. Gilad Shalit] who was kidnapped: whether he is killed or not, whether he is returned, how he is returned, and what role Abu Mazen (President Mahmoud Abbas) and Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister of the Palestinian Authority government will have in the outcome of this search for the kidnapped soldier. They could come out strengthened—both of them—if he is returned alive due to their intervention.

Do they have to get Palestinian prisoners released?

In the past, there were instances when Israel's government refused to make deals with kidnappers and the hostages were killed. There were also instances when Israel paid very heavily for such exchanges, particularly the one that former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon approved in 2004.

With Lebanon?

Exactly—where large numbers of prisoners were released [400 Palestinians, and twenty Lebanese, and many bodies] and they were released for three dead Israeli soldiers and a businessman. So you have both. The outcome of this may have a serious impact on the future of both Mahmoud Abbas' and Ismail Haniyeh's relations with Israel. It will also have a very serious impact on this Israeli government. If the outcome is seen as bad and badly handled, this could be a very serious blow to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his government.

Why do you think Olmert moved so quickly with force? Do you think he felt that time was running out or was the political pressure so intense that he had to act?

He apparently believes there is great domestic political pressure on him. I think part of the problem is that neither he nor his defense minister, Amir Peretz, is seen by the Israeli public as military people, whose military judgment in situations such as this can be trusted. This may or may not be true, but they themselves feel vulnerable on that score. Consequently, they want to appear tough and strong. They do not believe that they can take risks that a Sharon, for example, was prepared to take by waiting and by even returning lots of prisoners in return for very few people. It is that domestic vulnerability that may determine in unfortunate ways how Olmert and his government deal with this crisis.

Clearly, the United States is urging calm and the Europeans are doing the same. But they do not seem to have any impact, have they?

Well, it has an impact, particularly if the United States were to follow up public declarations, by saying privately to the Israelis, "This time we really mean it." The United States has so often made public statements on this issue that sound very statesmanlike, where both parties knew this was just PR, and the United States was in effect giving Israel a free hand. So I don't know to what extent the United States is sending a serious message to Israel: "Be careful and don't rush into military activity before you have given the diplomatic process a chance to do its work." As you know, there are a number of teams at work there. There is an Egyptian team, a French team, because, interestingly, this hostage happens to have French citizenship, and there is the European [Union]. They are all at work trying to find a nonviolent solution.

Do you accept the premise that the military action by this Palestinian group was taken under the orders of the Hamas group in Damascus headed by Khaled Meshal?

No. From what I have read and what I have heard in discussions with people who are close to the situation, I believe that this action was taken by a rogue group within the Hamas military wing. The central authority in the Hamas military wing is still responsive to the authority of the political establishment within the Palestinian Authority. But there are groups within the Izz Al-Din Al-Qassam brigades, the Hamas military wing, that no longer accept that central authority.

There are rogue groups that do not take directions from Prime Minister Haniyeh and prefer dealing with Khaled Meshal in Damascus. He, of course, has taken a harder line than Haniyeh. Haniyeh, according to Israeli sources, tried immediately to put a stop to the hostage episode, warned the hostage-takers not to harm the Israeli soldier, and is doing everything he can to get him back. He has a real interest in doing this. If he delivers, he will have some real leverage for reestablishing a serious dialogue, at least with Europeans and the larger international community. So he wants to deliver. But I also have been told that Meshal in Damascus did not know about this operation in advance and did not order it, but the militants were in touch with him once they did this.

Interesting. What about the discussions between Abu Mazen and Haniyeh? Will the two factions now put aside their differences?

Again, it looks like it, but there are conceivable outcomes to this hostage story that may create deeper divisions between the two and may make their leadership vis-à-vis the peace process and contacts with Israel even more problematic and more irrelevant. So we don't know where this is going. But at the moment the hostage crisis played a role in convincing Abbas and Haniyeh to soften their differences and to agree on a document that at least can be said to implicitly recognize the State of Israel. That is an important change for Hamas.

It has not been formally signed.

It has not been formalized, so it has not been issued yet. But the spokesmen for both Mahmoud Abbas and for Ismail Haniyeh have confirmed that there is such an agreement and it is about to be released.

Why is it an important document?

It is an important document because the worst that could happen—from the Palestinian perspective, in my view—would be if Mahmoud Abbas allows himself to be used by Israel and by the West as an instrument for destabilizing, undermining and bringing down the current government that is led by Haniyeh. That would make Abbas entirely useless as a mediator for the Palestinian cause with Israel. Palestinians would see him as a Benedict Arnold. They would see him as someone who is essentially a collaborator with the government of Israel, not much different from the Lebanese army that collaborated and was set up by the government of Israel [in the 1980s]. It seems to me Abbas has already gone too far in allowing himself to be used in this way, with nothing to show for it.

As long as Abbas thought that the prisoner statement [a document issued by prisoners in Israeli prisons which, in effect, called for acceptance of a two-state solution], which he embraced, would receive a clear majority in a popular referendum, he wanted the referendum, in part, for narrow political advantage in order to get Fatah, his own party, back in government. But if he brought down the Hamas-led government, Fatah could not win the next election. In any case, he seems to have backed away from the referendum idea, largely because the polls have now indicated he is going to lose it.

I did not realize the polls were against the referendum.

Yes. Early on I expressed serious doubt that Abbas' majority on the subject reported by the polls was going to hold because he would increasingly be seen as doing Israel's work. This has, in fact, happened. So now he cannot win the referendum; he is going to lose it because the authors of the referendum, the prisoners, have withdrawn their support for the document. They have said, "He is using it in ways we did not intend. Consequently, we are calling on Palestinians to defeat such a referendum." So he has changed course and is now prepared to deal with Hamas to establish a unity government. That is all to the good.

But if there is a Palestinian unity government, Israel still won't deal with it, will it?

No. Olmert has made it absolutely clear that he does not consider the prisoners' statement to be of any interest to him or of any relevance to the peace process. He has dismissed it totally and unqualifiedly. So Palestinians have no illusions. They don't believe that once they form a unity government, Israel will begin a serious peace process. I have argued for a long time that the strategic goal, first of Sharon and now of Ehud Olmert, is to avoid a peace process. Palestinians understand that even if most Americans don't. In any event, from the Palestinian perspective, forming a unity government is vital to ending internal divisions because without such unity, it is impossible to put an end to the chaos and the violence that is taking place within the Palestinian territories, and it is also impossible to advance the national Palestinian agenda.

While Palestinians will not be able to get Olmert and his government to respond positively to this new document, they hope that the Europeans and other members of the "road map" Quartet will. As a consequence of their adopting this document, which implicitly recognizes Israel and establishes a unity government, they hope to ease the sanctions that have devastated Palestinian life and that international assistance to the Palestinian community will be resumed.

Is there any chance the United States will soften its position?

So far the United States has refused to make the kind of categorical statement rejecting this prisoners' document that Israel has. The United States said it will have to look at the document when it is issued before it decides its reaction. But I don't think it is likely that they will accept it as a basis for resumed international assistance. Certainly, the U.S. Congress won't, for it is more under the control of Ehud Olmert than is Israel's parliament.

Come back to that last statement. You are saying Olmert does not really have a strong control of his own parliament?

Of course he doesn't. He has very strong opposition both on the left and on the right. For example, the main feature of his election platform was what he called his "convergence plan," which is to close down settlements that are distant from the former Green Line, and to establish a new border, which presumably would become the border that Israel will insist is the international border of the Palestinian state, which it will have set unilaterally.

Because of the criticism from both the left and the right, and especially in the wake of this latest development—here again is where the two issues affect one another—there is now very strong opposition, for different reasons, to this whole idea of withdrawing unilaterally, without getting an agreement with the Palestinians beforehand. So most observers in Israel think the possibility of implementing his convergence plan has largely disappeared.

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