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Middle East Roundtable / Edition 4 Volume 1

All three are unrealistic

by Yossi Alpher

Of the three leaders whose vision of a Palestinian state we are examining--Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, United States President George W. Bush, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon--Bush's vision of a Palestinian state is the clearest. On June 24, 2002, he stated that "the Israeli occupation that began in 1967 will be ended through a settlement . . . with Israeli withdrawal to secure and recognized borders." On April 14, 2004, he added the "establishment of a Palestinian state and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel," and indicated that Israel should be allowed to annex the major settlement blocs.

From an Israeli standpoint, this is a realistic formula. While it is not as detailed as the Clinton plan of December 2000, and though it prejudges issues best left by a US president to the parties themselves to resolve, the real problem with the Bush vision is not its content so much as the absence of a concerted presidential determination to pressure the parties into reaching any settlement at all.

Arafat's vision is the least clear. Ostensibly he aspires to a two-state solution based on the 1967 lines, including in Jerusalem. This is what the now defunct Oslo process was all about. But in the course of final status negotiations in 2000-2001, and particularly since their collapse in failure, Arafat has presented positions on the Temple Mount/Harem al-Sharif and the refugee right of return issue that call into question his commitment to any genuine two-state solution, which must be based on at least an acquiescence in Israel's self-definition as a Jewish state.

By denying any Jewish historic/religious link whatsoever to the Temple Mount, Arafat appears to be saying (and he has said this in other ways many times) that the Jews as a people have no legitimate roots in Eretz Yisrael/Palestine. By insisting that Israel recognize the right of return of 1948 refugees, he is understood by many Israelis to be undermining the foundations of a two-state solution based on the recommendation by the United Nations in 1947 (General Assembly Resolution 181) that there should come into existence separate Jewish and Arab states in mandatory Palestine. An unwarranted admission by Israel that it was "born in sin" is hardly a healthy foundation for a future two-state relationship.

Arafat's real intentions regarding a resolution of the conflict are the subject of intense debate in Israel. His tolerance for the use of violence against Israel--particularly his encouragement of "martyrdom operations"--complicates the issue. Probably the ultimate reason why no clear determination can be made is that his penchant for lying has destroyed his credibility, and not only in Israeli circles. Consequently, making sense of Arafat's position is no longer a political imperative, but rather an academic exercise.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's position appears to be changing. Over the years Sharon consistently presented a map of final status based on minimum territory and maximum fragmentation of the Palestinian entity--which, in recent years, he has agreed to call a state. Settlements were the primary vehicle for fragmenting the land and ensuring an ongoing Israeli grip on the main roads and hilltops, as well as on greater Jerusalem, the Jordan Valley, and the western Samaria settlement blocs.

But Sharon's readiness to evacuate the entirety of the Gaza Strip indicates that he has softened his approach. Until very recently, Sharon argued that Gaza would be divided into three Palestinian enclaves that were separated by the settlements of Netzarim and Kfar Darum and reduced in size by the remaining settlements. Moreover, the projected removal of four isolated settlements in northern Samaria in the West Bank points to a possible readiness to afford the mountain heartland area a degree of genuine territorial continuity through the removal of additional settlements further south.

Sharon still appears to insist on holding onto the Jordan Valley, thereby radically reducing the Palestinian land mass and cutting it off from direct contact with the Arab world. Yet in Gaza he has indicated that he is inclined, in cooperation with Egypt, eventually to abandon the Philadelphi road and allow Gazans unfettered access to the Egyptian Sinai. Judging by pronouncements from Ehud Olmert, the deputy prime minister who in recent months has "fronted" for some of Sharon's new positions, even Sharon's approach to greater Jerusalem may be softening.

While Sharon's vision appears to be changing for the better, it is hardly a blueprint for a successful two-state solution. Moreover Sharon, like Arafat, has a credibility problem; many who have watched him perform over the decades, and particularly in the past three years, still expect him to sabotage his own disengagement plan.

This analysis leads us once again to the recognition that none of the three relevant leaders has a realistic peace strategy, meaning both a realistic map and the necessary determination to implement it. One can only hope that Bush in a second term, or Kerry if elected, will evince that determination. Sharon's views may be evolving, but for the time being--and assuming Sharon is serious--they appear to be adapted primarily to unilateral action. And Arafat appears to be a lost cause.

Published 14/6/2004©bitterlemons.org

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak.

Bitterlemons-international.org aspires to engender greater understanding about the Middle East region and open a new common space for world thinkers and political leaders to present their viewpoints and initiatives on the region. Editors Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher can be reached at ghassan@bitterlemons-international.org and yossi@bitterlemons-international.org, respectively.

hagalil.com 16-06-2004



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