Sharon's awful victory

April 18, 2004|By James J. Zogby

WASHINGTON - Back home in Israel, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon may be facing criminal indictments that could end his political career, but President Bush handed him a victory last week that Mr. Sharon long has sought - a unilaterally imposed solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

What the Israeli leader wanted from the United States was acceptance of major Israeli settlement blocs built in strategic locations throughout the West Bank, a U.S. rejection of Palestinian refugees' "right of return" and U.S. agreement that a final peace between Israel and the Palestinians would not require Israel to return to its 1967 borders.

In a formal "letter of assurances" and in Mr. Bush's public comments, Mr. Sharon won U.S. support on all three counts.

To save face internationally, the administration argued that the letter's vaguely worded formulas do not negate the long-term U.S. commitment to what has been described as President Bush's vision of a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But by giving important political support to Israel's unilateral actions, irreversible facts are being created that will make that promised outcome unlikely.

Mr. Sharon's victory, however, is actually much greater than the U.S. assurances and the validation he received for his disengagement plan.

From the beginning, Mr. Sharon has wanted to deal the Palestinians out of the peace process, and he long has been an ardent foe of Palestinian national self-determination. Since taking office in early 2001, Mr. Sharon has been focused on discrediting and dismantling the Palestinian Authority (PA), ending the 1993 Oslo agreement and re-establishing Israeli control over occupied lands. This has come at an enormous price in both Palestinian lives and fortunes, and Israeli lives as well.

Mr. Sharon was able to evade every effort to re-establish a negotiating relationship with the PA. He set up arbitrary and unilateral conditions that blocked several U.S. peace initiatives, up to and including the "road map." In each instance, Mr. Sharon stonewalled and won. By making no concessions, knowing that the United States would not take firm action against him, Mr. Sharon succeeded in wearing down his opponents and rendering the PA a nonfactor.

Mr. Sharon has dealt the Palestinians out of the process and is engaged in direct negotiations only with the United States. None of this would have occurred without U.S. acquiescence, the impotence of the international community and the continued violence that played into Mr. Sharon's hands. Even when there was a lull in violence, Mr. Sharon was able, with assassinations and other repressive measures, to provoke acts of terror that would then be used to accelerate further measures against the Palestinians.

So as it stands, with U.S. acceptance, Mr. Sharon will continue to build his wall, cutting into Palestinian lands, isolating Palestinian villages, separating Palestinians from their property and their livelihoods while protecting huge Israeli settlements that will now be linked even more directly with pre-1967 Israel.

At the same time, Mr. Sharon will now be able to "withdraw" from a devastated and impoverished Gaza while maintaining full control over all of Gaza's borders and reserving the right to re-enter and wreak havoc whenever Israel deems it necessary.

While the United States maintains that this is not a final agreement, only a temporary measure, and that its road map is still operative, the reality is quite different. The U.S. letter enables Mr. Sharon to lock in Palestinian despair and kill the hope for a just peace.

The irony, of course, is that Mr. Sharon's leadership may not survive. He is threatened with a career-ending criminal indictment in connection with corruption charges over the acceptance of money from an Israeli real estate developer in exchange for help in promoting a tourism project on a Greek island in the 1990s.

But what has been established in relation to Israeli-Palestinian relations during Mr. Sharon's horrific tenure in office will no doubt survive, at least for the foreseeable future. No U.S. leader will demand that these Israeli "facts," once created, be dismantled.

This, then, will be Mr. Sharon's victory: an expanded Israel, an impoverished ghetto that someday may be called Palestine, and continued violence.

James J. Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute and a visiting professor at Loyola College.

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