The rules of disengagement

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains a prime mover of Middle East chaos and suffering. But an impasse-breaker isn’t beyond reach.

In the short term, the only feasible and minimally decent solution to the conflict is along the lines of the long-standing international consensus: a two-state settlement on the border (Green Line), with minor and mutual adjustments.

By now, United States-backed Israeli settlement and infrastructure projects change the import of “minor.” Nevertheless, several two-state programmes are on the table, the most prominent being the Geneva Accord, presented in December by a group of prominent Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, working outside official channels.

The Geneva Accord provides a detailed programme for a one-to-one land swap and other aspects of a settlement, and is about as good as is likely to be achieved — and could be achieved if the US government would back it. The realpolitik is that Israel must accept what the great power dictates.

The Bush-Sharon “disengagement plan” is in fact an expansion-integration plan. Even as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon calls for some form of withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, “Israel will invest tens of millions of dollars in West Bank settlements”, James Bennet quotes Israeli Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in The New York Times. Other reports indicate that the development will take place on the Palestinian side of the “separation wall”.

Such settlements run counter to the Bush-endorsed “roadmap”, which calls for a halt to “all settlement activity”.

“As important a milestone as it is, an end to Israel’s occupation of the Gaza Strip requires a corresponding change in policies in the West Bank for its advantages to be realised,” writes Geoffrey Aronson, of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, in Washington.

The foundation has just published a map of Israeli plans for the West Bank, showing a patchwork of discontinuous, walled-off Palestinian enclaves that reproduces the worst features of South Africa’s apartheid bantustans, as Meron Benvenisti has pointed out in Haaretz.

The question that is now raised is whether the Israeli and Palestinian communities are so intertwined in the occupied territories that no division is possible.

Last November, however, former leaders of Shin Bet, the Israeli security service, generally agreed that Israel could and should completely pull out from the Gaza Strip. In the West Bank, 85% to 90% of the settlers would leave “with a simple economic plan” while there are perhaps 10% “with whom we will have to clash” to remove them — not a very serious problem, in the Shin Bet leaders’ view.

The Geneva Accord is based on similar assumptions, which appear realistic.

It is, incidentally, quite true that none of these proposals deals with the overwhelming imbalance in military and economic power between Israel and an eventual Palestinian state, or with other quite crucial issues.

In the longer term, other arrangements might emerge, as more healthy interactions develop between the two countries. One possibility with earlier roots is a binational federation.

From 1967 to 1973 such a binational state was quite feasible in Israel-Palestine. During those years, a full peace treaty between Israel and the Arab states was also feasible, and indeed had been offered in 1971 by Egypt, then Jordan. By 1973 the opportunity was lost.

What changed is the 1973 war and the shift in opinion among Palestinians, in the Arab world and in the international arena in favour of Palestinian national rights, in a form that incorporated United Nations Resolution 242 but added provisions for a Palestinian state in the occupied territories, which Israel would evacuate. But the US has unilaterally blocked that resolution for the last 30 years.

The result has been wars and destruction, harsh military occupation, takeover of land and resources, resistance and finally an increasing cycle of violence, mutual hatred and distrust. Those outcomes cannot be wished away.

Progress requires compromises on all sides. What’s a fair compromise? The closest we can come to a general formula is that compromises should be accepted if they are the best possible and can lead the way to something better.

Sharon’s “two-state” settlement, leaving Palestinians caged in the Gaza Strip and in cantons in about half of the West Bank, radically fails the criterion. The Geneva Accord approximates the criterion, and therefore should be accepted, at least as a basis for Israeli-Palestinian negotiation, in my opinion.

One of the thorniest issues is the Palestinian right of return. Palestinian refugees should certainly not be willing to renounce it, but in this world — not some imaginary world we can discuss in seminars — that right will not be exercised, in more than a limited way, within Israel.

In any case, it is improper to dangle hopes that will not be realised before the eyes of people suffering in misery and oppression. Rather, constructive efforts should be pursued to mitigate their suffering and deal with their problems in the real world.

A two-state settlement in accord with the international consensus is already acceptable to a very broad range of Israeli opinion. That even includes extreme hawks, who are so concerned by the “demographic problem” — the problem of too many non-Jews in a “Jewish state” — that they are even advancing the (outrageous) proposal to transfer areas of dense Arab settlement within Israel to a new Palestinian state.

A majority of the US population also supports the two-state settlement. Therefore, it is not at all inconceivable that organising/activist efforts in the US could bring the US government into line with the international consensus, in which case, Israel would very likely go along as well.

Even without any US pressure, a great many Israelis favour something of this sort — depending on exactly how questions are asked in polls. A change in Washington’s position would make an enormous difference.

The former leaders of Shin Bet, as well as the Israeli peace movement (Gush Shalom and others), believe that the Israeli public would accept such an outcome.

But speculation about that is not our real concern. Rather, it is to bring US government policy into line with the rest of the world, and apparently with the majority of the US public. — Â

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