Israel Opts Out

Sharon’s negotiating logic: When the going gets rough, walk away.


Speaking at a security conference outside of Tel Aviv on Thursday, Israel’s prime minister Ariel Sharon revealed plans for “disengagement” with the Palestinians unless there is progress on the roadmap peace plan in the coming months.

Sharon’s separation plan would include removing some settler outposts and accelerating the construction of the separation barrier in the West Bank. Israeli troops would withdraw partially, although not to the 1967 armistice lines, and leave Palestinians with much less usable land than they would probably gain through negotiations. Sharon emphasized Israel’s security concerns, but also paid lip service to Palestinian self-determination:

“We are interested in you running your own lives in your own democratic state with territorial contiguity in the West Bank… [but if] within a few months the Palestinians have not made reciprocal steps we will take unilateral action”.

Sharon emphasized that a future withdrawal line would not constitute a political border, but rather a border to provide Israelis security. Per usual, his speech drew criticism from all sides. Palestinians proclaimed that they won’t be stonewalled into a unfair deal, Israeli settlers said they would fight against removals, and the Israeli left quipped that the speech was just more hot air from Sharon. Even the United States found the plan to be problematic and insisted that the roadmap be implemented. White House spokesman Scott McClellan told the press, “The US believes a settlement must be negotiated and we would oppose any unilateral Israeli effort to impose a settlement.”

However on Friday, the White House slightly revised their statement, McClellan explained that the U.S. generally approved of Sharon’s comments.

“We were very pleased with the overall speech by Prime Minister Sharon. He reiterated and reaffirmed his strong support for the roadmap…We are working hard with the parties to move forward to make progress on the road map.”

There’s nothing new about the controversy, the issues surrounding land, the separation barrier and the settlements are well known. What is noteworthy about Thursday’s speech is that is the first time Sharon is actually coming up with his own initiative. As commentator Aluf Benn notes in Ha’aretz, this is indeed an unusual move for the prime minister.

“Yesterday, the big moment came and Sharon provided the merchandise. For the first time since he became prime minister, he presented a political initiative of his own, in his voice, without hiding behind an American plan or lofting vague hints about ‘a chance for change.’ His aides and advisers told him that this time he can’t issue empty slogans and expect public support. The time had come for action. Sharon met the challenge and presented a plan with goals, a timetable and stages for implementation.

As far as Sharon and his advisers are concerned, they gave the Palestinians a chance, and have kicked the ball into the Palestinian court. If they want, they’ll come to negotiations. If they don’t, they’ll get Sharon’s ‘disengagement plan,’ which means uprooting a limited number of isolated settlements, and strengthening Israel’s control over the Jordan Valley, Gush Etzion, the Jerusalem area and the western part of Samaria.”

Benn’s analysis contends that the end product from Sharon’s speech will not change the facts on the ground — Although the editorial board of the Jerusalem Post hailed it as a “ landmark speech.” If the ball is now in the Palestinian court and Sharon comes off as pro-active and innovative then he’s done well for himself. As Yossi Verter, another Ha’aretz columnist explains, Sharon’s speech — if it just fleshed out with a few key details — could have brought movement to the negotiation stalemate.

“If he had committed to a more precise timetable it would have produced gusts, if not gales, that could have shaken up the political system. But he was not looking for a storm. He wants to continue to survive politically for another half year, or more, until the summer recess in 2004 and beyond, without any unnecessary shocks. The current situation is ideal for Sharon. This way, people will keep guessing what he has in mind, analyzing him, dissecting him. He’ll wrap himself in silence and let his associates leak things to the press, sometimes this, sometimes that, leftward and rightward, to keep everyone happy – particularly the people who vote for the central committee and want change.

By putting things off, Sharon preserves his coalition, his coalition of pets happily snug under the quilts of the perks of power

The minute he really and truly decides to go all the way and evacuate Gaza, and move dozens of cancerous settlements from the West Bank, he’ll lose parts of his party and of the right, but an absolute majority of Israeli citizens will be with him, and he indeed will then be Arik, King of Israel.”