Ariel Sharon’s Unfunny Gaza Plan

For some months now, laughter courses – an idea copied from India’s “mirth is medicine” Laughing Clubs – have been the rage in Israel’s main cities. In the dumps after three and-a-half years of Palestinian violence and severe economic disruption, Israelis are trying to relieve tension by a jolly good laugh. Needless to say, the laugh meisters have not claimed a foothold in Israel’s lower-income towns, where trying to scrape together a living in the face of government ineptitude is no laughing matter.
Now, as if his failure to alleviate fear and widespread economic hardship were not enough, Ariel Sharon has dropped a political bombshell: a plan to evacuate 17 of Israel’s 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and transfer their populations to communities yet to be established in the Halutza sand dunes of the northern Negev. The prime minister’s spin doctors are presenting the evacuation scheme as a first step in a one-way plan to disengage from the Palestinians that will also entail the removal of several settlements inside the West Bank. This plan, if feasible, would draw substantial popular support. To show the blueprint is in earnest, he has tapped General Giora Eiland, the newly-appointed national security council chief, to chart the security borders of the disengaged state of Israel. Seen striding purposefully up and down the corridors of the prime minister’s office, maps in hand, two pairs of spectacles at the ready, the general has nothing to say to reporters; after all, he is in uniform. But Sharon’s spokesmen have made sure the media know that his chief of staff, Dov Weisglass, fully briefed US national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.
Even so, a thick cloud of uncertainty hangs over the Gaza plan. Sharon, who instigated and promoted many of the communities he now proposes to uproot, said the evacuation of some 7,500 Gazan settlers is still two years off. His trial balloonist, deputy premier Ehud Olmert then announced the removals would start in June or July.
No wonder a growing number of Israelis are signing up for laughing lessons.
After all, in nearly three years in office, Sharon has made little progress in resolving the unending conflict with the Palestinians; neither has he excelled in creative diplomatic thinking. Israelis remember all too well his 2001 election pledge to “bring security to the people of Israel.” Even the project he solemnly undertook of a security fence to keep suicide bombers from crossing in from the West Bank has virtually come to a halt, leaving yawning gaps at its most vulnerable points, the Sharon plain north of Tel Aviv, the Lod vicinity of Ben Gurion international airport and Jerusalem. At those three points, the prime minister bowed to the Bush administration’s opposition to any deviations from the pre-1967 war Green Line that cut into the West Bank.
Nonetheless, Sharon no longer tops the White House’s list of wanted guests. Once a frequent flyer on the Tel Aviv-Washington line, he has not visited Washington since last summer. The planning for White House talks in late February or early March has not been finalized.
According to debkafile‘s political analysts, Sharon has missed the boat of America’s post-Iraq War regional strategy and the upheavals it has wrought in the Arab world. Seeing Israeli still mired in the Palestinian quagmire, the Bush administration has moved on. Its focus on the Middle East road map and promise of a Palestinian state has shifted to the weighty questions of how much autonomy to allow Iraq’s Kurds and Shiites. Not easily discernible to most Israelis, who are sunk deep more mundane concerns, America’s policy reorientation away from the Israel-Palestinian conflict is an open secret in Washington. Weisglass has been rushing back and forth between Jerusalem and Washington in search of White House backing for Sharon’s disengagement-cum-settlement evacuation plan by talking to Rice, her deputy Steve Hadley and national security council staffer Elliot Abrams. Yet Sharon’s disengagement-cum-settlement evacuation plan has no buyers in Washington for three reasons:
1. The Bush administration wants no part of the burden of supporting the Palestinian economy. That role is assigned to Israel; disengagement is thus ruled out. Since Israel is also designated main provider of jobs for the Palestinians, the security fence is disallowed because it would obstruct the movement of West Bank laborers. By halting construction on the fence, Sharon has taken this American concern on board.
2. The prime minister’s Gazan plan has run into direct opposition from Egypt and Jordan out of kindred concerns. The Mubarak government has forcefully warned the US that if Israeli settlers and military depart the Gaza Strip’s Gush Katif, not only would Palestinian jobs in the lush fruit, vegetable and herbs greenhouses be forfeit, but there would be nothing to bar a Palestinian exodus from the teeming Strip into adjoining regions of Egypt’s northern Sinai. Egypt is seriously anxious for Israeli settlements to remain in the Gaza Strip. Jordan too fears Palestinians exiting a West Bank Palestinian state and heading east in large numbers in consequence of any disengagement from Israel.
3. The bribes scandals hanging over Sharon and his problems with coalition partners have not escaped Washington’s attention. With typical bravado, he warned potential pro-settlement government rebels that he will replace them with Shimon Peres’ Labor Party. That prospect is pie in the sky, as Washington knows full well. It would be a toss-up to choose who is on shakier ground between the Likud prime minister and a Labor party that signed its own death warrant again on Tuesday, February 2, by voting to extend through 2005 the term as party leader of the octogenarian Shimon Peres who has never won a national election. The francophone Peres has never been a favorite of Washington. Above all, Bush has exhibited a resolve in Iraq and other places never to pin key US diplomatic moves on unstable political forces. That consideration alone would have sufficed to red-flag Sharon’s proposals in Washington.
4. The United States, after threatening to deduct from Israel’s annual aid package the relatively small cost of the fence the sections that dip into the West Bank, will certainly shy from footing the $15 bn bill for removing and re-housing the Jewish communities of Gaza. The Bush administration would much rather spend the money on projects to draw Sudan out of the Arab fold. Like the security fence therefore, Sharon may start removing the Israeli presence from the Gaza Strip, but it is hard to see how he can go all the way through with it.
At the same time, albeit for a virtually impossible price, Sharon has a slim chance of regaining some of his lost standing with the Bush administration and its acceptance of a revised disengagement plan, under the following circumstances:
A. If Muammer Qaddafi, in a bid for a welcome to the real world, decided to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, pulling the rest of North Africa, including Tunisia, after him.
B. If, as we reported on January 24, Europe and the Saudis pressed ahead with an initiative for bringing Israel into the European Union and NATO as a full member in return for its withdrawal to pre-1967 war lines and a settlement evacuation plan.

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