Withdrawing Forward

IDF officers were left scratching their heads about the political leadership's intentions: Is the plan really to pull out of the Gaza Strip, or does Israel intend to tighten its control of the area?

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz toured the Kissufim road last Wednesday, following the murder of the Hatuel family. At the end of his visit, he ordered the Israel Defense Forces to construct a separation fence along the road. The next day, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon appeared before European Union ambassadors and announced that he stands by his disengagement plan, and is currently reviewing ways to implement it. IDF officers were left scratching their heads about the political leadership's intentions: Is the plan really to pull out of the Gaza Strip, or does Israel intend to tighten its control of the area?

The costs entailed in constructing a security fence along the road leading into the Gaza Strip - the very area from which Sharon says he intends to withdraw - are the easy part of the quandary that currently paralyzes the prime minister. Soon parents will ask Sharon why their children are risking their lives, and perhaps sacrificing them, to defend settlers who are slated for evacuation. Why shouldn't the withdrawal process be accelerated? Why shouldn't the political changes required to make the separation plan a reality be carried out?

Sharon doesn't have any choice: He must define his chosen political objective. Once he has done that, he must cobble together the government he needs to attain his goal.

When he established the current government, he opted for the right-wing National Religious Party and National Union Party. In so doing, he made a statement about his policy direction. After less than a year, he switched gears, placing the disengagement plan at the center of his agenda. This new objective is at odds with the coalition he established, and he will never be able to erase this gap by relying on verbal acrobatics. When the government meets this morning to discuss the plan (which was theoretically scrapped last week as a result of the Likud referendum), it will have to choose between one of two options: Either the cabinet can play the role of the clown in a meaningless performance, or it can try seriously to formulate a policy position that it will be unable to accept in the end.

The alliance between the NRP, National Union, and the lion's share of the Likud (on the one hand), and Sharon and Yosef Lapid (on the other hand) is no longer possible, assuming the prime minister and the justice minister really intend to implement the disengagement plan. Should Sharon carry out concrete steps to go ahead with his plan, he will encounter a barrage of criticism in the Knesset, which will make clear to him, and the world at large, how badly bruised he has become in the political arena. Should he merely pretend that he intends to carry out his initiative, his credibility will be tarnished in the eyes of President Bush, and also in the eyes of Israeli mothers who send their sons to fight for an area their prime minister says Israel should leave.

Moreover, the government will have shirked its responsibility if it does not honestly discuss the future of Israel's control in the territories. Minister Tzipi Livni initiated this process of genuine reckoning during a Likud party meeting last week when she asked her colleagues whether they are willing to continue trying to hold on to all settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Other ministers should follow her lead, and ponder this question. The ministers should consider the stance now taken by heads of Israel's security system who hope, on the one hand, to bring the current conflict to an end, while waiting, on the other hand, for a clear strategic policy directive to be delivered by the political leadership. Members of the IDF General Staff and the national security council believe a Palestinian state will not emerge in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, even if Israel pulls out of all these territories. This being the view of security officials, what's the point of the disengagement plan? What's the political alternative: a binational state, Apartheid, transfer?

The upholding of official positions about the dispute and its solution is a heavy price paid by Israel, and it results from the political leadership's obstinate refusal to abandon outdated policy positions. No doubt, deep in their hearts the prime minister and some of his cabinet colleagues, and also top security officials, realize the time has come to discuss the dispute in sober, practical terms, which relate to the persistent Palestinian struggle against the occupation. To engage such a reckoning requires courage.