May/June 2000

Unreciprocated Generosity

(May 16, 2000) - Three events were juxtaposed one atop the other yesterday, like a layer cake: cabinet and Knesset votes on Abu Dis, live-fire battles between Palestinian and Israeli forces, and the news of the capture by the Palestinian Authority of top terrorist bomber Mohammed Deif. This constellation of events may illustrate both the dangers and logic behind the Barak government's approach as the era of historic decisions begins in earnest.

Not long ago, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak both expressed their exasperation with Prime Minister Ehud Barak, claiming he was worse than his predecessor, Binyamin Netanyahu. Until now, indeed, the differences between Barak and Netanyahu seemed more in the realm of style than substance. Both leaders worked hard to mitigate what, in their eyes, was Oslo's terrible flaw: putting the (territorial) cart before the (peace) horse.

Netanyahu tried to make the best of Oslo by reducing the territorial down payments to a bare minimum, and making it clear to the public that he had fought for every inch. In doing so, Netanyahu used the concept of reciprocity as a cudgel, insisting that Israel would not unilaterally observe the territorial side of Oslo while the Palestinians had not sufficiently fulfilled their security side of the bargain.

Barak stopped talking about reciprocity and toned down the public debate, both internally and opposite the Palestinians. Judging from the success to date in combating terrorism, Barak has not been less insistent regarding Palestinian security cooperation. Domestically, the changed tone has allowed Meretz and the NRP to sit in the same government, until the NRP's departure over the Abu Dis vote yesterday.

When the Palestinians say that Barak is worse than Netanyahu, what they mean is that Barak has succeeded in increasing Israel's support abroad, without changing Israel's underlying negotiating tactics or fundamental positions that much - until now. The significance of Barak's Abu Dis move is that it is the most substantive departure from the Netanyahu mold to date.

Netanyahu would not have touched Abu Dis, Eizariya, and Suwahra, all of which abut Jerusalem's eastern municipal boundary, with a 10-foot pole before reaching a final-status agreement. All three villages are already designated Area B, and therefore under Palestinian civilian authority. Barak, however, pushed through yesterday's 15-6 cabinet vote transforming the villages into Area A, under full Palestinian control.

Between the catcalls that interrupted his Knesset speech, Barak presented three tradeoffs that explain his seemingly gratuitous concession. First, the Abu Dis handover will shift the Palestinian focus from a battle over Oslo's remaining third redeployment to a serious effort to complete a framework agreement. The framework agreement is a major Israeli objective, because it finally breaks the cycle of endless down payments without knowing what Israel will receive in return, and whether the gaps between the sides are bridgeable.

Secondly, Barak argued that there are two Palestinian camps among those that do not reject the peace process entirely (such as Hamas): those that believe "a nation is born in blood," and those that count the years of the intifada as Palestine's bloody birthpangs. Finally, Barak suggested that Israel's Abu Dis concession was only over 0.25 percent of the West Bank, compared to the 4 or 5 percent of territory that Israel would have had to transfer in a pre-framework agreement redeployment.

All of these arguments can be summed up in one: It is better for Israel to be generous now than to pay more later. Despite efforts by Barak and others to minimize the significance of Israel's concession ("the Jewish people never prayed to return to Abu Dis"), there is reason why this small amount of territory bordering Jerusalem is worth as much to the Palestinians as a much larger territory elsewhere. The reason is that Israel's concession moves the goal posts regarding Jerusalem.

Israel could have insisted that the Abu Dis area become "permanent B," a category that is sometimes discussed regarding parts of the Jordan Valley.

Even if in the end the area was to come under full Palestinian sovereignty, Israel could have traded that concession for Palestinian recognition of Israeli sovereignty, at least in western Jerusalem. With Israel having given up both these options, Palestinian sights can now be focused on wresting Israeli concessions within Jerusalem itself.

Barak, then, has gambled with Israel's negotiating assets. The fact that he did so just a day after the announcement that the PA had captured Deif does not lessen the risk the government is taking, as evidenced by yesterday's images of Palestinian security forces opening fire on Israeli soldiers. The IDF, reportedly, accuses Arafat of approving widespread riots on the 52nd anniversary of Israel's founding, but believes that Arafat was surprised by the deterioration into a shooting battle with Israeli forces.

Regardless of whether the Palestinian forces' gunfire at Israeli soldiers was authorized, responsibility for it, and for the deaths of Palestinian police and civilians, lies with the Palestinian leadership. The only way to prevent such tragedies is not to initiate violent riots in the first place. For the Barak government, the violence should be a reminder that diplomatic generosity not only may not be reciprocated, but may lead to increasing radicalization.

Barak has wisely heeded a request from Shas to suspend implementation of the Abu Dis handover until yesterday's violence is fully investigated. The implication, however, that the Abu Dis concession is being made to prevent an all-out war, or as a reward for restoring calm, is a dangerous one. In the case of Syria, Barak learned that being generous and going the last mile had no moderating effect on the other side. Barring an unanticipated dramatic display of moderation on the Palestinian track, the Abu Dis decision should be Israel's last experiment in unreciprocated generosity.

© Jerusalem Post

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