The United States is not in the habit of making public its disagreements with Israel, if any exist. For that reason it takes some effort to deduce whether the American and Israeli administrations are in concordance over Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's recent proposals. This ambiguity, of course, is all part of the special relationship and strategic friendship that Israel and the United States share. One can, however, extrapolate that there is not complete agreement on the issue: usually when their policies mesh, the United States says so quite publicly.
But it is not difficult to see the possible discrepancies between the shadowy outline Sharon has offered of his unilateral "disengagement" plan and the American position. The Americans are the main authors and promoters of a detailed plan and concept in the form of the roadmap, a series of stages based on multilateralism and reciprocal moves, intensive security cooperation and eventual negotiations to determine a conclusive solution of difficult final status issues like Jerusalem, refugees, borders, settlements, etc. In addition, the roadmap takes an explicit and robust position against Israeli settlements in the occupied territories and continuing settlement expansion.
The outline of Israeli unilateral "disengagement" on the other hand is entirely different. It is one-sided by name and definition and involves little cooperation or negotiation. It is based solely on the desires and interests of one party at the expense of the needs and demands of the other. For example, while the Israeli "disengagement" plan involves possible partial withdrawal from some of the occupied territories, it also involves consolidating the occupation in the rest of the territories, using the contours of the wall that is being built deep into the West Bank as the contours of the future expansion of Israel. Inside the wall, the vast majority of Palestinians will be confined to the least possible area of land. While the roadmap calls for ending the 37-year-old Israeli occupation, these unilateral Israeli steps are intended to rearrange Palestinian oppression. Another fundamental difference between Sharon's ideas and the vision personally articulated by US President Bush is the crucial notion of two viable and independent states, living side by side. The unilateral Israeli "disengagement" plan eliminates this possibility by allowing for a Palestinian entity that the Israeli government will not mind calling a "state" because in fact, it will be neither independent nor viable--the perfect neighbor for a maximalist, insatiable, bullying Israel.
As such, although the American administration is diplomatically hiding its dispute with Israel, the differences are plain. But the absence of a clear US position, as well as any pressure on Israel to pursue the stated American goals, is responsible for encouraging Israel to continue its strategy of achieving objectives by force (which, one might add, have achieved nothing). What is needed from the United States is to deliver Israel to the roadmap as the only plan for Middle East peace that was drafted by the United States and has the full force of international legitimacy after its adoption by the United Nations Security Council.
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is minister of labor in the Palestinian government and for many years prior was featured in the press as a political analyst.
To understand and appreciate the Bush administration's policy regarding Israeli Prime Minister Sharon's disengagement plan, we must briefly reexamine the record. For three and a half years now, the administration's attitude toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict/peace process has been characterized by high rhetoric and little action. On the one hand, President Bush is the first US leader to officially endorse the creation of a Palestinian state; his policy speech of June 24, 2002 constitutes a far reaching prescription for a two state solution. And in March 2003 he endorsed the roadmap, with its strong demands on both Palestinians and Israelis.
At the same time, still rhetorically, Bush has laid down tough benchmarks for US willingness to make good on its commitment to a Palestinian state: Yasser Arafat must be removed or at least neutralized as a leader; Palestinians must democratize and introduce new standards of transparency in their governance.
But at the level of action, the picture is very different. The administration never dispatched a very high level envoy for a long stay in the region to represent its interest in advancing a solution. It never sought to organize heavy Arab pressure on Arafat to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure or on Sharon to dismantle outposts. It did not provide massive support for Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) during his short premiership last year, even though he answered every US (and Israeli) criterion for a Palestinian leader. Within a few months after US endorsement of the roadmap it was clear to all that the administration never viewed that formula as much more than a means of leveraging regional and European support for its campaign in Iraq. Since election year began in America a few months ago, even the rhetoric has dried up.
Now along comes Ariel Sharon and requests Bush's blessing for his disengagement plan. Sharon's motives are not entirely clear. He is under a legal cloud that threatens his entire political career. He wants to exploit disengagement in Gaza to strengthen Israel's grip on the West Bank. He has never endorsed the demographic argument and never told the public why all of a sudden in his view abstract "security concerns" mandate disengagement and dismantling of settlements he himself built. He has still not removed any outposts to speak of, and he allows settlement construction to proceed apace at a number of sites.
On the other hand Sharon is, here and there, moving the fence back to a more reasonable, green line-based location, and he makes the case that removal of settlements, coupled with the "new" fence, will dovetail nicely with phase II of the roadmap, thereby seemingly giving the president a solid Middle East accomplishment in an election year.
Sharon wants to wrap all this up in a triumphant visit to Washington. The administration is cautious, and repeatedly postpones the date. It is making considerable demands on Sharon regarding the fence, settlement expansion, and coordination of transfer of territory with the more moderate Palestinians. But it faces a situation close to chaos in Palestine, and presumably understands that Sharon's political (and legal) position is increasingly shaky.
Bush knows he must get to election day in November with Iraq solidly on the way to a new era of democracy. But until now he apparently assumed that the best case he need make on election day for Israel-Palestine would be that American crisis management had succeeded in keeping that conflict from getting too far out of hand--pending a better, post-Arafat day. The American public right now is very interested in Baghdad, where its sons and daughters are serving, but not in what goes on in Jerusalem and Ramallah. The president was even able to ignore the Israeli-Palestinian conflict completely in his January state-of-the-union address.
Will this administration, with its sorry record of missed opportunities and non-action in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere and its huge gamble in Iraq, take an election year chance on Sharon and his disengagement plan? Can it safely assume that the transfer of power will work out smoothly; that Sharon will not exploit Bush's preoccupation with elections to build more settlements and fences in the West Bank that hinder a solution; that the entire project will not collapse into an Israeli governmental crisis?
The payoff could be the first real progress in three and a half years; this would be good politically for both Bush and Sharon. Or it could be a major fiasco, laid by Sharon and Arafat at Bush's doorstep.
The odds are that the hands-off approach will again win out. Sharon will be asked to postpone any withdrawal until after US elections, to keep his preparations low key until then, and meanwhile to keep the conflict from getting out of hand.
Knowing Sharon, such a "back burner" situation may well be what he really wants.
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies and a former senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Shrinking horizons under a US-Israel consensus
an interview with George Giacaman
bitterlemons: What is your analysis of the American administration's reception to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's "disengagement" plan?
Giacaman: There has been a pattern to American responses to initiatives taken by Sharon over the last three years of the intifada, whether military or political. First, there is surprise and then there are negotiations. We are seeing the same with this initiative--first, there was displeasure and surprise and now there is a team in the United States negotiating the details.
It is entirely possible that they might agree to something. The American reservations are generally well known, for instance [that Israel] not transfer any settlers from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank, and also that there be "adjustments" to the wall. But it remains to be seen what they finally agree to.
bitterlemons: What does this do to the roadmap?
Giacaman: The roadmap, practically speaking, has been dead since the minute the present Israeli government posed its 14 reservations, of which the US administration accepted 12. But there are explicit references in the Sharon plan that make the death of the roadmap more official. One of the aspects [of Sharon's plan] is to convince the Americans that there be no negotiations with Palestinians unless there is a change of leadership. This is not a part of the roadmap.
bitterlemons: Why do you think that the US administration would be willing to alter the vision presented by US President George Bush in that manner?
Giacaman: That depends how seriously one takes President Bush's vision. It has no details and no timetable. Sharon claims that his plan need not conflict with President Bush's vision, provided--as he says--that the partner on the other side fulfills certain conditions. In a way, the Bush administration was kind of pushed into it by the Arab and some European countries; the vision itself is rather wishy-washy, especially since there is no power behind it.
bitterlemons: Do you think that Sharon is serious?
Giacaman: I note that it has been argued over the last two or three years that [Sharon] has no political plan. This is a bit odd because only one month after he was elected he conducted an interview with Haaretz newspaper in which he specified clearly what he was thinking, which is exactly what he is now trying to execute: a Palestinian state on 42 percent of the West Bank and a long-term agreement with final negotiations at an indefinite date.
That is exactly what he is trying to execute at the present time, with or without a Palestinian partner.
bitterlemons: What is your prognosis for the conflict?
Giacaman: In my opinion, it is very bleak. These moves will mean continued conflict in various shapes or forms, but it is obvious that without Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967, there will not be peace between Israelis and Arabs. The present formula of Sharon's plan ensures continued conflict, especially if carried out unilaterally. It will mean almost total separation between the West Bank and Gaza. The wall that is being erected will become the focus of different types of conflict or struggle. The situation will continue like this until there is pressure on the Israeli government to be serious about peace in the area.
bitterlemons: Given that, what are the Palestinian Authority's options?
Giacaman: There are various options, but the problem that the Palestinian Authority faces is that they are not taking any initiative. They are leaving the initiative in the hands of the present Israeli government. Part of the reason for that is that what preoccupies the current Palestinian leadership is their political survival.
For instance, some ideas have been under public discussion for the last two or three months. One option would be to state to all interested parties that the Palestinian Authority will dissolve itself barring specific steps are made to advance the peace process--and then to go ahead with that if need be, leaving Israel to bear the full burden of occupation that it is not bearing now.
This is one option--it need not be the only option. But the main problem is that there is political paralysis in the Palestinian Authority and a lack of initiative. At the present time, the only option is to react to what Sharon does, which is a position of weakness.
George Giacaman is professor of philosophy at Birzeit University and director of the Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy.
What Palestinians should understand about Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's unilateral plan are first that it is real, and second that the United States is in broad agreement with it. This situation presents Palestinians with a critical question: what do they really want?
The US will not agree to everything Israel might want to do. The exact route
of the security fence is still under discussion. The US will oppose an eastern fence, between the ridgeline and the Jordan Valley, and will oppose the annexation of any West Bank territory to Israel.
Don't be fooled, however, by the coming tussles over details. The critical
components of Sharon's plan are: 1) settlement evacuation in almost all of Gaza and next to Palestinian cities in the West Bank, 2) increasing the population in the settlement blocs, such as Gush Etzion and Ma'ale Adumim, that Israel expects to keep, 3) continued military action against terrorism and missile threats in Palestinian areas, as necessary.
The US will support Israel on all three counts, because the package is not seen to conflict with George W. Bush's two state vision and the roadmap to it. So long as Palestinians choose the path of terror and violence, the US will press Israel to minimize the impact of its fight on Palestinian civilians, but will not oppose broad military actions against the terrorists themselves. Further, it is an open question how long the US and Israel will continue to hold harmless a Palestinian Authority which barely hides its support for terror, and certainly does not lift a finger to stop it.
If there is a wild card in both US and Israeli policy in the year ahead, it is to what extent Bush's original June 2002 message on the need for a new Palestinian leadership will be revived. During the run-up to the war in Iraq, that message morphed into the roadmap and the US-European demand for a Palestinian prime minister. Now Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is gone, but so is the idea that a Palestinian prime minister will painlessly wrest Yasser Arafat's veto power away from him and allow the crackdown against terror necessary for real negotiations to begin.
Though Sharon's plan is rightly seen as consistent with the goal and broad structure of the roadmap, the means are a substitute for that plan. Further, Sharon's unilateralism is at least a detour from the belief in the necessity of Palestinian regime change that a short time ago Bush and Sharon seemed to share.
But this detour, while seemingly shifting the focus away from Bush's new leadership demand, could bring its wisdom into sharper focus. Yasser Arafat's serial torpedoing of the 2000 Camp David summit, the roadmap, and two successive prime ministers has demonstrated that he will never abandon terror or the demand of "return," and therefore will never sign a final two state peace with Israel. Sharon's separation will further highlight the Palestinians' choice between continuing to fight Israel far past the point of diminishing returns, or getting on with creating their own state.
For a generation, Israel was torn between two incompatible paradigms: staking a claim over all the territories, and trading them for peace. Sharon's plan is designed to cut this Gordian knot in favor of land for peace. This forces Palestinians to face their own Gordian knot: choosing between contradictory attempts to destroy Israel and make peace with it.
The idea that United Nations votes can accomplish what tanks could not is a tempting one for Palestinians. Time, and demography, are on their side, goes this thinking. And the tremendous sacrifices in the current war would not be for naught, but the harbingers of a total victory.
But in its unrealism this Palestinian messianism resembles nothing if not that of "greater Israel" proponents who believed the circle could somehow be squared between demography and democracy. The Palestinians cannot, after they convinced the entire world they wanted a state next to Israel, say "we changed our minds, we want to become citizens of Israel," against the will of even left-wing Israelis like Amos Oz.
So the Palestinians have a choice. Bet on the world joining, and Israel succumbing to, a campaign telling Israelis, "yes, you must commit suicide and become the 22nd Arab state." Or alternatively, drop terror and the demand of "return" to Israel in exchange for a partition and a state of their own.
It took over 30 years for Israel to settle the debate between trying to keep the land and giving it up (though Sadat-like Palestinian gestures would have convinced Israelis much sooner). It is taking Palestinians even longer to decide between trying to destroy Israel and living next to it. The Sharon plan and US support for it, which will not be fundamentally reversed even if the Democrats take the White House in November, mean that the territorial price the Palestinians pay for delaying their decision will only go up over time.
Saul Singer, editorial page editor of and a columnist for the Jerusalem Post, is author of Confronting Jihad: Israel's Struggle and the World After 9/11.
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