The Baltimore Sun

The drive to leave Gaza

June 9, 2004

ISRAELI PRIME Minister Ariel Sharon is determined that Israelis leave the Gaza Strip, if not soon, then eventually. The survival of the Jewish state depends on it, he says. And for that, he has tested the limits of his power and risked the stability of his pro-settler government to win Cabinet approval of his Gaza withdrawal. His victory Sunday was not without compromise. But his perseverance remains the only prospect for change in the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate. And that is regrettable.

The Gaza plan -- evacuating 21 Jewish settlements in the Palestinian-controlled strip and four remote ones on the West Bank -- wouldn't become a reality until the end of next year after his Cabinet again votes on it. But Mr. Sharon is like a bulldog with a favorite bone -- he won't give up this disengagement plan. He fired two Cabinet ministers to ensure the votes went his way and set the stage for a historic moment: Israel's unilateral withdrawal from territory it has occupied for more than three decades.

Although this newspaper has opposed the Sharon plan because it denies Palestinians input in a decision that affects their lives and the boundaries of a future state, Palestinian officials have come to accept it. They have little choice. Mr. Sharon won't negotiate with Yasser Arafat, and Palestinians won't replace him as their leader.

To the dismay of Palestinians, President Bush backed the Gaza plan -- and thus also supported Mr. Sharon's intention to maintain large Jewish settlements in the West Bank and deny Palestinian refugees the right to return to their ancestral homes in Israel.

The irony of Mr. Sharon's success is that the former general was an architect and supporter of the settlement movement. But opinion polls show that a majority of Israelis embrace the withdrawal proposal because they are fed up with the killing and maiming perpetrated by Palestinian suicide bombers, snipers and rocket attacks. And while Israel has succeeded in beating down the militants' operations by killing their leaders, the threat of violence never disappears.

The Bush administration continues to profess that its "road map" to peace is the vehicle for change in the Middle East. But the reality is that Mr. Sharon is directing the course of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While the White House is understandably preoccupied with Iraq, its decision to forgo a direct role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict undermines the prospect for real peace in the region. Mr. Bush's plan to promote democracy in the Arab world won't get any traction until Palestinians establish a democratic state of their own and Israelis are assured that the future of their country, the only democracy in the Middle East, is secure.

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