No favors for the PA, no breaks for Israel
Last fall I was able to attend a lecture by Mustafa Barghouti at one of the symposia held in Europe. The former Communist, at that time a definite opponent to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), inserted a DVD into his laptop computer and projected a map of the West Bank onto the large screen. The physician showed the invasive route of the separation fence. Then he went on to a map of the roadblocks, a map of the roads which Arabs are forbidden to enter and topped it all off with a map of the "enclaves." His harsh observations were delivered in an English that could arouse the envy of Israeli diplomats, including the envy of the current number one diplomat, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who is conducting the battle to prevent international recognition of Dr. Barghouti's government and for a continued boycott of the PA.
This boycott has turned the competition for international public opinion between the Israeli Foreign Ministry and the Palestinian Information Ministry into a race between a paddleboat and a motorboat. "I'm starting from nearly zero," Barghouti said on Tuesday. "I have an operating budget of NIS 43,000 a month and 168 employees who received only four salaries during the past year."
Barghouti is hoping that the meeting between the United States consul in Jerusalem and Finance Minister Salam Fayyad, and the visit by Norwegian Foreign Minister Raymond Johansen to the office of PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh presage the end of the international boycott. Johansen, the first victim of the Israeli sanctions on those who break the boycott, has told Haaretz that he believes other countries in Europe will realize that if they are hoping for a secular Palestinian government that will win popular support, they will have to wait quite a while longer. Too long. The Norwegian statesman has promised the Palestinians that, together with his neighbors from the European Union, he will seek a mechanism to renew the money flow to the territories.
On the international front, it is also important to Barghouti to transmit a message to the Israeli public. The physical barriers, he says, not only prevent Palestinians from entering Israel, they also distance Israelis from the occupied territories and the harsh reality that prevails there. "Israelis deserve to know the truth about life under the occupation and to understand the Palestinian narrative. You need to know that your government is holding $600 million in tax monies of Palestinian workers. This money is the fruit of the perspiration of Palestinian laborers, money that is intended for funding medical care and for paying teachers' salaries. Until now, you have claimed that the PA will use the money for other aims, but today the Finance Ministry is in Fayyad's hands and he enjoys the complete trust of you and the Americans. I intend to ask the Israeli public: Under what law is your government holding this money?"
Barghouti rejects the claim of Vice Premier Shimon Peres, who said the Israeli Finance Ministry is transferring the money to charitable organizations. "That's simply not correct," replies Barghouti. "The only money released has been $100 million that was given to Abu Mazen on a one-time basis. You should understand that 80 percent of the Palestinians live below the poverty line, and not because of the cessation of international donations. The very bad situation we find ourselves in is above all a result of the confiscation of our tax monies and of the barriers, which have made Gaza into the largest prison in the world. Gaza remains occupied, albeit from the air and by electronic means, but Israel continues to control the territory. Explain to me why we cannot go from Rafah to Egypt? I hope that I will succeed in bringing these facts before the Israeli public and that they will understand our situation."
Barghouti does not want Israelis to "do him any favors" and he is refusing to give them any breaks. The guiding principle, as far as he is concerned, is reciprocity. If Israel does not employ violence, the Palestinians will refrain from violence; if Israel does not concede East Jerusalem before the start of negotiations on a permanent status agreement, the Palestinians do not need to announce in advance that they are conceding the right of return; until a such time when the Israeli Education Ministry completes the restoration of the Green Line (pre-Six-Day War border) to the textbooks for Israeli children, the Palestinian Education Ministry will not amend the Palestinian textbooks. Barghouti wishes to announce that he is proposing the establishment of a neutral professional committee to examine the textbooks of both the PA and Israel.
Barghouti relates that he has informed the Americans that there are no two Palestinian governments, and that as far as he is concerned, there will be no discrimination between one minister and another. As a proud spokesman of the unity government, Barghouti, who is not one of the large parties' (Hamas and Fatah) bigwigs, is making an effort to explain the positions of the two camps that were forced to sign the Mecca agreement. Usually his effort is successful. "We have a democratic government, which represents 95 percent of the public, with a progressive platform on social issues like the rights of women and the disabled, the prevention of nepotism and the fight against corruption. An elected government that enjoys broad support is a guarantee that the peace agreement it signs will endure."
And what about the "continuation of the resistance" article in the guidelines? Barghouti is known as an enthusiastic supporter of non-violent resistance and has been wounded twice in demonstrations held by Palestinian, Israeli and international peace activists against the wall in the village of Bil'in. "Terror is action against civilians. This contradicts international law. I believe in popular non-violent resistance. We are extending our hand to tahida [calm] but this is dependent on Israel ending the violence. Like every nation, we, too, have the right to resist occupation, in accordance with international laws and agreements. In our guidelines it states that we respect both. It is Israel that is not honoring the Geneva Convention."
When it gets down to the brass tacks - evasion of explicit recognition of Israel and mention of the right ot return - it is evident that the Palestinian minister of information finds it difficult to defend the unity government's guidelines. Barghouti skips from the Mecca agreement, which paved the way to the unity agreement, to the Riyadh summit, elegantly bypassing the new government's guidelines. "Next week Prime Minister Haniyeh will set out with President Abu Mazen for the Arab League summit," the minister of information says. "He will be there when the countries of the League re-ratify the Arab initiative, which was resolved in Beirut five years ago." This initiative, he notes, not only offers Israel recognition, but also normalization. It also requires Israel agree to any solution to the refugee problem.
After the summit, Barghouti intends to call upon peace-seeking Israelis to demand that their government embark on negotiations with Abu Mazen on the basis of the league's decisions. He notes that the Palestinian government has authorized the president to conduct negotiations on its behalf and to refer the agreement to a plebiscite or for the approval of the Palestinian National Council (PNC). Barghouti says the plebiscite will include the Palestinian diaspora. It is not clear how it will be possible to hold a referendum on five continents, and it is difficult to know how Hamas representatives in the new PNC will welcome a peace agreement which does not include the right of return, but Barghouti sounds optimistic. Time will tell.
Only Peres can
If publication of an unofficial leak from the Winograd Committee to the effect that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told it that the war in Lebanon had been planned months in advance kicked up a storm at the highest political and military levels, it is easy enough to imagine the storm that will rage when the official and full version of the testimony blares forth from the newspaper headlines. According to a statement the State Prosecutor's Office submitted to the High Court of Justice on Tuesday, in response to a suit filed by Meretz Knesset faction chair MK Zahava Gal-On, the Winograd Committee is examining Olmert's testimony (as well as that of Defense Minister Amir Peretz and former chief of staff Dan Halutz), with the aim of moving their publication forward, before the interim report is released in the second half of April. At the beginning of the week, representatives of the Censor and the Information Security Department started reading the testimonies of the three.
Taking into account the Passover vacation, there is a possibility that the testimonies will be published and the political storm will erupt in the next few days. When the testimonies are published, Olmert will have to reply to the question of what he did during those months and when, as prime minister, he was supposed to have made sure that both the army and the home front were prepared for the war he had planned in advance. This means that the senior officer at the General Staff who wondered how it happened that the Israel Defense Forces were caught by surprise on July 12 - without the operational plan having been either completed or approved (Haaretz, March 9) - will no longer be alone. The prime minister will no doubt have to invent answers to several more questions as well.
Even before this problematic publication, the wave of sympathy for Olmert, in the wake of his "I am not a popular prime minister speech," is evaporating. If, until now, Olmert was not worried about his situation in Kadima, after Shimon Peretz became his chief character witness, he has reason to worry. Officially Peres, as always, doesn't deal with anything disgusting. Though it is hard for him to conceal his delight at the reports that he is being spoken of not only as the preferred candidate to replace President Moshe Katsav, but also as a candidate to replace Olmert. "I want to be chosen as the beauty queen," he jokes pleasurably.
After the resignation of Amram Mitzna, members of the Labor Party thought that because of his advanced age, Peres was the ideal candidate to fill the vacuum at the party's top until a permanent chairman had been elected. In the case of Kadima, too, Peres is the ideal candidate to replace the chairman. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni will not benefit from the hiatus thanks to her title as acting prime minister. Housing and Construction Minister Meir Sheetrit and Transportation and Road Safety Minister Shaul Mofaz do not intend to repeat the mistake they made when they anointed Olmert without a race. Peres is liable once again to be the right man of the right age at the right time. The members of Kadima would do well to ask their coalition partners from the Labor faction to remind them of how it all ended for them.
With the initiative to eject the president on a secret ballot having been put into the deep freeze, the President's Residence is beginning to look further away from Peres than the Prime Minister's Bureau. If this scenario works out, the big winner will be Labor MK and presidential candidate Colette Avital. Labor Party people, the ones who "don't feel comfortable with Shimon," will be able to raise their hands proudly for their party colleague.