The unilateral separation solution

May 07, 2002|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - If you have a pair of twins conjoined at the hip who are always fighting, you could let them fight in the hope that one twin will eventually subdue the other.

Or you could try to mediate their differences and encourage them to seek common interests.

But eventually, you'd come to the obvious conclusion that surgery could be a big help.

A similar realization has come over Israelis.

They couldn't reach an acceptable peace deal with the Palestinians. They haven't been able to stamp out the Palestinian resistance.

The Oslo peace process turned out to be a prelude to the worst wave of terrorism in Israel's history - to which the latest military campaign offers no more than a temporary solution. So those sponsoring a rally in Jerusalem in February offered a third way: "Separate from terror."

Unilateral separation is suddenly popular across the political spectrum. The idea is for Israel to abandon some West Bank settlements, pull back to defensible lines, build a security wall and then bid farewell to the Palestinians. "Support for such a plan hasn't dipped below 65 percent since we started asking the question in 1996," a poll director recently told The Jerusalem Post. That degree of consensus is unusual in a country whose parliament includes members from 21 different and famously quarrelsome political parties.

Lately, Israeli leaders have been scrambling to get in front of the parade. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, known as a dove, endorses the idea, and two prominent Labor Party Knesset members have come out with a blueprint for separation.

But another former prime minister known for his ultra-hawkish views, Benjamin Netanyahu, has also called for a newly fortified border. And Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has vowed to create "security separation" between Jews and Arabs, though he scorns talk of dismantling settlements.

Disengagement is about the only way to escape the Catch-22 that now bedevils Israelis and Palestinians. Israel says it can't negotiate with Yasser Arafat because he's a terrorist. Palestinians say they can't negotiate with Ariel Sharon because he's a war criminal. Israel won't come to the table until the Palestinians stop their suicide bombings. Palestinians won't talk until Israel ends its military offensive and its occupation. Neither will take the first step, which means there is no one to take the second.

The Bush administration is trying to restart negotiations via an international effort based on a peace proposal from Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah. The hope is that something like the 1991 Madrid conference will emerge. But it's not easy to make a soufflM-i rise twice. And the Madrid precedent is not so encouraging: It led to the Oslo peace process, which ended in the failure we now see.

Advocates of separation say it's time to quit talking about a solution and simply create one. Analyst Dan Schueftan of the University of Haifa's National Security Studies Center argues that there is little chance Israel can reach a compromise agreement with the Palestinians. So the sensible step, he says, is what sounds like an oxymoron: "unilateral compromise." Give up most of the settlements and territory, which are only a burden, and establish borders that can be closed off.

Critics say this plan has lots of flaws: It would cost a lot of money, it would deprive Israel of control over Palestinian areas and it wouldn't prevent attacks by mortars or rockets.

But the current war of attrition is expensive in lives as well as shekels. Israel has minimal control over areas governed by the Palestinian Authority anyway. And it's easier to stop rocket attacks than suicide bombers who move across an open border. As Mr. Barak notes, "We have a fence around Gaza, and there are basically no suicide attacks from Gaza."

Mr. Arafat has denounced Mr. Sharon's approach, which preserves the existing Israeli presence. But Palestinians might be far more amenable to the Labor Party version, which would abandon most settlements and furnish the basis for a viable Palestinian state.

This wouldn't resolve hard issues like Jerusalem and the rights of refugees, which would be left for later, but it might well take the steam out of the current intifada. Why? Partly because most of the points of friction between the two peoples would be gone. Partly because Palestinians would finally have something valuable - something to lose.

Unilateral separation, true, is inferior to a final settlement that has the unequivocal support and commitment of both parties - which is like saying it's inferior to life in the Garden of Eden. Neither option is available. Peace now would be nice. But Israelis are coming to see the wisdom of a different approach, captured in a new slogan: Separation now. Peace later.

Steve Chapman's syndicated column appears in The Sun Tuesdays.

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