Henry Siegman, the director of the Council’s U.S./Middle East Project, says that Palestinian-Israeli relations have improved since the death of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat. But he says that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s policy of unilateralism threatens to bring down the government of President Mahmoud Abbas, because Sharon shows no sign of ending the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Washington has to intervene forcefully with Sharon, Siegman says. “That is the only hope for a two-state solution. If there is any prospect of halting developments that simply make a peace agreement absolutely impossible and that guarantee, also, the collapse of Abu Mazen’s government- I’d say within six months- it is an American insistence that these preemptive measures end and be rolled back.”
He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on March 16, 2005.
Israel withdrew from Jericho March 16, marking the start of its pullback from some Palestinian cities it has been occupying. What do you think the prospects are for the overall settlement of Palestinian-Israeli issues in this new atmosphere?
Well, at the moment, as a result of [former Palestinian Authority President Yasir] Arafat’s passing from the scene, and most importantly, because of the initiative that [Israeli] Prime Minister [Ariel] Sharon has taken- the imminent Israeli disengagement from Gaza- there is, unquestionably, a vast improvement, at least for the moment, in the mood and attitudes of both Israelis and Palestinians. There is, as well, a change in their expectations about the possibility of extending what is happening in Gaza to the West Bank, and ultimately moving to a real peace process that might end the conflict. This mood was encouraged after Arafat’s death by the Palestinian elections and the replacement of Arafat by a man, Mahmoud Abbas [also known as Abu Mazen], who has been opposed to violence and suicide bombings.
Let’s start with the Gaza withdrawal, which has been held up by Israeli political infighting. Is it now agreed it will go ahead? What do you think the reaction will be from the settlers in Gaza? How much violence do you expect?
First, I believe it will go ahead. I think the measures that have been taken by Sharon’s government and by the Knesset [Israel’s parliament] virtually guarantee it. Also, given the fact that what motivates Sharon, what is most decisive for him, is American support, this in and of itself assures that he will go ahead with the withdrawal, because if he were to cancel it, if he were to equivocate, this would result in a very serious loss of support from the Bush administration. And the one thing that Sharon will not do is jeopardize that relationship.
Will it lead, as some people in Israel fear, to an Israeli civil war? I don’t believe that for a moment. It probably will lead to a great deal of excitement. The level of threats is very high, and there may be violence. But there’s a big difference between violent behavior on the part of some people and an internal civil war. That’s simply not in the cards.
The general public in Israel- that is, those not living in Gaza- support this withdrawal, don’t they?
Exactly. That’s why there can’t be a civil war, because people overwhelmingly support the withdrawal, and there’s virtual unanimity that Israel cannot tolerate a situation where a small minority resorts to violence to change the democratic process.
Has Sharon brought the Palestinians in on the planning for the withdrawal? In other words, will there be coordination? I’ve read that the Israelis no longer plan to destroy the settlement houses that they leave behind.
Yes, that’s an important question. There is now, for the first time, the prospect of coordination. But I think one has to examine the implications of that. While Sharon has declared that he welcomes the prospect of coordination, he does not want this coordination construed as an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians- some kind of formal arrangement that both the Israelis and Palestinians commit themselves to.
Why is that?
My reading is that he insists that Israeli policy, for the time being, with regard to measures taken vis-a-vis the Palestinians, must be absolutely unilateral. It is Israel that determines what its security interests demand, acts on those determinations, and does not subject its moves to negotiations and agreement with the Palestinians. So Sharon considers the coordination with the Palestinians with respect to the Gaza withdrawal as essentially two separate sets of unilateral decisions. Palestinians make certain unilateral decisions, Israelis make certain unilateral decisions- although there’s some third-party assistance that helps them coordinate and mesh the unilateralism of both sides.
And who is that third party? The United States?
It is Egypt and the United States. They both are acting as outside parties. Now the interesting thing is that this is a very consistent policy across the board on the part of Sharon. And it expresses itself in connection with the very critical issue of a cease-fire. The Palestinian side has announced a unilateral cease-fire. They wanted it to be a joint announcement, the result of an agreement with the Israeli government that would last for a number of years. He [Sharon] did say that, if there is a cessation of Palestinian violence, particularly on the part of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, then Israel will stop its military incursions into the Palestinian territory, will stop its targeted assassinations, and also the demolition of Palestinian homes. However, he has been very explicit in insisting that this Israeli arrangement is a unilateral decision and is not part of an agreement with the Palestinians. And I think it is worth pursuing the question of why he is so obsessed with the idea of Israeli unilateralism.
All right, why is he so obsessed?
I believe that he has been so careful not to allow anyone to construe anything as the consequence of an Israeli agreement with the Palestinians because the most important aspect of Sharon’s strategic approach to the Palestinians is to avoid, as long as possible, the beginning of a political process. For example, he has said that none of the agreements reached with the Palestinians after [the February 2005 Israeli-Palestinian summit at] Sharm el-Sheikh, and all the good things that have happened since, mean that Israel has reengaged with the road map for peace. His position is that “the road map may kick in at some point, and then we’ll have to implement its requirements, but we’re not there.”
And why aren’t they back on the road map?
Because this enables Sharon to continue his policy of unilateralism. He wants to continue with certain unilateral Israeli measures, which he would not be able to do if a political process actually began. Specifically, what this means is that Israel is able to continue building settlements on the West Bank on a massive scale, which is exactly what they have been doing and continue to do to this day.
I didn’t know that. I thought they had stopped building. In fact, the Israeli government just issued a report dealing with the illegal settlement outposts.
Well, let’s make something very clear. Settlements have not stopped. There was just the report issued by Peace Now, the most authoritative group monitoring settlement construction, whose reports determine U.S. assessments in the State Department about what is happening in the West Bank. That group, which has a separate operation that monitors settlements, has just come out with a report which goes into great detail about the vast increase in settlement construction and the massive infrastructure that is being built, and the tenders that are out for the next year or so that imply a continuation of this massive Israeli expansion into Palestinian territories. My sense, and the sense of many other observers, is that this is really what Gaza withdrawal has been all about.
That’s what [Sharon’s former senior advisor] Dov Weisglass said last year.
Whether Weisglass was correct or not has to be determined by what is happening on the ground. And what is happening on the ground is fully consistent with Weisglass’ analysis.
Now, are these new settlements or just new houses within existing settlements?
Well, there are several things that have happened. One is that there has been an expansion and extension of settlement construction beyond those areas in existing settlements, which are considered the outside borders of the settlements. The United States has insisted for some time now that Sharon’s government give it accurate information about the outside parameters of the existing settlements- you know, what is considered a “built-up area”. They cannot build outside of this under the terms of the road map, which the United States considers to be in force.
Sharon has resisted providing this information and still hasn’t done so a year after the United States has asked for it. But according to this latest report by the Peace Now monitoring group, the Israelis have been building well outside those settled areas, they have continued to confiscate Palestinian property, including private property for this purpose, and they have built outposts. Far from removing, or dismantling the settlement outposts, these outposts are simply the first step in the development of new settlements; they have expanded the outposts.
Now the report you referred to is one that was requested by Sharon. He asked a former justice department official, Talia Sasson, to look into the outposts, and she found that there are at least 105 illegal outposts. What was so shocking about her report is that she said not only was nothing dismantled, not only have more such settlement outposts been built, but they have been built with the knowledge, encouragement, financing, and behind-the-scenes phony authorizations that were issued by the [Israeli] defense ministry and at least half a dozen or more other Israeli ministries.
The person who was most responsible for this, and helped coordinate this illegal and secret expansion of the settlements- even while Sharon was assuring the U.S. government that they’re being dismantled- was the minister in charge of the housing ministry, Efraim Eitam, who was, until recently, also the head of the National Religious Party. He just publicly said that “not only did everyone know that I was doing this within the government, but the initiative, most often, came from Sharon himself.”
So the sum total of all this is that, with the expansion of settlements, the chance of any negotiated settlement seems very slim.
It is absolutely zero.
Zero, despite this euphoria about the window of opportunity. Incidentally, it’s not just the expansion of settlements on the West Bank, there’s also something else going on that is as destructive to the possibility of an agreement as the settlements.
The security fence?
Well, the fence is also very destructive, but I’m referring to something else. There is now a plan being implemented in Jerusalem that would effectively close off all of East Jerusalem from the Palestinian hinterland, so that the 200,000-plus Arabs who live in the Arab parts of East Jerusalem will be completely cut off from the West Bank.
All the roads will be blocked?
Large Jewish housing projects and infrastructure in East Jerusalem will create a closed border between East Jerusalem and the Arab West Bank, closing off the possibility of any part of East Jerusalem becoming the capital of a Palestinian state. The Palestinians will never sign a peace agreement if they’re shut out of East Jerusalem. That, too, is going on as we speak at a rate that is much more extensive than anything that has happened before.
Isn’t this worrying to Israelis? Do most Israelis support the enlargement of settlements?
Here you have a very interesting paradox, because on the one hand, all of the polls are saying that at least 60 to 70 percent of Israelis support a withdrawal from Gaza, and more importantly, support this notion of a two-state solution- two sides living in peace, side-by-side. And this has been very consistent. It’s true now of the Palestinian side as well; there is a majority in support of that. But on the other hand, Israelis have taken in their stride measures on the ground that preclude this outcome, including the settlement expansion, what is happening in Jerusalem, and the confiscations of Palestinian property for the separation fence.
Any chance the U.S. government will try to crack down?
That is the only hope for a two-state solution. If there is any prospect of halting what I have just described to you- and these are developments that simply make a peace agreement absolutely impossible and guarantee, also, the collapse of Abu Mazen’s government, I’d say within six months- it is an American insistence that these preemptive measures end and be rolled back.
Yes. I don’t think people will wait and hold off judgment. The Palestinians will wait, I think, until after the Gaza withdrawal. But when they see the Gaza withdrawal is, in fact, Gaza first and last, not Gaza leading to a broader and more complete withdrawal from the West Bank, then the conclusion they will draw is that Abu Mazen was wrong- that restricting violence and engaging in diplomacy and a political process does not produce the results the violence was not able to produce.
Even though there’s a good man, from the Israeli perspective, in power in the Palestinian Authority, you’re saying that Israel, by its actions, is in effect going to bring down his government?
Yes. Unless the United States finally engages in a much more serious way, there is that possibility. President Bush has said now on several occasions, in a tone quite different from his earlier pronouncements, that he is upset by this continued settlement activity and it must stop. The question is whether he will follow through on these pronouncements, whether this is intended to impress the Europeans and the Arab world in the context of Iraq and the democratization drive, or whether he will put some teeth into these statements.