Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to withdraw unilaterally from Gaza and to remove four settlements in the northern West Bank (without withdrawing from the area) was made, according to Sharon himself, because he feared that unless he presented a proposal of his own, the political vacuum was liable to be filled by ex-governmental political initiatives like the Geneva Accord. The positive reception awarded his plan by the international community–despite his government’s commitment to international agreements signed by Israel that include the September 28, 1995 interim agreement with the Palestinians and the roadmap–reflected his success in persuading the United States that Israel had no partner for negotiations.
Sharon’s persistence in pursuing his unilateral plan even after the election of Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), who is indeed presented by Sharon as a partner from his standpoint, is perplexing and problematic. Sharon’s determined refusal to negotiate disengagement, coupled with a series of decisions he has made without seriously engaging the Palestinian leadership, is detrimental to Israel’s national interest, which is to achieve an agreement with a pragmatic Palestinian partner who is prepared to reach an historic compromise and is capable of delivering the Palestinian public.
On the one hand, Israel’s non-coordinated withdrawal is presented as a great victory for Hamas. Its leaders claim day and night that Sharon would never have considered withdrawing from Gaza were it not for Palestinian terrorism, whereas now he is doing so without the Palestinian side being asked to make any concessions–certainly not recognizing the right of the Jewish people to their own state.
On the other hand, by ignoring the current Palestinian leadership Sharon is weakening it, indeed endangering it just as Palestinian elections approach. This leadership brought about a ceasefire after four and a half years of intifada. While the withdrawal from Gaza will take place unconditionally from Israel’s standpoint, the withdrawal from West Bank Palestinian cities has been suspended while Sharon effectively ignores the leadership. He demands that it carry out an act that has been represented historically by Sharon’s own party as the worst thing ever done by David Ben-Gurion–"Altalena", i.e., fratricide, Palestinian killing Palestinian–and until then he continues to behave as if there is no one to talk to and nothing to talk about.
Sharon may be doing this because he fears negotiations with the Palestinians. He may believe that a slippery slope will lead him from negotiations over withdrawal from Gaza to negotiations over permanent status–and Sharon is not prepared to pay the price of a permanent status agreement with the Palestinians. But the price Israel is liable to pay for Sharon’s policy could be particularly high. As matters now stand, the legal status of Gaza after Israeli withdrawal is unclear, not to mention the status of the northern West Bank. Issues like employment of Gazan Palestinians in Israel, movement between Gaza and the West Bank, even the legal currency in Gaza after our departure, could all become sources of friction and violence if not regulated between the two parties. Lack of agreement regarding the future of the political process, including updating the roadmap, is liable to generate renewed frustration and a sense that we’ve reached a dead end, which in turn could also bring ! about violence.
Mahmoud Abbas was the most prominent Palestinian politician to oppose the armed intifada from the start. To a large extent he can remain in power only if he can prove to his people that a non-violent policy provides a viable payoff. With the entire world striving in recent years to organize against fanatic Islamic terrorism, Abbas conceivably now represents the last obstacle to Hamas. By ignoring the Abbas government, we are liable to forego the opportunity to reach agreement with the Palestinians in our time. No unilateral and non-coordinated solutions can give Israel the security it wants, recognition of its future borders, and acceptance of Jewish Jerusalem as its capital. No such step can solve the problem of the refugees in a way that ends their distress while guaranteeing Israel’s future, and without jeopardizing its Jewish and democratic nature.
An agreement is vital. Coordination is vital.