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Fuzzy Geography of the Mideast

What is the West Bank? The varying answers trip up the peace process.

June 13, 2002|FRIDA GHITIS | Frida Ghitis' latest book is "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television" (Algora Publishing, 2001).

A few years ago while on assignment in Amman, Jordan, I was chatting with one of the friendly waiters at my hotel, who told me he was Palestinian. His father, he explained, had come to Jordan from the West Bank.

Where in the West Bank, I asked.

"Jaffa," he said, naming the old town by the sea next to Tel Aviv.

"I thought you said the West Bank," I responded naively. Like most people, I thought the West Bank was the narrow strip of land to the west of the Jordan River occupied by Israel in 1967. He quickly dispelled my misconception.

"The West Bank," he explained, "goes from the river Jordan all the way to the sea."

His West Bank included all of Israel. Apparently my waiter friend's ideas match the views of most Palestinians today, who, according to a recent survey by a Palestinian polling group, say the objective of the current uprising is not to end the Israeli occupation of territories captured in 1967, but rather to "liberate all of historic Palestine."

That term in itself--historic Palestine--is hardly an example of specificity, since there has never been a country called Palestine. After World War I, with the Ottoman Empire defeated, the British received a mandate to look after the region named Palestine by the Roman Empire. The Turkish Ottomans had controlled the area for centuries before the British took over. More than half of that land of the Palestinian Mandate became an independent Jordan in 1946. Two years later, in 1948, the United Nations divided the rest between Arabs and Jews in a partition rejected by the Arabs, who immediately went to war against Israel.

The territory most non-Arabs consider under dispute today--the West Bank and Gaza--was captured by Israel from Jordan and Egypt, respectively, during the 1967 Six-Day War.

Presumably those responding to this month's poll by the Palestinian Jerusalem Media and Communication Centre did not mean they want to take over Jordan, too, when they spoke of "all of historic Palestine." What they want is all of Israel, in addition to the 1967 lands.

This fuzzy geography, a game of deliberate double-meanings and frequent misunderstandings, is what made it possible for Israel and the Palestinians during the years of the Oslo accords to move confidently forward without making any real progress. Discussions about returning the West Bank sounded good to both sides, when in reality each party's definition was completely unacceptable to the other. Israelis consistently tell pollsters that they support the creation of a Palestinian state in most of the occupied territories, and almost half of the Palestinians polled do support a vision of a state along similar lines to what most Israelis envision.

But the people controlling the fate of the Palestinians today have no desire to compromise. Entities like Hamas and Islamic Jihad don't even pretend to merely seek an end to the occupation. They openly call for an end to Israel.

Arafat's real motives are harder to discern. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak once believed Arafat indeed wanted a two-state solution. The current Israeli leader, Ariel Sharon, has never believed in Arafat's trustworthiness.

On both sides the moderates have lost ground since the peace process collapsed at the end of the Clinton and Barak administrations.

The Palestinian poll showed that, even though most believe Arafat will win the next election, only 25% say they trust him more than any other politician. Palestinians have never had a leader willing to talk peace with Israel while preparing their people for compromise--for a state whose borders will not reach all the way to Tel Aviv and will not include all of Jerusalem.

On both sides there are many who want peace. For now, however, those whose definition of the West Bank includes all of Israel are calling the shots on the Palestinian side. This puts Israel's cards in the hands of people who believe Palestinians will always want to destroy their country.

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