TOPICS > Politics

President Bush, Israel’s Olmert Back Palestinian Fatah Group

June 19, 2007 at 6:15 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Israel looks at two Palestines. We start with some background narrated by NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman.

KWAME HOLMAN: Israel bolstered its forces on the Gaza border today, further isolating the territory now controlled by Hamas. Israeli thanks rumbled close to a key crossing point, Erez, where some 150 Palestinians seeking to escape Gaza unrest have been trapped.

Israel has shut down all border crossings with Gaza as it wrestles with a new reality of divided rule over the Palestinian lands, Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank.

In Washington today for talks with President Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made clear he wanted to support Fatah and the emergency government Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, created on the West Bank.

EHUD OLMERT, Prime Minister of Israel: I want to strengthen the moderates and to cooperate with President Abu Mazen, who is president of all Palestinians, perhaps the only person who was widely elected in a democratic manner by all the Palestinian people

And I am going to make every possible effort to cooperate with him and to move forward to see how things can be worked jointly, in order to provide the Palestinians with a real, genuine chance for a state of their own, fulfilling your vision, Mr. President, which I share, of a two-state solution, and at the same time, making sure that there is security for the people of Israel. And the people of Israel deserve security, both in the south and in the north and in the east side of our country.

KWAME HOLMAN: President Bush also pledged his full support for Abbas and Fatah.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Our hope is that President Abbas and the prime minister, Fayyad, who’s a good fellow, will be strengthened to the point where they can lead the Palestinians in a different direction with a different hope.

KWAME HOLMAN: Prime Minister Olmert said he wanted to establish regular talks with Abbas’ new emergency government, but said the Palestinians would have to meet conditions before negotiations could begin on a long-term peace accord.

EHUD OLMERT: In order to achieve peace, we have to fight terror, we have to increase security, we have to upgrade the quality of life for the Palestinians. And, of course, the Palestinians have to establish a much more credible and serious administration that will be able to take care of their daily needs in an appropriate manner.

KWAME HOLMAN: Olmert has agreed to release to the Abbas government $300 million to $400 million in Palestinian tax revenues, but today he did not spell out how Israel might change conditions in the occupied West Bank, where a quarter-million Israeli settlers reside.

Regarding Gaza, which the Israelis left in 2005, but which remains almost entirely dependent on Israel for everything from food to fuel to jobs, Olmert pledged to allow humanitarian organizations to bring in basic supplies and aid.

EHUD OLMERT: We have been very, very attentive to the needs of the — humanitarian needs of Gaza, and we will continue to provide everything that is necessary in order to meet these humanitarian needs. Israel will not be indifferent to the human suffering in Gaza.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Bush administration is proposing some $40 million in humanitarian aid for the Gaza Palestinians through the United Nations.

Fundamental challenge for Israel

Dennis Ross
Former State Department Official
Even if it prefers to deal with Abu Mazen, it also has to face the reality that there could be a value from Israel's standpoint to reach some kind of modus vivendi with Hamas within Gaza.

RAY SUAREZ: And Margaret Warner takes the story from there.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, some analysis of the new reality facing Israel and of Prime Minster Olmert's strategy to deal with it. For that, we're joined by Daniel Levy, a former Israeli government adviser who has negotiated with the Palestinians in years past. He's now director of the Middle East Policy Initiative at the New America Foundation, a Washington think-tank.

And Dennis Ross, former chief Middle East negotiator in the first Bush and Clinton administrations, his new book is called "Statecraft: And How to Restore America's Standing in the World."

And welcome to you both.

Dennis Ross, how fundamentally different is the strategic situation in which Israel finds now itself, with not just one, but two Palestinian entities?

DENNIS ROSS, Former Chief Middle East Negotiator: Well, it is a fundamental challenge for Israel, because Israel is now going to face a situation where, on the one hand, it sees a potential Palestinian partner in the West Bank that it would like to deal with, and it sees a clear Palestinian adversary that it does not want to deal with, and it doesn't know what the future identity of the Palestinians is going to be because there's an ongoing struggle.

So it has to make a decision of how it's going to deal with each of them. And yet, at the same time, when it takes a look at Gaza, it certainly doesn't want rockets coming out of Gaza reaching more and more of Israel. It doesn't want to have to go into Gaza, because there's no easy or clear military answer if it does.

So even if it prefers to deal with Abu Mazen, it also has to face the reality that there could be a value from Israel's standpoint to reach some kind of modus vivendi with Hamas within Gaza. Certainly it has leverage, because it controls the access of electricity and water into Gaza. It has the military option that it really doesn't want to exercise.

Hamas, for its own part, has to be in a position where it now has to govern. It can't blame it on anybody else. If, in fact, they want to behave irresponsibly, they're going to find it's very difficult to get help from the outside. If they want the Israelis to make life easier for them, they're going to have to find a way to respond to them.

MARGARET WARNER: Daniel Levy, do you agree that, one, this is a very complex new situation, and, two, that the idea of dealing just with the new West Bank government and not dealing with Hamas or Gaza is really not realistic?

DANIEL LEVY, Director, Middle East Policy Initiative: It, of course, is not realistic. And in the very, very early days, we already see the need to avoid a humanitarian crisis. And I think so the heads will prevail, and at the working levels there will be arrangements made in Gaza between Israel and the new Hamas reality there.

In a way, the fundamental paradigm hasn't shifted. And we heard this today from the Israeli prime minister. It's still about a two-state solution. And it was encouraging to hear that, one, we're still talking about a two-state solution, not three states, not no states with two governments.

The question that Prime Minister Olmert will face, as Dennis suggested, is, what do you do with the Hamas reality? Now, President Bush today seemed to be suggesting you just have to push back against that, it's an ideological struggle.

But I think Olmert may want to take a leaf out of President Bush's book in Iraq, at least in the following respect: America in Iraq is talking to anyone who might be an ally in pushing back against al-Qaida. And I think Hamas may play a similar role to some of the Sunni forces that America is now dealing with in Iraq, and I hope that Olmert and the people around Olmert begin to consider that option.

Dealing with Hamas

Daniel Levy
Former Israeli Negotiator
If Israel only works with Fatah, and you incentivize Hamas to undermine that through violence, then very quickly Israel will lose its appetite, understandably, and that's unlikely to work.

MARGARET WARNER: Dennis Ross, do you think that the Olmert government is going to have to deal with Hamas?

DENNIS ROSS: I think the Olmert government has to deal with the reality of Gaza, and it's not because they wouldn't like to ignore it. They would love to ignore it, but Gaza imposes itself on them. Israel withdrew from Gaza, and not for one day have rockets out of Gaza ceased.

Now, the fact is that Hamas is there. Hamas has some choices to make, as well. If they decide to carry on resistance, in their words, and they do nothing to stop rocket fire out of Gaza, and they're still acquiring weapons that give them the potential to launch rockets even deeper into Israel, Israel can't ignore that.

So Israel, in a sense, can't be in a position where it simply prefers to ignore Gaza. Gaza has a way of imposing itself on them. That's why I think, in one form or the other, Israel -- and I think we'll see it through the new defense minister, Ehud Barak, you're going to see what I would call a policy of leverage against Hamas, but also possibilities of sending a message that say, "Look, you want to work out some understanding so that, in fact, life doesn't become harder for you? Then you have to take into account our interests, as well."

MARGARET WARNER: Let's turn, Daniel Levy, to the other side, the other part of this piece, the other piece of this strategy on Olmert's part, which is to strengthen the government of Abbas. Now, he's offering to unfreeze the tax money and also to resume informal, essentially, talks, but nothing more than that. Is that going to be enough?

DANIEL LEVY: It hasn't been enough thus far. The story of the last six-and-a-half years -- it was in January 2001 that Israelis and Palestinians last negotiated the big issues that divided them. The story since then is of avoidance of the big political issues and of not negotiating.

And every time we've tried, as one should, to deal with the daily conditions on the ground in the West Bank, closures, checkpoints, settlements, one has discovered, not surprisingly, that these exist in a bigger political context. And it's very difficult to remove a checkpoint when the onus, the duty of the Israeli government and army is still to protect the settlers.

So I think it's very difficult in practice to actually implement a major change on the ground in the West Bank while you still have settlements and unclear border and while you still haven't addressed the bigger issues.

MARGARET WARNER: But where does that take you? Does it mean that you think he has to -- that the Israeli government has to be willing to sit down in real peace talks that address all of these major issues?

DANIEL LEVY: I think it does, but I think one has to take some measures now that will help create those conditions. I would argue that one of those measures is to create a Palestinian power-sharing arrangement that has the capacity to carry that, because I think, if Israel only works with Fatah, and you incentivize Hamas to undermine that through violence, then very quickly Israel will lose its appetite, understandably, and that's unlikely to work.

So, yes, go back to talks, but probably build a Palestinian partner that includes both parts of the equation.

Fatah-led government in West Bank

Daniel Levy
Former Israeli Negotiator
The word on Abbas, he can't carry this alone. That's why I'm suggesting the power sharing, which eventually I think will come about.

MARGARET WARNER: Dennis Ross, what do you think the Olmert government has to do, vis-a-vis the Fatah-led government in the West Bank? And how quickly does it need to move to show that it's more than a return to the status quo that existed before Hamas won the elections in January '06?

DENNIS ROSS: I think we're still faced with some of the basic dilemmas and what I would describe as some of the paradoxes. On the one hand, you have an Israeli prime minister who's now saying he wants to work with Abu Mazen. If he wants to really work with Abu Mazen, what he has to do is not just release monies. He's also going to have to be in a position where life demonstrably improves because people and commerce can move.

But he can't really do that if, in fact, once he lifts the checkpoints in any meaningful way, suddenly bombs go off in Israel. So, in a sense, you have to address both. I would say he's going to have to work out an arrangement with Palestinians in the West Bank to see whether or not they're capable of doing something on the security front. If you can't do anything on the security front, whatever you're doing to make life better on a day-to-day basis isn't going to be sustainable.

Daniel raises the issue, you've got to connect it to something larger that you're negotiating on, and that's a possibility. I'm not sure you're going to see any Israeli government working for a power-sharing arrangement among Palestinians soon. What I do see, as I said, is an interesting relationship that could emerge in Gaza, simply because Israel doesn't want rockets coming out of Gaza.

You have a new defense minister who one way he'll prove himself is by stopping that. On the other hand, Hamas, given their own situation, has to realize that, if they want the Israelis to be responsible, or they want to get meaningful assistance from the outside, they're not going to get it if they're acting in a completely irresponsible way.

So it may be that you create a kind of triangular relationship, where Israel has some understandings with Hamas in Gaza, even while it's trying to make life better for Palestinians in the West Bank.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, we're sitting here -- and this, I guess, will be my final question to you both -- discussing Abbas and Olmert as if they have all the power in the world, when, in fact, both of them are on kind of shaky political ground at home. What's your assessment, Daniel Levy, of how much standing, and stature, and power Olmert has in Israel and, for that matter, Abbas, but since we're focusing on Olmert, Olmert really has in Israel to do what he has to do, what you think he has to do?

DANIEL LEVY: The word on Abbas, he can't carry this alone. That's why I'm suggesting the power sharing, which eventually I think will come about.

Prime Minister Olmert is, in a way, re-launching himself as prime minister this week. He has a new defense minister. He will have a new finance minister, significant cabinet reshuffle. Yes, his popularity ratings are still not good, but he has an opportunity now to re-launch his premiership. And many people will assume that that would be helped if he can show a bold diplomatic agenda.

The Syria track, I think, got pushed off a little today. I won't go into that. On the Palestinian track, it's going to be very difficult if this is done in an aggressive, unsophisticated way with Abbas. And I do think here that real American engagement could be helpful, but perhaps not of the kind that we've seen in the last years, which has been very counterproductive.

MARGARET WARNER: Are you talking about more American engagement, pressing Israel?

DANIEL LEVY: More, and the right kind. Don't define this as a big ideological struggle. It's grievance-based. It can be solved. It's not part of the world of good and evil. There's gray out there. People need to start seeing the gray.

Olmert's political opportunity

Dennis Ross
Former State Department Official
Whatever moves are made to liberalize the lives for Palestinians and make it easier for them to move and to function, it won't last once the bombs start going off in Israel.

MARGARET WARNER: Dennis Ross, your assessment of Olmert's political situation and also what role the Americans should play now?

DENNIS ROSS: Well, I would say that Daniel's right, that he has an opportunity to re-launch himself, but I'm not sure he can re-launch himself in a way that will build credibility in Israel if it looks like he's pushing for bold moves that would require very far-reaching compromises or concessions on the Israeli side.

Many people in Israel will look as if he's trying to save himself at the expense of the country. It's a lot easier for him to make bold moves if there's a context, where there's somebody else out there, either the Palestinians or the Arab world, that are prepared to cross certain thresholds.

On the Palestinian side, given the weakness of Abbas, I don't see how they cross any thresholds anytime soon. If the Arab world wants to create a context where they're prepared to embrace the core compromises of the conflict, that would give him a lot to work with. But I don't see that in the offing, either.

I think it is in his interest to resume a political process, but I also believe you're going to find that maybe the most important actor in the new coalition is the defense minister. I think he's going to be the driver of what happens. I think that Olmert will be very much dependent on what Barak does, and Barak himself is going to be very focused on how does he show that, as defense minister, he has transformed the situation for Israelis, after a couple of years -- or at least the last year -- where Israelis felt they didn't have anybody serious really managing or overseeing national security?

As for us, I would like to see us focus very heavily on, how do you create what is the right reconciliation between Israel's need to be supportive, in the West Bank in particular, by facilitating commerce and the movement of people, while also working out, what is the right approach to security?

It's not an easy thing to reconcile, but if you don't reconcile it, whatever moves are made to liberalize the lives for Palestinians and make it easier for them to move and to function, it won't last once the bombs start going off in Israel. The reason you've had checkpoints is not just to protect Israeli settlers. You've had checkpoints because the Israeli security establishment believes that's the way it makes it much more difficult for Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or others to carry out suicide attacks into Israel.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Dennis Ross, Daniel Levy, thank you both.

DENNIS ROSS: Thank you.