Ariel Sharon is now at the peak of a serious diet whose tangible results will only become clear to the public next week: his disengagement plan, which started with a declaration of intent to evacuate all the settlements in the Gaza Strip and a significant portion of those in the West Bank, is shrinking to include only the dismantling of two to four isolated settlements. This includes a promise, of course, of more to come.
Originally, Sharon discussed with Shimon Peres a significant withdrawal from all of Gaza and broad sections of the West Bank, including the abandonment of dozens of settlements. This was the basis of informal talks that the two held over the possibility that the Labor Party would join the government in place of the National Religious Party and the National Union. As the date neared for making the disengagement plan public, it became clear to Peres that Sharon was narrowing the plan: the complete withdrawal from the Gaza Strip remained in effect, but holding onto the Philadelphi route, on the border with Egypt, became an added requirement.
The evacuation of Samaria was shrunk to a small area that included a mere four settlements. Peres was disappointed but continued to express support for the plan and insisted on providing Sharon with the political backing necessary for him to execute the plan, including of course, joining his government.
The disengagement plan is now undergoing drastic cuts and is expected to be presented to the cabinet next week (barring changes), empty of substance. In the new version the plan will include a decision to evacuate two settlements in the Gaza Strip and two in northern Samaria. It is still not clear what the time-table for the new version will be: will the modest evacuation be carried out only in a year and a half (the date for carrying out the broad withdrawal, according to the original plan), or earlier?
It is also not clear how the move will be described: is it the first part of the plan that Sharon presented to President George Bush, or is it a formulation that will distinguish it from that plan, in order to placate the Likud constituents and the ministers who rejected the original plan. Not only has the wording that will accompany the presentation of the plan to the cabinet not yet been formulated, neither has the political nature of the move. Will the ministers be asked to approve the whole disengagement plan, and within it the first stage of withdrawal (the four settlements), or just the initial evacuation?
If Sharon chooses to push for the first possibility, it will be difficult to gain the support of the majority of his cabinet because it runs in direct contradiction to the results of the Likud referendum. If he opts for the second possibility (toward which he appears to be leaning), he will find himself in violation of his commitment to President Bush, which called for a unilateral withdrawal from the whole Gaza Strip and the evacuation of the settlements there (except for maintaining temporary control over the Philadelphi route), and four settlements in northern Samaria.
The Prime Minister's office is now working on a formula that will extricate Sharon from his current distress. It is likely that they will come up with such a formula, but it will only be a verbal gimmick, political acrobatics, and not a real diplomatic move worthy of serious consideration.
After all, it is impossible to form a genuine bridge between the position of the Likud voters and the Prime Minister's plan, in the form it was presented to the United States and the public in Israel. Sharon declared his wish to pull out of all of Gaza and evacuate all the settlements there. The response by his party was a resounding `no'.
Instead of acting on an ideological level in an effort to convince his constituents of the idea of withdrawal, and instead of trying to use the power of his arguments to win over Likud ministers - which would have resulted in the necessary party-wide consensus for his initiative - Sharon has opted to make his way out of the maze using verbal tricks and political somersaults. In other words, alter the format of the plan and camouflage it with language that will dull its significance.
This way he will take the soul out of the plan and turn it from a diplomatic initiative with historic ramifications into another anecdote in an anthology of falsehoods.
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