In peace-making, as in law, business, and other areas of life, the devil is in the details. The crux of the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians is not over a Palestinian state. The “quartet” of the Middle East Road Map — Europe, Russia, the United Nations, and the United States — all agree that a Palestinian state must emerge. Even Ariel Sharon himself, the father of the settlements and a fervent proponent of the Greater Land of Israel ideology, has come to understand the need for a Palestinian state in order to relieve Israel of the 4 million Palestinians living in the occupied territories. No, the problem is not a Palestinian state, but a viable Palestinian state.
Viability, a term found in the Road Map, is not a secondary issue. After almost four decades of deliberate Israeli de-development of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, the Palestinians are left today with scorched earth. No functioning economy (the Palestinians, 70 percent of whom live on less than $2 a day, are being kept alive by international relief agencies); no agriculture (since 1967 Israel has uprooted or cut down a million olive and fruit trees); no homes for the young generation (Israel has demolished 12,000 Palestinian homes since the occupation began, and refuses to issue permits to build new ones). Two generations of Palestinians have never known freedom, only military occupation. They have been brutalized, traumatized, undereducated, and left with few skills and little hope of employment. A full 60 percent of the Palestinian population is under the age of 18.
Add to this equation the fact that the small, truncated Palestinian state that emerges will be required also to provide an infrastructure, services, employment, and a future to the thousands of refugees that will return — Israel, with American backing, refuses to take in any refugees even though it expelled them in 1948 — and President Bush’s recent call in Brussels for a “truly viable” Palestinian state sounds hollow. While he declared emphatically that “a state of scattered territories will not work,” his agreement to Israel’s annexation of its major settlement blocs leaves one to wonder just where that viable Palestinian state will be.
One gets the impression that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) is being set up for yet another “generous offer.” At the end of the Oslo process then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak was supposed to have offered 95 percent of the occupied territories to the Palestinians. It is not true (the 95 percent figure came from a Clinton proposal that both the Israelis and Palestinians accepted, but which never materialized).
But even if it were, Israel needs only 5 to 15 percent of the occupied territories to retain complete control and confine the Palestinians to a prison-state. Israel could control the borders, Palestinian movement, all the water and most of the agricultural land, the Jerusalem area (which, because of tourism, represents almost half the Palestinian economy), the country’s airspace, and even its communications sphere. The Palestinians could get 85 to 95 percent of the actual territory and, like inmates of a prison, still be locked into a series of cells called a “state.”
This, it appears, is what awaits Abbas in the next few months. The euphoria generated around the “moderate and pragmatic” Abu Mazen in this “post-Arafat era” is intended to put him in a corner, to place expectations of concessions upon him that he cannot possibly fulfill. Coordinated, as always, with the Americans, Sharon will spring his Generous Offer: Gaza plus 60-75 percent of the West Bank and a symbolic presence in East Jerusalem.
Sounds okay, and fleshed out on a map it will look okay to most people abroad who have no way of evaluating the issue of viability. But it will lock the Palestinians into the cantonized entity toward which Sharon has been tirelessly and openly working this past quarter century. It will be a new apartheid.
If Abbas says “yes,” he will be the quisling leader Israel has hoped for. Two things will happen: Abbas will win the Nobel Peace Prize (sharing the stage proudly with Sharon and Bush), and he will be assassinated. Say “no,” and Sharon will pounce: “See?!” he will proclaim, “the Palestinians have refused yet another generous offer! They obviously do not want peace!” And Israel, off the hook, will be free to expand its control of the occupied territories for years to come.
The Chinese expression has it: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. The generous offer, though fictitious, worked once. It is the responsibility of everyone seeking a just and endurable peace to ensure that it does not happen again. Viability is the devil in the details.
Jeff Halper is the coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. This article was first published in the The Boston Globe on 11 April 2005, under the title “A Palestinian prison-state?”