A Road Map To The Oslo Cul-de-sac


The “road map” to resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the subject of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s recent diplomacy in the Middle East, may never reach the conclusion of its first phase. To date, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has yet to accept the initiative developed by the Quartet of the US, UN, European Union and Russia. Powell’s May 11 visits with Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas failed to produce any significant developments — their aftermath punctuated by Sharon’s public dismissal of a settlement freeze and advisers close to Abbas reporting that Palestinians will take no action toward militant groups until Sharon formally accepts the road map. In Arab capitals, Powell reached an agreement with governments to assist the Palestinian leadership in cracking down on militant groups, but encountered distrust over Israel’s failure to accept the text of the Quartet’s document.

While most coverage of the road map is informed by the feeling that it is the only option on the table and thus constitutes the best chance of achieving an elusive Israeli-Palestinian peace, reports in the past week have afforded greater attention to the diplomatic comings and goings of US officials and Israel’s position on the settlement freeze called for in phase I of the document. But narrow focus on the first phase of the road map misses structural flaws that will plague the initiative even if it outlives attempts to kill it in its infancy.

The road map offers no new path forward, but simply repackages many of the flaws that led to the failure of the Oslo “peace process” of the 1990s. Many critics have argued since the 1993 Oslo accord that the Oslo process was not a plan for peace, but a plan to institutionalize the Israeli occupation. By transferring limited powers to the newly established Palestinian Authority, the Israeli army could redeploy outside Palestinian population centers, decreasing the level of risk to its own soldiers while maintaining the occupation through checkpoints and periodic closures. Oslo’s phased implementation postponed discussion of the central issues — borders, settlements, Jerusalem, refugees — to the end, while allowing Israel to prejudice the outcome of “final status” negotiations with newly created “facts on the ground.”

Elements of the Oslo accord find echoes in the road map: it also sets forth a phased approach, again delaying discussion of the crucial sticking points, it contains no detailed enforcement mechanism and it is vague about how disputes will be resolved. Having seen the dangers of this approach during the seven years of the Oslo process, Palestinians remain largely skeptical of the road map. Abbas, who has accepted the document, garnered only 3 percent of popular support in a recent poll, in part because Palestinians suspect that he will do the bidding of the US and Israel in whatever negotiations may eventually come about. Many Palestinians view the road map, like Oslo, as enabling the culmination of Israel’s political designs for the West Bank and Gaza Strip — a process that began shortly after 1967 and continues until today.

FOUNDATIONS OF ISRAELI CONTROL

Following the occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip in 1967, the state of Israel was presented with a dilemma. How could it ensure control over the land and resources of these areas while avoiding direct responsibility for the millions of Palestinians living there? Across the Israeli political spectrum, the response was almost uniform: Palestinians should be given some voice in their own affairs, while final control of land, resources and economy remained in the hands of Israel.

First in a long series of strategic plans aimed at realizing this vision was the Allon Plan, proposed by Gen. Yigal Allon, deputy prime minister for the Labor Party following the 1967 war. The Allon Plan called for annexation of around one third of the West Bank along the Jordan River and the Dead Sea. Israeli settlements were to be constructed along the north-south axis of the floor of the Jordan Valley on the eastern side of the West Bank. A second line of settlements were to be constructed on the highlands overlooking the valley with a road connecting the two settlement blocs. At the same time, a ring of settlements was planned around the city of Jerusalem. In this way, the 110,000 Palestinians living in East Jerusalem at the time would be encircled and unable to expand into the hinterland of the West Bank. The final version of the plan in July 1967 recommended establishing some form of Arab or Palestinian “entity” in around 50 percent of the West Bank, while Israel annexed East Jerusalem, the Jordan Valley, the Hebron Hills in the south of the West Bank and the southern part of the Gaza Strip.

When the Likud Party came to power in 1977, the Allon Plan was supplemented with three elaborations upon the basic concept of controlling the land but not taking direct responsibility for the population. The Sharon Plan, elaborated in the 1977 geostrategic document “A Vision of Israel at Century’s End,” called for a new belt of Israeli settlements to be built on the western side of the West Bank, extending from Jenin in the north to Bethlehem in the south, effectively blurring the unofficial Green Line border separating Israel from the West Bank. Devised by current Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, then minister for agriculture and settlements, the plan envisioned this further confiscation of West Bank land as forming a buffer between Israel and the Palestinian population. Sharon’s plan called for the construction of major east-west highways across the West Bank which would connect the new settlements with those in the Jordan Valley.

The logic of the Sharon Plan was further extended with a comprehensive settlement scheme put forward by the World Zionist Organization (WZO) in October 1978. This five-year plan called for the construction of settlements around and between the major Palestinian population areas in the West Bank. The end result of this program, followed closely by both Likud and Labor governments over the last two decades, is the division of the West Bank into three separate areas: the northern towns of Jenin, Tulkarm, Qalqilya and Nablus, the central area of Ramallah and outlying areas of Jerusalem, and the southern region around Bethlehem and Hebron. Moreover, the WZO strategy called for Israeli settlements to be constructed in between the Palestinian cities within each area. According to the plan, with these additional settlements, “the minority population [the Palestinians] would find it difficult to form a political and territorial continuity.”

A third plan adopted by the Israeli Knesset in 1977 related more to the nature of the “entity” that would be established in the Palestinian areas. The Begin Plan, named after then Prime Minister Menachem Begin, called for “autonomy” for the Palestinian population in the Occupied Territories, embodied in an administrative council elected by Palestinians that would sit in either Ramallah or Bethlehem. This administrative council, Begin envisioned, would take responsibility for internal Palestinian matters while Israel retained control over foreign policy, borders and the economy.

The Begin policy translated into politics on the ground with the establishment of Village Leagues, beginning in Hebron in 1978 and then extending to other West Bank towns throughout the early 1980s. These Leagues were established with the backing of the Israeli government to foster a local “moderate” Palestinian leadership that would mediate Israel’s relationship with Palestinian residents. Through a series of military orders issued during the early 1980s, the Leagues were authorized by Israel to arrest and detain political activists and establish armed militias, as well as to carry out more innocuous tasks such as issuing drivers’ licenses and other permits. The Begin Plan complemented the 1978 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, which provided for a “self-governing authority” in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Until the early 1990s, these various plans were rejected outright by the Palestinian national movement, which saw them as a recipe for apartheid-style bantustans wherein the fig leaf of autonomy would hide the reality of occupation. The intifada of 1987-1993 saw a sustained popular uprising against Israel’s military presence in Palestinian towns and villages. Various mayors and representatives of the Village Leagues were targeted for assassination by Palestinian activists and a campaign to boycott the Israeli “civil administration” was also undertaken.

ENTER OSLO

All of this changed with the Oslo accord of 1993. The accord once again raised the specter of a Palestinian “self-governing authority,” although this time under the leadership of the Palestinian national movement, which returned from exile proclaiming that a Palestinian state would soon be established in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Despite the Palestinian hope, and the international community’s widespread belief, that the Oslo process aimed at achieving this vision, Israel had no such illusions. Two years after the signing of the Oslo accord in 1993, then Prime Minister and Labor Party head Yitzhak Rabin outlined his vision on CNN’s “Evans and Novak” news program:

“I seek peaceful coexistence between Israel as a Jewish state, not all over the land of Israel, or most of it; its capital, the united Jerusalem; its security border with Jordan rebuilt; next to it, a Palestinian entity, less than a state, that runs the life of Palestinians. It is not ruled by Israel. It is ruled by the Palestinians. This is my goal, not to return to the pre-Six Day War lines but to create two entities, a separation between Israel and the Palestinians who reside in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. And they will be different…a entity that rules itself.”

While settlements were designated a “final status” issue under the Oslo agreements, the Labor government launched a massive settlement expansion that had been planned by Sharon in 1991. Through a policy of attracting settlers by offering large economic incentives, the number of Israeli settlers living in settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip doubled from 1994 to the beginning of the year 2000. Clearly strategic in their location, large settlement blocs protrude into the West Bank, preventing movement between and natural growth of Palestinian population centers.

Israeli settlements were connected by the so-called bypass roads, an innovation of the Oslo era. The brainchild of Rabin, these restricted-access highways connected settlement blocs with each other and with Israeli cities, and expanded upon the series of roads originally proposed in the Allon and Sharon Plans. The 1995 Oslo II agreement outlawed Palestinian construction within 55 yards of either side of the bypass roads, rendering hundreds of Palestinian houses vulnerable to demolition. In 1997, after Likud returned to power, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released his own vision appropriately dubbed the “Allon-Plus” Plan. Sharon commented at the time: “The details may vary but, in principle, the essence [of the Netanyahu map] is very much the same” as the Sharon plan of 1977.

By early 2000, nearly 250 miles of bypass roads had been built on confiscated land. These highways reinforced the isolation of West Bank cities surrounded by Israeli settlement blocs. Oslo’s lack of an effective monitoring and enforcement mechanism, along with the absence of effective pressure on Israel to end settlement construction, left Palestinians no recourse for addressing Israel’s physical changes to the status quo.

Simultaneously, Israel introduced what is best described as “remote control” over Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Though areas under the aegis of the Palestinian Authority appeared to have a degree of independence, every Palestinian was forced to navigate a system of Israeli checkpoints, closures and permits to move outside or between those areas. The second intifada of September 2000, born out of Palestinian anger and frustration toward this situation, was a rejection of the Oslo process and Israel’s progressive implementation of plans inaugurated with the Allon Plan of 1967.

ROAD TO CANTONS

Israel responded to the intifada with a strategy of collective punishment aimed at a return to the logic of Oslo, whereby a weak Palestinian leadership would acquiesce to Israeli demands and a brutalized population would be compelled to accept a “sovereign state” made up of a series of “bantustans.”

Sharon and Abbas convene their scheduled meeting in the third week of May 2003 before a strikingly familiar backdrop of Israeli carrots and sticks for the Palestinians. While Israel continues to assassinate Palestinian activists and to keep major cities under curfew and closure, it has also promised various “concessions” and “good will” measures. In much the same way that Palestinian prisoners were used as bargaining chips during the Oslo process, Israel has released around 200 Palestinian prisoners. Likewise, around 25,000 Palestinians will be permitted to seek work inside Israel. The efficacy of these measures stems from the system of control and dependency established by Israel over the Palestinian population. By alternatively weakening and tightening the pressure on the Palestinian population, Israel hopes to cajole the population along the road to cantons.

The road map, expected to proceed in three phases towards a permanent status agreement in 2005, exists within this context. Each of the phases places priority upon Palestinian responsibility for ensuring Israeli security — also a key characteristic of the earlier Begin Plan. In the first phase, Palestinians will rebuild a security apparatus that will target Palestinian resistance. This apparatus will be supervised by the CIA, with training provided by Jordanian and Egyptian security forces. The road map requires Israel to return to the positions it occupied at the onset of the intifada in order to “restore the status quo that existed prior to September 28, 2000.” Contrary to popular belief, the road map does not require the dismantlement of all Israeli settlements. Rather, it calls for a settlement freeze (including natural growth) and Israel’s dismantlement of settlement outposts constructed since March 2001 — the latter of which will have no impact whatsoever on the major settlement blocs.

Sharon’s public statements during and following Powell’s visit cast doubt upon Israel’s willingness to adhere to the settlement freeze. Citing sources in the Prime Minister’s office, Ha’aretz quoted Sharon as telling Powell, “What do you want, for a pregnant woman to have an abortion just because she is a settler?” In an interview this week with the Jerusalem Post, Sharon reinforced his commitment to the maintenance of settlements in the West Bank, asserting that Jewish settlers will continue to live there under Israeli sovereignty.

A major pitfall of the road map is its vagueness. This is particularly problematic with reference to phase I, as there remain differences of opinion, including among the four members of the Quartet, regarding the timing of the settlement freeze and whether the obligations outlined in the document are to be carried out simultaneously or in sequence.

The next phase, scheduled for the second half of 2003, is expressed in the rather torturous phrase as “focused on the option of creating an independent Palestinian state with provisional borders and attributes of sovereignty.” The road map contains no explanation of what is meant by “attributes of sovereignty.” But one is reminded of Sharon’s long-held belief, reiterated in a December 2002 speech in Herzliya, that Israel should control the external security, borders, airspace and underground water resources of any Palestinian “state,” and have a veto over Palestinian treaties with other countries.

Phase III begins in 2004 and ends with a “permanent status agreement in 2005,” which will include final agreement on the key issues of borders, Jerusalem, refugees and settlements. As with Oslo, the absence of an effective monitoring mechanism backed up by international pressure to ensure Israel immediately cease all settlement activity, could present Israel with another opportunity to create “facts on the ground.” Indeed, as the last ten years have demonstrated all too clearly, these “facts” have already been largely created and their existence casts serious doubt on whether a two-state solution even remains a viable option.

Pressure must also be applied to end and reverse construction of the last remaining piece of Israel’s jigsaw puzzle — the 25-foot high concrete “separation” wall being built on confiscated Palestinian land that will entirely surround the Palestinian cantons in the West Bank. Significantly, the road map makes absolutely no mention of the wall or the fact that it is planned to effectively annex over 300,000 Israeli settlers into Israel proper, according to projections from Palestinian human rights organizations.

A group of Palestinian and Israeli NGOs has prepared a remarkable map showing the final contours of the wall, based upon land confiscation orders given to Palestinians and official Israeli government maps. This map, published on the website of the Israeli anti-occupation group Gush Shalom, illustrates the complete agreement — almost to the square mile — between Israel’s final vision of the West Bank and the earlier maps drawn up by Allon and Sharon.

“OCCUPATION IS OR ISN’T”

Whether Israel will be successful in realizing the vision for the West Bank and Gaza Strip drawn up 35 years ago is still an open question. While Abbas has been widely praised in the Israeli and international press for his “moderate” stand and call for an end to armed struggle, opposition to the road map is almost universal across the Palestinian political spectrum. Even large sections of the ruling party Fatah have expressed opposition to the plan, and a general strike was held in Ramallah on the day of Powell’s meeting with Abbas, prompting a change of venue from Ramallah to the isolated Jordan Valley town of Jericho.

The intense international pressure exerted on Palestinian President Yasser Arafat to appoint Abbas, a man with virtually no popular support, and approve his cabinet, is considered by many Palestinians evidence of the international community’s desire to ensure complaisant Palestinian leadership that will not fight the road map’s objectionable provisions. Elements within Fatah opposed to Abbas have compared him publicly with Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai, as an expression of his supposed willingness to rule on behalf of a foreign power.

If the road map proceeds according to Israeli-US intentions, it is expected that revamped Palestinian security forces will soon begin a campaign of arrests against activists wishing to continue armed operations. In the large northern West Bank town of Nablus, Fatah activists have been instructed by the Palestinian leadership to lay down their weapons in return for positions in Palestinian ministries or security forces. While some have accepted this offer, a considerable section of Fatah has refused and has carried out new armed attacks against Israeli soldiers and settlers. The other main factions, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), have all condemned the road map and vowed to continue resistance to the occupation.

Other Palestinian political leaders have also been vocal in their opposition to the road map. Mustafa Barghouti, an ex-leader of the Palestinian Peoples’ Party (formerly the Palestinian Communist Party), called the road map “a recipe for cantonization while we guarantee Israeli security” during an interview on a Ramallah TV station on May 6. Barghouti now leads a new political force called al-Mubadara (The Initiative), which is calling for a new Palestinian movement bringing together national and Islamic groups in a united front against occupation.

Rima Tarazi, president of the General Union of Palestinian Women, also came out against the road map in an interview on May 6, arguing that “occupation is not something to negotiate. [Occupation] either is or it isn’t.” Tarazi’s comments highlight one of the key weaknesses of both the Oslo process and the road map. By accepting de facto that settlements and other seized Palestinian land are subjects for negotiation, the road map sidelines the illegality of the occupation, transforming obligations upon Israel into a “dispute.”

The major obstacle to Israel’s various plans for the West Bank and Gaza Strip has always been the resistance of the Palestinian population. Consequently, a commonly held belief among Palestinians today is that Israel may be successful in quelling the current campaign of resistance in the short term, only to plant the seeds of a third intifada in 2005.



Adam Hanieh is a human rights worker and researcher living in Ramallah. Catherine Cook is media coordinator at the Middle East Research and Information Project.

See the Palestinian and Israeli NGOs’ map of the “separation” wall in the West Bank at: http://gush-shalom.org/thewall/index.html

For background on the “remote control” of the Oslo era, see Jeff Halper, “The 94 Percent Solution: A Matrix of Control,” in Middle East Report 216 (Fall 2000), accessible online at: http://www.merip.org/mer/mer216/216_halper.html  

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