David Makovsky, a senior fellow and director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s proposal to evacuate Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip without the cover of a peace treaty is an historic first.
Under the prime minister’s unilateral disengagement plan, Israel will dismantle all of its settlements in the Gaza Strip and some on the West Bank. Israel intends to take these actions on its own, without the participation of Palestinian Authority head Yasir Arafat or other Palestinian leaders. “Sharon may not complete this process, but he might be the one Israeli best positioned to begin it,” says Makovsky, a former executive editor of The Jerusalem Post. Sharon will discuss his plan, the so-called road map peace plan, and the ongoing construction of a security fence between Israeli and Palestinian areas at a mid-April meeting with President Bush in Washington, D.C.
Makovsky was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on April 2, 2004.
You’ve just come back from the Middle East. What’s the political scene like in Israel this Passover season, which is always a time for reflection?
There are two different dynamics that are currently competing for attention. One is Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s proposal to have a referendum of all 200,000 Likud Party members on his plan for a unilateral withdrawal of all 7,600 Israelis from Gaza. The other dynamic, which Sharon has no control over, is whether he will be indicted by Israeli Attorney General [Menachem] Meni Mazuz on bribery charges.
An indictment won’t be issued for a couple of months, right?
No. It might come sooner. The conventional wisdom has been that it could be a couple of months, but the attorney general has not committed to when he will issue his ruling.
Does the threat of indictment weaken Sharon?
Everything we know about Sharon is that he is not the quitting sort of politician. And it is unclear whether he is even legally obliged to resign if he is indicted, but there is no doubt that even the prospect of a pending indictment has had the effect of having [the] Labor [Party] thinking about joining a reconfigured, broad-based, national unity government.
Sharon’s unilateral disengagement plan has been discussed for a couple of months now. What are the pending issues?
What seems pretty clear is that Sharon has sought to work on the contours of the plan in a quiet set of negotiations with the Bush administration, with the main interlocutor being Stephen Hadley, the deputy national security adviser. It seems that those talks are far enough along— if not 99 percent done— that each side is confident that a Bush-Sharon summit will be worthwhile. The United States did not want a summit until they had reached a set of understandings. Sharon’s sine qua non for presenting the plan publicly was that it have an American imprimatur or blessing. One of the main issues for Israel has been Sharon’s desire politically to extract something from Bush that would give him cover in moving forward. This is related to issues involved in fencing in the West Bank settlement blocs in particular. Sharon would like to get American support for what Israel calls “final status,” the permanent territorial disposition of the West Bank. But Sharon will probably get less than he wants. The administration is nervous about doing anything that would open it up to attack from Europe and the Arab states that it is prejudging the final outcome of the Palestinian-Israeli borders.
The United States would want, I assume, that Sharon agree that the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza is a first step and the road map is still alive. The road map, of course, obliges the Palestinians to stop all terrorism before any further territorial dispositions can be made.
Each side will issue a reaffirmation of the road map and will try to show how it is consistent with it. Israel may believe that the result of the reaffirmation is that this withdrawal might be the equivalent of its last withdrawal, until the post-Arafat era and Palestinian reform begins in earnest. There will be those who claim that Israel has just traded Gaza for the West Bank but, in fact, Israel will be yielding four West Bank settlements, which is symbolic and allows Israel to say that it is not just Gaza first and last that it is withdrawing from.
How much will the Palestinians get from this withdrawal? Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel said that 90 percent of the Palestinians will be free of Israeli control. Isn’t that the case?
No. This withdrawal is going to be focused almost completely on Gaza and only four settlements of the West Bank. The State Department wanted more but did not get it.
There will have to be issues resolved in Gaza that have not been addressed. These include the so-called “Philadelphia Road,” which is the road between Gaza and the Egyptian border, and the control of the airport and seaport in Gaza. [These issues] are all connected to the question of security. Israeli is concerned that once Israel yields control, the net effect will be that the Palestinians will be able to freely smuggle in weaponry. The Israeli position now is that it is not going to yield on those three issues. Of course, if Palestinian security miraculously comes together, then I think they can be revisited.
On the one hand, Israel says it does not want to negotiate this withdrawal with the Palestinians, but on the other hand, I think it is inevitable after the Likud referendum is passed, assuming that it is, that Israel is going to have to coordinate the handover on myriad levels with the Palestinians. Right now, Sharon says he is not going to do it, but he is [currently] concerned politically in trying to win over the Likud.
After the referendum is approved by the Likud membership, is it expected that hardliners in the coalition will quit?
It is expected that about 13 members of the parliamentary coalition of 68 that Likud leads will bolt. They come from the National Union and the National Religious Party, which are two pro-settler parties. The passage of the referendum will also politically isolate those rebels within Sharon’s Likud faction who don’t like this but are not anxious to leave. The referendum will give them a fig leaf to remain in the coalition and to invite Labor to join with the same amount of seats. Labor has 19 seats, and somewhere between 14 to 16 will join.
But now, with talk about the indictment, Labor, which had been dying to join the Sharon government and make this happen, may want to put the brakes on, and some members are now saying they want to wait for the Mazuz ruling.
What about the veteran Labor Party leader and former prime minister, Shimon Peres? Would he join a new Cabinet?
I think that while it is clear that he and Sharon have coordinated much of this initiative together quietly, Peres seems to be afraid to appear within his own ranks as overly eager to join a reconstituted, broad-based government, and has made comments suggesting he would have to wait until Mazuz rules. In timing, it might not be a big difference, because we’re talking about the Likud referendum and the Mazuz ruling taking place in May. Bottom line, if Mazuz rules against Sharon, it will put Sharon in a very difficult position anyway.
When would the actual withdrawal begin?
I tend to think, not until after the U.S. elections in November. Sharon is fearful that any withdrawal that becomes chaotic will undermine President Bush and therefore he seems content on an agreement in principle with the United States that the implementation not occur until after the elections. It also overlaps with the fact that there are a lot of legal proceedings that are going to have to go on here, in terms of new laws, on compensation of settlers for their homes. There is a lot of logistical work and legal challenges that have to be dealt with. Sharon was quoted in Maariv [an Israeli newspaper] as saying it would be completed by next Passover, earlier than initially thought.
What is the real significance of the withdrawal plan?
The significance of this is that the architect of the settlement movement is in effect breaking the ideological sound barrier and taking down the first settlements without a peace treaty. Sharon may not complete this process, but he might be the one Israeli best positioned to begin it.
Sharon, when he served as defense minister, was responsible for evicting the settlers from the Sinai in 1982 as part of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.
But this is the Land of Israel and not Yamit [an Israeli town in the Sinai demolished in the 1982 evacuation of Israelis] so, therefore, this has a different status. And clearly, Sharon has hesitated because it cuts him off from part of his political base, but I think he is doing so for a couple of reasons. One, he believes that if Israel doesn’t initiate a political process in 2004, it may be faced with initiatives imposed on it in 2005, no matter who is president of the United States. Two, I think the deteriorating collapse of the Palestinian Authority will put more pressure on Israel to provide humanitarian responses. He sees that too. He views 2004, due to the American election, as a time when Israel is best positioned to gain whatever quid pro quos he can.
This is popular with the Israeli public, right?
Very popular. It is one of the most popular things he has done. When you mention the word “unilateral,” the polls drop a bit, but he solidly gets about 70 percent of Israelis for it. If you ask, “Do you want to leave Gaza in general?,” it is over 80 percent. Even with Likud members, who are in principle against territorial concession, he is ahead 51 to 36. He hasn’t even started his public relations campaign; he hasn’t had his photo op with the president of the United States. He is going to be hitting the airwaves. If you look at it in a certain way, these are two parts of one strategy: both the fence and getting out of Gaza are ways to have partition without full partnership.
Now, we all know that ultimately you will need partnership. That has been missing, given Yasir Arafat’s role. That doesn’t mean there won’t be coordination. There will have to be coordination between the Sharon government and elements of the PA [Palestinian Authority] and [Prime Minister Ahmad Qurei, who is also known as] Abu Ala, but that won’t come into focus until the referendum is over.
You can bet the White House wants coordination because it wants the Egyptians and Jordanians involved as well.
The White House clearly wants it. And interestingly, there is a set of converging interests happening. Israel wants to extricate itself from the morass of Gaza. Bush is happy to show that on a silver platter he was able to choreograph an Israeli exit and politically insulate himself from a charge by John Kerry that he has been inactive on the Arab-Israeli issue. Egypt wants to ensure that there is not a Hamas state on its eastern frontier. And the PA wants to become relevant again as an interlocutor and bolster its position vis-à-vis Hamas.
Is the expectation that, after a withdrawal, terrorism will decline?
The Israeli view is that if Israel is out of Gaza, the excuse for attacks in Gaza is over. But whether this works, we will have to see. It is good that the administration is engaging Palestinians, Egyptians, and Jordanians about this, and to trying to look for creative solutions to some of these issues like the road, the airport, and seaport. It is a revolutionary development in that no Israeli prime minister has ever agreed to dismantle settlements short of a peace treaty. Here we are nowhere near a peace treaty, and it is Sharon who is going to be doing it.
It is very promising. There will be a lot of ups and downs along the way. We have a weird situation. There have been all these plans out there, and they have all foundered on recriminations about who should take the first step and who did not do what he was supposed to do. The paradox of the unilateral approach is that it is not conditional and therefore is likely to happen.