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    Middle East
     Apr 25, '13

Israel, Palestine indicate peace bid
By Victor Kotsev

ISTANBUL - A complex bargaining process involving the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and Israel, among other actors, is unfolding. It is still much too early and too optimistic to forecast a breakthrough in the peace process, but it is highly probable that there will be significant transformations of the Israeli-Palestinian political scene soon.

Reports that the United States will try to convene a major Middle East summit in June illustrate this. [1] In the last few days, two other developments also strengthened this conclusion: Palestinian prisoner Samer al-Issawi, whose eight-month on-off hunger strike had provoked widespread protests in the West Bank, reached a compromise with his Israeli captors, while Palestinian President

Mahmoud Abbas asked Turkey to mediate his dispute with the rival Palestinian movement Hamas.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. A Hamas delegation is currently in Doha, the new base of the organization's leadership, distributing politburo portfolios and wrangling about reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority. Meanwhile, Abbas held meetings in Istanbul over the weekend, discussing a possible restart of the peace negotiations with the Israelis with US Secretary of State John Kerry, who said that he wanted to see the talks going by next month.

Incidentally, an Israeli delegation was in Turkey at the same time as well, trying to smooth out the quarrel over the killing of nine Turkish activists attempting to break the Gaza blockade on board of the Mavi Marmara ship in 2010. All that the Turks would say about the meetings was that the negotiations were "positive", and there is no official indication of contacts between Israelis and Palestinians, but all this secrecy is actually not a bad sign.

"There's no scenario in my mind that Israelis and Palestinians could succeed through public diplomacy, only through secret negotiations," Gershon Baskin, the prominent Israeli peace activist who mediated the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap in 2011, said in a recent telephone conversation. The same applies, it would appear, to the other tracks.

Abbas is certainly keeping his cards close to his chest when it comes to appointing a new Palestinian prime minister, in place of the widely unpopular Western darling Salam Fayyad who resigned 10 days ago. Reportedly, the Palestinian president is waiting for the outcome of the Hamas summit to choose one of several possible ways to proceed.

If the reconciliation talks progress, he could head a unity government himself, and organize elections in both Gaza and the West Bank in three to six months. This is the option preferred by proponents of the reconciliation.

Alternatively, he could appoint somebody else to replace Fayyad, ideally another technocrat who would win the trust of the international community and help fill the empty Palestinian Authority coffers. Rumor has it that the chairman of the Palestinian Investment Fund, Dr Mohammad Mustafa, is his preferred candidate, not least because of a possible deal with Israelis and others over shale gas deposits off of Gaza's coast.

Finally, whether or not reconciliation takes place, he could reappoint Fayyad, or ask him to stay on as a prime minister. Though Fayyad is widely perceived as an obstacle to Palestinian reconciliation - in part due to his rivalry with Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh - several Hamas figures recently praised him. Moreover, the importance of his appeal to the international donor community, which is key to Palestinian finances, cannot be overstated. In the end, the independent technocrat who has both enemies and friends in the West Bank as well as in Gaza could turn out to be an acceptable (if less than ideal) compromise to both sides.

Israel officially opposes Palestinian reconciliation and sees it as detrimental to the peace process, but at the same time, it enabled what is going on in the capital of Qatar. Without the Gaza operation last November, which killed a number of hardliners, and the subsequent ceasefire, which empowered the moderates, the recent Hamas elections, and with them the reconciliation process, would not have happened the way they did.

Khaled Meshaal, the once-hardline Hamas politburo chief whom Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried unsuccessfully to have assassinated in Jordan in 1997, was about to retire last November. He had been pushed aside by his Gaza rivals, but made a comeback when several of them were abruptly killed and he was presented with an opportunity to negotiate with the Israelis and to return on a white horse, in the guise of a moderate.

That the US reportedly softened its opposition to Palestinian reconciliation in recent days [2] indicates, perhaps, that Israel too would live with the process. And the fact that Hamas is seeking to have itself removed from the EU terror list [3] likely shows just how much the militant organization is prepared to change its behavior.

Just as importantly, it looks as if the whole Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process is about to get a major makeover. As another prominent Israeli peace activist, Bernard Avishai, put it in a recent article, Kerry's recent talk about economic development of Palestine is more than "a way to elide the 'core issues'":
Palestinians have over $8 billion in bank deposits (Jordanian Palestinians have well over $12 billion), and banks can't lend even half of it because, given the occupation. But in this sense, also, think about the placement of a border-a much more fraught issue when you think of two states as land subtending agricultural villages and smallish industrial villages rather than networked cities. ... The point is, we have to start working these problems as if independence presumes interdependence; projecting vivid lines of cooperation and reciprocity, so that we can all begin to trust in a future together-not because we like each other, but simply because the imperative of cooperation seems so plausible. [4]
Incidentally, the main elements outlined above - intra-Palestinian reconciliation, economic development, and a fresh approach by the international community toward comprehensive peace negotiations - are present also in a recent open letter to the European Union's foreign policy chief signed by 19 former high-ranking EU officials. The 19, who call themselves the "European Eminent Persons Group on the Middle East Peace Process", urged Catherine Ashton to drop the Oslo Peace process in favor of a new framework. [5]

There is an overarching sense of urgency, reflected in Kerry's recent statement that there are at most two years left to reach a peace agreement. [6] Given also persistent rumors over the past few months that a major international peace initiative was in the works, it seems clear that all the different developments that we witness are part of a comprehensive effort, much of which remains hidden from public view.

There is no guarantee that it will succeed. Many analysts are, in fact, deeply skeptical about its prospects, and warn about a possible large-scale outbreak of violence. In either case, however, major new developments among Israelis and Palestinians appear to be underway.

1. U.S. seeks to convene 4-way Mideast summit in June, Ha'aretz, April 25, 2013.
2. "US softening opposition to Fatah-Hamas unity", Jerusalem Post, April 8, 2013.
3. Official: Hamas to focus on removing name from terrorism list, Ma'an, April 22, 2013.
4. How The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process Became The World's Greatest Bore, The Daily Beast, April 16, 2013.
5. Eminent Europeans: Drop The Oslo Peace Process, The Daily Beast, April 19, 2013.
6. Kerry: 1-2 years for Mideast peace 'or it's over', Politico, April 17, 2013.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst.

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