He never intended an equitable solution in Israel
Sunday January 8, 2006
In a remarkable transformation, the man now lying in a coma in an Israeli
hospital has emerged these past five years as the single most dominant
political personality in Israel's history, overshadowing even Ben-Gurion's
mythic role as founding father of the state.
Most Israelis came to believe that Ariel Sharon was the only person able to
solve the Palestinian conflict. Alternatively, if the conflict were to
continue, he was the man they trusted to manage it in a manner that assured
Israel's stability and security.
This view of Sharon is only partly correct. He was, indeed, uniquely able to
make the compromises without which an agreement with the Palestinians is
unattainable. It is difficult to imagine another Israeli leader who could
retain popular support for the return of most of the West Bank, along the
lines suggested in the Clinton proposal of January 2001, and compensate
Palestinians for the retention by Israel of the major settlement blocs
adjoining the pre-1967 border with comparable territory within Israel. The
same is true of allowing the Arab-populated parts of Jerusalem to serve as
the capital of a Palestinian state.
If it were true that a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians
incorporating these unavoidable 'concessions' were the strategic goal of the
'new' Sharon, his departure from the political scene would be grievous. But
Sharon had no intention of making such concessions, nor is there any basis
for the expectation that there will ever be a Palestinian leader willing or
able to accept an agreement that does not include these provisions.
Many in Israel saw Sharon's decision to disengage from Gaza as evidence of a
new determination to end the conflict by dismantling the settlement
enterprise, not only in Gaza but in much of the West Bank as well. I believe
that to be a misreading.
The precedent Sharon sought to establish was not for additional
disengagements from the West Bank (other than from isolated areas and major
Palestinian population centres). Rather, he intended Gaza to serve as a
precedent for a continuing unilateralism enabling Israel to retain de facto
control of the West Bank, even if a nominal Palestinian state were to come
into existence. Sharon believed a nominal state was the only way for Israel
to deal with the demographic challenge posed by Palestinian population
growth and - equally important - the only way to retain US support for its
Sharon's ideas for an imposed solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,
based on a narrow conception of security that considers Palestinian national
aspirations and Palestinian rights, a notion foreign to Sharon, as
irrelevant, constitute a dubious foundation for peacemaking.
To be sure, an impediment to the resumption of the peace process is the
chaos in Gaza and much of the West Bank, and President Mahmoud Abbas and his
government bear responsibility for that. But so does Sharon, who violated
virtually every promise he made to Abbas that would have eased the suffering
of the Palestinians and given the President the credibility to face down
rejectionists and advocates of violence.
In any event, the argument for unilateralism is dishonest, for nothing
precludes Israel's implementation of policies that conform to international
agreements. The argument for unilateralism has served as a pretext for the
theft of Palestinian land and for arrangements in Jerusalem that violate
existing agreements, including the 'Road Map'.
Whatever wider visions both sides entertain, they must accept that
peacemaking requires them to recognise they derive their legitimacy from a
UN resolution that gives Palestinians the same rights to territorial
integrity and security that Israel rightfully claims for itself.
Palestinians have no claim on Israeli 'generosity', a term often used to
describe Israeli peace proposals put forward at Camp David. But Palestinians
do have rights and, therefore, claims to Israeli recognition of those
rights, which must be the basis of any negotiated agreement. Israeli
unilateralism is radically inconsistent with this.
What hope there is for a revival of a peace process lies not with the
success of Kadima, the new centrist party established by Sharon, but with an
Israeli commitment to a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza whose
claims to security, viability and territorial integrity are entitled the
same respect that Israel expects for its own claims.
Henry Siegman is director of the US/Middle East Project and former head of
the American Jewish Congress
; The Observer