George W. Bush is a high-stakes gambler. When the going gets tough, he is inclined to up the ante. Whether it is tax cuts, the prescription drug benefit, bringing democracy to the Middle East or sending astronauts to Mars, he reaches for the sky. His endorsement of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s unilateral peace plan is another such high-risk move, but has he calculated the downside of this big gamble?
Shutting down the Israeli settlements in Gaza and the Israeli withdrawal appear at first glance to be bold gestures for peace. But considered in its entirety, the Sharon plan is highly problematic. Gaza is a tar baby, an ungovernable zone of desperate poverty and extremist politics. It behooves Israel to withdraw. The Gaza settlements never made any sense. Protecting them is a military headache, costly in money and lives to the Israelis. So in surrendering Gaza, Israel is only discarding a bundle of troubles. But in return, Sharon won from Bush legitimacy for Israel’s major settlements on the West Bank.
For more than two decades, successive U.S. governments regarded all the settlements as illegal colonies in occupied territory, but during the last several years the U.S. position has been eroding. The Clinton administration first treated settlements as “obstacles to peace” but gradually came to overlook their illegality in the interest of negotiation. Now President Bush has certified the West Bank settlements as political realities that demand general acceptance. Though some will be demolished, most, including the largest, will remain and be permitted to grow.
For Mr. Sharon, the architect of the settlement movement, the president’s approval is an unparalleled victory. The United States has effectively walked away from the peace process and put the fate of the Palestinians in Israel’s hands. As long as large blocks of settlements divide the territory, no viable Palestinian state is possible. Anyone who has watched the growth of settlements, moreover, knows that given a foothold, Israel will keep on annexing land and resources at will. In return for promising to surrender Gaza, which it is glad to get rid of, Israel takes a giant step toward attaining the militant Zionist dream: permanent control of all the land west of the Jordan. For as Mr. Sharon’s predecessor Itzhak Shamir never tired of proclaiming, the West Bank is “Judea and Samaria,” the heartland of ancient Israel.
Furthermore, Prime Minister Sharon has for months made clear that if peace negotiations “broke down” and he acted unilaterally, then it would be another generation before Israelis and the Palestinians would return to the negotiating table. So President Bush’s endorsement of the Sharon plan, despite protests to the contrary, puts an end to any serious peacemaking for the immediate future.
The endorsement likewise makes it almost impossible for the United States to assume the mantle of “honest broker” in any future peace process. Arabs have long complained of a U.S. double standard in leaning on the Palestinians and other Arabs while guarding Israel from international criticism. U.S. support for the Sharon plan reveals a profound bias for Israel. The president’s tone-deafness to Palestinian rights will have serious strategic effects. What little credibility the United States has left in the Arab and Muslim world after the invasion of Iraq will be lost. Arab moderates will have a harder time promoting reform, and pro-American stands among them will become even less popular. And while the Sharon and Bush strategy may succeed in undermining Yasir Arafat, it also strengthens Hamas as the only viable successor to the Palestine Liberation Organization.
In an election year, the political class can be expected to remain silent over the failings of the president’s position. Senator John F. Kerry has already approved the Bush endorsement. It would be naïve to expect any Democratic administration to undo the Bush-Sharon policy or launch imaginative new initiatives in the Middle East. For some time to come, therefore, we must steel ourselves for continued regional instability, indifference at best on the part of once-friendly Arab governments and a rising tide of regional and global terrorism. We are in deep trouble.
Can anything at all be done to turn things around? With current government policy tragically flawed, it is a time for civil society to lay the groundwork for a more enlightened future. It is not naïve to think that nongovernmental organizations, universities, think tanks, civic organizations and the media, here and in Israel, can alter the strategic momentum. After all, a flurry of joint Israeli-Palestinian initiatives last fall spurred Mr. Sharon to advance the Gaza plan. The struggle for a just peace must move once more to the terrain of the open society. The politicians have poisoned the wells of hope. It is up to the people to purify and refresh them.