Israel’s Road to ‘Convergence’ Began With Rabin

With 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 that 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.

Olmert’s "convergence" plan, his version of disengagement for the West Bank (except this time only about 15 percent of the territory’s 420,000 settlers will be withdrawn), has salved the West’s conscience just as surely as did his predecessor Sharon’s pullout from Gaza last year.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 naysayers 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, then Sharon’s deputy, all but announced the coming Gaza Disengagement Plan before it had earned 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 South Africans.

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 preempted 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 maximize the number of Jews; to minimize the number of Palestinians." Or, as he put last week, "division of the land, with the goal of ensuring a Jewish majority, is Zionism’s lifeline."

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 by 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 labor 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 onto the back burner.

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, Moshe Shahal.

Though the scheme was dropped by his two successors, Shimon Peres and Binyamin Netanyahu, it came of age again with Ehud Barak, a longtime Oslo skeptic, 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 defense 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 percent 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 skeptical 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 armor 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 percent of the area and contain 80 percent 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 percent, adding up to 25 percent 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 City."

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 Bank.

Olmert’s predecessor, 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 defense 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 realization 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 legitimacy.

Also, Sharon had been backed into an uncomfortable corner by the Road Map, a U.S. 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 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 right-wing voters before the coming elections – was more tightlipped.

But when Sharon finally realized 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 pretense 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.

Author: Jonathan Cook

Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilizations: Iraq, Iran, and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel's Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). Visit his Web site.