Benvenisti sounds off

Benvenisti sounds off

Meron Benvenisti – a former Labor deputy mayor of Jerusalem, a city planner, and a powerful writer – is understandably bitter about Israel’s ongoing settlement policies in the territories and its discriminatory land use policies within Green Line Israel. He is not apologetic for living as a Jew in the land of Israel/Palestine, and remembers being a boy in Jerusalem under siege in 1948 and playing soccer with youngsters a few years older who were soon all killed in an ambush attempting to defend the Etzion Bloc of kibbutzim that was captured by Arab forces in that war (his brief account in his book, “Sacred Landscapes,” is memorable). Yet my understanding is that he’s given up on the two-state solution and therefore is no longer really in our camp.

Some of his pronouncements can be challenged in the article published in Haaretz, May 25. Perhaps Sharon once had a plan to leave the Palestinians in control of 11% of the original Mandate (one half of their 22% left over from the 1948 war), but none of us really know that he had such a plan when he became comatose. I am suspicious of Benvenisti’s use of this figure with such precision.

Olmert has more than hinted for some time that his “plan” is/was for the Palestinians to possess about 20% of the original Palestinian Mandate (about 90% of the West Bank). Barak was offering more than 21% (up to 97% of the West Bank plus parts of Jerusalem). The UN partition plan of 1947 offered around 45% with slightly more going to the Jews and 5-10% remaining within an international zone that would have included Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The 1937 British partition plan (Peel Commission) offered the Jews about 15-20% and the Arabs as much as 80%. All of these options were accepted by the mainstream Zionist movement and violently rejected by the Arabs. This is something to think about when reading Benvenisti below:

Time for a new lexicon Ha’aretz – 25 May, 2007
By Meron Benvenisti

If you study the public discourse on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you will discover a fascinating phenomenon: The concepts that were coined during the 1970s continue to define a reality that has since changed beyond recognition. The old concepts that comprise the dictionary of the conflict have turned into code words that make any argument or clarification superfluous.

Concepts like “dividing the land,” “settlements,” “occupation,” “separation” or “a Palestinian state” are perceived as self-evident and those who use them assume the listener attributes an identical meaning to them. The terms, which were meant to simplify reality, have become absolute concepts with qualitative values. When using these terms, a person defines himself as belonging to a particular political camp: “the West Bank” versus “Judea and Samaria,” “partition” versus “giving up parts of the homeland,” hityashvut versus hitnahalut (two Hebrew terms for “settlement” – the latter is generally used to refer to settlements located beyond the 1967 Green Line), and so on. Here are a few such concepts:

  • “Partitioning the land / Giving up parts of the homeland” – The concept of “partition” has always served as a gauge for peace and compromise, an absolute concept that does not need to be defined in quantitative terms. Thus, according to the original partition of 1947, the Palestinian territory was slated to encompass about half of Mandatory Palestine. The armistice lines reduced this to 22 percent and the Allon Plan left it 14 percent. The “Sharon plan” (dealing with the route of the separation fence, the settlement blocs and Jordan Valley) leaves 11 percent of the land of Mandatory Palestine in the hands of the Palestinians. The size of the “partitioned” land is ostensibly not important and many portrayed the latest “partition of the land” – presented as the “convergence” plan” – as a historic compromise. Those supporting it were considered “leftists” and the Palestinians who rejected it were labeled “rejectionists of peace.” Right-wing circles, which once considered concession to be treason, are now prepared to “subtract” densely populated areas “in order to solve the demographic problem.” What is left of the principle of partition?
  • “Hitnahalut / hityashvut” – The struggle for and against the establishment of Jewish settlements beyond the Green Line has defined the opposing ideological camps since the 1970s and continues to do so – even though in today’s reality these settlements have lost their original significance. During the 1970s and ’80s, the act of constructing a settlement in the territories played a decisive role in determining political facts. Sometime during the late 1980s, the settlements crossed a critical threshold and attained an ongoing demographic and urban development. A legal infrastructure was created that led to their de facto annexation to the State of Israel, and the number of settlements has since become “irrelevant” because of the sophisticated instruments of Israeli rule, which have completely blurred the distinction between “sovereign Israel” and “the territories.” The separation wall and its entrance points – the “sterile” roads, the checkpoints – have taken on the role of the settlements. Ariel Sharon understood that the settlements no longer carried their old significance and therefore did not hesitate to dismantle them in the Gaza Strip. But the left and right continue to quarrel over every prefab dwelling.
  • “Occupation / liberation” – The use of the concept “occupation” is the supreme test of affiliation with the “enlightened” camp. From a legal term describing a situation of “belligerent occupation” of enemy territory by a foreign army, it became a definition of political ideology. Those who use the term “occupation” relate to the occupied territories as a “foreign region” that is different from “sovereign” Israel. But where is the border between the motherland and the occupied colony? No model of military conquest can accommodate the Bantustans that have been created in the West Bank and explain how half of the territory has been effectively annexed; only a strategy of annexation and permanent control can explain the enormous settlement enterprise. The “military” component is secondary to the civilian component, and the settlers have turned the army into a militia that serves them. The definition of the occupied territories, after 40 years, is an anachronism aimed at emphasizing the temporary nature of the situation that “must end” when peace comes. All this is designed to avoid making decisions on immediate dilemmas.

Reality has caught up with the lexicon of the conflict, leaving only anachronistic slogans. This contributes to blurring the situation, thus facilitating the continuation of the violent status quo. It would have been fitting if the 40th anniversary of the 1967 war had served as a catalyst for composing a new lexicon.

By | 2007-05-30T14:28:00-04:00 May 30th, 2007|Blog|8 Comments


  1. Anonymous May 30, 2007 at 5:00 pm - Reply

    Hi Ralph,

    Yes, the Palestinians are to blame. They always refuse such wonderful offers of how much of their land they are to lose.

    First they refused to give up 55% of their homeland. Then they refused to give up around 80% of their homeland. Why would any people “respond with violence” (as if Israelis were not simultaneously committing larger-scale violence against Palestinians) to having the majority of their land taken from them?

    Factually, it is also not clear that you are accurate either. Barak did not offer 97%. This is what long-time US negotiator Robert Malley and his colleague Hussein Agha say:
    “The final and largely unnoticed consequence of Barak’s approach is that, strictly speaking, there never was an Israeli offer. Determined to preserve Israel’s position in the event of failure, and resolved not to let the Palestinians take advantage of one-sided compromises, the Israelis always stopped one, if not several, steps short of a proposal. The ideas put forward at Camp David were never stated in writing, but orally conveyed. They generally were presented as US concepts, not Israeli ones; indeed, despite having demanded the opportunity to negotiate face to face with Arafat, Barak refused to hold any substantive meeting with him at Camp David out of fear that the Palestinian leader would seek to put Israeli concessions on the record. Nor were the proposals detailed. If written down, the American ideas at Camp David would have covered no more than a few pages. Barak and the Americans insisted that Arafat accept them as general “bases for negotiations” before launching into more rigorous negotiations.

    According to those “bases,” Palestine would have sovereignty over 91 percent of the West Bank; Israel would annex 9 percent of the West Bank and, in exchange, Palestine would have sovereignty over parts of pre-1967 Israel equivalent to 1 percent of the West Bank, but with no indication of where either would be. On the highly sensitive issue of refugees, the proposal spoke only of a “satisfactory solution.” Even on Jerusalem, where the most detail was provided, many blanks remained to be filled in. Arafat was told that Palestine would have sovereignty over the Muslim and Christian quarters of the Old City, but only a loosely defined “permanent custodianship” over the Haram al-Sharif, the third holiest site in Islam. The status of the rest of the city would fluctuate between Palestinian sovereignty and functional autonomy. Finally, Barak was careful not to accept anything. His statements about positions he could support were conditional, couched as a willingness to negotiate on the basis of the US proposals so long as Arafat did the same.”

    This is what long-time US Negotiator Aaron Miller says:

    “If we couldn’t put proposals on the table without checking with the Israelis first, and refused to push back when they said no, how effective could our mediation be? Far too often, particularly when it came to Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, our departure point was not what was needed to reach an agreement acceptable to both sides but what would pass with only one — Israel.”

    “This critique should not diminish then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s boldness at Camp David or Yasser Arafat’s failure to negotiate seriously there. But the primary issue was neither Barak’s generosity nor Arafat’s perfidy; instead, the emphasis should have been on assessing, coldly and objectively, what it would take to reach an agreement acceptable to both sides. If we knew the gaps were too large (and we suspected they were), we should have resisted Barak’s pressure to go for a make-or-break summit and then blame the Palestinians when it failed. What we ended up doing was advocating Israel’s positions before, during and after the summit.”

    Only Dennis Ross of WINEP is on your side.

    You seem unconcerned with whether “Barak’s offer”, whatever it may have been, would have provided Palestinians with a viable state. Really, the world has been through these debates about “Barak’s generous offer” repeatedly. Do you need to recycle the same tired myths?

    As for where Benvenisti concluded that Sharon’s planned to offer 11% it is pretty simple and straighforward. Have you been to the West Bank lately, because it is simply what is being implemented on the ground. The Wall is acknowledged to take around 10.5% of the West Bank, the Jordan Valley which Israel has effectively annexed according to B’Tselem takes around 30% of the West Bank ( Other pieces of Hebron, expansion around Ariel, Modi’din Illit, etc., lead many analysts, including the World Bank to the figure of 50% of the West Bank, and hence to Benvinisti’s figure of 11%.

    The World Bank, May 2007
    “These administrative restrictions, rooted in military orders associated with the occupation of West Bank and Gaza (WB&G), are used to restrict Palestinian access to large segments of the West Bank including all areas within the municipal boundaries of settlements, the “seam zone”,
    the Jordan Valley, East Jerusalem, restricted roads and other ‘closed’ areas. Estimates of the total restricted area are difficult to come by, but it appears to be in excess of 50% of the land of the West Bank.”

    Israeli control of 50% of the West Bank was certainly in place before Sharon was disabled a bit more than a year ago. If you prefer to pretend this is not the case, I’d suggest that you go drive around the West Bank today and see if you leave believing the Israeli government is not exerting major efforts to make Israeli control of 50% of the West Bank permanent.

    We should grant Benvinisti some credit as he has seen up close with his own eyes how this has evolved over time. If you look back at his old writing, you will see that he has been quite prescient until now.


  2. Ralph Seliger May 30, 2007 at 6:04 pm - Reply

    My friend, Zack, strikes again. I don’t think that Barak’s “offer” was all that generous, and I do think that the US posture as mediator was flawed. But just as one can always sympathize with the Palestinians for refusing to negotiate away much or most of their homeland, to defend their repeated recourse to violence does them no favors. If Arafat had the courage and wisdom to come to an agreement with Barak, this conflict would be over and the Palestinians would be getting on with their lives in peace, not cowering in their homes dodging Israeli and Palestinian bullets and bombs, and being on the verge of starvation.

  3. Anonymous May 30, 2007 at 6:52 pm - Reply

    Hi Ralph,

    This is obfuscation. You present Palestinians as using violence and Israel offering peace repeatedly but being rejected.

    “All of these options were accepted by the mainstream Zionist movement and violently rejected by the Arabs.”

    When has Israel not employed violence? I challenge you to name one period during which Israeli violence against Palestinians ceased.

    I think it is pretty certain that the Palestinian mainstream and Arafat would have accepted an agreement whereby Israel gave up 100% of the West Bank, Gaza and Palestinian East Jerusalem. Hell, the PLO agreed to that and that is what Palestinians continually offered to Israel.

    Why have Israeli leaders not had the “courage and wisdom” to accept this Palestinian offer of peace, which is based in international law and is the international consensus everywhere in the world, except in Israel (and right-wingers in the US, and now seemingly Meretz-USA)?

    Speaking of using violence, you may recall that from September 5, 1997 – September 2000, a total of 15 Israelis were killed by Palestinians, almost all of them were killed within the Occupied Territories and not in Israel proposer. During Ami Ayalon’s final year as head of Shin Bet from 1999-2000, one Israeli civilian was killed.

    What did Palestinians get from this peaceful period (that is peaceful on the Palestinian side)? Israeli settlements doubled in size, and Ehud Barak inched his way up to 80 per cent or the low 90 percent of the West Bank.

    Why is there no Israeli partner for peace and why does Israel never relent in its violence?

    You would like to claim that Meretz is a voice for peace, but in continually putting forward these tired, one-sided arguments you certainly lead me, and I would imagine other readers, to doubt that.


  4. Anonymous May 30, 2007 at 11:00 pm - Reply

    By the way, Ralph, were you to read, as one example, David Makovsky’s May 2006 WINEP report, “Olmert’s Unilateral Option, An Early Assessment”, I think you would find reason to question your assertion that Olmert planned to give back 90% of the West Bank:

    Makovsky, paralleling Olmert, continually notes the 90%, but he also keeps slipping in, plus the Jordan Valley, plus Hebron, plus Ariel, plus, plus,… I can find the quotes from both if you need them.

    The 90% appears to have been more spin than reality, another moving target like Barak’s 95%, though neither Makovsky nor Olmert acknowledges it. But it’s there if you read carefully. And all the plusses could reach up to the 50% that Benvenisti notes.


  5. Ralph Seliger May 31, 2007 at 2:12 pm - Reply

    In both Meretz and Meretz USA, we support the Geneva Initiative that precisely endorses the equivalent (after territorial exchanges) of 100% of the West Bank and much or most of East Jerusalem coming under Palestinian rule. We also recognize that from 1997-Sept. 2000, there was good security cooperation between Israel and the PA and virtually no violence. But the damage had already been done, because Netanyahu was in power in most of those years, catapulted thru an electoral reversal made possible by the wave of terror attacks in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in Feb-March 1996, in the midst of the election campaign.

    Peres can be said to have brought this upon Israel with the unwise decision to kill the Hamas “engineer,” Yihya Ayyash. But killing the perpetrator of the murders and injuries of 100 or more civilians is one thing; the Hamas and Islamic Jihad reaction to randomly murder 60 people in buses and on the street is another. One suicide bomber blew himself up in the middle of children and mothers celebrating Purim.

    Zack is mistaken that Israel has never stopped its “violence.” With the exception of crimes committed by militant settlers — shameful acts in Hebron and elsewhere that we oppose — Israel’s use of power has generally been in response to attacks or warnings of attack. While this is in line with the sovereign right of any state to defend its population, we often disagree with the application of force in particular cases.

  6. Anonymous May 31, 2007 at 2:52 pm - Reply

    Dear Ralph,

    1) “after territorial exchanges” – Ralph, can you explain to me why Palestinians should agree to territorial exchanges? For the life of me, I can’t get it, other than to accomodate large, illegal Israeli settlements that have taken yet more Palestinian land.

    After conceding 78% of their homeland, why are you demanding yet another Palestinian concession to Israel’s illegal and immoral actions?

    2) “Zack is mistaken that Israel has never stopped its “violence… Israel’s use of power has generally been in response to attacks or warnings of attack.”

    Ralph, you seem to have a very limited understanding of both what violence is, and what violence Israel perpetrates. Israeli occupation and settlement involve tens or perhaps hundreds of daily acts of aggressive Israeli violence against Palestinians.

    How, for example, do you think that sustaining the existance of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land and facilitating settlement expansion happens? Peacefully?

    So let’s return to the Oslo period, during which the number of Israeli settlers doubled, and even 1997 – 2000 when there were almost no Palestinian attacks. Settlement growth accelerated, unchecked. Sharon said in 1998, run to the hills, what is ours will be ours. The Israeli government did nothing to stop this and even supported it.

    Occupation and settlement involve, probably in tens of places each day, Israeli soldiers and/or settlers taking more land, preventing Palestinians from going to their land, often attacking Palestinians civilians who attempt to go their land, often arresting them, almost always threatening them with violence. Simply just maintaining the existing settlements requires all this, as tens of Palestinian each day attempt to challenge the past seizure of their land.

    Maintaining and expanding Israeli control over the land and resources requires the system of control – checkpoints, roadblocks, restrictions on movement – which often again involve beatings, arrest, and always the threat of violence by armed Israeli soldiers and settlers against Palestinian civilians.

    And all this daily violence of occupation and settlement touched and touch a large percentage of Palestinians daily.

    So, no Ralph, Israel has never ceased this violence for even a single day. Israeli violence has not simply been a “response” to Palestinians. It has been aggressive, initiated by Israel. That you can be blind to this is and perpetuate these types of myths is a bit mind-boggling. Failing to recognize this displays a fundamental lack of understanding of Israeli actions and Palestinian experiences on your part.


  7. Ralph Seliger May 31, 2007 at 4:26 pm - Reply

    Zack must be right. Israelis are always in the wrong and Palestinians are always and forever in the right. They are always humane and effective in advancing their interests, which is why they’ve had a state alongside Israel since 1948.

    But seriously, Zack should get a hold of Rashid Khalidi’s latest book, “The Iron Cage,” and Sari Nusseibeh’s new memoir. It’s Palestinians who need to talk sense to him. But he should also read my words in their context, instead of selecting the equivalent of sound bites. He argues as if I support Israel’s settlement policies.

    Why should there be a land swap, he asks? Because it would facilitate a peace agreement that would give rise to a Palestinian state.

  8. Anonymous May 31, 2007 at 9:00 pm - Reply

    Dear Ralph,

    Point number one is not whether Israelis or Palestinians are always right or wrong, but that you have fundamentally misrepresented central realities here:

    “Zack is mistaken that Israel has never stopped its “violence.” With the exception of crimes committed by militant settlers — shameful acts in Hebron and elsewhere that we oppose — Israel’s use of power has generally been in response to attacks or warnings of attack.”

    As I’ve stated above, settlement and occupation, which have been unceasing since 1967, are violent. Every day, probably in hundreds of locations, settlement and occupation touch tens of thousands of Palestinian lives with violence. There are more than 120 settlements inside the West Bank and 546 roadblocks, checkpoints, obstacles, etc.. Each of these locations represents a place where offensive violence is committed against Palestinians by Israeli soldiers and settlers. It is not just a question of radical settlers in Hebron or Itimar.

    If you can’t acknowldege the centrality, pervasiveness and continuous nature of this Israeli violence then your viewpoints are hopelessly one-sided and flawed.

    Secondly, I generally agree with Rashid Khalidi’s views, and I certainly recognize many vital criticisms of Palestinian leadership. Ralph, I don’t need to talk to more Palestinians, but per my point above and what follows below, I would suggest that you need to.

    You assert that landswaps “would facilitate a peace agreement that would give rise to a Palestinian state.” I think the point you may be missing here is that while some Palestinians leaders might sign agreements making more concessions to Israel, the more concessions they make and the more those agreements depart from what is just and fair, the less likely that the Palestinian people will actually live by the agreement signed by their leaders.

    You appear to recognize that the settlements are both immoral and illegal (note, I never said you support Israel’s settlement policies). Yet you are willing to argue in support of maintaining many settlements. Why?

    As you know, the locations for the settlements were not chosen randomly. They were chosen because they sit on strategic resources and in strategic geographic locations. Why do you ask Palestinians to give that up and accept instead some land in the Negev? Do you believe that doing so will actually make for a viable agreement that Palestinians will accept, and live peacefully with?

    If I get so worked up about the immorality and injustice of maintaining some settlements, created by violence and theft, how do you think Palestinians feel? There is no moral argument for accepting the theft that Israel has simply imposed through violence.

    On top of that you will ask most Palestinians to give up their option to return to what were their homes in Israel and to live on a space that is about 1/4th the size of Israel though their population is nowhere near 1/4 of that of Israel. Why do you believe Palestinians will accept all those gaps between their situation and what is just, fair and moral?

    You should be advocating for solutions that minimize the extent that Palestinians make concessions beyond giving up 78% of their homeland. I believe that landswaps and the Geneva Accords very limited provisions on the right of return represent more injustice than what the Palestinian public will swallow, and that therefore, you are not actually advocating “a peace agreement.” You are instead advocating for likely failure and continued conflict.

    Sari Nusseibeh may not believe that. He is willing to make many concessions on behalf of the Palestinian people, and you like him for that. But Sari Nusseibeh represents few Palestinians. He is largely isolated and out of touch with the Palestinian public. Yasser Abed Rabbo is a bit more in touch than Nusseibeh, but still, he is pretty out of touch at this point.

    There is no point in advocating for a peace agreement if it will not actually result in peace.


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