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The incredible shrinking Palestine

May 21, 2006|Sandy Tolan | SANDY TOLAN'S most recent book is "The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East."

THE HISTORY of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be glimpsed through a series of maps.

First is the sepia-toned map of Palestine under the British Mandate, circa 1936. On its surface it suggests one unified country where Arab and Jew can live together between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. This is the map that some Palestinians still place on their walls: A whole Palestine, representing the dream of an independent, secular, democratic and Arab-majority state. Many Israelis still see this map as representing their dreams too: Eretz Yisrael, the whole Jewish homeland.

Second is the United Nations partition map of November 1947, which divided Palestine into two states -- one for Arabs (who were to get 44% of the territory) and one for Jews (who were given 54.5%), with Jerusalem and Bethlehem under international stewardship. For Zionists, it was a triumph born of the Holocaust and the belief in much of the world that Jews needed and deserved a haven.

For Arabs, who were the majority population, it was a disaster. Why, they asked, should their homeland become the solution to the Jewish tragedy in Europe? They fought the partition, and in the 1948 war that followed, 700,000 Palestinians fled or were driven out and became refugees.

After Israel's 1948 War of Independence, a third map emerged, based on additional territory captured by Israel. Palestinians lived in the West Bank and Gaza, under Jordanian and Egyptian rule, on 22% of old Palestine -- or outside of the historic territory entirely, often in U.N. refugee camps set up in neighboring Arab countries.

The fourth map was drawn after Israel's stunning victory in the 1967 Middle East War. It showed yet more territory -- the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights and the Sinai peninsula -- under Israeli occupation. Soon dozens of little dots, representing Israeli settlements, would be added to each of these areas. (In the early 1980s, Israel withdrew from the Sinai, and last year from Gaza.)

Now comes the new Israeli prime minister to Washington, carrying yet another map. When Ehud Olmert meets with President Bush on Tuesday, he will present a new page for the Middle East atlas, in which, according to recent reports, Israel will have pulled up stakes from some of the occupied West Bank but will still control large portions of it. Palestinians would end up with less than 20% of their original dream for the whole of Palestine.

Olmert will try to convince the White House that in the absence of a "partner for peace," this Israeli plan to draw its final borders, and to wall off his people from the Palestinians, is in the best interests of peace and stability in the region.

Yet the implementation of Olmert's unilateral "convergence" plan could have the opposite effect. By annexing West Bank lands (including the giant, densely populated settlements in Palestinian territory outside Jerusalem), claiming Jerusalem's Old City and its holy sites exclusively as Israel's own, drawing a new "security border" along the Jordan Valley and, according to David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, keeping the military occupation in place in the West Bank at least for the time being, convergence would essentially kill the Palestinian dream of self-determination. Given the history of the last six decades, this plan is unlikely to lead to peace or stability.

U.S. officials should be especially careful not to embrace a unilateral and incendiary "solution," especially at a moment when it is too early to be sure which direction the Hamas-run Palestinian government will take. Many observers hope that the more moderate elements in the government of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh will prevail, that talks can be restarted and that Hamas may ultimately accept Israel's right to exist.

In a May 4 speech to the Israeli Knesset, Olmert presented his plan as a compromise of the historic Zionist dream to possess the entirety of a Jewish homeland. Part of the convergence plan calls for dismantling Israeli settlements where about a quarter of the 240,000 West Bank settlers live. "Only a person in whose soul Eretz Yisrael burns knows the pain of letting go of our ancestral heritage," Olmert declared in presenting his Cabinet to the parliament.

Yet "convergence" doesn't just represent the end of the dream of Eretz Yisrael; it also represents an abandonment of what for nearly four decades has been the central hope for many Palestinians and Israelis seeking coexistence: U.N. Resolution 242, which was adopted in 1967 after the Six-Day War and called for Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied in the war in exchange for, essentially, Arab recognition of Israel. This became the basis for the "two-state solution."

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