As feared, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s speech on Thursday, December 18 at the Herzliya Conference provided very little hope for 2004. Sharon acknowledged there will be a Palestinian state, thereby recognizing Israel cannot control all the land between the river and the sea, but said nothing about the size of the Palestinian state. He offered no tangible vision for the Palestinians to latch on to which suggested that after decades this man is now addressing Palestinian concerns seriously.
The Israeli prime minister moved because he is rapidly being cast as intransigent and because even the Likud is beginning to recognize that at some point in the very near future it will have to decide between democracy and apartheid. Pushed back on his heels, Sharon tried to gain the upper hand by speaking the language Washington has come to know well in the last year — that of unilateral action.
Rather than speak hard truths about Israel’s responsibilities, Sharon aggressively set forth one misrepresentation after another. For instance, he claimed, “Seven months ago, my Government approved the ‘Roadmap’ to peace, based on President George Bush’s June 2002 speech.” He failed to note he accepted the Roadmap only with the insertion of 14 caveats.
Jettisoning all responsibility for the terrible current state of affairs Sharon asserted, “We began the implementation of the Roadmap at Aqaba, but the terrorist organizations joined with Yasser Arafat and sabotaged the process with a series of the most brutal terror attacks we have ever known.” No doubt the suicide bombing of June 11, 2003 was hideous. But he failed to note that it was Israel which first killed civilians following the Aqaba meeting. (See electronicIntifada.net/v2/article1577.shtml)
There was plenty of blame to share in the days after Aqaba, but it is quite clear that Sharon seemed particularly intent on tightening the screws against Palestinians during June 2003.
Moving on to settlements, Sharon put himself clearly on record saying, “…the unauthorized outposts will be dismantled. Period.” One danger to watch for will be whether he suddenly “legalizes” some of these outposts. Sharon has promised before to dismantle unauthorized outposts, only to allow replacements to spring up to offset the handful he dismantled. Consequently, there is considerable reason to doubt whether he will be good to his word.
Sharon claimed that he would like to see “A democratic Palestinian state with territorial contiguity in Judea and Samaria and economic viability….” But all indications are that he has in mind a contiguous Palestinian entity on only about 50 percent of the West Bank. The rapid work on the separation barrier makes such a bantustan a very real fear for Palestinians. Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu recently allocated an additional $160 million for construction of the barrier during 2004.
The pittance the United States deducted earlier this fall from the loan guarantees ($289.5 million for settlements and the barrier) indicates that the barrier is not viewed by American officials as an enormous threat to the tens of thousands of Palestinians being devastated by its path and the loss of access to their agricultural land, schools, and hospitals. Absurdly, Sharon claimed the “rapid completion of the security fence will enable the IDF to remove roadblocks and ease the daily lives of the Palestinian population not engaged in terror.” George Orwell would be proud. The assertion that stripping thousands of Palestinians of open access to their land would be ‘good for them’ was delivered without shame.
Sharon’s unilateral “Disengagement Plan” is another very real threat to Palestinians. Even the notoriously supportive White House felt obliged to express concern. White House press secretary Scott McClellan said, “We would oppose any unilateral steps that block the road toward negotiations under the Road Map. The United States believes that a settlement must be negotiated and we would oppose any effort — any Israeli effort — to impose a settlement.” And yet Sharon said, “The unilateral steps which Israel will take in the framework of the ‘Disengagement Plan’ will be fully coordinated with the United States.” Somebody here is not telling the truth.
The Palestinians are surely petrified that Sharon knows something that McClellan does not. Almost without fail, when push comes to shove, the White House sides with Sharon. There is little reason to expect otherwise this time. Mr. Bush has shown a capacity to “ride herd” only on the Palestinians and not the Israelis in the months since Aqaba.
Sharon’s talk of a “security line” was entirely disingenuous. He claimed the security line would be “the most efficient security line possible.” If that were the case, he would put the line at the Green Line. Instead, he is “snaking” a barrier through the West Bank that is anticipated to be more than twice the length of the Green Line. The security line is not strictly a security construct but a mechanism to grab as much Palestinian land as possible, and will strand hundreds of thousands of Palestinians on the Israeli side of this barrier that “separates”.
One of the most telling quotes of the speech was Sharon’s assertion that “Settlements which will be relocated are those which will not be included in the territory of the State of Israel in the framework of any possible future agreement. At the same time, in the framework of the ‘Disengagement Plan,’ Israel will strengthen its control over those same areas in the Land of Israel which will constitute an inseparable part of the State of Israel in any future agreement.”
Here, Sharon is speaking of parts of the West Bank as though he has already ascertained for himself that they will most definitely be part of Israel. The “Disengagement Plan”, then, is a means to create irreversible facts on the ground. It sounds very much like a preliminary statement toward future annexation of significant swathes of land in the West Bank.
Additionally, Sharon’s language hinted that he may be considering moving more far-flung settlers into settlements he intends to keep. His earlier statements that “There will be no construction beyond the existing construction line, no expropriation of land for construction, no special economic incentives and no construction of new settlements” would not rule out this possibility. There would be an uproar — nothing new for Sharon or his settlements project.
Sharon saved his most contradictory moment for near the end of the speech. First he said, “The ‘Disengagement Plan’ does not prevent the implementation of the Roadmap. Rather, it is a step Israel will take in the absence of any other option, in order to improve its security. The ‘Disengagement Plan’ will be realized only in the event that the Palestinians continue to drag their feet and postpone implementation of the Roadmap.”
And yet just two paragraphs later he threw down the gauntlet and contradictorily averred, “According to circumstances, it is possible that parts of the ‘Disengagement Plan’ that are supposed to provide maximum security to the citizens of Israel will be undertaken while also attempting to implement the Roadmap.”
Which one is it when he so clearly is saying two things at once? Bank on the second. The first is meant to show that he can be conciliatory and statesmanlike. The second is a reactionary impulse away from some semblance of moderation and the real signal that in a few months time he intends to take severe action that no “Roadmap” will stop him from implementing.
Very dangerous times are ahead. Sharon said he would wait just a “few months” before taking unilateral action. Without an unexpected negotiating breakthrough, this would mean his taking action at a time when the United States was distracted by the 2004 election season. There is virtually no chance that Mr. Bush would take significant time from campaigning to tell Sharon he will not tolerate his running roughshod over the Palestinians and what was to be their state.
Sharon, then, is on his way to implementing a great portion of what he wants for Israel. As for Palestinians, a bantustan awaits.
Michael Brown is a regular EI contributor and Executive Director of Partners for Peace in Washington, D.C.