Sharon Plan Raises Myriad Questions


Ariel Sharon’s major policy statement at the Herzliya
security conference last week might have made world headlines, but it’s far
from clear what the Israeli prime minister has in mind. Sharon called on
Palestinian leaders to open negotiations with Israel and threatened unilateral
steps if they don’t, but he did not spell out those steps.

In fact, Sharon’s long-awaited Dec. 18 speech, in which he
broached the possibility of a unilateral Israeli pullback from the West Bank
and Gaza Strip, raised more questions than it provided answers.

For example, does Sharon envision a major Israeli withdrawal
and a large-scale evacuation of Jewish settlements? Or will the pullback be
minimal, with few settlements evacuated and the Palestinians surrounded on all
sides by security fences? Will Sharon be able to get American support for his
new policy? Will he listen to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) or to the Shin
Bet security service, which are urging him to go in opposite directions? Will
he actually be able to dismantle dozens of settlements, assuming he wants to?
And what are the likely political ramifications in Israel?

Local pundits give two very different readings of the prime
minister’s intentions.

According to one reading, Sharon’s plan is to redeploy
Israeli forces behind the security fence being built between Israel and the West
Bank, and to “relocate” dozens of Israeli settlements from the Palestinian to
the Israeli side. According to this scenario, the fence would be no more than a
temporary security line, and the Palestinians would have the option of coming
back to the negotiating table at any time to set final borders.

But there is another, widely divergent reading — that Sharon
intends to complete a second, “eastern fence,” along the Jordan Valley,
enclosing the Palestinians between the two fences on about 50 percent to 60
percent of the West Bank. Under this scenario, Israel would retain the Jordan Valley
as a buffer zone between the Palestinian entity and Jordan.

Whether the Palestinians have territorial contiguity or only
contiguity of movement will depend on which way Sharon goes.

The IDF’s Central Command, responsible for the West Bank,
has drawn up a contingency plan called “Everything Flows,” in which a system of
bridges, tunnels and bypass roads provides the Palestinians with freedom of
movement, without full territorial contiguity.

Whether Sharon gets American support will depend on which
plan he adopts. The United States insists that Israel do nothing to undermine
President Bush’s vision of a viable Palestinian state. That would seem to rule
out American support for the eastern fence plan.

For his part, Sharon has said that whatever he does will be
fully coordinated with the United States. Indeed, there is nothing more
important in his foreign policy doctrine than Israel’s U.S. ties. Therefore,
it’s hard to see Sharon pressing for the eastern fence scenario.

On the other hand, for years Sharon has been carrying around
a map based on “Israeli interests” which, like the eastern fence scenario,
leaves the Palestinians with no more than 60 percent of the West Bank. If the
post-withdrawal lines seem to correspond to Sharon’s “Israeli interests” map,
suspicion will grow that he is trying to impose a permanent arrangement on the
Palestinians based on a minimal Israeli withdrawal.

The IDF, however, is urging Sharon to be generous with the
Israeli withdrawal. The army’s planning branch, under Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland,
has presented Sharon with an ambitious plan leading to the establishment of a
Palestinian state with temporary borders.

The IDF is asking Sharon to show the Palestinians and the
international community how serious he is by handing over West Bank cities to
the Palestinian Authority — a process that until now has been conditional on
Palestinian willingness to fight terrorism — as soon as possible.

The army is also advising Sharon to lift roadblocks and
allow free movement between Palestinian cities, even at the risk of more
terrorist attacks against Israel. The IDF’s argument is that if such moves are
not reciprocated by the Palestinians, the world will be much more understanding
of a subsequent, unilateral Israeli move. If the moves are reciprocated, then a
negotiated settlement could be in the cards.

The weight Sharon attaches to the IDF view can be gleaned
from the fact that Eiland, who is slated to become head of the National
Security Council, has been appointed to lead a team of experts fleshing out
Sharon’s unilateral program.

But there also are other, opposing voices in the Israeli
defense establishment. The Shin Bet is urging Sharon to proceed very carefully
and not hand over cities or lift roadblocks until Palestinian terrorism stops.

The Shin Bet argues that the Palestinians are doing nothing
to combat terrorism. These officials say that a devastating Oct. 4 suicide
bombing in a Haifa restaurant may have been the last major terrorist attack,
but only because Israeli forces have succeeded in foiling 26 suicide bombing
attempts since then.

Perhaps the biggest question for Sharon is whether he will
be able to relocate dozens of Jewish settlements.

So far, the government has not set up a team to negotiate
with settlers over compensation or alternative housing.

Even if it does, the right-wing, ideological settlers — as
distinct from those who moved to the settlements for lifestyle reasons or
because of government financial incentives — are unlikely to cooperate.

The government already is having difficulty dismantling
sparsely populated, illegal settlement outposts; when it comes to large,
authorized settlements, settler opposition is sure to be much fiercer.

Every such relocation would be a major operation for the
army. Given the army’s manpower limitations, the settlements probably would
have to be dealt with one by one, in an emotionally wrenching and
time-consuming process.

Sharon also can expect opposition from within his own Likud
Party and from the far right. As soon as a relocation program goes into effect,
the National Religious Party and the National Union are expected to quit the
governing coalition, and some Likud lawmakers will stop automatically
supporting the government.

Eleven of the Likud’s 40 caucus members already have signed
a petition demanding that any settlement relocation first be authorized by the
caucus. Others are pressing for a full-scale debate on Sharon’s new policy at
next month’s party convention.

The immediate test for Sharon will be whether he can pass
the 2004 budget by the end of the year. Last minute, right-wing opposition to
the budget could have a far-reaching effect on Sharon’s ability to move his
policy forward.

Of course, all the unilateral arguments would become
irrelevant if Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei were to come to
the table and negotiate a deal with Sharon on the basis of the internationally
backed “road map” peace plan.

But few on the Israeli side, including Sharon, believe that
will happen.

That leaves the two key, and so far unanswered, questions:
Which unilateral plan will Sharon adopt, and will he have the political support
to implement it? Â


Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.