Israeli Political System in Uproar over Reported Plan for Further Withdrawals

Buoyed by American support for his plan to evacuate Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reportedly is considering a second unilateral “disengagement” that will determine Israel’s permanent borders. Though Sharon strongly denies such a plan, and President Bush continues to insist on a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian agreement based on the internationally approved “road map” peace plan, the Israeli political establishment is in an uproar over the idea.

At their mid-April summit in Crawford, Texas, Sharon and President Bush agreed on the potentially historic importance of Sharon’s first disengagement, scheduled for the summer, and agreed that the next step should be Israeli-Palestinian peace talks based on the road map.

But Sharon fears the road map may prove unworkable. And though he denies that he is now working on plans for a follow-up, second disengagement, one of Sharon’s closest aides has acknowledged that if the Palestinians are unable to deliver on their road map commitments — principally, dismantling terrorist groups and eradicating the terrorist infrastructure in Palestinian society — a second unilateral disengagement will be one option Israel considers.

Such a plan is not without its problems: It’s likely to meet opposition from the international community, the Palestinians and Israeli politicians on both the left and right of the political spectrum.

The international community, the Palestinians and the Israeli left almost certainly would prefer bilateral negotiations toward a final peace deal. On the right, settler leaders accuse Sharon of planning another step in “the sell-out of the Land of Israel.”

And, more significantly, leading members of Sharon’s own Likud Party say they’re determined to block any attempt to push through a second disengagement plan.

Nevertheless, speculation in Israeli political circles about a second disengagement is rife. Some analysts argue that it may yet prove to be Israel’s best option, and that the Americans may come around to supporting it.

Though Bush has expressed great admiration for the planned pullback from Gaza and the northern West Bank — describing it as a seminal event that could change the face of the Middle East — Sharon insists that he has not broached the subject of a second unilateral disengagement.

On the contrary, he says he made clear to Bush at the Crawford summit that Israel will renew peace talks with the Palestinians if they first dismantle terrorist militias and carry out promised security, economic and governmental reforms.

But Sharon will face a major dilemma: If the Palestinians don’t carry out their commitments, will Sharon accept a situation of political inertia that could easily degenerate into renewed violence? And if they do, will he embark on peace talks that he thinks are bound to blow up over the issues of Jerusalem and refugees?

In both cases, some members of Sharon’s inner circle believe the way out could be a new Israeli initiative for an additional withdrawal. Like the first disengagement, the idea behind the second would be to pre-empt other “dangerous” peace plans and — because it largely would be a unilateral move — to give Israel control over precisely which territory it gives up.

The furor over the second disengagement idea came last Friday, when political analyst Shimon Shiffer, who covered the Crawford summit for the Yediot Achronot newspaper, wrote that Sharon’s close circle was considering such a move if, as they fear, Abbas proves unable or unwilling to carry out his road-map commitments.

According to Shiffer, the idea would be to evacuate isolated West Bank settlements while annexing large settlement blocs, essentially setting Israel’s permanent borders.

Well aware of the likely political fallout, Sharon vehemently denied that any such plan was in the offing. His office put out a statement saying the prime minister “is not planning another unilateral step of evacuating settlements in the West Bank, after implementation of the disengagement plan.”

But Dov Weisglass, one of Sharon’s closest advisers, was far less categorical. He said Israel’s preferred option was to negotiate with the Palestinians within the framework of the road map, but if the Palestinians fail to carry out their commitments, Israel would consider other options. A second disengagement, as outlined by Shiffer, was one of them, he declared in an Israeli television interview.

Top Likud leaders are taking the scenario seriously enough to come out strongly against it. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom warned that the Likud “won’t allow a second disengagement from parts of the homeland in Judea and Samaria,” the biblical names for the West Bank.

Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said a second disengagement would be a big mistake, giving away key territorial assets while getting nothing in return.

Further to the right, reactions have been even more scathing. Uzi Landau, leader of the rebel group among Likud legislators, said he would demand another Knesset vote on the first disengagement plan, given the new information on where it was leading.

In a prepared statement, the Yesha Settlers’ Council issued a statement accusing Sharon of selling out: “We have been saying for some time that the settlements in Gaza and northern Samaria are only the first dominoes. Sharon will continue the clearance sale of the Land of Israel after the disengagement.”

Despite the denials and criticism, right-wing moderates and some independent analysts continue to tout the second disengagement idea. Yossi Alpher, the former head of Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies and now editor of the Israeli-Palestinian Web site bitterlemons.org, predicts that after the first disengagement is implemented in the summer, international pressure on Sharon to negotiate a peace deal with the Palestinians will grow, leading to the collapse of the Likud-Labor unity government.

Then, perhaps in spring 2006, a re-elected Sharon will emerge with a plan for a second, limited, unilateral West Bank withdrawal, Alpher predicts. Sharon will present his new plan to Bush, and the American president will be sorely tempted to go along with it, in this scenario.

“The last thing Bush wants is to fail the way Clinton failed. And if Sharon says to him, ‘You won’t get a full-fledged peace agreement on your watch or on my watch, but you’ll get progress,’ Bush may well want to hear more,” Alpher told JTA.

All things considered, by next year Sharon may decide to pursue the second disengagement route. But will the international community be prepared to listen? Will the Palestinians? And will he have the domestic political base to make the move?

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