Sharon’s Gaza Initiative

Sharon’s planned “disengagement” from Gaza is not connected to any peace process, not even President Bush’s “roadmap” which Sharon has made clear may or may not eventually go into effect – but only after the Palestinian Authority dismantles the militias of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Fatah movement. In other words, not for the foreseeable future. But the plan is, nonetheless, part of a political offensive by Sharon to decisively reorder the battlefield of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which will likely have profound consequences for all parties to that conflict.

The plan, in short, involves withdrawing the 9,000 Israeli settlers from amid the 1 million Palestinians that live in the expanded refugee camp that is Gaza (for a vivid look at the distribution of land and population density, try this link to Google’s awesome satellite pic that you can actually manipulate), and also — supposedly, although this dimension will only be imlemented later (if at all) — from four isolated northern West Bank settlements. But its impact on the political map can’t be understood without understanding its intimate connection to the wall being built by Sharon to pen the Palestinians into a couple of West Bank enclaves, and cement Israel’s grip on its prime West Bank settlements and East Jerusalem. And Sharon has made abundantly clear to Washington that in exchange for quitting Gaza, he expected (and was given, albeit with the proviso that he eventually get Palestinian acquiescence) U.S. support for his intention to annex the West Bank land he most covets

The idea that the “disengagement” might restart some sort of peace process with the Palestinians has been touted mostly by U.S. and British politicians whose abilities to pursue their goals in the wider Middle East and wage an effective political campaign against al Qaeda are hobbled by the absence of progress on that front. It also has the backing of the Israeli opposition, which believes that while Sharon may have no intention of doing anything more than adjusting Israel’s tactical perimeter, by breaking the psychological taboo on uprooting settlements he may inadvertently set in motion a train of events beyond his control. (According to this logic, the pullout revives the peace process not if Sharon succeeds in what he’s trying to do, but only if he fails to maintain control over it – Israeli doves are not so naïve as to believe the rather brittle spin about Sharon being “a changed man.”)

And, of course, the Palestinian Authority are supporting it in the hope that if it proceeds smoothly, they can revive U.S. interest in pressing Sharon to resume the “final status” negotiations over a Palestinian state, including the fate of Jerusalem and the refugees, negotiations that began at Camp David in 2000. Needless to say, Sharon expects a very different outcome. He rejected the deal offered by Barak at Camp David far more vehemently than Arafat did, and has proved himself to be Oslo’s most effective critic. Oslo, to put it bluntly, is dead. That’s why Sharon felt at liberty to launch his disengagement plan — to keep it buried.

Bush, Blair, Mahmoud Abbas and Shimon Peres may like to think in terms of “after Gaza,” but for Sharon, there is no after Gaza. After Gaza, to use the Hebrew, “ze hu.” (That’s it.) Frankly, I’ll be surprise if he even gets as far as uprooting those four West Bank outposts.

It must be remembered that Sharon adopted the “disengagement” plan when Yasser Arafat was still in charge of the Palestinian Authority. It was conceived as a way of bypassing any international pressure to resume political negotiations with the Palestinians, redrawing the political map in ways calculated to neutralize U.S. pressure to continue any version of the Oslo process, and most importantly, to create a security, political and diplomatic environment favorable to reinforcing Israel’s long-term occupation of East Jerusalem and its most prized settlements in the West Bank.

Sharon described his plan as “a harsh blow to Palestinian dreams” and aspirations, rather than any movement towards fulfilling them. And his top political aide Dov Weisglass fleshed out the strategic rationale in an an interview with Haaretz, in which he explained that the “disengagement” was designed to “freeze,” rather than activate, the roadmap. The plan, said Weissglass, “supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians.” By pulling out of Gaza and unilaterally redrawing the boundaries, Weisglass said, “you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and you prevent a discussion on the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem.” From the horse’s mouth.

On Sharon’s Wall:
Zeev Jabotinsky

Sharon has never advocated a two-state solution, at least in the way that anyone else understands the concept. He believes a political solution to end the conflict is simply not possible for the foreseeable future, and Israel instead must pursue the “Iron Wall” politics of Zeev (nee Vladimir) Jabotinsky, the moving spirit of the Betar movement of which the Likud Party forms part. (A portrait of Jabotinsky graces Sharon’s office in the way that an American president might display Washington or Lincoln, the the prime minister has come closer than any other Israeli leader to physically realizing Jabotinsky’s vision of an iron barrier that crushes Arab resistance and forces eventual acceptance of Israel.) To that end, he’s focused on achieving interim agreements based on his tactical reading of Israel’s best interests in changing circumstances. Anyone inclined to believe the “changed man” fantasy ought to re-read the interview he gave to Haaretz in April 2001, a month after taking office. (Republished here)

Don’t misread Sharon: He may be the political “father” of the settlement movement, but by adoption rather than by lineage. Although he long ago recognized the usefulness to his “iron wall” politics of the the bizarre Messianic fantasy that drives the religious-nationalist settlers, who insist that Jewish possession of the Biblical Land of Israel is a precondition for the Messiah’s arrival, Sharon has never had his political ideas dictated by religious absolutes. His own vision derives from the Betar movement’s idea of an expanded Israel rather than a misguided prophetic notion of “redeeming” the land to hasten the Messiah’s journey. He has stoked the settlers’ millenarian zeal over the years for political gain — for example, meeting settlers while then PM Bibi Netanyahu was at the Wye River talks in 1998 and urging them to “run, grab hills” — but at the end of the day, he’s a secular nationalist capable of compromise in order to cement his grip on the core prize. Of course, his “betrayal” in the eyes of the settlers may come back to haunt him, but if ceding Gaza is what it takes to cement Israel’s grip on the key West Bank territories seized in 1967, then it’s worth the price.

Of course, Jabotinsky dealt with “Arabs” in the abstract; Sharon confronts the reality of a Palestinian national movement created to pursue historic redress for their displacement as a people to make way for the State of Israel. And so, the fulcrum of Sharon’s strategy, as brilliantly analyzed by Robert Malley and Hassan Agha in the NYRB last year shortly before Arafat’s death is to destroy Palestinian nationalism, and the very idea of a Palestinian national movement (the premise of Oslo, obviously, had been the recognition that peace could come only between Israel and the Palestinian national movement in the form of the PLO, which signed the Oslo treaty). When it comes to dealing with the Palestinians, in Sharon’s mind, the preferred politics is local. Cutting deals with local warlords, making interim arrangements, even negotiating more ambitious steps with Washington, but never, never being put in a position again, as at Camp David, where Israel was compelled to discuss issues such as Jerusalem and borders with the leadership of the Palestinian national movement.

That is the logic behind the Gaza pullout – to cede unimportant land and feint in the direction of accommodating demands for Palestinian statehood, while actually reinforcing Israel’s grip on its prized West Bank holdings – Sharon even got Bush to substantially alter U.S. public policy by signing a letter recognizing Israel’s claim to hold onto most of its West Bank settlements. And even as he proceeds with his pullout plans, Sharon is expanding West Bank settlements, tightening Israel’s exclusive grip on Jerusalem and promising West Bank settlers they will remain eternally part of Israel, connected territorially and that their settlements will be expanded. And this while Condi Rice is in town — the message is for her, as well.

The furor on the Israeli side over the pullout plan — signaling a rupture between the Messianic fantasy of the settlers and the realpolitik of secular nationalist statecraft — may trouble Sharon in the near term (and has raised fears for his life among his security staff). It potentially also signals the expansion of a deep ideological rift at the heart of Zionism, where the very nature and purpose of the Jewish State begins to irrevocably divide its citizens.

But the expected tumult of the coming weeks also works to Sharon’s advantage. The more sober heads in the Settler leadership are looking to make the Gaza withdrawal as traumatic as possible in order to make further retreats in the West Bank unthinkable, and in doing so they reinforce Sharon’s own inclination to do the same, by telling Washington that any further withdrawals are politically impossible — a position to which he may be able to rally considerable lobbying power in the U.S. if the Gaza action raises the specter of an Israel whose citizenry is fatally divided against itself.

And, of course, Sharon’s petty rivals such as the infinitely ambitious Netanyahu will use such discord as ammunition to pursue their own efforts to oust him.

On the Palestinian side, the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza may, ironically, precipitate the collapse of the Palestinian Authority — increasingly moribund since the death of the Oslo process that was its raison d’etre — and provoke a profound crisis in the Palestinian national movement.

Lame duck: Abbas the inheritor

The collapse of Oslo may have left the PA an increasingly redundant institution for pursuing Palestinian aspirations, being a “government” for a state that does not exist right now, nor will it in the near future. But Abbas is fortunate that keeping it going remains essential to U.S. goals — principally the need to be able to show progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front to an increasingly hostile Arab world. And Abbas and the survivors of the “Tunis” generation of exiles believes they can revive Oslo from the grave by delivering “calm,” ending the intifadah and folding Hamas into the Paletinian political mainstream by inducting its militants into the security forces and allowing it to contest democratic elections.

Although the “roadmap,” drawn up largely under Israeli influence, requires that Abbas dismantle the independent military capability of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Fatah faction, Abbas knows that can be achieved only by negotiation and consensus among those groups — plainly put, he’d lose a civil war if he chose to fight them.

Indeed, Abbas is essentially a lame duck — as Sharon is happy to point out, so as to avoid any expectation that he might be expected to engage in political negotiations with the man after quitting Gaza. Abbas won the election to replace Arafat only because Marwan Barghouti was persuaded to drop out – the most respected Palestinian polling organization found that the imprisoned Fatah militant leader would have beaten Abbas by about 4 percentage points if he’d stayed in. In other words, Abbas was allowed to assume the presidency at the pleasure of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, whose leaders had prevailed on Barghouti to withdraw.

Abbas has no independent political base, and his own strategy, again well documented by Malley and Agha, was to revive the diplomatic track that disappeared after the onset of the intifadah by delivering calm and an end to terror attacks from the Palestinian side. Well aware of the limitations of his power – it’s an open secret in the West Bank and Gaza that many of the rank and file soldiers and policemen of the security services are also the very same people who moonlight as combatants of the militia groups – Abbas has sought to build consensus with the militants for a cease-fire with Israel, on the basis that he would secure major prisoner releases, Israel would curb its attacks and elections would proceed. But Hamas, in particular, has its own counter agenda, needing to make the Israeli pullout take place under fire in order to be able to claim the credit for “driving” Israel out. And the long history of tit-for-tat bloodletting between Israel and Hamas meant that any cease-fire was going to be brittle — each side had plenty of “retaliation” arguments to offer for any new attack. Coupled with that, the prisoner releases were small and of limited symbolic value. And then, fearful of losing control (Hamas was expected to do well at Fatah’s expense, particularly in Gaza), Fatah persuaded Abbas to simply postpone the elections until the end of the year. One can only imagine the furor if Arafat had postponed democratic elections simply because his party might lose, but Washington was quite comfortable with Abbas doing just that.

And so, the infighting is intensifying. Mindful of Washington’s own interests, Condi Rice has pushed Sharon to coordinate the withdrawal with Abbas and make it look like a peace plan at work, but so far those efforts have been disastrous. Sharon has little interest in propping up Abbas, instead lecturing him on his obligations to attack Hamas and publicly expressing his doubts that Abbas will be any more useful as a Palestinian partner (and gendarme) than Arafat was. If the “disengagement” were part of a peace process, Sharon would be looking to build up Abbas; instead, the Israeli leader appears to content to let him flounder, knowing that if Abbas fails, he simply reasserts the notion — accepted by the Bush administration in the Arafat years — that “there is no partner” on the Palestinian side, and that Israel should therefore be under no obligation to negotiate.

Abbas now finds himself caught between Sharon and Hamas, both of whom have their own political reasons for escalating confrontation with the other (both, essentially, to look tough in the eys of their constituencies) and both may even share an interest in weakening Abbas — Sharon certainly doesn’t want any talk of political negotiations after Gaza, and Hamas wants a greater share of control over Gaza than Abbas is willing to concede. Ironically, Sharon and Hamas also share the belief that a peace settlement is not possible between Israel and the Palestinians for the foreseeable future, preferring to think in terms of interim arrangements.

So what’s going to happen? A period of chaos, more than likely. The settlers will clash with the Israeli police, and will also probably attack Palestinian civilians in the hope of provoking a response by Hamas and others, which will force the Israeli army to escalate its own actions in Gaza and, the settlers hope, scupper or delay the withdrawal. Even without the provocation of settler attacks, Hamas will continue firing mortars and rockets into the settlements in the hope of making themselves look like Hezbollah, credited throughout the Middle East as the only Arab army ever to have forced Israel to retreat. But Abbas can’t allow that because it makes nonsense of his efforts to sell Washington on a new negotiation process, so there’ll potentially be increasing confrontations between Hamas militants and PA security forces. Abbas is hoping that the withdrawal will deliver tangible gains that will translate into political support for his Fatah movement, but it’s just as likely, if not more so, that the events surrounding the pullout will actually strengthen support for Hamas by the time the elections are held in December or January.

More importantly, however, Sharon knows that the chaos that follows the pullout will create a new reality that will dominate the headlines and the discussions between the U.S. and Israel and the Palestinians — indeed, even among the Palestinians themselves. Haaretz columnist Daniel Levy calls this strategy “After Gaza, More Gaza,” with the idea of further pullouts or political negotiations once again deferred to another era. Problem for Abbas, of course, is that his position is only viable to the extent that he’s able to revive a political process towards a two state solution. Neither he, nor any other Palestinian leader, has much interest in simply administering Gaza and two Bantustan-like enclaves in the West Bank.

At this point, the crisis in the Palestinian national movement becomes acute, and the likelihood is that leadership passes to a new generation (even if via the interim stewardship of the exiled Fatah rejectionist Farouk Khadoumi), with Hamas joining Fatah in a new PLO federation. But attainment of their national goals will once again be deferred by years, or even decades. Israel will have left behind a chaotic Gaza, but frozen the current lines of occupation in the West Bank. The basic motive forces of the conflict will not be altered by the Gaza “disengagement, but the prospects for resolving it on the basis of a separate, sovereign Palestinian state are beginning to look increasingly remote.

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