Bush and Sharon Play to Their Galleries on Settlement Growth

Bush administration officials say the US could agree to some new Israeli settlement construction on the West Bank, provided it does not step outside the boundaries of existing locations – a departure from the freeze demanded till now. A senior administration official commented on the tender the Israeli government has approved for the construction of 1,001 new homes: “There is some flexibility there.”
Israel, for its part, has promised there would not be territorial expansion, only construction to accommodate natural population growth.
Sunday, August 22, the Israeli prime minister’s bureau opened an office to discuss compensation for the 8,000 Jewish settlers he proposes to remove by the end of next year from the Gaza Strip and the several hundred out of the 230,000 Israelis who live on the West Bank. This action was taken in defiance of the majority vote in Ariel Sharon’s own Likud last week against a coalition with the left-of-centre Labor that would have made this pullout possible. But the new office has no legal powers without new legislation approving compensation, for which a Knesset majority may not be available. So, although a telephone number was published for applicants, the new office’s job description does not mention “compensation” – only “assistance” in the form of “advances” to settlers volunteering to leave their homes before the 2005 deadline.
With Labor staging its own revolt against the drive initiated by its chairman, Shimon Peres, to join the government, no cabinet or Knesset majority and a party divided against him, Sharon finds his disengagement plan blocked at every hand.
He is therefore dodging between two urgent needs: to placate his own wayward party, which is on the verge of a split, while drumming up the semblance of momentum to avoid a humiliating climb-down over his defeated disengagement plan. Washington’s “flexibility” has therefore landed in his grasp in the nick of time as a sorely-needed prop. It is extended because Sharon is clearly the Bush White House’s preferred candidate for Israel prime minister should an early election be forced on him. It will also not come amiss for a Republican president who is wooing the American Jewish vote for the November election.
Time will show if the White House’s policy modification is a piece of timely pragmatism or for real. If genuine, it would impinge crucially on the fate of another contentious issue, Israel’s defense barrier, which the Hague international court condemned as illegal and which is continually revised by Israel high court strictures on its route.
Since the determination of boundaries is pivotal to both these nagging disputes, a pointer to Washington’s intentions will come from the guidelines handed to the team of technical experts led by an official from the State Department’s intelligence bureau, which has been assigned to Israel next month to record the boundaries and make sure they are not stretched to permit outward expansion beyond already built-up areas. The team’s task is therefore a weighty – almost historical – one: setting the borders of the Jewish presence on the West Bank.
A key question is will President Bush instruct the team, through his national security adviser Condoleeza Rice who is virtually running the State Department on the eve of Colin Powell’s departure, to also mark out the final route of Israel’s security fence.
The fence is the sine qua non of Sharon’s disengagement plan. Bush and Sharon would certainly prefer to take it out of the hands of the judges of the International Court and Israel’s supreme court in Jerusalem. Sharon and defense minister Shaul Mofaz may have been too hasty in promising to abide by the Jerusalem court’s rulings on the fence’s route. The Bush administration is loath to leave such high-profile political issues in the hands of any judiciary.
The whole issue of boundaries is tightly bound up also with the 43 illegal outposts on the West Bank. The American team will certainly be asked to recommend on their disposition too. Likud rebels mock the prime minister by pointing out he has failed to remove a single illegal outpost on the West Bank, and ask him how he imagines he can evacuate an entire settlement block in the Gaza Strip.
By determining which of the outposts falls under the new policy of flexibility with regard to settlement growth, the experts from Washington will not only override the two courts but also the joint US-Israeli group headed by US ambassador Dan Kurtzer, which is bogged down in its selfsame appointed task. The Talia Sasson panel supposedly drafting legislation to enable the rapid and smooth evacuation of the illegal outposts will likewise be rendered redundant. US officials in any case viewed the panel as a typical Israeli tool for foot-dragging.
If armed with a broad enough remit, therefore, this State Department team can help Sharon overcome some of the obstacles on the road to disengagement and the removal of the Gaza settlements. The Bush administration makes no bones about its intense interest in Sharon achieving the evacuation of Gaza to provide evidence that Israeli settlements can be uprooted despite the conventional wisdom which claims they cannot. Until now, there has been no certainty among Bush’s aides that the Israeli prime minister can in fact pull it off and if so, when.
The alternative mandate for the experts from Washington is to treat their mission as no more than a bridge to span the gap up to the November election. Time is indeed short, less than two months – not enough to finish the job, but enough to show President Bush as being on top of events in the Middle East and pursuing an active role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
If he is not re-elected, he can pass the results over to the next administration; if he is, he can use them to help Sharon’s fight for survival.
The third option is for the White House to bury the team’s conclusions. It has happened before, as the former CIA chief George Tenet, General Anthony Zinni and former senator George Mitchell can attest.

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