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The inexorable eviction of the Gaza settlers continues amid heart-rending scenes of IDF soldiers dragging children, women and men from their homes. Most are religious Jews who believe they have also fulfilled an important national mission at the their country's calling and have now been evicted by a Prime Minister who for some reason has changed his mind. Some of these residents and their children have been killed in Palestinian attacks and all have come under the repeated shelling of more than 5,000 Qassam rockets and mortars launched since the outbreak of Palestinian violence in September, 2000.Why has Ariel Sharon changed course so dramatically? What can be expected from Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas who declares he will not confiscate the terrorists' weapons and Hamas that vows to use those arms to attack Israel when the time is ripe? Then there's the U.S. and the rest of the Quartet eager to plunge into the Roadmap process.

Has Prime Minister Ariel Sharon circled the wagons around the Jewish state or pushed it down the slippery slope? That is the question that Israelis ask as they witness the wrenching withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements.

The Genesis of Gaza Settlements - it started with Israel's acquiring of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in the Six-Day War of 1967. The combined armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan and the PLO threatened literally, to throw the Jews into the sea. Anyone living in Israel at that time will never forget the fear of another Holocaust; even the vaunted IDF Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin collapsed under the pressure. Many Israelis who came from Canada, the U.S. or wherever, will recall writing those ‘last letters’ home to relatives. The world watched, the U.S. explained why its former commitments were null and void, the U.N. skipped town and Israel was on its own to face awesome military odds. After smashing the Arab stranglehold in Six-Days, Israel was in control of Gaza, the West Bank, Sinai and the Golan Heights. But rather than finally come to terms with the existence of the Jewish state, the Arab leaders went to Khartoum to declare their three Nos: 'No recognition, no negotiations and no peace with Israel'. With no prospect of peace in sight and with the Six-Day victory acquiring a messianic significance, what was to be done? At first, the territories were perceived as real estate, a bargaining chip for peace negotiations with the Arabs or as Moshe Dayan put it: 'Waiting for a telephone call from Jordan's King Hussein'. That telephone call never came; an aura of religious fervor did. Not only East Jerusalem and the Western Wall of the Biblical Temples, Hebron, Nablus (Shechem), Beth El, Judea and Samaria the heartland of ancient Israel, more important historically to the Jewish people than the modern day state. With no geopolitical solution on the horizon, the temptation was too great; ideology ruled the roost. If the Arabs were not even willing to negotiate the return of their lost territory in return for peace, what was Israel to do?

Labor & Settlements - the charismatic rivals Moshe Dayan and Yigal Allon from left-wing Labor agreed on one thing; building settlements was a Zionist goal. In fact, it was Labor that started building the settlements in Gaza. Judaism, a religion with an inner core based in the nationalism of the Promised Land, fueled the building of settlements in the West Bank and eventually in the Gaza Strip. In his heyday, former Prime Minister Menachem Begin would refer to Judea and Samaria as the 'patrimony' of the Jewish people. (While religious scholars are at odds over the religious importance of the Gaza Strip there is absolutely no question about Judea and Samaria, the West Bank). Where Dayan and Allon left off, Ariel Sharon as cabinet minister took over after the Likud's rise to power after the Yom-Kippur War. Sharon propelled the settlement drive to a new dimension, establishing new sites in areas that would make their future removal very difficult. His settlement map was also designed to forestall the establishment of a Palestinian state. And when, another former Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered his settlement removal plan to Yasser Arafat, Sharon admonished the 'hill-top youth': 'What are you waiting for? Get out there and set up outposts all over Judea and Samaria'.

Ideology Clashes with Geopolitical Reality - why has Sharon changed his mind about the need to get out of Gaza, after declaring that settlements would be evacuated only in the framework of a final peace agreement with the Palestinians? When U.S. President George W. Bush came out in support of a Palestinian state in his speech on June 24th, 2002, Sharon saw the writing on the wall. Sharon could choose from several options:

  • Risk his alliance with Bush by opposing a Palestinian state
  • Make the best of it by agreeing to a Palestinian state, suspending the unilateral Disengagement after the new Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas took office and starting to negotiate using Gaza as a bargaining chip while testing Abbas on terrorism
  • Take the offensive and launch a pre-emptive political strike. There is ample evidence that taking control and a streak of adventurism are traits that mark Sharon in his military and political careers. Whether its his controversial order to take the Mitle Pass in the Sinai operation, his Suez Canal Crossing in the Yom-Kippur War, the settlements, the Lebanon War, his actual founding of Gahal the Likud's predecessor and of course his rise to prime minister. (The reason Sharon was never appointed IDF Chief of Staff was probably that Labor feared he would be out of control).

Circling the Wagons - The Prime Minister responded to Bush with his stunning reference to the 'Israeli occupation' and then informing the U.S. President of his decision to unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip. Sharon threw in the four West Bank settlements to show 'Gaza first would not be Gaza last' and gain Bush’s support for no return to 1949 borders and no return of the Palestinian refugees to Israel. In addition, Sharon has been telling the Israeli public that the U.S. will back Israel's demand that Abbas must first dismantle Hamas and other terror organizations before embarking on Roadmap negotiations for a Palestinian state. The commitment by 'the greatest U.S. friend of Israel' for a Palestinian state, the demography threat, and who knows what else, may have persuaded Sharon. He decided, in defiance of his ruling Likud party, that the settlements in general and Gaza in particular, have put Israel in a vulnerable position. Israel is overextended in Gaza, better to jettison them now and use this as credit with Bush to counter the international clamoring that Israel pullback to the 67 borders and make room for a Palestinian state. Most Israelis agree that it is a geopolitical absurdity for 8,000 Israelis to live in the Gaza Strip with over 1.2 million Palestinians. Even so, Israel's current identification with the settlers being evicted by Israeli soldiers shows how deep feelings run (Sharon himself has reportedly been surprised by the outpouring of emotions from not only right-wingers.) The message is that if Sharon wants to and he doesn't, there will be no more unilateral withdrawals in Judea and Samaria. The Palestinians will have to make some real concrete commitments that they keep, for any Israeli government to carry out future withdrawals. In any event, Sharon believes with America's support, Israel will be stronger after the current pullback; less extended, better to fend off international pressures and more unified at home. But his right-wing critics starting with Likud rival Bibi Netanyahu are not buying it.

Down the Slippery Slope - that's where Sharon is leading the country. The first indictment against Sharon is that he is misleading the Israeli people about the backing of Bush. There is no evidence, the U.S. will demand that Mahmoud Abbas must first dismantle the terror organizations as an entrance ticket to the Roadmap negotiations. On the contrary, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice talks of jump-starting the negotiations and wants to know what Palestinian towns Israel is going to leave next. The U.S. leaned heavily on Abbas to see to it that the terrorists do not attack during Israel's evacuation. So far, there have been no serious attacks although Israeli security forces have intercepted a suicide-bombing attempt and there has been some sporadic firing of mortars. If the disengagement comes off more or less quietly, the U.S. will then lean on Israel saying: 'Look Abbas is succeeding, the glass is half full does Israel want to risk this cease-fire by not negotiating; let's build on it'. Israel will find it hard to say no even though IDF intelligence Maj. Gen. Aharon Zeevi-Farkash has confirmed that the Palestinians are planning Intifada #3 sometime next spring. (On this score, even left-winger Yossi Beilin of Meretz, who supports the Gaza pullout, accuses Sharon of blundering by not securing a Palestinian quid pro quo for the evacuation.) After carrying out the Gaza and northern Samaria withdrawal, an international juggernaut will pressure Israel for more pullbacks. If Sharon thinks that the Gaza withdrawal will create a firewall to swift withdrawals in Judea and Samaria he will be sorely disappointed. He should expect no respite. But will the Palestinians be carried away in a wave of euphoria? Will they fall prey to the terrorist slogans that Israel caves in to terrorism and launch fresh attacks in Judea and Samaria? On the other hand, if Sharon has gambled wrong and the Palestinians hold off the violence while keeping Hamas and the other terrorists in strategic reserve, the Prime Minister may have set a trap of his own making. Moreover, Sharon's claim that he has not negotiated the withdrawal with the Palestinians does not hold water. The Palestinians are getting a seaport, a land link between Gaza and the West Bank and an Israeli withdrawal also from the Philadelfi Corridor between Gaza and Sinai; all this has been conceded the Palestinians in de facto contacts.

U.S. & Roadmap - Former American envoy Dennis Ross recently told IsraCast that the Bush administration views the Roadmap as 'list of slogans'. If so, the Americans will see it as reflecting the current reality of sharp differences between Israel and the Palestinians. Ambiguous in nature, it will be promoted as a vehicle to maintain momentum and avoid Intifada #3 until new developments can lead to a breakthrough.

David Essing

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