Sunday, February 4, 2007

Deconstructing Disengagement

Despite the smokescreen of his face-off with Gaza's settlers, Sharon has not changed course from his war on the Palestinians, argues Azmi Bishara

Sharon's disengagement plan opens as follows: "The State of Israel is committed to the peace process and aspires to reach an agreed resolution of the conflict based upon the vision of US President George Bush. The State of Israel believes that it must act to improve the current situation. The State of Israel has come to the conclusion that there is currently no reliable Palestinian partner with which it can make progress in a two-sided peace process.

Accordingly, it has developed a plan of revised disengagement, based on the following considerations: "One: The stalemate dictated by the current situation is harmful. In order to break out of this stalemate, the State of Israel is required to initiate moves not dependent on Palestinian cooperation.

"Two: The purpose of the plan is to lead to a better security, political, economic and demographic situation.

"Three: In any future permanent settlement, there will be no Israeli towns and villages in the Gaza Strip. On the other hand, it is clear that in the West Bank, there are areas which will be part of the State of Israel, including major Israeli population centers, cities, towns and villages, security areas and other places of special interest to Israel." (Disengagement Plan of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon -- revised, 28 May 2004).

I cite the foregoing passage because with all the fanfare surrounding the withdrawal people may have forgotten what it is really about. Let me clarify.

Sharon's disengagement plan is a bid to sideline the roadmap. It is an attempt to pre-empt anyone else from taking the initiative to break the "stalemate" -- a product of Israeli intransigence or, otherwise put, of the non-existence of a Palestinian partner prepared to accept Israeli dictates for a permanent settlement -- and compel the US, if only to improve its PR in the region following the occupation of Iraq, to pursue the roadmap as it was originally devised.

Although the Sharon initiative offers to abandon settlements in Gaza that have no future anyway, the purpose of these "concessions" is to ensure the permanence of large settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Indeed, it was specifically for this reason that he sought American, rather than Palestinian/Arab approval of his plan. He needed American support in order to offset any possible international pressure on him with regard to the West Bank and Jerusalem settlements in the future, as well as with regard to the status of Jerusalem and the right of return of Palestinian refugees. This he won in the form of his exchange of letters with President Bush of 14 April 2004. After all, the whole point of the previous six months of talks with Washington was not to persuade Washington that Israel had to withdraw from Gaza but to get the highest possible price in exchange for the withdrawal. Little wonder that Sharon told Yediot Aharanot in his last interview with the newspaper (11 August 2005) before the disengagement began that he preferred to negotiate with the Americans instead of the Arabs.

Clearly then, Palestinian/Arab approval of disengagement has little value. Sharon never asked them their opinion. Rather, theirs is a retroactive ascent given either out of a desire to play up to Washington or as an acknowledgement that Sharon's is the only game in town. The popular jubilation at the departure of the settlers is perfectly understandable and justifiable. However, the unsolicited praise of the disengagement and of Sharon as a man of peace is neither justifiable nor comprehensible as anything but a resignation to and collusion with Arab weakness. Sharon's plans are clear and on the record, as is Bush's exchange of letters with him. It is one thing to ignore these and deceive oneself; it is another to deceive the people while settlement expansion in the West Bank and Jerusalem runs full steam ahead.

In a recent television interview of 11 August, Sharon reiterated his assurance that the roadmap would be resumed after the disengagement from Gaza was complete. If many Arabs took heart at this, they should bear in mind Sharon's qualifying statements to the effect that any progress after disengagement will be contingent upon the PA's progress in fighting terrorism. To Sharon, the "dismantlement of the infrastructure of terror" is the beginning of the roadmap, a position that Bush echoed in the same interview when he stated that after disengagement the "burden of proof" of the desire for peace would fall upon the Palestinian leadership and its commitment to the "fight against terrorism". With what curious facility the interview then segued into Bush's plans for Iran, the question of Hizbullah, Sharon's clash with the settlers and other such issues that will infect the disengagement climate in September.

With regard to the settlers, it should be stressed that their position on the disengagement is a potent variable in the relations within the Israeli establishment and Israeli society. The settlers are not playacting; they truly oppose Sharon. Nevertheless they fall into two categories. One consists of those who are defending the settlements in Gaza not out of the belief that these settlements stand a chance of surviving but as a first line of defence against any encroachment on the settlements in the West Bank. In the long run, their opposition will be to Sharon's advantage against outside pressures because he will be able to point to them to illustrate what "painful concessions" he has made. The other category consists of those settlers who are, in fact, deeply hostile to Sharon for having betrayed them by subordinating an absolute tenet of their religious creed, such as the "right to settle in all of the historic land of Israel", to the dictates of political pragmatism. However, while it is wrong to regard either of these cases as a form of political role-playing, it is simultaneously wrong to take this rift between Sharon and the settlers as evidence that the disengagement is an Arab victory. It is not.

Sharon's disengagement plan is essentially an attempt to turn current international developments towards the realisation of his long-held objectives. It would be useful here to take a look at how consistently and systematically Sharon has striven to attain these objectives. Following his election as prime minister, Sharon told Maariv (13 April 2001), "I have not changed my point of view... The only thing I've changed is my opinion that Jordan is Palestine. And this change only occurred because of developments on the ground. I never wanted there to be two Palestinian states." Yet, when one considers that his designs for an unviable Palestinian statelet combined with demographic disengagement and the separating wall will push inexorably towards a Palestinian- Jordanian entity, one realises that even his position on Jordan as Palestine has not substantially altered.

Sharon clearly prefers a prolonged interim agreement with limited Israeli concessions to a permanent settlement with the Arabs. Like Henry Kissinger, he subscribes to the belief that a long-term "no war" solution is more realistic than permanent peace agreement. To Sharon, permanent peace is only possible not when the Arabs recognise Israel as an existing reality but when they recognise the historical right of Jews to establish that state. In other words, the Arabs are effectively required to accept Zionism and until they do concessions are only valuable to secure interim agreements and should, therefore, be handed out very parsimoniously.

A prolonged state of "no war", on the other hand, entails the creation of a Palestinian state on approximately 42 per cent of the West Bank, excluding Jerusalem. Such a state would arise from a negotiated agreement, rather than a unilateral process. However, the state he envisions and which the Arabs would have to agree to, he told Maariv, would be "restricted and disarmed" and "will have a police force equipped only with those arms necessary to maintaining security. Israel will guard its external borders for years to come. A state such as this cannot conclude alliances with states hostile to Israel. Israel will retain the right to fly in its airspace. As long as nothing detracts from Israel's security, I have no problem." (13 April 2001) To this he has added, in an interview with Haaretz, that the state would have territorial contiguity and that there would be a solution to the Israeli checkpoints, for these are matters that "irritate the Palestinians in their daily lives." (13 April 2001).

However, Sharon's conception for a Palestinian "state" dates much further back than this. Sharon supported Menachem Begin's conception of the principle of autonomy for the West Bank and Gaza called for in the Camp David accords. This conception became central to his approach to the Palestinian question after the war in Lebanon in 1982, in which he failed to expel the Palestinians to Jordan with the aid of certain Lebanese militias. In a press conference held on 20 June 1982, just two weeks after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon commenced, Sharon revealed the connection between that war and the idea of Palestinian autonomy: "The inhabitants of Judea, Samaria and Gaza must understand that now they have no one but themselves to solve their problems for them. Many political figures understand, as do the inhabitants now, that the way to peace is through direct negotiations between them and Israel... This issue will remain pending until it becomes clear to what extent the PLO head has been severed... I believe that the Arabs of Judea, Samaria and Gaza want to negotiate. In the coming days, when the front quiets down, we will begin a peace offensive on the territories in an attempt to create channels of communication to open a dialogue over the establishment of self- rule." ( Haaretz, 21 June 1982).

Less than six months later, Sharon announced that he would gladly negotiate with Jordan over the autonomy programme from Camp David ( Maariv, 13 January 1983). In 1988, he was more specific with regard to his concept for Palestinian autonomy and its relationship with Jordan: "I personally believe in the autonomy programme as a bridge of peace between us and the Palestinian state in Jordan. In the distant future, autonomy will lead to an Israeli- Palestinian federation or confederation over the banks of the Jordan River." ( Yediot Aharanot, 26 February 1988).

Contrary to what some might imagine, Sharon sees Jordan as the Palestinian state, but not necessarily in the sense of changing the current regime in Jordan. It makes no difference whatsoever to him whether the "Palestinian state" remains the Hashemite Kingdom. Indeed, when Sharon invited King Hussein to meet with him in 1980, he remarked, "I never said that Jordan had to be turned into a Palestinian state. Jordan is a Palestinian state, as 60 per cent of its inhabitants are Palestinians." ( Yediot Aharanot, 30 August 1982).

In an article that appeared at the outset of the first Intifada, Sharon outlined what he believed should be the "framework conditions" that Israel should tell the US should form the basis for any future settlement: "United Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Israel. The Jordan River forms the eastern security boundary of Israel [notice he did not say political boundary]. There will be no army to the west of the Jordan River but the Israeli army. Israel is responsible for the internal and external security of all the land of western Israel [he means the land to the west of the Jordan River]. There will not be sovereignty in Judea, Samaria and Gaza. There will be no second Palestinian state to the west of the Jordan River. The Palestinian refugee problem must be solved by the Arabs. The Golan is part of Israel." At the end of this article he adds, "in the future, my proposal will enable the application of the Likud line -- a Palestinian state in Jordan and autonomy in accordance with Camp David as an interim phase -- and the implementation of the Labour Party line, which is to reach a territorial compromise." ( Yediot Aharanot, 12 March 1988).

What happened since? The first Intifada dragged on and then Jordan unilaterally disengaged itself from the West Bank and Gaza. King Hussein lifted the carpet from under the Labour Party option of restoring the densely populated areas in the West Bank to Jordan. In an important article in Yediot Aharanot of 12 August 1988 and in a press conference held a week later, Sharon threw down the gauntlet to the Labour Party, challenging it to unilaterally annex to Israel those territories that would not have been handed to Jordan in a territorial compromise and to hand what was originally to be conceded to Jordan to the Palestinians instead. The territories he had earmarked for this option, which was intended to pre-empt the Palestinians from venturing one of their own on the ruins of the Jordanian option, constituted 42 per cent of the West Bank plus Gaza. If, since then, the PLO had taken the place of Jordan in the Oslo accords, this was a reality he inherited from Rabin. If he now speaks in terms of a Palestinian state instead of autonomy, his concept for Palestinian statehood differs from his concept of Palestinian autonomy only in that the former grants the Palestinians control over their domestic security and provides for a semblance of sovereignty. And, if today he is disengaging from Gaza, this, too, was an attempt to seize the initiative under new regional and international circumstances. The most salient of these are Washington's wholehearted backing of the Likud position since 11 September, the US occupation of Iraq and the second Intifada. None of these have altered the fundamentals of Sharon's design.