Sharon's Disengagement
Pre-empting the "Growing Danger" of Peace

by Reuven Kaminer
March 11, 2004

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Never a day goes by without a flood of commentaries on Sharon's disengagement plans. Sharon insists on a major pull out from the Gaza area, the removal of some 7,500 Jewish settlers, with most of their settlements. Sharon talks about also dismantling several settlements in the West Bank and gives everyone to understand that all this is going to be coordinated with the U.S. administration, down to the last detail. The new arrangements in the Gaza region, the timing of the withdrawal, and some sort of financial assistance from the U.S. government are already the subject of intensive negotiations between the Israeli and U.S. governments. Naturally enough, the super hawks in his coalition and in his own party are fuming with indignation over the fact that the boss himself is going to grant, heaven forbid, a colossal "prize to terror."

But there is nothing mysterious about Sharon's intentions. He wants very much to create a new status quo in which Israel will retain 50 per cent of the West Bank, and 90% of the settlements there, Israel will continue to have complete, undivided control of Jerusalem. And, of course, Israel will continue to look the other way whenever the refugee problem is mentioned. Sharon hopes to pacify international pressure by agreeing to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the area that is to remain in Palestinian hands after Sharon puts his disengagement program into effect. There is, of course, not the remotest possibility that the Palestinians might accept his ridiculous offer for a Palestinian state in 10% of Palestine. The sole purpose of the offer is to allow Sharon to appear as an "advocate of Palestinian statehood."

Sharon may be a reactionary militarist but unlike the settler leadership, he is not a religious fundamentalist. He sees himself as a man of the world, a statesman with international standing. And as such, he never forgets that the main component in Israeli strength is the alliance with the United States and a high level of understanding and cooperation with the administration in Washington, D.C.

Sharon's Problems

The settlers, for their part, claim to derive their politics from reading Torah. Sharon, on the other hand, reads military and political maps and tries to anticipate the effect of short and long range processes. He has arrived at the conclusion that despite Israel's tremendous military superiority, the given status quo is tenuous and inherently unstable. And if change is inevitable, it is the task of the leader, to make every effort to shape future events. Religious fanatics don't accept compromises. But even the most chauvinist of politicians, especially those with rich military experience, understand that there are times when you simply have to shorten your lines, so as to better defend your main positions. Sharon has announced that the time has come for Israel to carry out this kind of exercise.

Sharon fears that any sort of negotiations, even with a tremendously enervated Palestinian leadership, might propel Israel in the direction of a settlement acceptable to the international community. The contours of such a settlement, if and when genuine negotiations get underway remain clear. It is no accident that when Sharon started to talk seriously about "separation", his advisers informed the public that Sharon's plan was necessary to head off other initiatives such as the Geneva Accords. Just last week, in an attempt to gain support from the Likud MK back benchers, he told them out and out that Israel must either adopt his plan or 'lose it all'. Sharon teaches his colleagues the facts of life. A partial unilateral withdrawal is preferable to the danger of genuine negotiations for peace

Hoisted by his Own Petard

Sharon has serious problems in his government and in his party. He cannot get his plan through the cabinet without a major coalition crisis and he cannot reconstruct a new coalition without a crisis in his own party.

Interestingly enough, Sharon seems, according to the polls, to have a clear majority of Israeli public opinion behind his suggestion for a partial pull out. But most of the ministers and the local bosses in the party's central bodies, accept the settlers' secular arguments to the effect that any kind of pull out is a prize to the terrorists. For years, Sharon and his political allies have been arguing that Israel can ignore international public opinion and diplomatic realities and the opponents of the withdrawal are having a field day quoting relatively recent statements by Sharon such as the one that claimed that Netzarim an isolated Israeli settlement on the southern tip the Gaza Strip- is as important as Tel Aviv. How interesting to watch Ariel Sharon being condemned by more and more of his political and ideological kinsmen of being soft on terror.

There are two main problems with Sharon's proposed major pull out from Gaza and a few relatively isolated settlements in the WB. The first is the difficulty converting broad support in the public for a pull out into a broad coalition of support in Israeli politics for a man whose credibility was always very low. A lot of smart money is on Sharon's retreat being more likely than any retreat by the IDF. He can always change his mind and blame parties to his left for not giving him unqualified and unconditional support. But such support may be lacking precisely because very few people believe that Sharon is really a man of principle willing to go down fighting for his beliefs. It is very hard for the forces of peace and political realism to extend any support to Sharon, who has contributed so much over so many years to the horrible predicament in which Israel finds itself.

Pre-empting Peace

But this is not the only problem. Sharon's plans to "pre-empt" peace suffer from their narrow and provincial conceptions. If Israel is already in a concessionary mood, many observers ask why not use this opportunity for some constructive negotiations with the Palestinians. Up till now, Bush and company justified their hands-off policy by the rather lame rational that nothing could be done without first meeting the need to eradicate terror. But if there is going to be an Israel pull back, without any perceptible change in the intensity of terrorist actions, isn't it simply logical to use the opportunity to restart serious negotiations?

There are some strange mutterings coming out of DC. Bush's advisers must be saying something like this: Here we are here in Washington, justifying our inaction by the intractability of the situation, which turns out to be highly tractable. Doesn't our trusted ally know that this is an election year and we have plenty of our own problems? Or is it possible that Sharon could try and use the U.S. election to wring pro-Israeli policy statements, funds and other concessions from us in the administration precisely in this election year. Perhaps Sharon believes that it is better to do business with George W. while he is still around.

Momentarily, Sharon and the United States are not on the same page. But have no fear, Sharon will go nowhere without the blessings of George W., even if you promise him 80% of the votes in the Israeli parliament. He won't move an inch, without all the damage control mechanisms, in Washington DC, in place. At the moment, it appears that Sharon doesn't intend to move a single settler before November 2004, but he does want to use the year to clear the way for decisive action afterwards. He wants to package his separation plan this year in order to deliver it in 2005. And he wants clear policy commitments from the United States for his plans.

Sharon knows that he cannot stabilize the current situation. He is telling Bush that Israel needs to make serious changes to maintain the occupation and a lot of 'help from its friends' to rearrange things in order to create some hope of relative stability. What is certain is this: despite the military weakness of the Palestinians and the disarray of the Palestinian leadership, and because of the horrendous suffering of three and a half million Palestinians under conditions of brutal occupation, the Palestinian issue continues to haunt the halls of power and the consciences of decent people everywhere. The status quo, one might say, is a "non-starter."

Reuven Kaminer is a prominent Israeli activist and writer. He can be reached at: mssourk@mscc.huji.ac.il.






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