Ehud Ya’ari’s got a plan

When it comes to Palestinian statehood, he says, the country’s leaders aren’t seeing the forest for the trees.

By LARRY DERFNER
April 2, 2010 16:02
Ehud Ya'ari (Ariel Jerozolimski)

ehud yaari 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

While US Vice President Joe Biden was speaking recently at Tel Aviv University, Ehud Ya’ari, Israel’s most influential interpreter of the Arab world, was talking with “a very serious Palestinian player” in Jerusalem’s Inbal Hotel about new directions toward peace. The Palestinian’s idea was a variation of the “one-state solution.” Ya’ari’s idea is for an Israeli-Palestinian “armistice.”

The Arab-affairs journalist for Channel 2 just went public with his plan out of fear that the one-state solution is waiting down the road and out of a decades-long recognition that Biden was painfully correct in telling his TAU audience that “the status quo is not sustainable.”

Ya’ari’s TV analysis and commentary, which he began doing for Channel 1 in 1975, has always been hard to categorize along right/left lines. He sees Palestinian independence as a necessary goal, but is also deeply skeptical of Palestinian declarations and tactics. His reading of the map would seem to classify him as a “realist.” Whether the path he’s proposing is also realistic is a matter of opinion.

In an essay in Foreign Affairs magazine titled “Armistice Now: An Interim Agreement for Israel and Palestine,” Ya’ari writes: “It is imperative that Israel halt the Palestinians’ retreat from the two-state solution, and it can only do so by immediately negotiating the establishment of a Palestinian state within armistice boundaries before a comprehensive peace is secured... [Such a move] would constitute a major step toward ending the occupation, fundamentally reconfigure the conflict and make the prospect for a final status agreement far brighter than ever before.”

In such an interim agreement, he continues, Israel would hand over the great majority of West Bank territory to Palestinian rule, requiring the evacuation of about 40,000 to 50,000 settlers. Both sides would agree to an open-ended cease-fire during which they would negotiate a step-by-step resolution of the big issues: borders, settlements, refugees and Jerusalem. Ya’ari expects that Hamas would oppose such an armistice verbally, but go along with it on the ground for fear of provoking the IDF and alienating the Palestinian public.

“I came out with this essay because I’m afraid that the concept of statehood, the two-state solution, will fade away, and as an Israeli I don’t want that to happen,” said Ya’ari, 65, over a Diet Coke in the Inbal lobby. “This is not something that just came to me recently; it’s something I’ve been talking about and thinking about for many years. I’m not campaigning for it, I have no intention of playing any political or diplomatic role – I’m a working journalist and I will stay one until I retire, but I just thought that there’s a shortage of creative ideas on how to move away from the deadlock.”

AS EARLY as 1989, Ya’ari was writing in favor of the two-state solution, of gradually handing over the occupied territories to local Palestinian leadership. But he says he never trusted the intentions of Yasser Arafat. “Arafat was very pragmatic, he was very flexible, he could bow to pressure, but he had a goal. He was pursuing a certain vision. And it was not the vision of peace.

“You know, when I first read the Oslo Accord, I had trouble sleeping for two weeks. I couldn’t believe how [Yitzhak] Rabin, a man I respected and loved, could make such an agreement. Didn’t he understand who Arafat was? Apparently, we as a nation needed time to understand. For me, the Oslo signing ceremony on the White House lawn was like watching Israel swallow a snake. That’s how I broadcast it. I didn’t use those words, but that’s the meaning I tried to convey. People were furious. They couldn’t understand how I could be a supporter of the two-state solution but an opponent of Oslo. I was against Oslo because of Arafat. He was not the guy to make the deal with. And I thought there were alternatives.”

Ya’ari says he’s favorably surprised by Arafat’s successor in the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, known as Abu Mazen. “He has more guts than I thought he had. He’s very gutsy in many ways. I’m much more impressed with him that I am with [PA Prime Minister Salam] Fayyad. I’m impressed with Fayyad too, but in different ways. That somebody like Abu Mazen can take such a consistent, public position against violence was a surprise to me. Not that I thought he was in favor of violence, he hasn’t been in favor of violence since Oslo, but that he would take such a public line and order his security chiefs so explicitly to prohibit violence – this is a surprise.”

About the American-educated, managerial Fayyad, a favorite of the West, Ya’ari has deep suspicions. “Since Arafat, the Palestinians have been telling us silently that either we give them runaway statehood – a state without the need to make peace with Israel – or they will run away from statehood. Fayyad is moving toward runaway statehood. One has to watch very carefully where he’s heading.”

A fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy since 1987, Ya’ari believes the Obama administration’s planned “proximity talks” will fail because, like with all previous peace processes, the goal is a final, total agreement, which is not going to happen. The reason it’s not, he says, is that the Palestinians are not interested in making the necessary compromises.

“For years, we have been very wrong in assuming that the Palestinian struggle for independence is synonymous with their ambition for statehood. These are two separate things. On the one hand, Palestinians want to be independent from Israel riding on their backs, which I can easily understand, but on the other hand they don’t want a state that requires a division of the land between the river and the sea. And if you ask me which one they want more – to maintain the integrity of the land or to have a mini-state within the ’67 borders – the answer is very clear.”

Since the mainstream Palestinian leadership has been publicly committed to the two-state solution at least since the 1993 Oslo Accord, one might think Ya’ari is saying they’ve been fooling Israel and the rest of the world since then. But that’s not what he’s saying. Instead, he looks at how far the peace process has progressed and sees that while the Palestinians have come very close to reaching an agreement on borders, they remain far away on the “right of return” for the ’48 refugees and on Jerusalem – and he concludes that this is not due to any accident or misunderstanding.

“The major stumbling block is not the territory, but rather Jerusalem and the right of return. There is no Palestinian recognition that I know of regarding the Jewish historic, religious and cultural connection to Jerusalem. As for the right of return, Arafat rejected all the compromises that were discussed at Camp David, and Abu Mazen said no to [Ehud] Olmert’s offer to absorb, I think it was 1,000 refugees a year for five years. The issues of Jerusalem and refugees – they represent the wider dimension of the Palestinian cause.

“People wrongly assume that the promise of statehood will propel the Palestinians to make the necessary concessions on refugees and Jerusalem, and I’m saying they don’t see statehood within the ’67 borders as such a coveted prize for which they should sacrifice the main tenets of their national movement. The Palestinian national movement is about refugees and lost land, it’s not about living with this or that kind of system of government.”

What the Palestinians are doing, he says, is exacting greater and greater concessions from Israel without having any intention of ever declaring an “end of the conflict” without winning the right of return and full control over the Temple Mount, demands that Israel will never concede. Meanwhile, influential Palestinian figures are bringing the idea of the “one-state solution” into play and popularizing it. But Israelis, he says, have been lulled into blind indifference by the near absence of terrorism and the lack of diplomatic movement. They don’t feel the ground shifting under their feet. Ya’ari does.

“Palestinians have a major difficulty in divorcing themselves publicly from the two-state concept. After decades in which almost the entire international community mobilized behind this concept, it’s not easy for them to say, ‘Well, we’ve had second thoughts, we’d like to reconsider.’ That’s difficult. But it’s happening. And what I’m saying is: Give it two or three years without tangible progress on the ground and you will see it take off.

“What I’m hearing from many important, thoughtful Palestinians, such as the person I just met with, are ideas such as creating one state with ‘soft borders,’ which means hardly any borders at all. You have groups of Palestinians debating the concept of ‘parallel statehood’ – two states over the same territory with some division of powers. You hear ideas emerging about different forms of a confederate system, with a weak central government and two strong autonomous governments.

“The process of rethinking the goal of Palestinian statehood within the ’67 borders is already at work, and Israelis have become so apathetic to anything that happens on the other side of the security fence that we as a society are way behind in reading the writing on the wall.”

TO FORESTALL the coming of the one-state solution, Ya’ari is proposing an internationally recognized armistice with the goal of a Palestinian state next to Israel, with a solid, agreed-upon mechanism to reach that goal, but without timetables. A few questions about the plan immediately arise, the first being: Why should the Palestinians agree to an open-ended cease-fire in return for less land than has been offered them in the past, and which does not promise them the right of return or give them control over the Temple Mount?

In reply, Ya’ari doesn’t want to use the word “pressure”; he prefers “encouragement,” and says international encouragement would bring the Palestinians around.

“Palestinian society is wholly subsidized by the international community. If the US, EU and the rest of the donor states adopted the idea of an interim package – without dropping the final status negotiations – then the Palestinians would have very little choice but to go along.

“The agreement wouldn’t ask the Palestinians to conclude a peace treaty up front, but it would give them most of the West Bank in the interim phase to establish their state. From there we can start dealing with the refugee issue without having to resolve right away the very loaded problem of the right of return. From there we can reach interim arrangements over the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem and management of the ‘holy basin,’ without having to solve right away the question of who is sovereign over the Temple Mount.”

The second question that arises is: Why should Israel agree to evacuate 40,000 to 50,000 settlers without hearing the words “end of conflict” from the Palestinian leadership, and while knowing that this is not the end of the process but the beginning?

Because, Ya’ari replies, as hard a pill to swallow as such a mass evacuation would be, it’s easier than the alternatives.

“Think about it: Olmert offered Abu Mazen the evacuation of 96,000 settlers – and I stand behind that statement. [Ariel] Sharon, after the disengagement from Gaza, was talking about a unilateral withdrawal in the West Bank roughly to the line of the wall – that’s 70,000 to 80,000 settlers evacuated. So when I’m talking about evacuating 40,000 to 50,000 settlers – it’s easier. I don’t underestimate the difficulties of what would happen in Israel, but this is the price we have to pay if we want to save the two-state solution.”

Yet another question is: What’s to stop the Palestinians from pocketing the land in the interim phase but never agreeing to a final status agreement, never getting to “end of conflict”?

Ya’ari replies: “If the Palestinians do not want to move toward end of conflict, then they don’t get the rest of the territory to be negotiated, they don’t get the rest of what they’re after. What I want to do is create a situation whereby a Palestinian state is in place.

“I’m willing to pay dearly to get it off the ground. We can retain a few cards, not too many, for the final round. If the Palestinians choose to stick to the armistice lines and not make further agreements and concessions, it’s too bad for them. But I think they would have enough incentive with statehood going to complete the move.”

He says the last time he presented the idea to a closed-door gathering of Arab and Palestinian figures, they all objected to the idea of interim agreements. “But during the coffee break, people came to me one by one suggesting that this is an idea that deserves further attention, and why don’t they take me to Abu Mazen or to this leader or that leader to pursue it further.”

Ya’ari fully agrees with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s observation that in the Middle East, what counts is what people say in public, not in private, but adds, “We’re not at a point where you would expect leaders to come out in favor of an armistice in public. We may not get there, either, but this is not a totally new concept – I’m just packaging it in a very different way.”

As for whether Israel would go along with such a plan, he says: “I think there are enough Israelis who understand where this situation – this protracted status quo with no agreement – leads. I think Israeli society has enough good sense, courage and strength to reach a sensible conclusion. Who would have expected before Oslo that today, a solid two-thirds majority in all the polls supports the two-state solution? I think the option of an interim arrangement would be acceptable to more Israelis than it would now seem – and I want to emphasize that I’m including [Israelis] in the present coalition government.”

Ya’ari doesn’t rule out the possibility that the deadlock in the peace process will lead to a full-blown, third intifada, he’s just more worried by a nonviolent Palestinian shift to the one-state solution. Yet the two-state solution – a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian state – has been accepted by most of the world since the 1947 UN partition plan, so might he not be worrying about a threat that’s extremely unlikely to materialize?

“It won’t happen now. But give it 10, 15, 20 years and the international community will be talking about how these two peoples, the Palestinians and the Israelis, can live together instead of separately. This is why I think it’s so imperative to stop it. You know Arafat, he loved the South African model – one man, one vote. He would get so excited whenever [Nelson] Mandela was mentioned. That’s what he had in mind. I don’t want to give it a chance, I don’t want to test it.”

Asked how this armistice idea might find a spot on the Middle East negotiating table, Ya’ari says it depends on people like the man who, an hour before, had wrapped up a speech at Tel Aviv University. “At the end of the day, it’s a matter of getting the crowd around Obama, the people who advise Obama, to tell him that if you want to make progress in the Middle East, this is how it can be done.”   


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