For patience on the Palestinian question

Just 34 years ago, on a Friday afternoon at 4 o'clock, I was present at the Israeli Museum when David Ben-Gurion, founder of the State of Israel and its first prime minister, read the Declaration of Israel and stretched out his hand to our Arab neighbors for peace. Eight hours later, at midnight, the Egpytian Army invaded Israel and encroached on the coastal plain about 35 kilometers from Tel Aviv. The Egyptians were repelled by the Israeli Army, but from then on there was a seesaw struggle between Egypt and Israel.

In these past years, the Israeli Army has withdrawn three times from the Sinai and the Egyptians have withdrawn two times from the Gaza Strip; there was an armistice agreement in 1949; there were United Nations arrangements in 1957, but all those arrangements did not provide a mutually recognized boundary between Israel and Egypt. This was reached only by the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, which was implemented recently with the Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai.

The peace treaty between Egypt and Israel came too late. It could have been achieved in July 1967, one month after Israel's victory in the Six-Day War; at that time Israel expressed its willingness (and forwarded this proposal through the United States) to withdraw to the international border. If Egypt had accepted the Israeli offer, many lives, Egyptian and Israeli, could have been saved. Two wars would have been avoided (1969 and 1973).

Now we face the problem of the other disputed territories. At Camp David it was realized that the Palestinian question is the most complicated one and cannot be solved in an instant. After hectic deliberations and crises, two separate accords were drafted: one on Egyptian-Israeli relations aimed at a peace treaty and the second on a framework for a comprehensive peace in the Middle East with a special emphasis on solving the Palestinian question.

The disengagement of those two problems was necessitated by the understanding that the Palestinian problem could be solved only after an easing of tensions in the Middle East and only within a Middle East peace process.

President Sadat realized that if he made the peace treaty with Israel conditional on the solution of the Palestinian problem, he might defer the Israeli withdrawal from Sinai for many, many years. So he accepted some kind of de-Palestin-ianization of the Egyptian dispute with Israel; or, in other words, a de-Egyptianization of the Palestinian problem.

The Egyptian leader did not give in a single inch on the Palestinian question; he only accepted a formula for shelving the debate on the final status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip until after a transitional period of at least five years.

The Egyptians who occupied the Gaza area for 19 years did not settle the Palestinian problem while they held the area. Neither did the Jordanians who occupied the West Bank for 19 years. I don't blame them, as it is not an easy problem. For this reason, one should realize that the transitional period is an essential part of the solution of this thorny problem.

The idea of a transitional period was not an Israeli idea. It was Secretary of State Cyrus Vance's idea; he suggested a five-year period to enable the inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza Strip to set up their own institutions on the way to determining their future. Israel added to the idea a forthcoming provision that within this transitional period a self-governing body should be established, to be elected by the inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and enjoying full autonomy under Israeli security supervision.

As matters now stand, we are still at the stage of discussing the modalities of autonomy with Egypt and the US. Only after all parties agree on this will a self-governing authority be elected and the five-year transition period begin.

In my view, these discussions will be finalized toward the end of 1982, and elections will be held in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip for a self-governing authority in 1983. Three years later, in 1986, discussions will start between Israel, Jordan, Egypt and the inhabitants of those areas about the final status of the West Bank and the Gaza District. When the discussions start, with the aim of finalizing them in 1988, all parties concerned, the Israelis and the Arabs alike, will have the full right to submit their claims to the area, sovereignty over which has never before been decided and recognized.

There are differences of opinion even now about the modality of autonomy as there will be differences of opinion about the final status. But the undertaking in Camp David by all parties concerned was not to press for an immediate solution now. Also, as the three signatories recently reaffirmed their adherence to Camp David, I submit that this includes as well the undertaking not to create new tensions between Israel and Egypt, but to try to enjoy the fruits of the peace just achieved between them, thereby creating an atmosphere of understanding through negotiations which will assist solution of the Palestinian problem.

In short, a transitional period is a prerequisite for the negotiations. Pressure which may be exerted on Israel can only increase existing tensions and delay the beginning of the transitional period on the way to a negotiated solution.

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