Bernard Wasserstein: The bloody logic behind Ariel Sharon's masterplan

Another defiant assassination but in reality Israel is on the path to retreat
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Yesterday's Israeli killing of Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi, like that of his predecessor, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, is part of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's two-pronged plan for extracting Israel from the morass of permanent warfare. Sharon means to pursue Hamas and Islamic Jihad to the limit in order to prevent these organisations claiming that they have succeeded in forcing Israel to retreat. At the same time he is determined to get out of Gaza and most of the heavily Arab-populated areas of the West Bank. By killing Rantisi and Yassin he wants to prove, particularly to his Israeli supporters, that the decision to wave goodbye to Gaza is Israel's alone.

Yesterday's Israeli killing of Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi, like that of his predecessor, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, is part of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's two-pronged plan for extracting Israel from the morass of permanent warfare. Sharon means to pursue Hamas and Islamic Jihad to the limit in order to prevent these organisations claiming that they have succeeded in forcing Israel to retreat. At the same time he is determined to get out of Gaza and most of the heavily Arab-populated areas of the West Bank. By killing Rantisi and Yassin he wants to prove, particularly to his Israeli supporters, that the decision to wave goodbye to Gaza is Israel's alone.

Nevertheless, the fundamental lesson of recent tumultuous events is that the beginning of the end of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories conquered in the Six-Day War of 1967 is now in sight. Sharon's plan for withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank, which received an imperial blessing from President Bush this week, marks the decisive stage in a wearying process of Israeli retraction from Arab lands.

That began with the disengagement agreements, negotiated by Henry Kissinger in his tireless diplomatic shuttles between Jerusalem, Cairo and Damascus after the Yom Kippur War of October 1973. These were followed by the Israeli exit from Sinai, completed in 1985, and by the final removal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon in 2000. The peace process of the 1990s, which saw a limited military pullback from Palestinian territories, went into reverse in 2001 with the Israeli reoccupation of areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Now Israel looks set to retreat permanently, for the first time removing not only its troops but also all its settlements in Gaza and some of those in the West Bank.

Much attention has been focused on Mr Sharon's insistence that Israel will retain six settlement blocks in the West Bank, holding 92,000 people. More significant, however, is what that statement tacitly conceded: most West Bank settlements, holding some 128,000 people, will disappear. Their inhabitants will be brought back to Israel. Even those of us who regard Mr Sharon as a moral stain on Israeli history must acknowledge that this is a dramatic U-turn. Why and how is this happening?

Over the past three years a new political realism has slowly and painfully emerged on the Israeli centre-right. In some ways it is akin to the revolution in consciousness among South African National Party leaders in the final years of apartheid. In the eyes of Israeli right-wingers, nothing has seemed to work for Israel over the past decade: neither negotiation nor repression. Disoriented and frustrated, Mr Sharon, his deputy, Ehud Olmert, and other senior figures have at last begun to internalise reality: Israel, they now understand, faces imminent defeat in its long demographic struggle to secure a Jewish majority between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean. The settlement project of the past generation has failed in its central objective. Israel can no longer hope to sustain her position in the occupied territories without a sacrifice of blood and treasure that is simply unacceptable to most of her citizens. This realisation has spread from the political class to many of its supporters. Rightists now commonly talk with baffled, contemptuous defiance of leaving the Palestinians to stew in their own juice and obliging them to "take responsibility" for their own lives.

Will the settlers depart without a fight? Mr Sharon's strategy involves dividing and bribing them. Segments will be sliced off, wrapped up, and delivered to addresses inside Israel. First out will be the 7,000 Israelis in Gaza who live in a permanent state of siege among over a million Palestinians. Dozens of Israeli soldiers have died defending these tiny enclaves against their neighbours. Most Israelis will turn their backs on Gaza with relief.

Next will be the smaller, isolated Jewish communities in the West Bank. These also are widely viewed as unviable and indefensible. Even some of its wilder inhabitants, who threaten dire consequences if any attempt is made to dislodge them, would find it difficult to shoot at the Israeli army. And the first such shot would eliminate any remaining public sympathy.

First the salami-slicer; then the honey-pot. An opinion poll among settlers last year showed that most would be willing to take compensation in return for moving back to Israel. There is a precedent for such financially oiled settler eviction. In the spring of 1982, when Israel withdrew from northern Sinai, braggarts among the 2,000 Israeli inhabitants in the town of Yamit swore they would resist any attempt to repatriate them by force. Israeli soldiers sprayed them with "disabling foam". Not a dog barked. They took the cash and ran all the way to the bank. Some ran as far as the West Bank, where they resettled, hoping to reprise the scam. The defence minister who supervised the entire operation was Ariel Sharon.

Is he now bluffing? His enemies complain that he wants at most to find a way out of Gaza and that he has already exacted his price from the US: recognition of the permanence of many Israeli settlements in the West Bank. A closer look at the wording of the formal agreement between Sharon and Bush (which, by the way, will bind any successor to Sharon, should he fall from power in the coming weeks) suggests a different conclusion. There is no foreclosing of the position on the future border between Israel and a Palestinian state. That remains to be settled by negotiation. The roadmap has been accelerated rather than abandoned. One thing has been foreclosed: any remaining forlorn hope among Israeli ultra-nationalists of pursuing the dream of populating the whole of the West Bank with Jews.

Mr Sharon has spoken of retaining six large Israeli settlement blocks. Perhaps he speaks from conviction. More likely such talk is a matter of prudent short-term tactics, offering reassurance to Likud members who will vote soon in a party referendum on Mr Sharon's plan.

The settlement blocks constitute the last vestige of the Greater Israel of which Mr Sharon was once an impassioned exponent. They face an uncertain future. Two are near Jerusalem and will necessarily form part of any discussions over the destiny of the metropolitan area. A third block, with a large population, lies adjacent to the 1949 armistice lines and could be exchanged with Palestine for Israeli territory elsewhere. Two more, Ariel and Gush Etzion, both far inside Palestinian-inhabited territory, may eventually have to be abandoned (the latter case a bitter pill for many older Israelis who recall a massacre of Jews there in the Israeli War of Independence).

The sixth and most contentious block comprises Jewish settlements in and around Hebron. Here, cheek by jowl with a vast population of hostile Palestinians, is the most concentrated body of ultra-nationalist fanatics, including many leaders of the settlement movement. Mr Sharon has decided not to confront them directly yet. Better to wait and undercut their support first. Better still, perhaps, to hand this poisoned chalice to his successor ­ either Mr Olmert or the sullen, resentful but still ambitious Binyamin Netanyahu. He, it will be recalled, was the prime minister who signed the first Hebron "redeployment" agreement in 1997: that did not provide for removal of settlers. The results have been disastrous for both Israelis and Palestinians. Sooner or later the lesson that has been learnt, at a terrible price, in Gaza will have to be applied in Hebron, too.

Bernard Wasserstein is the author of 'Israel and Palestine: Why They Fight and Can They Stop?'

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