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Tense Calm on Israeli-Palestinian Front

Interviewee: Robert M. Danin, Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
April 12, 2011

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In contrast to the tumultuous activity throughout the Middle East, there is a tense quiet between Israelis and Palestinians, who are watching closely to see how the region's various revolutions and protests play out, says CFR Middle East expert Robert Danin. Both sides are using more sophisticated weapons technology, says Danin, which makes the dangers of confrontation more acute. That's one reason the United States needs to reengage meaningfully in the dispute; another is that when the United States is not involved, both sides become mistrustful and misinterpret the U.S. viewpoint, Danin says. He also notes that Israelis and Palestinians are feeling uncertain, with Israel feeling isolated internationally and Palestinians concerned about unilaterally seeking statehood at the United Nations this fall.

You've just returned from the Middle East. What's your overall impression?

One of the most striking things for me--as a visitor to Israel and the West Bank over the last thirty years--was that [this time] I had come from Egypt and Jordan, and normally when I would make that trip, Egypt and Jordan would be relatively tranquil and then I would get to Israel and the Palestinian territory and things would be humming. This was the first time I ever experienced the opposite. Egypt and Jordan were the places where things were humming, and when I got to Israel and the Palestinian territories things were not just quiet, but people were watching very closely what is happening elsewhere in the region.

Recently there were rockets fired from Gaza, with Israeli war planes and artillery responding. Then on Sunday there was an unofficial ceasefire and things seemed quiet again.

What happened in Gaza is extremely significant. What you have seen in the last three and a half weeks was the first major challenge to the tenuous calm that had been put in place after the Cast Lead Operation in 2008-2009 [the Israeli attacks on Gaza]. It is not a formal ceasefire, in that there is not an agreement between the two parties, but there are mutual unilateral statements that they will meet calm with calm. It breaks down periodically, and there are certain rules of the game. When it breaks down, Israel will produce intelligence that it has reason to believe that Hamas is about to do something and it will launch an operation. Hamas will then respond.

The Palestinians are feeling like they lost their major patron in Egypt, a kind of "elder cousin." They are trying to reassess and reestablish what that means for them.

What happened in the last month were two developments. Israel reacted to what it perceived was an imminent threat by killing some high-ranking Palestinian militants. That led to a military response from Hamas. There was another important development on the battlefield. Last Thursday, Hamas employed the Cornet rocket (Vikn) against Israel. This was significant because this was not indiscriminate mortar fire from Gaza into Israel. The Cornet rocket is a precision- guided weapon that targets specific targets. It is an escalation in the level of technology being employed by Hamas.

Where did they get these rockets from?

These are Russian-made. Israel is quite concerned and is taking follow-up actions with the Russians to find out how this rocket got to Gaza. The Cornet is a sophisticated anti-tank rocket, and it hit an Israeli school bus. The bus had just dropped off all but one of thirty students. The student who was left was injured quite badly. Had those other students been on the bus and had there been mass casualties, we would be today in a very significant military operation, if not war in Gaza.

There is one other significant military development on the ground. Israel has for the first time deployed the Iron Dome anti-rocket system (Haaretz) with which they have been able to successfully intercept rockets that were fired at Israel. Over the last week, Israel intercepted nine rockets that were heading to Israeli population centers. So what you have had is an escalation of sophistication in the weapons technology that is being used by both sides. The situation now has been restored to a certain degree of calm, but what we've seen with this calm is that it can break down very easily.

Statehood would not change anything on the ground. What Israel is likely to do is say that "you have broken the Oslo framework in which you pledged not to take any unilateral steps." As the result, Israel could decide that it, too, will institute unilateral steps.

When you talked to officials in Egypt, did you detect that their attitude toward Israel had changed significantly?

What you have now is that for Egyptians, Israel is not part of the landscape. What is happening in Egypt is consuming the Egyptians. They have a war raging to their west in Libya. Even there, the Egyptians are not really focused on that other than the concerns of a flow of refugees and Egyptian workers coming back to Egypt, which puts economic strain on the country. The Egyptian protestors have not focused on Israel, on Palestine, or on the West. They are focused on domestic issues. The leadership is having to react to that.

One of the things that is important is that in the calm that was brokered over the weekend, the Egyptians did play a role. Egypt is still in the game. President Mahmoud Abbas went to Egypt (JPost) last week, so the Egyptians have not been removed from the equation. But what has happened in Egypt has had a significant effect within the Palestinian leadership. Egypt had provided both encouragement toward being more forthcoming on the peace process and provided a certain cover for the Palestinians to be able to move forward with the Israelis. I think the Palestinians are feeling like they lost their major patron in Egypt, a kind of "elder cousin." They are trying to reassess and reestablish what that means for them. As a result, there is a sense of drift in Palestinian thinking. Despite what is popularly perceived as a hard-headed, calculated drive toward Palestinian statehood that began last December, there is a great deal of uncertainty about how to proceed.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has been saying the Palestinians are ready for statehood (Reuters). He and others are talking about seeking a UN General Assembly resolution in September granting statehood. Can this happen?

The Palestinians can go to the General Assembly if they don't find success or satisfaction within the Security Council. The United States is trying to urge the Palestinians not to go that route, because there is a question about what would be achieved. Even if the Palestinians succeeded in getting a General Assembly resolution recognizing Palestine as a state, there are questions about what that would really achieve for them.

Israel could annex the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, I suppose. Unless there is a brokered agreement, nothing else is going to happen right?

Statehood would not change anything on the ground. What Israel is likely to do is say that "you have broken the Oslo framework in which you pledged not to take any unilateral steps." As the result, Israel could decide that it, too, will institute unilateral steps. Given its profound power on the ground, this could precipitate steps that are inimical to Palestinian interests. To date, what the threat to go to statehood has done is to exercise the Israelis, and that encourages the Palestinians because they believe they are on to something.

What happened to the Middle East mission of former senator George J. Mitchell, which was launched soon after Obama was inaugurated in 2009?

Mitchell has been to the region just one time since the congressional elections last November. We are not seeing American activism here.

Is it because the United States is so preoccupied by everything else?

That is one possibility. The United States is overstretched and is focused very heavily on what is happening elsewhere in the region. There is a calculation that there may not be a great deal to achieve right now between Israel and Palestinians. There is a certain degree of frustration with both sides. The United States was not happy to cast the veto in the Security Council in February on a Palestinian effort to condemn Israel for its settlements. There is frustration with the Palestinians for having put the United States in that situation. There is also frustration at Israel for not giving the negotiations more to work with. The United States is effectively taking a time out. This is not a wise approach.

What you see in talking to Israelis and Palestinians is that in the absence of engagement by the United States, they start to ascribe to the United States much that is largely untrue. Sometimes diplomacy is important not just to achieve positive outcomes but to prevent negative ones. This is a situation where engagement with the Palestinians would be very important to try to discourage them from following a path that is not necessarily going to lead them to realize what's in their best interests.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also feels the lack of engagement from the United States. It's no secret about the lack of chemistry between Obama and Netanyahu. When I saw Netanyahu the week before last, it was clear he is very concerned about the regional environment. He has seen what happened in Egypt; he has seen what happened in Gaza. He therefore believes that this is a time for Israel to secure itself and is skeptical about now being the time to make dramatic gestures. That being said, he is also concerned about Israel's standing in the international community and recognizes that Israel is under a great deal of pressure by being identified as a recalcitrant state and is being blamed to a certain extent for the stalemate with the Palestinians.

Was there much discussion about a "peace plan" put forward recently (NYT) by some former Israeli officials?

Not really. But the impact of this sort of initiative will only be demonstrated over time. One thing it does is highlight the current government's failure to date to articulate a clear vision for Israel's future with the Palestinians. And that is where I would expect the impact, if there is to be any, to be felt: namely by putting pressure on the government to take some initiative.

Is it time for Obama to stop trying to mediate and come forward with a U.S. plan that is specific about what both sides should do?

Whenever there is an impasse in the Israel and Palestinian peace process, the wise men and women of the Washington policy establishment start to clamor for the president to lay out parameters. Laying out the American vision is a powerful tool. It is one that has to be deployed at the right time, to be effective. What you don't want is a situation where the president stands up, declares his views, and it is met with a thud. To a certain extent, if you recall in 1982 President Reagan announced the Reagan plan. It came after Israel's invasion of Lebanon. It got no traction and effectively took the United States out of the game.

The United States should only deploy an official plan if it believes that it has a prospect of moving the ball forward and getting the parties back to the negotiating table or to a more positive footing. It is sort of like a nuclear weapon; having it in your arsenal may be more powerful than actually deploying it. The threat of deploying a speech can serve as that motivating tool to get the parties to try to take action. It's not altogether clear that the parties will like what the United States has to say. Unless both the Israeli and the Palestinian leaderships are in a position to respond favorably, or have in some way prepared their publics, then this could actually be a very wasted gesture.

I don't believe that now is the time, because I don't believe that either party has prepared their publics. Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority are largely focused on domestic politics and their own internal situations. I believe there is room for American diplomacy. We don't necessarily need to escalate immediately to the "diplomatic nuclear option." For a starter, it is important that that United States starts to really reengage the parties on the ground in a serious way by stepping up American mediation.

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