Many dismiss Mideast leaders' radical plans as empty threats

Sharon, Qureia face off with proposals for unified state, Palestinian nation

January 10, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Israelis, Palestinians and the United States have long assumed that the key to lasting peace in the Middle East was the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. But Israeli and Palestinian leaders are now challenging each other with radically different proposals.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is offering the Palestinians a state but on the condition that Israel alone decide its borders rather than determine them through negotiations. Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia is proposing instead of two states for two peoples, one state for two peoples, in which Palestinians would outnumber Israelis.

Here is Sharon willing to hand the Palestinians their long-sought state, albeit only on his terms. And here is the Palestinian leadership, saying Palestinians would rather be integrated into Israel than have their rights dictated to them.

Many dismiss Sharon's disengagement plan and Qureia's idea of a single state as empty threats made in a region where few people do what they say. Neither Sharon nor Queria would satisfy his own public with the proposals.

Sharon would have to dismantle Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza and evacuate tens of thousands of settlers. Qureia would have to surrender the chance for Palestinians to govern themselves in an independent state - the goal of years of fighting that has claimed thousands of lives.

"Everybody knows that Israel will reject totally the proposal of a binational state," said Danny Rubinstein, an Israeli who has long written about Palestinian politics. "It is an ultimatum by the Palestinian Authority to Israel: If you destroy the possibility of the establishment of two states, this is the only option we have left."

Rubinstein said that he doesn't believe Sharon is serious either. "It is part of the vicious cycle," he said. "The Palestinians want their own state, and Sharon doesn't want to give away territory or dismantle settlements."

Qureia said this week that if Sharon took unilateral actions, the idea of a Palestinian state would become a "meaningless slogan" because it would be on far less land than the Palestinians envision, and they would not have any say in the shape of their territory.

Some Palestinian officials have talked of dismantling the Palestinian Authority, which rules over six West Bank cities and the Gaza Strip, and returning to formal Israeli military rule.

That would force cash-strapped Israel to act as a formal occupying power and accept legal and moral responsibility for 4.7 million Palestinians.

Sharon said recently that Israel has no interest in running the day-to-day lives of the Palestinians. Under his disengagement plan, Israel would take the West Bank land it chooses, leaving whatever is left to the Palestinians.

The Palestinian Authority, run by Yasser Arafat, has been virtually incapacitated since April 2001 when the Israeli army, responding to a series of suicide bombings, swept through the West Bank and reoccupied every Palestinian city.

"The Palestinian government is too weak to meet any of the expectations or daily needs of society," said Mahdi Abdul Hadi, director of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs in Jerusalem. "[Qureia] has nothing in his hands for the suffering of his people. Palestinian society is saying, `If you cannot deliver, why are you staying? Put all the responsibility on the Israeli side.'"

Israeli leaders are trying to avoid having to retake control of the Palestinian population, either under military rule or as part of a shared state.

About 4.7 million Palestinians and Israeli Arabs live in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel, alongside about 5.5 million Jews. Given current fertility rates, Palestinians would become the majority by 2020.

"We are approaching a point where more and more Palestinians will say, `There is no place for two states. All we want is the right to vote,'" Israeli Cabinet minister Ehud Olmert recently cautioned.

"The day they get it, we will lose everything."

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