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April 21, 2002
Contradicting the Rabbi

By Jules Rabin


Dear Rabbi Schiffer,

You brought up the matter of Barak's now-famous (and too little examined) "generous offer" in your remarks on Vermont Public Radio yesterday. I know that arguments concerning diplomatic particulars can be very tedious, but since your citation of Barak's offer led you to the terrifying and, I think, wild conclusion that Arafat's refusal of Barak's proposal signified that he (Arafat) preferred bloody engagement to reasonable settlement, I suggest that you look more closely at some of the facts of the matter.

Gush-Shalom, the Israeli peace organization, with which I presume you're familiar, is my chief source of information on Barak's offer. I invite you to examine their representation of the case at: www.gush-shalom.org/generous/generous.html . The maps are especially revealing

To blend my own view with Gush-Shalom's:
The dispute between Barak and Arafat had to do with the disposition of the land lying to the East of the Green Line, that is supposed to constitute the new Palestinian state. That territory to the East of the Green line represents, in the first place, 22% of the "original" territory of Mandated Palestine. Significantly, that 22% represents less than half of the 45% of Mandated Palestine that was supposed to have been left to Palestinians according to the UN settlement of 1948. The missing 23% was absorbed by Israel.

In 1970, the Jewish population of the West bank and Gaza numbered 1514. In 1998, the Jewish population there had grown monumentally, to 172,000. The figures now, 4 years later, is much greater: we know that Barak, while prime minister, introduced/permitted more settlements than had Netanyahu, his conservative predecessor, and the establishment of new settlements continues apace, as evidenced by aerial observations in recent weeks -- even in this period of virtual war between Israelis and Palestinians. If Jewish settlers in the newly-demarcated region of East Jerusalem are figured in with settlers in the West Bank and Gaza, the total number of our Jews who have somehow established themselves in the 22% of Mandated Palestine that since 1967 has been left to the Palestinians, is in the neighborhood of 400,000.

You said on VPR that the Palestinians were requested by Barak to give up 5% of their territory to the new Israeli settlers. It can be argued, as Gush-Shalom does, that that figure is more like 10%. And as the Gush Shalom maps show, another 10% of the Palestinians' 22%, consisting of the areas bordering on Jordan and Egypt, would remain in Israeli hands for an unspecified period.

There is more to this story.

In the first place, and most importantly, the Jewish settlements (of which there are now 279, according to the UN) bring with them all those features of Israeli military control and suppression that have rendered civil life for Palestinians quite impossible, and that, tragically, are driving countless Palestinians quite mad ... in too many cases mad to the point of becoming suicidal. The second of the four young woman suicide-bombers of recent weeks had lost a brother the month before she performed her act, and a fiance the week before. She deemed her life no longer worth living, and I suspect that mingled with her despair was a seething hatred of Them. That is, Us.

(Rabbi, I must interject here a very personal note; I feel that your role as a specialist in moral questions permits and indeed encourages this.
I must say to you that I cannot understand how any person, and particularly any Jew who lives in the tradition of Rachmonis, and who knows how the world looked away from us in the Nazi years, cannot be overcome at what the Palestinian people have been enduring these last 18 months. We are horrified, absolutey, at the butchery and mayhem produced by the sporadic suicide bombings of Israelis. But have we not the imagination and the plain arithmetic competency to see how much greater, even before the horrors of Jenin, have been the death and destruction and the devastation of daily civil life that our people have brought down on the Palestinians ... not once or twice a week, which is the tempo of current suicide bombings, but every day and every hour of the week? Have we already drowned ourselves, morally, in the tribalist idea that a hundred Arab lives aren't worth one Jewish fingernail?)

In the second place (to resume my charge), Israel has been flouting the contemporary laws of warfare as embodied in the Fourth Geneva Convention of which Israel is a signatory.
It is absolutely illegal, under the terms of the Geneva Convention, for a nation to settle its own people in territory that it is occupying militarily.
It is also illegal to commit acts of collective punishment.
It is also illegal to endanger the lives of civilians in the course of military action.
It is also illegal to torture prisoners.
It is also illegal to perform out-of-hand executions ... what the Israelis, in the course of performing them, have called targeted killings.

What dumbfounds me is that we take no account of, pay no attention to, all of these patent illegalities, which surely should be salient in the eyes of moral beings, or at least in the eyes of people who believe in the rule of law. Is it any wonder that Palestinians feel abandoned by the world, and find in themselves permission to do heinous things, because the world at large has disregarded its own fundamental laws?

Returning to details which "Barak's generous offer" would entail.... Surely you know that the 5% (your figure) of Palestinian territory that would be retained by Israel to accomodate those clusters of settlements she would not relinquish, would cause the division of what was supposed to be the sovereign territory of a new Palestinian state into noncontiguous zones and enclaves. The geographic situation of those enclaves, moreover, would require special roads for the Israeli military, and, if today's arrangements are continued, special roads also for Israeli civilians from which Palestinians would be barred. Does there exist any other country in the world so divided up?

Furthermore: Israel requires that it should control the air space above the new Palestine, and every foot of Palestine's border. Exit from and entrance to Palestine would be under Israeli control. And finally -- amazingly -- the very water resources under Palestine, the blue gold of the Mideast, would be controlled by Israelis.

So ... how could you speak of the offer that Barak made as "generous?" And if Barak had a dual sensitivity, as a Palestinian himself and as the leader of an already outraged people, how could he have accepted such an offer, in his own name and for them?

Would the founders of the Israeli State have accepted such an offer, though an unperceiving world called it "generous?"?

And if the offer was not generous, as you said it was, but outrageous, as I've tried to convey to you, is it really the case, as you declared last night, that in turning down Barak's offer, Arafat wilfully chose the way of bloodshed?

I think not.


Jules Rabin
Marshfield, Vermont

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