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Plans for 2 'Entities' to Separate Palestinians and Israelis Gain Currency


JERUSALEM — Ehud Barak campaigned for his job as prime minister of Israel promising to separate Israelis from Palestinians. High fences make good neighbors--that was how he put it.

More than a year later, plans to separate the two "entities" have suddenly gained urgency amid a spasm of deadly unrest that has left 109 people dead and caused many here to give up on achieving a comprehensive peace settlement to end decades of Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

More and more Israelis are becoming convinced that separation is the only alternative. Many Palestinians agree but do not want borders imposed by Israel. On Thursday, in the first concrete step toward this goal, Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh presented a detailed separation plan to Barak.

Though the proposal was not made public, Sneh said it calls for drawing formal borders between Israel and Palestinian territories, erecting barriers such as fences and establishing crossing points. An entire laundry list of other matters would have to be resolved, including economic ties between the two entities, electricity grids, water supplies and security arrangements.

"The idea is to shape a reality where there are two entities living separately side by side," Sneh said in an interview. He emphasized that this is only a fallback if a peace agreement cannot be achieved.

Palestinian officials, who intend to declare their own independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, attacked the Israeli proposal as an attempt to isolate Palestinian towns and lands.

"They are trying to cut Palestinians off into Indian reservations," said Yasser Abed-Rabbo, a spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

The debate on separation is intensifying even as Israelis and Palestinians on Thursday continued to monitor each other's compliance with a still-flawed cease-fire that Barak and Arafat accepted Tuesday in Egypt. The deadline for full observance of the truce is midday today.

Putting up walls between Israel's 6 million citizens and the 2.5 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is, of course, virtually impossible. The economies of the two peoples are almost completely intertwined. The holy city of Jerusalem is claimed by both, and efforts thus far to divvy it up are what threw peace negotiations into disarray.

As outlined by Sneh, none of the 144 Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza would be dismantled. Previously, Barak has indicated that he was willing to vacate the most isolated and hard-to-defend settlements, and it seems highly unlikely that a separation can work with all of the settlements intact.

It also was unclear where borders would be drawn. Presumably, the Israeli army would pull back from some of its positions to smooth out the lines and give the Palestinian entity more territorial integrity.

But with the upheaval of the last three weeks, doing so now would look like capitulation in some eyes, not unlike Israel's hasty withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May under pressure from the militant Islamic Hezbollah movement.

Some analysts suggest that Barak is floating the unilateral separation plan as a threat to Arafat and that the Israeli leader still hopes to avoid putting it into effect.

"At first we have to decide we want to make a [unilateral] separation," Sneh said. "Then, it's costly and complicated."

Israel is not alone in contemplating unilateral actions. Arafat has repeatedly threatened to declare Palestine into existence, with or without a broader peace agreement. Some Israeli officials believe that what they describe as Arafat's recent encouragement of violence is a precursor to making just such a declaration.

One purpose of separation is to reduce the points of friction between Israelis and Palestinians. Checkpoints and narrow passages through rival territory serve as staging grounds for clashes.

But separation without a wider peace agreement would probably exacerbate, not reduce, friction, according to Gadi Zohar, Israel's former administrator of the West Bank and Gaza.

"You need an agreement," Zohar said. "Otherwise, Israel can say it will separate unilaterally from the Palestinians, and it can be done. But we would be doomed for a long time to clashes."

If Israel unilaterally imposes a separation, it will be an admission that a broader peace agreement is not possible and will underscore the failure of the process that was launched by the landmark 1993 Oslo accords. The basic tenet of the Oslo process was the gradual exchange of land for peace during a period of years that would be used to build up trust between the two sides.

The recent killings and recriminations seem to have destroyed Israeli-Palestinian relations that had grown cordial over time, and to have left it highly unlikely that talks can resume soon. Under the agreement worked out Monday and Tuesday in Sharm el Sheik, Egypt, U.S. officials will determine over the next two weeks whether there is a basis for renewed talks.

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