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Time for Sharon’s “Painful Concessions”

Gerald Steinberg, The Jerusalem Post, 5 September 2003
The writer is Director, Program on Conflict Management and Negotiation in Political Studies at Bar Ilan University.

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More than three months have passed since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon used the “o” word for the first time, declaring: “To hold 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation is a terrible thing for Israel, the Palestinians, and the economy.”

His blunt words unleashed a huge protest, and the spin-doctors worked overtime emphasizing that the reference was strictly to the human dimension and not the territory. Sharon had not lost his mind, joined Peace Now or betrayed Menachem Begin’s principle that Judea and Samaria are part of the legacy of the Jewish people.  

But precisely in terms of the human and political dimensions, Sharon was absolutely right. Unless Israel acts we will be ensnared by a growing Palestinian population that will soon become the majority between the Mediterranean and Jordan River, ending the concept of a Jewish state. Even if the terrorist attacks can be stopped by purely military means, the status quo, without borders and with small settlements scattered all over the map, is a dangerous political trap.  

The catastrophic failures of the Oslo peace process followed by the hopeless road map show that the exit from this trap will not come via negotiations and agreements for many years, maybe decades. To escape this trap Israel must act unilaterally to dismantle some settlements, incorporate others, and create realistic borders.  

In this way, on the other side of the border, Palestinians will be forced to take responsibility for their own lives and welfare; and on our side Israelis will be able to live within defensible and rational borders. In order to move in this direction Sharon must take the bold action to which he has referred since he was first elected in February 2001.  

In the first two years he could legitimately claim to be busy coping with and then defeating the Palestinian terror campaign and he lacked the political mandate to do much more. He asked us to wait for this second administration, when he would be freer to take bold moves, including “painful concessions” affecting settlements.  

Indeed, after receiving his second and more powerful mandate two years later, Sharon appeared to be ready to redeem these pledges by making the truly difficult decisions that had been avoided for decades.  

BUT THEN any bold moves that might have been taken were stopped for the latest road map “to peace,” inspired by Europe and adopted too quickly by the Bush administration in response to Tony Blair's plea for “balance” during the Iraq war.  

The skeptics and Sharon's critics may be right perhaps Sharon never intended to go beyond the rhetoric of painful concessions. Or perhaps the political realities of the road map forced him to delay decisions on dismantling settlements to avoid any appearance of weakness.  

Now any hope that might have existed for the stillborn road map has disappeared, while Yasser Arafat plays Palestinian musical chairs (the details of who sits where being irrelevant outside of Ramallah).

Thus the time has come for Sharon to turn his warnings on the dangers of the status quo and demographic threat into action.

To avoid the one-state trap of the dominant Palestinian strategy to defeat and destroy the Jewish state, rational boundaries must be drawn, and some settlements must be dismantled. The removal of illegal outposts that are quickly restored and then removed again is far too limited to make a difference in this central dimension. In contrast, the framework for this process is largely in place in the form of the separation fence or wall-barrier being built to prevent terrorists from reaching Israeli cities and roads.

But construction of the next and critical central phase has been halted by debate over the route. The maximalist approach of 600 kilometers will include most of the settlements, meandering through Judea and Samaria, instead of following a more or less straight line. In contrast, the pragmatic route is about 300 kilometers. It includes the “consensus settlements,” the area around Jerusalem, Gush Etzion (south of Jerusalem), and Ariel in one form or another.

The second option, which makes sense militarily and politically, means that a number of settlements will be on “the other side of the fence,” and marked for removal. And it is here, at this crucial point, which Sharon appears to have frozen.

As part of the separation policy a decision to take down isolated settlements such as Netzarim in Gaza, or Ganim and Kadim near Jenin, with little security justification, will be difficult, particularly for Sharon. There will be some violent resistance from the more extreme members of the settlement community who do not distinguish between the removal of one outpost and the return to the 1949-1967 armistice lines.

Ideologically, Sharon will be attacked for giving up parts of the Jewish homeland the sacred Land of Israel while others will warn that Arafat will declare any Israeli withdrawal a victory for terrorism, like the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon.

But the alternative of staying put in the demographic and political trap of a single state with a soon-to-be Arab majority is far more dangerous.

Thirty-six years after the 1967 war, which ended not with Israel's destruction but with the eviction of Jordan from the West Bank and Jerusalem's Old City, there is no political settlement on the horizon. And holding bargaining chips for virtual negotiations turns them into millstones.

From the Common Ground News Service
hagalil.com 10-09-2003



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