One evening last week, as the setting sun cast a bright glow over the murky Hudson River, more than 900 people filed into an enormous ballroom at Chelsea Piers for the Israel Policy Forum's annual dinner. There was, given the continuing daily deaths of Israelis and Palestinians, a tense, somber tone to the event.
During cocktails, over hors d'oeuvre that ranged from sushi to knishes, people were locked in anguished conversation about Israel's very survival -- a subject many of them had probably not discussed in decades, if ever. Along with the usual strong turnout of successful, politically engaged American Jews were five senators (Schumer, Clinton, Corzine, Torricelli, and Hagel), a gaggle of congressmen, several key diplomats (global peacemaker George Mitchell; the Egyptian ambassador), Israeli pols, and even a little Hollywood glamour (in the form of a surprisingly wizened-looking Richard Dreyfuss).
The Israel Policy Forum's rank and file are predominantly centrist or center-left. They're high-minded, thoughtful people who for a long time have advocated fair and decent treatment for the Palestinians and argued that a land-for-peace, two-state agreement was the only equitable solution to the problem.
But given the events of the past twenty months, these American Jews find themselves trapped in an ideological cul-de-sac. Though they still argue for a negotiated two-state solution, the rhetoric sounds hollow, almost feeble. How do you get there now?
On the one hand, a political track must be offered to the Palestinians as an incentive to agree to a cease-fire. But this is a logical approach to a conflict that exists in an alternate universe, a place where death is often the clear choice over compromise. Besides which, it's difficult, in the context of today's Israeli politics, to seriously advocate incentives for the Palestinians in the face of suicide bombers. And now that both sides have once again suffered wrenching losses and the concomitant fresh hatred and bitterness, how do they restart negotiations?
What can the Israelis do? How do they provide security without completely sacrificing their humanity? In fact, there may be a way for them to take control over their own destiny while ending the nightmare of occupation and terrorism.
The failure of Oslo and the havoc created by the terrorists have made one thing more clear than ever: The Israelis have to separate themselves from the Palestinians and the territories. And former prime minister Ehud Barak, who tried desperately, if not especially skillfully, to reach a negotiated settlement with Yasser Arafat at Camp David, believes he knows the way to do it.
"Since we cannot be paralyzed by the fact that Mr. Arafat doesn't want to make an agreement," says Barak, who fully supports Ariel Sharon's West Bank crackdown, "we should launch a unilateral disengagement. It is imperative that we separate ourselves from the Palestinians."
First choice, of course, is to do this through a negotiated settlement. But since that seems more and more unlikely, Barak and a growing number of Israelis believe they should do it on their own. "We must dismantle all of the settlements in Gaza and those in the heartland of the West Bank," says Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, "and we should go back to the lines we were more or less talking about in the negotiations. And then we should build a wall along this line. Right now, the suicide bombers can simply walk across an open border. This must come to an end."
It is significant that none of the suicide bombers have come out of Gaza, where there already is a security fence delineating the border. "The Israeli government has refused so far to do this because of the settlements," says Alpher, "but by refusing to separate and build a wall, they are failing to carry out their basic obligation toward their citizenry, which is to protect them."
Barak argues that 80 percent of the settlers will fall on the Israeli side of the wall. This is because he would draw the border so that Israel retains about 12 percent more of the West Bank than what he offered Arafat at Camp David. He would take another 12 percent so that Israel could maintain a security zone along the Jordan River. Both of these territorial issues would, he believes, give the Palestinians an incentive to negotiate even after Israel puts up the fence.
The other 20 percent of the settlers -- about 35,000 people, who are spread out in dozens of isolated outposts -- will be protected for the time being, but eventually those settlements will be dismantled. "This plan is crucial for the survival of Israel," Barak says, "and it will eventually happen. Already, 75 percent of the public supports it."
Barak, who is the most decorated soldier in Israeli Army history, did not adopt this radical position lightly. "After seven years of Oslo, the moment of truth had come," he says, referring to the Camp David negotiations.
"Mr. Arafat had the chance to put an end to the conflict. For the first time, an American president put on the table an offer that would have enabled the Palestinians to have an independent, contiguous state on over 90-plus percent of the West Bank, with a foothold in East Jerusalem as its capital. And he refused to even negotiate it. He closed the door behind him and turned deliberately to a campaign of terror."
In fact, he did more than that. When Barak extended himself to achieve a breakthrough, Arafat humiliated him rather than respond in kind. Barak offered a piece of Jerusalem -- a stunning compromise on the most sensitive of all issues, one that shocked Jews everywhere -- and Arafat's response was to publicly deny that the Jewish people have any legitimate historical or religious connection to Jerusalem.
"The Palestinian approach from the beginning," says Alpher, "was always that they come to the negotiating table having made all their concessions. Their concession was to recognize Israel and its right to exist on 78 percent of the land between the Jordan River and the sea. So, since they have given up 78 percent of their claim, the purpose of the negotiation from their point of view is to hear how the Israelis are going to give them the 22 percent."
Since the Camp David failure, it's been in vogue among some pundits to blame Barak and former president Clinton. Barak was a lousy negotiator, they say. Arafat didn't like him. Clinton pushed too hard because he wanted an agreement as part of his legacy. Barak overwhelmed Arafat by offering too much too soon. And on it goes.
When I asked Barak about all the focus on the process rather than on the endgame and the goals, he called it the "gossipizing" of history. "What happened is more clear now than ever," he says. "It is something much more profound than all of this detail about who did what or who didn't do what. We saw that Arafat is not a man of courage. And we saw that this is not about the occupation. If it were, we could have ended it twenty months ago."
And so, since negotiating hasn't worked, Barak's position now is, if you can't be Yitzhak Rabin, then be Machiavelli. Make your own self-interest paramount. It is deoccupation rather than reoccupation. In addition to safety, building a wall addresses several other key issues as well. It would reduce the scope of the conflict and enable the Israelis to regain some of the moral high ground.
"It is imperative," says Barak, "that we signal loud and clear that we are determined to put an end to our reign over another people. If we do not establish two separate, sovereign political units, Israel will inevitably become either non-Jewish or non-democratic. We must set a border that will ensure a solid Jewish majority for generations to come."
Unilateral action and construction of a fence is a solution with many drawbacks -- remember Berlin? -- but these are extraordinarily difficult times. "The Israeli public feels so put-upon," says Alpher, "that they are prepared to endorse extreme solutions."
The government, however, is another matter. Israel's right believes that a fence will be seen as capitulation, as giving up and running away; that is the way the Israeli pullout from Lebanon was portrayed. And of course, Ariel Sharon and the right are not prepared to abandon the settlements. For Sharon, the architect of the settlements, this is the ultimate ideological and existential question.
"Jewish public opinion is sympathetic to dismantling the settlements," says Mark Rosenblum, the founder and policy director of Americans for Peace Now. "Israelis don't want their sons patrolling the casbah in Nablus anymore. Sharon will have to face this question eventually, but he's been saved by Arab negligence and violence. As long as the Arabs continue to always say no, he can avoid the issue."
Barak is convinced, however, that the time has come for Israel to take matters into its own hands. "Separation is the most important project right now," he says. "It's better to do it with the consent of both sides, but you cannot impose peace on someone."
It is a lesson he and the Israelis have had to learn the hard way.