The prime minister's few opponents claim he has no strategy. That is a grave charge. In response, Ariel Sharon displays equanimity, and from his perspective, he's right. On the one hand, he enjoys broad support from the public, which is mostly unworried by a lack of strategy, believing the time for visions is somewhere in the future and that meanwhile there is a consensus on how to fight terrorism. On the other hand, it's convenient for the prime minister and the ruling security echelons, that they are believed to have only tactics and to be politically short-sighted. That way they can implement their strategy without arousing too much attention and criticism.
The prime minister's declarations about readiness for a Palestinian state and "painful concessions" are not hollow words. They are not meant only to calm the worried and the critical. An examination of what is taking place on the ground exposes the consistent implementation of ideas that were not born yesterday.
Many in the top echelons of the security establishment in the 1970s and 1980s had a warm spot in their hearts for the white apartheid regime in South Africa that was derived not only from utilitarian interests, but also from sympathy for the white minority rulers in that country. One of the elements of the old South African regime that stirred much interest in Israel remains current to this day: To seemingly solve the demographic problem that troubled the white South Africans (that is, to hang on to all of South Africa without granting equal rights, civil rights and the vote to blacks), the South African regime created a fiction known by the name Bantustans, later changed to Homelands.
The South African government established small enclaves throughout the country and called them "independent states." These helpless, unsustainable enclaves were surrounded by South African territory and run by collaborators totally subservient to the authority of the larger "neighbor," South Africa. All the blacks outside these fictitious "states" were arbitrarily assigned citizenship in those states. In other words, they became foreign residents in their own land.
For those who desire to keep the West Bank and Gaza, to expand the settlements without annexing the Palestinian population, and who understand that transfer is impractical, the original South African model is particularly tempting. It would be a mistake to use the term "canton" in this case, since cantons are autonomous areas of a state and its citizens. Here, the idea is to turn those Palestinians living in areas that would be annexed to Israel, into foreign citizens.
There are two elements that characterize Sharon's policies toward the Palestinians: the siege of the Palestinian cities and the subversion of the central Palestinian authority - with or without Arafat. Clearly, such a situation requires local authorities in the besieged towns if only to provide elementary services to the population. Those local authorities cannot be subordinate to the gradually disappearing Palestinian Authority, nor can they operate without being subordinate to the Israeli authorities.
Why hasn't this plan reached full fruition yet? It's possible that if not for American pressure, the PA would be only an historical memory by now. But even so, when U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld refers to the "so-called" occupied territories, it's clear the U.S. is only slowing down, not stopping the Sharon strategy.
Without anyone taking notice, a process is underway establishing a "Palestinian state" limited to the Palestinian cities, a "state" comprised of a number of separate, sovereign-less enclaves, with no resources for self-sustenance. The territories of the West Bank and Gaza remain in Israeli hands, and its Palestinian residents are being turned into "citizens" of that "foreign country."
In light of the Israeli government's actions in the territories, it is very difficult to describe the future Palestinian state in any other way, or for that matter, the "painful concessions" promised by the prime minister. Another question is whether such a solution can last very long in the 21st century, and in the heart of the Middle East. And even more difficult is the thought of what will happen when the solution collapses.
The writer is vice president of Tel Aviv University and a former Foreign Ministry deputy director general for Africa, Asia and Oceania.