Ariel Sharon's steadfast purpose is to absorb as much of the West Bank as possible while the rest of the bits and pieces stagger along in futile efforts to become a viable Palestinian state. He will continue until the charade collapses and the Palestinians become absorbed into Jordan. The ploy in Gaza is a tactical maneuver to placate the U. S. Government. Further, it is designed to give Washington and the other international backers of the so-called two-state solution something to keep them busy while he continues with the absorption of the West Bank. This will be accomplished through an increasingly dense web of settlements and the roads and other infrastructure that connect them.
I cannot prove this interpretation in a court of law, but it is what liberal Israeli observers such as Uri Avnery believe, and it is pretty much what Sharon's man Friday Dov Weisglass told reporters over a year ago. This interpretation is consistent with the opinion of many other close observers of the Israeli scene. And it accords with Sharon's behavior throughout the past several years.
Sharon doesn't lose sleep over the International Court of Justice decision about the Wall, or about European and UN support for Palestinian aspirations for statehood. Not as long as he has the support of the American President. That is the key. That is also the opinion of the Palestinian leadership. When I was in Ramallah last year, I asked Saeb Erekat how the Israeli government decides whether some new control measure imposed on the Palestinians was legal or not. His answer: As long as the Americans don't object, it's legal.
If this interpretation is accurate, a lot of the highly publicized anguish of the Israeli settlers now turfed out of Gaza was being managed, or at least exploited, to impress on the U. S. government and people the notion that uprooting a much larger number of even more entrenched Israelis settled illegally in the West Bank is simply not going to be practical.
All Palestinians want their own country, a place they can call their own, a place where the suffocating Israeli presence is a receding nightmare. While there may still be holdouts who want to rid the region of the Israelis entirely, the great majority would settle for genuine independence and a government of their own in a Palestinian entity that included Gaza, East Jerusalem, and a West Bank roughly the same size as the present one but with some boundary adjustments. This is essentially the Geneva formula and the aim of the Europeans. Most Arabs outside Palestine would be happy to see this outcome. But it is anathema to Sharon and the rightwing Israelis who share his views.
Sharon walks a tightrope internally between the large bloc of Israelis who support the Gaza withdrawal and a smaller but intensely engaged group, most of them religious fanatics, who regard any concession to any Arabs as treason. He succeeded in pulling off the Gaza coup because he can explain to the settlers and their backers that he has to do this because of the Americans. But he has no intention of backing down in the West Bank, while letting more moderate elements in Israel, and particularly in the United States, comfort themselves with the erroneous idea that Gaza is just the first step of a process that will lead to concessions on the West Bank, concessions that will make a two-state solution possible.
Abbas has an even more difficult task than Sharon, by far. His control over his people is tenuous at best, and can grow more effective only as the Palestinian man in the street becomes convinced that Israeli controls are in fact gradually being lightened and withdrawn, not just in Gaza but also in the West Bank. He will gauge this not by official statements but by the rate the settlements are being thickened, by the rate Arab houses in East Jerusalem are being expropriated, by the numbers of Arab houses that are being destroyed, and above all by the way the Israelis continue to control his movements from one small part of his land to the next. There are hundreds of petty ways Israel keeps its boot on the neck of the average Palestinian these days, ways that we in America never hear about. These irritants are the litmus tests of Israeli intentions for the man in the street. Will Sharon lighten up?
If this battery of petty frustrations continues unabated, I predict that Abbas will lose control and there will be a third intifada. And this time it will be the worst of all.
The dexterity Sharon has shown in navigating between conflicting forces in Gaza will be tested in the West Bank in coming months. He will not of his own volition relinquish enough of the existing controls over the Palestinians to make Abbas's task possible. Given Sharon's strategic view, Abbas is part of the problem. On the other hand, if he is too obvious in sabotaging Abbas, Sharon risks losing critical U. S. support and facing the wrath of the rest of the world community, with the essential American shield diminished. This is not to mention the probability that a third intifada could carry high costs for the Jewish population of Israel.
So Sharon will attempt to leave matters just disorderly enough to prevent the emergence of a viable Palestinian government that can control its own hotheads, but not so disorderly as to provoke a full intifada. He will take some highly visible measures to lighten controls on the people of the West Bank, mainly to appease the Americans. But he will continue full speed with the settlements, while leaving enough of the less visible irritants in place to ensure that Palestinian terrorism continues at a low level. There will be more smoke and mirrors than ever, more public obfuscation of the facts on the ground. The decibel level of his government's flacks in the U.S. press will reach new heights. It will not be a pretty scene.
Will Washington be willing to cut through this wall of misinformation and put real heat on Sharon to act in fact the way he says he is acting? Reading between the lines of Secretary Rice's most recent statements, I infer that she has a rather realistic grasp of what is really going on. I certainly hope so. If she can get the President's support for some serious behind-the-scenes pressure, Sharon will have to face down his rightwing critics and move toward a genuine two-state solution. If not, we are headed for yet another round in a conflict that began well over half a century ago and is still getting worse.
Man and boy, I've lived with this conflict ever since the partition vote in the UN in 1948. I would like to live long enough to see it resolved. But there's no way I will if my government does not quietly but firmly put the screws to Ariel Sharon right now, at this critical juncture.