Hello, I Must Be Going

There is something Marxist about Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s pledge to “disengage” Israel from the Palestinians through the completion of a security barrier and the evacuation of a few settlements. Just like Groucho Marx, Sharon is declaring his intention to leave and stay at the same time.

In fact, his plan has less to do with reducing Israel’s footprint in the occupied territories than with consolidating an Israeli presence in the West Bank. It is a formula for continued engagement with the Palestinians and ongoing friction between the two sides.

There is nothing inherently wrong with Israel taking unilateral steps to reduce its conflict with the Palestinians. Had Sharon decided to build the security fence along the Green Line, instead of deep inside the West Bank, the barrier would be perceived as a justifiable defensive measure against Palestinian terrorist infiltrations. And had a Green Line fence been accompanied by settlement evacuations from the territories, along with a genuine Israeli proposal for a viable two-state solution to be negotiated with the Palestinians, no one could fault Sharon.

But such is not the case. Sharon’s security fence is being constructed well beyond the Green Line in the West Bank, signaling intent to hold on to all the land on the Israeli side of the barrier. Along the way, he is bringing thousands of Palestinians inside the Israeli line of defense and cutting off hundreds of thousands of other Palestinians from their families, farmlands and social services.

While a great deal of attention has been paid to Sharon possibly dismantling a couple of settlements — which certainly would be welcome — few people have noted his corollary statements about strengthening Israel’s hold on those parts of the occupied territories where it remains.

Further, nothing in Sharon’s record indicates that he is prepared to offer the Palestinians anything remotely resembling a real state. The most he has ever been willing to part with in the West Bank is perhaps half of the area, leaving the Palestinians with small islands of divided territory, little ability to govern their own affairs and a nonviable economy.

Instead of using unilateral steps to promote an eventual peace agreement with the Palestinians, Israel will remain deeply engaged in their lives if Sharon carries out his plan. Once Sharon completes the barrier along Israel’s eastern border and the Jordan Valley, roughly half of the West Bank will remain under direct Israeli rule.

Israel will still likely dictate life inside the remaining portions of the occupied territories through frequent military incursions and control over Palestinian borders. Israel will still determine what goods and workers are allowed to move in and out of the occupied territories. Israel will still be the provider of energy and water for the Palestinians.

In fact, the tightening of Israel’s grip on millions of Palestinians would lead to greater entanglement with them. For example, international donors are already displaying fatigue at propping up the Palestinian economy with their contributions. Some are openly questioning why they should be subsidizing Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

These donors could well respond to Israel’s complete physical enclosure of the occupied territories by totally withdrawing their relief operations or at least curtailing them. The Palestinian Authority, already teetering on the brink, could collapse under the financial pressure. This would put the onus on Israel to return to directly administering services and law enforcement in the territories, thereby deepening its engagement with the Palestinians and costing it billions of shekels in the process.

Israelis living inside the fence might have more protection under Sharon’s disengagement plan. But Jewish settlers remaining on the Palestinian side of the barrier would likely be subject to more terrorist attacks, simply because they will be easier targets, especially if Hamas and Islamic Jihad succeed in replacing the Palestinian Authority.

Finally, given demographic trends, Sharon’s plan to maintain control over the West Bank and Gaza will ensure that Jews will soon be a minority and Arabs the majority in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, spelling an end to the Zionist dream of a Jewish, democratic state. The Palestinians will clamor for equal voting rights, just as blacks did in South Africa during the apartheid era, thereby exacerbating — not easing — the Israeli-Palestinian political struggle.

Unilateral steps can provide some useful short-term relief for Israelis. But they are no substitute for actually resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the long-run. The secret word for securing Israel’s future is still “negotiation.”

Luis Lainer is chairman of Americans for Peace Now.