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The visit of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to Washington on April 14, intended to solicit American support for Sharon's unilateral plan for Gaza and to formalize letters of assurances between Sharon and United States President George W. Bush, was an unprecedented affair, not only in Israeli-American relations, but in the history of American foreign policy. It is difficult to remember any previous occasion on which an American president so bluntly contradicted specific stipulations of United Nations Security Council resolutions and international law.
This came as a shock, not only to Palestinians, but to Arabs in general, especially that Bush's statements were made only days after his meeting with the president of the largest and most important Arab state, Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, and while Mubarak was still in the country. This signaled to the Arabs that the United States is ready to offer an extraordinary level of support for Israel even when Israel's demands contradict international legality, and--most stunningly--that American Middle East policy gives no weight at all to American relations with the Arab world.
Given that, the consequences of Bush's assurances to Sharon extend beyond harming the chances of a renewed peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. First, these assurances justify and consequently encourage right-wing Israeli extremists to proceed with their settlement expansion advocacy, which will ultimately and ironically bring about the final death of Bush's "vision" of two states living side by side. Bush's concurrence, included in his letter to Sharon, that the borders contained in a final agreement be modified to accommodate Israel's settlements is certainly going to encourage settlement expansion and further strengthen the hand of Israeli settlers. Thirty-five years of illegal settlement expansion have now been recognized and legitimated by the president of the only remaining superpower in the world.
Internationally, there are many who worry that this precedent of accepting demographic changes instituted by an occupying power will damage the validity of international conventions, as well as the very institution of international law. Lest we forget, the framework of international law was created to protect the weak in the wake of unconscionable historical precedent.
The letters of assurances exchanged between Bush and Sharon contradict the roadmap plan (which is backed by international legality) on three specific points. First, while Bush referred to the 1949 borders, the roadmap recognized the 1967 borders and stipulated that its objective was to achieve an end to the occupation that began in 1967. The roadmap also refers to "agreed-upon" modifications in the 1967 borders, in line with previous negotiations that agreed on swapping some Israeli settlement areas for land in Israel of equal quality and size. Bush discarded this notion and substituted the idea of population density as a reference point in final border delineation.
Second, according to international law and the roadmap, the refugee issue must be solved via negotiations. It is well known that Palestinians are demanding what has been guaranteed them in international law, i.e. implementation of the right of return to the homes they left behind in 1948. President Bush's letter, however, confines the refugees' return to the future Palestinian state, whose borders are not yet determined.
Third, not only did Bush deign to demand an immediate cessation to Israel's expansion of settlements, a theme in all previous agreements and plans, but he suggested that Israel annex that part of the occupied territories on which the settlements have been built in contravention of international law.
The final analysis is deeply pessimistic. Amidst all the platitudes about "getting peace back on track" and the prospect of an "unprecedented Israeli withdrawal" from settlements, Israel is managing to pull the wool over everyone's eyes. Sharon's written plans for Gaza state clearly that Israel will maintain direct and full Israeli control over all exits: airport, port and land crossing points from and to the Gaza Strip. In addition, Israel will intervene militarily inside Gaza whenever it feels the need, thus promising that Israel's army will continue to be an unwelcome guest on Palestinian land.
Anybody with even the slightest knowledge of the size and economic realities of Gaza can see that there is no significant difference between the current situation of an Israeli military and settler presence on certain areas of Gaza away from Palestinian population centers coupled with unrelenting control over borders and, on the other hand, the situation to be created when Sharon's plan is in place.
Further, Sharon's assurance letter has negative ramifications for the treaties between Israel, on the one hand, and Jordan and Egypt, on the other. Both documents specified the need for a negotiated and accepted solution for the Palestinian refugee problem. There is a strong feeling in the region that the escalation immediately following Sharon's return from the United States was indirectly encouraged by Bush's unjustified support. Military incursions have increased, the closure is deadening, the assassinations have been stepped up and Sharon has felt free enough to issue direct threats against the life of the legitimately elected leader of the Palestinian people.
The outcome of this entire exercise was a further decline in the credibility of the United States in the Arab world (one wonders if it can get worse). The biases expressed by Bush have also affected the internal balance of power inside Israel in favor of the right wing, the traditional opponents of the peace process and a solution based in international law. We are no closer today, then, to a solution that will end the Israeli occupation of Palestinians, which is the source of all violence, in exchange for peace, security and economic prosperity for all countries in the region.
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.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon appears to be intent on carrying out disengagement from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements for all the wrong reasons, with the wrong "partners" and the wrong objectives. Yet the move is worthy of support, and for two reasons: first, any reduction in Israeli occupation is a good thing; and second, the precedent of withdrawal and dismantling of settlements is likely to prove stronger in the long run than Sharon's transparent intention of exploiting withdrawal from one occupied territory (Gaza) as an excuse for remaining in another (the West Bank).
The biggest danger to Sharon's disengagement plan is Sharon himself, or more precisely, his penchant for turning simple, straightforward and positive ideas--dismantling settlements, the security fence, the two state solution--into complex schemes with multiple and doubtful objectives, one of which is liable to become so complicated as to bring down the whole house of cards.
Sharon's exchange of letters with United States President George W. Bush, followed by renewed assassinations of Hamas leaders and now threats against Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, are the latest wrinkles. Politically, the objective of these popular initiatives is to win over voters in the Likud referendum. This would free Sharon to carry out disengagement, conceivably with his current coalition, but if not then with a mandate to establish an alternative government. But Bush has his political needs and objectives too, and the American president undoubtedly has already taken note of Sharon's inclination to exploit Bush's largess (and political weakness) and begin violating Israeli-American commitments even before the ink on them is dry--by threatening to kill Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, pledging to include Ariel within the fence, and permitting Minister of Finance Binyamin Netanyahu to pledge additional funds for settlements that lie beyond the fence and the settlement blocs.
A related complicating factor is the fate of the roadmap and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Bush's readiness to offer Sharon commitments concerning settlement blocs and refugees, however obvious and consensual they may seem from an Israeli-American standpoint, nevertheless ostensibly preempts a negotiated peace process and negates the roadmap. This has already incurred the anger of both moderate Arab leaders and roadmap partners. It is also cementing the flawed but devastating "Iraq = Palestine" image in the eyes of many in the Middle East. This is not good for either Israel or the US.
Yet a third problematic issue is Sharon's apparent attempt to exploit popular support--now dangerously translated by him into a superfluous party referendum--and Bush's endorsement for disengagement as a means of pressuring Attorney General Menahem Mazuz to draw back from indicting Sharon on any of three different influence peddling charges. It is stunning to note the list of prominent Israelis from the left and center, all desperate to begin rolling back the settlements, who have publicly acknowledged that Sharon has criminal tendencies but nevertheless call on Mazuz to desist--in the national interest. If Mazuz proves not to be intimidated, and decides that Sharon should go on trial--and there is a 50-50 chance that this will happen long before disengagement is scheduled to begin--then the entire praiseworthy enterprise of dismantling settlements, which Sharon has mortgaged to his personal interest, will suffer a setback. Further, if Sharon loses the referendum, i.e., if a tiny percentage of the voters is allowed to torpedo the disengagement project, then not only will he be a lame duck prime minister and easy pickings for Mazuz, but it may take years before the Israeli body politic again addresses the urgent need to dismantle settlements.
Sharon advocates disengagement for one reason: he argues that the political vacuum opened up on the Israeli-Palestinian scene (which he, together with Arafat, had a hand in creating) is liable to be filled, god forbid, by Israeli or post-election US demands that Israel forego more territory than Sharon intends. He totally ignores the truly compelling reasons for withdrawal--the demographic threat, the counterproductive nature of occupation--perhaps because they apply equally to the West Bank and to the Gaza Strip. Instead of withdrawing as an interim security step, he seeks a preemptive political step. And because his intention is to preclude final status at the political level he needs a partner, the US, for what was supposed to have been a unilateral act.
Hopefully, the logic of disengagement will prove stronger than all of Sharon's mistakes. In the absence of a viable Palestinian partner for peace, let Sharon (who is hardly a viable Israeli partner for peace) remove settlements. If and when that happens, and assuming as we must that we still won't have a viable Palestinian partner for negotiations, it will be incumbent upon supporters of a genuine two state solution in Israel, the United States, the Arab world and the international community to exploit the momentum of withdrawal and press for additional unilateral Israeli acts of disengagement.
Meanwhile, the Palestinians should temper their protests with a realistic acknowledgement of the advantages this process entails for them, and some soul searching regarding their own input into Bush's decision to ignore them.
Few observers seem to have noticed that the Bush administration took advantage of the Bush-Sharon exchange in order to introduce a significant new concept to the Middle East peace process. In both his spoken remarks and his letter to Sharon on April 14, Bush states: "it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949. . . ." Not the 1967 lines, which here and there are disputed between Israelis and Palestinians and especially between Israelis and Syrians--but the 1949 lines, which at the time were clearly delineated by the United Nations. This is a signal to Jerusalem and Damascus that when they resume negotiations, they should adopt a radically different territorial point of departure.
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, and a former senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak.
The foundations of the historic compromise have been shaken in this cruelest month of April. The president of the United States, publicly and clearly, redefined the right of return to mean the return to the yet-to-be-born Palestine. He questioned the "sanctity" of the 1967 borders and sanctioned "reality on the ground" as a determining factor for the future of settlements and borders. He committed the United States to maintain Israel's qualitative edge over the Arabs and praised Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for his bold steps toward peace as he expressed his solidarity with Israel's fight against terror and its acts of self-defense as it sees fit.
The Palestinians reacted with a mix of anger and foreboding. They could hardly recover from the shock before they witnessed the killing of Hamas leader Dr. Rantisi. Bellicose words were a sad substitute for their sense of weakness and violation.
The Arab "street" as covered by Al Jazeera and other stations overflowed with emotion and rhetoric, while the Arab states reacted cautiously--after they expressed their eternal support for the Palestinians and heaped their usual vitriol on Sharon. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, fresh from a friendly visit to Texas, stated that the Arabs' hatred for America was at its all-time high. Jordan's King Abdullah wisely "postponed" his trip to Washington to be rescheduled in a couple of weeks. The rest of the world dusted off its usual remarks about peace.
Anger, lamentation and loud expressions of hatred directed against America and its president and against Israel and the Arab regimes may help vent anger but are no substitute for strategy. The Palestinians by now have to come to grips with the fact that the support of Arab and Muslim masses cannot and will not solve the problem of Palestine. It is necessary but insufficient.
Palestinians must confront their problems squarely. They are a people living under an oppressive occupation, with a weakened and isolated leadership, without an army and with a tattered security force, a wrecked economy and fractured institutions. The image of defenders of a just cause has gradually and relentlessly metamorphosed into that of terrorists. However, the historic injustice meted out to the Palestinians, continues to define their struggle as the conflict of our time and therein lies the Palestinian's winning card.
Whatever strategies the Palestinians have utilized in the past have not worked. It is time to reflect, reassess and innovate. Violence may preclude a solution but it will not achieve one. The Palestinians alone cannot liberate Palestine. No people have sacrificed more, or longer, than the Palestinians have, but sacrifice without a strategy designed to win is not enough. In a struggle of this magnitude, more allies who, for their own reasons, share the vision of a state of Palestine alongside Israel are indispensable. Allies in the United States and in Israel, the two countries that play a pivotal role in the outcome of this conflict, have to be identified and mobilized. Violence against civilians alienates these potential allies and the Palestinian people must make the fateful choice between military confrontation and peaceful resistance and negotiations.
The Palestinians must be given the opportunity to make and express their choices. It is time, it is past time, for the Palestinians to go to the voting booths and cast their ballots to elect their representatives. The United States cannot seriously prevent a people from voting. That is as un-American as the monarchy. The United States, once convinced, can engage Israel to make elections feasible. All parties need to see that the compromises required to achieve peace can only be made by elected representatives. It would help to couple elections with a referendum on a two-state solution based on the roadmap. The roadmap is the one international instrument accepted by the Israeli and Palestinian leadership, as well as by the Quartet and the Arab League. Such a referendum would define the parameters of the political horizon for the Palestinians. Opponents of the roadmap will lose their ability to thwart progress if the referendum wins.
The Palestinians must also make choices about the future of Gaza after Israel withdraws. Gaza must be made to work, thus depriving Israeli hawks of an argument to extend the occupation of the West Bank. This probable withdrawal offers the Palestinians an unusual opportunity, the opportunity to plan for a future event rather than to cope with a done deal. It should be viewed as the first milestone in establishing their viable state. The suggestions put forth by Marwan Barghouti are worthy of serious consideration. They provide the political context that makes this withdrawal a step towards independence, rather than a downward slide to the abyss.
But beyond that, concrete plans for housing, roads, parks, industrial plants, schools and all aspects of living must be made and readied for implementation. This project can best be done under the leadership of international institutions like the World Bank, with active participation of the Palestinians themselves. A formal new entity can be entrusted with this task.
Free elections, with issues contested and choices starkly defined, will make it possible for legitimate representatives to tackle issues of Palestinian and Israeli security under the indispensable American umbrella. Egypt and Jordan can and will play significant roles in bringing this process to fruition.
The president of the United States should be taken at his word that the final status issues are to be left to the parties. Prejudging the outcome will not work. Only empowered legitimate representatives of both peoples will have the authority and ability to make the compromises needed for peace, and only they can make such peace permanent.
Ziad Asali is the president of the American Task Force on Palestine in Washington, DC.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon does not hide his intentions. First he thought that Israel could hold onto the territories for many more years, and that the demographic problem that would emerge when Palestinians become the majority of the inhabitants east of the Jordan River would be solved by sending them to Jordan ("Jordan is Palestine") or by means of mass immigration on the part of western Jewry. In the course of three years of rule he understood that there is no chance to turn Jordan into Palestine, and that immigration to Israel declines when the security and economic situation is bad.
He concluded that what could not be solved by force would be solved by more force; his policy of force against the Palestinians was not accompanied by any proposal for a political process. Even the Palestinian prime ministers, who to a large extent were appointed as a consequence of his pressure, were never accepted by him as negotiating partners.
According to Sharon's own testimony, in an interview last week with William Safire of The New York Times, into this political vacuum there entered undesirable proposals like the Geneva accord, moving him to present his own plan. He took it from his private archive: a plan from the early 1980s that already bore his name, the thrust of which was to establish bantustan-like Palestinian enclaves in the occupied territories that would enable Israel to rule the land without bearing the Palestinian demographic burden. Sharon is prepared to implement such a plan with a willing Palestinian leader. Twenty years ago he tried to establish the "village leagues" and to appoint Mustafa Dudin as their head to negotiate with him. The experiment failed, of course, and Sharon is still searching for a congenial Palestinian leader. Not having found one, he now prefers to implement his plan unilaterally.
Sharon views his plan as a ringing slap in the face to the Palestinians. He lives in a zero-sum world in which everything good for Israel is bad for the Palestinians, and vice versa. This is also how he sees US President Bush's letter to him--as his victory and their loss--and how he gloats over it for the benefit of members of his party whose support he seeks in the May 2 Likud referendum.
The Arab world has played right into his hands. Rather than their noting that what was stated by Bush to Sharon was already proposed to both sides by President Clinton in December 2000 (settlement blocs, non-return to the green line, solving the refugee problem in the Palestinian state, and even a clear statement that acknowledges that Israel cannot accept the principle of the "right of return" in the sense of return by refugees to sovereign Israel), the letter was understood precisely as Sharon wanted it to be: as punishment for the Palestinians. Egyptian President Mubarak, who had met with Bush a few days earlier, reacted with great displeasure; Jordan's King Abdullah refused to see Bush, and returned to Jordan from the US west coast without stopping in Washington; while the Palestinian leadership declared that this was the end of the peace process.
The truth is that the Bush letter restores the final status settlement to the Israeli national agenda. Sharon sought to determine that the roadmap was dead. Bush recommitted himself to the roadmap and to his own vision. All the achievements that Sharon takes pride in are linked to final status. No serious observer believes that final status will be based on anything but two states for two peoples, a new and agreed border, and a solution under which refugees will not return to Israel. What at first glance appears to be Bush's acceptance of Sharon's diktat, is in fact a reformulation of the Clinton plan or the Geneva accord.
What looks to Sharon like an interim agreement that never turns into a final status accord--since as long as he's setting the agenda Israel will never have a suitable partner--should now become the first phase in a process that very quickly leads to a permanent agreement. The more time this takes, the worse the situation will be: from Israel's standpoint the demographic balance will change for the worse; from the Palestinian standpoint the settlements will expand and become yet more of a fait accompli. The position of Palestinian pragmatists will be weakened, insofar as they are incapable of providing services and security to their public.
Those Israelis and Palestinians who believe in an agreement rather than unilateral moves, along with those in the world who appreciate how the end of the Middle East conflict will contribute to global stability, should make every effort to ensure that the departure from Gaza leverages an ongoing peace process. There is a good chance for success, given that principles such as the non-removability of settlements are likely to be violated in the initial stage by the father of the settlements himself.
Yossi Beilin is chairman of the Yahad (Social Democratic Israel) Party, and one of the initiators of the Geneva accord. His last government position was minister of justice (1999-2001).
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