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Israeli Ultimatums

Israel’s acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert, declared last week that his country plans to “separate” from “most of the Palestinian population that lives in the West Bank.” He indicated that Israel will absorb the main settlement blocs in the West Bank and retain all of Jerusalem as well as control over the Jordan valley. “The direction is clear,” Olmert concluded. “We are moving toward separation from the Palestinians, toward setting Israel’s permanent border.”

Of course, Olmert was trying to make it seem that this is a new policy, determined in part by Hamas’s victory in the recent Palestinian elections and the consequent absence of what Israel calls “a partner for peace.”

And, of course, he was being disingenuous.

First of all, Hamas has not yet formed a Palestinian government. And even when it does, there’s nothing to suggest that it would not be willing to negotiate with Israel—indeed, it has repeatedly signaled its intention to do just that. Anyway, governments enter into agreements with each other as governments, not as political parties—so the agreements already signed by the Palestinian Authority in that sense would be more binding on any future Hamas government than Hamas’s own charter, about which we have heard so much in recent weeks. Moreover, Hamas members ran for elections not on the basis of the party’s charter, but rather on the basis of a platform that included neither a call for the destruction of Israel, nor a call for the establishment of a Palestinian state in all of historic Palestine.

Second, Olmert’s announcement does not differ substantively from various pronouncements made by Ariel Sharon in recent years, long before Hamas’s electoral victory, including a December 2004 speech in which Sharon claimed that the agreements he’d reached with the US “protect Israel’s most essential interests: first and foremost, not demanding a return to the ‘67 borders; allowing Israel to permanently keep large settlement blocs which have high Israeli populations; and the total refusal of allowing Palestinian refugees to return to Israel.”

In fact, assuming that nothing happens to make Israel change its mind, the future status of the West Bank will be determined according to a formula that pre-existed the Hamas electoral victory by a number of years, even decades.

The outlines of that formula were already being written in concrete and steel in the form of the barrier that Israel has been constructing since 2003. For almost its entire length, the barrier runs not along the 1967 border, but rather deep into the West Bank, depending on Israel’s territorial ambitions.

The parts of the West Bank that have relatively dense Palestinian populations have already been broken into two or three major chunks. Each of these, itself internally further fragmented according to Israeli fiat, will continue to be divided from the others by a network of Israeli army checkpoints, settlements and bypass roads. Jerusalem will continue to be off limits to most Palestinians, including many born there. The ninety percent of east Jerusalem that actually consists of territory illegally annexed by Israel after 1967 will remain off limits to the Palestinians whose land was thus taken from them, who now live not merely on the other side of an imaginary line, but rather on the other side of what is in many areas a 24 foot high concrete wall. Borders, airspace and water will remain firmly under Israeli control.

The real point, however, is not that this formula was devised by Ariel Sharon and repackaged by Ehud Olmert.

For, in substance if not in precise detail (though often in detail too), this is the formula that was on offer at Oslo in 1995 and at Camp David in 2000. Not just that: as the merest glance at a map will show, it is essentially the same unilateral and self-serving formula that Israel first devised when it originally conquered the West Bank, namely, the Allon Plan of 1967.

Over the years, Israel has packaged and repackaged this basic formula. When it had, beginning with Oslo, a Palestinian leadership willing to sign off on its terms, it was happy to negotiate various technicalities—while carrying on expropriating land and building new roads and settlements in the very territories supposedly under negotiation. Whenever Palestinians have balked at granting certain concessions, such as renouncing the rights of refugees driven from their homes in 1948, Israel has called off negotiations and complained vociferously about not having a “partner for peace.”

So what’s happening now is nothing new: Palestinians are being told that they can either accept Israel’s terms and call the shattered fragments of territory they are left with “a state with attributes of sovereignty.” Or they can learn to live with them anyway.

For the vast majority of Palestinians, neither option is acceptable.

SAREE MAKDISI is a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at UCLA and author of the weblog Speaking Truth to Power. Email: makdisi@humnet.ucla.edu

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Saree Makdisi’s latest book is Palestine Inside Out.

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