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Simon: Crisis Aggravated by Weak Israeli and Palestinian Governments

Interviewee: Steven Simon, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
July 5, 2006

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Steven Simon, a leading Middle East expert for CFR, says the crisis over the abduction of an Israeli soldier by Palestinian militants may drag on for some time because of the "two new and essentially weak governments competing with each other, and with domestic rivals, for some kind of sustainable authority within their respective countries." He says Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will not negotiate a prisoner exchange and the Hamas leadership is fractured and unlikely to turn over the prisoner unconditionally.

He says the United States should put some pressure on Olmert to talk with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has so far been left out of any discussions. Such talks, says Simon, "might strengthen Abbas' hand within the Palestinian political framework" and "improve chances for Shalit's release."

It's been about ten days since the Israeli soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, was captured by Palestinian militants, or terrorists, however you want to call them. This has led to an escalation of words and actions, particularly by the Israelis, who have been stepping up their military activity in Gaza leading some people to think that perhaps Israel is going to end up reoccupying parts of Gaza. What's your general impression of this whole confrontation?

In a way it was inevitable because you have two new and essentially weak governments competing with each other, and with domestic rivals, for some kind of sustainable authority within their respective countries. This makes it extremely difficult for the authorities on either side to back down. And the two contenders have staked out fairly extreme positions. On the Israeli side, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said that he wants to rewrite the rules of the game.

Which means?

He hasn't made this explicit, but what is implicit is that Hamas, which heads the Palestinian government, will be gutted, and its ability to challenge Israel on the one side, and the secularists [in Palestine] on the other, will be sharply reduced or eliminated.

I thought he wanted no negotiations at all on prisoners.

There's already been a fairly widespread reaction in Israel against negotiating over prisoners stemming from former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's exchange of some 400 prisoners for three corpses of Israeli soldiers and an Israeli businessman with Lebanon. This was seen as just going too far, and it tainted in Israeli public opinion the idea of negotiating for the release of captives. This isn't an ironclad view in Israel now, but nevertheless, there is considerable skepticism about the utility of doing an exchange. It's a very tragic situation. As Shalit's father said, in a public appeal to Olmert, "Look, you can't put Israel's entire foreign policy on the back of my child. He isn't strong enough." But, on the other side, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh has upped his own demands for the release of an even greater number of prisoners, which creates an even more fraught situation. With both sides upping the ante, it's going to be harder for each side to back down.

And there doesn't seem to be any effective mediation right now. The Egyptians are the only ones you even hear about.

The Egyptians are a key intermediary, in addition to being the only one, which raises the issue of where the United States is in all of this. But the Hamas representatives to the talks with the Egyptians are said to have walked out yesterday. That doesn't mean that they've walked out for good. The talks with the Egyptians will probably continue.

Should the United States be involved in trying to do something here?

Relying solely on the Egyptians at this point is probably inadequate. Now what the United States would actually bring to the table is another story, but since the beginning of the crisis, Olmert has had no contact with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas whatsoever, and the two representatives of the two governments ought to be talking to one another during this crisis. I'd say there's already been miscalculation, but it could get worse. At this point Abbas could play a role, but he needs to be empowered to play it, and he can't if no one is talking to him.

Why do you think Olmert has refused to talk to Abbas, who he met just a few weeks ago, and who was regarded as the "good guy" in Palestinian politics by the Israelis?

I could just hazard a guess, which is that the Israelis have essentially written him off as an ineffective interlocutor, so the image of Abbas as holding levers behind which there are just dangling wires connected to nothing is a fairly strong one.

Let's talk about the situations in the two different areas. First with Israel, Olmert came into office with a coalition government after the elections in March in which the Labor Party is the main ally. The coalition looks like it is fragmenting. Is that your feeling too?

Interestingly, support for Olmert's "convergence plan"—essentially a further withdrawal of Israeli settlers from much of the West Bank—began to diminish very shortly after the election. First of all, there was a continued stream of Qassam rockets from the very moment the Israelis withdrew from Gaza. Of course that withdrawal from Gaza was not motivated solely by security concerns. There was another concern at work, which was demographic, and this was the argument that [former Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon made so powerfully that eventually Arabs would vastly outnumber Jews. It's not that the Israelis were expecting peace and serenity to follow immediately upon their withdrawal. Nevertheless, this cascade of Qassam rockets set the stage for growing skepticism about convergence. Convergence was going to lead to the withdrawal of the bulk of Israeli settlers from the West Bank to the west side of the security barrier that the Israelis are constructing.

Kadima, the party that Olmert led to a solid victory in the Israeli elections, was premised on just this one policy, convergence. Well, now that support for convergence is dwindling, the rationale of the very party structure in Israeli politics is eroding, so one would expect some problems.

At the moment there's a rally-around-the-flag phenomenon because the life of an Israeli solder is at stake, and the Qassam rocket attacks have taken on a new dimension with the latest launch of a missile that had a twelve-mile range that actually hit Ashkelon without killing anyone. So, that's going to keep the coalition together. It's worth noting that Amir Peretz, the Labor Party leader, who was very emphatic during the campaign about the need to open up a dialogue with Palestinians, is supporting Olmert's rewriting of the rules of the game. He appears, at a minimum, to be acquiescing in Israel's refusal to talk directly to Mahmoud Abbas.

And on the Palestinian side it's never been very cohesive because of tensions between Fatah and Hamas. There seems to be popular support for keeping the prisoner, and the possibility of a prisoner exchange, but do you think as the Israeli attacks increase this will weaken the resolve on the Palestinian side, or do the Palestinians just have an unlimited capacity for absorbing punishment?

To the extent that you trust polling data out of West Bank and Gaza, Hamas is still garnering popular support. Having said that, the very fact that the kidnapping of Shalit took place on the day a national unity government was formed in Palestine indicates there are serious tensions within Hamas, and how these tensions play out remains to be seen. There is moreover a conflict of interest between the outsiders, that is to say the radicals in Damascus, who don't have to face on a day-to-day basis the grinding effects of warfare with Israel, and the insiders, led by Ismail Haniyeh, who do have to bear up under the brunt, and try to establish themselves as a legitimate and functioning government in the face of two serious assaults: a preexisting one, which consisted of a cutoff of foreign funds from the United States and the European Union, and this current one, which is a more direct military assault on the part of Israel with a continuing destruction of Palestinian infrastructure that will take a very long time to repair.

You have a Hamas government, on the one side, that seems to be edging however haltingly toward some kind of pragmatic accommodation, and an outside group that was determined to halt that, and it knew quite well how to do it. The putative vision we might be seeing is something that one might have anticipated at least at some point, and not because it's a phenomenon or a condition specific to Palestinian politics. It is what played out with the IRA [Irish Republican Army], and other places. The issue now is how does this unfold, and there is only a certain number of plausible scenarios, and none of them [are] particularly attractive.

If Shalit is actually executed, do you think that will lead to really stepped-up Israeli military incursions?

I think if Shalit is executed, the Israelis will opt for an intensified program of targeted killings. I don't think the Israelis have any strong interest in reoccupying Gaza. It's just too messy. For the moment they're in the south in Khan Yunis and in the north in Beit Lahiya and Beit Hanoun, but they haven't penetrated the heavily populated areas. They're relying mostly on air strikes, and very heavy artillery fire.

This obviously deals a very serious blow to any thought of a two-state solution at this time, right?

It's very difficult to see a turnaround in the foreseeable future. If Shalit is killed and the Israelis turn to open warfare against the Hamas government with the intention of unseating it, regime change will be the order of the day. It's simply implausible that Hamas will unilaterally turn over Shalit. It could happen, but that's not a very likely scenario.

You have to also take into account the possibility, if Shalit is killed, of a widening of the conflict. That is to say, in addition to targeted killings in Gaza and maybe the West Bank, will the Israelis go after Khalid Meshal, the head of Hamas who lives in Damascus?

And, again, the United States has no particular role to play, does it, since we don't deal with Hamas either?

The only useful role it would play would be to get Olmert or Peretz talking to Mahmoud Abbas, and trying to strengthen his hand within the Palestinian political framework in a way that might improve chances for Shalit's release in the context of a bargain in which the Israelis would not agree to a prisoner release on the scale that Hamas is talking about, but might be willing to do something symbolic, release a few prisoners who are either very old, or don't have "blood on their hands." For that type of deal to emerge, I think you need a serious mediation, and on the Israeli side, given that the release of prisoners would be part of the deal, I think you'd need the United States in there encouraging Israel.

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