The Plan Sharon Refuses to Consider

Senior military officers who have participated in discussions with the prime minister praise his attentiveness and openness. But there is one idea that Sharon has consistently rejected, refusing to even discuss it.

Senior military officers and intelligence officials who have participated in discussions with the prime minister praise his attentiveness and openness. He is always ready to listen to ideas, and despite the baggage of experience and ideology that Ariel Sharon carries, he is sometimes open to changing his mind, as in the matter of the separation fence.

But there is one idea that Sharon has consistently rejected, refusing to even discuss it. Over and over during his term in office, it has been proposed that Israel come out with a political initiative vis-a-vis the Palestinians. The defense and foreign ministers, the National Security Council and the chief of staff have all warned that the impression that the government does not have a political plan and that Sharon is only trying to vanquish the Palestinians and reinstate the occupation damages Israel's international stature and diminishes the legitimacy of its military actions.

The General Staff's proposal, formulated last year, has been raised a number of times since. Fundamentally, the proposal says Israel must present an "image of victory" and come out with a generous political initiative. If its proposals are accepted, the road will be paved for a long-term interim agreement. If the Palestinians, as is their wont, reject it, Israel will at least have won important points in the international arena.

Army planners accepted the principle of a temporary Palestinian state, along the lines worked out in the talks between Shimon Peres and Abu Ala; but they proposed disconnecting this element from a permanent settlement of the conflict.

Instead of declaring a state on the Palestinian Authority's existing 42 percent of the West Bank, and then to rush into final arrangements, the army proposed "territory for time." In exchange for postponing the final settlement, Israel would undertake one more withdrawal from the territories, giving the Palestinians large blocs of land with contiguous transportation links in the West Bank, and full territorial contiguity in Gaza. The proposal spoke of expanding Palestinian areas to 49.1 percent of the territory, with most of the change turning Area B, where Israel has security control, into Area A, meaning full Palestinian control.

The sensitive element in the Israel Defense Forces' plan calls for evacuating all the settlements in the Gaza Strip (with or without the northwestern bloc of Dugit and Alei Sinai), and a number of isolated settlements in the West Bank. The planners named seven settlements in the West Bank - for example, Ganim and Kadim near Jenin - that are not inhabited by extremists. The army assumed Israeli public opinion would accept the idea. The left would welcome any agreement, and the right would see the fruits of the deal: The permanent deal would be postponed, perhaps forever, while Israel would keep Jerusalem, the Jordan Valley and most of the settlements.

The additional withdrawal and the evacuation of the settlements was not intended to please the Palestinians, but rather to serve Israeli interests. In exchange for giving up a few assets, Israel would enjoy a much stronger international position and a fall-off in terrorism. More importantly, the proposal spoke of far more stable security arrangements. The IDF's lessons from the failure of Oslo are focused on not basing security on the goodwill of the sides. The new lines and the postponement of the permanent agreement would create a more convenient reality for Israel in the territories, and put the Palestinians to the test.

The IDF's plan was presented to Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and to Sharon's close aides at the time, Uri Shani and Moshe Kaplinski. The prime minister didn't even discuss the matter; his position was that Israel should not give into any pressure and offer concessions, and that it would be better to reach a quiet understanding with the American administration. Sharon regards President George W. Bush's speech of June 24, 2002, which called for replacing the Palestinian leadership and comprehensive reforms in the PA, as an absolute victory for his approach. International pressure shifted into the Palestinian court, without Israel being required to give up territory and settlements.

The question now is whether the current political impasse, which, as all the signs indicate, will last a long time to come, is preferable to the effort to form new lines in the territories through an Israeli initiative, despite the political price of evacuating settlements.