There are significant differences between the letters exchanged by Ariel Sharon and George W. Bush.
Sharon’s letter states (as published in Ha’aretz): “According to this plan, the State of Israel intends to relocate military installations and all Israeli villages and towns in the Gaza Strip, as well as other military installations and a small number of villages in Samaria.”
Three issues arise from this one sentence.
1. Sharon uses the word “relocate” rather than the word “withdraw” employed in Bush’s letter. This gives Sharon more space to maneuver and leads to questions about his intentions. As I stated in an EI article nearly four months ago, this raises the prospect of Sharon shuttling settlers from Gaza to the West Bank. Raji Sourani, Director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, says that what we are really talking about is a “redeployment” and not a withdrawal.
2. Sharon speaks only of “relocating military installations.” He does not use the word “all” as he does in speaking of “Israeli villages and towns” (that is to say, settlements). The American letter speaks of withdrawing from “certain military installations” in Gaza. Critically, both the Israeli and the American letters make clear that military installations can stay in Gaza. As we saw with Oslo, this leaves open the very real possibility that Israel will hold onto a considerable portion of land in Gaza. We already know that Israel intends to maintain control over Gaza’s borders, airspace, and sea access. An Israeli military presence is intended for Gazais border with the Sinai. Israel has demolished scores of homes there recently and clearly will maintain a presence there. Which other military installations does Israel intend to maintain in Gaza? How much of the land of Gaza would they actually retain?
3. Sharon remained unable to refer to the West Bank or Palestine, instead referring to “Samaria.” The Palestinian leadership has recognized Israel. When will Sharon be asked about language that continues to suggest that he does not recognize the Palestinian claim to West Bank land, including the very land that Sharon claims to be leaving? Claims are always leveled at the Palestinian leadership that it does not recognize Israel’s right to exist despite its having given such recognition multiple times. Sharon’s language continues to suggest that he denies Palestinian rights to the land. If the United States ever received a letter from Yasir Arafat referring to Israel as Palestine (or to Ashkelon as Al-Majdal) there would be an outcry.
Sharon’s letter specifically undermines the Road Map it claims to be following. The letter asserts: “Progress toward this goal [a Palestinian-Israeli settlement] must be anchored exclusively in the roadmap and we will oppose any other plan. In this regard, we are fully aware of the responsibilities facing the State of Israel. These include limitations on the growth of settlements.” Yet the Road Map specifically states: “Consistent with the Mitchell Report, GOI freezes all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements).”
Just two sentences after highlighting the roadmap and voicing opposition to any other plan (the American letter also voices opposition to other plans making one wonder if they fear the Saudi plan), Sharon is explicitly speaking of violating a key component of the agreement by changing a “freeze” to “limitations.”
Of course, why should anybody expect anything else in a week such as this one? The American commander-in-chief repeatedly misrepresented the situation in Iraq and dodged questions during his news conference of April 13. Then, the next day, with Ariel Sharon at his side he undid decades of U.S. foreign policy and placed US policy in clear violation of international law. When asked on both April 12 and 14 about settlements being an obstacle to peace he avoided the question. This is a leader who habitually is unable to give a plain answer to a plain question.
Muddled thinking leads to muddled policy — be it Iraq or Israel/Palestine. The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights on April 15 released a clearly worded document expressing great alarm about a Bush policy flouting international law. Bushis decision to sign off on Israeli expansion into the West Bank and no right of return was appropriately headlined, “Sharon Coup: U.S. Go-Ahead,” on the front page of The New York Times. That is remarkably strong language for the front-page of The New York Times.
Bush already has enormous problems in Iraq. He can now be assured of more problems ahead on the Palestinian front. This will do nothing to calm ill will in the region and will confirm the thinking of many around the world that the United States is not an even-handed broker in the peace process. Worse, the United States will now be clearly identified as a scofflaw undercutting international law as it pertains to settlements and refugees. Wherever you stand on the rights of Palestinian refugees, it should be clear that the United States has no business giving its consent to Israelis ethnic transfer of Palestinians in 1948. At the very least, Bush should have offered some words about the historical injustice done to the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled following the Deir Yassin Massacre.
The timing of the policy change is also particularly bad coming less than three weeks before the 40 days of mourning for Sheikh Ahmed Yassin conclude. Those 40 days conclude almost precisely with the Likud vote of May 2 on the Sharon plan. In 1994 after the Hebron Massacre and in 1996 after the assassination of Yahya Ayyash the major responses came little more than 40 days later. The United States probably could have done nothing to head off such horrors. But adding fuel to the fire is misguided, rash, and inept — characteristics that are rife in Washington today yet seemingly bear no consequences for those responsible.
Bleak days lie ahead. In a speech I gave recently I spoke out against suicide bombings and raised other ways that aggrieved peoples historically have made their points and eventually found victory for their cause. This week, for the second time this year, Palestinians have been told by the United States that diplomacy and law — some of the other nonviolent means I had in mind — are not appropriate instruments by which they can effect change.
The United States, in effect, told the Palestinians in February that it was illegitimate for them to defend themselves from a bantustanized existence by fighting the West Bank Barrier through the International Court of Justice. Now, incredibly, Palestinians have been told that the United States will determine what territorial rights and refugee rights they do or do not have. If the United States insists on shutting off nonviolent legal and diplomatic options to the Palestinians at the very time that Israel is repressing nonviolent demonstrations then what, precisely, do they expect the Palestinians to do?
Sharon is clearly thrilled by Bush’s backing. It is a remarkable arrangement. Sharon does not even have to extract concessions from a pliable and impotent Palestinian Authority. He can simply turn to George W. Bush and ask him to cede Palestinian rights.
Yet there is one fatal flaw. The Palestinian people are still there. And after these many decades of oppression there is little reason to expect them to capitulate now. At the end of the day, try as he might, Bush cannot hand over rights that are not his to hand over. Not even Arafat can do that. In the end, the Palestinian people will decide what is and is not an acceptable approximation of justice.
The Bush-Sharon meeting on April 14 only assured that the situation will get worse in the immediate future. The United Nations has an important role to play in asserting that the new US position undermines international law and the prospects for peace. Yet that body has failed to take a firm stand in the past two years as the United States has run roughshod over it in its rush to launch war with Iraq. A new courage to offset the heavy-handed power of the Bush administration will have to be found within the UN or international community if the Middle East is to have any hope of moving away from war, occupation, and oppression.
Michael Brown is the Executive Director of Partners for Peace.