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When Yitzhak Rabin coined the phrase “political settlements” (the opposite of “security settlements”), he was referring to settlements outside the settlement blocs that more or less abut the Green Line. President George Bush does not distinguish between security settlements and political settlements. Until November 2, he will see no difference between a new neighborhood in Ma’aleh Adumim, which is slated for annexation, and the Ra’anan outpost in Gush Katif, which is slated for evacuation. Until the presidential election, everything is political in Washington.
A few hours before a senior Bush administration official leaked a story to The New York Times about an agreement with Ariel Sharon over settlement expansion, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice was still talking about the need to end the occupation. Her statements were understood as lip service to the Europeans and the other Quartet members who are signatories to the U.S.-backed road map.
The only map that interests the White House right now is the map of polling stations in contested voting regions. The section of the road map that calls for a construction freeze in the settlements, including a freeze on natural growth, will wait for Bush’s second term, or for a new president. The evacuation of illegal outposts can also wait. According to reliable sources, Sharon has excellent reasons to believe that over the next two and a half months, the American administration will be busy with other matters.
Israeli and American officials are convinced that last weekend’s leak to The New York Times was directly related to Bush’s worrisome standing in the polls and to the Republican convention that will open this weekend in New York. After all, the story itself is not new. Almost three years ago, then foreign minister Shimon Peres hastened to tell his associates about his understanding with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, under which it would be possible to expand existing settlements within the boundary of already built-up areas. The difference is that then, the Americans denied it half-heartedly, whereas this time, they have confirmed it wholeheartedly. Then, they were thinking about Arab opinion in the Middle East. Today, they are thinking about Jewish votes in the Middle West.
What is wrong with a little flexibility? How could Bush have guessed, following his impressive comeback after September 11, 2001, that in August 2004 he would be limping in the polls behind a gray Democratic senator? Even two years ago, when Bush signed the road map, few predicted that in the coming elections, he would be compelled to run after the Jews, a minority that numbers no more than 2 percent of the American population.
Last week, almost simultaneously with the report in The New York Times, Israeli diplomats in Washington reported on the growing panic in the Bush camp. A former senior White House official said that only a dramatic move or a wild gamble, such as replacing Vice President Dick Cheney with a candidate not tarred by the Iraq war, could save Bush. The Republican convention is the last possible date for such a move.
According to the diplomats’ reports, it seems that the few pieces of good news for the Bush campaign are coming from Jewish activists. Jewish organizations predict that Bush will almost double his strength among this community, from 18 to 35 percent. The Republicans know that it is not their economic platform or their welfare policy that is dividing the liberal Jews. The most accepted explanation for the turnabout is Bush’s image as “Israel’s best friend.” The report on the settlements was meant to remind those who have forgotten this. But between the lines, it is possible for a courageous diplomat to read hints that it is not worth counting on this friendship if Bush is reelected for a second and final term.
The Likud is talking with the Palestinians
At the beginning of this month, Shimon Peres shared a secret with a delegation of the “Shuvi” movement, which wants Israel to get out of Gaza. He promised his guests that the law arranging compensation for evacuated settlers would be submitted to the Knesset no later than August 11. One of the participants thought that his ears had betrayed him and asked whether the Labor Party chairman had really said “August 11.” Peres, in his capacity as someone close to the prime minister, confirmed that indeed, in another few days, the bill would be submitted to the Knesset. Later, Sharon’s associates promised that the law would pass in September, and this week, they are already talking about “after the high holy days” – in other words, October. As a consolation prize, the Prime Minister’s Office announced the establishment of the Disengagement Administration, headed by Yonatan Bassi. The administration exists, but thus far, the agencies responsible for it – the Justice Ministry and the National Security Council – lack vital data on the scope of the settlers’ assets and their value. No one dares to talk directly to the settlers, other than those boors who threaten those of their neighbors who think that if there is truth in the claim that “the government sent us there,” the government has the right to send them back home.
The donor nations and the World Bank are preparing a plan to rehabilitate Gaza’s economy and infrastructure. The Turks have acceded to Peres’s proposal that they plan a large-scale project to build apartments for Gaza residents in the spacious tracts that Israel will evacuate. There are even contacts with the Egyptians about turning Al Arish into an international tourist center that would provide jobs for thousands of Gaza residents.
But until Sharon decides to move, or until the U.S. decides to move him, the disengagement plan is providing jobs for more than a few experts, politicians and public activists. The ferment is enormous. A few weeks ago, Deputy Minister Michael Ratzon and MKs Michael Eitan and Majali Wahabi, all from the Likud Party, traveled to the eastern shore of the Dead Sea in order to meet a group of senior Palestinian Authority officials. The topic of the discussion, which was organized by the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI), a Jerusalem-based nonprofit association, was “the implications of the disengagement plan.” There were Palestinians who expressed hope that Israel’s exit from Gaza would restore hope to the territories. Others warned that the move would strengthen Hamas. Ratzon, one of the leaders of the “Likud rebels,” said that he opposes the disengagement plan because of its unilateral nature, and promised to support any agreement that would promote a solution to the demographic problem.
This coming Sunday, Ratzon will host a group of Palestinian officials – including Transportation Minister Hikmat Zaid, Fatah Deputy Secretary Adnan Abdel Raham Samara, Gaza Governor Ahmed Basiso and Yasser Arafat’s advisor, Imad Shakur, who holds the Israeli society portfolio – at the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Employment in Jerusalem.
It is not only in his own party that Sharon has sowed confusion. Even Peace Now is fighting over whether to support the disengagement plan. Last night, a discussion was scheduled between the camp that favors an advertising campaign in support of disengagement, with no additions, and the opposition, which wants to restore the honor of peace and negotiations.
Gaza as a mini-Afghanistan
“He is not pro-Likud,” corrected an American official friendly to Israel after meeting with Elliott Abrams, the U.S. National Security Council official responsible for the Middle East. “He’s a Likudnik.” If Abrams, like other members of the neoconservative group that surrounds Bush, was a card-carrying member of the Israeli party, it is not clear that he would have voted for Sharon’s disengagement plan. The Middle East Quarterly, a web site run by extreme right-winger Daniel Pipes (who was appointed by Bush not long ago to the board of the United States Institute of Peace), recently published an article that harshly criticized Sharon’s plan to replace Israel Defense Forces soldiers on the Gaza Strip border with Egyptian soldiers.
The writer, strange as it seems, is Major General Doron Almog, who until last year headed the IDF’s Southern Command. The article is based on research that Almog is now engaged in as a research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, headed by our old acquaintance Dennis Ross. The IDF Spokesman said that Almog is currently on leave prior to his retirement, and that the article reflects his opinions only. It would be interesting to know whether that will ease the minds of any Egyptians who read the article.
Almog relates that in 2002 alone, 3,000 people slipped over the border between Egypt and Israel. Fifty tons of drugs were smuggled into Israel from the Sinai peninsula, as well as innumerable illegal foreign workers. He reveals that this same network helped six terrorist cells to infiltrate Israel. Almog claims that the Egyptian Border Patrol is taking a dangerous risk, as he has no doubt that this network of infiltration into Israel relies on a powerful support network located on Egyptian soil. “This mechanism is driven by supply and demand, but it depends on a considerable measure of official acquiescence,” Almog writes. He is convinced that if the Egyptian authorities wanted to stop the smuggling into Israel, they could achieve much better results. The problem, he says, is that they do not want to do so. Official Egypt identifies with the Palestinian struggle for independence, he says, and therefore it is tolerant of anti-Israel activities.
Almog cautions against Islamic organizations in Egypt that view Gaza as a “mini-Afghanistan,” in his words. He fears that these organizations will grow stronger in a post-Mubarak era, and wonders whether a regime that has proven its inability to deal with the groups that assassinated Anwar Sadat in Cairo in 1981, and that later murdered 58 tourists in Luxor in 1997, will be able to succeed on the Israeli border, of all places. “Egypt suffers from every one of the ills afflicting the Arab body politic, often in a magnified form. It is an authoritarian and inefficient state that has failed to meet even minimal goals of political and economic reform,” he writes.
In Almog’s view, in order for the disengagement plan to have any strategic value, it must be used to create momentum for progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track, to assist in the economic rehabilitation of the Gaza Strip, to build housing for Palestinian refugees and to set up a moderate, secular educational system. Until then, Israel should not take the risk of exporting Egypt’s problems to Palestinian territory.
“Were the disengagement gamble to fail – as well it could – a medium or high level of Egyptian involvement in Gaza could put Israel and Egypt on a collision course,” Almog writes. He recommends that IDF soldiers remain on the Philadelphi Road until secular democracy defeats militant Islam, and until Bush completes his program for reforming Israel’s neighbors.
AKIVA ELDAR writes for Ha’aretz, where this column originally appeared.