A large majority of Israelis today favor separation, or, in Israeli parlance, disengagement. Indeed, the only exceptions are the political extremes, the settlers on the right and Palestinian citizens of Israel on the left, both of whom favor ongoing integration, though with radically different purposes in mind.
Yet among Israeli supporters of disengagement or separation there are also two very different schools of thought. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and parts of the non-religious right, who have only recently adopted the idea of disengagement, appear to favor an Israeli withdrawal from all or most of the Gaza Strip and from a much smaller portion of the West Bank--possibly only a few settlements in the north. Their objective is not clearly stated. Sharon refuses, at least publicly, to endorse the demographic rationale for separation, although some evidence suggests that this is his primary reason, and concentrates on the security context. He also appears to believe, without any foundation in reality, that the territory remaining under Palestinian rule can, by gerrymandering and creative construction of overpasses and bypasses, somehow be construed as "contiguous," and that it will, once abandoned by Israel, be seen by the world as a viable state.
Some of the right wing advocates of disengagement pay lip service to the notion of renewing negotiations regarding additional parts of the West Bank at an indeterminate time in the future, with a more responsible Palestinian leadership. But they also insist that the partial Israeli withdrawal they envisage must be sustainable over the long term--that it constitute a political "solution." Accordingly they seek to thicken the pattern of Israeli settlements in those parts of the West Bank where Israel remains--the Jordan Valley, greater Jerusalem and western Samaria--and if possible to use fences to define this area, which totals around half the territory. Moreover, because Sharon continues to do nothing to stop settlement expansion even inside the areas allegedly slated by him for Israeli withdrawal, his commitment even to limited disengagement is not fully credible in the eyes of many.
At the other end of the Israeli disengagement spectrum are those, primarily on the left and center, for whom separation or disengagement means Israeli withdrawal from the entire Gaza Strip and most of the West Bank, with the exception of the Jordan Valley, the green line settlement blocs and East Jerusalem. They would signal the Palestine Liberation Organization that this is an interim measure, that those parts of the West Bank and East Jerusalem that remain under Israeli rule are being held temporarily, pending a renewal of negotiations, and that their status will not be altered in the interim. They want the fence to follow the green line and favor a Palestinian state with borders based on that line. And they have a clearer set of rationales: the demographic threat to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, improvements in Israeli security, and the need to negotiate a two state solution with a more responsible Palestinian leadership as soon as possible.
The Bush administration in Washington employs rhetoric that appears to reflect general support for the Israeli center-left approach: a green line fence, no action taken that might prejudice an eventual two state solution based on the 1967 borders. But its involvement in the conflict has never been particularly energetic, and it has already displayed a dangerous propensity to acquiesce in unilateral moves by the Sharon government, such as settlement construction, that more closely approximate the right wing approach.
Both schools of Israeli thought cite Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's record supporting or tolerating terrorism and his failure to convincingly acknowledge Israel as a legitimate Jewish state, and reject the option of negotiating with a Palestinian leadership led by him. This is their shared point of departure for the disengagement or separation idea. Both stop short of advocating any sort of severing of infrastructure and labor ties. They recognize that cutting these links would cause extreme hardship for Palestinians, hence more instability and extremism. Both recognize that this sort of separation will not end Palestinian terrorism, but both believe that disengagement coupled with fencing will at least ameliorate the day-to-day security situation for most Israelis.
There are exceptions to these camps and there are grey areas in between them--Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's ideas fall into such a grey area--but by and large this describes the views held today by an overwhelming majority of Israelis. For Palestinians, who are understandably apprehensive about Israel's plans, as well as for Israelis who fear that the Jewish nature of Israel will be compromised by demography, the key difference between the two Israeli schools of thought is absolutely crucial.
One approach uses separation to perpetuate overall Israeli control and prevent the emergence of a viable Palestinian state. In so doing it actually endangers the viability of the Israeli state. Because the Palestinian statelets it creates will not be viable, Israel will be held responsible, while Palestinians will abandon their quest for a two state solution and begin to insist on "one man, one vote".
The other Israeli approach remains committed to a viable two state solution--it certainly does nothing to preclude it--while creating better conditions for Israel to survive in the interim as a Jewish and democratic state, and better conditions for Palestine to improve its own security control. But it does not guarantee a successful two state solution.
For that we need not just Israeli, but also Palestinian and American leaders with a more realistic strategy for peace and long term coexistence.
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies and a former senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak.
The concept of "separation" is understood in a myriad of different ways in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In Israel, the idea is debated by the public after each wave of Palestinian attacks inside Israel; it is a knee-jerk response to the experience of anguish.
Palestinians, on the other hand, have long been unified over the idea that "separation" must mean the dismantling of the Israeli occupation and all its interferences into Palestinian daily life. This requires that Israel leave the Palestinian occupied territories by mutually signed agreement, thus ensuring an independent Palestinian state within the borders of 1967, including Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. It also means that relations between the two sides will be based on equality, taking into consideration the interests of each with no domination of one over the other. This concept of separation would allow Palestinians to establish foreign and economic relations with other states on the basis of their specific needs. It would also mandate control over Palestine's borders and movement in and out of those borders between Palestine and any other country that Palestinians wish to establish relations with.
While the concept of separation in Israel varies from one political camp to another, in general it is defined by the creation of systems that prevent Palestinians from entering Israel while allowing the Israeli military and settlers to enter Palestine at whim. Of course, the Israeli mainstream differs over the path of the line that should separate the two sides, as well as the level of control that is maintained. But nearly all of these advocates base their desire for separation solely on one-way traffic and the ultimate strategic goal of domination.
A minority in Israel made up of Peace Now and those to its left base their concept of separation on international law and norms, including a complete end to the occupation, and their understanding intersects with Palestinian goals. These groups are marginal, however, and apply little weight in the political balance of power in Israel.
It is understandable then, that Palestinians are generally mistrustful of Israeli intentions in calling for separation. They see in it an attempt to rearrange the occupation in a manner that is more comfortable for the occupier and more difficult to resist. Nothing better illustrates this façade than the wall, falsely presented by Israel as the physical embodiment of benign "separation." First, the course of the wall falls not on Israel's recognized borders but inside the occupied territories, thus implementing another illegal confiscation of Palestinian land. Second, the wall prevents Palestinians from leaving towns and villages now encircled by razor wire, ditches, electronic fencing and cement walls at the same time that Israel's settlers, soldiers and military aircraft have free access over, above, and among Palestinians inside those barriers. Finally, the wall allows Israel to contain the Palestinians, not only preventing their movement into Israel but also preventing their movement to other countries (and preventing others from visiting them).
Thus, the Palestinian feeling is that the notion of separation is deceptive and manipulated for Israel's use. A strategy based on this concept is not going to bring either side any nearer to a just and lasting peace. Separation based on a complete end to the occupation, on the other hand, and which gives birth to a viable and independent Palestinian state with the same rights as Israel, is the only solution that will ensure the peace and security both sides crave.
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is minister of labor in the Palestinian government and for many years prior was featured in the press as a political analyst.
The Israeli political system is on the verge of massive transformation. Traditional distinctions between left and right, doves and hawks, are no longer valid. From the Likud on the "right" to Meretz on the "left," the vast majority of the Israeli people is converging around the idea of a two-state solution.
Aware of the existential threat caused by perpetuating the current status, there is a growing civil non-partisan movement of Israelis dedicated to a unilateral disengagement from the Palestinians via a substantive attainable plan, aimed at safeguarding the vital interests of Israel as a Jewish, democratic state. Guided by a realistic analysis of the geo-political realities of our region, it seems that unilateral--although coordinated--disengagement offers a viable alternative to the dangerous, endless cycle of violence that prevents any serious peace negotiations.
In the absence of a comprehensive governmental disengagement initiative, Israel’s society, economy, security and major institutions will continue their current decline. For us Israelis this is truly a matter of life and death: if we fail to meet the current demographic challenge, we ourselves will be the agents of the destruction of the State of Israel, and the Zionist dream will thereby come to an end.
Two assumptions should be made from the outset:
First, despite Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's "historic" December 2003 Herzliya speech and his recent statement about a plan to evacuate the Gaza Strip, the Likud Party, currently holding 40 seats in the Knesset, is constrained by its internal central committee whose politics are significantly more right wing and militant than those of Likud’s overall constituency. As a result of this schism, the party has neither the capacity nor the will to bring about a disengagement from the Palestinians in any way that would require more than the relocation of just a couple of settlements. Likud’s official stance suggests that it has no real intention to ever negotiate a permanent status agreement.
Secondly, the international community, led by the United States, the United Nations, the European Union, Russia and moderate Arab states, such as Egypt, Morocco and Jordan, will support any practicable platform offered by Israel within the framework of the roadmap. Such support might include, under particular conditions, the introduction of an international force to the territories. Such an Israeli initiative, being pre-coordinated rather than fully unilateral, has therefore a chance to obtain international legitimacy.
Disengagement between the two peoples has been the underlying logic of the political process since the early 1990s. However, it seems that permanent status is not to be reached in the near future. There is therefore a need for a substantive, well-established plan, one that would be both responsible and attainable, aimed at safeguarding the vital interests of the State of Israel and reinforcing national security in the broadest sense.
A prerequisite for achieving these goals is an initiated unilateral disengagement--to borders dictated by the needs of security and demography--as part of a responsible and sovereign decision of the government of Israel.
The following are the essentials of the plan:
- The temporary border for this initiated unilateral disengagement will be designed to safeguard Israel’s vital security, political, demographic and economic interests, in addition to the interests of settlement and infrastructure. In this scheme, over 80 percent of settlers in Judea and Samaria will remain within the borders of the State of Israel, while a minimal number of Palestinians will also be included;
- Israel will receive solid long-term international guarantees that promote the stability of the region;
- The Palestinians will not have the right of return to the State of Israel;
- Concurrent with the establishment of the Palestinian state, the historic conflict between the sides will be declared at an end. As a condition for its establishment, Palestine will be demilitarized;
- Jewish Jerusalem will be the capital of Israel, while Palestinian al Quds will be the capital of the Palestinian state. The area of the holy sites will come under a separate special regime, which will guarantee unimpeded access and freedom of worship to members of all religions;
- Israel will support any effort towards international/third party involvement in the running of the Palestinian territories until the setting up of a responsible Palestinian government; and finally
- Negotiations on permanent status will resume parallel to the above process in order to lead to a final comprehensive agreement on all core issues including, but not limited to, the final borders between Israel and Palestine.
Thus a national security and foreign policy plan would be established, combining unilateral disengagement with a call to simultaneously renew permanent status negotiations. It would foster international US-led involvement in the territories and aim at pursuing negotiations, possibly on the basis of either President Clinton’s parameters or the principles of any of the other recent peace initiatives.
Attorney Gilead Sher was one of the senior Israeli peace negotiators during the years 1999-2001. He served as head of the Prime Minister's Bureau from October 2000 until the elections of February 2001. He recently co-authored Legal Aspects of Settlement Evacuation (to be published shortly by Harvard Law School’s Program on Negotiations).
bitterlemons: We have seen many meanings of "separation" in this intifada. Can you talk some about them?
Hammami: One that stands out was the separation plan put out by Israeli Labor Party leaders Haim Ramon and Shlomo Ben Ami soon after Ariel Sharon’s election as prime minister, as an attempt to find an exit strategy from the collapse of [the Oslo accords] into military carnage. It was the plan that put separation into much greater practical political play in Israel--but the concept was ultimately hijacked by Sharon into a greater Israel version that we see being implemented now.
The Ramon/Ben Ami plan ironically had some very positive elements to it. It proposed unilateral separation, not with walls, but with an international force. Israel would get out of the majority of the occupied territories but hand them over not to the Palestinian Authority but to some type of an international mandate. Thus the plan could be sold as something positive in Israeli eyes because, rather than being rewarded with more territory, the Palestinian Authority would actually be “punished” by not having authority over the territory that Israel withdrew from. In addition, Israelis would not have their security put back in Palestinian Authority hands, which by then they had lost all trust in.
It was a very clever salable way of bringing in an international force, which would be a positive development for Palestinians. The international mandate would then "reform" the Palestinian Authority over a three-year period, and bring the parties to final status issues. To sell this under the rubric of separation was clever but it was never taken up, not even by Labor. But I do think it set the stage for a much wider debate within the Israeli leadership.
bitterlemons: How much is separation plausible for Palestinians?
Hammami: If one takes a look at the wall, the first thing that one must ask is what is being separated from what? The aim is basically to separate us from them, not necessarily them from us.
In that sense, the wall is a much deeper, concretized form of the process of separation that began in the Oslo years, which began to separate Israeli and Palestinian civilians from each other. The majority of the Palestinian population can no longer "go over" into Israel anymore. Prior to the first Gulf War and the institution of Israel's permit system, Palestinians went into Israel as workers, shoppers, visitors--there was, despite the inequities of occupation, an experience of civilian interaction.
The wall is the final barrier to this interaction between Israelis and Palestinians as civilians. What is going to continue and even grow, on the other hand, will be the presence of Israel's military in our lives. It is a pipe dream that the wall and the cameras and the gates will do all the policing. Instead, given the complex configuration of the wall, it is likely that a much greater part of Israel's population is still going to be interacting with Palestinians as soldiers.
Those of us who are older can remember when Palestinians and Israelis interacted in more mundane human ways. Now I teach whole generations of students at university who have never come into contact with Israelis except as soldiers or settlers. This was one of the great crimes of Oslo and it will continue to worsen.
bitterlemons: What do you see as the sociological impact of this in the long term?
Hammami: The wall is an attempt to put us "out of sight, out of mind." The idea is that if one cannot see Palestinians, somehow they are not there. But of course, we are here. We are not separated; we are just under a new form of Israeli domination. And what this means is that even if the majority of Israelis don't see us any more under this new form of domination, there will continue to be a massive drain on their resources--financially, on their moral resources, and on their moral capital in the outside world. This kind of vicious apartheid regime is going to cost Israel dearly both internally and internationally. Finally, there are the long-term political costs; because the wall is an attempt to avert finding a real solution, Israel will continue to live in a permanent state of war.
But the wall has multiple separation aims. The other pernicious aim of the wall is the separation of Palestinians from their land and livelihoods; both in terms of the immediate land grabs associated with its construction and in terms of the long-run of people being forced to leave in an attempt to make a livelihood. This is about slow transfer over the long run. It will not succeed, but "the long run" is quite a while and in the meantime, it will have great destructive consequences for Palestinian society.
bitterlemons: One of the aspects that this discussion highlights is the success with which Israel has co-opted the language of peace.
Hammami: Until a few months ago, one could still hear members of the Palestinian leadership saying things like, "the wall is going to bury the peace process." One wondered, what peace process were they talking about? What happened in the Oslo process was that Palestinians had a much greater stake in peace and the Palestinian leadership, in particular, clung to the language of the peace process when it was long gone because they drew their international legitimacy from it.
But when a situation becomes this stark, no amount of language can hide it. Israel's use of language has become ludicrous--"targeted killings" for example. To say "targeted assassinations" would give those killed too much political legitimacy, in Israel's eyes. No matter how weak the European position is, and no matter how completely hypocritical American positions are, most people in the world see the images.
The gravest problem is that Israeli society refuses to see. Israelis are blinded by this wall and are waiting for it to solve all their problems. As such, the wall has bought Sharon what he most crucially wants--time.
Rema Hammami is an anthropologist who teaches at Birzeit University and contributing editor to Middle East Report.
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