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The Great Divide

Let's look first to stabilize, not solve, Middle East tensions

November 03, 2002|Shlomo Avineri | Shlomo Avineri is a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and was director-general of Israel's Foreign Ministry in the first administration of Yitzhak Rabin.

JERUSALEM — When Palestinian suicide attacks on civilians in Israel are followed by Israeli military actions against Palestinians, it is easy for the rest of the world to shrug, dismissing the events as "a cycle of violence" that defies reason. But such easy analysis ignores history.

Last week's government crisis in Israel, which could lead to early elections, may exacerbate some aspects of Israeli-Palestinian relations. But it does not change the basic facts of the conflict.

In order to understand the current crisis, one has to look back to the Oslo agreements in 1993, signed by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. Hope was in the air. Israel and the PLO publicly recognized each other; Israel committed itself to withdrawing from most of the West Bank and Gaza; the Palestinians forswore violence. Most important, Arafat's return from Tunisia and the establishment of an autonomous Palestinian Authority meant that by the late 1990s more than 80% of the Palestinians would be living under Palestinian rule. It appeared that a compromise was achievable.

But then came the failure of the negotiations at Camp David in June 2000 and later at Taba in the fall and early winter of 2000-01. With the support of President Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak made the Palestinians a series of offers that most observers thought Arafat could not refuse. But he did. Camp David and Taba became the defining moments in recent Middle Eastern history -- just as 9/11 later became a defining moment for U.S. history.

Israel's offers would have changed history. To recapitulate:

* Barak accepted the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. No previous Israeli leader -- including Nobel Peace Prize laureates Rabin and Shimon Peres -- had agreed to such a proposal.

* Barak committed himself to an Israeli withdrawal from 93% to 97% of the occupied territories in the West Bank and Gaza. This would have entailed the uprooting of up to 30 Jewish settlements and the displacement of some 30,000 Jewish settlers.

* In exchange for those Jewish settlements that would remain in the territories, Barak offered equivalent land within Israel proper -- an idea never before considered.

* Contrary to the avowed Israeli position that Jerusalem would remain forever the undivided capital of Israel, Barak agreed to redivide Jerusalem, so that the Arab part could become the capital of a Palestinian state.

* Again without precedent, Barak offered power-sharing with the Palestinians on the Temple Mount.

* Finally, Barak was ready to consider, on humanitarian grounds, the return of a limited number of Palestinian refugees displaced by Israel's 1948 War of Independence.

These were offers made at considerable political cost to Barak. Two of his coalition partners left his government in protest; in the end, Barak lost his parliamentary majority and had to call early elections. In February 2001, soon after the collapse of Taba, he was defeated by Ariel Sharon.

The Palestinian response to Barak's offers was not simply to refuse them but rather to make further demands that Israel simply could not meet. Arafat insisted that Israel agree to the right of return for Palestinian refugees of the 1948 war -- and for all their descendants. Accepting this concept would spell the end of Israel as a Jewish state -- and Arafat's insistence on it signified to most Israelis that the Palestinian leadership has not yet reconciled itself to the existence of Israel.

In the Israeli mind, it appeared that the Palestinians were not focused on addressing the consequences of the 1967 Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza: Their aim was rather to undo the events of 1948 -- to undo the establishment of Israel.

Arafat's rejection of the Taba offers was accompanied by a reversion to terrorism and suicide bombing. There is no doubt that Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount during the fall of 2000 was an unnecessary provocation, and even Israelis would have understood a few days of rage and protest among Palestinians. But the wholesale reversion to terrorism that followed was not triggered by Sharon's visit. It now appears to most Israelis that the violence is part of a strategy by Arafat to wrest from Israel through terrorism what he could not achieve with negotiations.

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