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Has Sharon set a trap for Bush?

Henry Siegman IHT
Tuesday, June 3, 2003
The road map and the settlements
 
NEW YORK President George W. Bush's summit meeting Wednesday with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel and the Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, is unexpected and extraordinary. The hope it generates for progress in the implementation of the American-back peace plan known as the road map could not have been imagined just days ago. Nevertheless, it is difficult not to view Sharon's and Abbas's acceptance of the road map without a large dose of skepticism.

In the case of Abbas, that skepticism has less to do with his intentions than with his ability to implement the road map's requirements, particularly the demand that he put an end to terrorism. Abbas must contend with the likely obstructionism of Yasser Arafat and with the sorry state of Palestinian security forces, destroyed by Israel.

In Sharon's case, the skepticism has nothing to do with his ability to deliver on the road map's demands, which he unquestionably can, but with his intentions. Since becoming prime minister in February 2001, Sharon has accepted every peace initiative, including the Oslo accords, the Mitchell Commission proposals and the Tenet guidelines, and yet managed to torpedo each with "reservations" and "conditions." If anything, the reservations Sharon has attached to his acceptance of the road map are far more destructive than the conditions that enabled him to defeat previous peace initiatives while skillfully avoiding blame for doing so.

Skepticism about Sharon's acceptance of the road map is also warranted by reports in the Israeli press about "facts on the ground" being established every day that are wildly inconsistent with Sharon's new conviction that Israel cannot continue its occupation of 3.5 million Palestinians.

According to the Israeli journalist Amira Haas, writing in Ha'aretz, these facts on the ground include a new separation wall that is destroying thousands of acres of the most productive Palestinian orchards and farmlands critical to the economy of a new Palestinian state and enclosing Palestinian villages and the entire city of Qalqilya. Israel has also built security fences around settlements, security roads and bypass roads that continue to cut off the Palestinian villages from each other and the villages from their land, and has expanded settlements to half the total area of the West Bank.

These facts may already have determined that the "state" that Sharon is willing to accept, and that has so deeply scandalized rightist opinion in Israel, will be comprised of three enclaves within the West Bank (not counting the fourth enclave in Gaza) cut off from one another, with no direct outlet to neighboring Arab countries, much less to the rest of the world.

Another leading Israeli expert on Palestinian affairs, Danny Rubinstein, concluded in Ha'aretz that the Israeli presence in the territories is becoming a permanent one. It is an assessment endorsed by Emunah Elon, a leading rightist opponent of Palestinian statehood, who wrote in Yediot Ahronot that "the road map is irrelevant, and all that matters is what the prime minister does." Elon confirms that what Sharon is doing is "dividing the territories of Judea and Samaria into tiny Palestinian cantons, cut off one from the other, fenced in and surrounded by a plethora of Jewish settlers." She assures agitated settlers that the excitement generated by Sharon's controversial statements about ending the occupation will be "a fleeting episode."

Perhaps the conclusions of these Israeli analysts about the irreversibility of the changes already made in the occupied territories are exaggerated. What is clear, however, is that only President Bush's personal involvement in the peace process and his insistence on the strictest compliance by both Israel and the Palestinians with the road map's provisions will prevent the plan's failure.

Despite formidable obstacles, Bush's welcome personal immersion in Middle East peace diplomacy holds out the hope of significant changes in Israeli policy, as evidenced by the fact that Sharon persuaded his government to accept the road map despite his own hostility to it. It is not necessary for the United States to threaten Israel with sanctions in order to influence its policy. It is more than sufficient for the president to convey to Israel's leaders that obstructionist tactics would damage America's interests in the region and affect America's perception of Israel as a peace-loving nation.

With the exception of the ideological core of the settler movement, the vast majority of Israelis understand that Israel's security and continued viability depend on America's friendship. Consequently, a prime minister who is seen as responsible for a cooling of America's friendship for Israel cannot long survive.

The issue of settlements will tell us what we need to know about Sharon's real intentions. It will also tell us what we need to know about Bush's intentions. There is no justification for delaying a cessation of all settlement activity or the dismantling of outposts, for they serve no security purposes whatever. In fact, more than any other factor, settlements are responsible for Palestinian violence and for the absence of popular Palestinian opposition to terrorist groups. The settlement enterprise has been nothing less than the theft of Palestinian land in broad daylight, a theft made possible only by Israel's vastly superior military force. The notion that Abbas can confront and subdue terrorist groups while this theft continues is absurd.

If Sharon will contrive reasons to delay or undermine the road map's provisions dealing with the settlements and settlement outposts, it will be a clear indication that his real intention is to trap Bush into lending U.S. support for his notion of a Palestinian state comprised of several cantons on territory fragmented by the settlements. And if Bush insists on full compliance with the road map, beginning with its provisions for an end to all further settlement activity, this will be a clear indication that he intends to remain fully committed to doing what is necessary to bring the century-long conflict between Jews and Palestinians to an end.

The writer is a senior fellow on the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations. These views are his own.
  Copyright © 2003 The International Herald Tribune