Peace by Percentages in Mideast

Israel weighs US plan to give up 13 percent of West Bank. What would that mean for settlers and Palestinians?

Across a shallow valley from the Jewish settlement of Ofra, home to 1,700 Israelis, lies Har Amona, home to six ramshackle trailers.

A few years ago, a handful of young people who decided that Ofra was getting too urban for them left to move up to this arid and isolated hilltop, accessible only by a dirt road.

If American officials can persuade Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to withdraw from 13 percent of the West Bank, the people in Ofra and its offshoot settlement of Har Amona fear they will become more isolated than ever.

According to Haim Gvirtzman - a Bar-Ilan University hydrologist whose maps are considered a key source for Israeli officials determining the scope and shape of a handover to the Palestinians - the 13 percent withdrawal that the US wants Israel to make would leave 18 settlements totally surrounded by fully autonomous Palestinian territory. Except for access roads, such settlements would be islands in a sea of Palestinian land.

Though Dr. Gvirtzman lives in the settlement of Dolev, near Ramallah, he does not oppose a troop withdrawal he views as inevitable. But since many of the settlers' leaders - who weigh heavily in Mr. Netanyahu's decisions - live in Ofra and the nearby settlement of Beit El, they are likely the stumbling blocks that are keeping Netanyahu from accepting the American formula thus far.

Israel's Cabinet is expected to vote by the end of the week on the US initiative.

On Tuesday, an aide to Netanyahu said that the premier is considering taking an American proposal for a withdrawal from the West Bank to the public in a nationwide referendum. Palestinians, who have already accepted the American deal, called the move a stalling tactic.

But public support for the withdrawal could help Netanyahu politically should he decide to authorize it: Right-wing members of his coalition have threatened to bring down his government if he goes ahead.

Yesterday, violence was reported in the Gaza Strip and West Bank as tensions with Israel rose. In east Jerusalem, Israeli peace activists clashed with police while demonstrating against settlement activities, Israel Radio reported.

The National Religious Party, an important voting block that represents the settlers' interests, says it will not accept one inch more than a 9 percent withdrawal from the West Bank.

"It's true that if we withdraw from 13 percent, and we want to give Palestinians some contiguity between areas, that will result in the isolation of some settlements," says Gvirtzman.

Worries about encirclement

It would not be the first time that the five-year-old Oslo peace process called for an Israeli army withdrawal that leaves a settlement surrounded by self-ruled Palestinian territory. At Netzarim in the Gaza Strip, the Israeli army controls only the access road into the coastal settlement. But at times of political unrest, Palestinians have often targeted Netzarim and in one case closed the Israeli army road.

Settlers here say they don't want to end up similarly encircled by the Palestinian Authority (PA).

"We hope this will never be in Palestinian control," says Metanya Shapira, who lives in one of the trailers. "If Netanyahu does it, we could bring down the government."

The knoll where Mr. Shapira has made his home for two years is controversial on two fronts. First, if and when the 13 percent withdrawal happens, it will most likely be part of one of these little "islands" that will only be attached to Israel by a thread - literally, by a road.

But more than that, Har Amona represents everything that Palestinians say is a violation of the 1993 Oslo accords. With no pretense of being physically attached to the parent settlement of Ofra - over the unpaved path, it's a five to 10 minute drive away - they say it's the seed of a new settlement, part of an Israeli effort to create "facts on the ground" that would hinder a handover.

And while Netanyahu has argued that Israel must allow for "natural growth" in the territories, some of the residents here are new settlers who recently left their homes inside the Green Line, Israel's pre-1967 borders.

Tamar Nizri, a young mother who moved to her trailer a few weeks ago with her husband, says they had the opportunity as newlyweds to move into an apartment in Jerusalem, where both their families live. They say they came for spiritual reasons and to be closer to nature.

"I don't see the difference between living here or anywhere else in Israel," she says. "This is our country. I don't think Netanyahu will carry out this withdrawal."

Gvirtzman says that sooner or later, Netanyahu will have to pull back, not just because of foreign pressure, but because it's what Israelis want.

"There's no doubt that what the Palestinians have now is not enough and that no one can keep all the interests for his own side," says Gvirtzman. "Netanyahu's working with a national consensus against dismantling any settlements in the interim period, and at the same time a consensus that we do not want to control another nation."

Three types of 'interests'

Gvirtzman's conclusions, recently published in his study on the West Bank, "Maps of Israeli Interests in Judea and Samaria," may be a good window into the mind-set of the Netanyahu government. His study was commissioned by the centrist Third Way Party. Gvirtzman's maps have been studied by top officials in the prime minister's office, Defense Ministry, and National Infrastructure Ministry, which is controlled by comeback strategist Ariel Sharon, according to the Haaretz newspaper.

Since Mr. Sharon considers Israel's control over water resources and prevention of overpumping by Palestinians to be of paramount importance, Gvirtzman's expertise as a hydrologist puts him ahead of most other mapmakers.

Gvirtzman outlines three types of interests Israel has in the West Bank that he says should be defined as nonnegotiable in the interim period: land needed for defense purposes, for water resources, and the settlements. He says that 70 percent of the West Bank falls under these categories, while the remaining 30 percent could safely be turned over to the Palestinians.

He estimates that this land, in addition to the land that the PA already controls either partially or totally, would total a maximum of 40 percent of the West Bank.

The 60 percent that Israel would control would have only 5 percent of the Palestinian population living on it, since much of that territory consists of desert or rural lands. And that, he says, would still leave Israel with some land to negotiate over in the final status talks, which were to have been finished by next May.

But Gvirtzman doesn't think the parties will get past the interim stage - which mandated three more redeployments - in the foreseeable future. He views the issues that have been left for last, such as the status of Jerusalem and of the 700,000 Palestinians - half the Palestinian population - displaced by the creation of Israel, as insurmountable.

"I don't think there ever will be a final agreement, because Israel will not accept the refugees of 1948; no one will agree to the evacuation of settlements; and we will not be able to agree on the Temple Mount," an area holy to both Jews and Muslims. "Maybe it will happen in 10 or 15 years, maybe many more, so the third redeployment will have to last us all a long time."

Gvirtzman says that Israel will not give the Palestinians a piece of East Jerusalem to connect the northern and southern West Bank because of the large settlement of Maale Adumim, east of Jerusalem.

In this blueprint, the Palestinians would have, at best, three disjointed pieces of territory - the Gaza Strip, and two pieces of land in the West Bank. That would fall far short of their expectations for a state that includes almost all of the West Bank and a capital in East Jerusalem. Palestinians will still be the islands in the Israeli sea.

"Who will agree to this? It is not acceptable," says Ahmed Qorei, the Palestinian negotiator who helped broker the Oslo accords. Now the Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Mr. Qorei, also known as Abu Ala, says that Palestinians were to have had control of 90 percent of the West Bank when final talks began.

"We never talked about giving even one centimeter of land for creating buffer zones for their security," he says.

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