Commentary Magazine


Beyond the Geneva Accord

What are we to think of the “Geneva Accord,” also known as the “Geneva Initiative,” whose gala kick-off was held in Switzerland on December 1?

At first labeled a public-relations stunt by its detractors, this latest proposal for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement is not going to fade away. Its sponsors, starting with the 29 Israeli and 22 Palestinian intellectuals, academics, and politicians who formulated it jointly under the auspices of the Swiss foreign ministry, have stressed that it is a non-governmental document “representing no official body.” But from the start they clearly intended to involve every official body they could in pressuring Israel to accept it. To judge by the international funding and media attention they have received, and the sympathetic response they have elicited not only in Europe but even from United States Secretary of State Colin Powell, there are good reasons for taking them seriously.

One reason is that the Israeli team that worked on the accord was headed by Yossi Beilin. Beilin, who served as Israel’s minister of justice under Ehud Barak, and prior to that as Shimon Peres’s deputy foreign minister from 1992 to 1996, has an extensive network of international contacts and is one of the most skillful behind-the-scenes operators in Israeli politics. A principal architect of the Oslo agreement, itself an unofficial working paper until close to the moment of its unveiling, he succeeded in selling it to the initially skeptical Peres, with whom he then convinced an even more dubious Yitzhak Rabin of its merits. Those who were surprised by Oslo’s sudden appearance and fateful consequences should not underestimate Geneva.

This is especially so because the Geneva Initiative, worked out during the years following the collapse of the Clinton-Arafat-Barak summit at Camp David in 2000, is not as unofficial as it purports to be. While rejected scornfully by the present government of Israel, it enjoys the tacit approval of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Yasir Arafat. Beilin’s fellow organizer on the Palestinian side, former PA minister of information Yasir Abd-Rabbo, is close to Arafat, by whom the accord was known to have been vetted thoroughly. Even if, for tactical reasons, the Palestinian Authority has refrained from explicitly endorsing it, practically speaking its many pages constitute an agreement between a non-governmental Israeli delegation and a governmental Palestinian one lightly disguised.

This is what makes the Geneva Accord both reprehensible and impossible to ignore. It is reprehensible because, contrary to the insistence of its Israeli signatories that they were dealing not with the PA but with private citizens like themselves, it was the PA to which they, without the political authority to do so, were talking. It cannot be ignored because, if it accurately expresses the Palestinian Authority’s terms for a peace settlement, these must be addressed however objectionable the process of their disclosure has been.

Indeed, the initiative has the virtue of clarifying what until now had been filtered to the public through contradictory reports. Despite the many articles and polemics written about what happened at Camp David, it was never clear what the Palestinians’ bottom line then was, let alone how this may have changed or been modified in the years since. Now, for the first time, we have a document in which the bottom line is spelled out. Of course, it is likely that in actual talks with the Israeli government, additional demands or concessions would be made. Yet judging from the level of detail to which the Geneva Initiative descends, the PA would appear to have thought out its conditions for peace carefully. What one sees of them in the accord is in all likelihood what one will get.

Do the Palestinians want peace? If they do, is this a peace that Israel should want, too? And if not, can Israel explain its rejection of it to the world without further exacerbating its situation? Such questions can be answered with greater clarity by looking at what the Geneva Accord says.

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“Based on the Clinton Plan of late 2000,” as a preface to its Hebrew text observes, the initiative began as a sequel to the Taba talks in the winter of 2000-2001, six months after the collapse of Camp David. From what is known about those talks, they managed partially but not wholly to bridge gaps that had proved insurmountable at Camp David before they themselves broke down, to be followed shortly thereafter by the downfall of the Barak government at the polls.

In the aftermath of Taba, two schools of thought emerged among its Israeli participants. One, represented by Barak and his foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, held that Israel had made every possible concession and that the Palestinians, committed to violence as a way of ejecting Israel from the occupied territories, never wanted the talks to succeed. The other, which included former army chief-of-staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and Barak’s bureau chief Gilad Sher, maintained that the Palestinians did want an agreement and that a prolongation of the talks could have resulted in one. Subsequently, Lipkin-Shahak agreed to take part in the Beilin/ Abd-Rabbo initiative, whose aim was precisely to show that a positive outcome could be obtained by continuing to “negotiate” from the point where Taba ended. Joining him were other ex-army officers, including Amram Mitzna, the unsuccessful Labor-party candidate for prime minister in the elections of 2003; left-wing Knesset members like Avraham Burg and Yuli Tamir; academics like Ron Pundak, another architect of Oslo; the writers Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, and David Grossman; and additional public figures.

At Taba as earlier at Camp David, four main issues had remained unresolved: the future borders of Israel and Palestine; the status of Jerusalem and its holy sites; Israeli military security and Palestinian demilitarization; and the problem of Palestinian refugees. (The question of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories was not an explicit bone of contention, Barak having accepted in advance the demand that no Jewish settlers remain in Palestinian territory.) What solutions for these four issues does the Geneva Initiative propose?

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• On borders, the accord has adopted the Palestinian position of the year 2000: namely, that Israel withdraw to its pre-June 1967 armistice lines with Jordan and Egypt, any modifications of which must be minor and mutually symmetrical. Thus, in a map accompanying the text of the accord, Israel is awarded 163 square kilometers beyond the 1967 “green line” in return for an equal area transferred to Palestine from pre-1967 Israel. The land to be relinquished by Israel includes an eastward widening of Gaza and two bulges in the western foothills of Judea. To be yielded by the Palestinians are a wiggly bit of the West Bank opposite Tel Aviv, several small enclaves in greater Jerusalem, and a larger pocket southwest of the capital. All of these areas have concentrations of Jewish settlers. Some of them, like the town of Alfei Menashe not far from Tel Aviv, or the large bedroom community of Ma’aleh Adumim between Jerusalem and Jericho, are to be linked to Israel by roads running through Palestinian territory.

An arrangement by which 2.5 percent of the West Bank is exchanged for the same amount of land in Israel marks a significant Israeli retreat from the Barak government’s position of 2000, which reportedly called for the transfer to Israel of anywhere from 4 to 12 percent of the West Bank, with anywhere from a third to a ninth as much land being ceded in return. (In the course of the negotiations, Israel progressively reduced its demands—hence the range of figures.) Moreover, whereas Israel insisted at the time on the retention of all larger settlements except for Kiryat Arba outside Hebron, the Geneva Accord deprives Israel not only of Kiryat Arba but also of Ariel with its population of 25,000, Efrat with its 8,000, and other sizable towns. Overall, the Barak map had left roughly 80 percent of the settlers, currently said to number close to 230,000, inside Israel; the Geneva Initiative leaves fewer than 50 percent.1

The frontier between Israel and Palestine is conceived of by the Geneva Initiative as a strict line of separation, open only at a small number of crossings to Palestinians and Israelis bearing valid papers. An Arab from the Palestinian town of Baka el-Sharkiya or “East Baka” who wishes to visit a friend in the Israeli town of Baka el-Gharbiya or “West Baka,” a three-minute walk away, will have to apply for a visa at the nearest Israeli consulate; a Jew desiring to pray at Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, or at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, will get there by special bus accompanied by a contingent of an international force. Allegedly “a model for the building of trust between the [two] peoples,” the accord sketches, at least in its early stages, a relationship of minimal contact between them that more resembles Israel’s currently cold relations with Arab neighbors like Egypt and Jordan than it does the close ties between once bitter enemies like France and Germany.

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• In Jerusalem, too, the Geneva Accord’s “negotiators” have agreed on a return to the pre-June 1967 lines between the Arab and Jewish parts of the city, with a number of exceptions. One is the large Jewish neighborhoods, like Gilo in the south and Ramot and Nevei Ya’akov in the north, built in Arab Jerusalem after 1967; these will remain in Israeli hands. Another is the Jewish quarter of the old walled city and its Western Wall, also given to Israel, while the Old City’s Muslim, Christian, and Armenian quarters are to be in Palestine. Within the walls, there will be freedom of movement; outside of them, the same border regime will prevail as elsewhere, creating two intricately interlocking but disconnected municipalities with permits required to go back and forth. Common concerns like highway construction, water and sewage lines, and garbage collection are to be coordinated by joint committees. The Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives will be under Palestinian sovereignty but Jewish control, as will the Tower of David.

As for the vexed issue of the Temple Mount or Haram el-Sharif with its Muslim shrines of the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, here, too, the initiative has ended up closer to the Palestinian position of 2000 than to the Israeli one, which called for shared control. The Mount, it is proposed, will be under full Palestinian sovereignty, supervised by an international review board; open to visitors of all religions, including Jews; and subject to a Palestinian commitment, made “in light of [the site's] unique religious and cultural significance for the Jewish people,” to undertake no archeological excavations without the consent of both sides. The only effect of this commitment, it might be pointed out, will be to give the Palestinians a veto over all Israeli requests to excavate beneath the Mount in search of the biblical past.

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• Palestine, according to section 5 of the Geneva Accord, will be a “nonmilitarized state” with a “strong security force,” the exact nature of which is to be specified in a not-yet-published appendix. While it would be interesting to know why the appendix has been delayed—disagreement, perhaps, over the weapons needed by such a force?—more germane are the accord’s provisions for ensuring that prohibited arms are not introduced clandestinely and that no Arab army crosses or threatens to cross the Jordan River into Palestine.

Such provisions are especially important because the main means of prevention and detection envisioned by past Israeli governments in the eventuality of a Palestinian state has been a permanent Israeli military presence on the Jordan River. This, however, is another point on which Barak yielded before the Camp David talks began. In line with that concession, section 5 of the Geneva Initiative permits Israel to retain soldiers on the river for no longer than five-and-a-half-years after a peace treaty is signed.

The initiative gives Israel three substitutes for having its troops on the river: military use of Palestinian air space, early-warning stations in the West Bank, and Israeli observers at international entry points to Palestine. The first of these alone is unlimited in time, if Israel insists on it. The early-warning stations are to remain only “by mutual consent” once fifteen years have passed, after which the Palestinians can dismantle them; and the observers can be asked to leave after five years. Nor can Israel act unilaterally if demilitarization is violated. It can only report its findings to an “Implementation and Verification Group,” an international body charged with supervising the accord and composed of representatives from the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations.

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• The Palestinian refugees have been the most difficult and emotional issue in the history of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. At Camp David and Taba, the Israeli position was, first, that no refugees would be allowed to return to Israel, and, second, that no peace settlement was acceptable that did not clearly proclaim the end of the refugee problem, which could never again be allowed to constitute a demographic threat to the Jewish state. The Palestinians, on the other hand, while promising that the number of refugees actually returning to Israel would not exceed tolerable limits, insisted that the right to return be recognized for all of them. In practice, they assured the Israeli negotiators, few refugees would choose this option over financial compensation, absorption by host Arab countries, or resettlement elsewhere. Theoretically, however, the option had to be offered.

In ostensibly bridging these positions, the Geneva Initiative proposes, in section 7, a detailed plan of its own. The main features are:

  1. “The parties recognize that UN General Assembly Resolution 194 [which declares that ‘refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so . . . and that compensation be paid for the property of those choosing not to return’], UN Security Council Resolution 242 [which calls for ‘a just settlement of the refugee problem’], and the Arab Peace Initiative [of March 2002, which reaffirms Resolution 194] represent the basis for resolving the refugee issue.”
  2. The refugees will be given the choice of returning to Israel, settling in the new state of Palestine, remaining where they are, or emigrating to Western countries willing to absorb them.
  3. Israel will decide, at its “sovereign discretion,” which refugees to admit and, in determining how many refugees to take, will “consider as a basis the average of the total numbers” of refugees in “various third-party states.”
  4. Israel and the Palestinians will determine the worth of the property left behind by the refugees of 1948-49, which will then be multiplied by a yet-to-be-decided factor to determine what has to be paid by Israel in installments to an international compensation fund.
  5. The worth of evacuated Jewish settlements handed over to the Palestinians will be deducted from this payment, although only after “the value of the damage” caused by them is deducted from the deduction.
  6. These measures will be considered “the permanent and complete resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem,” following which “no claims may be raised except for those related to the implementation of this agreement.”

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Since the Palestinian leadership knows well that opposition to the “right of return” runs straight across the political spectrum in Israel, Palestinian insistence on this “right,” even if coupled with the assurance that it will be carried out only symbolically, has always seemed highly suspect to Israel. Why, Israelis ask, insist on a “right” that has been accorded to almost none of the tens of millions of the world’s refugees since World War II, and that anyway there is no intention to exercise? Is this a tactic meant to torpedo a peace agreement in advance? Or is it rather to be a Trojan horse, smuggled in so that such an agreement can be nullified in the future by an irredentist Palestinian state on the pretext that the “right of return” has not been honored? Israel’s greatest worry regarding a peace settlement has been just this possibility: that the Palestinian leadership plans to keep the refugee issue alive to enable it to reactivate the conflict when it wishes.

Fear not, the sponsors of the Geneva Initiative now say. At long last, this worry has been banished. In a dramatic departure from the past, the Palestinians have abandoned their insistence on “the right of return.” The term itself, the Hebrew preface of the accord informs its readers, “does not even appear [in the accord]. . . . The accord states specifically that it is Israel alone that will decide on the number and identity of refugees entering its territory . . . and that neither side will make any additional claims after the signing of a treaty.” True, the sponsors concede, Israel will commit itself to accepting a small number of refugees. Yet in exchange it will get a Palestinian pledge, which it did not get at Camp David and Taba, to close the book on the refugee issue forever.

Alas, the Israeli signatories of the accord do not seem to have read the text that they themselves joined in phrasing. If they had, or had bothered to look at General Assembly Resolution 194, they would have realized that the book will be closed on nothing.

How, after all, can they state without blushing that the “right of return” is not recognized by the Geneva Initiative when Resolution 194 states explicitly that “ refugees wishing to return to their homes . . . should be permitted to do so”? If the Palestinian side had truly agreed to waive this “right,” what is Resolution 194 doing in section 7?

Nor does the accord say anywhere that Israel will accept only a small number of those refugees “wishing to return to their homes.” What it does say is that Israel will “consider as a basis”s the average number of refugees absorbed by other countries. Let us posit that this average is small—say, 50,000.2 What is to prevent the Palestinians from maintaining one day that Israel, considering this “as a basis,” should multiply that figure by five or ten? It can be cogently argued that, had section 7 meant simply to limit Israel to the average of the total number of refugees admitted to third-party countries, it would have said so in as many words. Since it does not, Israel is obviously expected to take in more than the average—how much more being left for future debate.

Nor is it the case that the Geneva Initiative guarantees an end to the refugee issue. “No claims may be raised except for those related to the implementation of this agreement” means just that—namely, that the Palestinians will be entitled to raise any claim they wish to raise alleging Israel’s noncompliance with section 7.

In sum, a close reading of this section of the Geneva Accord leads to the conclusion that its Israeli “negotiators” have either fallen or knowingly climbed into a Palestinian trap—a trap set to go off when Israel is accused of reneging on the “right of return” it has agreed to. And this is quite apart from still other clauses that are flagrantly to Israel’s disadvantage, like the one about the potentially ruinous compensation promised to the refugees—a payment that factors in the “value of the damage” caused by Israeli settlements while omitting to offset it by the incomparably greater damage caused to Israel by the Arab invasion of 1948, which triggered the refugee problem in the first place, let alone the enormous loss of Jewish property confiscated by Arab countries whose Jewish citizens fled to Israel in the same period.

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Such gross amateurism raises a question: on whose behalf were the 29 members of the Israeli team “negotiating”? Unlike their 22 Palestinian counterparts, representing a government to which they had to justify themselves, the 29 were accountable to no one. Given their political outlook, their belief that Israel is as much to blame as the Palestinian Authority for the impasse between the two, and their eagerness to prove that an agreement with the PA is achievable, they must have desperately wanted to avoid another Camp David or Taba. Faced, therefore, with Palestinian positions that no thinking Israeli could accept, they chose to disguise them with verbal sleight-of-hand rather than reject them outright as any conscientious negotiator would have done. The 22 Palestinians, by contrast, needed to have no such qualms. For them, the initiative’s failure could always be presented as evidence of their valiant defense of Palestinian interests.

The Geneva Initiative’s sponsors have stressed that the accord is merely a proposal that can serve as a basis for peace talks. If Israel objects to anything in it—section 7, for example—it can move to amend the agreement. This is exquisitely beside the point, however. In the first place, the entire object of the initiative is to persuade Israelis and the world that both sides should accept a “fair” and “balanced” document that the Palestinian Authority has in fact already accepted; with all the pressure thus placed on Israel, why should the PA soften its position on the refugees or anything else? More importantly, even if the PA should agree to changes in section 7, its intentions stand revealed: in confirmation of Israel’s fears, these intentions are to keep the refugee issue exacerbatingly open even after a peace treaty is signed.

Consider a hypothetical scenario. The year is 2012. Following a series of attacks across Israel’s pre-June 1967 borders, carried out by refugees whose “right of return” has been denied and actively countered by Israeli retaliations, tensions in the region are running high. The government of Palestine, citing its 2006 peace treaty with Israel based on the Geneva Accord, has issued an ultimatum: either Israel agrees at once to admit additional Palestinian refugees or it will be regarded as having abrogated the treaty. Meanwhile, Islamic countries have begun massing troops in Jordan—a country that, ever since a coup in 2010, has been an ally of Syria, of a nuclear Iran, and of the pro-Iranian Shiite government of Iraq. With soldiers no longer in defensive positions on the Jordan River, the Israeli army has a grim choice: either it mobilizes fully and invades Palestine first, striking preemptively and being blamed for the outbreak of hostilities, or it makes do with a partial call-up and digs in along the 1967 border, a thin sliver of coastal plain behind it, while waiting for the threatening divisions to move. If it decides to invade or is forced to run a race to the river, or at least to the controlling mountain ridges of the West Bank, it will need to fight its way past a Palestinian “security force” equipped with the latest armor-piercing and anti-aircraft missiles, easily enough concealable to have been smuggled into the “demilitarized” state in large quantities under the nose of a politically neutralized “Implementation and Verification Group.”

If such a prospect seems remote, it might be recalled that Israel confronted a similar situation in 1973. Then, too, Arab armies massed on its frontiers; then, too, it had to decide whether to act preemptively by calling up its entire reserves and ordering its air force to attack. Warned by the United States that this would be considered aggression, it let the Egyptians and Syrians strike first and suffered near-catastrophic battlefield defeats before recovering sufficiently to gain the upper hand at the price of horrendous casualties, many of them caused by missile-equipped Arab infantry. This recovery was made possible only by the fact that the fighting had started on the Suez Canal and the Golan Heights, far from the nerve and population centers of the country. Had it broken out along the pre-June 1967 borders, things would have been far worse.

Ever since the Six-Day war of June 1967, Israel’s refusal to return to its highly vulnerable prewar armistice lines, which had never been recognized as permanent by a single Arab state, has been constant, a position held for sound military reasons by every single one of its governments. The Geneva Initiative’s endorsement of these lines, without allowing even a compensatory military presence on the Jordan River, is enough by itself to render the accord unacceptable.

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But the initiative’s territorial solution deserves to be rejected for another, nonmilitary, reason as well. This is its insidious assumption, inherited from Camp David and Taba, that while it is perfectly normal for over a million Palestinian Arabs to live within the state of Israel, where they will be joined by still more returning Palestinian refugees, it is forbidden for a single Israeli Jew to live within the state of Palestine, from which every last Jewish settler is to be evicted. The mind boggles at the thought of a Jewish state signing a peace treaty declaring large parts of the land of Israel Judenrein—the very parts, it so happens, most resonant with historic Jewish memories and emotions.

The issue, it should be clear, is not one of sovereignty. There is no reason why, under conditions of peace, Jewish towns and villages should not exist in a sovereign Palestine as Arab towns and villages exist in a sovereign Israel. On the contrary: if a sovereign Palestine cannot tolerate the presence of Jews, in what sense has it made peace with a Jewish state?

Furthermore, even if Jews are to be barred from Palestinian territory, the Geneva Initiative’s approach to this exclusion makes no sense. If some of the larger settlements, like Ma’aleh Adumim and Alfei Menashe, can remain extraterritorial Israeli enclaves in Palestine, why not others, like Ariel and Efrat? In either case, all the Palestinians would be ceding is a narrow stretch of road and a residential island. Why here and not there?

Illogical, too, from Israel’s point of view, is the nature of the proposed border. Official border crossings and visas will deter Israelis in cars from casually touring or visiting Palestine; they will do nothing to keep Palestinians on foot from illegally entering Israel as they do now to look for work or implement the “right of return” independently. The only remedy for this asymmetry would be for Israel to build a wall along the length of its border with Palestine like the anti-terror barrier it is building now.

Even then, given the Geneva Initiative’s plans for Jerusalem, such a barrier would be of little value. A Jerusalem divided into a patchwork of Israeli and Palestinian neighborhoods abutting at numerous points is not one in which walls could be constructed. And once illegal Palestinians entered Israel through the city’s streets, they could easily go anywhere on foot. The sufferers would again be people in cars, caught in frightful traffic while struggling to thread their way through the city without going from one country to the other.

But the initiative would be frightful for all of Israel. The fact that its 29 Israeli participants, all of them members of their country’s social, financial, and cultural elite, did not realize this, or did not care about it if they did, is a devastating comment on what has happened to this elite’s thinking under the impact of Palestinian terror.

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The Geneva Initiative is a vindication of terror. If its sponsors have their way, those Palestinians who were convinced that the mass, indiscriminate murder of Israelis would greatly improve the terms offered them at Camp David and Taba will turn out to have been right.

A strong case can be made that, at Camp David and Taba, Israel already offered more than it should have—or rather, demanded less than it should have in exchange for the offer it made. It is probably too late to undo the damage wrought by this failure, just as it may be too late to undo the damage of the Geneva Initiative, since on every occasion in the past that Israel has proposed a concession to the Palestinians, it has been pocketed for future use even when no transaction has taken place. Nor does it matter that in this case the concessions are nongovernmental. They have been made by representatives of those elements in Israeli society that the Palestinians believe are setting the trend.

They are not necessarily wrong about this. The Geneva Initiative is only one of several indications, including the less elaborately conceived and publicized “Ayalon-Nusseibeh agreement”3 that preceded and resembles it, that Israel’s will is beginning to crack. Many Israelis, demoralized by the three-and-a-half years of the second intifada, which has left them with nearly a thousand dead, a depressed economy, and pariah status in much of the world, have come to resemble a medical patient who, weary of fighting his disease, thinks only of relieving his pain. The Geneva Initiative is being marketed to them as the ultimate pain-killer. Take me, it says, and you will feel better at once.

The initiative’s sponsors, of course, have no illusions that “at once” is possible. They know their proposal stands no chance of adoption by the Sharon government. Their plan is rather to portray this government, both to Israel and the world, as the only obstacle standing in the way of the Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty that they have “negotiated.” Increasingly attacked at home and abroad for its intransigence, and eventually abandoned even by America, this government, they calculate, will topple and be replaced in new elections by a “peace front” of the Left. That Yossi Beilin himself, having left the Labor party a year ago, is now busy founding a new “social-democratic” alternative to Labor that will carry the Geneva Initiative as its banner is, as they say, no coincidence.

There is nothing politically illegitimate about this. If the Israeli Left thinks that it has a workable plan for peace, it has the right and duty to seek a public mandate for it. Indeed, sooner or later it will be given this mandate unless the Center-Right coalition now governing the country can convince Israelis that it has a better plan. As it happens, however, such a plan is beginning to emerge. Ironically, it is based on an idea that originally came from the Left. This is to finish building the “security fence” now going up between Israel and the West Bank, withdraw unilaterally behind it, and turn it into a military and political border.

Many things can be said, and have been said (including by me), against this solution. A wall around the state of Israel is physically and symbolically ugly. It is mean-spirited. It steals Palestinian farm land and turns it into a sterile security zone. It amounts to taking a carving knife to one’s own homeland. It is reminiscent of the age of the Iron Curtain. It is returning Jews to the ghetto from which Zionism sought to redeem them.

All of these things are true. The fence is a desperate measure. But so is the Geneva Accord. Israel today is a desperate country. It has failed to quell Palestinian violence by diplomacy, and it has failed to quell it by military force (although it has managed by heroic efforts to reduce it). Barring a fundamental change in Palestinian attitudes, the remaining alternatives are capitulation on the one hand and unilateral action on the other. Rigorously patrolled security fences have worked well for Israel in other places. Wherever they have been erected—around Gaza, along the border with Lebanon, the length of the Jordan River—they have been highly effective in keeping out armed infiltrators.

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Aunilateral fence to which Israel withdraws from Palestinian territory would, like the Geneva Initiative, mean evacuating many settlements, including all those in Gaza and the Jordan Valley, together with Israel’s troops on the Jordan River.4 But it would keep many more settlements in Israel than does the Geneva Initiative, and without surrendering Israeli territory in return; most crucially, it would push the frontier further east, away from the exposed coastal plain and into the mountains of Samaria where the military topography is more advantageous. Israeli troops along such a border would not have to rush preventively for the Jordan River every time a threat materialized east of it.

Such a fenced border, of course, will not enjoy international recognition. The international community has been hostile to its construction and will continue to be so. But the international community has been hostile to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank all along, and will reject any end to it that does not have Palestinian approval. As long as Israel behaves fairly toward Palestinians directly affected by the wall, compensating them for expropriated land and offering citizenship to those who end up on the Israeli side, the world will not be more hostile if 100 percent of Gazans and 95 percent of West Bankers wind up completely free of Israeli occupation. The Geneva Initiative, too, envisions a cold border between Palestine and Israel; a wall will not make that border significantly colder.

It has been argued that without all of the West Bank, and, especially, without Arab Jerusalem, the entirety of which would be kept for Israel by a unilaterally drawn border, no Palestinian state will be viable. This may well be the case, although it is doubtful whether a tiny state divided between the West Bank and Gaza would be viable even with Jerusalem as its capital. One way or another, any Palestinian state will inevitably become part of a larger entity; if it is not federated with Israel, then it will be absorbed into the Arab expanse around it, the West Bank becoming politically associated with Jordan again and Gaza once more linked to Egypt. This need not be a cruel fate, especially not for West Bankers whose close kin form a majority of the population of Jordan, a country three times larger than all of 1948 Mandate Palestine. Although they have had their uniquely unhappy destiny, the Palestinians are culturally, linguistically, and religiously no different from Jordanians, and could easily exercise their right to self-determination in conjunction with them.

It is precisely because a unilateral Israeli withdrawal to an impermeable border is a practical solution to Israel’s problems that the Palestinian leadership is so scared of it—far more scared than of Israeli military threats or the expansion of the settlements. Chained to Israel in conflict, the Palestinians know that, though suffering and insecure, they can inflict insecurity and suffering in return. Separated from Israel by a wall, they will be deprived of the two weapons that have been the main items in their arsenal since 1967: terrorism, and one of the world’s highest birthrates.

This is why Israel must proceed with the wall’s construction as quickly as possible despite Palestinian and international protests. The specter of its completion is the one thing capable of bringing the Palestinian leadership to its senses. There may be better solutions, but these will demand fresh thinking on the part of both Israel and the Palestinians. By any measure, the Geneva Accord is not one of them.

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Footnotes

1 The claim of its sponsors that “300,000” or “75 percent” of all Jews “living beyond the green line” will remain in Israel is based on its lumping of the West Bank settlers with the 200,000 Israeli residents of East Jerusalem, the Jewish neighborhoods of which are to be awarded to Israel.

2 The average would depend, of course, on how many countries participated in the project and how many refugees each of them accepted. If a million refugees were resettled in twenty countries, some admitting as many as 100,000 and some as few as 1,000, the average would be 50,000.

3 Launched last July by Sari Nusseibeh, a well-known Palestinian intellectual and academic, and Ami Ayalon, a former Israeli naval commander and director of the General Security Service, this peace proposal likewise calls for an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-June 1967 frontiers, the abandonment of an Israeli military presence on the Jordan River, and the evacuation of all Jewish settlements from the state of Palestine. Unlike the Geneva Initiative, however, it rules out the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel.

4 An idea reportedly under consideration by the Sharon government is to create a second, “eastern” fence that would retain the valley for Israel; but this, however tempting, would result in the Palestinian “Bantustan,” surrounded on all sides, that Israel has been accused by its critics of wanting to create.

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About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.




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