Peres on peace

The Labor leader reflects on what might happen after Israel pulls out of Gaza, and says he's optimistic about a return to the "road map."

Published April 22, 2005 2:38PM (EDT)

Shimon Peres doesn't like talking about the past. History, the Israeli deputy prime minister and Labor Party leader says, bores him. "I never think back. Since I cannot change the past, why should I deal with it? You have to really deal with the future," he said in an interview with the Guardian.

Those Israelis who cast the Nobel Peace Prize winner as one of the "Oslo criminals" for attempting to make peace with the Palestinians a decade ago might say he cannot bear to reflect on his failure. But the octogenarian former prime minister is almost as reluctant to talk about a not-too-distant future: what Israelis call "the day after."

Only the very pessimistic -- or optimistic for those who share the views of the hardcore of Jewish settlers -- now doubt that Ariel Sharon intends to carry through his "unilateral disengagement plan" to pull out of the Gaza Strip. The Israeli prime minister has staked his political future on removing the 8,000 Jewish settlers living there. The Israeli public overwhelmingly backs the move as a step toward "separation" from the Palestinians, and Peres has taken his Labor Party into the government to ensure it goes ahead.

But then what? Is Gaza the beginning of a process that will also see Israel withdraw from most of the West Bank and the establishment of a real state for the Palestinians? Or is it Gaza first and last, as the Palestinians fear, with disengagement a cover for Sharon to entrench more than 400,000 settlers living in the rest of the occupied territories while unilaterally imposing the borders of a rump Palestinian homeland that would remain in Israel's grip?

Sharon is not saying, but Peres may hold the key.

"The only reason I am in the government is the peace process. We don't have any other reason," he said, adding that the party would leave the government if Israel halted the peace process.

"One thing I believe is that the future doesn't hang on a single man, whether he's a prime minister or anybody else. It is the reality and the climate that are being established after a reaction that creates a new reality. Clearly it's not the man that decides about reality, it's the reality that decides about the leader."

By rights, it should be Peres' Labor Party that is leading the charge from Gaza. Under a different leader, the party campaigned in the general election two years ago on a pledge to unilaterally pull out of Gaza, and it first proposed building a "security fence" along the West Bank border. Sharon used to dismiss both measures as a victory for terrorism. The prime minister stole the tactics when his support began to ebb, but the maneuver deeply divided his Likud Party, and now he is forced to rely on Labor to make his disengagement plan possible.

Peres has come under strong criticism within his own party for serving under Sharon as his deputy prime minister, and some Labor members want him to force an election once the Gaza withdrawal is complete. But the Labor leader says he will keep the administration afloat so long as there is a return to the U.S.-led "road map" that Sharon has declared frozen.

"The day after, there will be an extreme difference between us and Likud. Labor will say go for the road map. Likud will say it too, but only after the Palestinians destroy the infrastructure of terror," he said.

But Peres is in no great hurry to get there. "If you have a brilliant plan without a majority or a mediocre plan with a majority, you have to pay attention to the majority, not to the brilliance of the proposals," he said. "And for the first time here there was created a majority -- not as perfect as we would like but a working majority. So there must be a combination of a good plan and a real majority."

Talk of moving slowly makes the Palestinians nervous and suspicious. They say Israel uses delay to tighten its grip on territory by creating "new facts on the ground." In the decade after the signing of the 1993 Oslo accords, Israel doubled the size of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

"It seems the Israeli negotiations are on the basis of making peace among themselves," said the Palestinians' chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat. The Palestinian leadership wants Israel to state clearly that the final objective is a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital, and with some swapping of territory to take account of Jewish settlements in and around Jerusalem that it is widely agreed will inevitably be incorporated into Israel.

Sharon's allies say that even if that is his intent he cannot say so publicly without inflaming opposition to the withdrawal from Gaza and provoking a further revolt in his Likud Party that might bring down the government.

Peres doubts that the Israeli public is ready to go that far. But others in the Labor Party argue for continued unilateral action. "The day after, there will be no serious negotiations about permanent status," said a senior Labor M.P., Haim Ramon. "I believe the next step should be Disengagement 2, where we go back and repeat that we do not want to rule that area [the West Bank] ... The public in general is ripe to leave the rest of the territories."

But Erekat suspects that the reason Sharon remains silent is that he has no intention either of negotiating or of adhering to the 1967 borders. He believes that disengagement, along with the "security fence" and continued settlement expansion, is part of the Israeli prime minister's strategy to dictate the borders of a rump Palestinian state.

So is Peres confident that after the pullout from Gaza is complete, Sharon will return to the road map and negotiate a settlement? "I don't have a reason to deny what the prime minister says, but I believe a combination of what he said and what is happening on the ground will really push all of us to continue the peace process," he said.

"You can't stop it. If you reach the middle of the lake and you feel tired, you don't swim back."

By Chris McGreal

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