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Strategic and tactical questions abound at start of peace talks

September 1, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

By Ira Sharkansky

Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM–Will they or won’t they?

Who is “they?”

There are several possibilities.

The couple killed last night were well embedded in the religious settler community. Six kids, another one on the way, and related to one of the leading activists in the settler movement.

While the crazies are trying to find olive trees to cut down, cars to burn, and a random Arab to kill, the moderates among the settlers are threatening their standard retaliation for a terrorist attack: Build. They have declared an immediate end to the construction freeze, rather than wait until its formal expiration on September 24th. They are promising to move the bulldozers and other stuff throughout the West Bank beginning tomorrow.

A spokesman for the Prime Minister has asserted that Israel is a land of law, and that there will be no construction without the government’s approval.

We’ll see.

That’s the first “will they or won’t they?” In this case, “they” is either the settlers or the Prime Minister, or the minister who controls the people who can actually stop the construction that the settlers begin. Some of those personnel are under the control of the Defense Minister, who is not likely to want that construction to go forward now. Others answer to the Minister of Housing and Construction, who is likely to want it to go forward.

Another “they” are the Palestinians. Will they deliver with their promise to stop the talks if construction begins? Is this going to happen a day after four Israelis have been killed in a demonstrated weakness of the security forces which the Palestinians are counting on to convince the Israelis and Americans that they are serious enough about governing to demand concessions?

There are two principal groups of Palestinians: Fatah behind the West Bank regime of Mahmoud Abbas, and Hamas. Hamas people are passing out sweets in celebration of their successful killing of four Israeli civilians, and hinting at the onset of a civil war to take control of the West Bank. Will they do it, and enjoy the success that they had in Gaza? Will the forces of Fatah resist them? Will the Israelis help Fatah stay in power?
Fatah’s security people are arresting Hamas activists in the West Bank. If Israel wants to hurt Hamas on account of the killing in the West Bank, there are appropriate targets in Gaza as well as the West Bank.

That’s another “Will they or won’t they?” Such an act by Israel, even if it occurs as part of an operation against Hamas, will kill enough Palestinians to give the Fatah regime a reason for ending the talks.

Another “Will they or won’t they?” concerns the division of Jerusalem.

Defense Minister and Labor Party head Ehud Barak has said that the end game will include the transfer of Arab neighborhoods to Palestine, and some kind of joint sovereignty over the Old City. The Prime Minister has reminded him that it is government policy not to divide Jerusalem. We’ve heard the comments “New,” “Extreme,” and “What does that mean?” for the idea of dividing sovereignty over the Old City.

The Defense Minister does not have a firm hand on the Labor Party. There might not be much left of the Labor Party, but what still exists may proceed with their threatened rebellion if Barak does not stand firm for major concessions to the Palestinians. The concessions the anti-Barak Laborites desire are more generous than those wanted by the Prime Minister, and much more generous than those likely to be accepted by Knesset Members of the Prime Minister’s party.

We get hints that the Americans will play tough if the Israelis do not offer enough to the Palestinians. No one has yet commented on what the Americans are likely to do if the Palestinians walk out before the ceremony setting the talks in motion, or soon after, in protest about new construction in the West Bank.

How tough might the Americans be? Heavily tilted leftists among the commentators have spoken of maneuvers to change the composition of the Israeli government so that it will be more in line with what the Americans favor by way of Israeli concessions.

Sounds like what the CIA did in Chile during the Nixon administration.

Will the Americans dare do that against Israel? Probably not when there are more right wing influential American Jews than there were left-wing supporters of Chile in positions of power in the United States during the Nixon administration.

Late news is that Prime Minister Netanyahu has told Hillary Clinton that Israel will not renew the freeze on construction in the West Bank.

That may take one of the “will they or won’t they?” off the table. The settlers can thank Hamas for the gesture. However, those in the know are asking if the Prime Minister will approve building throughout the West Bank, or only in the major settlements. Assuming he has the capacity to stop the settlers from building wherever they want.

So many questions. So few answers.

*
Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University

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