June 2, 2003
NEW YORK - Call me cynical, but the current round of summit meetings over the proposed `road-map' for Mideast peace looks like another dead end in the half-century conflict over Palestine.
I have been steeped in Mideast affairs since the early 1950's, when my late mother, Nexhmie Zaimi, was one of the first female American journalists to cover the Arab World. She interviewed Egypt's President Nasser and Anwar Sadat, Jordan's King Hussein, and Iraq's strongman, Nuri as-Said. My mother began reporting the plight of 750,000 Palestinian refugees driven from their homes by the newly created state of Israel.
Few Americans then knew of Palestinian suffering. They were told Israel was `a land without people for a people without land.' My mother's newspaper reports and lectures brought her constant death threats and assaults on our home. The newspapers for whom she wrote were pressured by major advertisers to drop her columns. A courageous, outspoken woman, Mrs Zaimi continued public speaking until she was finally silenced by threats to throw acid into my face.
Fifty years later, after living in Egypt and a lifetime traveling across the Arab World and Israel, I am an ingrained pessimist. I would like nothing better than see an end to Palestinian's suffering, and see Israelis safe from attacks, living in productive peace with Palestinians, their spiritual first cousins.
But President Bush `vision' for Mideast peace, backed by Europe, Russia, the UN, PLO, and accepted by Israel with undisclosed reservations, appears unlikely to succeed because it fudges so many major problems.
Under the plan, the US-installed and financed Palestinian government of Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas must first end attacks on Israelis and shut down the extremist movements Hamas and Islamic Jihad, then renounce the right of return of millions of refugees. The democratically elected PLO leader, Yasser Arafat, is to be sidelined. Then Israel will consider withdrawing troops from some areas, and accept within three years the `concept' of a provisional state of Palestine with provisional borders. The most thorny issues - Jerusalem, water rights, final borders, Arab refugees - will be decided `in the future.'
The UN awarded Jews 55% of the original British Palestine Mandate in 1947; Palestinians the remainder. After the 1948 war, Israel gained 78% of Palestine; Jordan grabbed the remaining 22%; Israel conquered it in 1967. Now, PM Ariel Sharon's Likud government is reportedly offering to return about half of the occupied 22% territory. Under the road-map, Israel may retain major Jewish settlements, over 80% of the West Bank's water reserves, and may surround and isolate any newborn Palestinian statelet from the outside world.
Israeli sources say the massive security wall being built by Sharon will extend up to 600 kms, cutting off Palestinians from Israel, from neighboring Jordan, and annexing large chunks of former Palestinian lands. Israel reportedly plans to retain the Jordan Valley and Syria's Golan Heights.
The most important `fact on the ground' is Israel's settlements. Since the 1993 Oslo Peace accord between Israel and the PLO, which called for an end to Israeli settlements, the number of Israeli settlers on the West Bank and Gaza doubled to 240,000. More striking, by the simple ploy of expanding Jerusalem's municipal borders to include a ring of new settlements built around the city, the actual number of Jewish settlers on the West Bank is closer to 470,000.
Sharon vows to dismantle `temporary' settlements, mainly mobile homes, erected since 2001, but has assured settler groups, his political core support, they will not be relocated. Israeli critics say Sharon intends to continue the plan of predecessor, Ehud Barak, dividing Palestinians into three separate cantons, surrounded by Israeli security forces - what South Africa used to call `Bantustans.' Palestinians are unlikely to accept a truncated mini-state that is essentially a tribal reservation.
PM Sharon rightly recognized last week that Israel must end its military rule of 3.5 million rebellious Palestinians, but his plan is aimed at annexing the most useful parts of the West Bank and Golan while getting a tame PLO to police the rest and repress militants. That's what Bush and Sharon mean by a `democratic' PLO. A rare positive note, however, came with last week's grudging, first ever acceptance of a Palestinian state by Israel's cabinet.
Sharon owes Bush big time for crushing Israel's enemy Iraq, and assuring Israel's continued Mideast monopoly on weapons of mass destruction. Hence Sharon's sudden flexibility. Critics on Israel's left insist Sharon is merely playing for time while locking up the occupied territories, a process that has continued since Oslo.
Most Palestinains will reject such a deal as a sell-out. Hamas represents more Palestinians than the toothless, corrupt PLO, which cannot control the militants. Arab extremists will undermine any accord with more suicide bombings. The 1.5 million Palestinian refugees will clamor for return. A lopsided deal that is only good for one side is a deal doomed to distress or failure. Both sides want peace, but neither wants to pay the high price.
Maybe I'm too pessimistic. Maybe the tough, brilliant Sharon will become an Israeli DeGaulle, ending the bloody West Bank/Gaza colonial war and creating a viable Palestinian state. My instincts tell me otherwise.