With his coalition partners on board, Israel's
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is plotting his next move: a partial withdrawal from
the West Bank over the next few years that he and his government will declare
as the end of the occupation and therefore also any legitimate grounds for Palestinian
From hereon in, Israel will portray itself as the benevolent provider of a
Palestinian state – on whatever is left after most of Israel's West Bank colonies
have been saved and the Palestinian land on which they stand annexed to Israel.
If the Palestinians reject this deal – an offer, we will doubtless be told,
every bit as "generous" as the last one – then, according to the new
government's guidelines, they will be shunned by Israel and presumably also
by the international community.
Even given the normal wretched standards of Israeli double-dealing in the "peace
process," this is a bleak moment to be a Palestinian politician.
Olmert's "convergence" plan, his version of disengagement for the
West Bank (except this time only about 15 percent of the territory's 420,000
settlers will be withdrawn), has salved the West's conscience just as surely
as did his predecessor Sharon's pullout from Gaza last year. The naysayers will
be dismissed, as they were then, as bad sports, anti-Semites or apologists for
Olmert is not new to this game. In fact, there is every indication that he
played a formative role in helping Sharon transform himself from "the Bulldozer"
into "the Unilateral Peacemaker."
In November 2003, Olmert, then Sharon's deputy, all but announced the coming
Gaza Disengagement Plan before it had earned the official name. A few weeks
before Sharon revealed that he would be pulling out of Gaza, Olmert outlined
to Israel's Ha'aretz newspaper the most serious issue facing Israel.
It was, he said, the problem of how, when the Palestinians were on the eve of
becoming a majority in the region, to prevent them from launching a struggle
similar to the one against apartheid waged by black South Africans.
Olmert's concern was that, if the Palestinian majority renounced violence and
began to fight for one-man-one-vote, Israel would be faced by "a much cleaner
struggle, a much more popular struggle – and ultimately a much more powerful
one." Palestinian peaceful resistance, therefore, had to be preempted by
The logic of Olmert's solution, as he explained it then, sounds very much like
the reasoning behind disengagement and now convergence: "[The] formula
for the parameters of a unilateral solution are: To maximize the number of Jews;
to minimize the number of Palestinians." Or, as he put last week, "division
of the land, with the goal of ensuring a Jewish majority, is Zionism's lifeline."
But though Olmert has claimed convergence as his own, its provenance in the
Israeli mainstream dates back more than a decade. Far from being a response
to Palestinian terror during this Intifada, as government officials used to
maintain, many in the Israeli military and political establishment have been
pushing for "unilateral separation" – a withdrawal, partial or otherwise,
from the occupied territories made concrete and irreversible by the building
of a barrier – since the early 1990s.
The apostles of separation, however, failed to get their way until now because
of two obstacles: the cherished, but conflicting, dreams of the Labor and Likud
parties, both of which preferred to postpone, possibly indefinitely, the endgame
of the conflict implicit in a separation imposed by Israel.
In signing up to Oslo, Yitzhak Rabin and his Labor Party believed they could
achieve effective separation by other means, through the manufactured consent
of the Palestinians. Rabin hoped to subcontract Israel's security to the Palestinian
leadership in the shape of the largely dependent regime of the Palestinian Authority,
under Yasser Arafat.
Palestinians resisting the occupation would be cowed by their own security
forces, doing Israel's bidding, while Israel continued plundering resources
– land and water – in the West Bank and Gaza and established a network of industrial
parks in which Israeli employers could exploit the captive Palestinian labor
Sharon, Binyamin Netanyahu, and the Likud Party, on the other hand, refused
throughout the 1990s to countenance a separation that would foil their ambitions
of annexing all of the occupied territories and creating Greater Israel. Sharon
notoriously told his settler followers to "go grab the hilltops" in
1998 in an attempt to thwart the small territorial gains being made by the Palestinians
under the Oslo agreements.
In the tradition of Vladimir Jabotinsky, the Likud rejected Labor's optimistic
view that the Palestinians could be made willing accomplices to their dispossession.
In this view, because they would always struggle for their freedom, the Palestinians
had to be ruthlessly subjugated or expelled. Which of these two courses to follow
has been the paralyzing dilemma faced by Likud ever since.
So for a decade, separation was mostly forced onto the back burner.
But not entirely. Rabin, it seems, was fully aware that the Oslo scam might
not work quite as Israel planned. In that case, to avert the threat of the apartheid
comparison, Rabin believed he would need to fall back on a wall to enforce a
separation between the land's Jewish and Palestinian inhabitants.
He made this clear to Dennis Ross, Clinton's Middle East envoy during the Oslo
period. Ross admitted as much in 2004 when he told Thomas Friedman of the New
York Times that shortly before Rabin's murder in 1995 the Israeli prime
minister began contemplating building a wall as a way to contain the demographic
threat posed by Israel's continuing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
"[Rabin] said, 'We're going to have to partition – there's going to have
to be a partition here, because we won't be Jewish and democratic if we don't
have a partition.' Now, his preference was to negotiate the partition peacefully
to produce two states. But if that didn't work he wanted, as you put it, a separation
fence or barrier to create what would be two states, or at least to preserve
Israel as a state."
In truth, Rabin was more persuaded of the need for a wall than Ross cares to
remember. At a time when the ink on the Oslo agreements had barely dried, Rabin
was entrusting the wall project to a committee headed by his public security
minister, Moshe Shahal.
Though the scheme was dropped by his two successors, Shimon Peres and Binyamin
Netanyahu, it came of age again with Ehud Barak, a longtime Oslo skeptic, who
entered office advocating unilateral separation. In May 2000, he put his ideas
into practice by unilaterally withdrawing troops from Israel's "security
zone" in south Lebanon.
And two months later, a fortnight before departing for talks at Camp David,
he articulated his vision of separation from the Palestinians: "Israel
will insist upon a physical separation between itself and the independent Palestinian
entity to be formed as a result of the settlement. I am convinced that a separation
of this sort is necessary for both sides."
In fact, Barak had been secretly devising a plan to "separate physically"
from the Palestinians for some time. Uzi Dayan, the army's chief of staff at
the time, says he persuaded Barak of the need for unilateral disengagement "as
a safety net to Camp David."
Ephraim Sneh, Barak's deputy defense minister, confirms Dayan's account, saying
he was asked to prepare the plans for separation in case Camp David failed.
"I drew the map. I can speak about it authoritatively. The plan means the
de facto annexation of 30 percent of the West Bank, half in the Jordan Valley,
which you have to keep if there is no agreement, and half in the settlement
Shlomo Ben Ami, Barak's foreign minister, was given a sneak preview of the
map: "[Barak] was proud of the fact that his map would leave Israel with
about a third of the territory [the West Bank]. … Ehud was convinced that the
map was extremely logical. He had a kind of patronizing, wishful-thinking, naive
approach, telling me enthusiastically, 'Look, this is a state; to all intents
and purposes it looks like a state.'"
It seems that Barak hoped to get the Palestinians to agree to the terms of
this map or else impose it by force. But, following the collapse of the Camp
David talks, Barak never got the chance to begin building his wall. Within a
few months, he would be ousted from office, and Ariel Sharon would be installed
as the new prime minister.
In keeping with his Greater Israel ambitions, Sharon was initially skeptical
about both separation and erecting a wall. When he approved the barrier's first
stages near Jenin in summer 2002, it was under pressure from the Labor Party,
which was shoring up the legitimacy of the national unity government as his
military armor rampaged through the occupied territories.
Many senior Labor figures had been converted to the idea of a wall by Barak,
who relentlessly promoted unilateral separation while out of office. In one
typical commentary in June 2002, some 18 months before Sharon's own proposals
for disengagement were revealed, Barak wrote:
"The disengagement would be implemented gradually over several years.
The fence should include the seven big settlement blocs that spread over 12
or 13 percent of the area and contain 80 percent of the settlers. Israel will
also need a security zone along the Jordan River and some early warning sites,
which combined will cover another 12 percent, adding up to 25 percent of the
And what about East Jerusalem, where Israel is trying to wrestle control from
the Palestinians? "In Jerusalem, there would have to be two physical fences,
" Barak advised. "The first would delineate the political boundary
and be placed around the Greater City, including the settlement blocs adjacent
to Jerusalem. The second would be a security-dictated barrier, with controlled
gates and passes, to separate most of the Palestinian neighborhoods from the
Jewish neighborhoods and the Holy Basin, including the Old City."
In other words, Barak's public vision of disengagement four years ago is almost
identical to Olmert's apparently freshly minted convergence plan for the West
Olmert's predecessor, Sharon, was not an instant convert to the benefits of
Barak's ideas of separation. Though he needed to keep the Labor Party sweet,
progress on the early sections of the wall was painfully slow. Uzi Dayan, the
general behind Barak's separation plans, complained that Sharon and his defense
minister, Shaul Mofaz, were trying to sabotage the wall. They were "not
working on the fence," he said. "They are trying not to do it."
All that changed at some point in early 2003, when Sharon began talking about
Palestinian statehood for the first time. By May 2003, he was telling a stunned
Likud Party meeting:
"The idea that it is possible to continue keeping 3.5 million Palestinians
under occupation – yes, it is occupation, you might not like the word, but what
is happening is occupation – is bad for Israel, and bad for the Palestinians,
and bad for the Israeli economy. Controlling 3.5 million Palestinians cannot
go on forever."
The reason for Sharon's change of heart related mainly to a belated realization
on his part that the demographic threats facing Israel could no longer be denied.
Israel ruling over a majority of Palestinians would inevitably provoke the apartheid
comparison and spell the end of the Jewish state's legitimacy.
Also, Sharon had been backed into an uncomfortable corner by the Road Map,
a U.S. peace initiative unveiled in late 2002 that, unusually, required major
concessions from Israel as well as the Palestinians, promised a Palestinian
state at its outcome and was to be overseen by the Europeans, Russians, and
the United Nations as well as the Americans.
A year later, Olmert would be flying his trial balloon for a Likud-style separation
on far better terms for Israel than the Road Map. And shortly after that, disengagement
was officially born. It was, said Dov Weisglass, Sharon's adviser, "formaldehyde"
for the Road Map.
It is clear that Sharon's disengagement from Gaza was only the first stage
of his separation plans. His officials repeatedly warned that further disengagements
from the West Bank would follow, based on the route of the wall, though Sharon
– cautious about alienating right-wing voters before the coming elections –
was more tightlipped.
But when Sharon finally realized he could not tame the Greater Israel diehards
in his Likud Party, and that they threatened to unravel his plans for the West
Bank, he created Kadima, a new "centrist" party that attracted fugitives
from both Labor and Likud.
Its rapid success derived from its ability to transcend the enduring differences
between the Israeli Left and Right – or, rather, to consolidate both traditions.
Like Likud, Kadima admitted that the Palestinians would never surrender their
dreams of nationhood, but like Labor it believed a strategy could be devised
in which the Palestinians, even if they did not accept the terms of separation,
could be made powerless to resist Israeli diktats.
Kadima squared the circle through a policy that maintained Likud's insistence
on "unilateralism" while maintaining Labor's pretense of benevolent "separation"
from the Palestinians.
Before his conversion, Sharon was the last and the biggest hurdle to unilateral
separation. His opposition was enough throughout the 1990s to stymie those in
the security establishment – possibly a majority – who were pushing for the
policy. Once he backed down, nothing was likely to stand in the way of implementing
The lesson of the Gaza disengagement is that withdrawals (partial or full)
from occupied territory are insufficient in themselves to herald the end of
occupation. The absence of Israeli settlers and soldiers from those parts of
the West Bank to be handed over to the Palestinians will not ensure that the
Palestinian people are sovereign in the territory left to them.
The occupation will continue as long as Israel controls the diminished West
Bank's borders and trade, its resources and airspace, its connections with Gaza
and the Palestinian Diaspora, and as long as Israel blocks the emergence of
a Palestinian army and enjoys the unfettered right to strike at Palestinian
targets, military or otherwise.
Olmert and Israel's security establishment understand this all too well. Unfortunately,
a supine Europe and America appear all too ready to collude in the deception.