Sharon seeks US backing to go it alone
The Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, flies to Washington on Monday, where he expects President George Bush to back his plan to unilaterally draw the frontiers of an emasculated Palestinian state, a move that could redefine the conflict for a generation or more.
After weeks of wrangling over how Israel is to be “rewarded” for its pledge to pull Jewish settlers out of the Gaza Strip, officials in Jerusalem say Bush has largely given Sharon a free hand to carve out a semi-autonomous state in the occupied territories, without consulting the Palestinians, provided he meets certain conditions.
These include demands that he call the borders temporary, and maintains the public position that Israel will adhere to the United States-led “road map” peace plan when a different Palestinian leadership emerges. Washington has also refused to allow Israel to formally annex the major West Bank settlement blocks, but the White House is expected to recognise that they will remain by declaring that the 1967 border is “not a sacred line”.
Sharon sought US approval for “unilateral disengagement” after declaring that the Palestinian leadership’s “failure to fight terror” had removed it as a negotiating partner.
Once Bush clears the way Sharon will be free to face down opposition to his plan within his own government and party from those who are outraged that the prime minister, who three years ago vowed not to surrender an inch of the Gaza settlements, has now usurped the opposition Labour party’s pledge unilaterally to pull out of some Palestinian areas.
In doing so Sharon has reconnected with voters who were increasingly disillusioned by his failure to deliver the promised “peace with security”. More than 60% of Israelis back unilateral disengagement.
But the prime minister has yet to reveal even to his own Cabinet the extent of the withdrawal.
Critics such as the Israeli Labour MP and former Cabinet minister Ephraim Sneh say he is using the pledge to pull settlers out of Gaza as a cover for entrenching Israeli control of the West Bank.
“He wants to relinquish Gaza and that’s it,” said Sneh. “I’m afraid the second phase of his plan is to solidify our control over the West Bank or to shape forever the map that Sharon believes in; that is, a few Palestinian enclaves in the West Bank are declared a Palestinian state and the rest is annexed to Israel. That will mean the conflict continues.”
Sharon has done nothing to dispel those suspicions by proposing to pull out of just four small settlements in the northern part of the West Bank. That would leave about 200 other Jewish enclaves in the occupied territories, which are home to more than 400 000 settlers.
The blueprint for unilateral disengagement is Sharon’s stated vision of borders drawn around the 42% of the occupied territories placed under Palestinian administration by the Oslo accords. Such a state would have only “attributes of sovereignty”. It would be neither truly independent nor have control over its air space, water resources, borders or foreign policy. It would not be permitted an army, only a lightly armed police force. All access to and from such a state would be controlled by Israel.
The Americans have reined in other elements of Sharon’s original plan, such as his desire to use the settlement blocks to divide the Palestinian territory into three or four disconnected cantons.
Under US pressure he has committed himself to territorial contiguity and free movement within a Palestinian state, although that may amount to no more than corridors and bridges to link a patchwork of territory.
Palestinians liken Sharon’s plan to a South African bantustan or a vast ghetto of three million people imprisoned behind the “security barrier”.
“It’s clear that Sharon is linking the withdrawal from Gaza to consolidation of the occupation of the West Bank,” Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian Cabinet minister, said. “This is not a temporary arrangement or part of a package leading to the creation of a real Palestinian state. It will not improve the life of Palestinians and it won’t stop the resistance to occupation.”
But Dan Meridor, a former Likud minister and long-term Cabinet colleague of Sharon, said the prime minister had calculated that unilateral withdrawal would fundamentally change the nature of the conflict in Israel’s favour.
“The Israel-Palestinian conflict has been, and to many people still is, an existential conflict: it’s either you or me. Once you make it a two-state situation it’s totally different, it’s a transformation of the whole conflict,” he said. “The Palestinians get land, they get independence, the occupation ends and the conflict becomes a border conflict between two states.”
A broad spectrum of Israeli politicians believe Sharon will cede more than the 42% to a Palestinian state. They say he can hand over almost twice as much of the West Bank while still using the matrix of settlements, Israeli-controlled roads and now the “security” wall and fence to maintain overarching control of the territory.
Sharon has been a reluctant convert to unilateral disengagement after decades at the vanguard of settlement expansion. Israeli analysts say he realised more than two years ago that the occupation in its present form was unsustainable, and began seeking ways to unburden Israel of responsibility for millions of Palestinians while keeping control of as much of their land as possible.
They say the prime minister was driven to move more swiftly earlier this year by factors such as public exasperation at his failure to deliver on his election promise of peace, the collapse of his strategies to remove Yasser Arafat as a political force and growing dissent within the military.
Pressure also grew with the launch of the latest of a series of independent peace initiatives, the Geneva accords, the first attempt to detail the borders of a Palestinian state, which exposed Sharon’s lack of a strategy.
Some of his critics say the prospect of corruption charges also forced his hand in an attempt to distract public opinion or to pressure the attorney general into thinking twice about bringing down a prime minister at such a critical time. Others, including Sneh, say the timing of the US presidential election is crucial because Bush will not want to alienate Jewish-American voters by blocking Sharon.
Jeff Halper, a prominent activist and author who has campaigned against expanding Israeli control of the occupied territories, said Sharon had failed to take up the opportunities to advance negotiations with the Palestinians because he knew they could not agree to his terms.
“Sharon understands we have to have a Palestinian state,” he said. “The problem is he has nothing to offer the Palestinians any more. There are no negotiations because the most Sharon has to offer is a truncated bantustan.”
“Sharon understands the wide gap between what he wants to give in that state and what the Palestinians want from negotiations. So why wait?” he said.
Even with Bush’s blessing, Sharon still has to get unilateral disengagement through his Cabinet, his party and the Israeli Parliament. His coalition partners in the hard-right National Religious Party and National Union have said they will walk out of the government if the settlers are removed from Gaza.
The opposition Labour Party has said it will step in to keep the government afloat provided Sharon meets certain conditions, including a demand that the withdrawal be completed within a year.
But the hardest battle may be fought within Sharon’s own party, Likud. Three influential Likud Cabinet ministers—including the former prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu—are campaigning against unilateral disengagement.
Sharon hopes to bypass this opposition by calling a referendum of Likud’s 200 000 members in the belief they better reflect the broad public support for disengagement. That referendum will go ahead on April 29, it was announced on Sunday.
Uzi Landau, a Likud Cabinet minister who advocates the “transfer” of the Palestinian population to Jordan, says such a move will only spur more violence.
“Those ideas of unilateral withdrawal are simply signalling to the Palestinians that terrorism rewards and that Israel is in an ongoing retreat,” he said. “This is going to undoubtedly tear Likud apart and tear Israel apart.”
But Meridor said the prime minister had little choice but to press ahead after announcing his plans: “Even if he didn’t mean them, it’s not a thing he can take back. It created a new political situation which is reflected in the polls. Sharon cannot go against it.”—Guardian Unlimited Â