Why Arabs Hear Sharon, Not Bush

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President Bush meets with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the White House

Who are the Arabs going to believe, the Bush administration or Ariel Sharon? According to President Bush, Sharon's plan to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza while consolidating his grip on key West Bank settlements is a bold new start and an important step toward a two-state peace solution. Sharon, however, proclaims his plan a "heavy blow" to the Palestinians that forces them "to give up their aspirations for many years to come."

That discrepancy may explain why President Bush's approval Wednesday of Sharon's plan to unilaterally redraw the de facto boundaries between Israel and the Palestinians has provoked a chorus of criticism in the Middle East and Europe. Perhaps mindful of the inevitable backlash, President Bush framed his endorsement of Israel's claim to keep the bulk of its settlements in the West Bank as consistent with previous peace plans. "In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949," the President said. "And all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion." He added the important qualifier that Sharon's boundaries are temporary, and final borders between Israel and the Palestinians would have to be reached in negotiations between the two sides.

Despite the optimistic spin, President Bush's statements on settlements and his dismissal of any claim of a right of Palestinian refugees to return to their original homes in Israel were widely recognized on both sides of the Middle East divide as an epic victory for the Israeli prime minister. Previous negotiation proposals had indeed allowed Israel to keep some of the settlements in the occupied West Bank, but only as part of a comprehensive agreement with the Palestinian national leadership that included a splitting of Jerusalem and a surrender to the Palestinians of land inside Israel-proper equivalent to that annexed in the West Bank. In the absence of such a comprehensive deal — indeed, in the absence of any involvement at all by the Palestinians in the latest discussions — President Bush's comments are viewed by many Israelis and Arabs as a renunciation of a decades-old U.S. policy that treated the settlements as illegal and the 1949 armistice line (more commonly referred to as the 1967 borders) as the basis on which a peace agreement would have to be negotiated.

President Bush did leave himself plenty of exit ramps, citing the "road map" and UN Resolution 242 (which requires Israeli withdrawal from territory captured in 1967) as the basis for a political settlement that would determine the final borders. But the real significance of his statement on the issues of borders and refugees may come from the fact that they were made at a moment when there is no peace "process" to speak of, and the "road map" is entirely hypothetical. The only negotiations that went into Sharon's plan, and its endorsement by the Bush administration, have occurred within the ranks of Israel's ruling Likud party, and between it and the Bush administration. Arab leaders have been informed by Washington of Israel's plans, and asked to help out or told of their "responsibilities," but their objections have been largely ignored. And the Palestinian leadership has been entirely excluded, the Bush administration having long ago embraced Sharon's view that Yasser Arafat and his minions are wedded to violence and therefore not recognized as a negotiating partner — a position rejected by U.S. allies in Europe, including Britain, and the Arab world.

The End of Arafat?

There is no reason to believe the Palestinians plan to dump their elected president any time soon, and the most significant challenge to Arafat's leadership in Palestinian ranks comes from the Islamist radicals of Hamas and the rank-and-file of his own nationalist Fatah movement, which increasingly shares the Islamists' belief in the path of confrontation. Hence Sharon's recent remarks to an Israeli interviewer on his Gaza plan: "The Palestinians understand that this plan is, to a great extent, the end of their dreams, a very heavy blow to them," which, he said would "force them to give up their aspirations for many years to come, until a new leadership emerges on their side that is ready to fight terror." Sharon helped father the settlement movement in the 1970s despite U.S. objections and nurtured it in the belief that creating demographic "facts on the ground" would force policy changes. Bush's statement not only vindicated that effort, but also appears to have encouraged Mr. Sharon to pursue new "facts on the ground" by building a "security fence" that looks remarkably like a border.

The U.S. position obliges Sharon to proceed with the "road map" — but only once the Palestinians have chosen a new leadership willing to renounce violence. That could mean waiting a generation, or longer, while in the interim Sharon has won U.S. support for consolidating Israel's grip on settlements that every U.S. administration, including this one, had previously defined as an obstacle to peace. From the moment he assumed office, Sharon had made clear that he opposed the pursuit of a final peace agreement with the Palestinians, pressing instead for a long-term interim arrangement. And in Sharon's mind, that perspective now carries White House support.

And that may be a political death sentence for Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. The generation of PLO leaders that embarked on the Oslo process had been derided by militants for putting all of its eggs in the basket of American goodwill, and Hamas crowed on Thursday that Bush's statements had vindicated its strategy of violence by proving that the path of negotiations pursued by Arafat and the PA was a dead end for Palestinian aspirations. And in light of the President's statement, it will be hard for PA leaders to sustain a belief among Palestinians in the idea of the U.S. as an "honest broker."

The political decline of the Palestinian Authority may now have entered its terminal phase. Its administrative and security structures have largely collapsed in the course of the intifada, and its institutional purpose — the completion of Oslo — appears to have outlived itself. Sharon has no intention of negotiating a settlement with the PA leadership. The PA's decline has been accompanied by the growing preeminence of Hamas and likeminded elements in Fatah, and it is that alliance that looks most likely to fill the political vacuum in Gaza once the Israelis withdraw. It is the prospect of the green and white banners of Hamas being hoisted over the vacated settlements of Gaza that has the hawkish faction of Sharon's own Likud party warning that withdrawal will be claimed by Palestinians as a victory for terrorism, and that like Israel's unilateral pullout from Lebanon in 2000, the result will be to encourage further violence.

Friends Like These

President Bush's perceived policy shift has predictably drawn a wave of criticism from U.S. allies in Middle East and Europe. It's worth remembering that the first Bush administration, in order to maintain Arab participation in its Gulf War coalition, threatened to cut Israel's funding in order to force a halt to settlement activity. But today's Iraq coalition has negligible participation by Arab allies, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq has turned most of their citizenry against the U.S. — it's not as if U.S. standing in the Arab world could fall much further. Except, perhaps, inside Iraq: the plight of the Palestinians is an issue close to the heart of many Iraqis, more so since they became an occupied people themselves. Israel's assassination of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin drew a firestorm of criticism across the political spectrum in Iraq, and became a rallying point for anti-American violence that bridged the Shiite-Sunni divide. Signing off on Sharon's settlement policy and preemptively trashing the longstanding Arab shibboleth of a Palestinian "right of return" is unlikely to win the U.S. many friends in Iraq or among its neighbors — and right now, it could use a few more.