Israel’s parliament recently adopted Prime Minister Sharon’s disengagement plan for the Gaza Strip, but the prospect of withdrawal has failed to stop fighting in the Gaza Strip, a territory seized at the end of the six-day Arab-Israeli war in 1967. Since then, settlers in Gaza have been living in the midst of 1.3 million Palestinians.
The Gaza plan means Israel will unilaterally disengage from the area by next summer by pulling out all 8,000 Jewish settlers and most of the troops that protect them. Israel will still keep control of Gaza’s borders, coastline and airspace. Four small West Bank settlements will also be evacuated, but some 230,000 West Bank settlers would remain.
The Israeli Prime Minister has indicated the peace process on the West Bank could slow down. "It is very possible that after the evacuation there will be a long period when nothing else happens," Mr. Sharon said in a recent interview to an Israeli newspaper.
His statement came after an extraordinary interview by his lifelong confident and political aid, Dov Weissglas, who just days before the vote explained the plan was meant to abort the Roadmap.
"Effectively, this whole package called the Palestinian State, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda," said Mr. Wiessglas. "And all this with a U.S. presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of the U.S. Congress."
Nothing new, says Henry Siegman, executive director of Middle East studies at the Council of Foreign Relations and a former executive of the American-Jewish Congress. "Sharon was far more honest about his intentions even before the Weissglas interview than anyone else," he says. "He himself said that relinquishing the settlements in Gaza is the price Israel must pay if it wishes to hold on to all of the settlements and even deepen the settlement enterprise in the West Bank and continue to enjoy American support".
For Prime Minister Sharon to change policies would mean abandoning his life-long commitment to the settlements, contends Mr. Siegman. He adds that Mr. Sharon is an uncertain peace partner.
"The slogan in the past four years has been that Israel has no Palestinian partner for peace," he says. "What the Wiessglas interview makes crystal clear is that the reverse is even more true, that even a new Palestinian leadership would not find a partner for peace in Israel as long as Sharon’s ideas continue to dominate in Israel’s political system."
Other analysts suggest Mr. Sharon has the stature to start dismantling the settlements. "I think Sharon is uniquely positioned as the father of the Israeli settlements to be the first one to take those settlements down, at least beginning in Gaza," says David Makovsky, senior analyst at the Institute for Near East Policy in Washington. "I think many in the Likud Party realize that it is not the last stop, either."
If current Israeli policies continue, says Mr. Makovsky, Jews might become a minority in their own state. "If you take Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, you are talking about five million Jews and about four-point-five million Arabs," he notes. "Within a decade, the Jews could be the minority. Sharon thought that the massive immigration of the 1990’s would reverse this demographic trend. It did not. Even within the Likud Party they are saying that democracy and the demographic self-interest trumps the land."
The Sharon unilateral plan has now shifted to Israel the responsibility for finding a two-state solution - warns Ian Lustick, professor of international relations at Maryland University.
"The burden of proof that a Palestinian state is still possible now lies on the shoulders of the Israelis," he says. "They are going to have to start arguing by saying to the Palestinians they will make it possible for an acceptable state to be built, one with territorial contiguity, where the separation wall does not undermine the border, in which there will be free access to economic opportunity on both sides, where East Jerusalem will be Palestinian."
In the meantime, the absence of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is rattling the already shaky Middle East. His departure could make an opening for a more moderate Palestinian leadership, or a more fractured one with accompanying violence and instability. Most analysts agree it is time for the international community to re-engage.