Gershon Baskin, Ph.D.
The Israeli media reported that Ehud Barak made the most “generous offer” the Palestinians could ever expect to receive from an Israeli Prime Minster. Furthermore, the Israeli hasbara (propaganda) machine blamed Arafat for “not missing the opportunity to miss another opportunity”. Mr. Barak claimed that the Palestinians didn’t even offer a counter offer or even respond to the Israeli offer. A central part of the Israeli “package” of offers included, as reported by Zeev Schiff in Haaretz, was 90% of the West Bank - the remaining 10% to be annexed to Israel. Mr. Barak claimed that he would receive the support of the majority of settlers because 80% would remain where they are and would be under Israel sovereignty. Only some 40,000 settlers would have to relocate into the so-called “settlement blocs” that would be annexed. Sounds almost reasonable. Yet the Palestinian rejection was swift and firm and in fact, served as one of the primary motivating forces that led to the intensity of the “al-Aqsa intifida”.
Palestinians who were at Camp David speak about a new concept in the Israeli-Palestinian lexicon that was born “up on the hill” with the help of planners and map experts brought in to interpret the positions and problems presented by both sides. The new concept is: settlement clusters. As opposed to “settlement blocs” - concentrated Israeli settlements alongside the Green Line which could be annexed to the pre-1967 borders, the concept of “settlement clusters” refers to groups of more isolated settlements in the heart of the Palestinian territories becoming islands of Israeli sovereignty once annexed by Israel. The Israeli 90% - 10% offer to the Palestinians included a number of these settlement clusters. This reality also meant that about 40 Palestinian villages with about 80,000 Palestinians would also be annexed to Israel. The Palestinian’s top urban planner was rushed to Camp David by Arafat to interpret the Israeli offer that the Americans were pressuring the Palestinians to accept. The Americans and the Israelis told the Palestinians that this was the best possible offer and that Barak had done the maximum. Barak, they explained, would have to withdraw more than 40 settlements and more than 40,000 settlers. Any additional compromise would bring down his government and then “Arafat can negotiate with Sharon and Bibi”.
In Palestinian eyes, the Barak offer created not islands of Israeli sovereignty but a series of at least three Palestinian “sovereign cages”. There would be no real Palestinian territorial contiguity. They would not have control and sovereignty on main arteries of transportation. The Jordan Valley would still be controlled by the IDF - even if the Palestinians were granted some kind of control there. The only part of the Israeli proposal that seemed acceptable to the Palestinians was their understanding that Barak was willing to remove all of the settlements from Gaza, including Gush Katif, however, it was not clear whether Barak was willing to “allow” the Palestinians to have a sovereign border crossing with Egypt in Rafah. (After Camp David it became less clear whether in fact Barak had actually offered to remove all of the Gaza settlements - where they still control about 30% of the Gaza Strip).
Throughout the negotiations the Palestinians constantly reminded themselves, the Americans and the Israelis that according to Oslo the agreement signed in Washington in September 1995, Israel was supposed to implement further redeployment of its forces (and control) to “specified military locations”. The mutual Israeli-Palestinian understanding of this at that time included the Israeli settlements within the definition of “specified military locations”. According to the Palestinians, by the end of the interim period (5 years) Israel should have withdrawn from 90% of the West Bank - based on a signed and endorsed agreement. The Palestinians believed that the area of the settlements included only the built up areas - allowing for a perimeter of 50 meters from the last home in each settlement. This together with IDF bases would amount to about 10% of the West Bank. However, an argument then emerged when Benyamin Netanyahu was Prime Minister. Israel then claimed that the agreement referred to “security zones” and not “specified military locations” - a much broader definition allowing Israel to decide unilaterally that the further redeployments would be much less than the Palestinian demands. Netanyahu’s office produced a Hebrew version of the Oslo Agreement talking about “azorim bitchoniim” - security zones. At the same time, the Israeli Foreign Ministry produced an internal document labeled “Secret - Limited Distribution” with the correct translation of the term “specified military locations” claiming that the Palestinian interpretation was the correct version.
Mr. Barak decided even before being elected that he would “merge” the third further redeployment with the final status agreement and thereby avoid making unnecessary concessions to the Palestinians. In other words - there would be no further redeployment that the Palestinians expected to include at least 50% of the West Bank. Barak believed that after Netanyahu, his “generous” offer would be viewed by the Palestinians as their version of getting their state “on a silver platter”. The Palestinian refusal was incomprehensible - how could they refuse? Who will possibly give them a better deal?
The Palestinians have claimed since Oslo in 1993 that they had made their “historic compromise” by giving up 78% of Palestine - leaving them with only the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. They believed that Israel would make their “historic compromise” in the final status negotiations when they withdraw from 100% of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza - allowing for minor border rectification and taking into account some of the new realities on the ground. Taking into account some of the “new realities” led Arafat to offer Barak 2% of the West Bank “for free” and another 2% in exchange for territory of equal size and quality inside of Israel. The Palestinians’ position has been based on their demand to implement UN Security Council Resolution 242 (according to their understanding) meaning a full Israeli withdrawal from all territories conquered in 1967. Arafat’s agreement to give up 2% “for free” led to a deep rift within the Palestinian delegation. Unofficial reports even spoke of a “fist fight” that broke out between at least 2 of the delegates from the Palestinian team. If this was the height of the intensity of dissatisfaction within the Palestinian delegation, then it should have been taken for granted by Israel and the Americans that the Palestinian public would “explode” at the notion of having to “take it or leave it” with regard to the Israel “generous” offer.
In public opinion surveys conducted amongst Palestinian following Camp David it was found that the highest level of dissatisfaction and anger by the Palestinian public was demonstrated with regard to the territorial issue and the settlement issue. The Palestinians have seen the rapid expansion of settlements and roads during the past 17 months of the Barak government. For Palestinians, the reality of settlements means being in perpetual occupation - the idea of political separation becomes little more than a farce.
The Israeli peace camp always objected to the building of settlements. From the very beginning of the settlement movement the peace camp in Israel was out on the streets protesting. I remember tens of those demonstrations - the most dramatic of them - for me - being the demonstration in Efrat on a cold rainy Saturday before the first person had even moved in. The reality of the amount of money, roads, infrastructure and houses built was impossible to ignore. I remember saying “we’re carrying signs and they’re building” - what a feeling of impotence! The Israeli left knew that the settlements were and obstacle to peace - even the Americans said so. So why then, did the peace camp adopt the line of even “liberals” in the Likud and most center people in Labour that the settlements were a reality - a fact on the ground that couldn’t be changed. How is that the peace camp in Israel became the “defense attorney” for the settlers and settlements vis-a vis the Palestinians?
Throughout the negotiations over the years, most Israelis have accepted the viewpoint regarding the irrelevance of international law expressed so eloquently by Ben-Gurion “Um - schmoom” - meaning “UN - nonsense!”. Who cares that building settlements is a blatant breach of international law? Who cares that the “progressive” Supreme Court of Israel has consistently rejected the notion that it must consider international law - its mandate is only within the framework of Israeli jurisprudence.
It now seems after a total break-down and perhaps permanent collapse of the Oslo Process that the slogan “settlements means no peace” is a reality. It does seem almost impossible to imagine any Israeli government willing to remove more settlements than Barak offered. The Palestinians want to replace the Americans who blamed them for the failure of Camp David. The desire to demand international intervention, protection and even mediation is not tactical - it is strategic. They know that international law is on their side. It seems that their strategy also includes a Hizballah type of war of attrition on specific isolated Israeli settlements in order to demonstrate their high cost to Israeli interests. It is not by chance that Netzerim, Kfar Darom, Psgaot, Kadim and Ganim have become targets during this new intifada.
The curse of the settlements will cost Israel and Palestine peace - at least for the foreseeable future. The religious and historical attraction of Jews to the heart land of the West Bank - the cradle of our birth as a nation - should not have prevented us from visiting there as welcome tourists in a Palestinian state. Once again it is being proven that Jewish attraction to stones is apparently more sacred than human life and that our historic rights and heritage is of a higher value than others and far beyond the importance of international law. One day - perhaps, it will be written that 180,000 Jewish settlers prevented peace for millions of Israelis and Palestinians. How tragic.