Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, declared 2005 "the year of great opportunity." In a recent P.R.-driven policy speech, Sharon said the year presented an opportunity for a "historic breakthrough" in Israel's relations with the Palestinians, for economic revival, and for a new partnership with the international community.
Indeed, in recent weeks the pieces of the political puzzle appear to have been arranged in Sharon's favor. His archenemy, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, has died and been replaced by the moderate Mahmoud Abbas, aka Abu Mazen. Sharon's indispensable international backer, President George W. Bush, has been reelected. And most important, Sharon has reasserted his political control at home. He formed a new coalition with the left-leaning Labor Party, headed by his old friend Shimon Peres. Increasing numbers of Israelis believe that he will fulfill his pledge to withdraw from all of Gaza and four settlements in the northern West Bank, slated for July 2005. The Palestinian intifada has all but run its course, while the Israeli economy is rebounding from a recession to renewed growth and an all-time stock market high.
Under these circumstances, it's not surprising that Sharon feels as powerful as ever. He has a clear policy initiative, his unprecedented Gaza-plus "disengagement" plan. He is working to complete his coalition makeup with an Orthodox party, United Torah Judaism. Bringing it on board will give Israel some long-coveted political stability, at least for the coming year. (The 95-year-old rabbi who is the spiritual mentor of United Torah has still not decided whether to join the coalition.)
The big question, however, is how Sharon will use his power. Will "Gaza first" be also "Gaza last," the end point of the post-Arafat political process? Or will Sharon take the next steps -- further withdrawal from the West Bank and the establishment of a Palestinian state?
The old warrior remains ambiguous, leaving both options open. He recognizes Israel's pressing need to relieve itself of the occupation of millions of Palestinians in the occupied territories, for demographic and political reasons. But it is far from clear whether he really intends to dismantle any large Israeli settlements in the West Bank -- settlements of which he was the prime architect. For Sharon, who bitterly opposed the Oslo process, to sign off on a deal that essentially gives the Palestinians what Oslo and Camp David/Taba promised would be a shocking about-face. Yet it is highly unlikely that the Palestinians, whether led by Abu Mazen or anyone else, will accept anything less.
Those who doubt that Sharon intends to make serious concessions on the West Bank or over the status of East Jerusalem, another major point of contention, point to an extraordinarily candid interview given by Sharon's chief advisor, Dov Weisglass, before Arafat died. In that interview, Weisglass acknowledged that Sharon's disengagement plan was not part of a peace plan, but a way of avoiding any future political deal with the Palestinians. "The disengagement is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that's necessary so that there will not be a political process with the Palestinians ... I found a device, in cooperation with the management of the world, to ensure that there will be no stopwatch here. That there will be no timetable to implement the settlers' nightmare. I have postponed that nightmare indefinitely. Because what I effectively agreed to with the Americans was that part of the settlements would not be dealt with at all, and the rest will not be dealt with until the Palestinians turn into Finns."
In the meantime, before any peace discussions can begin, Sharon is demanding that the new Palestinian leadership crack down on terrorism and incitement and reform its political, security and economic institutions. Of these, the chaotic security situation is the most pressing: Arafat allowed a bewildering variety of security forces to exist, making central control and accountability impossible. Sharon has recognized that the Palestinians need time to revamp their security forces.
The riddle of which way Sharon will go will probably not be resolved during 2005. The timetable for the Gaza settlement evacuation creates a buffer period for both Israeli and Palestinian leaders to deal with domestic issues before engaging in substantive negotiations. Abbas, who will almost certainly be elected as president of the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) on Jan. 9, needs to consolidate his power, achieve an understanding with the Islamic militant groups to halt terror attacks against Israelis, and extract supportive gestures from Israel. So far, Abu Mazen has made virtually no mistakes. He has kept his distance from America and Israel, quelled challengers within his mainstream Fatah movement, and repaired the Palestinians' sour relations with key Arab states. Nevertheless, he failed to get the Hamas leadership to consent to a cease-fire, and he has yet to confront his security chiefs over redistributing their power.
During his presidential campaign, Abbas has, as expected, stuck to Arafat's positions on the disputed issues with Israel. Unlike his late master, however, Abu Mazen is a firm believer in peaceful negotiations, rather than armed struggle, as the means to achieve Palestinian independence.
Sharon, who has known Abbas for decades, has responded positively to the Palestinian leadership change. He avoided giving Abu Mazen an embarrassing public hug, pledging only to meet whatever leader the Palestinians elect. He agreed to facilitate Palestinian elections (including in East Jerusalem, which Israel considers its sovereign territory) and proposed coordinating the Gaza withdrawal with the P.A. instead of going it alone, the original plan. Sharon is hoping to avoid an "evacuation under fire"; he wants to focus Israeli energy on dealing with the evacuated settlers, without having to simultaneously battle Palestinian militants. The ongoing fighting in Gaza, in which Israel has answered Palestinian mortar and rocket attacks on Israeli settlements with overwhelming power, shows the risks involved.
Sharon's main challenge in 2005 will be dealing with the settlers' opposition to the evacuation. For decades, the settlers have built Israel's most effective political lobby, aided generously by Sharon in his various political capacities. Now he is turning against them. For the settlers, the battle is not only over the villages in the Gaza Strip, but also over the next stage. They want to deter the government from future evacuation of West Bank settlements, which lie at the core of their 37-year-old enterprise.
Having failed to topple Sharon's government, or to call a national referendum over his Gaza plan, the settlers are politically isolated. Accordingly, they have turned to direct action. Some of their religious and political leaders have called on soldiers to disobey orders and resist the evacuation, even at the risk of imprisonment. The military fears that massive numbers of religious soldiers and officers will refuse to carry out evacuation orders. Field commanders who met with Sharon last week warned that settlers and their supporters are already preparing to fight the evacuation forces. Israel's security service, the Shabak, fears an attempt on Sharon's life, or a Jewish terrorist attack against the Muslim holy shrines in Jerusalem.
Even if the pullout is eventually carried out relatively peacefully, without violent protests or a crisis of discipline in the army, it will undoubtedly be a traumatic event for Israelis. This will complicate the next stage in the process. The international community -- the United States, European and Arab governments -- expects Israel to follow its disengagement with a similar move in the West Bank. Sharon persuaded Bush not to pressure him until the Gaza plan was implemented. But Bush is not the only player involved: His European allies have made it clear that U.S. involvement in brokering a Palestinian-Israeli peace is the price for better transatlantic relations. This means pressing Sharon to take further steps. Washington has resisted those calls so far, merely using them as an example of the pressure that will be brought to bear on Israel if the Gaza plan is thwarted.
Sharon's position is that the pullout is an autonomous Israeli decision, not linked to the internationally backed "road map" toward Palestinian independence and an end to the Israeli occupation. The road map's first stage calls on the Palestinians to "immediately undertake an unconditional cessation of violence" and to begin reforming Palestinian institutions. The road map does not insist that all violence must immediately stop, rather that "Palestinians declare an unequivocal end to violence and terrorism and undertake visible efforts on the ground to arrest, disrupt, and restrain individuals and groups conducting and planning violent attacks on Israelis anywhere." Sharon, however, is taking the position that a "complete cessation of terror, violence and incitement in deeds rather than words" is necessary before Israel will return to the road map, which has been effectively dead for many months. Under Arafat, this was mission impossible. But with a democratically elected Abbas in power, and a credible cease-fire in place, the P.A. could get a high grade for performance, throwing the ball back into Israel's court.
Israelis know that their moment of truth will come after the disengagement. Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, one of Sharon's confidants in the ruling Likud Party, said last week, "Sitting and doing nothing is not an option. Israel's interest requires a disengagement on a wider scale than what will happen as part of the current disengagement plan." Olmert's remarks to the Jerusalem Post prompted a rebuttal from Sharon's office, which asserted that there would be no second disengagement and that the only accepted plan is the roadmap. Interestingly, Sharon's statement did not rule out withdrawal by agreement. This does not mean, however, that Sharon plans such a withdrawal, only that he wants to leave the door open for any scenario.
The debate over "the day after," while still in its initial stage, threatens to tear apart the new coalition and lead Israelis to the polls in late 2005 or early 2006. There is logic in redrawing the political map following a historic turning point like the Gaza withdrawal. Labor is bound to demand further steps, while Likud leaders will resist them and urge caution. On the other hand, Sharon and Peres will try to hold their alliance together until the official Election Day in November 2006.
Bush has committed himself to Palestinian statehood during his second term but has avoided any pledge to "end the conflict" or reach a final Israeli-Palestinian deal. Elliott Abrams, Bush's Middle East point man -- who is rumored to be appointed special envoy to the region -- told Jewish groups and think tanks that eventually, most West Bank settlements (those outside the main "blocks") will be removed. Abrams rejected the "right of return" -- the Palestinian demand that refugees who fled or were expelled from their homes in what is now Israel be allowed to return to them. The explosive Jerusalem issue would be deferred. This position corresponds to Bush's controversial April 14 letter to Sharon, which accepted "Israeli population centers" (the blocks) in the territories as a fait accompli (Bush's letter called them "new realities on the ground") and rejected the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel.
The Israeli government views the Bush letter, which broke with the decades-long American and international position that the settlements are illegal, as a license to keep four settlement blocks that are home to about three-fourths of the settlers; these are adjacent to Israel's population centers in the Tel Aviv area and Jerusalem. Sharon is working hard to establish more "new realities on the ground" in those places, through the erection of Israel's security barrier and construction of new housing units. Faced with international censure, Israel has changed the barrier route. In many areas, it moved the fence to the pre-1967 Green Line dividing the West Bank and Israel. But in other areas, its route still encompasses the settlement blocks built on land Israel acquired after the 1967 war.
Its test will come soon, when Sharon presents for cabinet approval the new fence route in Gush Etzion, southeast of Jerusalem. It will include about 18,000 Palestinian villagers and Palestinian-owned lands, along with 10 Israeli settlements with 50,000 inhabitants. The government is planning a quid pro quo, taking this land in return for moving a large area in the southern West Bank to the barrier's "Palestinian" side. Nevertheless, this de facto annexation of Palestinian land will pose a major test for Abbas, an outspoken critic of the Israeli wall, which he has declared an obstacle to peace. He will almost certainly oppose the Gush Etzion fence, which would create a large Israeli enclave between the Palestinian cities of Bethlehem and Hebron, along the West Bank's main artery. It is also unclear whether the Israeli Supreme Court, which ordered the barrier route changed because of the hardship it imposed on Palestinians, will accept the new Gush Etzion plan.
Under American pressure, Sharon is deferring barrier construction around two other settlement blocks -- Ariel and Ma'ale Adumim -- which also slice up the future Palestinian state. Apparently, he will try to gain consent for fencing off these areas in return for other concessions. Meanwhile, the barrier is gradually becoming the de facto border, despite Israel's official position regarding its "temporary, security-oriented" nature. The government applied for the financing of modern, high-tech terminals for Palestinian people and goods along the barrier. The World Bank agreed to look into it, provided that such terminals are located on the Green Line and not inside the West Bank. Clearly, such a project is reasonable only in the context of a long-term boundary, not some interim measure.
The future map of Israel is thus being drawn right now -- by construction of the barrier and by the political decisions being taken. The situation recalls Ehud Barak's proposals at the 2000 Camp David summit, shaped around the settlement blocks, which were rejected by Arafat as too modest to accommodate the Palestinians. Nothing is imminent, but any abandonment of West Bank settlements would certainly precipitate a domestic crisis in Israel, for which the Gaza evacuation is only the prelude.
Sharon has apparently not forsaken his decades-old plan to surround Palestinian enclaves (which critics deride as "Bantustans") in the West Bank with Israeli settlements and "security zones." His actions to date are still making that plan possible. At the same time, he has shown sensitivity to American opinion and an ability to change his mind -- hence his willingness to construct the barrier despite his initial rejection of it, and his decision to leave the Gaza settlements shortly after declaring that they were as important to the Jewish state as Tel Aviv. But at the end of the day, what counts is political will and ability. Sharon's disengagement from Gaza, even though only the prelude to the real play, may end up consuming Israel's energy, throwing the country, and hopes for peace, into another hibernation.