Sunday, June 24, 2007

Amid chaos, looking at a Plan C - Returning lands to Jordanian, Egyptian control worth weighing

Amid chaos, looking at a Plan C - Returning lands to Jordanian, Egyptian control worth weighing
By Frida Ghitis
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
Published June 24, 2007

The latest Grand Strategy (Plan A) for solving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians lies in rubble, torn to sad little pieces by the explosion of violence between the rival Hamas and Fatah factions in Gaza. Now the latest hope is to tape together the fragments of the two-state project and create a more modest West Bank-For-Now solution (Plan B).

Yet a sharply different idea -- call it Plan C -- is quietly making the rounds.

This plan would not create a Palestinian state. Instead it would bring most of the West Bank back to where it stood before 1967, to Jordan. Under this not-exactly-new idea, the Kingdom of Jordan would form a confederation with Palestine.

The proposal is undeniably filled with complications. Yet that has not stopped word of it from being dropped into newspapers in Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian territories and Egypt. Though nothing is official, discussions have reached into coffeehouses and academic conferences.

The confederation proposal is as old as the problem it aims to solve. And it has a basis in demographics and history: Most of Jordan's population is Palestinian, and the kingdom comprises three-quarters of the territory of the original 1922 Palestinian Mandate.

Yasser Arafat once stunned everyone when he revived the confederation idea in 1999, just days after Jordan's King Hussein died.

On the Israeli side, the old guard of right-wing leaders had its own version: "There already is a Palestinian state," Menachem Begin liked to say. "It is called Jordan." But under the Begin version, Israel would keep the West Bank and Gaza.

A pre-1967 scenario

The new version is different: Israel would withdraw to pre-1967 borders, with some modifications. The West Bank would be returned to Jordan and Gaza to Egypt, the countries that controlled them before the Six-Day War.

There are many reasons for each of the parties involved -- Palestinians, Jordanians, Israelis and Egyptians -- to find this plan both appealing and threatening.

Palestinians would have to give up their dream of a fully independent nation and accept a permanent separation between Gaza and the West Bank.

On the other hand, Palestinians have experienced utter disillusionment with their political leaders. Corruption, incompetence and extremism have been partly to blame for the steady deterioration of the Palestinian standard of living. Joining with a large, established country could provide enough of an economic, political and security structure to move forward again.

The separation from Gaza, some say, might also make sense. The two territories have widely different histories dating back to biblical times. Recent years have pulled them further apart. Gaza has moved toward an Islamic-dominated society, while the West Bank, on the landlocked hills between Jordan and Israel proper, retains a more secular, modernizing culture. A recent poll, conducted before the explosion of violence in Gaza, showed 30 percent of Palestinians support confederation.

Jordan's King Abdullah II told Egypt's Al-Ahram newspaper that talk of joining up with the Palestinians is "premature." He has repeatedly said the issue would be addressed only after a settlement between Palestinians and Israel. But that condition, too, was laid down before the Gaza crisis. Some believe the Jordanians are responsible for floating the confederation balloon.

Jordan is trapped between two regions in chaos, Iraq and the West Bank. The instability threatens the kingdom. Bringing prosperity and peace to the West Bank could bolster Jordan and make it a more powerful regional player. Undoubtedly, American and European aid would pour in.

And while King Abdullah might worry about his reign's survival in a mostly Palestinian country, the creation of a bicameral parliament, with one chamber of native Jordanian tribes loyal to the king, could actually strengthen him.

Considerations for Israel

For the majority of Israelis who have been searching for a way to move out of the territories without jeopardizing their security, the plan offers hope. For those Israelis who see the West Bank as the biblical lands of Judea and Samaria belonging to the Jewish people, this is just another in a long list of bad ideas.

From a security standpoint, turning the territories over to Egypt and Jordan offers potential benefits. Presumably, Israel's neighbors would make a real effort to stop Palestinian rocket attacks against Israel. Still, there is a fear among the military leadership of giving up "strategic depth." And there is a worry that if the Egyptian or Jordanian governments were to fall to extremists, Israel would have more dangerous enemies right at its doorstep.

Egypt, like every other country in the region, has little desire to take over Gaza. But the latest events have left Hamas, the outgrowth of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, ruling the strip at Egypt's side. That makes Hamas capable of fomenting unrest in Egypt. Taking over Gaza would allow Egypt to crack down on Hamas militants in a way the international community would not tolerate from Israel.

Egypt, after all, would like to see stability on its borders too.

Clearly, Plan C looks like a long shot. Some call it a fantasy, others an outrage. But others see it as a worthwhile option. After all, nothing else has worked, and there's always room for one more failed plan on the library shelves.


Frida Ghitis writes about world affairs. She is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television."


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