Doing it his way

December 21, 2003

ISRAELI PRIME Minister Ariel Sharon has put the Palestinians on notice: He won't wait indefinitely for them to act to reach a negotiated peace settlement. In other words, without decisive steps by the Palestinians to dismantle the terrorist network in accordance with the U.S.-sponsored "road map" to peace, Mr. Sharon will move on his own. That would leave Palestinians with less land for an independent state, though with fewer Jewish settlements in their midst and a fortified barrier dividing them from Israel.

Mr. Sharon should think again before he acts.

His "disengagement" plan wouldn't necessarily bring Israelis the security they demand and deserve after three years of suicide bombings and terrorist attacks. Palestinian militants would feel emboldened to press on with their fight - because they would have no reason not to. Palestinians who yearn for a peaceful solution would only feel further alienated and disenfranchised by Israel's hegemony.

And yet the Palestinian leadership is in hopeless disarray and could remain that way indefinitely. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has reasserted his control over the security forces necessary to round up militants, but he refuses to arrest them. He is incapable of advancing the cause of his people. And other officials remain impotent in the face of his unexplained popular appeal.

In the absence of strong U.S. involvement in the process, Palestinian inertia invariably leaves Israel setting the course of events. And no one should underestimate Mr. Sharon. He is capable of unilateral action - consider the pace of construction of Israel's security fence despite protests from the White House. In issuing his warning last week at a national security conference, Mr. Sharon also reaffirmed his support for a two-state solution. He pledged to continue to ease restrictions on the Palestinian population and committed himself to removing settlements. The latter, if implemented, would break the stalemate in the peace process, and put the onus on the Palestinians to take a similarly bold move.

But both are unlikely in this climate. When Mr. Sharon would implement his "disengagement plan" is unknown. He says it would reduce "friction" between Israel and the Palestinians. That it might do. But it wouldn't bring peace.

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