14 April 2005
Whatever you may think of the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, you have to respect his chutzpah. There he is, the prime minister of a country that rules over 2.5 million Palestinians in the occupied territories, more than half of whom have fallen below the poverty line and over 2,000 of whom have been killed by Israel's security force in the past four years, and Sharon presents himself as the battling David facing impossible odds and risking civil war in his fight to remove his settlers from Gaza.
Perhaps it is as bad as that for him. If it is, it is a sore reflection on Israeli society and runs counter to opinion polls which consistently show the majority of Israeli citizens as eager for peace and ready for withdrawal from the occupied lands. But it is also true that the high drama of confrontation and threatened civil conflict in Gaza suits Sharon at this time, as do the differences with President Bush that were highlighted in his trip to Washington this week.
Put bluntly, the more trouble Sharon has with his settlers in Gaza this summer the less pressure he will be under to force much bigger dismantling of the settlements in the West Bank at a later stage.
His decision last year to push for a unilateral disengagement from Gaza was never part of a strategy to produce a vibrant and successful Palestinian state to partner Israel. It was in reaction to a demographic pressure from occupation that could have produced an Arab majority in the country within a generation.
Getting out of Gaza would get rid of a million Palestinians at the cost of moving some 10,000 Israeli settlers. It poses particular problems, true, including the threat of violence from the settlers. But the Israeli government's real concern is to ensure that Gaza after the pull-out doesn't become a hotbed of violence and a source of continuing infiltration.
Hence Sharon's visit to the Bush ranch this week. By all accounts, the two men spent far more time discussing Iran's nuclear ambitions, and what actions they were going to do about it, than Palestine. But the importance to Sharon as far as the settlement issue was concerned was that the US should take responsibility for Palestinian quiescence after withdrawal, which is partly why Bush took such pains to look as if he was ready to speak up for the Palestinians for his part. He can't exercise influence on the Palestinians of the Arab countries if he doesn't look as if he isn't behind at least the road-map to peace.
But that still leaves wide open - and is meant to - what happens when attention turns to the West Bank. That's where the big numbers of Israeli settlers are and that's where the true nature of Sharon's intentions will become clear.
So far, Sharon has been quite open on his goals. He doesn't believe Israel's long terms interests are served by continuing occupation. But he wants to keep Israel's main settlements on the West Bank, and he wants to make sure that Israel can continue to dominate its neighbours in any post-withdrawal settlement.
Where Sharon has changed is in a reluctant acceptance that security considerations may mean the withdrawal from some outlying settlements on the West Bank - his famous "painful sacrifices" in the cause of peace - and some limit on settlement expansion. But nothing that would give Palestine too much strength or allow it to grow as a potential competitor in power or in military might.
While Sharon and Bush announce differences on new settlement activity, the old settlements grow more solid, and the security wall creates new facts on the ground. So where does that leave the Palestinians? On the losing side, as always, is the realistic answer. The intifada, and the election of Bush, has seen the Palestinian people impoverished and demoralised, their best brains emigrated and their cause weakened among their traditional supporters.
Not the least skilful part of Sharon's management of the Gaza issue is that, by seeming to prove his willingness to face down his own extremists, he puts the ball firmly in the court of the new Palestinian Authority to do the same for its part.
No matter how desperate the state of the Gaza residents, how much Israel continues to control their economic activity and their communications, it is up to the Palestinian Authority to show how much it can control its own people. Benjamin Netanyahu did the same with Yasser Arafat when he was prime minister, with deeply damaging results for all concerned. Sharon now wants to do the same with Mahmoud Abbas, and this time he has the support of a US which is able to demand that Egypt and Jordan fall into line.
Washington talks the talk of democracy in the Middle East, but at this stage it is doing something much more old-fashioned: twisting the arm of those regimes over which it has influence and putting maximum direct pressure on those, such as Syria and Iran, which it doesn't to get what it wants. Which in this case is a compliant Middle East.
Sharon is far too old a hand not to know how to play this long. He will make the most of the Gaza withdrawal while refusing to commit himself to anything longer term and watching what Washington can get out of the Palestinians and the Arab countries. What he won't do, and no one is going to put pressure on him to do, is to offer a just and lasting peace to the Palestinians.