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Sharon and the Future of Palestine

1.

When Ariel Sharon first announced his intention to “disengage” unilaterally from Gaza and to dismantle four isolated settlements in the northern West Bank, many observers believed he was on his way to fulfilling their expectation that, sooner or later, he would transform himself into an Israeli De Gaulle and make the tough decisions that would finally end the Israeli– Palestinian conflict. Even those who were skeptical of the possibility of such a transformation, and believed that Sharon intended the Gaza withdrawal as leverage to gain international acceptance of Israel’s control over much of the West Bank, believed that a disengagement from Gaza would create a precedent that would lead to further withdrawals from the West Bank as well, for it would dispel the myth that any effort to dismantle settlements would drag the country into a civil war. For this reason, not only the Bush administration, which has found no measure taken by Sharon too outrageous to deserve American support, but also the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia (the other three members of the Quartet formed to oversee the implementation of the “road map”), as well as much of Israel’s left, welcomed Sharon’s initiative.

The perception that the principal architect of the settlement enterprise had been transformed into a crusader for their removal has been reinforced by an ever-widening breach between Sharon and much of his own ruling Likud Party—which overwhelmingly turned down his proposal for the Gaza disengagement in a referendum on May 2. The Likud Central Committee humiliated Sharon once again on July 31 by voting down his proposal to bring the Labor Party into the government to create a majority in his cabinet in support of the disengagement. On October 11, many in Sharon’s ruling party joined the political opposition in support of a pro forma motion repudiating the prime minister’s “state of the nation” speech marking the opening of the winter term of Israel’s parliament. It was the first time in Israel’s history that the Knesset voted to express no confidence in a prime minister’s opening address. Subsequently, on October 26, a clear majority of the Knesset voted to endorse Sharon’s plan, overriding the opposition to him within the Likud Party.

Sharon’s willingness to risk his premiership and to split his own party over the issue of the Gaza withdrawal has persuaded many in the most unlikely quarters that he has finally realized, in the words of an Economist editorial, that “he cannot erase the national dream of the Palestinians by force.”1 The Economist admonished “a world that has grown used to demonising Mr. Sharon” to wish “for his success.”

Similarly, Avraham Tal, an Israeli columnist, asked, “Will Sharon ever shed the demonic image that is attached to him? Even when he decides to take actions no one ever imagined him capable of, struggling valiantly against persistent forces in his own party trying to torpedo him, Sharon continues to be painted as a cunning politician who always cloaks his true intentions.”2

Citing an Op-Ed essay I had published in the International Herald Tribune,3 Tal faulted “Siegman and his ilk” for failing to understand how much Sharon has changed. He insisted that “Sharon now understands that in order to remain a Jewish state, Israel must disengage from as many Palestinians as possible,” which means getting rid of Gaza and most of the West Bank.
According to many of these same observers, it is not only Sharon who has been transformed, but the Palestinian side as well. They point to a Palestinian “Young Guard” that is challenging the so-called “Abus” who came from Tunis with Yasser Arafat, leaders seen as corrupt and inept by members of the younger Palestinian generation, who earned their right to be heard by taking part in the first intifada and doing time in Israeli jails. The Economist editorial cited above concluded that this younger generation of Palestinians has learned that “they cannot erase Israel by force.”
Unfortunately, these views are based on a misreading of both Israeli and Palestinian realities. Sharon is not about to agree to the minimal conditions for a workable Palestinian state. His unshakable resolve to avoid dealing with the Palestinians—even to prevent chaos in the wake of the promised withdrawal from Gaza—and to widen Jewish settlement activity throughout the West Bank, which has increased following the announcement of his disengagement plans, gives the lie to such wishful thinking.

The latest report from Israel’s Peace Now Settlement Watch found that building and infrastructure construction is taking place at 474 settlement sites in the West Bank and Gaza, including fifty sites where expansion or new construction deviates from the existing boundaries of the settlements, in violation of promises made by Sharon to President Bush.4 As of the end of August, there were around 3,700 housing units under construction throughout the occupied territories. Moreover, the ground was being prepared for thousands of additional houses—even in locations earmarked by Sharon for evacuation under the disengagement plan. The growth and extension of major settlements in the West Bank now being carried out help to divide it into three noncontiguous Palestinian cantons, in effect Bantustans that Palestinians could inhabit under Israeli surveillance without having a unified state of their own.

Under the guise of “state lands” Sharon’s government has continued to expropriate territory in the West Bank to expand the settlements, according to data from Israel’s Civil Administration. Since the start of 2004, some 2,200 dunams of land (550 acres) in the West Bank have been declared state lands, compared to 1,700 dunams designated as such last year. As noted by Peace Now’s Settlement Watch, this designation consistently allowed Israeli governments to establish and expand the settlements, enabling them to circumvent their commitment not to expropriate any more Palestinian territory for settlement construction.

For Sharon, withdrawal from Gaza is the price Israel must pay if it is to complete the cantonization of the West Bank under Israel’s control. Just as important, Gaza is to be turned into a living example of why Palestinians are undeserving of an independent state. Under the conditions attached by Sharon to the disengagement, Gaza—an area that makes up only 1.25 percent of the Palestine Mandate but contains 37 percent of the Palestinian population—will exist essentially as a large prison isolated from the world, including its immediate neighbors Egypt, Jordan, and the West Bank. Its population will be denied the freedom of movement essential to any possibility of economic recovery and outside investment. Sharon’s insistence that withdrawal from Gaza will be entirely an Israeli initiative and will not be negotiated with any Palestinian leaders seems designed to produce a state of anarchy in Gaza, one that will enable him to say, “Look at the violent, corrupt, and primitive people we must contend with; they can’t run anything on their own.”5

Until recently, many would have rejected such a harsh reading of Sharon’s intentions as defamatory. But this is now impossible, for Sharon’s closest friend and colleague, Dov Weissglas, who has been intimately involved in the formulation and execution of Sharon’s policies as the prime minister’s senior adviser and chief of staff, has described in great detail the content and purpose of Sharon’s proposed disengagement from Gaza. In a long interview that appeared in Haaretz,6 he asserts bluntly that the disengagement, which he and Sharon had persuaded President Bush and both houses of Congress to endorse, was actually intended to prevent a peace process, to consign Bush’s road map to oblivion, and to preclude the emergence of a Palestinian state of any kind.

Apparently Weissglas was concerned that there might be Israelis who, even after his interview, may still believe that the disengagement from Gaza and a few West Bank settlements proposed by Sharon might lead to further disengagements in the West Bank—an argument advanced by Shimon Peres, the Labor Party chairman, who has been eagerly awaiting an invitation from Sharon to rejoin his government. Weissglas assures us that given the conditions Sharon attached to resuming a peace process, “Palestinians would have to turn into Finns” before this could happen. “Effectively, this whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda,” he said. “And all this…with a [US] presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of Congress.” Just in case someone may still have illusions, he explains that the proposed disengagement “is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians.” As Ephraim Sneh, a Labor member of the Knesset, observed, “Formaldehyde, it should be noted, is the liquid in which dead bodies are preserved.”7

Evidently, the only ones who still don’t get it, despite Weissglas’s painstaking clarifications, are the officials in Washington. After Sharon’s office issued an entirely predictable—and patently dishonest—statement that he remains committed to the road map, a US State Department spokesman immediately declared that not only does this administration not doubt Israel’s continued adherence to the road map and to President Bush’s two-state “vision,” but there is “no cause” for such doubt.

What is remarkable about all of this is neither Sharon’s deception about the purposes of his disengagement nor the administration’s pandering during a presidential election.8 It is, rather, the arrogance that allows Weissglas to flaunt Israel’s deception without fearing that it would damage Sharon’s plan, so certain are he and Sharon that they have Bush and Congress in their pockets.

What is uncertain is why Bush signed his letter of April 14, which Weissglas drafted, in effect giving US approval to Sharon’s plan to bury the Palestinian national cause by conferring legitimacy on Israel’s settlements. Did he do so out of sheer naiveté or because he knowingly collaborated with Sharon’s deception?

Even without Weissglas’s extensive interview, it should have been clear long before now that the “new Palestinian leadership” Sharon has been calling for would never agree to Sharon’s version of a peace agreement—an “interim” arrangement that leaves Israel in control of the West Bank and defers Palestinian statehood for decades while Israel continues to annex territory and to fragment what is left into isolated cantons.

There is no basis for the self-serving Israeli claim promoted by Ehud Barak—and by The Economist—that the goal of the older Palestinian generation is the eradication of Israel. Neither the Old Guard nor the Young Guard believes in that goal—if only because they know how utterly unachievable it is. But both groups will resist territorial concessions to Israel if they are not accompanied by fair exchanges of territory on both sides of the pre-1967 border that are mutually agreed to in a peace negotiation. This issue has never distinguished the “Abus” from their challengers.

Those who identify with the Palestinian Young Guard are demanding an end to the corruption of the old-time Fatah leaders who dominate the Palestinian Authority; they also call for new leaders who can formulate a coherent strategic approach to the struggle for Palestinian statehood, something Arafat was incapable of providing. Whether the Young Guard will succeed in producing such a strategy, and whether that strategy will embrace or reject violence, will be determined in large measure by Israel’s willingness to assure Palestinians that a viable state can be achieved by nonviolent means. That is an assurance that Sharon’s proposal for unilateral disengagement from Gaza does not offer. Indeed, as everyone now knows from Weissglas’s interview, it is intended to preclude it.

  1. 1

    July 31–August 6, 2004.

  2. 2

    Haaretz, August 26, 2004.

  3. 3

    August 20, 2004.

  4. 4

    Americans for Peace Now: Middle East Report, Vol. 6, Issue 11 (October 4, 2004).

  5. 5

    Gideon Samet, Haaretz, July 21, 2004.

  6. 6

    October 8, 2004.

  7. 7

    Haaretz, October 11, 2004.

  8. 8

    See Henry Siegman, “Israel: The Threat from Within,” The New York Review, February 26, 2004, and “Sharon’s Phony War,” The New York Review, December 18, 2003.

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