Rethinking the core issues

Israel's real diplomatic battle is over defensible borders and Jerusalem, not the "right of return."

October 15, 2007 21:15
Rethinking the core issues

Condi Rice 298.88. (photo credit: AP [file])


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US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah to help Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams craft a joint declaration for the upcoming Annapolis summit that addresses the "core issues," particularly, - refugees - known as the Palestinian "right of return" - final borders, and Jerusalem. Palestinian and Israeli positions are significant as the joint statement will serve as a key point of reference in ongoing final status negotiations between the sides. PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas's opening demand is for a complete Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 Armistice lines including in Jerusalem. Abbas even quantified his demand; each one of the 6,250 kilometers comprising the West Bank and Gaza. Israel's focus has been elsewhere. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni have expended the best of their political and diplomatic capital battling the so-called Palestinian "right of return" to Israel. Olmert has worked endlessly over the past year to convince Abbas to concede on the issue. He also singled out the "right of return" as the deal-breaker in the Saudi peace initiative. Livni's diplomacy has positioned the "right of return" as the single major threat to Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state. OLMERT AND Livni are correct in principle. A return of millions of Palestinian refugees would indeed uproot Israel's Jewish character. However, the issue is a "non-starter" politically and diplomatically. There is "wall-to-wall" agreement in Israel rejecting the "right of return" to Israel. There is also broad international opposition to the flooding of Israel with Palestinian refugees. US President George W Bush's April 14, 2004 letter of assurances to former prime minister Ariel Sharon diplomatically neutralized the Palestinian demand. The Bush letter, affirmed overwhelmingly by both Houses of Congress, assigned a future Palestinian state, not Israel, as the address for the return of Palestinian refugees. European leaders and senior Quartet officials, Javier Solana, Miguel Moratinos and Tony Blair also support a return of Palestinian refugees only to a Palestinian State based on the same principle. There are even recent indications that Jordan has offered to play a role to solve the Palestinian refugee problem. According to a report in the London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi Jordan's King Abdullah II has offered Jordanian citizenship to 95,000 east Jerusalem Palestinians. Moreover, Jordan already considers 1948 Palestinian refugees living in Jordan to be Jordanians, while senior Jordanian officials have indicated publicly over the past two years that Jordan may offer citizenship to Palestinians refugees from 1967 as well. ISRAEL IS therefore mistaken to waste most of its diplomatic energy "killing" the Palestinian "right of return," when there is no danger that Israel will be forced to absorb millions of Arab refugees. Diplomatically, Israel has already won that battle. But on two other "core issues," borders and Jerusalem, that are no less critical to Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state, and are today in great peril, Israel has a bloody diplomatic fight ahead. Senior Palestinian sources close to Abbas told this writer that Abbas' opening demand is essentially his "red line." Abbas can not and will not accept less than a full Israeli retreat to the pre-1967 borders, including in Jerusalem, notwithstanding minor swaps. This creates a quandary for Israel. The country's minimal physical security is dependent on the long-standing policy of defensible borders. This requires the Israel's retention of some areas in the strategically vital West Bank whose hilltops overlook greater Tel Aviv and can be easily exploited by Palestinian terrorists who could easily launch rocket and mortar attacks against Israel's main population centers, roads, and national infrastructure, including Ben-Gurion Airport. And Israel's international legal rights to defensible borders are already deeply rooted in UN Security Council Resolution 242, that was approved unanimously in November, 1967. THE PHYSICAL threat is not merely theoretical; Israel's strategic vulnerabilities on the eve of the 1967 Six Day War resulted in the bombing of Jerusalem in which more than 1,000 Israelis were wounded and hundreds of buildings were destroyed. The mortar rockets fired then by the Jordanians are the same ones the Palestinians are firing today at Sderot. Since the 1967 war, the Israeli imperative of being protected by defensible borders especially the entire Jordan Rift Valley, and the areas around Jerusalem has guided the security thinking of Israeli prime ministers from Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin, to Binyamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon. In fact, George W. Bush's April 14, 2004 presidential letter commitment to Sharon, given as a quid pro quo for Israel's quitting Gaza, not only assured Israel on the Palestinian refugee issue mentioned above, but also guaranteed Israel US support for defensible borders. The unprecedented US letter commitment, that Olmert himself is now insisting be included in the current joint declaration guidelines, assured "defensible borders" to Israel in addition to US support for Israel remaining in major population centers east of the 1949 armistice lines based on "current demographic realities." ISRAEL MUST therefore insist on its rightful and well-established claims backed by international law and US diplomatic assurances to demand defensible borders opposite Palestinian demands for a full Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 Armistice lines. Jerusalem, a third "core issue" of the Palestinian Israeli Joint declaration, has the most far reaching implications for Israel's future as a Jewish state. At the heart of the struggle over the future of Israel's capital is the Palestinian demand to replace Israel as the sovereign authority over the Temple Mount and most of the ancient old city. The battle for Jerusalem is not over the city's Israeli-Palestinian demographic challenges as Vice Premier Haim Ramon and Minister Avigdor Lieberman have argued recently in saying "What does Israel need to look for in (the Arab neighborhood of) Shuafat? Control of east Jerusalem's Arab neighborhoods alone are a "non starter" for the Palestinians. They will settle for nothing less than all of east Jerusalem including the Old City, as was clarified recently by Abbas' Advisor on Jerusalem Adnan Husseini, who also served as director of the Temple Mount's Islamic Wakf. Palestinian sovereignty over Jerusalem's Muslim and Christian holy sites would, in the Palestinian view, make them a major player in Arab Muslim geo-politics placing them on an equal footing with the Saudis as the custodians of Mecca and Medina, and the Iraqis as the custodians of Karbala and Najaf. FOR ISRAEL, redividing Jerusalem and conceding Jewish sovereignty over its old city and Temple Mount would endanger the city. Only since Jerusalem's unification in 1967, have Jewish, Christian, and Muslim shrines been equally protected by Israeli security forces. Only Israeli security control guarantees free and safe access. Israel has enormous responsibility to the international community to continue to secure that freedom. Palestinian and especially Hamas control would likely end secure and free religious access for Jews and Christians, while Palestinian rockets fired from PA controlled neighborhoods would threaten the entire city. Palestinian destruction of Joseph's tomb in Nablus and past attacks against Jericho's ancient synagogue and mother Rachel's tomb in Bethlehem indicate future dangers to Jewish worshipers at the Western Wall. Stones that rained down on Jews at the Western Wall during the Aksa terror war are a recent reminder, and the wholesale Arab desecration of Jerusalem synagogues between 1948 and 1967 still resonate. Far reaching Israeli concessions in Jerusalem would also energize calls by Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and other radical Islamists for Israel's destruction as an illegitimate entity whose occupation desecrates Islam's third holiest shrine. This message already resonates in the Arab world. Abbas himself denied the existence of the Jewish Temple while the PA has worked to destroy its archeological remnants. BEYOND THE security aspects, a re-division of Jerusalem, and concession of Israel's sovereignty over the Old City will, paradoxically, further undermine the entire legitimacy of the Jewish Zionist enterprise in the eyes of the international community. Deep Israeli concessions in Jerusalem would vindicate prominent voices in the West such as former US president Jimmy Carter who slam Israel as an occupying, apartheid state. It would also justify the widely expressed doubts cast in Europe, at the UN and other international bodies over Israel's very legitimacy. For the past 15 years Israel has been on the diplomatic retreat. Territorial withdrawals in Judea and Samaria, a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, Israeli willingness to concede the Golan Heights to Syria and the current offer to concede large parts of Jerusalem to the Palestinians have only served to remind the international community that Israel is profoundly unsure of its legal, national, and religious rights and even questions the justice of its national case and historical legacy. Paradoxically, if Israel were now to collapse on the core issues of defensible borders and Jerusalem, it would further undermine Israeli national and Jewish self-confidence. It would also confirm the growing sense among the international community that the 3,000-year-old Jewish Zionist connection to Jerusalem and the land of Israel is, as the Palestinians insist, a stolen Palestinian Arab inheritance called "Palestine" whose holy capital "Al Quds" is finally being liberated and returned to its rightful owners. The writer is director, Institute for Contemporary Affairs and Foreign Policy Analyst, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

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