Posted on December 15, 1997 in Washington Watch

The Middle East peace process is approaching yet another fateful deadline. United States Secretary of State Madeline Albright has given Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu until December 17 to present a specific proposal for redeployment of the West Bank.

Looking at past Israeli behavior and following the current Israeli debate, what will most likely occur is that Netanyahu will seek to do the minimum necessary to avoid antagonizing the United States and being blamed for frustrating the peace process. At the same time, Netanyahu will seek to protect his support base among Israeli hard-liners who reject any further West Bank redeployment.

What Israel appears ready to do is to make some slight land concessions, amounting to about 10-13% of the West Bank. The land surrendered, however, will only slightly alter the condition of the continuing occupation by expanding the size of the existing Palestinian cantons in the West Bank.

The United States pressure on Israel to respond to the December 17th deadline has created a debate within Netanyahu’s coalition, prompting a number of competing efforts to propose alternative approaches to meeting the United States’ demands.

While there are some variations in the proposed plans, the exercise has not, in itself, been helpful toward moving the peace process forward. In this regard, it is instructive to note that what has emerged as the compromise plan is the one offered by National Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon. A situation in which Sharon emerges as the “realist” is bound to be a disappointment to the Palestinians and is an indication of how far Israel has veered from the path toward peace.

What Sharon is proposing has been described as establishing “quilt of congested areas of Arab population lacking contiguity with one another”. This, it will be recalled, closely resembles the “Drobbles Plan” first adopted during the Begin government in the late 1970’s (when Sharon was a Minister in charge of settlement construction in the West Bank). The intent of the Drobbles Plan was to create Palestinian reservations, with local autonomy and no sovereignty, surrounded by Jewish settlements and further divided by a patchwork of Israeli controlled roads and security areas.

Even if, as Sharon now concedes, the Palestinian areas might ultimately be called a state, it will be a state of disconnected parts. The Palestinians will lack control over most of their land, all water and resources, and passages not only with the outside but also amongst their many cantons.

That such a proposal is being seriously considered in Israel as a way to avoid United States pressure (Sharon briefed US officials in Washington on his plan last week) is indicative of how seriously flawed the Israeli view of the peace process has become.

The intent of the current government in Israel is far afield from the goals of the Oslo accords. This Likud coalition like its Shamir-led predecessor remains committed to the concept of Eretz Israel. It refuses to recognize the existence of a separate national community of Palestinians with rights that must be recognized and implemented. And it refuses to accept the proposition that security is a mutual goal of both parties and can only be insured in the context of a just and comprehensive peace.

As long as this government recognizes only its rights as legitimate and sees that its security can only be established by force and control of land – then we will be presented with such proposals as the “Sharon plan”.

But the deadline of December 17th is not a test for the Israelis alone. They will fail if they present a proposal as inadequate and as contemptuous of Palestinian needs as the Sharon plan. But the real test will be how the United States responds to what Netanyahu presents to Secretary Albright.

Should Netanyahu fail to propose any “meaningful” troop movement by December 17th, the United States intends to table its own proposal. The US will call for more substantial redeployment in phase two, insist on the settlement “time out” and create joint US-Israeli-Palestinian efforts both to implement the third phase of redeployment and supervise the Palestinian effort against terrorism.

Such direct US engagement should be encouraged, but more will be required. Long after the former South African system of apartheid and its repugnant system of Bantustans had been rejected as inhumane, the effort to implement a similar system by Israel must also be rejected. To determine whether Israel passes or fails its December 17th test, it will be important to look not only at the amount of land surrendered but the intent and direction of the Israeli redeployment efforts. In this context, it will be important for the US to review Israeli proposals and to insist that any redeployments establish connections between Palestinian controlled areas.

An additional way for the United States to press home to the Israelis its concern that Oslo be fully and seriously implemented will be to announce, in addition to the above mentioned steps, US recognition of the Palestinian right to a fully sovereign state. Such recognition would be no more intrusive to the negotiating process than the US insistance that Palestinians recognize Israel’s existence as a sovereign state. Negotiations, after all, are not about whether the parties have rights, but establishing the mechanisms and procedures to implement those rights.

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