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The incredible shrinking Palestine

Israel is whittling away at Palestinians' land again, but it needs the U.S. to sharpen the knife.

By Sandy Tolan,

05/21/06 "
Los Angeles Times" -- -- THE HISTORY of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be glimpsed through a series of maps.

First is the sepia-toned map of Palestine under the British Mandate, circa 1936. On its surface it suggests one unified country where Arab and Jew can live together between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. This is the map that some Palestinians still place on their walls: A whole Palestine, representing the dream of an independent, secular, democratic and Arab-majority state. Many Israelis still see this map as representing their dreams too: Eretz Yisrael, the whole Jewish homeland.

Second is the United Nations partition map of November 1947, which divided Palestine into two states — one for Arabs (who were to get 44% of the territory) and one for Jews (who were given 54.5%), with Jerusalem and Bethlehem under international stewardship. For Zionists, it was a triumph born of the Holocaust and the belief in much of the world that Jews needed and deserved a haven.

For Arabs, who were the majority population, it was a disaster. Why, they asked, should their homeland become the solution to the Jewish tragedy in Europe? They fought the partition, and in the 1948 war that followed, 700,000 Palestinians fled or were driven out and became refugees.

After Israel's 1948 War of Independence, a third map emerged, based on additional territory captured by Israel. Palestinians lived in the West Bank and Gaza, under Jordanian and Egyptian rule, on 22% of old Palestine — or outside of the historic territory entirely, often in U.N. refugee camps set up in neighboring Arab countries.

The fourth map was drawn after Israel's stunning victory in the 1967 Middle East War. It showed yet more territory — the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights and the Sinai peninsula — under Israeli occupation. Soon dozens of little dots, representing Israeli settlements, would be added to each of these areas. (In the early 1980s, Israel withdrew from the Sinai, and last year from Gaza.)

Now comes the new Israeli prime minister to Washington, carrying yet another map. When Ehud Olmert meets with President Bush on Tuesday, he will present a new page for the Middle East atlas, in which, according to recent reports, Israel will have pulled up stakes from some of the occupied West Bank but will still control large portions of it. Palestinians would end up with less than 20% of their original dream for the whole of Palestine.

Olmert will try to convince the White House that in the absence of a "partner for peace," this Israeli plan to draw its final borders, and to wall off his people from the Palestinians, is in the best interests of peace and stability in the region.

Yet the implementation of Olmert's unilateral "convergence" plan could have the opposite effect. By annexing West Bank lands (including the giant, densely populated settlements in Palestinian territory outside Jerusalem), claiming Jerusalem's Old City and its holy sites exclusively as Israel's own, drawing a new "security border" along the Jordan Valley and, according to David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, keeping the military occupation in place in the West Bank at least for the time being, convergence would essentially kill the Palestinian dream of self-determination. Given the history of the last six decades, this plan is unlikely to lead to peace or stability.

U.S. officials should be especially careful not to embrace a unilateral and incendiary "solution," especially at a moment when it is too early to be sure which direction the Hamas-run Palestinian government will take. Many observers hope that the more moderate elements in the government of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh will prevail, that talks can be restarted and that Hamas may ultimately accept Israel's right to exist.

In a May 4 speech to the Israeli Knesset, Olmert presented his plan as a compromise of the historic Zionist dream to possess the entirety of a Jewish homeland. Part of the convergence plan calls for dismantling Israeli settlements where about a quarter of the 240,000 West Bank settlers live. "Only a person in whose soul Eretz Yisrael burns knows the pain of letting go of our ancestral heritage," Olmert declared in presenting his Cabinet to the parliament.

Yet "convergence" doesn't just represent the end of the dream of Eretz Yisrael; it also represents an abandonment of what for nearly four decades has been the central hope for many Palestinians and Israelis seeking coexistence: U.N. Resolution 242, which was adopted in 1967 after the Six-Day War and called for Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied in the war in exchange for, essentially, Arab recognition of Israel. This became the basis for the "two-state solution."

For Yasser Arafat, the late Palestine Liberation Organization leader, accepting the existence of Israel , and the 78% of historic Palestine that it held, was a monumental compromise. But convergence would leave the Palestinians with less land yet again — certainly less than in any deal based on Resolution 242 and the 1993 Oslo peace accords.

Under convergence, according to a report by Makovsky, Israel would retain 8% of the West Bank for expansion of three large settlement blocs, and more land for a "security border" in the Jordan Valley. At least 60,000 settlers would be removed from more remote settlements in the occupied territories to the large settlement blocs on the other side of the "security barrier" that Israel has been building (but still on the West Bank). Palestinians in the remaining portion of the West Bank would live between the "security border" and the "security barrier."

The convergence plan also would deny the Palestinians' dream of having East Jerusalem, including the Old City's Haram al Sharif, the third holiest site in Islam, as the capital of their state. Although returning some parts of East Jerusalem to Arab ownership, a fixed border along Olmert's lines would divide neighborhoods and families, and Israel would retain control over the Old City, including its holy sites. These are red lines for both Palestinians and Muslims worldwide and a central reason for the collapse of the talks at Camp David.

Given its details, it is hard to understand how convergence could lead to long-term peace and stability, to say nothing of fairness. Western diplomats have already begun expressing concerns that a unilateral solution will not last. "The Israelis want to build a wall and imagine that there are no people behind it," Marc Otte, the European Union's special representative for the Mideast peace process, told the Israeli paper Haaretz. "That is an illusion. Everything will come back to them. You cannot lock the door and throw away the key." Even Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who has frequently criticized Hamas, has warned that convergence would lead to war within a decade.

U.S. backing would be essential to implementing Olmert's plan, and essential to that would be Olmert's ability to convince the American government that he has "no partner for peace." This claim has proved convenient for Olmert as he seeks to draw his own map unilaterally. But U.S. officials should not be lulled into accepting a unilateral "solution" that seems destined to prolong the conflict.

SANDY TOLAN'S most recent book is "The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East ."

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