January 26, 2011
The Al Jazeera document dump and you
Map making seems to be an increasingly popular pastime in the Middle East these days.
The Palestinians claim they prepared their mapped vision of the two-state solution but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to look at it. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is reportedly preparing maps that will give Palestinians an interim state on land they already control but no more. Now a leading Washington think tank has unveiled a series of maps detailing proposals for drawing Israeli-Palestinian borders.
The central question in all this cartography is what to do about nearly 300,000 Israelis living in some 120 West Bank settlements.
Documents released Jan. 23 by Al Jazeera show Israelis and Palestinians may have made more progress toward an agreement — at least with the prior Israeli government — than previously known, but the reality is the peace process is comatose, and each side is conditioning resumption of talks on terms it knows are unacceptable to the other.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas refuses to meet with Netanyahu until Israel freezes all settlement construction, which the prime minister has rejected by sanctioning a new building spree.
The Al Jazeera documents revealed Abbas appears much more flexible on that issue in private than in public, and that may land him in big trouble with the Palestinian public to which he has made unrealistically maximalist promises not only on settlements but also on refugees, borders, Jerusalem and security.
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) has published a report (see it at jewishjournal.com) by senior fellow David Makovsky detailing three scenarios for redrawing borders to allow Israel to retain the maximum number of settlers in a minimum number of settlements along with 1:1 land swaps that would give Palestinians the equivalent of 100 percent of the West Bank.
“Territory is not the only issue on the peace agenda,” said Makovsky, “but a breakthrough on this issue may open the door to progress on the others.”
He estimated it could cost nearly $1 million per family to relocate settlers to inside Israel’s new borders based on the 2005 Gaza withdrawal and on a family size of 5.3 (more for smaller families).
Any West Bank withdrawal will be more complex and more traumatic than the one in Gaza that saw radical rabbis ordering their followers to resist and IDF soldiers to disobey the orders of their commanders.
In September 2005, Israel evacuated 8,500 settlers from Gaza, plus another 500 from the northern West Bank, at a cost of $2 billion. Five and a half years later, an estimated 70 percent still do not have permanent housing.
West Bank evacuation for civilians will cost between $11 billion and $24 billion, depending on the extent of the land swap and the number of people affected. The cost of the army and the overall redeployment will be billions more.
Guess who’s expected to foot the bill. You. The American taxpayer. That could create a problem. Current U.S. law prohibits spending American aid beyond the 1967 border; it was written specifically to prevent using foreign aid for settlements.
Netanyahu recently forced the United States to withdraw an offer of $3.5 billion in advanced stealth planes and other equipment in return for a 90-day settlement freeze when he insisted on deal-killing conditions. Meanwhile, senior U.S. diplomats are in Israel discussing security needs in the event of a peace agreement.
Makovsky briefed top Israeli, Palestinian and American officials on the report but declined to characterize their responses.
The WINEP scenarios envision removing most West Bank settlements (77 to 88 out of 120) but only a minority of settlers (60,000 to 94,000 out of 300,000). That’s because most settlers live in the major settlement blocs near the 1967 border, which are expected to be annexed to Israel in a peace agreement.
In a land-for-land deal, each side gets something tangible, Makovsky said. It is “not realistic” for Palestinians to demand all settlers be removed.
The Washington Institute report does not deal with the nearly 200,000 Jews who live in East Jerusalem.
Some in Congress may question why Americans taxpayers should help foot the bill to remove settlements every president has said never should have been built in the first place.
On top of that, American taxpayers will be expected to increase the hundreds of millions already going to help the Palestinian build their state. Arab leaders will be expected to chip in, but so far they’ve been more generous with pledges than checks.
I’m not arguing against withdrawal. To the contrary, I think it is long overdue and in the vital interest of Israel’s survival as a Jewish, democratic state.
But it may not be realistic to think Congress and the administration, facing unprecedented budget shortfalls and intense pressure to curb spending, will serve as the new ATM for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
The longer both the Palestinians and Israelis delay, the higher the price tag of peace.
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a nationally syndicated columnist.