Rage and despair

Liberal Israelis and Palestinians say President Bush's embrace of Ariel Sharon's proposal may have killed the last chance for peace.

Michelle Goldberg
April 17, 2004 11:51PM (UTC)

Fareed Taamallah, a liberal Palestinian activist who frequently works with Israeli peace groups, has given up on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. He's eating a falafel in a windowless restaurant in Bedia, a Palestinian village just a short walk from the new Israeli security wall that slices through the West Bank, surrounding Israeli settlements that look like suburban Florida neighborhoods magically transferred to the Levant. It's the day after George W. Bush stood beside Ariel Sharon and, in the eyes of many here, gave him the green light to annex this region in exchange for pulling out of squalid Gaza. Watching it, liberal Israelis and Palestinians alike saw the death of the peace process. The event, they fear, will herald an even more violent and anguished phase of the intractable war between two small populations whose hatreds reverberate all over the world.

"Sharon wants to destroy the peace process and the Palestinian people as a political entity," Taamallah says. "There is no limit to what Sharon can do because he got the green light from the States."


In much of Israel and Palestine, Wednesday's meeting between Bush and Sharon, scheduled to broadcast during prime time here, is seen as a huge, possibly career-saving victory for Sharon and a debilitating blow to liberals on both sides of the Green Line, the border that separated Israel and Palestine before the 1967 war. Despite what Bush said, few here see Sharon's proposal to pull out of Gaza while solidifying control of much of the West Bank as being consistent with the "road map," the peace plan supported by the United States and the other three members of the so-called Quartet (Russia, the European Union and the U.N.), which requires that Israel stop settlement building and the Palestinians stop terror attacks as part of a process leading to the creation of an independent Palestinian state by 2005. Instead, it's seen as the death notice of Bush's stillborn proposal and the beginning of a new stage in Israeli politics in which Israel, rather than negotiating a settlement with the Palestinians, negotiates one with America.

By overturning the decades-old official U.S. position that the dispute over borders and refugees had to be resolved by direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, Bush in effect conceded huge areas to the Israelis in advance of those negotiations. It's true that in any peace deal, some large Israeli settlements were likely to be folded into Israel proper -- with the Palestinians being given compensatory land -- and true as well that no wholesale right of return was likely to be acceptable to the Jewish state. But by prejudging these issues, Bush fundamentally shifted the entire dynamic of the process -- and, many here believe, killed it altogether.

Palestinian moderates who had urged concessions have been rendered irrelevant. The last embers of Palestinian faith in a Bush-brokered two-state solution have been snuffed out. And Israeli opponents of the occupation have been cut out of the debate inside their country.


Sharon isn't the only winner, though. "Hamas and Islamic Jihad have been very much strengthened," says Daniel Levy, a Middle East analyst at the International Crisis Group and co-drafter of the Geneva Accord, an unofficial peace initiative put forward by liberal Israelis and Palestinians, including several key participants in the Camp David and Taba peace talks and two of Israel's most famous writers, Amos Oz and David Grossman. "The whole unilateral thing strengthens them. The guys who have spent 10 years sitting with Israelis, negotiating, are humiliated."

It's not that anyone to Sharon's left disagrees with leaving Gaza -- it's what he's demanding in return that troubles them. "Israel should never have built settlements in the Gaza Strip in the first place, so dismantling the settlements is a positive step," says Adam Keller, spokesman for Gush Shalom, an Israeli peace group that advocates Israel withdrawing to its 1967 borders. The problem is that Sharon "is sacrificing the Gaza Strip in order to better control the West Bank. He's like a chess player who sacrifices a knight to save the queen."

Sharon's huge victory is just the latest in a long career in which he has come back from the political graveyard again and again. (The most dramatic was his rehabilitation from findings by an Israeli commission of inquiry that he was culpable in the notorious massacre, by Israel's Lebanese Phalange allies, of hundreds of Palestinian civilians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. Sharon, who was the driving force behind Israel's disastrous invasion and occupation of Lebanon, was dismissed as defense minister.) This time, Sharon has been facing indictment on corruption charges that could force him to step down. Israeli liberals, meanwhile, had seized the initiative on creating a workable settlement.


Last October Yossi Beilin, architect of the Oslo Peace Process, and former Palestinian cabinet minister Yasser Abed Rabbo introduced the Geneva Accord, which both sides presented as a workable plan for a final settlement between Israel and Palestine. As the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported, "At the heart of the proposal is a Palestinian concession on the right of return to lands within the State of Israel" -- a nearly sacrosanct issue for many Palestinians, who've long dreamed of return to the homes they lost when the Jewish state was created -- "in exchange for sovereignty over the Temple Mount. The plan also calls for an Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank and the entire Gaza Strip." The plan does not differ substantially from the last official peace proposal on the table at Taba in 2001, which Ariel Sharon, who was elected prime minister on an anti-Oslo platform, broke off upon taking office.

Considering the dramatically worsened political climate in both Israel and the occupied territories since the end of the Taba talks and the new intifada, the Geneva Accord stood little chance of being implemented in the short term, but for a while it dominated the debate over Israel and Palestine. "When Geneva came along, it made such a big storm that even those who disagreed had to respond," says Levy, who is an advisor to Beilin.


Many current and former leaders worldwide endorsed Beilin and Rabbos' proposal, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, former President Bill Clinton and former Soviet Union president Mikhail Gorbachev. Blair sent Lord Michael Levy -- Daniel Levy's father -- to represent him at the Geneva Accord signing ceremony in Switzerland on Dec. 1, and released a statement saying, "I hope that this initiative will also show that Israelis and Palestinians remain capable of finding partners for peace and working together, and encourage a return to the negotiating table."

Sharon was apoplectic. The core of his approach to the conflict has always been the conviction -- or strategic position -- that there is no one on the Palestinian side to negotiate with, and the sudden appearance of credible Palestinian peace partners threatened that position. So he came forward with his own plan -- unilateral disengagement. He called for pulling out of Gaza entirely, evacuating the 7,500 Israeli settlers who live in 21 heavily armed settlements among more than a million impoverished Palestinians. He also said he would evacuate four of the 140 settlements in the West Bank while consolidating control over other, larger ones. The majority of Israel's approximately 400,000 settlers -- 230,000 of them -- live in the West Bank. (Another 160,000 live in East Jerusalem.) Many of the settlements are being embraced by the security fence -- in many places, more properly described as a security wall -- that Israel is building on Palestinian land.

"In any future final status arrangement, there will be no Israeli settlement activity in the Gaza Strip," says a letter about the plan that Sharon faxed to Likud members on Thursday. "On the other hand, it is clear that there will be areas in Judea and Samaria that will be part of the State of Israel, and there will be civilian communities, security zones and other places in which Israel has further interest inside those areas."


Despite Sharon's promise to retain parts of "Judea and Samaria," Jewish biblical names for the West Bank, his plan to withdraw from Gaza faces opposition by some right-wing factions in Israel, who accuse Sharon of caving in to terrorism and sacrificing land that God has deeded to the Jewish people.

Seeking to demonstrate support for his plan, Sharon called a May 2 referendum of 200,000 Likud members, whose vote will decide the future of the pullout. One result of this has been to render everyone to the left of Sharon even more irrelevant than they have been for the last three and a half years, when the collapse of peace talks and the Al-Aqsa intifada pushed them to the margins of Israeli society. "As far as the Israeli media is concerned, all the debate is taking place on the right," says Levy. "It's as if America's Iraq policy was being decided by a referendum within the Republican Party."

Before the vote, though, Sharon needed to offer his party assurances that if it gave up Gaza, the United States would support Israel's claim to the West Bank, something no American president has ever done. The plan, then, could only work with Bush's endorsement, which Sharon hoped to get both during a joint press conference and in the official letters that the two leaders exchanged. The day before Sharon met with Bush, David Sharan, a Likud activist and aide to conservative Knesset member Yuval Shteinitz, said, "I think 30 percent [of the party] are with Sharon, 30 are against and the rest are in the middle. They didn't make their mind up yet. Everybody is waiting for him to come back from the United States and then they'll see."


Some were expecting Sharon to come home disappointed, reasoning that, confronting a dangerous insurgency in Iraq, Bush would scarcely want to further antagonize the Arab world. Others, though, figured that the mess in Iraq would make a weakened Bush desperate to point to some kind of achievement, however temporary, in the Middle East and unwilling to exert any pressure on Sharon. Bush relies on Christian evangelicals, who staunchly support Israel and make up his electoral base, and is unwilling to pay the political price of challenging Sharon (total support for Israel may be the only issue upon which there is virtually complete unanimity in the U.S. Congress). The day before Bush's meeting with Sharon, an editorial in Israel's most prestigious (and liberal) newspaper, Haaretz, said, "Sharon wishes to take this opportunity, on the eve of the American presidential elections, when the president is in political distress because of the military entanglement in Iraq, to harness the administration to the political move he is leading."

By Wednesday night, it was clear that Sharon had gotten everything he could have hoped for from Bush. "Bush went farther than most expected in supporting the plan, saying in clearer terms than any U.S. president has publicly used that the U.S. does not expect Israel to withdraw to the Green Line nor take in Palestinian refugees," said an analysis in the right-leaning Jerusalem Post.

Bush also promised Sharon that the U.S. "would do its utmost to prevent any attempt by anyone to impose any other plan," a reference to both the Geneva Accord and to a similar 2002 peace initiative put forward by Saudi Arabia.

But Bush's biggest gift to Sharon may be a possible way out of the corruption indictment that the Israeli prime minister is facing.


The Sharon scandal -- pushed from the news in Israel by stories about his triumphant meeting with Bush -- stems from his position as Israel's foreign minister in the 1990s, when he allegedly intervened to help Israeli businessman David Appel secure land development deals in Greece. In return, Appel is said to have funneled money to the Sharon family by hiring Sharon's son, Gilad, as a consultant on a tourism development project -- a field in which Gilad had no experience. Appel was indicted in January, accused of trying to pay more than $2.6 million in bribes to Sharon and Gilad.

Prosecutor Edna Arbel recommended that Sharon be charged as well. The final decision about whether to indict Sharon is left to Attorney General Menachem Mazuz.

Mazuz is more liberal than Sharon, though, and many observers believe he won't want to be the one to stand in the way of an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. "The chance of pulling out, especially if the plan is endorsed by President Bush, it would put tremendous pressure on this one single person, the attorney general who has to make a decision," says the liberal Israeli journalist and historian Tom Segev. "He would be forcing out of office a man who is just about to change the course of history. A chance to reduce tension, to reduce terrorism. It's a tremendous responsibility."

Segev, who supports the Gaza pullout even though he opposes Sharon's hard line on the West Bank, sees the pullout plan as a last-ditch maneuver by Sharon to avoid Nixonian ignominy. "Interestingly enough, he won't find himself on trial for any war crimes but for corruption charges. It's ironic that he might end up as a simple crook, similar to Richard Nixon."


While Bush strengthened Sharon's position, the moderate Palestinian leadership was badly wounded. Levy says that there are "Palestinian leaders that are eminently dealable-with," but that Sharon has "cut them off at the knees."

He points to Abu Mazen, the moderate Palestinian prime minister who resigned last September after a power struggle with Yasser Arafat. "Abu Mazen came along and said, OK, I'll play the game, and he got shattered," says Levy. "Imagine if Sharon had said to him, 'For the first three months, this is what I expect of you. Then, in month four, I'm going to announce that as a result of our meetings, I'm going to evacuate Gaza.'" The liberal, negotiation approach would have been strengthened enormously among Palestinians, Levy says.

Now, those Palestinians who were willing to make concessions to Israel are under attack. "They're going to say, 'You're the ones who paved the way for this letter!'" Levy says. "Americans and Israelis have taken your concessions, pocketed them and given us nothing."

Indeed, no sooner had Levy said that than the Committee for the Defense of the Rights of Palestine's Refugees, a group representing refugee camps in Gaza and the West Bank, released a statement attacking the authors of the Geneva Accord. "Bush would never have taken this step, had he not known that the Palestinian arena is filled with initiatives and ideas to repeal the right of return," the statement said. According to Haaretz, one of the authors of the statement demanded that Palestinians "boycott persons involved in the peace initiatives, until they retract their remarks."


Reached in Gaza, Jamal Zakut, co-author of Geneva and deputy to Abed Rabbo, was both furious and despairing. "I think that by disengagement and unilateralism, Sharon is empowering radicalism in Palestine," said Zakut. "He's deepening the idea that there is no hope of a real peace process, there is no hope of negotiation. What happened yesterday was very clear. It was the replacing of the road map with the Sharon map. It was an American failure."

Speaking in Ramallah, Hani Al-Masri, the Palestinian Authority's minister of information, was more fatalistic. The road map, he said, "was born dead. Yesterday they just put it into the fire."

Meanwhile, there is no political solution in sight for those Palestinians whose land is being annexed by the security wall. In Masha village, the wall cuts Hani Amer's house off from both his land and his village, looping around to completely surround the small home where he and his wife live with their six children. On one side are newly erected concrete slabs reaching around 30 feet into the air. On another is the gate to a military road erected to service the wall, on the third is the double row of fencing protecting a neighboring settlement, and on the fourth is a locked gate with a sign reading, "Mortal Danger -- Military Zone. Any Person Who Passes or Damages the Fence Endangers His Life."

The Israeli army gave the family a key to the gate that surrounds them, but they're not allowed to have visitors. "We are like prisoners," says Monira Amer, Hani's wife. "The view of the wall is disgusting."

From the roof, though, there's a prettier view, of a settlement that's only a stone's throw away (and many stones have been thrown, by both sides). There, there are manicured lawns, lush flowering plants (the lion's share of water is reserved for Israeli settlements) and large American-style two-story homes. It's another world. Monira cries when she sees the settlement's children playing in its orderly streets. One of her teenage sons crouches sullenly on a corner of the roof, not saying anything. To the north, a bulldozer works on the Palestinian side of the fence. According to Fareed Taamallah, construction is beginning there on another settlement. It's only a matter of time, says Monira, before the Israelis come for her family's farmland, too.

"They will come again," she says, while Taamallah translates. "It will not be enough. They will not stop." She may be right -- now that Bush has endorsed Israel's claim to much of the West Bank, there's no reason for Sharon not to keep building.

Groups like Hamas aren't strong in the villages, says Taamallah; they flourish instead in the crowded refugee camps. Still, he thinks the ground is growing fertile. Amer's angry son might make a receptive recruit, he says.

And for those who still reject violence, but also reject an endless occupation? The only strategy left for the Palestinians, says Taamallah, is to work for a one-state solution, with Palestinians and Israelis living as equal citizens in a democratic country. Already, the two populations are intertwined, with Israeli settlers living just a few dozen meters from the surrounding farming villages. When Palestinians begin demanding a place in the country that's expanding to envelop them, he says, how can the world not support them? It will mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state, but that's hardly Taamallah's concern.

"Day after day, a one-state solution becomes the best solution," he says. "We are in Bedia, in the heart of the West Bank, and there is a settlement 10 meters from here." Separation, he says, is becoming impossible. It's an idea that Taamallah says is catching on among Palestine's educated classes.

Levy isn't surprised by this kind of talk. "A one-state solution has lots of benefits for the Palestinians," he says. "There's no concession on refugees or on the bigger land issue, and they're going to be a majority in a few years."

The two-state solution, he points out, was only formally adopted by the Palestinian leadership in 1988. Before that, the PLO charter called for a secular democratic state in all of Palestine -- meaning Israel and the territories.

"Pragmatism and realpolitik led them to abandon that," says Levy. But now that such pragmatism has proven useless, the old idea is back in vogue.

"I hope they understand just how much hostility there will be for it in Israel," says Levy. "What a long, long struggle it will be, with no guarantees at the end of the day for a working model. But if two states means Bantustanization for the Palestinians, of course they don't want to buy into it."

Sharon, of course, doesn't care what the Palestinians do or don't buy into. Indeed, when asked by Israeli journalists just how successful he really was in Washington, his aides proudly pointed to the Palestinians' furious reaction.

"They were dealt a lethal blow," he crowed to one Israeli newspaper.

For once, Sharon and the Palestinians are in complete agreement.

Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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