Chaos and uncertainty seem to surround us throughout the region. Lebanon may be on the verge of a new civil war, likewise the Palestinians. Iran is posing a challenge to the international community that, at least at present, it seems incapable of confronting. Iraq is disintegrating in sectarian violence and the White House doesn't seem to have an inkling of what to do, despite the sound advice received from the Baker-Hamilton team. The Baker-Hamilton report on Iraq makes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seem a lot less complex and challenging than what the US is facing in Iraq. The end game for Iraq seems a lot more illusive than anything the US administration can seriously imagine possible at this time. Furthermore, the path toward the desired end game in Iraq is completely unclear, and each policy decision made in Washington could lead to an entirely different course of outcomes on the ground. THE SITUATION in Israel/Palestine, in comparison, is much rosier. The current cease-fire, although not 100% in force, the Olmert speech in Sde Boker, the change of secretary of defense in Washington and the Baker-Hamilton report have ignited new hopes for some progress over here. Unlike Iraq, we all know what the end game to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, but like Iraq; we have no idea of what process can lead us toward that end. The Palestinians are entering into a kind of no-man's land in terms of governance. The negotiations on national unity have thus far failed and do not seem likely to succeed in the near future. People around Mahmoud Abbas are pressing for new elections. Others are pressing for the removal of the Hamas government and replacing it with a technocratic government. Hamas, meanwhile, is flexing its muscles on the street and around the Arab and Muslim world. It is clear that the current situation in Palestine is untenable and negative for the Palestinians themselves, and for Israel as well. Israel and those states in the region and in the world who hope for Israeli-Palestinian peace must take action now that can support the peace camp in Palestine led by Mahmoud Abbas. Those steps are both economic and political. THESE are some steps that could be taken. On the economic front:
Israel is holding more than $600 million in revenues collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority from customs and VAT clearances. That money is vital to the Palestinian economy, yet it is quite clear that Israel will not turn those funds over to the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority. Recognizing that this money is Palestinian money, and no one in the Israeli government says otherwise, a mechanism must be found that will enable it to be used by Abbas.
One suggestion raised by a former Palestinian minister in a private meeting of Israeli and Palestinian business people and economists was to place the money in an escrow account that Abbas could use to borrow against. Abbas would then have the financial resources to pay salaries to teachers, doctors and other civil servants, and to cover debts of the PA to the private sector and regain public confidence in his ability to govern.
The plans designed by United States Security Coordinator Lt. General Keith W. Dayton, including new technologies and the deployment of Abbas's Presidential Guards, must be implemented immediately in order to allow for the reopening and smooth and efficient running of the Karni crossing, which is the main lifeline of Gaza.
A dedicated efficient and modern crossing for agriculture should be established at Sufa crossing or elsewhere that would, during the agriculture season, be open 24 hours a day. There is a potential to create at least 100,000 new agriculture jobs in Gaza immediately.
On the political front:
Amir Peretz has it right - the Arab League Peace Initiative provides the best basis for moving Israeli-Palestinian negotiations forward. The supporters of this initiative in Israel and around the world would be well advised to design a program of public outreach and education to explain and market this initiative to the people of Israel and Palestine.
While negotiations for the release of Gilad Shalit are barely progressing because the gaps between the sides are huge in terms of both the quantity of Palestinian prisoners to be released and the "quality" of those prisoners, an Abbas-Olmert meeting that would end with a Palestinian prisoner release of significance, not connected to the Shalit negotiations, would strengthen Abbas at a time when support for Hamas is on the rise. Israel is arresting tens of Palestinians everyday and the "bank" of prisoners is full enough to allow for a "withdrawal" to Abbas that would strengthen his assets.
It seems that the dismissal of the Haniyeh government in one way or another is inevitable. If the Palestinian internal negotiations cannot produce a modus vivendi that will adhere to the Quartet's demands, Abbas will have no other choice than to take action - either elections, a referendum, or a temporary government of experts, or something else. At that moment, the internal situation in Palestine will become even tenser and perhaps violent.
While there is no doubt to me that a Palestinian civil war or civil strife will not serve Israel's interests, it is clear that Abbas and his forces must come out on top, should it occur.
Israel should not interfere in any way that would delegitimize Abbas.
If Israeli and Palestinian strategists are not yet meeting in secret to discuss these possibilities, they must do so immediately. Allowing Abbas's troops greater freedom of movement to deploy effectively now could make a critical difference at some time in the future.