His one-sided proposal will doom two-state solution

Ariel Sharon’s speech at last month’s Herzliya conference summarizes, in a nutshell, the reasons for the present political impasse. In the same breath, the prime minister supported the creation of a Palestinian state and suggested a series of steps that would effectively stymie its realization. It is now very clear what Israel must do, and that the present government is incapable of doing it.

The debate over Israel’s position on the two-state solution was put to rest Dec. 18. Sharon stated categorically what has become a truism: that a Palestinian state alongside Israel is in the country’s uppermost interest. He gave voice to the solid consensus (encompassing more than two-thirds of the public) that continued rule over another people undermines Israel’s security and endangers its survival as a democratic state with a Jewish majority.

The principle of Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territories has thus penetrated to the heart of the Israeli right. Those opposed to a two-state solution are fast becoming a dwindling minority whose raucous protests — now aimed at the prime minister himself — constitute a diversion at odds with the beliefs and aspirations of the bulk of the population.

Discussion is therefore shifting from whether there should be a Palestinian state to three operative issues: how it should be established, in what boundaries and when.

Sharon’s answers to each of these questions reflect a mixture of hesitation, procrastination and obstruction.

The country is now immersed in a controversy of its own making: Will the Palestinian state emerge by agreement or by Israeli fiat? The “road map,” which Sharon embraced so wholeheartedly in his Herzliya appearance, is unequivocally grounded in the negotiation rubric. Indeed, the prime minister was at pains to reassure Washington that he fully intends to comply with Israel’s obligations to remove the outposts, freeze settlement construction and ease the daily plight of Palestinians. He did not, however, indicate a willingness to embark on talks with the Palestinian Authority — a move he has consistently avoided during his three-year tenure.

To the contrary, Sharon’s apparent endorsement of a negotiated settlement was accompanied by a less-than-implicit threat of unilateral action. In a verbal display of impatience, he made clear that Israel under his leadership will not wait indefinitely for the Palestinians.

One-sided steps are nothing short of an Israeli diktat. They allow the government in office to determine the shape and pace of withdrawal. Advocates of this approach (most notably the two Ehuds, Barak and Olmert, who continue to disseminate the disputed mantra that there is nobody to talk to and nothing to talk about), view unilateral measures as a way of reducing friction while increasing pressure on the Palestinian leadership.

In fact, such steps are a prescription for catastrophe. They replace negotiations with compulsion, fuel resistance and, most significantly, create a power vacuum that will fortify armed bands at the expense of an already enfeebled Palestinian Authority. Historically, unilateral disengagement has bred anarchy, with severe implications for all involved. It has no support in the international community.

The prime minister in his speech was much more precise in his definition of the (diminutive) boundaries of the proposed Palestinian state. He reiterated what he has consistently proclaimed in the past: that the future entity would be established on roughly 44 percent of the West Bank and Gaza (not including the Jordan valley, the major settlement blocs and metropolitan Jerusalem). The so-called security fence is being erected, protestations aside, precisely along these lines.

This proposal is patently a non-starter. It goes against the Bush vision and dooms the two-state solution before it is launched. Anything short of a withdrawal to the 1967 borders with adjustments by agreement means the continuation of Israeli occupation through partial annexation, rendering the resolution of the conflict impossible.

The indeterminate timing of the Sharon disengagement plan fosters additional obfuscation. The tight schedule laid down in the road map has already been breached. The prime minister’s declaration that he will wait only months for progress on the Palestinian side before he takes action (counting, no doubt, on the American political agenda to give him room for maneuverability) provides yet another demonstration of his propensity to postpone any movement toward the negotiating table.

The government’s ability to undertake unilateral measures to implement the idea of a shrunken Palestinian state in the future should not be underestimated. Sharon’s Herzliya speech defies its ostensible purpose: Instead of guiding Israel toward a solution of the conflict, it threatens to expedite its intensification.

Israelis understand today that the creation of a viable Palestinian state is a national necessity. Those committed to this goal must enter negotiations now on the basis of the 1967 boundaries (the Geneva accords shows the feasibility of such a strategy). They should also realize, before it really is too late, that since Sharon cannot deliver, they should replace him with someone who can.

Naomi Chazan, a former Meretz Knesset member, is a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. This column was published previously in The Jerusalem Post.