Sharon: “Unilateral Steps” are Good Slogan, Bad Policy

Avid speculation has surrounded Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s tantalizing hints of the “unilateral steps” he has in store should the US-backed road map fall foul of Palestinian terrorism. They were variously interpreted as heralding the evacuation of certain West Bank and Gaza Strip Jewish communities, or the arbitrary demarcation of Israel’s borders. These unfounded rumors provoked threats to topple Sharon government from Yesha leaders, on the one hand, and aerial photographic projects by Peace Now to demonstrate that no illegal Jewish outposts have been removed, on the other.
At home, the clamor rose from all quarters for Sharon to spell out his plan, while in Washington, secretary of state Colin Powell declared Washington opposed to any one-side Israeli action. Friday night, December 12, President George W. Bush, speaking to reporters at the White House, warned Israel anew not to take action that would make it harder to create a Palestinian state, which he saw as in Israel’s interest.
To clear away the uncertainty, debkafile‘s political sources state positively that all the fuss and ado has been in vain. Sharon does not – and never did have – a detailed plan for unilateral action. His deputy, Industry Minister Ehud Olmert, went out on a limb when he told an interviewer a week ago that Israel must now face up to unilateral withdrawal from large parts of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and sections of Jerusalem. Olmert was generally reported to be articulating Sharon’s ideas. He now finds himself politically isolated for talking through his hat.
So what was Sharon up to? This week, he confided to his close advisers, according to our sources, that he realizes fully that any Israeli unilateral steps in its conflict with the Palestinians would be of extremely short-lived value. Even the “painful concessions” he has often promised, if executed outside an agreed and reciprocal framework with the Palestinians, might briefly lift Israel’s image. But they would be rejected on the spot by Palestinian as too little, together with loud demands more. The Israeli left wing would first applaud then line up behind Palestinians demands. Sharon declined to place himself in the power of the Palestinians or Israeli left-wing politicians.
Therefore, neither Netsarim (in the Gaza Strip) nor Kadim (northern West Bank) are to be evacuated at this stage. Removing the Jewish community at Netsarim without counter-commitments from the Palestinians, Sharon believes, would make it almost impossible to defend the Gush Katif bloc, which “I am in no hurry to cede at this stage.” The same applies to the isolated West Bank settlements of Kadim, Ganim, Maaleh Levona and Eli. Their hasty evacuation without Palestinian reciprocity would make other West Bank communities and towns hard to defend. “We would be making good slogans, but bad policy,” he concluded.
debkafile‘s political sources reveal three developments as having brought the prime minister round to this conclusion.
1. The US president has informed Middle East leaders that while he may not be entirely happy with Sharon’s actions (e.g. the route of the defense barrier under construction), he has his hands full with Iraq and is not available for the Palestinian problem. He therefore advised them all to manage without Washington’s help or special emissaries until the Iraq situation is resolved. The message went out to Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, King Abdullah of Jordan, who visited the White House a few days ago, and Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qureia. Bush warned them all that he objects to any unilateral action, whether on the part of Israel or the Palestinians. His administration would be busy with other matters – unless the parties looked like reaching an agreement, and then he would be glad to help carry it through.
The US president warned King Abdullah that it was now up to Sharon and Abu Ala to reach terms. If they succeeded, fine. If not, they must keep on trying.
2. Sharon discovered that two senior ministers of his own Likud, the finance minister, former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and defense minister Shaul Mofaz – both rivals for the succession – have joined forces. The prime minister offered to trade non-interference in their alliance for their guarantee to back his policies to the hilt. His proposal, which superseded his own earlier deal with Netanyahu, was accepted by the two ministers.
The prime minister also worked the opposition benches this week. His meeting with Labor leaders was publicly presented as testing the ground for bringing the party back into government in the event of right-wing pro-settlement parties such as Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu and Effie Eytam’s National Religious Party quitting over concessions to the Palestinians or the evacuation of Jewish communities. This was not the case. Sharon has no intention of inviting Labor to join his government. But after bargaining for a Likud safety net to protect his future steps, he sought and obtained a similar guarantee from the heads of Labor’s centrist wing, former generals Matan Vilnai and Ephraim Sneh in a meeting he held with the latter Thursday, December 11.
Sharon ended the week with a well-stabilized government. He does not really expect Lieberman or Eytam to take their parties out. Lieberman is closely aligned with Netanyahu and will not upset the working relationship between the finance minister and Sharon, while Eytam would have to admit his leadership had failed and move over for National Security minister Zevulun Orlev.
3. Yasser Arafat was quick to call Sharon’s “unilateral steps” threat an act. Abu Ala is meanwhile clocking up Palestinian miles with tough statements against the Sharon government. On the quiet, however, both sides are pushing hard to restart negotiations despite obstruction from Arafat, Hamas, Jihad Islami and Syrian president Basher Assad. debkafile‘s Middle East sources reveal tentative steps afoot to bring Syria into the process. The coming week will show whether they spring to life or are stillborn.

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