Despite everything, the right direction

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon appears to be intent on carrying out disengagement from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements for all the wrong reasons, with the wrong "partners" and the wrong objectives. Yet the move is worthy of support, and for two reasons: first, any reduction in Israeli occupation is a good thing; and second, the precedent of withdrawal and dismantling of settlements is likely to prove stronger in the long run than Sharon’s transparent intention of exploiting withdrawal from one occupied territory (Gaza) as an excuse for remaining in another (the West Bank).

The biggest danger to Sharon’s disengagement plan is Sharon himself, or more precisely, his penchant for turning simple, straightforward and positive ideas–dismantling settlements, the security fence, the two state solution–into complex schemes with multiple and doubtful objectives, one of which is liable to become so complicated as to bring down the whole house of cards.

Sharon’s exchange of letters with United States President George W. Bush, followed by renewed assassinations of Hamas leaders and now threats against Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, are the latest wrinkles. Politically, the objective of these popular initiatives is to win over voters in the Likud referendum. This would free Sharon to carry out disengagement, conceivably with his current coalition, but if not then with a mandate to establish an alternative government. But Bush has his political needs and objectives too, and the American president undoubtedly has already taken note of Sharon’s inclination to exploit Bush’s largess (and political weakness) and begin violating Israeli-American commitments even before the ink on them is dry–by threatening to kill Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, pledging to include Ariel within the fence, and permitting Minister of Finance Binyamin Netanyahu to pledge additional funds for settlements that lie beyond the fence and the settlement blocs.

A related complicating factor is the fate of the roadmap and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Bush’s readiness to offer Sharon commitments concerning settlement blocs and refugees, however obvious and consensual they may seem from an Israeli-American standpoint, nevertheless ostensibly preempts a negotiated peace process and negates the roadmap. This has already incurred the anger of both moderate Arab leaders and roadmap partners. It is also cementing the flawed but devastating "Iraq = Palestine" image in the eyes of many in the Middle East. This is not good for either Israel or the US.

Yet a third problematic issue is Sharon’s apparent attempt to exploit popular support–now dangerously translated by him into a superfluous party referendum–and Bush’s endorsement for disengagement as a means of pressuring Attorney General Menahem Mazuz to draw back from indicting Sharon on any of three different influence peddling charges. It is stunning to note the list of prominent Israelis from the left and center, all desperate to begin rolling back the settlements, who have publicly acknowledged that Sharon has criminal tendencies but nevertheless call on Mazuz to desist–in the national interest. If Mazuz proves not to be intimidated, and decides that Sharon should go on trial–and there is a 50-50 chance that this will happen long before disengagement is scheduled to begin–then the entire praiseworthy enterprise of dismantling settlements, which Sharon has mortgaged to his personal interest, will suffer a setback. Further, if Sharon loses the referendum, i.e., if a tiny percentage of the voters is allowed to torpedo the disengagement project, then not only will he be a lame duck prime minister and easy pickings for Mazuz, but it may take years before the Israeli body politic again addresses the urgent need to dismantle settlements.

Sharon advocates disengagement for one reason: he argues that the political vacuum opened up on the Israeli-Palestinian scene (which he, together with Arafat, had a hand in creating) is liable to be filled, god forbid, by Israeli or post-election US demands that Israel forego more territory than Sharon intends. He totally ignores the truly compelling reasons for withdrawal- -the demographic threat, the counterproductive nature of occupation–perhaps because they apply equally to the West Bank and to the Gaza Strip. Instead of withdrawing as an interim security step, he seeks a preemptive political step. And because his intention is to preclude final status at the political level he needs a partner, the US, for what was supposed to have been a unilateral act.

Hopefully, the logic of disengagement will prove stronger than all of Sharon’s mistakes. In the absence of a viable Palestinian partner for peace, let Sharon (who is hardly a viable Israeli partner for peace) remove settlements. If and when that happens, and assuming as we must that we still won’t have a viable Palestinian partner for negotiations, it will be incumbent upon supporters of a genuine two state solution in Israel, the United States, the Arab world and the international community to exploit the momentum of withdrawal and press for additional unilateral Israeli acts of disengagement.

Meanwhile, the Palestinians should temper their protests with a realistic acknowledgement of the advantages this process entails for them, and some soul searching regarding their own input into Bush’s decision to ignore them.

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Few observers seem to have noticed that the Bush administration took advantage of the Bush-Sharon exchange in order to introduce a significant new concept to the Middle East peace process. In both his spoken remarks and his letter to Sharon on April 14, Bush states: "it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949. . . ." Not the 1967 lines, which here and there are disputed between Israelis and Palestinians and especially between Israelis and Syrians–but the 1949 lines, which at the time were clearly delineated by the United Nations. This is a signal to Jerusalem and Damascus that when they resume negotiations, they should adopt a radically different territorial point of departure.