Israel “has to declare in the near future” that it will compensate settlers living east of the security barrier if they were to leave now, according to Israeli Vice Prime Minister Haim Ramon.
“It’s our moral obligation to offer [compensation] to them now,” Ramon said at the annual dinner of the Israel Policy Forum here on Monday night.
That position is at odds with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who until now has viewed such a move as premature, according to Asaf Shariv, Israel’s consul general in New York.
“The prime minister is not supportive and I don’t know that he has changed his mind,” Shariv said.
Ramon’s support for immediate compensation came just hours after he learned that Ehud Barak, Israel’s defense minister and chairman of the Labor Party, had thrown his support behind such a compensation bill introduced earlier this year by two Labor Party members, Colette Avital and Avshalom Vilan.
Although some observers have speculated that Olmert’s opposition is based on a fear that adoption of the bill would lead to the breakup of his coalition, others suggest Olmert believes nothing should be done until negotiations prove fruitful.
In an editorial, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz said forcing settlers to wait for compensation until a political settlement finalizes Israel’s border “is nerve-wracking for those who wish to lead a normal life.”
It pointed out that polls indicate that at least 20,000 settlers would vacate their homes if they received enough compensation to buy a new home.
Ramon said that of the 70,000 settlers who live east of the security barrier and outside the three large settlement blocs Israel is intent on keeping, the government believes that about half would leave if they were compensated.
Asked later about the fate of those who don’t leave, Ramon said, “If we reach peace, they will have to leave.”
He added that they would not be permitted to remain under Palestinian rule.
Although the amount of compensation has not been set, the Israeli media has quoted a figure of about $250,000 per family.
The Israeli right criticized Barak for his support of the bill, and Uri Ariel of the National Union-National Religious Party reportedly said he would introduce a bill to compensate Israel’s 1.2 million Arabs if they leave their homes and “return to their countries.”
In his remarks at the IPF dinner, Ramon outlined the gaps facing Israeli and Palestinian negotiators as they seek to forge an agreement that would lead to the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.
“Most people on both sides are aware what will be the end game,” Ramon said.
The first thing Israelis must accept, he said, is that the notion of a greater Israel must be sacrificed for peace. He pointed out that 60 years ago when the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine gave the Jews “only 55 percent of the land between the sea and the river and Jerusalem was not part of this Jewish state,” David Ben-Gurion decided that having a state was “the most important thing —not the size of the land but the substance.”
“The most important thing [today] is to remain Jewish and democratic,” Ramon declared, adding that what is needed is a “clear majority of Jewish people who live in Israel and not all over Israel.”
“Occupation is a threat to the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,” he stressed.
‘A Stupid Mistake’
Among the issues separating Israelis and Palestinians is Jerusalem and the Palestinians desire to call it their capital. Ramon said the Palestinians could have their wish if Arab areas of the city that were annexed after the Six-Day War in 1967 were divided from the Jewish areas of the city.
“We annexed 28 villages that were part of the West Bank and defined them as Jerusalem,” he pointed out. “They had never been Jewish and now were part of Jerusalem.”
Ramon called that a “stupid mistake.”
Fully one-third of Jerusalem’s residents today are Palestinian and if they voted in local elections they could “possibly influence who would be mayor,” he said. In fact, he added, they could one day elect a Palestinian mayor.
“So it is a major threat to the character of Israel. If these villages remain part of Jerusalem, Jerusalem will not remain the Jewish capital of Israel.”
In addition to Jerusalem, he said the other areas of conflict are borders, refugees and security.
Regarding borders, Ramon said, “It’s clear Israel will annex the settlement blocs,” and noted that they and the security barrier around those three enclaves encroach on 8 percent of the West Bank.
“It’s clear what is east of the fence would not be under Israeli sovereignty,” he said.
In non-official negotiations between groups of Israelis and Palestinians that produced the Geneva Initiative it was agreed that 2.5 percent of the West Bank would be under Israeli sovereignty.
“So the gap is between 8 and 2.5 percent,” Ramon said. “It will not be easy to bridge it … but it’s clear something is going to happen.”
He noted that it has already been agreed in principle that a land swap is one way to resolve the issue.
Regarding refugees, Ramon said the Palestinians understand that “Palestinian refugees cannot return to Israel — they have neither the legal nor moral right.”
He suggested an international fund be created to “deal with compensation and humanitarian problems.” And, Ramon added, Israel may decide to admit some refugees “because of humanitarian reasons and only humanitarian reasons.”
The security issue should be resolved by requiring that the Palestinian state be demilitarized, Ramon said, with details to be decided in negotiations.
Bush Visit Planned
In contrast to Ramon’s confidence about a resolution of the issues, Afif Safieh, the PLO’s representative to the United States, told IPF delegates that the “positions of the two sides are unresolvable and we need a third party” to resolve them.
“As a Palestinian, our battle for statehood we know lies in Washington,” he said.
President George W. Bush announced this week that he plans to make a two-day trip to Israel Jan. 9 — his first trip during his presidency — to emphasize his commitment to achieving an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.
Safieh said compromises to achieve a two state solution are “desirable, possible and doable. … The perpetuation of conflict is not Arab rejection of Israel, but Israeli rejection of Arab acceptance.”
Safieh insisted that “Israel cannot be an occupier and part of the Middle East.” He said the Palestinians are “key for the regional acceptance of Israel, and we will be ready for an historical compromise and a two state solution.”
Jordan’s ambassador to the U.S., Prince Zeid Bin Ra’ad, pointed out that after the Oslo Accords in 1993 many Arab nations “were within inches of diplomatic relations with Israel.”
“All of us Arab ambassadors had lunch with the Israeli ambassador seven years ago,” he recalled.
But in September 2000 the second intifada erupted, resulting in hundreds of Israeli deaths by Palestinian gunmen, suicide bombers and rocket attacks and putting an end to all Arab ties to Israel.
“We can still try,” Zeid said, adding that he recognized that “on the Israeli side there is a fear — a paralysis where security is concerned.”
Progress With Syria?
Meanwhile, there are some in Israel and elsewhere who continue to believe that Syria’s appearance at last month’s Annapolis meeting should be seen as the opening Israel has been looking for to launch peace talks with Syria. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former State Department official, said the Syrian leadership is capable of making peace at a time when there is weak Palestinian leadership.
“The issues are less difficult [between Israel and Syria] than the ones that separate Israel from the Palestinians,” Haass said. “The prospects are brighter on the Israeli-Syrian track than the Israeli-Palestinian track.”
But Ephraim Sneh, a former Israeli deputy defense minister, disagreed, saying: “The gap between the Palestinians and Israel is clearly bridgeable; the gap with Syria is not. The Palestinian situation is extremely urgent and some people are using the Syrian option as a distraction. It’s a mistake. We have to concentrate on the Palestinian track.”
Resolution of the conflict with Syria is “not easier, it is more complicated,” Sneh continued. “The Syrian demand is that we write them a check — the Golan Heights. We are not going to promise a strategic asset like the Golan Heights to a country that is a member of the axis of evil. We would like them to leave the axis of evil and stay away from Hezbollah and kick [PLO leader-in-exile Khaled] Meshal out of Damascus. They are not going to do that and there are no indications they would be willing to do so.”
Israel’s position, Sneh said, is that Syria first “behave” itself and only later discuss territorial issues. On the other hand, Syria “says promise us the Golan Heights and we shall consider how to behave. They don’t want dialogue; they only want a check.”