News Analysis: Sharon's speech, offer or threat?

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 20-Dec-03 | Author: Richard Bernstein| Source: The New York Times

JERUSALEM - The cottage industry that is Ariel Sharon-watching in Israel and elsewhere was busy Friday, parsing his instantly famous speech of Thursday night and trying to answer the basic question: was his declaration an offer, a sort of olive branch, or was it a threat?

The speech had two essential elements. One was a pledge to work hard to implement the American-supported peace plan known as the road map, which, if successful, would lead to a Palestinian state by 2005.

That much was not new for Sharon, who has pledged himself to the peace plan, with reservations, in the past, but it was a reassuring affirmation at a time when the peace negotiations have been stalled for several months.

What was new, and subject to different interpretations, was the second ingredient of the speech: If there is no progress toward a negotiated peace in the next few months, Sharon said, Israel will undertake a series of unilateral moves that would separate the Jewish and Arab populations on the West Bank and, as he put it, reduce "friction" between them.

The speech, which aroused intense interest in Israel, certainly seems to portend something new in the long and tortuous Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It came at a time of an almost palpable desire among Israelis for some new direction, a fatigue with the formulas of the past, and widespread criticism that they are not working anyway.

So from this point of view, Sharon's speech did seem to promise that things would go one of two ways, both different from the recent past: one is that negotiations with the Palestinian Authority would resume and that both sides would really try to get some business done. The second is that the path of negotiations would die, and Israel would, in essence, impose the conditions of a peace on the Palestinians.

In the official Israeli view, what Sharon said marked a sincere and constructive offer to the Palestinians and was backed up by some important immediate gestures the Israelis will make, also without negotiations.

Israel, Sharon said, would reduce the curfews and roadblocks that make even everyday movements for Palestinians fraught with obstacles. More significant, certainly from the Israeli perspective, he vowed to dismantle the illegal settlements that have sprung up on the West Bank in the past couple of years.

"Sharon now sees that things are going the way of negotiations," Avi Pazner, the Israeli government spokesman, said in an interview Friday. "He basically called on the Palestinians for negotiations and then offered an alternative: If they do not negotiate, he has his own ideas about what to do," Pazner continued. "It was not a threat. That was not the intention."

The proof of this, in the view of some people here, lies in Sharon's willingness to dismantle settlements, either as part of an overall peace agreement or - and this is what he announced Thursday - without an agreement. And for Sharon, who spent much of his career in government as the chief engineer of settlement building, to announce that some settlements would have to go, is a sign of a important new departure in his thinking.

Others, by contrast, do not buy the view of a changed Sharon; they buy the view of a Sharon who has changed his tactic, but not his main idea, which is to forestall as long as he can any real and genuine moves toward Palestinian independence.

Sharon is widely said in Israel to have given up on the new Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, who is viewed as weak and under the thumb of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, whom Sharon will not countenance as a negotiating partner. The belief, according to some people close to Sharon, is that Qurei's government will fall in six months or so, that there will be no peace agreement and that Israel needs a plan for unilateral action once that happens.

Hence, Sharon's announcement of the basic outlines of those unilateral steps: withdrawing the army to a new security zone and dismantling some of the settlements. What is interesting in this offer is that it gives the Palestinians some important things that they want anyway, namely a pullback of the Israeli presence from Palestinian territory.

A good offer, in other words.

Not everybody feels that way. In this view, what Sharon is saying is that Israel will impose a settlement consisting of a truncated Palestine existing behind the concrete and chain-link barrier now under construction.

An alternative interpretation of Sharon's speech is that it was a way for him to buy time, to lay out options but not to commit himself to any of them. "Sharon is not about to change the settlement map," Yossi Beilin, co-author of the Geneva initiative, the private peace plan announced a few weeks ago, wrote in Maariv on Friday. "The conditions he poses for realizing his new vision are so many that there is no great risk in saying that they will not be met."