This alternative arena suits the Prime Minister well. It is the second consecutive year in which Ariel Sharon has sealed the Conference with a "speech to the nation". Suspense, this time, was higher than ever. Sharon's deputy and presumed trial balloonist, Ehud Olmert, had given an interview to Yediot Aharonot (December 5). A consensus-sniffing right-winger, Olmert stopped the breath of the nation with a call for "the unilateral evacuation of most of the Territories and parts of East Jerusalem and the division of the land of Israel into two states with the border between them determined not by politics, national sentiment or religious tradition, but by demography." Olmert was referring to the projection that by 2012, the majority west of the Jordan River will be Arab.
Israel waited, therefore, to hear what Sharon himself would say at Herzlia. There were further reasons for suspense: Ever since the resignation of Abu Mazen, Israel has been floundering without a political agenda. The Americans have announced they will pull their civil administration out of Iraq by July 2004. Saddam is in their hands. Libya has joined the Axis of Good. Yet between Israelis and Palestinians, mere butchery continues.
The political vacuum has set things in motion. On the left, old Oslo supporters re-emerge with the "Geneva Initiative". Among elite army units, some have had their fill of oppressing the Palestinians; letters of refusal pile up: from the officers, the air force, and now the commandos (Sayeret Matkal). The four most recent heads of the Shin Beth (General Security Services) announced in November that Israel is living on borrowed time; it will have to bite the bullet, confront the settlers, and withdraw from most of the Territories.
All this was in the background as Sharon took the podium at Herzlia on December 18. He announced that if the Palestinian side does not do its part, as defined by the Road Map, in the next half year – especially where security is concerned – then Israel will make a unilateral withdrawal from certain areas, retrenching along lines that suit it.
Sharon's declaration may be viewed as a kind of squirm. He avoids Olmert's demographic realism and stalls for time. He does not of course bring the idea before his cabinet: the government would collapse in a minute.
One sentence in Sharon's speech did not receive much media attention, although it expresses the curious trap in which Israel finds itself. He said: "We won't let the Palestinians hold us hostage." Now what could he have meant by this? In what sense are the Israelis the hostages here? In the sense that the country cannot move forward, economically or security-wise, because of the violence. Every time the Palestinians hit them, the Israelis hit back, and then they are hit in return, and on it goes. Sharon's idea is to "disconnect," as he put it, so that the Palestinians will have nothing to hit but a wall. There is something absurd, however, in the picture of the regional bully, armed with the best modern weaponry, stomping all over his neighbor's yard and shouting, "I won't let you hold me hostage!"
The threat of unilateral withdrawal comes at a time when anarchy rules on the Palestinian side. No one there is in a position to negotiate with Israel. This fact became obvious in early December, when the various Palestinian factions met in Cairo to arrange a cease fire (hudna). Under the aegis of the Egyptian secret security service, they sought a formula that would enable the Palestinian Authority (PA) to make diplomatic progress. Hamas in particular was supposed to accept a hudna applying not just to Israeli citizens, but also to settlers and soldiers. PA Prime Minister Abu Ala arrived to receive the goods, but Hamas balked. It agreed to spare Israeli civilians but would go no farther. It also demanded American guarantees for an end to Israeli assassinations. Abu Ala left Cairo with empty hands. The practical consequence is that the PA has no mandate to begin implementing the Road Map, which cites an end to terrorism as a starting point. The Cairo talks demonstrated the weakening of the PA, which has become, in effect, a mediator between Hamas and Israel. All too aware of Abu Mazen's fate, Abu Ala will not take a step without Hamas approval.
The PA and Fatah are angry with Hamas. They accuse the Islamists of misreading the map. When Hamas was seeking to save its skin in the summer of 2003, they claim, it agreed to a total hudna, but now, with the fate of the entire Palestinian people at stake, it couldn't care less. Although they won't say so in public, many point out that Hamas provoked the building of the separation barrier. Hamas asserts, for its part, that precisely its actions have caused Israeli morale to crumble: witness the talk of unilateral withdrawal. Yet even supposing that Hamas is right, the parameters of Israel's concessions remain light years away from the Palestinian starting point.
Hatred of Israel makes up, indeed, the principal fuel for the growth of Hamas, but there is real concern that no one will be left to pluck the fruits of radical Islam. Time is working against both societies.
In Israel there is a new consensus that the moment for decision has come, and that the occupation of 2.9 million Palestinians is no longer workable. The more balanced leaders, such as Labor Party boss Shimon Peres, reason correctly that a unilateral withdrawal will lead nowhere. Nahum Barnea writes in Yediot Aharonot (December 22): "Every greenhorn lawyer knows that the worst agreement is better than the best unilateral move." Washington doesn't fancy it either – but so far seems incapable of making the Road Map work.
The concept of unilateral separation amounts to typical Israeli impudence, as if one could circumvent reality by military means. Impudence is widespread, however, which is why this populist notion finds supporters in both the Likud and the Labor Party. (Labor's Ehud Barak, for example, has long been a proponent of "separation" by hook or crook.) To this delusion Sharon appeals: We'll take down a couple of settlements and kosher the rest. We'll retreat to lines the army feels comfortable with. We'll duck responsibility for the ensuing economic catastrophe on the other side.
It cannot, however, be a case of "Pick up and leave," as in Lebanon three years ago. The infrastructure of the West Bank and Gaza (water, sewage, electricity) remains bound up with Israel's. The same holds for the economies. Having destroyed the ruling authority in the Territories, Israel has made itself responsible, like it or not, for the welfare of the people. To come now with a threat of unilateral "disconnection" is the equivalent of doomsday. The weapon, in this case, is not a nuclear bomb, for that would be irrelevant against such a weak and defenseless people. Sharon's doomsday weapon is unilateral withdrawal.
It is always dangerous, however, to deploy a doomsday weapon. Suppose it flops? Unilateral disconnection is, in fact, no option. For assuming that Sharon could pull it off (despite protests by the settlers), the result would be new hell in the Territories, compared to which the current version will seem mere purgatory. Millions of Palestinians, starving behind walls and fences, will haunt the Israelis no less than the exiles of 1948 who, with their children, today demand the right of return.
Roni Ben Efrat is one of the editors of Challenge, a bi-monthly leftist magazine focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within a global context, where this article first appeared. Published in Jaffa by Arabs and Jews, Challenge features political analysis, investigative reporting, interviews, eye-witness reports, gender studies, arts, and more.
Articles by Yacov Ben Efrat