A Secret Concession From Jerusalem?
Behind Closed Doors, the ‘Offer’ of a Palestinian State
The Washington Post, May 28, 1995
While media attention has focused on recent tensions impeding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, negotiations have quietly crossed a line of major historical importance: The Israeli government has offered a specific proposal for the creation of a Palestinian state. That’s what Palestinian officials are saying and top officials in the Israeli Foreign Ministry have not denied it.
With last week’s decision by the Israeli government to suspend the planned expropriation of land in East Jerusalem, the peace process has once again weathered a crisis and can return to business. The planned expropriations (and the related, still-ticking controversy over moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem) have obscured the progress that is now being made toward resolving the conflict.
To be sure, the obstacles are still enormous-most notably, the weakness of political leaders on both sides and the virulent opposition of right-wing Israelis and Islamic militants. But even as important breakthroughs are occurring in the stalled negotiations between Israel and Syria over the Golan Heights, it is not inconceivable that within the next six weeks, we may see an Israeli-Palestinian agreement on Palestinian elections, and even, within the next 18 months, the emergence of a Palestinian state that will be sovereign in Gaza and exercise administrative control over West Bank territory.
After months of fruitless negotiations, in March the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators set for themselves a July 1 deadline for negotiating the processes of Palestinian elections and Israeli redeployment from population centers in the West Bank. Last week in the shadow of the crisis that almost brought down the government, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were remarkably upbeat. The Israeli media reported that elections could occur this fall. Joel Singer, the Foreign Ministry legal advisor who played a key role in the Oslo negotiations, said that election negotiations may be completed even before July1.
Largely unreported by the U.S. media is an even bigger story: According to Palestinian sources at the highest level, the Israeli government secretly offered the Palestinians sovereignty over Gaza, and the Palestinians, wanting more, turned it down.
Coincidentally, I spoke with both Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat in early April, trying to interest them in an idea for locking in further progress toward permanent settlement prior to the 1996 Israeli elections. The idea was to follow Palestinian elections and Israeli redeployment from population centers in the West Bank with near-term creation of a Palestinian state with sovereignty over Gaza and Jericho. An interim treaty agreement would freeze or limit settlement expansion.
Peters listened, was appropriately non-committal and said, “Go talk to the Palestinians, and let us know is they are interested.”
Subsequently, I saw Arafat, and to my surprise he said that the Israelis had already offered the Palestinians a state in Gaza. The Israeli proposal, through, was linked to the Palestinians agreeing to put off for an indefinite period of time the redeployment of Israeli troops in the West Bank and the expansion of Palestinian autonomy. The Palestinians turned it down flat.
In more recent weeks, the Israeli press questioned Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin about the possibility of a Palestinian state in Gaza, linked to a delay in the expansion of Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank. Rabin replied, “If it would be possible, I don’t see any problem in it. I don’t believe any Palestinian will accept it. They [the Palestinians] say to us, ‘You signed the DOP [ Declaration of Principles], so implement it.”
Note that Rabin characterized what appears to be an actual Pale1stinian response, suggesting that Arafat’s account is indeed accurate: An offer was put on the table. When questioned about this by the Israeli press, Foreign Minister Peres responded, “There are all sorts of ideas, but only those presented in documents bind the government.”
More recently, the Palestinian press reported that the Palestinian Authority announced its official rejection of an offer of a Palestinian state in Gaza.
What appears to have happened is that the Israeli government, at a very high level, made an offer in discussions with the Palestinians. It probably was not in writing. The offer was unrealistic, and the Palestinians rejected it out of hand.
On one level the offer was counterproductive, deepening Palestinian suspicions about Israel’s ultimate willingness to withdraw from West Bank territory. Arafat interpreted the proposal as an expression of an Israeli desire to bring Jordan back into the West Bank as an alternative to Palestinian control. Thus Gaza First would come to mean Gaza Last.
Nevertheless, the episode served as a way for the Israeli government to cross—a line it had never crossed before—to state that it would accept somewhere within the occupied territories, a Palestinian state.
Indeed, some Israeli commentators seeking to figure out why the government would make such an unrealistic offer to the Palestinians, have suggested that the target was not the Palestinians but the Israeli public. The government, it is conjectured, was seeking to acclimate the Israeli public to the idea of a Palestinian state.
Whatever the intention, that seems to have been the effect. The right-wing called attention to the significance of Rabin’s remarks, but given the Gaza context and the Palestinian rejection, there was little public outcry. Nonetheless, the historic significance should not be overlooked; for the first time since the U.N. Partition Resolution of 1947, an Israeli government has accepted the idea of a Palestinian state.
The discourse is now shifting from whether there will be such a state to the extent of its powers in different geographic areas where will it have full sovereignty, where limited sovereignty, where administrative authority and where no role at all.
Once West Bank redeployment and Palestinian elections take place, a newly strengthened Palestinian Authority will have a significant administrative role throughout much of the West Bank. Subsequently, if the Palestinians are able to ratchet up from administrative authority in Gaza to full sovereignty, it will be the Palestinian State that will administer the West Bank.
If all this is achieved before the next Israeli election, the gap that will separate Israelis and Palestinians, no matter who wins, may be considerable smaller than many have expected.