Yasser Arafat's death and the mounting expectations for a renewal of the peace process have brought the question of questions back to the forefront of public debate: Is it possible to reach an agreement for a partition of the land between Israel and a future Palestinian state?
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan, which only yesterday was being depicted as a desperate measure, a unilateral alternative to dialogue, is now perceived by the world as a breakthrough step. The minute the cork of settlements in the Gaza Strip is removed, the demand will arise for a similar withdrawal from the West Bank. But to where?
In the background is the old argument over the 1967 lines as a basis for a future border between Israel and Palestine. Sharon correctly reckoned that the Green Line would return to the political picture, despite the enormous efforts to erase it. To prevent that, he equipped himself with two constraints: One was the letter from President Bush promising no return to the "armistice lines" and consideration for the "Israeli population centers" in determining the border; the other was the government decision about disengagement, approved by the Knesset, which said that "in any future agreement" Israel will annex "the main blocs of Jewish settlement, civilian settlements, security areas and places where the state has additional interests" in the West Bank.
Two main arguments came up on the Left against that official position. One has to do with the weakness of Arafat's successors. Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) is being described as a PLO bureaucrat, lacking charisma and legitimacy, shackled to the "limits of the concessions" made by his adored predecessor. According to that approach, no Palestinian leader would dare deviate from the maximum that Arafat had demanded, meaning a full Israeli withdrawal to the Green Line with some minimal territorial exchanges. However, that "weakness" on Abu Mazen's part can also be described as a strength because it enables him to insist on positions on the grounds that he can't make any further concessions.
The other argument is that Israeli stubbornness and not Palestinian rejections, caused the collapse of the peace process and led the nations to war. That is the classic position of the left, which nearly disappeared from Israeli discourse during the years of intifada. It is coming up again now in a working paper prepared by two veterans of the negotiations, who played a major role in the preparation of the Geneva Initiative: Ron Pundak, who was one of the initiators of the Oslo Accords and is now executive director at the Peres Center for Peace; and Shaul Arielli, who headed the "Peace Administration" for the Barak government.
Pundak and Arielli accuse the previous prime minister, Ehud Barak, of missing peace because of his insistence on dividing the West Bank rather than accepting the Green Line as the basis for a border. They say that strategy was "a mistake that carried the seeds of the collapse of the negotiations." The two accept the Palestinian approach to setting the border, based on the legitimacy of UN decisions and precedents of previous agreements reached between Israel and its neighbors which were based on full withdrawal, as in the case of Egypt, and territorial exchanges, as in the case of Jordan. They think that Barak's effort to discriminate against the Palestinians in that sense is what prevented an agreement.
The Sharon bureau is not particularly bothered by those arguments. The Left has been in opposition for years, they say, the prime minister's popularity is ascendant, and as long as Bush supports him, there's no need to get hot and bothered about "Moratinos, Solana and Beilin" and the rest of the Green Line disciples.
But both sides are apparently right. It is difficult imagining a Palestinian leadership that accepts a permanent agreement with a divided state in part of the West Bank. It is also difficult to imagine Sharon accepting full withdrawal, or nearly full withdrawal, from the territories, despite his readiness to leave Gaza. The conclusion therefore is that progress will at most be toward another interim agreement. The dreams of a permanent agreement and declarations about an end to the conflict will apparently have to wait.
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