Disengagement and After: Where Next for Sharon and the Likud?
Disengagement and After: Where Next for Sharon and the Likud?
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  1. Executive Summary
Report 36 / Middle East & North Africa 5 minutes

Disengagement and After: Where Next for Sharon and the Likud?

On 20 February 2005, the Israeli cabinet voted overwhelmingly to approve the unilateral evacuation of settlements in Gaza and parts of the northern West Bank.

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Executive Summary

On 20 February 2005, the Israeli cabinet voted overwhelmingly to approve the unilateral evacuation of settlements in Gaza and parts of the northern West Bank. Obstacles still remain -- the government may not survive the pending budget vote; violence in the occupied territories may scuttle the disengagement plan; Likud rebels may engineer delaying tactics and impose a referendum; and Prime Minister Sharon could be the victim of an assassination attempt. But the significance of the vote ought not be underestimated. If, as widely expected, it is implemented during the second half of 2005, it would represent the first time that Israel has evacuated settlements established in the occupied Palestinian territories. The unilateral nature of Sharon's initiative -- Israel is prepared to coordinate its implementation with the Palestinians, not to negotiate its parameters -- also signals a radical departure from the bilateral mode of Israeli-Palestinian interaction.

In just over a year since he announced his intention, Ariel Sharon has confounded friends and foes alike. Despite having lost a May 2004 referendum on the disengagement plan within his own Likud party, persistent and stiff opposition within the party leadership, and the fact that its supporters cannot agree on where disengagement should lead, he has overcome one hurdle after another.

Speculation as to Sharon's intentions is rampant. Some see a shrewd and so far successful attempt to unburden Israel of the Gaza Strip in order to consolidate its hold over East Jerusalem and much of the West Bank with Washington's blessing. Others perceive a fundamental strategic transformation on the Prime Minister's part that ultimately may lead to a viable two-state solution. Most interpretations fall somewhere in between, and a not insignificant number are convinced that Sharon has launched a process whose endpoint even he does not know and, no less importantly, may not be able to control. In the words of an Israeli observer, "Those who know Sharon too well are guilty today of not knowing him at all. This is a case in which familiarity breeds ignorance".[fn]Crisis Group interview, Washington, December 2004.Hide Footnote  That so much depends on something about which we apparently know so little is one of the striking paradoxes of the current reality.

This briefing, based on months of interviews with Likud members and insiders, attempts to map the Prime Minister's and his party's respective trajectories, explore possible reasons behind the shift to unilateral disengagement, and assess how far they eventually might go. Several important conclusions emerge:

  • Although Sharon undoubtedly will continue to face resistance within his party, the ideological battle in the Likud over disengagement appears to be over. Even sceptics are bowing to the inevitability of what once would have been considered heretical, and many now accept its political wisdom, completing the evolution of a party once beholden to the dream of Greater Israel. The remaining Likud rebels seem to be waging a rear-guard fight, fuelled by a mix of ideological conviction and political ambition.
  • For Sharon and his supporters, the unilateral aspect of the plan is at least as significant as its disengagement component, for it represents a fundamental departure from the logic of negotiations and reciprocity that governed Israeli-Palestinian relations from the outset of the peace process in 1991 and was most recently confirmed in the Roadmap. Although originally justified by the absence of a Palestinian partner and, in particular, by Yasser Arafat's leadership, unilateralism reflects a deeper trend which is likely to continue even with a new Palestinian leadership and despite the possibility of renewed partnership. As an Israeli journalist remarked, the logic of reciprocity has not so much been abandoned as altered; the quid pro quo is not with the Palestinians but with the U.S. administration, which has endorsed the concept of settlement blocs in the West Bank. Sharon is "the first to agree to evacuate settlements inside Eretz Yisrael, the Biblical land of Israel. He is the first to hand over territories without a formal agreement; but he is also the first to get American backing for the establishment of facts over the Green Line".[fn]Nahum Barnea in Yediot Aharonot, 21 February 2005.Hide Footnote
  • The secret to Sharon's success has been his paradoxical ability to be both supremely decisive and supremely vague. Moving with determination, he has carefully avoided shedding light on his strategic objectives, allowing him to present his plan to the Likud and other sceptics as a means of defeating the Palestinian national movement and ensuring permanent Israeli incorporation of West Bank settlement blocs and to Labour as well as the international community as a means of jump-starting the moribund peace process.
  • While Sharon's intentions may remain unspoken, interviews suggest his actions are based on a series of assumptions: first, that he cannot achieve through negotiations an agreement acceptable to him; secondly, that he could not maintain the status quo indefinitely because pressure would have built for far greater compromises along the lines of President Clinton's parameters or the Geneva Accords; and therefore, thirdly, that he has to dispense with what is dispensable in order to retain what is strategic. In that sense, he appears to have abandoned the idea of restricting a Palestinian state to the meagre 42 to 50 per cent of the West Bank that had long been assumed to be his goal and so to have gone beyond what many in the Likud are prepared to accept today. The disengagement plan (which includes the evacuation but also the building of the separation barrier taking in some 7 per cent of the West Bank) seeks to create a situation that in Sharon's view will take the sting out of the conflict's tail and thus make it manageable -- improving Palestinian daily lives, establishing a Palestinian state with provisional borders that encompasses perhaps 80 per cent or more of the West Bank; and protecting what he considers Israel's vital interests within the occupied territories.

As such, unilateral disengagement must be understood as an attempt to stabilise the Palestinian situation while creating powerful political insurance against international efforts to end the conflict on the basis of the current broad international consensus -- a consensus whose terms are unacceptable to Sharon. Combined with other local and regional developments, it may well prove a recipe for short-term stability, no mean feat after four years of tragic bloodshed. But that is probably all it can achieve. Once disengagement from Gaza and the northern West Bank has been completed, it will be impossible to ignore the fundamental strategic divide that separates Sharon's preference for a long-term interim arrangement from Palestinian President Abu Mazen's goal of a comprehensive agreement, and foolhardy not to do anything about it.

The challenge for the international community is to be fully supportive of Israel's path-breaking evacuation while remaining mindful of what comes both with and after it. Endorsing the withdrawal should not mean endorsing either construction of the separation barrier beyond the 1967 lines, consolidation of West Bank settlements in the absence of a negotiated agreement, or developments in East Jerusalem that preclude the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. President Bush's recent statement emphasising the need for a viable, sovereign state, and in particular his assertion that "a state of scattered territories will not work",[fn]Remarks by President Bush, Belgium, 21 February 2005.Hide Footnote  are welcome words that, one hopes, will be accompanied by U.S. diplomatic action.

Amman/Brussels, 1 March 2005

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