Israel and the Palestinians

by Henry Siegman


Bush administration officials maintain that President George W. Bush's acceptance of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's intentions to annex large clusters of West Bank settlements to Israel, as well as his rejection of the Palestinian refugees' "right of return," represent nothing more than a recognition of realities long obvious to everyone.

They argue that these realities were recognized by President Bill Clinton and even by the authors of the recent Geneva Accords, since they also proposed deviations from the 1967 border largely limited the "right of return" to the new state of Palestine. They note further that Bush and Sharon declared continued devotion to the road map peace plan and its provision that all final status issues be subject to agreement among the parties themselves.

The suggestion is that developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are being driven by the road map, whereas one would have to be deaf, dumb and blind to be unaware that they are being driven by Sharon's efforts to bypass, undermine and bury the road map.

From the 1967 war onward, Sharon's key strategic goal has been to avoid a political process at all costs. He understood that the inescapable result of such a process would be Israel's return to the 1967 border, with only minor adjustments.

Avoiding that process has meant, among other things, expropriating Palestinian land on a grand scale for Jewish settlements, as well as undercutting Palestinian efforts to reach a cease-fire with terrorist groups, since that might undermine Sharon's claim that there is no Palestinian partner for a peace process.

Avoiding a political process is also the reason behind Sharon's decision to withdraw Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip in return for an intensification of Israel's presence in the West Bank - something he understood could succeed only with Bush's acquiescence, if not explicit support.

Sharon himself explained his dramatic reversal on Gaza as the consequence of his fear that without any movement, the international community might force political negotiations on Israel. Yet his apologists absurdly claim that the withdrawal is intended to facilitate a resumption of negotiations.

When Bush launched the road map in Aqaba last June, he stressed that it required not only an end to Palestinian terrorism, but also an end to all further construction in the settlements and the dismantling of settlement outposts erected since the beginning of the intifada. Surely Bush must have noticed that despite solemn promises to implement these provisions, Sharon and his government failed to dismantle a single outpost while sinking vast new resources into the settlement enterprise.

Now Bush has declared that because of Israel's "facts on the ground" - the very facts that the road map describes as unacceptable and illegitimate - Palestinians must give up any hope of recovering large areas in the West Bank.

Bush could not have provided Sharon with greater incentive to create ever new "facts on the ground" in the West Bank. Before the ink on the letters between Bush and Sharon was even dry, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that additional millions of shekels will now flow to West Bank settlements.

When embarrassed White House officials complained, Sharon's government "clarified" that the money would be used only for the increased security these settlements will now require. The "clarification" coincided with a statement by the director of military intelligence, Major General Aharon Zeevi, to the Parliament's foreign affairs and defense committee, that the withdrawal from Gaza will decrease the number of terror attacks and restrain Palestinian terror organizations, not only in Gaza but in the West Bank as well.

That coincidence illustrates how Sharon manipulates Washington.

It has long been accepted that the only basis for a compromise is a formula that exchanges territory for refugees - that is, an Israeli acceptance of the Palestinian demand that territorial negotiations begin (but need not conclude) at the 1967 border in return for Palestinian agreement that the right of return apply de facto only to the new Palestinian state. That compromise has been precluded by Bush.

Undoubtedly, some will dismiss this reading of Sharon's motives as groundless and malevolent. But they will have to deal with the explanation Sharon himself offered for his proposed pullout from Gaza in a series of pre-Passover interviews published in all of Israel's major dailies. For it was Sharon, not his critics, who stated that a withdrawal from Gaza would "severely harm Palestinians" and put an end to their dream of a Palestinian state.

Henry Siegman is senior fellow on the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations.