In the run-up to the American-initiated Middle East peace parley in November, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas are accelerating efforts to reach an agreement on the principles of a final peace deal.
At the same time, however, Hamas is aiming to derail the process with a new wave of terrorist strikes and rocket attacks.
Olmert and Abbas want to be able to present an agreement of principles to the peace conference in order to give its deliberations real substance. In parallel, Israel and the Palestinians are working on cooperative economic projects that could improve the peacemaking climate and underpin any future peace deal.
The thinking is that if there is a serious Palestinian agenda, the conference will be able
to draw major players like the Saudis and jump-start a wider Israeli-Arab process based on the Arab League peace plan. The proposal calls for the full normalization of ties between Israel and all 22 Arab states in return for an Israeli withdrawal from all Arab territory captured in 1967.
But there are number of obvious snags. For example, what about the Golan Heights? Would Israel be expected to return them to Syria even though Syria, because of its close ties to Iran, probably won’t even be invited to the conference?
Worse, Hamas radicals have made it clear that they are determined to launch a new campaign of terror to undermine progress between Israel and the Palestinian Fatah moderates. Moreover, what kind of Palestinian state could be established with the fundamentalists still in control in Gaza?
Olmert and Abbas have met several times in the past few weeks to discuss core issues such as borders, Jerusalem and refugees. What seems to be shaping up is an agreement that lays out principles for a territorial settlement in two stages and a timetable for transition from stage one to stage two.
In stage one Israel withdraws from the West Bank up to the separation barrier after a period of quiet during which the Palestinian Authority exhibits firm control of security. In stage two Israel pulls back to lines closer to the 1967 borders and compensates the Palestinians on a one-to-one basis for settler land it annexes.
One of the ideas for compensation is to include land used to connect the West Bank and Gaza over Israeli territory. In stage two, the Palestinians declare a state in the West Bank and Gaza, even if Hamas is still in control there. The idea is to come to the November summit with an agreement in principle on these issues and to continue refining the details in subsequent talks.
Clearly, though, the plan would start going into effect only after a credible cease-fire has been established.
That is precisely what Hamas will do its best to prevent. The last thing Hamas wants is for its secular Fatah rival to get credit for pulling off a peace deal with Israel and then come under pressure to comply.
According to the Shin Bet security service, the Damascus-based leadership of Hamas has ordered the organization to launch a new campaign of suicide bombings against Israeli targets in the West Bank to show Israelis that Abbas’ Fatah cannot keep the peace and therefore is incapable of cutting a peace deal.
Israel intelligence anticipates that in an effort to destabilize the situation further, Hamas also will launch Kassam rocket attacks from Gaza. Palestinian militants have been firing Kassams at Sderot and other nearby towns and villages on a regular basis, but Hamas has not yet joined in. If it does, the Israelis expect a significant increase in the bombardments, which could lead to a major Israeli incursion into Gaza to stop it.
Some Israeli strategists say that is precisely what Hamas, which has been smuggling unprecedented quantities of arms into Gaza, would like to see — a standoff in Gaza in which the Israeli army is forced to take heavy casualties.
Meanwhile, Israel and moderate Palestinians in the West Bank are proceeding with their peacemaking efforts as if the Hamas threat does not exist. In addition to the effort to shape a final peace deal, they are working seriously on economic plans to help create conditions for a sustainable peace. One of the plans is based on a Japanese initiative dubbed “the Corridor for Peace and Prosperity.”
In a meeting at the Intercontinental Hotel in Jericho in mid-August, the foreign ministers of Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Japan enthusiastically backed the “peace corridor” idea. The initiative envisages the establishment of an agro-industrial park in the Greater Jericho area, with a mechanism to distribute the produce through Jordan to the wealthy Gulf states. The produce and goods would be transported across the Jordan River to a distribution center on the Jordanian side.
As part of the center, the Jordanians want a new airport for same-day conveyance to the Gulf states and other countries worldwide.
The Japanese have identified agriculture and agro-industry as a potential “driving force for sustainable economic development in the emerging Palestinian state,” and see in this kind of cooperative venture a way of laying the foundation for a lasting peace.
Since the renewal of the peace dialogue between Israel and moderate West Bank Palestinians in June, an abundance of ideas have been broached to help the Palestinians create the basic infrastructure for viable statehood. Israeli officials welcome the new energy and see it as a means of underpinning an Israeli-Palestinian peace.
“For stable peace you have to have a Palestinian state that is successful,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said. “A failed Palestinian state would be a recipe for further violence.”
Indeed, Israel is drawing up plans to help modernize Palestinian infrastructure and urban development. Officials say Israel will be prepared to do as much as the Palestinians want , but will not force itself on them. The Israelis say they intend to work closely with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the special Quartet envoy, who is due back in the region in early September.
Looking at the West Bank scene, chances for an Israeli-Palestinian peace have never seemed better; in Gaza they have never seemed worse. And, it seems, whether the American summit in November actually boosts Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking will depend on the outcome of the internal Palestinian struggle.