Rice’s “Viable Palestinian State” Would Shrink Israel out of Jordan Valley and Most of West Bank

New US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice’s upcoming visit to the Middle East next week has galvanized the region’s leaders into a frenzied round of travel and summit consultations. The centerpiece summit will bring together Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) at Sharm al Sheikh next Tuesday. Jordan’s King Abdullah has also been invited.
Rice will take the place of President George W. Bush, who attended the last such forum, the 2003 Aqaba summit.
There are other differences.
Abbas will be coming from fruitful talks with Russian president Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin and Tayyep Erdogan in Ankara. He will have an Iranian invitation to Tehran in his pocket as well as Moscow’s offer of military aid at some future date, including helicopters, to “counterbalance” US-British defense support for the Palestinians.
Wednesday, February 2, Egyptian intelligence minister Omar Suleiman turned up in Jerusalem after talks about a ceasefire in Cairo with two Palestinian rejectionist leaders, Jihad Islami’s Ramadan Shalah and Hamas Khaled Mashal. Both are holding out for a power-sharing deal with the PLO without renouncing terrorism.
Not to be outdone in the travel stakes, Syrian president Bashar Assad suddenly flew to Amman Wednesday, February 2, to tap King Abdullah II on the goings-on and see where he could fit in.
Amid this flurry of movement, nothing has happened to change the fundamentals at stake between Israel and the Palestinians. Rice made this clear on Monday, January 31, ahead of her visit to the region and at the previous Senate hearings before her confirmation last week: “Without a viable and contiguous Palestinian state that represents the aspirations of the Palestinian people – meaning enough land to function well – there will be no peace for either Palestinian people or Israelis.”
This statement does not address the concerns troubling Jerusalem. She will no doubt be asked by Israeli officials how does that vision and the support lavished on Abu Mazen fit in with the refusal of nine Palestinian organizations, including Abbas’ own Fatah, to halt their terrorist offensive against Israel, their acceptance of a lull at most – not a ceasefire – and his own refusal to dismantle them, as required in the first stage of the Middle East road map.
Answering senators’ questions on January 18, she had this to say about her perception of a viable Palestinian state – and by definition Israel’s future borders (which will apparently be determined by default):
“There are several ways to think about viability. One is that it (the Palestinian state) has to have territory that makes it viable. It cannot be territory that is so broken up that it can’t function as a state… It has to have economic viability, and there it probably needs to have economic viability in relationship to other states around it – to Jordan, Israel and others… Viability, I think, also has a political and democracy dimension…”
She went on to say, “…as the president said when he met with prime minister Sharon back in I think this May, we have to recognize that the parties are going to determine their borders; that it is not for us to prejudge what those borders might be. There has been a lot of negotiation, I think they will need to look at what has been looked at before.”
State department officials who briefed the American press afterward interpreted Rice’s statement as meaning: the territorial contiguity of a Palestinian state with a common border with Jordan.
Israeli leaders failed to react to the new US secretary’s words or ask for much needed clarifications.
debkafile‘s sources in Washington, however – after some analysis – find room for Israel to be concerned on the following scores:
1. The Americans have been shouting from the rooftops for some time that any cluster of Israeli West Bank communities, including major towns, that obstruct Palestinian territorial contiguity must be removed. Back on December 24, we quoted Elliot Abrams, appointed by President George W. Bush this week as deputy chairman of the national security council, as saying in closed meetings – on November 30 in Washington and in New York on December 20 – that “all of the Israeli settlements east of the existing sections of the West Bank security barrier will be dismantled and evacuated”.
Abrams’ comments were no slip of the tongue; he and Rice, along with new national security chairman Stephen Hadley, are in synch in everything they say.
2. Establishment of a common frontier between Jordan and a Palestinian state to ensure the latter’s economic viability would entail Palestinian control of the Jordan Valley and also of Israeli-Jordanian border crossings. Since Israeli communities in the Jordan Valley are located east of the security fence, they are destined by the Bush administration for removal.
3. In the longer-term, Rice’s comments on contiguity are also pertinent to other countries bordering on the projected Palestinian state – Egypt to the south and Syria to the north. They means Israel will be required to withdraw from the Philadelphi Corridor on the Gaza-Egypt border, an issue now at the heart of its talks with Washington and Cairo. With Israel out of the way and the buffer zone gone frm the border, a Palestinian state will gain territorial contiguity between the Gaza Strip and Egypt’s northern Sinai peninsula.
Further down the road, after Israel returns the Golan Heights, a Palestinian state will have a common border with Syria.
Rice’s core message to Jerusalem is clear: she looks to Israel to grant the Palestinians territorial connectivity and all the land they need, along with all the accoutrements of sovereignty such as control of its borders and air and sea ports. To make it so, Israel is expected to continue pulling out of large tracts of the West Bank in addition to its volunteered evacuation of four settlements in the northern part of the territory and pullback from 21 Gush Katif locations in the Gaza Strip.
Vice Premier Shimon Peres was the only Israeli leader to graps what Rice was driving at – and he tried to sugar the pill. The new secretary of state, he explained, was referring only to Palestinian territorial contiguity in the West Bank; she did not mean a West Bank land link to the Gaza Strip.
debkafile‘s sources in Washington corrected this interpretration. Rice, they said, was as clear as rain in physically connecting the two territories. After all, if the Bush administration is advocating a territorial link between a Palestinian state and Jordan and Egypt, it is hardly likely to forego a land link for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Moreover, our sources say, a West Bank-Gaza corridor – via an elevated highway or a tunnel — was on the agenda at the Camp David negotations in 2000 and other Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in the past, with the Palestinians demanding a fully sovereign land corridor to cut through southern Israel.
As Rice said, “There has been a lot of negotiation, I think they will need to look at what has been looked at before.”
All of these statements from the incoming US secretary of state are in glaring contrast with Sharon’s constant claim of an understanding with Bush at the same White House talks to which she refered that Israel would not be asked to return to the pre-1967 Middle East war borders under any permanent peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Obviously, the prime minister’s office and the Bush adminsitration have differing perceptions of this understanding. Perhaps the key to the gap is to be found in the letter Bush sent Sharon after their talks, in which he referred only to the 1949 armistice lines set after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and avoided any reference to the 1967 frontier.

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