Sharon’s US visit: intentions and reality

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon does not hide his intentions. First he thought that Israel could hold onto the territories for many more years, and that the demographic problem that would emerge when Palestinians become the majority of the inhabitants east of the Jordan River would be solved by sending them to Jordan ("Jordan is Palestine") or by means of mass immigration on the part of western Jewry. In the course of three years of rule he understood that there is no chance to turn Jordan into Palestine, and that immigration to Israel declines when the security and economic situation is bad.

He concluded that what could not be solved by force would be solved by more force; his policy of force against the Palestinians was not accompanied by any proposal for a political process. Even the Palestinian prime ministers, who to a large extent were appointed as a consequence of his pressure, were never accepted by him as negotiating partners.

According to Sharon’s own testimony, in an interview last week with William Safire of The New York Times, into this political vacuum there entered undesirable proposals like the Geneva accord, moving him to present his own plan. He took it from his private archive: a plan from the early 1980s that already bore his name, the thrust of which was to establish bantustan-like Palestinian enclaves in the occupied territories that would enable Israel to rule the land without bearing the Palestinian demographic burden. Sharon is prepared to implement such a plan with a willing Palestinian leader. Twenty years ago he tried to establish the "village leagues" and to appoint Mustafa Dudin as their head to negotiate with him. The experiment failed, of course, and Sharon is still searching for a congenial Palestinian leader. Not having found one, he now prefers to implement his plan unilaterally.

Sharon views his plan as a ringing slap in the face to the Palestinians. He lives in a zero-sum world in which everything good for Israel is bad for the Palestinians, and vice versa. This is also how he sees US President Bush’s letter to him–as his victory and their loss–and how he gloats over it for the benefit of members of his party whose support he seeks in the May 2 Likud referendum.

The Arab world has played right into his hands. Rather than their noting that what was stated by Bush to Sharon was already proposed to both sides by President Clinton in December 2000 (settlement blocs, non-return to the green line, solving the refugee problem in the Palestinian state, and even a clear statement that acknowledges that Israel cannot accept the principle of the "right of return" in the sense of return by refugees to sovereign Israel), the letter was understood precisely as Sharon wanted it to be: as punishment for the Palestinians. Egyptian President Mubarak, who had met with Bush a few days earlier, reacted with great displeasure; Jordan’s King Abdullah refused to see Bush, and returned to Jordan from the US west coast without stopping in Washington; while the Palestinian leadership declared that this was the end of the peace process.

The truth is that the Bush letter restores the final status settlement to the Israeli national agenda. Sharon sought to determine that the roadmap was dead. Bush recommitted himself to the roadmap and to his own vision. All the achievements that Sharon takes pride in are linked to final status. No serious observer believes that final status will be based on anything but two states for two peoples, a new and agreed border, and a solution under which refugees will not return to Israel. What at first glance appears to be Bush’s acceptance of Sharon’s diktat, is in fact a reformulation of the Clinton plan or the Geneva accord.

What looks to Sharon like an interim agreement that never turns into a final status accord- -since as long as he’s setting the agenda Israel will never have a suitable partner–should now become the first phase in a process that very quickly leads to a permanent agreement. The more time this takes, the worse the situation will be: from Israel’s standpoint the demographic balance will change for the worse; from the Palestinian standpoint the settlements will expand and become yet more of a fait accompli. The position of Palestinian pragmatists will be weakened, insofar as they are incapable of providing services and security to their public.

Those Israelis and Palestinians who believe in an agreement rather than unilateral moves, along with those in the world who appreciate how the end of the Middle East conflict will contribute to global stability, should make every effort to ensure that the departure from Gaza leverages an ongoing peace process. There is a good chance for success, given that principles such as the non-removability of settlements are likely to be violated in the initial stage by the father of the settlements himself.