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Israeli unilateralism is not new
By: Ali Jarbawi (interview)
29 May 2006

bitterlemons: Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has just been in Washington to, among other things, discuss his unilateral plan for the West Bank. What results do you think he achieved?

Jarbawi: First of all, this plan is not new. This is a continuation of [former Israeli prime ministers] Yitzhak Shamir and Ariel Sharon`s thinking. It has been around for many years.

The Americans know that Sharon started activating the whole thing with the wall and by leaving Gaza. All of these events are part of the same plan. Olmert wanted not approval, but an American blessing. I think he achieved that.

bitterlemons: But couldn`t it be argued that Sharon already got that blessing in 2004 with his exchange of letters with US President George W. Bush?

Jarbawi: Sure, but this is a reaffirmation. Olmert is going to continue with the plan. The cantonization of the West Bank, the wall and the closure of the Jordan Valley are all steps in this direction. The only thing Bush asked Olmert to do was to try and negotiate with the Palestinians.

bitterlemons: But, in this scenario, negotiate what?

Jarbawi: The Americans, by asking Olmert to wait a little and try to negotiate, are trying to sabotage Hamas` government by telling the Palestinians that there is a venue for negotiations but that Israel is not going to wait forever.

The Americans are putting pressure on the Palestinians, and we`ve already seen the result: the proposed referendum. The immediate result of what happened in Washington is that the impression has been created that Palestinians might have a venue for negotiations, Hamas is blocking that, so Hamas must be removed.

bitterlemons: If Washington is trying to say that there is a venue for negotiations and at the same time is giving its blessing to Olmert, then surely there isn`t really a venue for negotiations?

Jarbawi: Olmert and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni made that clear. Olmert was crude about it. He in effect said `either I`ll have a Palestinian partner to agree to what I want, or I`ll implement it unilaterally.` Livni was subtler. She said Israel would finish the wall but the route might change according to negotiations.

bitterlemons: This referendum has in effect become a referendum on a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders. Considering that such a state has not been offered Palestinians, is this an effective way of trying to put the ball back in Israel`s court?

Jarbawi: It depends. If Hamas agrees to the referendum, you might argue that Israeli unilateralism would have to end because there would unquestionably be a Palestinian partner. Hamas could grasp this opportunity to climb down from its positions and then Israel might come under scrutiny and pressure from the international community.

But this is not going to happen. Hamas is not going to accept.

bitterlemons: So, you are saying that in theory, the referendum is a good idea?

Jarbawi: If Hamas accepts, it`s an option. But this is unlikely. More likely this referendum will be used to score points off Hamas. When there is a future showdown between President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas, when it comes to the point Abbas tries to remove the government, Abbas will use this referendum as a pretext.

bitterlemons: What is the Israeli position regarding negotiations?

Jarbawi: Israel will use negotiations as a cover to implement what it wants on the ground.

bitterlemons: In other words, Israel will not negotiate in good faith?

Jarbawi: Of course not. Remember what Shamir said at the beginning of the Madrid talks. If Israel negotiates in good faith it cannot implement steps on the ground that it wants. On the ground, Israel is putting facts on the ground--the settlements, settler by-pass roads, the wall--that mean there is nothing to negotiate about.

What Israel is trying to do now is to evade a quarrel with the Americans over the two-state solution after Bush endorsed it. Israel is saying it agrees to the roadmap, but it is going to shape that solution on the ground according to its own requirements.

bitterlemons: What are the consequences should Israel go ahead and set its own borders?

Jarbawi: That depends on the Palestinians and how the world will look at such Israeli steps. If the world at large considers that these steps are for Israel`s security and is not convinced there is a Palestinian partner, it will be easier for Israel. If the world finds that there is a Palestinian partner and Palestinians are willing to negotiate, if negotiations are undertaken in good faith, it will be harder for Israel.

bitterlemons: Where is the ball right now?

Jarbawi: I think Palestinians in recent years have been faced with unrelenting action from Israel, supported by the rest of the world, especially the Americans. We have been reacting. We have to act.

bitterlemons: And this referendum is potentially a good idea?

Jarbawi: If there is agreement on it between Fateh and Hamas it might be a good way to reach internal consensus. But I`m afraid this will not happen, and if there is no agreement between Fateh and Hamas, it will be a bad idea and could push Palestinians closer to an internal confrontation.- Published 29/5/2006 ©

Ali Jarbawi is a professor of political science at Birzeit University.

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