Small World

Jewish World Review July 17 , 2000 / 14 Tamuz, 5760

Going For Broke: Barak and Arafat gamble on a future both sides will accept

By Richard Z. Chesnoff -- BACK IN THE DAYS when the Holy Land was still under colonial British mandate and Israel was struggling to be born, Zionist leader Chaim Weizman remarked that if England even offered the Jews a state "the size of a tablecloth," he’d be in favor of accepting it. With peace and any amount of land, said the man who later became Israel’s first president, "we can build our future."

Let’s hope Yasser Arafat remembers Weizman’s words during the crucial talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak that President Clinton’s hosting at Camp David.

The Palestinian leader is being offered far more than "a tablecloth" — he’s being offered some 90% of the West Bank and Gaza, plus a deal on Jerusalem and a huge amount of seed money for development. But unfortunately, rather than grabbing opportunities, the history of the Palestinian struggle has most often been been one of missing them.

When the United Nations offered to divide Palestine between Arabs and Jews in 1947, the Palestinian Arabs loudly said no, went to war and ended up with nothing but hatred for Israel and a million Palestinian refugees. When Israel won the Six-Day War 20 years later and offered to return almost all the territories it occupied in exchange for peace, the Palestinians again stubbornly refused. And when Israel and Egypt made their own U.S.-brokered peace deal at Camp David in 1978, the Palestinians said they wouldn’t dream of signing on. The Zionist state, Arafat & Co. said, would simply "have to disappear."

The Israelis also have had their blind sides, traditionally refusing to consider the idea of an independent Arab Palestine — albeit a demilitarized one. The very idea of a Palestinian state on their borders seemed too threatening. Yet much has changed in recent years. There was the ground-breaking Madrid peace conference in 1991, an on-again, off-again peace process and in recent years — thanks to the late Yitzhak Rabin — some actual Palestinian autonomy.

Now, both Arafat and Barak have come back to what may not be the very last chance at peace, but is the closest and yet at the same time farthest both sides have been from a final settlement of their differences. Clearly, both leaders are gambling in a high-stakes game, and both have decided to go for broke even if it means risking the loss of some political support at home.

Barak, for example, has lost his coalition majority — much of it because of political posturing by knee-jerk right wingers who reject anything that even smells like a compromise deal.

But the former Israeli chief of staff, the first Israeli leader to be directly elected by the Israeli public, knows he has a weapon even stronger than the support of other politicians: According to the latest polls, no matter what the politicos are saying, a clear majority of Israelis is behind the prime minister’s peace initiatives. So Barak is forging ahead, and when and if he has a deal, this brave soldier of peace will seek to offer it for approval not to the parliament, but to a national referendum.

Reformed terrorist Arafat also knows that extremists among the Palestinians will be out for his blood if he concedes even an inch of land they believe is eternally theirs. Yet, like Barak, Arafat knows that the majority of Palestinians (a thus far largely silent majority) is tired of bloodshed, tired of no economic progress, tired of losing children to war and desperately seeking peace — and yes, maybe even agreeable to a smaller state then they once dreamed of.

To be sure, some Palestinian spokesmen like Hanan Ashrawi are still mouthing the old slogans about all or nothing at all. And both sides have clamped a blackout on hard news from Camp David. It’s not the sort of thing that delights journalists. But this may be one situation where it’s definitely the smartest move they could make. All concerned parties, especially the Israelis and their freewheeling press and media-savvy politicians, have a long history of leaking secret information, which at this point could be far more injurious than it would be helpful.

So what kind of deal are we likely to see if there is one (and some people believe it’s already been pre-cooked)? One growing possibility, according to some well-placed observers, is a real land-for-peace deal: an exchange of territories between the two sides. The Israelis would evacuate further areas of the West Bank, and the Palestinians will agree to a tradeoff in which some, though not all, Israeli settlements in the West Bank would become Israeli territory. In turn, Israel would cede some unpopulated areas along the Gaza Strip to the Palestinians and evacuate others among the 170,000 settlers living on the West Bank. Israel also would turn over the Jordan Valley to the Palestinians, who would then lease the land back to Israel — a security guarantee for all concerned.

The long-burning question of the right of return of Palestinian refugees to what is now Israel could be settled with another compromise: a reunification of a symbolic number of refugees with their Israeli-Arab families and compensation for others, as well as for the 600,000 Jews forced to flee Arab lands in the wake of Israel’s birth.

The highly emotional issue of Jerusalem is believed to be finding a solution in a compromise deal in which both East and West Jerusalem would become a municipality of Arab and Jewish boroughs united under Israeli sovereignty. The holy city’s Islamic holy places would remain under Palestinian supervision. Most important, a nascent Palestinian state would establish its capital in a burgeoning eastern suburb of Jerusalem called Abu Dis, an area that would henceforth be called El Quds — Arabic for Jerusalem (a compromise solution that this reporter first revealed in US News & World Report more than four years ago).

Israel would agree to recognize a demilitarized Palestinian state; the Palestinians would sign off on an end of claims against and conflicts with the Jewish state. The United States, European Union and Japan would provide major development funding to both sides.

Will it happen? Clinton, who sees this as one of his most important last hurrahs, will do everything he can to make sure it will. In the end though, the President is spinning the wheel. When it comes to putting down the chips, it’s going to be up to the two high-stakes gamblers themselves: Arafat and Barak.

We can only pray they make the right moves.

JWR contributor and veteran journalist Richard Z. Chesnoff is a senior correspondent at US News And World Report and a columnist at the NY Daily News. His latest book is Pack of Thieves: How Hitler & Europe Plundered the Jews and Committed the Greatest Theft in History.


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