Why not 100 per cent?

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Washington – Here it is – word for word – from the horse’s mouth, Ehud Barak in an op-ed article last Thursday about his “generous” offer he made to the Palestinians at Camp David that several Israeli apologists around the world, especially in the United States, have been trumpeting ad infinitum.

After explaining his “strategy of disengagement from the Palestinians – even unilaterally if necessary, (in order) to ensure the long-term viability of (Israel’s) Jewish majority,” the former Israeli prime minister identified in his May 24 article the steps that must still be taken to realise his dream: “A gradual process of establishing secure, defensible borders, demarcated so as to encompass more than 80 per cent of the Jewish settlers in several settlement blocks over about 15 per cent of Judea and Samaria (or West Bank), and to ensure a wide security zone in the Jordan Valley.”

Here, we all thought the magnanimous Barak was returning “95 per cent” – not 85 per cent as he now admits – of the occupied territories to the Palestinians, and it was Arafat’s lack of vision to blame for having missed this golden opportunity that is not likely to be offered again. (Moreover, missing from Barak’s calculations are the number of settlements built within Greater Jerusalem which was expanded after the occupation in 1967 and annexed a short while later.)

Additionally, Barak added his voice to the prevailing Israeli government view in support of continued settlement expansion to accommodate “natural growth” or, as Barak put it, to comply with the dream of an Israeli settler’s son who is starting a family and wishes to build “a new home alongside his father’s.” Obviously none of these Israeli leaders thought of pointing out to the settlers and their offsprings that they are on illegal Palestinian territory.

The myopic Barak had another gem: “We need to erect appropriate barriers to prevent the entry of suicide bombers and other attackers.” All along, the world had thought European Jews wanted to escape their former ghettos and assimilate, as they have done in the United States, but here comes the former prime minister opting for “barriers” circling Israel. The New York Times’ artist, Mark Podwal, hit the nail on the head when he illustrated the article with a drawing of a medieval-looking town surrounded by a high wall. Or, maybe, a fortress Israel.

But another Israeli rejects this “enslaved” state that is “fettered by fossilised patterns, manacled by an ancient, even primitive, concepts; burdened by the worst yoke of all – the one it has imposed on its own neck.” Namely, “the tyranny of the territories and of the settlers – the trap we are in,” as succinctly expressed by Israeli author Meir Shalev.

“As for this curse called `the territories’ or `the borders of the Promised Land’ or `the tombs of our Patriarchs’ … the State of Israel has been preoccupied with nothing else but the territories – with them, their metastasis and their consequences … the failure to understand that giving them up is in the interest of Israel itself.”

And this time around, the golden opportunity comes in the form of a “package” offered by the international commission led by former US Senator George Mitchell which examined the causes of the Palestinian Intifada, now in its eighth month, against Israel’s 34-year occupation. All the Israeli leaders have to do is accept, as did the Palestinians, the three-step proposal: Cessation of violence, confidence-building measures (which called for a freeze on settlement construction), and a resumption of the peace negotiations.

Continued Israeli haggling and refusal to halt settlement expansion will only nip in the bud the ongoing chances for a successful round of US shuttle diplomacy, now belatedly reactivated after months of inaction by the new Bush administration.

This is not to say that the Mitchell report is flawless. For example, it lacks any set-up for on-the-ground third-party monitoring of the implementation of the commission’s recommendations, and the need for a speedy dispute resolution mechanism. The failure of Israel to fulfil its obligations agreed upon in the previous interim agreements are too vivid and did not escape of the criticism of the Mitchell report.

Although the US focus is at present on “timing and sequence” before the ball can begin to roll, it should not escape the participants in the back-and-forth discussions that any cessation of violence can only be sustained when and if it is followed immediately by the proposed confidence-building measures, many of which fall on Israeli soldiers as detailed in the Mitchell report.

All things considered, the eye of the storm remains in the continued Israeli expansion of Israeli settlements, still under way, and which by all international standards are considered illegal and should be evacuated if an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is to be achieved.

When Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri visited Washington recently he was asked in a Washington Post interview: “How much more can Israel (or Barak) give than 95 per cent of the West Bank?” Hariri’s curt answer was: “Why 95 per cent and not 100 per cent?”

Exactly, why not 100 per cent.

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