Land lease for peace

July 09, 2000|By James Ron and Alexander Cooley

RUSSIA HAS worked out leasing agreements with some of the former Soviet states that enables it to keep its military assets on their territory. Why couldn't it be possible between Israel and the Palestinians?

The way it would work: Israel would recognize Palestinian sovereignty over all of what were the Israeli-occupied territories in the West Bank and Gaza. Then, Palestine would rent back specific areas to the Israeli military.

This leasing arrangement should be extended to the hard-line Jewish settlements blocking a peace deal. Israel should recognize the settler enclaves as part of a sovereign Palestine. Then, Palestinians can lease those pockets to Israel for a specified period. If Israel pays rent, accepts Palestinian sovereignty and agrees to halt further settlement expansion, a comprehensive deal could be signed.

The subject could be discussed at the President Clinton-mediated Camp David talks beginning Tuesday with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Leasing has a proven track record in unstable regions.

Between 1994 and 1997, Russia drew up leasing agreements with Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Latvia and the Ukraine. The Russians ceded formal control over radar facilities, missile test sites and ports, but leased them back from its former imperial subjects.

Leasing afforded a way out to negotiators on all sides. In Russia, the military was furious over the loss of irreplaceable assets, but politicians in the new post-Soviet states were determined to safeguard their territorial integrity. Leasing gave everyone a way of claiming victory, diffusing potential clashes.

The Ukrainian deal was particularly vital because a conflict over the Sevastopol port and the Black Sea fleet threatened to destabilize the entire region. Sevastopol was a key naval base and a symbol of Russian historical achievement, and the Black Sea fleet was a major military asset. Adding fuel to the fire, the city was populated largely by ethnic Russians.

Throughout the early 1990s, Russian officers, communists and nationalists bitterly protested Ukrainian sovereignty over Sevastopol. Ukrainian politicians refused to back down, however, arguing the city was rightfully theirs. In 1997 a historic accord divided the fleet in two and granted Russia a 20-year, $100 million lease over Sevastapol's port facilities.

The zero-sum nature of modern sovereignty has inspired many of the last century's wars. Nation-states enjoyed a monopoly over chunks of land to the exclusion of all others, and what one state owned, no other could have. This arrangement invariably created winners and angry losers, since many regions were claimed by multiple groups. Mutually beneficial deals were rare.

In a lease, however, sovereignty is shared according to clear, pre-arranged guidelines. One side retains formal ownership, while the other gains limited use-rights for a specified period. Conditions are worked out in detail before signing, including payment and limits to land use. Third-party arbitration can be arranged for future disputes.

A Palestine-Israel lease can break the current negotiating deadlock.

Israel already encompasses 70 percent of historic Palestine, and Palestinian negotiators are rightly unwilling to compromise over the remainder. West Bank settlers dismiss the notion of Palestinian territorial rights, however, regarding the entire region as Jewish patrimony. The Israeli government is weak and fearful of the settlers' lobby.

A 10-year lease in which Israel recognized Palestinian sovereignty over hard-line Jewish settlements, paid substantial rent and ended further construction could do the trick. A decade of peace would change Israel's political orientation, diffusing the Jewish radicals' claims and injecting a dose of moderation. Palestinian territorial integrity would be recognized and secure, allowing Palestine to develop under stable conditions.

Mutually exclusive sovereignty has generated strife ever since it was foisted on the world by Western powers. Leasing, by contrast, is a non-violent form of sharing territory sharing. Let's give it a chance.

James Ron is an assistant professor of sociology, specializing in Middle East and Balkan conflicts. Alexander Cooley is an assistant professor of political science and an expert on post-Soviet politics. Both work for the Johns Hopkins University.

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