If US president Barack Obama's ideas for drawing Israel-Palestinian borders ahead of substantive peace negotiations live long enough to mature into a formal proposal, he will still have his work cut out to make the parties sit down and talk, then get them to agree on his guidelines and actually execute them.
Meanwhile, both Israeli and Palestinian leaders are digging in their heels.
Obama's advisers and emissaries are certain Israel can eventually be dragged as far as the negotiating table, while the Palestinians spurn even that preliminary stage. For now, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is holding back his answers to the eleven points raised by Washington, convinced their purpose is to corner him on key issues that will later snap back in his face. He knows that some of the US president's closest aides are working the other side, advising Palestinian leaders to hold out against talks and stand by an unacceptable offer to forego no more than 2.6 percent of the West Bank for the sake of an accommodation with Israel.
Their negative stance, say their US advisers, gives the administration a lever for whipping Israel into line.
But the result is that Obama's plan for attacking the border issue as the key to a Middle East accommodation is stuck in the mud while still in draft, with neither side ready to come to the table, let alone bring it to fruition.
Israel argues that its foremost concern, security, is not addressed in contemporary White House thinking on the future of the West Bank – any more than it was in the past.
Evacuation of two towns would knock out Israel's central defense axis
The Obama blueprint would make it mandatory for Israel to evacuate two out of three of its West Bank towns: Ariel plus either Ma'aleh Adumim outside Jerusalem or Efrat in the southern West Bank. The three towns combine as the backbone of Israel's line of defense around its coastal and inland population centers – a system designed to ward off another round of old perils.
Ariel was built to hold back a potential invasion from the east – through or from the West Bank – before it reaches the Tel Aviv and Sharon conurbations, no more than 19 kilometers from the West Bank border.
Ma'aleh Adumim shields Jerusalem and central Israel from the east.
Efrat, capital of the Gush Etzion cluster, protects Jerusalem from the south.
The American plan would also oust the Israeli communities living in the north-to-south Jordan Rift Valley, which runs down the border separating Israel from Jordan. An Israeli military presence in this security belt is of the highest strategic importance as a barrier against future threats from Jordan, Iraq or Syria.
By throwing Israel's most vital defense system out of kilter, the new American concept for future Israeli and Palestinian borders would force the Jewish state to fundamentally revise its military doctrine and restructure its military forces and tactics.
Even on the farfetched assumption that an Israeli government and intelligence chiefs could accept the Obama program, it allows no time for this colossal upheaval – no more than four months for negotiations and only twenty-four months for Israel to withdraw from the 96 percent of the West Bank the plan designates for Palestinian statehood and relocate the 133,000 Israeli dwellers selected for eviction.
The entire project must be finished and done with by the end of 2011, according to the US guidelines.
Unrealistic on grounds of national security
Current Middle East geostrategic circumstances make this proposition totally unrealistic on security grounds: Israel and its Defense Forces are deeply immersed in preparing the country for a potential four-front conflict with Iran, Syria, Hizballah and Hamas in the light of the Islamic Republic's rapid evolution as a nuclear power. The government and the high command would find it reckless to neglect these preparations and embark instead on the fundamental shakeup of national defenses called for by new US Middle East planning.
(The next article examines why the prime minister and defense minister decided to curtail Lt. Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi's tenure as Israeli chief of staff.)
This planning entails the evacuation not just of two West Bank towns and a vital Israeli security belt, but also Elkana (population 4,000; see map), northeast of Ariel; Alfei Menashe (population 7,000), southeast of Qalqilya; Immanuel (population 3,000), in central Samaria; and Modi'in Illit (over 10,000), east of the town of Modi'in in central Israel, opposite Israel's international airport.
It may be recalled that to implement his plan of disengagement from the Gaza Strip and evacuate all 8,500 Israelis living there in 2005, the Israeli prime minister of the day, Ariel Sharon, let his ruling Likud party split in two and replaced the entire top military and police command with officers whose personal loyalty he could count on for carrying out the forcible evictions.
For two years, the armed forces and police interrupted their normal training routines to prepare for the evacuation operation. The cost to the Israeli taxpayer has so far run to $12 billion for overhauling defense systems, building new military bases around the Gaza Strip and the rehabilitation of the evacuees in new homes and jobs – a project still unfinished up to the present day – like the lingering collective trauma left by the emotional damage to the national psyche wrought by the deep popular schism over the scheme.
No Israeli leader around strong enough for mass-evacuation
The popular outcry against what was seen by many as the perversion of the military's defensive mission to serve a political agenda – and by some as anti-Zionist – has never abated in the country or the armed forces. Its certain revival will present a huge obstacle to future evacuations of any substance.
A survey of Israel's political landscape fails to turn up a single leader or party strong enough to brave the inevitable uprising and political disintegration inherent in future evacuations.
Netanyahu is going through the motions of dialogue with the Obama administration for an understanding and a formula for restarting three-cornered talks with the Palestinians, with the United States playing moderator. However, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Washington and Jerusalem report a disconnect; the administration has given Israel no choice but to buy President Obama's plan in toto and accept it as the basis for negotiations.
This peremptory note has leaked into the treatment of high-ranking White House officials who criticize the Obama outline or suggest improvements.
The president's senior advisor, Dennis Ross, for instance, after suggesting a different approach might work better, was targeted for scathing comments in public.
A senior (unnamed) White House official remarked to the Politico Web site: "He [Ross] seems to be far more sensitive to Netanyahu's coalition politics. And he doesn’t seem to understand that this has become bigger than Jerusalem but is rather about the credibility of this administration."
This reaction put paid to any Obama administration member venturing to offer an opinion on the Israeli side of the Middle East conflict.
Palestinians – neither able nor willing
Our Washington sources cite direct testimony from British ex-Prime Minister, the Middle East Quartet's envoy, Tony Blair, on his mission as overseer of the establishment of Palestinian state institutions.
Asked by administration officials and President Obama himself about progress and when the Palestinians would be ready for self-government, Blair said: "The Palestinians will never have a working government."
Asked why, he said: They don't want an independent state at this time. He went on to explain that from his four years' experience in monitoring Palestinian nation-building, he had concluded that Palestinian Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and prime minister Salam Fayyad and their followers were creating a hollow frame to convey the impression they were building the organs of state, whereas in fact their only objective is to maintain the status quo.
The British diplomat described their policy as quite simply reliance on international pressure to help the Palestinians force an Israeli withdrawal – not just to the pre-1967 lines but beyond. They are now aiming for the borders laid down in the 1947 UN Resolution which partitioned British Mandated Palestine, established the State of Israel and assigned parts of the Negev and Galilee to the Arab side. The Arabs lost these territories by going to war to destroy the new Israel state and accepting armistice lines.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources stress that Blair keeps his frank impressions of Palestinian intentions to private talks and refrains from the slightest hint in public.
International donations spent on buying loyalties
On the structure of Palestinian rule in the West Bank, our sources report that the Palestinian Authority's payroll numbers approximately 100,000 civilians and 70,000 members of the various Palestinian security and intelligence branches. Their loyalty to Abbas and Fayyad is measured in terms of their monthly salaries, in return for which they feel no need to do any work at all.
International donations to the Palestinians are estimated at $1.5 billion per annum. More than 80 percent is spent on buying the loyalty of various clans and communities. In the last two weeks, Prime Minister Fayad has begun funneling tens of millions of dollars to the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip to buy the favors of former Palestinian security service personnel.
Very little is left over to install the three basic elements of statehood – a financial system, services (education, health etc.) and job generation through new manufacturing and development enterprises. Rudiments of these elements are present only in the West Bank and only in local pockets – not on a national scale.
The Palestinian security forces are a good example of how the Palestinian pie is sliced.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources report that in the last 5 years, over $2.5 billion, primarily from American and European sources, has been earmarked for creating a West Bank security apparatus for guarding Palestinian Authority rule under Abbas and Fayyad. This vast sum has yielded 5 battalions with no more than 2,000 serving personnel and no force anywhere near capable of applying the PA's authority to the entire West Bank, or the area which President Obama projects for a Palestinian state.
Abbas is intent on exacerbating the US-Israel rift
A Western security source familiar with the security situation in the West Bank says that should a national emergency call for the PA government's deployment of a brigade at some West Bank trouble spot, no armed force of this size would be available – notwithstanding the huge foreign investment in Palestinian security.
While Fayad keeps on declaring that the Palestinians will celebrate their independent state in their capital Jerusalem in August 2011, Abbas and other PA officials, knowing the real situation, are wary of endorsing this hope.
For all these reasons, no realistic Palestinian leader wants quick solutions to the conflict – especially not the tight four-month timeline President Obama is aiming for in his plan for new borders. Their interests are very well served by the rift between Washington and Jerusalem. They will continue to exacerbate it by dragging their feet on talks and pretending to go along with the US president's intentions as long as no one is pressing them for endorsement.
When the moment comes for a formal reply, Abbas's will not be much different from Netanyahu's – albeit for different reasons: He will never agree to foregoing 4 percent of the West Bank for Israel.