The best peace you'll get

The Palestinians may sign up to the Israeli prime minister's peace proposals - but they won't accept them, writes Uri Avnery

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Ehud Barak has a very clear idea about how to make peace. The Israeli Prime Minister will order the Palestinian leadership to the parade ground, where they will stand to attention while he reads out to them the terms of the "final settlement", rather like a police officer reading out the riot act. They will answer with an Arabic version of hip-hip-hurray, and everybody will go home and live happily ever after.

This is supposed to happen in January or February 2000 and will be called a Declaration of Framework, or words to that effect. Afterwards the details will be filled in, using the same method, so that by September 2000 the whole thing will be wrapped up and presented to a grateful President Clinton as a parting gift by Barak, to be rewarded by a token few billion dollars for Israel.

This may not look like an ideal way of making peace, nor as a very realistic method of doing business in the Middle East, but to Barak, the erstwhile commando, director of military intelligence and chief-of-staff, this is as it should be. He is quite certain that he knows what is good for the Palestinians, much better than Arafat does. It's not that he despises Arafat more than others - it's rather that he has a general contempt for people around him, especially his ministers, considering that everybody else's intelligence is vastly inferior to his own.

He does not really need five months to work out the framework for the settlement, because he already knows exactly what it must look like. These are the ingredients:

There will be a state of Palestine in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, demilitarised and with strong Israeli security controls.

A 30-mile-long bridge will be suspended above Israeli territory between Gaza and the West Bank, giving the Palestinians freedom of movement between the two parts of their state, without touching Israel.

Isolated Israeli settlements will be abandoned, but the main settlements, with about 80 per cent of the settler population, will be banded together in several "settlement blocs" and annexed to Israel. The blocs may amount to anything between 15 and 30 per cent of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (which altogether amount to 22 per cent of the territory of the former British Mandate of Palestine).

Contrary to the official mantra, there will be some compromise on Jerusalem: a Palestinian flag over the holy mosques, and a corridor between them and the Arab suburbs beyond the borders of the annexed city.

Israel will exercise some form of military control over the Jordan valley, but sovereignty will be transferred to the Palestinian state.

There will be no compromise at all about the refugees. Let them stay where they are.

The Palestinians have to declare that the implementation of this agreement constitutes the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Looking at these terms, two basic facts are obvious: This is not Peace, with a capital P, but it is a great step forward for the Palestinian people.

Indeed, Barak does not use the word peace when referring to the Palestinians (in contradistinction to his constant insistence on this word when referring to the Syrians). The preferred term is "permanent settlement". Barak believes that he can rally the great majority of the Israeli public around such a solution, with the settlers and their supporters accepting the dismantling of some small settlements in order to save the big ones. As for the Palestinians, Barak believes that they will have no choice. As a man of force, he is keenly aware of the imbalance of power between the two sides and he is determined to use it to the hilt. He is telling the Palestinians: "This is the best deal you can get; accept it or...."

This explains what is happening now. Barak has no patience with the Wye Plantation agreement, which was made only because Benjamin Netanyahu, for whom Barak has even more contempt than for most, was unwilling to move towards a general settlement. Barak wants to get it out of the way. He has proposed to the Palestinians a way of putting an end to Wye, as an offer they can't refuse.

This novel method, which might be called "peace by ultimatum", suits his character. He is quite insensitive to the feelings of others, and also quite ignorant of the psychological realities on the Palestinian side, beyond the analysis provided by army intelligence. The idea that one has to create a climate for peace, indeed, that the way one goes about making peace is no less important than the settlement itself, is quite alien to him. Anyhow, his ideal is not partnership between the two peoples but "separation", a slogan much used by him during the election campaign. (It has been mentioned that separation is, in Dutch, "apartheid".)

The drawbacks of the Barak approach have become evident in the crisis about the release of prisoners. At Wye it was agreed that 750 prisoners were to be released, but the Israeli negotiators refused to spell out who, claiming that this subject is too sensitive. The next morning they offered to release mostly junkies and car thieves, and only a few of the Palestinian fighters, who are called in Israel "murderers with blood on their hands" (inducing some of us to organise a demonstration in Tel Aviv with the slogan "We Too Have Blood On Our Hands".)

For the Palestinians, no other subject invokes such deep emotions. For them, their sons in prison - some already for 20 years and more - are patriots, prisoners-of-war, who should have been released once the peace process started. It seems incredible to them that Israel is ready to shake hands with their leaders, who have sent these fighters on their missions, while continuing to treat the simple fighters as criminals.

Barak, like Rabin before him, uses the prisoners as chips in his game, selling them piecemeal for Palestinian concessions. His military mind does not allow him to make a big gesture and release all the prisoners at once, which would immensely strengthen the position of Arafat among his people. Yet he knows that as a leader able to guide his people towards peace, there is absolutely no substitute for Arafat,

In Arafat, Barak has found an adversary for whom he is not prepared. The Palestinian leader is consistently underrated in Israel, and indeed throughout the world, but successive Israeli leaders have learned that that is a grave mistake. Barak has yet to absorb this lesson.

By incredible patience and subtlety, and against incredible odds, Arafat has led his people during 40 long years in the desert, from national near-oblivion to the threshold of the promised land of independence. He has learned from the Zionists that it does not pay to play a game of all- or-nothing, as all his Palestinian predecessors did, but rather to take what is possible and continue to work for more.

Arafat might accept, after long and arduous negotiations, a deal that would allow the Palestinians to set up their state and attain sovereignty over a big chunk of their homeland. But it would be an illusion to believe that the Barak plan would really mean final peace. With the refugee problem unsolved, East Jerusalem in exclusively Israeli hands, most Israeli settlements in place on Palestinian land and water, such a settlement can only be a temporary affair. A Palestinian hand may sign, but the Palestinian heart will not accept.

However, in order to understand this, Barak would have to get rid of the military turn of mind, which believes that one can make lightning peace - as one makes lightning war - by bringing overwhelming force to bear.

Barak, by the way, means "lightning" in Hebrew.

Uri Avnery, political commentator and peace activist, is a former member of the Knesset.

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