Going Solo

Sharon comes to Washington seeking U.S. backing for his “disengagement” plan.

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Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visits Washington this week hoping to secure Bush’s support for his unilateral pullout from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. Sharon wants U.S. assurances that he won’t have to give up East Jerusalem or the main West Bank settlements in any future peace deal with the Palestinians.

Bush says that Sharon’s “disengagement” plan “doesn’t replace the roadmap” — the U.S.-backed plan toward peace and a Palestinian state — but insofar as it foresees a Palestinian state much smaller than any the Palestinians would ever agree to in negotiations, it does. Bush’s approval would essentially ratify Israel’s claims on land it annexed (without international approval) in the 1967 Middle East War. The timing is especially sensitive for Bush, with an occupying U.S. force fighting an Arab-Muslim insurgency in Iraq.

As Al Jazeera put it, “Some Israeli commentators have highlighted the “striking similarity” between what the Americans are doing in Falluja, Baquba, and Ramadi on the one hand and what the Israeli occupation army has been doing in Rafah, Khan Yunis and Jenin.”

Sharon hopes the plan will be ratified by May 3 after a Likud party referendum as well as votes in cabinet and parliament. The timetable is meticulously planned so that on April 29, when many are vacationing for Israel’s independence holiday, some 200,000 Likud members can enjoy a full voting day without having to miss a Final Four, Macabbi v. Tel-Aviv basketball game.

As a senior Likud party official explained, “The idea is to have the referendum as soon as possible after his return from the U.S. with a package of quid-pro-quos, so that before any other opinion can form in the public he can get his plan approved.”

Sharon wants the United States to endorse his plan yanking all 4,500 Gaza Strip settlers and dissolving four West Bank settlements. Jews comprise 17 percent of the 2.2 million population of these contested areas. The arrangement would allow Palestinian refugees elsewhere in the world to return to a future Palestinian state but not to Israel. Sharon is asking for $5 billion from Bush to develop the Negev desert region, where West Bank settlers might move, but he wants to fend off criticism of the security wall or “apartheid fence,” which has been roundly condemned by European and Arab leaders. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell reportedly doesn’t plan to penalize Israel for the fence.

The Financial Times notes:

Diplomats say that Mr Bush has been drawn back reluctantly into Middle East diplomacy, wary of being associated with further dashed hopes as he campaigns for re-election.

US allies on Iraq, notably Mr Blair, have consistently pressed Mr Bush to show the Arab world that Washington is as engaged in restoring hope to the Palestinians as it is in rebuilding a new Iraq.

How likely is it that Sharon’s D.C. meeting will run smoothly? Israel’s Maariv points out some stumbling blocks:

So far, the Americans have not supplied the expected goods. Talks with US emissaries that have made several visits to Jerusalem and efforts by Sharon’s aides in Washington have yet to yield results. The administration is demanding a re-confirmation of the old agreement between then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and and secretary of State Colin Powell defining the limits of “natural growth” in the settlements. They are also demanding guarantees that the settlers Sharon intends to evacuate from the Katif Bloc in the Gaza Strip will not be re-settled on the West Bank; measures to ameliorate conditions for the Palestinians; freedom of movement for Palestinian leaders and other concessions.

Many bet on the likelihood that Bush will agree with Sharon. Pro-Israel blogger Ted Belman predicts that Israel will find U.S. support in part because, “The uncertainty flourishing in Iraq is reinforcing American reliance on its closest regional ally.”

An opinion in the Palestinian Al-Quds criticizes the U.S. for its favoritism toward Israel.

The enmity towards the unjust U.S. policy has many prime causes (such as supporting the illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories) … What really interests the U.S. is its own selfish interests and not democracy and freedom. Thus, it lacks the moral standing to preach to the Palestinian and Arab peoples that are being hurt by its policies that neither serve democracy, freedom nor human rights.

An editorial in the Palestinian paper Al-Hayat Al-Jadidah warns, “Bush, there is no one in the universe that remains unchanging. There is no one who was done injustice and remains all his life asleep. I wish you could learn from the lessons of Jenin and Al-Fallujah. Sharon has cheated you and you are drowning in quick sand.”

The Financial Times notes:

Diplomats say that Mr Bush has been drawn back reluctantly into Middle East diplomacy, wary of being associated with further dashed hopes as he campaigns for re-election.

U.S. allies on Iraq, notably Mr Blair, have consistently pressed Mr Bush to show the Arab world that Washington is as engaged in restoring hope to the Palestinians as it is in rebuilding a new Iraq.

In the meantime, Bush and Egyptian President Hosini Mubarak met on Monday in part to discuss how Egypt, which borders the Gaza Strip, can police its Palestinian perimeter to minimize terrorism and weapons smuggling. Mubarak reportedly will lend his army to help train Palestinians to patrol their side of the border, but Egyptian soldiers won’t staff any checkpoints themselves. Bush insisted at the meeting that his upcoming appointment with Sharon was designed to support, not erase the road map.

The road map, which calls for a ceasefire and would establish a Palestinian state by 2005, has become a depressing symbol of both sides’ intransigence. Sharon’s commitment to the plan has always been in doubt, and Palestinians have not — or could not — put a halt to suicide bombings.

Polls in Israel are evenly split over whether or not Sharon will win the referendum there, but some members of his party are worrying that they may lose their jobs if they don’t vote in his favor.

Media analyst Aaron Lerner describes the dynamics of Sharon’s
media blitz:

Retreat opponents can expect an uphill battle facing an unprecedented media campaign supporting retreat (and possibly defaming retreat opponents) – but armed with the names, addresses and telephone numbers of the Likud voters, they can still have a shot at exposing the shallow thinking and faulty logic behind the retreat plan.

Given the orientation of the media, Sharon may end up doing hundreds of interviews without having to deal with any seriously difficult questions…

Members of Sharon’s own hard-line party oppose the pullout because they fear it makes Palestinian terrorists think their attacks have changed policy and could effect change again.

Paula Stern, a writer opposed to the evacuation, explains in the Israel Insider:

The day that Sharon pushes his disengagement plan through, I will quit the Likud party because it will be a signal that they no longer serve the most important principle of our society, survival as a Jewish state in the Jewish land of Israel.

Will we have to withdraw from Gaza eventually? Do we have an historic right, a moral obligation to stay there? This isn’t the issue at a time when the Chief of Police has to instruct all licensed gun owners to carry weapons with the hope that someone, somewhere, will spot one of the terrorists that are believed, at this very moment, to be trying to find some hole to crawl through. There are sixty terror warnings of impending attacks.

Chris McGreal reports for the Guardian

Once Mr Bush clears the way Mr Sharon will be free to face down opposition to his plan within his own government and party from those who are outraged that the prime minister, who three years ago vowed not to surrender an inch of the Gaza settlements, has now usurped the opposition Labour party’s pledge to unilaterally pull out of some Palestinian areas.

In doing so Mr Sharon has reconnected with voters who were increasingly disillusioned by his failure to deliver the promised “peace with security”. More than 60% of Israelis back unilateral disengagement.

But the prime minister has yet to reveal even to his own cabinet the extent of the withdrawal.


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