Eat my laptop?

For nearly three years I have had a standing bet with a number of colleagues who believe that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will eventually dismantle settlements. If, indeed, he removes a single settlement, I have to eat my laptop!

Perhaps I should be thinking about whether to boil or broil the laptop, and what to season it with. But I’m still skeptical.

First, because however cynical and "pragmatic" a politician Sharon may be, he really does believe that each and every settlement serves a tactical security purpose and that the totality of the settlement map is vital for Israel’s strategic security. Ten years ago I sat with him for two hours in an attempt to understand his views. I then published a map of the "Sharon plan" in the appendix to a study in which I recommended settlement removal and border adjustments for final status. Sharon phoned me, both to praise and to protest: the map of Palestinian enclaves surrounded by settlements in the West Bank that I attributed to him was accurate. But the map had left the Gaza Strip blank! Didn’t I pay attention when he illustrated how Netzarim, Kfar Darum and the Qatif settlements were deployed precisely in order to fragment the Gazan Palestinian population like in the West Bank, and to divide the Strip into three controllable enclaves?

So when Ariel Sharon inarticulately cites vague "security" considerations for removing nearly all the settlements from the Gaza Strip according to an indefinite timetable, continues to belittle the demographic threat, and says "the world has changed, times have changed", I’m skeptical as to whether Sharon has changed. Has he really stopped thinking like an infantry battalion commander and begun to think like a grand strategist and a statesman?

The most plausible explanation for his new position is that recent events–”the advent of the Geneva accord, the collapse of the Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) government, the growing chaos in the Palestinian Authority and the rise of Hamas, the post-Iraq moderation emerging in Syria and elsewhere, the election year lull in US involvement, the sharp drop in Sharon’s approval ratings and, perhaps most importantly, the growing criminal case against him and his sons–”combined to convince him that he had to be seen to be taking the initiative. The objective is not to get out of Gaza; it is to restore support among the broad Israeli political center, keep President Bush behind him, and in general make himself seemingly so indispensable–”suppose his informal "referendum" shows that 70% of the public wants him to move ahead with his plan–”that both the public and the political establishment will beg him to remain in office no matter what the attorney general says.

This is a typically convoluted Sharon domino scheme–”the same kind that got us into so much trouble in Lebanon in 1982. In the best case (for him), he’ll weather the coming political storm and the public will forget about his Gaza promises the way it forgot about his promises of peace, security, a Palestinian state, and ousting Yasser Arafat. In the worst case, he may indeed withdraw from the Strip, but only if he feels certain that he can guarantee American and public support for remaining in most of the West Bank for the indefinite future, thereby virtually guaranteeing that the Israeli-Palestinian relationship will come to be seen by the world as a pre-1994 South African situation, with a Jewish minority ruling indirectly over Palestinian bantustans.

Because Sharon’s Gaza plan is not a "Gaza first" plan, i.e, it is not intended to pave the way for a similar withdrawal from most of the West Bank and is not accompanied by an offer to negotiate a reasonable agreement with a realistic Palestinian leadership; because this is an admission of military failure rather than (in the case of left wing demands for withdrawal) political failure; and because it comes shortly after Sharon’s disastrous swap with Hizballah of hundreds of Palestinian and other Arab prisoners for three dead bodies and a scoundrel–”it will, if carried out, also be perceived as proof that the man only understands force.

Yet despite all these reservations, Sharon’s rhetorical readiness to embrace "disengagement" should be welcomed. Alongside all the drawbacks, the removal of a single settlement–”not to mention 17 in Gaza and three on the West Bank–”is a positive precedent and a step closer to the kind of genuine withdrawal Israel requires in order to remain a Jewish and a democratic state.

The US, Egypt, Jordan and the Israeli public must insist that Sharon not exploit this step in order to create new political facts, like adding settlements to the Jordan Valley and the greater Jerusalem area and building intrusive fences deep inside the West Bank, that mitigate against an eventual viable two state solution. For the Palestinian Authority this may be the last opportunity to get its act together, recognize the benefits of an unconditional transfer of additional land, and ensure its ongoing rule in the Gaza Strip. Egypt and the United States have every interest to make sure that the PLO, and not Hamas, takes over.

If it happens, I will gladly eat my laptop.