Shaul Arieli is a man on a dual mission: educating Israelis about the conflict and diplomatic process with the Palestinians, and making the point that the two-state solution is both possible and necessary. His latest publication in Hebrew, A Border between Us and You (Yeditoth Ahronoth Books 2013), is a 500-page handbook to the history of the conflict, with an emphasis on the diplomatic and political process. It is written in very simple (and sometimes simplistic) language, with lots of maps, tables and even entries describing notable leaders on both sides. Arieli was thinking about Israeli teenagers when he wrote his book, but lately I find myself going back to it again and again to find a figure or to check historical details for one of my posts.
I asked Shaul Arieli for an interview in order to gain more first-hand knowledge and analysis of the history of the negotiations, including what’s really behind terms like “settlements blocs” and “land swaps.” Lately, the mere idea of talks has been put under scrutiny (much of it justified, in my opinion), so I wanted to know what went wrong in the past, and have we, as some claim, “passed the point of no return” with regards to the two-state solution (check out, for example, this piece by Ben Birnbaum in TNR).
Arieli, 54, is the seventh son of Jews who emigrated from Iran. He served in various roles in the IDF, the last one being the commander of Gaza’s Northern Division before and during the first Oslo Accord, a position he left in order to serve in the negotiating team that was formed in Prime Minister Rabin’s office. He took part in negotiations under Netanyahu (in his first term) and Barak. Ariel Sharon stopped the diplomatic process, and Arieli joined the Geneva Accord – an informal agreement between PLO leaders and Israeli negotiators, which has since taken the form of an advocacy organization.
Arieli is a member of The Council for Peace and Security, an Israeli think tank dedicated to advancing a settlement with the Palestinians. He is also the author of nine books on the conflict. He has led hundreds of tours of the West Bank, separation barrier and East Jerusalem to Israeli politicians, diplomats, businessmen and activists. Lately, he made the news after Yair Lapid prevented his party members from going on one of Arieli’s tours to East Jerusalem, claiming that “our party opposes a division of the city.”
Of all the Israeli prime ministers you served under or observed, who came closest to a final status agreement?
Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert wanted to reach an agreement (even if Barak denies it today). Sharon didn’t believe in agreements. I had the chance to see the way prime ministers matured in their positions. The dramatic changes took place with Barak and Olmert – by the time negotiations broke they were in a very different place. The only leader who was negotiating something real, something possible, was Olmert [in Annapolis]. But it was too late in his term, when he was almost a lame duck. Olmert internalized the concept of reciprocity. Barak never did, and Rabin was in a different era. He didn’t have the chance to end the process.
Did the Palestinians refuse?
I will quote Olmert himself: the Palestinians never refused. They didn’t accept some of our proposals, just as we didn’t accept some of theirs. Israelis think that Olmert gave “a generous offer” to the Palestinians. But the Palestinians would say the same. Mahmoud Abbas was ready for land swaps that would leave 75 percent of the settlers under Israeli authority, including in neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. Abbas went a long way toward Israel on every issue.
Where do you think Netanyahu stands?
Olmert was able to set the four terms of reference that the international community would agree to: a relatively demilitarized Palestinian state (the Palestinians want “a state with limited arms” but the idea is similar), 1967 borders, partition in Jerusalem, and a return to the Palestinian state and not to Israel proper.
Then Netanyahu came, and he had tremendous experience and knowledge on these issues. After all, he took pride once in his ability to kill the Oslo process. I served under Netanyahu and I think he still believes in what he wrote in his book in 1995 – that ‘placing a PLO state 15 km from the beach of Tel Aviv poses an existential threat to the state of Israel.’
Netanyahu, when he came back to office in 2009, didn’t try to introduce his own demands. He went to changing the terms of reference. He declared that 1967 borders won’t serve as basis for the negotiations, and if he accepts land swaps, it will never be in a 1:1 ratio. He wants to annex 10 percent of the West Bank and give the Palestinians 1 percent in return. The same goes for Jerusalem. As long as he continues to speak about a united Jerusalem, anything he might say about the two-state solution is meaningless.
Bibi is the one who moved back from what was agreed upon. There is no reason to enter negotiations without the principles that were agreed upon, without the framework.
Netanyahu wants the process, not the agreement. Bibi doesn’t care about the Palestinians. He is interested in the way Israel is treated by the world. So he will take his time, and as far as he is concerned it [the talks] can take forever.”
Over half a million Israeli Jews live beyond the Green Line – almost one in every ten Israelis. Leaving the negotiations and other political problems aside, what makes you think that a solution based on the 1967 borders is still possible?
Let’s examine the numbers. 85 percent of the Israelis living east of the Green Line are in the settlements blocs, on a territory which is less than 6 percent of the West Bank. In the triangle around Jerusalem alone, there are 80 percent of the Jews living beyond the Green Line. The biggest city east of the Green Line is [the ultra-Orthodox] Modi’in Ilit, with 54,000 people. That’s 10 percent of the settlers, right on the Green Line. Together with the another ultra-Orthodox city nearby, Beitar Ilit, that’s 100,000 people. The much-debated Ariel is actually the smallest town in the West Bank, not the biggest.
Another third of the settlers [outside annexed East Jerusalem] are secular Jews, who sit in mostly secular settlements like Ma’aleh Edomim, the Jordan Valley and so on. Seventy-five to 80 percent of them will remain under Israeli sovereignty.
The problem is the remaining third. These are the ideological, and they settled in places which were meant to prevent Palestinian contingence. Most of their settlements are near road 60, which crosses the Occupied Territory from north to south. Seventy of those settlements have less than 2,000 people in them. More than 60 percent of those settlers will have to be evacuated. These are the people of Gush Emunim, and with them it won’t be just an ideological struggle, it’s also the struggle over their homes.
When we speak about 1:1 land swaps, that includes East Jerusalem too, right?
Yes. The annexation wasn’t recognized by the international community. Not even by the United States.
Can Israel keep that 6 percent you mentioned in 1:1 land swaps?
It’s a problem. The 6 percent include Ariel and Kdumin, which go 21-23 km into the Green Line, and cut the Shomron [the northern West Bank] in two. Furthermore, coming up with 6 percent of land on the western side of the Green Line [to hand over to the Palestinians] will be impossible. 3-4 percent is probably the upper limit.
So Ariel and Kdumin will have to be evacuated?
Kdumim – yes. With Ariel, evacuation is very likely but it’s not inconceivable that it will remain in Israeli hands. Its price in land swap will be very high though.
At the end of the day, we are talking about evacuating one percent of the Israeli population. Do the other 99 percent agree to be captive to the interests of the 1 percent? To sell their future for the future of the 1 percent? I am sure that if the government went for a real deal, it will still have the support of 70-80 percent of the public.
How much of the West Bank is now annexed de-facto to Israel by the security barrier (the Separation Wall)?
The planned path is leaving 8 percent of the West Bank west of it, ‘on the Israeli side’. But the barrier is not completed, so currently it’s 4.5 percent.
What is the solution for the refugee problem which was negotiated?
Israel never recognized the right of return, and the Palestinian will never give it up. So there should be a distinction between the recognition and the actual return. Israel will need to recognize its share in the responsibility for the suffering the Palestinians have gone through. Regarding the actual return, in Annapolis Israel offered 25,000 people, and the Palestinians wanted 100,000. By the way, it was Olmert who put forward this number, while Livni refused to have even a single refugee enter Israel. The number 100,000 relates to the historical agreement by Israel in Lausanne, 1949, to receive 100,000 refugees. Obviously, this is a number Israel can live with.
The refugees are the strongest bargaining chip the Palestinians have, but I believe that what’s really important for them in the negotiations is land. Compromise is possible.
Is there a point of no return in Jerusalem?
The real threat is the attempt [currently taking place – N.S.] to build projects for Jews inside the Palestinian neighborhoods. The projects in Jabel Mukaber and Mount Scopus are a real threat to the two-state solution. But even if those are completed, we could end up with a solution of an international regime in the city.
So what is the point of no return for the two-state solution?
I don’t think it’s a point in the land. It’s a political decision, on both sides. You can see the emergence of such a decision among young Palestinians, especially those who live abroad or have western orientation – to change the resistance into a human rights battle for civilian rights within the State of Israel. On the Israeli side, a decision to formally annex the West Bank could mark such a point.