Barak’s Hard Road to Peace

Now that Yasser Arafat has called Ehud Barak his “friend and partner,” and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has pronounced himself pleased and encouraged with the new Israeli prime minister, and President Clinton is just waiting to welcome him to Washington, the old euphoria seems to have arisen again.

Especially since the Likud, the settlers and the rest of the right wing have been relegated to a numerically insignificant, psychologically devastated opposition — leaving them uncharacteristically quiet — an attitude seems to have taken hold that peace is just around the corner.

But this is far from being the case. Until now, Israel has seen only the benefits of the Oslo Accord (except, of course, for the sharp upsurge in terror killings in 1994-96). The hard part is still entirely ahead.

Relinquishing the Gaza Strip, and allowing Israeli soldiers to give up risking their lives as they patrolled the alleyways of Gaza’s hellish refugee camps, was not a “painful concession.” Israelis saw Gaza not as an asset but as an albatross. They were only too relieved to be rid of it.

The exact same thing could be said of Ramallah, Nablus, Tulkarm, Jenin and the other West Bank cities — including Arab Hebron — which, along with their outlying districts, were also given into the Palestinian Authority’s control. The land from which Israel withdrew in the West Bank and Gaza contains some 2.5 million Palestinians — and not a single Jew.

The only time Israeli settlers were ever forced to make way for a peace treaty was in 1982, when the Camp David Accord forced the evacuation of some 5,500 settlers in the Sinai. Even though the move was carried out by the Begin government, which meant that there wasn’t much of a right-wing opposition to raise a protest, the uprooting of those settlers was traumatic for the government and the nation as a whole.

By contrast, there are now some 180,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza. The right wing, from the Likud onward, is now concentrated in the opposition. Thus, Barak is facing an incomparably harder task in making peace than Begin ever faced (except that Barak has Begin’s precedent to make his job somewhat easier).

The new prime minister has pledged not to uproot settlements — but only until the final-status agreement goes into effect. He has designated large settlement blocs near the Green Line, such as Gush Etzion and the Ariel bloc, as “vital,” but offered no such assurances to most of the smaller, more militant settlements in the interior of the West Bank, nor to those in Gaza.

Noting Barak’s intention to concentrate settlers in large blocs, and not to hold onto all the settlements, Yisrael Harel, an executive board member and former chairman of the YESHA (Judea and Samaria) Council, said: “I have no doubt that he intends to carry out this policy, and I will fight against it, together with the YESHA Council and the settlements.”

While Barak meets with settler leaders and tries to calm their fears — as much as possible — it should be remembered that Barak’s aim is to reach an agreement not with the YESHA Council but with the Palestinian Authority. The PA’s position remains what it has always been: “We want all the settlements to be uprooted. This is Palestinian land,” in the words of Imad Shakur, an Israeli Arab adviser to Arafat.

It is inconceivable that 180,000 of the most fiercely nationalistic Jews in Israel could be relocated, or that any Israeli government would agree to it. Yet this remains the Palestinians’ demand. For the settlers, the removal of even one of them is far too many.

Then, of course, there is the issue of Jerusalem. To the overwhelming majority of Israelis, there is nothing to talk about — Jerusalem is all theirs, the unified capital of Israel alone, with none of it ever to be the capital of Palestine.

The Palestinians, on the other hand, want all of East Jerusalem — the part of the city captured by Israel in the Six-Day War, where approximately 350,000 people now live — nearly half of them Jews, the rest of them Palestinians.

Many Israeli doves have tried to come up with a compromise whereby Israel would retain control over the Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, while Palestine would set up its capital in the Arab neighborhoods. It seems a potentially workable idea; the Jewish and Arab parts of East Jerusalem are quite discrete geographically.

Yet not only is this notion anathema to nearly all Israelis, for whom “united Jeru-salem” is a supreme national value, but the Palestinian leadership has never warmed to the idea, either. The PA is sticking to its demand for all of East Jerusalem, Arab and Jewish. Ahmed Tibi, a former Israeli Arab adviser to Arafat who now sits in the Knesset, reiterated this position, saying, “We don’t want a Berlin wall [dividing the city]…but the idea of control only over certain neighborhoods is also unacceptable.”

Compared to making peace with the Palestinians, then, making peace with Syria seems easy. The territory in dispute with Syria is the Golan Heights, and there are “only” 17,000 Jews living there.

Barak has said the idea of “peace with the Golan” is an illusion, and he hasn’t ruled out giving back all of it as Syrian President Hafez Assad demands. It is widely assumed that Barak is, in fact, ready to meet Assad’s condition. “We are committed to making peace with Syria, and everybody knows what the price is,” Minister Haim Ramon said recently.

Yet again, this is much easier said than done. It involves relocating 17,000 Jews — and not just any Jews, but Jews who made settling the Golan their life’s cause. They will not go quietly, nor will they, as Shimon Peres once suggested, agree to live under Syrian rule (even if Syria would agree to let them stay, which is unlikely). As Tommy Lapid, a journalist-turned-Knesset Member, said once in response to Peres’ idea, “If the Jews on the Golan wanted to live in the Diaspora, why would they choose Syria?”

The West Bank and Gaza settlements, East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights — territories where more than 350,000 Jews live, territories that Yasser Arafat and Hafez Assad are demanding total sovereignty over in return for peace. This is what Ehud Barak faces. While peace may no longer be impossible, it is still far from being inevitable.