The incredible shrinking
whittling away at Palestinians' land again, but it needs the U.S. to
sharpen the knife.
By Sandy Tolan
May 21, 2006
THE HISTORY of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be glimpsed through
a series of maps.
First is the sepia-toned map of Palestine under the British Mandate,
circa 1936. On its surface it suggests one unified country where Arab
and Jew can live together between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean
Sea. This is the map that some Palestinians still place on their walls:
A whole Palestine, representing the dream of an independent, secular,
democratic and Arab-majority state. Many Israelis still see this map
as representing their dreams too: Eretz Yisrael, the whole Jewish
Second is the United Nations partition map of November 1947, which divided
Palestine into two states — one for Arabs (who were to get 44%
of the territory) and one for Jews (who were given 54.5%), with Jerusalem
and Bethlehem under international stewardship. For Zionists, it was
a triumph born of the Holocaust and the belief in much of the world
that Jews needed and deserved a haven.
For Arabs, who were the majority population, it was a disaster. Why,
they asked, should their homeland become the solution to the Jewish
tragedy in Europe? They fought the partition, and in the 1948 war that
followed, 700,000 Palestinians fled or were driven out and became refugees.
After Israel's 1948 War of Independence, a third map emerged, based
on additional territory captured by Israel. Palestinians lived in the
West Bank and Gaza, under Jordanian and Egyptian rule, on 22% of old
Palestine — or outside of the historic territory entirely, often
in U.N. refugee camps set up in neighboring Arab countries.
The fourth map was drawn after Israel's stunning victory in the 1967
Middle East War. It showed yet more territory — the West Bank,
Gaza, the Golan Heights and the Sinai peninsula — under Israeli
occupation. Soon dozens of little dots, representing Israeli settlements,
would be added to each of these areas. (In the early 1980s, Israel withdrew
from the Sinai, and last year from Gaza.)
Now comes the new Israeli prime minister to Washington, carrying yet
another map. When Ehud Olmert meets with President Bush on Tuesday,
he will present a new page for the Middle East atlas, in which, according
to recent reports, Israel will have pulled up stakes from some of the
occupied West Bank but will still control large portions of it. Palestinians
would end up with less than 20% of their original dream for the whole
Olmert will try to convince the White House that in the absence of a
"partner for peace," this Israeli plan to draw its final borders, and
to wall off his people from the Palestinians, is in the best interests
of peace and stability in the region.
Yet the implementation of Olmert's unilateral "convergence" plan could
have the opposite effect. By annexing West Bank lands (including the
giant, densely populated settlements in Palestinian territory outside
Jerusalem), claiming Jerusalem's Old City and its holy sites exclusively
as Israel's own, drawing a new "security border" along the Jordan Valley
and, according to David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near
East Policy, keeping the military occupation in place in the West Bank
at least for the time being, convergence would essentially kill the
Palestinian dream of self-determination. Given the history of the last
six decades, this plan is unlikely to lead to peace or stability.
U.S. officials should be especially careful not to embrace a unilateral
and incendiary "solution," especially at a moment when it is too early
to be sure which direction the Hamas-run Palestinian government will
take. Many observers hope that the more moderate elements in the government
of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh will prevail,
that talks can be restarted and that Hamas may ultimately accept Israel's
right to exist.
In a May 4 speech to the Israeli Knesset, Olmert presented his plan
as a compromise of the historic Zionist dream to possess the entirety
of a Jewish homeland. Part of the convergence plan calls for dismantling
Israeli settlements where about a quarter of the 240,000 West Bank settlers
live. "Only a person in whose soul Eretz Yisrael burns knows
the pain of letting go of our ancestral heritage," Olmert declared in
presenting his Cabinet to the parliament.
Yet "convergence" doesn't just represent the end of the dream of Eretz
Yisrael; it also represents an abandonment of what for nearly four
decades has been the central hope for many Palestinians and Israelis
seeking coexistence: U.N. Resolution 242, which was adopted in 1967
after the Six-Day War and called for Israeli withdrawal from the territories
occupied in the war in exchange for, essentially, Arab recognition of
Israel. This became the basis for the "two-state solution."
For Yasser Arafat, the late Palestine Liberation Organization leader,
accepting the existence of Israel , and the 78% of historic Palestine
that it held, was a monumental compromise. But convergence would leave
the Palestinians with less land yet again — certainly less than
in any deal based on Resolution 242 and the 1993 Oslo peace accords.
Under convergence, according to a report by Makovsky, Israel would retain
8% of the West Bank for expansion of three large settlement blocs, and
more land for a "security border" in the Jordan Valley. At least 60,000
settlers would be removed from more remote settlements in the occupied
territories to the large settlement blocs on the other side of the "security
barrier" that Israel has been building (but still on the West Bank).
Palestinians in the remaining portion of the West Bank would live between
the "security border" and the "security barrier."
The convergence plan also would deny the Palestinians' dream of having
East Jerusalem, including the Old City's Haram al Sharif, the third
holiest site in Islam, as the capital of their state. Although returning
some parts of East Jerusalem to Arab ownership, a fixed border along
Olmert's lines would divide neighborhoods and families, and Israel would
retain control over the Old City, including its holy sites. These are
red lines for both Palestinians and Muslims worldwide and a central
reason for the collapse of the talks at Camp David.
Given its details, it is hard to understand how convergence could lead
to long-term peace and stability, to say nothing of fairness. Western
diplomats have already begun expressing concerns that a unilateral solution
will not last. "The Israelis want to build a wall and imagine that there
are no people behind it," Marc Otte, the European Union's special representative
for the Mideast peace process, told the Israeli paper Haaretz. "That
is an illusion. Everything will come back to them. You cannot lock the
door and throw away the key." Even Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud
Abbas, who has frequently criticized Hamas, has warned that convergence
would lead to war within a decade.
U.S. backing would be essential to implementing Olmert's plan, and essential
to that would be Olmert's ability to convince the American government
that he has "no partner for peace." This claim has proved convenient
for Olmert as he seeks to draw his own map unilaterally. But U.S. officials
should not be lulled into accepting a unilateral "solution" that seems
destined to prolong the conflict.
most recent book is "The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of
the Middle East."