Avi Shlaim wrote a terrifically cogent and deeply depressing Op-Ed piece in the Guardian, Withdrawal is a Prelude to Annexation. In it, he confirms the worst fears of many of us who are trying to figure out where Sharon is going in his current political strategy (if it could be called that). Many of the Sharon watchers among us (and I have followed his career for several decades) are deeply skeptical that he has an “after” strategy for the period following the Gaza disengagement. Or to put it more accurately, many of us doubt he wishes to do anything further regarding the Palestinians in terms of compromise or negotiation.
But of course we hope that he might prove to be another DeGaulle, the one who sees a little more clearly than his predecessors; the one who understands the overwhelming benefits of peace and the overwhelming deficits of war. The one who becomes more realist than ideologue. But just how realistic is such hope? There is so much in Sharon’s background that militates against such hopes.
Shlaim reserves special scorn for Condoleeza Rice calling her statement hailing the Israeli Palestinian agreement to raze the homes of Gaza’s Jewish settlers “a fatuous statement by one of the most vacuous secretaries of state of the postwar era.” Strong stuff. In truth, Shlaim sees the loss of this housing for potential Palestinian families as a wanton act of destruction.
He takes U.S. Mideast policy especially to task:
the US effected regime change in Baghdad in three weeks but has failed to dismantle a single Jewish settlement in the occupied territories in 38 years.
He continues by noting the hypocrisy of Bush’s call for democracy in the Arab world, which only seems to apply to our enemies, but not our friends.
He calls the peace process: “a mechanism by which Israel and America try to impose a solution on the Palestinians.”
He sees little better in Sharon except that there is less shilly-shallying and pious platitudes emanating from him.
With Sharon, what you see is what you get. He has always been in the destruction business, not the construction business. As defense minister in 1982, he preferred to destroy the settlement town of Yamit in Sinai rather than hand it to Egypt as a reward for signing a peace treaty with Israel. George Bush once described his friend Sharon as “a man of peace”. In truth, Sharon is a brutal thug and land-grabber.
Shlaim continues by arguing that Sharon has destroyed the Road Map by continuing to build settlements and building the security wall in Palestinian territory.
Then, Shlaim makes his most daring and incendiary claim:
The real purpose of the move [i.e. disengagement] is to derail the road map and kill the comatose peace process. For Sharon, withdrawal from Gaza is the prelude not to a permanent settlement but to the annexation of substantial sections of the West Bank [here he is referring to the four West Bank settlement ‘blocs’ which Sharon wishes to remove from the negotiating table and retain for Israel permanently].
All Israelis are in the habit of spinning worst case scenarios. It must be something to do with a sense of doom and foreboding induced by Jewish suffering throughout our history. And Shlaim has done that to an extent here. I don’t believe that things must perforce become as hopeless as Shlaim makes out that they are. But then again, he may not be far wrong. As I’ve said before here, no one ever lost a wager about Mideast peace by betting against peace. Both parties seem to have done their best over the decades to ensure this continuing debacle.
Shlaim raises another troubling issue for U.S. Mideast policy: if we are as much in favor of democracy for Arab regimes as we claim–what will we do when Islamist parties win most of them and inevitably introduce, or attempt to introduce Muslim theocratic forms of government which would be largely anti-American, reflecting popular sentiments in most Arab Mideast societies?
Condi Rice and AIPAC will each tell you that a democratic Israel is America’s greatest asset in the region. Not so says Shlaim:
In fact Israel is America’s biggest liability. For most Arabs and Muslims the real issue in the Middle East is not Iraq, Iran or democracy but Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people and America’s blind support for Israel.
He concludes on a highly critical note which nonetheless concedes the affirmative power America possesses to craft a real negotiated settlement:
Only a negotiated settlement can bring lasting peace and stability to the area. And only America has the power to push Israel into such a settlement. It is high time the US got tough with Israel, the intransigent party and main obstacle to peace. Colluding in Sharon’s selfish, uncivilised plan to destroy the Jewish homes in Gaza is not a historic step on the road to peace.
I’d say the jury is still out on whether Bush has the moxie to forge this muscular, activist stance toward Israel and the Palestinians which will be required if there is ever to be peace. I have more confidence that he has it in him than that Sharon will turn out to be the DeGaulle (or even the Begin) of Israel.