by Nimrod Novik
Nimrod Novik is a prominent Israeli businessman and foreign policy expert, with much experience serving in Israeli government in the
1980's. He is the chairman of ECF, the Israeli NGO which has been involved in every phase of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations from launching the Oslo breakthrough through last week's deal on the transfer of Gaza greenhouses from Israeli settlers to Palestinian
hands. The following is a summary of Novik's conversation with an Israel Policy Forum audience.
The Current Picture
Disengagement is here, and its prospects are, perhaps surprisingly, beginning to look more promising than they did just a few weeks ago.Israeli-Palestinian coordination is much improved, and just in time. Both sides are attentive to greater detail than before. For instance, today every Israeli local Unit Commander knows the identity of his Palestinian counterpart who will take over for him in Gaza. The two have met and know how the transfer is to happen.
Equally important, the Palestinian side is beginning to do a more credible job dealing with the Palestinian opposition forces - first and foremost Hamas, but also Islamic Jihad and others. The Egyptians are helping the PA keep the situation calm, and in an impressive manner so far. Trilateral cooperation between the United States, the Palestinians and the Egyptians is producing fruit.
The overall mood on the Palestinian side is beginning to change. Mahmoud Abbas' recent statements have been bolder then ever before. He's not only playing the role of a leader; he's also playing the role of an educator. He's calling upon the Palestinians to avoid excessive celebration of the disengagement, which is a natural reaction in this part of the world.
Abbas does want the withdrawal to be smooth. So does Cairo. That's why the Egyptian team in Gaza, under the leadership of two of Cairo's most senior security officials, is not only committed to staying there for three months, but is meeting with Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and others on a daily basis. They listen to complaints, handle them as best they can, and make sure that the cease-fire (especially the prevention of rockets being launched at the Gaza settlements or Israeli towns) is adhered to strictly. The sharp decline in the number of incidents over the past few weeks proves that the Egyptian efforts and Abbas' leadership are making a mark.
Indeed, the situation is far better than before, yet it is still quite fragile. It will take much more then the current level of Palestinian performance and Israeli-Palestinian coordination for this relative tranquility to last. But we shall come back to this in a moment.
Whatever happens on the domestic scene in Israel, Likud primaries are likely sometime towards the end of the year or in January. Simultaneously, the Palestinians will go to the polls to elect a new Parliament, the Palestinian National Council. Everybody involved - be it the Egyptians, the US, Israel, and, of course, the PA - would like to avoid a strong showing by Hamas, because of the legislative constraints they would impose on Abbas, which might prevent him from pursuing a reasonable policy
This means that at the moment Abbas would need the most help from Israel to shore up his standing with his constituents, Sharon will be faced with a right-wing challenge from Netanyahu over the Likud leadership. The question - which will also have important consequences on the Palestinian side - is will Sharon will try to "out-right" Netanyahu or will he run on his current, centrist platform?
His closest advisors are advising centrism, but it's hard to know which route he will choose. Either way, one cannot expect him to be overly generous to the Palestinians when he's facing a domestic challenge.
This is a textbook case for Third Party assistance, which will have to come from the U.S., its partners in the Quartet and the donor countries, as well as the moderate Arab World.
The Day after Disengagement
In talking of "the morning after Disengagement" there seems to be unanimity around a return to the Road Map. However, with Abbas opposed to the second phase of the Road Map (which calls for the establishment of a Palestinian State with temporary boundaries) as vehemently as Sharon is opposed to its Phase Three (permanent status negotiations), expressed allegiance to that plan is nothing more then lip service. At best it means a willingness to implement its first phase with no agreement on what this actually means.
Similarly, as long as the Israeli Prime Minister rejects engagement in final-status negotiations and the U.S. President is not willing to impose them, they aren't going to happen. Yet negotiations are necessary to sustain hope and momentum which, in turn, are the prerequisites for preventing a sliding back into violence. So how do we escape this catch?
What is called for is what we referred to as third party intervention: for the US to engage beyond its current remote-supervisory role. For it is only US leadership that can lead all relevant parties in contributing to stability even when the more ambitious undertakings (involved in permanent status negotiations) remain "over the horizon." Indeed, it is up to Washington to talk to the various parties and sign them on to a "deal" that calls upon them to undertake specific steps which do not ignore their domestic constraints and needs (related to elections on both sides) in return for American, Quartet, Donor Countries, and moderate Arab gestures and contributions.
Israel: Israel can demonstrate its commitment to President Bush's Road Map by dismantling at least some of the illegal outposts in the West Bank. In accepting less than the commitment to remove them all, and fast, Washington takes into consideration Sharon's electoral concerns; this should be reciprocated by a more generous approach to Palestinian needs. Here an "Abbas enhancement package" before the Palestinian elections would go a long way to maintaining the disengagement momentum. This package should include
The Arab World:
There must be a simultaneous call on Egypt and other Arab countries to demonstrate to the Israeli public that when Israel makes concessions - i.e. disengagement - the Arab world responds. It is important to show that the Arab world does not object to Israel per se; it objects to the occupation of Palestinian territory. Therefore, when Israel makes concessions
- an easing of conditions in the West Bank
- the release of prisoners, an easing of Gaza-West Bank access and
- some labor-intensive infrastructure projects (like the Gaza sea port), all in order to demonstrate to Palestinians that Abbas' peaceful approach to dealing with Israel yields tangible results
The Donor countries have pledged substantial funds to the PA, but very little has been disbursed so far. The money needs to be flowing on the eve of Palestinian elections, to be used to rehabilitate their economy and improve their quality of life. Palestinians must feel some relief if they are to elect a legislature that supports Abbas and his political program.
- people like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak come to visit
- senior Israeli officials are invited to major Arab forums to address them
- relations with Arab states improve on both the economic and political levels.
Palestinians: The Palestinians can contribute to a successful post-disengagement atmosphere with these measures:
The Egyptians: It will be up to the Egyptians more than any other party to stay hands-on with Palestinian security forces. They call it training, but it will have to evolve into supervision, keeping the PA forces efficient and honest and making sure all of the opposition groups - big and small - maintain the current tranquility beyond disengagement. Of course, U.S. security envoy General William Ward's successor will have much to do with that, as will James Wolfensohn on the economic side. Hopefully, their teams will be expanded because their role is critical to the success of the Palestinian security and economic reforms and performance.
- fully implementing security reform, which means the creation of a unified command
- eliminating splinter groups and militias and establishing one central authority
- cleaning up the Palestinian media, textbooks, anything that has to do with old-school propaganda
- and, after the election, Abbas might be able to pass a law prohibiting unauthorized weapons.
The United States: In addition to the security and economic envoys, the U.S. should send an equally weighty and empowered diplomat. This political envoy should be on the ground for the next months, coordinating all other efforts and dealing with the political issues that are certain to arise. Washington may also be in a position now to convince the Saudis and Syrians to cooperate with the Egyptians in halting extremism. By pressuring these governments to rein in Hamas and Islamic Jihad, prospects for stability will be much improved.
President Bush should also consider strengthening Abbas by providing him with a letter - akin to the Sharon-Bush letters of April 2004 - in which he spells out his vision for a final-status agreement. This could be a powerful card to play during the Palestinian election campaign. This - together with the letter to Sharon - can serve in updating the Road Map by adding to it a more detailed expression of the "end-game." Coupled with an updated time-table, these two measures can turn the Road Map from an empty shell into a potent instrument.
The Quartet: In addition to updating its Road Map, the Quartet should initiate the presence of a monitoring mechanism on the ground. Meant to keep both Palestinians and Israelis honest, it can start modestly (and quickly) in Gaza to evolve and expand into the West Bank as well. Past failures of cease fires suggest that the value of monitors is not only in taking notes of violations and serving as a go-between to defuse tension at moments of crisis, but often their very presence on the ground serve as a potent deterrent to would be violators.
Keeping Gaza Quiet
To make disengagement "work" and to create the conditions for further political progress, Palestinians need to see an improvement in their quality of life not just in Gaza, but in the West Bank as well. Israel can't do it all at once: for instance, if Sharon were to remove all the roadblocks in the West Bank in one fell swoop, it is likely that Israel would be absorbing suicide bomb attacks a few days later. So the "zipper" has to be opened very carefully. But Israel should be forthcoming about easing movement and conditions in areas where the Palestinians are demonstrating the ability to prevent or at least to alert the IDF to attacks.
Intelligence cooperation is the key. The Palestinians know more of what's happening in the Palestinian street or even in Palestinian houses than Israel does; in fact, many of Israel's recent discoveries of suicide bomb belts came from Palestinian intelligence information.
The PA forces would have to increase their activity and intelligence sharing before Israel will ease security measures in the West Bank. Then, of course, an injection of donor funds via the Wolfensohn system will be needed. But if the Palestinian security forces - in coordination with Israel and help from Egypt and the United States - take the necessary steps, come January Palestinians will be able to look back and say "We took control of the Gaza Strip, and it worked." If tranquility lasts beyond that point, it will be Israelis, on the eve of our national elections, who may reach the same conclusion. Then we may stand a chance to see the peace process continues.
Each side has its role, then, but unless each does its part, the current mini-upturn in prospects will be just another false prospect. The US must lead the way toward transforming the opportunities created by Sharon's disengagement, Abbas' positive attitude, and Egyptian readiness to cooperate, or yet another promising opening will be closed. We must see disengagement as a critical moment; we must take advantage of it.