Joshua Micah Marshall, in Talking Points Memo, analyzes the recent headlines indicating that the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza has been postponed until after the American presidential election in November. Speculation has been widespread as to what Sharon’s motives and plan may have been when proposing his “unilateral disengagement.” Because the proposed withdrawal and dismantling of the Gaza settlements was first accompanied by an announcement that Sharon would move the Gaza settlers to West Bank settlements, for which he requested the American taxpayers pay, the proposal could be seen as a way to negotiate fresh American aid and a blessing on the West Bank settlements, while allowing Israel to abandon the expensive and difficult to defend Gaza settlements. The Americans nixed the idea of relocating the Gaza settlers to the West Bank early on as well as declining to pay for what amounted to an increase of settlers and expansion of settlements in the West Bank.
It now appears that the Gaza withdrawal is entirely off for reasons unexplained. Yossi Alpher in a Media Monitors column asks why:
Within a few months after US endorsement of the roadmap it was clear to all that the administration never viewed that formula as much more than a means of leveraging regional and European support for its campaign in Iraq. Since election year began in America a few months ago, even the rhetoric has dried up.
Now along comes Ariel Sharon and requests Bush’s blessing for his disengagement plan. Sharon’s motives are not entirely clear. He is under a legal cloud that threatens his entire political career. He wants to exploit disengagement in Gaza to strengthen Israel’s grip on the West Bank. He has never endorsed the demographic argument and never told the public why all of a sudden in his view abstract “security concerns” mandate disengagement and dismantling of settlements he himself built. He has still not removed any outposts to speak of, and he allows settlement construction to proceed apace at a number of sites.
On the other hand Sharon is, here and there, moving the fence back to a more reasonable, green line-based location, and he makes the case that removal of settlements, coupled with the “new” fence, will dovetail nicely with phase II of the roadmap, thereby seemingly giving the president a solid Middle East accomplishment in an election year.
Sharon wants to wrap all this up in a triumphant visit to Washington. The administration is cautious, and repeatedly postpones the date. It is making considerable demands on Sharon regarding the fence, settlement expansion, and coordination of transfer of territory with the more moderate Palestinians. But it faces a situation close to chaos in Palestine, and presumably understands that Sharon’s political (and legal) position is increasingly shaky.
Bush knows he must get to election day in November with Iraq solidly on the way to a new era of democracy. But until now he apparently assumed that the best case he need make on election day for Israel-Palestine would be that American crisis management had succeeded in keeping that conflict from getting too far out of hand–pending a better, post-Arafat day. The American public right now is very interested in Baghdad, where its sons and daughters are serving, but not in what goes on in Jerusalem and Ramallah. The president was even able to ignore the Israeli-Palestinian conflict completely in his January state-of-the-union address.
Will this administration, with its sorry record of missed opportunities and non-action in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere and its huge gamble in Iraq, take an election year chance on Sharon and his disengagement plan? Can it safely assume that the transfer of power will work out smoothly; that Sharon will not exploit Bush’s preoccupation with elections to build more settlements and fences in the West Bank that hinder a solution; that the entire project will not collapse into an Israeli governmental crisis?
The payoff could be the first real progress in three and a half years; this would be good politically for both Bush and Sharon. Or it could be a major fiasco, laid by Sharon and Arafat at Bush’s doorstep.
The odds are that the hands-off approach will again win out. Sharon will be asked to postpone any withdrawal until after US elections, to keep his preparations low key until then, and meanwhile to keep the conflict from getting out of hand.
Reuters has “Israeli political sources,” laying the responsibility for the election-centered delay squarely on the Bush administration:
Bowing to White House pressure, Israel intends to wait until after the U.S. presidential election in November before uprooting Jewish settlements from Gaza, Israeli security sources said on Friday.
Israeli political sources also said that, in a further concession to his U.S. ally, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had dropped the option of moving settlers from Gaza to the West Bank, an idea that had enraged Palestinians seeking to set up a state on land occupied by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.
The security sources said Sharon recognised the Bush administration’s concern that implementing his unilateral pullout plan during the U.S. campaign could cause political problems by fuelling instability in Palestinian areas — although Washington denied any link with the election.
Sharon, battered by multiple scandals, suffered a fresh blow when an opinion poll indicated for the first time that a majority of Israelis want him to quit. A Sharon confidant blamed his woes on far-right politicians opposed to a Gaza pull-out.
The Israeli daily Maariv reported that U.S. officials had made clear in recent high-level talks in Washington that they wanted Sharon to hold off on his plan to evacuate most Gaza settlements until after the U.S. election.
In the same article, Bush administration spokesman Adam Ereli denies any linkage to the election:
“That doesn’t sound right to me,” spokesman Adam Ereli told reporters. “Our policy is not tied to an electoral timeline,” he said later. “To make some kind of linkage with an electoral cycle, I think, is really stretching it.”
Oh? So, what is the withdrawal linked to?
For a President entering an election campaign with the specter of the illegitimate invasion of Iraq-turned-guerilla war quagmire hanging over his head, the prospect of being wholly responsible for continuation of the brutal Israeli occupation of Gaza can’t be a welcome development, but it seems clear that this is exactly what the inept crew of White House neocons has ended up stuck with, courtesy of the “Man of Peace” in Tel Aviv.
cross-posted at UnFairWitness