shimogamo at attglobal.net
Sat Apr 21 18:44:13 MDT 2007
by Bernard Avishai
Harper's Magazine Notebook (April 2007)
In late November, I visited the campus of Al-Quds University in Abu Dis,
an eastern suburb of Jerusalem, to attend an international conference on
Palestinian refugees. Numbers are hard to validate, but it is widely accepted
that five million survivors and descendants of the 750,000 Arabs who fled (or
were chased out of) Israel during the 1948 war, as well as the 500,000 who were
displaced in 1967, remain refugees. Of those registered refugees living outside
the Palestinian Authority, about two thirds are in Jordan, where most qualify
for citizenship, and thirty percent are evenly divided between Syria and Lebanon,
where they generally do not. Palestinians will tell you that the right of return
to their homes is sacred. As many as forty percent of the refugee families still
live in squalid camps, in leaking houses of cracked concrete and tin roofs.
According to American University of Beirut sociologist Sari Hanafi, only a small
percentage of camp dwellers marry people from the outside; the camps, he argues,
are like bones misplaced in muscle, with no "connective tissue" to the urban
centers where real life happens.
Israelis will tell you the refugee camps are just breeding grounds for
Palestinian revanchist fantasies and should have been integrated into the Arab
states two generations ago, the way Israel incorporated 600,000 Jewish refugees
from neighboring countries. The Palestinian claim of a right to "their homes" is
intolerable, even for veteran Israeli peace activists like the writer Amos Oz.
Jews have resisted being thrown into the sea, so should they now choose to be
swamped? Does not the refugees' right of return contradict Israel's right to
exist? The problem would seem intractable.
The drive to Al-Quds University should take no more than fifteen minutes from my
apartment in the German Colony. It is on the next scatter of hills south of the
Augusta Victoria Hospital, where Arab residents of this part of Jerusalem
typically go for medical treatment. But it took almost fifty-five minutes in
light traffic, since Abu Dis is now formally assigned to the territory of the
Palestinian Authority and is just behind the "security fence" that snakes
through Jerusalem and the West Bank. To get to Abu Dis - to find a checkpoint
through the fence - we had to drive around the burgeoning Jewish suburb of
Ma'ale Adumim several miles to the north. Imagine going from Wall Street to NYU
via the Upper West Side. Imagine making the trip to the hospital from Abu Dis
when the traffic is heavy, your identity card says you are no longer a resident
of Jerusalem, the checkpoint guard got up on the wrong side of the bed, and your
wife is in labor. It gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "right of return".
I finally got to the conference building - as it happens, a stone's throw from
the fence and its defiant graffiti. The two featured speakers of the morning
were Saeb Erekat, the intense, perennial Palestinian "chief negotiator", still
close to (and bringing greetings from) Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud
Abbas, and Nabil Sha'ath, perhaps the most affable diplomat of the old brain
trust around Yasir Arafat. Sha'ath had managed the Palestinian negotiating team
on refugees at the peace summit at Taba, the Egyptian resort town on the Red Sea,
in January 2001. That summit, undertaken while the Al-Aqsa intifada burned in
the background, was the last time Israelis and Palestinians formally tried to
come to a "final status" agreement within the framework of the 1993 Oslo
Accords. At the time, Bill Clinton had just surrendered the presidency, but his
bridging parameters, negotiated in Washington in December 2000 and meant to
close the gap that had emerged between Ehud Barak and Arafat at the failed Camp
David talks six months before, served as the agenda. Israeli negotiators had
reported progress, but the summit was rushed because of an impending Israeli
election, in which Barak was widely expected to take a beating from Ariel Sharon.
Erekat spoke passionately. Using Arafat's marquee phrase, he called for the
"peace of the brave", the release of prisoners on both sides: "a comprehensive
calm - no Palestinian missiles, no Israeli shells". He did not consider the
refugees but rebuked "forces that sow division" - namely Hamas, which had
accused Abbas's Fatah party of having forgotten the refugees. He acknowledged
that Hamas had been democratically elected but warned the party not to bypass
the PLO, the national umbrella, which Fatah still controlls.
After almost a year of Hamas trying to consolidate power in the Palestinian
Authority - prompting international financial sanctions, political isolation,
and so on - the PA was now stuck with tens of thousands of unpaid teachers,
police, and other civil servants. Fatah was rising steadily in the polls and
now seemed assured a majority in any new election. The air was buzzing with talk
of a "unity" government, led by Fatah's own Abbas, and of the urgency of his
meeting with Hamas's Khaled Meshal to avoid civil war. (They finally reached
agreement on a unity government in Mecca on February 8, but it is not yet clear
whether its terms, including a cautiously worded call to "respect" the PLO's
previous agreements with Israel, will end Western sanctions. )
Whatever Sha'ath's real mission at the conference, he seemed to give
encouragement to new negotiations by claiming that the past negotiations at Taba
had almost succeeded and implying that Hamas was only making a bad situation
worse. He did not disappoint. The refugee negotiations at Camp David got nowhere,
Sha'ath said, because the Israelis had been stalling. But at Taba, he said,
refugees were not shunted aside, and their troubles would have been resolved
according to a number of "modalities". He roared them out in bullet form:
There would be financial compensation for lost property. There would be paid
relocation to the Palestinian state. There would be contributions by donor
countries, and even by Israel, to that state. (One economist present cheerfully
put the amount of reparations at $137 billion.) There would even be a program
of limited family reunification in Israel, up to a number "acceptable to the
Israeli government", say 10,000 a year over five years. Nobody could say justice
of a kind was not being exacted.
When Sha'ath finished, however, the applause was merely polite. It was as if
everybody had heard it all before. And, of course, we had. For these "modalities"
were entirely familiar, basically identical to the principles that had been
incorporated into the Geneva Initiative, a document signed by a team of Israeli
and Palestinian politicians, writers (including Oz), and others, in October 2003.
Geneva's organizers, Yossi Beilin, the former Israeli justice minister, and
former Palestinian Authority Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo, had both
been at Taba and wanted to complete its work. Their document amounted to a
comprehensive peace deal:
There would be a Palestinian state established in the West Bank and Gaza,
joined by a bridge or tunnel, and using the 1967 borders as the starting point.
Land swaps (for example, from the Negev to Gaza) would allow densely populated
Jewish settlements around Jerusalem and Hebron, some 150,000 people, to be
annexed to Israel, but Israel would evacuate Jewish settlements on the hills
around major Palestinian cities. (Of all major urban settlements, only Ariel in
the north and Qiryat Arba in the south would be evacuated, since access to them
required long fingers of land to jut into Palestine, making a contiguous state
impossible.) Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem, including those in the Old City,
would be absorbed into the Palestinian state, with the Haram al-Sharif and its
mosques coming under Palestinian sovereignty. The Jewish Quarter and the Wailing
Wall would stay under Israeli sovereignty. International forces, mainly under UN
auspices, would help police the Old City and the shared border. Israel would
maintain a three-year security presence in the Jordan Valley, and security
cooperation under US mediation would continue beyond that date.
That was the deal - that's still the deal - and Sha'ath could only restate it.
The refugee problem, which was supposed to prompt new study and declarations of
steadfastness, was actually resolved four years ago. The border was resolved.
Jerusalem was resolved. The placement of international forces was resolved.
As King Abdullah of Jordan put it recently, "You have the road map, you have
Taba, you have the Geneva Accord. So, we don't have to go back to the drawing
board." According to a December poll, more than half of Israelis and about half
of Palestinians already accept the terms of this agreement. And Abdullah might
have added that we also have the Saudi plan, adopted by the Arab League summit
in March 2002, declaring that all regional states will simultaneously recognize
Israel in return for the 1967 border Geneva calls for. I put the matter
point-blank to Sha'ath. Had the Palestinian Authority formally accepted the
terms of the Geneva Initiative? "Well, that depends who we're talking to",
he told me. "If I were talking to current Israeli negotiators and I said I
accepted Geneva, they would say, 'Great, let's start from there and negotiate
a compromise'. If I were talking to Beilin, the attitude would be different.
It would be a short negotiation."
This raises a vexing question: If the framework for a full peace has been
negotiated, why are we still killing each other? The short answer is the
Vendetta logic of violence itself: the Oslo process was supposed to yield, first,
a period of confidence building, and second, final status talks to produce an
agreement. What has actually taken place since 2000 is, first, a final status
agreement, and second, the catastrophic erosion of any confidence to implement
it: pro- settler provocations, suicide bombings, assassinations, missiles,
shells, hollow ultimatums - and then Lebanon.
But there is a long answer, which is that nothing stands in the way of an
agreement, except for a reciprocal reluctance of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud
Olmert and Palestinian President Abbas, both openly committed to a two state
peace such as Geneva advanced, to act boldly in the face of righteous domestic
opposition. Fatah's wariness of Hamas - its shows of force and erratic
exploitation of international pressure to gain the upper hand - is only one
side of the equation. Olmert, too, has an opposition: several hundred thousand
settlers in the West Bank and around Jerusalem, ultra-orthodox parties, Russian
immigrant hawks, combat officers nervous about losing "deterrent power". He is
understandably reluctant to take them on for the sake of a peace process that
could at any time be subverted by either the Palestinians' weakness or their
In any case, given Olmert's impulsive performance during the Lebanon war, his
political survival is hardly assured. His approval ratings hover somewhere
around fifteen percent. For most of his career, Olmert has professed an
attachment to Greater Israel, and everybody knows that he favored pulling out
of Gaza mainly because he thought this would make it easier to unilaterally
annex large parts of East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Nevertheless, the government Olmert (or his successor) will lead until 2010 is
not resisting a deal like Geneva for ideological reasons. This may be the most
pragmatic government Israel has ever had, for the elites that organized this
government have made a huge bet on Israel's economic globalization. They are
counting on levels of growth like that of the Asian Tigers to mitigate ugly
inequalities - repair a dysfunctional educational system and integrate Israel's
own increasingly restive Arab minority, who make up one fifth of the country.
The economy is booming at the moment, but its growth is led by hundreds of
software companies, components companies, and so forth, which need to have open
markets in Europe and Asia, where about half of Israel's foreign exports go.
Another war, or the revival of the intifada - leading to a shunning of Israelis
- will send the economy south and the elite's children west.
The great challenge is to get each side - Israel and Palestine - to trust in
something without having to trust the other. What the Israeli prime minister
needs is a dose of what the Palestinian president has been getting: great powers
forcing the issue, bringing the sides to an endgame that leaders and majorities
will accept and do not have the courage to "sow division" over. Paradoxically,
the last thing Israel needs is exactly what Olmert has been asking for - the
gradualism of the road map without pressure, a free hand to deal with "terror",
more confidence-building measures. The only thing that will build confidence
today is a clear commitment of Americans and Europeans to a definite plan like
Geneva. In the absence of such a plan, Olmert and Abbas become hostages to every
Islamist terrorist or hard-line Israeli officer who makes the decision to pursue
"militants". Olmert must be able to say what Abbas has been compelled to say to
those who oppose him: "You are alienating the world. We have to choose between
our old dreams and American support. Our economy cannot survive isolation."
It need hardly be said that the Bush Administration, friends to the end, do not
subscribe to this view. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has spoken vaguely
of bilateral negotiations moving to a "political horizon". She is reportedly
looking again at Geneva. But how to get from talk about process to talk about a
deal? Rice, like her boss, seems to believe mostly in evil people being beaten
into joining, or in an ownership diplomacy in which the US speaks best by
speaking least. As I write, she has left Jerusalem after an inconclusive
Olmert-Abbas summit. "The real value here was that they sat down to talk with
each other", Rice said. In January, however, newspapers reported that informal
(and, by all accounts, productive) negotiations between Israelis and Syrians had
been curtailed due to administration disapproval. States that abet terror must
stand in the corner.
But as we approach the US primary season, the world-famous fatuousness of the
Bush Administration is not the only danger. What "electable" Democratic
presidential candidate in 2004 even raised the question of West Bank settlements?
American Jews are more dependable contributors to the Democratic Party than
almost any other "demographic", and elections are still fought largely by brand
managers. What consultant will allow a candidate to prejudge the outcome of
Israel's negotiations or limit Israel's freedom of action? Will Barack Obama
risk stories about Jews in New York or Los Angeles questioning his friendliness
to Israel? Will Hillary Clinton risk endorsing "bridging parameters" that carry
her own name? Think of the reaction to Jimmy Carter's recent book.
Clinton's statements on the matter are especially unsatisfying, given how far
her husband took the negotiation process in 2000. If she endorsed his proposals,
which yielded the Geneva Initiative, she'd liberate the Democratic field to do
the same. Instead, she told the Council on Foreign Relations in October 2006
that there is "no reliable partner on the Palestinian side", that progress
depends on Hamas recognizing Israel, which America must remain in "close
coordination with" - in all, a policy as cunningly opaque as the circles around
Richard Perle's eyes. The point is, the road map leads, if anywhere, to Geneva.
With no American driver, the wars continue. Do we need new refugees to tell us
where that leads?
Bernard Avishai is a consulting editor of the Harvard Business Review and the
author of The Tragedy of Zionism (Allworth Press, 2002). His last article for
Harper's Magazine, "Saving Israel from Itself", appeared in the January 2005
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