Posted on July 17, 2000 in Washington Watch

If any agreement is to come out of the current negotiations taking place at Camp David, it will, in all certainty, be an incomplete resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Given current realities, it is not possible for Palestinians and Israelis to resolve, in their entirely, the major issues that have confronted them for over one-half century. This is a clear fact of real politics.

Nevertheless, it is not only possible but necessary for the parties to achieve an agreement. But for this agreement to work, it will be important for all sides to recognize that the agreement is based on necessity, not on justice.

This troubling fact was brought home to me in the midst of a discussion between a Palestinian caller to my live call-in television program (“A Capital View” on MBC Tuesdays at 22:00 GMT) and my guest, an American Jewish leader of the Peace Now movement.

My guest, it should be noted is a principled advocate for a just peace and has been a leader in the effort to stop Israeli settlement building and to protect Palestinian human rights.

And yet despite my guest’s obvious peace credentials, caller after caller exposed just how deep are the divisions that plague the peace effort.

In this short exposition, I want to briefly explore the rifts in just three of these areas.


Discussion of the refugee issue, even among some of the more thoughtful Americans and Israelis, often appear to Palestinians to be shallow, demeaning or worse.

On the night of my television show, for example, my guest referred to the refugee issue as “one of the most complex” issues facing the negotiators. A caller protested politely and eloquently noting that to say this was to confuse what was in a reality a very simple matter–he had a home in Palestine, he was forced from his home, a Jewish family moved into his home, he has a right to his home and he wants it back.

This same appeal to simple justice can be repeated by hundreds of thousands of other Palestinians. And yet this matter will not be addressed so simply.

Even with the best of the approaches proposed to “solve” the refugee issue, simple justice will not be achieved. Complicated formulas have been proposed. They involve such elements as: an Israeli acknowledgement of some responsibility for the refugee problem (and, in some cases, an abstract admission of the principle of the “right of return”); the opportunity for some Palestinians (various proposals are as high as 100,000) to return as part of a family reunification program; another much larger group will be permitted to return to their “homeland,” i.e., the new Palestinian state, as its absorptive capacity allows; and an international fund will be established to provide the remaining millions with some degree of compensation and resettlement opportunities elsewhere (presumably, the United States, Canada, Australia, etc.).

Such an approach may solve some problems and provide negotiators with a way to bridge gaps, but no one should think that it will resolve the problem. By its very conception, this approach depersonalizes Palestinians and denies them their individual rights. Furthermore, the euphemisms of “compensation” and “resettlement,” in the end, only translate to yet one more displacement.

Such an approach can legitimately be viewed as insulting and yet many in the United States (possibly because we are a highly mobile society of immigrants and refugees) view it as both workable and fair. More disturbing, of course, is the fact that many Israelis and American Jews believe that this approach goes too far.

But then what else might be possible given the fact that the Palestinian right to return, if fully implemented (as justice would require), presents Israel with a direct existential challenge to its very existence?

And so, while negotiators seek to wrest from the Israelis an acknowledgement of the Palestinian “right of return,” as a principle, and to assume some responsibility for the resolution of the horrible and prolonged crisis of the refugees, the implementation of this right will in all probability be an incomplete one. This will leave individual Palestinians with the clear right to continue to pursue their just claims.


For more than 30 years now Israel has built settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. They have been called illegal by the United Nations and the United States, which, more recently, has come to merely term them an “obstacle to peace.”

By design, settlements were intended to resolve the territorial issue unilaterally by establishing Israeli “facts” that would make return of land more difficult. In the first decade of the occupation, these settlements were planned principally in security belts along the “green line” and the Jordanian border. Beginning with the Likud takeover in the late 1970s a new plan (the “Drobbles’ Plan”) was established to place settlements in the heart of Palestinian lands and to connect these settlements by security roads so as to cut the West Bank and Gaza into pieces making any territorial contiguity impossible. In the process of implementing these plans, thousands of Palestinians lost their lands and livlihoods to new construction–many lost their lives as well.

Even after the signing of the peace accords in 1993, settlements and road construction continued–at an even more rapid pace. In the last decade, the settlement population has doubled and the map of the Drobbles’ Plan is nearly complete. The West Bank is riddled with settlements. Jerusalem is surrounded by a virtual “Great Wall of China” of massive settlement complexes that extend far out into the West Bank. And an extensive network of highways, tunnels and overpasses surrounds and separates small Palestinian villages and cuts the West Bank into pieces.

Justice and law require that these be either dismantled or turned over to the future Palestinian State or to the individual Palestinians on whose lands they were illegally built.

Wrestling, however, with the hard cold facts of political reality, negotiators will seek to accomplish a solution that while less than perfect, might still be more desirable than the status quo.

Israel insists that it maintain control over blocks of the larger settlements and in exchange for these they appear to be willing to cede some land across the 1967 “green line” to the Palestinians. Even with such a trade, issues of ownership and the danger of the Palestinian State being “cut up” by those settlement blocks still remains. And while some settlements may fall within the Palestinian state or be abandoned, the compensation Israel will seek for the settlers of these “illegal” sites will, no doubt, be excessive.

Nevertheless, it appears that this may be the best the negotiators will make of the situation.


The reality of Jerusalem is that despite Israeli claims, it is a divided city. It is an occupied and surrounded city–but after 33 years, it remains divided.

Standing on a hill in Arab East Jerusalem, it is still possible to see the location of the 1967 green line. This is because on one side of that line, the Arab side, the Israeli occupation authority has spent so little in repairs and allowed so little Palestinian construction that the contrast is stark. In fact, the new construction in the East consists of a few Israeli police buildings and high rise settlements. Beyond that, the eastern side is surrounded and engulfed by the massive concrete behemoths of new settlements that serve to cut the city off from the rest of the West Bank.

But within the city, it is divided. Taxis from the West side will not go to Arab neighborhoods, nor do residents.

One Israeli commentator recently derided what he sarcastically referred to as Israel’s “most courageous compromise plan for a Jerusalem solution”–that is, an exchange of territory in which Israel “relinquishes” some of the Arab neighborhoods of the city in exchange for Israel annexing Ma’ale Adumim and other settlements around the city. The commentator correctly noted that since the Palestinian view the settlements as illegal and the neighborhoods of East Jerusalem as occupied–this was, in reality not a serious proposal at all.

Not mentioned at all in these proposals is the status of the Old City–the heart of the matter–although some Israeli proposals seem to give Palestinians control of the Muslim and Christian holy places.

Of great importance in any effort to resolve Jerusalem will be the end of the city’s isolation from the West Bank. Not only in the religion sense, but in every other way, Jerusalem is the center of the Palestinian universe. Cutting it off has crippled its economy and life and has harmed the rest of the Palestinian world as well.

In this area, therefore, as well as the other final status issues, a perfect solution may not be achieved, but negotiators will seek to find a way to secure maximum access, rights and sovereignty.


What is clear from any realistic assessment of what may be accomplished in the current negotiations is that perfect justice will not be achieved. Does this mean that nothing should be done–and would doing nothing solve anything? Some propose instead, a return to some form of struggle. But with that, how many would die? How much suffering would be created? And in the end, after the violence, what would be different from today?

A reality check is in order. A perfect solution will not be possible–but that does not mean that no solution should be sought. Given this, a clear responsibility must be assumed by the United States and a clear recognition of the situation must be acknowledged by Israelis.

Palestinians may not win total restitution or receive total justice. Although the negotiators should still attempt to come as close as possible to these goals. They may find peace, but they will forever be owed for what they have surrendered. Israelis should acknowledge this with humility and generosity. It won’t make up for the lack of justice–but it might make its absence a little easier to accept.

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