There are a number of ways to look at Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Herzliya speech of December 18, 2003. They appear to offer us a little good news, but a lot more of the bad news we have become used to in the past three years. The following "takes" are not mutually exclusive.
First, the good news. Sharon, along with many on the political right, appears finally to have understood the demographic problem and the dangers of direct ongoing occupation. He wants to disengage. The architect of the settlement movement in the West Bank and Gaza over the past 25 years is indicating that some settlements will have to be "redeployed". While he clearly still does not comprehend the minimal territorial needs of a viable Palestinian state, and he studiously avoids relying publicly on demographic arguments (instead emphasizing immigration), if and when he does carry through on his commitment to disengage and remove even a single settlement, this will be an extremely important and positive precedent.
Now for the other takes on Sharon’s new policy.
The first, and most obvious, is that Sharon is simply keeping up with the times, but has no near term intention of acting on his words. Just as he disciplined himself in recent years and months to adopt the term "Palestinian state" and criticize the "occupation", so now he has embraced "disengagement". He places an extremely high premium on representing a broad consensus of Israeli opinion, and he knows this is what the public wants to hear. The advent of the Geneva accord and the frenzied response of the Israeli right–with every senior political figure espousing his or her new plan and most advocating disengagement- -precipitated this development.
Because Sharon also recognizes the need for close American support, he threw into his speech, for about the tenth time, a promise to remove outposts and restrain settlement building. By the same token, the speech contains just enough verbal gestures to both the moderate right and the left, balanced by a calculated absence of commitment to act immediately on settlement removal, to shore up broad bipartisan support for Sharon not only among the public but, perhaps more important, across the political spectrum. This may be precisely what he needs in order to be deemed indispensable at a time when a criminal investigation against him and his sons is beginning to threaten his tenure as prime minister.
As in the past, Sharon may very well be counting on fate, or luck, or Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, to get him off the hook and release him from his new commitments. It takes just one murderous suicide bombing to make everyone–Israelis, Palestinians, the US administration and American presidential candidates–forget all about the Herzliya speech. When necessary, Sharon also knows how to steer provocations in the Palestinians’ direction.
Another take on the Herzliya speech is that Sharon realizes that he is confronting the first and last chance that history is giving him to try to implement his vision of a solution for the Palestinian issue. His map of autonomous Palestinian enclaves may now be termed a "state", but it has not changed in 25 years: it embodies the 42 percent of the West Bank currently included in areas A and B, perhaps with a little extra territory and special roads and overpasses to give it "contiguity", but it is essentially fragmented, with Israel controlling key axes that link the coast with the Jordan Valley. Conceivably, a few settlements may indeed have to be moved to make it work. The Palestinian "state" can be fenced in on all sides and provided with "freer passage of people and goods through international border crossings" with Egypt and Jordan (with Israeli security controls), thereby ostensibly releasing Israel of responsibility for its economic well-being.
In parallel, "Israel will strengthen its control" over the rest: the Jordan Valley, western Samaria, and settlement blocs. This means de facto annexation. While Sharon offers assurances that none of these steps will "change the political reality" or "prevent the possibility of returning" to the roadmap process, he has in any case never had any intention of moving beyond phase II of the roadmap, which he believes approximates this vision. Moreover the projected timing of these unilateral moves–spring and summer of 2004–is not accidental: it coincides with the peak of the US presidential election process, when Sharon calculates that both US President George Bush and his democratic opponent will be too busy cultivating the pro-Israel vote to pressure him into carrying out the positive part of his initiative (redeployment, dismantling settlements) without the negative (an eastern fence, semi-annexation of the Jordan Valley).
Yet another way to interpret this policy speech is that Sharon is pressuring Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmad Qurei to deal more forthrightly with security issues as required by the roadmap and to enter into negotiations with him regarding phase II of the roadmap. Hence he brandishes both a stick and a carrot: "through the disengagement plan the Palestinians will receive much less than . . . through direct negotiations"; "I do not intend to wait for them indefinitely". Sharon has already tried and failed to compel the Palestine Liberation Organization militarily to cease the violence and accept his map; now he is brandishing the fence and the threat of semi-annexation.
Still another take on the speech is that Sharon is deliberately inviting his own right wing to constrain him, particularly by marking the heavily populated outpost of Migron for immediate removal. In other words, Sharon wants to "prove" to Bush and the Israeli left that the settlements are here to stay.
One characteristic of Sharon’s approach has not changed at all: he did not present a realistic strategy for peace. First he "hijacked" the fence and distorted it from a legitimate means of self-defense into a political tactic for creating a Palestinian bantustan. Now he has hijacked the idea of disengagement and dismantling of settlements- -which was originally intended by the left to rescue Israel demographically but without in any way prejudicing future negotiations concerning East Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley–and seeks to reconstitute it as a rationale for fencing in the Palestinians and grabbing the rest of the West Bank. Like previous grand designs of Sharon, this one too will backfire.