The ink was barely dry on the Gaza and West Bank evacuation orders Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon signed Sunday when speculation began about difficulties after the withdrawal is completed.
There are serious concerns that the entire process might collapse and Palestinian violence return. Should that happen, Sharon said this week, Israel’s military would respond.
Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, said he believes that once the withdrawal is complete, the Sharon government “is unlikely to get more than that. … This government will be exhausted.”
He declined to speculate whether that would mean new elections.
A Middle East affairs expert in the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Benny Dagan, was quoted as saying that after the withdrawal Israel would approach the next stage of negotiations “devoid of energy” due to the politically sensitive landmines that lay ahead. And he said disagreements between the two sides could lead to renewed violence.
But Danny Rothschild, a former deputy director of Israeli military intelligence and a member of the Israel Policy Forum’s advisory council, said he believes the only violence that will occur after the withdrawal will be between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists.
“There will be a struggle … because for the first time Hamas and Islamic Jihad will threaten the ability of the Palestinian Authority to regain control of the area,” he said. “They will fight back not because of us but because they will threaten them and not us.”
Rothschild said he could not rule out a rocket attack by one of the terrorist groups against Israel in order to precipitate an Israeli response and a breakdown of the cease-fire. But he said he hopes the Sharon government will be sensitive enough not to respond.
Analyst Aluf Benn, writing in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, said that should the cease-fire hold, Israel would have to decide “which way to go from here: to a permanent agreement or an interim agreement; withdrawal to the line of the fence or remaining in Beit El and Ofra; united Jerusalem or divided Jerusalem. … The battle for succession in Labor and the Likud will only fuel the ideological debate.”
He said Labor would press for a speedy agreement with the Palestinians and Likud would advocate a go-slow approach. But he said international pressure would be on Israel to withdraw settlers from all of the West Bank. Henry Siegman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said he would be looking to see whether Sharon will “abandon his unilateralism.”He pointed out that the Gaza disengagement plan, which the Israeli cabinet approved by a 17-5 vote Sunday, is not being carried out by Israel “in the context of an agreement with the Palestinians, but rather on its own.”
The forced withdrawal of 8,500 Jews from 21 Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in the northern West Bank may be done in coordination with the Palestinians, Siegman said, but will not be as a result of a negotiated agreement. “One has to conclude that the only reason [Sharon] refused to consider a return to the road map [to peace] is because he wants to expand settlements,” he said. Siegman said also that there will not be an “agreed cease-fire because that implies a negotiation and he will not negotiate. He insists on continued unilateralism and has not departed from that. He has still not reconciled himself to a process with the Palestinians that leads to a discussion of permanent-status issues. The question is whether the United States can finally persuade him to put an end to that.”
Israel Following Road MapBut other analysts insist that it is Israel that is following the road map by insisting on a step-by-step approach to peace and that the Palestinians are ignoring the road map by calling for a move directly to final-status talks. “They are trying to ignore [the road map] and go directly to stage 3,” Eran Lerman, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Israel/Middle East office, said of the Palestinians. He said the two sides were still in stage 1, which calls upon the Palestinian Authority to end all violence, disarm terrorists and dismantle the terrorists’ infrastructure. In return, Israel must freeze the expansion of settlements.
But Steinberg said President George W. Bush in his comments this week in Brussels appeared to be “moving more towards the European position, which is to move immediately to permanent status talks.”
In his remarks, Bush said Israel should make as its top goal helping the Palestinians achieve democracy because “only democracy can serve the hopes of Palestinians and make Israel secure. …”
He said that in coming months Palestinians must “confront and dismantle terrorist groups, fight corruption, encourage free enterprise, and rest true authority with the people.” And Israel, Bush said, must “freeze settlement activity, help Palestinians build a thriving economy, and ensure that a new Palestinian state is truly viable, with contiguous territory on the West Bank. A state of scattered territories will not work.”
Lerman said those comments do not suggest to him that Bush is ready to abandon the three-step process of the road map. He said the idea of a Palestinian state with contiguous territory in the West Bank has been endorsed repeatedly by Sharon.
Lerman noted that stage 2 of the road map calls for the creation of a Palestinian state with provisional borders. Final-status issues like the future of Jerusalem and the right-of-return of Palestinians to Israel would be discussed in phase 3.
“We’re still a long way off” from completing phase 1 of the road map, Lerman said.
In fact, the Palestinian Authority under the leadership of Mahmoud Abbas is trying to work with the terrorists rather than disarm them. And there were warnings Tuesday from Brig.-Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser, Israel’s military intelligence research chief, who was quoted as telling a Knesset committee that Palestinian terror groups are ready to launch precision attacks inside Israel the moment the cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians breaks down. He reportedly said that although the Palestinian Authority has taken significant steps to stop terror attacks and make arrests, terror groups, particularly in the Gaza Strip, continue building their infrastructure and producing rockets and mortar shells.
Lerman said Israel’s Gaza withdrawal is an “additional offering beyond stage 1” but is still within the framework of stage 1.
He said the fear of settlers is that once the disengagement is complete — it is slated to begin July 20 and last nine weeks — the Sharon government would then seek to implement stage 2.
“That involves the evacuation of a significant number of settlers” in the West Bank to give Palestinians a contiguous state, Lerman noted.
He said settlers are so strongly against the Gaza pullout because they assume that “Gaza is the frontline” in the withdrawal process.
New Route For FenceNot only did the cabinet Sunday approve the disengagement plan, but it also approved 20-1 a new route for the security barrier that reduces the amount of West Bank land on the Israel side to 7 percent from 15 percent. The move is to conform to Israeli court orders to reduce as much as possible the hardship the barrier poses for Palestinians.
But Steinberg said he believes the route of the barrier may be changed yet again in response to complaints by Israeli Jews that it causes them serious harm. The community of Har Adar just west of Jerusalem went to court this week arguing that the new route harms their “basic security needs and other legitimate interests.”
Steinberg said he believes that the decision to proceed with the disengagement, coupled with the new route of the security barrier that in many places puts it “very close to the 1949 armistice lines,” has been a “shock” to many Israelis.
“A lot of Israelis were taken by surprise at the speed with which things are moving [on the Israeli side], and we see no movement to disarm terrorists groups,” he said. “Everyone is wondering when the next round of terror will be. … There is a sense that Sharon has lost control.”
The only thing that could derail the Gaza disengagement plan now is the failure of the Knesset to adopt the 2005 budget by March 31.
“The general assumption is that it will pass,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Hoenlein, who returned this week with more than 100 Jewish leaders from meetings in Bulgaria, Romania and Israel, said the Sharon government was negotiating to win assurances from different parties that they will support the budget. Although some members of Sharon’s own Likud Party have vowed to vote against it in the hope of bringing down the government and stopping the Gaza withdrawal, Hoenlein said he would not be surprised if Sharon “imposed party discipline.” Such a move would require all Likud Knesset members to vote for the budget.
Regarding the new route of the security barrier, Hoenlein said Israeli officials and “high ranking IDF officials told me that as long as [settlers] are in the West Bank, they will be protected” even if they are outside of the security barrier. He was referring to the Israel Defense Forces, which he said would maintain patrols of the settlements. He said also that fences and other security measures would remain in place to protect them.