Posted on April 18, 2005 in Washington Watch

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is a master strategist. US President George Bush is a master tactician. The two met this week and both accomplished their respective objectives.

Sharon’s goals have been clear for many years now. He is unilaterally drawing the permanent borders of the State of Israel, to secure its future as a Jewish state. A long-time advocate of the “Jordan is Palestine” school, he has seen the writing on the wall. A Palestinian state in parts of mandatory Palestine is inevitable because the international community demands it, the US supports it, and Israel needs it for reasons related to both security and demographic realities.

The only problem that remained for Sharon was how to limit the definition of the Palestinian state and how, at the same time, to maximize Israeli territorial advantage. To resolve this issue, Sharon made the determination, early on, to act unilaterally. He took advantage of Israel’s strength, its close partnership with a preoccupied and supportive US Administration, and the Palestinian’s powerlessness and political paralysis.

Along the way, a few obstacles appeared in Sharon’s path. His decision to unilaterally disengage from Gaza and some areas of the West Bank faced stiff domestic opposition from his former settler allies. A newly elected Palestinian leadership, despite overwhelming difficulties, has been able to provide sufficient enough control on the ground to emerge as an internationally recognized “partner” in peace negotiations. At the same time, the US, needing European and Arab support for its Iraq and broader Middle East initiatives and the “war on terror,” has resumed efforts to reengage the “Road Map”-based peace process, embraced the new Palestinian leadership and cautioned Israel against unilateral measures that would weaken the Palestinians and compromise the US’s relations with its allies.

To this Sharon responded, first by cleverly playing domestic coalition politics to isolate and defeat his opponents. He further strengthened his position at home by building a West Bank wall/barrier that both unilaterally helped to demarcate the route for future Israeli control over huge West Bank settlement blocs and large swathes of West Bank land. Additionally, he announced major expansions of Jerusalem area settlements to build up Israeli control not only over the city and its environs, but also over the strategic middle of the Palestinian territories.

Finally, Sharon worked to reduce tension with the US, Israel’s major ally, while attempting to discredit the ability of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in an efforts to ensure Israel’s right to continue to take these unilateral actions, forcing the Palestinians to accept or react to them–as the only show in town.

While I don’t want to be unduly cynical, I also will not be naïve and uncritical. That is why I see both Sharon and Bush as having emerged from the Crawford meeting as winners. Unfortunately, the Palestinians were the only losers.

Despite Bush’s criticism of Israel’s settlement expansion plans and his stated commitment to the “Road Map,” Sharon left Crawford unscathed. Bush’s criticisms may have played well in Europe and some Arab capitols desperately looking for good news, but Sharon was undeterred. “We agree to disagree,” he might have said to his Israeli supporters. To a close associate he did say, “Why seek friction with the entire world? The settlement blocs will be in our hands and territorial continuity will be maintained between them and Israel.”

Sharon’s unilateral disengagement in Gaza and a few West Bank cities has been formally embraced by the US. The wall/barrier is no longer an object of public criticism. And the US continues to endorse its contradictory position that while final borders must be negotiated, major “demographic realities” in the West Bank (read: settlement blocs) will remain in Israeli hands.

The burden has now shifted to the Palestinians to prove their worthiness, by fighting terror, restoring “absolute quiet” (an Israeli position unchanged since it was first introduced as the condition that stopped implementation of the Mitchell Plan). To all of this, the US has added the rather unreasonable requirement that the Palestinians use their control over impoverished, dedeveloped, and trapped Gaza (with Israel still in control of sea, air, and land egress and access), to demonstrate that they are able to establish a working democracy and earn Israel’s confidence. On this, President Bush was quite emphatic in his Crawford press conference. The point was also noted in a speech National Security Advisor, Stephen Hadley, delivered to the Anti-Defamation League. Said Hadley, “What the president said in respect to a Palestinian state is that the true definition of a state is found in its institutions. It’s the institutions of a state–not its borders–that determines whether or not that state meets the aspirations of its people and can live in peace with its neighbors. That is the message that the president sent to the Palestinians.”

Three final observations:

After all the dust kicked up in Crawford has cleared, what we are left with is that Sharon’s original goal of unilaterally taking control of the peace process and allowing a “provisional Palestinian state,” that would freeze the situation for many years, has now received a US blessing.

Secondly, while the US has broken with the Oslo period agreement of referring to the Palestinian Authority leader as “rais” and not “president” since the Israelis objected to that designation, Sharon doggedly maintains that Mahmoud Abbas is “Chairman” not President. An obvious and unchallenged slap in the face of the Palestinian leader.

Finally, although the first day’s US press coverage focused on the Sharon-Bush “settlement spat,” Sharon left the US a day later successfully turning the press coverage of his visit to warnings over the need for the US and Israel to collectively confront Iran’s nuclear build-up. Another master stroke.

For comments or information, contact James Zogby

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