Sharon’s Threatened Separation Steps Draw Heavy Fire
Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon unveiled his much-awaited policy program Thursday, 18 December, under the heading: A Program of Separation. It came with a warning to the Palestinians that he won’t wait forever for them to come round.
No sooner had the words left his mouth when it was attacked from almost ever direction. Israeli right-wing and pro-settlement leaders declared those steps threatened “the destruction of Zionism.” The doves were cynical. Opposition Labor leaders said the plan was just talk.
The most displeasure came from the White House. US officials from the president down had warned Israel against any unilateral measures that would make it harder to create a Palestinian state and reiterated Washington’s commitment to a negotiated settlement between the two sides on the basis of the US-backed road map. In any case, debkafile‘s Washington sources revealed, White House contacts reminded Sharon he had promised not to make waves as long as the Bush administration had its hands full in Iraq.
The Palestinians condemned the speech as unacceptable.
The gist of Sharon’s address was this: By opting for the road map, the Palestinians would gain a democratic state with territorial contiguity in Judea and Samaria. He promised Israel would dismantle “unauthorized outposts”, freeze settlement construction and land expropriations. Construction of the separation fence would be ‘greatly accelerated’ – but this would also enable the army to remove roadblocks and ease the daily lives of Palestinians not involved in terror.
Sharon implicitly gave the Palestinians up to six months, possibly less, to root out terror and institute reforms. But if they continue to disregard this part of the roadmap – and most importantly dismantle their terror infrastructure – Israel would initiate unilateral security steps to disengage from the Palestinians.
Those steps would include the redeployment of Israeli military forces and Jewish communities along new lines dictated by security, not political considerations. The demarcation of Israel’s final borders would be determined in negotiations at a later stage. His disengagement plan included economic benefits for the Palestinians “in coordination with Jordan and Egypt.” But on the whole, they would end up with less land than they would have had they accepted all their obligations under the road map.
debkafile‘s political analysts define Sharon’s address as a package of ifs and buts. Former Labor prime minister Shimon Peres made some apt comments: Why six months? What is he waiting for? Why can’t he go forward immediately? Does the prime minister expect the Palestinians to sit around and do nothing for six months?
Our analysts see Sharon’s “Separation Program” as over-reliant on Washington and failing to provide for at least three contingencies, each of which would throw his plan out of kilter long before the six months are up.
1. Yasser Arafat is a sick man. Who knows if he will last six months?
2. It is common knowledge everywhere – from Washington, Berlin, Moscow and Cairo to Ramallah and Jerusalem, that Ahmed Qureia aka Abu Ala is a nonentity. Nothing will come out of his premiership either for Israel or the Palestinians.
3. Terrorist action against Israel is expected to escalate in volume and savagery – even after Arafat’s departure.
The next three points explain why Sharon is playing for time and explain the real motive behind his threatened “redeployments.”
4. The United States and Islamic fundamentalist terrorist forces are both bracing for a decisive showdown in Iraq estimated to erupt in March-April 2004. Al Qaeda and the Iranian-backed Hizballah have secretly put their ace operative, Imad Mughniyeh, in place in Iraq to lead the Islamic side into battle as its chief of staff. Israel will not be left on the sidelines of this confrontation which could well peak in May or even June, six months hence.
5. As this showdown approaches, Washington is unlikely to let Syria continue to get away with furnishing its enemies in Iraq with arms and funds or shielding the Hizballah terrorists. The coming months are therefore expected to bring the Bush administration to its moment of truth with the Assad regime.
6. Within six months, Iran may have built itself a nuclear bomb – the most dangerous challenge of all to both America and Israel.
All six processes are due to come to a head in roughly six months. This is the dynamic at the back of Sharon’s mind. When that happens, he expects the controversial terms “unilateral,” “disengagement,” “separation,” “redeployment of settlements” and even possibly “road map” – in a word, his own bombastic Separation Plan – to fade into irrelevance. What will remain are the “disengagement” lines he will be setting up as Israel’s defense lines for the next round of conflict. If this entails relocating or evacuating West Bank Jewish communities, so be it. He has broadcast his intention of doing so in advance.
The prime minister’s timeline may not be precise. Six months, or even six days, are an eon in the Middle East and apt to throw up imponderables. If the expected crisis peaks earlier, he will have to improvise and, as is his wont, make sure his actions are in full sync with Washington.
He will also have to restore the truncated defense budget to the level required to meet any upcoming national security contingencies.
On Thursday, December 18, defense minister Shaul Mofaz and chief of staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon voiced outrage to a Knesset Committee at the Treasury’s deep, arbitrary slashes in the 2004 defense budget. Mofaz complained the new budget would effectively dismantle Israel’s defensive capabilities, while Yaalon warned the Merkava tank project would have to be scrapped, there would be fewer reserve call-ups, a drastic reduction in air force resources, less combat training and thousands of job cuts in the defense establishment and industries.