At the Oslo summit in October 1999, Ehud Barak rejected Yasser Arafat's demand to freeze Jewish settlement during the final-status negotiations. Though Yasser Arafat has declared himself "happy" with the implementation of the Sharm el-Sheikh agreement, he added that the peace process would lose momentum if settlement activity and the confiscation of land do not come to a complete stop.
The fate of the land (in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem) is the main bone of contention between Israelis and Palestinians even before they start tackling complex issues such as Jerusalem, the Palestinian refugees or final borders. In Palestinian eyes, all Jewish settlements in the occupied territories which have been under Israeli rule since 1967 are illegal: the Fourth Geneva Convention (1948) explicitly forbids the settling of citizens of an occupying power on occupied land. This view is shared by the international community, but has been rejected by Israel for the last 33 years. Israeli governments have invented a juridical gimmick of "administered" instead of "occupied" territories. This enabled them to have the best of both worlds: on the one hand they ignore the provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention and feel free to settle the West Bank and Gaza at will; on the other hand, Israel refrained from formally annexing the West Bank and Gaza, thus depriving the Palestinian population of the normal protection that a government owes its citizens against land confiscation and other arbitrary measures.
Ehud Barak is upholding this juridical fiction. According to him, if the 42 embryonic settlements put up on various hilltops in the West Bank were authorized by Binyamin Netanyahu's defense minister, they can be considered legal. An interministerial committee, briefed by military experts, concluded that out of the 42 hilltop settlements only eight were legally established. However, in spite of his own repeated statements about his determination to "uphold the law," Mr. Barak chose to dismantle a mere ten settlements, six of which were in any case unpopulated. It appears that Barak's decision was based not upon legal finesse, but upon political considerations. On the one hand, by dismantling a few embryonic settlements, Israel's prime minister intends to show the Palestinians - and world opinion - that he is intent upon pursuing the peace process; on the other hand, by reaching a compromise with the settler leadership on the dismantling of only ten illegal settlements, he hopes to be able to postpone the confrontation with the settlers (and Israel's nationalist-religious camp in general) until a final-status agreement is reached with the Palestinians, and the evacuation of many more settlements becomes inevitable.
The question is: will Mr. Barak succeed in having his cake and eating it? The Palestinian leadership demands that all settlement expansion be stopped. It views the recent tenders for the construction of thousands of new apartments in and around various settlements as incompatible with the resumption of final-status negotiations where the future of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories is to be decided. Inside Israel, the religious-nationalist camp is mobilizing against Mr. Barak's policies of "surrender" to Mr. Arafat. As during the months preceding Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, nationalist rabbis are again publishing religious decrees condemning the "handing over of any parcel of the land of Eretz Yisrael to foreigners." (Those "foreigners" are the Palestinians who have been living in the West Bank and Gaza for generations.) The rabbis compare this "mutilation of the Land of Israel" to the "shedding of Jewish blood."
These rabbinical judgments sound the more ominous as they coincide with increased rumblings of extreme nationalist feelings. A recent opinion poll shows that 2.5 percent of the adult Jewish population in Israel, or some 90,000 people, approve the use of arms in order to prevent an Israeli leader from handing over the territories to the Palestinians. Sixty-five percent of Israeli Jews believe there will be another political assassination.
In Israel's deeply divided society, for many religious and nationalist Jews, the West Bank and Gaza, conquered by Israel's armies in the 1967 six-day war (six days - a sure sign of the Lord's purpose) were not occupied territories, eventually to be exchanged for peace, but liberated parts of Eretz Yisrael, the Land promised to the Jewish people by the Almighty. The Labor governments of Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir in the 1960s and the 1970s, though rejecting the messianic visions of a God-sent victory, reinforced those messianic beliefs by refusing to treat the conquered lands as occupied territories. They officially shed the name "West Bank" in favor of "Judea and Samaria," as they are called in the Bible, and permitted Jewish settlement in the occupied territories.
The 1993 Oslo agreement and the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, initiated by Yitzhak Rabin and now resumed by Ehud Barak, were based on mutual recognition and "land for peace." These principles are anathema in the eyes of many Israeli Jews. Israeli security forces have warned that Ehud Barak's life is at risk and have tightened up protective measures around him. Thus the Shin Bet (security forces) recently objected to Barak's public appearance at a mass meeting in Tel Aviv on the fourth anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination. In the increasingly tense political climate, Israel's prime minister will face a host of dangers and difficulties in building a national consensus around his peace initiative.