Since he was elected three years ago, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has expressed
skepticism that a permanent settlement with the Palestinians is possible, and has instead
sought an interim agreement. Now believing even that to be unlikely, Sharon unveiled a
plan at last month’s Herzliyah Conference to unilaterally separate from the Palestinians.
Unless an unlikely revival of the road map occurs, Sharon’s unilateral disengagement plan
will dominate Israel’s political agenda throughout 2004.
While much of the Herzliyah speech was ambiguous, Sharon’s statements concerning dismantling of communities were clear. Sharon said that disengagement from the Palestinians
”will require the extremely difficult step of changing the deployment of some of the settlements… Settlements which will be relocated are those which will not be included in the territory of the State of Israel in the framework of any possible future permanent agreement.” Sharon did not name the communities slated for evacuation.
The other key points of Sharon’s plan are:
* The dismantling of all settlement outposts.
* No construction of new settlements and no construction in existing settlements beyond
the current construction lines.
* Full coordination with the United States.
* ”Israel will strengthen its control” over areas in the territories ”which will constitute an inseparable part of the State of Israel in any future agreement,” but its new border ”will not
constitute the permanent border of the State of Israel.”
* Accelerated construction of the security fence.
* The possibility of returning to implementation of the road map at a later time.
* The Palestinians will receive much less than they would receive through direct negotiations via the road map.
In stating that Palestinians would receive less under the disengagement plan than under the road map, Sharon is hinting that he would concede more than previously thought in a peace process, and making a last ditch effort to revitalize the road map.
Extent of ‘Painful Concessions’
For several years, Sharon frequently spoke of the need for ”painful concessions” without expounding on what those concessions would entail. But after the Iraq war, he told Haaretz, ”Look, we are talking about the cradle of the Jewish people. Bethlehem, Shilo, Beit El. And I know that we will have to part with some of these places. There will be a parting from places that are connected to the whole course of our history. As a Jew, this agonizes me. But I have decided to make every effort to reach a settlement. I feel that the rational necessity to reach a settlement is overcoming my feelings.”
After an outcry, Sharon told The Jerusalem Post that he was not referring specifically to Beit El or Shilo, but generally to the idea of withdrawal from parts of Judea and Samaria. But a few days later, The New York Times quoted a ”Sharon aide” as advising against taking Sharon’s interview with the Post seriously, dismissing his statements as ”domestic politics.”
According to Ruby Rivlin, Israel’s Speaker of the Knesset and Sharon’s close confidante
(yet an opponent of dismantling settlements), in seeking to reach an interim agreement
under the road map, Sharon created a map in which Israel would dismantle at least 17
settlements, including Tekoa, Ganim, Kadim and Homesh. Rivlin says that Sharon has
privately shown the map to members of the Yesha Council and discussed his plans with them.
Rivlin has expressed concern that Sharon may now be planning to dismantle even more
than 17 settlements. The New York Times recently reported that Sharon’s discussions with the Bush administration indicated that as many as 22 settlements would be destroyed. Maariv and Israel’s Channel 2 have both reported that Sharon plans to unilaterally dismantle many of the Gaza Strip’s Jewish communities. Rivlin says that Sharon wants to retain the communities in Gaza’s Gush Katif area, but ”the American pressure in the direction of the Gaza District is very heavy.”
Sharon’s refusal to name the communities he intends to ”move,” or explain where the communities and their residents will be ”moved” to, comes amid leaks suggesting that
displaced residents will be moved to new settlements in the Negev and possibly the Galilee. Those reports seem credible in light of Sharon’s recent decision to construct 30 new
settlements in those regions.
People subject to forced evacuation should not be used as political pawns, and deserve
details about their fate. However, despite all the rumors, the scope and nature of Sharon’s
plans remain unclear. Public support for unilateral withdrawal will likely diminish as protests intensify and the divisive debate undermines Israel’s unity. It is quite possible that internal political pressure will prevent Sharon from dismantling settlements, or will limit the plan’s scope, with only a few of the most isolated communities evacuated.
Still, the various plans calling for unilateral evacuation of Jewish communities have already threatened the taboo against destroying settlements prior to a final status agreement. No established settlement in Judea, Samaria or Gaza has ever been dismantled by Israel, while the Sinai settlements were dismantled only following a full peace agreement with Egypt. The
unilateral dismantling of even one community would therefore set a radical precedent. The
world — even the United States — generally does not distinguish between small isolated
settlements and large towns such as Ariel and Efrat. A few months ago, the Washington Post
reported that President Bush ”has told aides that the Israelis are wasting their money expanding settlements in the West Bank because ultimately those projects will become
housing developments for Palestinians.”
The onus therefore is on Israel to make this distinction and to explain clearly that while it accepts the principle of territorial compromise, it will not return to the 1967 borders. If the Jewish presence in Judea and Samaria is to have a future in any form, it is essential for Israel to assert that even if it relinquishes much of the territories and dismantles settlements within those areas, it intends to permanently retain other parts of the disputed territories.
Unilateral Withdrawal Necessitates Unilateral Annexation
Sharon’s references to strengthening control over areas Israel intends to keep are too vague. When Sharon says that settlements ”will be relocated,” it is obvious that they will be evacuated. Nobody knows what ”strengthening” other settlements entails.
If Sharon is going to break the taboo on destroying settlements, then he must also break the taboo on annexation of parts of Judea and Samaria.
While Sharon made clear that the new border would not constitute Israel’s permanent border, he did not foreclose the possibility that some areas could be annexed. Annexation of
Jerusalem suburbs such as Maa’leh Adumim and Givat Ze’ev, and other consensus locations
such as Gush Etzion, would be rejected by the international community, but would
nonetheless radically change the status of those areas.
The world has not formally accepted Israel’s annexation of Jerusalem neighborhoods captured in 1967, such as Gilo, Ramot, Ramat Eshkol and French Hill. But as a result of the annexation, Israeli construction in those neighborhoods is not viewed by the U.S. as settlement activity, and nobody suggests that these areas be relinquished, despite their location beyond the Green Line. More than 200,000 Israelis live in the post-’67 Jerusalem neighborhoods, almost as many as live in all of Judea, Samaria and Gaza. Every ”settlement” that is annexed and released of heavy constraints on construction will, similarly, sustain very substantial growth.
Annexation of some of the major settlements and the providing of housing within those settlements to displaced residents of the evacuated settlements would make the disengagement plan palatable to many supporters of the settlement movement. Annexation of certain communities would also change the status of those areas in the eyes of many Israelis, as has annexation of the Golan Heights and the parts of Jerusalem that were captured in 1967.
Failure To Annex Rewards Terror
If Israel unilaterally withdraws from territory and no other territory is annexed, Palestinians would pay no price as a result of Sharon’s disengagement plan. After all, Sharon promised that the parties could resume the peace process at any time. The Palestinians therefore would have an incentive to continue utilizing terrorism, in an effort to force further unilateral retreats. Even if in the future Israel stands firm, the Palestinians could decide it is worthwhile to resume negotiation, and achieve gains in that realm, never incurring a territorial cost from their strategy of terror.
IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon says that removal of settlements would be tantamount to
rewarding terror and should occur only as part of a comprehensive peace arrangement. Until
recently, Sharon agreed, saying in 2002, ”No settlements will be evacuated. Such an
evacuation would only encourage terrorism and increase the pressure on us.”
Even Muhammad Dahlan, the former security head of the Palestinian Authority, has said, ”Unilateral withdrawal from settlements would be a prize for Hamas, and lead it to conclude that terror pays.”
Annexation of some settlements would prevent Palestinians from viewing unilateral partial withdrawal as a victory for terror, and from believing that more terror would result in
full Palestinian control of the territories without any concessions on their part.
However, Sharon’s promise to fully coordinate his plan with the United States suggests annexation of any settlements to be unlikely. And if Sharon does not annex any of the settlements, it is hard to understand how they will be strengthened, especially in light of
his promise not to extend the construction lines of existing settlements, which could prevent
relocation of evacuated residents into other settlements.
Full coordination with the United States might also prevent expansion of the security fence to include more than a very small portion of territory beyond the Green Line. If Israel intends the fence to include the Jordan Valley and Western Samaria, it will have to do so against the wishes of the Bush administration, which strongly objects to the fence’s presence in those locations.
While maintaining a close relationship with the United States is a vital Israeli interest, Israel should withstand U.S. pressure related to the disengagement plan. Prior Likud governments sometimes engaged in foolish squabbling with America on minor matters, but at other times rejection of U.S. demands has been appropriate. For example, as a result of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s resolve in 1997 to build the Har Homa section of Jerusalem, that neighborhood became the last major Jewish development outside the 1967 borders and is now a thriving and growing community. Meanwhile, the heavy pressure from Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright are a distant memory.
There has been much speculation as to why Sharon — who in his 1989 autobiography, Warrior, called the formation of a Palestinian state ‘something no Israeli with any regard for
the country’s safety could agree to’ — has radically shifted his positions.
Some have mentioned the ongoing criminal investigation against Sharon as a motive, but less sinister motivations are more likely. In Warrior, Sharon wrote that peace requires ”the broadest possible national consensus. A widely acceptable formula must somehow be found so that Israel can take the initiative in the peace process rather than be relegated to responding to the demands of others.”
This reasoning applies today. Sharon is wary of the current diplomatic vacuum, which has allowed the Geneva Accord to gain international acclaim, including praise from key members of the Bush administration. Frustrated Israelis are anxious to support any reasonable plan — even, apparently, without paying attention to its details. Indeed, while 59 percent support Sharon’s disengagement plan, when asked specifically about unilateral dismantling of settlements, a centerpiece of the plan, 51 percent expressed opposition.
Having concluded that unilateral steps are inevitable, Sharon believes 2004 to be the ideal year to carry out those steps. With the Bush administration in the midst of an election campaign in which it will cultivate the Jewish vote in key swing states like Florida, Bush might be less inclined to strongly pressure Israel on aspects of the disengagement plan that he opposes, such as extension of the security fence.
Ultimately, Sharon has soberly accepted that Israel cannot completely get out of the mess caused by Oslo, which granted international legitimacy to the notion that Palestinians terrorists should be given a state. In a Jerusalem Post column, Yossi Klein Halevi suggested that Sharon might explain his political shift as follows:
”For the past 50 years I’ve been trying to bail out the people of Israel. Sometimes I got carried away, and you never forgave me for my excesses. But whenever you got into really serious trouble — whether overwhelmed by terrorism in the 1950’s or by invading armies in 1973 — I’m the one you called on to save you. Now, in my old age, you’ve turned to me to rescue you from the worst mess you’ve ever gotten yourselves into, a disaster I warned you for decades to avoid.
”I’m trying my best, but this time you’ve really done it. There’s only so much room you’ve left me to maneuver in. And no one in my place would do any better.”
Sharon’s disengagement plan should be understood and assessed as a partial retreat designed to avoid a much more dangerous return to the 1967 borders. Whether it achieves those goals or emboldens Palestinian terrorism will depend on whether, as he promises, Sharon strengthens Israel’s presence in the remaining parts of Judea and Samaria.
Joseph Schick is an attorney. His blog, The Zionist Conspiracy, is located at
www.jschick.blogspot.com. Comments can be placed on the blog or sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Since he was elected three years ago, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has expressed