Unilateral Give, Unilateral Take

Cover of the March-April 2005 issue of Challenge.

In days of yore, when right-wing thugs shouted “Arik, King of Israel!” leftist leaders grimaced in disgust. On Sunday, February 20, however - after the cabinet approved “Arik’s” Disengagement Plan - Labor ministers beamed with smug satisfaction. They had all they could do to keep from shouting, “Arik, King of Israel!” Sharon has begun to accomplish for them what the Oslo Accords never dared to broach: dismantlement of settlements. The media have promised him a place in the pantheon of the greats. He is the man who set the deadline for “the end of the Occupation,” who “has opened a new chapter in the history of the Middle East.” (Shimon Shiffer, Yediot Aharonot, Feb. 20.)

On that festive Sunday, few wanted to be reminded that after approving disengagement - practically in the same breath - the government decided to build its notorious “separation barrier” on a line that will unilaterally annex, in effect, 7% of the West Bank. The principle of unilateral action, Sharon demonstrates, can work in two directions. But this was not just another of his notorious tricks. The Labor Party is a full partner to the decision on the barrier, which annexes to Israel the large urban settlement of Maaleh Adumim and the Etzion Bloc.

A senior pundit of Yediot Aharonot, Sever Plotzker, wrote in the paper’s lead editorial for that historical Sunday: “The dream of Greater Israel has melted away, disappeared from the agenda, at least for the present generation. Under Ariel Sharon, Israel is withdrawing from Gaza and clearing all the settlements there - as a first step, and not as the last, toward a return to its proper borders.”

But what are these proper borders? As we read the map, the Palestinians have gone full circle, after an odyssey that began 11 years ago at Oslo, back to the “initial step” of those days, called “Gaza and Jericho first.” The Disengagement Plan promises nothing more than that. Even less, for it does not promise them sovereignty in Gaza. Yasser Arafat, in his day, understood that Israel must not be permitted to separate Gaza from the West Bank. Abu Mazen has let it happen. At Sharm al-Sheikh he agreed to the parting of the two, while getting no Israeli commitment about the future.

Where Israel is concerned, Gaza and the West Bank are separate worlds. In April 2002, when the Intifada raged, the Likud and Labor joined to make full-fledged war on the West Bank in an operation known as “Defensive Shield.” Israel did not hesitate to flatten the Palestinian Authority (PA) and quarantine Arafat politically. Yet it did not go into Gaza - and this was no coincidence. Israel has no interest there, whereas it sees the West Bank as its own strategic territory, even if part of it may pass someday to the hands of a docile PA.

Nahum Barnea, the veteran Yediot commentator, interprets Sharon’s course of action, in chess terms, as a sacrifice of the rook in an attempt to save the queen. (Feb. 21.) The rook consists of the Gaza settlers, the queen consists of those in the West Bank. Yediot satirist B. Micha’el wrote on Feb. 22: “Slow to learn, and led by a conjurer, Israel again sets forth on one of its ‘sting’ operations - again a futile attempt to sell half a sack of damaged goods at an exorbitant price.”

The “proper borders” of the future Palestinian state vary with the eye of the beholder. As seen by the cheated side, they depend on whatever power it can muster to recapture what it’s been robbed of. If, in order to get back Gaza, which Israel doesn’t want at all, the Palestinians have had to make four years of Intifada, imagine what kind of World War they would have to wage to retrieve the West Bank!

Meanwhile, except for the Palestinian people, there are plenty who benefit from the charade. For Abu Mazen and the PA, the way back into the political arena, after the fiasco left by Arafat, must pass through Sharon. Israel’s Labor Party gets a piece of the government without having to give up principles which, in any case, it never had. The Yahad Party (which holds the copyright to the Geneva Initiative) believes that Sharon, in breaking the taboo against dismantling settlements, will pave the way for it to continue where he leaves off.

The Arab parties, as usual, have not risen above the level of proclamations. They announced their opposition to disengagement because it does not ensure the minimal Palestinian needs, but in crucial Knesset votes they either abstained or cast their Nays when they knew the Ayes would win. In Knesset committees, when the count looked close, two of them voted for disengagement. The official Israeli Left, in a word, shows its customary short-sightedness.

The fate of the West Bank will not be the fate of Gaza. The dismantling of some little West Bank settlements will cost the Palestinians dearly: they will have to let other, bigger settlements stay - not to mention concessions on Jerusalem and the refugees. When the price is announced, they will conclude that the cost of independence is the surrender of that independence. Then, once again, they will take to arms. And “Arik, King of Israel” will discover that he was leading not just them by the nose, and not just Israel by the nose, but finally himself by the nose. When he mewed Arafat in the Muqata’a to die a slow death, he left Abu Mazen to roam outside. But an empty-handed Abu Mazen will be powerless to stop the next uprising. And who will King Arik have then?

CHALLENGE is a bi-monthly leftist magazine focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within a global context. Published in Jaffa by Arabs and Jews, it features political analysis, investigative reporting, interviews, eye-witness reports, gender studies, arts, and more. This article first appeared in Challenge #90,  March-April 2005 and is reprinted with permission.