Mr. Sharon's Plan

Saturday, February 7, 2004

ISRAELI Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been showered with praise in the past few days for his plan to unilaterally withdraw Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip. Even the United Nations' secretary general and the Palestinian prime minister have welcomed the initiative, and the first polls show that some 60 percent of Israelis are supportive. Mr. Sharon's announcement is certainly a positive development: The endorsement of such an evacuation by one of the foremost architects of Jewish settlements will make an Israeli-Palestinian peace easier to achieve. Rather than celebrating, however, the Bush administration and other advocates of a Middle East settlement ought to be bracing themselves. Mr. Sharon's Gaza withdrawal is merely the tip of a far broader and still mostly secret plan for unilateral action he is preparing, one that could fundamentally change the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the coming months -- and not necessarily for the better.

A withdrawal of the 7,500 Jewish settlers in Gaza may be the element of Mr. Sharon's plan that is least likely to be implemented. Though popular with Israelis, the evacuation will be militantly opposed by the settlers and would probably require a reshuffling of Mr. Sharon's government, a special referendum or both. Over the past year Mr. Sharon -- who is threatened by a domestic bribery scandal -- has failed to muster the political will to remove even a few dozen settlers from a handful of isolated settlement "outposts," despite repeated promises to do so. He said last week that the Gaza operation would take as long as two years, and he hinted that he will probably ask for a major new infusion of U.S. aid to pay for it.

Long before any such evacuation begins, other major parts of Mr. Sharon's unilateral initiative will likely take shape, if he is not forced from office. A security barrier now under construction -- and already more than 70 miles long -- could effectively annex large parts of the West Bank to Israel, leaving behind a truncated Palestinian entity. Israelis evacuated from Gaza may be resettled in the West Bank -- where more than 200,000 other settlers would remain, in more than 120 locations. According to a study by the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, 260,000 Palestinians in 81 communities could be isolated between the security fence and Israel, or surrounded by walls and fences on all sides.

By late this year, Mr. Sharon's separation plan could bring about the largest change in Israeli-Palestinian affairs since the beginning of the Oslo peace process a decade ago. Since that breakthrough, Middle East politics has focused on attempts to conclude a two-state peace settlement. The new focus will be Israel's imposed settlement and how the Palestinians, and the world, will respond to it. Much will depend on how the Israeli initiative unfolds -- and in particular what course the security fence takes and how Israeli troops are redeployed.

The Bush administration has been quietly talking to Mr. Sharon's envoys about the plan, and it has pushed for some changes. Several senior officials may travel soon to Jerusalem to engage the prime minister directly. That is a necessary step: The coming months offer the best opportunity to influence the Israeli initiative before it takes form in concrete and barbed wire on the ground. The United States must insist that Israel's proto-border leave behind enough territory for a viable Palestinian state -- and that there be only one barrier, not fences on both the east and west sides of the West Bank. Any Israeli troop withdrawals must be coordinated with Palestinian leaders so that they do not lead to a collapse of order or of the Palestinian government. Even with his reelection campaign beginning, President Bush cannot afford to neglect what is beginning to unfold, in Gaza and beyond; by November, it may be too late.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company