Mr. Sharon's Plan
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