After going through several versions of his disengagement plan, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has now returned to the exact point from which he started when he first publicized the idea in an interview with Yoel Marcus of Haaretz on February 2.
Then, Sharon said he intended to evacuate 17 settlements in Gaza and another "three problematic settlements" in the northern West Bank. In the ensuing weeks, there were leaks of a much broader withdrawal being contemplated - from 17 (or 15, or 20, or 25) settlements in the West Bank and from the Philadelphi Route, along the border between Gaza and Egypt, as well as from the Gaza settlements.
These "trial balloons" were floated in various ways: Sharon "explored alternatives" with different ministers, while National Security Adviser Giora Eiland frequently briefed foreign diplomats, who in turn spoke with Israeli journalists and politicians. Someone even gave Ma'ariv an old version of Eiland's recommendations.
In the end, however, Sharon returned to his original plan, which was also the defense establishment's recommendation: withdrawal from the Gaza settlements but not the Philadelphi Route, and a purely symbolic withdrawal in the West Bank. And in this way, everyone was happy: The army and the Likud ministers could say that they managed to "block Sharon," while the prime minister succeeded in getting backing for exactly what he originally wanted.
But Sharon's plan contains another, and much more significant, full circle. In exchange for the withdrawal, the prime minister is asking U.S. President George W. Bush to issue a presidential statement recognizing Israel's future annexation, as part of a permanent-status agreement, of the major settlement blocs: Ariel, Ma'aleh Adumim, Gush Etzion and the settlements around Jerusalem. This is precisely what former president Bill Clinton proposed to then-prime minister Ehud Barak in 2000: a plan in which Israel would retain 4 to 6 percent of the West Bank containing 80 percent of the Jewish settlers. As Sharon's bureau chief, Dov Weisglass, told Bush's staff: "[America] has already agreed to the settlement blocs."
But the Israeli plan can also be seen in the negative: If Sharon wants American recognition for the annexation of 5 percent of the West Bank, he is implicitly conceding the other 95 percent. His office denies this, saying that this will merely constitute the starting point for future negotiations, during which Israel will demand additional parts of the West Bank. But why would the U.S. agree to that in the future?
It is hard not to conclude that Israel has fought the Palestinians for three-and-a-half years in order to return to the exact point at which the intifada broke out. How else does one explain that after all the terror attacks, deaths, recession, reoccupation of the West Bank, and Yasser Arafat's confinement, Israel is asking for a renewed American commitment to the Clinton plan?
From Sharon's perspective, American recognition of the settlement blocs is meant mainly to pacify the Likud ministers, who are demanding "something in exchange for the withdrawal." Bush's support is also meant to show the plan's opponents in the Likud that the American president does not view it as "rewarding terrorism" - a criticism that its local critics have frequently hurled at the unilateral pullback.
But Weisglass' main job during his trip to Washington this week will be to obtain assurances from the U.S. that Israel will not be expected to negotiate with the Palestinians until they change their leadership and halt terror. In this way, Israel will effectively receive the "long-term interim agreement" that Sharon has always wanted.
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