A stone in the road

May 04, 2004

ISRAELI PRIME Minister Ariel Sharon has hit a roadblock en route to withdrawing soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip. But knowing this former Israeli general, he will find a way to accomplish his mission.

Members of Mr. Sharon's conservative Likud Party voted overwhelmingly against the Gaza pullout in a Sunday referendum, which some in Israel are characterizing as a vote of no confidence in the prime minister. But the vote represents less than a majority of Likud members and, more important, it contradicts the sentiment of a majority of the Israeli public, according to polls. Mr. Sharon let it be known even before the first vote was cast that he would not be bound by the outcome. And he says he is committed to the plan, which he views as essential to Israel's security.

The vote may have been embarrassing for the prime minister, but it also reflects poorly on Mr. Sharon's friend in the White House. President Bush enthusiastically supported Mr. Sharon's plan, and in the process changed the historic premise of U.S. policy in the Mideast - that the United States serves as an honest broker in furthering an end to this conflict.

His embrace of the Sharon plan alienated America's European allies and outraged its friends in the Arab world. By endorsing the Sharon plan, Mr. Bush gave the Israeli prime minister the edge in mapping out an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; by upholding Israel's right to maintain large Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Mr. Bush defined the prospective borders of a Palestinian state, to the dismay of Palestinians. That decision should be made by Israeli and Palestinian negotiators as part of an overall, land-for-peace settlement.

Despite the Likud vote, Mr. Sharon's plan is not yet dead - the Israeli public's basic support of the Gaza withdrawal may enable the prime minister to reshuffle his Cabinet with more like-minded supporters. But the overall problem remains the same: how best to ensure Israel's security in the face of Palestinian terror attacks.

As voters cast their ballots on the Sharon plan Sunday, Palestinian gunmen riddled a station wagon with gunfire, killing a pregnant Israeli woman and her four daughters who were en route from their home in a Gaza settlement. While the horrifying attack may have swayed voters against the Sharon plan, it underscores the need for a resolution that relies less on a cycle of violence and retaliation.

Palestinians continue - unwisely - to support militant groups that send suicide bombers and snipers to attack Israelis whether they live in Tel Aviv or a West Bank settlement. Their leaders have failed them - and yet they have failed to demand accountability from their officials and seek new leaders who would provide it. But without a viable peace process, Palestinians have no incentive, no stake, in changing the status quo.

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