In the latest orchestrated leak to the press, Thursday Ma'ariv reported the details of the unilateral withdrawal plan drafted for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon by his National Security Council. The plan involves the expulsion of Israelis not only from the Gush Katif, Kfar Darom and Netzarim in Gaza, but also from up to 25 additional towns in Judea and Samaria. According to the plan, the towns in Gaza that are set to be vacated will be transferred to an unidentified "somebody."
So now it is clear that the plan that Sharon has so far refused to present to his cabinet is not simply about a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. It is also about a unilateral withdrawal from Judea and Samaria. The fact that the prime minister has decided to shorten the security fence by some 170 kilometers to make it more or less coterminous with the 1949 armistice lines is further evidence that what Sharon has in mind is an Israeli surrender of just about all of the disputed territories to "somebody."
The NSC's plan also lists the obvious security vulnerabilities inherent in the unilateral withdrawal. These dangers include "an increase in terror; a disintegration of the Palestinian regime; a Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip; a humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian territories that Israel will be sucked into; an adjustment of terror organizations to the new circumstances with renewal of operations at a raised tempo; and damage to Israeli intelligence capabilities in the aftermath of the withdrawal."
Sharon's political machinations over the past few weeks indicate he is committed to moving forward with this plan regardless of consequences. Again, through orchestrated media leaks, we learned this week that he has already concluded negotiations with Labor Party leader Shimon Peres for Labor, a party resoundingly rejected by the voters in last year's elections, to join his government after he forces the National Union and the NRP to bolt his coalition.
Sharon has also leaked that he is considering bringing Shas into his government, perhaps as a result of a projected breakup of the Likud itself. Sources in the Likud have noted that the anti-withdrawal block already includes the legally required 15 MKs who together can leave the party and form a new parliamentary faction.
While our elected officials have so far received no opportunity to debate or vote on Sharon's plan in the cabinet (and have disgracefully demanded none), Sharon is aggressively promoting it to foreigners, with whose help he plans to push it through his government as a fait accompli. With the enthusiastic backing of our media, Sharon is engaging the Egyptian and US governments in in-depth discussions about the role they will play in implementing his plan.
After his meeting Thursday with Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak agreed to amend the limitations placed on Egyptian military deployments in the Sinai by the Camp David Peace Accord and deploy units to the border between Gaza and Egypt. As for Hamas, Mubarak told Israeli reporters that the movement is not his problem. "I don't want to talk about Hamas or any other organization. It's not my business. The Palestinians must bring security. As for Hamas, you created it," Mubarak said.
As for the Bush administration, Sharon hopes that the removal of Jews from up to 25 towns in Judea and Samaria will convince the president and his advisers to accept what former President Bill Clinton proposed in 2000, namely an American acceptance of Israeli civilian presence in Gush Etzion, Ariel and the Adumim bloc communities. Since negotiations are still ongoing, it is unclear whether President Bush will go as far as Clinton would have.
One of the most noteworthy aspects of the Sharon plan is how closely it follows the model of the Oslo Accords. Like the current initiative, the Oslo Accord was sold to the Israeli public as a way to withdraw from the hornet's nest of Gaza. The fact that Judea and Samaria were also being given away was aggressively downplayed by both the Rabin-Peres government and the media. Like the current plan, Oslo was negotiated without government or military oversight. Like the current plan, the dangers inherent in Oslo were known before the agreement was signed.
On the other hand, in many respects Oslo was better than what Sharon is currently advocating. In 1993, the government had the luxury of innocence. It can be argued that both Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres believed that the PLO was a reasonable partner that would abide by its commitments to live at peace with Israel, combat terrorism and educate Palestinian society to live in peace with the Jewish state. This is not the case today. We already know that we have no credible Palestinian partner.
Oslo also provided us with diplomatic openings to many countries and enhanced Israel's diplomatic standing generally for a time. In the case of the Sharon plan, no such dividend is in the offing. The position of the international community remains that the plan cannot cancel the future need for additional concessions in Judea and Samaria and leaves the issues of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees on the table.
In addition, Oslo entailed the continued deployment of IDF troops in Judea, Samaria and Gaza. It also allowed the retention of an Israeli civilian presence in the territories and placed no restrictions on the right of that Israeli civilian presence to grow and develop freely.
Sharon's program allows for none of these things. The IDF will be redeployed out of Gaza and, it can be assumed, much of Judea and Samaria. We also know that when the Palestinians continue to attack us, the Europeans and the Americans will pressure our government "to exercise restraint" in responding. We know that the Egyptians will take no effective action to curb these assaults and we know that at the UN and other international fora, Israel will be condemned for taking any actions whatsoever to defend our citizenry from terrorist assault emanating from the areas under the control of "somebody."
Aside from the policy parallels to Oslo, Sharon's plan shares an additional similarity to Rabin's gamble. As was the case with Rabin, Sharon has offered his plan at a time when he was under no international pressure whatsoever to do anything of the sort. Rabin moved on Oslo because he wished to shore up his credibility domestically. In the 1992 elections he had promised to achieve an agreement "within a year." The clock was ticking, so he moved. In Sharon's case, he has his legal woes and his sinking numbers in the polls to consider, so he too moves.
The most stunning aspect of this plan is the fact that it is being advanced at the same time as another Middle East peace plan that actually could bring about a long term change for the better in our region. This plan, the Bush administration's Greater Middle East Initiative, involves pressuring Arab dictatorships like Egypt's to democratize. The very existence of the US initiative has already caused shockwaves throughout the Arab world. It is empowering voices of freedom from Damascus to Mecca to Cairo. For the first time, these voices are getting picked up by Western news organizations which for years stood by as they were repressed and silenced.
Iraq this week took the incredible step of ratifying a constitution that will make the country the first Arab democracy ever. The potential repercussions of a stable pro-Western Iraqi democracy on the region are enormous.
And yet, again according to leaks to the press, we learn that Egypt will be paid off by the US for its declared willingness to deploy its military forces along the border. One can only assume that the price that Mubarak will exact is an American pledge not to apply even the slightest pressure on him to free his people from the yoke of his dictatorship.
For decades Likud leaders, from Begin to Shamir to Netanyahu, argued that the only way for Israel to ever live at peace with its neighbors is for these neighbors to become democracies. Since Israel has no power to force such a change, over the years, these leaders were subject to ridicule and calumny. Their belief in democracy was criticized as a tactic to forestall negotiations with the PLO and with the presidents-for-life in Egypt and Syria.
Yet, while Israel has no power to cause our neighbors to choose freedom and democracy, the US has such power. And today, rather than allowing the Bush administration to use this power, Sharon's wooing of Mubarak pulls the rug out from under an initiative that presents the only real chance of bringing peace and security to Israel in a way that can meet both the Arab and the Israeli needs.
Not surprisingly, the US plan was long debated both openly in the US press and behind closed doors. It was publicly launched by the president. The plan's credibility rests on the credibility the US gained in the Arab world as a result of its military victory in Iraq. If successful, it will advance US national security interests in the region by drying up the swamps of extremism that flourish in the darkness of totalitarian regimes. If it fails, the US is no worse off than it is today. That is, the plan is low risk and entails a potentially enormous payoff.
In sharp contrast, Sharon's plan is being advanced despite its high risks and unclear payoffs. It strengthens our enemies among the Palestinians. It enhances Mubarak's regional strength and reputation at the expense of the American sponsored nascent Iraqi democracy. It emboldens the Europeans and it pushes the US into a position where in the interests of "progress" in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict it will be forced to undermine a plan that can actually bring peace.
And all of this it does while manipulating the Israeli people, through orchestrated leaks and behind the scenes discussions, to accept a government we rejected a year ago and a plan far worse than the one we were bamboozled into accepting 11 years ago.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.