The recent developments in Israel vis-a-vis what was once called the "unilateral disengagement plan," and which enjoyed the full support of United States President George W. Bush but failed to get the support of the Likud party, have generated nothing but confusion and the appearance of weakness. The plan has now been subjected to various modifications, but instead of helping Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to regain the initiative and the upper hand, the process has caused chaos in the Israeli political scene. Israel's position has been weakened and its image damaged in the international diplomatic arena.
The main loser in these developments is Sharon. The prime minister appears unable to lead neither his party nor his government and unable to fulfill commitments for which he received quite remarkable international support--that is, if he was really ever serious in his intentions to get this plan implemented.
This latest plan, which has enamored neither Israel's left or right, appears to include a new partner. A significant change from the original plan is a new Egyptian role of three dimensions: number one, Egypt will play a security role along the Gaza-Egypt borders; number two, it will rehabilitate and train Palestinian security forces in order to, among other things, introduce a quieting effect for the enacting of the plan; number three, Egypt will deliver the Palestinian side to the plan.
Of course, there are other modifications, most important of which is the graded nature of this plan, which will be based again on performance along the way. This has very little chance of success due to the fact that this plan deals mostly only with Gaza and leaves the vast majority of the occupied territories to the whims of the occupation and its practices, among them Israel's devastating wall, the growing settlements and other debilitating measures.
The Palestinian side, which is quite unconvinced of both the seriousness of the Israeli leadership in pursuing this plan and the probability and practicality of the plan, is waiting to see if Israel really will commence a withdrawal or settlement evacuation. Palestinians are refusing as yet to celebrate these developments or to pay any price before the withdrawal happens. Meanwhile, they continue to express the view that if there is any seriousness to any of these plans, they have no objection to them. However, if the intent is also to end the violence, these steps should be coordinated and negotiated to include the West Bank, not only Gaza, and to be part of a wider package that is a continuous process towards gradually ending the occupation.
It is certain, however, that the political thinking that has been generated by the current right-wing extremist coalition in Israel will not allow any serious developments of the kind that will get us out of the vicious cycle of violence and on the way to peaceful negotiations based on international legality. At this time, efforts to achieve peace should concentrate on two objectives: a replacement of this government coalition of groups that oppose the basis of the peace process and its requirements, and serious international intervention of the kind that is able to influence developments 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's new disengagement plan, as presented on May 30 to the Cabinet, represents not one but several new dynamics. These relate to the public and political acceptability of the plan itself, as well as to Israeli-United States and Israeli-Egyptian relations and the vicissitudes of Israeli politics.
The Israeli political angle, and specifically the objections to the plan expressed by the negative majority in the Likud referendum on May 2 and by Likud ministers, have generated specific changes in the plan which should render it more acceptable.
By carrying out the redeployment in four phases, Sharon has now introduced a monitoring mechanism that can stop the withdrawal if things go wrong. In introducing a significant Egyptian role in facilitating post-withdrawal Gaza Strip security and possibly mediating between the Israeli and Palestinian security establishments, Sharon has removed the term "unilateral" from his plan and reduced the likelihood that the withdrawal will generate a total breakdown in security or a Hamas takeover. The decision to demolish the dwellings left behind in the Gaza settlements, while problematic, responds to a powerful objection of the settlers at the emotional level-that their former homes would be occupied by the very terrorists who have been attacking them. It also internalizes the realization, communicated by Palestinian and international sources, that the settlements as constituted are virtually useless in terms of Palestinian housing needs, and that the attempt to credit Israel with their net worth in anticipation of eventual refugee compensation negotiations is a virtual non-starter from the Palestinian as well as the international standpoint. And it denies the settlers, once removed from Gaza, a focal point for their own anticipated irredentist appeals.
We should have no illusions about where Sharon is going with this revised plan-if the matter is left up to him. By referring only to the June 24, 2002 vision of United States President George W. Bush, arguing without foundation that the roadmap obligates the Palestinians to fulfill their security undertakings unilaterally before negotiations can resume, and presenting a long list of regions in the West Bank that "will remain part of the State of Israel", Sharon is announcing that the disengagement plan is a "one off" project that is intended to leave Israel in control of half the West Bank and to rebuff additional territorial pressures for a long time to come. The plan asserts that its "completion. . . will negate any claims on Israel regarding its responsibility for the Palestinian population of the Gaza Strip", even though as currently constituted it leaves Israel on the Philadelphi road and leaves the Gaza Strip without any ports of entry not controlled by Israel. In other words, Israel remains very much responsible.
The original rationale for Sharon's disengagement initiative-to "head off" domestic and international pressures for larger territorial concessions that seek to fill the diplomatic "vacuum"-never held water in the first place. Despite Sharon's intentions, no matter what Israel does short of near total withdrawal, and regardless of whether it enters into negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization or continues to go it alone because it has no viable partner, the pressures to continue to roll back the settlement enterprise-on the part of the Israeli public, post-election Washington and the international community-will continue to mount.
But if Sharon fails now to achieve government endorsement for the project and if-in an increasingly threatening worst-case scenario-Washington's Iraqi fiasco flies out of control and Israel is blamed or scapegoated at least in part for the messy US involvement there, then Bush administration anger with Sharon could grow. This is one more reason for Sharon's current stubborn insistence on his plan.
In this regard Egypt's projected involvement could take on strategic proportions. It introduces the possibility that Sharon's relatively modest disengagement plan will, for the first time since 1967, restore an Egyptian presence, however small and temporary (and conceivably a Jordanian presence, though the Hashemite Kingdom resolutely rejects this option at present), in the Palestinian territories. The invitation to Egypt reflects both Israeli and Palestinian strategic failure to control the territories. It has potential far-reaching consequences for Israel's relations with Egypt as well as for the sovereign nature of an eventual Palestinian state.
Finally, the political dynamic launched by Sharon on May 30 could soon affect the composition, indeed the very existence, of his government. The possible scenarios and variables are too complex to lay out in brief. Like all of his predecessors of the past decade, Sharon as prime minister has apparently grasped that the Palestinian issue demands painful compromises that are acceptable in the abstract to the public but unacceptable in concrete form to the country's elected political institutions. True, his vision of territorial compromise is still painfully inadequate, his suspicions of Arab intentions in general negate the possibility of fruitful negotiations, and he appears incapable of offering the public and the world a convincing rationale for undoing the settlements that he labored so hard over three decades to build. Yet he is apparently prepared to risk his political future on the idea of abandoning territory destined for a Palestinian state.
For this reason alone he deserves support, lest this essentially unilateral initiative suffer the political fate of the bilateral initiatives of Rabin, Peres and Barak that preceded it.- Published 31/5/2004 © bitterlemons.org
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.
bitterlemons: What strikes you the most about this plan, given the current state of affairs?
Kassis: My very first impression is that it is a major indicator of Israeli failure. Sharon has failed to pass his initial plan, on the one hand because of the vote in the Likud, on the other hand because it was obviously impossible to implement unilaterally.
Last, the plan seems not to have clarified for the Israeli political elite whether this will put them in any better place in the near future.
bitterlemons: What are the implications for the Palestinian Authority?
Kassis: I don't think that there are many implications, strategically speaking.
Technically speaking, there are many things still unclear. For example, the plan states that Israel would no longer be responsible for the Gaza Strip as an occupying force. Nonetheless, [Israel] will be controlling the borders, airspace, any possibility for third-party intervention, and humanitarian needs.
The situation will again be that the Gaza Strip will not be free to act. Palestinians will not be free to act.
On the other hand, there will be a deepening of the current situation whereby Israel is legally bound to be responsible for the situation in the occupied territories, but is actually doing nothing vis-a-vis this responsibility.
bitterlemons: What are the implications for the long term?
Kassis: What can be read in the plan is not so different from the Oslo arrangements--only the fact that the area to be evacuated from Israeli presence will be a little larger.
Israel is still securing the crossing points to Egypt, the access to the sea, there is mention of activities along the coastline, and mention of military infrastructure being transferred to a third party authorized-obviously--by Israel.
I see really no difference between this and what was happening in [the Oslo agreements], aside from minor quantitative differences. Too, Oslo occurred in an atmosphere of supposed good intentions and good will from both parties, and the atmosphere now is one of bad intentions and distrust.
bitterlemons: One of the comments that we keep hearing is the fear that the Gaza Strip will become the playground of Hamas. Is that an accurate assessment?
Kassis: I don't believe so. First of all, I am not sure that Hamas is in a position to take control in the Gaza Strip, and second, even if it were, I am not sure that it would want to.
Third, I am not sure this is such a major concern for Israel. Do you imagine that if Israel were concerned about this, it would be acting unilaterally?
bitterlemons: Do you think Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is serious about this plan?
Kassis: Yes, I think that he is extremely serious about finding a way out of the deep trouble that he has got Israel into. The situation in Israel has deteriorated economically, politically, internationally. Sharon has come to the conclusion that his old dreams are not realizable and he is seeking ways out. That is the part that he is serious about, not the plan.
The plan is one of his experiments as far as I can see, and the more steps there are, the more experimental it is.
The only thing that the plan really does is create a new demographic reality. The security dimension is really debatable--I don't know how they define it. The economic situation depends on the West Bank, mainly.
But the demographic situation, based on widening the Philadelphi route and solidifying control over some West Bank territories, seems the only sort of "progress" that Sharon has accomplished in this plan. And that existed in the old plan, as well.
Mudar Kassis is director of the Institute of Law at Birzeit University in the West Bank.
bitterlemons: Does Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's revised disengagement plan deal with any of your objections?
Arens: Nothing has really been revised. It's essentially the original plan. My major objection is that it's clear that leaving Gaza unilaterally at this point will be seen as a victory by the Palestinian terrorists and will encourage them to do more of the same.
bitterlemons: Back in the days of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir you yourself advocated leaving Gaza. Why do you object now?
Arens: What has changed is the terrorist attacks on Israel. Now we're dealing with Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Back then there was no terrorism.
bitterlemons: How do you deal with the argument that disengagement is necessary because the growing West Bank and Gazan population poses an urgent demographic threat to Israel as a Jewish and a democratic state, while the spread of the settlements makes it increasingly difficult to disengage?
Arens: That argument would have some validity only if we were on the point of incorporating these areas into Israel. I'm dead set against illegal settlements. They should have been taken down before they ever got going.
I don't look forward to dismantling settlements at some time in the future, but it may become unavoidable. I'd like to believe that under a peaceful reality we won't have to dismantle settlements. I think the precedent of turning over territory on condition that it be without a Jewish presence was established with the Egyptians in Sinai by [Prime Minister Menachem] Begin and I regret it.
bitterlemons: Apropos Egypt, does the projected Egyptian involvement in restoring security in Gaza have a strategic dimension for Israel?
Arens: It could have, though I'm not optimistic at all. Egypt is already in blatant violation of its peace treaty with Israel by not having an ambassador here and not dealing with the [Rafah] tunnels, so I'm not optimistic they'll help. [On the other hand], if the Egyptians are ready to take over the Gaza Strip that would be a significant development. I'm prepared to give them Gaza. Begin should have done that years ago. Begin was dead set against even allowing UN observers in Gaza, not to speak of an Egyptian presence, because he saw Gaza as part of the Land of Israel.
bitterlemons: According to peace process lore from the late 1970s, it was Begin who offered Gaza to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and the latter who refused, arguing that it was Palestinian and not Egyptian land.
Arens: The myth that Begin offered Gaza to Sadat is totally without foundation.
He should have told Sadat that if Egypt wants Sinai back, it has to take Gaza with it.
bitterlemons: Sharon has seemingly created a fait accompli in selling his disengagement plan to the United States and now to Egypt.
Arens: In all these negotiations of recent years, all the concessions offered by Barak and now Sharon, there is of course a cumulative effect of fait accompli. These are not good negotiation tactics. The second law of thermodynamics says "there are no reversible processes in the universe." It never goes back to where it was before.
bitterlemons: Can Sharon prevail and continue as prime minister under the current circumstances? Can he ram this plan through?
Arens: Sharon has very thick skin and can remain in office indefinitely. I don't think he can push the plan through the Likud, but given his strength of character he can hang in there. There aren't many people who would flaunt the results of the Likud referendum.
[At the same time], I don't consider the disengagement plan that Sharon suddenly put on the table as the "be all and end all" of progress in the Middle East. Unilateral steps have never been a good prescription for progress in the region.
bitterlemons: Are you persuaded by Sharon's rationale for disengagement-that it is necessary because a political vacuum has been created that could invite pressures for much heavier territorial concessions?
Arens: Not at all. The past years of combat with the Palestinians have gained Israel serious achievements over Arafat and terrorism, and in relations with the US. Sharon wasn't facing a vacuum. I don't know why he adopted this program. He was not under any kind of pressure from the US to do this.- Published 31/5/2004 © bitterlemons.org
Moshe Arens was minister of defense and foreign affairs in previous Likud governments.
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