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Israelis or Palestinians? Where's the Missing Partner?

Akiva Eldar writes about perceptions that the Government of Israel may prefer delaing with Hamas rather than Fatah.
A Palestinian flag flutters as a Palestinian boy stands atop the rubble of a house, which witnesses said was destroyed in an Israeli air strike during an eight-day conflict, in the northern Gaza Strip December 20, 2012. Eight days of Israeli air strikes on Gaza and cross-border Palestinian rocket attacks ended in an Egyptian-brokered truce agreement last month calling on Israel to ease restrictions on the territory. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem (GAZA - Tags: CONFLICT)

At the end of last week [Dec. 20], IDF Chief of Staff Lipkin-Shahak passed away — the [Israeli Defense Force's first and last Chief of Staff who communicated with the Palestinians at eye level as equals, and not only through the sight of a rifle. Major General Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, who passed away at age 68, understood that stable relations with the Palestinians could not endure over time when resting on only one foothold: the security foothold. Lipkin-Shahak started out as an army man, then became a minister in Barak’s government and, finally, an activist in civilian peace organizations (including the Geneva Agreement and the IPI — Israel Peace Initiative).

Throughout, Lipkin-Shahak never stopped searching for the second, political foothold on which to support stable relations with the Palestinians. It is hard to assess how many Israeli lives were saved from Hamas terror attacks by virtue of the relations based on mutual trust, that Shahak cultivated with the security and political leadership in the territories. As part of his diverse activities, Shahak must have met several times with two high-level officers in the American army; Marine Corps reserve Major Steven White and Retired Colonel Philip Dermer — both of whom served for many years in the USSC (United States Security Coordinator to Israel and the Palestinian Authority). A few days before Shahak’s death, the two American officers visited Israel and held a briefing. Shahak could have unhesitatingly signed his agreement to what was the bottom line of that discussion: that if there is any importance to the expression “there is no partner” — an expression coined by Ehud Barak, Chief of Staff before Shahak — then it is not necessarily the Palestinian side that fits the description.

The USSC is the only entity that still functions today in the United States-Israel-Palestinian Authority triangle. The role of the USSC is to guide the Palestinian security forces and act as a bridge between the sides. In the briefing held Dec. 18 for the operatives of the Israel Policy Forum (IPF), a centrist Jewish organization, the two officers reported the depth of distrust evinced toward Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And no, this is not about distrust on the part of high-echelon Palestinian officers, but also from Israeli officers. “We asked a senior IDF general, 'just what was it that we accomplished from 2007 to 2010?' said one of the two American officers. The man answered, ''My job was to enable [my Israeli] government to negotiate with the Palestinians without a knife against its neck. I think that I successfully delivered that with your American help and with Palestinian help. But unfortunately, it was my government that did not choose to build upon that.'”

Thereafter, White shared with the forum participants his impressions from a meeting he held with another IDF officer who is now in the Defense Ministry: “In the past he always was careful to stick to the official line of the Israelis government,” said White, “but this time it was completely different. He said to me: it appears that my government's doing everything it can to put a bullet through the head of [Palestinian Authority Chairman] Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority without any thought whatsoever as to what follows.”

This impression is strengthened by Howard Sumka, former Director of the USAID (US Agency for International Cooperation) in the area from 2006-2010. Sumka, who serves as president of the OneVoice Israeli-Palestinian peace organization, claimed that every action that Israel has undertaken over the past four or five years has been calculated to strengthen Hamas and weaken the Palestinian Authority under the PLO and Fatah leadership.

The reason for this, according to Sumka, is that Israelis would rather deal with a military adversary than one with which they would have to negotiate and make compromises.

White and Dermer added that, “Until not long ago, most people would have responded to this claim by saying that it's a conspiracy theory. But today, these [statements] are heard explicitly in closed conversations we held with Israelis.”

The two added the warning that they have seen on the ground all the elements necessary to ignite a third intifada, as burning coals waiting to burst into flame: the economic situation in the West Bank, the absence of a political horizon, lack of American diplomatic commitment, and the internal Israeli political situation. “When the economics are in the toilet, there is no political process and no political horizon, it is no wonder that people would get enthusiastic about the dignity-thing with regard to the supposed great victories of Hamas,” said the experts bluntly, with reference to the recent [Pillar of Defense] Gaza operation.

Nevertheless, they do not anticipate a flare-up in the near future. That is mainly due to the apathy they identified among the Palestinians who are well-versed in the disappointments of the results of the First Intifada. The Palestinians are also riddled with doubts in light of their sense of having reached a dead end.

White and Dermer also suggested paying attention to an interesting development on the Palestinian street: anger toward the security arms of the Authority. “The United States invested much effort in recent years to building security systems, under the assumption that this is a major stage toward the two-state solution.” the two explained, “But after it became clear to them [the Palestinians] that [these systems] are not part of a state-creation process, the policemen wonder what role are they filling? After all, they are not there to fight against Palestinians.” By the way, according to the two American experts, the only reason that the Palestinians still have an interest in security cooperation with Israel is because of their struggle against the Hamas. “When a Palestinian security serviceman wakes up in the morning, the very first thing that crosses his mind [is the status of Hamas]. Nothing else.”

The speakers did not hold back their criticism of the Obama administration regarding the Israeli-Palestinian track. They outlined a gloomy picture of a local flock that has lost its way because they have been deserted by their American shepherd. “There is hunger for American involvement and leadership,” they say, “We felt that the senior officials in the Israeli and the Palestinian defense systems were happy to talk to us. They felt that this was the first opportunity in a long time since they sat with Americans who really have an in-depth understanding of the problems and the reality they confront every day on the ground.” They also heard similar things from representatives of the Quartet and the United Nations. “We Americans must demonstrate interest and commitment,” they emphasized. “As of now, we simply are not doing that…What the Obama Administration seems to have done is dump everything that the latest Bush Administration was working on.” Let alone the achievement of George Bush who gathered all parties in Madrid.

“The main thing that is needed is American commitment to advancing [peace] processes and a vision of our own,” the two summarized their gloomy prophecy. “It will not happen without us.” Someone had better tell all this to President Obama and the next designated Secretary of State, Senator John Kerry. 

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