With peace still elusive, Israel seeks to disengage

jerusalem | If the year 5764 could be summed up in one word, it would be disengagement.

After more than three years of inability to make progress on third-party proposals to end Palestinian violence or advance the “road map” peace plan, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon seized the initiative, announcing that Israel would withdraw unilaterally from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank in order to “disengage” from the Palestinians.

Sharon’s plan, first mooted last December and officially launched April 14, redefined the international agenda on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Despite his refusal to coordinate the plan with the Palestinian Authority, which he does not consider a credible negotiating partner, Sharon secured widespread international and regional support.

But the plan, which entails the evacuation of 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four in the West Bank, ran into fierce opposition from the settler movement and the Israeli right, and Israel’s security services warned of the possibility of violent resistance.

In what threatened to be a serious debacle, Sharon’s own Likud Party rejected the plan in a party referendum. Sharon still managed to push it through his Cabinet on June 7 — but only after firing two hawkish ministers from the National Union bloc and winning over three senior ministers from his own Likud Party by ostensibly watering down the plan.

The amended plan provided for evacuation of settlements in four separate stages, with a fresh vote before each stage. The first vote was scheduled to be held by March 1, 2005, and Sharon said he intended to evacuate all settlements and army installations in Gaza by the end of 2005.

After initial skepticism, the Bush administration warmly welcomed Sharon’s plan as a potentially historic turning point. At a White House meeting April 14, Sharon and President Bush exchanged letters endorsing the plan. In his letter, Bush also endorsed two key Israeli positions for a final peace deal with the Palestinians: that it is “unrealistic” to expect Israel to return to the pre-1967 Green Line boundary with the West Bank, and that Palestinian refugees would have the right to return to a future Palestinian state, not to Israel.

In return for Israel’s offer to withdraw from most of the areas conquered in 1967, Bush’s letter seemed to guarantee American support on two of the most contentious issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: that Israel would be able to retain large settlement blocs in the West Bank and that Israel’s Jewish character would not be undermined by an influx of Arab refugees.

In late June, after the assurances were approved overwhelmingly by Congress, Sharon described the Bush letter as “one of the most important diplomatic achievements” in Israeli history.

The members of the international ‘Quartet” who formulated the road map — the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia — also expressed support for the disengagement plan, and offered to help rehabilitate the Gaza Strip after an Israeli withdrawal.

But after a July 5 meeting in Jerusalem with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, Quartet representatives made it clear that the offer of aid was conditional on the Palestinians carrying out security and other reforms they had agreed to in the road map.

Concerned a post-withdrawal Gaza could become a hotbed of fundamentalist terrorism that could spill over into its territory, Egypt offered to play a stabilizing role. But the Egyptians, too, laid down conditions, insisting that the Palestinians unify their security forces under a single command, as envisaged in the road map.

That demand, together with unprecedented Palestinian riots over the summer against the corrupt regime of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, led to speculation Arafat might be forced to hand power to a new generation of Palestinians willing to make peace with Israel.

Sharon’s determination to carry out a major unilateral move came in the wake of the collapse of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammed Abbas’ government in September 2003. The Israeli leader despaired of reaching any kind of agreement with the Palestinians and feared that Israel might be sucked into an indefinite occupation, leading to demands for the establishment of a binational Israeli-Palestinian state that soon would have an Arab majority.

By moving unilaterally to separate Israelis and Palestinians, Sharon hoped to create conditions for the two-state solution envisaged in the road map.

The plan, however, ran into fierce right-wing opposition. Settlers and hawks in Sharon’s own Likud Party described the proposed withdrawal — without a cease-fire or any other Palestinian quid pro quo — as a “prize for terrorism.”

To head off the opposition and secure Likud backing in the Knesset and Cabinet, Sharon initiated a referendum of the full Likud Party membership. But the move backfired: On May 2, the party voted 60 percent to 40 percent against the disengagement plan.

The vote did not stop Sharon from “amending” the plan slightly and going ahead with it, but right-wing opponents accused him of riding roughshod over a democratic party decision, citing the party vote in an attempt to discredit the prime minister and his plan.

Despite its obvious security advantages, however, the fence proved controversial — at least outside Israel. On July 9, the United Nations’ International Court of Justice ruled that the fence was illegal because it intruded in places into the West Bank — which the court deemed “Palestinian land’ — and called on Israel to dismantle it.

Denouncing the ruling as biased and politically motivated, Israel argued that the court failed to take into account the basic reason for building the fence: Palestinian terrorism. Although the ruling was merely advisory and non-binding, the Palestinians welcomed it as a significant step in their campaign to turn Israel into an international pariah state.

Indeed, within two weeks they had turned it into a resolution at the U.N. General Assembly ordering Israel to dismantle the fence. Though the resolution also was non-binding, the overwhelming nature of the vote — including the unanimous support of an expanded European Union, raising the prospect of an unprecedented rupture in Israel’s relations with Europe — served to further isolate the Jewish state on the world stage.

Israel’s position in the region also was affected by fallout from the American war in Iraq, as well as the ongoing confrontation with the Palestinians. On Dec. 19, just days after the capture of Saddam Hussein, Libyan leader Col. Moammar Khadafy announced his readiness to dismantle his weapons of mass destruction programs, which many believed were aimed primarily against Israel.

At the same time, the unrelenting clashes with Palestinian terrorism led to strains in Israel’s strategic relationship with Turkey. Turkey’s Islamist-led government accused Israel of state terrorism, though trade and military ties were not immediately affected.

There were also signs that Israel’s economy was emerging from a three-year slump. In the first quarter of 2004, GNP grew by an impressive 5.1 percent, the business sector expanded by 7.2 percent, private consumption rose 4.3 percent, import of goods and services increased by 25.6 percent and exports were up by 35.6 percent.

But the recovery failed to trickle down to the weaker socioeconomic sectors: Despite the growth, unemployment reached a 12-year high of more than 11 percent. In addition, 1.3 million Israelis, or one of every five citizens, including a third of Israeli children, still were living below the poverty line in 5764.

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.