As I write, a wave of optimism regarding chances for peace in the Middle East is currently sweeping through the media as Barak winds up his current visit to the United States. Expectations on the diplomatic level are high as the Palestinians and the Syrians ready themselves for negotiations with Barak. The speech writers are having a field day trotting out high flown phrases about the peace of the brave. Now, this may end up excellently, with the signing of full scale, final status agreements between the relevant sides, thus ushering in a new era of peace in the Middle East and thus signifying the end of the Israel-Arab and the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. Those of us who tend to be more cautious about these things need to maintain their ability to be hopeful. On the other hand, those of us who are falling under the spell of the current media hype must indeed make an effort to get behind the glamour and the glitter so as to preserve the ability to judge Barak’s performance on an objective basis.
There are, of course, many Barak admirers who support the “Israel can do no wrong” point of view and will consider Barak a success whatever happens. For them, Barak has been crowned a man of peace. If the Arab sides understand this, they will also understand that nobody will give them a better deal than Barak. If the Arabs are unimpressed by this argument and no agreements are reached, and if the peace process grinds to a dangerous halt, Barak’s luster will remain untarnished for this type of fan. . The pro-Israeli camp will be able once again to blame the Arabs for the continuation of the conflict.
Much of the following is my humble attempt to create some sort of Guide for the Perplexed, by analyzing the fundamental issues to be discussed in the coming negotiations. Barak is, of course, preferable to Netanyahu, but in what way and does the difference create a genuine basis for negotiations on a reasonably just settlement?
Most people, especially if they are not Palestinians, do not bother themselves with the details of the dispute as it presently stands between the Israelis and the Palestinians. At any rate, in order to create some sort of basis for future analysis the outstanding agreements and issues must be reiterated here. The talks broke down when Israel, quoting Palestinian infringements of previous agreements, suspended the implementation of the Wye agreement (which was to be the second of three withdrawals) and released tens of common criminals instead of Palestinian fighters.Though many believe that some degree of Palestinian infringement exists and should be addressed, no responsible international factor accepted the Israeli excuse that there was any basis for Israeli non-compliance. This was certainly the case after the Clinton visit and the abrogation – for the n’th time of the Palestinian covenant in a highly visible public ceremony in Gaza.
In order to move the peace process with the Palestinians forward, Israel must complete the Wye withdrawal (already signed) and negotiate the details of an additional withdrawal to military zones. Sharon had already indicated that this would be construed as meaning almost the entire West Bank, but it is hoped that we have entered a new phase and this kind of argumentation is a thing of the past.Sadly, Barak has already attempted to pick up some cheap winnings by suggesting that the Wye accords and the third withdrawal be moved into the Final Status Negotiations (FSN). It took the Palestinians – who thought that their first meeting with Barak was little more than a photo opportunity - about a week to figure out that Barak was already trying to push them into a corner. Right now, the current line is that Barak wants to change the Wye agreements, but will implement them if the Palestinians assist. The Palestinians are to understand that they may anger Barak by requesting that Wye be implemented as a precondition for further negotiations. The FSN will center on the serious outstanding issues which were purposely left to the end: borders, settlements, Jerusalem and refugees. It would seem that the public, as objective observers, should develop its own understanding of these issues and apply this understanding to what I referred to above as the need for a reasonably just settlement.The Possible Outcomes of the Present Process
Speaking realistically the possible outcomes of the present initiatives are not all that obscure. Success would be clear: a reasonably just settlement with the Palestinians and the Syrians. Failure would mean no deal and the continuation of the status quo, though, it should be appreciated that failures of this type generally introduce new rounds of tension and hostility and even new wars. Though most of the Barakian enthusiasts hope for peace, they do appreciate that a settlement may not be achieved. In case of this failure, on what basis can we appreciate the responsibility for this failure? Only by a dispassionate evaluation of the outstanding issues in the FSN and a clear understanding of the needs can the public hope to judge the sides.
Barak’s Red Lines
Fortunately or unfortunately, Barak has not left us in the dark as to his position regarding the FSN. Not only has he revealed his position on the questions, but he has seen fit to designate them as “red-line,” that is as non-negotiable positions. Barak insists that there will be change in Jerusalem, which will remain under exclusive Israel control. Israel refuses to return to the 1967 borders, Israel stands on the rights of most settlements and most settlers to stay where they are. Israel refuses to discuss the Palestinian refugee questions and offers the advice that they solve their problems in the present countries of domicile. Barak has also demanded that no foreign army be allowed to enter Palestinian held territory. This last, eminently reasonable demand does not appear to be problematic since the Palestinians have never even suggested demanding such a right.
Those who admire Barak and also want peace must relate to these issues.. It is true that Barak’s pronouncements on these issues might be characterized as “opening positions, implying that Israel is really willing to negotiate on these issues. But there are a number of problems with this version. First of all, these positions are remarkably similar to those of the Netanyahu government. More important, the internal political arena in Israel poses serious difficulties. If Barak promises the public that he will not make concessions on these issues, will this not make it more difficult – or even impossible for him to convince the public to vote for the agreement which has to be approved in a referendum? It is especially disconcerting to see that Barak considered it vital to alert Clinton to his “red lines,” so as to prevent any future misunderstandings with the United States. Those who feel that the Palestinians must accept these “redline positions,” might have been quite satisfied with Barak’s predecessor. The majority of honest observers will want to examine these problems at greater depth. The question that poses itself at this point is whether the Barak “red lines” do permit room for serious negotiations. There might be some room, but very little.
Territorial questions usually permit much room for negotiation, but this is not so in the present case. All the occupied territories, which are to serve as the basis for Palestinian self-determination amount to only a quarter of the territory of Western Palestine. I assume that everyone, in deference to realism, understands that Israel will demand some sort of military presence on the Palestinian borders (for example in the Jordan Valley) and that there are Jewish urban centers in the territories which cannot be moved for practical logistic, financial and political reasons. Thus, the real margins for negotiation are very narrow. Palestinian needs, on the other hand, require a minimum of continuity. Thus, 85-90% of the West Bank will have to go to the Palestinians. Moreover, the Palestinians will produce a demand for territorial compensation over the Green Line. If Barak wants a settlement, why not stress the fact that the settlement must be close to the previous borders – with possible alterations for security reasons - instead of provoking the Palestinian side to demand return to the 1967 borders, by making non-return to the 1967 borders a central bargaining issue. It would be much wiser – instead of turning the former borders into a matter of principle - to concentrate on the security apects of the problem so that Barak could promise the public that no serious security interests have been forfeited
Barak’s position regarding Jerusalem is a perfect example of surrender to the most demagogic elements in Israeli society. There are no real security considerations regarding the Jerusalem issue and it is eminently reasonable that the Palestinians, who will be a majority in the city in the not too distant future, have the right to sovereign presence in the city. This is a symbolic and emotional issue for the Palestinians and the Arab world. Arrangements for a Palestinian sovereignty have no genuine security implications. Barak is barricading himself behind a high wall of rhetoric. His position makes the right-wing demands, provocative as they are, to build all over Jerusalem as a way of blocking Palestinian sovereignty, quite coherent.
Barak’s hope to appease the settler community and their supporters by keeping most of the settlers and settlements in the small slices of territory which must, by all logic, become Palestinian is the height of folly and steers him towards political suicide. An immense majority of the electorate voted against the settlers and their expansionist dreams. The time has come to delegitimize the colonization project as a whole, even if Barak wants to protect certain exceptions to the rule that withdrawal is the basic solution.
The recent statement by Barak that the solution to the Palestinian refugee problem is in their present country of domicile is woefully out of place in any serious discourse about peace. Admittedly, this is one of the most complex and difficult of all the questions. It, therefore, deserves cautious and sensitive treatment and not rude and vulgar answers. Time and imagination are necessary. Any attempt to simply ignore some Israeli responsibility in this area is simply unwise and near sighted. This is especially so as there is a growing tendency in the international community towards a greater understanding of the rights of non-combatant, civilian refugees, who have lost their homes and livelihood and suffered years of hardship and deprivation.
Barak and Syria
Fortunately, the Syrian track is much simpler than the Palestinian track, though not without its own complexities. The procedural and the substantial aspects of the problem are quite clear. Procedurally, there is a Syrian demand that the negotiations resume at the point that they were broken off by the Netanyahu government. Barak has been evasive on this point, saying only, that it should not be difficult to find a way to resume the negotiations. At the same time, his Foreign Minister, David Levy, is quite adamant about the Syrian duty to start talking with Israel without any reservations whatsoever. If Israel demands to return to the Levy formula we might have to go backwards in years, instead of preparing the path for serious discussions. The plain fact is that Israel has no reason to believe that the Syrians will change their mind about their demand to receive the Golan Heights. There is every reason to believe that Rabin had made a conditional offer to retreat from all the Golan in order to examine Syrian contributions to peace, if and when Israel retreats. The general understanding in the Israeli public is that the negotiations were suspended because Netanyahu refused to continue them from the point they had reached. It is totally unclear why Barak should try and score points on a lengthy round of negotiations on how to resume negotiations with the Syrians.
By giving up valuable strategic advantages in the Golan, Israel has the full right to demand a series of arrangements that would prevent Syrian use of the territory for aggression. Furthermore, it is reasonable that Israel request a solution of outstanding issues such as the water issue and a “warm” peace based on full normalization of relations between the two states. Yes, there are real problems to negotiate, but they do not include the question of “where to begin,” nor do they question the essence of the possible deal: full retreat from the Golan for full peace.
Barak in Washington
There is nothing intrinsically wrong in Clinton’s wanting to be a warm host for the new Prime Minister. Even so, there were some aspects of the Washinton meetings that cause concern. Barak was not hesitant about pronouncing that he had reached substantive agreements with Clinton on issues that still have to be negotiated with Israel’s Arab partners. Many observers stressed that Israel was trying to impress the Arab side with the fact that the bilateral, special U.S.-Israel relationship would dictate the outlines of any settlement in the region. Such a posture actually clouded the air and created a new set of tensions. This kind of strategy is designed to create illusions on the Israeli side that Israel has the advantage of an international, safety net. Or in other words, Barak and Israel have the right to believe that they will enjoy international support whatever the Israeli position regarding the peace process.
Barak Back in Israel
If Barak is to take the necessary steps towards a genuine settlement, and if there are no illusions regarding Arab capitulation, he has a tremendous job in preparing Israeli public opinion for the moment of truth. This will be impossible if Barak hangs on to his “red-lines” on either track. The contours of any possible settlement with the Palestinians and the Syrians are not obscure. They demand Israeli concessions. Given Israel’s vast military, economic and technological superioirity, peace is possible without any serious threat to Israeli security. Israel, in the very nature of this kind of deal does have the right to demand every step to prevent the use of territorial concessions today as the basis for any dream of aggressive intent tomorrow. The material and political basis for such an agreement exists in what many consider a “window of opportunity.”
There is still the likely danger that Barak will evade the real need for courage – courage to tell the people of Israel the costs of peace. This will be much easier if Barak is willing to talk about the certainly vastly greater costs involved in the continuation of the conflict. So far there are many indications that Barak wants to wear the mantle of Yitshak Rabin. However, there are also indications that he thinks that he can do this without a real battle to isolate the foes of peace and without a real battle to uproot vigilantly instilled illusions without a major shift in traditional policies. Many of my friends will tell me to give Barak some time, to permit him to plan the time and the place of the necessary maneuvers. I am willing to do so, if the purpose is not to re-mystify the basic fundamentals of the problem. It must remain clear to all that the major responsibility for progress, or the lack thereof, rests squarely on Israel and on Mr. Barak’s very own shoulders.