No illusions

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s new disengagement plan, as presented on May 30 to the Cabinet, represents not one but several new dynamics. These relate to the public and political acceptability of the plan itself, as well as to Israeli-United States and Israeli-Egyptian relations and the vicissitudes of Israeli politics.

The Israeli political angle, and specifically the objections to the plan expressed by the negative majority in the Likud referendum on May 2 and by Likud ministers, have generated specific changes in the plan which should render it more acceptable.

By carrying out the redeployment in four phases, Sharon has now introduced a monitoring mechanism that can stop the withdrawal if things go wrong. In introducing a significant Egyptian role in facilitating post-withdrawal Gaza Strip security and possibly mediating between the Israeli and Palestinian security establishments, Sharon has removed the term "unilateral" from his plan and reduced the likelihood that the withdrawal will generate a total breakdown in security or a Hamas takeover. The decision to demolish the dwellings left behind in the Gaza settlements, while problematic, responds to a powerful objection of the settlers at the emotional level-that their former homes would be occupied by the very terrorists who have been attacking them. It also internalizes the realization, communicated by Palestinian and international sources, that the settlements as constituted are virtually useless in terms of Palestinian housing needs, and that the attempt to credit Israel with t! heir net worth in anticipation of eventual refugee compensation negotiations is a virtual non-starter from the Palestinian as well as the international standpoint. And it denies the settlers, once removed from Gaza, a focal point for their own anticipated irredentist appeals.

We should have no illusions about where Sharon is going with this revised plan-if the matter is left up to him. By referring only to the June 24, 2002 vision of United States President George W. Bush, arguing without foundation that the roadmap obligates the Palestinians to fulfill their security undertakings unilaterally before negotiations can resume, and presenting a long list of regions in the West Bank that "will remain part of the State of Israel", Sharon is announcing that the disengagement plan is a "one off" project that is intended to leave Israel in control of half the West Bank and to rebuff additional territorial pressures for a long time to come. The plan asserts that its "completion. . . will negate any claims on Israel regarding its responsibility for the Palestinian population of the Gaza Strip", even though as currently constituted it leaves Israel on the Philadelphi road and leaves the Gaz! a Strip without any ports of entry not controlled by Israel. In other words, Israel remains very much responsible.

The original rationale for Sharon’s disengagement initiative-to "head off" domestic and international pressures for larger territorial concessions that seek to fill the diplomatic "vacuum"-never held water in the first place. Despite Sharon’s intentions, no matter what Israel does short of near total withdrawal, and regardless of whether it enters into negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization or continues to go it alone because it has no viable partner, the pressures to continue to roll back the settlement enterprise-on the part of the Israeli public, post-election Washington and the international community-will continue to mount.

But if Sharon fails now to achieve government endorsement for the project and if-in an increasingly threatening worst-case scenario-Washington’s Iraqi fiasco flies out of control and Israel is blamed or scapegoated at least in part for the messy US involvement there, then Bush administration anger with Sharon could grow. This is one more reason for Sharon’s current stubborn insistence on his plan.

In this regard Egypt’s projected involvement could take on strategic proportions. It introduces the possibility that Sharon’s relatively modest disengagement plan will, for the first time since 1967, restore an Egyptian presence, however small and temporary (and conceivably a Jordanian presence, though the Hashemite Kingdom resolutely rejects this option at present), in the Palestinian territories. The invitation to Egypt reflects both Israeli and Palestinian strategic failure to control the territories. It has potential far-reaching consequences for Israel’s relations with Egypt as well as for the sovereign nature of an eventual Palestinian state.

Finally, the political dynamic launched by Sharon on May 30 could soon affect the composition, indeed the very existence, of his government. The possible scenarios and variables are too complex to lay out in brief. Like all of his predecessors of the past decade, Sharon as prime minister has apparently grasped that the Palestinian issue demands painful compromises that are acceptable in the abstract to the public but unacceptable in concrete form to the country’s elected political institutions. True, his vision of territorial compromise is still painfully inadequate, his suspicions of Arab intentions in general negate the possibility of fruitful negotiations, and he appears incapable of offering the public and the world a convincing rationale for undoing the settlements that he labored so hard over three decades to build. Yet he is apparently prepared to risk his political future on the idea of abandoning territory destined for a Palestinian state.

For this reason alone he deserves support, lest this essentially unilateral initiative suffer the political fate of the bilateral initiatives of Rabin, Peres and Barak that preceded it.