The Jerusalem Post, Dec. 22, 2003

WITHDRAWAL UNDER FIRE

By Evelyn Gordon

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's speech to the Herzliya Conference last week was indeed, as this paper's editorial noted on Sunday, something new. But new, unfortunately, is not synonymous with better -- and the plan outlined by Sharon last Thursday represents a significant retreat that will encourage Palestinian terror and worsen Israel's international position.

In his speech, Sharon announced that even if the terror continues abated, Israel will withdraw from an unspecified number of settlements in another few months. But in an effort to pretend that this is not a withdrawal under fire -- the very move that he was twice elected in a landslide on a pledge to prevent -- he said that Israel will compensate for this retreat by "strengthen[ing] its control" over parts of the territories "which will constitute an inseparable part of the State of Israel in any future agreement," and warned that unilateral withdrawal will give the Palestinians "much less than they would have received through direct negotiations."

These caveats have been lauded by the Post and other Sharon apologists as a way of ensuring that unilateral withdrawal, far from rewarding Palestinian terror, will actually worsen the Palestinian position. Unfortunately, one need do no more than read the rest of Sharon's speech to realize just how empty and meaningless these caveats are.

Regarding the threat that the Palestinians will receive less through "disengagement" than through negotiations, the speech makes it clear that this is a strictly temporary measure that in no way prevents the Palestinians from obtaining everything they want in the future. The line to which Israel withdraws, Sharon promised, "will not constitute the permanent border of the State of Israel" or "change the political reality between Israel and the Palestinians;" it will also "not prevent the possibility of returning to the implementation of the road map and reaching an agreed settlement."

In short, the unilateral retreat not only grants the Palestinians short-term gains; it simultaneously assures them that they risk no permanent long-term losses.

Aha, say the apologists, but what about the promise to "strengthen Israel's control" over parts of the territories that Israel wants to keep in any future agreement? This pledge, unfortunately, is vitiated by a series of other promises in the very same speech.

First, Sharon pledged that the plan is "a security measure and not a political one," and that any unilateral steps "will be fully coordinated with the United States," which opposes Israeli annexation of any part of the territories. These statements preclude the possibility that Israel will annex certain areas outright.

Israel could still strengthen its hold by substantially increasing the Israeli population of these areas -- but Sharon also pledged not to do this. Not only will Israel dismantle all unauthorized settlement outposts, even in these areas, but with regard to authorized settlements, "there will be no construction beyond the existing construction line, no expropriation of land for construction, [and] no special economic incentives." There will also be "no construction of new settlements."

IN OTHER words, Israel will do everything in its power to ensure that its hold on these areas is not strengthened: It will not annex them, it will not build new settlements, it will not expand existing ones, it will dismantle unauthorized outposts, and it will not provide incentives to encourage additional people to move there.

What Sharon's speech boils down to, therefore, is an unadorned withdrawal under fire, with no compensatory moves whatsoever.

It goes without saying that this will encourage Palestinian terrorism. If three years of terrorist warfare can convince even Sharon -- a leading exponent of the perils of rewarding terrorism -- to retreat under fire, the Palestinians have every reason to believe that more of the same will produce more withdrawals. That is especially true now that Sharon and the Likud have broken the taboo against such retreats.

This move will also eradicate all the gains that Sharon has made over the last three years in convincing the rest of the world that Israel has a right to expect an end to terrorism in exchange for a withdrawal. Now that even Sharon has waived this requirement, why should the rest of the world uphold it?

Indeed, the only lesson the international community can reasonably draw from his retreat is the opposite: that with enough pressure, Israel can be forced to concede even its most cherished red lines without a single Palestinian concession in exchange.

This conclusion is almost certain to lead to increased international pressure on Israel for further withdrawals.

Finally, Sharon has almost single-handedly revitalized the Israeli Left. For three years, there has been a virtually wall-to-wall consensus in Israel that the Left's method of unrequited concessions proved itself to be a total failure. That is precisely why Sharon, who twice campaigned on a platform of no concessions without an end to terrorism, trounced first Ehud Barak and then Amram Mitzna by the largest margins in Israeli history. Yet now, even Sharon is adopting the policy of unrequited concessions. And, as Haaretz columnist Zvi Bar'el aptly noted on Sunday, once one accepts the premise that "in order to increase security, it is necessary to retreat a bit," it becomes difficult to explain why it does not logically follow that "in order to increase security even more, it is necessary to retreat even further" -- precisely what the Left has been advocating all along.

Sharon's disengagement plan, though vague on details, appears to envision a much more limited retreat than the massive withdrawal proposed a few weeks ago by Ehud Olmert. Yet the underlying principles differ little -- and by virtue of having been advanced by a popular prime minister rather than a fading politician with no political base, the dangers that Sharon's plan poses are infinitely worse.

The writer is a veteran journalist and commentator.

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