Israel: The year in review


JERUSALEM, Aug. 30 (JTA) — The two events that dominated the news in Israel during 5760 both divided the nation and brought it together: the peace process and the Lebanon withdrawal.

Even though it faltered just before the finish line and its outcome is still uncertain, 5760 was a groundbreaking year on the peace front. In drawing as close together as they did, under the indefatigable prodding of President Clinton at Camp David in July, the leaders of Israel and the Palestinians made concessions that only a few short years ago would have been considered unthinkable — indeed, tantamount to treason.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat agreed to Israel’s annexation of territory close to the pre-1967 borders, home to dozens of Jewish settlements and 150,000 Israelis. He agreed to the ring of suburbs built by Israel around Jerusalem since 1967 becoming recognized, by the Palestinians and by the world community, as an integral part of Jewish Jerusalem and capital of the Jewish state.

He agreed, too, to a formula on the vexed issue of Palestinian refugees that would mean, in practice, the return to sovereign Israel of only a few thousand under family reunion schemes.

The international community would contribute massively to a resettlement and compensation program for millions of refugees now living throughout the Middle East. Had the two sides managed to resolve their differences over Jerusalem, there would have been agreement on a declaration ending their 100-year-old conflict once and for all.

These are huge concessions from the Palestinian perspective. Ehud Barak, the Israeli prime minister, went even farther — as Clinton himself said.

Apart from his readiness to recognize Palestinian sovereignty — subject to a strict regime of security limitations — across more than 90 percent of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Barak was prepared to cede some Palestinian suburbs of Jerusalem, and to transfer to Palestinian rule some 50 Israeli settlements.

However, Arafat wanted even more on Jerusalem, especially in the Old City and on the Temple Mount.

At this writing, ministers and diplomats from the two sides are engaged in intensive efforts, through various direct and indirect channels, to find compromises to bridge the gaps over Jerusalem, or else to draft language that can leave Jerusalem unresolved yet nevertheless proclaim the conflict at an end.

They are variously assisted, spurred, cajoled and pressured by statesmen not only from the United States and Europe, but from Russia, China, the Third World and the Muslim world. Arafat is taking the brunt of the heat, because there is widespread recognition that Barak went as far — and perhaps farther — as any Israeli political leader can afford to go.

But whether these efforts succeed or not, the historical record will not — cannot — be expunged.

The concessions offered, even though they were offered tentatively and conditionally, have become facts of political life.

Even if the two leaders’ respective oppositions rail against them and threaten to vitiate them, each opposition will oppose the vitiation of the other side’s concessions.

The partition of the Greater Land of Israel, or, more accurately, its repartition, begun at Oslo in 1993 — or some would say at Madrid in 1991, or, as others insist, at Camp David in 1978— and became in the year 5760 an irrevocable reality. It waits now only for its formal implementation.

Some in Israel see this as a cause for dismay. They feel Barak went too far and surrendered the Jewish people’s historic claim to exclusivity in the Holy City. Jerusalem, after all, was the City of David more than a millennium before Islam was founded.

But few delude themselves that Barak’s concessions, having been articulated in an international forum, can ever be rescinded. The “consensus” among Israelis, which for more than three decades was predicated on the permanent and sole sovereignty of the Jewish state over all of what is now municipal Jerusalem, will have to make way for another, more complex and less rigid consensus.

In the meantime, 5760 was relatively quiet on the terrorism front. A triple bombing struck the northern coastal town of Netanya in November, lightly to moderately wounding dozens of people just one day before Israeli and Palestinian officials were to begin final-status negotiations. But this was a rare event in 5760, and security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians in combating terrorism appeared to be increasing.

For many Israelis, 5760 will be remembered as the year when, at last, the Israel Defense Force disengaged from their long and hopeless embroilment in Lebanon. The end, when it came in May, came suddenly and without much dignity. It came, moreover, accompanied by much criticism from the political opposition and from within the ruling coalition.

But Ehud Barak, having come to power on an explicit commitment to end the two-decades-old Israeli presence across the border within a year, was determined to abide by his word.

While the image of Lebanese celebrating and throwing stones over the border in the weeks after the withdrawal did not please many Israelis, Barak has been vindicated so far.

The pullback was not without its complications. The 2,500 or so members of the Israel-allied South Lebanon Army were caught unaware by Israel’s sudden withdrawal, and many felt deserted and angry. Israel offered to take in these militia fighters and their families, and many of the Christian fighters took Israel up on its offer.

But the United Nations and the Lebanese army have deployed in the areas along the border vacated by the Israel Defense Force, no soldiers were hurt during the withdrawal and no civilians have been hurt since.

Another of Israel’s neighbors provided major news in June, when Syrian President Hafez Assad died at the age of 69.

In the final year of his life, Assad — as he had throughout the three decades that he ruled Syria — proved an elusive foe for Israel. Barak had vowed soon after hew was elected in the spring of 1999 that he would reach peace with Syria in a year.

But, again despite Barak and Clinton’s best efforts, Assad refused to reach a deal with Israel, apparently because of disputes over borders in the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War, and which would be returned as part of any peace deal.

Assad’s death left Barak without a partner in his goal of reaching a peace deal with Syria.

There is hope that Assad’s son and successor, Bashar — who lived in the West for a time and is known to be champion of the Internet — will open up further to the Israelis. But these hopes have yet to be realized.

Also in 5760, the visit of Pope John Paul in March moved and thrilled millions around the world. The pope’s sensitive and imaginative comportment will have a lasting influence on Catholic theology and on Catholic-Jewish relations for a long time to come.

In May, Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled that women can pray at the Western Wall while wearing prayer shawls, marking a victory in an 11-year effort by the group Women of the Wall.

But as later events proved, this ruling was far from the final word on this issue. In July, Israel’s High Court of Justice agreed to reconsider the decision, which had prompted an outcry from fervently Orthodox politicians, who immediately proposed legislation to circumvent the ruling.

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