It's hard to know what to make of the current news about the differences between Israel's Ariel Sharon and Bush over the Middle East peace process. In the past, when Bush and Sharon have differed and Sharon went ahead with his actions anyway, Bush pretty much gave in and didn't try to bring any serious diplomatic pressure or any other kind on Israel.
There are some differences between the two governments' policies at the moment. There has also been a dispute, which hasn't gotten a lot of attention, with the Pentagon being hot under the collar about Israeli sales of US weapons technology to China.
But I'll be very surprised if Bush exerts any serious pressure on Sharon's Likud Party-led government to halt new settlements in the West Bank. That issue is key to progress on negotiating a durable peace between Israel and the Palestinians. And it's also likely to be the most obvious belweather of Bush's seriousness about the negotiations.
Sharon is currently implementing a controversial pullout of settlements from the Gaza Strip. That has the radical settlers' movement in a fury, and I don't doubt that their fury in genuine. It also provides good political cover for Sharon, Likud and their Labor Party coalition partner for simultaneously expanding settlements in the West Bank.
Skeptics of Sharon's Gaza pullout plan also feared exactly that: evacuate the Gaza Strip, but then continue to expand and reinforce the settlements in the West Bank, including the "security wall" that's under construction. So far, very unfortunately for peace prospects, that seems to be what is happening.
The following analysis, written before Sharon's Gaza pullout plan was announced, gives a very good description of the situation of the settlements, and of the position that Sharon has taken on them: Gershom Gorenberg, "Road Map to Grand Apartheid?," The American Prospect vol. 14 no. 7, July 3, 2003. Noting that West Bank settlements have been illegally expanded, Gorenberg explains the double game being played by Sharon's government:
But the defiance is only apparent. Ariel Sharon gave a major push to the outpost effort in 1998, when, as foreign minister in Benjamin Netanyahu's government, he publicly urged settlers to "grab more hills, expand the territory." "Everything that's grabbed, will be in our hands," he explained, and the rest of the West Bank would end up in Palestinian hands. About two-thirds of the outposts have been established since March 2001, when Sharon became prime minister -- though the official guidelines of the government formed then, and of the new one formed this year, state that there will be no new settlements.
Sharon has occasionally allowed the army to dismantle an outpost, but he has also allowed more to go up. According to a recent report in the daily Ha'aretz, Sharon regularly holds nighttime meetings with Ze'ev Hever, head of Amana, a key organization devoted to establishing settlements, with the two studying maps together. ...
It's no accident that the plan bears a striking resemblance to the "grandapartheid" promoted by the old South African regime, in which blacks became citizens of "independent" bantustans. According to an Israeli diplomat who spent many years in Africa, Sharon paid both secret and public visits to South Africa in the 1980s. "I saw what interested him: bantustans, as if it were just an intellectual interest," the diplomat told me. "He had a fixation with bantustans that seemed out of proportion."
The diplomat's evaluation is that Sharon is seeking to re-create the bantustan system in the West Bank. "If you tell him it failed in South Africa, he'll say that there it didn't work because of the disproportion between blacks and whites, but that here [the Jews] are still a majority."
It's also very worth remembering that a significant amount of Christian Right money goes into financing settlements in occupied Palestinian territory. I got a fundraising appeal from one of those groups the other day, specifically talking about how the money would be used for that purpose. Something that donors to Christian Right programs that claim to be supporting Isreal might want to take into account.
One of the new settlement expansions that is causing new concerns is that at Maaleh Adumim, east of Jersusalem (Despite Bush rebuke, work goes on at West Bank settlement Yahoo! News/AFP 04/12/05):
Maaleh Adumim is already home to some 28,000 people but Sharon's ultimate objective is to effectively link the settlement to Arab east Jerusalem, thus severing the link between the rest of the West Bank and the part of the city which the Palestinians want as the capital of their promised future state.
In a bid to downplay disagreements with the Bush administration, Sharon's camp has been emphasising that the implementation of the project to build the new 3,500 new homes is not even on the horizon.
But a tour of Maaleh Adumim, organized Tuesday by the anti-settlement watchdog Peace Now, showed that Israel is already clearly flouting the roadmap's call to freeze all settlement activity.
Even Ehud Barak, who appeared to be trying hard in his days as prime minister (1999-2001)to further the peace process, defends the West Bank settlements: Trust is built on realities by Ehud Barak Guardian (UK) 04/12/05.
They should also accept the demographic realities. This is why a partial bureaucratic approval of an old construction plan in the city of Maale Adumim, adjacent to Jerusalem, should not be perceived as a danger to the peace process. All the diplomatic pressure on Israel, in this specific case, is not justified, simply because the Palestinians have already agreed this major bloc will stay under Israel's authority - if not at Camp David, in many other exchanges of ideas. While the construction plan is far from being implemented on the ground, threats by Saeb Erekat (or Abbas) that its authorisation "closes the door to peace" takes us back to a gloomy period where short-term political gains are put before long-term benefits.
No Israeli government can, should or needs to remove the major settlement blocs. These are where almost 80% of the settlers live in an area of no more than 6% of the total land area of the West Bank. This understanding should ease the recent tension between the sides, especially as the Maale Adumim plan specifically does not interfere withany unsolvable territorial contiguity issues.
Was that a Freudian slip, "does not interfere with any unsolvable" issues?
The foreign editor of the London Times argues that Bush is carrying on a balancing act between supporting Sharon on the Gaza plan and nominal criticism of his West Bank settlement policies, a course one that Bush will have difficulty maintaining for long: Bush tactics with Israel will have to change soon by Bronwen Maddox Times of London 04/13/05.
Get Gaza out of the way, and then have a row, if necessary. Those seem to be the Bush Administration’s tactics in dealing with Israel, judging by this week’s summit in Crawford, Texas.
They are not bad ones, but they only postpone a problem the US will eventually have to face: its insistence that Israel stop building houses on the West Bank, and Israel’s refusal so far to do so.
She points out that the short-term success of Monday's conference is based on a tenuous position by both sides, one that can be maintained for only a few months, at best:
Sharon could return home with the reaffirmation of US support for maintaining many West Bank settlements forever, the policy that Bush announced last year.
Bush could tell Israel’s critics that he had delivered a tough message, and also tellits supporters that he was endorsing its broad plan.
But a peace settlement will have to include decisions about the West Bank settlements and the status of Jersusalem. It's unlikely in the extreme that any elected Palestinian authority could agree to a Palestinian states construted of bantustan-type enclaves. And without a firm American position on the West Bank settlements, it's unlikely in the extreme that any Israeli government would agree to finally evacuate the settlements.
Here are a few other recent articles on the current situation:
Bush Prods Sharon on Peace by Jim VandeHei Washington Post04/12/05.
The president applauded Sharon's "courage" for planning to remove all 21 settlements from Gaza and four of 120 in the West Bank, requiring 9,000 Israelis to leave their homes. Bush also welcomed the prime minister's promise that he would "fulfill my commitment to you, Mr. President, to remove unauthorized outposts." Sharon has promised in the past to remove them but has not.
Both leaders have reaped political benefit at home from their close alliance, but some conservatives in both countries worry Bush and Sharon are yielding too much, too soon as part of the peace talks. Some American Christians, who consider the disputed areas land God promised to the Israelites, Monday protested the Gaza pullout a few miles away from the ranch. (my emphasis)Bush prods Sharon on 'road map' by Bryan Bender Boston Globe 04/12/05.
Despite his support of the Gaza pullout, Bush said that the United States will not give the Israeli government a blank check to hold and consolidate key settlements in the West Bank.
''I've been very clear . . . Israel has an obligation under the road map [peace plan]," Bush said. ''That's no expansion of settlements."
Sharon, however, pledged ''to remove unauthorized outposts," referring to smaller clusters of buildings set up in the West Bank in recent years. He did not agree to halt a six-year-old plan to expand a key settlement on Palestinian land near Jerusalem, saying that ''Israel will meet all its obligations under the road map."
At issue is the settlement of Maale Adumim. Sharon plans to add 3,650 homes to connect it to Jerusalem, in essence isolating Arab neighborhoods from the rest of the West Bank. ''It is our position that this would be part of Israel," Sharon said yesterday.
When push comes to shove over those settlements, what will Bush really do? Will he really push to halt the settlements? Or will he simply take up whatever the excuse that Sharon's government makes for not doing it, which will almost certainly include the claim that the Palestinian Authority isn't doing enough to stop terrorism.The borders were marked in Texas Ha'aretz (Israel) accessed 04/13/05.
In Texas on Monday, George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon marked out the furthest borders that any Israeli prime minister can dream of: at most - and even that is not without conditions and not necessarily so - they will be the eastern line around the major Israeli population centers (settlement blocs) in the territories, including - by implication - the post-1967 Jerusalem neighborhoods.
It's doubtful Israel will ever find a friendlier president than Bush, and one more combative toward its enemies. If he drew that line, for his guest Sharon and the world watching them, it means that any campaign to save dozens of settlements and tens of thousands of settlers who are outside that line is doomed from the start. Many Israelis, who have long hoped for a compromise based on the 1967 lines, won't regard that as a defeat, but just the opposite. But others, including those who have been in power for years or on the rightist flanks that made things difficult for governments, play with the delusion of holding onto all the settlements of the West Bank.
Juan Cole points to post-9/11 events to suggest that Sharon is likely to be less than receptive to Bush's priorities for an Israeli-Palestinian peace: Sharon Defies Bush 04/12/05.