Ewen MacAskill
Saturday April 14, 2001

The Guardian

On the edge of Jerusalem, in a hollow in the hills, is a sad sight, the ruins of an abandoned Arab village. It has been empty since 1948, a victim of the conflict between Arabs and Israelis. It is a quiet spot. The stone is old, and the columns and curves belong to a very different architectural tradition from the red-roofed modern Israeli houses that surround it.

Today, there are new ruins. This week, the Israeli army bulldozed 30 homes, adding to the many already destroyed elsewhere in the Gaza Strip and on the West Bank. The Palestinians are paying a heavy price for the uprising they began in September: more than 370 dead and an economy destroyed.

The response of most Israeli liberals is to agree that the Palestinians are suffering but that the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, is to blame: he should have accepted the peace proposals put to him by the then Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, and the then US president, Bill Clinton, at Camp David last year and at Taba earlier this year. It is a view widely shared internationally, and one that the Israeli government is happy to project: that a generous deal was put on the table for Arafat and he missed the historic opportunity. The reality is that it may turn out to be Israel's missed opportunity.

There are two basic Israeli views of how to deal with its neighbour, the future state of Palestine. There is the liberal version put forward by the Israeli foreign minister, Shimon Peres, of an economically healthy Israel co-existing alongside an equally economically healthy Palestinian state. Together they could be at the centre of a revitalised Middle East.

Unfortunately, it is the other Israeli view that has long been dominant and is prevalent today: to have a weak, malleable Palestinian neighbour. Thomas Friedman, the New York Times journalist, writes in his account of his 10 years in the Middle East, From Beirut To Jerusalem, about how the Israelis have never quite managed to give up hopes of controlling all of biblical Israel, which includes the West Bank. That is what motivates the movement of Jewish settlers out into the Palestinian Wild West, the source of most of today's conflict.

Friedman and a host of other journalists and academics have recorded how Israeli politicians since the founding of the state in 1948 have talked peace while grabbing land. While Barak put seemingly generous offers on the table, Jewish settlers continued to expand into the West Bank, which they call by the biblical name, Judea and Samaria.

Demographic maps of the Middle East since 1948, the year Israel was founded, show a steady expansion of the Jewish population eastwards. Arab East Jerusalem today is being gradually surrounded by Jewish homes. Even within Jerusalem's Old City, Israelis are spreading into Arab neighbourhoods.

A Palestinian this week, spotting for the first time new Jewish houses on the outskirts of Jerusalem, said: "It is like a magic wand. You go away for a few weeks and then suddenly there is a whole new place." The Israeli government, supposedly committed to no new settlements, announced this week a further 700 new houses. The Israeli government finds it easy to keep to its commitment to build no new settlements: because there are so many already on the West Bank, all it has to do is just keep expanding existing ones.

It is against this background that Barak's "generous" deal should be seen. The Israelis portrayed it as the Palestinians receiving 96% of the West Bank. But the figure is misleading. The Israelis did not include parts of the West Bank they had already appropriated.

The Palestine that would have emerged from such a settlement would not have been viable. It would have been in about half-a-dozen chunks, with huge Jewish settlements in between - a Middle East Bantustan. The Israeli army would also have retained the proposed Palestinian state's eastern border, the Jordan valley, for six to 10 years and, more significantly, another strip along the Dead Sea coast for an unspecified period: so much for being an independent state.

Israel could afford to be magnanimous in terms of territory, given the amount it has gained over the last century at the expense of the Palestinians, many of whom fled or abandoned their homes for Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and elsewhere.

Compromises were discussed at Camp David and Taba on the right of return of the 3.5m Palestinian refugees, but nothing that Arafat could take away to sell to his own people. In spite of the protestations of Israeli liberals such as Amos Oz that to allow back 3.5m Palestinians would be suicidal for Israel, a solution was possible. The Israeli view that 3.5m Palestinian refugees would flood into Israel is a nonsense. What the Palestinians are looking for is something akin to an apology from the Israelis for taking their land. Israel could allow a few hundred thousand back and pay - or get the US or Japan or Europe to pay - compensation to the remainder, most of whom would stay where they now live.

One proposal on the table was for a land swap: the Palestinians would get part of Israel proper next to the West Bank in return for Israel taking part of the West Bank. Arafat could have taken this deal to the refugees and said: "Look, you are going back to Israel, as I promised." Barak could just as easily have said: "Look, it is no longer Israel but the West Bank." Solutions were possible, but in the end Barak would not give on the right of return.

A genuinely generous offer by Barak might have secured peace. That was the missed historic opportunity. If Israel had been more magnanimous at Camp David, it could have had the greater prize of long-term stability.

There is a huge danger attached to the Israeli view that Arafat spurned a great offer. Accepting this version perpetuates the Israeli myth that the Palestinians will not be happy until the Jews are pushed back into the sea and that the West Bank and Gaza are full of gunmen and bombers intent on making that happen.

There are such people - but most Palestinians are interested less in the destruction of Israel than in establishing a proper Palestinian state. Most are as exercised about the poor quality of the leadership round Arafat and about the endemic corruption and lack of democracy in their own society as they are about Israel. What they want is for the Israeli army to go home and to take the Jewish settlers with them. There will be no peace until that happens.

Nothing in the career of the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, suggests he will do that. Instead, he will continue with the subjugation of the Palestinians and grabbing more of their land. The only safe bet is that there are going to be a lot more Palestinian ruins.

Ewen MacAskill is the Guardian's diplomatic editor [email protected]