Interview with Gilead Sher: A unique opportunity

bitterlemons: Can we speak in isolation of a specific political aftermath in Israel or Gaza following the war?

Sher: I think the IDF operation in Gaza enhanced the understanding that the problems of the Middle East are interconnected and that all the issues have a larger perspective.

bitterlemons: So there is an opportunity here?

Sher: [The situation] presents a unique opportunity for optimizing a strategy that would be common to the United States, Israel, the European Union and the moderate Arab states such as Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf states, regarding at least two issues. The first would be to implement the two-state solution both in the Israeli-Palestinian context and in the wider Arab-Israel context. The second issue to which such a "partnership" would aim is to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weaponry. We need a joint agenda for promoting strategic initiatives.

If I narrow it down now to the Israeli-Palestinian context, the post-war operation would require combining reconstruction and rehabilitation of Gaza with an effort to stabilize the West Bank, all in coordination with the Palestinian Authority and the international community. That's the opportunity I think is becoming clear now: that there is a clear connection between Gaza reconstruction and PA control not only over the West Bank but, in certain aspects, Gaza as well. For instance, we need some positive traction on the ground in the West Bank that would allow the PA to be more active and more present in the rehabilitation of Gaza and at the same time [expand] the plan to other areas in the West Bank so that the areas under PA control would be both in the West Bank and Gaza.

[In the West Bank] you need to put together the missions of the US security coordinator and the quartet. General Keith Dayton and Tony Blair would work together to create a comprehensive plan for a wider area that would come under Palestinian control. Combine that with a trilateral security-related plan in coordination with the PA and the consent of Israeli [security institutions] and some limitations on IDF intrusions into areas that would be designated as coming under PA control.

The future of Gaza and Hamas-PA relations has to be seen in a wider context. The steps to be taken are, first, the opening of the borders in a manner that would allow the prevention of arms and ammunition smuggling and prevent a renewal of the buildup of a military capacity in Gaza. A second step would be to allow deeper PA involvement in Gaza affairs, particularly at the border-crossings.

A third step would be the international reconstruction plan for Gaza. It would be developed in consultation with the PA and the assistance of moderate Arab states. Fourth, the money that is channeled for the rehabilitation of Gaza must be controlled by the PA, by President Mahmoud Abbas and PM Salam Fayyad, with some kind of international monitoring and supervision for the correct channeling of investments.

All these steps should be taken after some intensive talks between the US, Israel, Egypt and the PA.

bitterlemons: But how does the war's effect on the Palestinian political scene make this possible? Some observers argue that the war strengthened Hamas and weakened the PLO.

Sher: This is not a question I can answer. But I can tell you I think there is an opportunity here to promote a deeper understanding between the US, the PA, Israel and other moderate actors to promote an agenda that does not relate to Gaza as a Hamas-only territory and that relies on two main anchors, the crossing points and the monies for reconstruction. You physically broadcast a very clear message: that whatever is being positively endorsed by the international community has nothing to do with Hamas. The fact that the funneling of money for reconstruction is in Fayyad's hands rather than Ismail Haniyeh's sends a very clear message.

bitterlemons: Yet Gaza remains in Hamas' hands and Hamas refuses to accept a PLO presence.

Sher: If Hamas wishes to see Gaza reconstructed and rehabilitated, it will have to play by the rules of the new American administration, Egypt and the other moderate Arab states. The international community cannot reward Hamas for initiating this tragedy by allowing it now to take part in the reconstruction of Gaza. So it's not a matter of Hamas but of how to deal with it. Hamas is less important here because I don't think it now has the ability to resist what I'm suggesting.

bitterlemons: And how do you factor in the internal Israeli political situation, with elections two weeks away?

Sher: Theoretically [this plan] shouldn't affect Israel's elections, but everything here is politics. Still, disregarding politics, it is in Israel's best interests to hammer down its clear success over Hamas by stopping the smuggling of weapons, being part of the monitoring of monies for reconstruction and having its moderate Palestinian partner, the PA, as the authorized sovereign entity dealing with the crossing points and the monies.

bitterlemons: Can this plan work without an effective government in Israel? Everyone's busy with an election campaign.

Sher: What does the election campaign have to do with what I have said? Nothing. The creation of an effective body for the benefit of all moderate actors concerned has to be a matter of days. No political considerations should have the upper hand here. Anyhow, this benefits both the political right and the left in Israel.

bitterlemons: Did Israel miss an opportunity during the war to engineer the return of PLO rule in Gaza?

Sher: I don't think this was a realistic objective. Now, with a combined strategy, you can gain much more by not destroying Hamas altogether but rather allowing the PA to have the upper hand. Connect that [strategy] to the West Bank and you've got a comprehensive plan that Israel should be dealing with affirmatively, disregarding any political preferences.

bitterlemons: Now factor in American politics, i.e., the new administration in Washington. How quickly can the US move on a plan like this?

Sher: This is all part of an action plan being discussed these days. There can be no real movement until [US emissary George] Mitchell arrives--this is just a reconnaissance visit--and [National Security Adviser James] Jones and [Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton define their areas of authority. This is too urgent to wait more than just a few days.

[The plan could include] Gilad Shalit's release as part of a modest exchange of prisoners and--these are ideas I hear from important persons around the world--the release of Marwan Barghouti by Israel within the framework of a new Obama initiative. We need both to strengthen the legitimacy and capacity of moderate Palestinians and to show some achievements and results for Israel in order to justify this kind of initiative.- Published 26/1/2009 ©

Attorney Gilead Sher is former chief of staff of Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Ehud Barak. In that capacity he acted as Israel's co-chief negotiator in 1999-2001 at the Camp David summit and the Taba talks.

Published in, Janury 26, 2009