Time Runs out for Sharon’s Gaza and Disengagement Plans

Israel finds itself pulled simultaneously in two opposite directions.
Its newly-appointed director of national security, Giora Eiland, warned the Munich security conference Sunday, February 8, that the Palestinians’ failure to join Israel in the US-backed road map to peace would leave Jerusalem no alterative other than to initiate unilateral disengagement that would lead to a decision to begin a process of separation between the two peoples. Eiland has been assigned with fleshing out Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s plan for pulling the two peoples apart. But at the same forum, Jordan’s king Abdullah called for a US-led international alliance to use “some heavy-handedness” to bring Israel and the Palestinians together at the negotiating table.
Both directions, debkafile‘s political sources find, are equally unrealistic.
First, the Bush administration has more urgent business on its mind these days than a peace plan that goes on and on and never arrives. Its energies are fully engaged in fending off election-year assaults on US intelligence prior to the Iraq war and the al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks and on its global strategies, while seeking glittering achievements to upstage John Kerry’s meteoric challenge.
Second, the Palestinian Authority is in a state of collapse. The corrosive weight of 41 months of Yasser Arafat’s violent confrontation with Israel has left in its wake chaotic administration, corruption, infighting and disaffection. On Saturday, February 7, more than 300 members of Arafat’s ruling Fatah organization collectively handed in their membership cards in protest against bad leadership and corruption. The Palestinians are stuck in the rut of their suicide bombing offensive – 10 such attacks were foiled in January, one got through killing eleven aboard a Jerusalem bus. Their crisis-ridden leadership is no shape to respond to calls for peacemaking or even to care for its people’s pressing needs for jobs and aid.
Under heavy pressure from president Hosni Mubarak in Cairo Sunday, February 6, the Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qureia finally agreed to get together with Sharon in ten days’ time, but debkafile‘s Palestinian sources warned that nothing would come of the meeting.
Third, Sharon’s plans for disengagement and the evacuation of the Israeli civilian and military presence from the Gaza Strip – a go-it-alone strategy – could be popular if it were intelligently articulated and feasible. This is far from true at the moment. Many Israelis rubbed their eyes in distrust when they heard one of the great champions of Israeli settlement across the Green Line offering to evacuate the Gaza Strip against the advice of the military. Sharon qualified the offer; he would only go ahead with Washington’s backing and only if the US-backed peace effort got nowhere. The first qualification foredooms the plan to failure, before he even climbs over the multiple hurdles of swinging his government, party and Knesset behind his plans and overcomes the controversy over if and how to conduct a referendum.
This is because the predecessors of Bush and Sharon – Bill Clinton and Ehud Barak – locked horns four years ago on the very subject of the dollars and cents cost of evacuating Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Clinton said not a cent would come from Washington. Someone then came up with a plan for the United States to buy entire settlements, lock, stock and barrel, and resell them at a nominal price to the Palestinians. No one bought into that real estate deal either.
The question of who will pay for the implementation of Sharon’s Gaza evacuation plan, the resettling of settlers and redeployment of the military, remains unanswered.
Last week, deputy prime minister Ehud Olmert spent 24 hours in Washington, hard-selling the Gaza and disengagement programs to American leaders. He faced suspicions there, as at home, that the Gaza scheme is a stratagem to keep the West Bank communities in place and divert attention from the implications of bribe-taking hanging over the prime minister’s head. All the same, the White House decided to send over two US officials for a closer look at the Sharon concept. Deputy national security adviser Stephen Hadley and the senior director of the national security council, Elliot Abrams, are due in Jerusalem this week and will report on their impressions to the White House.
As a gesture to soften the White House’s disapproval of its security barrier, which is integral to the concept, the Sharon government decided to lop 100 km off the 700 km of its final route by straightening out the loops curving into the West Bank. Less publicly, work on the fence has more or less tapered off; only the undisputed segments in the north have been completed.
However, the likelihood is that, even if Sharon’s blueprints are found worth developing, they will not warrant serious attention in Washington until early 2005 after the US presidential election. By that time, the Middle East will be a different place calling for different plans. Sharon may have reason to rue the fact that he missed the American train when it rode through. Today, Washington’s overriding interests lie in Iraq, Libya and Sudan, its long and deep strategic relations with the Arab world beginning to be relegated to the past.
This process is not lost on the 22-member Arab League. After a ten-day visit to Baghdad in December, a fact-finding mission returned deeply concerned by the power-sharing set-up they found and what they consider the undue autonomy awarded the Kurdish and Shiite Muslims. The mission warned that the geographic and ethnic federalism taking shape in Iraq is the prelude to dividing the country up in a way that seriously undercuts the share of the national cake granted the Sunni Muslim Arab community that was the backbone of the Saddam regime. These findings will be submitted to the Arab League’s foreign ministers’ session next month and later to an Arab summit.
But the Israeli prime minister errs if he counts on merging his plan to separate Israel from the Palestinian Arabs into America’s disengagement from the Arab world, for two reasons:
1. Washington will never admit it is distancing itself from Arab interests, although its calls for democracy, freedom and reforms are generating that distance.
2. The White House does not want to see Israel involved in this process. Bush believes the Israelis, the Palestinians and the Arabs at large had their chance to enlist the US for a Middle East peace push on and after June 1, 2003, when he attended the Sharm el-Sheikh and Aqaba summits for that very purpose. Since seven months have gone by without a single significant step in that direction, he regards the Palestinians and the Arabs as having rejected his proffered hand and has turned his attention elsewhere. Israel too is seen in Washington as having wasted those precious seven months before pulling an innovative plan of action out of its hat.

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