The myth of an Israeli pullout from occupied areas

By Andrei Murtazin, RIA Novosti,

Moscow : The latest statements by retiring Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on his country’s withdrawal from the occupied areas provoked a shock reaction in Israel and restrained joy among Arabs.

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“I am saying what no previous Israeli leader has ever said: We should withdraw from almost all of the territories, including in East Jerusalem and in the Golan Heights,” Olmert said in an interview to the Yedioth Ahronoth on the eve of the Jewish New Year.

Olmert’s statement astounds only at first thought. Only a person half informed about the realities of the Middle East could believe that Israel would pull out from the Golan Heights, leaving their settlements on the West Bank, or withdraw from East Jerusalem and leave it to Arabs. It will take Israel decades to withdraw even a third of its resettlements from the areas.

The possibility of Israel withdrawing from the Golan Heights, which was Syria’s territory captured by Israel in the six-day war of 1967, was mentioned back in the beginning of the 1990s by then Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, which cost him his life.

He was assassinated by Yigal Amir, a radical right-wing Orthodox Jew, in Tel Aviv Nov 4, 1995. Amir claimed he was saving the country from the Oslo Accord.

In 1993, at the negotiations in Oslo, Rabin recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), while PLO leader Yasser Arafat officially recognized Israel.

The agreements resulted in the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), which took control of part of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with mixed reactions coming from the Israelis, part of whom considered Rabin a hero for his efforts to ensure peace while the others saw in him a traitor who gave away the lands which belonged to Israel.

At the end of the 1990s, the possibility of returning East Jerusalem to Arabs was considered by Israeli politician Ehud Barak.

However, the second Palestinian uprising, or the Second Intifada, which broke out in 2000, brought all peace-making efforts to a halt, with the “hawk” Ariel Sharon taking the place of the “dove” Ehud Barak.

For Israel, the issue of East Jerusalem is much more painful than the Gaza Strip, which was given away to Palestinians three years ago, or the West Bank currently under control of the Palestinian National Authority and partly by Israel.

East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights were captured by Israel to be annexed eventually in 1980 – that is, according to the local law they are treated not as captured territory but as part of Israel.

Meanwhile, UN Security Council did not recognize the act of annexation (the US abstained from the voting), and in line with the UN plan on dividing Palestine, Jerusalem had to become an international territory and not a capital of any state.

Now, Israelis call Jerusalem their ‘united and undivided’ native land, while Palestinian Arabs intend to declare East Jerusalem, most of whose residents are Arabs, as the future capital of a Palestinian state.

The situation with the Golan Heights is no less complicated. Twelve years ago, the “doves” of Israeli politics, Yitzhak Rabin and later his successor Shimon Peres, spoke of the possibility to return the Heights to Syria.

Peres mentioned a compensation of $17 billion for resettling the Israelis living in the area. Bill Clinton administration was ready to pay it. However, today the Israelis claim the sum is insufficient.

The Golan Heights’ key resource is not land but the Sea of Genneseret, or Lake Kinneret.

Damascus lost the territory and the access to its water resources in the six-day war, with the water supply issue being more urgent for Israel than for Syria.

So far, it is unclear how much Israel will claim as compensation for water from the US.

Even if Tel Aviv agrees on peace with Syria, the Israeli government will demand that the international mediators, primarily the US, provide guarantees for security of the country’s northern borders, which means that they will have to secure peace in southern Lebanon.

Syria, however, is unlikely to offer Israel these guarantees, which should instead be demanded from Iran, the latter providing wide and abundant support to the Lebanon-based Shia Islamic political and militant organization Hezbollah.

But even if we imagine the impossible – that Syrians and Israelis agree on peace talks without mediators involved – the peace agreement will not be reached any time soon.

There are just too many obstacles, so the statement of soon to retire Olmert is apparently destined to remain on paper for a great while.