It was striking to watch a TV clip of Ariel Sharon consoling the family of Tali Hatuel and her four daughters, who were murdered in the Gaza Strip in an Islamic Jihad terrorist attack on May 2, Likud referendum day. "Why, after 30 years of supporting and encouraging us settlers, did you reverse yourself and call for disengagement from Gaza?" asked the grieving family. In reply, Sharon could only stare at the floor and mumble that the situation had changed. How and why it changed, he still will not tell the public.
This inability or unwillingness on the prime minister's part to communicate his thinking on the issue was a key factor in his referendum defeat. The only explanation he did offer the public was that the failure to find a Palestinian negotiating partner had left a dangerous political vacuum which would be filled by pressures for far-reaching Israeli concessions unless Israel preempted with a limited withdrawal. But this explanation generated more questions than it answered. Had not Sharon himself played a role in ensuring that there would be no negotiating partner? Who would and could pressure Israel to give up more territory--the Bush administration, Sharon's ally and supporter? Was it not likely that an Israel-initiated unilateral limited withdrawal would itself generate new pressures for further concessions? Was it not possible for Sharon to negotiate the withdrawal with the Palestine Liberation Organization, thereby getting something in return instead of "giving a prize to the terrorists?"
The timing of Sharon's abrupt about face and embrace of disengagement last autumn indicates that he felt politically isolated by the Geneva accord and the wave of critical statements from serving and former senior security officials. But he could hardly acknowledge that the political left understood the situation better than him. So, just as he had previously, under pressure, coopted the two-state solution idea and the fence idea from the left, then proceeded to distort them for his own needs, now he sought to disengage from a small portion of the territories, not as a security measure intended to improve the atmosphere for future negotiations, but as a political act designed to end the process and leave Israel in effective control of a series of bantustans. Even for Likud voters this was not an attractive package, insofar as many of them want a political process and understand the inevitability of at least some territorial concessions.
Meanwhile the international community, led by Washington and beginning with US President Bush's dramatic endorsement on April 14, has signed on to disengagement. The quartet in its statement on May 4 took "positive note" of it, noting that it could help jump-start a roadmap-based bilateral peace process.
This new international support for disengagement is an extraordinary development. I was an early adherent of unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, including dismantling of settlements and a green line fence, beginning around three years ago. I and others tried on several occasions to persuade Bush administration officials that the idea was worthy of their interest and support. We cited four main arguments: the absence of a viable Palestinian negotiating partner, tactical security needs involving suicide bombings, the counter-productive nature of many aspects of the occupation and, most centrally, the demographic threat that could only be met by a deliberate process of separation.
At that time there were no takers in Washington for the idea, even though the polls in Israel consistently showed majority support among the public. As for Europe, which generally takes issue with Israel and the US and argues that there is a Palestinian negotiating partner, the idea of any unilateral Israeli measure has never been discussable until now.
Thus the strange jumble of events of the last few weeks leaves us with a reluctant Israeli leader who is apparently too embarrassed to acknowledge publicly the real rationale for disengagement--the need to maintain Israel as a Jewish and democratic state in the face of the growing Palestinian demographic advantage--perhaps because it was his settlement strategy that got us into this dilemma in the first place; but also a leader whose mistaken decision to initiate a party referendum has narrowed his political room for maneuver.
It leaves us with an administration in Washington that is in deep trouble in Iraq, that has neglected the Israel-Palestine conflict for years, and that now grasps at Sharon's initiative because it could conceivably be translated into an election year achievement that somehow appeals to the Arab world and to voters at home; but also an administration that is falling over itself, first to support Sharon, then to reassure the Arab world.
And, finally, events of recent weeks leave us with an international community that belatedly recognizes that disengagement is the only game in town, and that it is a more realistic option than ever--when in fact Sharon may no longer be able to carry it out.
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.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's controversial proposal to "unilaterally disengage" from the Gaza Strip and the "pay-off" he was given for that package by United States President George W. Bush have stirred a great deal of debate in the region and throughout the world. Unfortunately, many people have confused the Palestinians' reaction to these two events, which should be seen as separate, albeit related. First of all, Sharon's purported plan was never really made clear enough for Palestinians to react to, and therefore was not taken seriously by the Palestinian side. The letter of reassurances offered by the United States to Israel, on the other hand, was abundantly clear and viewed as damaging to the future of peace in the region.
Palestinians have always been suspicious of Sharon's real intentions. When Sharon's letter to Bush was made public, those feelings were confirmed. The reasons that Palestinians were fairly certain that the plan was a gimmick to lend legitimacy to Israel while extending Israel's illegal occupation, were first, that Sharon's plan would have kept Gaza under complete siege with the Israeli army controlling all entry and exit points and seaports and airports; second, that Israel was reserving the right to conduct any military operations in Gaza that it deemed necessary; and finally, that the Israeli military would remain stationed in some areas inside the Gaza Strip. That's pretty much the situation today, in fact. Israel's army maintains a heavy armed presence outside Palestinian Authority governed population centers and then storms in at whim.
Certainly, the promised evacuation of the Israeli settlements was a positive step, but it was a plum in an otherwise bitter pudding. Gaza cannot stand on its feet alone economically. Further, the plan would have altered Gaza's legal status, thus dividing it from the West Bank both in economic continuity and administratively. Just to give an example, with the assumed change in legal arrangements, how might any kind of official registration been handled in order to span both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank as joint legal entities representing the future Palestinian state? The likely chaos seemed to be a trap for the Palestinian Authority and its already disintegrating sovereignty.
A further reason for Palestinian suspicion was the intersection of this plan and the second stage of the roadmap, which calls for an "interim" Palestinian state before a final status agreement on borders. Palestinians have always feared that these temporary borders would become permanent by virtue of Israeli might. Lest we forget, Sharon took office promising to arrive at a "long-term interim solution" with Palestinians. According to his vision, Sharon believed that he could arrive at a truncated Palestinian entity (call it what you like) that would be comprised of all of Gaza and 40 percent of the West Bank, and thus bypass final status negotiations based on the 1967 borders that are rooted in international law.
All of this brings Palestinians to the conclusion that the ultimate objective of Sharon's strategy (including this plan) is intended to maintain the occupation and secure settlement expansion over two-thirds of the occupied territories, all the while preventing the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and consequently, the right to self-determination. No less significant, they feel, is Sharon's goal of rendering Palestinian objectives impossible vis-a-vis basic final status issues, including the status of Jerusalem and the refugee right of return.
Nevertheless, Palestinian officials did not reject outright the prospect of an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. They tried to make it clear to the outside world that without a coordinated handover and the necessary economic conditions for improvement and viability, including finding jobs for Gaza's 78,000 unemployed, the situation there was destined to remain explosive and a source of instability.
In sum, without major adjustments Sharon's plan cannot constitute a constructive step towards stability and peace building, but rather would contribute to deepening the conflict. The international community must play the role of assuring a reasonable transition, one that will be a real end to the occupation rather than a "withdrawal", and provide the Palestinian Authority with the necessary financial support for ensuring economic and political stability and control.
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.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
No Jewish majority for uprooting settlements
by Yisrael Harel
In order to whip up hatred for the settlers among the rest of Israel's citizens, one of the areas where the left wing organizations have focused their propaganda is the budgetary allotments invested in the settlements instead of in the development towns. The recent terror war witnessed the addition of a cruel, consensus-breaking propaganda dimension: not only was money being wasted there, but blood was too. Since the proportion of development town youth among the combat units is growing, the development towns are paying not only the economic cost of the settlements, but a cost in human lives as well.
Then came the Likud referendum and delivered a crushing blow not only to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, but to all those who would sow dissent between the settlers and the rest of the Israeli people, and especially the development town dwellers. More than 70 percent of Likud members from the development towns (compared with "only" 60 percent of the total) voted against uprooting the Katif Bloc settlements. In other words, they voted by a large majority in favor of continuing to invest in the settlements instead of in development towns.
When the prime minister first conceived the disengagement plan he assessed, in accordance with the atmosphere generated among the public by the media, that Israelis opposed the settlers, were alienated from their motives and were no longer prepared to sacrifice their blood and their money for them. This, then, was the appropriate time for a settlement removal plan. After all, it enjoyed widespread public support.
Indeed, during the early weeks of the disengagement plan Sharon's concept appeared to be valid: at one point the polls showed that about 72 percent of Likud members supported it. But then, rather than giving up, the Katif Bloc settlers decided to visit the homes of the Likud Party faithful. They were quickly joined by volunteers from Judea and Samaria; every settlement took responsibility for a voting region.
My settlement, Ofra, took on a tough Likud area, Holon, a lower-middle class town near Tel Aviv. There, we were told, live a lot of "new" Likudniks who have no ideological sentiments. Polls showed that more than 75 percent supported Ariel Sharon. In the course of my house visits I indeed encountered few people who had links from the past with the historic Herut movement (which spawned today's Likud), one of whose key principles was the sanctity of Greater Israel. Most hold "centrist" views that are characteristic of Shinui voters or the mainstream of the Labor Party. The vast majority had never visited a settlement, and few had ever met a settler face-to-face. Nearly everything they knew about the settlers was negative and was drawn from the media. The outcome in Holon: 54 percent voted against uprooting the settlements.
The results show that the house visits staged by the settlers (around 50 percent of the registered Likud members who voted received a house visit) generated among the Likudniks a cognitive shock. Nothing else can explain the revolutionary transition from over 70 percent support for Sharon around two weeks before the referendum to 60 percent opposition to Sharon in the final count. Approximately 50 percent of registered Likudniks changed their minds. The voters discovered--and I heard this with my own ears--that their encounter with the settlers revealed a totally different type of person than the monstrous image painted by the media.
Based on this analysis of the "non-ideological" Likud voter--who resembles, as noted, that of Shinui and the Labor mainstream--we can assume that, were Sharon to be tempted in the near future, as he has declared, to reveal a "different" plan and bring it to a national referendum (he lacks a Knesset majority for holding a referendum, but let's assume he has one), the results among the Jewish voters would be similar. Because the settlers can be depended on to pay the voters personal visits yet again. And no government in Israel, even one headed by Yossi Beilin, can uproot settlements, even if it achieves a majority in a referendum, without a Jewish majority.
Yisrael Harel, a resident of Ofra in the Binyamin region, was chairman of the Yesha Council (Council of the Communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza) and editor of Nekuda, a monthly publication that conveys the views of settlers and the activist circles among the Israeli intelligentsia. He writes a weekly column in Ha'aretz newspaper.
bitterlemons: What was Gaza residents' impression of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's "unilateral disengagement plan" prior to his party's vote against it?
Abu Ramadan: The moment Sharon presented his unilateral disengagement plan, all types of Palestinians on all levels, political and public, began to think about the expected withdrawal and to prepare their future, believing that if the settlements were evacuated and if the Israeli army pulled out, then their lives would be much easier than they are now.
They were dreaming, and unfortunately Sharon and the Likud party made this dream a nightmare. The suffering of the people in Gaza is mounting day after day, with the building of a new barrier in the central Gaza Strip that cuts the Gaza Strip into two near the junction of Kissufim (what the Palestinians call Abu Holi), the junction leading to the Jewish settlement compound of Gush Katif. What has made Palestinian life even harder beyond the previous measures of closure imposed on the Gaza Strip for more than three years is that people are currently unable to travel abroad. Israel has issued a new security order saying that Palestinians aged 16 to 35 cannot leave the Gaza Strip "for security reasons." Also, it has shut down the Erez crossing in the northern Gaza Strip. All of these difficulties intensified after Ariel Sharon began to talk about his unilateral disengagement plan.
bitterlemons: What was the reaction of the Gaza political leadership?
Abu Ramadan: All factions, including Fateh, the largest faction in the Palestine Liberation Organization, and Palestinian Authority officials, agreed that they should be united in the event of an Israeli army pullout and evacuation of the settlements. For example, before Ahmad Yassin, the spiritual leader and founder of Hamas, and his successor Dr. Abdel Aziz Rantisi were assassinated by Israel, Hamas accepted the plan in principle and began to prepare the ground for post-pullout and evacuation.
You might say it was like waiting for Godot. But Sharon used his plan only to gain more political achievements for himself, his party and the state of Israel.
bitterlemons: Exactly what kind of agreement were the factions trying to reach?
Abu Ramadan: The factions began to change their strategies and change their ideologies, in fact. They wanted to disprove what the Israeli media was saying, which was that Hamas and Islamic Jihad would take over the Jewish settlements that were to be evacuated in the Gaza Strip. Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders were announcing in the media that they did not seek to take control of the Jewish settlements, that they were not greedy, but that we [Palestinians] should all be united in governing and controlling Gaza. But everything was turned upside down, two leaders of Hamas were assassinated, and all of the movements, Islamic and national, are currently in a state of depression and disappointment.
bitterlemons: But would the factions have succeeded in creating a unified position?
Abu Ramadan: If Sharon was serious about implementing his plan as soon as possible, they would immediately renew their dialogue. In fact, Hamas itself announced many times that in the event of a pullout from the Gaza Strip, it would have no objections to join in the Palestinian Authority, to be part of the Palestine Liberation Organization executive committee. Letters were exchanged between Khaled Mashaal in Damascus and Yasser Arafat in Ramallah. Those letters spoke of Hamas' acceptance to join the PLO after an Israeli army pullout from Gaza.
bitterlemons: Does the Likud vote mean the end of the plan?
Abu Ramadan: Many Palestinians believe that Sharon was never really serious. He knew in advance that the Likud party, with its great influence on the Israeli government, would oppose it completely. He made use of this plan to gain more achievements and get financial aid from the United States.
This is the first time in the history of the Palestinian question that the United States president has legalized Jewish settlements built on Palestinian property in the West Bank. This is the first time that any US president has spoken of canceling the right of return for Palestinian refugees. He said that any Palestinian refugee who wants to return, should return to the Palestinian state. Which Palestinian state is George Bush talking about? The state of Gaza? Gaza already has 1.5 million people and would never be able to absorb another half a million Palestinian refugees. They would never accept to return to Gaza.
Sharon wanted the number one man in the world to cancel the right of return of the refugees. He cancelled Security Council resolutions that gave Palestinians the right of return, the right to establish a Palestinian state and the right to struggle against the occupation. That was the aim of presenting such a false unilateral plan.
bitterlemons: In the short term, then, what do you think will happen?
Abu Ramadan: The intifada is going to continue. Attacks will be resumed against Israel. But the thing that worries Palestinians and President Arafat personally is that the price of any suicide bombing attack carried out by any Palestinian faction inside Israel will be Yasser Arafat--either his head or his deportation to Gaza, what Israelis refer to as the "big garbage can of the Gaza Strip." I believe that all factions are united on this point [and are acting to prevent this].
bitterlemons: Doesn't the lack of response weaken Hamas?
Abu Ramadan: Hamas leaders admitted that the assassination of Yassin and Rantisi severely weakened the movement. But this might also be a tactic. First, Hamas does not want the price [of its revenge] to be Yasser Arafat because it needs him at this particular time. Second, a Hamas leader released a few days ago from an Israeli jail was saying that Hamas is planning a big earth-shattering attack to avenge the deaths of Yassin and Rantisi and other Palestinians. In other words, Hamas is only waiting for the right time.
Saud Abu Ramadan is a freelance journalist in the Gaza Strip.
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