- After meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad on 30 March, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak announced a package of measures designed to alleviate restrictions on Palestinian movement and economic activity in the West Bank. Most prominent among them were the removal of over 50 roadblocks and the reopening of a dozen checkpoints last week, easing the flow of people and goods between Palestinian towns. Specific provisions were also made for new police deployments, security infrastructure, housing construction and economic development.
- These actions are occurring amid a sense of frustration which has come to characterise the relationship between Condoleezza Rice and Israeli leaders since the Annapolis conference last November. This paper sets out the context of that frustration, which is perceived as a natural tension emanating from the juxtaposition of external political pressure against domestic security concerns. Israel’s international partners tend to think more strategically about Israel’s long term security interests whereas Israeli decision-makers, in the face of everyday threats of terror infiltrations and rocket attacks, are usually focused on tactical planning for ongoing security.
- The external pressure derives from a U.S. administration whose time to record accomplishments is running out. As such, Condoleezza Rice’s recent visits have focused primarily on delivering real benefits to the Palestinian people which will (i) be chalked as achievements in themselves and (ii) support the case for secular Palestinian nationalism by bolstering President Mahmoud Abbas.
- Domestic security concerns are due to the reality that, whilst improving conditions in the West Bank, the practical measures to which Israel is committed essentially amount to security concessions. Defence experts point to the risk that the removal of roadblocks in Jenin or Qalqilya will facilitate terror attacks in Netanya or Tel Aviv. Israeli politicians are cautious about giving the green light to any initiative which could come back to haunt them in this way.
- These international and domestic dynamics explain the natural tension between Washington and Jerusalem. Most importantly, however, Israel is making cautious progress in implementing its international commitments; if the PA works harder to combat terror, as Fayyad promised Rice they would, further steps will be possible.
Israel has carried out significant measures designed to improve the economic and security situation on the ground for Palestinians living in the West Bank. The development follows promises made by Defence Minister Ehud Barak to Condoleezza Rice during the U.S. secretary of state’s second visit to Israel within three weeks in March. A Jerusalem Post article last week highlights the understandably tactical nature of Barak’s recent security thinking, noting how “Barak has publicly resisted easing … travel impediments for the Palestinians, on the grounds it might increase the odds of a terror attack.”[i] This discourse has led to the idea that the former prime minister, famous for having offered more to the Palestinians at Camp David in 2000 than any other Israeli leader, is being obstructive vis-à-vis the peace process itself.[ii] American columnist David Ignatius, who is reportedly “close to Rice”,[iii] cited a “senior Administration official” claiming that Israel was not doing enough to relax roadblocks and “checkpoints that are a daily headache and humiliation for the Palestinians.”[iv] Perhaps to negate such claims, Barak arrived at his trilateral meeting with Rice and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad with a 35-page document in English detailing the steps Israel would take.[v] This article examines the key measures Barak brought to the table in the broader context of U.S. pressure and ongoing Israeli security concerns.
American diplomatic pressure has several dimensions. On one level, the delivery of real benefits to the Palestinian people can be chalked as an achievement for the Bush administration, regardless of whether parallel negotiations serve as a basis for a final agreement. More critically, Washington hopes that better living standards will make the case for secular nationalism within Palestinian society. Israel shares this interest (as of course do the west generally and moderate Arab regimes) in bolstering the PA in order to offset the threat of Hamas and other radical influences in the region.
On the other hand, the new measures to assist the Palestinians have clear security ramifications which are a cause of frustration that cannot be overlooked. For example, the U.S. has expressed discomfort with the IDF’s refusal to rely on PA security forces and preference to act independently.[vi] This has put Barak in a difficult position, as illustrated by a Haaretz report last week of collusion between PA security forces and terrorists based in the West Bank. Intelligence to which Barak was privy included an account of how, following Israeli authorisation to deploy 500 Palestinian police in Nablus, local militants had been dismantling bombs upon the PA police’s arrival and simply rearming them following their departure.[vii] Reservations resulting from evidence of this sort are undoubtedly a source of friction because they undermine Condoleezza Rice’s agenda and constrain significantly the extent to which Israeli leaders feel able to comply with U.S. requests. In such circumstances, the tension is natural and reasonable. From an Israeli perspective, the onus is now upon the PA to reform its security services and produce an effective counter-terror strategy.
Israel’s measures to assist Palestinians in the West Bank
On 30 March, Ehud Barak announced a package of measures which are designed to alleviate restrictions on Palestinian movement and economic activity in the West Bank. The most significant step was the removal last week of over 50 roadblocks preventing access in the areas of Jenin, Tul Karm, Qalqilya and Ramallah. Many of the 580 roadblocks[viii] in the West Bank are dirt obstacles which are not permanent constructs. Implementation was in accordance with Barak’s pledge to Condoleezza Rice at the turn of the month, and is being overseen by Lieutenant General William Fraser, appointed by Rice to ensure Israeli and Palestinian compliance with their commitments.
Other key measures include:
- A commitment to reopen the permanent checkpoint in Rimonim. In total, the IDF opened 12 checkpoints in the West Bank last Thursday;
- Approval for the establishment of Palestinian police stations in areas under Israeli security control (known since Oslo as Areas B and B+);
- The stationing of 700 Palestinian police and security personnel in Jenin (to be deployed in several months, following their completion of U.S.-supervised training in Jordan);
- Plans for lifting additional roadblocks and checkpoints in the West Bank, with the intention of implementation by mid-May;
- Approval for the delivery of 25 Russian manufactured Armed Personnel Carriers (APCs);
- Approval for the delivery of 125 vehicles, plus logistical equipment, for the Palestinian security forces;
- The revival of an agreement last year that will allow the Palestinians to build a new neighbourhood with up to 8,000 homes near Ramallah.
Further measures will help facilitate economic development in the West Bank, including detailed cooperation with travel arrangements to the forthcoming Business Conference in Bethlehem in May, with which Quartet special envoy Tony Blair is involved. Following bilateral talks between British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, there are talks of a follow up conference to the Bethlehem initiative in London. Other projects within the economic sphere with which Israel is cooperating have led to the issuing of an additional 5,000 permits for construction work in Israel (at present, 18,500 permits have been issued), the immediate opening of the Sha’ar Ephraim Crossing for commercial activity on Fridays, and advancing plans for establishing Industrial Zones in Jericho and Hebron, with major roles for Japan and Turkey respectively.[ix]
Under pressure, applying pressure: the Bush administration’s final push
The Annapolis conference, and subsequent renewal of the peace process, initially set the stage for negotiations on the ‘core’ issues at stake in creating an independent Palestinian state (namely, refugees, borders, and the status of Jerusalem). Whilst resolution of these – the most intractable – issues is theoretically possible in the remaining months of the Bush presidency, a final status accord in the present political climate is far from guaranteed.[x] In particular, no clear solution currently exists to the problem of Hamas’s control of the Gaza Strip, which has generated a deep ideological rift in Palestinian society. Secular Palestinian nationalists support a two-state solution which Hamas rejects. With just seven months to go before the American presidential elections, Washington feels a heightened sense of urgency to accomplish substantive achievements and to keep the process ‘alive’. Martin Indyk, U.S. ambassador to Israel and assistant secretary of state during the Clinton administration, has vocalised how he feels the focus now should be on ensuring the next president inherits a working process in order to avoid a repeat scenario of the Clinton-Bush handover, which was a perception of hopelessness following Camp David and a subsequent reluctance to engage for the lion’s share of Bush’s term.[xi] This thinking has translated into greater pressure on Israel to introduce new measures to support the PA, hence the package of concessions outlined above.[xii]
This is the context of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s emphasis on achieving pragmatic steps consistent with the 2003 Roadmap. In reality, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are complying sufficiently with their Roadmap obligations, which is at the heart of the frustration all parties are feeling. However, as a Haaretz editorial observed upon Rice’s arrival in Israel, it is difficult for the Secretary to address her concerns at the PA because President Abbas does not have a firm grip on power and the Palestinians are themselves divided.[xiii]
This touches upon a deeper logic underpinning Rice’s approach, regarding the American and western strategic interest in proving the case for secular nationalism in the face of the growing power of radical elements in Palestinian society. America’s bottom line is its wider interest – shared with its allies in the Persian Gulf and other moderate Arab regimes – in halting the spread of political Islam in the region, which in part involves stopping Islamic fundamentalists from ‘taking total control of Palestine’. That can only be achieved by supporting the PA, which means providing them with the tools to deliver changes on the ground from which the Palestinian people will absorb tangible benefits.
In the post-Oslo era and early days of the Roadmap, Israeli concessions were intended as confidence-building measures as a precursor to a full and final peace deal. Today, lifting roadblocks, opening checkpoints, authorizing the transfer of military hardware and offering special dispensations for Palestinian businesspeople are not indicative of a new level of trust between the parties; their aim is to try to improve quality of life so that the Palestinian public will stick with their secular leaders who take regular meetings with the Israelis and Americans. Indeed, the desire to try to bolster the PA in this way has arguably propelled the American diplomatic impetus to pressure Israel to do more to make life easier for Palestinians under Fatah jurisdiction in the West Bank.
A natural tension due to domestic security issues
International diplomatic pressure notwithstanding, Israel is concerned with making substantive bilateral progress with the Palestinians as a national policy goal.[xiv] As Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who is heading negotiations on the ‘core’ issues, commented during Rice’s visit, “[t]ime is of the essence. Stagnation and stalemate [are] not the Israeli government policy; it doesn’t serve our own interest.”[xv] However, from a military perspective, it is the less complex logistical matters, such as dirt obstacles, checkpoints, and police deployments, which are considered a vital means of preventing terrorists (indistinguishable as they are from civilians) from reaching Israel.[xvi] Major General (Res) Jacob Amidror, Director of the Institute for Contemporary Affairs and former commander of the IDF National Defence College, attributes the construction of roadblocks directly and unequivocally to Palestinian terrorism. He recalls that as a young officer serving in the West Bank city of Ramallah in the 1970s, “there was not a single roadblock in the West Bank and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians worked freely inside Israel every day without passing any checkpoints or roadblocks.”[xvii]
After over 5,500 rockets and mortar shells have struck Israel’s western Negev in the south since 2001,[xviii] and a heightened feeling of vulnerability in the north since the 2006 Second Lebanon War with Hizbollah, Israelis in the country’s populated centre and coastal belt feel as though the West Bank is a tinder box waiting to spark. In that vein, positive developments as they are in terms of alleviating hardship on Palestinians in the West Bank, the measures which Condoleezza Rice persuaded Ehud Barak to take last week essentially amount to security concessions, whose consequences require careful consideration by defence planners.
Barak is of course not only having to balance humanitarian considerations with security but also trying to gear the Labour Party up for elections. There are notable tensions between Barak and the other top defence official, Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, which international assessors are conscious of when trying to establish whether Barak is acting with his personal political motives in mind or in the name of his job title.[xix] His desire to become prime minister again is clear, and he would not contemplate leaving the coalition if his reputation for security whilst serving as defence minister is blemished.
Israeli politicians are historically accustomed to such dilemmas. For instance, reflecting on three suicide bombings carried out by Hamas in February-March 1996, Shimon Peres commented, “[W]e had redeployed our army from 450 villages and six cities in the West Bank…Instead of thanks, we got bombs”.[xx] The conundrum remains at the forefront of Israeli policymakers’ minds today, as Prime Minister’s spokesman Mark Regev underlined last week: “Unfortunately, throughout the West Bank you have terror cells – whether Hamas, Islamic Jihad or renegade Fatah – and they present a real and present danger to the public. If we were to take down the checkpoints in an unthinking way, we may get a good headline one day but have a wave of suicide bombings the next.”[xxi] Clearly, security concerns are at the very essence of understanding the inevitable tension which is generated by international pressure on Israel of this kind.
Condoleezza Rice’s diplomatic campaign makes clear that the U.S. Secretary of
State is adamant about witnessing concrete improvements on the ground in the West Bank which she hopes will stem the threat of political Islam in this pocket of the region. The Israeli government also has an interest in West Bank stability, not least because intelligence assessments warn of the threat of Hamas expanding its sphere of control beyond Gaza. Rice is seeking to recreate the rules of the game in which Hamas has been successfully reaching out to the Palestinian nation with a message interpreted by veteran international commentator David Makovsky as, “Look, we are the defenders of the people, Abbas is having cocktails with the Israelis”.[xxii] So dismantling roadblocks and upgrading Palestinian security are intended in part to complement progress on the ‘core’ issues being secretly negotiated but more critically to support the case for secular Palestinian nationalism. Though frequently referred to in the media as “goodwill gestures”[xxiii] on Israel’s part, there is a danger of overlooking the associated security implications of implementing such measures, which require careful planning by Israeli defence specialists. If the weapons currently being transferred to the PA later fall into Hamas hands, Barak’s prime ministerial ambitions will be dealt a severe blow. Ultimately, a natural tension exists with the U.S. because the concessions being requested of Israel have an intrinsic security dynamic which Israeli politicians cannot afford to ignore.
[i] ‘Analyze This: Can Condi’s three generals help her out-maneuver Barak in the West Bank?’, Calev Ben-David, The Jerusalem Post, 31 March 2008. http://www.jpost.com
[ii] This line of thought has been strengthened by intense criticism from within the Labour Party, where there is dissatisfaction with the leader’s failure to produce a cohesive social policy agenda or national vision. As Israel Harel wrote, “His main flaw, everyone agrees, is that he has no agenda” (‘Labor, lost’, Haaretz, 3 April 2008), Barak was chastised for having embarked on a “political path no one understands and which he himself is not bothering to clarify” (‘Fooling ourselves’, Haaretz editorial, 1 April 2008).
[iii] ‘The Return of the “Roadmap” – A Shift in the Annapolis Process’, Aluf Benn, INSS Insight, 20 March 2008.
[iv] ‘Annapolis’s Fading Hope’, David Ignatius, Washington Post, 9 March 2008. http://www.washingtonpost.com
[v] ‘Rice says deal possible before May’, The Jerusalem Post, 31 March 2008. http://www.jpost.com
[vi] ‘Annapolis’s Fading Hope’, David Ignatius, Washington Post, 9 March 2008. http://www.washingtonpost.com; ‘The Return of the “Roadmap” – A Shift in the Annapolis Process’, Aluf Benn, INSS Insight, 20 March 2008.
[vii] ‘PA Security Forces Coordinate with Terrorists in Nablus’, Barak Ravid, Haaretz (Hebrew edition), 29 March 2008. http://www.haaretz.co.il
[viii] ‘Rice Returns to Her Mideast Treadmill’, Tim McGirk and Jamil Hamad, Time, 31 March 2008. http://www.time.com; ‘Israel to Remove 50 West Bank Barriers’, Griff Witte, Washington Post, 31 March 2008. http://www.washingtonpost.com/
[ix] Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs Newsletter, 1 April 2008; ‘Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s Trilateral Meeting With Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Defense Minister Ehud Barak’, U.S. Department of State, 30 March 2008. http://www.state.gov; ‘Israel to Remove 50 West Bank Barriers’, Griff Witte, Washington Post, 31 March 2008. http://www.washingtonpost.com
[x] Interview with Mark Weiss, IBA Television News, 3 April 2008.
[xi] The Final Year: End of Term Presidents and the Middle East, Washington Institute for Near East Policy Podcast, 2 December 2008.
[xii] ‘Responding to the final effort’, Haaretz editorial, 30 March 2008; ‘The Return of the “Roadmap” – A Shift in the Annapolis Process’, Aluf Benn, INSS Insight, 20 March 2008.
[xiii] ‘Responding to the final effort’, Haaretz editorial, 30 March 2008.
[xiv] ‘Fooling ourselves’, Haaretz editorial, 1 April 2008.
[xv] ‘Rice says deal possible before May’, The Jerusalem Post, 31 March 2008. http://www.jpost.com
[xvi] ‘Palestinian Terrorism Created Need for Roadblocks, Expert Says’, Julie Stahl, CNSNews, 31 March 2008. http://www.cnsnews.com
[xvii] ‘Palestinian Terrorism Created Need for Roadblocks, Expert Says’, Julie Stahl, CNSNews, 31 March 2008. http://www.cnsnews.com
[xviii] See BICOM Fact Sheet 1: Rockets from Gaza – Facts and Figures, 22 February 2008 for more details. https://www.bicom.org.uk
[xix] ‘Security and Defense: On the defensive?’, Yaakov Katz, The Jerusalem Post, 29 March 2008. http://www.jpost.com
[xx] Israel: A History, Martin Gilbert, 1998, p. 593.
[xxi] ‘Israel to Remove 50 West Bank Barriers’, Griff Witte, Washington Post, 31 March 2008. http://www.washingtonpost.com
[xxii] ‘The Gaza Challenge: Hamas, Rockets, and the Use of Terror as a Weapon’, David Makovsky, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, March 14, 2008. http://www.washingtoninstitute.org
[xxiii] Interview with Mark Weiss, IBA Television News, 3 April 2008; ‘Palestinian Terrorism Created Need for Roadblocks, Expert Says’, Julie Stahl, CNSNews, 31 March 2008. http://www.cnsnews.com