IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Mideast’s season of the peace plans

During a recent lull in violence, a “season of peace plans” suddenly sprang from the smoke and rubble of Israel’s six-week military offensive. NBC’s Jim Maceda considers the array of proposals.
/ Source: NBC News

It’s one more dilemma for this troubled land: On the one hand, Israelis seem convinced Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Authority will never accept any serious peace proposal. On the other, they also feel a visceral need for some kind of plan — any plan that appears to move toward peace.

>PERHAPS that explains why, as almost two weeks passed with relative quiet between recent suicide bombings, a “season of peace plans” suddenly sprang from the smoke and rubble of Israel’s six-week military offensive.

Now every Israeli party seems to have plans — including three proposals from the dovish Labor Party, part of Ariel Sharon’s coalition government.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize with Arafat for the doomed Oslo Peace Accord of 1993, says his four-part plan has the backing of influential Palestinian politicians.

Critics call it an ambitious exercise in daydreaming. As with the Oslo deal, Peres’ plan is short on critical detail. The first stage would see a unified Palestinian military command and restructuring of the Palestinian Authority so that a stronger, more unified body could at least attempt to crack down on Islamic extremists and rein in terror.

That, in fact, is what the Palestinian leadership has been trying to do over the past week, with Arafat himself offering cautious backing for an election within the next six months.

The second stage of the Peres plan is mutual recognition: Israel would recognize an independent state of Palestine on the roughly two-thirds of Gaza and one-fifth of the West Bank that Palestinians fully control, in return for Palestinian recognition of Israel’s right to exist.

Then would come the hard part: a 12-month period of negotiations over outstanding issues that, in the past, have each proven to be an Achilles’ heel: borders, the future of Jewish settlements, the partition of Jerusalem and the right of return of refugees, to name just a few.

Finally, implementing the deal would take “a number of years.”


If the Peres plan is seen more as an ethereal balloon than a way out of the current impasse, two other Labor-inspired plans are grabbing headlines.

First, a three-part plan from Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer offers Palestinians a surprising number of carrots, even more than the “take-it-or-leave-it” deal offered Arafat by then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak at Camp David in July 2000.

It includes a Palestinian state in “most” of the West Bank and Gaza; the evacuation of Jewish settlements; and Palestinian control of East Jerusalem, with international control over the holy sites of the Old City.

But those items come in the third and final stage. To get there, Ben-Eliezer wants a successful “war on terror,” which means neutralizing armed Palestinian fighters and suicide bombers in yet more aggressive forays into Palestinian territory.

That would be followed by a “security separation” — a large, contiguous buffer zone similar to the three-mile-wide Zone of Separation between Bosnia’s Serb and Muslim republics agreed to in the Dayton peace agreement.


Ben-Eliezer’s plan must compete with yet another new plan: one that is more simple, and for now more popular — at least within the Labor Party’s central committee.

It comes from parliament member Haim Ramon, who hopes to replace Ben-Eliezer as the Labor candidate for prime minister in 2003.

Ramon’s plan calls for just one stage: unilateral separation. Israel pulls back to where it feels secure, pulls out its settlements and erects a sort of chain-link Berlin Wall — similar to the fence already along the Gaza border — to separate the two peoples and, presumably, thwart potential terrorists. No further negotiations; no outstanding issues.

As radical as that sounds, it is leading a popularity race inside the Labor Party and remains the talk of an Israeli electorate stunned by 19 months of Palestinian violence. It’s also an indication of just how much the Israeli left now fears doing business with its one-time partner, the Palestinian Authority.


Israel’s right has plans too, and they appear even more contradictory than Labor’s latest batch.

For instance, the plan — or non-plan, some say — proposed by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu embarrassed Sharon when it won a straw vote at a recent Likud Party meeting.

Netanyahu’s proposals seek a strict status quo: The Palestinian Authority would control its current part of the West Bank and Gaza while Israel would continue to rule its part. But there is no place for a Palestinian state in this plan — ever.

Sharon, meanwhile, has kept the details of his plan close to his chest. What is known of his proposal ironically makes him look like a moderate, at least within his Likud Party.

He says he accepts the eventuality of a Palestinian state, but not before a long interim period, lasting a decade or more, during which Palestinians prove they can reject terrorism and live in peace. Many Palestinians call this a recipe for war.

Still, the man behind this plan has the backing of his people, according to the latest polls.


On the other side, Arab nations — and the Palestinians — have rallied behind a proposal from Saudi leader Crown Prince Abdullah that was formalized at the recent Arab League Summit in Beirut.

The Saudi plan is a benchmark against which all the Israeli plans — old and new — pale, as far as the Palestinians are concerned. It offers Israel full relations with the Arab world in return for a complete withdrawal from all territory occupied in 1967’s Six Day War.

The proposal’s outline is short, sweet and, for most Israelis, impossible. Such a plan triggers Israel’s primal fear: an Arab stranglehold around its throat, in this case only several miles wide along parts of the pre-1967 Green Line.

Palestinian officials, meanwhile, reject the Israeli notion — popular in Western capitals — that they have refused to negotiate a deal. A Palestinian security official who was a chief negotiator at both 1998 talks in Wye River, Md., near Camp David, and last year’s talks in Taba, Egypt, said his side is willing to make a deal.“We are ready to negotiate. But we need to see a serious plan,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The Camp David deal offered us 90 percent of the land, but almost no sovereignty. The Taba deal was much better, but we just ran out of time. Now, with Sharon in power, there is no going back.”


What can be learned from this flurry of diplomatic solutions?

First, a Palestinian state is no longer a taboo. Even those extreme right-wing Likud members who voted against a Palestinian state also agree that one is inevitable. That, in itself, is a quantum leap in the Israeli political universe.

Second, no one knows how to achieve this proposed birth of a nation without passing through stages that are either unbearable for Israelis or unacceptable to Palestinians.

Finally: No matter how unrealistic, peace plans do bring hope.

For Israelis, it’s hope for a future without suicide bombings; for Palestinians, it’s hope for an independent nation.

Tragically, in this land, such hopes are short-lived. As soon as a bomber struck last weekend in Netanya, Sharon sealed off all of the major West Bank towns as well as Gaza, Palestinians hunkered down for a new round of Operation Defensive Shield, and Israeli pundits soberly marked the “end of an illusion” — a period of quiet where it seemed talk of peace was again possible.

NBC correspondent Jim Maceda is currently on assignment in the Middle East.