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Will Barak Really Make a Difference?

Author: Henry Siegman, Former Senior Fellow and Former Director for the U.S./Middle East Project
August 1, 1999
Los Angeles Times


For much of June and early July, the general tenor of Israeli, international and even Arab opinion was "what a difference an election makes!" New Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak launched lightning-like diplomatic initiatives in an intense round of meetings with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, King Abdullah of Jordan, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, President Clinton, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Russian President Boris Yeltsin, among others.

Now that the time for rhetoric is running out and the international community is looking for some hard evidence of concrete movement on the ground, it is slowly but surely sinking in how distressingly unchanged the situation in the Middle East may be.

How quickly have we forgotten that even during former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s "honeymoon" period after his election in 1996, there was upbeat talk about how pragmatic a leader he would be, as he enthralled everyone with his articulate and reasonable rhetoric about peace and security. Mubarak, after meeting with Netanyahu in Cairo, was so impressed that he issued a call to Arab countries to give this new pragmatic prime minister a chance. We all now know how sadly that story ended.

Of course, Barak is not Netanyahu, and there is no question about his intention to breathe new life into the moribund peace process. But nevertheless, it is becoming increasingly doubtful that Barak really understands what it takes to achieve a breakthrough.

That he has much to learn is evident from his misguided proposal that the Palestinians accept postponement of the implementation of the Wye agreement and "fold" its provisions into the "final status" discussions. To assume that it would be politically possible for Arafat to agree to such a postponement is to reveal a level of misunderstanding that is truly astounding.

Even if there existed the remotest possibility that Barak might have been able to persuade Arafat to delay the implementation of the Wye agreement, that possibility was destroyed by Barak when he went public with his proposal before discussing it privately with Arafat.

There is a radical imbalance between Israel and the Palestinians that permeates and complicates every aspect of the relationship between the two. In his joint press conference with President Clinton on July 19, Barak appropriately warned the Palestinians that "unilateral steps, acts of violence or other forms of aggression have no place in the peace process." Presumably, this means that if there are differences between Israel and the Palestinians, neither side can act unilaterally or resort to violence. But given Barak’s previous pronouncements and actions, I doubt that is what he had in mind. If, in a contested situation, Israel decided to act unilaterally, and used military force to back up its actions, as it always did in the past when it came to settlement activity, I doubt he would pay any attention to Palestinian protests that "unilateral steps and acts of violence have no place in the peace process." The admonition against unilateralism and violence applies to the Palestinians only.

Palestinians should be forgiven if they do not jump for joy at the prospect of dividing the West Bank. Even if they were to receive every inch of the territories that Jordan controlled before 1967, which they know they won’t, they would wind up with but a fraction more than 20% of the originally partitioned territory, while Israel would retain nearly 80%. If by "Palestinian compromise" it is meant their willingness to divide the remaining 20%, they would wind up with 10% and Israel with 90%.

The issue is not only the question of fairness or percentages. It is also a question of how a Palestinian state that is even marginally viable in economic and political terms can exist on much less than the present West Bank, particularly if what little there remains lacks even territorial continuity. From the narrow perspective of Israel’s own interests, it would be foolish to establish a new Palestinian state that is predictably viable and guaranteed to fail.

The map of a future Palestinian entity that is presently envisioned by Barak cannot yield a viable Palestinian state. If Barak’s insistence that he will not dismantle existing settlements remains his position in the negotiations, it will inevitably produce isolated Bantustans in an irredentist Palestinian entity. The instability of such a state would leave Israel with the worst of all worlds—diminished territory and diminished security.

It is true that even a viable and stable Palestinian state poses security risks for Israel. But there are ways of dealing with those risks, including a long-term Israeli military and intelligence presence in the Jordan valley and on the hilltops, without requiring Palestinians to forgo forever sovereignty over their own territory. The so-called Abu Mazen-Jossi Beilin plan, concluded four years ago and submitted to Yitzhak Rabin just days before he was assassinated, indicates that such security measures are feasible and acceptable to the Palestinians.

Given Israel’s preponderance of economic and military power, it may well be possible for Barak to get Arafat to acquiesce to terms that cannot achieve viable Palestinian statehood. One must hope that Barak and his advisors understand that this would hardly be a victory for Israel’s future security. If the American role in the peace process is to be limited to "facilitation," as Barak has requested, there cannot be a more important aspect to this facilitation than reminding Israel’s new leaders that a Palestinian entity whose constraints assure its failure is a lose-lose game for both parties, and for America as well.

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