The Requirements for Co-Existence with Hamas with Amjad Atallah and Robert Pastor
Transcript No. 309 (2 February 2009)
To view the video of this briefing online, go to http://www.thejerusalemfund.org/ht/display/ContentDetails/i/4261 for Mr. Atallah's remarks and http://www.thejerusalemfund.org/ht/display/ContentDetails/i/4262 for Dr. Pastor's remarks.
29 January 2009
hank you everybody. Thank you so much, Samar, for having me here. It’s always a pleasure to speak at the Center and often times you hear things here that you don’t necessarily hear anyplace else or in many other places. It’s not only very valuable, it also, I think, helps to expand the envelope of conventional wisdom that exists in the city. And the Palestine Center plays a very important role in doing that.
I actually met Samar about the same time that I met [former U.S.] Senator [George] Mitchell. I was actually one of the last of the group of legal advisors to be hired to assist the Palestinian Negotiating Team, and I was hired in November of 2000. I actually showed up at the same time that the committee that Senator Mitchell and [former U.S.] Senator [Warren] Rudman were going to head, [which] was created by [former U.S.] President [Bill] Clinton. And all the other lawyers already had a brief. Negotiations were ongoing; Camp David on to Taba was never really a break in negotiations. They were ongoing talks that were taking place in a continuation of the negotiations, despite the public spin that President Clinton, at the time, and [then Israeli Prime Minister] Ehud Barak were trying to present. So, all the lawyers already had something to do. There were lawyers in charge of security and borders, lawyers in charge of refugees, lawyers in charge of each of the elements. And I showed up, and they said, “Well look, we just need you to help. We’re going to have an agreement within a month or so. We just need your help to prop up the team that’s working.” And then, we heard about Senator Mitchell. Nobody was taking it seriously because the official talks were still taking place, and a fact-finding committee to find out why the intifada was taking place didn’t seem to be of high order. And the Israelis were desperate to ignore it. So, I and a number of my colleagues requested, “Well, we’ll continue to back up, but let us also head the Palestinian response to the Mitchell Committee and engage with the Mitchell Committee.” Of course, the Mitchell Committee became the major player as soon as Taba ended and as soon as it was clear that Ariel Sharon was going to be the next prime minister of Israel. And it was clear it was not going to be a two-state solution in any immediate term. Senator Mitchell’s work became extraordinarily important. In five months, he availed himself and did actually a lot more and accomplished far more than many of the envoys had done over a course of years. He had a very engaging style in doing it. I wish him the best of luck, and it’ll be nice to pretend that the eight years that happened in between have not happened. But the truth of the matter is the world looks very different. The Middle East looks very different. The Arab-Israeli dispute looks very different. But the fundamentals stay the same, just worse. We can only hope that [U.S.] President [Barack] Obama and Senator Mitchell and [U.S.] Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton will be able to bridge that.
I wanted to talk not explicitly about Hamas right now because Bob is going to talk a little bit more about that. What I wanted to talk about is the Israeli relationship with the Palestinian leadership and the paradigm that they’ve used for engaging with Palestinian leadership. And it makes sense from the perspective of an Israeli government seeking to maintain control and occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It makes sense from the perspective of somebody who’s trying to negotiate autonomy over Palestinian population centers but who seeks to integrate the territory into Israel. It doesn’t make sense from the perspective of a power that’s seeking to transform the Middle East by having Israel accepted into the Middle East, to have peace agreements with all the Arab states. And we may find in the coming months that there is a fundamental difference in national security interests between the United States and between the government of Israel and how they perceive their interests if the Israelis insist on maintaining the same relationship and the same goals and if the U.S. government actually has decided that it’s in its interest to resolve the Arab-Israeli dispute once and for all. There are several examples, and I’ll be brief about them, but they are several examples of how Israel has related with Palestinian leadership that, I think, once we go through them you’ll understand exactly what’s happening vis-a-vis Hamas and Fateh today.
Israel has always looked for Palestinian leadership that would promote its national security interests. But the paradox has been that it’s looking for Palestinian leaders that would keep the peace and keep security for Israel while it continued to colonize and settle Palestinian territory. That’s a paradox. There is no such thing as a Palestinian leadership that will actually help the Israelis colonize the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. You can find Palestinian leadership that agrees to nonviolence. You can find Palestinian leadership that agrees to negotiation. You can find one that agrees to diplomatic processes. But you can’t find one that agrees to Israeli colonization of the territory and autonomy for the Palestinians. And so, at a certain point in time, the myth breaks down and the collapse of that myth always leads to violence.
First, in the 1970s, Israel had tried to have municipal elections in the Palestinian cities in the hopes that the municipal leaders that were chosen would be separate from the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] because the PLO was not allowed to run. And that they would then be people that Israel could cultivate as a Palestinian leadership and develop to negotiate various forms of autonomy. Of course, that didn’t work. Everyone who was elected was a supporter of the PLO. By 1980, Israel began dismissing the mayors that were elected and in 1982 simply did away with the entire structure while at the same time going after the PLO in Lebanon to try to destroy the PLO once and for all.
In the 1980s, also Israel tried to create something called village leagues in which it would appoint Palestinians to head Palestinian cities. So, not elections this time; more appointed people. And these people would have the authority to issue permits and drivers licenses and to try and ease the lives of Palestinians within the cities. But they would also be the go to people. If you needed something, you had to go to them. And they in turn would be reliant upon the Israelis. Again, Israel was hoping that they would be able to cultivate a new leadership that they could negotiate autonomy with. The aims of the leagues were, in the words of one of the district village heads that was chosen, “to improve relations with Israel, to prevent terrorism, to combat communism and to work for the establishment of peace and democracy.” Now, that would sound really, really familiar in the modern context if you just change the world communism with something else. By 1983, of course, the Palestinians refused to accept these models. And by 1983, that model collapsed as well.
So, the Israelis also tried another thing to help break up the [PLO]. Even though they had driven the PLO from Lebanon, the PLO still existed as a political force. So, they attempted to weaken the PLO support in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip by supporting Islamists connected mostly with the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s hard to remember now, but in the 1980s, the United States was supporting [late Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein and his war with Iran. And the aim then was that there was a kind of Islam that was politically quiescent. You know, it concentrated on gender issues and it concentrated on prayer and it concentrated on those types of things but not so much on social justice; not so much on politics; and that kind of Islam should be promoted vis-a-vis the more political kind of Islam that was felt emanating from Iran. Israel also adapted that policy in the West Bank, attempting to support Islamists who they thought could help break up the support and the monopoly of power the PLO had. Now, this included people like the late [Hamas leader] Sheikh [Ahmad] Yassin, Mahmoud Zahar who’s one of the leaders of Hamas today. It included even allowing, for example, members of the Ikhwan to move from one city to another in order to demonstrate against the PLO or in order to compete with Palestinian student groups in local universities, etc. However, by 1987, as it was clear that the occupation was not ending, the first intifada erupted spontaneously, not as a result of anything the PLO had organized. The Islamists transformed themselves into Hamas. And they formed Hamas to take on a more militant objective of liberating Gaza and the West Bank through military force. Israel immediately arrested Sheikh Yassin and other Hamas leaders, and it continued to try to assassinate PLO leaders that it felt were helping promote the intifada, including [Fateh leader Khalil al-Wazir] Abu Jihad, who was assassinated in 1988 perhaps by one of the people who’s running for prime minister right now in Israel.
In 1991, there was a different kind of intervention in Palestinian politics. This one was by the United States. [Former U.S.] President [George H.W.] Bush Sr. decided that there was a need, and it was a vital national security interest of the United States that there be an end to the state of war and the state of conflict between Israel and the Arab states. So, he wanted a peace deal between Israel and the Arab states, and he actually pulled in, even before the Arab summit resolution, he pulled in all the Arab states or all the major Arab states to sit down and negotiate with Israel a final status agreement. They knew they needed Palestinians, and they knew there needed to be a Palestinian component. So, there was a promotion and identification of Palestinian local leaders from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. These people in fact turned out to be the creme de la creme. They were the best people that Palestine had yet to offer--Dr. Haidar Abdel Shafi, Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, Dr. Ghassan Khatib, Dr. Nabil Kassis and others who were not necessarily formal members of the PLO but they may have been members of the Palestine National Council [PNC]. They were local leaders in their own right, and they were brought in under the Jordanian delegation. But they only agreed to participate under the explicit instruction of [late Palestinian President] Yasser Arafat and the PLO now that leadership was trying to negotiate freedom from the occupation with Israel.
Those negotiations weren’t going all that well. Remember that the person on the other side of the table was [former Israeli Prime Minister] Yitzhak Shamir’s government. Ultimately, [late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin took over from Shamir, and he had the very clever idea that they might be able to pursue a quicker deal and a better one more suited to Israel’s interest if they negotiated directly with Yasser Arafat and the PLO than with these luminaries among Palestinians. And so, they had parallel secret talks with the PLO to negotiate the Oslo Accords. That agreement brought the Palestinian leadership, the PLO, from Tunisia back into the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to control about 17 percent of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and to run it autonomously. So, we’re back to the idea of autonomy. The Palestinians would have autonomy, limited autonomy, within those 17 percent. The Israelis would continue to control the rest, but it was predicated on the idea that this was only a temporary transitional moment until such time as a final status agreement was reached although the Accords never specifically stated what the ultimate goal of those talks would be. So, the PLO failed to negotiate for self determination, and they failed to negotiate specifically for statehood in the agreement although it is what every single Palestinian on the PLO side thought that they were negotiating.
During this process, the Israelis had significant successes in terms of cultivating a Palestinian leadership that they could work with and that the international community could work with. This effectively supplanted, however, the West policy that was started in Madrid. Obviously, this didn’t work too well either. The subsequent negotiations for Palestinian statehood didn’t succeed. By 1999, when the Palestinians expected they were going to have an independent state, it was clear they were not. Negotiations, in fact, didn’t even begin until the summer of 2000 over the idea of statehood. In the meantime, Hamas continued to develop a strong base of support based primarily not on its agenda but based on the failure of the agenda of the PLO as dominated by Fateh at the time.
Ultimately, of course, the second intifada broke out in 2000. By 2002, Israel once again decided that it needed to replace this leadership. So, Yasser Arafat’s governance was systematically deconstructed over the period of 2002, and Samar and I actually lived through that time. It was less brutal and bloody than the current situation in Gaza but very similar in goal and methodology. The Israelis went after the Palestinian police first. They attacked all the Palestinian police stations. Then, they went after the Palestinian prisons and attacked the Palestinian prisons that were holding prisoners, some of whom were allegedly people trying to commit security offenses against Israel. Then, they went after the ministries, and they destroyed many of the ministries. They went to a lot of the ministries that had files and documents, and they stole them and effectively took them into Israel. They arrested Arafat. For all practical purposes, they put Arafat in the Muqataa and placed him under house arrest. So what ended up happening, of course, was that Fateh and the PLO—first, they had their past failure of not being able to negotiate a success, but then they had the, second, military failure of having their actual autonomous governance completely wiped out by the Israelis. The Israelis during this period of time left Hamas alone, by the way, because they were using one against the other. Finally, of course, what happened was Arafat died, and you effectively only had a shell of a Palestinian autonomy regime in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. 2008--of course, this only happened in the last four weeks so I don’t need to go through it, but Israel effectively did the same thing to the elected Hamas government that was ruling over the Gaza Strip.
My argument is that Israel’s quest to keep creating and replacing Palestinian leaderships in order to have autonomous regimes in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are doomed to fail. And each time, they’re more violent. Each time, the replacement process is more bloody usually on the Palestinian side. The United States now needs to determine whether we can continue following Israel’s lead in terms of how we deal with Palestinian leadership. Are we looking for Palestinian leadership that will promote an autonomous entity in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip for a period of time knowing ultimately that it will fail, knowing ultimately there will be violence again? Or are we looking for an end of conflict and Palestinian leaders who have the support of the Palestinian public who can negotiate an agreement? The South Africans always used to say to me that if you know you’re going to negotiate with your enemy for a peace agreement, you have to strengthen that enemy because that enemy needs to be strong enough to pull their people into the peace. If, however, your aim is not to have a peace agreement, you weaken your enemy because a weak enemy can’t conclude a peace agreement with you. What the Israelis have chosen to do so far is to create weak Palestinian leaderships to negotiate with instead of strong Palestinian leaderships that could bring their entire public along with a peace agreement. The United States needs to determine that we need to pursue a different path. We have our own national security interests. They’re not tied up with Israeli occupation and colonization of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Even though there are many Americans who believe that Judea and Samaria are part of the biblical patrimony to the Jewish people that is not interpreted by the U.S. government officials as meaning that the United States should support an Israeli annexation of the West Bank.
How should the United States then deal with the current situation? Because what we’re left with now are a bunch of pieces. We’re not left with some kind of tangent whole or a very strong structure here and a strong structure there, and we have to pick and choose among them. The fact of the matter is [Palestinian President] Mahmoud Abbas was elected president although his term ended a few weeks ago. Hamas was elected to parliament and is the legitimately elected Palestinian government. Fateh and Hamas ultimately are going to have to agree together how to have a unity government. In the past when they’ve tried that, the United States has been the primary power that’s helped it fall apart because under the[former U.S. President George W.] Bush administration, we were against any inclusion of Hamas into a system, even one in which Hamas endorsed negotiations; even one in which Hamas endorsed allowing Abbas to negotiate a peace agreement. Part of that process was because the United States under Bush was insistent that every Palestinian, in order to come to the table, acknowledge and provide the conditions of acceptance of Israel that Israel was not yet willing to provide for the Palestinians but to provide them all up front.
Fateh provided, “We will not fight.” Fateh never asked Israel to say, “We will not fight.” Fateh was asked to recognize Israel’s right to exist, but it never asked Israel to recognize Palestine’s right to exist. To this day, Israel has not recognized the right to exist of a Palestinian state. The Palestinians were asked to not engage in any acts that would damage Israel’s national security interests. Israel was not asked to end settlement construction. Hamas’ argument, especially as the moderate wing of Hamas as they’ve attempted to present a different language than the maximalist one that they were using before, has basically said, “Well, we’re looking for a more reciprocal agreement. We’re looking for reciprocity in the process that takes us there. We actually don’t want to recognize Israel, but we want to be in the position of Ariel Sharon or Shas or [Avigdor] Lieberman [of the right-wing Israeli party Yisrael Beiteinu] who have said that they don’t support Palestinian statehood. They don’t support the peace agreements that Israel has with Jordan.” But when Sharon was prime minister, even though he voted against peace with Jordan, he implemented the peace agreement with Jordan. And so, Hamas has attempted to position itself--and I have no idea whether this will be successful or not--but they’ve attempted to position themselves in a place where they can say, “We’ll be like the Israeli right-wing. We will say that it is our goal that we have some maximalist solution, but we will accept whatever the majority of our public endorses. And we will implement it.”
Is there room for the United States to engage in this? Well, I think we ultimately have no choice because Hamas does in fact now control the Gaza Strip, and Fateh is in control of much of the West Bank, at least the autonomous parts that the Israelis have provided them. So, we’re going to have to deal with everybody. How we do that in such a way that promotes an end to the conflict and that strengthens the party that we, as the United States, need to negotiate with? I think is going to be a great challenge for the Mitchell team and for President Obama.
Thank you very much. It’s a great pleasure to be here. Arriving here in the snow reminded me of a great Peanuts cartoon in which Charlie Brown is amassing great masses of snowballs. He’s up on a hill and he’s ready for Lucy. And Lucy comes around the corner and spots him and says, “Charlie Brown, don’t you dare throw any of those snowballs or there will be dire consequences.” And the last frame has Charlie Brown saying, “That’s the trouble with life.” He says, “You have all of these options, but you never get to choose one.” And of course, that is the story of U.S. policy in the Middle East for the last twenty or so years. The question is whether or not we get to choose one.
Last April, I visited with former [U.S.] President [Jimmy] Carter Sderot and Ashkelon. We saw the rockets, the impact of the rockets, how they really terrorized a whole community and the traumatic effect it had on the people. And the people were very clear in our meetings with them that they were frustrated with their own government, which neither took military action to stop the rockets nor affected diplomacy to do that. Last July, I visited Gaza. I requested for the four previous visits, but that was the first one that Israel allowed me to visit. And I saw the impact of the siege on Gaza and the impact of the full blockade. Some of us talk about embargos with regards to Cuba, but Cuba can still trade with 125 nations in the world. And of course, Gaza cannot. It is shut off. And I think it is clear to Carter and it is clear to me that Israel does have the right to defend itself against the rockets, and that Gazans have a right to have that siege lifted. Therefore, the question is how do you get to a point in which both rights are respected?
Obviously on December 27 , the Israeli government determined the only way to do that is by a massive invasion of Gaza. And what are the results? At least 1,300 people died perhaps a majority were not just civilians but women and children. Another 5,500-5,600 people injured; 400-500 homes destroyed; 20,000 homes damaged. You had an attack on the American International School and three other schools, 50 UN facilities, mosques, the Palestinian Legislative Council [PLC], most of the ministries; it was devastated. And I think the question really is twofold. One: what else was accomplished? And was there another alternative? In trying to understand what else was accomplished, as you know, both Hamas and Israel declared victory after the invasion. It’s an absurd declaration on both parts given that kind of devastation. It shows how they live in such different climates from each other and different climates from any of us who can look and see that this was no success for anyone. But the hard part is in determining what the criteria were, what the objectives were of each side.
Hamas, in effect, could declare victory if their sole objective was survival. But what about Israel? What were their objectives? We never did receive a very clear statement of objectives from Israel. If you read the papers, there may have been one of three different objectives. The first objective seemed obvious, which was to stop the rockets. But the interesting thing is that the rockets never did stop during the invasion. They only stopped after the invasion and as Israel was pulling out on a unilateral basis on the part of Hamas. Another objective may have been to cripple Hamas and to cripple their command and control. But interestingly enough, just as Israel departed, that command and control reasserted itself in the street. Indeed, I frankly had expected that that would have been disruptive and that we would have seen the emergence of twelve different militant groups of which Hamas would have difficulties asserting itself. And indeed, in that sense, it would have been an irony from the Israeli perspective. Yesterday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak confirmed the convolution of that irony when he said, “We see Hamas as responsible for everything that happens in Gaza.” That’s a quote. That’s a fascinating statement that his second objective obviously was not only a failure, but it’s not really his objective. In effect, he realizes that if there is going to be an effective ceasefire, Hamas needs to be in control. The third objective was the extermination of Hamas. Now, you never heard that from the government, and that is a horrific statement, obviously, for a country that was born of the Holocaust to even make such an assertion. Hamas clearly is a movement; it’s a party. But it’s also rooted in Gaza and in the West Bank. Whether it’s a minority or a majority remains to be seen for the next election. But it clearly cannot be exterminated, so that should be ruled out. So, the question returns, what was the objective? It’s not clear of Israel. And the more important question is was there an alternative? And the answer is yes, there was an alternative. And indeed, we saw that the alternative was working for Israel, but it wasn’t working for Hamas. And that’s why the rockets started again.
In April, when former President Carter met with [Hamas leader] Khaled Meshaal in Damascus and he met with the Gaza leadership in Cairo and he met with the West Bank leadership of Hamas in Ramallah, we pressed Hamas very hard on a number of different positions. The first was a unilateral ceasefire, and they insisted that they could not do it unilaterally that it had to be reciprocal. The second one was some acceptance of Israel. And they did agree after a politburo meeting for three days, after we left and sent a written statement to Carter, which Carter read in Jerusalem and informed the Israeli government and world as well that they would accept any final status agreement negotiated between the Palestinian Authority and Israel provided that was approved in a referendum, a free referendum, which they asked the Carter Center and other international observers to affirm its fairness, or by a new national unity government that was accepted.
So what did that mean? What did that statement mean? That statement meant, in effect, they would accept Israel as a part of an agreement. Because we know once you reach a final status agreement, the preamble will have a mutual recognition. Israel will recognize an independent Palestinian state, and the Palestinian state will recognize Israel. So while Hamas could not quite bring itself to say we recognize Israel, it views that as a critical point for a bargain in a pocket that has very few other coins. In effect, it said we will accept Israel by that statement. More significant from the short term was that at that moment there had been many talks between Israel and Hamas indirectly through Egypt, who was trying to mediate a ceasefire. At that point, Israel insisted that the ceasefire would only apply to Gaza, and Hamas insisted that it apply to the West Bank as well. I think President Carter was able to persuade Meshaal and Hamas to accept it to apply to Gaza, therefore, to close the deal. This was on April 21st . It still took two more months for Israel to accept that deal, but that deal came into effect on June 19th. And on June 19th, the agreement was that the rockets would stop at 6:00 a.m. on June 19th. Within three days, 30 percent of the trucks that had gone into Gaza prior to the siege in early 2007 would begin to come into Gaza. And ten days after that, that is to say thirteen days after June 19, 100 percent of the trucks, which was at a level of 750 trucks a day, would be permitted to go into Gaza.
I met with [Hamas leader Ismail] Haniyeh in Gaza in July, and I pressed him that in fact the rockets had not stopped on June 19. And he acknowledged that they had not. And he acknowledged that they were at fault. He said that they had anticipated that stopping it would be far easier than it turned out to be. But within ten days, they stopped. And from late June to November 4, there were a total of eleven rockets, according to the Israeli Ministry of Defense, that were fired from Gaza into Israel. That is fewer than three rockets a month as compared to the four months before the ceasefire for which there was an average of 200 rockets a month fired from Gaza into Israel. So, one has to acknowledge a significant reigning in on the part of Hamas. In December, we posed the same question to Meshaal that eleven rockets is a very significant diminution from 200, or actually three rockets a month from 200, it is very significant, but it is not zero. And they said, “We acknowledge that. We tried to stop it. In our judgment, the rockets that were sent were not by Hamas. They were sent by al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades. But we did make every effort. On the other hand, we cannot renew this ceasefire,” they said, “unless Israel complies with its side of the deal.” Israel never allowed even 30 percent of the trucks into Gaza let alone 100 percent. And that is in fact true. The number of trucks allowed in rose from roughly on average of about 100 before the siege to about 200 after June 19th. Far away from 750 that had been promised.
I went from there to Israel. I met with senior Israeli officials; one senior military official who had retired but was familiar with what was happening and the other one was a very senior person in the government. And I had with me the text of the ceasefire agreement that Hamas had given us actually in July. And I asked the senior military person, who is now outside of the government, whether this reflected their understanding of the ceasefire. He said, “Those are the basic elements.” I asked the Israeli government whether it did, and they refused to acknowledge, confirm or deny the ceasefire agreement. So, from the Israeli standpoint, is that they were not prepared to acknowledge all of the elements of that agreement? They then said to me, “Have Hamas stop the rockets for 48 hours, and then I will look into the possibility of allowing 100 trucks in.” I said, “We’re not going to go to Hamas with a proposal like that for two reasons. Number one is you had promised 750 not 100. One hundred is what you have right now. And secondly, you’re not even offering a government proposal. You’re just saying you’re willing to go back and see whether the government would accept yours.” I said, “If you want the ceasefire to be renewed, it needs to come back to the original deal.” Indeed, Hamas had actually escalated its demands at that time, but I thought a reasonable place to start would be to go back to the original deal. They said they would get back to me the next day; they never did. And the result was, nine days later, the invasion into Gaza.
So, I think the question as to whether there was an alternative to the invasion seems quite clear. There was. There was a way to stop the rockets, and indeed the rockets had virtually stopped for over four months. They would have stopped again had there been compliance on both sides. Now, in effect, truly the ceasefire didn’t break down on December 19th , it broke down on November 4. On November 4, Israel launched an attack into Gaza to destroy a tunnel. There is some question as to what that tunnel’s purpose was. There are some people in the Israeli government [that] said its purpose was to capture another soldier like Gilad Shalit. And there’s no question that Hamas had that goal. But I learned from high levels of both the Israeli government and Hamas that that tunnel was actually not reaching across the border. It was a defensive tunnel in anticipation of a possible invasion on the part of Israel, very much along the lines of what Hizballah had done in Southern Lebanon, that is to say wait for the Israelis to cross and then they would come out of the tunnel and kill Israeli soldiers from behind. Now, the difference between the two is significant because if it’s the first, that is to say to collapse a tunnel whose purpose was offensively to capture a soldier, then one could understand why the need, why the immediacy of the attack. If in fact the purpose is defensive in anticipation of a possible invasion, then that suggests that there was no immediacy for that attack unless Israel was beginning to prepare for an invasion. That has not been clearly established yet, but I think it’s an article that should be written before too long.
So where do we go from here? I think that the dual ceasefire that occurred on the eve of the inauguration of President Obama is very significant. I think whether there was a direct contact between the Obama team and Israel has been rumored. We don’t know for sure, but certainly that magic date was sitting in the minds of people in both Israel as well as in Damascus. And that’s not insignificant because they both wanted to send a signal to the new administration of an interest in cooperation. On President Obama’s part, his promise to Jimmy Carter and to others was first he would start from day one on this issue and he would commit himself to working full tilt in playing an active role towards peace in the Middle East. He did exactly that. On day one, he made four telephone calls to President Abu Mazen of the Palestinian Authority to President [Hosni] Mubarak in Egypt to King Abdullah in Jordan and also to [Israeli] Prime Minister [Ehud] Olmert. And my understanding is it was in that order, which is not an insignificant statement in and of itself. And I think that the announcement of special envoy George Mitchell is tremendously significant because he’s a man of independent stature. He was not a candidate of any of the major lobbying organizations that had a dog in that fight. Indeed, there’s some who were very displeased by that appointment. So, it was a statement of independence also on the part of President Obama. But, more significantly, this is a man who is fair, who is balanced and who has the experience of Northern Ireland, which has some things in common and some things that are of important difference. But the key thing is that the most important lesson that he drew was that these conflicts do not need to go on forever. And I think that is a very, very encouraging statement.
Where do we go from here? I think the first and most important step is to secure the ceasefire. The only way to secure the ceasefire, to be frank, is we need to learn the proper lessons from the failure of the last ceasefire. The first lesson I would draw is the ceasefire needs to be agreed to by both sides, signed by both sides. It needs to be public. It needs to be official. That’s the single most important step. It’s not at all clear that both sides agreed to the same text. There’s reason to question that. But we do know for sure that there is not a single text. So that’s the most important. Secondly, I think, while Egypt played an absolutely central role in that mediation, the time has come, given some questions raised by at least Hamas, that the U.S. join together with Egypt in trying to make this mediation work either directly or indirectly. I think that would be very important.
I think, third, the ceasefire to succeed needs to be narrowed to its basic elements. Both sides right now are starting to throw different things into the ceasefire, which will make it impossible to achieve this first immediate and critical step. The Israeli government would like for Gilad Shalit to be freed as part of the ceasefire. I understand. I’m very sympathetic to that. I met with Shalit’s father several times. But that has always been negotiated on a separate track. There are many complexities in that which I hope can be worked out soon. I think its chance at success will improve to the extent that a ceasefire can be negotiated first. But neither that will succeed nor the ceasefire if they join them together at this point. On Hamas’ standpoint, they’re starting to throw in war crimes into this mix, and that certainly can’t succeed in making this work. The basic equation of the ceasefire has to be very simple and very direct. No rockets from Gaza into Israel. No military incursions or subversions in either Gaza or in Israel. And the crossings need to be opened on a specified formula with a number of trucks that should be going in at a certain period of time. That has to be linked very clearly and right away to the rest of it.
Most important, we need a monitoring mechanism by a neutral organization, and the Quartet needs to be involved immediately whenever a single violation occurs by going to the side that violated it, seeking an explanation and taking steps to ensure that the violation not recur. That is the only way to begin to break the cycle, which we’ve just started in again of rockets and retaliation, in which one side is responsible for an act against the other and the other says that he has to respond immediately and harshly otherwise it would be interpreted as weakness. Both arguments can be heard from both sides. There’s only one way to break that cycle. It needs to be done by the Quartet. It needs to be done by a neutral monitoring organization. And then if that ceasefire can hold, then the next steps are, first, you need a mechanism that will manage the reconstruction process and that will bring together Hamas and Fateh together in managing that. You need to move from that to intra Palestinian reconciliation in which they establish a government. Perhaps not of Hamas and Fateh but in which both sides can reject nonpartisan people who are part of this transitional government. That transitional government would allow the Quartet to work with them in assuring the next two elements that are key. One is elections that need to be held. And also, the beginning of a process of establishing a unified, nonpartisan professional security force in the West Bank and Gaza with international military monitors. [They] particularly will be needed in Gaza during the electoral process but obviously over the long term in any final status agreement in the West Bank and Gaza. So, those are the steps that should follow from that. And then, of course, we get into the final status negotiations between two sides. But those are the immediate steps I would say would need to be taken.
Beyond that, there are extraordinary opportunities that await everybody in the Middle East, not just the Arab Peace Initiative in which the 22 Arab countries had made clear that they are prepared as part of a negotiation between Palestinians and Israel to normalize relations. You have Syria, which we have met with President [Bashar al-]Assad several times, which is not only eager to trade in land for peace, the Golan Heights, for genuine peace but the potential of a serious realignment on the part of Syria towards the West, towards the U.S. It’s very important that the U.S. be a part of that for a number of different reasons, not only to guarantee the agreement but because Syria wants to reorient its own economy to the West and towards freer trade. And then, beyond that, Lebanon and a peace. There is at this moment in time a unique opportunity to move forward. I think the appointment of George Mitchell offers an extraordinary opportunity.
Let me end by reading from a statement on December 18th that I think as succinctly as possible, that I’ve seen, defines the nature of the challenge of final status and of final peace in the Middle East that’s really required. This was a statement given in Tel Aviv, and it was a statement given by George Mitchell on December 18th  before his appointment and nine days before the invasion:
I think that is not only a good description of the challenge that awaits all of the countries, but it’s a wonderful statement because it’s from the person who is now in a position to try to encourage all parties to make that succeed.
Amjad Atallah is director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation. Dr. Robert Pastor is professor of international relations at American University as well as senior advisor on conflict resolution in the Middle East at the Carter Center.
This transcript may be used without permission but with proper attribution to The Palestine Center. The speakers' views do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jerusalem Fund.