NEW YORK, Feb. 17 (UPI) -- The decision of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to evacuate most of the settlements in Gaza and several settlements in the West Bank offers the Palestinians an opportunity to resume peace negotiations with Israel in earnest. Yet for peace efforts to go forward, Sharon must realize he cannot have both security and settlements by building a barrier separating Israelis from Palestinians in the West Bank.
When he came to power more than three years ago, the prime minister never imagined that some day he would support the erection of such a barrier - 95 percent fence and 5 percent wall. But nearly 3-1/2 years of intense violence, especially suicide bombings, have gradually convinced him that only physical separation can protect his people from the wanton violence that has left every Israeli with deep emotional scars.
In deciding whether to build a barrier, Sharon had to find a way to deal with the Israeli settlements that would be left on the Palestinian side once construction is completed. And, of course, he had to consider the barrier's effect on the peace process. To deal with these dual problems, Sharon decided to incorporate as many settlements as he deemed viable in terms of security and demographic considerations through extending the barrier in various places into the West Bank beyond the 1967 lines. In the process, he also created the initial outlines of a future political border with which he can live, allowing for some minor modifications, should peace negotiations resume.
Still, the decision to evacuate even a single settlement assaults every fiber of Sharon's being. While his decision should be applauded in principle, the prime minister will sooner than later realize he cannot have a barrier to keep the Palestinian militants out while leaving a substantial number of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Such an outcome will be nothing less than a security nightmare, challenging the very premise on which the fence is built. There are three groups of settlements adjacent to Jerusalem that occupy about 3 percent of the West Bank land mass that may be incorporated into Israel proper under any possible peace accord with the Palestinians. Whether Sharon accepts just that, which was agreed upon at Camp David, Md., in the summer of 2000, is not known. What is important is that he subscribes to the notion that an Israeli withdrawal from some territory is a prerequisite for any type of coexistence. As to the relocation of the rest of the settlements in the West Bank, this becomes only on a question of time. The Palestinians should build on the proposal rather than denounce it.
Obviously, the Palestinians have legitimate reasons to fear the barrier may be a means by which Sharon annexes more territory and water resources. And they may well equally fear that its byproduct will be further displacement of more Palestinians, causing tremendous economic dislocation and daily hardship. That said, the fact remains that Israeli forces will withdraw from Palestinian territory and settlers will be removed, both of which the Palestinians have sought for so long. The only way the Palestinian Authority can make the barrier obsolete is if it ends violence and continues to press politically for further Israeli withdrawal. Its leaders must realize that if Sharon had the choice, he would not be supporting the barrier because he never before contemplated complete withdrawal from the West Bank.
Security, and security alone, is the critical factor behind the barrier, and it has forced Sharon to rethink his earlier position.
The Palestinian leadership must stop kidding itself by disregarding security as Sharon's main motivation in this situation. Neither the International Court in The Hague nor the Israeli Supreme Court, which are looking into the legality of the barrier, can change anything unless the Palestinians come to grips with the problem of violence. Sharon's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and from some Israeli settlements in the West Bank provides them with a great opportunity to change course. The Palestinian leadership must understand that once Sharon moves to relocate or dismantle the first settlement, his hard-core right-wing coalition partners will most likely defect and his government will fall. Labor, which wholeheartedly supports even partial withdrawal, will join Sharon by forming a national unity government with Likud. Such a prospect will leave the door open for future negotiations and further withdrawals, which the Palestinians should welcome.
The Bush administration is likely to support the Sharon initiative on condition that it remains consistent with one of the key goals of the peace plan known as the "road map" -- to ensure future progress toward a Palestinian state. Sharon himself is very keen on coordinating his strategy with that of the United States. He views this as essential to the health of the critically important bilateral relationship between the two nations and for garnering wider international support for his plan. The Palestinian Authority has now another opportunity to work with the Bush administration to press Sharon for total evacuation of all the settlements in Gaza as phase one, while pressing Hamas and Islamic Jihad to forsake violence. Only such an approach, one built on a sustained commitment to end violence, will bring the barrier down. This time the
Palestinians should not allow their instinct to suspect everything that Sharon does to betray their ultimate national interests.
(Alon Ben-Meir is Middle East Project Director at the World Policy Institute in New York and a professor of International Relations at New York University.)
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)