Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his friends in Washington are in a hurry. They are racing to achieve their objectives before anyone stops them. And when they are in a hurry, they are particularly dangerous. Syria and Iran are in their sights, with further down the road Saudi Arabia, and even Egypt. Political and economic pressure, financial penalties, sanctions, intervention, regime change by military force, these are their chosen instruments for bending the Arabs to the will of Israel and its United States patron.
Sharon’s main objective is the building of a Greater Israel on the ruins of Palestinian nationalism. His latest instrument is the wall or fence which is imprisoning the Palestinians on a fraction of their territory, cutting them off on all sides from contact with their Arab neighbours. The wall is due to be finished in eight months’ time. Sharon is determined that nothing must prevent its completion.
At the UN Security Council this week, he won a major victory when the United States vetoed a resolution, proposed by Syria, condemning the wall. Within hours, a radical Palestinian group attacked the motorcade of an American delegation in Gaza, killing three Americans and wounding a fourth. Sharon will no doubt exploit this latest incident to rally American opinion against the beleaguered Palestinian president, Yasser Arafat.
Sharon’s main worry, however, and the reason for his haste, is that George W Bush could be thrown out of office at next year’s US presidential election – and with him the whole band of pro-Israeli “neo-conservatives” which have set the Administration’s agenda since September 11, 2001. These are the men who pressed for war against Iraq as a first step towards reshaping the geopolitics of the entire Middle East. But the sluggish US economy, the mess in Iraq, and the anti-American anger sweeping the Arab and Muslim world are now making Bush look vulnerable. A Democrat in the White House may not be so tolerant of Israel’s foolhardy ambitions or so ready to endorse the neo-cons’ aggressive policies.
Sharon has other worries closer to home. The political fall-out from the current police investigations of his two sons, Omri and Gilad, for alleged sharp practice and bribe-taking could drive Sharon himself from office in 2004. And to compound his fears, the Israeli Left which for the past two years has seemed terminally ill and politically irrelevant is showing faint signs of revival.
Leading opposition figures such as Yossi Beilin, Amram Mitzna and Avraham Burg have joined with Palestinian moderates, led by Yasser Abed Rabbo, in drafting a detailed peace plan for a two-state solution – the so-called Geneva Accords.
The plan, the result of two years of secret negotiations funded by the Swiss government, is due to be signed formally in Geneva next month, putting flesh on the bones of the tentative agreements reached at Taba in January 2001.
It represents everything that Sharon and his friends detest and which he has spent his life seeking to destroy. It provides for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders (with some marginal modifications) to allow for the emergence of a viable Palestinian state; some major colonies close to the Green Line to be annexed to Israel but those deep inside Palestinian territory to be evacuated; Jerusalem as a shared capital; Palestinian sovereignty over the Haram Al Sharif; Israeli sovereignty over the Wailing Wall and the Jewish quarter of the Old City; and – a major Palestinian concession – the abandonment of the “right of return” to towns and villages lost in 1948. An international force would monitor implementation of the plan while radical Palestinian groups would be tamed and shut down.
These “Geneva Accords” may, in the present climate, seem hopelessly utopian. They have no chance whatsoever of being implemented while the Sharon government, or anything resembling it, is in power. Their potential importance, however, lies in offering the Israeli public what it lacks and longs for most – hope that the current nightmare of killing and counter-killing can be brought to an end. In other words, a change in Washington, and a move back to the center by an Israeli public won over by a credible peace plan, could yet pose a threat to Sharon’s ambitions.
He has reacted to the Geneva Accords with barely suppressed rage. “By what right,” he snorted, “are left-wing people proposing moves that Israel can never do, nor will ever do!”
Sharon has always wanted one hundred per cent of Palestine, an ambition which would have involved expelling most, if not all, of the Palestinian population of the West Bank to Jordan, which would then have become a Palestinian state.
As the obstacles to such a project are formidable, Sharon has opted for something a shade more modest: the seizure of about 90 per cent of historic Palestine, confining the Palestinians to some 10 per cent of the overall territory behind the notorious wall.
No doubt he calculates that, once the wall is finished, it will in due course come to be accepted by the international community, and by the Palestinians themselves, as defining Israel’s borders. Hence, his determination, and that of his American supporters, to move ahead with all possible speed while the regional and international environment is in their favour.
Sharon’s major asset is Bush. Backing off from engagement in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Bush administration appears to have decided to leave Israel to manage the Palestine problem on its own terms.
So much is clear from its veto of UN Resolutions condemning the wall and Sharon’s recent strike inside Syrian territory, from its silence over continued settlement expansion and from its failure to react to Israel’s massive destruction of Palestinian property at Rafah, on Gaza’s border with Egypt, which this week left 1,500 Palestinians homeless. As he nervously prepares for his election campaign, his ratings slipping in the polls, Bush’s collapse before Sharon must be judged one of the blackest pages in recent American history. It has provoked incredulity in Europe and, more ominously, bitter hatred of the United States in Muslim communities around the world.
Yet, Sharon has much cause for satisfaction: while Israel faces no strategic threat, its enemies tremble. A shattered Iraq is under American occupation; Iran, facing great international pressure over its alleged nuclear weapons programme, is wracked by internal conflicts between conservatives and reformers; the Arab Gulf, seemingly indifferent and content, lies under America’s military umbrella; Egypt, neutralised by its peace treaty with Israel and by America’s annual subsidy, hardly dares open its mouth in defence of the Palestinians; while Syria faces harsh and threatening pressure on all sides – from Washington, now preparing to vote into law the economic and diplomatic boycotts enshrined in the Syria Accountability Act; and from Israel, which last week sent its planes to strike at Syria and seems ready to do so again.
Sharon still thinks he can bludgeon the Palestinians into submission. The attack on the Palestinian camp near Damascus, together with Israel’s repeated incursions at Rafah, are clearly intended as warnings to Syria and Egypt to halt all support for the Palestinians – or face the consequences.
But Sharon has not yet found an answer to the suicide bombers who have traumatised the Israel public, ruined the economy, killed the tourist trade and cut off foreign investment.
They are a profound embarrassment to Sharon, but he may think it a price worth paying. His priority is land, not security. That, he believes, will follow once the wall is built and the Palestinians surrender.
Patrick Seale is an eminent commentator and the author of several books on Middle East affairs. The writer can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org