Rules of Disengagement

No one seems to like Ariel Sharon’s “disengagement” plan. What’s he up to?


Despite having a conservative government firmly entrenched in parliament and Ariel Sharon, the father of the settlements, in the prime minister’s office, the Israeli right-wing still finds something to protest, as witness this weekend’s rally opposing Sharon’s newest peace plan.

Sponsored by the Yesha Council of settlements, 120,000 Israelis — mostly settlers from the occupied territories — rallied to oppose the prime minister’s latest scheme to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is to end the Israeli government’s generous support for certain settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

“Disengagement” is Sharon’s new mantra. The argument goes like this: If the Palestinians won’t follow the U.S. roadmap for peace and dismantle the terrorist infrastructure, then Israel will withdraw troops to unspecified borders and cut off all contact with the Palestinians. The plan is rife with problems, and few politicians, right or left, Israeli or Palestinian, are excited about the proposal.

Sunday’s rally in Tel Aviv marked the largest settler rally since Sharon took office in 2001. The event, which one reporter for Ha’aretzcharacterized as being dominated by the children of settlers, featured ministers and Knesset members who view Sharon’s proposal as a sell-out of Israeli settlers to appease the Palestinians and the Bush administration. In a thunderous speech, Housing Minister Effi Eitam, of the National Religious Party, told the prime minister that the settlements will not be abandoned.

“We stood by you at the front during the recent difficult war…But we will not stand by you in uprooting settlements; we will not stand by you in expelling Jews, children, from their houses. We will not be your partners in defeat.”

Palestinians don’t like Sharon’s disengagement strategy, either. Nabil Abu Rudeina, a senior adviser to Yasser Arafat, told the Agence France Pressethat Sharon’s disengagement plan was, “a serious violation of the roadmap and an attempt to destroy the peace process.” But the roadmap was always less than ideal for the Palestinians, and was only unofficially agreed to (with multiple amendments and conditions) by the Israelis, so it makes a problematic touchstone.

The Palestinian leadership has been slow to offer an articulate response to Sharon’s plan; not so Palestinian intellectuals. In a recent issue of the online Israeli-Palestinian publication Bitterlemons, co-editor Ghassan Khatib argues that the disengagement plan is simply a new term for further occupation.

“This plan proposes to use the wall that Israel has built along the outlines of a 35-year-old settlement expansion project in order to determine by force the final arrangements for the Palestinian territories. In his speech, Sharon talked explicitly about consolidating illegal settlements, rather than removing them, with no regard for Israel’s obligation to stop building settlements according to the roadmap.

As such, from a Palestinian perspective, it is simply chutzpah that allows Ariel Sharon to call this a “disengagement” plan, when in fact it will consolidate Israel’s occupation of Palestinians and disengage inside the occupied territories, not from the occupied territories as a whole. This is not about “disengagement”, but rearranging things in a manner that suits the occupier and is definitely at the political and economic expense of the occupied.”

Ali Jerbawi, a Palestinian professor of politics as Bir Zeit University, argues that two can play the Sharon game of ultimatums. Jerbawi suggests that the Palestinian Authority demand that the Israelis cease construction on the separation barrier and all settlements, and agree to implement a two-state solution on the basis of the 1967 Green Line. If within six months the Israelis can’t agree to the deal, then the Palestinian Authority will disband, thus forcing Israel to take on the enormous responsibility of re-establishing a military government over a seething Palestinian population. The extremity of Jerbawi’s plan is a measure of how far prospects of a negotiated settlement have dwindled.

While the Israeli right and the Palestinians generally don’t agree on much, they both dislike the Sharon plan intensely. Participants at Sunday’s demonstration at Tel Aviv’s Rabin square claimed that their beef lay not with the P.M., but with his policies. Yossi Verter, who covered the rally for Ha’aretzwrites that that some protestors tried to argue, albeit without much finesse, that the demonstration was not against Sharon, but rather forhim. Ultimately, Verter writes, the rally appeared to serve both the settlers and Sharon. “The settlers can show that they got a big demonstration off the ground, and Sharon can show the Americans how risky it is for him to evacuate even one outpost.”

If Verter is right, it appears that Sharon’s latest disengagement plan is just another of his successful attempts to say a lot and do nothing. Under pressure from the U.S. to ease his grip on the Palestinians, Sharon has been working to buy time. On Monday, after a boisterous day in the Knesset, Sharon announced that he would not take any unilateral actions without clearance from the Israeli parliament, or indeed the White House. He did, however, set a timeframe explaining that Israeli forces could begin a permanent withdrawal from parts of the West Bank in six months.

As commentators have been writing for months, a new consensus that indefinite occupation over the Palestinians is not sustainable is developing within Israel. With the Israeli economy struggling under the strain of Intifada, demographics threatening to undermine the Jewish identity of the state, unelected officials trying to jump-start a peace process, and an increasing number of Israelis refusing to serve in the territories, it has become clear that the status quo has got to change. If Sharon were really the man to address these problems there are a number of paths he could take. As David Horowitz, the editor of the conservative Israeli magazine, the Jerusalem Report, explains that much could be done to entice settlers to quietly leave the occupied territories. Instead of creating a media circus every time Sharon pulls a few outpost trailers off a lonely hilltop, the prime minister could pay the settlers to leave.

“As every resident of every such outpost will tell you, even if they are dragged screaming from their homes on, say, Tuesday, they will return on Wednesday. And if they are removed on Wednesday, they will come back on Thursday. And if the army deploys to prevent their return, they will settle elsewhere in Judea and Samaria. And Israel doesn’t have the military manpower to guard all the West Bank hilltops under its current control against Jewish would-be residents.

To date, scandalously, the most generous government housing incentives have been offered to Israelis moving in the opposite direction: Many of the families who have built their lives in the settlements in recent years, however ideologically motivated, have chosen to do so primarily for economic reasons. They couldn’t afford to live remotely comfortably anywhere else…If, instead, the new economic incentive is to live inside Israel, many settlers would immediately, even delightedly, relocate. After all, there’s a substantial ideological imperative to living inside sovereign Israel, too.”

Horowitz is not the only commentator articulating creative strategies. The Jerusalem Posteditorializes that Sharon, the man who built the settlements, needs to offer the settlers a generous exit strategy. Such initiatives illustrate that if Sharon wanted to move towards a feasible negotiation, there are paths. However it seems that Sharon’s initiative, although revealed in Herzliya just a few weeks ago, has been underway for several years.

In his Monday column in Ha’aretzcommentator Danny Rubinstein writes that the Sharon’s disengagement plan relies on the existence of the separation wall. After nearly two years of construction large sections of the wall wind their way through the West Bank landing some settlements on the de facto Israeli side, and leaving many more on the Palestinian side. The devastating impact of the barrier on Palestinians has been well documented, with the latest completion dividing Jerusalem’s Palestinian suburbs from the heart of the city.

With the new wall in place, and the six months of negotiation time Sharon has given himself, the immediate future will probably be filled with more of the same. No solutions, more violence, and likely a strengthening of Israel’s most far-right elements.

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