On paper, the headlines sound promising, even stirring. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas at their meeting in Jericho that he would push for the establishment of a Palestinian state as “fast as possible” on “the equivalent to 100 percent of the territories conquered in 1967.” The Palestinians, according to the report, would cede just 5% of the West Bank in return for territorial swaps. In other words, Israel would withdraw from 95.6 % of the combined West Bank and Gaza — although whether Olmert includes East Jerusalem in this calculation is unknown.
It looks like another “generous offer,” one the Palestinians could not possibly refuse. “The aim is to achieve US President George Bush’s vision of two countries for two peoples, living in security and peace side by side” based on the road map, Olmert said, adding “We want to achieve this as soon as possible.”
What could be bad about such a plan? Well, the devil, we all know, is in the details. At issue is not a Palestinian state on the equivalent of 100% of the Occupied Territories (that is, we should note, only 22% of historic Palestine), but, as the road map specifies, a viable and truly sovereign Palestinian state — plus we must add, resolution of the refugee issue, which cannot be swept under the table. What is the potential “catch” here? What details of sovereignty and viability do we have to notice before we embrace this new generous offer with both arms?
The basis for negotiations, says Olmert, “will continue to be the road map, which is acceptable to both sides.” This is true in general, but with some major caveats. Phase II of the road map is the Palestiniansí nightmare, and they have constantly pressed to have it removed. This phase calls for the establishment of a “transitional” Palestinian state with “provisional borders.”
If all is quiet, they fear, and Israel can claim that a Palestinian state exists and that the Occupation has ended, who could guarantee that the road map process would continue into Phase III, where the thorny final status details are to be negotiated and a real Palestinian state would emerge?
Their fears are justified — and this may be the “catch.” Israel considers its “14 reservations” as integral parts of the road map. Reservation # 5 states:
“The provisional state will have provisional borders and certain aspects of sovereignty, be fully demilitarized, be without the authority to undertake defense alliances or military cooperation, and Israeli control over the entry and exit of all persons and cargo, as well as of its air space and electromagnetic spectrum.”
Read that again and try to square that reservation with the notion of Palestinian sovereignty. Tzipi Livni has worked for months on what she is calling “The Israeli Initiative for a Two-State Solution” based precisely on replacing Phase I of the road map (which calls for a freeze on Israeli settlement building) with this problematic Phase II. Rice has said that the Bush Administration will work towards a provisional Palestinian state, leaving “the details” to the next administration.
A state has no sovereignty without borders. In additional to the problem of provisionality, does Olmert intend to grant the Palestinians an unsupervised border with Jordan? If Israel insists on controlling the borders, or if the Jordan River is part of the 5% the Palestinians must cede, there is no Palestinian state even if they receive all the territory.
Israel may indeed relinquish 95% of the West Bank but still remain in complete control over a Palestinian Bantustan with no viable economy. If it insists on controlling the borders, denying the Palestinians free movement of goods and people, the Palestinian state is not viable. If the 5% the Palestinians must cede includes a corridor across the West Bank, or if Israel insists on keeping the Maíaleh Adumim settlement with its “E-1” corridor to Jerusalem, thus destroying the territorial continuity of a Palestinians state, it is not viable. If it includes Israeli control of all the water resources, it is not viable. If Jerusalem is not fully integrated into the Palestinian state politically, geographically and economically — and I would bet that the core of East Jerusalem falls outside the 95% — then there is no viable Palestinian state. According to the World Bank Jerusalem accounts for up to 40% of the Palestinian economy because of tourism, their largest potential industry.
The difference between a truly sovereign and viable Palestinian state and a Bantustan is a few percentage points of strategic territory. Israel has couched its rule over the territories in “facts on the ground,” a complex matrix of control. Only by paying careful attention to the details will we be able to prevent Olmert and Rice, supported by Bush and Blair, from finessing a permanent regime of apartheid in the guise of a two-state solution.
It would be extremely helpful if the Palestinian Authority would raise publicly its concerns over the issues of sovereignty and viability instead of giving Olmert an uncontested field in which he can make initiatives and produce PR spin that only put the Palestinians on the defensive. The lack of a strong, official Palestinian voice is not only puzzling, it weakens the ability of all of us non-Palestinians to advocate effectively for a just peace. Israel banks on Palestinian refusal of what it presents as very generous offers indeed. Palestinians reject these schemes for good and solid reasons but never articulate them, leaving the public with the impression Israel really has “no partner for peace.” That must change, and urgently.
Would it be too much to ask, in the same breath, that the PA initiate a pro-active plan of its own, putting Israel on the defensive? In the meantime, we Israeli advocates for a just peace, together with our articulate partners of the Palestinian and international civil societies, will continue to watch carefully that devil in the details.
JEFF HALPER is the Coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.