- Israel’s release of 198 Palestinian prisoners to the Palestinian Authority this week follows the implementation of a number of government decisions to ease conditions of access for Palestinian civilians living in the West Bank. They include the opening of three crossings around Ramallah, Hebron and Nablus, and the removal of approximately 100 IDF checkpoints in recent months.
- Israel’s gestures have been choreographed to coincide with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visit. Their likely impact is disputed in both Palestinian and Israeli circles, but their underlying purpose is to bolster pragmatic Palestinian leaders in the West Bank and undermine Hamas in Gaza.
- Israeli and Palestinian positions are made more complex by especially high levels of domestic uncertainty on both sides, which affect prospects for substantive diplomatic progress before President George W. Bush leaves office in January. Whether the greater level of mutual trust which continues to be established can be translated into a more comprehensive agreement – either by current leaders or their successors – remains to be seen.
Israel is taking a series of confidence-building measures which are particularly important for the Palestinian Authority at present. Following an Israeli Cabinet decision on 17 August, Israel on Monday released 198 Palestinian prisoners to the PA.[i] The handover includes two prisoners “with blood on their hands”, at the personal request of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and 26 attempted murderers. It follows the release of 400 other Palestinian prisoners several months ago.[ii] Separately, last Thursday, Israel enabled free passage through the Bir Nebala crossing which connects the principal West Bank city of Ramallah with villages to its south.[iii] This comes after the opening of two other crossings earlier this month, one near Hebron and the other further north, near Nablus.[iv] Furthermore, approximately 100 IDF checkpoints have been removed in recent months throughout the West Bank.[v] These latest moves coincide with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visit this week and are consistent with specific recent requests by Washington and by the Quartet’s Middle East special envoy Tony Blair. The aim is to ease conditions of access for Palestinian civilians living in the area.
There are clear security risks associated with these resolutions as well as an emotive debate within Israeli society about releasing convicted terrorists. This brief sets out Israel’s strategic motivation for these ongoing actions. Their impact on domestic Palestinian politics may not have far-reaching ramifications, but they are positive steps as far as the PA is concerned and insightful about the changing character of Israeli-Palestinian relations since Hamas’s rise to power in Gaza. Finally, diplomatic developments in light of Secretary Rice’s latest round of talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders are also discussed.
Israel‘s strategic conundrum
Decisions by the Israeli government to release increasing numbers of Palestinian prisoners and open checkpoints in the West Bank are being made in the context of a new strategic environment which has been taking shape over the last two and a half years. Hamas’s political victory in the January 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council (parliamentary) elections and subsequent violent takeover of Gaza in June 2007 created both a new reality in terms of Israeli security assessments and a revolutionary domestic threat to the PA. Implementation of the Egyptian-brokered Gaza ceasefire on 19 June marked a further twist in the strategic dynamic, the results of which are now being witnessed on the ground with increasing frequency.
In policy terms, Israel and the international community more broadly have reacted to Hamas’s rise by trying to bolster the PA and isolate Hamas. This is with a view to turning Palestinian public opinion against the latter and ensuring the survival of a secular, pragmatic Palestinian leadership with whom authentic negotiations can be conducted. This remains intrinsically important for a viable, sustainable agreement ever to be reached. However, the new political reality within Palestinian society has made it impossible to entirely bypass Hamas, which has de facto jurisdiction over the Gaza Strip and its 1.4 million residents. Hamas’s barrage of over 3,000 rocket and mortar attacks on southern Israeli communities since taking control and Israeli counter-terror operations (on precisely the land from which it voluntarily withdrew in August 2005) eventually gave way to the June 2008 ceasefire.[vi] That in itself marked a (however informal and undesirable) form of accommodation with the new reality in Gaza.
Clearly, Israel and its partners in the PA, Egypt, Jordan and the international community would prefer to pursue policies which destabilise Hamas. There is a danger, however, of Israel being forced into a position where it must choose between the ceasefire and further accommodations which appear to reward violence. Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak recently made explicit in a television interview that even a large-scale military incursion into Gaza would not put a permanent end to the threat of rocket attacks.[vii] In so doing, he demonstrated why Israel is so keen to maintain a workable ceasefire arrangement which offers relative quiet in the south. But the price for doing so is rising in parallel with Hamas’s demand for the increased flow of commodities into Gaza. This would mean further relaxations at terminals on the Gaza-Israel border beyond present transfers of primarily humanitarian supplies. Egypt faces a similar conundrum as it deliberates the conditions under which it would reopen the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Sinai. The ceasefire could also be jeopardised by failure to make progress on securing the release of IDF Staff Sergeant Gilad Shalit, kidnapped by Gaza-based militants over two years ago.
These dynamics explain the double-edged rationale for Israel’s measures designed to support Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. One purpose is to show some tangible benefits from the dialogue that was renewed in Annapolis last November. Abbas is eager to demonstrate to his people that he is advancing the Palestinian national cause. The other purpose is to undermine the myth perpetuated by Hamas that ‘resistance’ (which equates to terror attacks) is the only way to extract concessions from Israel.
The impact of Israel’s gestures
Though the motivation is sound, considerable differences of opinion exist about the likely impact of such moves as freeing Palestinian prisoners. According to Haaretz correspondent Avi Issacharoff, “[a]lthough the [Palestinian] public views the move as an Israeli attempt to goad Hamas, at the end of the day it will boost Abbas’ popularity.”[viii] In contrast, a Jerusalem Post article by Khaled Abu Toameh entirely rejects the notion that the release will “boost” Abbas’s domestic position at all, sensing a “too little, too late” mentality in the Palestinian psyche.[ix]
Toameh also refers to the undoubted cynicism among Hamas sympathisers about what they perceive as a naked attempt by Israel to “drive a wedge between Fatah and Hamas and deepen divisions among the Palestinians”.[x] The reality, however, is that the two main Palestinian factions are already polarised. The worst bout of sectarian violence to have struck Gaza for a year took place just earlier this month as a stark reminder of just how at odds they are. Whilst Israeli policy continues to be geared towards helping Abbas at Hamas’s expense, no mainstream political voice in Israel considers chaos in the territories to serve its strategic interests.
Ultimately, releasing hundreds of prisoners and lifting roadblocks will not recreate President Abbas’s image in the eyes of the Palestinian people or put an end to their fatigue with Fatah’s failure to reform or tackle corruption. But television coverage of the prisoner release did clearly show the joy of Palestinians in the PA’s constituency, for whom the handover was an achievement. Moreover, the removal of roadblocks and checkpoints in the West Bank will improve daily life for ordinarily Palestinians; it is a positive outcome of the PA’s commitment to dialogue and negotiations which deserves recognition. If the PA can meet the greater security demands upon it resulting from such relaxations, for which US military training and support is being provided via General Keith Dayton, the way will continue to be paved for further cooperation between Israel and moderate Palestinian forces. Simultaneously, pressure will mount on Hamas to defy the notion that such moves are crucial steps in the right direction towards meeting Palestinian national aspirations.
The diplomatic track
The timing of Israel’s latest prisoner release was set to coincide with the arrival of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Monday and set the tone for a cordial series of separate meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Yet with President Bush’s departure from the Oval Office looming, the central question is whether there is time enough for any kind of agreement in writing to be published on his watch.
The post-Annapolis diplomatic process has helped to establish a degree of personal trust between Abbas and Olmert and between the chief negotiators, former Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei and current Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. This is important as part of the working framework which Rice encapsulated en route to the region: “[t]hey have an agreement that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”[xi] Room for manoeuvre in principle is required of both sides in order to bridge gaps, and clearly core issues, including the status of Jerusalem, remain yet to be determined.
Unfortunately, neither the domestic Israeli nor Palestinian political climate appears amenable to the conclusion of a document at present. The extent of internal Palestinian division has been outlined above. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has announced his intention to resign and will be replaced either by a Kadima party colleague following primaries scheduled for next month or following national elections if a new coalition cannot be formed. Either way, it is hard to see the Palestinians making substantial concessions when it remains unclear whether their Israeli counterparts will be in government six months from now. Furthermore, the absence of any real coordination between aides to Olmert, Livni and Barak prior to Rice’s arrival signalled relatively low expectations from her visit. There is a sense that each of the key players is starting to turn their attention to ensuring that progress so far made does not break down, and maximum personal and political credit is attributed to the groundwork made.
Notable upcoming meetings include that of the Quartet on the Middle East peace process next month on the margins of the UN General Assembly, an event hosted by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon with Arab partners, and the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee for Assistance to the Palestinian People. The most realistic hope, as Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations for Political Affairs, B. Lynn Pascoe, hinted last week, is that progress can be made on implementing vital donor pledges to support the Palestinian economy.[xii] However, these meetings, especially that of the Quartet, will also be scrutinised carefully in light of the changing administrations. They will set the agenda for how the international community intends to keep Israeli-Palestinian relations on the right track and give an idea of future expectations.
[i] ‘Israel releases 198 Palestinian prisoners’, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 25 August 2008; ‘Notification on the release of Palestinian prisoners’, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 18 August 2008.
[vi] ‘A year since the Hamas takeover of Gaza’, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 16 June 2008.
[ix] Khaled Abu Toameh, ‘Prisoner release does nothing for Abbas’, The Jerusalem Post, 18 August 2008.
[xi][xi] Secretary Condoleezza Rice, ‘Remarks En Route Tel Aviv, Israel’, U.S. Department of State, 25 August 2005.
[xii] ‘Israeli-Palestinian talks continue, tenuous ceasefire holds, but recent violence between Palestinian rivals could undercut reunification, Security Council told’, UN Security Council, SC/9431, 20 August 2008.