In his most revealing comments to date, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has outlined plans to his cabinet and to President Bill Clinton that pave the way for a demilitarized Palestinian state on 70 to 80 percent of the West Bank. That is about 25 percent more land than his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, was publicly willing to cede.
Although Barak did not spell out last Sunday the precise dimensions of the Palestinian state, he reportedly reviewed with his cabinet various proposals suggested by fellow Labor Party leaders. Former Prime Minister Shimon Peres has suggested giving the Palestinians 80 percent of the West Bank, while Minister Chaim Ramon has proposed 70 percent. The Jerusalem Post quoted a source in the prime minister’s office as saying Barak’s preference is “closer to that of Peres.”
The source was also quoted as saying that both Barak and Clinton believe Palestinian Authority President Yasir Arafat will not unilaterally declare a state, preferring to wait until there is a final peace agreement with Israel. That is expected in mid-September.
In the meantime, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have been working on the framework for such a settlement, actually exchanging papers that laid out in rough form their visions of such an accord. State Department spokesman James Rubin said the papers contained a “skeleton” of what a framework agreement might contain.
Barak discussed these issues when he met with Clinton at the White House last week; Arafat was to discuss them with Clinton this week. The White House has agreed to play a greater role in helping the two sides reach an accord. Barak, Arafat and Clinton are expected to meet next month to nail down a framework agreement.
There have been indications that Barak, in an effort to win concessions from the Palestinians, was prepared to include in the framework a clause relating to a future Palestinian state. But representatives of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, called on Barak to refrain from recognizing a Palestinian state and signing a framework agreement before Israelis have a chance to vote on it in a promised referendum. Holding such a referendum after the signing would be meaningful, they said.
A spokeswoman for the organization, Yehudit Tayar, said the council met with Barak for nearly two hours in his office Monday evening to discuss his recent statements.
“We know he has promised Clinton and Arafat that Israel will give up major areas around the periphery of Jerusalem, such as Abu Dis,” she said. “But inside of Jerusalem there are Arab neighborhoods, and Arafat wants to connect straight from Abu Dis to the Old City and then to the Temple Mount. What Barak is doing is taking the drastic step of re-dividing Jerusalem.”
Tayar was referring to comments Barak made to his cabinet last Sunday in which he said: “We always looked to Jerusalem when we prayed, but we never directed our prayers to El Azariya or Abu Dis.”
He said he had no intention of annexing the 50,000 to 60,000 Palestinians who live in those and other suburbs around Jerusalem. At the same time, he said the West Bank land he intended to give to the Palestinians would give them what they need for statehood.
“No serious person believes that the entity that will be created will be a protectorate or autonomy made up of various non-contiguous patches on the map without its residents being able to leave its territory freely,” he said.
Tayar said the council, representing more than 200,000 Jews who live in the West Bank and the Golan Heights, was also concerned about Barak’s land concessions and his reported willingness dismantle many Jewish settlements. He reportedly told his cabinet that most Jewish settlements in the West Bank would be annexed to Israel and that Jerusalem would remain united under Israeli sovereignty.
“Polls show that 56 percent of the Jewish population feels that uprooting of any Jewish settlement would irrevocably split the nation,” she said. “And 54 percent of those who voted for Barak feel the same way. We kept bringing this up to the prime minister and what most disturbed him was the split in the nation. Lincoln said it very well when he said, ‘A house divided amongst itself cannot stand.’ An uprooting of even one Jewish community could lead to a civil war here, and he is very aware of that.”
Barak’s concentration on a Palestinian accord came after an apparent breakdown in talks with Syria’s President Hafez Assad. A meeting between Clinton and Assad last month failed to bridge outstanding issues. Barak said Wednesday that he was not optimistic about renewed Syrian negotiations, but that if Assad was truly interested in peace he must go to the White House prepared to compromise.
Assad’s son and presumed heir apparent, Bashar Assad, had been quoted earlier in the week as saying: “The peace process has not stopped, and the door remains open as long as efforts are continuing. Time has not run out.”
President Assad’s biographer, British author Patrick Seale, this week called on Assad and Barak to resume talks. In an open letter, he said he was convinced Assad wanted peace but said he “may need to consider changing the manner in which you address your Israeli negotiating partner. You cannot make peace with Barak alone. You need to make it with the Israeli government, with the Knesset, and indeed with the whole Israeli people. Israelis seek a fundamental reassurance that Syria will not be a future threat. …”
Seale expressed disappointment that Barak had pulled back from a promise made by former Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin to totally withdraw from the Golan Heights. Barak wants to keep a 100-yard stretch bordering Lake Kinneret. Seale said Assad was “ready to meet you more than half-way on the other elements of the peace package — on water, security, normalization, the timetable for withdrawal ….”
Meanwhile, fighting flared this week between Israeli soldiers and Hezbollah terrorists in Israel’s self-proclaimed security belt in southern Lebanon. Two Israeli soldiers were wounded, a Syrian worker was killed and three others injured in heavy exchanges of fire. In the battle, Hezbollah unleashed a barrage of long-range Katyusha rockets, several of which landed in northern Israel. There were no injuries, but one settlement lost electricity for several hours because of damage to the power grid.
The action came one day after Israel formally informed United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan that Israel plans to withdraw all of its troops from the security zone by July 7, in accord with UN Security Council Resolution 425.