The American benchmarks plan that was recently submitted to both Israelis and Palestinians is a very significant step. It marks an important and useful change of gear for American involvement in the conflict in an apparent effort to arrest the deteriorating economic and political Palestinian situation.
It doesn’t, however, include anything new at all. The benchmarks are components of past agreements that the parties, mainly Israel, have failed to fulfill to date.
Some of these benchmarks simply set new dates for old commitments. Most of these were already stipulated in the Agreement on Movement and Access that was negotiated during and after the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza Strip settlements in 2005 with the help of the then special envoy of the Quartet, James Wolfensohn, and brokered by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The rest relate to security issues, particularly Gaza-related security requirements.
Nevertheless, the benchmarks plan is important in that it indicates that Washington has begun to understand that the economic deterioration in the Palestinian territories is a major factor in the radicalization of the population and consequent violence. If Israeli sanctions and restrictions–the main cause of this dire economic condition–aim at combating violence and “terrorism”, then in fact they have backfired and are producing just the opposite.
The Americans along with other international actors have realized, rightly, that Israeli reluctance to implement the original AMA has contributed dramatically to the economic deterioration in occupied Palestinian territory. The World Bank alluded to this in its recent report, “Movement and Access Restrictions in the West Bank: Uncertainty and Inefficiency in the Palestinian Economy”, concluding that Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movement, which to the Bank have no security justification, are responsible for the economic deterioration and for preventing the success of any efforts toward economic recovery.
A further significant aspect of the World Bank report is the indirect reference to the relationship between security and economic recovery. The drafters of the benchmarks list also seem to have realized that in order for the Palestinian Authority to be able to fulfill security commitments such as ending rocket fire, there is a need to reduce the economic difficulties, poverty and unemployment. It is recognized in many previous reports from many agencies, including the World Bank, that increasing economic hardship is one of the main factors in encouraging radicalization and a tendency to violence on the Palestinian side.
So far, so good. But the question that Palestinians want answered is whether Washington, which is behind the benchmark plan, will this time invest serious political capital in it, or, as some Israeli analysts say, is only paying lip- service in order to ease some of the growing pressure on the US administration from Arab, European and other countries. It is worth pointing out that the problem with deteriorating Palestinian-Israeli relations is not a lack of ideas or proposals but a result of the imbalance of power between the two sides. For as long as the Israeli side feels no serious pressure from the outside it has no incentive to abide by any proposals, plans or resolutions even when internationally binding, whether they come from the UN, the Quartet or the International Court of Justice in the Hague.
The flat rejection of the benchmarks plan by Israeli officials did not come as a surprise, especially to the Palestinians. It was clear from negotiating the AMA that Israel was not happy with that scheme. The Palestinian reaction is more interesting.
The Palestinian reaction reflects the new rules of the game in the Palestinian political system. While, for obvious reasons, the Hamas movement’s displeasure with the stipulated benchmarks was expressed at the highest level with Khalid Meshaal as well as by spokesmen for Hamas’ armed wing, the Izzedin al-Qassam Brigades, the Hamas-led government did not reject them.
This would appear to be an indication of a division of labor within Hamas to separate the government from the movement. That in turn frees up the government to commit to previous agreements signed by the PA with Israel, without necessarily committing the movement at large. This was part of the spirit of the agreement that allowed this government to come into existence with a political platform significantly different from that of Hamas.