Just over one year ago, Ariel Sharon was returned as Prime Minister of Israel in an election in which the Likud and its allies easily attained a blocking majority of 61 seats in the Knesset. The candidate of the Labour Party, the dovish Amram Mitzna, was effectively trounced and resigned his position shortly afterwards. During the election campaign itself, Mitzna was subjected to a variety of epithets, ranging from unknowing naivety to outright treason, by his right wing opponents for his plan to end the Intifada and create a peaceful solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Mitzna suggested withdrawal from Gaza straight away and in the event of a stalemate in negotiations, a further pullback and the evacuation of 35000 settlers. 65% of the West Bank would remain in Palestinian hands, 15% – containing the central settlement blocs – would be annexed by Israel and the remaining 20% would be an extended security zone in the Jordan valley. Sharon, himself, remained silent about such possibilities and allowed others to denigrate Mitzna’s views – even though this course of action was popular amongst the electorate.
On 18 December, Sharon subsequently raised the possibility of unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in a speech in Herzliya and threw the Israeli Right and the Palestinians into a political turmoil. Even a perplexed Bush administration admitted its surprise.
The Israeli Left remained suspicious about Sharon’s sudden conversion especially as it came straight after ‘The People’s Voice’ initiative of Sari Nusseibeh and Ami Ayalon, the press conference of the four former heads of the Shin Bet – and, of course, the much vaunted Geneva Agreement of Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abed Rabbo. Peace Now impishly advised the settlers not to rush to pack their bags in view of Sharon’s record.
Although the need to inhibit the Left from making the running was self-evidently a factor, it is clear that Sharon had been considering the option for some time despite mentioning ‘the importance of our security presence in Gaza’ last summer. As a long time supporter of the settlers, Sharon’s move appeared to be a monumental volte-face. His maximalism, however, was never predicated on the Likud’s ideological inheritance from Menachem Begin nor on the theology of the National Religious camp. In his youth, Sharon was a member of Mapai, the predecessor of the Labour Party, and followed the line of its right wing, the approach of David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan, where security concerns overruled all other considerations. Israel, in Sharon’s eyes, would never be secure if it amounted to merely a coastal strip of concrete constructions within the target range of hostile forces.
Sharon’s move divided the Right into pragmatists and idealists. He was supported by Ehud Olmert, his deputy Prime Minister, but opposed by his Foreign Minister, Silvan Shalom. Bibi Netanyahu, another contender for the succession to Sharon, was cautiously ambiguous in his comments. Olmert who had also dissented from Begin’s approach in his youth resurrected the demographic argument that the higher birth rate of the Palestinians would soon turn a Jewish majority into a Jewish minority in an Israel which included the West Bank and Gaza. He also referred to Israel’s growing isolation in the international community and raised the prospect of a disillusioned Diaspora Jewry turning against Israel because of the centrality of human rights in the conflict. Olmert commented that ‘the minute it moves from an Algerian conflict to a South African one, it’ll all be over with.’ Olmert specified that the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza would begin within a few months.
Sharon’s separation line was, of course, the ‘security fence’ – in Israelspeak – or the ‘apartheid wall’ according to Palestinian spin. Here, too, Sharon was a late convert. He opposed the original Labour idea of a barrier along the Green Line for fear that it might become a permanent border. However, the path of the barrier into Palestinian territory allowed him to integrate the idea of a defensible line with holding onto the bulk of West Bank settlements. It also allowed him to effectively create a series of Palestinian enclaves while maintaining the fiction of a two state solution. The White House quickly realised that such a disengagement plan would put an end to the idea of a contiguous Palestinian state. It therefore opposed an ‘Eastern fence’ which would run between Palestinian towns and the Jordan Valley. It also opposed Sharon’s desire to relocate the 7500 Gaza settlers to other settlements on the West Bank rather than return them to Israel.
Although superficially similar, Sharon’s version of a two state settlement was significantly different from the Clinton Plan of December 2000 which envisaged contiguity, the annexation of the settlement blocs close to the Green Line by Israel and territorial exchange to compensate the Palestinians. Significantly Sharon has also advocated the building of further settlement in the Western Negev in order to place an obstacle in the path of any swap of territory.
The Israeli public have so far backed Sharon in his endeavours with over 80% in favour of the barrier and 63% believing that it should follow any geographical path delineated by the Israeli government. Opinion has probably hardened since last summer’s Peace Index which suggested that a small majority of Israelis, some 55.5%, were in favour of leaving some settlements outside the barrier. But they were divided almost equally as to whether it should traverse Palestinian territory. The crucial factor for Israelis is whether suicide bombers would be totally deterred from entering the country from the West Bank. The presence of part of the barrier in 2003 was held to be attributable for halving the number of casualties due to suicide attacks in Israel compared with the previous year. Others have pointed to the fact that none of the suicide bombers – apart from the two visiting bombers from England – came from Gaza due to the barrier surrounding that area. Moreover, the latest poll of the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion has suggested that 30.7% of Palestinians continue to support suicide attacks whereas 35.4% are opposed. In late February, Israel revealed that nine attempts to bring down flights at Tel Aviv’s main airport had been thwarted. The Sharon government has argued that the protection of aircraft from shoulder-held missiles was a central reason in moving the barrier to the east in that particular area.
The Israeli Defence Ministry announced that 6% of the West Bank will be encompassed by the end of 2005 – an area of some 200 km2 . Yasser Arafat, however, believed that the barrier was ‘another Berlin Wall’ aimed at swallowing 58% of the West Bank. While both sides have been presenting their narratives for international consumption, there has also been a downplaying of the option of constructing the barrier on the Green Line. While only 19% of Israelis in November believed that this should be the path of the barrier, the Palestinians in their campaign to bring the issue to the International Court of Justice at the Hague gave it only nominal recognition. In most pro-Palestinian tracts that appeared, it was downgraded to a throwaway line. It seemed that the existence of the barrier was as offensive as the path that it followed. It was also apparent that the Palestinians were unwilling to find ways of exploiting Sharon’s withdrawal and the evacuation of the Gaza settlements. The UN Middle East Envoy, Terje Larsen, actually praised the disengagement plan as a first step. The Palestinians could have accepted the barrier where it ran along the Green Line and to negotiate where it did not. This would have brought on board the Americans and to a much greater extent the Israeli peace camp. It also would have accentuated the divisions within Israeli society on the question of the barrier’s path. The financial cost of the Intifada to Israel could have been invoked. Constructing the barrier along the Green Line would have halved the expenditure. Moreover, many an impoverished Israeli citizen did not take kindly to the notion of spending another $22 million on West Bank settlements only a week after Sharon announced that Israel was pulling out of Gaza. One direction which the Palestinians could have taken, was to transform Sharon’s disengagement plan into one more along the lines of the Clinton Plan – a plan which Arafat has said that he accepts. Greater faith, it seemed, was placed in the international outcry. Yet very few nations, outside the Arab and Islamic world, supported the campaign to bring the issue to the Hague. Arafat would also have had to confront popular feeling as well as his ideological opponents. As he indicated at the commencement of the Intifada, he was not prepared to undertake such a course of action – even more so now because of the bitterness that all the violence has engendered.
Another factor is that the imagery of the Wall section of the barrier has been a wake-up call to Palestinians at a time when, according to polls, more Palestinians are against the Intifada, than for its continuation. Moreover, the Palestinian internal debate about a one state solution – whether coming from nationalists or Islamists or the left wing intelligentsia – would be placed in abeyance by the physical presence of such a barrier.
Sharon now accepts that although most suicide bombings can be prevented by military means, the one that gets through renders this meaningless and is cold comfort to the families left behind. In 2004, it is clear that for Israelis in general this is one too many – and it is this public outcry for separation that has effectively forced Sharon’s hand. A military campaign to stop terror against civilians has not totally eradicated it. Sharon has realised that partial success is not good enough. His disengagement plan thereby integrates all those elements close to his heart – security, the retention of the West Bank settlements, a Jewish majority in Israel and the neutering of an emerging Palestinian state.
Over 300 km of the barrier will be constructed this year including the Jerusalem envelope. Yet its path could still be altered by a focussed Palestinian strategy – something which has been lacking so far. Mohammed Dahlan and Jibril Rajoub have argued that the withdrawal should be utilised and developed to the benefit of a real two state solution. Even Shimon Peres, the Labour leader, has stated that Israel must give up all the land that it occupied in 1967. It would be counter-productive, if such voices were ignored by the Palestinians.
RUSI Bulletin vol. 24 no.3