This gamble by Sharon is at least based on reality

“He’s rolling the dice,” a diplomat said to me last week, speaking of the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon. “Let’s just roll the dice and see what happens” is how another foreign affairs analyst I know in Washington described the Bush administration’s Middle Eastern policy.
Sometimes political metaphors take on a life of their own (remember the European train that was about to leave the station?) and this one has lately become almost inseparable from the policy that America and Israel have been trying to craft over the past few months in the Middle East. I have also heard people talk of “reshuffling the cards”, which amounts to the same thing: these are gambling metaphors, descriptions of an extremely risky, high-stakes policy that nobody actually feels very confident about.
And a gamble is what Sharon is now engaged in, as even his supporters agree. By promising unilaterally to pull his troops and his settlers out of the Gaza strip and large chunks of the West Bank; by building a fence (or a wall, depending on your point of view) along what has become, in effect, the new, albeit still temporary, Israeli border; by dropping any attempt to negotiate either the borders or the political character of a new Palestinian state; by doing all of this, Sharon has suddenly and abruptly changed all of the rules of the Middle Eastern game. For a long time – decades, in fact – everyone has assumed that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could only be resolved by mutual agreement. Instead, one of the negotiating parties which was trying to resolve it has suddenly abdicated.
Despite what you may read, this initiative was not a surprise. Some British officials may claim to be deeply shocked by the news of Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and his decision to retain large chunks of the West Bank, or by Bush’s various declarations of support for it, but anyone expressing such shock is completely disingenuous, since the whole thing has been in the works for months. Equally, some in the British press may claim that Tony Blair has had no influence over the process, but I would be amazed if he were not fully in the loop, since practically everyone else was.
Despite what you may hear, this solution is not entirely to Sharon’s advantage either. The real reason he desperately needed American approval, in fact, was not only for the sake of appearances in the rest of the world, but because he badly wants some political support for what is going to be (if all goes as promised, which it might not) a very ugly scene indeed: Israeli soldiers forcing Israeli settlers out of the Gaza strip at gunpoint. He may also need political support for his own sake, given that he may soon be indicted for financial improprieties that will force him from office.
Unlike earlier attempts to make peace in the Middle East, this initiative at least has the merit of being realistic. In part, Sharon is not negotiating with the Palestinian leadership because there isn’t anyone, at the moment, to negotiate with. Yasser Arafat has never shed his addiction to terrorism, and doesn’t seem to be in full control anyway. The leaders of Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic movement, haven’t exactly flocked to recognise Israel either.
But President Bush’s declaration of opposition to Palestinians’ “right of return” to Israel is realistic too: no Israeli government, of the Right, Left, or far Left, was ever going to sign on to that as a condition of peace. So perhaps it is better to say so now, rather than waiting for some distant moment in time when the Palestinians might agree to live without it.
Nor, finally, is this solution necessarily illegal, even by the narrow terms of international law. Israel occupies Gaza and the West Bank, after all, as a result of the 1967 war, which Israel did not start. After extensive negotiations, the infamous UN resolution 242, which followed in the wake of that war, was actually changed in order to let Israel withdraw from some of the occupied territories, not all of the occupied territories. It might seem a pedantic distinction, but it’s one the Israelis have always clung to.
None of which makes the solution any less of a gamble, for everyone involved. By pulling out without an agreement, the Israelis risk the wrath of the entire Arab world, although they have that already. They also risk creating another generation of suicide bombers, although they’ve probably done that already too. They also risk creating complete political chaos in the Palestinian territories, although they’ve got that already.
Still, even a bad situation can always get worse. Sharon has hinted, in the past, that he really does intend to create a viable Palestinian state – eventually. Yet the Israelis have not exactly gone out of their way to create goodwill in the territories that they say they are leaving. Arrogant Israeli soldiers have not been trying hard to win hearts and minds in the Palesintian territories. The murder, last month, of Sheik Yassin, the Hamas leader, was meant to prove to the inhabitants of Gaza that the Israelis were not being forced out. I don’t know whether it accomplished that goal or not, but it certainly created a good deal of unnecessary ill will all round, as if any more were needed.
Rather than creating a viable Palestinian state, Sharon’s roll of the dice is just as likely to create a chaotic, unstable Palestinian Bantustan, with ludicrous borders and no possibility of economic independence. Sharon himself has said that his withdrawal plan is intended to create a status quo that will last “for many years”. Yet a fragile, marginal state seething with angry, unemployed young men will hardly co-exist happily with a happy, thriving Israel. Reshuffling the cards only makes sense if the cards subsequently fall in a luckier pattern. I see no evidence that it will happen. But gambles do sometimes pay off.