Israel Debates Cutting Palestinians Off Completely

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Amid gloomy forecasts that clashes could continue for up to a year between Israel and the Palestinians, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is assessing Israel's options for the near and distant future.

Barak is considering whether he should return to the negotiating table or enact a unilateral separation from the Palestinians if PA Chairman Yasser Arafat unilaterally declares an independent Palestinian state.

Super-doves in Barak's own Labor party are unwilling to nullify the last seven years of negotiations in favor of the more moderate negotiating apparatus that Barak's political opponents are demanding in order to support him in a national emergency government.

Acting Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami said Wednesday he hoped the Oslo process could be "reactivated" soon but Arab leaders as well as the Israeli opposition believe the Oslo Accords are dead.

The Oslo Accords, named for the Norwegian capital where they were secretly negotiated, were based on the concept that trust would be built between Israel and the PA through a series of small confidence-building agreements. Later, after strong ties were developed, the sides would be able to solve the major issues which have caused a century of conflict between them, the plan presumed.

However, after seven years of sporadic negotiations, the most contentious issues remained unresolved and led to the current eruption of violence.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa said in an interview with the Lebanese newspaper A-Safir this week that "the peace process in its present form is over." Moussa said no Arab or Palestinian leader would "agree to return to the negotiating table according to the previous rules" and that the Arabs should "give first priority to help the Palestinians opposing the Israeli occupation."

Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon also believes that the Oslo process is finished, although he is not against negotiations based on different rules. However, he will not join Barak, who is ruling with only a handful of parliamentarians behind him, unless the prime minister renounces understandings reached at the July Camp David summit.

Barak has declared that negotiations cannot continue along with violence, but the possibility that Arafat will unilaterally declare a state by November 15, has prompted him to consider separating Israel unilaterally from the Palestinian population.

Barak explained in a document Tuesday that he did not mean that Israel would become dissociated from the Palestinians. "Dissociation, whether economic, infrastructure-related, civilian or social, is not only impossible, it does not serve Israeli interests," the document said.

According to the document, Israel still aims for a negotiated accord with the Palestinians but "in light of recent events, [that goal] may have to be translated into a number of interim goals, the central one being a start to implementation of a separation between Israel and the territories of Judea and Samaria [West Bank]."

However, Dan Schueftan, the leading expert on the separation plan, said a break must be completed.

A "very unique situation" exists between the Israeli and the Palestinian societies because they are so "intertwined." The "basic reality," Schueftan said, is that over the last 33 years, since the West Bank and Gaza Strip came under Israeli control, the area has been both separated under the military occupation of Israel and at the same time integrated economically into Israeli society.

During the last month of clashes, for example, Israel has continued to supply water and electricity to the Palestinian Authority as well as to transfer customs fees levied by Israel on goods entering through Israeli ports but intended for the PA. Before the current closure of the territories, more than 100,000 Palestinians crossed into Israel each day for work. They are dependent on the Israeli building, agricultural and hotel trades for their livelihood.

In past decades, Israeli leaders such as Oslo architect Shimon Peres favored integrating Israeli and Palestinian societies so completely that it would prevent future Israeli governments from partitioning the two entities, Schueftan said. Nevertheless, he believes the time has come for a complete separation.

"Palestinians are adamantly against any attempt to separate," Schueftan said.

Such a move, they believe, would destroy their economy and the possibility of having a state. But according to Schueftan, there are other reasons.

They want to continue to fight against Israel from within the pre-1967 borders demographically with the return of millions of refugees and their descendants, he said. They also want to live at the expense of Israel as a "third world country, which is backwards and corrupt."

"Israel wants to separate for opposite reasons," Schueftan added, to prevent the Palestinians from continuing their struggle after an independent state is declared and to prevent them from living at Israel's expense.

Scheuftan, who said he "totally rejected" the Oslo process, said politicians from the left, right and center support separation, while polls show that at least 75% of the Jewish Israeli public is in favor of such a plan.

The "litmus test" to be asked of any agreement, Shueftan said, is whether the Palestinians will be permitted to enter Israel freely to work. In such a case, Israel will not be free of the conflict with the Palestinians, he said.

"Israel will not continue to be the kind of state Israelis want to live in if we don't cut off from [the Palestinians]," he said.

Meanwhile, security officials are predicting that the current clashes could continue for as long as a year, the situation is likely to deteriorate and could even develop into a wider regional conflict.