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Israel and the Palestinians:

A sinking ship




June 20, 2001

LONDON - One can only marvel at the tenacity of those who make a living in Europe and North America commentating, advising, and, if they are members of an official government delegation, negotiating the Israeli-Palestine issue.

A year after the failure of Camp David and the beginning of the second Intifada they continue to beaver away, convinced a dam to tide the onslaught of violence can still be constructed, that an interim agreement or two can replace the high hopes of a final settlement, that the most brutal general in Israel's blood-filled history, Ariel Sharon, now prime minister, can be dissuaded from the use of his iron fists, and that Yasser Arafat, the ruthless, egomaniacal Palestinian president can forever ride the tiger of the Arab street and somehow placate it while signing on for half of what he rejected for understandable reasons a year ago.

The deal almost negotiated at Taba in Egypt after the first few months of the Intifada was in many ways remarkable: a Palestinian state to control 95% of the West Bank and Gaza; Israeli settlers to be concentrated on about 5% of the land which Israel would annex with Palestine being compensated with Israeli land in the Negev desert; the Arab neighbourhoods of Jerusalem, including those in the Old City to be absorbed by Palestine; the Haram Al-Sharif Mosque to be under Palestinian sovereignty and the Wailing Wall under Israeli; and Palestinian refugees to be either compensated with money, settled in Palestine or, on a case by case basis, in Israel.

If it was remarkable- in comparison with what had gone before - it was also insufficient. Arafat decided not to sign and indeed decided to stand back from giving any show of support to prime minister Ehud Barak even though it was obvious that the outcome could only be Sharon's electoral victory.

One can make a dozen plausible arguments why this was a profound strategic mistake. If Arafat had shaken hands on a deal he might have risked his life from an assassination attempt but, presuming he has long ago discounted this ever present threat, he could have built on the deal to secure all manner of improvements in the following months, not least blackmailing both the Americans and the Europeans for development funds by threatening to turn tail.

For Barak's part, having come so far - and he went further than President Bill Clinton thought he should go at Camp David - he could have gone the extra mile and raised the ceiling from 20% to 25% for the percentage of the population of Israel that could be Arab, (an extra 250,000 people), thus taking a great part of the sting out of Arafat's push on the resettlement of refugees.

The final compromises didn't happen and even if they had it might not have turned the tide. Barak could still have been defeated by an electorate that thought he had gone too far- although it would have been a close race rather than the landslide that consumed him. Arafat, finding himself hung out to dry after having said yes and then having to deal with Sharon who said no, would have been more than a laughing joke throughout the Arab world.

The truth was the compromises came too late. For all Barak's magnanimity in the final year, he had wasted precious time early on in his term attempting to settle with Syria first and taking an inordinate amount of time to withdraw from the Lebanon.

All this suggests that in better circumstances a deal of this kind could be pulled off. The questions is what happens in the meantime? It is difficult to believe that Sharon's polices can lead anywhere useful. Continuing to build settlements on Arab land is provocative beyond belief. Always a counterproductive ploy, nothing does more to inflame Arab opinion. To believe that Arafat or any other leader can temper the violence of his people in this situation is nothing less than self-righteous make-believe, perhaps the worst of all political sins.

Its only outcome is likely to be the continuing quiet exodus of Israel's younger, highly educated people, particularly those in the important new technology businesses (which today contributes over 25% of Israel's GNP) to calmer pastures. Even today as many as 30,000 Israeli's live in San Francisco's South Bay alone. The young Jews of today who do not feel the fear of their fathers about living in the European or American Diaspora do not want to bring up their families inside a barbed wire fence. Yet it is the educated in Israel who have always produced the backbone of the peace vote (along with Israeli Arabs who make up an enormous 40% of it). Diminished in size already it is destined to shrink even further.

Moreover, in the face of further conflict and hostility from the Arab world the intransigence of Sharon will grow. It is Sharon who argued in the 1980s that the Palestinians should be relocated inside Jordan. This and similar arguments are likely to become more popular and more acceptable (inside Israel) in the future.

From the day of the Balfour Declaration the Arab-Palestinian dispute has long looked irresolvable. After the high hopes of the Oslo accord it looks more problematic than ever. Both sides are now destined to travel through the long dark night of the soul. Frankly, as a family man, be I a Palestinian or an Israeli, I would try to get out.

I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2001 By JONATHAN POWER



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