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Just when we were about to give them so much

By Gideon Levy, Ha'aretz 06/17/2001

So how did it happen that just when we were about to give the Palestinians so much, the new Intifada broke out? How is it that precisely after they received from Ehud Barak the most far-reaching offer ever made by an Israeli prime minister they turned to violence?

The standard, and mistaken, Israeli answer is that the reason is simple: The Palestinians don't want peace, or they are not ripe for peace. By citing this reply, the Israelis make things easy for themselves and absolve themselves of responsibility for what happened. And the remnants of the left exempt themselves from their commitment. The truth is that Israel bears not a little responsibility for the eruption of the present cycle of violence, no less in fact than that borne by the Palestinians. Israel did indeed make the "most generous offer" to the Palestinians, but it was not enough to achieve a just solution, and what preceded it was too much for the Palestinians too swallow.

Reminder: For the three years of Benjamin Netanyahu's government, Israel evaded implementing the majority of its commitments under the 1993 Declaration of Principles. There was no second redeployment, no release of prisoners as agreed, no "safe passage" route, no Palestinian airport or seaport, while on the other hand there were more and more settlements. The spirit of Oslo ceased and was replaced by an evil spirit of despair and disappointment on the Palestinian side. From their point of view, there seemed to be no true partner for peace.

Netanyahu's successor, in 1999, did not alleviate their situation. Barak took pride in declaring that he did not give the Palestinians even one centimeter of land, not even Abu Dis, adjacent to Jerusalem, which even the Knesset agreed to forgo - a rather strange display of pride for a peacemaker. Indeed, Barak began by embarking on the Syrian track, and only after it proved to be blocked did he swerve onto the other track and seek a permanent agreement with the Palestinians.

An expert in dismantling watches but inept as putting them back together, Barak put forward proposals that most Israelis considered daring, but which could not be acceptable to a Palestinian leader who is going to sign a declaration of the end of the conflict and the end of Palestinian claims. Are we talking about 96 percent of the territory?

Salim Shawamreh, a driver from the village of Anabta, whose house was demolished by Israel three times, probably described the characteristics of the generous Israeli proposal better than any statesman: In jail, too, 96 percent of the territory is in the hands of the prisoners, Shawamreh said of the demolition of his home, and the warders have only 4 percent, but it's there that the fences and the watchtowers are located.

That was what the Israeli proposal resembled in Palestinian eyes - a Palestinian state with tight Israeli control over the gateways: split into small sections by blocs of settlements that would preclude a normal way of life and free movement. And on top of that came the lack of a serious Israeli effort to solve the refugee problem and an unwillingness to recognize Israeli responsibility - albeit not exclusive responsibility - for the refugees' fate.

After the Palestinians agreed to their major historic concession at Oslo - recognition of the fact that most of the territory that was once their country would remain in Israel's hands - one truly generous and unavoidable offer was needed: the return of all the territories occupied since 1967, perhaps in a territorial trade-off. Barak did not make any such offer to the Palestinians. When he came to his senses at Taba, a few days before the elections, it was already too late. Afterward, Barak's foreign minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, related that the sides were very close to an agreement at Taba; and Yossi Beilin reported tremendous progress even on the subject of the refugees' right of return. But it was all far too late.

Not that the Palestinians didn't make mistakes. Their mistakes are too many to bear, beginning with a lack of sensitivity for the issue of personal security in Israel. And not that the Americans didn't make mistakes. Ben-Ami says the president was not authoritative and aggressive enough, particularly toward the Palestinians. At the same time, underlying the negotiations were two basic Israeli approaches, which remained totally unchanged in the 34 years of the occupation: a concept of lordship and inequality with respect to the Palestinians, and the assessment that we are in a zero-sum game, in which every gain made by the Palestinians comes at Israel's expense.

In a comprehensive article, which will soon be published in the United States, Dr. Ron Pundak, one of the architects of the Oslo process, also reaches the conclusion that the major obstacles, even if not all of them, that blocked an agreement derived from Israeli policy. His article seeks to refute the thesis that the Oslo process collapsed and failed; and at the same time it refutes the new position taken by the Israeli left, namely that the right wing is correct in its conclusion that Israel has no partner for peace. Pundak finds that there is a Palestinian partner and that it is important to say so precisely now, and that Israel only needs to be aware of the limits of the Palestinians' maneuverability.

At the time Barak made his take-it-or-leave-it offer, the occupation continued as usual. The closure went on, land was expropriated, prisoners - heroes in the eyes of their people - remained incarcerated in Israeli jail cells, settlements were expanded. During the 18 months of the Barak government, the number of settlers increased by 12 percent. Barak also shied away, as from fire, from any unnecessary contact with Yasser Arafat - yet another bizarre decision, which weakened the Palestinian leader. The Palestinians' economic situation deteriorated, their humiliation was intensified. This entire course of events could only end in disaster, as it did.

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