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Middle East Roundtable / Edition 46

An Israeli View:
Nothing is more stable than the provisional

by Amnon Lord

The weekend papers in Israel were full of the Sharon speech at Herzliya, giving it the usual spin of optimism. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon talked about the possibility of coordinating the Israeli withdrawal with the Palestinians, but his pathos of historic optimism was directed toward the Israeli public, describing the coming year 2005 as a year of historic opportunity to change Israel's strategic situation from the bottom up.

I looked for the words peace or Palestinian state and didn't find them, even though on the radio, right after the speech, the impression was created that Sharon said the Palestinians could establish their state in the coming year. But what was reported off-hand in a closing sentence was that Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) was negative in his reaction to Sharon, saying: "Sharon is the obstacle to peace. We reject his declarations as a whole and one by one".

The two factors that combine to strengthen Sharon's position of unilateralism are the death of Yasser Arafat and the reelection of George W. Bush. When Sharon is talking of an historic opportunity he means that, indeed, Israel is in some ways entering into favorable strategic conditions almost to the extent of the opportunities which were opened 15 years ago with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Not only was the rear guard of the Arab enemies of Israel broken then, but a major Arab enemy was crushed in 1991, thus creating what seemed like a very favorable environment. Then came the Oslo accords and the opportunity was lost, ushering in instead a new era of terrorism, the politics of mass murder.

Sharon's opportunity now is to tear Israel from the clutches of peace negotiations with the Palestinians as well as other Arab countries. The kind of unilateralism embodied in disengagement means that Israel regains control over its own fate, abandoning for good the dangerous premise that its existential problem will be solved only in accordance with the solution of the Palestinians' problems. A Palestinian state now becomes only an option that Israel does not exclude, about which it remains for the Palestinians to decide.

Abu Mazen's rejection of Sharon's speech clearly indicates that he does not share Sharon's optimism. He sees the new conditions as constraining for the Palestinians. However, Sharon's plan gives enough room for Abu Mazen to gain control and concentrate on internal Palestinian affairs for the next year or two. If terrorism subsides, Abu Mazen will face a dilemma after completion of the Israeli disengagement: he will probably demand from Israel and the US to go back to negotiations. Since the main idea of disengagement is already political, Israel under Sharon will be reluctant. Abu Mazen's legitimacy will be based on his ability to deliver at the negotiating table. If this venue is basically closed, he will lose legitimacy and Palestinian terrorism will resume.

This is where the Labor party differs from Sharon. Labor's entrance into the government is clearly a limited alignment. Labor sees in disengagement only the aspects of withdrawal and dismantling of settlements. But it does not share the strategic principle that underlies the disengagement plan, and that actually delays the establishment of a Palestinian state and negates a negotiated peace. The future of a Likud-Labor partnership largely depends on how far the unilateral withdrawal goes and how long the process takes. Potentially, the initial withdrawal from northern Samaria might end up as a long stretch of land all the way to southern Mount Hebron, leaving in the hands of the Palestinians all the private lands of the West Bank, while Israel retains all the state-owned lands.

This process of partitioning the West Bank may take years, but during that period a long-term partnership between the Likud and the Labor party might emerge. This may lead both parties, as coalition-partners, all the way to the next elections in November 2006. Afterwards, continuation of this new political alliance will depend on the Likud being able to preserve its current strength in the Knesset, and continuation of Israel's new unilateral policy might depend on the Labor-Likud alliance.

Meanwhile, this alliance depends on the current relative strength of both parties. Paradoxically, if the Likud weakens in the next elections and Labor regains strength--the Likud will drift rightward and Labor to the left. Under these circumstances, the Likud loses its current position as the axis of the political system, and it will inevitably need the right wing parties to form a government.

Meanwhile, Sharon remains the preferred leader of the Israeli public, which seems to favor the Likud-Labor alliance. With Sharon in place this partnership could last for several years.- Published 20/12/2004 (c) bitterlemons.org

Amnon Lord is the editor of the weekly newspaper Makor Rishon.

Bitterlemons-international.org is an internet forum for an array of world perspectives on the Middle East and its specific concerns. It aspires to engender greater understanding about the Middle East region and open a new common space for world thinkers and political leaders to present their viewpoints and initiatives on the region. Editors Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher can be reached at ghassan@bitterlemons-international.org and yossi@bitterlemons-international.org, respectively.

hagalil.com 21-12-2004



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