Realism's Gift to Palestinian Radicals

In support of Ariel Sharon's plan to evacuate unilaterally all Gaza settlements and a few in the West Bank, the Bush administration backed Israel's stance on borders and refugees, two of the most important issues of Palestinian-Israeli final status negotiations. This position is in clear violation of the text of the "roadmap" to achieve a Palestinian/Israeli peace, which the Bush administration claims it continues to believe in.

That claim does not withstand scrutiny. President Bush assured the Israelis that, given the "new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers," Israel does not have to return all the territories it occupied in 1967. Moreover, in Bush's view, Israel need not worry about allowing Palestinian refugees to return to their homes inside Israel. Instead, the vast majority of refugees are expected to settle in a Palestinian state.

Given Palestinian public opinion, the most likely outcome of Sharon's disengagement plan is the empowerment of Hamas and other Palestinian militants. By presenting the settlements' evacuation as a unilateral step, Sharon allows Palestinian militants to present it as Israel bowing to the "reality" of defeat inflicted by their armed struggle. Indeed, a survey that I conducted in April 2004 found that two-thirds of Palestinians saw the Israeli plan in just this light. The same survey showed Hamas with more public support than the nationalist Fatah in the Gaza Strip.

Israel's disengagement plan presents the evacuation of Gaza settlements as an end to 37 years of occupation. But at the same time, Israel insists that Gaza will not have any attributes of sovereignty and will continue to be governed by existing arrangements covering most aspects of security and civil administration.