“The Wye River Memorandum and Israeli Settlements,”
by Geoffrey Aronson

 

Overview:

4 August 1999—Israel’s new prime minister, Ehud Barak, is faced with implementing agreements reached by his predecessors with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the United States. The territorial centerpiece of these agreements—the Taba Agreement (Oslo II) initialed on 28 September 1995 by then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and the Wye River Memorandum (Wye) signed on 23 October 1998 by then-Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu—is the requirement that Israel redeploy its military forces from parts of the West Bank.

Full implementation of Wye would extend complete Palestinian control over 18.2 percent of the disputed territory (Area A) before long-delayed “final status” talks begin. Wye included a revised timetable for the phased implementation of the first and second “further redeployments” (FRD) of Israeli military forces outlined in Oslo II, and divided Oslo II’s second redeployment into three phases. The first of three FRDs was to begin in October 1996. Israel was to complete all three redeployments, according to Oslo II, by October 1997. Wye makes no mention of a date for the third redeployment called for in Oslo II.


Barak’s Reservations:

Notwithstanding Barak’s sympathy with the views of his political mentor Rabin, he has always viewed the Oslo process with more skepticism than most of his Labor Party colleagues. As Rabin’s minister of interior, Barak abstained in the Knesset’s Oslo II vote held before Rabin’s assassination in October 1995, and has remained opposed on a strategic and conceptual level to FRDs mandated by Oslo II and Wye. His primary concerns relate to Oslo II’s security provisions, which he finds too lax, and to its timetable, which he argues should be extended.

Barak believes that the FRDs, if fully implemented, would place too much territory in Palestinian hands before final status talks commence. Moreover, like his predecessors, Barak opposes placing any territorial constraints on the settlements, at least at this stage. These are reasons enough for him to seek a revision of Israel’s commitment to transfer territory to the Palestinian Authority (PA) according to the timetables he inherited. Barak recently set an October 1 target date for Wye’s second FRD, and is seeking the PA’s agreement to include the third FRD as part of the final status talks.


Extent and Location of Redeployments:

Implementation of Wye’s second-stage FRD requires Israel to transfer five percent of the West Bank—approximately 300 square kilometers—from Area C (full Israeli control) to Area B (partial Israeli control). The Israel Defense Force (IDF) is less concerned about this transfer than are the settlers, who will lose all rights to land no longer classified as Area C. In this sense, the second FRD—the first that Barak must undertake—is far more painful for settlers than any previous transfer of land to the PA. This is one reason why Netanyahu never seriously considered implementing it, and why informed Palestinians never expected him to.

Despite the absence of an authorized redeployment map, observers assumed that Netanyahu intended to redeploy from the areas relatively free of Israeli settlements—around Jenin in the north, and from areas southwest and northeast of Hebron. By including two areas northeast of Hebron as “nature reserves,” Israel could avoid the need to reduce the size of Area C north, east, and south of Ramallah and near Nablus, where numerous Israeli settlements are present. Barak opposed, however, inclusion of areas southeast of Bethlehem as a violation of the Allon Plan, which outlines Israel’s security requirements.

Settlement leaders have compiled a list of settlements that they claim will be one-half kilometer or less from PA-controlled sectors (Area A) after full implementation of Wye. They include Shavei Shomron north of Nablus; Itamar, Brakha, and Yitzhar south of Nablus; Ofra, Bet El, and Ateret near Ramallah; and Karmei Tzur, Telem, Adora, Bet HaGai, Neguchot, and Otniel near Hebron. The settlements of Enav, Kadim, Ganim, Mevo Dotan, Sanur, and Homesh have already been thus affected by the Jenin-area redeployment in November 1998. Palestinian encroachment upon settlements in the Jenin area was minimized by Israel’s maintenance of Area B perimeters (under Israeli security control) around blocs of territory transferred to full PA control (Area A). (See map in Report on Israeli Settlement in the Occupied Territories, Foundation for Middle East Peace, May-June 1999, p. 8)


Security of Israeli Settlements:

Proximity to areas under full Palestinian control does not necessarily consign settlements to isolation from Israel or envelopment by the PA, nor is it the best gauge of the impact of redeployment upon settlements. With few exceptions, settlements in affected areas will be connected by by-pass roads, either existing or planned, to main transport routes to Israel.

Twelve new by-pass roads are in various stages of planning and construction, although work on the $70 million program was impeded by the Clinton administration’s refusal to supply the $1.2 billion aid package, promised as part of Wye, after Netanyahu failed to implement Wye in late 1998. Following Barak’s July 1999 visit to Washington, however, Clinton urged Congress to approve this appropriation.

In addition, new Israeli military bases are being established throughout the West Bank, according to the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharanot, “particularly next to isolated settlements. The intention is not to leave isolated settlements in the heart of Palestinian areas without an army base nearby.”

Some settlements, however, will undoubtedly suffer from the added security-related burdens imposed by implementation of Wye. Sanur, for example, is already almost empty and is not likely to survive as a civilian settlement. Other settlements will find their relative ability to attract new residents impaired if constraints are imposed on their expansion. Nevertheless, the experience of some settlements in Gaza, whose populations continue to increase despite a far more precarious security situation, may be instructive.


Barak’s Dilemma:

Barak has a tactical problem that only increases his reservations about Oslo II and Wye. He must find enough territory to satisfy both the PA and the settlers without (1) intruding upon lands claimed by settlements; (2) isolating settlements from transport and communication routes to Israel and other settlements; or (3) compromising Israel’s territorial defense requirements outlined in the Allon Plan and the IDF’s “security interests” map. A close examination of the lands in the Ramallah region, where many expect the next redeployment to occur, reveals far less than 300 square kilometers of Area C suitable for transfer.

Including the Nablus and Jenin regions would add bits and pieces of suitable territory and increase the territorial contiguity of land under PA control, but settlers and their allies in the Barak cabinet would oppose many of these transfers.

The Hebron region is the only area of the West Bank where it is possible to satisfy Oslo II and Wye commitments without compromising the three objectives outlined above. According to Barak’s security-oriented calculus, however, the amount of land available in this region is far less than envisioned by Netanyahu.

Unlike his predecessor, Barak is opposed to any diminution of Israeli control in the area southeast of Bethlehem, long deemed vital to Israeli security. Netanyahu’s decision to cede territory in this region—the so-called “nature reserves” comprising three percent of the West Bank—enabled negotiators to claim an eventual Israeli redeployment from 13 percent of the West Bank, a figure which became the litmus test of Israel’s sincerity.

It was expected that this area would be transferred to the PA as part of the third Wye redeployment, which Barak wants to implement only as part of a final status timetable. Barak’s apparent removal of this area from consideration calls into serious question his ability to fulfill the territorial commitments of his predecessors during the interim period.

 

Geoffrey Aronson is Director of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund or the Palestine Center.

This information first appeared in Information Brief No. 3, 4 August 1999.