Al-Ahram WeeklySpecial pages commemorating
50 years of Arab dispossession
since the creation of the
State of Israel
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

50 Years


Securing Occupation:
The real meaning of the Wye River Memorandum

By Norman G Finkelstein *

Paradoxically, the fruit of Oslo will perhaps be that the Palestinian struggle for justice will "return to the source," writes Norman G Finkelstein
As a formal document, the Wye River Memorandum breaks no new ground. Its stated purpose is merely to reaffirm and "facilitate implementation" of "prior agreements". Nonetheless the memorandum illuminates the process set in motion at Oslo and dispels lingering illusions. In these remarks, I will first sketch the crucial historical background, then analyse the document and, finally, consider the prospects for a just settlement.

The main obstacle to the realisation of this goal was the indigenous Arab population. In his recently published quasi-official history of Israel, British historian Martin Gilbert argues that "there was a strong desire among the Labour Zionists to live together with the Arabs, and not, as many of the extremists hoped, to make them subordinate to Jewish nationalist needs, or even to drive them out of Palestine altogether." Scholarship does not sustain this claim. Labour Zionism was committed to the "building of a Jewish society by Jews alone, from foundation stone to rafter" in "all of Palestine" (Anita Shapira). Accordingly, as Zeev Sternhell shows in his important study, The Founding Myths of Israel, "nobody fought against the Arab worker more vigorously than [Labour Zionists]; nobody preached national, economic and social segregation with more determination than the Labour movement."

Nakba "The Wye land-for-security formula means that in return for any land, the Palestinians forfeit the right to all resistance... Nelson Mandela renounced the right to armed resistance only after the South African government acknowledged the right of the indigenous population not to a Bantustan but full human rights. The indigenous population of Palestine was forced by Israel to forfeit its right to any resistance in exchange for a Bantustan"
Faced with indigenous resistance, European conquest movements in the post-Columbus era typically resorted to the most brute force: extermination. Yet, by the early twentieth century this extreme option was no longer available. The Zionist movement thus set its sights on "population transfer" -- the euphemism for expulsion -- of the indigenous population. Indeed until after World War II, international opinion acquiesced in expulsion as a means of resolving ethnic conflicts. Historian Benny Morris observes that, for the Zionist leadership, "transferring the Arabs out" was seen as the "chief means" of "assuring the stability and 'Jewishness' of the proposed Jewish state". During the 1948 War the Arab population was effectively expelled from the conquered areas of Palestine, completing the first phase of Zionist conquest.

In the course of the June 1967 War, Israel conquered the long-coveted West Bank and Gaza (as well as the Sinai and Golan Heights). In this second phase of conquest, the Zionist leadership confronted the same dilemma as earlier in the century: it wanted the land but not the people. The options available for resolving this dilemma, however, had considerably narrowed. Not only extermination but expulsion as well was no longer politically tenable. The Zionist movement accordingly opted for encirclement: appropriating as much of the resources (especially water) and land as was feasible while confining the Arab population to native reservations. This is the essence of the Allon Plan, first formulated in July 1967 and the operative framework of the Oslo process, allowing Israel to retain roughly half the West Bank.

Israel's partial withdrawal option fell afoul, however, of the international consensus that formed after the June 1967 War for resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. Embodied in UN Resolution 242, this consensus called for a full Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab land in exchange for an Arab commitment to full peace with Israel. It bears recalling that the root of Israel's enduring quarrel with the international community has been the demand not for a Palestinian state but for full, as against partial, withdrawal. Indeed, 242 made no mention at all of a Palestinian state, referring merely to a "just settlement of the refugee problem". The Allon Plan is not incompatible with a Palestinian state: what to call the arid patches of land ceded to the Arab natives is a matter of semantics. For Israel, the crux has always been its claim to "territorial revision" (Abba Eban).

After the June War, Israel called for partial withdrawal on all the Arab fronts. Egypt offered in February 1971 to sign a bilateral peace treaty if Israel fully withdrew from the Sinai. Israel refused. In the name of "security", it demanded retention of part of Sinai, Moshe Dayan famously declaring that "we prefer Sharm Al-Sheikh without peace to peace without Sharm Al-Sheikh." Once Egypt proved itself a military force to reckon with in the October 1973 War, Israel came around, agreeing at Camp David in1978 to the peace terms it rejected in 1971. A core Zionist tenet, Zeev Sternhell observes, is "never giving up a position or a territory unless one is compelled to by a superior force". Israel did continue to bargain hard at Camp David, demanding (unsuccessfully) to retain control of the oil refineries, settlements and airfields it had built in Sinai. Yet Sharm Al-Sheikh figured not at all in these intense, often bitter, negotiations. Israel abandoned Sharm Al-Sheikh -- its crucial "security" asset -- without even a whimper. It is an instructive lesson in the substance, or lack thereof, of Israel's "security" concerns.

Confronting, in the first years of the Intifada, the compound force of Palestinian civil resistance and widespread international outrage, Israel considered the prospect of full withdrawal. But the challenge to Israeli power soon receded. As the Intifada lost momentum, a concatenation of events -- Iraq's destruction in the Gulf War, the demise of the Soviet bloc, the open alignment of the Arab regimes with the US, the PLO's precipitously declining fortunes -- convinced Arafat to cut a deal with Israel, accepting partial withdrawal in exchange for the trappings of statehood. The PLO's capitulation at Oslo did not result from political ineptitude. Uri Savir's account of the negotiations shows that the Palestinian negotiators did, at every crucial juncture in the Oslo process, raise the right objections. The problem was, they had no power.

Once Arafat conceded, as he effectively did at Oslo, that the West Bank and Gaza were "disputed territories", both sides having equal title, it was inevitable that, in the ensuing battle over percentages, a 50-50 split would be held up as the legitimate "compromise". Yet Netanyahu deserves the lion's share of credit for recasting public discourse. By tenaciously claiming that Israel had title to all and Palestinians to none of the West Bank, Netanyahu turned any withdrawal into an Israeli concession. Wh could then expect Israel to "give away" more than 50 per cent of "its" land for peace? Before Netanyahu, full withdrawal in exchange for full peace was the legitimate compromise, Labour's partial withdrawal the illegitimate one; after Netanyahu, partial withdrawal in exchange for full peace became the legitimate compromise, zero withdrawal the illegitimate one. Redefining the poles of debate with his pugnacious theatrics, Netanyahu has effectively legitimised the Labour Party's rejectionist stance, in the process also managing to "lower," as he put it, "the level of Palestinian expectations". Apart from "extremists", no one any longer speaks about full withdrawal. Indeed, the call for full withdrawal is now equated with the call for zero withdrawal, as pundits condemn the "extremists on both sides".

THE WYE MEMORANDUM is basically divided into two parts, "Further Redeployments" and "Security". (A third section takes up miscellaneous "Other Issues".) Bits and pieces comprising some 40 per cent of the West Bank are to come under "full" (Area A) or "partial" (Area B) Palestinian jurisdiction before final-status negotiations begin. According to Savir, Rabin was prepared to relinquish "roughly 50 per cent" on the eve of final-status negotiations. The putative ideological rift between Labour and Likud aounts to perhaps 10 per cent of the West Bank. Indeed, the various final-status maps of the Likud all fall within the parameters of Labour's Allon Plan, retaining for Israel roughly half the West Bank. For those who care to hear the truth, the Israeli press has been reporting for years that "there's almost no difference between Netanyahu's and Peres's concepts of the permanent agreement," indeed, "Sharon and Peres are not far from each other in their perception of the permanent settlement." This pragmatic convergence between Labour and Likud points up, incidentally, that partial withdrawal was the maximum Israel could have hoped for at Oslo. Israel did not effect a "historical compromise" with the Palestinians; only with reality.

Technically, Wye marks a regression from "prior agreements". At bare minimum the 1995 Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement on the West Bank and Gaza Strip (hereafter: Interim Agreement) stipulated a "complete redeployment of Israeli military forces from Area B" before final-status negotiations (Article XIII), placing 30 per cent of the West Bank in Area A. The memorandum, however, puts only 18 per cent of the West Bank in Area A. Yet, this quibbling over percentages is ultimately beside the point. The "Palestinian Authority" exercises no substantive authority anywhere in the West Bank -- except as Israel's surrogate. The "security" provisions of the Wye Memorandum make this abundantly clear.

The security section of Wye initially observes that "both sides recognise that it is in their vital interests to combat terrorism and fight violence." Yet to implement this protocol, Wye specifies an action plan only for the Palestinian side: "The Palestinian side will make known its policy for zero tolerance for terror and violence... A work plan developed by the Palestinian side will be shared with the US... to ensure the systematic and effective combat of terrorist organisations... In addition to thebilateral Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation, a US-Palestinian committee will... review the steps being taken to eliminate terrorist cells... In addition to the bilateral Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation, a high-ranking US-Palestinian-Israeli committee will...address the steps being taken to combat terror and terrorist organisations," and on and on. One would never suspect from this document that, according to the Israeli human rights organisation, B'Tselem, many more Palestinians have been killed by Israelis than Israelis by Palestinians since the onset of the Oslo process (356 Palestinians as against 251 Israelis through October 1998). The "vast majority" of killings by Israel, according to Amnesty International, were "unlawful".

Wye also repeatedly emphasises Palestinian responsibility for the vigorous "investigation, prosecution and punishment" of "terrorist suspects". Yet according to Amnesty, "there continues to be almost total impunity for unlawful killings of Palestinians" by Israel: "Investigations are inadequate. The officers responsible rarely appear before an inquiry; if they do so they are rarely punished; if they are punished the sanction is trivial in relation to the loss of life." To illustrate this last point, Amnesty cites the case of four soldiers convicted of killing a Palestinian motorist: "The court fined each soldier one agora, equivalent to about US$0.03."

The Wye Memorandum reeks of the rancid Israeli (and American) discourse on terrorism. Terrorism is a self-generating force. It originates in the "terror support structure", "terrorists and their structure", "terrorist organisations and their infrastructure", "terrorist cells and the support structure that plans, finances, and supplies and abets terror", "organisations (or wings of organisations...) of a military, terrorist, or violent character", and -- lest we forget -- the "external support for terror".

Detached from its Israeli environment, Palestinian terrorism is always the cause but never the effect of evil: assaulting Israeli innocents, it is by definition unrelated to Israel's brutal rule. Thus, to understand terrorism, it is irrelevant that, since the Oslo Accord, more than 600 Palestinian homes have been demolished and 140,000 dunums of Palestinian land confiscated. It is also irrelevant that, due primarily to Israel's illegal imposition of closure on the eve of Oslo, the Palestinian standard of living has fallen by nearly 40 per cent, with fully 30 per cent of the work force unemployed and fully 40 per cent of the population living at or below the poverty line.

Given that terrorism is an implacable negative force, the only means to combat it is an implacable positive force: repression. And in this Manichaean struggle between good and evil, the more repression the better: any restraints will impede the struggle. Accordingly the Wye Memorandum gives short shrift to human rights concerns, despatching them in one sentence: "Without derogating from the above, the Palestinian Police will... implement this Memorandum with due regard to internationally accepted norms f human rights and the rule of law..." Presumably on account of its exemplary human rights record, Israel is not called upon to do even this much. Indeed, the record does impress. According to Amnesty, even after Oslo, Israel continued to engage in "mass arrests of Palestinians"; place "thousands of Palestinians" under administrative detention without charges or trial, sometimes for "years on end" ("many may have been prisoners of conscience"); "use torture systematically on Palestinian political suspects... Its use was effectively legal, an internationally unprecedented state of affairs" ("this legalisation of torture has, over the past five years, if anything, become a more entrenched part of the system in which Palestinian detainees find themselves"); resort to "brutality, amounting to torture or checkpoints"; and conduct "unfair trials... Convictions are almost invariably based exclusively on the accused's confession, usually extracted by the use of torture and ill-treatment."

The Palestinian Authority's "deplorable" human rights record has been extensively documented. Without extenuating PA culpability, it bears recalling that Israel recruited Arafat precisely in order to facilitate repression. Thus Rabin boasted that the PA would quell Palestinian resistance "without problems caused by appeals to the High Court of Justice, without problems made by [the human rights organisation] B'Tselem, and without problems from all sorts of bleeding hearts and mothers and fathers." Truth be told, "Palestinian Authority" is a misnomer. Apart from what Israel and the US authorise it to do, the PA exercises no authority whatsoever: in all respects it is beholden to them. The Oslo process marked, in Meron Benvenisti's phrase, the continuation of "occupation...albeit by remote control". In exchange for the perquisites of collaboration, the PA must ruthlessly crush all opposition to continued Israeli occupation.

Human Rights Watch observes that "the role of Israel, the US and the international community in influencing the conduct of the PA should not be underestimated... External demands that the PA halt anti-Israel violence have been made in terms that condone a disregard for the human rights of Palestinians. Such pressure is highly potent, due in part to the situation of extreme political and economic dependency in which the self-rule entity exists."

It goes on to recall that "the Netanyahu government...conditioned the easing of the closure of the West Bank and Gaza on a halt in prisoner releases by the PA"; that "the Clinton administration demanded that Arafat act more decisively to prevent anti-Israel violence, but made no reference to the need for due process, even as...massive, arbitrary round-ups were taking place"; that "as President Arafat cracked down on the opposition, particularly Islamist groups, by carrying out arbitrary arrests, detaining people without charge, and practicing torture, Israel and the US praised the crackdown while remaining largely silent on the facts"; and that "despite clear evidence of the systematically unfair practices of the state security courts, neither Vice-President Al Gore nor any other US official has publicly retracted the praise for their creation that Gore offered."

The single most egregious Palestinian violation of Oslo is the size of its police force, which "well exceeds" (Human Rights Watch) the already extraordinary 30,000 figure allowed for in the Interim Agreement (Annex I, Article IV). Revealingly, Israel hasn't exerted any real pressure on Arafat to correct this. Indeed, already thinking ahead in the 1978 Camp David Accords, Israeli negotiators stipulated that the "self-governing authority" in the West Bank and Gaza should constitute a "strong police force"to assure Israel's "security" (Framework, paragraph A2). The same ominous phrase stipulating a "strong police force" reappears in the September 1993 Declaration of Principles (Article VIII), the May 1994 Agreement on the Gaza Strip and the Jericho Area (Article VIII), and twice in the Interim Agreement (Articles XII, XIV). The Wye Memorandum only calls on the "Palestinian side" to "provide a list of its policemen to Israeli side". So long as Israel can monitor in which direction the rifles are pointed, themore police, the better -- especially as Palestinian illusions are dispelled and resistance mounts. The Wye "land-for-security" formula means, incidentally, that in return for any land, the Palestinians forfeit the right to all resistance, including the basically non-violent civil disobedience characterizing the first years of the Intifada, condemned by Israel and the US as "terrorist acts". Nelson Mandela renounced the right to armed resistance only after the South African government acknowledged the right of the indigenous population not to a Bantustan but full human rights. The indigenous population of Palestine was forced by Israel to forfeit its right to any resistance in exchange for a Bantustan.

PROSPECTS: Like the South African Bantustans, the fragmented Palestinian entity resulting from the Oslo process will no doubt eventually be granted statehood. And like the Bantustans, it will be a state in name only. Recall that the viability of a Palestinian state resulting from full Israeli withdrawal was never at all certain; much intellectual energy was expended to conquer these doubts. What then is one to make of a Palestinian state resulting from a partial Israeli withdrawal? Israel is now "resigned" to the prospect of an independent Palestinian state because it won't be one. Recall further that, for Bantustan critics, the issue was not only viability but equity: whites engineered a grossly inequitable division of South Africa's resources, keeping for themselves everything worth keeping. All the Bantustans won was the right -- in the words of one dissenter -- to "police themselves and administer their own poverty". This is also the only right Palestinians can expect to win under Oslo.

The purpose of the protracted "transitional" period in the Oslo process is not to build "trust" between Israel and Palestine but rather to structurally consolidate Israel's domination over Palestine. In addition to settlement and road-building, this entails coopting Palestinian elites, refining "security collaboration", etc. The main alleged threat to Israeli security in June 1967 was not the West Bank but the Egyptian Sinai. In October 1973 Egypt launched a surprise attack, seeming to threaten Israel'sexistence and costing 2000 to 3000 Israeli lives (many times, incidentally, the total victims of Palestinian "terrorism"). Nonetheless once Israel decided on full withdrawal, trust somehow proved not at all an obstacle: a mere three years elapsed between Camp David and Israel's total pull-out from the Sinai. Yet the Oslo process is already in its fifth year with no end to the purported "trust-building" process in sight. The Camp David Accord and subsequent Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty combined came to less than a dozen pages. The Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement alone runs to hundreds of pages. Israel is not ending the occupation; it is dotting all the i's and crossing all the t's to secure it.

Arafat must eventually choose between two equally bad alternatives. He may unilaterally declare an independent Palestinian state over 40 per cent of the West Bank, blustering, as the Bantustan leaders did, that this is "only the first stage". In fact, the main lesson of the South African experience was that emancipation was achieved despite and around, not through, the Bantustans: indeed the Bantustans impeded the struggle for justice. Declaring Oslo dead, Israel will then unilaterally annex the rest ofthe West Bank. The more Netanyahu postures indignation at the prospect of a unilateral Palestinian declaration, the better his pretext, if and when Arafat does so, to annex half the West Bank. Totally dependent, Palestinian elites will continue to do Israel's bidding, repressing dissent while enjoying the perquisites of collaboration. Pundits will no doubt wax eloquent over the "irony of history": although the "peace process" died, each side got what it wanted -- the Palestinians a "state" and Israel "secure borders."

Enticed by a slightly larger Israeli withdrawal and an enlarged American "aid" package, Arafat may alternatively enter into a final settlement with Israel. Israel will then get an official deed to nearly all of Palestine: it would be the jewel in the crown of Zionist diplomacy. "At its heart," historian Martin Gilbert writes, "Zionism had striven for a hundred years for the recognition of its legitimacy by the Palestinians." Indeed, for all its flouting of international law and contempt for "Goyim" opinon, Israel has always sought official imprimaturs of its proprietary right to Palestine. The Balfour Declaration and especially the 1947 UN Partition Resolution (181) loom large in Zionist histories. Property may be, as Proudhon memorably put it, theft, but it is also theft invested with the power of legitimacy. Hence Netanyahu's insistence at and since Wye that the Palestine National Council officially, democratically and without any ambiguity annul the Charter. For the longest time Israel exploited the Charter to discredit the Palestinian leadership: it "served as a gold mine of raw material" for "Israel's propaganda". Now that this same Palestinian leadership stands poised to collaborate, Israel wants all the official documents to be fully in order. Not a scratch of doubt must remain that Palestine belongs "by right" not at all to the indigenous population but only to the Jews.

The Oslo process cannot produce a permanent settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The population between the Mediterranean and the Jordan will soon be half Israeli-Jewish, half Palestinian-Arab. Lincoln long ago understood that a state of affairs in which the population is half free, half enslaved cannot forever endure. Israel no doubt also knows this. Edward Said rightly observes that Zionism's successes owe much to its pragmatic discipline of detail ("another dunum, another goat"). Yet ultimatey, Zionism has always depended on the "miracle" to break free from an impasse. Indeed, it harnessed the discipline of detail to make the "miracle" possible. The intractable Arab "demographic problem" was resolved in 1948 by the "miraculous clearing of the land" (Chaim Weizmann). The loss of Zionist élan in the early 1960s was restored by the "miracle" of the June War. The resurgent Arab "demographic problem" in the 1970s was overcome by the "miracle" of Russian Jewry. Israel no doubt hopes for yet another "miracle" to resolve the conflicts inherent in the Oslo process. An Oslo settlement between Israel and Arafat would command international legitimacy. If Palestinians continue to resist, Israel may engineer -- alas, with impunity -- another "miraculous clearing of the land".

Barring a "miracle", the inevitable if very distant future is one in which Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews, enjoying reciprocal individual and communal rights, coexist within a unitary entity. Yet, just as the centre of gravity of the Palestinian struggle shifted from southern Lebanon to the Occupied Territories after the defeat suffered in June 1982, so the centre of gravity of the Palestinian struggle may shift again from the West Bank and Gaza to Israel following the defeat suffered at Oslo. Only the Israeli Palestinians now have a clear goal -- full individual and communal rights -- and a leadership able to articulate it. Paradoxically, the fruit of Oslo will perhaps be that the Palestinian struggle for justice will -- in Amilcar Cabral's phrase -- "return to the source".

* The writer is the author of The Rise and Fall of Palestine, Minnesota, 1996.

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