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Why Israel Labor's Leasing Proposal Falls Short


It has long been part of the Israeli consensus that the three thickly populated settlement blocs close to the old Green Line boundaries of pre-1967 would eventually be annexed. The concept of the settlement blocs first arose from the demographic research of Yossi Alpher during the mid-1990s, in which he found that approximately 80 percent of West Bank settlers were congregated within a few miles of the Green Line -- defacto suburbs of nearby Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Yossi Beilin seized upon this fact in his 1995 negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas -- the latter was then Arafat's chief deputy -- securing an informal framework agreement that raised the possibility of an exchange of territories between Israel and the emerging Palestinian state. This would have allowed Israel to retain these heavily populated communities while removing far-flung settlements outside these blocs and compensating the new Palestine with a comparable amount of Israeli territory. Yitzhak Rabin, alas, was murdered five days after these discussions were successfully concluded, and the prospect of speedy progress toward a final peace was quickly superseded by new political realities.

But the concept of the settlement blocs has continually reemerged, along with the possibility of a territorial swap. First, this principle was a factor in the Camp David negotiations of 2000. And it was more definitively discussed at Taba in January 2001, a last-ditch effort at peace that most observers agree made significant progress but was doomed by the rapidly impending elections of February 2001, in which Ariel Sharon would win an overwhelming victory as the anti-negotiations candidate.

The settlement blocs and territorial exchange again shaped the informal negotiations which resulted in the unofficial peace agreement known as the Geneva Initiative or Geneva Accord, concluded in December 2003. Again, Yossi Beilin -- out of government at this point, but soon to be elected as leader of the Meretz-Yahad Social Democratic Israel Party -- led a high profile effort to arrive at a detailed model for peace, involving many prominent Israeli political leaders, writers and intellectuals and a similar collection of prominent Palestinians spearheaded by Yasir Abed Rabbo. This was meant as "an exercise" to prove that if the Taba negotiations had been allowed to run their course, a peaceful two-state solution would have been finalized.

The territorial dimension of the Geneva agreement was not hugely different from Camp David, but allowed for a one-to-one trade of territories between Israel and the Palestinians to compensate the latter for the incorporation into Israel of most of the three large settlement blocs. With this transfer of land, Geneva would have left the equivalent of 100 percent of the West Bank in Palestinian hands, as opposed to the 90 to 97 percent variously attributed to Camp David and Taba, but with the overwhelming majority of Israel's West Bank settlement population remaining within Israel.

It is now widely believed that Prime Minister Sharon -- in his new persona as a centrist and quasi-dove -- is moving first to enclose the three settlement blocs behind the West Bank security barrier/fence/wall and then to annex them while proceeding to further disengage unilaterally from the Palestinians by abandoning the settlements beyond these three areas defined by Ariel, Gush Etzion and Ma'aleh Adumim. In the meantime, Labor's Amir Peretz, his main opponent, is maneuvering to the political center by rhetorically distancing himself from Geneva - an effort he supported, though he was not a signatory.

The latest news on this front is that the Labor Party also considers the settlement blocs a key component in designing a peace plan. Labor has suddenly floated the idea of keeping the three settlement blocs under the terms of a long-term lease agreement with the Palestinians, similar to the former status of Hong Kong, held by the British under a 99-year lease with China until that expired. This is an innovative plan but obviously subject to Palestinian consent; this nod to bilateralism is an improvement over the ongoing unilateralist propensities of Prime Minister Sharon, but only slightly.

I've long imagined leasing as an appropriate option for the Golan Heights. If the Golan Heights were acknowledged as sovereign Syrian territory, but Israeli communities and businesses remained intact under a 99- or 50-year lease -- and even opened up to the economic participation of Syrian business people and employees -- this would mark a far more humane, secure and mutually advantageous peace with Syria than a Gaza-style evacuation. And the much smaller population on the Golan Heights would also make this experimental and temporary solution more tolerable politically than such an arrangement for about 200,000 Israelis to remain in the West Bank, not counting tens of thousands of Palestinians who might also be affected. But this proposal for the West Bank says nothing regarding the over 200,000 Arabs of East Jerusalem and the much larger number of Palestinians with official status as refugees- both issues dealt with admirably by Geneva, directing almost all toward the new Palestinian state rather than Israel.

In moving away from the potential progress that the Geneva framework represents, Labor -- even under its new more progressive leader -- reinforces the unrealistic attitude among too many Israelis that peace is more about negotiating among contending Israeli factions than with the Palestinians.

Ralph Seliger

Ralph Seliger is a vice president of Meretz USA and editor of its magazine, Israel Horizons.

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Replies: 5 comments

This site has alot of good history and updated stuff. LHS is cool!

Posted by Candace @ 12/31/2005 08:40 PM CST

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Posted by Candace @ 12/31/2005 08:41 PM CST

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Posted by Candace @ 12/31/2005 08:43 PM CST

The allusions to the Hong Kong Lease between 1898 and 1997 of the New Territories may be profoundly misplaced if the author does not understand the complexities of the relationship between Britain, China and Hong Kong. Britian obtained Hong Kong Island in 1841, then obtained the Kowloon Peninsula south of Boundary Street, as sovereign territory and only secured the New Territories at the end of the 19th C. China constantly disputed the legitimacy of the treaties and lease, and asserted they were inherently illegal as they were "unequal" insofar as China was significantly weaker than Britain. These also remained a rallying point for Chinese nationalists until the very end.
On the positive side Hong Kong existed as a key trading point for China and a safety-valve. Particularly in the immediate post-WW2 period China was able to use Hong Kong as a means to break US sanctions on trade with China. China also used Hong Kong to gain knowldege and experience.
Nevertheless the successive Hong Kong governments failed to invest effectively in Hong Kong's social infrastructure and it's colonial leaderships priority always remained that of UK's interests at the expense of the local communities. As can be seen very clearly during the mid-1980's "Taxi Driver's Strike", the colonial administration was perpetually fearful that China would either seek to cause social unrest or invade.
In the run up to the hand-over in 1997 it became clear that the status quo qould not continue under Chinese rule, and that people who had lived in Hong Kong for generations or had recently made it their home could be stripped of citizenship and their rights if they were not ethnic Chinese. Also it was made very clear that the Chinese would not tolerate the continued existance of Kuo Min Tang enclaves in the New Territories. It was under this latter situation that the entire community of Rennie's Mill was razed to the ground.
I suggest that even if the various governments were willing to lease land to Israel that it would soon prove to be a poisoned chalice. The settler issue could have been easily resolved had the Palestinians been willing to allow the settlers to remain with the option of being either foreign residents or obtaining Palestinian citizenship, and contributing to the creation of a multi-ethnic / faith society. However the Palestinian leadership have resolutely sought to obtain the situation of 1949 where no Jews live in either the West Bank or Gaza, and this is indicative of no fundamental change in their 1947 war aims. Leasing land can therefore be simply another point of confrontation and even if the Palestinians / Syrians to agree to it, they would claim that the agreements were made under duress.

Posted by Rod Davies @ 01/03/2006 10:51 AM CST

"... the Geneva agreement (...) the incorporation into Israel of most of the three large settlement blocs."

That is the crucial point! The Geneva Accord does NOT include the incorporation of the Ariel Block, And this, quite rightly so, in MY opinion.
Because annexing the Ariel block, would almost mean to cut Samaria in two.

I think greater prominence should be given to the possibility that Ariel might remain a Jewish town, but under clearly Palestinian sovereignty. You may recall that this was suggested a few years by Yoram Sade, in a widely publicised campaign. Not many Israelis would opt to remain under Palestinian sovereignty. But the option would remove the sting of "transfer of Jews" etc. Everybody would be free to remain... I think it is not unlikely that the Palestinians might agree to this...

Posted by Zeev Raphael @ 01/03/2006 04:11 PM CST

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