Speaking of Israel/Palestine

By Karin Brothers (interviewer)

American Peace Now activist Mark Rosenblum visited Canada in February and discussed with James Graff various possible solutions for the Middle East's main sore spot

MARK ROSENBLUM: The ideal resolution of this conflict would be arranged by the parties themselves, but I don't see that happening between Arafat and Sharon. Their relations are too venomous. Sharon treats Arafat as a non-existent political actor. The Palestinian Authority has been gutted - partly by its own fault and partly by Sharon's government, which has destroyed its infrastructure.

So a way out, in my opinion, is for the Americans to play a more invigorated role. Bush has not been inclined to play the role that is required. He has given Sharon a green light in the military sphere. I'm not very hopeful in the immediate future about this external shock therapy that Washington needs to play, but there are one or two promising wedge issues. One is the aid package that Sharon has requested. I can imagine Bush undertaking some smart politics and saying: "Mr. Prime Minister, we'd like to provide you with loan guarantees, but your own policies have contributed to the bloodbath of the last 28 months. We are going to tie this loan guarantee package to a settlement freeze. Indeed, we will deduct, dollar for dollar, any money you spend in the West Bank. Over 100 illegal settlements have been built in Israel in the past four years - 64 of them since you became prime minister. You are to remove every one of them. Finally, 20 percent of the loan guarantees will be held in escrow, to be used to bring back the Israeli settlers who want to return."

Peace Now did a study this summer that revealed a dirty little secret of the settlement movement: that up to three-quarters of Jewish settlers are there only for a better lifestyle in a subsidized house They are prepared to accept a democratically elected government's decision to move the settlers back.

Contrary to what Sharon and the hard right argue, settlements represent a liability to Israel, not an asset. The President of the United States needs to say this loudly and with teeth. In fact, public opinion of the Israeli Jews, even in the last 28 months of the Intifada, has stayed steadfast to two principles: endorsing a Palestinian state and wanting to evacuate settlements - all of those from Gaza and a significant part of them from the West Bank. So Bush could resonate with this. This is the most important avenue - Americans putting pressure on the Sharon government. If Sharon said no, he would become the eighth prime minister forced to face early elections.

The Palestinians will have to be addressed too. The Americans and Europeans must provide an economic Marshall Plan for them and help rebuild the Palestinian security agencies to provide law and order. Palestinian society is in the early stages of warlordism. The justice system is decaying. But the community has extraordinary skill, with the remnants of civil society and a tremendous commitment to democracy.

JAMES GRAFF: I agree with a lot you've said. A public relations approach might work in persuading Jewish Israeli public opinion to support an American squeeze. I don't see anything else working on the Sharon government. I agree that the Palestinian Authority is now an authority in name only. My position is that a resolution has to start with respect for international law and the requirements of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which would mean that all the settlements should be up on the block, since they are all illegal. But you suggest that the Bush administration would like to have peace between Israelis and Palestinians. I am not so sure. You take too soft a line on what the United States is about, and the Bush-Sharon alliance.

ROSENBLUM: I understand your perspective on the legality of the settlements, but from my vantage point, the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza have been largely resolved on paper between the Palestinian leadership and prior Israeli governments. The prospective agreement allows a large percentage of the settlers to remain in place in a slightly enlarged state of Israel. It would annex three or four percent of the West Bank along the Green Line, in exchange for an equal territory, so the Palestinians would have 100 percent of their territory returned, but not the exact same territory. Three percent would be annexed to accommodate close to a majority of the Jewish settlers who live in that proximity in bedroom commuting settlements. The Palestinians were amenable to this in the negotiating process. I don't see this as flawed.

GRAFF: I'm not negotiating for the Palestinians. Apparently they did make some kind of under-the-table arrangements. Whether a more democratic Palestinian Authority would make the same arrangements is another question.

Let's consider what is required for a two-state solution. There has to be contiguous territory in the West Bank and the guarantee of a free-access corridor between the West Bank and Gaza. Those settlements would surely have to go. There would have to be some arrangement over East Jerusalem. That means that the entity on the West Bank and Gaza would have to have effective control of its borders with Egypt and Jordan. Otherwise, you don't really have sovereignty.

Ideally, justice would require a democratic, secular state, which is neither a state of this people or that people, but multicultural, multinational, as Canada is. But that is going to happen a long way down the road. My concern now is whether the project you suggest has a chance of success with the American administration. I wonder whether it is not more important to engage the Europeans, to give the EU a higher profile. The EU would have to stand up against the Bush government. But your basic strategy seems about right.

ROSENBLUM: I am more upbeat than you for two reasons. For one thing, I am somewhat optimistic about the Bush strategy, based on the bipartisan understanding that I see in Washington. People know it is necessary to reconcile the special American relationship to Israel with a special relationship to the Islamic world. Turkey is no substitute for the Arab Islamic world. Turkey is a central player in terms of the region's water problems, true. But other requirements for stabilizing the Middle East will not allow the Bush administration to look the other way forever.

And there's a second reason for my optimism, something that is often overlooked because of the last 28 months of violence - namely, that in those days between July 25 and the failure of the Taba talks in January, there was an enormous closing of the gap. The Palestinians who participated in those negotiations represented a cross section of their society, except for Hamas and a few others. There were 17 organizations. The people who negotiated at Camp David had continued to work with Israelis in camera and they left us with a historical document that is in a drawer someplace now. There are maps. Le Monde has represented it. I will bet that if there is a negotiated solution, it will be based on that document. We do not have to reinvent the wheel. It's a question of whether in the next year or two this document will be made public.

There were attempts after the Taba talks to clarify what the issue of refugees meant on the Palestinian side: a right to return to their future Palestinian state on the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and whatever land swaps take place. Second, they have the right to choose another nation that they could emigrate to, being subsidized and given financial compensation as well. The government that receives them (say, Jordan, where half the population is already Palestinian refugees) would be given enormous resources to make this arrangement successful. The Israelis also agreed to some nominal family reunification of Palestinians going back. The Palestinians agreed that there would be a cap on the number, so as not to threaten the Jewish demography of the state.

GRAFF: Maybe that's the most that can reasonably be expected, but that last part is disquieting. I can't see Canada setting any kind of racist policy limiting immigration. If you're committed to a liberal perspective, any state that openly favors one ethnocultural community and is ideologically committed to that - it doesn't sit well.

ROSENBLUM: In the peace camp of Israel, you wouldn't see this considered racist. I think the trick is to democratize ethnic nations as honorably as possible.

GRAFF: Okay! Israel needs a constitution in which Arabs have equal civil rights.

ROSENBLUM: And do you know who could embarrass the Israelis into doing this? The Palestinians! They are further along. There is a constitution of Palestine in its final draft. I think it's going to make the Israelis say: Hmm! These folks, without a state, have come up with a constitution. We've had a state 55 years. Where's our constitution?

Of course, the Palestinian Authority today is neither democratic nor effective. One reason why it has been gutted is that Arafat has allowed suicide bombings.

GRAFF: I don't want to get sidetracked into discussing how much control Arafat has. He certainly does not control Hamas. We should talk about a movement inside Israel that bolsters a push toward peace. Ta'ayush is one such movement. I am not aware where Peace Now stands with regard to Ta'ayush people, who are regarded as fringe. But that kind of connection is very important. Besides bringing in the Europeans, I would add that as another factor - forming an effective political network between Israelis and Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. You probably agree to that.

ROSENBLUM: Indeed, I have spent 25 years working with Peace Now in this kind of people-to-people reconciliation project. There were many such groups, but the violence of the last 28 months has decapitated them.

GRAFF: Yes. The suicide bombings are atrocious, but they won't end unless Israeli state violence ends.

ROSENBLUM: It's not just Hamas and Islamic Jihad. It's also a question of people who supported the Oslo process who became disillusioned and embraced a war for independence. That approach is a dead-end for the Palestinians. But it's Sharon at this stage who needs to offer a diplomatic initiative. He has had opportunities. In December 2001 there was one month without one single Israeli being killed by Palestinian violence. What was Sharon's follow-up? He had none. He did not intend to engage in diplomacy.

GRAFF: Certainly the suicide bombings have been stupid and immoral. If you ask how the present situation emerged and go back to Oslo, I was in Jerusalem when the deal was announced. People there didn't take it seriously. There was unease because the original document lacked any reference to key issues, including the illegal settlements, or to the right of Palestinian self-determination. And shortly after the signing of the deal, there was an enhanced land grab - an expansion of the expropriation of land for settlement. The response was violent - which is exactly what would one expect. People saw their hopes dashed. The Palestinians saw tangible signs of bad faith.

Yes, there needs to be a Marshall Plan, a reconstruction of the infrastructure. I just don't know that the Bush regime is prepared to see it happen.

ROSENBLUM: I'm not enamored of the Bush administration, but it's a better bet than imagining the Europeans coming in and getting the Israeli public to put pressure on Sharon, or move him out of office and elect somebody else. Europe's a far longer shot than what I would characterize as the hope for "DC Current" - Washington delivering an energetic jolt.

But there are two other possible ways forward if the two sides get their backs up. The Palestinians today can say: "If you're not going to give us an authentic two-state solution and you've chosen Prime Minister Sharon, we're never going to see a real Palestinian state. Therefore, we say we've lost this battle. We want full citizenship in the state of Israel. We're calling the Israeli bluff. You won't let us have a democratic state so I want to be part of your democratic state. You're Zionists? You want to live in a Jewish state? You'd better give us a Palestinian state in West Bank and Gaza or Israel will become the Palestinian state." This is a rhetorical device with potential clout for shaking up Israelis.

But the Israelis have their own options. They can say, "Barak offered you a state in 95 percent of the West Bank. Now there is no partner with whom to negotiate a two-state solution, so we're going to build a wall close to the Green Line to prevent suicide terrorist attacks, just as the wall in Gaza has prevented a single terrorist attack against Israelis within the Green Line. We'll fortify a boundary unilaterally along the Green Line." There is overwhelming Israeli Jewish support for this, which is seen as fencing Palestinians in, putting them in prison.

I'd argue that there is a potential silver lining to this sentiment. The Israelis can't have this fortification without the removal of settlements. If they build a wall with 200,000 Jewish settlers on the wrong side, the soldiers cannot protect both the settlers and the Green Line.

GRAFF: I hope you're right. The wall that's being built now won't work.

ROSENBLUM: It doesn't exist. Four kilometers is all that Sharon has built. Why? Because he's Mr. Settlements. He can only talk about it. He cannot build it because he would have to remove the settlements. Pressure is building up in Israel asking: Where is the wall you promised us? Get the settlements out if that's what stands in the way of greater security. It's not as if all avenues are closed in the hopelessness of today.

GRAFF: No, but the situation is dangerous. The Palestinians are continually feeling pressured to leave.

ROSENBLUM: It's a two-way street. Both Israeli and Palestinian societies are being depleted. People in neither society have a clue as to the fear and rage experienced by the other. They live in parallel universes. The job of people who are trying to do good work is to get these people to see that they need a third hand. That could be the United States.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2003

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2003, page 14. Some rights reserved.

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