Don't be fooled by Sharon's 'new' message
Henry Siegman IHT
Friday, December 26, 2003
There is no international conflict that induces even seasoned diplomats to engage in wishful thinking and self-delusion as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict regularly does.
In his much awaited speech at the Herzliya conference of Dec. 18, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was his usual cagey self, resorting to vague and ambivalent policy pronouncements that leave room for both his critics and supporters to read into them whatever is most comforting.
But he also said certain things that were entirely clear and unambiguous. Sharon was unequivocal in his promise not only to continue construction of the so-called separation fence, but also to speed it up. If there is one issue about which the United States and the other members of the quartet are in complete accord, despite many disagreements, it is that the separation fence, which veers deep into Palestinian territory in the West Bank, is wildly inconsistent with the essential requirements and intentions of the road map.
President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell have repeatedly echoed the views of their quartet partners - the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia - that the path along which Israel is building this fence fundamentally contradicts the road map's objective of a negotiated peace agreement. Creating facts on the ground - a new border that leaves 50 percent of the West Bank in Israel's hands before negotiations over territorial and other final status issues have even begun - makes a mockery of the road map and of its sponsors.
It makes little difference whether or not one believes Sharon's assurance that the fence creates only a security border that leaves open the question where the new international border will be.
It takes an extraordinary level of na´vetÚ to expect Palestinians to believe that Sharon and his extreme right-wing government will remain open to any meaningful readjustment of the separation fence in which Israel is investing billions of dollars. Whether Palestinians believe this or not is critical to the success of the road map. Palestinians will most certainly not be induced to dismantle the "terrorist infrastructure," as demanded by the road map, and risk a potentially catastrophic civil war if the territorial issue has been preemptively foreclosed by Israel.
Sharon's intentions aside, if all four sponsors of the road map agree that the inevitable perception of what the fence is intended to accomplish is radically inconsistent with their peace plan, how can their representatives welcome "Sharon's commitment to the road map"?
Other parts of Sharon's speech make even clearer his rejection of the road map. Sharon consistently conditions his declarations of fidelity to the agreement with the carefully worded qualification that it is "based on President Bush's speech of June 2002." In fact, Bush did not issue the road map until a full year later, in June 2003.
It could not be any clearer that by linking his acceptance of the road map to the earlier Bush speech, Sharon is declaring his rejection of the road map's central requirement: neither party may condition the implementation of its obligations by demanding that the other act first.
What Sharon found so compelling in the Bush speech of 2002 was the American president's statement that Palestinians must forgo terrorism before a peace process can begin. That has been Sharon's excuse for failing to implement any of Israel's obligations under the road map. But in fact by endorsing the road map's insistence on simultaneous implementation of the respective obligations of both sides, Bush was saying in his speech of June 2003 that the provision for simultaneous implementation is indispensible for getting Palestinians to assume their obligation to fight terrorism.
An even more egregious example of the willful suspension of disbelief by the international community is the notion that Sharon's intention to dismantle some settlements that have been established within concentrations of Palestinian population marks a historic turning away from Likud ideology.
The absurdity of this alleged shift should be self-evident. The essence of Likud ideology is the prevention of the emergence of a sovereign Palestinian state, or of any kind of Palestinian entity that is not entirely under Israel's control. Forcing concentrations of Arabs behind walls and fences is essential to the realization of this goal. Otherwise, surging Palestinian birth rates will put an end to Israel as a Jewish state, unless Israel were to forgo its democratic character and, like the unlamented former South African apartheid regime, permanently disenfranchise the country's majority population.
The necessity of enclosing Palestinian concentrations of population behind walls and fences in order to preserve Israeli hegemony over the entire West Bank leaves Sharon no choice but to remove what Jewish settlements exist within these areas.
The ideas put forward by Sharon in his speech of Dec. 18, far from new, are those he has had in mind from the very beginning of his sponsorship of the settlement enterprise. He has always believed that placing Palestinians behind walls and fences, while pretending that these isolated cantons in which Palestinians are effectively imprisoned constitute a state, is the only arrangement that will allow Israel to retain its control over the entire West Bank. That is why two years ago he fought the Likud resolution supported by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu that opposes a Palestinian state.
It is also why Sharon pretends to be devoted to the road map, while contemptuous of its first phase, which requires the removal of settlement outposts and the unconditional cessation of further settlement expansion. He is equally contemptuous of its third and last phase, which calls for the establishment of a viable and permanent Palestinian state by 2005.
But what redeems the road map for Sharon is its second phase, which calls for an interim Palestinian state in about 40 percent of the West Bank, by happy coincidence the 40 percent within which Sharon has always believed Israel can permanently contain the Palestinian population. Sharon's goal has always been to make certain that the transitional status of that 40 percent will remain unchanged.
Of course, there is no greater and no more tragic delusion than the belief of Sharon and his right-wing government that the bantustans they plan for the Palestinians are the answer to Israel's demographic problem.
An apartheid political system that the world would not tolerate in racist South Africa will not survive in a racist Israel. In the short run, it is possible that Sharon and his right-wing supporters will be able to hold off international condemnation by resorting to the tactic of hurling the charge of anti-Semitism at their critics, as they have done in the past even in the case of legitimate criticism of past Israeli human rights violations.
Sharon has declared that since the establishment of the state of Israel, criticism of the Jewish state is indistinguishable from anti-Semitism. That is a lie that defames Judaism and demeans the enlightened ideals that animated the classical Zionist enterprise, which Sharon's policies will sooner or later put an end to. Whether Sharon and his supporters like it or not, it is one of the great ironies of history that only a truly viable and successful Palestinian state will assure the survival of the Jewish state. Nothing else will.
* The writer is a senior fellow on the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations. These views are his own.