Sharon Plans to Drive Down Another Road

Avi Shlaim

The Observer, 8 June 2003

Israel must make the peace of the brave, not the bully, writes Middle East expert Avi Shlaim

On Wednesday in the Red Sea resort of Aqaba, King Abdullah II of Jordan played host to a summit meeting that constitutes a potential turning-point in the century-old conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. At the summit President Bush, Ariel Sharon, and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian prime minister who is better known as Abu Mazen, committed themselves to follow the United States-led ‘road-map’ to the creation of a Palestinian state.

The road map is the brain-child of the Quartet – America, Russia, European Union, and the United Nations. It calls for the creation of an independent, democratic, and viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel by 2005. High-level endorsement of the road map opened the prospect of progress on the political front after two and a half years of escalating violence and bloodshed. This prospect, however, is exceedingly slender.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the most bitter and protracted international conflicts of modern times but its basic cause is fairly simple: there are two nations and one small land, hence the conflict. Since the two nations cannot agree to share the land, the only solution is to partition it. The politics of partition, however, are anything but straight-forward for they cut to the very core of each nation’s image of itself and of its historic rights, going back to Biblical times.

In 1937 the Peel commission of inquiry proposed for the first time the partition of Palestine between the two warring communities. In 1947 the United Nations voted for the partition of mandatory Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. The logic behind partition was simply irresistible. It was irresistible then and it remains the only viable solution today. Abu Mazen understands this, which is why he accepted the road map unambiguously and unconditionally and started implementing its provisions even before the summit.

Ariel Sharon’s attitude to the road map is much more ambivalent. He had persuaded Mr Bush to delay the publication of the map three times and then submitted 14 amendments with the transparent aim of wrecking the plan. At the Aqaba summit Sharon appeared to reverse his position. Bowing to American pressure, he agreed to the creation not only of a Palestinian state but one with contiguous territory rather than a series of enclaves.

But Sharon refused to say that the Palestinian state would be independent. And in a bizarre move, even before he made his speech, his office issued a statement to clarify that when the prime minister referred to a Palestinian state he meant one that is demilitarised and that by ‘viable’ he meant an interim state.

The truth of the matter is that Sharon’s ideology of Greater Israel is incompatible with the Quartet’s plan for a genuine two-state solution. Like the right-wing Likud party of which he is the leader, Sharon regards the West Bank as an integral part of the Land of Israel. Throughout his long political career, the 75 year-old leader has been an out-and-out territorial expansionist and a godfather of the settlement movement. He talks about the need for ‘painful concessions’ but so far he has adamantly refused to yield to the Palestinian Authority more than the 70% of Gaza and 42% of the West Bank that it controlled under the Oslo accords.

Moreover, while pretending to accept the Quartet’s road map to a negotiated settlement, Sharon has been drawing a different map by unilateral action on the ground. Two principal means have been used towards this end. One is the building of new settlement outposts on the West Bank. The other is the building of a ‘security barrier’ or wall along the Western length of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This wall is unlikely to bring security. It is part of the process of creeping annexation and it has already succeeded in driving out a large number of Palestinians from their land. These actions do not indicate any real readiness to start reversing Israel’s 36 year-old occupation of the Palestinian territories.

As a soldier and politician Sharon has always been a champion of violent solutions, a believer in using Israel’s military power to impose its terms on the Arabs. Negotiation, accommodation, and compromise are alien to his whole way of thinking. He has yet to learn that you cannot have a winner and a loser in a peace process; that the resolution of a conflict requires two winners. Nor does he understand that Israel ought to end the occupation not as a concession to the Palestinians but as a favour to itself if it wishes to preserve its democratic and Jewish character. For, as Karl Marx observed, a nation that oppresses another cannot itself remain free.

Sadly, the handshakes in Aqaba that gave rise to so much hope, have but a slim chance of leading to a real breakthrough on the Palestinian track. What Sharon is prepared to concede falls a long way short even of the most minimal Palestinian expectations of independence and statehood. It is the peace of the bully rather than the peace of the brave. The greatest irony is that Sharon is one of the moderates in the ultra-nationalist government over which he presides.  With Sharon and his party representing Israel, the Quartet’s wonderful road map is likely to lead nowhere slowly.