Sunday, February 27, 2005
Returning for a moment to Israel: I'm afraid that here we go again. But with an important difference: by all reports, Abbas really does want to negotiate a peace agreement with Israel. He would have taken Barak's deal at Taba. He would love to get the same deal from Sharon. But he is treated with condescension by the youngsters in Fatah, and my suspicion is that Hamas' decision to play ball (until this weekend) was based largely on three factors: their decimation by the Israelis; their hopes to win political power through elections under Abbas' auspices (something Arafat would never have given them); and the fact that their main patrons and abettors have not decided whether it's in their best interests yet to urge them on (or, in the case of Egypt, a clear decision on the government's part to do what little they can to rein in Hamas before they (a) get too dangerous to Egypt through their connections with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and (b) become an official Egyptian problem if an Israeli withdrawal leaves chaos behind, in which case Egypt would perforce take on the Israeli role of crushing Hamas directly, something that would be very dangerous for them to do for reason (a)).
So what do I conclude? I'm not sure how anything changes, unfortunately. Abbas made it abundantly clear that he was in favor of peace with Israel on a genuine two-state basis. He also made it abundantly clear that he was not going to start a civil war in the Palestinian areas, and that he felt Hamas deserved a share in government. So: betting that Abbas was going to deliver on his hopes for peace cleanly and easily meant *from the beginning* a belief that Hamas, and, for that matter, Fatah actually wanted peace. Which they did and do not. Abbas did remarkably well at putting a truce together, much better than I expected. And, appropriately, he was rewarded by Sharon. Now he has to either take real action against the perpetrators of the bombing (which I doubt he can safely do) or . . . not.
If not, then it is worth reminding everyone that Sharon's withdrawal plans are *not predicated on a peace agreement.* Sharon has been talking for a long time now about a *unilateral withdrawal* as the solution to the problem of not having someone on the other side to talk to. I believe Sharon is utterly sincere in wanting out of the territories, by which I mean all of Gaza and that vast bulk of Judea and Samaria, and that he is prepared to bulldoze settlements even in the absence of any agreement in order to achieve his aims. So it would make no sense for Sharon to change his timetable for withdrawal at all because of terrorism. If he meant what he said before Arafat died - and I believe he did - then he favored unilateral withdrawal *even if terrorism continues* because keeping settlements in indefensible areas is, in his view, no longer in Israel's interest.
What I'm not sure Sharon himself knows is whether he *prefers* unilateral action to a peace agreement. There are advantages and disadvantages to each. A real peace settlement would bring greater international legitimacy to Israel's borders and end the whole question of the refugees that hangs like a sword over Israel's very existence. But it is very hard to imagine the Palestinians accepting anything that the Israelis could accept, something that became clear in the Barak years. The most accommodationist factions among the Palestinians expect the division of Jerusalem, Palestinian control of the Al Aqsa Mosque and the rest of the Temple Mount, compensation with territory for any territorial adjustment to the 1949 armistice lines, and the resettlement of some Palestinians in sovereign Israel. This is the most friendly position to Israelis taken by any Palestinian group - understandably, since even this would leave the Palestinian Arabs with a tiny, crowded, poor state, unable to defend itself or hold its head up among the Arab peoples.
But this is almost surely more than any Israeli government can give. The Temple Mount is the holiest place in Judaism. Jerusalem is the name that Jews have prayed with for thousands of years. The national anthem talks about the return to Jerusalem. The premise of Zionism is the return of Jews to their homeland, and if that does not include Jerusalem then it might just as well have been Uganda. And, finally, Israelis understandably feel that they have been making compromises and that the other side has not, even as they have been the victims of a brutal and utterly unethical war, a war in which not only civilians but women and children are deliberately targeted by the enemy, a tactic that can only serve to convince Jews that their enemies in this war, like many of their enemies in the past, did not consider them to have a right to live. Which is not a conclusion likely to encourage compromise.
Unilateralism, then, may have some appeal to Sharon. True, he would get no legitimacy from his actions. Israel would remain a pariah in much of the world, a state that decided its borders by force, and without the clout to force other countries diplomatically to accept its fait accompli (China, anyone?), nor sufficiently insignificant that the world happily looks the other way (Central Africa, anyone?). But Israel would have decided borders that she could live with - and, more to the point, she would not have ideologically compromised the premises of Zionism. Israel would have staged a fighting retreat. Nations can do that without undermining their essential reason for being. Even liberal, democratic states keep their options open: West Germany never formally renounced the notion of being the German state - i.e., it never said to East Germany: we do not and never will seek reunion with you.
Sharon must surely be cognizant of the crisis brewing in the Religious Zionist camp. It is sufficiently grave that the IDF is worried about how many soldiers will, implicitly by asking for reassignment or explicitly by actual insubordination, refuse to carry out orders to evacuate settlements. I strongly suspect that this crisis would actually be worse if Sharon carried out a withdrawal as part of a signed agreement recognizing non-Jewish sovereignty in the territories, particularly if the agreement included surrendering sovereignty over the Temple Mount. This may be one reason Sharon wants to withdraw before there is a final agreement even if he is negotiating towards a final agreement: that gives Israel's own romantic, integral nationalists the time to figure out how to live without this severed limb, how to ideologize the indefinite deferment of the dream.
So I don't know what Sharon prefers. But he certainly perfers having an Abbas to deal with than having an Arafat, or someone from Hamas, or utter chaos. So whether he prefers to get out unilaterally or via negotiation, he'll do whatever he can to bolster Abbas.
(Why, you ask, didn't he do so last time? Well, Abbas resigned his position, supposedly, because he understood Arafat had decided to have him killed. How much political capital would you invest in Abbas if you knew Arafat would have him bumped off before he ever had a chance to succeed? Now, at least, Sharon can say to himself that there is no Arafat around to make a deal impossible. That doesn't mean a deal is possible; it just means it isn't necessarily impossible.)