Road To ‘Convergence’
Began With Rabin
By Jonathan Cook
12 May, 2006
his coalition partners on board, Israel’s prime minister Ehud
Olmert is plotting his next move: a partial withdrawal from the West
Bank over the next few years which he and his government will declare
as the end of the occupation and therefore also any legitimate grounds
for Palestinian grievance.
From hereon in, Israel will
portray itself as the benevolent provider of a Palestinian state --
on whatever is left after most of Israel’s West Bank colonies
have been saved and the Palestinian land on which they stand annexed
to Israel. If the Palestinians reject this deal -- an offer, we will
doubtless be told, every bit as “generous” as the last one
-- then, according to the new government’s guidelines, they will
be shunned by Israel and presumably also by the international community.
Even given the normal wretched
standards of Israeli double-dealing in the “peace process”,
this is a bleak moment to be a Palestinian politician.
plan, his version of disengagement for the West Bank (except this time
only about 15 per cent of the territory’s 420,000 settlers will
be withdrawn) has salved the West’s conscience just as surely
as did his predecessor Sharon’s pullout from Gaza last year. The
neighsayers will be dismissed, as they were then, as bad-sports, anti-Semites
or apologists for terror.
Olmert is not new to this
game. In fact, there is every indication that he played a formative
role in helping Sharon transform himself from “the Bulldozer”
into “the Unilateral Peacemaker”.
In November 2003 Olmert,
Sharon’s deputy, all but announced the coming Gaza Disengagement
Plan before it had earnt the official name. A few weeks before Sharon
revealed that he would be pulling out of Gaza, Olmert outlined to Israel’s
Ha’aretz newspaper the most serious issue facing Israel. It was,
he said, the problem of how, when the Palestinians were on the eve of
becoming a majority in the region, to prevent them from
launching a struggle similar to the one against apartheid waged by black
Olmert’s concern was
that, if the Palestinian majority renounced violence and began to fight
for one-man-one-vote, Israel would be faced by “a much cleaner
struggle, a much more popular struggle -- and ultimately a much more
powerful one”. Palestinian peaceful resistance, therefore, had
to be pre-empted by Israel.
The logic of Olmert’s
solution, as he explained it then, sounds very much like the reasoning
behind disengagement and now convergence: “[The] formula for the
parameters of a unilateral solution are: To maximise the number of Jews;
to minimise the number of Palestinians.” Or, as he put last week,
“division of the land, with the goal of ensuring a Jewish majority,
But though Olmert has claimed
convergence as his own, its provenance in the Israeli mainstream dates
back more than a decade. Far from being a response to Palestinian terror
during this intifada, as government officials used to maintain, many
in the Israeli military and political establishment have been pushing
for “unilateral separation” -- a withdrawal, partial or
otherwise, from the occupied territories made concrete and irreversible
the building of a barrier -- since the early 1990s.
The apostles of separation,
however, failed to get their way until now because of two obstacles:
the cherished, but conflicting, dreams of the Labor and Likud parties,
both of which preferred to postpone, possibly indefinitely, the endgame
of the conflict implicit in a separation imposed by Israel.
In signing up to Oslo, Yitzhak
Rabin and his Labor party believed they could achieve effective separation
by other means, through the manufactured consent of the Palestinians.
Rabin hoped to subcontract Israel’s security to the Palestinian
leadership in the shape of the largely dependent regime of the Palestinian
Authority, under Yasser Arafat.
Palestinians resisting the
occupation would be cowed by their own security forces, doing Israel’s
bidding, while Israel continued plundering resources -- land and water
-- in the West Bank and Gaza and established a network of industrial
parks in which Israeli employers could exploit the captive Palestinian
labour force too.
Sharon, Binyamin Netanyahu
and the Likud party, on the other hand, refused throughout the 1990s
to countenance a separation that would foil their ambitions of annexing
all of the occupied territories and creating Greater Israel. Sharon
notoriously told his settler followers to “go grab the hilltops”
in 1998 in an attempt to thwart the small territorial gains being made
by the Palestinians under the Oslo agreements.
In the tradition of Vladimir
Jabotinsky, the Likud rejected Labor’s
optimistic view that the Palestinians could be made willing accomplices
to their dispossession. In this view, because they would always struggle
for their freedom, the Palestinians had to be ruthlessly subjugated
or expelled. Which of these two courses to follow has been the paralyzing
dilemma faced by Likud ever since.
So for a decade, separation
was mostly forced on to the backburner.
But not entirely. Rabin,
it seems, was fully aware that the Oslo scam might not work quite as
Israel planned. In that case, to avert the threat of the apartheid comparison,
Rabin believed he would need to fall back on a wall to enforce a separation
between the land’s Jewish and Palestinian inhabitants.
He made this clear to Dennis
Ross, Clinton’s Middle East envoy during the Oslo period. Ross
admitted as much in 2004 when he told Thomas Friedman of the New York
Times that shortly before Rabin’s murder in 1995 the Israeli prime
minister began contemplating building a wall as a way to contain the
demographic threat posed by Israel’s continuing occupation of
the West Bank and Gaza.
“[Rabin] said, ‘We’re
going to have to partition -- there’s going to have to be a partition
here, because we won’t be Jewish and democratic if we don’t
have a partition.’ Now, his preference was to negotiate the partition
peacefully to produce two states. But if that didn’t work he wanted,
as you put it, a separation fence or barrier to create what would be
two states, or at least to preserve Israel as a state.”
In truth, Rabin was more
persuaded of the need for a wall than Ross cares to remember. At a time
when the ink on the Oslo agreements had barely dried, Rabin was entrusting
the wall project to a committee headed by his public security minister,
Though the scheme was dropped
by his two successors, Shimon Peres and Binyamin Netanyahu, it came
of age again with Ehud Barak, a long-time Oslo sceptic, who entered
office advocating unilateral separation. In May 2000 he put his ideas
into practice by unilaterally withdrawing troops from Israel’s
“security zone” in south Lebanon.
And two months later, a fortnight
before departing for talks at Camp David, he articulated his vision
of separation from the Palestinians: “Israel will insist upon
a physical separation between itself and the independent
Palestinian entity to be formed as a result of the settlement. I am
convinced that a separation of this sort is necessary for both sides.”
In fact, Barak had been secretly
devising a plan to “separate physically” from the Palestinians
for some time. Uzi Dayan, the army’s chief of staff at the time,
says he persuaded Barak of the need for unilateral disengagement “as
a safety net to Camp David”.
Ephraim Sneh, Barak’s
deputy defence minister confirms Dayan’s account, saying he was
asked to prepare the plans for separation in case Camp David failed.
“I drew the map. I can speak about it authoritatively. The plan
means the de facto annexation of 30 per cent of the West Bank, half
in the Jordan Valley, which you have to keep if there is no agreement,
and half in the settlement blocs.”
Shlomo Ben Ami, Barak’s
foreign minister, was given a sneak preview of the map: “[Barak]
was proud of the fact that his map would leave Israel with about a third
of the territory [the West Bank] … Ehud was convinced that the
map was extremely logical. He had a kind of patronizing, wishful-thinking,
naive approach, telling me enthusiastically, ‘Look, this is a
state; to all intents and purposes it looks like a state’.”
It seems that Barak hoped
to get the Palestinians to agree to the terms of this map or else impose
it by force. But, following the collapse of the Camp David talks, Barak
never got the chance to begin building his wall. Within a few months
he would be ousted from office, and Ariel Sharon would be installed
as the new prime minister.
In keeping with his Greater
Israel ambitions, Sharon was initially
sceptical about both separation and erecting a wall. When he approved
the barrier’s first stages near Jenin in summer 2002, it was under
pressure from the Labor party, which was shoring up the legitimacy of
the national unity government as his military armour rampaged through
the occupied territories.
Many senior Labor figures
had been converted to the idea of a wall by Barak, who relentlessly
promoted unilateral separation while out of office. In one typical commentary
in June 2002, some 18 months before Sharon’s own proposals for
disengagement were revealed, Barak wrote: “The disengagement would
be implemented gradually over several years. The fence should include
the seven big settlement blocs that spread over 12 or 13 per cent of
the area and contain 80 per cent of the settlers. Israel will also need
a security zone along the Jordan River and some early warning sites,
which combined will cover another 12 per cent, adding up to 25 per cent
of the West Bank.”
And what about East Jerusalem,
where Israel is trying to wrestle control from the Palestinians? “In
Jerusalem, there would have to be two physical fences, “ Barak
advised. “The first would delineate the political boundary and
be placed around the Greater City, including the settlement blocs adjacent
to Jerusalem. The second would be a security-dictated barrier, with
controlled gates and passes, to separate most of the Palestinian neighborhoods
from the Jewish neighborhoods and the Holy Basin, including the Old
In other words, Barak’s
public vision of disengagement four years ago is almost identical to
Olmert’s apparently freshly minted convergence plan for the West
Sharon, was not an instant convert to the benefits of Barak’s
ideas of separation. Though he needed to keep the Labor party sweet,
progress on the early sections of the wall was painfully slow. Uzi Dayan,
the general behind Barak’s separation plans, complained that Sharon
and his defence minister, Shaul Mofaz, were trying to sabotage the wall.
They were “not working on the fence,” he said. “They
are trying not to do it.”
All that changed at some
point in early 2003, when Sharon began talking about Palestinian statehood
for the first time. By May 2003, he was telling a stunned Likud party
meeting: “The idea that it is possible to continue keeping 3.5
million Palestinians under occupation – yes, it is occupation,
you might not like the word, but what is happening is occupation –
is bad for Israel, and bad for the Palestinians, and bad for the Israeli
economy. Controlling 3.5 million Palestinians cannot go on forever.”
The reason for Sharon’s
change of heart related mainly to a belated realisation on his part
that the demographic threats facing Israel could no longer be denied.
Israel ruling over a majority of Palestinians would inevitably provoke
the apartheid comparison and spell the end of the Jewish state’s
Also, Sharon had been backed
into an uncomfortable corner by the Road Map, a US peace initiative
unveiled in late 2002 that, unusually, required major concessions from
Israel as well as the Palestinians, promised a Palestinian state at
its outcome and was to be overseen by the Europeans, Russians and the
United Nations as well as the Americans.
A year later Olmert would
be flying his trial balloon for a Likud-style separation on far better
terms for Israel than the Road Map. And shortly after that, disengagement
was officially born. It was, said Dov Weisglass, Sharon’s adviser,
“formaldehyde” for the Road Map,.
It is clear that Sharon’s
disengagement from Gaza was only ever the first stage of his separation
plans. His officials repeatedly warned that further disengagements,
from the West Bank, would follow, based on the route of the wall, though
Sharon -- cautious about alienating rightwing voters before the coming
elections -- was more tight-lipped.
But when Sharon finally realised
he could not tame the Greater Israel diehards in his Likud party, and
that they threatened to unravel his plans for the West Bank, he created
Kadima, a new “centrist” party that attracted fugitives
from both Labor and Likud.
Its rapid success derived
from its ability to transcend the enduring
differences between the Israeli left and right – or, rather, to
consolidate both traditions. Like Likud, Kadima admitted that the Palestinians
would never surrender their dreams of nationhood, but like Labor it
believed a strategy could be devised in which the Palestinians, even
if they did not accept the terms of separation, could be made powerless
to resist Israeli diktats.
Kadima squared the circle
through a policy that maintained Likud's insistence on "unilateralism"
while maintaining Labor's pretence of benevolent "separation"
from the Palestinians.
Before his conversion, Sharon
was the last and the biggest hurdle to unilateral separation. His opposition
was enough throughout the 1990s to stymie those in the security establishment
-- possibly a majority -- who were pushing for the policy. Once he backed
down, nothing was likely to stand in the way of implementing separation.
The lesson of the Gaza disengagement
is that withdrawals (partial or full) from occupied territory are insufficient
in themselves to herald the end of occupation. The absence of Israeli
settlers and soldiers from those parts of the West Bank to be handed
over to the Palestinians will not ensure that the Palestinian people
are sovereign in the territory left to them.
The occupation will continue
as long as Israel controls the diminished West Bank’s borders
and trade, its resources and airspace, its connections with Gaza and
the Palestinian Diaspora, and as long as Israel blocks the emergence
of a Palestinian army and enjoys the unfettered right to strike
at Palestinian targets, military or otherwise.
Olmert and Israel’s
security establishment understand this all too well. Unfortunately,
a supine Europe and America appear all too ready to collude in the deception.
is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. His book “Blood
and Religion: The Unmasking of the Jewish and Democratic State”
is published by Pluto Press. His website is www.jkcook.net