Charles Smith on Bush and Sharon
Guest Editorial By Charles Smith:
“Bait and Switch: Ariel Sharon, the Bush Administration, and the West Bank”
Much attention has focused recently on Ariel Sharon’s travails in Israel where a majority of his Likud Party oppose his intent to withdraw all Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip as part of his Disengagement Plan. At the same time, though less noticed, President Bush has declared that Israeli realities on the ground in the West Bank, in the form of large settlement complexes, should remain in any future peace arrangement between Israel and the Palestinians.
Bush’s stance and tacit support for expansion of Israeli settlements, not merely their retention, contradict the Road Map to which he proclaims his ongoing commitment as the basis of the peace process What is occurring is a bait and switch. Most commentators, and the Palestinian leadership, have seen the Gaza withdrawal plan as the first step in a broader reduction of settlements that will eventually include most of the West Bank, setting the stage for a negotiated Palestinian state. In fact Sharon and his allies in the White House and Defense Department envision Sharon consolidating Israel’s ongoing control of the West Bank, thwarting any possibility of a future Palestine, a development ignored by commentators who concentrate on Sharon’s domestic political troubles over opposition to the Gaza withdrawal.
The roots of Sharon’s confrontation with Likud lie in his own actions in April, 1982 when Israel handed back the final sector of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt to fulfill the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty. This sector included the Israeli settlement town of Yamit. As defense minister in the Menachem Begin government, Sharon oversaw this withdrawal in the face of militant settler complaints that no land settled by Jews should be given up. Having removed the Yamit inhabitants, he facilitated occupation of the deserted town by settlers from the West Bank in order to stage a confrontation between them and the troops he sent in to oust them. He then declared that this simulated clash between settlers and soldiers, which he had arranged, was designed to send a message: any future proposed withdrawal from land considered truly Israeli, including Gaza as well as the West Bank at that time, would be met with legitimate armed resistance by settlers.
In short, defense minister Sharon threatened civil war. Now his own Likud Party attacks prime minister Sharon for proposing such a withdrawal from Gaza. Although Likud Party platforms have always stressed the need for permanent control of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) and blocking of a Palestinian state, Gaza settlements are mentioned as inviolable. Sharon appears to be gambling that he can abandon Gaza, but retain the West Bank and block creation of a Palestinian state, his major goal, while paying obeisance to Bush’s Road Map; his Likud opponents insist on realization of all platform objectives.
Evidence of Bush’s collusion with Sharon can be found in the fact that Bush’s statement accepting Israeli retention of West Bank settlements came after Sharon had given him his Disengagement Plan. In addition to the full dismantling of Gaza settlements, Sharon’s plan envisages Israeli withdrawal from four settlements in the northern West Bank (Samaria); all other settlements will remain. Palestinians would have territorial contiguity only in this northernmost sector with Israel promising to “improve the transportation infrastructure” elsewhere; this means that Palestinians would have contact with each other by bridges and tunnels. Although Israel would remove its “permanent military presence” from the northern area, it would retain that presence elsewhere, including checkpoints and barriers. Significantly, the words “Palestinian state” appear in the first version of Sharon’s plan, submitted in April, but a second version, issued after Bush’s public acceptance of Israeli retention of settlements, omits that reference and alludes to the West Bank as part of Israel.
The point person for the Bush people is Elliott Abrams, head of Middle East issues on the National Security Council. He like Douglas Feith, number three in the Defense Department, is an ardent backer of Likud expansion. Reports from Israel indicate that the Bush administration will permit settlement construction and expansion to continue, as is now happening in Maale Adumim but deplores any publicity given to the venture; with that in mind, Israel can act as it wishes with Washington issuing a “standard protest” from time to time which can be easily ignored. This cynicism is matched by Washington’s acceptance of Sharon’s assurances that the security barrier/fence now being built is only “temporary.” Items that cost over $1 billion are rarely temporary and Sharon clearly intends to keep the vast majority of settlements on the eastern side of the barrier, not just those adjacent to the 1967 border.
In sum, the Bush administration is quietly abandoning the Road Map and the possibility of a Palestinian state despite denials to the contrary. It is doing so to fulfill Likud Revisionist goals of an Israeli state extending from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River, goals shared by Christian evangelicals who are a key part of Bush’s reelection strategy. The U.S. press has ignored the implications of these developments which the administration has sought to obfuscate, proclaiming its adherence to the Road Map while referring to ongoing Israeli settlement expansion as “unhelpful.”
As this process unfolds, Palestinian protests will be ignored and continuing attention paid to Likud opposition to withdrawal from Gaza, not a threat to Sharon’s plans for the West Bank, but a definite and apparently unexpected challenge to the stability of his government. Indeed, the major threat to Sharon’s gamble to get all of the West Bank will likely not be the U.S., but Sharon’s own party whose ambitions for Gaza may finally focus attention on what is at stake.
As a State Department spokesperson told a reporter in Tel Aviv recently, “We don’t think that it serves any purpose to lay this out to the public.” One can see why!
Charles D. Smith
University of Arizona
Professor Smith is the author of Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, now in its fifth edition. He was living in Israel in April 1982 when Israel handed over Yamit to Egypt.