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From Beit El and beyond, Israelis see hope as Palestinians despair ahead of U.S. peace plan

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Monday, May 13, 2019 – Page A1

BEIT EL, WEST BANK -- Peace means something very different in Beit El, a Jewish settlement atop a green hill deep in the West Bank, than it does in the Palestinian villages that surround it in the dusty valley below.

To residents of Beit El, peace means being allowed to stay in homes that were built here in defiance of international law - as well as the expansion of their settlement, and recognition that it is part of Israel proper.

To the Palestinians in the valley, peace means the closing and evacuation of Beit El and most if not all of the other 120 Jewish settlements in the West Bank, an end to Israel's 52year-old military occupation and the birth of an independent Palestinian state.

Over the past quarter century, a succession of U.S. presidents has tried their hand at making peace between Israel and the Palestinians, each time raising fears in Beit El - and hopes in the valley below - that the settlement's 6,500 politically hard-line and fervently religious residents would be forced to leave.

This time, it is Donald Trump's turn to unveil his vision for IsraeliPalestinian peace - a so-called "deal of the century" expected to upend decades of established American-led peacemaking when it is made public in the coming weeks.

And like the very notion of peace itself, the U.S. President's intervention means something very different depending on whether you live up on the hill, or down in the valley.

The Palestinians have given up on Mr. Trump's plan before they've even seen it, declaring that he is unfit to broker a peace deal after a series of pro-Israeli moves, including transferring the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, which dealt a blow to Palestinian hopes that the eastern part of the city might one day be their capital, and cutting off financial support to both the Palestinian Authority and UNRWA, the United Nations agency responsible for Palestinian refugees.

Israel's settlers, meanwhile, see an ideal, maybe divinely inspired, moment: an American President who in March shattered decades of U.S. policy by recognizing Israel's 1982 annexation of the Golan Heights (which Israel seized from Syria in the same 1967 war that it captured the West Bank from Jordan). Beside him stands Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was recently reelected to a fourth term in office after promising during the campaign that he'd take the next step and annex Israel's settlements in the West Bank.

Mr. Netanyahu, who is still in the process of forming his new government, heads a right-wing and pro-settler coalition.

Even better, from the settlers' point of view, the Trump administration's peace initiative is being drafted by the President's son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Mr.Kushner's family charity donated tens of thousands of dollars to building a religious-studies centre here in Beit El, which is believed to be the site from which the biblical patriarch Jacob dreamed he saw a ladder ascending to heaven. David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, and another key architect of the yetto-be-revealed proposal, previously headed a group that raised millions of dollars every year for Beit El.

Rather than worrying about being forced to move, the settlement's council has authorized a building spree: There are plans for 1,000 new homes, as well as a new elementary school, a sports complex and a cultural centre.

Construction has already begun on a new town hall and shopping complex, as well as a military preparatory academy.

Shai Alon, the head of Beit El's town council, said he was thrilled to see the community growing again, after "a very difficult period" under former U.S. president Barack Obama, who repeatedly put pressure on Israel to stop settlement construction. "Trump came, and suddenly we felt a significant change," Mr. Alon said.

"Because Trump is a little bit, let's say daring, there is an opportunity to start something."

Many settlers are hoping that Mr. Trump's support will allow Mr. Netanyahu to deliver on his election-time promise to annex the settlements, even if it means Israel draws criticism from other parts of the international community. Annexation would bring the settlements formally under Israeli law - the entire West Bank has been under military rule since 1967 - and make it easier for them to expand.

"Donald Trump is a very positive person. It appears that he loves the people of Israel and wants to strengthen the settlement enterprise," said Bat-Chen Sarig, a 31-year-old who was born in one of the settlements that Israel used to maintain in the Gaza Strip before they were evacuated in 2005. Today, she lives with her husband and six children in Beit El, where the only books on display are religious tomes. "I hope that Trump will strengthen the Prime Minister of Israel, so that he fights our enemies and, if necessary, conquers Gaza again."

Zeev Elkin, Israel's current Minister for Jerusalem Affairs and a senior member of Mr. Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party, told The Globe and Mail that Mr. Netanyahu's annexation talk was party policy, not just an election promise. He said the Likud central committee has already endorsed a plan to extend Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank, though he said it would likely be a staged process, starting with the larger settlement blocs close to the 1967 ceasefire line.

Smaller, farther-flung settlements such as Beit El could be added later, he said.

But Israel, Mr. Elkin said, first wanted to see Mr. Trump's peace plan, and the Palestinian response to it. If the Palestinian Authority rejects Mr. Trump's offer, that could provide Mr. Netanyahu with justification to proceed unilaterally.

And few are expecting Mr.Trump to offer anything the Palestinians can accept.

RAMALLAH In the cabinet offices of the Palestinian Authority - the governing body established by the 1993 Oslo Accords as one of the steps that was supposed to lead to a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip - there's despair that the peace process begun by Bill Clinton, Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat is now being dictated by Donald Trump, Jared Kushner and Benjamin Netanyahu.

No Palestinian officials have been in contact with Mr. Kushner about the peace plan he's drafting, Ahmad Majdalani, a member of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, told a Globe reporter during an interview at his office in the centre of Ramallah, the Palestinian administrative capital. As a result, the Palestinian side has no idea what's in the proposal that Mr. Kushner says he will roll out in June, after the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

In public remarks earlier this month, Mr. Kushner suggested his plan would avoid explicit mention of the two-state solution that has been the foundation of every Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiation since Oslo. That, plus Mr. Trump's decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem - the status of the holy city having been one of the most contentious issues in previous peace negotiations - has convinced the Palestinian side that there's little to talk about, at least not while Mr.

Trump is President.

"This administration has lost all credibility and lost our trust.

They cannot be an honest broker," said Mr. Majdalani, who is a confidant of Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas.

"What kind of peace process are we talking about? The 'deal of the century' is about Palestinian surrender."

Though Mr. Elkin says the Israeli cabinet is also waiting to see the shape of the Kushner plan, it's unlikely that Mr. Netanyahu is completely in the dark. The Kushner family are long-time supporters of the Likud party. According to Mr. Netanyahu's biographer, Anshel Pfeffer, the family was close enough to Mr. Netanyahu that Mr. Kushner once had to move out of his bedroom so that Mr. Netanyahu could stay there when he visited New York.

"I don't know what Netanyahu knows, but if you judge by the steps made by the Trump administration, the Trump administration and Netanyahu see eye to eye," said Shlomo Avineri, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who served as director-general of Israel's Foreign Ministry under Mr. Rabin. "The relationship between Netanyahu and Trump - and between the people around Netanyahu and the people around Trump - is very deep."

JERUSALEM Israel's dwindling peace camp - which has argued for decades that ending the occupation is the only way to preserve the country's democracy - is nearly as despondent as the Palestinian leadership.

The once-dominant Labour Party, which has long advocated for peace with the Palestinians based on the two-state solution, was reduced to a non-factor in April's elections, winning just six seats in the 120-seat parliament, the Knesset.

The political debate in Israel is no longer between the left and right, but between the centreright, led in the recent election by Benny Gantz, a former army chief of staff, and the further right, led

by Mr. Netanyahu.

Mr. Gantz's newly formed Blue and White party actually won as many seats, 35, as Mr. Netanyahu's Likud, but Mr. Netanyahu will lead the next government, backed - as before - by a coalition of smaller religious and nationalist parties.

"Netanyahu has no restraints any more, and he is like a wounded animal - with all his coalition partners from the far right," said Hagit Ofran, a veteran member of Israel's Peace Now movement.

"It's a bad recipe, especially with Trump in the background."

Mr. Netanyahu's election win was in some respects startling, given the corruption charges swirling around him. Prosecutors said before the campaign that they planned to charge Mr. Netanyahu with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, but voters still returned the 69-year-old to office for a fourth term. This summer, he will pass the country's revered founder, David Ben Gurion, as Israel's longest serving prime minister.

"Netanyahu can say the public knew about it and said it's okay - that the public knew about the charges and gave him more [Knesset seats] than he had before," said Mitchell Barak, a Jerusalem-based pollster who previously worked as an aide to the late Israeli president Shimon Peres.

Some believe that Mr. Netanyahu made his promise to annex parts of the West Bank - which came during a television interview three weeks before the election - as part of an effort to keep his right-wing coalition together. Some see the annexation promise as quid pro quo for a law, which was introduced to the Knesset last week, that would make a sitting prime minister immune from criminal prosecution.

Others say Mr. Netanyahu has never supported a two-state solution - pointing to passages in his 2000 book, A Durable Peace, in which he calls for Israel to keep 60 per cent of the West Bank, including all the settlements - and that he now sees the right moment to carry out his vision.

"When I am asked whether I will support a Palestinian state, I answer in the negative," Mr. Netanyahu wrote in his book.

Ms. Ofran says decades of failed peace talks, and the cycle of violence that has resulted - just last week, 25 Palestinians and four Israelis were killed in an exchange of fire between the Israeli army and Palestinian militant groups based in the Gaza Strip - have left Israel's once-formidable left in tatters. This has cleared the way for Mr. Netanyahu and his allies to impose their plan.

"What's hardest for me is the Israeli public does not seem to be mobilized to stop the occupation," Ms. Ofran said in an interview at an ice-cream café in Jerusalem. "That's our biggest challenge: People have accepted the notion that we're doomed and there will never be peace and therefore almost anything is justified."

JALAZONE REFUGEE CAMP, WEST BANK Down the hill from Beit El sits the Jalazone refugee camp, where some 15,000 Palestinians live crammed into a concrete jungle of narrow alleys, the walls of which are covered in graffiti about the "martyrs" who died fighting the Israeli occupation.

Despite its official status as a temporary address for Palestinians who were forced from their homes by the 1948 war that led to the creation of Israel, Jalazone long ago acquired an air of permanence.

Inas Zeenati works at a mobilephone shop in Jalazone that has a panoramic view of Beit El on the hill above. But while the 35-yearold has lived in the camp her entire life, she has only been to Beit El twice. Once when she was jailed for a day by Israeli police for driving a car with an unregistered licence plate, the other time when she came to collect her seven-year-old son, Adam, from the same police station, after he was detained by Israeli military for playing too close to the fence that separates Beit El from Jalazone.

Ms. Zeenati says she's ready to see peace, and to trade some of the historic Palestinian claims - including the right of Palestinian refugees such as her to return to the homes their families fled in 1948 - in exchange for economic inducements, such as the opportunity to work for better salaries in Israel.

That is the rumoured shape of Mr. Kushner's plan: massive economic aid to the Palestinians in exchange for accepting a peace deal that's largely on Israel's terms.

But, Ms. Zeenati says, Palestinians won't be able to accept an offer that forces them to give up the dream of a Palestinian state with a capital in Jerusalem. She has a picture on her mobile phone of a smiling young man - her brother - who she says was shot by an Israeli soldier after throwing stones at a checkpoint 17 years ago, during the violent height of the last Palestinian intifada, or uprising. Her brother later died of his wounds.

"All of this happened, and we end up losing our land?" Ms. Zeenati says, staring up the hill at Beit El. "The loss of the martyrs can't be for nothing."

Osama Hamad is the mayor of nearby Silwad - another of the towns in the valley below Beit El.

He said that with the Palestinian economy in tatters (in addition to the cutoff of U.S. support, Israel and the Palestinians are in a standoff over tax monies that account for nearly two-thirds of the Palestinian budget), and the likely rejection of the peace plan by the Palestinians, it was easy to foresee a slide back into violence.

"I cannot guarantee that peace will prevail," Mr. Hamad said, walking along a litter-strewn road outside his town, which he administers but Israel polices. "We don't want another uprising, but I'm worried something will happen. I'm a father, and I'm worried about my children."

AMMAN, JORDAN For decades, the biggest carrot encouraging Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians was the Jewish state's estrangement from its neighbours in the Middle East. A 2002 proposal known as the Arab Peace Initiative offered something Israel craved - the full normalization of relations with the Arab world - in exchange for Israel's complete withdrawal from the lands it conquered in 1967.

The offer, which was sponsored by Saudi Arabia's thencrown prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, was seen as a positive first step by the Israeli political establishment, but never adopted because of its clauses calling for the division of Jerusalem and the return of millions of Palestinian refugees scattered around the region.

Abdullah died in 2015 after a decade as Saudi Arabia's king, and his signature foreign-policy effort is now largely irrelevant.

Saudi Arabia's current Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is - like Mr. Netanyahu - on friendly terms with Mr. Kushner (the Saudi and the American reportedly swap messages on WhatsApp). All three men are keen to find a quick solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem so they can move on to dealing with what all three see as a more pressing issue: confronting Iran, the Shia theocracy that many Sunni Arab regimes now view as a bigger threat than Israel.

Instead of using their influence to lobby on behalf of the Palestinians as they did in the past, Saudi Arabia and its allies - particularly Egypt, which under President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is also close to the Trump White House - are quietly expanding their relations with Israel while pushing the Palestinians to accept a deal, even if it falls far short of the united Arab demand expressed in 2002. One unconfirmed report carried by multiple Arabic-language media outlets said that Crown Prince Mohammed offered Mr. Abbas and his cashstrapped government US$10-billion to accept the deal Mr. Kushner is drafting.

"You have more and more Arabs who do not believe in the centrality of the Palestinian issue," said a veteran Jordanian diplomat who was granted anonymity by The Globe so that he could speak freely on the topic.

"The Arabs have more important things to worry about, not the least of which is Iran and its influence in the region."

The diplomat said that only Turkey and Qatar, which are linked via the Muslim Brotherhood organization to Hamas, as well as Jordan, which fears a backlash from its own largely Palestinian population, are still encouraging Mr. Abbas and the Palestinian Authority to hold firm. (Iran also wields influence over the situation via its funding of the Gazabased militant group Islamic Jihad.)

It's a moment that's as grim from a Palestinian perspective as it is golden from an Israeli one. "I think there comes a time to recognize reality. The reality is that the idea of establishing a Palestinian country has died," said Mr.

Elkin, the Israeli cabinet minister.

Mr. Majdalani, the confidant of Mr. Abbas, said the Palestinians' only strategy was to try and hold firm and wait for whatever comes after Mr. Trump. "We base our hopes only on the fact that dialogue with the next president might be easier."

Associated Graphic

Middle: Shai Alon, the head of Beit El's town council, stands in front of an aerial picture of the settlement. Above: Zeev Elkin, Israel's Minister for Jerusalem Affairs, is seen in his office in Jerusalem.


Left: Residential buildings are seen in the Jewish settlement of Beit El. The neighbouring Palestinian refugee camp of Jalazone is seen in the background.


Above right: Bat-Chen Sarig is seen with three of her six children in their house in Beit El. 'I hope that Trump will strengthen the Prime Minister of Israel, so that he fights our enemies and, if necessary, conquers Gaza again,' she says.


Right: Inas Zeenati is seen with her daughter Elaaf in the Jalazone refugee camp, where some 15,000 Palestinians live crammed into a concrete jungle of narrow alleys. Ms. Zeenati says Palestinians won't be able to accept an offer that forces them to give up the dream of a Palestinian state with a capital in Jerusalem.


Below: Girls walk through Jalazone, where walls are covered in graffiti about those who died fighting the Israeli occupation. Bottom: Children leave school in Beit El.


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