Sharon’s De Gaulle Moment: Parting from Greater Israel, Seizing Initiative

Ariel Sharon had no map, he drew no lines, he spoke in the vaguest of terms, but when he said he would remove settlements, he made the most startling concession of his career — and cornered his rivals like a master tactician.

The Israeli prime minister warned his compatriots Thursday that they would have to face the “extremely difficult” prospect of removing Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a remarkable statement from the man widely regarded as the architect and driving force behind Israel’s settlement movement.

Speaking at the Herzliya Conference — an annual security conference that Sharon has used in the past for announcing new policies — the prime minister ostensibly directed his speech at the Palestinians, telling them they would gain much more if they adhered to the U.S.-led “road map” peace plan and cracked down on terrorist groups.

Through negotiations, Sharon said, the Palestinians could gain “a democratic Palestinian state with territorial integrity in Judea and Samaria” — the West Bank — “and economic viability.”

If the Palestinians abjure peaceful negotiation, he said, “Israel will initiate the unilateral security step of disengagement from the Palestinians.”

It was Sharon’s De Gaulle moment: Israel’s most fearsome warrior, its fervent nationalist, saying that the time had come to give up officially on a dream — in this case, the right of Jews to live anywhere in the biblical Land of Israel between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

“In the framework of a future agreement, Israel will not remain in all the places it is today,” he said.

Reaction to the speech was swift. Israelis across the political spectrum, American officials, Palestinians and American Jews all weighed in.

The main pro-Israel lobbying group in Washington, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, noted how far Sharon had come.

“In the face of opposition from his core constituency, Sharon expressed a firm determination to take historic steps on the difficult and painful issues of settlements and outposts,” an AIPAC statement said. In his speech, Sharon said he would act within months.

Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, who attended the speech, said he had heard Sharon was willing to wait up to six months.

David Mack, an analyst with the Middle East Institute, in Washington, said Sharon had taken the strategic high ground.

“People underestimate Prime Minister Sharon. They say he’s a tactician but doesn’t have a strategy, but this shows he may well have a strategy,” said Mack, a former U.S. assistant deputy secretary of state for Near East affairs. “He may know that at some point there would have to be withdrawals. This way, he gets a far better situation for Israel in terms of borders.”

In an irony perhaps typical of Middle East diplomacy, prominent members of Israel’s right and left wings united in their alarm at a prime ministerial vision they said was short-sighted.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom already has come out against unilateral moves, calling them a reward for terrorism. Now the National Religious Party, a part of the governing coalition with Sharon’s Likud Party, is grumbling about a possible walkout.

“We will form a bloc, including members of the Likud, to strike down this preposterous plan,” Zvi Hendel, an National Union lawmaker, told JTA.

Though the idea of unilateral separation originally came from the left, some two dozen Peace Now activists braved heavy rain to demonstrate against Sharon outside Herzliya’s Dan Accadia hotel.

But there was satisfaction in another corner of Sharon’s government — from Shinui, which has billed itself as a pragmatic party with an unvarnished view of both Palestinian diplomatic intentions and the feasibility of the idea of a Greater Israel.

“I hope very much that the extreme right will leave the coalition and make way for Labor to come in and restore some common sense,” said Shinui’s leader, Justice Minister Yosef “Tommy” Lapid.

Palestinians were furious at Sharon’s speech, calling it an ultimatum.

“It’s the mentality of occupation, the delivering of ultimatums and then imposing unilateral conditions,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian legislator. “It’s about time to get down to business and acts without imposing impossible conditions.”

The problem for the Palestinians is that, for the time being, “getting down to business” is going to happen according to Sharon’s timeline.

“The ball is clearly in the Palestinian court,” said Steven Spiegel, a professor of political science at UCLA and a national scholar of the Israel Policy Forum, a U.S. group that has been critical of Sharon. “The Palestinians will want to avoid being in the corner.”

Edward Abington, a top U.S. adviser to the Palestinians, said Sharon had made similar promises in the past and failed to make good on them. But, he added, the speech makes clear to the Palestinians that the Israeli prime minister has seized the initiative.

“It requires serious consideration and merits a serious Palestinian response,” said Abington, a former U.S. consul in Jerusalem.

It was not only the Palestinians who were cornered.

By making the removal of settlements a condition for peace without specifying any settlements by name, Sharon also made it difficult for hard-liners in and out of his government to protest.

“I know you want names, but we have to leave something for later,” he said.

Sharon apparently has learned the lesson of his evacuation of the Sinai settlement of Yamit in 1982, when months of advance notice allowed settlers to organize a bloody and traumatic demonstration of resistance during the evacuation.

Settlers and their supporters in the United States clearly were unnerved by Sharon’s speech.

To reward Palestinian Authority President Yasser “Arafat and his terror regime by unilaterally giving them land, expelling Jews and removing checkpoints is appeasement and will make it easier for terrorists to operate and teach them that violence leads to more concessions,” said Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America.

Sharon already was anticipating flak from his right wing in his speech, and he hinted at a startling quid pro quo: “Settlements which will be relocated are those which will not be included in the territory of the State of Israel in the framework of any possible permanent agreement.” Other settlements, Sharon noted, would become part of Israel.

Translation: Sharon would annex settlements like Ma’aleh Adumim and the Etzion bloc, areas that even the most conciliatory peace plans keep within Israel. Other settlements — probably many Gaza settlements and far-flung outposts in the West Bank — likely would be relocated or dismantled.

Sharon’s speech also protected his left flank, taking the air out of the sails of unofficial peace proposals touted in recent weeks as alternative solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. U.S. groups supportive of those proposals acknowledged as much after Sharon’s speech.

“The fact that you have the godfather of the settlement movement talking publicly about removing outposts and some settlements is positive,” said Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now.

Roth otherwise dismissed Sharon’s speech as a plan for annexation.

The Bush administration also was put on the spot by the speech, and it was clear that Sharon had U.S. officials in mind. Coupled with his promise to remove settlements, Sharon’s repeated pledges to adhere to the U.S.-backed road map — he said the sides could return to the road map even after a unilateral withdrawal — made it harder to criticize the plan’s unilateralism.

Additionally, Sharon said he immediately would dismantle illegal settlement outposts and was more specific than he ever has been about freezing settlements. He pledged no further land expropriation, no building beyond existing settlement borders and no new financial incentives.

That pleased the White House.

“For the first time, he said flatly that there would be no new settlements, no confiscation of land for construction, no special economic incentives for settlers and no construction beyond present construction zones,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

Another concession for the Americans was Sharon’s pledge to remove West Bank roadblocks and improve economic conditions for the Palestinians without any preconditions.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said he believes the speech will be well received in Washington.

“He addressed himself to the Palestinians and offers them a better life,” Hoenlein said. “If they take control now, he offers them real hope.”

Foxman said the speech would allay some U.S. concerns.

“The administration was very concerned that Israel would, all of a sudden, take unilateral action,” Foxman said. “He agreed to hold off.”

U.S. diplomats were left treading a fine line between commending Sharon for his apparent concessions and expressing their distaste for any unilateral moves.

“We welcome Sharon’s reaffirmation of his wholehearted commitment to the road map and his commitment to making life easier for the Palestinians and his commitment to the president last summer to remove outposts,” one State Department official said. “We also restate our opposition to any unilateral steps that would prejudge the final status.”

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