— Odyssey, Book X
Two days in October 2004 may have brought new winds into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but no one can say which way they will blow. These stirrings came after eighteen months of political standstill, which led Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to initiate a plan for unilateral disengagement from Gaza and part of the West Bank.
On October 26, the Knesset approved this plan by a margin of 66-44. For the first time in the history of the Occupation, Israel decided to dismantle settlements in Palestinian areas: 21 in the Gaza Strip and four in the northern West Bank.
Yet the road to implementation is full of hurdles. About half the Likud Knesset faction opposes Sharon’s plan. His party rival, Binyamin Netanyahu, even attempted a putsch on the eve of the Knesset vote. Sharon’s majority depended on 25 solid Ayes from the opposition: the Labor Party and Yahad.
The next night, suddenly, a new possibility raised its head. The health of Yasser Arafat, President of the Palestinian Authority (PA), took a sudden turn for the worse. Israel let him be flown to Paris for treatment, ending more than three years of virtual imprisonment in the Muqata. It seems unlikely that Arafat will return to direct historical action. He will have to transfer at least some of his authority. One reason Israel has not expelled him is that from its point of view, he still has one task ahead: to appoint a successor. This is to be someone who, by virtue of Arafat’s blessing, will have sufficient prestige to cut the deal that Israel wants, namely, the establishment of a dummy state with friendly leaders. If that happens, Sharon’s main argument for unilateral disengagement - that there is no partner - will be superseded. He will have the option of withdrawing from Gaza by agreement with the PA. That will remove the objections of many in the Likud rank-and-file, and they will return to his fold.
If the “Arafat axiom” (No negotiations as long as Arafat rules!) ceases to be relevant, we are likely to witness a bevy of political initiatives. Until now, the disengagement plan looked like the only game in town, a form of solitaire. It was meant to give Sharon a possibility of movement within the general paralysis. He wanted to achieve three things:
1) In response to the American failure in Iraq and the fall of Abu Mazen’s government, key figures in Israel’s security establishment came out - in November 2003 - with bold statements against the Occupation. Among them were four former heads of the General Security Services (Shin Beth). At the same time, a group of air force pilots wrote a letter to Sharon, declaring their refusal to fire into populated areas. The PM felt the ground begin to quake, and he wanted to come up with something that would win back support from these circles.
2) He hoped that so dramatic a move - withdrawal from Gaza - would force the emergence of a local Palestinian leadership, which would take responsibility for the Strip without such costs to Israel as might arise through negotiation. Israel, he thought, would then be in a position to put off further withdrawals for years.
3) By gaining American acceptance of his unilateral plan, Sharon sought to neutralize European pressures for implementation of the Road Map.
Of these three aims, which have been achieved?
Sharon has succeeded in stemming the criticism from the Left. He has received unqualified support for disengagement from the whole security establishment, as well as the Labor Party and Yahad. The latter, which initiated the Geneva Agreement with the Palestinians, has shelved it for now, because the party leaders, including Yossi Beilin, have concluded that Sharon’s proposal represents a once-in-a-lifetime chance. Who else but he can get away with pulling down what he built up? And he is older than Arafat - how long till he goes the way of all flesh? Carpe diem! The Israeli Left has always dreamed that the Right would do its dirty work.
Sharon received the enthusiastic agreement of the White House for his plan, thus staving off diplomatic pressures. As to sparking the emergence of an alternative Palestinian leadership, Arafat’s departure from the arena may render this unnecessary.
What Sharon did not foresee, however, is the deep parliamentary crisis that has overtaken his party and government. This remains unresolved. His opponents in the Likud have exploited the fact that his plan is full of holes: ‘Why should Israel let the Palestinians have so significant an achievement with nothing in return? Who can guarantee that Qassam rockets will cease to fall on the cities of the Negev?’
Whatever Arafat’s condition, there will still be a long way to go before calm. The PA leader has not yet handed over the tattered bag of Aeolus (from which many evil winds have already escaped) to any of his colleagues. If he dies, the question of his burial place will be a first bone of contention between his political heirs and Israel. Arafat wants to be buried beside the al-Aqsa Mosque on the Haram al-Sharif, and Israel is not about to agree. There are other, deeper problems as well:
The future Palestinian leadership will receive a difficult legacy. After all the suffering that its people has undergone in the current Intifada - bereavement, targeted assassinations, destruction of homes, destruction of the economy, roadblocks, and now, most recently, the separation barrier - the Palestinians will still have to prove to Israel that it can count on them. The disengagement from Gaza, if it happens, will not lead quickly to further withdrawals. Gaza, the poorest, bloodiest, most oppressed part of Palestine, will be forced to bear the “burden of proof.”
And then there’s Hamas, whose strength is greatest in Gaza. It is by no means certain that this fundamentalist movement, which bent beneath the baton of Arafat, will do the same for any pro-Israel, pro-American elements that come to replace him. Which of the Palestinian leaders will be able to control it? And what about the street gangs that roam the West Bank unhindered, waving their rifles, shifting fidelity like butterflies in a storm? Which Palestinian leader will be strong enough to bring them into line? These winds are already out of the bag - who can stuff them back in?
We must not underestimate the importance of the events in late October, but the essential problems remain. Even if Sharon does empty Gaza of settlements, and even if the PA does pull itself together and take control of the areas Israel evacuates, there will remain the immense gap between, on the one hand, what Israel is willing to give, and, on the other, the Palestinian expectation of a truly sovereign state, with Jerusalem as its capital and no settlements on its land. Another big problem, which the Intifada has blurred, concerns the Palestinian leadership. Will it be democratic and free of corruption, capable of restoring the society after so many years of occupation and rottenness? No matter what happens in Gaza, these big old problems will be there, blowing us again toward collision.
Reprinted with permission from Challenge #88, November-December 2004.