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Many voices here are already pondering the question how are we going to deal with at least three more years of an anti-Israel administration in Washington. These are the people who think that pressuring Jerusalem to meet its road map obligations is empowering the Arabs and weakening the country.
One such person, and he defined himself as pro-peace, told me that until the Arabs recognize Israel as the Jewish state, freezing settlements sends the wrong message; it tells the Arabs they don't have to do anything and that all of the pressure will only be on Israel.
But the government knows that it is obligated to the road map, which states quite explicitly it must "immediately dismantle settlement outposts erected since March 2001... and consistent with the Mitchell Report, freeze all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements)." While it is true that the Sharon government issued 14 reservations to the road map, the US never accepted them, except for what appears to be an unwritten understanding between Sharon and president George W. Bush regarding growth in the settlement blocs and in Jerusalem. But the Bush administration was voted out of office and with it those unwritten understandings, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has indicated so clearly.
WHAT'S ALL the fuss anyway? Who really cares about a few more houses and school classrooms in settlements? Well, the whole world. At the outset of Oslo, the world, including the Arab world (and also including the supporters of peace in Israel and in Palestine), actually believed that the peace process was about ending the occupation, peace between two states living side-by-side, building cross-boundary cooperation in every field possible, ending violence and ending the conflict.
During those optimistic days, several countries without diplomatic relations with Israel established them, and several Arab countries even allowed it to open commercial interests offices in their countries. Some Arab countries even opened their own representative offices in Israel. This was possible because they believed the Oslo peace process would bring an end to the occupation.
They had good reason to believe that. The Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement of September 1995 stated clearly: "The two sides agree that West Bank and Gaza Strip territory, except for issues that will be negotiated in the permanent status negotiations, will come under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Council in a phased manner, to be completed within 18 months from the date of the inauguration of the council." The agreement further stated: "Redeployments of Israeli military forces to specified military locations will commence after the inauguration of the council and will be gradually implemented.".
The interpretation of these sections was that prior to the beginning of permanent status agreements Israel would have withdrawn from more than 90 percent of the West Bank. The US and the Palestinian calculated then that the land area connected to permanent status negotiations, meaning the settlements, accounted for 2%-5% of the West Bank (counting the built-up areas of the settlements with a radius of about 100 meters from the last home in each settlement). The "specified military locations" was estimated to account for about 2% of the West Bank.
WHEN BINYAMIN Netanyahu was first elected in 1996, a "conflict" of interpretation developed between the Prime Minister's Office and the Foreign Ministry. At that time I saw a document produced by the legal department of the Foreign Ministry explaining that the new interpretation of the Prime Minister's Office was incorrect. It stated the following: According to the Prime Minister's office, the settlement areas in question are based on the statutory planning maps of the civil administration and not on the built-up areas. Those zoning maps provide the settlements with about 40% of the West Bank.
Furthermore, the Prime Minister's office stated that instead of "specified military locations" the real intention was "security zones" - meaning that the entire Jordan Valley is a security zone, all of the areas around settlements are security zones, the bypass roads to settlements are security zones, and so are all of the lands adjacent to the Green Line. In other words, 60% of the West Bank would remain in Israeli hands, and in the negotiations with the Palestinians Israel would retain well above 10% of the West Bank, and if possible more.
This, according to the Palestinians and even the US, was a major breach of the agreement and it was one of the significant reasons for the failure of the entire process. At that point, the process ceased to being about ending the occupation and instead about how emasculated the Palestinian entity would be.
Ehud Barak understood that he would have a very tough negotiation on the territorial question. When I asked his chief of staff Gilead Sher why the prime minister was building even more settlements than Netanyahu, his answer was "the story of the goat" - meaning it would appear that Israel was making larger concessions than it really was.
Ariel Sharon always believed, as did other Likud leaders,that the settlements would be the best way of preventing the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank. It turns out that they were probably right. Many today even question the very viability of a Palestinian state because of the settlements.
Yet the entire international community, with the exception of Iran, Libya and perhaps Israel (look at the club of nations we have joined), believes that a Palestinian state must be established on the basis of the June 4, 1967 borders. There is no other solution to the conflict. Instead of dealing with that reality, the government is trying to pressure the US and the EU to transform the peace process into a regional peace process.
Netanyahu, Barak and other members of the government think that if they agree to a three-month settlement freeze, not including Jerusalem, the world will consent. The EU and the US in private meetings with Netanyahu and in public statements have insisted that Israel must focus on the settlement issue and not on tricks to avoid making the difficult decisions. All settlement building must stop.
While this is a tactical issue from the standpoint of moving forward with the peace process, since even a full settlement freeze will change nothing on the ground, it does have strategic consequences. The settlement freeze is meant to be an indication that Israel has accepted the principle that the occupation must come to an end. Only then will it be really possible for the rest of the Arab world to consider how to phase in normalizing relations as they began to do with the outset of Oslo.
Yes, Judea and Samaria are our historical, religious and national lands, and the argument is not about our right to be there, whether the world accept that right or not. The reality is that there is no other way to achieve peace with our neighbors. There is global consensus on this issue and continued objection will only increase our isolation. Boycott, sanctions and divestment are right around the corner. The international community knows that it worked in South Africa and that it will work against Israel as well. It is time to wake up and face reality. We can, with the help and understanding of the world, led by President Barack Obama, develop a peace process that is based on real security and real peace, but we must recognize that there are no short cuts. We must signal that the occupation will come to an end and then begin to act accordingly.
The writer is the co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information. www.ipcri.org