'Israel must change its message to the world'

Expert recommends calling Israeli-Palestinian conflict a "border dispute" rather than an "occupation."

security fence 298 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
security fence 298 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
It is imperative that in concert with any territorial withdrawals from the West Bank over the coming years, Israel reframe the conflict between it and the Palestinians as one of a "border dispute" as opposed to an "occupation" if there are to be lasting, favorable changes in the international political landscape, according to Gidi Grinstein, the founder and president of the Re'ut think tank in Tel Aviv. Assuming Israel embarks on Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's convergence plan, once it has withdrawn from the majority of the West Bank - including major Palestinian population centers - it should have the moral standing to convince the world that the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians is that of two states at odds over borders, Grinstein told a group of reporters on Monday in Jerusalem. Such a paradigm shift would reap great political rewards, he said, similar to those experienced after the Gaza disengagement when Israel enjoyed an international political standing greater than it was accorded in decades. To achieve that reframing, Israel would need to be able to argue that the majority of Palestinians are living under conditions which qualify as a state, Grinstein said. Since the Palestinians already have a democratically elected government, that would mean relinquishing control over the Palestinian customs scheme - a key economic factor - and allowing Palestinian representation in key international bodies like the World Health Organization and World Trade Organization. While "the prospects of internationally recognized borders along the [security] fence line are slim," getting the major world powers to acknowledge that Israel is not an 'occupying force' is doable," he said. Grinstein, who was the coordinator of former prime minister Ehud Barak's negotiating team at Camp David, predicted that by the end of the current government's term, "it is likely that the occupation will be over and conflict with the Palestinians will be greatly transformed." But getting to that point will not be easy for a host of reasons, he said. The hardest decision Olmert must make, Grinstein said, is whether to engage Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in negotiations. "There is a tremendous price associated with framing negotiations as 'unsuccessful,'" he said. "The prospect of conducting negotiations and moving toward unilateral withdrawal in one government are slim. There is probably only one bullet in the political barrel." If Olmert chooses to sit down with Abbas, Grinstein said, he will face the three problems all Israeli leaders who have talked with the Palestinians have encountered: negotiating even as terrorism continues, domestic political pressure to perform and weak political systems in both Israel and the PA. "This is where Israeli prime ministers have been shredded time and again," he said. "They went to negotiations under fire and were unable to close the deal." But the first decision the Olmert administration must make is what it is trying to achieve vis- -vis Hamas. According to Grinstein, a Hamas-led PA represents the best chance for Olmert to implement his convergence plan since the group openly refuses talks with Israel. It is therefore not in Israel's interests to see a complete collapse of the PA because Israel will want a stable entity on the other side of the security fence to whom it can transfer territory and certain powers. Olmert will also face ongoing challenges in the Knesset, Grinstein said. Due to the large coalition patched together by Olmert, and the structural deficiencies of Israeli government, it is likely certain parties will drop in and out of the government during its term, even as Olmert maintains a hold on the premiership. A key political battle Olmert must win, Grinstein said, is to anchor the government's actions in the convergence plan, thus forcing Labor to stay in the coalition even if there are disagreements over socioeconomic policy. If Labor Party leader Amir Peretz is allowed to drive a socioeconomic agenda in the Knesset, Kadima will find itself hostage to the whims of many parties and will only move from "political crisis to political crisis," he said.